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Anybody expecting to get a great account of the Black Dahlia case, even
fictional, will be disappointed going in to this movie. Of course, I
knew that it was a fictionalization of the case, but I had no idea the
movie would present its own evidence and draw its own conclusions.
But the main problem here is not the lack of factual detail, so much as the confusion of plot that surrounds and overwhelms the Black Dahlia case itself. So much plot and character and sideplots and backstory are built around the central characters that the case itself seems like a distraction. A key plot point and character motivator is the fascination of the two detectives with the murder, but this is never elaborated enough in the film, and we're left to half-heartedly guess at the character motivations.
The tone is never consistently campy, but when the camp arrives it overwhelms the story. A dinner scene between a suspect and her family had the crowd in stitches (the only scene during which the audience laughed). The problem is that the scene is valuable to the plot and should never have been played for laughs. Hitchcock or even Lynch could have shot the same scene, with the same events and dialogue, and made it menacing and creepy, which it needed to be to function in the mystery.
Other problems: De Palma uses the lesbian angle of the movie (never a part of the case) to full exploitative advantage, and the actresses seem unable to master to the expressive 1940s style acting that would have come naturally to even a marginal 40s star.
Although the film brings a clearcut finale rather than a vague puzzle, too many loose threads come together too neatly and rather than bringing the film to a satisfactory conclusion, it leaves you scratching your head, is this what I spent the last 2 hours waiting to hear? Overall, there is too much plot, too little character development and a wildly uneven tone. The movie has its moments but it's a blinding mess all together.
"For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak/With most miraculous
organ." Shakespeare's Hamlet
Murders are messy on the screen and in real life; screenplays about them can be chaotic and disjointed also. Such is the case with Black Dahlia, a film noir from Brian De Palma, a past master of the macabre and the complicated (Blow Out, Body Double). It has all the trappings of a first-rate detective novel (James Ellroy) made into a 1940's thriller with appropriately moody music of the soulful trumpet (Mark Isham), lush production design (Dante Ferretti), and equally impressive costuming (Jenny Beavan), all set in a timelessly seedy Los Angeles.
There's also the conflicted, sometimes dark hero detective (Josh Hartnett) and the sexy, dangerous femme fatale (Hilary Swank), accompanied by the questionably good voluptuary sex bomb (Scarlett Johansson). As if these noir troublemakers were not enough, writer Josh Friedman seemingly adapts Ellroy's every subplot, every story thread, as if each had to be accounted for in the best CSI tradition.
The original novel was based on aspiring actress Elizabeth Short's unsolved grizzly murder in 1947. After a considerably convoluted exposition, with plot lines rarely intersecting in a unified way, the film has the nerve to offer one of the most extensive denouements in film history, could be a half hour, with lengthy explanation of how all those ends tied together. Needless to say, anti climaxes abound in this last segment, leaving not only more confusion about the plot but also a desire to get back to The Big Sleep without sleeping, a state Black Dahlia threatened several times.
Hartnett's detective says, "Nothing stays buried forever. Nothing." I say this weak noir wannabe should stay buried until a bright 22nd century scholar sees its cultural and aesthetic significance. Until then, it's a jumble of plot points resolved in the end by tedious narration. Even Scarlett Johansson's pulchritude couldn't win me, and that's murder in the first degree.
Brace yourself for some real truth. As you noticed on IMDb, this movie
was advertised as "Crime / Drama / Mystery / Thriller". The trailer
makes the movie look the same. Unfortunately, if you go to this movie
with that in mind, you may and should be disappointed. When I see the
genre described as it was, I want to see just that. Oh, you can add
comic relief, maybe good music, some reasonable horror and nostalgia,
but do not do what was done to The Black Dahlia.
They obviously didn't intend to make this a serious movie, but rather it was a cheap attempt to imitate a Film Noir sometimes, a TV mystery sometimes and then other times I don't think they knew what they actually wanted to do.
When I am sucked into a movie that I believe is going to be a mystery, I want to be able to enjoy the movie throughout and get involved in the mystery. In this case, the viewer has to spend far too much time trying to figure out what the movie is trying to do. Just give me the mystery that the movie is about. No one needs to make the movie-making process a mystery.
