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: Aug. 1, 2014

It’s been about six months, which must mean it’s time for Marvel to crash the box-office party again. The powerhouse studio is taking its biggest quote unquote “risk” with “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a property that was barely known in the mainstream until they cast Vin Diesel as a talking tree. But curiosity over brand loyalty and the new Hollywood business model aside, I’ve found myself more excited and eager for “Guardians” than “Captain America 2: The Released-in-Early-Spring-Because-The-Money-Was-Just-Sitting-There Soldier” or “Thor 2: Still Thor.” Why? Was it the tongue-in-cheek advertising campaign, which promises that mayyyybe this Marvel entry will have a little more self-aware silliness? Was it the actually quite savvy choice of James Gunn, cult genre favorite, as director for a massive blockbuster?

I have realized that no, this goes back deeper: to my personal love for Ethan Edwards and Wyatt Earp and Harmonica. Yes, it always comes back to Westerns, and I’m getting an unmistakable Space Western vibe from Chris Pratt’s cosmic gunslinger and his band of alien outlaws. They don’t call it “the final frontier” for nothing – the Space Western is a proud, under-appreciated tradition that “Guardians” might just help revive (“Cowboys and Aliens” certainly did us no favors). Sometimes sci-fi and Westerns go so well together you don’t even notice – so this week, to put “Guardians” in the proper context, we’re considering three films that laid the cinematic space railroad for this runaway box office train.

I know that was a labored metaphor, just shut up and move on.

– Ethan

“Aliens” (1986)

Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henrikson, Bill Paxton

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

Confused? “Aliens” is a sci-fi/action hybrid you say? Well what do you call it when a homesteader settlement on the edge of civilization is massacred by an unknown Other, leaving an outmatched troop of rescuers to navigate unfamiliar and dangerous territory? Because I call that a Western. Just replace those problematic Native American portrayals with uncontroversial, terrifying aliens, the cavalry with space marines, and John Wayne with Sigourney Weaver, and we’re set. We really shouldn’t have been so surprised when the narrative of “Avatar” boiled down to “Dances With Wolves” with blue people – it’s obvious that James Cameron has had at least one eye on the frontier since the start.

– Ethan

“Space Jam” (1996)

Cast: Bugs Bunny, Michael Jordan, Wayne Knight, Bill Murray, Patrick Ewing, Muggsy Bogues, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Danny DeVito

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

I’ve often wondered what inspired Warner Brothers to send Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny to space together, or why NBA stars like Charles Barkley and Larry Bird agreed to it, but whatever the stroke of inspiration, it was one of genius. Almost 20 years later, “Space Jam” has become a cult classic, especially beloved of ‘90s kids and accessible to all ages and generations. The Looney Tunes find themselves besieged by a group of criminal aliens, the Nerdlucks (whose mafioso boss is delightfully voiced by Danny DeVito). To win their freedom from these outlanders, Bugs and friends challenge the short, not-so-bright aliens to a game of basketball. Unfortunately for them—and for the NBA—the Nerdlucks steal the talent (and the physique) of the game’s top stars, so that the Looney Tunes, in desperation, turn to lone hero Michael Jordan, then plying his trade in baseball. Jordan is funny and charismatic, at ease with his cartoon co-stars, while the Looney Tunes bring a star-studded cast featuring all the classic favorites. If all that’s not enough, even Bill Murray shows up. It’s a sports movie and cartoon in one (Editor’s note: with just a splash of “Magnificent Seven!”), the theme song will forever echo in your head, and a trip to outer space never looked so appealing.

– Elaine

“Serenity” (2005)

Cast: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Summer Glau, Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin, Morena Baccarin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher

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

It’s fairly impossible to discuss this genre anymore without bringing up Joss Whedon’s ill-fated TV show “Firefly.” Thanks to its second life on Netflix, “Firefly” and its cinematic follow-up/wrap-up “Serenity” probably has the biggest Space Western-fanboy following this side of “Star Wars” – but don’t let the rabid Comic-Con-goers cloud what actually makes the series great. It’s not Summer Glau beating up everyone, nor even Whedon’s trademark quippy dialogue: it’s the delicate mash-up of genre and tone, with the outer reaches of the galaxy, like the Old West before it, portrayed in equal measure as a place of swashbuckling adventure and brutal violence, of morality tested in a world where morality might mean nothing at all.

– Ethan