Thursday, August 27, 2009

The real mystery is how this movie turned out so bad

The Black Dahlia (2005) Stars: Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Mia Kirshner and Hilary Swank Director: Brian De Palma Rating: Three of Ten Stars A publicity-hungry police detective (Eckhart) arranges to have himself and his younger partner (Hartnett) assigned to the grisly murder of a would-be actress (Kirshner). As one detective starts to mysteriously come unglued, the other uncovers not only dark secrets relating to the dead actress, but to his partner as well.

The Black Dahlia is almost completely devoid of focus. The script moves randomly from plot to subplot to barely relevant stuff, with the Black Dahlia murder being relegated to just above a minor tangent among a whole tangle of plots and subplots. The style of the film also swings widely between filming styles--at some points, it's heavy-handedly apeing the filming styles of the 1930s and 40s (complete with obligatory soft focus on the leading ladies), at others he goes for an almost documentary style detachment, and then there's the incredibly annoying sequence when the camera suddenly takes the POV of what Hartnett's character is seeing, thus putting the audience in his shoes. Not only is this a pointless break in style, it is very badly done. 

And then there's the editing. There isn't a single shot in the film that lasts more than ten seconds and all quick edits and jumping around with the camera angles gets tiresome very fast. 

To make this already weak film as bad as possible, it is further burdened by an ending that is is completely and totally botched, with the solution to the Black Dahlia killing being completely nonsensical and the other Big Revelations not quite fitting with the rest of the story either.
It's a shame this movie is such a mess, because many of the actors give some great performances that are in step with the film noir/crime drama movies of the 1930s and 1940s. 
Aaron Eckhart turns in a great performance as a crooked cop (I'm not spoiling anything here... the Eckhart character is a standard for the kind of movie being emulated) whose life has come to orbit around the one decent thing he's done in his life... the rescue of a young woman from a life prostitution (Johansson). It's a shame his performance and character are undermined by the awful script that introduces a late-movie twist that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. 

And then there's the hero of the tale, Hartnett's good-hearted, honest cop who is irrevokably tainted by the evil he encounters in the course of this film. His character is in genre, except that he spends too much time crying; it's okay for him to be sensitive, caring, and concerned with justice, but he shouldn't be getting weepy all the time. His character is, unfortunately, also undermined by the botched ending in the film and a particularly stupid scene where he shoots up the home of Swank's character. 

Someone couldn’t make up their mind what they were doing with this movie. Whatever potential it may have had is ruined by an inconsistent visual tone and a script that is messy, unfocused and internally inconsistent. It's a film that deserved to bomb and it's one that isn't worth the 2+ hours it's going to suck away from your life. It's one of those incompetently made films that falls in a zone of mediocrity that leaves it with no worthwhile aspect. 

In fact, the only Brian De Palma film worse than this one is his 2006 follow-up, Redacted. It's even more halfbaked than this one. 

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Last Prowl for the Classic Universal Monsters

As the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, Universal Pictures had driven the monsters that had saved the studio from oblivion during the Great Depression--Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Mummy--pretty much into the ground. A series of ever-worsening sequels pretty much dispatched them with greater efficiency than any torch-weilding mob was ever able to do.

However, they had a few final shining moments in a handful of films starring comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr., Lenore Aubert, and Bela Lugosi
Director: Charles Barton
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

The reluctant Wolfman, Larry Talbot (Chaney) learns that Dracula (Lugosi) intends to revive Frankenstein's Monster and use it as his personal super-soldier. He pursues the evil vampire lord to the United States where he finds his only allies to be Wilbur and Chick (Costello and Abbott), a couple of less-than-bright shipping clerks. Unfortunately, Dracula as an ally of his own--mad scientist femme fatale Dr. Sandra Mornay (Aubert), and she has Wilbur wrapped around her little finger. Little does Wilbur know that his girlfriend doesn't love him for his mind but rather his brain... she intends to do Dracula's bidding and transplant into the rejuvinated monster!

"Abott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" is a wild screwball comedy with the two master comedians doing their usual routines within the framework of a solid script and a story that's actually pretty logical in its own crazy way. I think it's the first fusion of comedy and monsters, and one reason it works so well is that the monsters are played straight. Even when they are involved in funny schtick (Dracula and the Wolf Man are both part of several routines), they remain as they were featured in the serious monster movies they were in.

Too often, I hear this film written off as Universal's last and crassest attempt to wring some dollars out of their tired monster franchise. While that may be all the studio bosses had in mind, the creators involved with "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" managed to make a great movie that is still worth watching today. It's even superior to many of Universal's "straight" movies with Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Wolf Man (or, for that matter, countless recent so-called horror films). Much of its strength grows from the fact that has a plot that with some tweaking could be a straight horror movie.

I recommend this underappreciated film to any lover of the classic monster films, as well as lovers of slapstick comedy.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
Starring: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello
Director: Charles Lamont
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Bud and Lou, a pair of rookie detectives (Abbott and Costello), are hired to helping a boxer who has been falsely accused of murdering his coach, they soon find their client is harder to spot than clues: The desperate man drinks an experimental invisibility potion to avoid being captured by the police, and he then proceeds to help them set up a frame to unmask the real killers.

This film has some great comedy routines in it, with the best of them involving boxing--such as when Costello is supposedly boxing a prize fighter but it's the invisible man who is landing the punches. Unfortunately, the material that gets us from one gag to the next is rather dull. This is the first Abbott and Costello film I've watched where I found myself reaching for other things to do while it was running. (I must add, though, that the special effects were well done, particularly the one where the invisible man is driving a car.)

"Abbott and Costello Meet Invisible Man" isn't exactly a bad movie, but I was expecting more from it. I think those who have seen other A&C horror spoofs will, too. I recommend saving this one until you've seen the rest, or maybe just skipping it all together.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello and Marie Windsor
Director: Charles Lamont
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Abbott and Costello (played by Abbott and Costello) are a pair of down-on-their luck adventurer who try to get a job escorting an an archeological shipment as their ticket back to the US from Cairo. However, before they secure the job, the archelologist is murdered, the most important part of his find goes missing--the mummy Klaris--and Costello ends up with an ancient medallion that is the key to unlocking a lost treasure that rabid cultists are sworn to protect and dangerous femme fetale (Windsor) will do anythng to possess. Soon, they are targets and dupes of every shady character in Cairo, along with being stalked by the mummy.

I don't think "Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy" deserves quite the level of scorn that many reviewers seem to heap on it. While Abbott and Costello aren't at their best in it, it is a very amusing spoof of the string of mummy movies from Universal--and almost every mummy film that followed as they set the template--and it's got plenty of hilarious moments. (The "pick-pocket routine" where Costello visits the villainess in her den, the chase scene in the secret hideout of the mummy cultists, and the various bits with the multiple mummies at the movies climax are all comedic highpoints that should evoke chuckles from even the most jaded viewers.)

The film is far from perfect, however. I already mentioned that Abbott and Costello aren't exactly at their best in this film--which was, in fact, one of the last times they worked together--and an attempt to reinvent the classic "who's on first" routine with some digging impliments is about as uninspired as I think the pair's work ever got. Finally, the mummy costume in the film is about the worst that I've ever seen--only the ones featured in Hammer's "The Mummy's Shroud" and Seduction Cinema's "Mummy Raider" are worse.

I recommend "Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy" to lovers of the classic monster movies who have a sense of humor about them, as well as fans of classic comedy. There are better examples of this type of film out there, but this one still has enough good bits to make it worth seeing. (Heck, it's more entertaining than the serious mummy movies it spoofs.)