Tag Archives: 11/20

Valkyrie

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: 1943: The war is turning against the Third Reich, but Hitler and those closest to him press on with fighting on several fronts and their ‘Final Solution’ against the Jews. Convinced that Hitler’s plans will lead to Germany’s ruin, high-ranking members of the army devise a plan to assassinate the Fuhrer and use the reserve army to prevent the SS from seizing control of the country.

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) doesn’t much like the way World War II is going. Losing his right hand and left eye in North Africa, he despairs of Hitler’s strategies; so when he’s approached by Major-General Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) to join in a top-secret plan to kill Hitler and establish a government with General Beck (Terence Stamp) as President and Kevin McNally’s Dr Carl Goerdeler, he’s interested.

Working with overly cautious General Olbricht (Bill Nighy), Stauffenberg concludes that the best way of taking power is by subtly amending ‘Operation Valkyrie’, which would mobilise the reserve Army in the event of the Fuhrer’s death and prevent Goebbels from taking power. The only sticking point is the ambivalence of General Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), whose signature is required to begin Valkyrie in the first place. Stauffenberg himself is tasked with disposing of Hitler and he travels to the Wolf’s Lair in Rastenburg, with explosives to complete the task and inside man General Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard) ready to pull the plug on all communications. Stauffenberg plants the explosives but flees without knowing for sure whether Hitler has survived, an uncertainty which causes delays and ultimately dooms the plot to failure.

If you’re determined not to go with it, there’s much about Valkyrie that you can pull up as incongruous. The film begins in German and continues just long enough for the audience to wonder if it’s going to continue that way, à la The Passion of the Christ. But no, the dialogue melts into Cruise’s American accent and the German characters begin to speak English in their own voices, and this does something strange to the film. Although we can see that Cruise, Nighy, Branagh, Wilkinson, Izzard etc. are dressed as Nazi – sorry, Wehrmacht* – troops, Valkyrie doesn’t feel like a tale of internal betrayal but a story of Allied Forces somehow infiltrating the higher ranks of the Third Reich.

This is not to criticise Cruise, who is as good here as anything I’ve seen him in, or the dependable Brits (I’m excluding Izzard from this definition, but he’s fine in a smallish role); the trouble is, because of the point we come into the story, the protagonists are never established as faithful Germans, so they can’t help but come over as British or American. The problem is compounded by David Bamber’s skulking Hitler, who has to speak English with a German accent. It’s as if someone in the production – Cruise, Singer, whoever – couldn’t countenance the ‘good’ characters even pretending to support Hitler, which results in a disappointingly simple and less credible – ie. typically Hollywoodised – narrative. In the same way, the scene where a Wagner record suggests the plot to Stauffenberg feels like exactly what it is, a movie device without any bearing on reality.

Fortunately, the film compensates for these deficiencies by delivering on dramatic thrills. If you have any grasp of recent European history, you will know before the film even starts that the plot doesn’t come off; however, unless you’re very well read-up on the subject, that’s about as much as you know, so there’s still plenty of tension left as to how the plan pans out and how close it comes to succeeding. Singer is more than capable of handling the action sequences, and there is plenty of drama as crucial decisions are made (or not made) in the absence of certainty about Hitler surviving the blast (or not).

The film also amplifies Stauffenberg’s concern for his country with a convincing concern for his dear wife Nina (Carice van Houten, the star of Black Book, who seems suited to World War II) and their children, making the viewer feel the tragedy of how it all turns out – late on, there’s a brief but fascinating glimpse of the lunatic Judge Freisler (Helmut Strauss) at the so-called “People’s Court”. Throughout, the competent staging of the action is matched by decent acting, from Cruise** and the British talent I’ve already mentioned; also from Tom Hollander, who with David Schofield makes up a mini-Pirates (II) reunion, and others: the cast does feature a number of German actors, though for the most part they regrettably play those in Hitler’s inner circle.

Whether or not his films have succeeded, Bryan Singer has always been a well-intentioned director; and Valkyrie is a well-intentioned film with an interesting history lesson to impart, an authentic look (locations include Berlin’s Bendlerblock, the building where Olbricht and Stauffenberg were stationed) and a more-than-decent quota of involving action. Unfortunately, the problem of casting well-known English-speaking actors is pretty much insurmountable; so while the film works as a wartime thriller, it doesn’t convince as a story of German resistance to Hitler’s evil.

