William Hurt

Body Heat (1981, Lawrence Kasdan)

Sumptuous is unfortunately not the right word to describe Body Heat. I wish it were because sumptuous just sounds hot, temperature-wise. And Body Heat is all about heat. It takes place in during a very hot Florida summer, its cast dripping with sweat, constantly in search of a cool breeze or a cool drink. Functioning air conditioning too.

The film opens with lead William Hurt watching a building burn in the distance. Lots of arson for insurance money going on in the small city. Hurt’s a lawyer, the type who defends arsonists and general fraudsters. He’s not good at his job, but he’s charming, good-looking, and likable enough. He’s maybe too objectively stupid to be particularly sympathetic, but the liability and charm goes a long way. Despite his questionable lawyering, he’s a local ladies man, regaling pals Ted Danson and J.A. Preston with his exploits. Danson’s the county prosecutor who regularly beats Hurt in court but there are no hard feelings, they’re good friends. Preston’s the town’s single detective; he looks on Hurt a little more paternally than fraternally, which gives the relationship some texture. Hurt’s relationships with Danson and Preston, which never have enough drama to even be C plots, are one of writer and director Kasdan’s great accomplishments in the film. There’s a history between the men, a warm one (not a Heat pun), and as it gets more and more strained, it’s affecting to watch. Hurt’s friends see the best in him, even when he doesn’t.

For texture Danson gets a whole Fred Astaire wannabe thing, dancing in and out of rooms, or just while he’s walking along. It’s a fun character trait.

Again, Kasdan’s got all sorts of wonderful details. Plus Danson—not a short man—is great at the dancing.

Things start getting complicated when Hurt sets his sights on married woman Kathleen Turner. She’s an ideal conquest—her husband’s out of town during the week—and she’s able to keep up with Hurt’s innuendo banter. Kasdan does a phenomenal job with the innuendo banter; you wish there was more of it but Hurt’s able to seduce her pretty quickly so things go quickly from banter to lovey-dovey talk. Hurt’s rather receptive to the lovey-dovey when it comes from Turner. The film establishes in the first scene he’s not from his regular paramours, but they’re also not stinking rich and have actual jobs; as long as its a week night, Turner and Hurt are able to just have sex marathons, breaking only when physically exhausted in her luxurious house.

Sumptuous is the right word to describe the house.

And things carry on pretty well, even after the film introduces Turner’s husband (an appropriately nebulously creepy Richard Crenna); Hurt and Turner even survive getting busted by her best friend (Kim Zimmer) and niece (Carola McGuinness). But then Hurt runs into Turner and Crenna at a restaurant, leading to an incredibly awkward dinner, and then they start talking about how much nicer life would be if Crenna weren’t around anymore. After all, Hurt knows plenty of lowlife criminals (Mickey Rourke, who’s awesome in a small part) and he’s tapped into the law and order side thanks to Danson and Preston.

Can Hurt and Turner go from a passionate affair to something more dangerous? Well, maybe the more appropriate phrasing is can they successfully go from their passionate affair to something more dangerous.

The film’s got a fantastic lead performance from Hurt, who’s so charming, good-looking, and likable it isn’t even initially obvious he might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer. And Turner’s always playing him for some reason, it’s just not clear what. Body Heat has no illusions about its leads’ affair. John Barry’s booming, sweeping, jazzy-ish score is never romantic. Tragic, sure. But never romantic. Even if Turner is capable of it, there’s never a sign Hurt could be.

She’s hot, sure, but rich and hot is twice as good.

Then there’s the lush Richard H. Kline photography—the film looks sharp but muggy, like through a heat haze—and Kasdan’s spectacular direction. Kasdan goes all out with composition, both for static shots and the swooping crane shots. All of them cut together sublimely, courtesy Carol Littleton. Body Heat is a technical marvel.

Then there’s the script. Outside the lovey-dovey talk, where Turner turns the tables (no pun) on Hurt, it’s all sharp, deliberate. Kasdan does a great job directing the actors. Big parts, small parts, everyone in Body Heat gives an outstanding performance. The way Hurt delivers the dialogue is something special. The filmmaking elevates Heat from its thriller and suspense tropes already—but Hurt’s performance (along with Turner’s, though in a different way) make it a singular picture.

