Tag Archives: William Hurt

Syriana

Syriana (2005) 3.97/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84.4
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Duration: 128 mins
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Christopher Plummer

For a film that boasts lots of stars and acting talent, Syriana is a rather more unorthodox thriller than we might expect. Set amid the world of oil trading and based on Robert Baer’s book, it follows Amirs, petroleum executives, senators, high profile lawyers, terrorists, and CIA agents as they engage each other in a global chess match where the tool is geographical instability and the prize is power. The result is a collage of intersecting plots that thrill on a variety of dramatic levels. Political machinations, corporate intrigue, religious extremism, cultural ambition, and personal tribulation all bound together with coherence and momentum.

An ambitious project to be sure but one that succeeds due to a tight script and intelligent directing which combine to give a story of such scale much focus while, at all times, giving the audience the benefit of the doubt. Nothing is spoon-fed here as every deal, negotiation, and conversation is veiled and approached at an angle. Much is left for the audience to work out, a tactic that encourages them to invest in the story. But what really defines Stephen Gaghan’s film is its overarching sense of realism. The plot is allowed to increment forward in a manner where little looks to be happening but where a lot feels like it is. A triumph of efficient directing where each character is embellished richly with a mere half-glance or dinner order. Back-room wheeling and dealing portrayed so incidentally that what would appear outlandish comes across as chillingly real.

And the cast contribute strongly too. George Clooney puts in an Oscar winning turn as a spy very much caught between two worlds and cultures, who is sent to Beirut on CIA business only to be frozen out when things go wrong. Jeffrey Wright is deviousness personified as the Washington lawyer asked by his sinister senior partner Christopher Plummer to take a closer look at a merger between two oil giants, one of which, is headed up by the always excellent Chris Cooper. A host of other top names and some talented newcomers fill out the lesser roles but it’s fair to say everybody plays second fiddle to the intricate plot. That it all plays towards a deeply moving and emotional crescendo is what precludes this almost experimental political burner from unravelling. Instead, it seems to cohere rather impressively and honestly around some unappetising home truths and leave everyone thinking. Impressive indeed.

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Mr. Brooks (2007) 3.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 71
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 120 mins
Director: Bruce A. Evans
Stars: Kevin Costner, Demi Moore, William Hurt

Okay, so the plot is way over the top but this quirky little movie about a wealthy serial killer (Kevin Costner) battling with his impulses to kill (personified in the form of alter ego William Hurt) is both an amusing black comedy and a very engaging thriller. Costner is as good as ever in the title role and his balancing of family man, business tycoon, tortured soul, and meticulous serial killer wasn’t an easy one to pull off particularly because of the story’s comedic artifice. But he actually nails it and makes for a charming lead who we root for throughout. Hurt is in giddy form as his twisted Id, a partner in crime, who nobody else can see or hear, while Demi Moore continues her recent revival with an equally charming turn as the detective on his trail. Where Mr. Brooks stalls is in the multitude of subplots it presents us with. Actually, four of them work quite effectively together but a fifth involving Moore’s pursuit of a second unrelated murderer is needless and distracting. But while it takes from the integrity of the story, writer director Bruce A. Evans and co-writer Raynold Evans’ irreverent approach to the subject matter softens the blow. Simply put, Mr. Brooks is just about the fun we get from following its twisted plot and seeing three of Hollywood’s old hands plying their trade with the charm and savvy that many of their recent counterparts are missing.

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Dark City (1998) 4.79/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 91.8
Genre: Science Fiction
Duration: 100 mins
Director: Alex Proyas
Stars: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly

This is one of those films that is so conceptually and aesthetically stunning that it can hit you like a freight train if you’re not expecting it. And isn’t that one of the great joys of cinema? Alex Proyas’ film has been described as a Kafkaesque sci-fi noir and it very much is. It begins in a strange grimy hotel room where John Murdoch wakes up to find a dead prostitute on his floor and a group of sinister men pursuing him. His escape brings us into a world that seems at odds with everything we know and expect. It quickly transpires that Murdoch isn’t quite normal himself and may even have abilities akin to those of the strangers who are following him.

