dog, sillier woman: Dench and pup in Mrs. Henderson
by Stephen Frears
Judi Dench has received yet another Academy Award nomination,
this time for playing an eccentric, rich, would-be impresario
in Stephen Frearsí Mrs. Henderson Presents. Without
a doubt, itís a role that the formidable Dame Judi could play
in her sleep, and while not detracting from her pitch-perfect
performance, watching the movie canít help but engender the
wrath of fans of (not-nominated) Joan Allen (The Upside
of Anger) or Laura Linney (The Squid and the Whale).
That said, Denchís depiction of Laura Henderson is one of
the few assets this slim movie has going for it. Based on
a true story, the movie attempts to re-create the somber,
economically challenging days of pre-World War II London,
when Henderson, a bored widow with money to burn, decided
on a whim to open the Windmill Theatre. Hiring as her manager
Vivian Van Dam (Bob Hoskins), she sets out to reconfigure
the London stage as the world knew it, mainly by presenting
nonstop revues. Once the initial novelty wears off, however,
others find their success easy to copy, and so Henderson and
Van Dam, now losing money, turn to a new plan: presenting
nude women onstage.
The movie, and Dench, have some fun with Hendersonís take-the-bull-by-the-horns
approach to getting a license to produce such shocking fare;
the best scene may be that in which Henderson wines and dines
an unwitting Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest) to this
end. But as the story unwinds, one canít help but realize
that, like the emperor in his new clothes, there isnít much
thereóand the pun is only slightly unintended. Weíre assaulted
with far too many stage numbers, featuring forgettable tunes,
in which the lovely English maidens stand stock still (a prerequisite
to getting permission) with a variety of gaudy props. Itís
as if director Stephen Frears allowed the prop manager to
go wild; blue ostrich feathers, yes! Indian headdresses, bring
íem on! OK, we get the point.
Frears maintains tenuous control over the whole shambles,
which is to say that overall itís a tidy production, but one
that doesnít involve anything approaching a point of view.
The sole source of tension is the ongoing feud, sort of a
loversí duel, between Henderson and Van Dam, which ultimately
ends up sounding like the bickering between Bob Hope and Bing
Crosby in a lesser road movie. At times, one senses a glimmer
of something genuinely touching, such as Mrs. Hendersonís
realization that, as an aged woman, her options as a sexual
being are, well, dried up.
The rest of the film is populated with stock types, barely
discernible save by hair color. The onset of the war presents
the opportunity for Henderson and company to act all plucky,
wave the flag and, for the grand lady herself, to issue an
impossibly ridiculous speech about the importance of sending
boys off to their possible deaths with the images of bare
breasts emblazoned in their mindsí eyes. While many of my
fellow audience members were wiping at their eyes, I couldnít
help but wonder what made the real Mrs. Henderson tick, because
as presented, she comes off as a silly old fart with too much
time on her hands.
a Stranger Calls
by Simon West
a Stranger Calls is based on the spooky 1979 film of the
same name, a film that inspired the memorable opening sequence
to Scream. That opening contains more fright than the
entirety of this remake, directed by the competently pedestrian
Simon West (Con Air). To its credit, the remake provides
a few jumps and jolts without blood or gore; itís admirably
old-fashioned in its reliance on the element of surprise.
Unfortunately, the surprises donít add up to anything more
than a routine go-round with a lone teenager and a serial
killer on the loose.
The teenager is Jill (Camilla Belle), a high-school sprinter
who is forced by her father to pay off her cell-phone bill
by babysitting on the night of the school bonfire. He drops
her off at the house of a friend of a friend, an isolated
lakeside mansion with floor-to-ceiling windows on every side.
With the two kids sound asleep upstairs, Jill explores the
maze-like interior, which has a courtyard garden with songbirds
and a fish pond. She appears unfazed by the ownersí taste
in creepy figural art. And initially, sheís unfazed by the
menacing phone call she gets. The second and third calls start
to get under her skin, but it isnít until she gets a prank
call from a partier at the bonfire that she realizes that
the other caller is someone more sinister.
Though the house is completely alarmed, the plot contains
a ridiculous loophole, through which Jillís backstabber friend,
Tiffany (Katie Cassidy), saunters in. Because Tiffany is a
slutty bitch, her prospects of survival are slim to none.
More uncertain is the fate of the live-in maid, who disappears
shortly after Jillís arrival. And how did the songbirds get
out of the courtyard?
Though the cinematography has its moments, especially in its
use of the houseís architecture, the fear factor ratchets
up too slowly, while Jillís response time seems to be on dimwit
delay. And unlike the athletic heroine-victim of Red Eye,
Jillís physical prowess is tested only once, and her resourcefulness
not at all (by the way, Caller ID is no help at all). Instead
of a twist, the film ends with a cheap cop-out. So hereís
the moral this unimaginative thriller fails to provide: When
being spied on by a bloodthirsty maniac, close the curtains.