It’s pulp but it’s not. It’s too humid to be pulp. The pulp gets waterlogged. Body Heat is exceptional.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan; director of photography, Richard H. Kline; edited by Carol Littleton; music by John Barry; production designer, Bill Kenney; produced by Fred T. Gallo; released by Warner Bros.

Starring William Hurt (Ned Racine), Kathleen Turner (Matty Walker), Ted Danson (Peter Lowenstein), J.A. Preston (Oscar Grace), Lanna Saunders (Roz Kraft), Carola McGuinness (Heather Kraft), Mickey Rourke (Teddy Lewis), Kim Zimmer (Mary Ann), Jane Hallaren (Stella), and Richard Crenna (Edmund Walker).


The Big Chill (1983, Lawrence Kasdan)

With The Big Chill, Kasdan tries to be profound, heart-warming and cynical. He doesn’t succeed. For a film so much about introspection, Kasdan is surprisingly unaware at the inherent artifice. The film’s cast of characters are–if they’re male–extraordinary. There’s some lip service to the women’s successes (doctor, lawyer) but the men are rich or famous. It leads to some contrivances. If Kasdan and co-writer Barbara Benedeck were more conscious of the artifice, Chill would probably be great.

As it is now, it’s a good film with some great performances, outstanding technical qualities and a lot of boring stretches. A couple of characters are misfires. Kevin Kline’s Southern royalty, besides being a painfully artificial characterization, isn’t believable as a former hippie. And JoBeth Williams is so unlikable, I was confused about her having kids–I assumed, given her heartlessness when talking about them, they were stepchildren.

But there are outstanding performances too. The most surprising ones are Tom Berenger and Meg Tilly. Kasdan and Benedeck don’t give equal time to the cast and Berenger–and William Hurt–are mostly the male leads. The women get far less representation–Mary Kay Place, who’s outstanding, is the closest thing to a female lead.

Glenn Close and Jeff Goldblum are kind of window dressing. Their few scenes together, however, are great.

Kasdan’s composition, aided by John Bailey’s cinematography, is often wondrous. A lot of credit for Chill belongs to Carol Littleton’s nuanced editing.

Chill‘s parts are better than its whole.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan; written by Kasdan and Barbara Benedek; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by Carol Littleton; production designer, Ida Random; produced by Michael Shamberg; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Kevin Kline (Harold), Glenn Close (Sarah), JoBeth Williams (Karen), Jeff Goldblum (Michael), Mary Kay Place (Meg), Tom Berenger (Sam), Meg Tilly (Chloe), Don Galloway (Richard) and William Hurt (Nick).


Mr. Brooks (2007, Bruce A. Evans)

The scariest thing about Mr. Brooks, ostensibly a serial killer thriller, is what if it’s not an absurdist comedy. What if we’re really supposed to believe Demi Moore is a millionaire cop who’s out to get the bad guys….

Thankfully, between William Hurt’s performance (he gleefully chews scenery like his omnipresent gum) as Kevin Costner’s imaginary friend and then Costner’s silly nasal voice, it’s impossible to take seriously. And I’m not even mentioning when the movie obviously lifts scenes from Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs… or makes fun of Demi Moore being married to Ashton Kutcher.

The first half of the film maintains this absurdist approach—some of the dialogue between Moore and Lindsay Crouse is so funny, it’s hard to believe Crouse could keep a straight face. Unfortunately, writers Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon can’t keep up the farcical nature and eventually feel the need to insert narrative. There’s actual potential, but it’s problematic given the film as it exists so far.

For example, Hurt sort of disappears and Moore becomes prevalent.

Dane Cook’s around too, as Costner’s erstwhile sidekick and Moore’s suspect, and he’s awful. Marg Helgenberger, as Costner’s unknowing wife, isn’t much help either. She sells some of the absurdity in the first ten minutes, but then her presence becomes troublesome. A lot of the plot threads go nowhere.