For a film that was always going to repel mainstream audiences who demand conventional narratives and accessible plots it’s amazing at how much money seems to have gone into this. The production design is truly awe-inspiring and combined with Proyas’ dark vision it becomes psyche affecting. The script is electric and is as honest an attempt to live up to the potentials of science fiction as you’ll find. It presents us with highly defined yet idiosyncratic characters who are cast to perfection. William Hurt and Jennifer Connelly are excellent but it’s Kiefer Sutherland’s Dr. Schreber and Rufus Sewell’s Murdoch who are so utterly captivating. Sutherland nails his character and is responsible for much of the film’s thrust, while Sewell is immense in an altogether more difficult role. Proyas’ direction is slick and intense employing quick cuts with sharp angles to get the most out his extraordinarily lit and shadow friendly sets.

Dark City is a monumental piece of science-fiction that pre-dated The Matrix by a year but went well beyond that film in its scope and daring. Ultimately, the best thing you can say about Dark City is that it achieves that holy grail of science fiction movies. A film that looks and feels like nothing that came before it or since. Utterly utterly sublime.

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The Village (2004) 4.29/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 66.8
Genre: Horror, Fantasy
Duration: 108 mins
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, Joaquin Phoenix

An isolated old time village of people, hiding from the cruelty of the towns and cities, share an uneasy truce with a species of carnivorous creatures living in the surrounding woods. When one of the young folk breaches the border, the creatures begin entering the village to seemingly offer a fresh warning. However, when that same man is injured, his fiancée decides to cross those same woods in the hope of reaching a town and bringing back medicine, an action that challenges the village elders’ reasons for their isolation in the first place.

The Village is a deeply curious film that arguably defies its ultimate betrayal thanks to remarkably polished direction and a story that bears all the texture and resonance of a hardened mythology. First thing that needs to be said here is that M. Night Shyamalan initially concocts an elegant fairytale that comments on society and its traditions with the same grace and primal fear that has defined the classics. Strongly influenced by the folk tales of his Indian background, his creatures in this film are inspired devices in both conception and depiction. The sounds they make and the half glimpses that we are treated to all promise to add richly to the lexicon of horror, a genre in desperate need of new form lest we be left with the continued flogging of the vampire, werewolf, and zombie staples. Being savage and monstrous, yet possessing the outward trappings of a society or culture that has emerged in parallel to human culture, these creatures play so delicately on our archetypes of terror and so deeply in the recesses of our minds that they invigorate in a manner that recalls the chills of Harryhausen’s Medussa. All clicks and unbearable hideousness. The corners and bends to the mythos realised in striking colour contrasts upon Roger Deacons’ otherwise starkly painted canvas. In the haunting violins of James Newton Howard’s softly beautiful score. A remarkablly visceral piece of filmmaking.

The screenplay struggles (even contrives) to live up to the weight of this singular achievement but Shyamalan’s cast, the kind of that would normally bedeck a Spielberg epic, still manage to act their socks off. Joaquin Phoenix, Bryce Dallas Howard, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and Adrien Brody are all excellent, Howard and Brody especially. They are helped ably by the director’s extraordinary ability to capture subjectivity in dialogue not to mention frame significant moments or build to powerful crescendos. There are also more of those lovely moments of innocent humour that have marked Shyamalan’s previous movies.

Unfortunately, at the final hurdle this undeniably talented filmmaker falls victim to his reputation and quite literally undoes the entire fabric to his film. In the end, storytelling is paramount and he appears to betray that for no other reason than to add a fairly insipid twist. It’s feels like a body-blow to the audience, counting surely as one of the more disappointing reversals ever and if you’ve managed to avoid hearing of this twist, you’ll probably guess it far in advance.

