Saturday, September 16, 2006

BLACK DAHLIA - in which we are asked to believe that Hilary Swank is a femme fatale

Let us be very clear. THE BLACK DAHLIA is a sumptuous film. Dante Ferretti's production design and Vilmos Zsigmond's photography perfectly capture post-war Los Angeles. The costume design is also brilliant. Scarlett Johanson is superbly scaffolded with setting lotion, red lipstick and pleated pants.

But this movie is a tedious experience. It is also a sad experience for anyone, who like me, loves film-noir, loves Brian de Palma, has a fondness for Aaron Eckhart and a passion for grand-scale film-making.

What makes film-noir great? Powerful men with a neat line in biting jargon playing and being played by beautiful but messed up women....Byzantine plots where everything happens and nothing is solved....the seductive glamour of the seedy LA underworld contrasting with the bland apparent glamour of the surface....transgressive sex, heavy drug use, crime and politics, always politics, but always done with style and grace. These are the factors that are, to a greater or lesser extent, present in all noir classics - from THE BIG SLEEP to L.A. CONFIDENTIAL to CHINATOWN. For me, noir is about subversion. Subversion of The American Dream, of studio mores, of the MPAA, of bland, mediocre, mass-market "entertainment"......

These are the factors that are conspicuous by their absence in this new tedious, wasteful, frustrating movie. Let's start with the characters. Now, de Palma lucks out with
Aaron Eckhart. He plays a typically noir character. He's hopped up on Benzedrine and neglecting minor cases to hunt down the vicious killer of The Black Dahlia - a young wannabe actress who got sucked into lesbian porn flicks and ended up disembowled in a ditch. Mia Kershner is also touching - playing the Dahlia in flashes of old audition tapes as well as the infamous porn flick. Her portrayal of bravado and vulnerability is really quite moving. If only we had seen more of it.

But everyone else in the movie is either mis-cast or under-cast. For instance, Eckhart's partner is played by
Josh Hartnett who is decorative but hardly de Niro. Compare his low-wattage, deadpan to the point of deadwood performance in THE BLACK DAHLIA with Russell Crowe in LA CONFIDENTIAL. Both play naive cops who have to lead us through a maze of corruption. Crowe is a fire-cracker - emotionally involving us in the story. Hartnett lets all these crazy events and characters slide over his waxed chest like so much baby oil. The chicks are similarly hopeless. Scarlett J is - once again - decorative but uninteresting - an amazing feat considering she plays an ex-hooker turned home-maker. Who knew she could deliver a flat sex scene. But her performance is Oscar-worthy compared to Hilary Swank's turn as a moneyed bisexual Dahlia look-a-like. I admire Swank tremendously as an actress, but her choice of accent is forced and uneven and, sadly, it is just a fact of life that she simply does not look like a femme fatale. Scarlett J would have been infinitely better in this role. And let's not get on to Fiona Shaw. Her performance as Swank's dotty mother is so completely absurd that it undermines the entire movie - especially in the denouement.

Casting aside, this is also an exceptionally badly written movie. For the first hour, it rambles along having little apparent purpose and certainly very little to with The Black Dahlia Case. I kept waiting for the big "wow" moment, when it would just kick in a gear, but that never happened. However, there was a rather incredible and quick exposition at the end of the film - entirely unsatisfying in its neatness and absurdity. If in traditional noir everything happens but nothing is solved, in THE BLACK DAHLIA nothing happens but everything is solved.

Is there any reason at all to see this movie? YES YES YES. To see k d lang's superlative performance as a nightclub singer. Just don't expect anything else.

THE BLACK DAHLIA played Tokyo and Venice 2006 and is now playing in the UK and US. It opens in Portugal and Taiwan next week and in Slovenia and Italy the week after. October sees THE BLACK DAHLIA open in Gerany, Greece, Brazil, Japan, Hong Kong, Iceland and Spain. The movie opens in France and the Netherlands in November and in Sweden in December.


