Famous Filmmaker : Forgotten Film | Francis Ford Coppola : The Cotton Club

If you are an admirer of Francis Ford Coppola’s work, watching The Cotton Club may be a strangely familiar experience. It hits all the beats one expects it to hit, and characters and even entire scenes appear on screen for what feels like a second time, even on your first viewing. There would be a strong argument that this film plagiarized directly from The Godfather if Coppola had not made both films. Iconic sequences such as the shooting of Corleone, and the newspaper montage scene that follows exist within this film in an almost copy and paste fashion. The films are about the same types of people, and feature many of the same central themes. The Cotton Club should just be a inferior rip off of The Godfather, but Coppola is such a deft filmmaker that is difficult to care that we have seen much of what this film has to offer before.

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Despite the similarities, there are reasons to watch this film instead of simply re-watching The Godfather. Coppola is a true master of lighting within his films, and The Cotton Club is among the best examples of this. This film draws heavily from Noir style lighting and framing, offering up some excellent shots of the central protagonist and others paralleled with long, well defined cast shadows. Coppola’s use of cast shadows from blinds, curtains, and various other materials on shots of the actors give this film a classical Hollywood feel, despite this being a film from the 80’s.

The Cotton Club centers around a Jazz club in Harlem, sharing the same name as the film, and tells intertwining stories relating to the club, though the film primarily focuses on local trumpet player Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere). Dwyer’s life takes a sharp turn at the start of the film when he inadvertently saves the life of Dutch Schultz, a mob kingpin who takes Dwyer under his payroll to repay the favor. However, things become complicated when Dwyer becomes sexually involved with the Dutchman’s girlfriend. If this were all the film is about, it could be considered one of Coppola’s best works. Unfortunately, The Cotton Club is plagued by a seemingly endless number of subplots, ranging from Dwyer’s brother’s tradition to a life of crime, to separate stories related to race and class, as well as a romantic arch plot thrown in. It is a little hard to process everything at going on, but this is perhaps the only legitimate criticism I have of the film. The acting is all top notch, even though Diane Lane won a Golden Raspberry Award for her performance in the film – something that is seemly incomprehensible compared to the caliber of acting associated with contemporary winners of this honor. The Cotton Club isn’t quite a perfect film, though it is hard to compete with some of his other works. That said, it is still a very competent and enjoyable movie, well worth a watch for any fans of his other works.

Also, this film has Nick Cage in it. So what’s not to like about it? 

Rating: 4 out of 5

Beat Breakdown #4: No Country for Old Men

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PLOT SUMMARY

In the grand tradition of Coen Brothers films, the story revolves around an average Joe whose avarice overpowers his common sense. Upon inexplicably stumbling across an inordinate amount of money that doesn’t belong to him, our protagonist, Llewelyn Moss, is beset by Mexican cartels, the inescapable reach of the law, and the relentless, unstoppable pursuit of a cold-blooded hitman. 

INCITING INCIDENT

(Pages 5-12) While hunting in the desolate Texan desert, Llewelyn Moss discovers the aftermath of a brutal shootout between members of a Mexican drug ring. A payoff, Moss presumes, went spectacularly awry, leading to a collection of dead bodies and an unattended leather case containing two million dollars. Naturally, Moss snatches the goods, setting the stage for a brutal tale of retaliation and greed. 

PLOT POINT ONE

(Pages 50-55) The first major plot point actually occurs fairly late in the script. Moss, in one of his rare moments of forethought, flees his home with the money in tow. He rents a motel room in the next county over and hides the case in the air vent in his room. Unbeknownst to Moss, the case is outfitted with a tracking device which leads the hitman, Anton Chigurh, right to his doorstep. After slaughtering some Mexicans in pursuit of the case, Chigurh attempts to confront Moss directly, only to find that he has escaped with the money during the confusion.

MIDPOINT

(Pages 60-65) A gunfight between Moss and Chigurh serves as the film’s midpoint. What we have here is a battle of wills; Moss perhaps represents the futility of defying fate, or maybe blind greed and the inevitable consequences thereof, while Chigurh represents the physical manifestation of death, coming irrevocably to execute cosmic retribution. Moss wounds Chigurh and escapes, succeeding only in buying himself a little more time. Both Moss and the audience know, however, that nothing can really stop the predator Chigurh from eventually catching his pre

PLOT POINT TWO

(Pages 80-84) The second plot point wraps up a sup-plot involving another hired operative, Carson Wells, who claimed that he could offer Moss and his wife protection from Chigurh and the cartel in exchange for the money. Moss, apparently determined to continue making phenomenally poor decisions, declines Wells’s offer. Though Wells insisted that he was the only one who could be relied upon to offer protection from Chigurh, he’s easily eliminated in his own hotel room. During a brief telephone exchange between Moss and Chigurh, the assassin promises not to harm Moss’s wife as long as the money is returned promptly. 

CRISIS AND CLIMAX

(Pages 95-100) The climax of this particular film is an interesting one, as we end up in a sort of bait-and-switch situation. The protagonist, whom we’ve mostly followed since the beginning, is killed-off without ceremony. Llewelyn Moss is thus revealed to be what is generally referred to as a “false” or “decoy” protagonist, meaning that the emotional core of the film also changes, in addition to the main thrust of the message. It’s revealed that the true protagonist is the beleaguered Sheriff Bell, whose town has been shocked by the violence wrought by Moss and his ill-gotten wealth. 