When it finally gets to the inevitable twist ending, Mr. Brooks has lost the momentum. But, in a certain frame of mind, it’s not exactly worthless.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Bruce A. Evans; written by Evans and Raynold Gideon; director of photography, John Lindley; edited by Miklos Wright; music by Ramin Djawadi; production designer, Jeffrey Beecroft; produced by Kevin Costner, Gideon and Jim Wilson; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Kevin Costner (Mr. Earl Brooks), Demi Moore (Det. Tracy Atwood), Dane Cook (Mr. Smith), William Hurt (Marshall), Marg Helgenberger (Emma Brooks), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Hawkins), Danielle Panabaker (Jane Brooks), Aisha Hinds (Nancy Hart) and Lindsay Crouse (Captain Lister).


Lost in Space (1998, Stephen Hopkins)

For maybe forty minutes–from twenty minutes in to the hour mark–Lost in Space is actually rather engaging. It’s not any good as a narrative, but Hopkins’s direction of the space sequences is phenomenal. The film opens with something familiar, a dogfight out of Star Wars, but the later sequences are not. They aren’t original, but they’re the first time such a budget had been expended on them.

Overall, Hopkins does an excellent job with the film. The last hour, featuring an alien planet and time travel, falls apart because Akiva Goldsman’s script collapses under its own idiocy. The first hour, when Goldsman is still setting up the plot, only has awful dialogue and can survive.

The CG is sometimes excellent, sometimes not. Lost in Space tries a lot with the technology. Hopkins is able to get good performances opposite the CG–especially from Lacey Chabert and Heather Graham.

Chabert is good throughout (she’s inexplicably underused, having nothing to do) while Graham occasionally runs into some problems. Her flirting scenes with Matt LeBlanc are terrible, but she’s otherwise good. LeBlanc’s terrible the whole time. Often laughably so.

William Hurt is excellent (though one wonders why he said yes to Lost in Space and not Jurassic Park). Gary Oldman is hammy, but the character’s terribly underwritten. Mimi Rogers, Jack Johnson and Jared Harris are all awful. Watching Rogers act opposite Hurt is painful.

The film’s bad, but there are some amazing sequences in it. Nice score from Bruce Broughton too.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Hopkins; screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on the television series created by Irwin Allen; director of photography, Peter Levy; edited by Ray Lovejoy; music by Bruce Broughton; production designer, Norman Garwood; produced by Carla Fry, Goldsman, Hopkins and Mark W. Koch; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Gary Oldman (Dr. Zachary Smith), William Hurt (Prof. John Robinson), Matt LeBlanc (Maj. Don West), Mimi Rogers (Dr. Maureen Robinson), Heather Graham (Dr. Judy Robinson), Lacey Chabert (Penny Robinson), Jack Johnson (Will Robinson) and Jared Harris (Older Will Robinson).


The Incredible Hulk (2008, Louis Leterrier), the extended version

After seeing The Incredible Hulk in theater, I knew a couple things. First, I knew the extended version–the one Edward Norton fought for, that fight costing him the role in future productions–would be better than the theatrical release. Second, I knew its release would be contingent on Norton’s future involvement with the franchise.

So, something of catch-22.

Luckily, there’s an Internet.

The extended version of Hulk runs about thirty minutes longer. It still has the problems the theatrical version does–for example, the big long fight scene at the end is a terrible way to end a movie about three people coming to terms with their actions (Norton, Liv Tyler and William Hurt)–especially when you take into account it boils down to Hurt not liking his daughter’s boyfriend. Simplest is often best and Hulk does get there.

What the extended version improves is everything until that finale. It fleshes out characters–continuing the distilled reading, Norton’s nemesis becomes Ty Burrell (Tyler’s jealous boyfriend), instead of Tim Roth’s creepy but ultimately goofy aging career soldier.

Norton and Tyler–whose relationship anchors the entire film, theatrical cut or extended–becomes even more compelling, the film taking its time with them.

Unfortunately, the added character development makes Hulk‘s competing intentions clash even more. Making a simplistic summer blockbuster out of a tragedy doesn’t work.