  1. just saw it last night and oh man! was I dissapointed.
    brian de palma didn't talk to his actors. the story is all over the place, nothing is clear and I'll avoid repeating what you said about the casting mistakes.
    josh hartnett is a pretty boy, but can't handle a lead character.
    I read such good things about it in the main stream press, but apparently the main stream press doesn't know what the fuck they're talking about.

  2. Hey Silvia! I totally agree. I actually considered titling my review: The Emperor Has No Clothes.

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  5. Hi Insaneal, two thiry 7 may not a get a UK release so it may be a while before I can review it.

    To all interested readers:

    I am not a part of the movie industry. I don't get paid to watch movies or write about them.

    What this means is and I am under no obligation to write about movies I can't be arsed to watch e.g. Beerfest. I can also be flippant or rude when I want to be, and, as I have no professional reputation to ruin, I can say that I loved Basic Instinct 2 or whatever.

    I just like films and got tired when friends said "what should I watch" and having to repeat myself. So I got this blog, which has sort of taken a life of its own.

    The basic premise of my blog is that to go to the movies in London is bloody expensive. And you get everything on DVD within a nanosecond anyway. So I need a reviewer to cut through the crap and tell me whether ten quid is well spent on a movie. While I like an intellectual movie, I have no pretensions. A good helping of beef-cake and whoop-ass will work just as much for me as some complex intellectual thing.

    As for professional critics, you have to split between famous people who comment on movies - sometimes without even seeing them - and are just part of the marketing hype - and the "proper" reviewers.

    Luckily, there are lots of great reviewers around. In the UK, I love Mark Kermode (BBC Radio 5), all the guys who write for The Guardian, and Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times. In the US, you can't beat Ebert. All of these guys know their stuff, appreciate that a movie audience wants to be plain entertained as well as dazzled and provoked, but love the quirky innovative movies too.

    As for me, I have no delusions. This blog is just me ranting for my friends. If anyone else finds it useful I am very happy!

    I hope that fills in the gaps,

  6. I always wondered if you did this professionally or just for fun & now I know :-D

    Mark Kermode gets on my nerves a bit, not because he's a bad critic but just because he comes across as a bit smug & he has such a stupid hairstyle lol He does seem to know what he's talking about though. At least he appears to have integrity & tells us what he thinks rather than what everyone else thinks. He's also open to "popcorn" movies too rather than only liking serious, arty films so I guess he's not so bad after all. If only he'd take a look in the mirror (look who's talking! lmao).

    I have no idea who those other critics are. Dare I ask what you think of Jonathan Ross?

  7. Ah, Stoogy, I have no problems with Kermode's hairstyle!

    As for Jonathan Ross, don't ask me and I won't have to risk being sued for libel! What the BBC did to Barry Norman was unforgiveable. That guy was a bloody brilliant reviewer steeped in movie history.

    As for the others, check out the links on the bottom right-hand part of this website to check out their reviews.....


  8. I never watched Film (Insert Year Here) when Barry Norman presented it but my brother has told me that he was a snobby critic who only liked pretentious drivel (or something to that effect). Having said that, I don't trust what my brother says too much as he is a big fan of Oklahoma & Doctor Who. Anyway, I like Jonathan Ross as a TV presenter but not sure about him as a movie critic. It has to be said he's a helluva lot better than his stupid brother!

    "As for Jonathan Ross, don't ask me and I won't have to risk being sued for libel!"

    So I'm guessing you don't like him (as a critic at least). Is that right? lol

  9. Jonathan Ross is an oustanding comedian. I've seen him record TV shows where 90% of the material never makes it on to TV because it is so filthy but it's all hysterical.....

  10. @Boothy. I agree 100% on Jonathan Ross. He is great at all but reviews. I once watched him tape an edition of They Think It's All Over. He was hysterical but so filthy they can only have used 1% of it.

    I've seen all Larry Clarks stuff and La Haine but not WASSUP ROCKERS yet! (A guest reviewer who lives in New York reviewed it.) But I have nothing against describing a movie as X meets Y. I do it all the time.

    As for the Dahlia I am sure as heck pleased someone liked it. After all, I love movies and I love people to have a good time at the cinema. I genuinely don't enjoy writing a bad review