NOTES: 1This is, no doubt, exactly the point the filmmakers would say they are trying to make: all Nazis were German, but not all the Germans fighting the war were Nazis. Valkyrie never quite reconciles this with the problem of casting Anglo-American actors, even if most of the baddies are also Anglophones.

2The film’s detractors all seem to centre on the opinion that Cruise is miscast and, moreover, ‘can’t act’. This is nonsense. He’s been less than sparkling in other movies and here, as already explained, his accent is an issue; but to say he cannot act is surely the viewer not being able to look past Cruise the headline-grabbing personality, rather than Tom’s perfectly decent performance.

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Pride and Prejudice (2005)

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Elizabeth Bennet, the second of five daughters, finds herself the object of more than one man’s attentions when the dashing Mr Bingley takes residence in the house near to their humble dwelling. Although Bingley only has eyes for her elder sister Jane, his friend Darcy is captivated by Lizzie, although his haughty demeanour tries to tell a different story. Lizzie, trying to keep a check on her unruly family, must also decide what she wants to believe about this infuriating but very, very rich man.

I’m sorry, but I’m going to be terribly unfair to this film. Whilst there is no law whatsoever governing a mandatory gap of time between the filming of Jane Austen novels, and whilst it is unreasonable for a two-hour theatrical film to cover the same ground as a five-hour-plus television serialisation, I am going to criticise Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice on both grounds anyway.

For, the simple fact is, this film version comes too close to the BBC’s 1995 version of Austen’s popular work for there not to be comparisons, especially since Colin Firth’s portrayal of Darcy has passed into legend. To start with the positives, the film doesn’t actually miss out anything really important from the plot, and the evocation of the period is very convincing – everything is clean, but not overly so. In general, the director has a good eye for what will look good on a cinema screen, the Peak District (initially as part of a dream?) and Darcy’s enormous manor looking gorgeous. Elsewhere, the camera lingers over statues and roams through balls, in search of our heroine, or captures Lizzie regarding the passage of time on a swing. Indeed, there is so much lingering camerawork that you do wonder if some of it might not have been sacrificed to get a bit more plot in.

And this is the main issue. Although, as I say, the big story points are present and correct, telling the tale in just two hours leads to a lot of shortcuts (Jane arrives at Bingley’s Netherfield and sneezes: she has flu!), and there is unintentional comedy to be had from the characters speaking very quickly to move the plot along.

Chief victim of the cuts is Wickham, and as he is the story’s villain, the fact that he doesn’t get to show much of his duplicitous nature really detracts from the film. There was not enough of Wickham for Lizzie to form an attachment to him and for him to feed her prejudice against Darcy, which is surely one of the most important aspects of the story.

It should also be said that as played by Rupert Friend, Wickham is arrogant and effete, and it is unclear why any of the Bennet family, or Georgiana Darcy, would be drawn to him. Furthermore, the younger daughters and their infatuation with the military are only sketched out; so when Lydia runs off with Wickham, the audience doesn’t really take in the gravity of the situation.

In the role of Elizabeth Bennet, Keira Knightley laughs, sighs, and delivers her lines very quickly, but she does not have the calm presence Jennifer Ehle imbued in the role in the BBC series. Ehle’s Elizabeth had a dignified bearing, conveying sadness, passion, authority and intelligence behind her eyes. In contrast, but I suspect also objectively, Knightley is a giggly kid.

It is almost impossible to think of Knightley’s Lizzie as the sensible one in the family; and although she shows a passionate side well enough when she turns down Darcy’s proposal in the rain, I never felt she was particularly struggling with her feelings for him. Knightley does possess some of the character’s wilfulness, but that vital spark between Elizabeth and Darcy is not nearly as lively as it needs to be. And when the happy event finally comes, Elizabeth’s toothy gushing in front of her father drives me spare (the special bond between Lizzie and Mr Bennet also seems to be missing).