DENOUEMENT 

(Pages 112-118) After the subversive reveal of the true protagonist, we’re left with Sheriff Bell as he tries to make sense of the slaughter that he’s been witness to. In his own gruff, unsentimental way, Bell seems to find some strange solace in the fact of the inherently uncontrollable and senseless savagery that seems to saturate the starkly binary, law-and-order world in which he lives.

Inherent Vice

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As anyone who knows me can attest, I have a constant, raging hard-on for Paul Thomas Anderson and his work, to an extent, I’m afraid, that might make my critique of his newest film, Inherent Vice, rather more subjective than usual. Be that as it may, I really tried to go into the movie (I think I’ve seen it three times now) without too may preconceived notions or expectations—a futile effort, it transpires, as Inherent Vice is a film that defies all expectations before laughing in the face of that expectation and then slamming it’s head in a car door.

Mr. Anderson, Mr. Anderson, why do I love you so? In large part, I think it’s the way he consistently defies any traditionally held perceptions of who and what we think an otherwise archetypical character might be, and eschews any pretense as far as how you think a traditionally noir/romance/comedy/crime drama ought to work. And indeed, the film is all of these and more, somehow miraculously hitting the bulls-eye at every turn. Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name and written for the screen by Anderson himself, Inherent Vice incorporates all the trademark humor (visual gags, one-liners, etc.) that we’ve come to expect from this legendary director. I have no reservations about calling the film one of the hands-down funniest of the year, and there’s an underlying element of pseudo-surrealism that flows throughout, which work in tandem to give the audience a kind of contact-high as they spend more and more time in the drug-crazed, neon-saturated underbelly of the fictional Gordita Beach, California.

The films stars Anderson-verse veteran Joaquin Phoenix as the film’s protagonist, drug-addled private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello. Phoenix, playing what is essentially this generation’s version of “The Dude” perfectly pulls off the effortless yet slightly harassed affectation of a hapless hippie suddenly finding himself in a world of incredible violence that he doesn’t fully understand. Josh Brolin also makes an appearance as the raving-mad LAPD officer Lieutenant Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornson and, in one of those instances that the audience can tell that the actors are having a really good time onscreen, the casting simply couldn’t be better. There are cameo appearances abound as well, including the always-excellent Benicio del Toro as the reliable yet eccentric Sauncho Smilax, Esq. as well as a memorable a surprising appearance by Martin Short as coked-up Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd.

Inherent Vice is one of those movies that get better with age—and with multiple viewings. To suggest that the film is dense is an understatement, as there are often so many things happening in a single frame that scenes often get disorienting and overwhelming really quickly. In that respect, the jam-packed onscreen atmosphere serves to emphasize the tumultuous, confusing, and chaotic world that these characters are living in, without overburdening the audience with unnecessary expository dialogue. Anderson continues to be one of—if not my favorite—director because he’s a master the old cinematic storytelling essential, “show; don’t tell.” Accordingly, the film is visually stunning, as is to be expected with cinematographer Robert Elswit, having worked on every P.T. Anderson production to date, save Hard Eight.

The earlier comparison to The Big Lebowski was not made idly, either. Like the legendary Coen Brothers production, the plot of Inherent Vice is damn near impossible to follow upon your first viewing; thought like The Big Lebowski, the point of the film is not in the destination, but the journey. While I absolutely understand the frustration that some audience members may experience after having watched the film and feeling almost completely in the dark concerning the mystery the characters were supposed to be uncovering, I highly recommend that those folks go back and see the movie a second time, if the opportunity presents itself. There are so many nuances and details within details that one would have to watch the film a hundred times before worrying about it becoming stale, but the fact is that with every successive viewing, the appreciation for both Pynchon and Anderson’s storytelling chops will grow in equal proportion.

I could write volumes about how Inherent Vice is one of the most unique and engaging and just plain entertaining movies out right now, but, to be frank, this is one experience that you’re just going to have to see for yourself to believe.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Netflix Movie of the Week #5: Brick

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Well, it’s that time of the week again, and if you’re in the mood to relax at home this weekend, why not take in one of my personal favorite movies? Brick, released in 2005, is billed as a neo-noir thriller and is directed by Rian Johnson, also responsible for Looper. Brick is unique in that it’s beautifully atmospheric direction and dark tone really serve to emphasize Johnson’s brutal depiction of day to day high school life.

Starring my one, true love Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brick centers on the struggle of loner Brendan Frye as he seeks the truth behind the disappearance and consequent death of his ex-girlfriend. In his search for vengeance, Brendan becomes deeply embroiled in an underground narcotics operation as his quest takes him all the way to the top of the organization’s hierarchy and threatens to involve him an an all out gang war.

Brick is a beautiful film in terms of both visuals and narrative. Heavily influenced by noir films of a bygone era, the characters in Brick speak with a kind of shorthand slang (think a Shakespearean production of A Clockwork Orange) that is at once beautifully poetic and hauntingly brutal in its own right. JGL’s performance is outstanding as he portrays the pain of both the loss of his ex as well as the estrangement from larger society. Our sympathies can’t help but be stirred as Brendan refuses to give up his quest, even when his injuries make him essentially a mixture of powdered organs and thickened blood held together by sheer determination. Since it’s release, Brick has been hailed as a cult classic, and for good reason. Although the unique style and admittedly sometimes hard to follow dialogue may be off-putting for some viewers, the cinematic experience that you stand to gain in return is well worth it in the end.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5