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Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Black Dahlia (2006)

Brian DePalma has a polariazing effect on people. On one hand, he has made some real schlock: Snake Eyes, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars. On the other hand, he has made some truly amazing movies: The Untouchables, Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface, Dressed to Kill. Personally, I thought his 2002 Femme Fatale was one of the best films of the year. I’ve gotten into shouting matches and had to be removed from the premises over Femme Fatale. DePalma is a director of great craft and questionable taste, and as such generates controversy and extreme viewpoints with all of his remarkable creations. Now we see The Black Dahlia, an overtly Hitchcockian 1940s-style film noir campfest that is more admirable than it is watchable.

Based on the 1987 novel by James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia tells the sordid tale of Elizabeth Short, a young woman who came to Los Angeles looking for fame but, instead, ended up chopped up and exsanguinated in a ditch. Truly, it’s a tale as old as time.

In Post World War II Los Angeles, Police officer Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) becomes obsessessed with the murdered Elizabeth Short. Acting like he’s hopped up on Benzedrine and spouting dialogue that walked right out of Murder, My Sweet, Eckhart gets to chew a lot of scenery. His partner, Bucky (played by the exceedingly pretty Josh Hartnett) is embroiled in an asexual ménage-a-trois with Lee and his live-in mol Kay. Both Kay and Bucky try to reign Lee in to no avail, and tragedy begets the lot of them. I could delve into the specifics of the plot, but I would get a headache and you would get discouraged. Simply put, the twisted plot is too contrived and convoluted to be enjoyed.

Although Hillary Swank has two Academy Awards, I found her performance in Dahlia to be a little over the top. That said, the whole film is a little over the top, so she finds the right pitch. Scarlett Johansson turns in a slightly wooden performance as Kay. Mr. Hartnett is good looking but not particularly profound as Bucky. His character requires a melancholic, complex performance but Mr. Hartnett just seems like he’s bored. The best performance, by far, is seen from Mia Kirschner as the titular character. Seen in archived film footage, Kirschner is haunting and lovely.

The Black Dahlia is a very old fashioned film, with sweeping, unbroken sequences, gorgeous costumes, unabashedly campy performances and a score that’s one theramin short of being a complete joke. It feels like a curious hodgepodge of famous noir films—a dinner sequence taken from Sunset Boulevard, a murder scene taken from Vertigo, and sleazy bedroom interrogations from Touch of Evil. It shoots for a bizarre Chinatown-like climax but instead ends up confusing and frustrating the audience. While it's an interesting and beautiful exercise in filmmaking, Dahlia isn't solid enough to be anything but a pulpy homage to better, older movies.

The amount of money I’d pay to see this: $5

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