“DARK STREETS” (2008)

Starring: Gabriel Mann, Bijou Phillips, Izabella Miko, Elias Koteas, Jarreth J. Merz, Michael Fairman, Toledo Diamond, Jordi Caballero, Tracy Phillips, Mike Muscat & Kimberly Sanders
Written by Wallace King (screenplay) and Glenn M. Stewart (play)
Directed by Rachel Samuels
Official Site

Polly Staffle Rating: ***

Many do not consider film noir its own genre. The term, which was coined by critic Nino Frank, is French for “black film” and is said to be a visual style that was popularized in crime films in the 1940’s and 50’s. But it’s more than simply a style. It truly is a genre, a highly stylized one that is often overlooked. In the modern days of cinema, directors have toyed with film noir and, essentially, created new subgenres. Not only is there classic film noir (“L.A. Confidential”), there is also sci-fi noir (“Blade Runner”), exploitation noir (“Reservoir Dogs”), nudie noir (“Basic Instinct”), high school noir (“Brick”), comic book noir (“Sin City”), neo noir (“Get Carter”), western noir (“Unforgiven”), psycho noir (“Taxi Driver”) and comedy noir (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”). Now with the movie “Dark Streets,” director Rachel Samuels adds the subgenre musical noir to the list.

Based on a play called “The City Club,” Samuels’ film is filled with a lot of good stuff. It isn’t anywhere close to being a perfect movie; the plot is weak, the characters are all underdeveloped and the protagonist lacks the charisma and faults he needs to take center stage in this glamorous, yet dark and dangerous place. Even still, “Dark Streets ” is an entertaining and highly admirable work of art.

As the film opens, we are told by the rhyming narrator Prince (newcomer Toledo Diamond) that Chaz Davenport (Gabriel Mann) has kissed a bullet. Prince, a signing and dancing pimp-like character of “Candyman” proportions with a mohawk, then tells us the story of how and why Chaz’s life was ended. Chaz was a high rolling playboy and the owner of the jumping nightclub The Tower.

He was born into money, but where Prince picks up the story, Chaz is deep into debt. His rich father committed suicide recently and left Chaz a ton of bills. So a usual day for Chaz features the dilemma of which flapper dame (Tracy Phillips) or song bird doll (Bijou Phillips) he wants to bed, while trying to dodge mobsters popping in, shoving guns in his face and demanding their money. To top it off there are rolling black outs in the city that are hurting the club’s scene. Then Lieutenant (noir regular Elias Koteas of “Hit Me” and “Crash” ) shows up, offering some help and protection. If Chaz agrees to let his singer friend Madelaine (Izabella Miko of “The Foresaken” and “Park”) come by and audition, Lieutenant will take care of everything.

The angelic Madelaine comes and blows the roof off the joint. Chaz see her as a nice addition to his talent at the club – a complimentary chanteuse to his current devilish belter Crystal (Phillips). But Crystal smells trouble and rightfully so, as she soon become number two on Chaz’s list of dames. This love triangle doesn’t end up going anywhere, but like I said Chaz isn’t that charismatic, so no need to get into a cat fight over the dweeb. Which singing beauty is the femme fatale and which is the reliable, trustworthy and loving woman that Chaz should make his one and only? You’ll just have to wait and see.

Where the film goes as far as story isn’t really the important thing here. There’s typical noir themes of murder, corruption, backstabbing and so on with a conclusion that doesn’t surprise or have any emotional power. What does matter in “Dark Streets” is how the film gets to its finale. Along the way, we are treated to beautiful visuals, a lovely soundtrack, lots of great song and dance numbers choreographed by Keith Young and interesting characters that are never fully developed.

The entire film was shot on location in downtown Los Angeles with a swing and shift lens, which allows for both extremely deep and shallow depths of fields. The look is very surreal. It’s dreamy and glamorous, yet mysterious and rough around the edges. Some scenes seem straight out of Mario Van Peebles’ gangster hip hop classic “New Jack City,” others feel more Baz Luhrmann-inspired (“Moulin Rouge!,” “Romeo + Juliet”), while a hint of inspiration from Michael Jackson, who dabbled with noir-ish videos such as “Smooth Criminal” and “You Rock My World,” seems to underline the whole film. Maybe it was just me, but some of the opening dance moves of Phillips reminded me of Jackson, as did a dance by Diamond behind a red screen later on. Lieutenant’s wardrobe also seemed to be a cross between Jackson’s look in the “Bad” video and Pinhead of “Hellraiser.” The roaming angel/ghost-like figure played by Jarreth J. Merz had a slight M.J. vibe as well.

Dedicated to the musicians of New Orleans, the film is backed with a bluesy and jazzy soundtrack that features B.B. King, Dr. John, Etta James, Natalie Cole, Bijou Phillips and more. Phillips, by the way, is on fire in this film. She looks and sounds great as Crystal, a reformed druggie turned pinup songstress. The multi-talented Phillips (“Bully,” “Hostel: Part II”) also co-wrote one of the numbers she sings.

I don’t want to fully blame the film’s faults on Gabriel Mann, who plays Chaz, but the character is the film’s weakest link. I felt the role of Chaz called for a Ryan Gosling or Ed Norton type. Mann (“Abandon,” “The Life of David Gale”) is just too low key. I realize the character was probably underwritten to play as more of an every day Joe, but to help carry “Dark Streets” I think he needed to be more hard boiled, more conflicted and more likeable. He’s not really the nicest or most thoughtful person, he’s not a wise guy and he’s not a bad ass. He’s just kind of there.

After the film’s world premiere at the 10th Annual CineVegas Film Festival, producer and writer Glenn M. Stewart said the film was originally supposed to be two films. “Dark Streets” was to take place outside The Tower, while “The City Club” was to never step foot outside the speakeasy. Stewart said he found completing both versions at the same time would have been a bit too ambitious, so he combined the separate visions into one. Perhaps a bit of all of the characters and a few plot details were lost in the translation. Regardless, director Rachel Samuels, a former script developer for Roger Corman, has still managed to craft a unique fusion of dazzling sights and soulful sounds that meshes glitz, sex and violence that would probably satisfy both Nino Frank and Robert Johnson, the bluesman that is often considered the Grandfather of Rock N’Roll, at the same time.

- CCF, June 2008


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