A Movie A Day #264: The Cotton Club (1984, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)


The time is the 1930s and the place is New York City.  Everyone wants to get into the Cotton Club.  Owned by British gangster Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins), the Cotton Club is a place where the stage is exclusively reserved for black performers and the audience is exclusively rich and white.  Everyone from gangsters to film stars comes to the Cotton Club.

It is at the Cotton Club that Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) meets everyone from Dutch Shultz (James Remar) to Gloria Swanson (Diane Venora).  Shultz hires Dixie to look after his girlfriend, Vera (Diane Lane).  Swanson arranges for Dixie to become a movie star.  Meanwhile, Dixie’s crazy brother, Vincent (Nicolas Cage), rises up through the New York underworld.  Meanwhile, dancing brothers Sandman and Clay Williams (played by real-life brothers Gregory and Maurice Hines) are stars on stage but face discrimination off, at least until Harlem gangster Bumpy Rhodes (Laurence Fishburne) comes to their aid.

The Cotton Club was a dream project of the legendary producer, Robert Evans, who was looking to make a comeback after being famously charged with cocaine trafficking in 1980.  Having commissioned a screenplay by his former Godfather collaborators, Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, Evans originally planned to direct the film himself.  At the last minute, Evans changes his mind and asked Coppola to direct the film.  After working with him on The Godfather, Coppola had sworn that he would never work with Evans again. (When he won an Oscar for The Godfather‘s screenplay, Coppola pointedly thanked everyone but Robert Evans.)  However, by 1984, a series of box office flops had damaged Coppola’s standing in Hollywood.  Needing the money, Coppola agreed to direct The Cotton Club.

Evans raised the film’s $58 million budget from a number of investors, including Roy Radin.  Roy Radin was best known for putting together Vaudeville reunions in the 70s and being accused of raping an actress in 1980.  Radin and Evans were introduced to each other by a drug dealer named Lanie Jacobs, who was hoping to remake herself as a film producer.  During the production of The Cotton Club, Radin was murdered by a contract killer who was hired by Jacobs, who apparently felt that Radin was trying to muscle her out of the film production.

While all of this was going on, Coppola fell into his familiar pattern of going overbudget and falling behind schedule.  This led to another investor filing a lawsuit against Orion Pictures and two other investors, claiming fraud and breach of contract.  When the film was finally released, it received mixed reviews, struggled at the box office, and only received two Oscar nominations.

With all of the murder and drama that was occurring offscreen, it is not surprising that the film itself was overshadowed.  The Cotton Club is a disjointed mix of gangster drama and big production numbers.  As always with post-Apocalypse Now Coppola, there are flashes of brilliance in The Cotton Club.  Some of the production numbers are impressive and visually, this movie has got style to burn.   However, among the leads, neither Richard Gere nor Diane Lane seem to be invested in their characters while the talented Hines brothers are underused.  The supporting cast is full of good character actors who are all in a search of a better script.  A few do manage to make an impression: James Remar, Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne as veteran gangsters, Nicolas Cage as the film’s stand-in for Mad Dog Coll, and Joe Dallesandro as Lucky Luciano.  The Cotton Club is sometimes boring and sometimes exciting but the onscreen story is never as interesting as what happened behind the scenes.

 

Back to School Part II #42: Keith (dir by Todd Kessler)


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Oh, fuck this movie.

Keith tells the story of Natalie Anderson (Elisabeth Harnois), who is seventeen and has her entire life ahead of her.  She’s smart.  She’s popular.  She’s talented.  She’s going to be her school’s valedictorian and she’s going to go to a great college on a tennis scholarship!  She even has a wonderful boyfriend, a South American exchange student named Rafael (Ignacio Serricchio).  It’s all great, right?  Except Natalie doesn’t ever have any fun!

