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.

Advertisements

The Mission

February 13, 2012

The Mission is a big, serious film that’s very reminiscent of moral epics such  as Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, and A Man for All Seasons. In other words, the kind of intellectual, ambitious film that was popular 20 or 30 years ago but has become scarce of late.

The direct connection between The Mission (which won the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) and those earlier films is easy to identify: They were all written by Robert Bolt, who loves chasing after big moral dilemmas in exotic settings.

This time he’s in the South America of a bygone era of colonialism; specifically, deep in the jungle at a Jesuit mission that serves a remote tribe of Indians.

The first part of the film tells the story of a notorious slave trader (Robert De Niro) who kills his brother (Aidan Quinn) and feels desolate and suicidal afterward. He tells the Jesuit priest (Jeremy Irons) who visits that “There is no redemption for me.”

Irons disagrees. He believes in the triumph of the spiritual world, and suggests De Niro come to the mission to work and purify himself.

The journey to the mission is compelling: De Niro drags a collection of the relics of his past life—armor, weapons—behind him, as symbolic penance. When they arrive at the mission, the Indians, who might well have killed him on sight, accept him, and he settles into the life of a selfless Jesuit.

This is a strong sequence; but the rest of the film scatters its power. The central issue becomes a decision by the Spanish and Portuguese governments to alter their borders, thus exposing the Indians at the mission to slavery and annihilation. The emissary from the Catholic Church (Ray MacAnally) does nothing to stop this.

So, the Jesuits must decide. Do they disobey their church, takes arms, and fight? Or do they comply and let the Indians be slaughtered?

Bolt’s script is at once very ambitious and too simple. He skirts so many issues—the question of whether the Indians want Christianity in the first place, for instance—that the film pulls in a bunch of different directions, none satisfying.

And his two lead characters are almost embarrassingly symbolic: Irons, the man of obedience and belief; De Niro, the man of revolt and action. Their decisions are entirely expected, and not really illuminating.

Irons is fine, though not apparently challenged. De Niro’s work is curious. Since his dazzling performance in The King of Comedy, De Niro has taken a series of roles in which he seems bent on internalizing everything. The Mission continues this; he’s underplaying so intensely, if that doesn’t sound like a contradiction in terms, that it’s hard to discern what his character is about.

This is the kind of script that, back in Bolt’s salad days, might have been directed by David Lean. Now, it’s Roland Joffe, whose first film, The Killing Fields, suggested that he might be the heir to Lean’s tradition of big, studied, respectable films.

Joffe, like Lean, likes to work on a huge palette. Many of the grand scenes are impressive: the crowds, the intense close-ups of De Niro’s spiritual anguish, and most of all the waterfall that must be conquered each time a journey is made to the mission.

The single most striking image in the film is in the pre-credits sequence, which shows a priest strapped to a cross, thrown into the river by the Indians, then dropping eerily over the falls. That haunting, inexplicable scene is the height of the film’s ambiguity; in most other matters, the answers seem all too simple.

First published in the Herald, November 14, 1986

An Oscar prelude week here at What a Feeling!, with reviews of winners over the next few days. This movie won for Chris Menges’ cinematography—duh—and scored a bunch of nominations besides. It has meant something to people through the years, but cinematically exciting it’s not.


Once Upon a Time in America

January 18, 2012

Because Once Upon a Time in America has been in various stages of planning for the last dozen years or so, a little history seems in order.

The Italian director Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood—A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly—made a mint during the 1960s. When Leone got American backing in 1968 to do another Western, he seized the opportunity, and made a film that is, in many ways, the ultimate Western: Once Upon a Time in the West. The film shared the breathtaking cinematic invention of the other three Westerns, but it was a resounding flop—a situation that was not helped (as it never is) when Paramount Pictures lopped a half-hour or so out of the movie’s three-hour running time.

The screenplay for a crime movie called Once Upon a Time in America was written soon after that, but it bounced around for years—Leone couldn’t find the financing. In that time—and while Leone remained oddly inactive as a director—the project assumed legendary proportions. Would Leone ever get the film made?

It finally happened a couple of years ago, and so titanic was the scope of the film that it was announced it would be released in two parts. Then the news took an all-too-familiar turn: studio philistines had the scissors out, and the film was gradually being pared down.

When it opened last week, the final American version was 150 minutes long, and Leone’s flashback structure no longer intact. A couple of weeks ago, the European cut debuted at the Cannes Film Festival at 227 minutes.

We may see that version someday, but right now, the short cut must stand on its own. And as it is, it’s a disappointment. In the first hour or so, as we watch a group of teenage friends flirting with crime and girls on the streets of New York, a beautiful spell is cast. Every detail in their lives seems oddly meaningful, and there’s a strong sense of camaraderie.

