Angel Heart

January 3, 2013

angelheartAmong the artistically ambitious movie directors of today, Alan Parker is the kid with the sledgehammer touch.

He seems bent on describing his personal vision of hell, whether it’s in a Turkish prison (Midnight Express), a failed marriage (Shoot the Moon), or a paranoid rock ‘n’ roll fantasy (Pink Floyd: The Wall). And he wants to do it in terms we can’t miss: Parker exults in rubbing our faces in it.

In his new, already-much-discussed film Angel Heart, Parker goes deeper into the netherworld than ever before. It’s an unclean, frequently sickening journey, but also often a compelling one. This has as much to do with the actors and the fiendishly intriguing storyline (adapted from a novel by William Hjortsberg) as with Parker’s heavy-handed approach.

The distributors of the film have made a special point of asking reviewers not to reveal the surprises of the plot. That’s good, because this is a film that turns down some very dark alleys indeed.

Roughly, then, it’s about a dead-soul Brooklyn private eye named Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke, disturbingly in his element) hired by the shiveringly eccentric Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find a certain Johnny Favorite. Favorite was a minor-league crooner before the big war (the film is set in 1955), and Cyphre wants him found, for mysterious reasons.

The bloody quest takes Angel eventually to New Orleans, where he runs into a fortune teller (Charlotte Rampling), some voodoo practitioners, and a haunting girl named Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet of “The Cosby Show,” who is very good).

You can tell just from the characters’ names that Angel Heart is laden with symbolic overtones. Parker, unfortunately, overplays the overtones. He can’t let anything pass by unemphasized; De Niro, for instance, wears a marvelous set of long pointed fingernails for his role, but Parker has to cut to big close-ups of the nails drumming, just so we notice. He keeps the camera close so we can’t miss the slime running down the walls or the pimples erupting on Mickey Rourke’s face.

It was probably Parker’s over-the-top storytelling methods that earned this film an X rating, when it first went to the ratings board; the body count here is not higher than in comparable films, but Parker does play up the gore and the sex.

It’s even been suggested that the board slapped Parker with an X because he had the audacity to cast a “Cosby” kid, Bonet, in a very sexy role. I doubt that had much to do with it, although it was one of her scenes—a sexual episode within a montage of voodoo blood rites—that Parker trimmed by 10 seconds to get an R rating.

With all its greasiness, there’s a good deal of power in this film. It’s not an exhilarating kind of power—more the kind that, by the end of the movie, makes you feel like Mickey Rourke’s seedy, wrung-out overcoat. Take that recommendation for what it’s worth.

First published in the Herald, March 1987

Alan Parker in his element, all right: down and dirty.

Mississippi Burning

August 21, 2012

Mississippi Burning is a big, ungainly picture that crashes into a mess of important and powerful issues. Waving his broad brush again is film director Alan Parker, the maker of Angel Heart and Midnight Express, who brings a heavy hand to all his movies.

This time Parker is telling a story based loosely on fact, of an FBI investigation of the disappearance of two white civil-rights workers in a small town in Mississippi in 1964. (They were murdered by the townspeople, as a prologue shows.) The story unfolds from the point of view of two mismatched FBI men on the case.

Thus it is yet another treatment of racial injustice in which the main characters are white, not black. However, this doesn’t mean the movie’s an automatic sell-out. More troubling is that Chris Gerolmo’s screenplay uses the FBI agents as representatives of opposing viewpoints, and makes a buddy story out of it.

Gene Hackman plays a Southern-born agent who believes in sliding gently into the investigation, not rocking the boat, and using underhanded tactics if it means getting to the truth. Willem Dafoe, last seen essaying the title role in The Last Temptation of Christ, plays Hackman’s opposite number. He’s a Kennedy liberal, straining to change the world, and doing it all according to bureau policy. Like the army of FBI men who swarm over the small town, he’s always seen in his narrow black tie and suit.

These two carry on a somewhat predictably testy relationship. The movie never quite seems to know how to view them; at first the gung-ho Dafoe is as much a subject of derision as the local bigots. And the movie encourages us to root for Hackman’s outside-the-law methods, because the end apparently justifies the means.

Mississippi Burning is important, and potentially potent, material. But Parker reduces much of the conflict to cartoon proportions; all of the townspeople, including the sheriff (Gailard Sartain, a tobacco-chewing veteran of the Ernest movies) and deputy (Brad Dourif), look like the moronic results of heavy inbreeding. The one multi-dimensional character is the mayor, played by Lee Ermey, Kubrick’s hysterical drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket.

Parker’s cartoon approach trivializes the significant issues here; although, in spite of this, Mississippi Burning does splatter some of its dramatic targets. It’s an obvious film, but the sheer weight of Hackman’s humanity keeps it in touch with some kind of reality, and his relationship with the deputy’s wife (good performance by Frances McDormand) creates the film’s most complex element.

The movie already won over the National Board of Review, which named it the best picture of 1988, and it’s expected to be nominated for some Oscars. All of which goes to proves that if you bang people over the head with something, you will get their attention.

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

A lot of people seemed to fall for the movie, which is still puzzling (it has a high rating on IMDb even today). It got seven Oscar nominations, winning for Peter Biziou’s cinematography.