The Pope of Greenwich Village

January 21, 2013

popeofgThe opening-credits sequence of The Pope of Greenwich Village promises much: As Frank Sinatra’s voice caresses the air with “The Summer Wind,” we see a man meticulously preparing himself for an evening out. He slips on an expensive jacket, natty tie, classy accessories. He walks out into the evening with smooth self-assurance.

The upshot of this is that the guy, Charlie, is a maitre d’ at a fancy restaurant. Still, he knows what he’s about, and he’s got great dreams. He and his girlfriend, Diane, plan to break out of their home in Little Italy and own a restaurant in the country someday.

Charlie’s got a problem, however. The problem is he’s bound by blood to a perpetual loser named Paulie, his third cousin. Paulie, working as a waiter at Charlie’s restaurant, promptly gets them both fired when he won’t stop stealing money.

Out on the street, Paulie comes up with a new scheme. He buys a share of a racehorse—he’s heard the horse is the offspring of a champion, by means of “artificial inspiration”—and then plans a burglary to have enough money to bet big when the horse comes in a winner. Paulie drags a reluctant, unemployed Charlie into the plot, without telling him that the payroll they’re going to take belongs to the local underworld kingpin.

It’s one of those movies in which the characters keep getting deeper and deeper into trouble. The Pope isn’t a depressing movie because of this, however. The only depressing thing is that so little has been done with a potentially rich subject.

Vincent Patrick, whose maiden screenplay this is (he adapted his same-named novel), has things going in all directions. Charlie’s concern for his helpless, no-good cousin is touching, but his gruff devotion isn’t really given enough background to make it comprehensible. It becomes tough to believe that the family connection is enough. And Diane’s character is never successfully integrated into the story; after a while she just disappears.

Director Stuart Rosenberg, who might have brought the film’s tangential elements together, just contributes to the mess. He doesn’t seem to be equipped to impose any overriding sensibility that might have brought things into focus.

If the film is a rather enjoyable mess, it’s because of the cast. Daryl Hannah is appealing as Diane, and there are well-turned supporting bits by Kenneth McMillan, as a thief who helps Charlie and Paulie; Burt Young, as the gangland chief; and Tony Musante, as one of Young’s henchmen, who has tears in his eyes as he tells his old friend Paulie he’ll have to maim him.

Eric Roberts—most recently the psycho husband in Star 80—manages to be both studied and overwrought as Paulie. Oddly enough, that’s appropriate for this character, but Roberts would benefit from watching his co-star, Mickey Rourke, for a lesson in natural screen acting.

Rourke, the hairdresser of Diner and the motorcycle boy in Coppola’s Rumble Fish, is short, not conventionally handsome, and speaks softly most of the time. But he’s got the kind of screen presence that inspires immediate audience sympathy, and when he’s on screen in The Pope, the film blows through with the ease and pleasant feeling of the summer wind.

First published in the Herald, June 26, 1984

Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke: what a set it must have been. IMDb says this movie was prepared and steered through pre-production by Michael Cimino, which conjures up a wilder project.


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.


Johnny Handsome

August 10, 2012

In Johnny Handsome, Mickey Rourke takes his propensity for disfigurement to a new level. You thought he was ugly in Barfly, or Angel Heart? That was relative comeliness. In Johnny Handsome, Rourke plays a lowlife criminal whose face is unspeakably deformed. He’s so repellent he’s contemptuously known as Johnny Handsome.

When Johnny is double-crossed during a robbery and his best friend killed, he’s packed off to prison, a two-time loser. But then a doctor (Forest Whitaker), a specialist in reconstructive surgery, sees Johnny’s face, and he puts Johnny under the knife to try to make a new man of him. At least he fashions a new, socially acceptable face, but can a new face change the man?

As Johnny Handsome finds out, he must remain true to who he is. The second half of the film shows his revenge against the two sleazeballs who sold him out (deliciously and dementedly played by Ellen Barkin, also on sizzling view these days in Sea of Love, and Lance Henriksen). This part of the movie isn’t quite as intriguing as the character study of the first half, because it’s mostly clockwork action.

