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The Trouble With Dahlia

Sunday, September 17, 2006
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theblackdahlia2_large.gifThe Black Dahlia

Dir: Brian De Palma

With a good director and good actors, The Black Dahlia could have been a good movie — alas, neither of those were present here and what we get is merely passable.

This is another typical Brian De Palma film — lots of flare, little substance, much confusion. It takes a lot of skill and patience to bring a James Ellroy novel to the screen, as evidenced by Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential; De Palma does not have skill or patience. Hanson specifically set out in Confidential (as documented in the supplementary material on the DVD) to create a 1950s L.A. that would look like the present on screen — by that I mean, the movie plays out as if it is taking place in the present; there isn’t an acknowledgement by the filmmakers that it’s ‘the past.’ In this way the viewer becomes completely immersed in the film, caught up in the plot and characters. The movie is simply the story of what happened.

De Palma decided to take the other route with Black Dahlia. The film is a pastiche of film-noir, using the same sort of visual style, language and over-wrought dramatization characteristic of those films; what this does is prevent the viewer from really committing emotionally or intellectually, because at every turn there’s something — whether it be an awkwardly timed and paced POV shot, a spastic exhortation from one of the characters or a meticulously plotted set-piece death scene — to pull you out and remind you you’re watching Brian De Palma make a Hollywood-Golden-Era-style film-noir.

Josh Friedman’s script is actually fairly solid, but, unfortunately, under De Palma’s direction, it becomes extremely convoluted and the actors all look lost — not sure how seriously they’re supposed to be taking things. Josh Hartnett (Officer ‘Bucky’ Bleigchert) fits right in because he always looks lost anyway, but he doesn’t do anything to even remotely help salvage the film. Aaron Eckhart is entirely forgettable as Sgt. Leland Blanchard, he being responsible for the majority of the spastic exhortations. Scarlett Johansson is completely miscast as Blanchard’s charming and dutiful girlfriend Kay Lake; she really only seems to excel in roles as a mopey teenager, and I don’t find her believable yet when she’s trying to play grown-up. Hilary Swank (Madeleine Linscott) saunters around in gowns, affects a southern accent and tries to look vampy, with mixed results.

The only stand-out among the cast is Mia Kirshner as the Dahlia herself, murder victim Elizabeth Short. It’s too bad she gets so little Mia Kirshner - Black Dahliascreen time (to wit, she doesn’t even get billing in the official Black Dahlia marketing); we only see her in what are in essence ‘flashbacks’ — old screen tests that Bleigchert uncovers during the investigation. A lot is actually known about the real Elizabeth Short, and Kirshner puts it to good use in crafting the character — a young New England girl with stars in her eyes, intelligent and crafty, seductive yet naive, needing to latch on to anything and everything after the death of her fiancee and estrangement from her family. The fact that we can get all this in the only ten minutes or so she’s in the film is a huge testament to Kirshner’s wasted talent here, and a nice round criticism of the complete failure of the entire rest of the cast.

As a friend whom I saw the movie with remarked: “Well, at least De Palma’s consistent.” Yes, consistently mediocre. He should simply not be allowed to make movies any more. Probably the most disappointing thing about Dahlia was that it could have been good if done by the right people.

If only I were a studio head. 03971semaj

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Saturday, October 14, 2006 1:53 pm

    Wow, Scarlett was named sexiest woman by Esquier? She is pretty hot, but I think more in an average way.

  2. Tuesday, October 24, 2006 11:38 am

    I didn’t know Josh was dating Scarlett Johansson. That seems like a strange couple to me.

  3. James17930 permalink
    Tuesday, October 24, 2006 3:46 pm

    Yeah — I don’t see that one lasting very long, even in terms of Hollywood romances.

  4. Crystal permalink
    Tuesday, February 6, 2007 5:05 pm

    I have to confess that I was extremely disappointed in De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia”… it left so much to be desired. To me, the movie had almost nothing to do with Elizabeth Short, save the discovery of her remains. Many of us are fascinated by her death and we want to know everything there is to know about Elizabeth Short. I think Mia Kirshner was an excellent choice in casting for Beth Short’s roll, yet we don’t see much of her in the film at all. I realize that the case of “The Black Dahlia” remains a mystery. However, we have enough information on Beth Short that, if done properly, there could be a great movie about her life. There’s no mention of her life before she went to Hollywood, her engagement, etc….We want to know what led her from her roots to Los Angeles and the lifestyle she was perceived as having. It’s almost as if she’s insignificant in this film, save a few flashback scenes of her being forced into sexual activity with another woman, then the brief scenes of her face being sliced… The fact that more attention was brought to Hillary Swank, who was a poor choice in casting for the role, really left me wondering what the point of the film was in the first place… Honestly, it was a waste of time, money, and energy.

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