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Body Heat (1981) 4.66/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 84
Genre: Thriller, Film-Noir
Duration: 113 mins
Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Stars: William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Richard Crenna

Writer/director Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat is one of the very few “neo noirs” which stands toe to toe with the best the 1940’s & 50’s served up. From that magnificently sultry opening blanketed by John Barry’s utterly captivating score, this film is as perfect a blending of pace, personality, plot, and momentum as we have seen in a thriller since the latter part of the 50’s with the possible exception of Chinatown. Essentially, this is Double Indemnity only the male lead (William Hurt) is a crumby defence attorney instead of an insurance salesman (his profession gives him a similar insight into how one might commit the perfect crime). Kathleen Turner is just as scheming as Stanwyck but if anything, she’s even more subtle and even more manipulative. Her plan to reel Hurt into the murder of her husband is spun with more delicacy and patience and downright craft than that of Wilder’s and Chandler’s story. It is these little differences that represent the true strength to Kasdan’s film in that it is less archetyped than typical films noirs and, as such, the characters and their deeds are refreshingly more true to life. For example, Hurt’s character isn’t exactly the prototypical tough guy we see in so many of the 40’s thrillers. Instead, he’s a little bit charming but also a bit naive. A bit sly, but also a bit dumb. This is film-noir with real people!

Though Kasdan is clearly having fun with the genre by subverting its character conventions, he also pushes it forward through his clever use of those conventions which he does embrace. For example, his use of light and shadow in the context of the coloured photography helps to make the various characters’ sweaty bodies (the film is set during a heat wave) an oppressive force which works wonderfully on a metaphorical as well as visceral level. The colour also gives his brilliantly staged locations and sets a more striking level of detail while light shines through blinds and cell bars alike hiding or revealing eyes to suit the purpose of the scene. Much of what’s caught on camera, therefore, is bathed in a rich darkness, which accentuates the deeply seductive themes running through the film (again much like Chinatown).

As you would expect with Hurt and Turner in the leads, the acting is straight out of the top drawer. Hurt gives a peculiar little performance even by his standards and throws just enough bewildering stares at his co-stars to keep the audience engrossed through the slow build-up. Turner is masterful as the veiled predator as she manipulates her audience in much the same way as her character is manipulating her quarry. The dialogue too is as razor sharp as the best noirs (“You’re not too smart. I like that in a man”) but also softly nuanced when it needs to be. All of this plays out in neat step with Barry’s sublime score which, like everything else in this perfect little movie gem, sets and maintains the atmosphere from scene one.

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The Big Chill (1983) 4/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Bad – 50.8
Genre: Drama
Duration: 105 mins
Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Stars: Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum

Seven former college friends reunite for the funeral of one of their group and spend the weekend reminiscing and coming to terms with past…….ugh! The strikingly few critics of this film tend to focus on the fact that it reifies an overindulged generation of self-important self-obsessives. And that’s a fair criticism. It’s very fair. But much worse, it’s an excruciating and cringe-worthy cheese fest where artificial “middle-aged going wild” cliche replaces any real genuine social interaction or discourse. Imagine a 100 minute montage of eight insufferables dancing around the kitchen to the rock ‘n’ roll of their youth, bumping hips as they wash the dishes together, laughing and gibing with each other in a gushing waterfall of cotton candy nostalgia. Where all authentic notions of character development, dilemma, and conversation are forsaken in favour of a 1980’s music video approach to movie-making. Where cardboard characters are presented to the audience as the “funny one”, the “goofy one”, the “weird one”, the “troubled one”, or the “funny one’s wife” and where living up to those stereotypes provides the comedy while breaking away from them provides the drama. Where every bit of the endless fun the characters are supposed to be having comes inescapably across as forced, contrived, and desperate. You could watch this on your own and still feel embarrassed for the actors.

Even more depressing is the fact that the writers, the usually brilliant Lawrence Kasdan and Barbara Benedek, were hijacking the premise of John Sayle’s galactically superior 1979’s The Return of the Secaucus 7. Sayles’ film also focused on a weekend reunion but the characters were real and the circumstances felt natural. Kasdan’s feels like a glossy attempt to recapture the sentiment of the earlier film but with no legitimate feel for it. The scenarios that emerge are scarcely believable and while that isn’t a crime in itself, the attempt to portray them as emotionally honest makes it one. It’s like watching Bill Murray in Groundhog Day rushing Andie McDowell through their first date for the 50th time, trying to hurry her along to the good bits. It’s like listening to a crusty old politician trying to relate to a younger audience by saying “yeah man, I feel you!”. Kasdan even went as far as insinuating his characters were political activists just as the title of Sayle’s film explicitly did. But where in the latter film, their history as activists simply acted as the context to tell funny stories about how they ended up in prison and indirectly point to the tenuousness of post-adolescent idealism, in Kasdan’s film it acted as the pretext for an earnest 120 second (that’s right, “seconds”!) political debate wherein their character’s commitment to their left-wing leanings were shown to be as strong as ever (despite their now comfortable upper-middle class existence – but don’t worry, that hypocrisy is addressed in the final 10 seconds of the 120 second “political scene”).