But action is the specialty of director Walter Hill (Red Heat), and he can bring this kind of thing off as well as anybody. Hill also glories in the blue-collar New Orleans locations and the tough, epigrammatic dialogue. When Barkin sizes up the new Johnny Handsome—she doesn’t recognize him—she leans in and leers, “I’ll tell you sumpin’, sweetheart: Lookin’ at you gives me some baaad thoughts.”

In the end, Johnny Handsome comes close to being a real thug’s tragedy. It’s got seediness and flavorful characters, including Johnny’s post-makeover girlfriend (Elizabeth McGovern), who isn’t quite the goody-two-shoes she seems to be, and Johnny’s nemesis, a police lieutenant (Morgan Freeman) who is merciless in his harassment of Johnny—or is it merciful?

Rourke does well with his role. The scene in which his bandages come off and he peers into a mirror is one of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen in a movie this year.

Finally the movie and his performance come up short, because there isn’t really enough of Johnny to provide for truly tragic dimensions; he becomes submerged in the revenge story. That story is a pip, nevertheless, and Johnny Handsome is a fascinating brew.

First published in the Herald, September 29, 1989

Still waiting for the Johnny Handsome cult to gather. I guess the film doesn’t quite work, but Hill gets moments like nobody else, and Rourke is pretty remarkable.


Barfly

May 29, 2012

A drunk, our hero, shuffles into a dive in the seediest part of Los Angeles. He sees a woman at the bar who looks about as broken-down as himself. He sidles over next to her and orders a beer. Her conversation starter: “I can’t stand people, I hate them. Don’t you?” He replies thoughtfully, “No…but I seem to feel better when they’re not around.”

Somehow this exchange sets the tone for their friendship, which is the main focus of Barfly, a weirdly wonderful new film written by Charles Bukowski and directed by Barbet Schroeder.

Fans of Bukowski’s lowlife writings will recognize his alter ego, Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke), a down-and-outer who spends his days and nights drinking steadily, getting into fights, and scribbling down stories on stray pieces of paper. He’s actually reasonably content with this existence, until he meets Wanda (Faye Dunaway), the woman at the bar.

She, as much a drunk as he, rouses a few relatively noble instincts: Henry even takes a shot at getting a job. Meanwhile, Henry’s being pursued by a literary agent (Alice Krige) who wants to buy some of his stories.

Bukowski’s screenplay, and French director Schroeder’s light touch with it, consistently finds the humor and poetry of these gutter-level lives. Bukowski doesn’t sentimentalize or apologize for anything; he also doesn’t spare us any of the grunts or groans or other bodily functions that occur in such a lifestyle. Frequently a line of dialogue will soar too poetically, as with Henry’s observation that Wanda looks like “some kinda distressed goddess,” but this becomes part of the weave of the fabric.

Schroeder and cinematographer Robby Müller manage a visual delicacy, too; in the way the afternoon light spills into the bar when the door is opened, or the cool night that surrounds Henry when he bends down to a fire hydrant to wash his face after a fight.

Faye Dunaway takes on her uncharacteristically disheveled role and comes out with her best performance in years. There’s also nice supporting work by J.C. Quinn and Frank Stallone (yes, Sylvester’s songwriter brother) as the good and bad bartenders at the Golden Horn, Henry’s hangout.

And Mickey Rourke…well, Mickey Rourke has got to be seen in this one. We know about Rourke’s penchant for roles that are grungy and unkempt, as evidenced lately in Angel Heart and A Prayer for the Dying. But Rourke gets something completely new here, a wholecloth performance of rolling gait, bruised knuckles, and lilting speech. His line delivery is a singsong that plays devilish tricks on your expectations of how dialogue should be read, and also suggests a background of hurt and humor for his character. You may love or hate this performance, but either way it’s a remarkable piece of acting.

First published in the Herald, October 1987

I feel pretty good about this review. There must be some kind of story about how Faye Dunaway got into this unlikely project, and I do not know what that is. Man, you see Rourke’s inventive work here and wonder what might have been.