Style vs. substance

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Dark Streets
Courtesy of CineVegas

Aside from the entertaining but TV-quality documentary Last Cup, my favorite films of the festival so far have been Jake Mahaffy's Wellness and Rachel Samuels' Dark Streets, two movies that probably could not be more opposite in their aesthetic approaches. Wellness is visually crude and technically awkward; many scenes are not properly lighted, and the sound is sometimes distorted. Mahaffy warned the audience before the screening that the movie was rough, in terms of both content and filmmaking, and he was right. Yet it was easy for me to forgive the technical limitations when I was so caught up in the story and the sad life of the main character. The movie has its flaws, and the sound and lighting issues especially can be distracting, but it's an emotionally raw and sometimes heartbreaking experience.

I was at first not inclined to be so forgiving of the flaws in Dark Streets, but considering it later I think I was just showing my bias, and I thought better of the film after re-evaluating my approach. I tend to be more appreciative of a visually clumsy movie with strong acting and writing than a visually dazzling film with plot holes and lackluster performances, but the visual element in filmmaking too often is undervalued by critics who lack technical expertise (i.e., me, and most other critics who didn't go to film school). In the post-screening Q&A, Samuels talked about a special lens she used to shoot the film, and I admit that I had only a vague understanding of what she meant. But it's easy to see the impressive result onscreen, and Dark Streets is an immersive experience well worth checking out. And not only for the visuals - it's also got great music and some entertaining dialogue and performances (just not from dull leading man Gabriel Mann).

Neither of these films is perfect (far from it), but they're each effective in their own way, as long as you remain open to their individual approaches.

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Josh Bell

Josh Bell is the film editor for Las Vegas Weekly, where he's been writing movie and TV reviews since 2002. ...

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Previous Discussion:

  • Las Vegas Weekly contributor Julie Seabaugh joins Josh to wrap up the 2009 CineVegas film festival, including award winners, local films and festival highlights.

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