The Cotton Club (US, 1984)

The Mob

I remember walking out of a screening of The Cotton Club when it was first released, though that wasn’t entirely due to the film, and was surprised by actually how good the film is. I hadn’t noticed that director Francis Coppola had financed a ‘director’s cut’ (called ‘Encore’) that appeared last year, however it seems the version I’ve seen (on Talking Pictures) is the original version so that doesn’t explain the discrepant responses. Coppola made his name with the The Godfather (US, 1972) but, as the title suggests, The Cotton Club is more than a gangster movie. As the legendary venue in Harlem, that hosted Duke Ellington amongst others, in the pre-World War II period, it had a massive impact on popular music. Fascinatingly, what Coppola did, with his co-screenwriter William Kennedy (and story contribution from Mario Puzo), is make a hybrid musical-gangster film; two genres that, in terms of mood, are essentially polar opposites. Bugsy Malone (UK, 1976) did the same but it was a pastiche.

Even more interesting is the narrative which barely entwines the genre; it is, in effect, two films in one united by characters and location. Richard Gere’s Dixie is a cornet player (Gere showing his chops with some elan) who gets mixed up with James Remar’s Dutch Schultz, but much of the musical narrative centres on Gregory Hines’ Sandman who has nothing to do with the gangster and little to do with Dixie. This clearly spooked the financiers in 1984 as apparently many song and dance sequences were cut and the ‘black’ storyline, featuring Hines and Lonette McKee as Lila who can pass for white, severely downgraded. As is so often the case, in the re-edit the black characters were subservient to the white experience whereas (presumably) Coppola’s original, even though the lead was Gere, balanced the narratives much more.

The Musical

In the musical genre song and dance sequences usually serve to move the narrative forward by, for example, bringing together the romantic leads. In The Cotton Club they are shown for their own sake and hence slow the narrative’s momentum, something anathema to Classical Hollywood. But bloody hell aren’t they good; particularly the Hines’ brothers’ (above) routines! The Encore version doesn’t seem to be available in the UK but I’d love to see it.

Coppola was one of the most interesting directors of the 1970s and 1980s: in addition to the first two Godfather films (Part II, 1974), there was The Conversation (1974), Apocalypse Now(in several versions, originally 1979), One From the Heart (1981), Rumblefish (1983) and Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988). Ultimately he was too arty for the box office and his big imagination demanded big budgets. Maybe Christopher Nolan is today’s equivalent with grandiose, thoughtful films but Coppola worked in numerous genres giving greater variety to his work.

The Company You Keep (US-Canada, 2012)

Old school

Robert Redford, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Terrence Howard, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Elliott and youngsters Anna Kendrick, Shia LaBeouf and Brit Marling all in one film! It’s an extraordinary cast list and probably a tribute to Producer-Director Redford’s contact book. It’s the last film he’s made as a director and Christie’s last film appearance to date and a sense of retro pervades the film as it deals with politics in a way that harks back to ’70s films, such as Three Days of the Condor (1975). Given the age of the protagonists, Redford was in his mid-’70s, there’s also a valedictory tone as characters reminisce about their radical youth and what happened since.

Lem Dobbs’ screenplay, based on Neil Gordon’s novel, is adept at showing the inevitable disappointment of how the radicalism, of anti-Vietnam War protestors (specifically the Weather Underground – or Weathermen), ended in disappointment even though America eventually withdrew from South East Asia. If Reagan wasn’t enough in 1980s the repressive state of politics post-9/11 made it worse and this has even been topped by the ludicrous Trump. The narrative highlights complication of being a parent whilst trying to oppose the state which, given the bourgeois nature of the nuclear family, gives a reactionary feel to the resolution. However, given the nature of parenthood it is, at the same time, convincing. That’s a pretty neat trick to pull off as the film careers toward a ‘Hollywood’ ending (though the film was independently produced). If this paragraph doesn’t make sense that’s because I don’t want to include spoilers – the film’s available in the UK on BBC iPlayer for another 20 days.

