Friday, 29 November 2013

The Black Dahlia - Brian De Palma - 2006

On January 15th 1947 the body of one Elizabeth Short was found bisected and mutilated in a Los Angeles parking lot. Sensationalised by the newspapers as ‘The Black Dahlia’, Short’s murder was never solved but it has continued to capture the fascination of crime enthusiasts ever since, the most notable of which must be American crime novelist James Ellroy who channelled his own personal demons (his mother was murdered in similar if less brutal circumstances) to write a fictionalised version of the crime that launched his career. Ellroy’s dense plots and terse prose were long thought to be unfilmable but after Curtis Hanson successfully adapted Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, Hollywood presumably become more open to the idea of letting the famously vicious writer into their golden world and brought veteran Brian De Palma on board to film the long gestating adaptation of The Black Dahlia. Hopes were high after L.A. Confidential but on this evidence it seems that film was a fluke. 1940s Los Angeles is recreated in lovingly smoky detail but when it comes to cramming Ellroy’s labyrinthine plot into two hours, De Palma can do little but leap desperately from one incident to the next and hope the audience can hang on. An intelligent viewer paying attention should be able to keep up but with so little time, Ellroy’s attention to detail and his uniquely dark cynicism is lost and the blizzard of sex, death and double-crossing he ignites is rendered almost meaningless. Leading the cast Josh Hartnett and Aaron Eckhart make a convincing double act as the detectives drawn into the Dahlia case, Scarlett Johansson has the right level of icy vulnerability to play the woman who binds them together and Hilary Swank enjoys playing against type as a mysterious femme fatale, but none of them are truly convincing. The only character who really makes in impact is Elizabeth Short herself, who is played by Mia Kershner with a touching vulnerability that makes her death all the more horrific, especially since in De Palma’s hands the killers are eventually presented as clownishly melodramatic. Some of De Palma’s visual flair is still noticeable in the slow motion set pieces but it is not enough to rescue the on-going wrestling match between actors and story. Without the dark bitterness that drives Ellroy’s characters the whole film feels like its playacting at film noir without really understanding what the genre was about and so the audience is always kept at a distance. Rumour has it that De Palma made a three-hour directors cut that the studio took away from him. Only when that sees the light of day will Ellroy’s story potentially get the justice it deserves.

L.A. Confidential - Curtis Hanson - 1997

With dark labyrinthine plots written in his trademark purple prose, the crime novels of James Ellroy were long thought to be too complex for the big screen but happily director Curtis Hanson (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle) and his writing partner Brian Helgeland disagreed and approached the third novel in Ellroy’s loosely linked L.A. Quartet, L.A. Confidential. Whereas later Ellroy adaptations attempted to cram in every plot twist and turn and left no time for the brutal detail that makes his stories so gripping, Hanson and Helgeland proved to be smarter than that, turning in a remarkably astute screenplay (deservedly winning the Oscar) that carefully trims some of Ellroy’s extraneous characters and events and streamlines the story into something that functions as a cinematic whole whilst losing none of the author’s twisted complexity. Whereas Ellroy took his own sweet time establishing characters and back stories for his three principal cops before weaving their storylines together, Hanson and Helgeland cut right to the chase; Los Angeles is introduced in the opening credits by juxtaposing a tourist photo montage with a cynical voiceover that gleefully tears apart L.A.’s image as ‘The City of Angels’ before three abrupt scenes quickly punch out the public images of our three cops. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is an apparently carefree fame hunter, only interested in arrests that will get him column inches. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a brutal thug with a penchant for attaching woman beaters. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is a coldly ambitious would-be detective. Having established the world and the characters moving through it, Hanson’s preoccupation is then using Ellroy’s story to challenge the initial preconceptions he has created, ripping down the facades the characters hide behind and creating drama from the inevitable conflicts that ignite when events force them together. Nominal star Spacey effortlessly connects with the glib Vincennes and the hollow bitterness underneath but never steals the spotlight away from unknowns Crowe and Pearce, allowing both to deliver star making turns as they find the bruised hearts beneath the violent/chilly exteriors of Bud and Ed and together the three lead an ensemble much more interesting than the ciphers that normally filled fifties crime films. Some plot twists are still a little hard to follow (after several viewings its still not clear why Simon Baker is killed) but with such a detailed world on screen filled with such charismatic characters the journey towards the truth is just as fascinating as the mystery itself. Played out in am ironically nostalgic sunshine to the sound of a mournful trumpet L.A. Confidential stands as one of the great modern crime films, gracefully acknowledging its debts to the crime films of the past whilst envisaging them afresh with the eyes of the future.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The Edukators - Hans Weingartner - 2004

An intriguing German drama about the restless idealism of youth, and the dark heart of Western Capitalism that divides the world in the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, The Edukators is a well-acted and thought provoking film that deserves better recognition. Peter, Jan and Jule are three directionless young people who channel their anger at the perceived indifference of the system by breaking into wealthy middle-class houses and rearranging the furniture to freak out the residents. Peter (Stipe Erceg) is easy going, enjoying a little burglary as much as he enjoys staying in bed with his girlfriend. Jule (Julia Jentsch), in the role that perhaps resonates most in these days of austerity, is a waitress burdened with money problems and exhilarated by the thrills offered by rebellion. Jan (Daniel Brühl) is a fierce idealist, strongly committed to the perceived morality of their cause but struggling when unexpected emotions impinge on his carefully ordered world view. Using an impassioned documentary style, director Hans Weingartner observes the initial adrenaline rush brought on by trespassing develop into awkwardness and eventually panic when previously innocent friendships develop into a love triangle and the outside world inevitably intrudes on their rebellious fantasy. Having developed the characters and the scenario however Weingartner then makes the bold step of moving to a beautiful Alpine meadow for the second half of the film, trusting in the actors to hold the screen as he develops his ideas by confining the trio with a businessman (Burghart Klaussner) who represents everything they hate. Here they are faced with the realisation that they will probably turn out like those they profess to hate when their ideals are tested against the businessman’s (read the establishment’s) more prosaic outlook but Weingartner takes care not to come down on one side or the other, plotting a delicate course between the two sets of ideals and letting the audience come to their own conclusions. If the trio are naturally sympathetic, the businessman develops into just as interesting a character in his own right, fighting between his instinct to manipulate the youngsters and the growing nostalgia they evoke for him. A final beautiful (if overlong) montage set to Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah perfectly encapsulates the melancholy left when idealism is irreparably damaged and leaves the film with a nicely ambiguous ending and plenty of food for thought. It is increasingly difficult to find intelligent and questioning drama in modern cinema but with The Edukators Germany is leading the tide.