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The Black Dahlia (#110 of 10)

Passion Poster: “Backstabbing Is Business”

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<em>Passion</em> Poster: “Backstabbing Is Business”
<em>Passion</em> Poster: “Backstabbing Is Business”

“Following The Black Dahlia and Redacted, Passion is a return to form for Brian De Palma, but to compare the film to Femme Fatale’s heady and delirious fusion of hieratic artistry with emotional directness is to oversell it. A remake of Alain Corneau’s final film, Love Crime, this melodrama about corporate back-biting and sexual and murderous compulsion more accurately brings to mind a 1975 vintage by De Palma, Obsession, that was also something of a comedy in the guise of a thriller—a slithery, highly stylized bit of auto-critique from a filmmaker who, then, was grappling with the self-deprecating sense of only being able to make movies in the key of Hitchcock.”

To read the rest of my review, click here.

Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Passion

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Toronto International Film Festival 2012: <em>Passion</em>
Toronto International Film Festival 2012: <em>Passion</em>

Brian De Palma has traditionally worked best when indulging the grand gesture, with the overblown confidence of someone drunk on their own talent, but with the proper self-awareness not to take himself too seriously. But coming off two alternately stale and incensed films (2006’s The Black Dahlia and 2007’s Redacted), it seemed as if the lurid soil that De Palma has most fruitfully tilled over the years wasn’t territory he wished to revisit anytime soon. But as Pino Donaggio’s dramatically sensual score (his first for De Palma since 1992s Raising Cain) greets the opening titles of Passion, De Palma’s first film in five years, it’s clear that this master of the erotic thriller is back on home turf, with all the luscious violence, sensationalistic flourishes, and base pleasures that has come to entail.

Based on the recent French thriller Love Crime by Alain Corneau, Passion utilizes its parent film’s narrative of corporate betrayal as mere framework for which De Palma to dress in all kinds of lustrous detail, with sleek, sharp angles dissecting each composition, turning the sterilized confines of an advertising agency into battlefield of concrete forms and conflicting emotions. Starring Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams in an apprentice/mentor tug of war, Passion pits these characters as inversions of one another: Rapace’s Isabelle is innocent and naïve, but with enough natural talent to threaten McAdams’s Christine, a beautiful, manipulative executive who’s used every asset at her disposal to advance in the business world. As in many of De Palma’s great wars of will, there’s just enough of Christine reflected in Isabelle to trigger the aesthetic and narrative techniques—visual doublings, doppelgangers, voyeurism, shifting identities—needed to ignite the stylistic formulations on which the film hinges.

Movie Geeks United!: Brian De Palma

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Movie Geeks United!: Brian De Palma
Movie Geeks United!: Brian De Palma

Jamey DuVall, one of the three co-hosts of the Blog-Talk-Radio series “Movie Geeks United!”, graciously invited me to participate in an extended discussion of the work of Brian De Palma. We talked for nearly thirty minutes about various topics related to and surrounding the work of this, to my mind, unequivocally great film director.

Click here for the link to the broadcast (the discussion begins at 2:32, right after Jamey’s intro—but do the guys a favor and listen to the whole show. Great stuff.) Also be sure to tune in next week for the Movie Geeks’ two-hour De Palma tribute show, which will feature discussions with Eyal Peretz, William Katt, William Finley, Geoff Beran, and Armond White. Finally, see after the break for links to the three articles (par moi) that are mentioned during the segment.