Not that all the blame should go to Keira. In attempting to capture Darcy’s haughtiness, Matthew MacFadyen constantly looks as though he has a cold and is about to sneeze (caught off Jane, perhaps). I couldn’t tell you whether he is attractive or not, but (in contrast to Knightley’s slender frame) he looks like a bit of a lump; he certainly lacks the lively fire in the eyes that Firth brought to the role, and when he comes to propose for a second time, his early-morning trudge through the field takes an eternity. Just to mention also (not MacFadyen’s fault, of course), when Darcy bursts into the room at the Collins house, there is a horrifically clumsy zoom which, if deliberate, was a terrible idea.

The supporting roles all suffer from not having the time to become rounded. Brenda Blethyn actually does very well as Mrs Bennet, but is undermined by Donald Sutherland’s patently Canadian Mr Bennet – could he not at least have tried? Sutherland is poor and his voice is totally out of keeping with the rest of the cast. Rosamund Pike, as Jane, is not quite a doll, but her emotions at being misused by Bingley are not given the space they deserve, whilst Simon Woods’ Bingley is foolish and foppish, making his friendship with Darcy a curiosity.

Mr Collins is not given the time to be obsequious, so Tom Hollander presents him as a pushy, short man; and Judi Dench, as Lady Catherine de Burgh, displays all the haughtiness she brought to the role of Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, but was rather too spritely for my liking.

For all these criticisms, Pride and Prejudice is still a fine film. As a ramble through Austen’s story it serves its purpose adequately, and although I was not enamoured with all the cast they act out the story well enough. As cinema it looks and sounds great, with the pacing of (what’s left of) the story having its ups and downs and coming to its happy result at just the right times. But if you have the time, you should try to see Andrew Davies’ adaptation again – that is great television. Better still, read the book.

Lucky Number Slevin

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Thanks to a severe case of mistaken identity, unlucky Slevin finds himself assigned two messy jobs in order to repay two leading crime lords money he doesn’t even owe. Also interested in his progress are a female coroner from the opposite flat, a mysterious man known only as Smith, and an NYPD detective more than keen to discover his identity.

First off: terrible title. But let’s put that aside; for the first hour and more, Lucky Number Slevin appears to be a novel and mysterious thriller, beginning with Mr Smith/Goodkat (Bruce Willis) telling a tale of a nobbled racehorse that may or may not have anything to do with the story that subsequently unfolds, where an unnamed man whom we shall call Slevin (Josh Hartnett) is taken for his friend Nick Fisher and repeatedly assaulted in the nose.

This is a tale of bookies and big-time gangsters, and predictably comes with a considerable dose of violence familiar to anyone who has watched movies post-Reservoir Dogs. In fact, the intriguingly twisty way the plot is pieced together and the smart and film-savvy script are both reminiscent of on-form Tarantino, even if Slevin is shot with a clinical detachment rather than revelling in gore.

The cast is quality. Hartnett plays his part like a young Brad Pitt, and Willis, who you always sense is the key cog in proceedings, broods coolly, if such a thing is possible. Lucy Liu is fun as the spiky neighbour Lindsey with whom Slevin forms an immediate bond, coping well with a potentially clunky dual-purpose role of girlfriend and coroner.

The real class, however, comes from Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley, playing the big boss figures who stare each other out from their massive apartment blocks. The roles hardly stretch their talents, but they play the parts with an easy menace. As the detective detailed with finding out Fisher/Slevin’s true identity, Stanley Tucci is less impressive, but the police do not feature heavily in the film, except in the vital respect below.

As Slevin carries out his jobs, the plot is ultimately unwound and revealed by a cop who has conveniently pieced everything together, explaining it to Tucci as the events are replayed on the screen. This narration is something of a cop-out (excuse the pun), especially as you realise the story only makes proper sense in reverse, and relies on the kind of good fortune that guarantees Mr Goodkat will be asked to carry out the hits and both the Boss and Shlomo will unquestioningly accept using ‘Nick Fisher’ to do the dirty work.

