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The Aviator soars

By Lady Liberty
web posted December 27, 2004

Meet the Fockers

** out of ****

Meet the FockersMeet the Fockers is, in reality, Meet the Parents 2. Last time, we we got to know the parents of the bride-to-be. This time around, it's the groom's turn.

Meet the Fockers opens some months after the events of Meet the Parents as wedding plans are just getting under way. Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller)—who everyone calls Greg for obvious reasons—is the sensitive nurse who tries too hard. Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo) is his ever patient school teacher fiancée. Pam's parents. who we met in the first movie, are still the upper class and uptight products of suburbia.

Dad Jack (Robert DeNiro) is a retired CIA agent who maintains both the contacts and the mentality of his career. Dina (Blythe Danner) is his wife. Greg and Pam are set to travel with Jack and Dina to meet Greg's parents as well as to set the wedding plans into high gear. Along with Pam's toddler nephew, Jack, the foursome jump into Jack the elder's state-of-the-art RV for a trip to Miami where Greg's Mom and Dad are living. Along the way, Jack spends some time trying to bond with his future son-in-law by welcoming him into the family's "circle of trust" as well as sharing his child-rearing techniques illustrated by his work teaching his young grandson sign language and more. Greg goes along with everything with nervous good humor, but the fun really begins when the group reaches its destination.

From the moment they arrive on the semi-tropical island where the Focker family makes its home, however, a culture clash is inevitable. Greg's father Bernie (Dustin Hoffman) is a lawyer with the mindset of a sixties protestor. His mother, Roz (Barbra Streisand) is a sex therapist specializing in senior citizens. Just as they have their small dog, Moses, as opposed to the Byrnes' toilet-trained cat, Jinx, so are their lifestyle, politics, and attitude the polar opposite of that enjoyed by the Byrnes family. Greg works hard to avoid humiliation (he has to work hard when he has a father who hugs and kisses everyone, including a horrified Jack, and a mother who plainly speaks her mind where sex is concerned). Pam tolerates it all, but when her father discovers still more of Greg's secret past, even she is hard-pressed to maintain her bride-to-be smile.

Meet the Parents was a funny movie. Meet the Fockers, much like Gaylord Focker, tries too hard and as a result isn't as good as the first movie. Ben Stiller is a one-dimensional actor who has perfected the awkward and good-intentioned geek, but who is likely incapable of moving beyond his only character. Teri Polo may or may not be a good actress; in this movie, it's impossible to tell from her limited role as Polyanna...err, Pam. Robert DeNiro, who may be one of the greatest actors of his generation, is sadly beneath himself here. Certainly, he's showed an ability to do comedy, but this movie doesn't give him a lot with which to be funny. Blythe Danner holds her own, but Dustin Hoffman mugs shamelessly—another brilliant actor reduced by virtue of substandard material. In actuality, Barbra Streisand (whose politics and personality I personally find loathsome) is the only person who comes out ahead, here, and far ahead at that. She steals every scene she's in, and while she may have had to work hard to do it, it appears effortless and natural onscreen.

The quality of the acting and the sets are generally okay (don't miss the sculpture's in Roz's home office) in Meet the Fockers, but the direction is farcical and the movie is meant to be at least somewhat realistic; the script works so hard to be funny that it's at its most amusing when it's doing the least (throw-away scenes of the cat and the dog as well as an unheralded appearance by Owen Wilson are highlights). Meet the Fockers is mildly amusing, but it should have been hysterical. I view that as a real loss.

POLITICAL NOTES: The far left leanings of the Fockers are contrasted with the more conservative bent exhibited by the Byrnes. Interestingly, the people who are the most foolish (the Fockers) come across in this movie as the ones who make the most sense and are the happiest accordingly, while the Byrnes are shown to have lost out in life as a result of being worried about such things as trust and national security. Obviously, both ends of the spectrum are exaggerated for effect here, but the correlation between Jack's treatment of the baby and his wife and his career choice are obvious and unflattering. I don't pretend to be fond of intelligence agencies or some of the techniques they use myself, but neither am I so naive as to assume they're not sometimes necessary. If this movie had its way, we'd all be putting flowers in our hair and dancing to island music rather than taking care of business when business needs to be done.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Meet the Fockers is rated PG-13 for "crude and sexual humor, language and a brief drug reference." Most of the humor will probably amuse the average 12 year-old boy (the titular family surname alone is unsurprisingly the subject of a multitude of jokes), but will likely fall flat for adults (to be fair, Baby Jack's first words almost cancel out the rest of the potty humor). Meet the Fockers isn't the movie you see advertised—the commercials are quite a bit funnier than the movie itself—but I suppose it's okay for those who have nothing better to do on a winter afternoon, including kids of about age 12 and up.

The Aviator

*** 1/2 out of ****

The AviatorThe story of Howard Hughes is one that many people have tried to tell, and which even more people have been interested in telling. Leonardo DiCaprio himself has purportedly been interested in the story for years now. Though he doubtless worked long and hard on getting this movie made, the delay probably actually helped rather than hindered in that the more mature DiCaprio is surprisingly suited to the title role. It also gave him time to meet Martin Scorsese (the two worked together on the highly underrated The Gangs of New York), which turned out to be an ideal marriage for the making of The Aviator.

