Friday, September 29, 2006

The Black Dahlia (2006)

My relationship with Brian De Palma, though his films anyway, is a complicated one. So when every critic paid for the job can’t accept that the man who gave us Scarface can’t do better than Black Dahlia, I’m asking why the man who gave us Greetings, Phantom of the Paradise and Carrie can’t do better than The Untouchables.

For my money, he finally has; and with Black Dahlia. Adapted from James Ellroy’s novel, Dahlia puts De Palma through his voyeuristic, campy paces in a way people who wanted another L.A. Confidential (and honestly, who doesn’t?) weren’t expecting. I know I wasn’t. I expected to hate it. Josh Hartnett, who with Aaron Eckhart makes this movie the Battle of the Beady Eyes, as star? Hilary Swank as femme fatale?

The critics’ opinion is that this film is disjointed; that it doesn’t know what it is; that it’s incoherent, laughable, campy, and a big disappointment. Haven’t watched a lot of De Palma over the past year or so, I have to wonder what they’re expecting. I never liked the director until I realized that he’s laughing the whole way. Body Double? Repulsive unless you read it as a dark comedy.

Maybe I should back up and talk about the film a little. Okay. Hartnett is Officer Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert, who teams up with Sergeant Lee Blanchard (Eckhart) to share Blanchard’s girl Kay (Scarlett Johansson with ridiculous hair) and the discovery of Elizabeth Short’s mutilated body. There are lots of plots and subplots relating to this tenuous threesome, Blanchard and Bleichert’s somewhat political rise through the ranks, and Blanchard’s rising-yet-hidden obsession with the Black Dahlia murder. Eventually Bucky takes over, his cool reserve boiling over when he gets embroiled in a bizarre family drama involving the Linscotts. It’s the dinner scene where Hilary Swank as the Linscott daughter brings Bucky home and all domestic hell breaks loose that I realized I couldn’t not like this film. This scene is worth the price of admission. It’s hilarious. And I was amused enough to just go with everything else we’re supposed to believe, without trying too hard.

Because yes, it’s convoluted. And you have to take a lot of tangled threads on trust. Do I really think they’ve solved the Dahlia murder? No. It’s ridiculous and the film really falls apart in trying to explain it. I still don’t really understand what they were going for here; but it looks great. De Palma tends to surround himself with people he can trust, and his crew here has many familiar names who do him proud. Not to mention an underused Bill Finley, star of many early De Palma films who appears here as something of an homage to Phantom of the Paradise. There are some other problems as well, such as a plot point that hinges on two people looking alike who really don’t.

A great deal of one’s opinion is based on what’s expected. I think there’s an idea of De Palma at work here that for me was never true; I like this movie because I like De Palma’s roots and I desperately want him to go back to doing comedy. I’m not looking for a retread of the 80’s, when I disliked most of his films. De Palma’s darkness makes you uncertain about his humor; he’s a lot easier to watch if you pick up on the funny. After all, a guy who casts himself as the off-screen director of Betty Short’s screen test, questioning her ability to portray sadness, has to be pretty funny.

The Black Dahlia isn’t a comedy by any means, but I think anyone who goes in expecting something dreadfully serious and “straight” is going to be disappointed. For myself, I had fun. It’s up to the viewer whether that’s good enough or not. Read more!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

I don’t watch a lot of the kind of movie typically deemed “horror,” mostly because slasher stuff doesn’t gross me out enough to scare me. What’s hidden, however, could very well exist without my knowing it, and is that much scarier. I think that’s why Rosemary’s Baby holds up so well nearly 30 years later; it’s about anxiety and marriage and urban life and childbirth, not about freaks with chainsaws.

The strength of this film is that it asks you to believe one thing—that a cabal of Satanists could impregnate a woman with the son of the Devil—and leaves everything else really really normal. The problem for me with Exorcist-style films (right now I’m recalling with horror of a different kind the recent The Exorcism of Emily Rose) is that they pose what looks like a similar situation but requires constant suspension of disbelief. Here, we have one single act, and some suspicious behavior, and Rosemary’s fear and anxiety are our own.

Of course, it’s to Roman Polanski’s credit that he is a good director to begin with and can carry such a concept in a film with naturalistic dialogue, pedestrian settings and some unusual transitions from scene to scene. It recalls that old debate over genre-films—can “horror” or “scifi” be also “good,” or does a good film by definition transcend genre (leaving those nether-regions to be populated by the B-pictures)?

The actors, also, do a fantastic job. Mia Farrow has to propel everything pretty much on her own, and she succeeds in portraying an intelligent (though tiny) woman who, for whatever reason, is underutilized in the life she’s living. Rosemary needs something to do. The film is just as much about her struggle with unfulfillment and boredom as her painful pregnancy. And isn’t her pregnancy as much about the plight of the married woman who discovers just what her “job” entails as about the devilchild?

If it sounds like I’m making this film out to be just a meditation on the horrors of childbirth from a masculine point of view, I don’t think it’s that simple. But the significance of a conspiracy of older, powerful people holding sway over the lives of the younger and markedly more feminine can’t be denied. Which is why I think the film could have done away with the coda in which she meets the baby—not because I don’t like seeing her reaction, but because the commentary by the cabal is unnecessarily direct. “He has his father’s eyes,” is funny, sure, but there’s no need for a rousing cry of “Hail Satan!” It’s the ambiguity that cements this film in something like real life—hasn’t everyone felt insecure about what they’re bringing into this world?—and an ending more in keeping with that would have satisfied me better.

Up until the end of the film, Rosemary’s Baby plays on the very real horrors of the repressed urban housewife and anyone else who’s been in a remotely similar situation. It creates real dread with no manipulative fuss and some very creative dream sequences. A lot of horror doesn’t age well, because it’s tied to either immediate concerns that fade or are scientifically discounted (atomic power) or to the special effects that are constantly getting better (gore-fest films). It’s doubtful that Rosemary’s Baby will cause unintentional snickers from an audience thirty years from now. Read more!