Even if the viewer doesn’t feel cheated by the plot, he or she may object to the fact that Lucky Number Slevin asks us to accept the callousness of the film because the ‘hero’ is after revenge: lots of people die, but that’s alright because they had some connection to the original wrong and must have been bad, bad people in some way. We’re supposed to care more about Slevin’s life because terrible things happened to him as a boy? Because he’s fallen in love? I’m sorry, but I’m not bought so easily, especially when the love interest is resolved via a trick out of Back to the Future.

Lucky Number Slevin begins with promise and with the help of the actors’ charms, keeps its intrigue a good while. As the death count mounts up and snappy lines dry up, however, the film settles back into the ranks of countless other slick, violent action movies. Not a bad film if you happen to pick it up at random, but you won’t count yourself terribly lucky if you do.

Carry On Doctor

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Hapless Dr Kilmore struggles to maintain his composure, reputation and job in the face of the sneering authoritarianism of Dr Kenneth Tinkle and formidable matron Lavinia. As secret passions boil away in the wards, the majority of the inpatients do their best to recover; but when Kilmore is unjustly removed, they are forced to take direct action.

When the mind over matter techniques of dodgy faith dealer Francis Bigger (Frankie Howerd) can’t stop him landing straight on his coccyx, he earns a stay in the male ward of the local hospital, between committed malingerer and wife-avoider Mr Roper (Sid James) and Mr Barron (Charles Hawtrey), suffering a pregnancy on behalf of his uncomplaining wife. Comings and goings in the ward, especially Mr Biddle’s (Bernard Bresslaw) insistence on visiting female patient Mavis (Dilys Laye), soon send Bigger into a private room, where he mistakenly comes to believe he only has a week to live.

Amongst the staff, meanwhile, pretty Nurse Clarke (Anita Harris) has the hots for popular Dr Kilmore (Jim Dale), and in the bosom of Matron (Hattie Jacques) lies a passion for ruthless senior physician Dr Kenneth Tinkle (Ken Williams). However, the arrival of Sandra May (Barbara Windsor), her chest bursting with gratitude for Tinkle because he previously saved her life, upsets the apple cart. Against hospital rules, she’s caught in his room; so Tinkle and matron hatch a plan to literally make Kilmore the fall guy. Roper and Biddle are outraged by Kilmore’s unfair dismissal, and with a little help from Nurse Clarke they prepare a patients’ mutiny to make Matron and Tinkle pay for their haughty ways.

It may be because the quirks of the National Health Service are fondly mocked by the British; or it may be because TV show Dr Kildare and the Doctor films (directed by Ralph Thomas, Gerald’s brother), complete with portrait of James Robertson Justice, loom large; or it could be because the Carry Ons made hospitals their second home (starting with Nurse, they also made Matron and Again Doctor); but Carry On Doctor feels to me like the archetypal Carry On.

In particular, Kenneth Williams is right at home as the snooty, superior, yet still bungling senior doctor who rubs everyone up the wrong way. Everyone, that is, except the secretly lustful Matron, played beautifully by Jacques. The chemistry between them (see Jacques laughing when they bump noses) provides much-needed underpinning, given the unconvincing business of Babs‘ infatuation with Kenneth, Kilmore’s disgrace and redemption, and the relatively flimsy storylines given to the rest of the cast.

Since much of the ‘action’ of Doctor is by its very nature static (Sid James, recovering from a heart attack, stays in bed most of the time), it’s lucky that the film has a couple of tricks up its sleeve. Firstly, it benefits greatly from a barnstorming performance by Frankie Howerd, his high-pitched incredulity and eye-rolling sarcasm adding a new dimension to the regular Carry On cast (Dandy Nichols, too, has a funny cameo as the garrulous Mrs Roper).

Secondly and more importantly, while Talbot Rothwell’s script may be light on plot, it’s absolutely packed with gags: silly ones, like the fully bandaged man who turns out to be invisible (’Oo, I still don’t like the look of him!’ Tinkle says); saucy ones, like Lavinia throwing herself at Kenneth, the daffodil (an in-joke harking back to Nurse), or Kilmore’s adventures on the roof; or more traditional fare, like the chaotic weddding of Bigger and his deaf companion Chloe (Joan Sims, superb and underused as usual), conducted by an equally mutton chaplain. There’s easily enough genuinely clever material to forgive lazy jokes such as (as happens more than once) looking under a sheet and exclaiming ‘That’s a big one!’

