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John Farr

John Farr

Posted: October 12, 2009 03:55 PM

Leo and Kate: They Didn't Go Down With The Ship

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Earlier this month Kate Winslet celebrated her birthday. To this aging fan, she still  seems astonishingly young, but of course, success came fairly early for her. Who can forget her disarming freshness and exuberance in Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility” (1995)?

Her close friend and co-star Leonardo di Caprio shares much with her beyond two high-profile motion pictures: they are virtually the same age, and both started acting in their childhood, a significant shared connection.

 In their early twenties, they were brought together to star in James Cameron’s “Titanic” (1997), the movie that set records at the box office and the Academy Awards, and ironically, a motion picture experience that made me feel all of Hollywood was sinking. The wild success of this feature resoundingly affirmed the idea that in contemporary Hollywood, image and spectacle most always trump script and character. Over a decade later, it’s still true.

 On our website, we feature more of Kate’s titles, including her own favorite role in 2004’s “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind”. As to why there’s less of Leo, the youthful actor is understandably fond of his twenty million dollar pay-days, and so gravitates towards those Hollywood blockbusters which fall into the “Titanic”, bigger-is-better mold.

 For instance, I passed over the good not great Spielberg outing, "Catch Me If You Can" (2002), as well as Di Caprio’s high-profile work with Martin Scorsese: the woefully miscast “Gangs Of New York” (2002), “The Aviator” (2004)- which I thought was an elaborate dud, and even "The Departed” (2006), an over-stuffed feature that in my view pales next to the leaner, lesser-known Chinese feature on which it’s based, “Infernal Affairs” (2002).

 As for Leo and Kate’s much-anticipated reunion pairing in last year’s “Revolutionary Road”, directed by Kate’s husband Sam Mendes, this recounting of the curdled American Dream starts out promisingly, but bogs down roughly halfway through. I don’t need to pay twelve bucks to see a married couple argue, I thought at one point- I can get that for free at home. All in all, I would have much preferred to watch an episode or two of “Mad Men”.

But criticism aside, both these actors are enormously gifted, even if the movies they make don’t always live up to their prodigious talents. Surely the best is yet to come, so here’s hoping Leo and Kate do many more films together. But for now, let’s celebrate their careers to-date with a sampling of their more interesting, lesser-known work, both pre-and post-“Titanic”.

This Boy’s Life (1993)- In the 1950s, flighty divorcee Caroline (Ellen Barkin) moves with her son Toby (DiCaprio) to Washington State and begins dating Dwight Hansen (Robert DeNiro), a charming, confident mechanic who offers a stable home and security. But soon after their nuptials, Toby, a thoughtful kid with a rebellious streak, butts heads with his new stepfather, who turns out to be a brutish and abusive bully. Based on a memoir by Tobias Wolff, this searing domestic melodrama tackles the myriad difficulties of surviving adolescence in a dysfunctional home. DiCaprio, in his first lead role, is likably mischievous playing against the petty tyranny of DeNiro's lying, thieving, authoritarian Dwight. Barkin is effective, too, as the submissive woman who can't admit she's made a mistake in wedding him. Sensitively directed by Michael Caton-Jones, "Life" will resonate with anyone who's ever had to fight for respect and independence.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)- In small-town Endora, young Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) is the de facto household head, caring for his mentally handicapped brother Arnie (DiCaprio), endlessly mortified teen sister, Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt), and 500-lb. widowed mother (Darlene Cates), who hasn't left the house since Gilbert's dad hanged himself. Gilbert constantly negotiates a flurry of demands without fail, but when a well-traveled gal named Becky (Juliette Lewis) rolls into town with her grandmother, Gilbert gets his first taste of freedom. Adapted by Peter Hedges from his novel, Lasse Hallstrom's endearing, offbeat drama features heartthrob Depp as a fatherless young man with lots of worries and little time for his own happiness. Oscar nominee DiCaprio gives a remarkably tender performance as Arnie, a mentally challenged kid who's difficult to deal with but impossible not to love. Hallstrom develops the quirkier aspects of Hedges's story-including Gilbert's involvement with a lonely wife and a worldly newcomer-with a light comic touch. Excellent support from Lewis, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, and non-actress Cates kicks things up a notch. Beneath its unusual skin, this "Grape" is quite sweet.

