Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch:
‘Hollywoodland,’ ‘The Illusionist,’ and a few short takes

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Oct. 5, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

Movie Reviews

Ben Affleck, so often in the celebrity news in recent years, now plays George Reeves, television’s Superman in the 1950s. Reeves was extremely popular with young people as he more or less walked through a cheap production for television, based on the DC comic book. He knew what fame was by the thousands of young people who wanted to see him. But it wasn’t enough. He wanted the fame of being a good actor. He never found it. And that is the story of his life and death, told in the new film noir Hollywoodland.

The problem with Hollywoodland is that it tries to tell two stories at the same time. On the one hand, we have the rise and fall of George Reeves. Was his death in 1959 a murder or a suicide? On the other hand, we have the story of a detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), hired by Reeves’s mother after his death. We continually go back and forth between the wounded superhero and the young detective down on his luck. The film tries to draw out the failures of both characters as the movie progresses. The detective’s role overwhelms the story of Superman.

But the movie does give its actors lots of room to play their parts to the full in a dark and desperate Los Angeles, a la the film Chinatown. It is great to see Ben Affleck show he can really act. You can’t help but to identify with his portrayal of a basically good man who wasn’t much of an actor but always wanted to be remembered as one.

Adrien Brody, who won the Academy Award for The Pianist, plays an unheroic man driven obsessively to find the truth about a minor mystery. Sadly, we never really find out what that truth was. But in the end we know we have seen in Brody one of today’s best actors.

Diane Lane is first-class as Toni Mannix, the studio executive’s wife who begins an affair with Reeves, buys him a house, and provides him with financial security. Her rise and fall in the film is almost Shakespearean. Bob Hoskins plays her husband, Edgar, with threatening power.

On the minutia side, the detective’s associate tells him about visiting an Esso Service station and finding out some information. My memory is that after the breakup of the Standard Oil Trust in the Teddy Roosevelt era, the word Esso, meaning Eastern States Standard Oil, could only be used in the eastern part of the United States. Standard Oil of California, which we now know as Chevron, was the only one who could use the name in L.A. It would have been against the law to have an Esso station in Los Angeles.

Hollywoodland is a less-than-satisfying film by first-time director Allen Coulter, from television’s The Sopranos. At the same time, it is immersed in wonderful acting about the dark side of the possible choices of our lives. That alone makes it worth seeing.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rates Hollywoodland R – restricted (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or guardian) because of language, partial nudity and gun violence. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates the film L – limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling.


Father Charles Eis, a classmate and Spokane diocesan priest, was in town recently from San Diego, where he is retired from the Navy Chaplain Corps. We were able to take in the new film The Illusionist.

In a washed-out sepia style, Director Neil Burger takes us to beautiful pre-World War I Vienna (actually the movie was filmed in Prague). There we become embroiled in a visual puzzle that pulls one into a love story between a beautiful Princess Sophie (Jessica Biel, who once was in the TV series Seventh Heaven) and a talented magician named Eisenheim (Edward Norton). The couple fell in love as teens and were forced apart for 15 years.

The Princess is now engaged to a cruel Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), who plans to become the ruler of the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Princess is volunteered by the Prince to be major participant in a magic trick by Eisenheim at one of the great theaters of Vienna. The result is that the separated lovers come together at least briefly. Then the movie really gets moving as we watch with active eyes wondering what beyond what appears on the stage is also an illusion.

The story intensifies as Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti, from Sideways) tries to do the bidding of the Prince and catch Eisenheim in a crime or close him down.

Well, after a summer drought of movies that place a high regard on acting, The Illusionist may well appear to be a better movie than it is. Edward Norton, who is always willing to stretch himself in his movie roles, masterfully plays an enigmatic character who is as mysterious as the mystery we are watching. Paul Giamatti continues his success as the bearded detective seeking to put all the myriad clues together. Jessica Biel is beautiful as the Princess who stands up to the brutal Rufus Sewell.

Director Burger uses the close-up with intense lighting as if we are watching a 1940s black-and-white movie.