Inevitably, the passage of time means that it’s impossible to look at some aspects of Carry On films in the way their original audience saw them. In particular, the treatment of Babs Windsor’s trainee nurse here is dolly-birdism of the worst kind. She receives the ultimate ‘Phwoooar!” from a leering ambulance driver, takes her clothes off to sunbathe, then promptly disappears from the film.By contrast, Jacques is called a ‘battleship’ and other older ladies are referred to as ‘cows.’ Matron’s rough-house treatment at the hand of the female patients is also more suited to army barracks than a hospital, though this is at least Equal Opportunities humiliation since Tinkle is treated no better (indeed, he’s almost tortured!). It’s not worth getting too hung up on such things, but there is a slight feeling that the film is designed exclusively for working-class men, a feeling you don’t get in superior series entries such as Don’t Lose Your Head or Carry On Up the Khyber.

But the film is what it is: and what it is, for the most part, is funny. Carry On Doctor isn’t the most exciting of the series by a long shot, but its hit-rate of jokes ensures that you simply don’t have time to get bored. Although they don’t all play as full a part as they might, all the gang are here – joyously, the film pre-dates Jack Douglas – and they are all on top form with Rothwell’s material. Carry On Doctor has a few ills of its own, but as long as you’re immune to rank sexism, it’ll cheer you up on a miserable day.

Mrs Henderson Presents

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Towards the end of the 1930s, wealthy widow Laura Henderson finds herself with more time and money on her hands than she knows what to do with. On a whim, she buys London’s run-down Windmill Theatre and strikes up a feisty relationship with producer Vivian Van Damm. Mrs Henderson averts box-office disaster by scandalously inaugurating Britain’s first nude revue; but when war arrives, moral outrage is the least of the company’s worries.

London, 1937, and Laura Henderson (Judi Dench) buries her husband, for many years her companion in India and elsewhere. Their son Alec having been killed in the First World War, Mrs Henderson finds single life very lonely; she doesn’t enjoy the hobbies – sitting on committees, doing crochet – suggested by her good friend Margot (Thelma Barlow), and neither, being nearly seventy, is she impressed by Margot’s suggestion that she takes a lover.

One day, she drives past the closed Windmill Theatre and – just like that – decides to buy it. Despite arguing with him from the outset, she hires Jewish producer Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins) to put on a show, a combination of revue and vaudeville cleverly called ‘revuedeville’, a show that plays throughout the day and becomes so successful it’s universally copied, nearly causing financial ruin. Mrs Henderson, however, decides to do as they do in Paris and instructs Van Damm to assemble a nude revue.

He does as he’s told, cobbling together a troupe of nervous ‘real’ women to accompany singers Jane and Bertie (Camille O’Sullivan and Will Young) and the leggy Millerettes, while Laura sweet-talks Christopher Guest’s Lord Chamberlain Lord Cromer (or ‘Little Tommy’, as she knows him), who objects to the proposed nudity but is as enchanted as the audience when the curtain goes up and the girls are presented in still, arty tableaux. However, Mrs Henderson’s excitement sours when she discovers that Van Damm is spoken for; and the tight little family enjoyed by the girls, including Maureen, Vera and Peggy (Kelly Reilly, Sarah Solemani and Natalia Tena), is disrupted by the bothersome World War II. But isn’t theatre’s motto ‘The Show Must Go On’? If the redoubtable Mrs H has anything to do with it, it certainly will.

Your first question about Mrs Henderson Presents may well be to do with the nudity – is this BBC Films project a period Showgirls? The answer is ‘of course not’, and this is much to the film’s credit. There’s a fair amount of flesh on show, but apart from a hint of harmless sauce it’s all presented as an unerotic, tasteful and artistic enterprise. An equal opportunities one, too – they don’t warn you about Bob Hoskins’ todger on the DVD cover.

But the point is that the controversy of the Windmill’s nude revue is just a backdrop to the bigger story. This film’s not about naked women, or men, or art, at all; it’s about the indomitable spirit of Londoners, rich and poor, during the Blitz. Quite right too, except that’s a history lesson we’re exhausted with already – and while I applaud the total lack of gratuitousness and titillation, there’s a slight feeling of being conned, of being lured into a strip club only for Simon Sharma to deliver a po-faced lecture whilst blocking your view.

