|Films I Neglected To Review: Join The Club
|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "The Cotton Club Encore," "Knives and Skin," "Mob Town" and "Rabid."
When Francis Ford Coppola released "The Cotton Club" in 1984 amidst some of the worst advance word in memory thanks to its tumultuous production, even those who admired his evocation of the nightclub that was the center of Harlem cultural renaissance in the 1930s--a place where the top black entertainers performed for an exclusively all-white crowd--admitted that it felt as if large chunks of the story had been left on the cutting room floor in the rush to get it into theaters. As the story goes, in order to satisfy higher-ups who feared that the musical performances he shot were stealing focus from the gangster storyline (which just happened to feature the white actors in the cast), Coppola whittled those scenes down to practically nothing, thereby essentially turning a story about segregation into an example of that very same thing. This never sat particularly well with Coppola--who lacked the clout at the time to do anything other than agree to make the changes--and now, 35 years later, he has spent a half-million dollars of his own money to re-edit the film into a form more in line with his original conception. After receiving a token theatrical release earlier this fall, this new iteration, now dubbed "The Cotton Club Encore," is available on home video at long last in a version that deletes 13 minutes from the 1984 cut and adds another 24 minutes of previously unseen material into the mix.
While the 1984 version was certainly uneven, I have always had a soft spot for the film--it may ultimately be a collection of moments than a concise whole but what a collection of moments. That said, this new version is quite simply a bettered more cohesive film. This time around, Coppola's ambitions are more fully realized and the parallel stories involving the rise of Dixie Dwyer (Richard Gere) from coronet player to unwilling gangster flunky to movie star and the conflict between a pair of tap-dancing brothers (Gregory and Maurice Hines) whose act is torn apart by professional ambition and personal betrayal now feel more equally balanced. All the best moments from the first edition (including a particularly nasty kill involving a carving knife at a swanky get-together and the hilarious byplay between mob higher-up Owney Madden (Bob Hoskins) and chief aide Frenchy (Fred Gwynne)) are still here and are still as striking as ever. As for the musical numbers that have either been included for the first time or fleshed out from the fragments that made the first cut, they are all impeccably staged and executed--Lonette McKee's centerpiece performance of "Stormy Weather" is a knockout, a then-unknown Jackée Harry practically steals the show with the saucy duet she takes part in and the elaborate final sequence--a song-and-dance number set in Grand Central Station where all the plot threads come together—is better than ever. Yes, the film is still a bit of a mess here and there and probably always will be. However, "The Cotton Club Encore" takes it and elevates it from the rank of fascinating misfire to unqualified success.
As "Knives and Skin," the new feature from writer-director Jennifer Reeder, opens, news spreads throughout an anonymous Midwestern town that high school student Carolyn (Raven Whitley) has apparently gone missing. Although we in the audience already know what happened to her--a date with abusive jock Andy (Ty Olwi) ended quite badly--only her increasingly hysterical mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhard), seems to have much interest in her disappearance. The sheriff (James Vincent Meredith) is dealing with his pregnant wife (Kate Arrington), who is having an affair with unemployed party clown Dan (Tim Hopper). Meanwhile, her friends have their own issues that they are wrestling with. Joanna (Grace Smith), who is also Andy's sister, is yearning to leave for Sarah Lawrence and has been selling her mentally unstable mother's worn underwear to the principal to raise the necessary funds, Laurel (Kayla Carter) is struggling with questions about her sexuality, and Charlotte (Ireon Roach) is fending off the advances of classmate Jason (Jalen Gilbert). Things get progressively weirder--Lisa is convinced that she can smell Carolyn on Andy and goes to great lengths to hold on to this one tenuous connection--and it is all set to the sounds of choral renditions of 80s pop hits like "We Got the Beat" and "Girls Just Want to Have Fun."
Watching "Knives and Skin," it is obvious right from the very first scenes that Reeder is very good as setting up and establishing an idiosyncratic cinematic style and tone. The trouble here is that the style that she is using is the one the David Lynch devised and deployed to such stunning effect in "Blue Velvet" and, most obviously, "Twin Peaks." Everything is odd in the world of this film but, with very few exceptions, it all feels as if it was heaped on in order to make the relatively dull central story (Reeder seems as disinterested with Carolyn and her fate as the rest of the town) seem marginally more interesting and colorful. While she is good at aping the surface details of Lynch's singular approach, she doesn't really have much interest in their underpinnings or what they might mean to her personally and as result, the film too often feels like an empty exercise in stylistic appropriation. What makes this especially frustrating is that there are some good things here amidst the otherwise hollow nature of the proceedings--a number of the performances are strong and sincere and Reeder acquits herself nicely from a technical perspective. is a film that boldly wants to state for the record that the most normal-seeming suburbs are really hotbeds of brutal violence, teeming sexuality, shocking secrets, jaw-dropping perversions and flat-out weirdness that are only barely concealed by the well-trimmed lawns and immaculately kept homes. This is an insight that is not exactly blazingly new or unique and indeed, viewers may find themselves quietly ticking off all the other similar films that Reeder has borrowed from here, all of which you would probably be better off watching than this one.
