Brian DePalma’s new picture has gotten alot of good reviews, but it’s the really harsh ones that stick with you. The Ain’t It Cool’s own MiraJeff was so mad he literally said he wanted to recreate the mutilations of the real crime on Brian DePalma. (Maybe he’s moody getting psyched up for his bout with the House of the Dead guy.) “Like high-school kids playing dress-up, or bad Kabuki,” is how David Edelstein described it in his capacity as film and apparently kabuki critic for New York Magazine. And a crazy person at the screening I went to announced during the credits that the movie had “nothing to offer to society,” had too much violence and smoking, and would flop at the box office.
Well, I wish I could give a more passionate defense, because I really have no idea where some of these people are coming from. But I also thought that as a DePalma fan (for here on referred to as “a DePalmaniac”) the movie was pretty underwhelming. It kept me interested, it has some great scenes, I even thought Michael Meyers’s nephew Josh Hartnett was surprisingly good playing the boxer/cop protagonist. But since DePalma’s last movie FEMME FATALE was pretty much The Ultimate 100% Unadulterated Brian DePalma Film, it’s a little disappointing to see him doing what seems like just his little spin on material that alot of other directors could’ve done almost as well. I’m guessing fans of the book, though, will be more interested.
Two things I have in common with alot of the people who hated the movie:
- I never read a James Ellroy book in my life
- For some reason this was not the kind of movie I was expecting
You always hear about the grittiness of Ellroy’s stories and about how personal they are because his mom was murdered when he was a kid. You read about him and he doesn’t exactly strike you as healthy, the way he obsessed over the Black Dahlia growing up and rode his bike to visit the place where her body was dumped. The cynical “you have to be a violent, lawbreaking bastard to survive in this cold, dark world” machismo of L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (movie version) seems to support that conclusion too. You hear about “The Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction” and you think this is some fucked up maniac who tells stories to rub our noses in the darkest corners of humanity (in other words, the doorway to true evil).
And of course, David Fincher tried to make this movie for years (with the same screenwriter and star). That’s the guy who unleashed the entire SEVEN-ripoff subgenre, the guy who killed half the cast of ALIENS during the opening credits of ALIEN 3 and didn’t even let you see it, the guy who made attempted suicide into a profoundly happy ending in THE GAME. So I was picturing something so dark you don’t even want to look at it. Something horribly depressing and disturbing. When they said it was very film noir I didn’t know they really meant that. I thought maybe in the cinematography and tone it would remind you of film noir but it would be a more modern feel, a more realistic feel.
Well that’s not what the movie is at all, and it’s also not a movie about the real Black Dahlia case, which is the main complaint I’ve seen in reviews, message board postings, and the ravings of crazy people who can’t keep their fucking mouths shut during preview screenings. I feel that is kind of a weird complaint because who ever said it was gonna be about the real Black Dahlia? I’m pretty sure they always said it was based on the book. When they said “David Fincher wants to make a movie out of James Ellroy’s ‘The Black Dahlia'” it would seem to imply “it will be based on the book by James Ellroy” and not “it will be a detailed analysis of the real life unsolved murder that inspired the book and will reveal who the real killer is and the actual elderly gentleman responsible will be executed in documentary footage during the end credits.” I mean, criticize the book if you think historical fiction is tasteless, but maybe you should’ve brought that up 20 years ago instead of waiting for the movie version. I didn’t hear anybody complaining that L.A. CONFIDENTIAL was based on the book instead of on the actual history of Los Angeles police corruption. Although, to be fair, I didn’t see the movie with this same audience of freakos. They may have made that complaint.
What the movie actually is is a throwback, complete with hard-boiled voiceover narration, witty back and forth banter, lots of closeups of characters staring off in the distance thoughtfully, and old fashioned dissolving from scene to scene. I think it even said “THE END” at the end, if I remember right. It has the mystery, the love triangle, the two-time Academy Award winning former Karate Kid turned femme fatale. There’s even one of those extravagant night club number scenes you always get in these movies, although in this one it’s a lesbian night club and the singer is kd Lang. (Which, I’m guessing, was not intended as a historically accurate representation of the 1947 gay and lesbian community, but DePalma will still get lots of shit for it.)