Most of us, of course, are familiar with the eccentric Hughes as being one of America's first billionaires as well as a raging eccentric. What many today don't know or can't recall is that Hughes was a businessman, innovator, and personality long before he died as a recluse in a Las Vegas hotel room. The Aviator tells the fascinating story of Hughes' early years of success and fame while offering harbingers of the horrors to come in later years.

Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), who inherited a tool factory from his parents at the tender age of 18, used money from the business to finance movie-making including the precedent-setting Hell's Angels. Rapidly acquiring a name in Hollywood, Hughes found himself squiring some of the most famous and desirable actresses of the era. Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani) was his date for the premiere of Hell's Angels; Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) proved his match in intelligence and temperment, though as she herself put it the pair were "too alike to last." Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) knew precisely what she was doing when she got involved with Hughes, and despite her disappointments in him, she remained an understanding friend.

Hughes also had a lifelong love of airplanes, though, and was a top-notch designer (his perfectionism concerning the dogfight scenes in Hell's Angels was in part the result of his own knowledge of aircraft). As the designer, Hughes often acted as the test pilot for his creations as well, enjoying setting speed and distance records and the accompanying glory. Though he was nearly killed when he crashed into a Beverly Hills home while flight testing the XF-11 spy plane he'd designed, he maintained his love for flying. With the money and loyalty offered by his shrewd factory manager Noah Deitrich (John C. Reilly), Hughes even went so far as to purchase an airline he eventually built into TWA.

Over the course of the years, however, Hughes gradually grew both more paranoid and more compulsive in his behavior. His love affairs didn't last; his sense of betrayal was sometimes absolute though he himself was sometimes loyal and surprisingly forgiving even as, on other occasions, he could be unreasonable and uncompromising. Add such a dichotomy to the fact that financial difficulties thanks to the funding required by his airline and his new designs were often highly stressful at best. Although Pan Am's Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), in partnership with Senator Owen Brewster of Maine (Alan Alda) did all they could to thwart Hughes' success and take advantage of his weaknesses, Hughes rallied himself above his own demons to fight the pair's machinations.

The direction is typical of Martin Scorsese, whose attention to detail is notorious. The man actually set out to make the different time periods of his film appear as if they were filmed during that era! The color, for example, was digitally altered to appear as if it had been generated via one of the old Technicolor techniques in use at the time. That's not something most people know about or even consciously notice, but it does add to the ambiance. The sets and costumes, however, are the real substance of the period feel. Both the production and costume designers are previous Oscar® nominees, and both are obviously in top form here because the end product is richly detailed and wonderfully authentic (wait until you see the Coconut Club frequented by Hughes and his dates).

Leonardo DiCaprio has been much touted by critics for his portrayal of Howard Hughes, and I can understand why. Though I still find him young-looking and with a much too boyish voice (the man is 30, for heaven's sake!), his casting as Hughes turns out to be right on the money. His performance is excellent, and he does a fine job of bringing the tortured genius back to life. Kate Beckinsale is cool and beautiful as Ava Gardner (whether or not the real Gardner was quite so cool is something I'm unsure of); Alex Baldwin is suitably Machiavellian as the president of Pan Am; and Alan Alda, best known for being a really good and sensitive guy, is amazingly slimy as the Senator bought and paid for by Pan Am. John C. Reilly gives a deceptively retiring performance, while Gwen Stefani's brief time onscreen only makes you hope she appears in a more extended role soon. But as good as DiCaprio is, and as well as some others acquit themselves here, the performance of the show is unquestionably that of Cate Blanchett. She and DiCaprio have already been nominated for Golden Globes for their performances; I'll be disappointed if Blanchett doesn't get an Oscar® nomination as well.

The Aviator does itself and its audience a favor by reminding us of the reason Hughes became rich and famous in the first place. His was a magnetic and brilliant personality, and if he had a flaw it was that he burned too hot and fast for most others to keep up with him. When his drive and intellect were combined with mental illness, there was only one possible outcome. But The Aviator only hints poignantly at what is to come, and gives us all a glimpse of the glory that was Hughes in his heyday.

POLITICAL NOTES: The partnership between a Senator and one of Hughes' rivals is all too chilling in its implications, and those who look to the past as a more innocent time will see the conclusive evidence that some politicians have always had dirt on their hands. It's not a particularly long or revealing look behind the scenes in Washington (this is a movie about Howard Hughes, after all, not about the politics of the day), but it's telling. It's especially interesting to watch Hughes take on the powers that be without compromising himself in any way to do so.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Aviator is rated PG-13 for "thematic elements, sexual content, nudity, language, and a crash sequence." While I'm certain that nothing in the movie is too intense for the average 12 year-old, I don't imagine that the average 12 year-old would necessarily enjoy the film. In fact, I attended a screening of The Aviator in the company of a friend of mine and her 14 year-old son. While she and I waxed poetic over the film, her son shrugged and said, "I should have gone to see The Darkness instead."

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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