One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 20
By Laurence Lerman
After coming out of the gate last week with a review of Woody Allen’s latest, A Rainy Day in New York (one of the few positive ones that kicked off a disappointing week in the handful of theaters in which it played), the time felt right to give some attention to an equally prolific New York filmmaker, Abel Ferrara.
Once recognized as one of New York’s most ferocious homegrown filmmakers, the Bronx-born Abel Ferrara has lived in Rome for more than a decade now, where he married an Italian actress (his second marriage), had a baby girl, got sober and embraced Buddhism. Over that time, Ferrara’s film output has remained steady and diverse, though recent years have not seen him traffic in the kind of sordid and controversial moviemaking that yielded such calling cards as Ms. .45, King of New York and Bad Lieutenant. Yeah, it’s fair to say that the 69-year-old Ferrara has mellowed. But just a bit.
Ferrara’s most recent have been a mixed bag, most notably a couple of documentaries (2017’s Piazza Vittorio, 2019’s The Projectionist) and a strange, fictionalized take on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case, starring Gerard Depardieu (2014’s Welcome to New York). His latest is 2019’s Tommaso, starring frequent collaborator Willem Dafoe and just released in the U.S. in June, marking Ferrara’s first dramatic feature since the 2014 bio-pic Pasolini (which also starred Dafoe).
Tommaso finds Dafoe serving as Ferrara’s avatar in a tale of an older American expat filmmaker living in Rome with his young wife and their daughter, as he ponders both his past behavior and an unsure future while preparing for his next film. An addled and occasionally creepy guy (teaching an acting class, he includes a kissing scene in his work with one pretty student), Tommaso begins to lose his grasp on reality as the story progresses—not from drugs or booze or illness, but rather from his own inner impressions of himself as an existentially tortured artist. An aging one, at that. How else to explain an image of himself being crucified on a street lamp at a busy Roman street corner?
Co-starring his real-life wife and real-life daughter as Dafoe’s movie wife and movie daughter and frequently filming in his own apartment, Ferrara offers some serious self-mythologizing here. He’s been to hell and back in a previous life, and every frame of this film reinforces that he’s still here to remind us that, well, he’s still here. Dafoe is the savior here, largely improvising as a half-Dafoe/half-Ferrara hybrid and appearing in every scene, his chiseled face and overall weariness underlining the message. That he was crucified once before in a certain film by Martin Scorsese back in 1988 doesn’t hurt either.
And speaking of great Italian-American filmmakers, Francis Coppola’s much-talked-about revamp of his 1984 musical crime saga The Cotton Club made its streaming debut on Amazon Prime earlier this month.
Just as he went all George Lucas with his Apocalypse Now Redux and upcoming Godfather III reconstructions, Coppola dips back into another of his well-known works with a famously troubled production history Cotton Club’s crazy behind-the-scenes tales of gangsters, moneylending and even murder generated a New York Magazine cover story back in the day—and creates what Coppola now proclaims was his original vision of the film. Like Apocalypse, the results in the freshly monikered The Cotton Club Encore are up on the screen and will offer fans of the original an opportunity for reassessment and those not in the know to give this exceptional-looking film a whirl (perhaps after screening the original).
Don’t get me wrong: I’m always psyched to check out any vintage footage from the Coppola archive. But it’s never endearing to hear a filmmaker talk about what should have been when he created his work in the Hollywood system that created him (and which allowed him to make the films that defined his career).
That said, adding 27 minutes of never-before-seen scenes and musical sequences to the original, while excising 12 others, The Cotton Club Encore offers a reshaped if still jagged narrative about the gangsters and entertainers that entered the doors of the fabled Harlem nightclub, focusing more on the black characters and musical aspects of the tale and spending less time with the whiter criminal element (though they’re still there and still sort of distracting).
Highlights include the three additional musical numbers, of course, led by Lonette McKee’s cover of “Stormy Weather” (it was originally cut out because Coppola didn’t want audiences to think McKee’s character was Lena Horne) and the always-game Jackée’s comical number “I Don’t Want You Anymore.” A few other musical sequences from the original are also tweaked and extended, while a whole bunch of dialogue is similarly nipped and fiddled with. One such appendage finds Gere wistfully declaring, “It ain’t real life. It’s jazz.”
Like its predecessor, Cotton Club Encore again delivers as a sumptuous period entertainment—while it's still filled with narrative stumbles from the get-go. (Why would James Remar’s gangster Dutch Schultz hire Gere to keep an eye on his girl, Diane Lane, and not expect him to sleep with her!?) Fans will find this edition to be a very watchable curio, though the uninitiated, again, would benefit by first checking out the original. That way, they can more appreciate the additional bits from the now-gone ensemble players Bob Hoskins, Fred Gwynne, Allen Garfield and Julian Beck, [and the-awesomely-extended dancing sequences with the late Gregory Hines and Gwen Verdon.
Which prompts the question, why would anyone leave Gregory Hines’ and Gwen Verdon’s dancing on the cutting room floor?
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.