Some movies live and die by a single performance. Somehow, against all odds, Ben Affleck turns 'Hollywoodland' into one of those films. It is perhaps the last thing we expected from Affleck, one-time Tinseltown wonder-boy turned walking punchline. After winning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar with pal Matt Damon for 'Good Will Hunting,' Affleck watched his career slowly tailspin, after a series of hit movies ('Armageddon,' 'Sum of All Fears') turned into bad ones ('Pearl Harbor,' 'Paycheck'), followed by one legendary flop ('Gigli'). Becoming a favorite tabliod target as one half of "Bennifer" certainly didn't help. Yet in his Golden Globe-nominated portrayal of actor George Reeves, Affleck finds his ideal role.
Reeves was a limited talent. A hit with the kiddies (and their swooning mothers) after playing Superman in the iconic TV series, he dreamed of breaking free of his iron-clad 'Man of Steel' prison. By the late '50s he was little more than another Hollywood mannequin, trapped by the old-school studio system that reduced him to supporting bit roles and personal appearances in his trademark blue tights and red cape. He would never outlive the decade. Found with a fatal gunshot wound to the head in 1959, the official story goes that Reeves killed himself before the Hollywood machine could completely chew him up and spit him out. Or did he? Mysteries still surround the case, and like the deaths of fellow faded icons like "Hogan's Heroes" star Bob Crane, the infamous Black Dahlia and Sal Mineo of 'Rebel Without a Cause,' his death leaves more questions than answers.
Making his big screen debut with 'Hollywoodland,' television director Allen Coulter ('Sopranos,' 'Six Feet Under') doesn't even try to offer convincing solutions to the real-life mystery. We do get the standard-issue, "Clue"-like roster of suspects, but the lack of any clear resolution leaves 'Hollywoodland' with a gaping hole as hollow as the wounded Reeves.
And while 'Hollywoodland' manages to achieve a poignancy because of Affleck, who infuses his portayal of Reeves with a truly palpable sense of hurt and anguish, his ultimately is only a supporting role -- seen only in flashback. Instead, Coulter frames the narrative around the ensuing murder investigation, with Adrien Brody (rather mis-cast, actually) playing sleazy private investigator Louis Simo, who is hired to unravel the case. This whole storyline plays a bit like Raymond Chandler-lite -- a mystery novel without the payoff.
Still, I remained compelled by 'Hollywoodland.' Make no mistake, this is a flawed movie, but a definitive answer to what really happened to Reeves probably never would have sufficed, anyway. Instead, his memory will always be haunted by the ghost of unfulfilled ambition. And unlike most ghosts, the tingle in the spine left by this one's spectral hands is not frightening... it's just sad.
'Hollywoodland' looks wonderful. Universal presents the film in 1.85:1 and 1080p/VC-1 video, and it's up there with the studio's best HD DVD transfers. Ben, you never looked so good.
For a film that did not enjoy a big budget, 'Hollywoodland' is an impressive achievement. Director Allen Coulter and his DP Jonathan Freeman are to be commended for getting every dollar up on the screen. Late '50s/early '60s Hollywood is recreated faithfully, with the film infused in a lovely, burned-out orangey glow. Primaries remain strong, too, for a very vivid, robust presentation. The Louis Simo scenes do look a bit more "hard-boiled" compared to the George Reeves flashback sequences, but the contrast remains consistent and is not distracting. Hues remain nice and solid, and blacks excellent. I was also impressed with how pristine the print is -- it really has a wonderfully smooth, detailed look. Sharpness is also spot-on, and there is no apparent edginess to the image, which has been an issue with some recent Universal HD DVD releases. 'Hollywoodland' looks as entrancing as the town of its title.
Universal gives 'Hollywoodland' the studio's usual Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround treatment, with a 1.5mbps encode. The film's sound design is quite good, though unlike the video that is taking into account its more limited budget. I wasn't completely immersed in the sounds of '60s Tinseltown, but there are enough well-done sonic details to impress.
Surrounds are sporadic at best, and sometimes odd. A party scene with George Reeves and Toni Mannix is lively, with nice discrete effects (crowd noise, etc.), yet another scene also featuring crowds doesn't sound nearly as full. The nicely forlorn score by composer Marcelo Zarvos also bleeds well to the rears, but never quite underscores the moment as powerfully as it could have. Dynamics hold up well, with dialogue reproduction excellent and a very warm, pleasing sound to the entire frequency range. Finally, bass is solid enough, though it never really has that much to do in a film devoid of action.
Given how fascinating, poignant and tragic the real-life story of George Reeves was, the extras package on 'Hollywoodland' is a real disappointment. We're treated to the same supplements as the standard-def DVD release (which are easy to compare, as they are available on the flip of this combo disc), but it doesn't cut as deep as it should. Poor Reeves -- even what is likely to be his greatest cinematic epitaph has a whiff of the discarded.
Three featurettes are included, but they are brief and total less than 20 minutes. "Recreating Old Hollywood" is purely technical, concentrating on the costumes and production design. They are impressive, but this is still the kind of garden-variety EPK we've seen on a million other discs. "Behind the Headlines" focuses on the weakest aspect of the film, the relationship between the Reeves and Simo characters -- there are far more intriguing aspects of the script to discuss than this. “Hollywood: Then & Now" is perhaps the best of the bunch, but still an all-too-brief look at the history of MGM and '60s Hollywood.
Next we have five minutes of Deleted Scenes, but again they are too slim and don't offer much beyond some extended dialogue and other extraneous bits. The quality is also fine, presented in 16:9 video and what looks like a 480i upconvert.
Lastly, the audio commentary with director Allen Coulter should have been the highlight of the disc. Alas, it is just far too technical. Coulter seems like a nice guy, but his bland production stories about the lighting, costumes, art direction, recreation of the period, etc., take up too much focus. On the plus side, Coulter does go into detail about the parallels he saw between Reeves and Simo, and the creative energy Adrien Brody brought to his character, which includes a number of unscripted improvs and other ideas. Still, with such juicy material towork with, I just expected a bit more.
'Hollywoodland' boasts a career-high performance by Ben Affleck, which is ultimately letdown by a misconceived script. Regardless, the film hits enough emotional high notes to make it worth seeing, even if it does leave you with a lingering sense of disappointment. This HD DVD release looks and sounds quite good, but lacks a truly dazzling suite of extras. Definitely worth a rental, if you're so inclined...