But she’s got a new lab partner!  His name is Keith (Jesse McCartney).  Keith is sarcastic.  Keith is rebellious.  Keith doesn’t care if he’s popular.  He doesn’t worry about the future.  He lives in the moment!  And he’s determined to make sure that Natalie lives in the moment too!  Keith is also totally obnoxious but I think we’re supposed to find him charming.

It would help, of course, if Keith was actually an interesting iconoclast.  Instead, he’s a movie iconoclast.  He talks, acts, and looks like every single teenage iconoclast that we’ve ever seen in every teen film ever made.  As a result, he comes across as being totally inauthentic.  Jack Kerouac would have kicked him out of a moving car.

Now, it turns out that there’s a reason why Keith is so sarcastic.  He has a tragic secret.  But you know what?  It doesn’t mater.  Considering how serious his secret is, I hate to put it like that.  But if Keith proves anything, it’s that tragic things occasionally happen to total assholes.

In the end, we’re supposed to believe that Keith has taught Natalie how to enjoy life but, really, it just seems like Natalie is just imitating Keith.  And since Keith just came across like an imitation of every imitation of James Dean ever filmed, Natalie is a now an imitation of an imitation of an imitation.

Thanks a lot, Keith!

Anyway, Keith is on Netflix right now.  Look for it listed under films about brainwashing.

 

Back to School #42: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (dir by John Hughes)


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Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. — Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

While I was rewatching the 1986 John Hughes comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for this review, I found myself thinking about all of the days (or, to be more precise about it, half-days) that I took off back when I was in high school.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like school.  Though I certainly didn’t truly appreciate it at the time, I actually had a pretty good time in high school.  I had an interesting and diverse group of friends.  I had lots of drama and lots of comedy.  I got good grades as long as it wasn’t a Math class.  (Drama, History, and English were always my best subjects.)  My teachers liked me.  But, at the same time, I couldn’t help but resent being required to go to school.  I do not like being told that I have to do something.

So, I would skip on occasion.  For some reason, it always seemed like my favorite classes were early in the day.  So, I’d go to school, enjoy myself up until lunch, and then me and a few friends would casually walk out of the building and we would be free!  There was a Target just a few blocks down the street from our high school and sometimes we’d go down there and spend a few hours shoplifting makeup.  Eventually, we did get caught by a big scary security guy who threatened to call our parents, made us return everything that we had hidden in our purses and bras, and then told us that we were never to step foot in that Target ever again.  And you know what?  In all the years since, I have yet to step back inside of that Target.

Interestingly enough, with all of the times that we skipped school, the worst thing that ever happened to me or any of my friends is that we got banned from Target.  We all still graduated, most of us still went to college, and, as far as I know, none of us have ever been arrested for a major crime.  None of us ever regretted missing any of the classes that we skipped.  For all the talk of how skipping school was the same thing as throwing away your future, it really was not that big of a deal.

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I think that’s one reason why, despite being nearly 30 years ago, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a film that continues to speak to audiences.  It’s a film that celebrates the fact that sometimes, you just have to take a day off and embrace life.  Technically, Ferris, Cameron (Alan Ruck), and Sloane (Mia Sara) may be breaking the law by skipping school and you could even argue that they’ve stolen Cameron’s dad’s car.

But, who cares?

You know who probably had perfect attendance in high school?  Principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) and seriously, who wants to grow up to be like that douchebag?

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Whenever I do watch Ferris Bueller (and I’ve seen it more times than I can remember because seriously, I freaking love this movie!), I always find myself wishing that real-life could be as much fun as the movies.  As much as I may have enjoyed skipping school and shoplifting, it’s nothing compared to everything that Ferris does during his day off!  Ferris goes to a baseball game!  He takes his friends to a fancy restaurant!  He goes to an art museum!  (And, much like Sloane, my heart swoons at this point because I would have loved to have known a guy who would skip school so he could specifically go to the museum.)  Perhaps most importantly, he encourages his best friend Cameron to actually have a good time and enjoy himself.

