Stockwell: Superb acting powers two historical fiction masterworks

One of the major differences between movies and live performances is that in filmmaking, you have a do over or what is commonly referred to as take two. In keeping with that theme, local theaters are planning on another reopening this weekend.

New releases are still limited, but the horror/thriller “Unhinged” starring Russell Crowe and the teen drama “Words on Bathroom Walls” are set to hit the screen Friday. And some old classics will be played too (Crystal Lake’s Showplace has a few including “Jaws” and “Back to the Future”). In the meantime, we will continue with the home viewing options.

In honor of school getting back in session, we’ll go with history or more specifically – historical fiction.

“The Untouchables” (1987)

Brian De Palma’s version of the events surrounding the take down of Al Capone will send chills down your spine and cause more than a few look aways. During Prohibition, Eliot Ness (a very young Kevin Costner) assembles a group of men to bring Chicago’s most famous gangster to justice. He employs an old beat cop, Jim Malone (Sir Sean Connery), an accountant by the name of Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), and new police officer George Stone (Andy Garcia) who all stay on the right side of the law without wavering, hence “untouchable.”

The story is based on a book by the real Eliot Ness and Oscar Fraley, and David Mamet’s screenplay is smartly written, with heavy dialogue to fully develop the film’s narrative.

De Palma balances character development with his signature violence, ratcheting up the action scenes’ tension through the conversations leading up to them. The famous baseball bat scene is a wonderful example of this – and the climax of it will turn your stomach.

The acting talent is undeniable, as each member of the cast sells their particular role with believability. Robert De Niro is stellar as Capone, almost as if it were made for him, right down to using the original tailors to make the costumes. And several of the gangster’s personal artifacts were used as props throughout the film. Costner does an extremely admirable job as Ness, with a boy-next-door charm. Garcia shows his potential and Patricia Clarkson makes her film debut as Ness’ wife. Of course, arguably one of the biggest movie stars in history is Connery, his fantastic portrayal of Malone earned him his only Oscar nomination and win.

Speaking of history, the film provides a fascinating insight into the latter 1920s. How close it is to actual events is debatable, but De Palma weaves together facts and artistic freedom seamlessly. His crew makes the film shine visually as the Oscar-nominated set design and costumes are true eye candy, and Ennio Morricone’s score (which was also nominated) adds the right amount of musical emotion.

The nearly two-hour film will give you a glimpse into the roarin’ ‘20s, but it is a De Palma film, so that means violence and lots and lots of blood, which the R rating indicates. It is not a family film, but if you are prepared for it, it is a remarkable piece of cinema. It can be found on Prime for $2.99.

“The Aviator” (2004)

Acclaimed film director Martin Scorsese, who is no stranger to historical fiction, takes viewers into the life of Howard Hughes with his 2004 bio-pic “The Aviator.”

It is based on the life and times of the first American billionaire. Scorsese leads the audience through Hughes’ early years, his womanizing, and, of course, his drift into madness. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the late filmmaker and aviation pioneer, and it might be the best performance of his career.

Hughes was said to suffer from a variety of ailments, most especially obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and being an extreme germophobe. DiCaprio (in one of many collaborations with Scorsese) morphs into the character with his dazzling method acting. The bathroom scene, in particular, is truly a work of art. Scorsese mixes camera angles and depth-of-field shots as DiCaprio’s facial expressions and movements show the terror he is constrained by.

DiCaprio is joined on screen by fellow method actor Cate Blanchett, who plays Hughes’ longtime lover Katharine Hepburn. Scorsese had her watch most of Hepburn’s films to replicate her mannerisms; she learned how to play golf and tennis, take cold showers, and don her signature custom-made trousers. The preparation certainly paid off, as she is nearly flawless as the Oscar-winning actress. In fact, Blanchett would win the Oscar for her performance, marking the first time an Academy Award was given to someone playing an Academy Award winner.

Speaking of awards, the film would receive 11 nominations that year, bringing home five, though it lost the big ones (picture and director) to Clint Eastwood and “Million Dollar Baby.” Despite that, the movie is incredibly interesting (especially those fond of the early pioneers of the film industry), but it does lack the action that most audiences look for. It is slow paced and is often disturbing, but the acting is tremendous and worth the “Citizen Kane” running time of nearly three hours. The PG-13 rating is fair (young children probably won’t watch it anyway). It is on Starz.

These two historical dramas feature deeply powerful acting performances depicting some of the most famous people in the first half of the 20th century. Curl up with a warm blanket and enjoy artists at the top of their craft.

Coming attractions include new releases.

• Jim Stockwell is a tenured instructor at McHenry County College. He looks forward to resuming the role of host for the Second Monday Film Series at Classic Cinemas in Woodstock.

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