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.
Introducing the Dwights also known as Clubland overseas is the story of Jean (Brenda Blethyn) a comedienne at the end of her career. She desperately tries to get that one big break--and to keep her 21-year-old son Tim (Khan Chittenden) from becoming an adult. While Jean works her day job as a cook she relies on Tim to drive her to her standup gigs at small cabarets at night as well as take care of his disabled brother Mark (Richard Wilson). But then Tim meets and falls for Jill (Emma Booth) much to his mother's dismay. The budding romance is plagued not only by Jean but also by Tim's inexperience and Jill's insecurity. Jean also uses Mark to try to drive a wedge between the young lovers. But still the romance is blossoms while Jean's quest for an audition at the best and biggest club in the area is the goal that keeps her going. Brenda Blethyn (Pride & Prejudice Secrets & Lies) plays the alcoholic Jean as a domineering entertainer. The British veteran is marvelous portraying Jean’s narcissism as she cajoles seduces and berates everyone around her clinging to a fleeting dream of stardom while holding onto her sons for some stability. Blethyn's performance is astounding for both the venom and tenderness she brings to the character. As well newcomer Khan Chittenden is terrific as the shy and inexperienced Tim and he pairs up fabulously with another newcomer Emma Booth as Jill. Richard Wilson also does an amazing job as the mentally disabled Mark imbuing a keen sense of humor in his observations obviously inherited from his mother Jean. Cherie Nowlan is more known for her television directing in Australia but has definitely readied herself to embark on this new career path. She handles Keith Thompson's script with aplomb incorporating an almost documentary style of filmmaking when dealing with the relationships which makes for a visceral and engaging entry into the lives of these characters. The direction also complements what is a very realistic romance between two young people. When Tim is shy and awkward with Jill the up-close-and-personal style makes it sweetly uncomfortable. But then Nowlan switches gears and uses more traditional camera-work and lighting when Jean is onstage making it more clinical and otherworldly and setting the two worlds apart. Introducing the Dwights is a delightful gem.
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.
The young and idealistic Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is driven by two forces in his life: airplanes and Hollywood. The Aviator begins in the 1920s as Hughes obsessively works on his silent debut film Hell's Angels which he ends up scraping completely to remake as a talkie thus making it the most expensive film of its time. While embarking on doomed affairs with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) Hughes also builds a plane that makes him the fastest man in the world in 1935. The millionaire even engineers a new bra to make the most out of Jane Russell's cleavage for his next film The Outlaw while running TWA and building planes for the government during WWII. Yet the mental illness that would consume Hughes later in life begins to rear its ugly head after he breaks up with Hepburn. As does his dogfights with Pan Am's Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) who sics his in-pocket politician Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) on Hughes--which coming after the flyboy crashes his experimental spy plane leaves him with only a couple of good fights left in him. Hughes eventually stands up to Brewster's senate investigation and then manages to finish and ceremonially fly the Spruce Goose. But soon he makes his final descent into undiagnosed and untreated madness.
The Aviator provides a bevy of tour de force performances. As the leading man DiCaprio gives us an Oscar-worthy turn as Hughes vacillating easily between the playboy the industrialist the aviator and finally the madman. In seducing a cigarette girl the suave DiCaprio says one of the best lines in the film: "I want to find out what gives you pleasure. Would you give me that job? " which pretty much sums up Hughes' modus operandi. The scenes between DiCaprio and Blanchett as the spirited Hughes and Hepburn are also fun and lively especially in their first meeting on a golf course in which Hepburn talks a blue streak while Hughes quietly admires her. Blanchett does an amazing job emulating the acting legend without doing a strict imitation. The worst performance in the film could be Blanchett's nose which looks nothing like Hepburn's but that's about it. The exquisite Beckinsale also does a marvelous job as Ava Gardner who had a brief and tumultuous affair with Hughes but ended up more his confidant than anything else. In supporting roles Alec Baldwin seems to be settling in nicely as one of Hollywood's favorite heavies playing Trippe's malevolence with a twinkle in his eye. As does Alan Alda who again delivers admirably as the elder statesman of "mean."
