Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Black Dahlia

Everyone Falls For Esquire's Sexiest Woman Alive

There are a couple of reasons why I wanted to watch The Black Dahlia. First, the trailer was slick, and the strangely hypnotic song used in the trailer, Dirge - by Death in Vegas, actually had this enthralling sublime message which to me was "watch this". Next, it's a police noir set in the 40s Hollywood. Movies set during that era and at that location appeal to me too, as will Hollywoodland. And last but not least, it stars Scarlett Johansson, sexiest woman alive if Esquire Magazine is to be believed (and I actually agree).

However, The Black Dahlia, opening movie for this year's 63rd Venice Film Festival, was anything like what the trailer suggested in terms of the story. While the trailer made it look like a major investigative piece into the horrific murder of an actress, and the cops being made to run circles to get the culprit, that portion of the movie, though integral to the whole scheme of things and is the core, actually becomes secondary, and the whole movie was moving in and around everything else, until put right towards the end.

There are many subplots shooting from everywhere involving families, real estates, hoodlums, lust, greed, corruption, and even boxing (!) which steal your attention away from the crux, and with the hydra of unsolved mysteries just building up with no end in sight, it just becomes increasing frustrating as the movie progresses with all these unanswered questions and disparate scenes, until they all come together toward the end. It really calls for one's patience and undivided attention to watch this.

But is it all worthwhile? Yes, but the ride's excruciatingly painful, with the payout probably just barely adequate for some. The sets and costumes were wonderful, and being set in post WWII Los Angeles, The Black Dahlia is loosely based on James Ellroy's book, which is turn is based on the true story of the murder of an aspiring actress called Elizabeth Short. Two detectives partners, Leland Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) and Dwight Bleichert (Josh Harnett), nicknamed Fire and Ice (in an incredibly long introductory scene involving boxing) find themselves involved in a murder case involving a mutilated body of a woman. While Blanchard becomes obsessed with solving the murder, Bleichert finds himself drawn towards a mystery woman encountered during investigations, a certain Madeleine Linscott (Academy Award winner Hilary Swank), and also towards Blanchard's girl Kay Lake, played by Scarlett Johansson.

I'm not about to explain or touch on the dozen or so sub plots and characters involved in the story. However, Johansson's screen time is severely limited, so fans will probably have to get their fix in the other movies showing in town, with the modern day Scoop, or the upcoming The Prestige set in Victorian England. The 40s Hollywood setting here allows opportunity for Johansson to be illuminated onscreen in soft focus, and she does look like a star from the yesteryears, with that hairdo adopted.

I last seen Aaron Eckhart in Thank You for Smoking, and I thought it was a decent role he took on here as the slowing-degenerating-into-unpredictability cop of a partner to have. Clearly the lead belonged to Josh Harnett, whom I thought did a voiceover in Sin City as well as Lucky Number SLevin. I won't be surprised if he corners that voice over / dubbing role, as his voice does give that soothing quality to make you sit up and listen to what he has to say.

It's quite understandable that this movie will warrant some low ratings, given its at times shoddy delivery leaving much wanting. I actually thought director Brian De Palma could do better, given that he's helmed classics like The Untouchables, Scarface and Mission: Impossible (which I liked), though there are the duds like Femme Fatale and The Bonfire of the Vanities which he conjured as well. There was one scene though which I thought was fairly neat, like his one-continuous camera-motion in Snake Eyes, replicated here with a sequence involving an introductory house visit.

While The Black Dahlia is faulted for Brian De Palma's delivery, it tells a compelling enough story, with unflinching violence and uncut sexual situations involving lesbianism and suggested incest, in an unedited M18 rating. Just remember to be patient for the payoff at the end, and lookout for KD Lang!

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