There are times as a film critic that I suspect I’m trapped in some kind of cruel endurance test by the Hollywood studios. They figure that sooner or later, the endless parade of pointless crap will either blow out my bullshit detector (say, like Jeffrey Lyons) or some other part of my mind leaving me wholly unable to process what I’ve seen (just like Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman). If you find a positive quote for a Chris O’Donnell flick with my name on it, you’ll know I’ve fallen in battle requiring one of you reading this to take up my sword.
Anyway, while we’re on the subject, self-absorption also plagues the hero of a movie that has helped to restore my cinematic faith, the kind of work for which Film Threat even exists. It’s called “Black Days.” Written, directed, edited, and produced (with Matt Rose) by Ari Margolis and James Morley III, it’s another product of the generation that apparently grew up in the comic book store (i.e., “Unbreakable”, “The Specials”, anything from Kevin Smith). However, this time the influences manifest in a different way. My best guess is that whoever took first crack at the story sat down and re-read all of their Frank Miller “Sin City” graphic novels before consuming a big hit of acid. Immediately, the first thing that came to mind was the memory and effects of the two forgotten doses consumed prior to the Miller-athon. The next thought to invade our author’s fractured psyche was the idea to take a normal slacker comic-book guy with his normal slacker relationship problems and then dropkick his a*s into the world of one of them hard-boiled books sitting in that just-read stack of books.
The strange trip begins with the voice of Ty (S. Greg Gardner) during what must be a quite unpleasant moment, just before a flashback to when his troubles began. Life wasn’t so great then, either. Struggling to become a comic writer/artist and with women, Ty’s getting by working at a movie theater as a parking lot attendant. One night on the job bring him face to face with his possible soul-mate, Gwen (Shiva Rose). Ty gets a taste of his future when his attempt to manipulate their first date result in what would seem to be the worst first date, ever. Soon after, Gwen demonstrates what an extremely crazed control freak looks like. Just when he thinks it can’t get any worse, Gwen’s ex-boyfriend Gordon (D. Reynolds) turns up to demonstrate what an extremely crazed freak looks like. Will Ty sensibly cut his losses and walk, or will he buy his own ticket for the extremely crazed freak express? Oh, take a guess. Of course, a look around from the last stop may reveal you were not riding on the train you had thought.
With “Black Days”, the details of the story aren’t the most important elements. It’s only the track that leads you to where you’re going. What you’ll most remember is not the destination but the style and quirks of the car you rode to get there. Shot in black-and-white, around ten or fifteen minutes in you slowly realize that Margolis and Morley have crafted Ty’s perception of the world from many of the defining characteristics writer/artist Frank Miller employs to define his popular “Sin City” books. If you haven’t seen it, envision a film noir cranked to 11 with a sprinking of the sort of bizarre elements and violence you might find in a Japanese Yakuza flick from the last 20 years. There’s the same kind of noir shot composition and lighting. Whether talking or narrating, Ty always speaks in the same clipped, jacked-up hard-boiled dialogue. More significantly, the same sort of demented plot twists and details jump out of nowhere to keep both Ty and the audience off-balance.
The end result of this extreme approach is… pretty goddamn funny. It’s one thing to read that kind speech on the page or listen to it from an old movie. When spoken by a couple of contemporary twentysomethings, the rhythm and delivery sound ludicrous. It’s as if the participants were competing to find out which one is the most clever and weird. Miller’s themes don’t escape the filter of absurdity, either. Like the pen-and-ink heroes, Ty exercises somewhat questionable judgement in the pursuit and maintenance of love and then finds himself trapped in a situation waaay over his head. However, unlike those characters, Ty is neither tough enough to shrug off a lot of damage or savvy enough to quickly formulate a plan to extricate himself from trouble. Also, Gwen isn’t just a “femme fatale”, but a dangerously loony one. She may appear sweet and petite, but closer inspection reveals a man-eater similar to a slow-acting roach motel for co-dependent men. First to go is independence, followed by judgement, dignity, and eventually something more physical. The only exit might turn out to be the door to madness. There may be no escape, but there’s quite a bit of entertainment value on this downward spiral.
It’s not a perfect film. This is from a couple of guys just starting out. The opening segment could be much tighter and it takes a little time for the picture to find its rhythm. Once locked into its groove, however, and “Black Days” is a tight, witty, often brilliant and quite damaged comedy. The filmmakers did the right things. They wrote a story that could be produced well within their resources. They put in the extra time in to fine-tune the script and design their shots. They found the cast, though unknown, that could execute the material. The most important achievement of Margolis and Morley was to avoid becoming self-absorbed or self-important about the content. They focused on a product that would hold an audience’s attention and keep them entertained. If only the ego-fueled hacks behind “Pay It Forward” could have retained these lessons I wouldn’t have to try to drink its horrid memory out of head.
When viewing the latest feeble attempt by Stallone or Arnie to salvage their careers, I can’t help but think $40 million of the budget would have been better spent on just a few GOOD ideas, rather than a lot of tired computer effects forgotten within a day. As a matter of fact, the combo of some good ideas backed up by raw talent, boundless drive and enthusiasm can produce a movie on whatever cash could be borrowed from the filmmakers’ relatives that should always beat the $100 million product of market testing. “Black Days” brought me more joy than much of the 2000 studio output that has steadily chipped away at my sanity. Even on the indie level, this movie surpasses at least 90% of what I’ll find at Sundance. It may sound like the product of a couple of inexperienced fanboys, but this film reveals talent, inspiration, judgement, and clarity. After fame and four features, how many of those traits has director Kevin Smith displayed? I’m looking forward to what Margolis and Morley might do next.