Marty Marty Marty. Why can't you make a nice two-hour film like everybody else? It's probably not fair to harp on the film's length but it isn't just long it feels long. Rather than being a cohesive whole director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan deliver a montage of expertly constructed scenes and sequences without giving us a true understanding of who Howard Hughes really was. Perhaps Howard Hughes is just too much of a character for one film. The closest we come to getting inside Hughes' mind is during the breath-taking crash of the FX-11 into a Beverly Hills residential area which is undeniably one of the best crash scenes ever filmed. Scorsese is obviously a master filmmaker but some of his old tricks aren't working here. The patchwork quality of the film is underscored by the director's varying use of different period styles--from a washed out look of a '40s home movie to a vivid contemporary look. Used to great effect in his films such as Raging Bull and Goodfellas now it seems out of place in The Aviator. It's true Scorsese will more than likely get another shot at Oscar gold for The Aviator but if he wins it will definitely be for his vastly superior previous work.
Elderly Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) who once served under the great Alexander (Colin Farrell) narrates the life story of the man the myth the legend--the son of the ambitious King Philip (Val Kilmer) who surpassed his father at every level and charged into the farthest reaches of the world. From early childhood in Macedonia we see where Alexander gets his drive--mostly from his vengeful snake-lovin' mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) who urges her son to take charge as well from his tutor Aristotle (Christopher Plummer). Even in the taming of his unbreakable horse Bucephalas at 10 years old Alexander's destiny is evident. The heart of the film lies in Persia which Alexander conquers in one of the most studied military battles of all time. Alexander spends a great deal of time there--taking in the culture claiming its riches and marrying a Bactrian princess Roxane (Rosario Dawson)--much to the chagrin of his Macedonian generals who are stuck in this foreign land with their king. Despite this success Alexander grows restless and turns his attention to the rest of the world including the unexplored regions of India. With his army stretched thin and his Macedonian troops longing for home Alexander presses them one campaign too far. Succumbing to a mysterious illness at age 33 Alexander dies never quite finding what he so desperately searched for.
Although some may scoff at casting the Irish actor in the lead Farrell does an admirable job playing the tortured hero blond wig and all. He exudes plenty of wide-eyed fury and intensity as Alexander the warrior balanced by the controlled calculation of a hyper-effective military commander although he isn't nearly as effective as the idealistic pre-world-conqueror Alexander as he is spiraling down into the haunted angst-ridden Alexander at the end of his obsessive crusade. Casting Jolie as Olympias is a stroke of genius. Sure Jolie can play a smart and beautiful woman in her sleep but her beauty is surpassed only by the power she imbues as Alexander's bitter yet loving mother; she's as hypnotic as the snakes she carries around. Kilmer relishes his role as Alexander's father Philip in all of his grotesque wine-soaked glory. Powerful driven and battle-scarred Kilmer's Philip knows precisely what he wants and matches Jolie's quiet intensity with the raw aggressive masculinity of a warrior king who is far more comfortable in his armor than a toga. In the supporting roles Hopkins is great as always this time in the thankless role of the narrator while Dawson plays Roxane with a ferocity that is as mesmerizing as it is terrifying. Standout Jared Leto also turns in a concentrated performance as Hephaestion Alexander's long-time companion boyhood friend and the person who loves Alexander the best. (And we do mean love.)
Alexander is Oliver Stone at his best. An Alexander nut for most of his life the director gives us a film that--even in its loooong three-hour form--continuously holds your attention especially its intense and bloody battle scenes. I mean honestly once you've fought against an elephant in armor the plain old sword-and-shield skirmishes pale in comparison. Alexander also possesses a great breadth of visuals: Alexandria's peace Pella's tension Babylon's opulence and India's richness. Yet as wonderful as the landscapes are it's personal interactions and internal politics that drive the story--and of course Stone's penchant for conspiracy theories as he more than insinuates Alexander was poisoned by his enemies rather than dying of an "unknown" illness. But a problem still remains: Alexander's life was so huge and he did so much that it's almost impossible to encapsulate it effectively into one film. Stone instead has to focus on what he thinks is the most important namely Alexander's renowned conquests while allowing the pressure cooker in which the young conqueror grew up--the triangle of mother father and son--come through in the decisions he makes later in life. For those few of us who have studied Alexander Stone has made this film especially for us. If you haven't spent any time reading Arrian and the other histories this excellent film might just inspire you to do so.