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Monday, October 25, 2010

FADE TO BLACK -- DVD review by porfle

Oliver Parker's FADE TO BLACK (2006) has been described as "a movie lover's movie."  Or, more specifically, an old movie lover's movie, since you have to be reasonably familiar with early 20th century cinema in order to really appreciate it.  First off, you have to know who Orson Welles was.  Which, unfortunately, leaves out a large percentage of the current moviegoing public.

For the rest of us, the fact that Danny Huston is portraying a young Welles in an apocryphal tale of post-war intrigue and murder during a film shoot in Rome is a pretty enticing lure.  All that's needed is for Huston to give us a convincing portrayal of Welles, and for writer-director Oliver Parker to deliver a story that takes full advantage of its potential.  Which, more or less, is what they did.

Having just split from his beautiful actress-wife Rita Hayworth and finding his career in a bit of a slump, Welles arrives in a politically-volatile Rome in 1948 to star as Cagliostro in a Dumas adaptation called "Black Magic", while also trying to get a film version of "Othello" off the ground (at least this much is true).  It's fun watching Welles try to insinuate his directorial influence into the not-so-great production which clearly seems beneath him, while getting a vicarious look at the inside workings of the famous Cinecitti studios. 

During a take, the company is shocked when a costumed extra named Dellere (Frano Lasic), whom Welles has met previously, staggers into the frame and dies after whispering a single word: "Nero."  The police deem it a drug overdose, but a dubious Welles starts delving into the mystery himself, with the help of his young Italian bodyguard Tommaso (Diego Luna).  Tommaso, an ex-cop, leads Welles into a dark world of political intrigue and danger where shady government officials and crime bosses such as "Lucky" Luciano threaten the overly-inquisitive thespian with death or, even worse, professional disgrace.

The tangled plot is pretty easy to follow if you just ignore most of it.  What's really interesting is the idea of lanky, ego-driven sophisticate Welles weaving his way through all this cloak-and-dagger stuff like a character from one of his own movies.  It takes a while to become accustomed to Danny Huston in the role--he looks the part, but you miss that familiar voice.  Huston, in fact, sounds more like his father, legendary filmmaker John Huston, than the bass-toned Welles.  But he gives it his best shot, and it eventually becomes less of an effort to accept him in the role. 

I like the humorous touches such as Welles' frustration with playing second fiddle to his ex-wife in the public eye (reporters keep calling him "Mr. Hayworth"), and a throwaway shot of the slender Welles eagerly stuffing himself with delicious Italian food in an open-air restaurant (we all know where that's going to go).  Huston acquits himself convincingly in the more dramatic scenes, whether romancing a reluctant Italian actress named Lea Padovani (Paz Vega), whom he discovers is linked directly to the murder of Dellere, or venturing into perilous situations where he doesn't belong and then having to sweat his way out of them. 

Interestingly, director Parker, who helmed 2007's I REALLY HATE MY JOB (which I really hated), makes little attempt to imitate any kind of late-40s filmmaking style.  Although the rich colors and noirish lighting are evocative of the era, the look of FADE TO BLACK is a somewhat mismatched combination of formal style and hand-held naturalism which I could never totally settle into.  This isn't a big problem, though, and the modern-looking photography makes the "Black Magic" rushes and silent-movie clips that we see (which are very well-done) look more convincing by contrast.  Some of Parker's quirky editing choices, while not always successful, are interesting as well.

As the likable Tommaso, Diego Luna (MILK) ably conveys the inner conflict that motivates his character to overcome his fears and plunge into political turmoil, while his loyalty to the impetuous Welles draws him into even deeper peril.  Paz Vega (SPANGLISH) is okay as Lea, although I never found her convincing as the stunningly glamorous film star whom Welles is supposed to find so irresistible.  In a minor role as Welles' CIA-connected friend Pete Brewster, Christopher Walken gives the film some poster-friendly star power just by strolling through it.

The DVD from Image Entertainment is in 2.35:1 widescreen with Dolby 5.1 surround sound and English and Spanish subtitles.  The sole extra is the film's trailer. 

While hardly memorable, I found FADE TO BLACK a diverting "what if" tale that takes a while to get warmed up but eventually begins to pay off for the patient viewer.  The idea of Orson Welles as the reluctant hero in a real-life thriller which rivals the fictional intrigue of his own movies is fun, and Parker and Huston just manage to pull it off.  I wonder, though--if they ever decide to give John Huston the same treatment, who are they going to get to play him?

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