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In Susannah Gora’s book You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried, an entire chapter is devoted to the making of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and, to be honest, it’s actually makes for rather melancholy reading.  Ferris Bueller was the last teen film that John Hughes directed and the book suggests that a lot of this was due to the fact that Hughes didn’t have as good a time making the film as audiences would later have watching it.  In the book, Mia Sara speculates that Hughes never bonded with the cast of Ferris Bueller in the same way that he did with the casts of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club.

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And indeed, it’s hard to imagine either Ferris Bueller or Matthew Broderick popping up in either one of those two films.  Ferris is far too confident to relate to the angst-driven worlds of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, or Pretty in Pink.  True, he doesn’t have a car and his sister (Jennifer Grey) resents him but otherwise, Ferris’s life is pretty much care-free.  Not only does he live in a beautiful house but he’s also already come up with a definitive philosophy for how he wants to live his life.  You look at Ferris and you know that he probably grew up to be one of those people who ended up working on Wall Street and nearly bankrupted the country but you don’t care.  He’s too likable.

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His best friend, Cameron, is far more angsty but even his overwhelming depression doesn’t seem like it would be at home in any of Hughes’s other films.  If Cameron was a member of the Breakfast Club, he’d probably just sit in the back of the library and zone out.  Regardless of how much Judd Nelson taunted him, Cameron would stay in his shell.  If Cameron was in Sixteen Candles, it’s doubtful he would have been invited to the party at Jake Ryan’s house in the first place.  His depression is too overwhelming and his angst feels too real for him to safely appear in any film other than this one.  As a character, Cameron could only appear in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off because only Ferris Bueller would be capable getting Cameron to leave his bedroom.  On the one hand, the film may seem like a well-made but standard teen comedy where a lovable rebel defeats a hateful authority figure.  But, with repeat viewings, it becomes obvious that Ferris Bueller is truly about the battle for Cameron’s damaged soul.

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There’s a prominent theory out there that the entire film is supposed to be Cameron’s daydream and that Ferris either doesn’t exist or he’s just a popular student who Cameron has fantasized to be his best friend.  I can understand the theory because Cameron really is the heart of the movie.  At the same time, I hope it’s not true because, if this is all a fantasy, then that means that Sloane never said, “He’s going to marry me,” while running back home.  And that would be heart-breaking because I love that moment!

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Ferris Bueller’s Day Off may have John Hughes final teen film as a director (he would go on to write and produce Some Kind of Wonderful) but at least he went out on a true high note.

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Review: Red Dawn (dir. by John Milius)


“I don’t know. Two toughest kids on the block I guess. Sooner or later they’re going to fight.”

[guilty pleasure]

Anyone who grew up during the 1980’s would say that some of the best action films were made and release during this decade. I won’t disagree with them and probably would agree to a certain point. This was the decade when action films evolved from the realism of the 70’s to the excess and ultra-violence of the 80’s. This was the decade which ushered in such action heroes as Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis. It was also the decade which released one of the most violent films ever released by a major motion picture studio. It’s a film that has been remembered through the prism of nostalgia. I speak of the 1984 war film by John Milius simply titled Red Dawn.

John Milius is one of those filmmakers who never conformed to the stereotype of liberal Hollywood. He was an unabashed Republican (though he considers himself more of a Zen anarchist) in a liberal studio system who happened to have written some of the most revered films of the 1970’s (Jeremiah Johnson, Apocalypse Now, Dirty Harry). He came up with a follow-up to his hugely successful Conan the Barbarian in the form of a war film set in current times (mid-80’s) America that he called Red Dawn. It was a story which takes an alternate history of the Cold War where Soviet forces and it’s allies launch a successful preemptive invasion of the United States. Before people think that this was the idea born of a conservative, warmongering mind it’s been documented that Milius’ inspiration for this film was a real Pentagon hypothetical exercise of what would happen if the Soviet Union conducted a conventional invasion of the United States and how the government and it’s population would react and resist such an occupying force. The  story would finally get it’s final treatment with major input from screenwrtier Kevin Reynolds’ own story which added a certain Lord of the Flies vibe to the group of teenagers who form the bulk of the film’s cast.

