Film Review: 'Dark Streets' as fuzzy as its lens

Gabriel Mann as Chaz Davenport and Bijou Phillips as Crystal Labelle in Rachel Samuels' 'Dark Streets'.

Photo by Photos by Jack Zeman, Samuel Goldwyn Films

Gabriel Mann as Chaz Davenport and Bijou Phillips as Crystal Labelle in Rachel Samuels' "Dark Streets".

According to its press kit, "Dark Streets" -- which opens today in Memphis and about a dozen other markets -- is "an atmospheric film noir musical fantasy," "a noir fever dream" and a "blues-infused noir mystery."

If you suspect those are code words for "pointless hooey," you're probably smarter than the movie's protagonist, who needs most of the film's blessedly brief 83-minute running time to figure out that the person you, the viewer, immediately pegged as the head villain was, in fact, the head villain.

Bijou Phillips as Crystal Labelle in Rachel Samuels' 'Dark Streets.'

Photo by Jack Zeman

Bijou Phillips as Crystal Labelle in Rachel Samuels' "Dark Streets."

The real mystery here is why Samuel Goldwyn Films decided to distribute "Dark Streets" to theaters after the movie screened in June at the CineVegas International Film Festival. This is the epitome of a film that impresses in the context of a less than stellar festival but loses all its oomph in the real world. The movie's cinematographer (Sharone Meir), production designer (Frank Bollinger) and costume designer (Maria Schicker) should take a bow, but whatever appeal Glenn M. Stewart's 2004 musical "The City Club" possessed on stage was lost by director Rachel Samuels and scripter Wallace King on the way to the cinema.

Shot -- with lenses that create gauzy variations of focus within the same plane of depth -- in the art deco environs of downtown Los Angeles, "Dark Streets" casts Gabriel Mann as Chaz, the thin-mustached young owner of a Cotton Club-style nightspot where beautiful Crystal (Bijou Phillips) belts out original pop-blues tunes while sexy Jazz Age chorines kick-step behind her.

The club attracts a vaguely sinister detective (Elias Koteas) whose weird piratical outfits might have been designed by Howie Chaykin. (Judging from the costumes and props, the movie is set in the sort of timeless retro-future environment one finds in certain noirish comic books.) The detective is less interested in the murder of Chaz's dad or the suspicious power outages that have been plaguing the city than he is in promoting his protege: a platinum-blond chanteuse (Izabella Miko) who quickly replaces Crystal in Chaz's "big heart." Too bad, because "big hearts break hard downtown fast -- welcome to the blues," says the film's mohawked narrator, played by a performer billed only as Toledo, who is described in the press kit as "a soul singer, jazz man, poet, dancer, choreographer and connoisseur of haberdashery."

Pretty but plodding (the cliché plot is utterly free of surprise), "Dark Streets" seems to have been conceived by hipsters who profess love for "the blues" and "noir" but are more familiar with the Humphrey Bogart posters at Hot Topic than, say, "In a Lonely Place." In any case, the producers managed to get B.B. King to add some guitar licks to the score, and recruited Aaron Neville, Natalie Cole, Dr. John and Etta James, among others, to cut new songs for the soundtrack. The movie ends with a dedication to "the musicians of New Orleans, whose community was devastated by hurricanes Gustav and Katrina"; the press kit states that the producers will donate "half of the film's profits" to The Blues Initiative, a nonprofit organization that provides relief to displaced musicians.

"Dark Streets" is playing exclusively at Malco's Ridgeway Four.

-- John Beifuss, 529-2394

© 2008 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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