Friday, September 15, 2006

The Black Dahlia

Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by Josh Friedman based on the novel by James Ellroy

For most De Palma enthusiasts, he probably hasn't made a great movie since 1987's The Untouchables, and some might concede Mission: Impossible in 1996. In between those two films, he made some box office failures that I thought were good: Casualties of War and Carlito's Way; but he was best known in this period for his ultimate failure in Bonfire of the Vanities. Ever since 1996, De Palma has made three disappointments in Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars, and Femme Fatale. In the seventies and eighties, De Palma made tricky thrillers reminiscent of Hitchcock--movies like Body Double, Dressed to Kill, and Blow Out, surrounded by pop fare like Carrie and Scarface. When he does the tricky thriller, he seems to be having his most fun.

Which is why it was strange that Snake Eyes and Femme Fatale were such poor attempts. Present in both of those films were some of De Palma's trademarks: unbroken shots, doubles, trick endings. The man behind the camera seemed to be enjoying himself, but the movies were sloppy; not very compelling, disappointing in the build-up-to-payoff ratio. And here, as he adapts James Ellroy's novel concerning the freaky murder of Hollywood hopeful Elizabeth Short, the same sort of muddled disaster takes place.

When I heard that De Palma was adapting Ellroy, my hopes were high. But something was in the back of my mind--this movie is getting a September release? Could it be that bad? Unfortunately, it is. It's very bad.

The Black Dahlia is about two detectives, Dwight Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) who have been given a big promotion after some shady dealings involving a rigged boxing match between them. Things are moving merrily along until Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) is murdered and Blanchard becomes obsessed with the case to the detriment of his job and his personal life, which includes girlfriend Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). There's a pseudo love triangle between Dwight, Lee, and Kay, as they all go out together as one. But Lee and Kay have secrets they keep from Dwight, which will be uncovered in due time. Some of it has to do with the parole of a man they both knew. Meanwhile, during Dwight's own investigation, he runs into femme fatale Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) who may or may not have been involved in the whole ugly Elizabeth Short mess.

Curtis Hanson did the impossible with Ellroy's L.A. Confidential--he cut out sections of an incredible book, changed or deleted characters, and came out with one solid piece of filmmaking that was probably the best film of 1997 even though it lost to Titanic in the Oscar race. Adapting this book successfully was nothing short of a miracle. I haven't read this Ellroy novel, but I know things have been cut out for the same kind of reasons--condense into a two-hour movie, eliminate too much confusion.

But it is confusing--there are tons of characters and it is hard to keep track of everybody's names, tons of subplot elements that may or may not tie into the main plot, double crosses and lies. What's the worst thing about The Black Dahlia? Wretched acting. Aaron Eckhart may give his worst performance ever--I was shocked because I have never found him to be bad in anything. There's a shrill psychotic performance by Fiona Shaw, who plays Linscott's mother. Swank, who has proved to be a dynamite actress, fails miserably in playing her character with this heightened "dame" accent that I used to see made fun of by Kelly Coffield on "In Living Color" when she played a woman in black and white while everything else was in color around her. Josh Hartnett has never been a great actor, and Johansson is given nothing--after I thought she was going to be a real ballbreaker as she entered with tough-as-nails lines and casual cool-as-hell smoking--she turns into the usual wilting flower.

Oh yeah, and that "distracting" love scene between Johansson and Hartnett? I don't know what the hell anybody is talking about on that. It's pretty standard fare--the pre-coitus, implied it will go further, cutting before there's anything close to nudity. There is some sort of ripping at clothes and knocking stuff off a dinner table. But come on...distracting for the rest of the movie? Please.

The mystery itself could have been compelling--but this is such a mess, such a chore to sit through, it doesn't even matter.


At 9/15/2006 08:50:00 PM, Blogger Jonathan said...

I will be seeing this later tonight, and might throw up my opinion if I find it's different enough to warrant mention. However, I do want to make a quick comment that "Femme Fatale" will probably go down as my pick for most misunderstood and underated film of the decade. I think, much like the also misinterpreted "Raising Cain" from 1992, DePalma was going for some serious dark comedy mixed with a sexy thriller angle, and for me it worked. I'm not trying to say that I'm the almighty here, and I get it and you don't. Just saying that's what I got out of it. You should watch it again with that in mind and see what you think. "Femme Fatale" just missed my top ten list that year; I think it's worth it for people to check out who like to find that uncovered gem out there when watching a film. I agree with you on "Snake Eyes," though; that one was tired. And everyone seems to forget about the fact he directed "Mission to Mars," what the hell was that all about? I'm hoping for something good here, but like you going into it, the September release worries the hell out of me.

At 9/16/2006 06:28:00 AM, Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

This is a true shame .. I'm still gonna see it out of loyalty to Mr. Ellroy, but it seems a return to top form for Mr. De Palma isn't in the cards .. thanks for the warning

At 9/17/2006 02:56:00 AM, Blogger Chris said...

"Femme Fatale" is on my phantom "list" of movies I have declared to give a second chance in the future--but I found the first go-around to be a pretty wretched experience. But, I loved "Raising Cain." I for some reason forgot to mention it in that early 90s era where he was battling the "Bonfire of the Vanities" flop. "Cain" was a fun movie all around--John Lithgow was at the height of his strange psychotic character phase with that, "Ricochet" (another fun B-movie), and ultimately, "Cliffhanger."

At 9/17/2006 12:33:00 PM, Blogger Jonathan said...

Richochet is awesome. I just popped that in the player the other night.


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