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CULTURE: De Palma cops out on screen violence; Mike Davies reviews the week's new releases.

Byline: Mike Davies

THE BLACK DAHLIA

CERT 15 120 MINS

***

On January 15, 1947, the LAPD discovered the body of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short. She had been brutally mutilated, cut in half, disembowelled, drained of all blood and her face grotesquely slashed.

Dubbed the Black Dahlia by the press, an allusion to Alan Ladd movie The Blue Dahlia, the murder formed the basis of James Ellroy's titular crime novel. In real life, Short's murder was never solved. Not so in the book or Brian de Pal-ma's sepia-tinged adaptation. Getting there, however, is a long, slow and often tortuously convoluted affair.

A lengthy set-up introduces us to Buckey Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), two boxers turned blue collar street cops who, following a PR stunt bout, are promoted to homicide as warrant enforcer partners.

Blanchard, shares a platonic live in relationship with smouldering blonde bombshell Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson, somewhat underused), whom he rescued from the clutches of a sadistic pimp, but she's not above flirting with Bleichert, the pair clearly sharing a mutual attraction.

Short's corpse is discovered while the two men are tracking another case, a killer-rapist by the name of Nash, and Blanchard pushes for them both to be assigned to the investigating special unit.

For reasons that only become apparent later, the volatile Blanchard, pumped up with Benzedrine, becomes obsessed with the dead woman, putting a strain on his relationship with Kay. Meanwhile Bleichart's investigations have led him to a lesbian bar (where K.D Lang's performing Love For Sale) frequented by Short where he meets Madeleine Linscott (Hilary Swank), femme fatale daughter of an influential Scottish ex-pat property developer (John Kavanagh) and a Dahlia lookalike. It also transpires that Short (a vulnerable, come-hitherish Mia Kirshner, seen only in black and white screen test footage) was involved in making a lesbian porn film for an unknown director (voiced by De Palma) which may or may not be connected to the murder.

It takes a hell of a time to get into gear, setting up character relationships, personal demons and the whole ambience of a city riddled with corruption and betrayals.

Once it gets into its investigative stride, the complex pieces of the jigsaw start slotting into place and connections and explanations are revealed, it becomes absorbingly intelligent viewing.

Unusually for De Palma both the sex and the violence remain remarkably discreet and off camera, adding a sense of frustrated voyeurism to proceedings.

Atmospheric to the max with shadowy visuals and Mark Isham's bluesy-jazzed score, and, as you might hope, featuring at least one signature long overhead tracking shot, it's something of a return to form for De Palma after such misfires as Mission To Mars, Snake Eyes and Femme Fatale.

The performances are generally solid, keeping things afloat when the narrative starts to fray around the edges of plausibility.

Indeed, after an early reputation for charisma-free woodenness, Hartnett is developing into a real presence while Swank milks the dark-haired duplicity for all it's worth. Fiona Shaw delivers a scenery chewing turn as Linscott's fabulously drunk, drugged and deranged snobby Lady Macbeth of a mother. It may not be up there with Curtis Hanson's seminal Ellroy adaptation L.A. Confidential, but it's a worthy close call.

THE NIGHT LISTENER

CERT 15 81 MINS

***

In 1992, San Francisco based writer Armistead Maupin received a manuscript from an abused 14-year-old New Jersey boy who had been encouraged by his social worker to write as therapy. Impressed, Maupin made contact with the boy and his adoptive mother and began a lengthy phone relationship. However, he never met either of them and became increasingly suspicious that the boy might not actually have existed.

Maupin used the experience as the basis for his novel, now adapted for the screen with Robin Williams as New York radio storyteller Gabriel Noone, a middle-aged gay experiencing mid-life crisis and writer's block when younger lover Jesse (Bobby Cannavale) announces he's moving out.

Interest piqued by the confessional manuscript passed on by a publisher friend, Noone makes contact with AIDS infected Wisconsin adolescent Pete Logand (Rory Culkin) for whom his programme provided comfort in times of abuse.

He also gets to talk Pete's adoptive blind mother, Donna (Toni Collette), who keeps him informed of the boy's declining health. Noone offers support and encouragement, Pete provides a useful distraction from his own problems.

However, when Jesse observes that the two voices sound very similar, Gabriel begins to doubt what he's been told. And when Donna starts putting up barriers to making physical contact, he heads off to Wisconsin to check things out for himself.

Although it actually becomes less interesting once it gets into Hitchcock thriller mode as Noone races round houses and hospitals trying to verify Pete's existence we learn more of Donna's pathologically murky nature, the complex set up offers creepy intrigue.

With both Collette and Williams turn in solid work as troubled souls seeking self-definition, the psychological themes also involve, recalling both director Patrick Stettner's earlier The Business of Strangers in its playing with motivations and identity and echoing Capote in its observation of how writers feed off others' lives to create their stories.

Though badly let down by a-clumsy coda out of some B movie chiller that seems to have been tacked on, it's a flawed but absorbing work.

TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY

CERT 12A 107 MINS

***

Reuniting the creative team behind Anchorman, this seeks to pull off much the same spoofing trick in a NASCAR setting with Will Ferrell as the titular Ricky Bobby, a dim but arrogant good ol' boy with an inborn love of speed who becomes the hottest name on the race track. Think of it as Days of Thunder with gags. With clueless best friend Cal (John C Reilly) as his subservient second stringer assisting him to wins, he rises to the top, gaining a trophy wife (Leslie Bibb), two brattish sons (Walker and Texas Ranger), a massive mansion and corporate sponsorships and endorsements by the truckload.

