Monday, April 28, 2014

The Black Dahlia


Flaming Desire, my new musical adaptation of the Bruce Willis actioner, Die Hard continues in pre-production, but at a slower pace than I would like. The first draft of the script simply would not do. I gave the writers explicit instructions that the property would need to be re-tooled around the character of Holly but they keep insisting on trying to make John McClane the more central figure. I am most put out with them and had to raise my voice to them on the telephone several times this afternoon. They do, however, have a decent dénouement where I defeat the evil villain by sneaking up behind him, taking my tasteful holiday hooded cape, pulling it down over his eyes and shoving him through a plate glass window on the seventy-third floor. This then leads into the finale production number where the assembled surviving cast sings 'Hooray for Holly's Hood' in four part harmony as John and I kiss in the glow of a new dawn breaking. There won't be a dry eye in the house. 

Kim Dee, my personal costumer for the project, has outdone herself in the sketches. Six absolutely ravishing outfits for the Office Party sequence alone. It's going to be sort of a dream sequence in which I lead the chorus in a dance routine describing all the business ventures of a typical Japanese multi-national corporation. It's very modern and will be just the kind of thing to bring the young people back to the theater. I only wish we could get it done fast enough to have it in the theaters to compete with Dreamgirls. Unfortunately, production won't be completed till late spring so we will probably have to go up against the next Harry Potter installment. 

Normy and I were able to take a few hours off from overseeing a busy production team to catch a film. Our choice, at the dollar cinema, was Brian DePalma's latest offering, The Black Dahlia based on James Ellroy's novel of the same name. A few years back, director Curtis Hanson and writer Brian Helgeland turned Ellroy's novel L.A. Confidential into a brilliant piece of cinema that was one of the best films of the last few decades (and would have swept the Academy Awards had it not been up against some little film about a floating class metaphor). Like L.A. Confidential, the novel The Black Dahlia takes real events and people from mid century Los Angeles and uses them as a skeleton on which to flesh out a fantasia of mid-century corruption and hypocrisy. Unfortunately, lightning does not strike twice. 

Where to begin? The screenplay, by Josh Friedman, rather than using the novel as a starting point, feels compelled to try and squeeze in every occurrence and twist of character. This leads to an hour of very confusing exposition as various characters are introduced, their stories expanded, then dropped in favor of new characters. The lack of a coherent protagonist and point of view leads to much tedium and asking of 'Who is she again?' and then, at the end, a twenty minute Rube Goldberg dénouement as all the plot threads are quickly woven together into a solution that is as laughable as it is uncompelling. 

Brian DePalma, the would be Hitchcock, has made some tight and interesting films in his time. His Carrie, for instance, is a minor masterpiece of teen horror that helped cement the reputations of Sissy Spacek, John Travolta, and Stephen King, amongst others. In recent years, his movies (Snake Eyes, Raising Cain) have become more and more over the top Gothic and collapsed unintentionally into camp. While he does his signature slow motion gruesome set pieces (this one involving a fall from a stair and an impalement) and coyly explores lesbian sexuality which has more to do with hoary movie clichés than actual human relations, he never manages to find a consistent tone or narrative point of view that would clearly lead a viewer through the tangle of plot. 

The story concerns two L.A. cops, played by Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart and the young woman who loves them both (the ubiquitous Scarlett Johansson). Both cops, involved with low life dealings and petty corruption in the department, are present when the body of aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) is discovered in South Los Angeles in January 1947 (a real criminal sensation of the time). Short is dubbed 'The Black Dahlia' by the media due to her habit of always wearing black and a flower in her hair and her story becomes a moral tale of good girls gone bad in the wicked ways of Hollywood. Eckhart becomes obsessed with the murder, allowing it to take over his life, while Hartnett, pursuing his own investigations, becomes involved with a femme fatale with a similar look (Hilary Swank). Her wealthy family is, of course, connected with chicanery of the highest order and everyone hurtles toward their respective dooms over the next hour or so. 

The film has a wonderful look. Vilmos Zsigmond's photography, Dante Ferretti's production design and Jenny Beavan's costume design combine to create a moody, seedy Los Angeles with menace around every sundrenched corner. It's complemented nicely by Mark Isham's jazzy trumpet score. The film might have worked better if the stills were taken and made into a graphic novel. We'd get all the prettiness without having to sit through turgid dialog and unconvincing performances. 

All of the actors have been better in other projects. Hillary Swank seems to believe she's appearing as a drag queen rather than as a woman. It would be difficult to believe the lady has two Oscars based on what is on view here. Hartnett and Eckhart both look yummy but the former seems to sleepwalk through his scenes while the latter is coiled so tight, I wanted to give his character a Xanax most of the time. It's hard to believe two such men would want to be in a room together, much less buddies. In a smaller part, Fiona Shaw goes so far over the top with her character that she seems to be channeling Noel Coward by way of Charles Addams. Not what one usually wants from a character vital to both plot and theme. 

I cannot recommend this. A better idea would be to rent L.A. Confidential again and read the book. 

Bisected torso. Bare-chested boxing. Josh Hartnett buttocks. Gratuitous k.d. Lang. Fountain impalement. Demented father. Dreary dinner party. Gunned down floozy. Gratuitous Ellis Loew.

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