Heavenly Creatures (1994)- Pauline (Melanie Lynskey) is a morbid, overweight New Zealand teen who feels alienated from her family and classmates, but discovers a bosom buddy in pretty Juliet (Winslet), a wealthy English transplant who shares her unusual taste in music and the arts. Together, they create a Gothic-tinged fantasy world called Borovnia that they retreat into with increasingly obsessive zeal. When their parents attempt to force them apart, the girls hatch a dark, violent plan of escape. An unsettling, thoroughly absorbing drama based on a real-life crime, "Creatures" is the magnificent brainchild of then-horror-movie director Peter Jackson ("Lord of the Rings"), who brings sensitivity and sincere human feeling to this tragic story of love and murder. Winslet and Lynskey have an intense, wholly credible rapport, playing highly intelligent girls (one of whom, the brash Juliet, would grow up to become mystery novelist Anne Perry!), whose fully enmeshed intimacy takes them farther and farther from reality. Beautifully photographed, splendidly acted, and imaginatively directed, "Creatures" burrows under your skin in a lasting way.

Finding Neverland (2004)- Married Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp), meets a widow, Sylvia Davies (Winslet), with four young boys he becomes very attached to, and is inspired to write “Peter Pan,” an ode to everlasting youth that would become a children’s classic. But Barrie’s efforts to produce the play at the Duke of York’s theater in London are fraught with difficulty, even as his love for the Davies clan continues to grow. Man-child Depp is perfectly cast in this endearing biopic about Barrie’s relationship with the family who inspired his greatest and most beloved work, and co-star Kate fits the bill just as nicely. Depp has always taken eccentric roles, but here he plays the real-life writer with authentic human warmth. Director Marc Forster allows us to see the world as Barrie does, depicting not just the emotional pangs (grief and the passing of loved ones is a theme in his life), but the flights of fancy soaring in his imagination. The effect is charming. See this one with the kids, or just for your own enchantment.

Blood Diamond (2006)- While serving time for diamond smuggling in war-torn Sierra Leone, former soldier of fortune Danny Archer (DiCaprio) hears about an ultra-precious raw stone unearthed by Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a fisherman who’s hidden the pink monster somewhere inside his unstable country. Driven by greed, Archer makes a deal with Vandy, agreeing to help find his scattered family in return for a share of the gem’s value. Along for the ride is Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), an American journalist determined to illuminate the ugly underside of the world diamond trade. Set during Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war in 1999, this thriller stars DiCaprio as a ruthless smuggler who sells “conflict diamonds,” high-priced baubles used to finance war and terror before finding their way onto Western fingers. Shedding his boyish charm for anti-heroic male bravado, DiCaprio plays the white Rhodesian Archer as an unsympathetic mercenary motivated purely by personal gain. Hounsou, meanwhile, delivers an affecting performance as a humble man whose son has been forced into a child army. Edward Zwick directs with flair, visual daring, and a conscientious eye toward the real cost of diamond mining.

Little Children (2006)- After meeting at a local park, stay-at-home mom Sarah (Winslet) and handsome former jock Brad (Patrick Wilson), a failed lawyer with a young son, are drawn into an exhilarating but potentially destructive extramarital affair. Meanwhile, neighborhood busybodies are on edge about Ronnie (Jackie Earl Haley), a creepy sex offender who’s moved in with his mother. Based on the acclaimed novel by Tom Perrotta, Todd Field's unsettling, often irreverent portrait of suburban malaise features a cathartic performance by Winslet, whose singular talents are on high-beam display. Sarah is unfulfilled by life as a stroller pusher; Brad has failed the bar twice and seems unfit for a career in law; both need escape from isolating routine and distant spouses, and find it in each other. As he did in "In the Bedroom," Field takes his time developing the emotional tension, pacing us gradually toward a jarring conclusion. Former child actor Haley, in a superb turn, gives the film extra appeal as a scary, darkly funny, and vulnerable pervert.

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