For Your Consideration: Nov. 14, 2014

Leonardo DiCaprio turned 40 on Wednesday, and already he’s had a career more glittering and diverse than most enjoy in a lifetime. After appearing in commercials and featuring as a homeless boy in the sitcom “Growing Pains,” Leo made his first splash as an actor at age 19, playing a mentally impaired boy in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” The role earned him a Best Supporting Actor nod, but for a while it looked like Leo, wooing millions of girls around the world as Jack Dawson and Romeo, wouldn’t graduate from the realm of teenage idols into a serious actor. But just as he went from child star to heartthrob, Leo ground out a career for himself, becoming a well-respected thespian through stellar performances in movies like “Gangs of New York” and “Catch Me If You Can.” He has been nominated for the acting Oscar four times. No joy so far, but with decades still before him, Leo is sure to grab that golden statuette sooner rather than later.

– Elaine

“Titanic” (1997)

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Bernard Hill, Victor Garber, David Warner, Ewan Stewart, Ioan Gruffudd

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, streaming on Netflix

For better or worse, “Titanic” will remain one of Leo’s defining roles, and while it’s easy to deride him in his heartthrob days, golden hair and green eyes shimmering while sketching nude Kate Winslet, he was already showing glimpses of the talent he would become. “Titanic” is all about spectacle, but Leo gives the movie a levity and a joie de vivre that prevents it from taking itself too seriously. Like the romantic artist-drifter he plays, Leo seems to be enjoying every moment of the ship’s fateful voyage, and his energy and boyish charm play off Winslet’s gumption and moxie to give us one of cinema’s enduring romances.

– Elaine

“Catch Me If You Can” (2002)

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Nathalie Baye, Amy Adams, James Brolin, Brian Howe

Available to rent or purchase on iTunes and Amazon Instant, on disc from Netflix

In retrospect, Spielberg’s charming dramedy seems something of a turning point for DiCaprio – part of his transformation from teen idol to a respected and adventurous leading man. As real-life con man Frank Abagnale, Jr., DiCaprio uses his boyish good looks and enthusiasm in service of schemes only a teenager could dream up, faking his way through an adult world he can barely understand but certainly knows how to enjoy. Doctor, lawyer, detective, airline pilot; Frank takes everything he’s absorbed from pop culture, adds in a smattering of bullshit and powers through it all. The how-did-he-do-that con scenes (accompanied by John Williams’ jaunty, jazzy score) are the most fun, but Spielberg’s film has a real heart in the scenes between DiCaprio and Hanks, as the dogged federal agent pursuing, and, bizarrely, befriending Frank at the same time.

– Ethan

“The Great Gatsby” (2013)

Cast: Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher

Available to purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Baz Luhrmann’s addled adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s class novel at least gets points for trying, I suppose – for every horrendous passage of Nick Carraway’s voice-over narration or over-saturated Baz-infused rumpus there’s a counterpoint of fine character work by the director’s spot-on cast. And leading the pack is DiCaprio, who nails everything about the grasping, idealistic, tragic Jay Gatsby: the false bravado glued together by a sincere charm and deep-seeded desperation, the juvenile worldview packaged inside a street-smart operator. Everything about DiCaprio’s performance screams superficiality (his entrance, with fireworks blazing and Gershwin blaring, is one of the finest moments of Luhrmann’s career), from his gleaming smile to forced accent – until the genuine, lovestruck Jay Gatz pokes through, in tender and comic moments. The scene where he has tea with Nick and Daisy in Nick’s cottage is a delight – a superb bit of physical comedy from DiCaprio mixed with a real, endearing romantic yearning.

– Ethan

For Your Consideration: June 20, 2014

Clint Eastwood is taking audiences on another trip down desaturated-color lane this weekend, with his adaptation of the smash Broadway hit “Jersey Boys.” Jukebox musicals are theoretically a sure bet – they come with a nostalgia factor that ensures the built-in fan base of whatever band or musical genre you’re appropriating will be interested. On the other hand, that same quality can be alienating: what if Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons just aren’t your cup of tea? What if you yearn for the vocal stylings and fab hairdos of a different era? Sigh no more, we’ve got you covered with three more jukebox flicks.

– Ethan

“A Hard Day’s Night” (1964)

Cast: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Wilfrid Brambell

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Famously referred to in the Village Voice as the “Citizen Kane” of jukebox musicals, Richard Lester’s Beatles vehicle is rather astonishing for the way it still feels fresh even after fifty (fifty!) years of the freewheeling, irreverent music videos it inspired. The movie’s flimsy excuse for a plot – mostly composed of the four members of the band running from their hysterical fans, while Paul’s “grandfather” (Brambell) occasionally stirs up trouble – relieves the songs from any kind of narrative duty, allowing us to appreciate the unflappable energy and sincerity of Lennon and McCarthy’s early songwriting: from the jangling title track to the tender “If I Fell” and riotous curtain-closer “She Loves You.” And somehow, amid the rollicking music sequences and cracking dialogue far more witty than it has any business being (the screenplay, let’s not forget, was nominated for an Oscar), Lester has some genuine satire on his mind. The straight-faced bafflement with which the Fab Four handle the ever-growing absurdity of their own fame would make Buñuel’s bourgeoisie proud.

Criterion recently released a gorgeous new digital transfer of “A Hard Day’s Night” with special features, including invaluable interviews and commentary tracks, that are definitely worth seeking out; Janus Films will also be releasing it into select theaters in the U.S. starting July 4.

– Ethan

“Pennies From Heaven” (1981)

Cast: Steven Martin, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Walken, Jessica Harper

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

“Pennies From Heaven” was a box-office bomb at its debut, almost certainly because audiences expected Martin, in only his second starring film role, to follow the success of “The Jerk” (1979) with another comedic vehicle. Instead, he and director Herbert Ross gave them this supremely sad, if undeniably gorgeous, Depression musical, which repurposes pop hits of the Astaire-Rogers era to reveal the existential ache and sexual longing of a battered and disillusioned generation of Americans. The choice to go with lip-synching over original recordings rather then creating new cover versions adds an extra layer of fantasy and detachment to the tale, drawing a stark line between the harsh reality of the characters’ predicaments and their idealized, unattainable hopes for what life could be. The original BBC mini-series, starring Cheryl Campbell and the late, great Bob Hoskins, is also well worth a watch.

– Ethan

“Moulin Rouge!” (2001)

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

No, you haven’t been drinking absinthe, but Baz Luhrmann’s chaotic, erratic, synthetic pop mash-up spectacular spectacular might make you doubt your own sobriety. Drawing from random 20th-century musical sources seemingly out of a hat, the Baz fleshed out an archetypical romance with atypical style, and it remains the flawed masterpiece of the Aussie’s particular brand of emotional, sensual (who-cares-about) storytelling. The first twenty minutes or so of “Moulin Rouge!” are a whirlwind of bright lights, over-saturated color (this is really the anti-Eastwood pick) and nonsensical madness – a fabulous rush of pure cinematic adrenaline. Then Baz tries to actually tell a story. But despite the treacly and unremarkable script, glimpses of that opening sequence’s brilliance continue to flash through, in scenes like the “Roxanne” tango and Richard Roxburgh’s insane cover of “Like A Virgin,” when logic gives way to a wall of sound and sensation.

– Ethan