For those of you who are going just to see Scarlett Johansson, I have to say I am very disappointed in her. Her acting needs a lot of improvement or she needs to find movies that embrace her sensuality. Yeah, she is sexy in this movie, too, but her voice does not fit her actions and her acting is puzzling, not mysterious. I want the Scarlett I knew from "Lost In Translation" and "American Rhapsody" at least she could act and her voice fit her character. Other main characters were just as puzzling, however. And honestly, the best and most interesting characters were treated somewhat like extras, though one of those "extras" was by far the best actress in the movie.
You can call this an imitation Film Noir Graphic Novel that should have taken a more serious approach to even those genres.
I gave it a 4 out of 10 out of generosity.
Brian De Palma's so called "film noir" has all the aspects of a great
film: detectives, guns, murder, a beautiful blonde, an Oscar winning
brunette, and a boxing match. It involves violence, money, pimps, porn,
and "the most notorious murder in California history". Sadly though,
the movie just doesn't cut it.
The Black Dahlia isn't about murder, or guns, or pimps or porn. The Black Dahlia is about the new American dream: to sleep with Scarlett Johansson. The Dahlia isn't even introduced until a third of the movie is over, the longest 45 minutes I've ever experienced in cinema. A good hour of the movie doesn't have anything to do with the plot, and watching it is just like watching paint dry. Much of this wasted screen time is attributed to the relationship between Sgt. Leland "Lee" Blanchard (Aaron Eckert) and Officer. Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), where we see their transformation from enemies to partners to friends unrealistically fast, which is unrealistically cliché.
But the biggest downside of the movie is Josh Hartnett. What Hartnett is doing as a serious actor is beyond me, but his performance is a wooden as they come. It is unbelievable that he was considered for the role of Bleichert, and the fact that he was cast really makes me lose faith in Hollywood's mainstream actors. His noir-ish voice-over was like reading words off the script, making it feel less and less like the artsy film De Palma intended it to be.
The only redeeming feature of the flick was Mia Kirshner who had about one minute of screen time as the Dahlia, but was the most memorable character. Oh, yeah, and we do get to see Hilary Swank's ass.
But overall, The Black Dahlia is just another bad film to cap off the summer. It is extremely confusing with all its pointless sub-plots, and just gets annoying at the end. It's one of those movies you consider walking out of, and I counted down the minutes to what I thought would be a climactic finale, but was just a series of long monologues and unclear speaking. In the end, we learned little about the Dahlia, and were pretty much back where we started, except for a few missing comrades.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The Black Dahlia" is a long, bloated, confusing, self-important,
self-consciously artsy movie undermined by miscasting, absurd plot
turns, naive symbolism, an utter disdain for history and laughable
overacting that make Robert Towne's ponderous, plodding "Chinatown"
sequel, "Two Jakes" (1990), look like a taut thriller.
The most marked difference between "Dahlia" and other classics of the more recent genre is that although "L.A. Confidential" is firmly planted in the 1950s and "Chinatown" takes place in the 1930s, De Palma's film has shallow roots "once upon a time in Los Angeles." Clearly, a movie nominally set in 1943-47 in which the lead characters attend a silent movie ("The Man Who Laughs, " 1928--note that the characters are sitting in the balcony, which was reserved for blacks back in the ugly days of segregation. Oops!) has nothing but contempt for the past, which is reflected in a thousand ways, from male actors' scruffy haircuts and inability to wear hats properly to a laughable lesbian nightclub scene featuring K.D. Lang in top hat and tails singing "Love for Sale," which rather than depicting the classic film noir era is most evocative of "Bugsy Malone," a far more accurate film.
One can find fatal flaws in virtually every area of this movie with little effortin fact the most difficult task in critiquing the film is remembering everything that's wrong with it.
First, there's Josh Friedman's dialog: "She looks like that dead girl! How sick are you?"not quite "She's my sister and my daughter," is it? Then there's miscasting (at 31, Kirshner is much too old to play the 22-year-old Black Dahlia), opulent production design by Dante Ferretti (police officers lived like this on LAPD pay? Who knew?), music (Mark Isham in the entirely predictable "cue mournful trumpet" genre), odd costumingFriday casual for the men, fall collection for the women(Jenny Beavan), down to the crowd scenes, which are busy to the point of distraction. And I wish I had the cigarette holder franchise on this film. I would be a rich man.
Even special effects are misused, with an earthquake that serves no purpose except to underline an obvious plot turn. Granted, the overly complex story is almost impossible to follow, but in this instance, De Palma must assume the audience has an IQ of about 50. And unlike the shocking and painfully realistic nose-slitting scene in "Chinatown," the far worse violence inflicted on the Black Dahlia is amusingly fake. If De Palma was hoping to make a slasher flick, he failed badly.
