Monday, September 25, 2006

Hollywood Confidential

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - This weekend I didn't get a chance to see a movie (I was planning to see All the King's Men---which, it turns out, has been getting hammered critically----with my usual movie-watching friend, but he was busy this weekend, so perhaps we'll check it out this coming weekend). So I think this would be a good opportunity to play a little catch-up and reflect on two recent films: Allen Coulter's Hollywoodland (**½ out of ****) and Brian De Palma's similarly themed The Black Dahlia (*½ out of ****). I was going to do a comparative review of both decadent-Hollywood noirs right after I saw the latter film, but my general busy-ness intervened. So here goes...

Let me first say right off the bat that, at this point, I'm still wishing that I had liked The Black Dahlia more than I did on a first (and so far, only) viewing. I'm no Brian De Palma expert, but I've liked most of the movies of his that I've seen, especially his most recent film, the 2002 thriller Femme Fatale, arguably the ultimate De Palma movie in its twists and turns, its bravura technique, and its Hitchcockian obsessions with voyeurism and deception. But, for all the over-the-top swooniness of Mark Isham's score in The Black Dahlia, for all its occasional moments of distinctly De Palma-like inspiration (including one unbroken p.o.v. shot as Josh Hartnett's Bucky meets the family of Hilary Swank's vampish Madeline Linscott), and for all its surface passion, the initial impression I'm left with is of a muddled mess by a filmmaker who's not quite sure why he's making this particular movie.

But then, perhaps you should take my reaction with a grain of salt. Consider that I haven't read the James Ellroy novel on which it is based, and also consider that I'm hardly a De Palma expert by any means (other than Femme Fatale, I've seen Sisters, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, and Snake Eyes, and most of those I saw a while ago, so my memories of them are probably not entirely fresh). So I couldn't tell you if I thought this was the most felicitous Ellroy adaptation or some kind of important auteurist statement from De Palma. I'm just taking The Black Dahlia on its own terms and telling all of you that it's gotten me stumped.

For instance: what does De Palma intend by allowing Mark Isham to go over the top in his scoring, and to use it so insistently, to the point of distraction? Is it meant to be sincerely operatic, or is it meant to be ironic and postmodern? Why does De Palma allow Fiona Shaw, as Madeline Linscott's crazed mother, to go laughably over-the-top in her performance? Are we supposed to take it seriously, or is it meant to blend into the movie's hyper stylization? I don't know. Maybe a second viewing will clear many things up for me, but at this point after a "cold" viewing, I have to say that The Black Dahlia left me pretty dissatisfied, and not necessarily in a way that would make me think that a second viewing would yield something richer. I have to be upfront: I just wasn't terribly engaged by the movie...and I wonder if De Palma was all that engaged in it either.

I'd hardly be one of these people who fall into the De Palma-as-cold-fish camp that has persisted since the '70s; I mean, look at Blow Out (1981) and tell me that he isn't emotionally invested in what happens to John Travolta's sound-man character as he tries---and fails---to save the woman he loves from a deadly political conspiracy using his technical knowhow. The Black Dahlia, however, couldn't help but give me the impression of a director trying to convince himself that he actually cares about this rather shallow noir material. With the exception of Mia Kirshner's touchingly vulnerable and naive Elizabeth Short---seen in archive footage by the detectives and by us---most of the actors seem either fairly lifeless (Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson) or hammy (Hilary Swank, Fiona Shaw).

Ultimately, what's the point of this movie? Again, I'm not sure I could even begin to tell you what De Palma was trying to get at in this film, with its baroque excess and film noir overload. Is it meant to be some sort of sensationalistic expose of the evil lurking behind the glittery Hollywood facade? That doesn't seem to me like big news anyway. De Palma, as usual, pulls off a few lovely visual coups---that aforementioned unbroken p.o.v. shot, a recurring image recalling The Man Who Laughs, among others---but those moments are in the context of an inexplicable mess of a movie that left me furrowing my brow not in confusion at all the last-minute twists thrown into the film, but at the point of this whole enterprise, especially within the context of De Palma's body of work.

Hollywoodland is, I think, the better film, but I half-regret admitting it because Allen Coulter is certainly no Brian De Palma as far as cinematic intelligence goes. Coulter is a TV guy, formerly of The Sopranos, and Hollywoodland, compared to The Black Dahlia, is, for the most part, visually prosaic---the stagy The Asphalt Jungle to De Palma's stylish Out of the Past (if that makes any sense). It creates a noir atmosphere mostly out of its content: it tells two parallel stories about relatively ordinary people who yearn to make something better of their lives but find themselves stuck in a rut, with little hope of advancing. That sense of melancholy pervades Hollywoodland, and it gives the film a coherence and resonance that'll stay with you longer than the whole of the technically impressive yet dramatically hollow pyrotechnics of The Black Dahlia.

Much of Hollywoodland dwells on the trials and tribulations of Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), a detective who wants to break out of his current rut and prove himself in a big case. He gets that chance when he decides to take on the strange case of George Reeves (Ben Affleck), Hollywood's first Superman. Did he really commit suicide, or was he murdered? And if the latter, why?

I can't say I always found the Simo-related stuff in Hollywoodland all that gripping: Brody certainly exudes a certain needy, yearning quality, and he tries to inject gravitas to the character's personal suffering, but much of it seems like mundane, relatively dull noir business as usual compared to the film's real trump card: Affleck and his surprisingly moving portrait of a man who despairs at having fallen victim to typecasting.

Who knew that, after all the recent bad movies he's made and all the negative press he has gotten over the years, Ben Affleck would return to the screen and, with the force of bitter experience, basically command the screen in the few scenes he has with genuine authority and weight of emotion? Affleck may seem to move around rather awkwardly in his own body, but somehow that sense of discomfort adds to the character's pathos. Reeves' bitter disappointment and resignation with the way his acting career has turned out seems, in Affleck's characterization, to have turned him into a bit of a stiff. Perhaps his most vivid moment comes in one of his final scenes, as he is seen walking up the stairs to his eventual death: his face and the way he walks up the stairs seems to communicate all of Reeves' weariness. He wanted to accomplish so much in the famed Hollywoodland, but his attempt to break out of his popularity as Superman never really took off the way he intended---maybe he was never meant to be anything more, as his wife Toni (Diane Lane) suggests to him vindictively in one scene.

It's that kind of anguish that is, I think, the essence of good film noir---not just in the low-key lighting or the hard shadows, but also in the spiritual desperation it meditates upon. That is what Hollywoodland successfully captures at certain moments. As a whole, it's no masterpiece---it meanders, there's frankly not enough of George Reeves, and it stops dead in its tracks rather than ends---but it carries an emotional punch that The Black Dahlia fails to summon, as much as it clearly tries to do so.


Congratulations to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team! This weekend, after their 56-7 trouncing of Howard University this past Saturday, the team currently find themselves in a new position: atop the AP Top 25, at No. 23. Apparently the team hasn't been in the Top 25 since the late '70s.

Boy, I should really get into my own college team! Honestly. What enormous school spirit I have.

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