Image Entertainment // 2006 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // August 25th, 2010
"I'm a director. Peoples' lives are my business."
In 1948 a down-on-his-luck Orson Welles (Danny Huston, 30 Days of Night), reeling from a string of failed Hollywood endeavors and infamous divorce from wife Rita Hayward, makes his way to Rome to slum it as the lead of Black Magic. A fellow actor is murdered on the set, bringing the auteur together with the dead man's stepdaughter -- hotheaded actress Lea Padovani (Paz Vega, Spanglish). The murder points to a larger mystery that pushes Welles and Italian bodyguard Tommaso (Diego Luna, Milk) into a world of Italian mobsters, political assassinations, post-war conspiracies, and diplomatic subterfuge.
I find it hard to believe Fade To Black managed to sneak past so many film buff radars, myself included. Not only does the film star the likes of Vega, Huston, and Christopher Walken (True Romance), but it weaves the cast into a high-concept, post-modern noir setup that can't possibly fail. How can such a celluloid equation not equal the coolest movie ever made?
Unlike the famous noir films connected to the real Mr. Welles -- Lady
Fade To Black so strictly follows the regimented formula of the genre that it seems to lose its novelty entirely. The script by writer/director Oliver Parker (Othello) lacks an innovative structure, making for a mystery that lacks any real imagination. Instead, Parker thrusts his focus on creating an origin story for Welles' political and public fall from grace, littering the movie with film history Easter eggs, such as a subplot finding Welles scrambling to put together his version of Othello. These novel tidbits soon grow into tiresome accessories that lack an innovative story to compliment. If you're making a film mythologizing the life of one of cinema's ultimate magicians, wouldn't you at least attempt to take a stylistic page from the man's playbook, rather than just poking film fans in the side with mere historical references?
Yet all is not lost. Fade To Black is far from bad. The screenplay, while lacking an innovative story, contains some incredibly sharp dialogue from its faux-Welles. It doesn't hurt that Danny Huston perfectly captures the arrogant, child-like creativity Welles displayed throughout his lifetime. Huston, an actor to whom I've long felt lukewarm, delivers a performance that, while lacking the trademark bass voice, captures the robust physicality and self-indulgent theatricality that helped make Orson the on-screen icon we all remember. Huston's Welles makes the movie worth watching.
The rest of the cast do what they can with the thin archetypes they're given. Vega, a long underrated actress, has the classic beauty and chops to give her hot-and-cold femme fatale a depth that would otherwise be missing. Christopher Walken plays himself wonderfully, though I'm not entirely sure that Fade To Black benefits from this casting from a storytelling perspective. Diego Luna performs admirably as a "former cop," but fails to pull himself out of cliché.
The film has one great set-piece at the end, wherein Welles synthesizes the stage and screen to reveal the plot of his conspiratorial enemies. Near-perfect in its construction and execution, it's a memorable ending that almost saves the film...until the film doubles back on it with something like three extra endings. Yuck. Still, it's a cool sequence that perfectly demonstrates how art can trump injustice.
The cinematography is utterly gorgeous, shifting from lush color film to near perfect black and white film stock. Unfortunately, this technique was ruined for this reviewer by Image's generous screener DVD, a lovely little number that fights piracy by inexplicably shifting to black and white at random moments in the film, an annoyance perfectly complimented by the "Property of Image Entertainment" watermark blasted across the screen. The audio is similarly null-in-void, an uneven mix of low dialogue that made it wonderfully difficult to understand the 80% Italian cast. It's safe to say the DVD won't be a great demo disc, but the company could at least send out something marginally close to the finished DVD. Bah!
To paraphrase the fictionalized, floundering filmmaker, Fade To Black is perfectly capable of destroying itself.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R