One of them goes to jail and emerges a few years later as Robert De Niro. As adults, the gang (also including James Woods, William Forsythe, and James Hayden) has set up a smooth speakeasy operation during the 1920s. We see them become involved in bigger criminal activities, which coincide with the disintegration of the friendship.

De Niro can’t come to terms with his childhood sweetheart (Elizabeth McGovern) and is unable to consummate their relationship except through violence. He seems to be equally out of touch with the world around him—and wrongly regards the growing ambitions of his best friend Woods as a peculiarity rather than a warning.

The film ends in 1968, as an aged De Niro—in an evocative reversal of the revenge motif that spurred the plot of Once Upon a Time in the West—refuses to take vengeance on someone who betrayed him. By this time, we’re aware that some pretty substantial chunks have been taken from the film. There is clearly a story that more involved the Treat Williams character, but that plot seems to have been discarded.

The promise of the early scenes is not fulfilled—their detail and richness does not have counterpoint in the later adult scenes. The two-and-a-half hours of the movie sped by, but were ultimately not satisfying. I wanted more.

First published in the Herald, June 5, 1984

The longer cut eventually came around, and what a vast improvement it was. But at the risk of sounding heretical, I have to say I’ve never truly felt strongly for Once Upon a Time in America, and it feels as though something at its very conceptual center is wrong, or at least severely flawed, despite all the impressive movie-making around it (and in the way that some film classics are blissfully well-cast, this one has a group of actors who remain stubbornly hard to get close to, De Niro included). I have to will myself to really get behind the movie, which I don’t want to do.


The King of Comedy

July 1, 2011

Rupert and Jerry, in happier times

Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is unnervingly funny through its first half, as a jerk named Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) pesters his way into the life of Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis, in a fine performance), the king of TV talk show hosts. Pupkin’s attempts to get Langford to hear the stand-up comedy routine Pupkin has been practicing for endless hours (not to an audience, but to himself) as a way to get on “The Jerry Langford Show” are as manically funny as they are pathetic. The improvisational atmosphere that Scorsese has set up for De Niro is in large part responsible for this, because De Niro has his character down so cold he can improvise in Pupkin’s voice; and that voice is a deadened instrument. Pupkin is a television-tube baby, programmed with a pitchman’s smile and an adman’s phrase book, whose ultimate romantic fantasy is to be married to the object of his admiration (Diahne Abbott) between commercials on Jerry’s show—with perennial guest Dr. Joyce Brothers as Maid of Honor.

Pupkin’s fantasies—they make up a big portion of his life, as he seems to be without any flesh-on-flesh contact with the world—have him convinced he will be a smash on the Langford show, and therefore he must get on Langford’s show; it’s simply out of the question that he might be turned down. It follows that any means Rupert takes to insinuate himself with Jerry—even after his audition tape is turned down—are allowable, even necessary, ways to an inevitable end. Things began to get seriously scary when Rupert and his date show up at Langford’s country home (after an imaginary invitation); Rupert’s fantasies and harassment of the people around Langford were obnoxious, but the face-to-face disruption of Langford’s domestic arena is a definite danger signal.

Rupert, with the aid of kooky Langford devotee Masha (Sandra Bernhard), decides to kidnap Jerry and hold him hostage in exchange for a spot on the show. At this point, Scorsese’s movie (after a screenplay by former Newsweek film reviewer Paul D. Zimmerman) resembles both his Taxi Driver and its disturbing spinoff, the John Hinckely affair. However, Scorsese refuses to make any kind of overt judgment of Pupkin (but Rupert is so dislikable that the well-fed Langford becomes sympathetic; in particular, his dinner alone in his high-tech apartment suggests that, even though he is where Rupert would like to be, he is just as lonely). Scorsese toes the line so evenly—and so obviously gets off on De Niro’s skyrocketing performance—that when Pupkin articulates the attitude that justifies his crime, Scorsese seems weirdly close to endorsing it: “Better to be King for a night than schmuck for a lifetime.” Or perhaps Scorsese is testing us—to see if we cheer Rupert’s words in the moment before we realize that that’s just the sort of thing assassins say when they’re asked, “Why did you do it?”

First published in The Informer, March 1983

De Niro’s best performance? Scorsese’s best movie? I dunno, there are days when I think so. It’s a really unusual, timely, beautifully sustained film. Lewis brings an enormous amount of heavy irascibility to it (always present in his talk-show appearances—when he starts going on about Hitler here it’s sort of like heaven for Jerry-philes) and De Niro goes out there in a way he hasn’t done since. I mean, the film has a remarkable performance by Shelley Hack. Many levels of amazement happening here.