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The dark streets of ‘Hollywoodland’

It’s a great film, and Affleck finds the right material to prove he can act.


NOIRLAND: Hollywood, with Affleck and Lane.
  • NOIRLAND: Hollywood, with Affleck and Lane.

Though Los Angeles is most widely known for its blondes and bright lights, the vocabulary of detective films over the years — from “The Big Sleep” to “Chinatown” to “L.A. Confidential” — has described another L.A.; a kind of shadow city where the California sun only succeeds in illuminating the fact that everything that seems to be of any value is either worthless, for sale, or already sold a thousand times over. And while L.A.’s back streets have been well trod by fictional gumshoes, it’s a town with enough intrigue and desperation that it’s probably inevitable a few real-life murder mysteries have been spawned there over the years.

The new film “Hollywoodland” details the intriguing death of TV Superman George Reeves. Gritty, witty, with many obvious nods to its noir forebears, “Hollywoodland” is a description of how Tinseltown and its siren’s song of fame can lure even the most wary victims onto the rocks.

Starring Adrien Brody as 1950s private eye Louis Simo, “Hollywoodland” is mostly about Reeves (expertly played by a paunchy Ben Affleck). After a series of career setbacks and a turn as the “Man of Steel” in film serials and early television, Reeves finds himself typecast. Eventually, he becomes the reluctant kept man of Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of MGM studio head Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins).

Reeves eventually meets the vampish Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney) and seeks to break it off with Toni. In the midst of this triangle, with his finances dwindling, his directing projects scuttled by a vengeful Toni and reduced to considering a professional wrestling gig on TV, the aging Reeves shot himself.

Or did he? Told parallel to Reeves’ story is that of Simo, a jackleg P.I. hired by Reeves’ elderly mother to try and find “the real killers.” Though the assignment starts out as another way for Simo to scam an old lady out of a few bucks, the deeper he digs into Reeves’ death — at the urging of both his own guilty consciences, and his son, who adored the TV star — the more convinced he becomes that Reeves didn’t die by his own hand.

While Brody is good as the morally challenged Simo, the most surprising thing about “Hollywoodland” is the performance of Affleck. He has been in a string of losers during recent years, but there was always the belief in my heart of hearts that if he found the right material, he could claim his place as an actor instead of a heartthrob. His thoughtful, heartbreaking, carefully tempered performance as Reeves is a knockout. He’s a shoe-in for a Best Supporting Actor nomination at Oscar time, and — given how long it’s been since he’s had a hit — he might go home with the gold.

While “Hollywoodland” does tend to lean a little heavily on the never-quite-as-interesting Simo plotline, it is still a great film. Well thought out, well put together, beautiful to look at and with a compelling plot, it’s one of those rare films that make you both pine for a simpler time and thank God we’ve left those days behind.

Minimum enjoyment
As I told my wife while watching a screener of the new film “Mini’s First Time,” thank goodness my kid is not a girl. As seen in “Mini,” the life of Paris Hilton, and every female-centered teen flick since 1999, the pop-culture role models for young women — especially popular, alpha-female types — have tracked toward the seedy and sociopathic side of things in recent years. I don’t want to get all Mike Masterson on your ass, but 30 years after the Feminist Revolution, how did we end up here, with conniving, oversexed, anorexic, woman-hating, greedy, cutthroat, cell-phone obsessed, chain-smoking label whores defining the paragon of what a hip young woman can be?

That pretty much describes the character of Mini (Nikki Reed) in “Mini’s First Time.” The daughter of Diane (Carrie-Anne Moss) — a wealthy Hollywood socialite with a taste for breakfast-hour margaritas and any penis not attached to her husband — Mini is anybody’s definition of the “It Girl” in today’s terms: beautiful, connected, adventurous and rich, with a conscience about as deep as her lipstick.

Looking for a new thrill, Mini decides to start working for an escort agency. On her first hookup, she winds up sleeping with (surprise!) her stepfather, Martin (Alec Baldwin). From there, they start a lurid affair. The affair turns to love, and they decide to see if they can get Diane out of the picture through an elaborate scheme to have her institutionalized. When their insanity-producing torments turn to murder, however, Martin and Mini must keep it together while fending off the inquiries of Detective Garson (Luke Wilson) and neighbor Mike (Jeff Goldblum).

While “Mini’s First Time” does build to a mildly satisfying climax, the problem is Mini herself. Even if Nikki Reed could act her way out of a dry-rotted tent with a broken zipper — which she can’t — Mini might just be the most unlikable character I’ve seen on film in years. Vapid, stupid, scheming, emotionally bankrupt and wholly unbelievable for her age, her case isn’t helped much by a horrendously annoying voice-over track that features her endlessly opining about how clever, with-it, and sexually hot she is. Didn’t anybody ever tell writer/director Nick Guthe that voice-overs suck?

I think Guthe was trying to pull off a “Body Heat”-style femme fatale. But through the combined efforts of Reed’s horrible acting and Mini’s nihilistic take on everything but the prospects for her next orgasm, the result (to paraphrase the writer Joseph Conrad), is like a paper mache Satan — a character that might seem scary on the outside, but who is in fact only a lot of paint, glue and sawdust.

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