Sunday, January 14, 2007

A Dark Mess: the Black Dahlia

Elizabeth Short was a young woman from Medford Massachusetts who headed out to Hollywood California to become an actress. Unfortunately, for Miss Short, the only fame she found was posthumously when her butchered corpse was found in an open field on January 15, 1947. In death, Short became known as The Black Dahlia (allegedly due to her love of wearing black clothing). To this day, Elizabeth Short's murder remains unsolved.

I was thrilled to hear that Brian De Palma had been picked to direct a movie version of James Elroy's novel about the Dahlia murder.

And then I saw the film.

What a mess, where to begin? How about the leading man, Josh Hartnett as Officer Bucky Bleichert; good god, Hartnett has the personality of a pencil and the acting skill of the same. The less said about him the better. Unfortunately, he is in practically ever damn scene of the movie.

And then there is the script. Talk about convoluted ... you might need an outline to keep up with the plots, sub-plots and back stories ... in fact, Elizabeth Short's tale seems to be the least important thing in the film. Add to that an odd three way between Hartnett's character, Scarlett Johanson (Kay Lake) and Aaron Eckhart (Sgt. Leland 'Lee' Blanchard), police corruption, a serial killer who is getting out of jail on a technicality, a crazed society matron (Fiona Shaw in overdrive), a clown painting, KD Lang in a tuxedo singing "Love For Sale", hidden money, double crosses and boxing matches, shady land deals...and well, then of course there is the story of Short which they some how seem to cram into this plot.

What keeps the viewer from yanking the DVD out of the player and using it for a cocktail coaster is that De Palma manages to deliver a film that is full of shadows and atmosphere. There is no denying that, technically, De Palma is at the top of his game.

Another pleasant surprise is Hillary Swank as the ultimate shady dame, Madeleine Linscott. When Swank shows up, it's as if she's from a whole other time; she nails the quintessential Film Noir Femme Fatale. Swank seems to be channeling Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth and Barbara Stanwyck: if there were any justice in this world, Swank would receive an Oscar nod for this performance, she outshines everyone else (even the drop dead gorgeous Johanson).

Unfortunately, one great performance and technically superior camera work do not a good movie make.

This move, in a word, dreadful.

That said, it is still worth the rental to see Hillary Swank give the performance of the year. After seeing her play a boxer, and a woman passing for a man, the last thing I expected was this icy, vampy, sex drenched creature that she managed to cook up.

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