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DVD Review: Dark Streets

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Dark Streets has a lot of different things going on. There is a lot of blues music, some dancing, a mystery concerning the city's rolling blackouts, and an eclectic cast of characters. Unfortunately, these disparate elements do not fit together well. The film is short on character development and has only the barest outline of a plot. What you're left with is a series of poorly executed tableaux, with little or nothing going on beneath the surface.

It's hard to offer a synopsis of this film, because if you condense the screenplay down to just the dramatic action, you're not left with much. But this much I can say: Chaz Davenport (a miscast Gabriel Mann) is a young playboy from a rich family. His hobby is his nightclub, but business is bad. It's not clear why, since the place seems jam-packed, and his family is supposed to be rich.

Davenport is, of course, romantically involved with one (or more, it's unclear) of the showgirls, but there is a special connection between him and the star of the show (Bijou Phillips) because the two of them have known each other since childhood. This is revealed to us in a short scene written not with dialogue, but with thinly disguised exposition. That's not so bad, really, because it's the most hard information we get; the actual scenes between the actors fail to give us any idea of their relationship, drawn as they are with the broadest of strokes.

Davenport's prospects may be on the rise, though. After a tough character comes in, pulls a gun and demands money from Davenport (who he is or why he is "owed" this money is never made clear), a policeman (Elias Koteas) arrives to shoot the villain down in the nick of time. This policeman is written to be an odd fellow, and Koteas certainly brings this out. But he's a literal-minded character whose earnest facial expressions and law enforcement aphorisms make him seem even more plastic. His function within the plot, not to mention his incomprehensible character choices, are a mystery to me.

One important thing the policeman does, though, is bring in a girl to sing for Davenport. Davenport argues that he already has a singer, but of course, he falls for the new girl completely once he sees her and puts her in the show. This naturally creates friction in his relationship with Phillips' character. But since we only have a vague understanding of said relationship and little or no connection to them as people, this "conflict" is rarely compelling.

There is another, intertwining, plot line involving Davenport. Davenport's rich father dies early in the film, and he soon gets the idea that it was murder rather than suicide. This is the "murder mystery" aspect of the film, but it runs into the same issues that hinder the other sub-plot: the plot isn't compelling, and neither are the characters. Any sort of "mystery-suspense" film, even if it is stylized, must be able to get the audience involved with the details of the plot, maintaining suspense by slowly uncovering important new facts that change the story. Dark Streets does slowly uncover the facts surrounding the mystery, but it does so in such a haphazard manner as to make the "mystery-suspense" aspect of the film the weakest by far.

If you're wondering, the "murdered father" sub-plot does tie into the "romantic triangle" sub-plot, but just vaguely. In fact, vague would be a good adjective to describe the film in general.

So what is the saving grace of Dark Streets? If anything, it's the sights and sounds. The sights include a well-constructed 1930s-era nightclub, a wealth of interesting costume choices and a film that pays a great deal of attention to lighting. Even then, though, the look of the film isn't perfect. As you might have guessed, the exact era and location of the story is unspecific, perhaps intentionally so. But it does make for some awkward moments. Like, for example, when the police detective first arrives wearing something that could only be a police uniform in a Phillip K. Dick novel. This leaves us wondering how much of this is supposed to be real and how much is meant to be fantastical.

The songs in the film will grab your attention, mainly because of the artists performing them: Solomon Burke, Etta James, Dr. John, Aaron Neville, Natalie Cole, and Richie Sambora, among others. This is an eye-catching list of talent that lends the film a great deal of legitimacy.

Even here, though, the filmmakers can't use world-class blues artists without making a key mistake. The mistake is putting music everywhere in the film. Everywhere. And that is not meant as a compliment. Great though many of the songs are, there isn't room enough in the film for all of them, especially when they're not connected to what's going on in the story. This makes for a lot of uneasy transitions, as the songs change the tone before the audience has a chance to catch up.

The ultimate effect of all this on the viewer is that by the time the new revelations and plot twists start popping up at the end of the movie, you just don't care about what's going on. It's already clear that the screenplay is not so much a script as it is an outline of a series of eclectic moments centered around dark streets and nightclubs. And the actors, unfortunately, cannot pick up the slack. The lead character, Chaz Davenport, has little or no characterization in the script. And unfortunately, Gabriel Mann doesn't show enough charisma to compensate. Bijou Phillips is good enough, but she's given very little to do; the only real development in her character is her predictable reaction to Davenport's new flame (Izabella Miko).

I don't know what director Rachel Samuels and screenwriter Wallace King were trying to accomplish. Knowing how they expected the film to work would help me understand why –at least in my opinion — it didn't.

Watching Dark Streets is like trying to read a coded message without knowing the code. You may see a few vague impressions, but you're ultimately helpless to determine what exactly the writer wanted to tell you.

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