Oscar 2007 Winner Predictions Cinematography

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Oscar 2007 Winner Predictions: Cinematography
Oscar 2007 Winner Predictions: Cinematography

It would seem that this year’s cinematography nominees were picked by aliens—certainly not by the same people who voted for Memoirs of a Geisha last year (no offense to Dion Beebe, who surely deserved a nomination this year): not a single Best Picture nominee in the lot, and all mostly uncompromised examples of purposeful cinematographic beauty. Without nominations from the American Society of Cinematographers, Pan’s Labyrinth appears to be out of the running. Ditto The Prestige, which has been hounded for most of the Oscar season by the year’s other magician movie, The Illusionist, whose score (by Philip Glass) and cinematography (by Dick Pope) has caught the attention of several critics groups in the past few months. As for the film’s chances, Oscar history tells us that She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, way back in 1950, was the last film to win this award without being nominated in any other category. Sucks for Pope and the great Vilmos Zsigmond, whose nomination for The Black Dahlia was Oscar’s most pleasant surprise this year. That leaves Emmanuel Lubezki, who appears to have garnered more favor for his phantasmagoric contributions to Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men than he did last year for Terrence Malick’s The New World. No one in this category deserves this award more, something Salma Hayek is sure to make known should she be asked to read the name of the winner.

The Grainy Haze of Dreams: Movie Year 2006, and the Death and Rebirth of Cinema

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The Grainy Haze of Dreams: Movie Year 2006, and the Death and Rebirth of Cinema
The Grainy Haze of Dreams: Movie Year 2006, and the Death and Rebirth of Cinema

1. CINEMA: DEAD AGAIN

MZS: We just came through a pretty tumultuous year for movies, and for the media and the entertainment industry in general. Although it’s not possible to cover everything, I’d like for us to at least touch on some of what I think were evolutionary highlights—moments, movements, trends or developments that altered movies, or how we perceive movies.

Right after the first of the year, David Denby tried to to get at a big part of this—specifically the effect of technological change—in his New Yorker piece “Big Pictures.” But it didn’t satisfy me. In fact, parts of it were so out-of-it that they reminded me of an old episode of Gilligan’s Island where the castaways run into a Japanese soldier who wanders out of the bushes where he’s been for 20 years not knowing that the war is over.

De Palma Symposium: The Black Dahlia

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De Palma Symposium: The Black Dahlia
De Palma Symposium: The Black Dahlia

House managing editor Keith Uhlich writes in defense of Brian De Palma’s most recent picture, the psychologically-charged noir pastiche The Black Dahlia, for the Reverse Shot De Palma symposium.

The Black Dahlia is a veritable mishmash of textures and styles: A world where the Sixties-coiffed Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson)—Blanchard’s live-in girlfriend and Bleichert’s distant object of affection—attends a Terence Davies–esque revival of the silent film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs, its crackly, romantic score bleeding seamlessly into Mark Isham’s postmodernist reconstruction (heavy on the Herrmann–ish theremin). A period where k.d. lang officiates (in a top hat and tails get-up straight out of von Sternberg’s Morocco) over a lesbian bar sideshow that sets the stage for the exemplary drag-queen entrance of mannish Dahlia wannabe—and Bleichert seductress—Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), her name as much a reference to Proust’s aromatic recollections as to Hitchcock’s obsessive blond/brunette dichotomies. A place where Bleichert is as likely to stumble on a Vietnam-styled death tableau in a guilt-ridden abstraction of Chinatown as upon a Beverly Hills manse’s hierarchical theater-of-the-absurd stairway, all eyes intently focused on the explicative, suicide-note brayings of the insanely love-struck Ramona Linscott (Fiona Shaw) who, as a perhaps unknowing complement to the views of her jealous husband, smilingly proffers that “[the rich] safeguard [art] for future generations.”“

From the Short Stack David Thomson on Brian De Palma in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

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From the Short Stack: David Thomson on Brian De Palma in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film
From the Short Stack: David Thomson on Brian De Palma in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

After scrolling through the lively comments about Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, I figured it might be fun to post an assessment of De Palma by an authoritative source whose observations might stir the pot a little. By chance, the first reference book I pulled from my shelf was the 2002 edition of David Thomson’s idiosyncratic, highly subjective reference tome The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. His entry on De Palma starts with this paragraph:

