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.

Birds of Passage (Pájaros de verano, Colombia-Denmark-Mexico-Germany-Switzerland-France, 2018)

Proto-gangsters

I didn’t get on with Ciro Guerra’s last film, the well-received Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente, Columbia-Venezuela-Argentina, 2015), for reasons I don’t remember. However, I loved this one, co-directed with Cristina Gallego who produced the earlier film; it’s scripted by Maria Camila Arias and Jacques Toulemonde based on the directors’ idea. It tells us the ‘true story’ of how the drug trade, and particularly the Medellin cartel, came to decimate indigenous traditions in Columbia. Apparently there’s much dispute about the accuracy of the film, however I took the film, which suggests the start of the drug trade began with the Peace Corps in the late 1960s, as a metaphor for the malign influence of capitalist North America rather than as a form of documentary.

The film starts with a riveting Wayuu ritual of a young woman, Zaida (Natalia Reyes, who appeared in the most recent Terminator film), coming out of confinement (one year!) as part of her rite of passage and immediately being courted, in a bird-like dance, by Rapayet (newcomer José Acosta). A large dowry is set which he proceeds to get by opportunistically supplying marijuana to the Americans. Such a patriarchal ceremony mustn’t be forgotten in the light of what follows. Most of the film dramatises the changes necessitated by the growing drug trade as at the expense of tradition; however, just because something has been done for years doesn’t mean it’s good or right. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that the destruction meted out in pursuit of wealth is devastating.

‘Bird’ courtship

I was more interesting in the representation of the indigenous community than the drug gang narrative. Another (virtual) newcomer is Carmiña Martínez, who plays Zaida’s mother, Úrsula, and is a strong antidote to the patriarchal treatment of young women as she is in charge. Martínez superbly portrays the matriarch’s formidable character whose indulgence of her wayward son is also the family’s undoing. She is a seer of sort; her visions of birds portend the future. There are some fabulous dream sequences that seem to come directly from the imagination of Salvador Dalí.

Daliesque dreams

The surrealism extends to reality: the family accrues luxuries in the desert and the contrast between their affluent villa and its surroundings are a brilliant metaphor for the spiritual emptiness of the wealth. The conflagration of the finale, like Bacurau, owes something to spaghetti westerns and is as much a catharsis as a tragedy.

Luxury in the desert

I shall have to go back to Embrace of the Serpent to see if I can see what I missed.

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).

Classe Tous Risques (Consider All Risks, France-Italy, 1960)

Classy Ventura and Belmondo

Classy Ventura and Belmondo

Released just before Belmondo was unleashed upon the cinematic world in Godard’s Breathless, Classe Tous Risques is a fascinating glimpse of mainstream French film but not in the form of Truffaut’s ‘old man cinema’. In 1954 Francois Truffaut’s polemic, that heralded auteurism, was published in Cahiers du cinema. Here he railed against the ‘cinema du papa’; in other words it was a young man’s moan against the boring mainstream. He called for the auteur to give a personal vision that was cinematic, rather than script bound. It wasn’t until Truffaut, and the other directors of the nouvelle vague, began making movies at the end of the decade that his vision was fulfilled.

Claude Sautet, who became commercially successful in the 1970s, was picked to direct by the star Lino Ventura who plays a gangster having a ‘last hurrah’ as he makes his way back to Paris with his young children. The direction is good, the scene when Belmondo is arrested is great, but what struck me about the film was the use of location filming. Clearly they were shooting on the street with lightweight equipment, so important to the ‘new wave’, and the passerbys are ‘working’ as free extras.

The hardboiled narrative, based on a José Giovanni novel (he also co-scripted), is engaging enough and the performances are excellent.

American Gangster (US-UK, 2007)

Mean streets

Mean streets

It was fortuitous that I caught up with American Gangster only a week after watching The French Connection as it covers some of the same time and territory. Indeed, the latter’s protagonists are name checked and the overhead railway of the car chase makes two appearances. Clearly scriptwriter Steve Zaillian is paying homage to the earlier classic and American Gangster doesn’t do too badly in comparison. Like much of the early ’70s ‘New Hollywood’ there’s a political angle, though safely ‘buried’ in the past, regarding the racism and corruption of NYPD. The mean streets of New York, where Denzil Washington’s Frank Lucas (the film’s based on a true story) imports heroin direct from Vietnam, look shabby despite Ridley Scott’s predilection for sumptuous images. If overlong, at two and a half hours, the climax is suitably satisfying, referencing another early ’70s classic, The Godfather (1972), by inter-cutting events with the protagonist in church; there’s  also shades of another cracking film of the era, Serpico (1973), with Russell Crowe taking the incorruptible cop role that Al Pacino inhabited.

Certainly the film pays homage to the ’70s, and you have to work to keep up with the narrative exposition too, but stands on its own as an intelligent high budget, star driven Hollywood (through Scott Free Prods) vehicle. Despite a budget of $100m, the film probably just about scraped into profit with its $267m worldwide gross; a testament to Washington and Crowe’s star power.

Women are mostly absent but that’s gangster films for you and the cliche-ridden broken marriage of Crowe’s Richie Roberts probably didn’t need to be so prominent; then again, women would have been even more absent if it wasn’t. The narrative device (presumably true too) that leads Roberts to realise the black Lucas was Mr Big (his ethnicity, in the racism of the times, meant he escaped suspicion) is brilliant.

Shoot the Pianist (Tirez sur le pianiste, France, 1960)

Playing the audience

Despite being over 20 years since his debut film, Quentin Tarantino still dazzles some students. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it does, along with the supposition that film history began with Star Wars in 1977, severely limit understanding of cinema. Similarly, the inability of hundreds of critics to find more than two 21st century films in the top 50 of the decennial Sight & Sound poll threatens to turn film into an exercise in nostalgia. Tarantino himself is entrely open about his debt to the French nouvelle vague and named his company after a film by Jean-Luc Godard.

