Friday, September 15, 2006

The Unwatchables: “The Black Dahlia” Fails to Conjure Any Excitement

If you ever thought that Brian De Palma’s films Mission: Impossible and The Black Dahlia would have nothing in common you’re wrong: they are both utterly confusing. Yet, Mission: Impossible achieved something that The Black Dahlia never even comes close to: being a gripping, thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat. How could the stylish De Palma turn the true story of the most notoriously infamous unsolved murder in California (based on the book by James Ellroy) into a dreadfully uninteresting bore of a film? While I still believe Mission: Impossible to be one of the most entertainingly confusing films of all time (even after repeated viewings and endless explanations from friends) The Black Dahlia is just a bewildering mess. One of the biggest mysteries is how the film could have turned out to be such a dog.

Should we star with the cast? I refuse to ever believe that Josh Hartnett could or ever would be any kind of detective/cop/investigator. End of story. Aaron Eckhart who was smashing earlier this year in the subversive Thank You For Smoking, just simply looks embarrassed here. Two-time Oscar winner Hillary Swank reverts back to her days of doing 90210 and The Next Karate Kid with a humiliating performance as an accented femme fatale. And Scarlet Johansson gains no acting skills whatsoever here as Eckhart’s blonde wife. The film tries to act like its taking place in the 1940s but unfortunately none of these actors are capable of being associated with the time period (the only ones who succeed are the costumers and set designers). What is supposed to be the acting style of long ago just turns into plain old bad acting. Annoying.

And the story is so convoluted and overly complicated that it borders on tedium. I was interested in this film because of the fascinating story of the murder of the Black Dahlia. I figured this would be an exciting, suspenseful thriller with a noir style. I was wrong. The murder case that gives the film it’s title seems to be just a simple subplot as Hartnett and Eckhart seem to be more interested in busting drug dealers and other lowlifes. So many characters are introduced I had to keep asking myself “Who’s that, pay attention, stay focused!” Understanding movies shouldn’t be this hard. I enjoy complicated movies, but instead of being intelligently made, the film is just an unsuccessful mishmash of characterizations with some smooching and gore thrown in for good measure.

The Black Dahlia is a wholly unsatisfying time at the cinema. A story that should have been captivating from the first frame is monotonous, forgettable and at points laughable. The film isn't without its technical merrits. Check out that crane shot when the murder victim is finally introducted, but by that point I was ready to go home. De Palma is a gifted director (see Dressed to Kill or Body Double if you actually want a thrill, heck I’d even take the overrated Carrie any day of the week over this) who just simply stumbles here. It’s obvious that he had a good sense of the kind of film he wanted to make, but I guess all the stars weren’t aligned. GRADE: D+

Saturday, September 09, 2006

School Daze: Ryan Gosling Mesmerizes in “Half Nelson”

“Half Nelson” is simply and foremost a tour de force of acting. This is a rare movie in which aspiring performers can actually study the film and learn more in 2 hours than in any acting class. The film highlights a surprising performance from Ryan Gosling of The Notebook fame, as an inner city middle school teacher who leads a double life as basketball coach and drug addict. Shareeka Epps plays a young student who has perhaps a stronger affect on Gosling than anything he sticks up his nose. This is a film about a relationship between teacher and student, rescuer and rescuee. The filmmakers, including first time directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden achieve a greatness that is immeasurable. They completely draw you in to this world.

Finally a film about drug use that isn’t simply just style over substance. Yes there are the quick cuts and the jerky camera movements, but that just goes with the territory. There is a lot more going on here that camera tricks. The filmmakers take a serious approach to the subject matter and advocate realism over fantasy. A film that comes quickly to mind is “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” in which a young Diane Keaton portrayed a teacher who spent her nights bar hoping and doing drugs and the film ends in a disgusting, manipulative way that caused the entire film to fail. Here, while I wont spoil how it ends, we’re presented with a scenario that seems all too real and finds a natural way for things to flow and an ending that fits the story extremely well.

As Mr. Dunne, gosling is simple sensational. Perhaps he should start writing his Oscar acceptance speech. No, no yes it’s too early to pick the winner, but he brings something so great to his performance that it just seems like he’s not doing anything special at all. He’s just there and we’re amazed by what he does. As the young Drey, Epps is also an astonishment. What we usually have in teacher/student relationship movies (think Good Will Hunting or Finding Forrester) is that the teacher takes his student under his wing and guides him. This film brilliant flips that tired formula around. Perhaps the teacher is in need of guidance. To say anything else would spoil this terrific and moving film.

As clichéd as it sounds, Half Nelson is a tour de force of radiant dramatic filmmaking. It’s a film, I hope as small as it is, will be able to make a large impression. Whether it wins any awards or not, it deserves to be seen by anyone who even has a slight interest in watching poignant films. GRADE: A-