Lonely Hearts is really two stories set in post WWII America. The main story is about Ray Fernandez (Jared Leto) a small-time swindler who bilks war widows out of their insurance money and life savings by getting them to fall in love with him. He then marries them and kills them once he has control of their assets. His neat little scam is thrown off kilter when he discovers that one of his targets Martha Beck (Salma Hayek) is penniless. He tries to dump her but she figures out his scheme and they become lethal lovers and partners in crime. The other story is about the detective (John Travolta) who tracks them down. He is picking up the pieces of his own tragic life after his wife commits suicide. His son (Dan Byrd) is a distant and difficult teenager and his girlfriend (Laura Dern) is trying to help him get on with his life. Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream) is excellent as the greasy playboy who seduces and kills lonely women. He plays the sleazy charm and indecisive weakness of Ray Fernandez perfectly. But the standout performance of the film is Salma Hayek. Although Martha Beck on her best day never looked anywhere near as good as Hayek does on her worst the actress makes the cold-blooded character her own doing whatever it takes to get her hands on the ill-gotten gains. The image of a bloody and frustrated Hayek in a frumpy housecoat sucking on a cigarette with a hacksaw in hand complaining about the tenaciousness of one of their victims is priceless. John Travolta is either miscast or misused as the tortured tough guy detective Elmer Robinson. This wasn't a cool character and Travolta is a cool star who seemed to be straight jacketed by a character who is almost completely reactionary. James Gandolfini and Laura Dern do their best in their supporting roles. Writer-director Todd Robinson turns in a serviceable job behind the camera but falls down on the script. Lonely Hearts' main problem seems to be his inability to wiggle away from the facts to create an engaging movie. Robinson is actually the grandson of the real-life detective who brought Fernandez and Beck to justice. Robinson never gets beyond the made-for-TV luridness of the basic story. Gandolfini gets stuck in the role of narrator which would have been much more engaging if Travolta's character would have been the one talking to the audience. Robinson never lets the audience inside the characters long enough to make the film a more emotional experience. This is a problem with true stories; the writers are often not able or willing to be creative with the lives and motivations of the characters who have done extraordinary and well-documented things.
December 22, 2006 10:12am EST
The Good Shepherd is billed as the story of how the CIA began but it is really the fictional story of Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) and his involvement in the first covert wing of the CIA. The story moves back and forth in time from when Edward is a literature student at Yale and a member of the secretive Skull and Bones club through the days following the Bay of Pigs in the early ‘60s. Edward is recruited into intelligence work at the beginning of World War II and learns the dark art of spying and espionage from the British. Meanwhile his personal life takes a back seat to his service for his country including alienating his wife Margaret “Clover” Wilson (Angelina Jolie) and their son. He is never home enough to effectively deal with the family problems his absence creates. By the end of the film as the twin disasters of the Bay of Pigs and his broken family unfold--and blame must be assigned--Edward ends up being a metaphor for the modern US intelligence service. Damon who has made a franchise out of playing the spy/assassin Bourne plays a very different kind of spy in The Good Shepherd. Wilson is a boring controlled buttoned down spy who is unfortunately more like the real thing than what we see in the movies. Damon does an excellent job however especially in those moments when he realizes he has screwed up. The actor stays controlled but finds a way to let the audience glimpse the pain of a man who has spent his life keeping his emotions and thoughts under wraps. Jolie is almost too luminous for the part of Edward's hapless wife. She is a bright spot in the movie as she transforms from the sexy/feisty Clover to the medicated/angry Margaret. Newcomer Eddie Redmayne also does a good job as the grown up Edward Wilson Jr. The rest of the cast is peppered with excellent performances from top-flight actors including William Hurt as a menacing intelligence heavy; Michael Gambon (Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series) as a British intelligence officer who’s fed up—and even De Niro himself as a general who’s the driving force behind the CIA’s beginning. De Niro captures the nature of the gray-flannelled spy but seems to get bogged down with material unable to craft a tight compelling film. The Good Shepherd is long and feels long with some of the transitions too abrupt. The subdued colors evoke the period of the film as well as play into the monotony that is intelligence work. But the problem with monotony is that it’s boring and boring is not something a movie should be. There are some incredibly intriguing scenes however and the film will certainly speak to any of those with genuine interests in the hardcore spy genre--obviously De Niro being one of them--but like its subject matter Shepherd will probably be too elusive for the casual viewer. De Niro seems much more comfortable in the details but less interested in keeping the story gripping. Ironically this is the exact opposite of the main character Edward Wilson who keeps his eye on the big picture but misses the small moments he should have noticed.
Meet internationally renown oceanographer and documentarian Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and some of his Team Zissou: Eleanor Zissou (Anjelica Huston) his estranged wife and the "brains behind the operation"; Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe) the loyal chief engineer; and Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon) the septuagenarian producer. Unfortunately Zissou's days are numbered having been pushed close to bankruptcy by his arch rival Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum). But what's really bothering Zissou is that his best friend and longtime collaborator Esteban (Seymour Cassel) has been eaten by an underwater assailant known as the Jaguar Shark. Charged by vengeance Zissou sets out on his boat The Belafonte to hunt down the predator in one last filmed expedition. He is joined by two new Team Zissou members: Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) a young airline copilot who may be Zissou's son and Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) a beautiful and pregnant journalist assigned to write a profile of Zissou. Along the way they face overwhelming complications including marauding pirates kidnappings and a maelstrom of human yearning.
Bill Murray has got to be one of the funniest people on the planet without ever seeming to be and his collaborations with director Wes Anderson (Rushmore The Royal Tenenbaums) have happily exploited that wellspring of comic talent. Zissou is pure Murray: slightly acerbic slightly aloof not terribly likable but deeply vulnerable. Sure the actor can play this part in his sleep but somehow he never makes it boring. The rest of the cast also measures up. Huston is striking as the austere Eleanor who is basically the glue that holds Zissou together. Wilson another Anderson staple is once again playing a very earnest fellow who simply wants to connect with the man who could be his long-lost father while also finding a little love with Jane. As the journalist the always good Blanchett who was actually pregnant during the making of Aquatic is perfect as the emotional conduit between Zissou and Ned. Dafoe finally gets to be funny in a film--and we don't count his turn as a surly fish in Finding Nemo--as the fiercely devoted Klaus who's a bit jealous of Ned. But the pièce de résistance is Brazilian actor Seu Jorge as The Belafonte's safety expert who regularly serenades the team with Portuguese renditions of David Bowie songs. Classic stuff.
In what is definitely the director's most ambitious film to date--and he may be tired of hearing that--The Life Aquatic further highlights Wes Anderson's twisted yet exquisitely witty sensibilities that were evident in his three previous efforts Bottle Rocket Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Paying obvious homage to the stiff documentaries made by the legendary Jacques Cousteau as well as incorporating references to such movies as The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach expertly hand us the skewed universe of Zissou in hilariously played-out sequences. We can also clearly see where the bigger budget went when Team Anderson sets out to sea. There's the spectacular Belafonte set with its individual compartments in which the actors move about and the campy stop-motion special effects of the odd sea life Zissou and gang encounter. While all of this makes for an enjoyable ride the movie ultimately lacks a cohesive soul. There is a small amount of redemption at the end when Zissou comes to terms with his life and ambitions but it seems tacked on as a way to tie everything up.