A fictional fever-dream mystery crafted loosely from the notorious still-unsolved 1947 murder of wayward wannabe starlet Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) the tale teams two rising L.A. police detectives whose bone-crunching boxing bout give them political juice—Mr. Ice cool young Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) and Mr. Fire hotheaded veteran Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart). Both men become embroiled in and obsessed with the sick horrific crime even as Dwight falls hard for Lee’s victimized world-weary live-in love Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson)—with Lee’s unspoken approval: he’s too busy spiraling downward into a psychotic fixation with solving the murder having previously lost his sister to foul play. But Dwight’s also led astray by the more carnal temptations of voracious Madeline Sprague (Hilary Swank) the daughter of a bizarre high-society family with her own shadowy connections to the Dahlia. Sordid subplots abound simmering and swirling as in death the Black Dahlia threatens to suck everyone into an ever-widening abyss. Not entirely an epic of miscasting the film nevertheless falls short finding performers to essay Ellroy’s compelling cast: Hartnett demonstrates more depth here than in most previous efforts but comes fathoms short of the necessary mix of drive and angst to suit the complex role. Although she physically conveys a maturity beyond her years Johansson shows none of the wounded wisdom of the novel’s Kay—her seductive ethereal air would with an ebony dye job have served her far better as the Dahlia herself a cipher who becomes in the eyes of those obsessed with her whatever they dream her to be. Conversely Kirshner delivers in that elusive spectral role but the been-around-the-block-one-too-many times faded glint in her eyes would have made her a much more involving Kay. Eckhart has the spit and polish of a political-minded cop down pat but lacks the self-destructive inner fire that fuels the façade. Swank is mostly delightful by degrees—many of her choices are intriguing occasionally outrageous and give her femme fatale needed dimensions but others are overindulged. There are certainly macabre grand guignol moments in the story that make it more akin to Sunset Boulevard than its more obvious comparison Ellroy’s own L.A. Confidential but De Palma—never known for his subtlety—handles them with such an overt determined campiness any wry irony is wrung from them. The result is more of a parody—indeed an unflattering caricature—than a modern commentary on classic noir style. Add in his ceaseless camera-swooping swipes from Hitchcock and his ongoing fixation with meaningless gore—ham-fisted homages and hemorrhaging hemoglobin to ape Ellroy’s alliterative gossip-rag riffs—that distract from the intensity of the source material and all that remains is a bloody shame.
Dreamer is another one of those family films--based on a true story no less--that makes you feel guilty for not liking it because it means so well. The film revolves around the Cranes who have worked on their Kentucky horse farm for generations. But gifted horseman Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) loses his love for the job when the farm hits hard times. His estranged father Pop (Kris Kristofferson) feels like his son has given up unnecessarily. Even Ben’s young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) can’t get through to her dad. The only way this family can heal is by helping an injured horse named Sonya get ready for a seemingly impossible goal: to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Say it together: “Awww!” At least the film gets it half right in its casting. Russell is perfect as the beleaguered Ben a man who needs a little inspiration to get back on track and he thankfully never takes it over the top. Same goes for Kristofferson who is aptly crusty and unwilling to give his son an inch--that is until his granddaughter and that darned horse melt his heart. And the family resemblance is uncanny; apparently the two actors have been told quite often how much they look like each other. The one misstep here is Fanning. Yes she is an extraordinarily gifted actress for her age but Cale should have been played by a happy sunny child. The oh-so-serious Fanning doesn’t really qualify. Also Elisabeth Shue as the mom is all wrong. A horse farmer’s wife? Please. Writer-director John Gatins takes a big gamble making his directorial debut with a movie about an underdog horse. First there’s the underdog part. This year seems a bit saturated with the plot device what with films like Cinderella Man and most recently Greatest Game Ever Played. Second there’s the whole horse thing. It’s just going to be hard to top the Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit--the quintessential true horse-racing movie to beat them all. True Dreamer is based on a true story and is nicely--albeit conventionally--framed. But the film isn’t unique in any way. It’s the same feel-good family stuff we’ve been swallowing all year. See? I told you I’d feel guilty for knocking it.