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Affleck shines as troubled actor

By Lady Liberty
web posted September 11, 2006


*** out of ****

HollywoodlandThe word of mouth on Hollywoodland was good even before it was released on a relatively wide basis, and I determined to see it sooner rather than later. Positive press wasn't enough to get the film a spot at my local theatre, but I decided the hour-long drive might be worth it. Luckily, as it turned out, it was. This based-on-a-true-story movie lived up to its promise on several levels, not least of which might almost be viewed as the redemption of actor Ben Affleck.

Hollywoodland begins with the end: the suicide of actor George Reeves, best known for his portrayal of television's Superman. The police wander about the crime scene and take notes concerning the blood spatters on the ceiling and the position of the body; the guests at Reeves' home that fateful night sit paralyzed on the sofa waiting for their turn to be questioned. The scene then fades into the beginning, or at least the beginning of the end.

George Reeves (Ben Affleck) was an actor in the 1950's who was hungry for more than the small supporting roles he'd managed to secure to date. In his quest to make more connections and to be seen with the movers and shakers in Hollywood, he engineered photo ops and "accidental" meetings to further his notoriety and thus his career. On one such quest, he meets Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of the powerful Hollywood producer, Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins).

Toni may have a rich husband, but she's got little else and she determines that George might fill some of the emptiness in her life. George, who is enraptured of the beautiful older woman in short order, is happy to go along with her plans. Besides, he reasons, she might be able to help him get more and bigger roles! While the roles are awhile in coming, such other bonuses of the affair as a new house and expensive jewelry commence almost immediately. George, who is no fool, takes what he can while he can get it.

Eventually, George auditions for a role that's all but laughable to him. It's for a character named Superman. Though he finds the entire idea embarrassing, he reasons that it's a job. He also believes that, even in the unlikely event it runs for long, it's a children's show that will be seen by few. As most of us know, however, George seriously underestimates the popularity of a the character destined to become an icon to millions. Before he knows it, he's thoroughly typecast as the man of steel.

Interspersed between scenes of Reeves' Hollywood life are those featuring a down-on-his-luck Los Angeles detective by the name of Louis Simo (Adrien Brody). When Reeves' mother, Helen Bessolo (Lois Smith) refuses to believe her son would kill himself, she hires Simo to get to the bottom of the supposed suicide. As Louis begins digging, sure enough, he finds some mysterious holes in the case that only seems open and shut on the surface.

Louis takes the Reeves case for the money and the potential for publicity, but he becomes more and more engrossed in it as time goes on. The fact that he's got his own personal problems takes a back seat, something his ex-wife Laurie (Molly Parker) points out is one reason they're divorced. Young Evan Simo (Zach Mills) is, of course, not happy about the divorce. But the death of Superman has struck him an even harder blow, giving still more urgency to Louis's desire to discover the truth regarding Reeves' death.

Could the suicide really be a murder? Could Reeves' young fiancée, Leonore Lemon (Robin Tunney) be angry enough to kill after Reeves tells her he doesn't want to marry her after all? Could Toni Mannix, jilted for a younger woman, have it in her to murder the man with whom she'd had a long term affair? What about Toni's husband, Eddie? Some people think he's killed before. Even Mrs. Bessolo doesn't escape Louis' scrutiny as he learns more and more about the dirt hiding just underneath the thin skin of glitter that is Hollywoodland.

I don't know if I ever really believed that Ben Affleck was a bad actor. I just think he made some truly regrettable choices in some of the movies he decided to make. Whatever you might think, he more than made up for either or both in his portrayal of George Reeves. The humor, sensitivity, joy, vulnerability, and hopelessness are all there in his face and body language; whether he's angry or delighted, his delivery is entirely believable. Good for Mr. Affleck who, with this perfect choice of role, has proved once and for all that he's capable of a formidable screen presence.

It's no surprise that award-winning actors Diane Lane and Adrien Brody are very good. Lane's brittle performance captures perfectly the fears of an aging woman in a town that tolerates almost anything but that; Brody, meanwhile, has a rough go of it in his personal life and his growing pessimism is palpable from scene to scene. Bob Hoskins is gruff and entirely suited to his limited role.

Director Allen Coulter and writer Paul Bernbaum have managed to put together a series of flashbacks that mesh beautifully with scenes of the present. It's not easy to do too much of that without narrator explanations or the like, but they've done so flawlessly here. By highlighting either Reeves or Simo at the beginning of scene changes, we know right where — and when — we are, no interruptions or instructions required. The script is interesting and believable, the direction just fine, and the editing absolutely beautiful.

