The Black Dahlia
There's a frustrating dichotomy to the cinema of Brian De Palma. His films, often visually arresting, sometimes fall short due to his overheated passion for cinematic mythologies. The glorious failures of his career succumb to an outdated sense of cinema that don't play well in modern multiplexes. The best of his career, “Carlito’s Way”, “The Untouchables”, “Blow Out” and “Obsession”, survive due to a number of anomalies- respectively the sheer presence of Al Pacino, the noble set piece of a train station and a Canadian bridge, the precise tension of the thriller narrative juxtaposed with bravura editing, and ripe sexuality blown to excessive proportions. Whether De Palma is channeling Hitchcock or not, he’s a modern filmmaker deeply in love with a style and a voice that long ago left the aisle. And that’s probably why his latest, “The Black Dahlia” feels like a mis-fire. Everyone is playing it straight, as if this really were 1947. Scarlet Johansson fairs a lot worse than the male leads (holding a cigarette ever so daintily, and saddled with some of the film’s worst dialogue) and De Palma is never able to hold a steady tone throughout. The final fifteen minutes veers wildly into ‘camp’ territory, feeling much closer to the acidic finale of “Sunset Boulevard” than the 120 minute thriller that has come before it. De Palma wants to create a 2006 film reincarnated from the black and white noir world of the 40’s, and the film itself suffers from his wild impulse to copy the past. There are several inventive ideas here though- namely the 360 degree crane shot up over a building, lingering on a body in a grassy field, a woman walking by and discovering the body and back around the alley onto a car in which the film’s two leads, Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart, sit. De Palma hasn’t lost his flair for the technical, but some heart and emotional investment in the characters becomes stale. And, I couldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t mention the work of Mia Kirshner here as Elizabeth Short. Her role is no more than 10 minutes of screen time, composed in grainy black and white images from a screen test she supposedly shot before becoming Los Angeles’ great unsolved mystery, but her performance brims with sexuality and warmth. If you don’t know who she is, I beg you to check out her early Canadian films, Exotica and Love and Human Remains. But be warned, I saw her first. I certainly intend to dedicate some space to her in an upcoming article. Perhaps "The Black Dahlia", much like De Palma's recent "Femme Fatale", will grow on me with time. There's a madness at work here- the way the actual murder becomes a subtext for perverse (unspoken) love triangles and deep-seated insecurities between Hartnett, Johannson and Eckhart.... the way sexual impulses, both homosexual and heterosexual, seethes throughout every frame... the introduction of a Hollywood family that grows weirder with each passing minute....confronted with this upon a first viewing can be a harsh experience when one halfway expects a policier thriller mixed with that keen De Palma flair for long tracking shots and hidden glimmers of suspense. Instead, things get very screwy and, maybe, that's what De Palma wanted. Knowing that, next time maybe I can sit back and enjoy the retro ride for what it is.
Dead Man's Shoes
I've only seen one other film from director Shane Meadows, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that his latest, "Dead Man's Shoes" has kindled an interest in seeking out his other 3 works. Starring Paddy Considine, he plays a soldier who returns home from the army and systematically begins to track down 6 men from the neighborhood who absused his mentally challenged brother. That's all to the plot. Director Meadows infuses nothing with great style, eliciting a dominating performance from Considine. Just watch the hatred brewing beneath the surface when one of the men he's hunting comes up to him on the street and they have a casual conversation. Considine exhibits great presence throughout the entire film and even though the ending feels like a letdown after the mood of the first 80 minutes, "Dead Man's Shoes" is a terrific little movie. It also boasts an outstanding and atmospheric soundtrack from bands such as Aphex Twin, Smog and The Earlies.
Garnered with strong reviews since playing at Sundance back in January, Ryan Fleck's "Half Nelson" is one of those 'independent' type movies that usually gets praised for its incendiary topic (drug abuse) while maintaining a visual scheme full of handheld photography and artsy editing. Well, "Half Nelson" has all of that but the film succeeds exceptionally well in part due to the performances of Ryan Gosling as a teacher struggling with addiction and the 13 year old student who finds out about his heart of darkness. The key to the film's acceptance for me, though, lies in the untypically impressive performance of 13 year old Shareeka Epps, a young actress who doesn't do too much, yet creates an aura of realism about her presence throughout the film. Gosling plays a teacher in a Brooklyn high school and moonlights as a crack addict, trading meaningful relationships for a bar stool on a nightly basis. He also coaches the girl's basketball team and one night after practice, Drey (Epps) finds him smoking crack in the locker room. What follows could be easily dismissed as uncertain or ill-fated melodramatics, but Gosling and Epps make it work. There's a moment towards the end of the film where teacher and student meet in a very disturbing point in both their lives, and the scene works due to the honesty displayed from both actors. In fact, this is a film that understands the importance of building naturalism slowly- the way Gosling interacts with his students, the way a visit to a family dinner signals so much about the past and where we come from, and the disregard that we fling ourselves into when an old flame returns engaged to someone else- these are all great moments in one of the year's very best films.
The second vintage murder mystery taking place beneath the luminous Hollywood sign in 2 weeks, Allen Coulter's directorial debut surrounds itself with classy acting and elegant cinematography, but it's ultimately lifeless. Adrien Brody plays Louis Cima, a private detective attemtping to determine whether the death of Superman George Reeves (Ben Affleck, fresh off his "huh?" win as best actor at the Venice Film Festival for this performance) in 1959 really was suicide. Though the film rolls out several plausible examples, it eventually ducks all these possibilities and resigns itself to play it safe where Hollywood legend is concerned and emphasize the hopelessness of its two male characters- one already lost and the other (maybe) saved.