Presumably coming out now in order to satisfy viewers in the mood for a real-life mob story but who find the idea of tackling "The Irishman" to be more than a little daunting, "Mob Town" brings to life the story of one of the more curious anecdotes in the history of organized crime in America--the infamous 1957 summit meeting that found the nation's top mobsters descending upon the unassuming town of Apalachin, NY. Obviously, upstate New York doesn't seem like a hotbed of criminal activity but when Vito Genovese (Robert Davi) steps into power as the boss of New York, he decides to call a meeting to bring all the key players together in one place in order to solidify his position as a leader and asks mid-level mobster Joe Barbara (Danny Abeckaser, who also directed the film) to make the arrangements and use his home in Apalachin to host the meeting. What Genovese doesnt realize is that a year earlier, Barbara had a run-in with local cop Edgar Croswell (David Arquette) over a moving violation and while Barbara got off scot-free, it inspired the angry lawman to begin his own low-key surveillance of the man. When Barbara starts buying up all the meat and fish in town and booking all the rooms at the local hotel for one night, Croswell is finally sure that he is on to something but even he is stunned to find some of America’s biggest criminals all in one place.
The Apalachin story is a good one, no doubt, but what is the best approach to bring it to the screen. Do you do it as a gritty crime drama focusing on Genovese trying to establish himself as the top dog in the organization? Do you do it as a simple human drama in which a good cop searching for personal redemption inadvertently stumbles upon the biggest case of his career and goes to great lengths to prove his suspicions to his doubting superiors? Do you do it as a quirky comedy in which Barbara and his wife (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) are initially thrilled by the idea of hosting the party--what better way for him to make an impression with the higher-ups--but are driven to distraction as the size of the gathering begins to spiral out of control? Any one of those approaches might have resulted in an interesting film but the trouble here is that the screenplay by Jon Carlo and Joe Gilford decides to opt for all of them and the clashing tones never quite come together into a satisfying whole. Abeckaser handles the proceedings in a solid and workmanlike manner but he also seems stymied at times by the mix of tones. At the same time, the film does have its good points--the performances by Arquette and Davi are both pretty effective--and I guarantee that you and I have both seen worse mob-related movies over the years. I can’t really recommend "Mob Town" since it doesn't really live up to the promise of its premise. However, if you are in the mood for a film of this type and you have already watched "The Irishman" a couple of times, I suppose you could do worse than this.
Towards the beginning of "Rabid," a remake of David Cronenberg's 1977 cult horror favorite, a character is heard musing "Why do we keep remaking old trends?" This is clearly a move on the part of the Soska Sisters, who wrote and directed this version, to cheekily acknowledge the elephant in the room to their presumed target audience--why would anyone want to do something as potentially foolhardy as attempt to redo the work of one of the genre's most celebrated talents? Unfortunately, by the time this version comes to its merciful end, most viewers will find themselves asking that very same question. Laura Vandervoot stars as Rose, a shy and plain-looking assistant in a couture fashion house where everyone save for her lone friend, model Chelsea (Hanneke Talbot), is as bitchy as they are beautiful. One night, Rose is asked out but the office heartthrob but when she learns that the well-meaning Chelsea put him up to it, she flees and gets into a horrible scooter wreck that tears away a good chunk of her face. Eventually, she gets into contact with an experimental clinic where the head doctor (Ted Atherton) offers her a radical new stem cell treatment. It works and suddenly Rose is beautiful and more self-confident than ever. As it turns out, there are just a couple of minor side-effects--a body mutation or two and a thirst for blood that leaves her expanding circle of victims with similar cravings while demonstrating symptoms similar to a particularly virulent strain of rabies.
I suppose that if someone was to take on the seemingly foolhardy task of trying to remake one of Cronenberg's original works, “Rabid” is probably the best one to go with as it is generally considered a minor effort that is best remembered for the stunt casting of porn star Marilyn Chambers in the central role. If nothing else, the idea of taking Cronenberg's sexually charged and potentially troubling narrative and examining it through a female perspective sounds enticing but unfortunately, that is not what the Soskas have provided. Instead, they merely offer a rehash of the basic plot of the original, now wrapped up with some relatively toothless commentary about the health care and fashion industries, that is filled with thinly drawn and fairly unlikable characters (even Rose comes off as a non-entity throughout), cheesy gore effects and a number of increasingly tiresome Cronenberg in-jokes to keep the fanboys happy (the mad doctor is named William Burroughs, to give just one subtle example) before arriving at a truly silly climax. The film further tests the patience of viewers by clocking in at nearly two hours and spends so much time satirizing the fashion industry that there are points where it feels as if the Soskas are actually trying to make their version of "The Neon Demon." The performance by Vandervoort is pretty good (though the attempt to de-glam her in the early scenes is considerably less so) but whatever amount of humanity she is able to invest the character is not able to make up for the general uselessness of the entire endeavor. The original "Rabid" may not be a classic by any stretch of the imagination but it was at least memorable on some basic level--this version, on the other hand, is neither.
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originally posted: 12/13/19 10:28:35
last updated: 12/13/19 10:35:30