The film actually starts off with an impressive sequence of your typical Midwestern high school day with students seated in their classrooms. One moment this Rockwellian image gets a surprise from soldiers parachuting in the field outside the school. Thus we have the beginning of the Soviet invasion with one of the teachers being gunned down for trying to peacefully interact with the airborne troopers. The rest of the film is about a group of highschoolers led by senior Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze) and his younger brother Matt (Charlie Sheen) as they flee with a handful of their classmates the massacre at their school and soon their whole town as well.

Red Dawn uses the first half of the film to show the confusion and chaos created by the sudden appearance of foreign soldiers on America soil attacking civilians and, soon enough, whatever American military response that manages to react in the area. We’re put in the shoes of Jed and his band of teenagers as they try to survive the roving bands of Soviet and Cuban soldiers patrolling the plains and countryside surrounding their hometown of Calumet, Colorado. We see American civilians packed into re-education camps and rumors of KGB secret police making certain troublemakers disappear and worst. It’s the America Cold War nightmare scenario where the Soviet Evil Empire has taken a foothold on US soil and the government and military nowhere in sight to help it’s population.

The second half of the film solves this scenario by arming the teenagers led by Jed into a sort of teen guerrila force using their school’s mascot as their rallying cry. It’s the shouts of “Wolverines!” which has become part of American pop-culture as we get to see these teenagers conduct hit-and-run strikes on enemy patrols and forward bases while at the same time arming those they free from camps. It’s during this part of the film where the violence gets ramped up to an almost ridiculous level. It’s no wonder that for almost two decades this film would be considered by Guinness World Records as the most violent film ever put on the big-screen. Milius and his filmmaking crew do not skimp on the use of blood squibs as Jed and his ragtag band of teen fighters gun down Soviets, Nicaraguans and Cuban soldiers by the score every minute during a long montage in the middle of the film.

Red Dawn in terms of storytelling is actually quite good in the grand scheme of the narrative being told, but even through the prism of nostalgia and rose-tinted glasses the characters in the film get the short-end of the stick. With the exception of Swayze’s eldest teen Jed as leader of the Wolverines the rest of the band’s teenage characters look like your typical casting call stereotypes who fill in the required roles in any ensemble cast. There’s Darren Dalton as the high school class president jealous of the group’s leader Jed, but unable to act on it. We have C. Thomas Howell as Robert the mousy one when the film begins who becomes a hardened and cold-hearted killer as the film goes on. Everyone fits in neatly to their assigned role and noen of the young actors (at the time) bring much to their characters.

This film continues to be remembered fondly by it’s fans both new and old because of the “what-if” scenario being played out on the screen. I would say that if there ever was a pure American film I would think Red Dawn manages to fit the bill. It’s a film which highlights the so-called individualism and can-do attitude Americans see for themselves. How it’s up to each individual to fight to protect their loved ones and for what is theirs. Some have called this film as a conservative’s wet-dream, but I rather think it’s a film that should appeal more to Libertarians as it focuses on individual liberties and self-preservation when the government and military tasked to protect them have failed.

John Milius has always been a maverick in Hollywood and his unpopular political beliefs have kept him from doing more work in the film industry, but one cannot deny the fact that he made one of the most iconic films of the 1980’s. Whether one agreed with the film’s politics and thought it to be a good film or not was irrelevent. Red Dawn has become part of American pop-culture and will continue to be a major example of the excess of 80’s action filmmaking for good or ill. Plus, even the most liberal people I know find the basic story of fighting to protect the nation from invaders something that feeds their innermost fantasy of playing the good guys fighting the good fight. Red Dawn is a great example of the underdog film that just happens to have teenagers kicking Soviet military ass.