Still, the extended version’s a significant improvement. And if Norton and Leterrier ever did get to do a professional revision… I imagine it’d be incredible.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Louis Leterrier; screenplay by Zak Penn and Edward Norton, based on a story by Penn and the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Peter Menzies Jr.; edited by Rick Shane, John Wright and Vincent Tabaillon; music by Craig Armstrong; production designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli; produced by Avi Arad, Gale Anne Hurd and Kevin Feige; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Edward Norton (Bruce Banner), Liv Tyler (Betty Ross), Tim Roth (Emil Blonsky), William Hurt (General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross), Tim Blake Nelson (Samuel Sterns), Ty Burrell (Leonard), Christina Cabot (Major Kathleen Sparr), Peter Mensah (General Joe Greller), Lou Ferrigno (Security Guard) and Paul Soles (Stanley).


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Dark City (1998, Alex Proyas), the director’s cut

I’m not sure if anything actually goes wrong with Dark City. There’s the significant music problem (Trevor Jones’s score seems more appropriate for a car commercial; it’s missing any subtext or delicacy), but there’s nothing else wrong. The acting is all fantastic–Richard O’Brien gives the best performance, making his evil alien human–and Alex Proyas composes fantastic shots.

The action-packed ending does seem a little off, both in terms of story and direction, I suppose. Proyas seems to be making a loud action picture instead of the quiet, peculiar one he was making a few minutes before. He’s got to visualize super-telepathy and it comes off poorly. Dark City‘s probably filled with references to other films–the one I noticed during the majority of the film was Metropolis, but the end mimics the Krypton destruction from Superman. The tone really doesn’t fit.

But where I wish Proyas had taken more time was with the characters. The last line implies the whole film’s been about characters, but it wasn’t. One of the major reveals (in this director’s cut, anyway… in the original version, there aren’t any reveals) makes the characters having great importance, overall, problematic if not impossible. And the end sort of ignores that condition, even though the end only exists because of that condition.

It’s very confusing… as is the problem of food in the film. No one seems to eat.

Proyas opens Dark City as a Panavision, vividly lighted film noir (or tries to) but there’s clearly something off. He loves the style though, as his introduction of Jennifer Connelly demonstrates. She’s a lounge singer and he goes through great lengths to bring that scene–an absolutely useless one, narratively–in as well as he can. But its narrative superfluousness is almost immediately apparent (Connelly subsequently has a real scene); tight as he is with his direction–until that last fight scene–Proyas is exceptionally loose with the script. He concentrates on the unimportant. There’s one particular scene–O’Brien and Rufus Sewell–where O’Brien tells Sewell his secret and it’s such a bad, expositional, needless line, I sat bewildered for the next thirty seconds.

The film’s very romantic–Sewell and Connelly, William Hurt’s solitary noir detective–but Proyas’s handling of the material is cynical. He’s not interested in the human component, except in minute doses. Sometimes, like O’Brien’s frequent ones, it works. Most times it simply isn’t enough.

Like I said before, all the acting’s good, with Sewell an excellent leading man, Connelly even better when she’s in the lead (but it doesn’t last long, only until Sewell can assume the protagonist role), and Hurt steady. Hurt’s performance is a fully competent, completely assured turn… but he seems the wrong choice for it. Of course he can do the performance, but it’s William Hurt–he can do a lot more. When it’s him and Connelly for the first third, it’s real good. Kiefer Sutherland’s fine as the mad scientist too. But towards the end he sort of becomes the lead character for a while and that approach might have been a better one for Proyas to take.

I haven’t seen Dark City for eight or nine years–about twenty minutes in, I remembered the original DVD was an early reference disc–and I’m not sure I watched it more than once initially. Its epical plot concerns itself so much with providing an intriguing journey–not to mention the visual sumptuousness–there’s something missing in terms of emotional engagement. The acting makes up for some of that absence, but given how often the script works intentionally and directly against such an engagement… it can only do so much.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alex Proyas; screenplay by Proyas, Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer, based on a story by Proyas; director of photography, Dariusz Wolski; edited by Dov Hoenig; music by Trevor Jones; production designers, George Liddle and Patrick Tatopoulos; produced by Andrew Mason and Proyas; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Rufus Sewell (John Murdoch), William Hurt (Inspector Frank Bumstead), Kiefer Sutherland (Dr. Daniel P. Schreber), Jennifer Connelly (Emma Murdoch), Richard O’Brien (Mr. Hand), Ian Richardson (Mr. Book), Bruce Spence (Mr. Wall), Colin Friels (Det. Eddie Walenski), John Bluthal (Karl Harris), Mitchell Butel (Officer Husselbeck), Melissa George (May) and Frank Gallacher (Chief Insp. Stromboli).


