Thursday, November 09, 2006

Doubly deflowered

I had a free afternoon today, so went to catch a bargain screening of Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia at the West End's only real second-run venue these days, the wonderfully (and, for this movie, aptly) disreputable Prince Charles Cinema. With its voluminous red curtains, upwardly sloping floor and old-fashioned instruction that patrons might want to contemplate shutting the hell up for the next two hours, the Prince Charles fosters a sense of hushed, dirty occasion even at 3.15pm on a cold and darkening Thursday, and it's one that this much puzzled-over movie met deliciously. I like the fact that I like The Black Dahlia, quite a lot — I like the fact that I'm not supposed to. No one could argue that De Palma's film was more satisfying, shapely or in any conventional way better than Curtis Hanson's LA Confidential, but I think I could have a good stab at positing it as a truer, more faithful distillation of James Ellroy's prose, in that's it's sleazy, not classy, jagged not smooth, and that, not to put too fine a point on it, large chunks of the thing simply don't add up. In all the ways that Hanson and Brian Helgeland's screenplay for the earlier film "improves" on Ellroy, I think they're also doing him a vague disservice, and it's one which De Palma, like the scuzzball voyeur he is, intuitively rectifies.

The truth is, though there have been several (not many) better American movies this year, there have been very few which not only warrant but actively demand a second viewing like this does, and many of the things that might have failed to work for you first time round simply don't matter on a return visit. I still don't get the whole business with Blanchard's ill-gotten gains at the end, for instance, perhaps because De Palma's direction (or my attention) were at their least focused on both viewings when major plot points were being wrapped up, but who cares? Of the lead quartet, only Scarlett Johansson strikes me as completely wrong for her part, I still have a whole load of time for the faintly affected stylings of Hilary Swank, whose peculiar look and accent could only belong in this movie, and Josh Hartnett's weary, sexy, inwardly and outwardly scarred embodiment of Bucky Bleichert is not only easily his best work to date but my pick for the most underrated male performance of the year. It's telling how much of Mark Isham's propulsive score is cued directly into tiny movements of Hartnett's face — he can blink, without a word, and send the film barreling down whole new avenues of intrigue on a hunch. I need hardly add that Fiona Shaw and Mia Kirshner continue to amaze in small parts of such rich, distinct colouration that it felt like going back in to watch them carry on those performances rather than repeat them. All told, whatever, it's still a mess of a movie in some crucial ways, but I think it's a good mess. A fine mess. I stand by my original grade and then some. B

PS. Do comment. Who else has seen a movie twice this year and what changed?


Jocasta said...

Tim... I'm no critic so I was delighted to see someone manage to put into acceptable English what I've felt about this film since my three required viewings. Yes, two is probably sufficient for most but as the first hardly registered more than just light and sound, I don't really count that sitting. A sitting which afterwards actually made it difficult to drive home; the lights of other cars seemed to be blinding after the muted sepia tones of De Palma's work.
And as for Hartnett, it's a relief to know someone else appreciated his subtle underplaying after the bombardment of reality acting we're now subjected to. Isn't it always considered harder for an actor to do less rather than more? If so this was award nominated work... if not award winning.
Thanks again for a insightful review.

tim r said...

And thanks for yours! That's all beautifully put and it's kind of you to comment. I think we should start an official Josh-in-Black-Dahlia fan club. Two members as of now and hopefully rising. I should also say I think it's twice the film Scorsese's Departed is, but now I'm just getting shirty.

Reel Fanatic said...

The Departed was just so good that I had to see it twice in two weeks .. and it was definitely just as good or better the second time!

Anonymous said...

I used to do an end of year movie list with all kinds of wierd awards, one of my favorites of which was MOST BRILLIANT FAILURE. And at this point, especially with the appreciations you & Nick have logged, I suspect Dahlia would be snag that title this year.


i definitely want to see this again. I gave it a B- and felt all lopsided about it... but i love pieces of it more than some of the A- films so a revisit is definitely in order.

plus i just saw CARRIE again and christalmighty i lurve that movie.

martinqblank said...

Count me in as a Hartnett convert, particularly after his amusingly blithe turn in "Lucky Number Slevin", the first time he appeared to demonstrate any sense of humour on screen. (I suspect being shacked up with Scarlett Johansson may have something to do with it, actually. If getting to rest one's head on those pillows every night doesn't make a man happy, nothing will.)

As we've discussed elsewhere, I'm entirely with you on "The Black Dahlia", which seemed to me the right kind of disreputable, from its opening slew of production credits for long-forgotten video companies onwards.

On the subject of seeing films twice, I've just started to watch some of the Films of the Year contenders all over again, just to see if they stand up to further scrutiny. I did pay to see "Crank" again, bizarrely enough, and while its gloriously trashy adrenalised pleasures don't quite hold up second time around, staying to the end of the credits did allow me to see a computerised version of the film, with a pixellated Jason Statham smashing seven bells out of people. One for Statham completists, there.

Nick Davis said...

The end of Crank is indeed buried treasure. If it were still playing anywhere in Chicago, I'd be sure to catch it again.

I haven't seen anything twice yet in 2006, partly because I have loved so few films that I'm scared to revisit the ones I did love (or almost love), for fear that they won't hold up. But I have Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story checked out for another viewing (a 2006 release in the US, at least), and I'll have to see Shortbus again for an essay I was just hired to write. More to report there later.