The film is as interesting as much for its use of stars as its narrative. Usually I find cameo roles distracting as there’s disappointment that more isn’t seen of the actor, however here it works as it adds to the valedictory mood of the film. All of the named (LaBeouf aside whose bratty journalist I think is meant to be admired) are superb; Britt Marling even makes an impact when we are introduced to her character as a voice on the phone. Christie, drawing on her own radical past, is as luminous as ever and Sarandon does droll with a ferocity unequaled by any contemporary actor; LaBeouf in his scene with her is annihilated. Cooper, Gleeson and Elliot all exude gravitas; Tucci and Howard both signify professionalism; Jenkins’ conflicted lecturer and Nolte’s roguishness are effortlessly portrayed; Kendrick makes an impact with what little she is given and Redford’s Redford.

Ben Dickerson’s book Hollywood’s New Radicalism (IB Tauris, 2006) featured Sarandon on its cover and showed how films like Bamboozled (2000), Bulworth (1998), The Cradle Will Rock (1999), Erin Brokovich (2000), Bulworth (1998), and Mystic River (2003) all had interesting things to say. Hollywood’s gone pretty much mute now, though, to be fair, Adam McKay does try (The Big Short, 2015, and Vice, 2018); it’s probably that Hollywood rarely had much to say about politics and it’s only through the telescopic lens of history that there appeared to be loads of radical films at the turn of the century and in the New Hollywood era of the 1970s. Hence The Company You Keep is a pretty vital watch.

First Reformed (US-UK-Australia, 2017)

Religion in the modern world

I’m probably one of the least qualified people to comment on a film about religion as I’m mostly ignorant of the themes that inform them. I didn’t even twig that the potentially redeeming character, played by Amanda Seyfried, was called Mary until I read Gillian Horvat’s excellent Sight & Sound article. So this post will be limited by my secular outlook.

I’m aware that writer-director Paul Schrader has form in dealing with metaphysical issues and was more attracted to the film by Ethan Hawke’s presence. I can’t think of a contemporary actor who consistently turns up in more interesting material and who, invariably, delivers brilliant performances. The only time he disappointed me was when he was, I felt, miscast in Maudie (Ireland-Canada, 2016); here his star power overwhelmed the simplicity of his character. In First Reformed we know that his Toller is a deeply conflicted priest right from the start, as he delivers a sermon, simply through his non verbal communication: his posture is uncertain and intonation full of doubt. Alexander Dynan’s austere cinematography, it was shot in late autumn/winter (and apparently influenced by Berman’s Winter Light, Nattvardsgästerna, Sweden, 1963), beautifully captures Toller’s despair.

Whilst I have no problem with existential angst it was rewarding when, as the film progressed, the despair gained a political edge as Toller tries to console a parishioner who questions the wisdom of bringing a child into the world that is doomed to climate catastrophe. The introduction of the ‘big business’ bad guy (whose argument against mitigating climate change is, “It’s complicated, right!”) also works to root the metaphysical problems in the real world.

Most of Schrader’s camera work is austere too: an unmoving camera placed not necessarily to get all the action. However, he’s not averse to breaking away from arthouse realism. There are two scenes where the metaphysical outweighs the physical: (spoiler alert) one where Mary and Toller float through together through the ether (for want of a better term) and, at the end which for some, Peter Bradshaw for one, went too far. I take Bradshaw’s point, but the ending is only problematic if you read it as realist. In fact, it’s clear that the doors to Toller’s residence are locked and Mary could not have entered so the ending is really all in the priest’s mind.

There’s probably something symbolic about the church he ministers as it’s about to celebrate its 250 anniversary and so places its origins in colonial days. That one went over my head too.

I haven’t actually seen many of Schrader’s films as director (and he’s credited with 26 on imdb); I’ve long wanted to catch Blue Collar (US, 1976) his debut. I need to catch up with him as the ones that I’ve seen I’ve mostly enjoyed.

