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Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia Venice opener

Brian De Palma’s eagerly anticipated “BLACK DAHLIA”, which will officially open the 63rd Venice Film Festival this evening, was screened for the press this morning with the screening immediately followed by a packed house press conference. Principal actors, Josh Harnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart, and Mia Kirshner (who plays the gruesomely murdered Elizabeth Short of the title) were present as well as director De Palma and writer James Ellroy, on whose novel regarding the famous unsolved L.A. murder case the film is based. Ms. Johansson looked much better in person than she did in the film, (is this the next Lana Turner?), handsome Josh (he was in “Pearl Harbor” a few seasons back) looked younger in person than in the film, Eckhart, with a scruffy beard and shirt open at the neck, looked every bit as tough as the hard-boiled detective he plays in the film, and Mia Kirshner looked rather demure in contrast to the ‘come hither’ cheapie porno actress and “Black Dahlia” murder victim she so effectively and winsomely portrays in a relatively limited role. Regarding her coming to this challenging role the raven-haired young actress said that before she was contacted for the part she had been taking a very laid-back vacation in Cambodia (!) of all places, and she was “scared stiff” to find herself working with a famous veteran director like De Palma, but that “somehow it all came out alright”.

Scarlett Jo (how long will it be before the tabloids start calling her that?) --seemed very much at ease before the large Italian press gathering, looking and expressing herself (y’know…) rather more like just a very good-looking young gal from L.A., than the superstar diva she is rapidly becoming. A lady journalist in the crowd asked her how she felt about her screen sexiness and about having to do steamy love scenes, to which the young actress responded that she didn’t really give it that much thought when doing a role. “Sure, it’s nice to be considered sexy – at my age – in my Prime – so to speak – but that’s not the main thing for me. If the role calls for some very passionate embraces …well, y’know – you just do it “. (Yes, baby –I know!) – In any case this a very good-looking young lady, not at all hard on the eyes, although in the film, De Palma somehow managed to make her look almost doughty or borderline Plain Jane.

Regarding director De Palma’s treatment of his lengthy and extremely complex novel, Mr. Ellroy stated that in his view “Brian has succeeded admirably in compacting the story down to a one hour and fifty-nine minute film while capturing all the main points of the fictional account without diluting the characters on the written page”. Ellroy is no newcomer to the “noir” genre of detective fiction his “L.A. Confidential” having been made into a very successful film (with both audiences and critics) in 1997. The author went on to add that the first-person voice-over narrative, supplied in the film by detective Bucky Bleichert (Hartnett), serves to help the audience keep track of the complexities of the plot, and is a device consciously borrowed from the classic detective novels of Raymond Chandler. Hartnett himself said that this was precisely what made his role so hard to enact, “because I had to try to be extremely real at all times, while everything around me was spinning more and more out of control”. In this writer’s opinion Hartnett did a very good job of it, given the difficult material, and this picture may well turn out to be his breakthrough to the leading man ‘A’ List -- although, as for the film itself, (filmed almost entirely in Bulgaria!) -- I have definite reservations.

Asked what it was that attracted him to write so intensely about this particular murder case, author Ellroy revealed the startling fact that his own mother had been the victim of an unsolved murder, and this caused him to become obsessed with the “Black Dahlia” case. The book version of “The Black Dahlia” has already been translated into Italian and seems to be selling well at bookstands around the festival grounds. Director Brian De Palma is himself no stranger to Venice where a number of his earlier hits such as “Scarface” and “The Untouchables” have been revealed in past festivals. The director, with lovely ladies seated on either side, seemed to be radiating confidence, but whether the current film will click with audiences is still an open question. The press screening ended with a scattering of polite clip-claps – not exactly what you would call an enthusiastic reception.

On the plus side, the look of the film is gorgeous – only to be expected as lensed by ace Hungarian DOP Vilmos Zsigmond, and the period reconstruction -- costumes, hats, cars, hairdos – even down to minor details like a newspaper report almost at the edge of the frame, on the death in a plane crash of opera star Grace Moore – is, if not 100% perfect, certainly one of the best for its period I’ve seen in many a moon. The personalities of the characters as created by the various actors, all in very good form – even Hillary Swank, whom I normally can’t stand – are quite engaging and believable – all, that is, except for Scarlett Johansson, who comes off phoney and stagey -- quite the opposite of her total convincingness as the femme fatale of Woody Allen’s “Match Point” last year. Whether this is the result of insensitive direction on the part of De Palma or the demands of a role too complex for the as-yet not fully experienced actress, or a combination of the two factors – is hard to say, but one thing is sure – this is not going to go down as one of the highlights of Ms. Johansson’s film career. On the other hand, both pugilistic detectives, “Fire and Ice”, respectively -- Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart – are both likely to come out of this as highly sought after screen properties. Hartnett for his good looks and vulnerability, Eckhart for his gritty neo-Gene Hackmanism. Mia Kirshner is also particularly touching in her few scenes, especially the one in which she does a take on Vivien Leigh in GWTW, almost bringing that long-gone star back to life for a few seconds of screen magic. However – humph-humph – much as I was longing to love this film because I love the period and the L.A. of the period …it was just too long, too klunky, and too confusing – too much work, for most audiences I think, to figure out just what the hell is going on, and why! I found it hard even to fathom the unquestioning and unflinching faithfulness of detective Bleichert to detective Blanchard (Hartnett and Eckhart) which is crucial to the entire tale.

Although the real Black Dahlia murder was never solved, in the Ellroy version we actually find out who really dunnit – a whole family of screaming nutcases – and, by the way, Fiona Shaw is especially outstanding as mother-nut of the whole butchering clan. (Just to keep track, she’s Hillary Swank’s mother in the flick) – I would not mind seeing this movie again just to enjoy the personalities of the actor’s but I wouldn’t recommend it, either to Scarlett Jo fans, or to people in need of a story that makes sense and hangs together. It may also be the case that the book is simply too complicated to make a sensible film from. My guess is that “Dahlia” will be a box-office flop, but you never can tell. Films are like horse races and sometimes dark horses pay off, especially if they have appealing actors which this one does have. Tonight will be the first public unveiling and tomorrow’s papers will bear the Italian dissections of this Bulgarian-American creation.

Other items of interest. During tonight’s opening ceremony sixty year old American director David Lynch – of “Twin Peaks” and many other mentally disturbed films (such as “Eraserhead”, “Blue Velvet” and “Elephant Man”) -- will receive the first Golden Lion of the festival for his career’s work and contribution to world cinema. Another event of very special interest will be the premiere of Kenneth Branagh’s new film version of the Mozart opera “The Magic Flute”, to be presented at La Fenice across the lagoon in Venice proper. La Fenice is considered to be one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world and attendance is by invitation only. Here’s hoping we can wrangle one …and la-dee-da.

Alex on the Lido,
August 30, 2006


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