A slight musical murder-mystery with style to spare, Dark Streets is a movie that recalls a blessed-with-height but beanpole-thin high school hoopster — all unmolded talent and potential. There’s a smoldering energy here that sustains vast stretches, and the film is gorgeously shot to boot, but its narrative frame also feels so underdeveloped and riddled with curiosities as to cause things to frequently bog down.
Music, passion, death and betrayal are Dark Streets‘ main ingredients. The movie centers around Chaz Davenport (Gabriel Mann), a dashing playboy who owns and operates a successful nightclub, even if he is swamped by gambling debts and hobbled by increasingly frequent power outages that doom his nightly gate, and thus his livelihood. Arriving on the scene, a mysterious police lieutenant (Elias Koteas) seems to offer assistance into both the rolling blackouts and the sinister circumstances surrounding the recent death of his father, but fobs off on Chaz a sultry, would-be singer, Madelaine Bondurant (Izabella Miko). Her arrival causes fits for club crooner Crystal (Bijou Phillips), a singer with whom Chaz has a complicated past. Against the backdrop of a soundtrack that includes 12 original songs featuring Solomon Burke, Natalie Cole,
Etta James, Dr. John, Aaron Neville, Richie Sambora and more, Chaz finds his life
spiralling dangerously out of control, even as he comes closer to learning the truth about his father’s demise.
Adapted by Wallace King from the stageplay City Club by Glenn M. Stewart, Dark Streets bills itself as a homage to great film noir mysteries of the 1930s, and while it’s undeniable that there’s both some stunning, budget-level costuming and other detail, as well as a white hot energy all its own, the mystery plot — a half-dash of Chinatown‘s murky intrigue, two cups of L.A. Confidential‘s corrupt city hall bureaucracy, and a pinch of Chicago‘s willful tawdriness — is too spare a frame to hold up to much scrutiny. Why is Chaz unplugged from his late father’s business, the local power company, and slow to either ask for special favors in helping stem the effects of the blackouts, or piece together the notion that there may be a connection between recent events? Why is he at one point thrown out of his own club? Why does he fall for the heavy-lidded Madelaine so easily? Narrative convenience is the across-the-board answer for all these questions.
Dark Streets is more about mood than clarity, really. Thankfully, director Rachel Samuels, who won a special jury prize for her work at the 2008 CineVegas International Film Festival, knows what she’s doing in this respect. Using swing-and-shift lenses that tilt the plane of focus — and thus blur compositional edges, or sometimes fully the outermost quarters of the screen — Samuels crafts a work that is woozy, evocative and alluring, kind of like the surly hipster adolescent outcast who beckons darkly to the preppy varsity athlete. Shooting in some of the beautiful abandoned movie palaces of Downtown Los Angeles, with filtered light streaming in to bathe the wood panelling and ornate ceilings, Samuels and her collaborators succeed in working up an intriguing backdrop — the “unreal world in the back of your mind,” as one self-aware character calls the movie’s setting. They just can’t quite breathe life into two-dimensional back stories, and plotting.
Housed in a regular Amaray case with carved-out spindles that use less plastic, Dark Streets comes to DVD in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, with an English language 5.1 Dolby digital audio track. An auto-play red-band trailer for Gregor Jordan’s forthcoming adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ The Informers kicks things off, which means plenty of naked Amber Heard, set to A Flock of Seagulls. Jump-starting the slate of supplemental features is a feature-length audio commentary track from Samuels, Mann and Toledo Diamond, who portrays the film’s narrator. They joke about the ghosts that will haunt the condos of Downtown Los Angeles, discuss Mann’s mustache grooming (“Your face reminds me of a Dashiell Hammett novel,” deadpans Toledo), and give props to cinematographer Sharone Meir. Ever eager to share credit, Samuels also reveals that Toledo crafted his own poetic framing asides, with only loose input from her.
Next up is a collection of 11 deleted and alternate scenes that runs just under 10 minutes, and is heavy on kiss-related material, actually; a goon’s creepy/threatening kiss of Chaz, a smooch between Chaz and Madelaine, and a scene in which Chaz withholds liplock from a devastated Crystal. As much as the movie’s very interesting visual scheme is discussed and explained in the audio commentary, there’s no visual exploration of this, vis-a-vis a making-of featurette, and that’s a big, curious strike. Preview trailers for The Human Contract, Cadillac Records, Elegy, Fragments and 14 other Sony home video releases are also included. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here; to watch the trailer, click here. B- (Movie) B- (Disc)