Nor does Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography escape a rap on the knuckles for a ridiculous lesbian stag film (presumably made at a cost surpassing the combined budgets of all blue movies produced from the 1920s to the 1950s), and a self-conscious and overly elaborate shot in which partners Blanchard (Eckhart) and Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) engage in a shootout, followed by the camera slowly rising up floor by floor of an entire apartment building, proceeding to a befuddling shot of the building's roof before it at last discovers the Black Dahlia's body in a vacant lot in the adjoining block. As visual storytelling, this is a grandiose and miserable failure.
And then there's Fiona Shaw, who chews so much scenery that she must have been rushed to an oral surgeon to have the splinters removed.
For that matterand perhaps this is what makes the heart of the film beat so faintlythere is very little of the Black Dahlia in "The Black Dahlia," who only surfaces far into the picture.
In fact, the first 30 or 40 minutes are devoted to boxing matches between the two detectives, nicknamed "Fire" and "Ice" from the Symbolism 101 school of writing. (I know it's in the book, but that's no excuse).
So where is the Black Dahlia in this confusing mess? She exists entirely on film. Of course in real life, Elizabeth Short never got a screen test or even appeared in a school play, but De Palma gives her one and Kirshner, trying her best at the impossible task of acting 22, makes it as pitiful as possible with an intentionally miserable reading of Vivian Leigh's famous monologue from "Gone With the Wind."
The handling of the crime scene? Ridiculous even by Hollywood's lax standards. Vintage black-and-white police cars swarming the streets and detectives bellowing instructions like some shark-jumping 1970s cop show that any good investigator would already know. Ditto the morgue.
Then there's the contrasting love/sex scenes, and it's obvious De Palma hasn't a clue how to stage either one. The sex scene, between Harnett and Johansson, occurs in the dining room, when, overcome with passion, Bleichert rips away the tablecloth, sending dishes everywhere, and has his way with Lake. Isham's score is lushly romantic, an oddly contrasting choice of music, and amour like this is sure tough on the Havilland china and the Baccarat crystal.
The love scene, between Swank and Harnett, is just as amusing with Bleichert and Linscott having a little pillow talk while she's wearing nothing but huge pearl earrings and a long matching necklace with pearls the size of small onions, ensuring, I would imagine, a rather bumpy ride.
And about those crazy Linscotts. Bleichert knows exactly how to make rich people confess to murder: Use their valuable antiques for target practice. The last time I checked, police revolvers hold six rounds, so unless Bleichert was planning to fight off one of them as he reloaded I can't imagine what he thought he would do after his sixth question. Then again, not everybody can send a crystal chandelier crashing to the floor with one shotsome of us need two.
And while you're at it, Bucky, take out a couple of those clown paintings, please.
Dante Ferretti's set design beautifully evokes the 1940's; Vilmos
Zsigmond's cinematography enhances the period look; and the voice-over
narration has been pulled from film-noir classics. While Brian De
Palma's "The Black Dahlia" has much of the look and feel of Curtis
Hanson's 1997 "L.A. Confidential," that far superior film boasted
better performances and a well-written screenplay. Although both films
were based on James Ellroy novels and both had complicated, involved
plots, the Hanson film came together with satisfying logic.
Unfortunately, De Palma's movie is equally if not more complex and
leaves a few threads dangling or at least badly frayed.
Although loosely based on a famous Hollywood murder, "The Black Dahlia" spends more time than necessary in establishing the three-way partnership, if not ménage, between Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, and Aaron Eckhart. The leisurely pace allows viewers to ponder the last time that they saw a film with so many double letters in the stars' names. The trailer, which has played in theaters for weeks, was misleading, and the actual murder and resulting investigation do not begin until well into the film after we have witnessed boxing scenes between the police investigators, Hartnett and Eckhart, and some three-way flirtations that do little to advance the proceedings.
The film only becomes interesting when the campy upper crust Linscott family enters. Hilary Swank as Madeleine Linscott is a deadly femme in black and as fatale as they come. Fiona Shaw as her mother shamelessly steals scenes and chews the banisters in her few minutes on screen, and John Kavanagh as Emmet Linscott adds to the family's quirky personality. An entire film could have been constructed around the Linscotts that would have been far more interesting than the Hartnett-Johansson-Eckhart romance. Scarlett has little to do but purse her luscious red lips and look desirable in tight blouses, which she does quite well. Josh is all squinty-eyed intensity and muscled charm, which he does quite well. Aaron tries for more, but goes a bit over the top; perhaps he would have been more comfortable playing a cousin of the Linscotts.