The Incredible Hulk (2008, Louis Leterrier)

All I wanted from The Incredible Hulk was dumb fun. I figured Louis Leterrier could deliver. Unfortunately, it’s not dumb fun, but Leterrier does deliver–and instead of fast food, it’s rather good French. Frequently, Hulk showcases Leterrier’s directorial abilities and they’re significant. Leterrier handles everything the story needs–be it rural or urban, Brazil or New York (well, Canada). The Incredible Hulk has a distinctive, maturing visual style. Leterrier adds on to the beginning until he reaches the end, which is his sole misstep.

But I’ll start at the beginning. The Incredible Hulk drops the viewer into a continuing story (sort of, again, more on this bit later) and doesn’t give he or she a lot of information. For example, expatriate Edward Norton seems to have a flirtation with his neighbor and co-worker, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Norton spends most of this time alone, not even with his dog, and it doesn’t move. Norton can make watching “Sesame Street” interesting, but the script cannot. So there are lots of cuts to William Hurt’s pursuit of him. Hurt’s not an Ahab here, which is an interesting move, but one of the script’s eventual bungles (it fails to recognize what it’s done with the character). Eventually, Norton heads back to America and the script hits the first enormous logic hole. Hurt returns to the U.S. too, but has no idea Norton wasn’t still in Brazil. Norton’s reasons for heading back are inferred, rather than explained. They’re neither shown nor told. Except maybe in the press release.

As Norton gets back, the movie starts toward its now inevitable conclusion. The Incredible Hulk is not really a continuing story, it’s just a story deferred. Apparently, in the five years in between the opening titles recap and the present action, there haven’t really been any interesting Hulk sightings. It’s an origin movie, only with the fight scene five years later than it should be.

But the break does make the relationship between Norton and Liv Tyler better. Tyler starts incredibly weak, but once she and Norton get together (actually, it starts with her and the CG Hulk), she gets good. Even though she’s a scientist (sure), her voice turns their relationship into an analog of Toad and Debbie’s, from American Graffiti, and the relationship sustains through the rest of the film. But the movie’s already half over when they finally get together alone and the third act and the big fight scene hang over the scenes like the Sword of Damocles.

The big fight scene at the end starts all right, but then it gets real dumb. Zak Penn’s a terrible plotter. The fight gets boring once it’s the two CG monsters duking it out, the only accessory a helicopter. It’s just nowhere near as interesting as the idea of the fight putting people in danger. When everyone shows up to (silently) commend the Hulk, it doesn’t make any sense… only two people saw the fight scene besides the viewer.

The script’s the big problem, summarizing too much or just insinuating too many important details. There are some great moments–and they do resonate and they are memorable–but there’s too much malarky.

Norton’s amazing–I don’t think any other actor could have made the Brazilian exile believable. Everything he does is gold in the film. Tyler’s got that incredibly problematic start (why does she have to be a scientist too?), but then she’s fine. Good even. Hurt’s okay, nothing more. He’s probably never had such a poorly written character. Tim Roth’s decent, until the script fails him. Tim Blake Nelson’s strangely bad, overdoing it as a generically eccentric scientist. His character and the lack of explanation is another big script defect.

The tie-ins to the Marvel comic books are almost all terrible. They’re only goofy at the start, then there’s the excellent scenes with Norton and Tyler on the road and the hints of what a good movie it could have been (not dumb fun either)… or the nice references to the television show. With the exception of the use of the show’s theme music, which is disingenuous. Then there’s the Robert Downey Jr. cameo at the end, which is a disgrace. Maybe if they’d stuck it after the credits, but it basically takes the movie away from Norton and gives it to Downey. I’d be shocked if Norton ever makes a return to the character, given the diss.

With Leterrier’s direction, with Norton, The Incredible Hulk should have been good. With Leterrier turning out to be a great director (though the fight scene at the end is too Hollywood, not at all visceral), it should have been ever better.