There are many out there who will always champion The Big Chill because it reminds them of their youth. Those who watched it in the 80’s as either early twenty somethings (whom the film was remembering with kind fondness) or mid to late thirty somethings (whom the film was validating…. with kind fondness). Either way, it has the nostalgia factor or the comfortable factor (we won’t make you face any harsh truths about life) going for it. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this type of film-making and if one can stand the cliches (or just doesn’t care about them), then The Big Chill can definitely offer a form of entertainment. Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Tom Berenger, and Jeff Goldblum make for a sturdy and interesting cast and their presences and charisma alone can make for satisfying viewing. But anyone who cares to step back from the hazy vantage point of nostalgia and run the rule over the quality of their characters’ writing, will unavoidably see this as the pure self-deluded schmaltz it is. And from a film maker and cast who should’ve known better. A lot better.

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A History of Violence (2003) 3.14/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Bad – 54.1
Genre: Action
Duration: 96 mins
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris

Okay, the first two acts of the film have a clichéd sub-plot involving an annoying son and some cartoon bullies but the premise was fascinating and had the potential to develop in to something really special. Small town man Tom Stall lives what seems to be the perfect small town life: close-knit family, respected around the community, and a solid little diner-business. Until one evening, two psychopaths stop by his diner and attempt to murder a waitress while holding the place up. Stall springs to life and disarms one of the assailants before killing him and his partner in a clear cut case of self-defence, albeit an incredibly heroic one. Things get even more interesting when some mob guys from Philadelphia, having seen Stall’s picture on the news, show up and claim that Tom is their old acquaintance, crazy Joey Cusack. Stall denies it vehemently and an enthralling guessing game ensues which sees even Stall’s family begin to doubt him. (Note: Spoilers are a necessary feature of this critique from this point on).

If you haven’t seen this film, then the set-up described should have you tingling with excitement and up to this point, the film lives up to any expectations you might have. Viggo Mortensen is excellent as everyman Tom Stall who just found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cronenberg took his time getting there and had struck just the right balance between the more violent and calmer aspects to the story (with a fantastically staged opening shot capturing the essence of such an approach). Best of all, Ed Harris as the Philly wise-guy is electric in a role that has you guessing from the first time we see him. Unfortunately, just when Cronenberg should be ramping up the mystery and tantalising us with a resolution that is better off not provided, he resolves it flatly and in as manic and unintentionally farcical a fashion as you could possibly imagine. The third act descends into an eye-deceiving second-rate Jean-Claude Van Damme flick with unexplained martial arts ability, gratuitous sex scenes, illogical family behaviour, and cartoon gangsters everywhere.

There are those who have attempted to interpret this dramatic shift in tone as a facilitator for a kind of cultural commentary regarding violence and its place within us. However, there is simply no denying that any such commentaries could have been infinitely better explored by denying the audience the childish catharses of the third act. In fact, in resolving this story in the way it did, Cronenberg et al. refused to shine the light back on the audience and thus give credence to the notion that there was an intelligible social or cultural commentary in play.

It must be pointed out that, A History of Violence is an adaptation of a graphic novel of the same name (written by John Wagner or Vince Locke) and if anything, John Olson’s adaptation and Cronenberg’s interpretation do try to elevate the central mystery and consequently delay the thriller-action movie transition (there is no indictment here of Wagner or Locke as graphic novels are expected to be action heavy). But the fact that those making the film realised how important the mystery was but didn’t have the vision to protect it, is the biggest mistake a director of Cronenberg’s class is likely to make.

To say that this movie’s final act was a let-down is the understatement of all understatements. If you like brain-at-reception movies, then this is probably the film for you. However, if you believe a film which starts off intelligently should conclude in similar fashion (if not more so) then avoid, avoid, avoid! A History of Violence is a perfect example of a film that needs to be remade. Leave the classics alone, remake the films that had potential, but failed to live up to it because the writers didn’t have the perspective to see it.

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