Quentin Tarantino has said the sign of a good film is that it makes you want to go home, eat some pie and talk about it. With that in mind, our Popcorn Panel features film buffs feuding in this space each week.
THIS WEEK’S PANEL
– Craig Courtice, a short filmmaker who isn’t very tall
– Richard Crouse, host of Rogers Television’s Reel to Real, Canada’s longest-running movie review show, and the author of The 100 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen (ECW Press, 2003). His Web site is www.richardcrouse.ca
– J. Kelly Nestruck, National Post Arts & Life reporter
THIS WEEK’S PIE Whoopee
THIS WEEK’S SUBJECT The Black Dahlia
CRAIG I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment on the plot of The Black Dahlia because after the banana truck drove by during the first shootout, I spent the entire film trying to decipher the meaning of yellow. Now I don’t have ADD, so I’m guessing this was intentional on director Brain De Palma’s part. If you see this movie just for the art direction and cinematography, you won’t be disappointed. (Yellow means caution, by the way.) Of course, the film critics who panned Dahlia are almost all failed English majors, not sensualists. They might very well have a point about the story; the whodunit of this movie is more like a whatthef—? But the same is true of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which was universally praised for its sensuality and creepy tone. Then again, who amongst us wants to make love to a film critic?
RICHARD You’d be surprised. Where do you think all those little film-critic kids come from? I think it is possible to be a sensualist and film critic, but watching The Black Dahlia taxed both the corporal and analytical sides of my brain. Without a doubt the movie is stunning to look at, filled with beautiful crane shots and even more beautiful people, but De Palma forgot one thing — to get his actors to act. I don’t expect much from Josh Hartnett other to stand around and look good, but Scarlett Johansson and Hilary Swank are two performers who usually rise above their good looks and deliver the one-two punch of being gorgeous and talented. Here they both seem to be on autopilot. That’s the film critic side of my personality. My sensualist side admires De Palma’s aesthetic choices, but beauty without brains leaves me cold.
KELLY I don’t even know if I admire De Palma’s aesthetic choices here. The point-of-view shot when we met Swank’s family was jarring, and the gory bits were over-the-top, especially for a movie otherwise filmed like a fairy tale. Even the long crane shot from Elizabeth Short’s murder scene to the first shootout was a bit disappointing. If I can defend something about this incredibly bizarre movie it would be Hartnett’s performance. He gets dumped on a lot, but there’s a reason why directors like Sofia Coppola, Ridley Scott and De Palma cast him in their flicks. Hartnett’s blank demeanour and beady little eyes were perfect for a character called Mr. Ice. He was the calm amidst a storm of scenery chomping, the anchor on this banana boat.
CRAIG I’m willing to admit I might have missed what was so bad about this film. How about you two? Is it possible you guys are in the dark about what this movie is saying about noir? Because like Mulholland Drive, I think Dahlia is working on a completely different level, referencing shots and even acting styles from the genre. Let’s not forget that one of De Palma’s most famous scenes, the baby-carriage-on-the-stairs scene from The Untouchables, was heavily inspired by Russian film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.
RICHARD De Palma has always borrowed heavily from other filmmakers, most notably Hitchcock, but usually with more success than is on display here. The baby-carriage-on-the-stairs scene is a classic, but I didn’t see anything in The Black Dahlia that matched the excitement or beauty of that scene. If he is trying to reference classic film noir in visual and acting style, I don’t see it. The film isn’t structured like a classic noir, which usually worked backwards from a murder, and the femmes in the classic noirs were more believably fatale than Swank and Johansson.
KELLY What’s the big deal about directors referencing other movies in their shots, anyway? If the result holds together like, say, The Big Lebowski, another noir homage full of inside jokes, then that’s great. But your first duty as director is to tell a coherent story in a compelling manner, not impress everyone with your winks to Raging Bull and Lady in the Lake. If you want to know why I liked being confused by Mulholland Drive, but not The Black Dahlia, Craig, you only have to look as far as the directors’ intentions. I bet dimes to doughnuts to Dahlia dames that De Palma was trying to make a movie that made sense — as James Ellroy’s novel does — not trying to emulate Lynch’s lush lunacy.
© National Post 2006
Unpopped kernels: Return to the print review?
Published: Friday, September 22, 2006
Craig: One of the reasons we started the Popcorn Panel was to have a different forum for film comment. The idea was that conversations about movies are often more revealing (and entertaining) than reviews. With Web sites such as RottenTomatoes and IMDb, often films are reduced to a raw number without a serious discussion of the merits. These ratings certainly serve a purpose, but too often distract from the message a film is trying to convey. My question to you two Web-savvy gents is that in this era of DVDs with making-of features and insta-pundits is it time to revisit the traditional print movie review? One thing I’d like to see is retractions by reviewers who might have had a chance to reflect on a movie after their deadline and realize they might have missed the mark. There is no shame in this, newspapers print clarifications every day, and I think it would humanize the reviewer. Maybe they had a headache, maybe they talked about the film at a dinner party and came to a different conclusion, the point is to encourage dialogue with the reader not polarize. For example, when I walked out of Caché earlier this year I was angry. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that’s exactly what director Michael Haneke wanted me to feel; just because the feeling you have is not the one you wanted to have or expected to have should not cloud your judgment as to the filmmaker’s success. Caché made me want to read more about it, to hear other opinions, to see if I might have missed something. In the end, I admit, I did.
Richard: We live in an era where everything is reduced to a soundbite, a headline or in the case of reviews, often just a star rating and that’s a shame. In the quest to be first with entertainment stories and reviews media outlets are too quick to print or air stories that haven’t been thought through properly. I’m not sure that the speed at which we consume information nowadays will allow for really thoughtful reviews. I would prefer to read reviews that were well thought through, not just first, but when five, six or seven movies are being released each week it is impossible to give each of them the time they deserve to write a meaningful review before you have to run off to see another one and then write another review. The days of long Pauline Kael style pieces are gone, and I don’t think that’s a good thing.
Kelly: If a critic does decide that he or she has made an egregious error in judgment in a review, I don’t see anything wrong with them revisiting the subject in a future column. But, you know, a daily newspaper is just a daily newspaper and a review is just a review. People who read critics should understand that what they are reading is a first attempt to grapple with a film, often under a tight deadline. For 95% of film fare that does that trick — I have yet to hear any convincing arguments on the merits of Little Man — but, as New Yorker critic Anthony Lane titled his book of reviews, nobody’s perfect. No one should expect the definitive assessment of a film to be written the week it is released, just as we don’t expect the full significance of a political event to become apparent for days, if not years, if not decades. We’re just the first draft of film history and it’s not really our job to second-guess ourselves all the time. That’s what blogs are for.