I’d have liked to have known more about the girls, where they came from, why they were taking part in the shows: what we get is a two-line summary from ladies who are much of a muchness, apart from Maureen. She gets matchmade by Mrs H, provoking the film’s big crisis which has some emotional impact. Otherwise, the film is much too polite, too British, too damn nice for its own good – for example, I’m not sure all the visiting squaddies were quite as fresh-faced and respectful as they’re portrayed here.

Still, it does contain moments of sly humour, for example the mouse that causes ‘accidental’ movement amongst the nudes, Cromer getting into a flap over ‘The Midlands’, or Laura’s ruses to sneak back into the theatre after she insults Mrs Van Damm and swears never to return.

The film’s not really about the nude revue, then, and the episodic structure of the script, which constructs the story in a blocky, clunky fashion, demonstrates the lack of a dominant theme: Mrs Henderson drives past theatre and looks pensive, Mrs Henderson ‘suddenly’ hits on the idea of a nude review, Van Damm decides to use real British girls and immediately fishes Maureen out of a canal. This bittiness is also reflected in the film’s technical aspects, which are a real mixed bag: London looks wonderful, the cast are dressed and made up to perfection, and the revues are recreated with verve and entirely appropriate showtunes. However, there’s a disconnect between the recreation of period London and scratchy black and white footage of the Blitz, especially when the film later has an obviously fake go at showing the capital ablaze, with Mrs H looking on.

Luckily, most of these issues are swept aside by the superb performance of Dame Judi Dench: she’s haughty, cheeky, occasionally unhinged, but also full of tenderness, her eyes reflecting a lifetime of love and loss for her husband and especially for her son, buried in France (even if I wasn’t totally convinced by her rationale for funding the show). However variable the quality of what’s going on around her, she sparkles, and sparks off Hoskins who – for once – gets to play a slightly posh role, and plays it well. Kelly Reilly doesn’t fare so well in this exalted company, and while Will Young is perfectly fine, he doesn’t exactly demand a career in the movies. Guest isn’t on screen for long, but as usual is very funny.

Assuming you don’t watch Mrs Henderson Presents demanding sex or sauce, you’re likely to find it a handsome film, with humour and a surprisingly strong streak of nobility and decency – its ultimate message could be paraphrased as ‘naked women helped win the war’! The film’s ripe sentimentality does mean that it lacks anything like an edge, and you might hope for more, and more substantial, human tales to accompany Dench’s brilliant performance; in general, though, this show deserves to go on.

Hollywoodland

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: George Reeves, TV’s first Superman, is found dead and the police come to the conclusion that he committed suicide. Acting on a tip-off, dogged private investigator Louis Simo does some digging and finds more than one party with reasons to hold a grudge against the troubled actor. However, Louis’ pre-occupation with the case lands him in all sorts of trouble.

In 1959, Superman actor George Reeves (Ben Affleck) is found dead in his bed. The police instantly write the death off as a suicide, but private dick Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) gets wind that it’s not as simple as that, and pitches the idea to Reeves’ mother that the death may not have been self-inflicted. As Simo delves, he discovers that Reeves – who had a role in Gone with the Wind and starred in The Adventures of Sir Galahad – was the long-time lover of Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of MGM executive Eddie (Bob Hoskins).

Eddie already has a Japanese mistress, George needs contacts, and Toni is desperate for love and attention, so the arrangement seems to suit them all; but George’s ambitions of being a bona fide star only get him as far as a TV version of Superman. The part is badly paid, poorly written, requires him to wear a naff suit (until later, when it’s shot in colour) and doesn’t do his body any good, but he has fun on set and becomes a massive hero to kids. The downside is that he becomes typecast – his role in From Here to Eternity is cut down because audiences make fun of Superman appearing in another film* – so opportunities for him to grow as an actor are limited.