Instead, it hints of a good film and it should do much more. Especially given how… incredible the love story turns out to be.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Louis Leterrier; screenplay by Zak Penn, based on a story by Penn and the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Peter Menzies Jr.; edited by Rick Shane, John Wright and Vincent Tabaillon; music by Craig Armstrong; production designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli; produced by Avi Arad, Gale Anne Hurd and Kevin Feige; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Edward Norton (Bruce Banner), Liv Tyler (Betty Ross), Tim Roth (Emil Blonsky), Tim Blake Nelson (Samuel Sterns), Ty Burrell (Dr. Samson), William Hurt (General Ross), Christina Cabot (Major Sparr) and Lou Ferrigno (the security guard).


A History of Violence (2005, David Cronenberg)

There’s something about A History of Violence from the first scene, something about the way the titles become part of the motel exterior. It’s a nice long tracking shot from Cronenberg, with a great (small part though) performance from Stephen McHattie. After the opening, Cronenberg spends a lot of time introducing Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello and family. They live in a Hollywood-ized version of a small midwestern town (where everyone looks out for one another, where Bello has a son she had when she was eleven)–it’s a never never land, which is fine, because Cronenberg’s dealing with the role of violence in films here. He manages to make all the commentary on it he wants, while never once letting the characters slip from the most important position.

The film succeeds because of Mortensen and Bello. Bello’s good, but Mortensen is amazing. It’s been a while since the last time I read he was finally going to be big and Violence doesn’t show he can be a leading man… it shows he can act beautifully. The interesting thing about how Cronenberg treats Mortensen… he’s never anything but the protagonist. He never loses the viewer’s identification. Even when he’s scaring the hell out of everyone around him, he’s still the good guy. Because it’s a Hollywood movie. It’s not in the sense one could see Brad Pitt in the lead, but Cronenberg knows very well he can’t comment on Hollywood’s approach to violence without making the film Hollywood.

There is some distraction, given the high schoolers all being mid-twenties or later. I’m guessing it doesn’t have to do with Cronenberg commenting on… the Beach Party movies, but rather… well, regular Hollywood casting practices.

Cronenberg offsets the violence and the implications of it and Mortensen and Bello’s respective inner turmoil with a couple fantastic performances. First, Ed Harris. Harris plays a creepy mobster and he’s a joy to watch, but it’s not a stretch for him. Ed Harris doesn’t usually play creepy mobsters, but it’s not something one wouldn’t expect to see from him. William Hurt, on the other hand, has his flashiest role ever as a funny, posh mobster… seeing Hurt in this kind of role (and forgetting, had the film been made fifteen years earlier, he probably would have been turning down the lead) is joyous. He can do anything, but so rarely does. His scenes are just indescribably great.

Screenwriter Josh Olson, with a pointedly less than notable (to be polite) previous filmography, provides Cronenberg with the material he needs to tell a complicated story. In many ways, it’s like Frank Capra does a mob movie… with composer Howard Shore, who can alternate without any difficulty between the personal and dramatic scenes, setting a mood for the film I can’t really describe.

However, it all rests on Mortensen. And he succeeds.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Cronenberg; written by Josh Olson, based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke; director of photography, Peter Suschitzky; edited by Ronald Sanders; music by Howard Shore; production designer, Carol Spier; produced by Chris Bender and J.C. Spink; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Viggo Mortensen (Tom Stall), Maria Bello (Edie Stall), William Hurt (Richie Cusack), Ed Harris (Carl Fogarty), Ashton Holmes (Jack Stall), Heidi Hayes (Sarah Stall), Stephen McHattie (Leland Jones), Greg Bryk (Billy Orser) and Peter MacNeill (Sheriff Sam Carney).


Syriana (2005, Stephen Gaghan)

What a sprawling and ambitious film… oh, wait, it’s actually neither. Syriana has a bunch of good performances (Matt Damon being the stand-out lead and Amanda Peet or Alexander Siddig being the supporting, with William Hurt turning in a really nice extended cameo), but with the exception of the Muslim suicide bomber, it’s emotionally empty… soulless. I did have one problem with the suicide bomber–he strikes at target whose destruction would immediately improve the world. That’s not how suicide bombers actually act (the world situation would be a lot different if they did).

