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Silly dog, sillier woman: Dench and pup in Mrs. Henderson Presents.

All About Boobs
By Laura Leon

Mrs. Henderson Presents

Directed 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.

Sorry, Wrong Number

When a Stranger Calls

Directed by Simon West

When 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.

óAnn Morrow


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