Bob and Justin's Mad Movie Blog

My name is Bob. My friend Justin and I are aspiring filmmakers and we have pretty similar tastes in movies. This will include our take on what's going on in film and television today as well as updating you on the status of our own work.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

"The Black Dahlia" and "The Last Kiss"

Got to both of these this weekend, so here we go:

The Black Dahlia- First off, I'll just point out that Justin LOVES Brian De Palma. (Justin has actually posted here. He's the one who finally got the NPR link to work on the latest "Idiocracy" story.) From "Sisters" to "Dressed to Kill" he's seen and loved pretty much all of them and I'm hoping I can get him to post his thoughts on the movie here as well. As for me, I haven't seen as many of De Palma's films but I have seen a good number of them, and I'm a big fan of "Blow Out" and "Femme Fatale." I knew that De Palma doing a screen version of a James Ellroy novel (he wrote the novel "L.A. Confidential" which subsequently became one of my favorite movies of all-time) would make for a film drenched in style. In that respect "Dahlia" does not disappoint. Josh Hartnett's narration goes a long way toward making that work as well. He seems right at home in a detective noir.
Hartnett's character, Dwight Bleichert and his partner, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), are known in the L.A. police department as Mr. Ice and Mr. Fire, their nicknames in the boxing ring. On the streets they get the job done (often brutally), and off them they're inseperable, with Lee's girl Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson) always at their side. Life is great, until the afternoon Bleichert and Blanchard discover the mutilated remains of struggling actress Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner, who we see in flashbacks and film reels). Solving Short's murder becomes an obsession, particularly for Blanchard, who loses his grip on his entire world. Meanwhile, Bleichert's investigation leads him to one of many so-called "Dahlia look-a-likes," Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank, who incidentally looks nothing like Mia Kirshner). Shortly after, Bleichert meets her family in a scene shot in first person. This is followed by a hilariously uncomfortable dinner scene in which her mother (Fiona Shaw) has a theatrically psychotic episode.
"The Black Dahlia" has many admirable qualities, not least of which is De Palma's willingness to make a kind of movie in a kind of way that directors just don't make anymore. He's not afraid to let his characters walk and talk the way they did in the films of the forties. Big credit to the actors as well for their willingness to play them that way. Hartnett hasn't been this good since "The Virgin Suicides," and between this, "Thank You For Smoking," and "Conversations with Other Women," 2006 is quietly becoming the year of Aaron Eckhart. He gives the film's best performance. There are also some outstanding sequences, one involving stairs and people falling to their deaths in slow motion (De Palma staples!).
Ultimately though, "The Black Dahlia" has a lot of problems. First off, it gets very convoluted (apparently a few important plot points present in the novel were excised for time), and the nearer it gets to the end, the more it seems to be slipping out of De Palma's fingers. It never gets away from him completely, but he just doesn't have the same kind of command over the narrative that Curtis Hanson had over "L.A. Confidential," or even that he himself had over "Femme Fatale." Also, Scarlett Johansson just seems to pop up periodically, when it seems that her character is probably more significant to the story than her screen time would indicate. And every time someone mentioned how much Madeleine looks like Betty Short (which is constantly) it just brought me back to what I said earlier. Hilary Swank looks absolutely NOTHING like Mia Kirshner. Seriously, not even close. All in all, it's a decent movie, but one that doesn't connect the way it should. It's definitely worth watching (De Palma's always interesting if nothing else), but if you've gotta choose only one unsolved L.A. murder mystery right now, I recommend seeing "Hollywoodland" instead. 6.5/10

The Last Kiss- Michael (Zach Braff) is 29 years old. He's been with Jenna (Jacinda Barrett) for several years and she's ten weeks pregnant. She wants to get married, but Michael says he won't do it until she can name three couples they know who'd been together for more than five years. All she can come up with are her unstable parents Stephen and Anna (Tom Wilkinson and Blythe Danner) and the ducks in the pond near their home. Every couple around them seems to be falling apart. Anna leaves Stephen in an attempt to prove a point to him, and their friend Izzy (Michael Weston) seems wrecked beyond repair after his recent breakup. Meanwhile, Michael's friend Chris (Casey Affleck) sees his angry wife holding their child and asks, "How long am I supposed to put up with this?" When the still faithful Chris finally tells her he's tired of being villified by her, her immediate response is a bilious, "Who is she?!" Michael fears that this will be he and Jenna's future, while she just seems to assume that they are bullet proof.
At a friend's wedding, Michael meets young college student Kim (Rachel Bilson). She all but throws herself at him and it doesn't take him too long to go after her. What follows is a series of events so painful to watch we know that we are definitely not watching "Garden State 2." "Garden State" (written and directed by Braff and my favorite film of 2004) was about a 26 year old man finally finding something good in his life (while this is about a 29 year old man sabotaging everything good in his). While it was often sad, it was a film brimming with optimism. That is in short supply in this screenplay by Paul Haggis ("Million Dollar Baby," "Crash") based on an Italian film that admittedly I haven't seen. We really see the ugliness of these people. At their worst the women in this film are psychotic and self-righteous, the men too self-involved and afraid of committing to anyone that they don't realize they have something good until they've destroyed it. In other words, it's just like real life.
Whether the responsibility relies with the screenplay or with Tony Goldwyn's direction, "The Last Kiss" is problematic because Michael and Jenna's story, while being the main plot, is actually not as interesting as the subplots which are never explored as much as they ought to be. Wilkinson and Danner are so outstanding that I really wish the movie had been about their struggle. However, even due to the lack of exploration, we still come to like all of these characters, even though we see their ugliness so thoroughly. Even as we watch Michael systematically destroying his life, we still can't bring ourselves to hate him. Braff has the ability to make us like him even as we despise what we see him doing to Jenna, their child, and to Kim who's too young to know any better. Bilson gives a fine performance, playing a character miles from Summer Roberts.
"The Last Kiss" is often quite depressing and several moments will leave you squirming in your seat, but that's exactly what Haggis and Goldwyn are going for. The score by Michael Penn is understated but great and any movie whose soundtrack includes Snow Patrol, Coldplay, and most especially Aimee Mann is automatically good. It's good, but don't expect to be walking out with a "Garden State" sized smile on your face. 7.5/10

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