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Dead girl, wronged: Kirshner in The Black Dahlia.

Bloodless

By Laura Leon

The Black Dahlia

Directed Brian De Palma

Let me get this off my chest: I was nauseous for about two hours after seeing a matinee of The Black Dahlia. The funny thing was that this physical unease had nothing whatsoever to do with the violence or bloodletting that I thought would be present in this, given that it’s a Brian De Palma picture. In truth, it resulted from having digested what truly is one of the absolute worst movies I have ever seen. From top to bottom, screenplay to acting to direction, The Black Dahlia could surely rank almost as notorious, but in a completely negative artistic sense, as the actual murder upon which it is loosely based.

In 1947, the body of Elizabeth Short, a would-be actress, was found in a vacant Hollywood lot. The victim had been cut in two, her organs removed and body bled, and, somehow even more disturbing, her killer had sliced a grotesque mockery of a smile across her face. The crime garnered national headlines, caused many loonies to cop responsibility, and, much later, served as inspiration for a James Ellroy novel, which is now the basis of the De Palma movie. Given the horrific nature of the crime, it would seem a natural for the man who brought us Dressed to Kill and Carrie, which makes it all the stranger that the movie is bereft of most anything resembling blood or, for that matter, life.

Told through the prism of a rookie cop’s experiences, The Black Dahlia is a ramshackle mess of subplots, all spun fragilely together. Those who have read Ellroy’s book, which can best be described as feverish, will find it no easier to jigsaw this thing together; this goes for screenwriter Josh Friedman, who clearly was so confused by the tome that he was unable to fashion anything approaching a clear storyline. New LAPD cop Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and his partner Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) work warrants until the Short murder, when Blanchard’s underlying ambition gets them transferred to homicide. For Blanchard, solving the murder represents upward mobility, but there’s something else at work in his frenzied immersion into all things Black Dahlia. While Bucky tries to cope with his increasingly nutty buddy, he soothes the ruffled feathers of Lee’s paramour, Kay (Scarlett Johansson), a former hooker in an angora sweater. Despite vague attempts to suggest otherwise, there is absolutely no hint of passion or hanky panky going on between any of these three.

The search for clues yields stag films, lesbian nightclubbing, mobsters, hints at past indiscretions by just about everybody, and a rich bitch named Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) who everybody says is a dead ringer for the recently deceased. Trouble is, Swank looks absolutely nothing like Mia Kirshner, who plays Short in the audition films that Bleichert and Blanchard watch in hopes of finding clues to the killer’s identity. To be fair, the only moments that work in The Black Dahlia are the ones with Kirshner, who evokes a fragile being relying on her only assets, a good body and a pleasant face. They utterly exemplify the irony of Short, one of thousands of unexceptional young ladies looking for a break in Hollywood, finally being immortalized through brutality and death.

De Palma wends his camera through swank mansions, clearly enjoying the oddities of the Linscott family and focusing way too closely on the arch overacting of Fiona Shaw, who plays Madeleine’s mother. Although shot in a lot of sepia tones, with the requisite 1940s costumes and accessories, the movie feels entirely unnatural. De Palma evinces neither a feel for the times nor for what should be the focus of certain scenes; the discovery of Betty Short’s body is done from a very distant apartment rooftop, followed by a scene, closer in, in which the focal point is the notepads and period costumes of the detectives. Like the title character in the Otto Preminger classic Laura, Short is supposed to be the essential force driving the desires and frustrations of the characters, and yet the director seems completely uninterested in her, even as a collection of body parts.

Unlike the far superior and also Ellroy-inspired L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia is forced and painstakingly bad. Hartnett’s bland pretty-boy looks, probably meant to convey his innocence in the way of all things corrupt, instead leads one to think he’d be better suited to a B-level sitcom, and his delivery suggests nothing except perhaps the need for a drink of water. Eckhart, hamstrung by a poorly written part, twitches and jerks his way around even before his character develops a penchant for Benzedrine. Johansson may look fabulous in tight sweaters and lounging PJs, but she is a disaster as a desirous, driven woman. Swank plays with an accent, and uses furtive looks here and there to make us wonder about her complicity in, well, anything. As with everything in this filmmaking process, the acting lacks anything resembling grit—it’s all surface.

Enough cannot be said about the disastrous choices that De Palma makes with this film. It’s bad enough that he seems incapable of coaching his actors (with the exception of Kirshner) out of their stupor. He consistently refrains from anything that would suggest that the murder touches upon anything other than sex or violence. Throughout, there is a blank fascination with all things kinky or base, and yet, without any moral consequences, that fascination isn’t even prurient, it’s just trashy or even campy. In the process of making The Black Dahlia, De Palma has essentially mutilated the unfortunate Miss Short yet again.

Uneventful

Quinceañera

Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

In Hispanic culture, “quinceañera” is a coming-of-age celebration for girls on their 15th birthday. Quinceañera, a Spanish-language film directed by American-Anglo partners Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, is set in the Latino area of Echo Park in Los Angeles (where the directors reside), and follows the teenage tribulations of an extended Mexican-American family. But perhaps unintentionally, Quinceañera’s pivotal event is the eviction of the teens’ great-great-uncle from his longtime home in a rented bungalow. The bungalow is a part of a gentrified property bought by a gay couple as an investment, with the added bonus—as the gay men regale their dinner party guests—of bringing them into proximity with “hot Latin boys.”

One of those boys is Carlos (Jesse Garcia), a pot-smoking petty thief with a tender heart. But it’s a slow and fastidious slog from the film’s opening—when Carlos crashes his older cousin’s quinceanera and gets punched out by the family’s devoutly Catholic patriarch—to the more interesting developments between Carlos, the gay couple, and Carlos’ younger cousin, Magdalena (Emily Rios). In between, Magdalena plans for her own quinceañera, hangs with her girlfriends, gets accidentally impregnated by a boy she barely knows, and is forced to move in with her great-great-uncle. Though the characters are appealing, and it’s refreshing to see a religious family react sensibly to problems outside of the dictates of their church, the film’s overly casual style is flat-out boring (the teens watch videos, gossip, and text each other in seemingly real-time). Due to the directors’ nicety, Quinceañera is more like a low-key home movie than a theatrical release.

—Ann Morrow


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