Tirez sur le pianiste may not be a great film but it still feels thoroughly modern with its mix of irreverence in plot, its take on the gangster genre and the style in which it is shot. Truffaut uses the source material, an American ‘pulp’ novel by David Goodis, and inflects it with a modernist sensibility that keeps its heart intact. Much of this is to do with Charles Aznavour’s moody performance, encapsulating a ‘would be’ existentialist hero but who is a prisoner of his class. The close-ups of his faltering hand that is too shy to touch the woman he loves are extremely effective in representing his wounded character.

I always preferred Godard to Truffaut, however this, and Jules and Jim (1963), are superb films.

Sin nombre (Mex-US, 2009)

On the track to nowhere

I enjoyed this rather conventional take on migration and gangs, conventional in its narrative drive but unusual in its focus on Central America. There are two strands to the narrative: Sayra is trying to get to USA via Mexico and Caspar, who falls out with his gang leader; the two threads entwine as he tries to escape.

The portrayal of place is excellent, writer-director Cary Fukunaga (an American filmmaker) has done his research well. I particularly liked the scenes on the train, giving us a sense of the desperation of people who have no choice but to travel illegally; reminiscent of the ‘down and outs’ of the Great Depression in America. Less convincing was the gangs which are rather cliched; however that’s not to say that that isn’t how it’s like (how would I know?). I would have liked to see more of why young men are attracted to gang life (no doubt for economic reasons).

For us cosseted westerners, this is an ideal film because we can see the usually-vilified Others (illegals) and so understand better why they are forced to be illegal. This is far better than swallowing the tripe that the mass media peddle.

London Boulevard (US-UK, 2010)

Starry London thriller

I don’t know why this thriller bombed at the box office as I found it mostly gripping and well acted: Keira Knightley in particular as the vulnerable actor hounded by paparazzi. Even Ray Winstone, reprising his gangster role, manages to squeeze even more menace than usual from the scumbag he plays. Colin Farrell is an engaging lead and add David Thewlis, Anna Friel, Eddie Marsan and Stephen Graham, you can see we have some of the best actors in the British business. And I haven’t mentioned Ben Chaplin, who seemed to have disappeared for a while, as an absolutely terrific sleazeball.

This was William Monahan’s debut as a director, having scripted The Departed (2006) amongst others; he also wrote and produced. It’s well shot and the only miscalculation, apart from a rather unraveling ending, is Sanjeev Bhaskar’s doctor who’s meant to be comic relief. The British gangster film has a terrible reputation; with the honourable exceptions of Sexy Beast (2000), with Winstone, and Gangster No.1 (2001), with Thewlis. This uses London locations well, eschewing the tourist spots apart from some eloquently composed skyline shots, conveying the sense of menace of estates and the gentility of the posh areas; gangster Winstone is comfortable in both locations.

Maybe the romance between the principals, Farrell is meant to be protecting Knightley, is too reminiscent of The Bodyguard (1992) or it was because Thewlis’ washed-up druggie actor is entirely unconvincing (as a character not as a performance). Well worth catching up with on DVD I suggest.

Dead Presidents (US, 1995)

Vietnam and gang movie

The Hughes brothers have only made two features since this sophomore effort 15 years ago. Their first two films offered a political dimension to conventional narratives – maybe that’s why they’ve made so few films – and this film has an interesting visual style. This first half is a sensitively portrayed ‘coming of age’ film and takes in the Vietnam war; the second half shows the protagonist’s decline and fall into gangsterism. It’s a fairly cliched narrative but it’s difficult to present a snapshot of a decade in any other way. Apocalypse Now (1979), in particular, has colonised images of Vietnam, but the Hughes brothers have enough savvy to not pale in comparison. The film is particularly gory but it does serve the narrative rather attempt merely to shock the audience.

A strong cast who, to my eyes, stray too far into African-American stereotypes; but as these types are being utilised by black filmmakers, I shouldn’t complain. Excellent film; well worth seeing.

Bechdel test: Fail (8/4)
Protagonist: Male (2/7)

Gomorrah (Gomarra, Italy, 2008)

Living with death

Living with death

Whilst Gomorrah is clearly a gangster film, representing the Naples Camorra, it also resembles the (so-called) fly-on-the-wall documentaries that trace a number of contemporaneous narrative strands about lives in, say, airports or hotels. These, however, use voice overs thereby disallowing them as ‘observational’ documentaries as their meaning is anchored. That said, if Gomorrah had had a voice over I would’ve been able to follow it more readily!

We’re offered several,  violent, slices of life that portray existence in the poverty-stricken area (that resembles the Kidbrooke estate in SE London)  in the thrall of the Comarra. Silvia Angrisani, in the current issue of Sight & Sound, complains that we can’t understand the social context from the film. However, this is true of this form of documentary; by necessity it shows a limited view. To extend the film to show, say, the role of politicians, would make the film a melodrama (no bad thing). Clearly Matteo Garrone (who, reportedly, is wanted dead by the Camorra before Christmas) wanted to focus on life at the bottom.

Much of the film is shot handheld (the image above is the only stylised shot in the film, a tour de force featuring one of the characters escaping having survived a bloodbath), probably the only way to shoot given the locations, its  use of non professional actors and in keeping with its ‘documentary’ feel.

The film also acts as reportage, many won’t know of the Camorra’s role in dumping toxic waste on farmland and the death toll in Naples (one every three days). It doesn’t deal with the corrupt nature of the Italian state, which allows this to happen, but that’s for other films.