Although "The Black Dahlia" is not the worst way to spend two hours, the film's pedigree would lead viewers to expect more. Only a week after the less-disappointing "Hollywoodland," De Palma's take on another old Hollywood mystery should have been riveting. All of the essentials were there, except possibly a seasoned troop of stars, for another "L.A. Confidential." Unfortunately, what arrived was a nearly indecipherable mystery within a tedious love triangle that was wrapped in multi-million dollar production values.
It has been almost ten years since Curtis Hanson delivered what was
arguably the best picture of 1997, L.A. Confidential. That movie was
great in almost every way (my key dislike was only in the performance
of Kim Basinger, yet the Academy did not agree with me), and a big part
of that was due to the source material from James Ellroy. And now comes
The Black Dahlia, another one of Ellroy's books based on detectives in
the 1940's, only revolving around a real event and having master
filmmaker Brian De Palma at the helm. And unfortunately, the film comes
with mixed results.
After taking part in a boxing match which ends up giving a whole lot more power to the L.A.P.D., Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Leland "Lee" Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) are promoted to detectives and become partners. Shortly afterwards, they become entangled in the brutal murder of Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), otherwise known as the titular Black Dahlia. What follows for them is a tale of corruption, greed and vengeance. It may not seem like much (not too mention the femme fatales of Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank), but the film really has a lot going on.
And this is where a bit of the problems lie.
Some of the events that occur over the course of the film, are just completely random and almost unexplainable. Hell, random subplots appear and disappear faster than they come up. When it really starts getting down to business, the movie becomes downright confusing, and the narrative does not let up for anyone to truly figure it all out. It gets especially bizarre in the final act, when almost nothing truly makes sense, and we just have to sit and just contend with what ends up happening. It makes it seem like they want the audience to sift through and determine what is relevant to the film and what is not, and only then can they truly grasp onto a full understanding. Even after watching the film a few hours ago, I still question some of the things that happened.
I think one of the key reasons it does not make a whole whack of sense is the fact that it revolves around a real event. Last week's Hollywoodland had this same problem in that the filmmakers do not seem to have an idea of where to draw your attention. Do they want the focus on the murder itself, or do they want the focus on the cops investigating it? Adding in a few seemingly bizarre backstories does not help this either. They seem to strike gold when they focalize on what the murder and its impending investigation is doing to Bucky and Lee, but they do not spend enough time expressing it. They touch on it in passing, and instead, cut to either useless items, or completely random things. You can tell that there is some form of direction however, just not enough.
Hartnett plays Bucky very smoothly, and does a very adequate job in his narration. He really lacks the zest to make his character interesting however, and has a really tough time trying to make the audience care about him. He just does not seem to have the hard-boiled cop schtick nailed down here, and only comes off as a little less than soft-boiled. Eckhart on the other hand, does have the zest and really shines through as Lee. His character goes through most of the changing during the film, and you can see the dramatic change of character as the film progresses. He just does not have nearly enough screen time to truly flesh him from being the strange and mysterious character.
Johansson does well for herself as the girl stuck between the two partners, and only sparingly gets the opportunity to stretch out her enigmatic character. Swank on the other hand, feels completely useless in the scheme of things (until her character actually serves a purpose later in the film). Her disappear/reappearing Scottish accent is laughable, and her whole performance really begs the question of how she has managed to snag two Best Actress Oscars in less than ten years. Supporting work, especially from Mike Starr, Fiona Shaw and the flashback heavy Kirshner, are all on the mark and are fairly well done in their limited roles.
Whereas there were problems with many other things, there are none with the sets, costumes and cinematography. This is 1940's Los Angeles, and it looks gorgeous. Every single minute detail seems to have been polished and amped up to the point of looking like it was filmed sixty years ago. It makes the film feel more realistic than it is, and makes the sheer "coolness" of the settings and characters stand right out. Although it may be advertised as being noir, it really is nowhere near as dark as it could have been. Yet, it still has enough packed into it to make this film visually astonishing.
Another standout is the feel of it being a De Palma film. The camera angles, the slow motion, the violence, the sheer editing of it all (especially the worn black and white film clips of Kirshner as Short), just screams old school De Palma. From the start, even with its problems, the audience knows it is in the hands of a style master, and in that regard, the film is consistent and on the mark.