When the series is cancelled in 1958, Reeves goes to New York in search of new possibilities, much to Toni’s dismay; and she’s devastated when he comes back with young fiancée Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) in tow. George becomes increasingly dependent on alcohol, and makes a painful show reel for a wrestling gig he’s offered; and then he’s dead. But would he really commit suicide with a directing gig coming up? Or was greedy, aggressive Leonore’s finger on the trigger? Or could Eddie, a man not above dirty dealing in the Hollywood Hills, have arranged the hit as revenge for his wife‘s turmoil?

As Simo keeps finding more questions than answers, he neglects his troubled client Mr Sinclair, which ends unfortunately for Mrs Sinclair; and as a result, Louis turns to drink himself, mortifying his son Evan (Zach Mills) when he turns up, shapeless, at his school. What’s more, Eddie doesn’t take at all kindly to guttersnipes poking around in his business.

One of my constant mantras about watching films has been ‘Go in with an open mind’. Unfortunately, I had the idea in my head that Hollywoodland was a film about George Reeves, and to find that was only partially the case came as a big disappointment. Of course, the life and death of Reeves is the reason the film exists, and you do get a sense of the events of his life, his career, why he may have taken his own life and why other people might have taken it for him. On the other hand, I came to the conclusion that screenwriter Paul Bernbaum got to about the hour mark of a story about George’s life, then got stuck, and invented Simo and his problems just to bring the film up to a respectable length.

The result is not bad, as such – Brody makes for a terrifically weaselly private dick – but the guff surrounding his ex-wife and grumpy child, his girlfriend/receptionist, and his guilt over what happens to Mrs Sinclair, all feels like padding. As a viewer, you want to be where the action is, namely with George; and while Simo’s business is written, acted and brought to life with some skill, he’s not supposed to be the star of the show.

Straight reconstructions (such as The Notorious Bettie Page or Good Night, and Good Luck) can be slow and worthy, but I think Hollywoodland’s diversion into Chinatown/LA Confidential territory is ill-advised, especially when we have no particular motive to care for the protagonist. It doesn’t help that after replaying three versions of what might have happened to Reeves on the night of his death (the film plays fast and loose with its flashbacks), Simo seems to settle on the original and least controversial option. Talk about an anti-climax!

Still, Hollywoodland’s period setting is always immaculate and, unlike the similarly-themed Black Dahlia, the acting is of a very high standard. Affleck shows that he can act without a smirk on his face, and Lane plays Toni Mannix with just the right mixture of self-assurance and neediness. Hoskins convinces as the studio head, Tunney brings a glamorous but unhappy edge to Leonore (she’s shunned in George’s will), and Lois Smith is a forceful presence as Reeves’ mother, who may not be as close to her son as she lets on. In fact, the whole cast are impressive (notwithstanding Zach Mills’ distracting ears) – it’s just a shame so many of them were involved in the sideshow rather than the main feature.

I can’t blame Hollywoodland for not being the film I thought it was going to be, but I do find the idea of a real life being investigated by a fictional one to be jarring, especially since Reeves’ outings in the Superman costume come and go so quickly; with Affleck in good acting form, I could have happily watched a whole film about the actor‘s life, loves and death without Simo (good though Brody is) wondering whodunit. Still, next time I see it I’ll know exactly what I’m in for, and I reserve the right to come back and change my mind, and my score, completely.

NOTES: If you trust Wikipedia, this isn’t true. I said ‘if’.

Hello, Dolly!

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: ‘Marriage broker’ and general life-fixer Dolly Levi has plans to fix the life of grumpy half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder by arranging to have him marry her. To do this, she enlists the services of Cornelius and Barnaby, underlings at Horace’s hay feed shop in Yonkers, to sweep Horace’s intended Irene and her hat-shop assistant Minnie off their feet as they discover, for the very first time, the joys of New York.

Although the genre has made a strong comeback in the 2000s for young and old viewers alike, the last great decade for musical films has to be the 1960s: West Side Story won Best Picture at the start of the decade; My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music took the honours in the middle years. Hello, Dolly! won a number of Oscars but missed out on the big prize, losing to the gritty Midnight Cowboy; and in subsequent years heavyweight films such as Patton and The French Connection took the centre stage. This film, based on a Thornton Wilder play The Matchmaker and with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, may be the last hurrah for the big, old-fashioned song-and-dance musical, then; and its star turn makes sure the decade goes out with a bang.