Describing the three main, failed plotlines–man has to come to terms with his son’s death, man has to come to terms with his career ending, man has to come to terms with racism–makes Syriana sound rather promising. But Gaghan displays even more disinterest in the human condition than his script for Traffic did. He’s not writing about people brought together by coincidence or passion, these people are all brought together by the situation. Syriana is dramatic fiction. Trying to present it as a multiple camera, pseudo-documentary does disservice to all the good work the actors put in to the film.

The politics Syriana discusses are probably not common knowledge, but a common American isn’t well-informed (or interested). There’s nothing in this film that has been documented, nothing that five minutes of a Noam Chomsky interview wouldn’t elucidate further. It’s political science for people who watch “Friends.” I really didn’t expect much more from the film (or Gaghan), so I’m not disappointed. Seeing the good acting (though Jeffrey Wright was so passive he disappeared and it’s the first bad Christopher Plummer performance I’ve ever seen), particularly Hurt and Peet, was a treat and the film’s only a couple hours long. I just wish I hadn’t had to pee for the second hour.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Gaghan; screenplay by Gaghan, suggested by a book by Robert Baer; director of photography, Robert Elswit; edited by Tim Squyres; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Dan Weil; produced by Jennifer Fox, Michael Nozik and Georgia Kacandes; released by Warner Bros.

Starring George Clooney (Bob Barnes), Matt Damon (Bryan Woodman), Jeffrey Wright (Bennett Holiday), Chris Cooper (Jimmy Pope), William Hurt (Stan Goff), Mazhar Munir (Wasim Ahmed Khan), Tim Blake Nelson (Danny Dalton), Amanda Peet (Julie Woodman), Christopher Plummer (Dean Whiting), William C. Mitchell (Bennett Holiday Sr.), Shahid Ahmed (Saleem Ahmed Khan) and Alexander Siddig (Prince Nasir Al-Subaai).


Eyewitness (1981, Peter Yates)

Eyewitness gets a lot of abuse.

Peter Yates has become a punch-line to many a film joke, usually by people who love Breaking Away and don’t remember he did it. Eyewitness is an incredibly odd film–and not entirely successful, the protagonist (William Hurt) tends to talk to Sigourney Weaver straight from the id, no filtering. Her character is the film’s most complex (since the whole situation deals in a gray area of morality) and Weaver doesn’t always get it. There are a few scenes where she does, and it’s beautiful.

This film is incredibly gentle. It’s all about the character relationships. Writer Steve Tesich (also Breaking Away) even gives the cops personal conflicts, which is a little too much. But there’s a lot to appreciate in Eyewitness‘s indulgences. It makes for an odd experience–though Hurt’s character is so unbelievably straight-forward, it’s one of his best performances. Hurt tends not to play the identifiable character and, seeing him do it, is a special experience.

As for the mystery/thriller aspect of the film… it’s not really there, which may be why there’s such a hostility to the film. There’s a contract between artist and reader (or viewer) and Eyewitness does not deliver what the title (or the poster) promise. The score, or lack thereof, lets the viewer know the contract’s broken in the opening titles. I’m not much a stickler about the title contract when it comes to film (Pearl Harbor, for example, broke the shit out of it too, and so did Star Wars for that matter).

I’ve recommended Eyewitness in the past and had people look at me funny after watching it. Not every film needs to break your heart (like The Missouri Breaks). Hell, films don’t even have to engage your intelligence (Animal Crackers). But films do need to make your invested time worthwhile–and Eyewitness does. Just not if you’re looking for a mystery/thriller, rather a story about people.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed and produced by Peter Yates; written by Steve Tesich; director of photography, Matthew F. Leonetti; edited by Cynthia Scheider; music by Stanley Silverman; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring William Hurt (Daryll Deever), Sigourney Weaver (Tony Sokolow), Christopher Plummer (Joseph), James Woods (Aldo), Irene Worth (Mrs. Sokolow), Kenneth McMillan (Mr. Deever), Pamela Reed (Linda), Albert Paulsen (Mr. Sokolow), Steven Hill (Lieutenant Jacobs), Morgan Freeman (Lieutenant Black) and Alice Drummond (Mrs. Deever).


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