The magic tricks are wonderful. The Illusionist is a memorable experience that continually challenges us to ask the question: What are we really seeing on the moving picture screen?

The Illusionist is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) by the Motion Picture Association of American rating board, because of some violence and sexual content. The U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting classifies the film as A-III – for adults.

Short Takes

• A parishioner at Sacred Heart Parish in Spokane recently handed me a copy of James Rollins’s book Map of Bones, which is published by Avon Books for $7.95. Well, the book is a far-fetched violent entertainment which combines themes of The DaVinci Code with lots of action.

The set pieces in the book center on the cathedral of Cologne, a church in Milan, the scavi underneath St. Peter Basilica in Rome, the ancient library of Alexandria, and the climax in the papal palace of Avignon. The overwrought story centers on the search for recently captured relic bones of the Magi from Cologne Cathedral, which leads to all kinds of secret maps and hidden tunnels.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the author has ever been to St. Peter Basilica. In a dramatic explosion of bombs during Mass, he says that the people hid under the pews. Unless the basilica has changed in recent years, traditionally it has no pews.

• Early critical reviews of television’s new series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip are almost ecstatic. After seeing the first episode of the show I would certainly have to agree. This is television that is better than nine out of 10 movies.

The great script writer Aaron Sorkin returns from the early years of The West Wing to give us a fascinating story of contemporary television. It may sound like a very narrow area, but somehow Studio 60 gets into broader terrain, including religion. For once we have a main character who has a deep evangelical Christian faith and is treated seriously and with respect. Sarah Paulson plays Harriet Hayes, a star of the late-night satiric show, with religious depth and humor.

Amanda Peet, who is beautiful, wise and witty, knocks your socks off as Jordan McDeere, the president of the network.

The surprise for me is how fine an actor Matthew Perry is. There is no Friends smugness here. As Matt Albie, the television writer based somewhat on Sorkin’s lived experience, he shows us a very human person whose talent is obvious. Where the story goes with him will be an adventure.

Bradley Whitford as Danny Tripp, the director of Studio 60 (the show within the show), is very familiar from The West Wing. But he may well lead us on an astonishing roller coaster ride.

Great ensemble acting and first-rate direction by Thomas Schlamme, added to impressive sets, make Studio 60 more than just great dialogue. If you are up on Mondays at 10 p.m., give this unique and wonderful NBC-TV program a look.

• Christy Leskovar has just published a history of her Montana family. The epic story centers on Butte, but includes much of the state in its wake. The story titled, One Night in a Bad Inn, includes the mystery of a body found in burned-down ruins, a bawdy boarding house matron, and extensive details of the horror of World War I in Belgium. There are 200 photographs in the book.

I read the interesting section on Father James Grover Tougas of the Helena Diocese who, in the 1930s, reached out to key family members Aila and Peter when they lived in the Helena area and had no food. The priest was a chaplain in World War I and started new churches all over the Butte area. His pastoral workload gives us today some idea of the sacrifice many made in these turbulent and difficult times.

One Night in a Bad Inn (594 pages) is published in hardcover at $24.95 by Pictorial Histories Publishing Co.; (406) 549-8488.

• The completely formulaic film Gridiron Gang recently won a September weekend top box office award, with $15 million in revenues. A guest from Walla Walla and I took in a Saturday night showing of the film. The audience was almost entirely teenagers, who really responded to the film.

Sure, it is the same old feel-good story we’ve seen before. This time Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, formerly a wrestling star, is the coach who shapes together a winning team from a juvenile detention facility in California. There is gang violence and there are some swear words, mainly by the coach.

The film sure pulled me in. At the credits, as most moviegoers were walking out, almost everyone stopped and watched, as there were home movies of the original coach and team the story was based on.

You know where Gridiron Gang is going throughout the story. The acting is no great shakes. But it is a hopeful film that sure entertains. The MPAA rates it PG-13; the USCCB Office for Film and Broadcasting, A-III – for adults.

(Father Caswell is Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane, and a frequent contributor to this publication.)

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