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Notes from the back row

Weak ending to Film Noir look at TV’s Superman

Film Noir – term used to describe crime dramas which place their protagonists in an inherently corrupt and unsympathetic world. Classic Hollywood Noir dates from the 1940s and ’50s and is characterized by low-key, high contrast lighting, traits of German Expressionism (using symbolism and setting to insert mood) and is often (but not always) rooted in the hard-boiled detective tale.

What better time to get into “black film” than autumn. The shorter days, the knife-edge morning chill, the kids are out of the way and the Hollywood summer blockbuster crap-fest is little more than a memory. The first Noir of the season is Hollywoodland , a sort-of-based-on-a-true-story film from first-time feature director Allen Coulter, known for his fine work on TV’s Sopranos.

Hollywood was actually called Hollywoodland until 1949, when they removed the last four letters from the sign, so it’s fitting that this film, set in the early ’50s, centres around what could be considered the first step in the town’s transformation from the seedy, tough and self-regulated golden years towards the tabloid-realism, Paris Hilton Tinseltown of today.

Hollywoodland recounts the death of George Reeves, an actor who almost made it but had a hard time being taken seriously. In a stroke of casting perfection Ben Affleck was given the role and, even though I hate that guy, he actually does some of his best work. Reeves’s first role was a bit part in Gone with the Wind but he never really grew from there and ended up playing Superman on TV, a gig that made him incredibly recognizable with 10 year olds but essentially killed his hopes of a serious film career. In 1952 he was found dead, an apparent suicide by a depressed and alcoholic man. But was it?

The film is told in parallel storylines. One follows Reeves, through his life and fallout, including a gold-digging fiancé and a sugar-momma who’s also the wife of a gangster MGM studio head, all of whom become suspects in his murder in the second narrative thread, the detective story.

Adrian Brody ( King Kong) plays Simo, a down-and-out detective (is there any other kind?) hired by Reeves’s mother, who refuses to believe her son killed himself. Simo, the cynical, world-weary PI has ex-wife/girlfriend/child problems of his own and at times the film wants us to draw parallels from him to Reeves as we jump back and forth between the two storylines.

Unfortunately the emotional connection is weak and at the end of the 126 minute film, little is resolved and we’re left feeling a bit disappointed with a weak ending. The Reeves storyline is definitely the stronger of the two and although there are plenty of good Noir-esque facets and snappy dialogue Simo’s story is nothing new and marred particularily by melodrama and some dumb crap where the PI has to deal with his own kid. Hollywoodland is entertaining but any true fan of the genre knows there is no place for children in a real Film Noir.

Which is, of course, the best reason to make an entire Noir movie about high school kids like the kick-ass Brick , the DVD of the week. Written/directed by Rian Johnson, Brick takes your standard murder mystery, complete with informants, goons and drug kingpins and transplants it into a contemporary high school setting. A brilliant move since teenage life is about the only place where gang-cliques, highly stylized slang, lost love and double crosses really fit in nowadays. A bang-up film that dares to try something new. Rent it today and get ready for next week when we have more Noir, more Hollywood crime, and the return of Brian De Palma with The Black Dahlia.

AT VILLAGE 8 Sept. 8-14: Hollywoodland; Covenant; Invincible; Little Miss Sunshine; Wicker Man; Crank; Illusionist; Talladega Nights.