Other than one scene featuring a scary dildo and another with a lady-pleasing view of Josh Hartnett’s ass, they mostly use the old school route of starting the sex scene and then fading out before they get anywhere. There’s one funny shot of Scarlett Johansson in sexy night clothes, but because it’s the ’40s she’s got what they call granny panties.
There are also some graphic shots of the dead body that don’t fit the otherwise old timey feel of the whole thing, but I would definitely not describe this movie as gritty or even all that dark. It’s a far-fetched mystery story with colorful characters, melodramatic twists and hammy performances by Swank and Fiona Shaw as her mother (think Piper Laurie in CARRIE) so it’s hard to take all that seriously. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing, that’s obviously the movie they meant to make, not the morbid murder fetishism some of us thought it was gonna be.
On a side note, the movie has Mike “I need time to change” Starr. But I guess you could say that about alot of movies. (141 including notable TV appearances according to IMDB.)
Some people are saying the leads are miscast. I think they do fine, if not great. I’m sure Scarlett Johansson is still a good actress so hopefully she will some day find a role where she gets to do something other than be smokin hot and then whine and yell at her man. I would also like to take this time to acknowledge the pioneering spirit of Billy Bob Thornton who I believe in THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE was the first to have an on-screen boner for Scarlett Johansson. Although I haven’t seen HOME ALONE 3 so I could be wrong on that one.
I got a pretty good guess that the book is way too complicated to completely translate into the language of movie. This doesn’t feel hacked up like the end of SNAKE EYES, but it’s obvious they gotta fly through alot of the material. They don’t really explore the cops obsession with the victim so much as point it out occasionally. For me there were lots of points where they referred to characters or events, including the person who turns out to be the murderer, and I had already forgotten who exactly that was or what happened in the earlier scenes. But that wasn’t a big problem for me. I enjoyed watching the story unfold. My bigger complaint is that it just doesn’t grab you by the hair and yank you along like the best DePalma movies. It is content to let you hold onto your own hair and follow along. It doesn’t scream “LISTEN UP YOU FUCKS, YOU ARE IN THE HANDS OF A MASTER BY THE NAME OF BRIAN GOD DAMN DEPALMA AND THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT,” instead it politely whispers “DePalma had a hand in this, if you’re interested.”
There are some definite DePalma moments here and there. There’s a little obsession, a dash of voyeurism, a small role for Gregg Henry. One of the most exciting scenes is a confrontation on a stairway that’s clearly the Awesome DePalma Set-Piece of the movie, but it doesn’t seem like he spent as much time on that part as he usually would. It was tense enough to make a guy in the theater say, “Come on, hurry up!” but definitely pales in comparison to, say, the bucket of blood in CARRIE, the CIA break-in in MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE, the awesome scene with the sundial in RAISING CAIN, etc.
The ads are correct to be saying this is “from the director of SCARFACE and THE UNTOUCHABLES.” I mean I love SCARFACE as much as the next guy or famous rapper but that’s more like the mainstream DePalma that’s making this movie. I prefer my DePalma uncut and crazy. I like the masterful audience manipulation and the insane out of the blue twists. The things best exemplified in RAISING CAIN and FEMME FATALE. THE BLACK DAHLIA goes light on those qualities and heavy on the other, less crucial things DePalma is good at. It’s beautifully shot and staged. The atmosphere is great. There are lots of cool, complicated scenes like the great sailor riot that opens the thing. You got the virtuoso camera moves, the lush period detail, the detailed stylistic homages to film noir. But I want more from this guy, I hold him to a higher standard.
So it’s kind of a mixed bag. Not a mess or a misfire or a fuckup, just a slightly warmed over DePalma. The bag has some good stuff in it but you’re accustomed to DePalma’s bag having a much higher quality of items contained within. The bag itself is very well made it’s just the contents of the bag that are mediocre. I really don’t think I can stretch this bag metaphor much further, I don’t know very much about bags. sorry.
p.s. Is that DePalma’s voice behind the camera for the screen test footage? Who does he think he is, Ed Powers?
Originally posted at Ain’t-It-Cool-News: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/30077