Queen & Slim (Canada-US, 2019)

Fateful meeting

African-American themed films tend not to play well at the UK box office and so it was good to see Cineworld taking a risk with what is essentially a throwback to the early ’70s New Hollywood movie; it’s certainly not straightforward multiplex fodder. Queen (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) meet on a Tinder date and then find trouble with a racist cop. What follows is a road movie, hopefully to freedom, where they discover much about each other and something about racially divided America.

There’s so much in this film that impresses especially as most of the principals are feature film debutants: director Melina Matsoukas (known for music video, particularly Beyoncé’s Formation), scriptwriter Lena Waithe (based on an idea by James Frey) and Turner-Smith who turns in a (hopefully) star-making performance. Kaluuya executive produced, no doubt helping get the reported $17m budget, and matches his co-star with another superb turn.

Although the film is set in the present, Matsoukas has made the mise en scene timeless to an extent: the cars are old fashioned; a youngster takes a photograph using a camera; the brilliantly chosen music runs the gamut of the last fifty years. In addition, the script isn’t particularly concerned with realism as some of the plotting strains credulity a little (the encounter with the sheriff for instance) however as the film is operating more an a symbolic level, rather than trying to convince us we are seeing a window on the world, that isn’t a problem. Occasionally, we hear dialogue which the characters aren’t speaking, though it’s relevant to the scene; another anti-realist device.

Road movies are usually about ‘finding yourself’ and/or the place the characters live in. Five Easy Pieces (US, 1970) and The Sugarland Express (which shares the outlaw narrative) are two examples from New Hollywood cinema where, it seemed, the director truly called the shots; Bob Rafelson and Steven Spielberg respectively. Ironically it was the latter’s Jaws (1975) that led to the producer-led Hollywood that still predominates; he has continued to churn out personal movies, some of which are interesting. The ending of Queen & Slim, in particular, reminded me of films from that time. Although a precursor of New Hollywood, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is an explicit reference point for the film.

Despite its sort-of timelessness, the film is obviously about #BlackLivesMatter and so is resolutely contemporary; it shares this theme with the also excellent The Hate U Give. Every review I’ve read has criticised the cutting between the sex scene (involving the protagonists) and a demonstration against police racism. For me it worked in contrasting the personal (these were two lonely people who were seeking love) and the political (the colour of their skin compromises their existence because America is a racist society): why should people have to protest to live their lives without police harassment?

The film’s done decent business in America and I hope it does so in the UK; if independent cinema starts channeling the aesthetics of early ’70s Hollywood we should live in interesting times.

Iconic image?

One aspect I wasn’t sure about was the image (above) that became representative, in the film, of injustice against POC; it’s obviously drawing on a negative stereotype of African-Americans as pimps and whores (the clothes were borrowed from Queen’s pimp uncle). Candice Frederick, in Film Comment, suggests, ‘Queen and Slim attempt to masquerade as the confident, badass celebrities their public expects them to be.’ That seems to be persuasive except it’s clear that when they put on their disguises they are in a hurry rather than choosing how to look. However, the film is too knowing not to be using this without intention. Presumably, because we know what the characters are actually like we can see beyond the representation and understand how reductive the stereotype is.

 

The Irishman (US, 2019)

The old school ride again

As I’ve been complaining that Netflix don’t give enough exposure in cinemas to their films I felt obliged to go and see The Irishman. ‘Obliged’ doesn’t suggest enthusiasm, the lack of which is partly explained by the 209 minute commitment but I was also wary of the film being compared to Goodfellas (US, 1990), which I didn’t like. My fears were well founded, though I do find myself way outside the critical consensus on this one. The first half an hour was so bad I considered leaving but it improved in the middle when political interference by the mafia became the film’s subject. I forced myself to finish the film when the social context disappeared toward the end.

