Thursday, February 1, 2007

Movie Chat: The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia

The movie looks so good in terms of design and it hits just the right mood and tone for this kind of neo-noir that I wish I could have enjoyed it more a la Michael Blowhard and the guys at The House Next Door.

I'm a big supporter and admirer of Brian De Palma, but I don't think the script or the original James Ellroy novel are really to blame here. In the past De Palma has done more with less, but he doesn't put anything on the screen here that hooked me and reeled me in, so I was left admiring the movie's production values without ever being engaged by it.

Unlike Snake Eyes or Raising Cain (which are definitely "minor" De Palma), it doesn't have charismatic and engaging lead performances or any filmmaking-muscle-flexing set pieces that make movies buff like me drool.

Unlike Femme Fatale, it isn't a "through-composed", arty, neo-noir-ish exercise.

And unlike The Fury, The Untouchables, or Mission to Mars, De Palma isn't able to get into the pulpy material and give it conceptual coherence and emotional heft.

My diagnosis: De Palma falls short of making another one of those pulp opera experiences because he misdirects his actors. Josh Harnett, Aaron Eckhart, and Scarlett Johansson look like they fit in their roles, but their performances are all pretty fuzzy. Hilary Swank is pretty entertaining as the femme fatale, but the other leads just don't seem very game.

I think Mia Kirshner, who appears in only three scenes, gives the performance of the movie: her aspiring actress character is, herself, trying to show off the ability to move from artifice to "genuine" emotion and back again and Kirshner turns this into a perfect little po-mo portrait of the artist as a would-be starlet. It's on a smaller scale, but it reminded me of what Naomi Watts does in Mulholand Drive. Kirshner pops out of the movie: she creates a fully-realized character in the middle of a cast of fuzzy copies of characters from past noirs.

Kirshner is definitely helped by how her role was conceived: she's the only actor in the movie given the lines and the space to create a realistic, detailed character - everyone else is forced into trying to do a type.

I've liked Josh Harnett in other movies, but when he's supposed to be larger-than-life or kind of mythic (as he is here and in Sin City), I just don't buy him. He's too nice and too dull and he doesn't have the kind of showy, technical, actory skills that can juice up roles like these. He can be better than fine when he's playing average nice guys (in Hollywood Homicide, where he's funny and gives his character a natural, believable quirkiness), but he seems out of place when he's not playing a standard juvenile lead.

Harnett is another one of these "pretty boys" who have replaced actual leading men in Hollywood movies, so it may not be surprising that De Palma can't get him to work in this part which requires an actual leading man.

I wonder if part of the problem is that De Palma was aiming for something partway between the European-style genre doodling of Femme Fatale and the highly-charged genre opera of his big-budget Hollywood entertainments (The Untouchables and Mission to Mars, say). The movie isn't playful enough to work as the former and isn't emotionally engaging enough to work as the latter.

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