“There is a self-conscious cunning in De Palma’s work, ready to control everything except his own cruelty and indifference. He is the epitome of mindless style and excitement swamping taste or character. Of course, he was a brilliant kid. But his usefulness in an historical survey is to point out the dangers of movies falling into the hands of such narrow-minded movie mania, such cold blooded prettification. I daresay there are no “ugly” shots in De Palma’s films—if you feel able to measure “beauty” merely in terms of graceful or hypnotic movement, vivid angles, lyrical color, and hysterical situation. But that is the set of criteria that makes Leni Riefenstahl a “great” director, rather than the victim of conflicting inspiration and decadence. De Palma’s eye is cut off from conscience or compassion. He has contempt for his characters and his audience alike, and I suspect that he despises even his own immaculate skill. Our cultural weakness admits and rewards technique and impact bereft of moral sense. If the thing works, it has validity—the means justify the lack of an end. De Palma is a cynic, and not a feeble one; there are depths of misanthropy there.”

All Is Loss Brian DePalma’s The Black Dahlia

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All Is Loss: Brian DePalma’s The Black Dahlia
All Is Loss: Brian DePalma’s The Black Dahlia

“Do you think you’re capable of playing sadness?” an unseen director asks a wannabe actress and future murder victim, in screen test footage that recurs throughout Brian DePalma’s The Black Dahlia.

“Sure,” she replies, her voice steady but her mind elsewhere. “I can do that.”

And so can De Palma, who provides the voice of that soft-spoken yet menacing director. One of the filmmaker’s most ambitious and formally complex films, The Black Dahlia is, above all else, a tragedy—and not just for the abovementioned Hollywood actress, Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner), whose unsolved 1947 murder-mutilation in served as the basis for countless movies and books, including DePalma’s source material, James Ellroy’s 1987 novel. (Be warned: this review is all spoilers.) Ellroy’s book wove a fictional mystery around Short’s murder. Both a pastiche and a critique, it used Raymond Chandler-styled purple prose knowingly and ironically, cluing the reader to see through Chandler’s smoky machismo and understand that the same male swagger that’s sanctified via the hardboiled fiction hero exists in the real world, where it enables sexism, racism, xenophobia and the subjugation of the poor by the rich.

Screenwriter Josh Friedman’s adaptation frames the story within a heavily narrated extended flashback by ex-boxer turned L.A. police detective Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), who tries to solve Short’s seemingly random killing with help from his partner, Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), and drifts ever closer to two women, kinky socialite Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank) and Lee’s blond goddess girlfriend, Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson). At first the film plays like Chinatown-style modern noir, in which the investigation of a singular horror reveals corruption within families, institutions and communities. But The Black Dahlia soon reveals itself as something more: the story of a young man discovering his moral code, then realizing how useless it is in the face of society-wide indifference, greed and cruelty.

“F****** Gorgeous”

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”F****** Gorgeous”
”F****** Gorgeous”

When James Ellroy appeared at the Television Critics Association’s spring press tour last week to promote an upcoming Court TV documentary based on his memoir My Dark Places, I pressed him for details on Brian De Palma’s version of his 1987 novel The Black Dahlia. He didn’t say much, and what he did say must be considered in light of his own stake in the film’s success. (The Court TV documentary and Dahlia will appear around the same time this fall.)

But his comments were still intriguing.

Some Bits, for Now

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Some Bits, for Now
Some Bits, for Now

Although I promised myself when starting this blog that I would write a substantive or imaginative item every day, TCA has proved so action-packed that I just don’t have the energy.

But I don’t want to look at that sidebar and see nothing listed for Friday. So here’s some links to stuff I wrote out here, all television related: a review of the BBC caper series Hustle, which begins its American run on AMC tomorrow night; a feature story about the repackaging of Miss America, and some TCA blog entries (which may include a Sopranos item by the time you read this).

Scroll down the TCA blog and you’ll find an account of James Ellroy’s already controversial appearance before the television press corps to promote an upcoming Court TV documentary about (what else?) his mother’s murder. A separate item about Ellroy’s reaction to rushes from Brian De Palma’s film of his novel The Black Dahlia will follow soon. All I’ll say now is, Ellroy hasn’t seen much of De Palma’s film, but he liked what he saw.

Matt Zoller Seitz is founder of The House Next Door.