But then, along comes gay, jazz-loving, Gitanes-smoking, Camus-reading, accent-mangling French Formula One nemesis Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen), goading Ricky into a fateful car crash that leaves his nerves shredded and robs him of everything.

At which point, re-enter his no good, beer-drinking, stoner daddy Reese (Gary Cole) to help get him back on track and conquer his fear of fast with some unorthodox incentives (live cougar, drugs stash) so he can take Girard on in a championship rematch.

Heavily improvised, there's much here that is hysterically funny in its pitch perfect clichA parodying straight-faced comedy, at its best in a brilliant dinner table sequence where, preparing to say grace, Ricky and Cal argue about which image of Jesus they prefer to pray to' the baby one or the hairy hippie grown up version.

That Ferrell injects his character with a strong dose of George Bush merely adds to the hilarity. Unfortunately, there's also large undisciplined stretches of laughter-free comedic riffing and huge overindulged chunks where the satire on corporate branding and America's obsession with winners falls ploddingly flat.

And while Ferrell is patently the marquee name, not only does Amy Smart steal a scene from under him as a former assistant with a wonderfully inappropriate inspirational monologue, but whenever he shares the screen with Cohen, who's made an art out of politically incorrect ethnic stereotype excess, you can almost hear him struggling to keep up.

THE ART OF BREAKING UP

CERT 15 78 MINS SUBTITLED

**

Veteran director Michel Deville bows out on a low note with this sexed-up adaptation of Georges Feydeau's 1890 farce Fly In The Ointment. Opera diva Emmanuelle Beart loves Charles Berling. He loves her too, but he's also a gold-digging cad who's arranged to wed a wealthy Baroness's daughter. He just hasn't managed to break up with Beart and needs to stop her finding out until after the ceremony. Throw in another idiotic would be suitor for Beart, an odiferous music critic and a rubbish songwriter looking for a patron, stir and serve with maids, butlers and much deliberate misdirection and confusion engineered by Berling.

While the prospect of Beart in any state of undress is always to be welcomed, the film opens at a manic pitch and never lets up on the camp or the overacted hysteria, the painful mugging and frenetic plotting more likely to induce migraine than laughter.

TIDELAND

CERT 15 122 MINS

***

When junkie mom (Jennifer Tilly) ODs, Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), an 11-year-old with an excessively vivid imagination who cooks up her parents' heroin, is taken by rock singer dad (Jeff Bridges) to his mom's abandoned house on the prairie. Here, he too ODs, spending the rest of the film in the chair (or at least until he's turned into a leathery mummy and set at the dinner table) while Jeliza-Rose plays fantasy games around the Andrew Wyeth inspired house and wheat-fields with her dolls head finger puppets.

Then she encounters crazy one-eyed witch-like beekeeper neighbour Dell (Janet McTeer) and becomes friends with her retard epileptic brother Dickens (Brendan Fletcher) and things, frankly, just get weirder and, as quasi-sexual explorations rear their head, downright unsettling.

Adapted and directed in trademark idiosyncratic fashion by Terry Gilliam from Mitch Cullin's cult novel, it's overlong and overindul-gent to a fault, sagging desperately mid-way. However, founded on an extraordinary performance from Ferland who is almost never off screen, its Southern Gothic marriage of Alice in Wonderland and the mummified aspects of Psycho filtered through the surrealistic visual style of Jan Svankmajer makes for a highly individual macabre child's-eye fable of family dysfunction, death and happy ever after.

DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE

CERT 15 86 MINS

***

With everyone's tongues wedged firmly in cheek, this computer game adaptation is essentially a hybrid of Mortal Kombat and Charlie's Angels, given a House of Flying Daggers make-over.

Three battling babes head out to an isolated island to which they've been invited (via remote flying shirikins because e-=mail's so unreliable) to take part in D.O.A., the annual martial arts tournament organised by Donovan (Eric Roberts) and in which Helena (Sarah Carter), daughter of the competition's late founder, will also compete.

Naturally, the three girls have their own reasons for attending. Fleeing the clan temple (which sends another warrior babe on her trail to kill her), Kasumi (Devon Akoi) is searching for her brother who went missing at last year's do' wrestler Tina (Jaime Pressly) wants to prove she's no fake' and assassin/thief Christie (Aussie popster Holly Vallance) plans to steal $100m with her boyfriend accomplice (Walsall's very own Matthew Marsden).

Being Eric Roberts with a coiffeured hair-do, Donovan also has his own hidden agenda.

People fight, bikinis are worn, clenched buttocks and breasts get regular close-ups while the one-liners fly as fast and frequently as the feet and fists, but never causing and blood or bruises.

Directed with customary dizzy mayhem and freeze frames by The Transporter's Corey Yuen with stunt laden fights on scaffolding, temples, stairways, rafts and the obligatory bamboo forest, not to mention a gratuitous beach volleyball session, it's preposterous rubbish nonsense that neither cast nor audience is expected to take seriously. And as such, it's all great popcorn fun.

CAPTION(S):

Scarlett Johansson smoulders in The Black Dahlia, De Palma's attempt at film noir' Holly Valance demonstrates girl power' Robin Williams gets caught trespassing in The Night Listener' John C Reilly and Will Ferrell get their groove on' More surrealistic visuals from the mind of Terry Gilliam in Tideland
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 14, 2006
Words:1920
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