My only complaint about Hollywoodland is that I really, really hated the ending, which I personally found all too abrupt and nonsensical. I want to leave the theatre laughing or crying, not saying, "Huh?" But outside of that last two or three minutes, Hollywoodland is a tour de force of the perfect merger of interesting story, wonderfully adapted script, skillful directing, and brilliant edits (not to mention some truly impressive costuming and set decorations) that are the primary reason I buy tickets to the movies. I recommend Hollywoodland for anyone and everyone who appreciates good movies.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Hollywoodland is rated R for "language, some violence, and sexual content." The R rating is probably about right, though it's barely so. There's no nudity; the sexual content is far from graphic; the violence is strongly implied, but also not particularly graphic; and the language, while certainly there on occasion, isn't pervasive. That being said, the story itself probably doesn't lend itself well to less mature audiences. While you don't need to remember George Reeves or the headlines his suicide rendered, I think you do need to be relatively grown up to grasp the tragedy behind the story and get the full impact of the film.

The Illusionist

** 1/2 out of ****

The IllusionistThe Illusionist is another one of those movies that I'd heard reasonably good things about, but which isn't yet (and probably won't be) playing in my small town. Since I was driving some distance to see Hollywoodland, I decided I may as well make a day of it and see The Illusionist as well. I have to tell you that I'm glad I made the choice.

The story of The Illusionist takes place in turn-of-the-century Vienna where modern notions are starting to hold sway, but where old-fashioned ideas of class remain rigid. Edward, a young cabinetmaker's son (Aaron Johnson), loves two things: magic, and a local heiress (Eleanor Tomlinson). While magic tricks aren't a problem, class distinctions doom his feelings for Sophie despite the fact she returns his ardor. Though the youngsters are forbidden to see each other, they manage to get together with some regularity until they're caught one final time and threatened with Edward's — and his family's — death if they dare to continue their forbidden romance.

Edward, despondent at the loss of Sophie, leaves town for any number of years while he wanders the world searching out new and better magic tricks. But eventually, he returns to Vienna where he styles himself Eisenheim, The Illusionist (Edward Norton) and starts putting on shows for a public eager for entertainment. His tricks are so spectacular that his reputation rapidly grows to the point where Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) himself comes to the show. Coincidentally, Sophie (Jessica Biel) comes with the prince as his date and presumed fiancée.

Eisenheim recognizes Sophie when she comes onstage as a volunteer to assist him with a trick. The Crown Prince, meanwhile, knows nothing of his paramour's relationship with The Illusionist. What he does know, however, is that science and logic can explain everything, and he's not happy that audiences are apparently buying into the notion of magic. He invites Eisenheim to a command performance at the palace, and while the select audience is entertained, the Prince is much less so.

Eventually, Sophie recognizes Edward as well, and it doesn't take long for them to discover that their love remains as strong and true as it was when they were forcibly separated for the last time. But the dangers of an affair make their situation impossible. Though Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) has some sympathy for both, he has to do his job and follow the orders that are coming from the mouth of the Crown Prince himself. And those orders could result in death if Edward and Sophie don't resign themselves to their intended roles before it's too late.

Edward Norton, Jessica Biehl, and Rufus Sewell are all quite good in their roles, particularly Mr. Sewell (I hated him with a passion, which only goes to show that I bought into the nasty Crown Prince wholesale — and that's credit to the actor as much as to the character). Norton is a little expressionless at moments of his greatest stress, but one incident that causes him particular anguish is actually painful to watch; meanwhile, Biehl is a very pretty girl and a reasonably good actress as well, and who had enough chemistry with Norton that I believed the match.

But Paul Giamatti is wholly brilliant here. He sounds nothing like I know he sounds; he behaves nothing like the bumbling characters he so often plays so well; and his confusion, concerns, and consternation are flawlessly rendered with a look here and a gesture there. No matter how good or bad the film, I've never seen Giamatti less than great, and he's even better than that here.

Director and writer Neil Burger does a fine job adapting the short story Eisenheim the Illusionist by Steven Millhauser. In some places, the special effects were just a bit lacking, but on the whole, the magic is terrific and the script a solid one. The story itself is a little trite and certainly predictable at times, but the movie is billed as a fantasy as much as a thriller, and it delivers some of both. The characters, of course, are often a little more one-dimensional than I normally like to see, but fairy tales are like that so I'm letting that slide a little, too. As a bonus, the sets are spectacular. I could see the movie again tomorrow simply to get another look at some of those gorgeous rooms and locations!

If I were judging The Illusionist solely on the basis of its overall filmmaking qualities, and was basing that judgment in comparison with movies like, say, Hollywoodland, I'd have to give it a slightly lower rating. But I promised when I first started reviewing movies that I'd do so based on how much I enjoyed a movie, not just on a particularly clever script or creative direction. Let me say that I thought about The Illusionist all the way home — and that it was a relatively long drive. And the whole time I thought about it, I was smiling. I'm sorry, but that overrules any other criteria I might conceivably consider, and I'm going to recommend The Illusionist accordingly.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Illusionist is rated PG-13 for "some sexuality and violence." Neither is graphic, but the story is — at least at times — relatively complex, so I think that the PG-13 rating is right. I don't know how much teen-aged boys will enjoy a film at the heart (quite literally, sometimes) is of which is a love story, but teen-aged girls will like it fine, and so will their mothers. A chick flick? Yes, I guess so. But a good one? Yes to that, too. ESR

Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.




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