I’m exaggerating, it’s not a terrible film: how could it be with a great cast at the top of their form? It’s particularly good to see Al Pacino, whose appearances have been infrequent recently, playing union boss Jimmy Hoffa. He dials down his sometimes over-the-top schtick to give nuance to a larger-than-life character. When Heat (US, 1995) was released it was hyped as the first time Pacino and De Niro shared a scene. They do so again, De Niro plays Frank Sheeran (the Irishman) who became Hoffa’s minder; this time they are in pyjamas. It’s a knowing touch that scriptwriter Steve Zaillian and director Scorsese (they also collaborated on the vastly superior Gangs of New York, US-Italy, 2003) bring to the film which gives it a valedictory feel. I wonder whether some of the lauding of the film is because it harks back to the (so-called) glory days of Hollywood where brilliantly produced and thought-provoking movies were made. It’s unlikely that the major studios would produce anything like this these days: $150m for a non-franchise film?! The opening shot reminded me of the dolly at the start of Mean Streets (US, 1973) with a pop song high in the mix; this was the director’s breakthrough film. It’s bravura filmmaking but also, because of its association with a movie from 50 years ago, old-fashioned. Scorsese’s association with the gangster film (Casino, US-France, 1995, was also better than this), as well as the lead actors, Pesci came out of retirement to appear, all give it an end of the road feel.

I didn’t like Goodfellas because I felt the film actually thought the psychopaths it portrayed were good fellas. That tendency is not so pronounced in The Irishman but it is still an issue when we are clearly meant to feel sorry for Sheeran at the film’s end. If I cannot care about a character then I have difficulty engaging in a film; by care, I don’t necessarily mean ‘like’. Why are we supposed to sympathise with a heartless relic?

The $150m has been well spent. In an interview in the current issue of Sight & Sound, costume designer Sandy Powell states that De Niro had 102 costumes, there are 160 speaking parts and 7000 extras. The film does look great. It’s a tribute to Scorsese and his crew that these vast forces, in a narrative that crosses five decades, cohere across the three and a half hours duration. However, it is Scorsese’s direction that disappointed me most. It was too workaday (shot-reverse/shot prevailed) and one high angle shot used to establish location (on the way to Hoffa’s final meeting) is used three times within a few minutes that, for me, simply emphasised how long everything was taking. There was none of the ‘operatic’ grandeur of Gangs of New York; though Bradshaw uses the term in his review.

The marginalisation of women is also an issue for me, but I’m not blaming the film for that as it is a result of the world being portrayed. That the marvellous Anna Paquin gets only six words of dialogue is worth remarking upon, especially as she is used as the film’s moral compass. However, that is the point, because women did not get a say in this world, violence ensued. It would be good if Scorsese, in his twilight years, revisited Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More (US. 1974).

The Report (US, 2019)

Nearly swamped by ‘intelligence’

Writer-director Scott Z Burns succeeds in The Report where he failed as scriptwriter of The Laundromat (US, 2019), directed by Steven Soderbergh, in presenting complex material in an engaging and dramatic fashion. The Laundromat floundered, despite Soderbergh throwing tricksy set-ups at the viewer and a stellar cast, because the attempt to tell the story of the Panama Papers through an ordinary person didn’t work. The Report tells of the investigation into the CIA’s use of torture in the ‘war on terror’ through the chief investigator, the dogged Dan Jones (the suitably taciturn Adam Driver), and this gives the film a central pillar at the heart of the narrative. It also benefits from a great performance from Annette Bening as Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who has to negotiate between Jones’ determination to get the report published and Washington political machinations.

Both films are vital contributions to democracy as they attempt to inform the general public about corruption which is something corporate media, in general, fails to do. In the UK, where the BBC used to have a reputation for robust reporting, public service broadcasting fails to convey the complexity of these issues and the malfeasance of our ruling classes (the BBC recently edited out the laughter greeted by Boris Johnson’s statement that truth in politics is important thus saving the man from ridicule). Complexity does not sit well in the 24-hour news cycle (actually the cycle is much shorter these days) and much of the press in the UK is like Fox News in America: propaganda outlets for the powerful. Complexity is not easy for mainstream films either and I doubt The Report will pull up trees at the box office even though it deserves to. It’s not dissimilar to All the President’s Men (US, 1976) which dramatised the investigation into Watergate; the establishing shot of the brutalist concrete of the building Jones works in references the earlier film. It’s a damning sign of the times that Pakula’s ’70s film won Oscars and, despite the fact The Report is better, the new film’s shelf life in cinemas is likely to be short.

