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Columbia TriStar
1992 / Color / 1:37 flat adapted scan / 113 min. / Street Date October 14, 2003 / 19.95
Starring James Spader, Joanne Whalley, Jason Robards, Charlotte Lewis, Michael Warren, Piper Laurie, Michael Parks, Chuck McCann, Charles Haid, Chino 'Fats' Williams, Woody Strode
Cinematography Ronald V�ctor García
Production Designer Richard Hoover
Art Direction Kathleen M. McKernin
Film Editor B.J. Sears
Original Music Carter Burwell
Written by Mark Frost, Lee Reynolds from a novel by Frank Galbally & Robert Macklin
Produced by John Davis, John Flock, Evzen Kolar, Les Lithgow, Edward R. Pressman, David Roe, George Zecevic
Directed by Mark Frost

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Storyville is a tepid soap thriller in the modern deep South, where the titled location is no longer the red light district, but a techno nightclub. Written and directed by David Lynch's team from Twin Falls, it wants to be dangerous and wicked but comes off as tame and artificial as an old episode of Perry Mason. The mystery is weak, as is star James Spader, an interesting actor at this time in the middle of a spate of dull roles.


Cray Fowler (James Spader) is running for congress in Louisiana just a few years after his millionaire father committed suicide while under investigation for land rights fraud - with the oil land that made the family rich at stake. Ignoring his unfaithful wife Mel (Justine Shapiro), Cray leans toward city prosecutor Natalie Tate (Joanne Whalley), an old lover, but escapes the attentions of his uncle Clifford (Jason Robards) by dallying with a waitress, Lee (Charlotte Lewis). Only later does he find out that his liaison with Lee was videotaped - and he can't figure out who did it - his competition shows no sign of threatening him with the scandal.

I kept waiting for someone to say, "forget it, Cray, it's Storyville". Storyville tries to get the thriller juices running but is low on energy, charisma, and originality. We know darn well that Cray Fowler is going to get to the bottom of at least two mysteries and maybe three, and they're all tidily resolved in the courtroom.

The film is thin on interesting lead performances, and must make do with a lush visual veneer and a couple of good character turns. Stars Jason Robards and Piper Laurie are obvious in thin roles. She's practically inert as a dotty belle, and he might as well hang a sign around his neck saying he's the evil baddie. There's little if any chemistry, as if all involved were trying to be subtle but instead ended up subterranean. Spader and Joanne Whalley Kilmer ignite few sparks, and Charlotte Lewis is in for spice, providing a tame sex scene that (surprise surprise) is filmed for blackmail purposes. Like, every candidate with a known scumbag for a rival should go out and have a fling with a total stranger in a very strange place, in this case, a martial arts studio overdressed to resemble a Japanese tea room. What martial arts studio has a king-sized hot tub - on the third floor of an ancient building?

Also a non-surprise is the revelation that the wealthy Fowler family got rich by plundering oil rights and defrauding local poor blacks like Charlie Sumpter, played by the welcome Woody Strode. Lurching into this fray is a clumsy anti-Vietnam war theme, with Cray's opponent Avner Hollister (Phillip Carter) suspected of Vietnam atrocities. Hollister's surly henchman Michael Trevallian (Michael Parks) served with him and hates Vietnamese. The main murder victim is Vietnamese. I'm seeing a pattern ...

Considering the touch-each-base attitude toward issues, the politics of the film is screwy. Our hero Cray is a slightly alienated rich kid getting a divorce during his election and dallying on the side, and yet he turns out to be the voice of ethics and justice, gladly preparing to make reparations to the people his family defrauded.

All of this might work, but Storyville suffers from direction that seems to want to get scenes over with. You know how it is - either what happens grabs one's attention and becomes a movie story, or it just marks time and then moves on to the next script page. Frost's direction is measured but pedestrian, the basically good acting isn't focused, and the story instead centers on irrelevant details like Charles Haid's dirty pictures studio, injected into the murder building to add kinky content. Likewise, using a cross-dressing guy in the courtroom scene almost comes off as parodic.

Other casting choices are limp as well. Why hire comic actor Chuck McCann in a dramatic role, and then give him almost nothing to do? It makes it look as if there was a reason his scenes had to be cut out. There's a lot of clutter of this kind in the movie that doesn't contribute.

A standout is actor Michael Warren as a black attorney assisting Cray in a murder case. His efforts help hide the fact that in the middle of an election campaign that couldn't last too many weeks, Cray is present at a murder, volunteers as defense counsel and wins the case just in time for the notoriety to swing the election in his favor. Oh, he's also campaigning and unearthing his dirty family secrets too. When's the last time you heard of a murder trial happening any sooner than 6 months after the crime? The setup at the fade out has a young, blonde, Southern white man with an unstable sex life riding a new political skyrocket, with sterling ethics and the support of the black community solidly behind him. Is this an analog for the beginning of the Clinton administration, or what?

Columbia TriStar's Storyville isn't really bad, it's just not very special. Their DVD doesn't help it shine; its original visual veneer is hampered by a flat adapted-scan transfer. In other words, it looks like a cable TV transfer that zooms variously in and out to recompose for 19 inch motel televisions. The colors are dull and the framing artless, even in the rather over-designed Japanese studio used for a rendezvous. The audio is much better. The only extras are some trailers, but none for this film.

I know of two studios, and Columbia is one of them, that are leaning regularly toward releasing library product full frame instead of letterboxed or in the fan-preferred 16:9 format. From what I can gather, it's happening because the executives are market oriented and see their main venues as the large sellers Target and Wal-Mart, monster retailers that can move tons of product and are partial to flat pictures. I've also heard of blanket decisions being made by executives even higher up, who personally don't like letterboxing, issuing fiats that filter down into bizarre and contradictory release patterns. It used to be that 'family' films were commonly released flat. When web fans got up at arms over one flat release of a widescreen roadshow family spectacular, I'm sure the studio execs just saw it as an opportunity to market another special edition release at a later date. Flat transfers also seemed to be the result of economizing, but the home video divisions of a couple of studios are now routinely releasing flat DVDs of movies for which brilliant 16:9 transfers are readily available. There isn't any policy or philosophy behind this but a general trend toward flat transfers. The only titles that have some immunity are those in hip genres that cater to the tech obessed young men who started the DVD craze - Science Fiction, Horror, etc.. And even that category isn't immune to exceptions.

When I buy a DVD, I want something different than what I saw on cable television. Dragonslayer. Men with Guns, and The Valley of Gwangi are all easy to see on broadcast or cable, but look much better on DVD. Watching these 'formatted to fit your screen' discs is akin to seeing a film on an airplane trip: it it's any good at all, I regret not seeing it right.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Storyville rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Fair
Sound: Very good
Supplements: promo trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 12, 2003

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