Monday, October 02, 2006

Metareview: Hollywoodland and The Black Dahlia

These two movies are just begging to be lumped together.

Consider the facts: The main character of both movies is a detective trying to solve a crime. In both movies, the crime is the murder (or perhaps suicide) of a Hollywood actor or actress. In both movies, the Hollywood actor or actress is--to varying degrees--struggling to make a name (or a better name) for him or herself.

I'll go on: Both movies are based on true events. Both movies are set in post-World War II pre-Vietnam America (The Black Dahlia in 1947, Hollywoodland in 1959). Both movies feature not-too-widely respected pretty-boy actors trying to earn their acting stripes (Josh Hartnett in The Black Dahlia, Ben Affleck in Hollywoodland).

With all these things coinciding, it's amazing that no one thought, "You know, maybe we shouldn't release these two movies within one week of each other." I haven't seen two movies with such similar themes released so close together since Deep Impact and Armageddon were both released in the summer of 1998. Those movies were released 7 weeks apart, and people still got them mixed up. In another slew of similarities, the Deep Impact-Armageddon tandem also featured Ben Affleck, and--perhaps this shouldn't be surprising--the Deep Impact-Armageddon tandem also kinda sucked.

Clearly, you helpless members of the general public need some brave souls to assess both movies simultaneously and let you know which of the movies--if any--is worth your hard-earned money and too-precious two hours of your time.

Into that breach steps They Might Be Critics, and I'm glad to see my fellow critics did an excellent job laying the groundwork for me to sum up the experience of both in this metareview. If you'd like to see some plot synopses or read their takes, just scroll down.

The thing is, both movies are kinda mediocre. Neither is terrible, but neither really wows you. With Hollywoodland, it's just frankly not that ambitious. It's competently done, but it really feels like nothing better than a television special you might stumble across while flipping through the channels. If you're interested in the life of George Reeves, or have a deep love of one of the main actors, you might decide to keep watching. Otherwise, you'd probably just change channels at the next commercial break.

The Black Dahlia suffers from the opposite problem, saddled with perhaps too much ambition. Based on James Ellroy's novel by the same title--which was in turn based on the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short--it suffers from the same malady that plagues many book adaptations: it tries to squeeze 300 pages of plot and character development into 120 minutes of movie. The result is a film that might be satisfying for those who have read the novel, but is ultimately confusing and frustrating to those who haven't.

Both movies look good, cinematographically speaking. The Black Dahlia takes the edge here as it's the more visually ambitious, though there also a few bits of gruesomeness that--while probably important to the visceral appeal of the movie--I could've done without seeing.

The acting in both movies ranges from credible to exceptional. Adrien Brody and Hilary Swank both remind us why they're Oscar winners. Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson, and Aaron Eckhart do nothing to stunt their rising reputations. Of those three, Josh Hartnett probably raised his stock the most, though that's tempered by the fact that it was probably the lowest of the three beforehand. Many critics are hailing Hollywoodland as Ben Affleck's return to form, but he seemed decidedly mediocre to me. The only person to truly knock my socks off was Diane Lane. She was young, charming, sexy, jealous, entitled, sad, lonely, bitter, jubiliant, steady, capricious, and old all at once. It's apparently already being speculated that she may win an Oscar for this role. It's probably too early to say, but she at least needs to be part of the conversation.

In retrospect, she's probably the best reason to see either movie. So if you absolutely have to see one or the other, and you don't already have some loyalty to Brian De Palma or James Ellroy or Scarlett Johansson, you should probably see Hollywoodland. In reality, though, you're probably better going off to your local video store and renting that forgotten classic you've been meaning to rent.

Because, all things considered, The Black Dahlia is probably a -2, and Hollywoodland isn't much better, rating only a 3.

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