But unfortunately, that same phrase cannot be used to describe the rest of the film. It is truly a mixed bag, but despite its confusing narrative, it is still interesting and stylish as hell. But I still cannot help but be disappointed overall. I guess I was just expecting a whole lot more.
Yes, all of it and more. The images are beautiful but what a mess. I don't need to understand what's going on if, at least, I'm entertained. Look at The Big Sleep for instance. There will never be another "Chinatown" I'm afraid, regardless of what Mr Ellroy thinks. The one element that sees you through this inconsequential mess is Josh Harnett's face. At times he looks as confused as I did and just as annoyed. Who can blame him? Hilary Swank, what was she doing? She looked like Vampyra's sister, the boring one. What a catastrophic piece of casting. And Fiona Shaw? If the film had been all like her performance the flick could have had a chance at the campiest "noire" ever put on film ever. But not such luck. All this said and done, it's a De Palma movie and that counts for something. Black Dahlia is certainly better than Snake Eyes but as a De Palma fan I felt terribly let down.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I wanted to love it, but Brian De Palma's "The Black Dahlia" is a flat, paceless, uninvolving, constipated bore. It bears few of the director's signature set pieces, and possesses none of the energy of classics like "Body Double". "Dressed To Kill", "Blow Out" and "Scarface". Based on the rambling, seedy novel by James Elroy, which I read and enjoyed very much over a decade ago, this filmization of the novel fails in its casting, structure and set design. Although the film's period Los Angeles has all the trappings of ye olde Hollywoodland, it looks like a movie set. Josh Hartnett is totally unconvincing in his central role, as is the highly masculine Hillary Swank as a "femme fatale" (give me a break! she belongs in an Almodovar movie!) who sucks Hartnett into a convoluted web and her unappealing mouth. Scarlett Johannsen, who looks ravishing in a shot or two, is weak as water, and owns little screen presence. The narrative is unbelievably matter-of-fact and most of the film's surprise "revelations" are plain silly. More conservative critics have focused on the film's "sleaze" and "trashiness". If ONLY there was more sleaze and trash. This is lightweight film noir that will will send most viewers back to the video store to rent the DVD of "LA Confidential", an excellent adaptation of another Elroy novel. This turgid celluloid clunker is something I will soon forget.
De Palma's staged, theatrical style has always felt like an in-joke: an
expressive homage (or sometimes a slap in the face) to the conventions
of cinema. And in the case of his high- energy thrillers, the joke is
funny and damned entertaining. But in the case of his dramas, De Palma
constantly walks a thin line between evocative melodrama and camp (The
wonderful "Carlito's Way," in my opinion, is the exception). And "The
Black Dahlia" often steps over that line.
With a steady build-up of noir conventions, the film hearkens to the expressionistic film and acting styles of the 40's -- a style which can induce giggles in audiences raised on irony. And I can count a few musical swells, flamboyant acting choices and dramatic fade-outs which caused unwanted comic relief. Or did it? If there's one thing De Palma loves more than entertaining his audience, it's confounding them. How else do you explain the two-hour joke that was "Raising Cain"? (Although I, for one, found that particular joke damned funny).
You watch "Dahlia" with the distinct impression that De Palma is enjoying every minute of it. He's copying Wilder, Welles and, you guessed it, Hitchcock -- and he's having a blast doing it. So when Josh Hartnett's character pulls a full dinner setting (including the turkey) off a table and throws Scarlett Johansson down lustfully upon it, should we also smile and remember "Double Indemnity"? I guess it would help if you've seen "Double Indemnity."
That said, the film's biggest flaw is that it smiles at itself for so long that it leaves little time to wrap up the plot. The onslaught of last-reel revelations seems to exist only to give the actors more opportunity to relish in the delicious mood De Palma has created. We never really cared about the plot in the first place because De Palma didn't care about it either. He's more interested in the shadows, the thrills, the drama, the lurking killers, swelling music, lusty confrontations and blood splatters. And the plot points get lost somewhere in the mix. So who can blame us for glazing over when Hartnett finally starts to care about the mysteries rather than just being mystified by them? De Palma has painted such an odd, exciting picture (even when it turns to camp) that the audience would rather keep watching the elaborate set-ups than sit through the convoluted solutions.
But then again, what good is a joke without a satisfying punch line?
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