The inevitable wordiness is leavened, if that’s the right word, by re-enactments of the torture led by two contractors who convinced the CIA, post-9/11, that they had the ‘sauce’ which would get to the truth in interrogation. I was gobsmacked to learn they received $80m for their troubles. As soon as, in panic and desperation, they were given carte blanche to torture, the institutional momentum ensured they could not be stopped as no one in positions of authority wanted to admit they were wrong to go down that route in the first place. There is some wicked humour in scenes where one of the contractors states that they now know the victim of waterboarding is lying; Feinstein remarks that if one man was waterboarded 183 times, why didn’t they realise the technique doesn’t work?

The film is very good on the realpolitick that meant Obama, who’d portrayed himself as non-partisan when campaigning for the presidency, wanted to suppress the report; the references to drone strikes is also a useful corrective to that president’s saintly image (surely a result of his charm and the contrast with his successor). Zero Dark Thirty is given a justifiable poke as Bigelow’s film shamelessly lied about torture being instrumental in Bin Laden’s assassination.

Driver carries the film brilliantly. As the obstructions increasingly make it difficult for him to finish the report he slowly reaches (almost) boiling point in outrage that the truth is something that should be hidden from the people. It’s a vital film for the 21st century.

The Florida Project (US, 2017)

The sunshine state

Sean Baker (he co-wrote and directed) manages to get sensational performances from the ‘little rascals’ who live in motels adjacent to Disney World; the title of the film was Disney’s original name for his theme park. The adults are excellent too even though they are mostly inexperienced; Baker apparently found Bria Vinaite on Instagram. Willem Dafoe, as the exasperated and paternalistic caretaker, integrates his performance with the rest of the cast perfectly. While the film isn’t only about performance, this ‘slice of life’ of a Florida underclass has a somewhat fragmentary narrative; not that that is necessarily a bad thing but some of slices are a bit thin. Key to its success, is the (apparent) authenticity of life on the margins. The motels are garish in appearance, they are trying to compete with the sickly sweetness of Disney World, and rundown on the inside.

Brooklynn Prince plays 6-year-old Moonee who is a ‘wild child’, like her mum (Vinaite), that wreaks havoc in the area. At one point, when giving a guided tour to a new arrival, she says, “We’re not allowed in here so let’s go in.” She then proceeds to cut the power. On one level she is appalling but, then again, she’s only six so cannot be held responsible for her upbringing. That’s Halley’s responsibility but their relationship is more like mischievous teenage girls. Halley hustles a living and relies upon Dafoe’s Bobby to help her out; not that she ever shows any gratitude. In some ways she is a monster, her treatment of an estranged friend for example, but Baker never demonises her; these are people on the edge who graft for what they can get. Vinaite captures the stubborn self-absorption of a child-woman perfectly; I remember trying to teach similar characters, it bordered on the impossible.

What’s lacking in the film, and that’s not its fault as it wasn’t its purpose, is social context. Bobby’s boss gives an inkling about the way the poor are treated when, on his occasional visits, he rules to roost with contempt. The caretaker’s deference shows he’s standing on eggshells so as not to offend the man with power. In addition, the virtuoso shot at the end makes it clear that Baker is making a social comment. However, as is the nature of ‘slices of life’, the power structures that lead to lives being restricted in poverty, are mostly ignored.

On the other hand, it is better that such lives are dramatised (as in Leave No Trace) than not at all and Baker is clearly a talent to watch. His mise en scene perfectly captures the candy floss environs of lives that could be bitter but are generally shown to be full of fun.