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Dark Streets
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Died On The Bayou"
4 stars

When “Dark Streets” hits DVD, which will probably be any day now, it is my sincere hope that the bonus features include some hidden-camera footage of director Rachel Samuels pitching the project to the doubtlessly incredulous moneymen from whom she was hoping to secure financing. This is such a singularly odd film--imagine a hyper-stylized noir-influenced amalgamation of “Streets of Fire,” “The Cotton Club” and the Enron scandal--that even as it unspools before your eyes, you can’t quite believe that there were people brave or foolhardy enough to sink their money into something so peculiar. And yet, even though it isn’t necessarily a “good” film by most conventional critical standards, I have to admit that the sheer strangeness of the entire enterprise kept me reasonably compelled from beginning to end, which is more than I can say for a lot of the more conventional bits of Oscar bait that I have been seeing lately.

Set in 1930’s New Orleans, the film stars Gabriel Mann as Chaz Davenport, a young man who has chosen to defy his wealthy and powerful family--his father is the CEO of the all-powerful Consolidated Power Co.--by abandoning his position to open up a nightclub known as The Tower, a move that inspired dear old dad to disinherit him just before committing suicide. Although the club always seems to be packed for the elaborate blues-influenced production numbers that are staged nightly, things are not going well for Chaz--the chorus girls are fighting amongst themselves, the bills are piling up, an endless series of blackouts are driving customers away in droves and dead bodies are beginning to turn up around the club. One day, while being beaten senseless by one of his less-savory creditors, Chaz is rescued by The Lieutenant (Elias Koteas), an oddball cop who insists that Chaz meet and audition a friend of his who, oddly enough, just happens to be a singer. Of course, Chaz already has a lead singer in main squeeze Crystal (Bijou Phillips) but decides to audition the “friend” anyway. She turns out to be Madalaine (Izabella Miko) and in addition to being drop-dead gorgeous, it turns out that she really can sing after all and Chaz hires her on and they inevitably become an item, much to Crystal’s chagrin. Around this time, Chaz also uncovers information that suggests that his father was actually murdered and in investigating the matter for himself, he finds himself entangled in an ever-growing web of deceit and corruption that extends to the highest corridors of power and which may involve everyone that he knows.

I will be the first to admit that as a film unto itself, “Dark Streets” is a deeply flawed work in many ways. For one thing, the basic plot, in which Chaz tries to get to the bottom of his father’s murder, is a real drag--it often feels as if screenwriter Wallace King (working from the play by Glenn M. Stewart) is just stringing together a bunch of elements taken at random from films he caught late at night on TCM and the big mystery, once it is revealed, is such a letdown that even as the end credits began to roll, I was hoping that there was still a last-minute twist in store that might make the story seem a little less trite. For another, there is the inescapable fact that there may not be a less noir-like actor working today than Gabriel Mann--this is a genre where the characters, even the most innocent and naïve, are possessed with a certain toughness and cynicism that he simply seems incapable of conveying for a second--he always looks as if he has either just arrived from a day of surfing at the beach or is about to dash off to hit the waves.

And yet, while it is clear early on that “Dark Streets” is never in danger of being compared to either an authentic exercise in film noir or any of the better latter-day homages to the genre like “L.A. Confidential” or the vastly underrated “The Black Dahlia,” there are still plenty of nifty things going on to distract from the failed elements. The highly stylized look that cinematographer Sharone Meir lends to the proceedings is always arresting--if film noir had a dream about itself, this is what it would look like. The music--a wall-to-wall collection of blues tunes--is a pleasure to listen to throughout (with the exception of the final song crooned by Bijou Phillips, a number that is just a little too jarring for its own good) and will no doubt inspire many viewers to seek it out as soon as the film is over. And while the musical productions are not exactly staged with anything resembling elegance--they lack the fluidity that the best screen choreography can achieve and have been further subverted by choppy editing--the abundance of gorgeous women in period lingerie strutting their stuff in those sequences more than makes up for the lack of filmmaking fundamentals in my book. Most of all, I just found myself strangely happy with the fact that a movie as conceptually and stylistically odd as this one can still get made within the confines of an increasingly conservative cultural climate--this is a bold and bizarre work and while it may not totally succeed at what it is attempting to do, it is far more ambitious that most other films I could name and it definitely makes me want to see what Samuels comes up with next.

Look, it is very likely that unless you make it a point to seek out obscure films or have an uncontrollable fetish for Bijou Phillips (and I can sympathize on both counts), it is very likely that you had never even heard of “Dark Streets” until you began reading this review. It is also likely that even if you happen to live in one of the cities where it is actually being released, you are most likely not going to get a chance to catch up with it during what I can only presume will be an extremely short theatrical run. (In Chicago, it is opening on only one screen in what is generally considered to be the worst theater in the entire city.) Even when it hits home video, it is likely that most of you will wind up overlooking it in favor of whatever the big and highly publicized title of the week might be. However, sometime in the future, you may find yourself channel-hopping late at night and stumble across some unknown movie featuring a lot of energetic blues-inspired musical numbers, a lot of film noir trappings and Bijou Phillips strutting around in a lot of skimpy period finery and if you are a certain kind of movie fan, you may well find yourself at least temporarily mesmerized by these elements even as you are racking your brain trying to figure out what the hell this film could possibly be. Well, having read this, now you’ll know.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=17469&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/12/08 16:29:31
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 CineVegas Film Festival For more in the 2008 CineVegas Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  12-Dec-2008 (R)
  DVD: 30-Jun-2009

UK
  N/A

Australia
  12-Dec-2008
  DVD: 30-Jun-2009




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