The story is fairly simple: young widow Dolly Levi (Barbra Streisand) travels to Yonkers with two jobs on her mind, seeking inspiration from her late husband Ephraim as she goes. The first job is to attract the attention of grumpy shop owner Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau) away from a marriage of convenience to milliner Irene Molloy (Marianne McAndrew), towards herself; the second task is to smooth over Horace’s objections to the relationship between his niece Ermengarde and her beau Ambrose (Joyce Ames and the lofty Tommy Tune).

When Horace leaves to call on Irene anyway, Dolly encourages his employees Cornelius and Barnaby (Michael Crawford and Danny Lockin) to copy his example and head into town; they do so, with the avowed and scandalous intent of ‘kissing a girl’ (it is 1890, after all), encouraged by Dolly to visit a certain hat shop run by Irene and her young assistant Minnie (E.J. Peaker). As luck – or rather, as Dolly – would have it, the whole group turn up simultaneously in the luxurious Harmonia Gardens, Cornelius and Barnaby penniless but entertaining Irene and Minnie regardless; Ermengarde and Ambrose hoping to win money to set themselves up in a polka contest; and Horace, disappointed by Irene’s habit of keeping men in her closet, dating a supposed heiress with an incredible resemblance to one of Dolly’s best friends. It’s hardly conceivable that they will all be kept apart, especially when Dolly is the restaurant’s favourite guest.

If it’s immediately apparent that this tale could be told with considerably less fanfare, and budget, than any of the Oscar-winning musicals named above, nobody told the people at 20th Century Fox, who spent over $20 million recreating late 19th Century Yonkers and New York, and the magnificent Harmonia Gardens set, with loving care. Against these magnificent backdrops and with the help of entirely serviceable tunes, Hello, Dolly! plays out as a mixture of farce and open-air ballet – and here is the first of the film’s snags.

For whilst the songs are perfectly nice – the title number being the most memorable – their extension to incorporate lengthy dance sequences after they have served their purpose becomes tiring after a while. In part, this is purely a matter of taste, and keen connoisseurs of dance will find an awful lot to enjoy in the set-pieces, either the massed dancing in the streets and parks or the astounding acrobatics of the waiters; for me, however, a lot of it is dancing for its own sake (unlike, say, much of the dancing in The Sound of Music) and I struggled to enjoy much of it.

The bigger issue, however, is with the cast. Michael Crawford struggles with his American accent and has a pretty weak singing voice, though he cannot be blamed for the fact that his facial expressions are synonymous (in Britain) with Frank Spencer from the (later) sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. Matthau, meanwhile, seems tremendously ill-at-ease, perhaps because he is in a Gene Kelly film but can neither sing nor dance; he would be a disastrous choice were he not so good at being grouchy in the non-singing, non-dancing parts of the film, and his knack for stone-faced comedy stands in welcome relief to his employees’ capering in and out of wardrobes, under/over tables etc.

And finally, you have La Streisand. In just her second film, Barbra plays Dolly with such a staggering amount of overweening self-assurance that you cannot begin to picture her as a grieving widow. Admittedly, part of the problem lies with the character, since Dolly has to be a go-getter to make her way in life; but the film makes such a fuss over her, and Streisand makes such a show of enjoying the attention, that when the film asks (as it undoubtedly does) ‘Don’t ya just love her?’ the only reasonable answer is ‘not particularly.’

It doesn’t help that Streisand is obviously much too young for the role, being twenty years Matthau’s junior, so her conviction appears to be the brashness of youth rather than the direct honesty of experience; fortunately, her strong and unique vocals are excellent throughout, which may not redeem all the film’s faults but certainly offsets some of them.

Hello, Dolly! is the epitome of overblown, and feels like an anachronism when put alongside late 60s historical events such as the Vietnam war or the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. But to judge a film against its political backdrop is overly harsh, and much of this one is perfectly passable, and highly polished, entertainment whose nostalgic value would have been immeasurably increased by a less modern central performance. If nothing else, it contains a few minutes of Louis Armstrong, a true American icon, and you can’t complain about that.