Tag: William Hurt

Broadcast News (1987)

Broadcast News header
Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter and William Hurt struggle with the news and love in James L Brooks not very funny or insightful romantic media satire

Director: James L Brooks

Cast: William Hurt (Tom Grunick), Holly Hunter (Jane Craig), Albert Brooks (Aaron Altman), Robert Prosky (Ernie Merriman), Lois Chiles (Jennifer Mack), Joan Cusack (Blair Litton), Peter Hackes (Paul Moore), Christian Clemenson (Bobby), Jack Nicholson (Bill Rorish)

TV news – what is it for? To inform or entertain? It’s a debate James L Brooks tries to explore in his inconsistently toned hybrid rom-com and satire. At the end you very much intended to come out with the view that it should be about one, but is more about the other.

In the Washington branch of an unnamed network, Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) is a rising star producer, prone to daily emotional breakdowns. Her best friend is brilliant, committed reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), who longs to be the anchorman but lacks social skills. Arriving in their branch is Tom Grunick (William Hurt), handsome and full of TV savvy, set to become an anchor but lacking any real knowledge of either journalism or current affairs. Naturally a romantic triangle develops between these three, along with all sorts of debate about the purpose of TV news.

The film stacks the deck firmly in favour of the view that news should be a comment-free recitation of facts. Brooks’ film bemoans – often in heavy-handed ways – the intrusion of human interest, soft stories and puff pieces in place of hard-hitting questions and challenging coverage. Tom Grunick is the embodiment of this: charming, friendly, reassuring – and totally uninformed, interested in “selling” a story rather than telling it. Meanwhile, to the film’s disgust, the higher-ups at the network frequently value appearances and popularity over tough analysis, and looking good on TV counts for more than journalistic skills. Pity the film: if it feels this network is bad, imagine how it’d feel about Fox News today.

Of course what the film isn’t interested in is acknowledging a certain level of showmanship is an important tool in making the news accessible, engaging and interesting for the audience – making them more likely to pick up the important things in the content. It also overlooks that purists Aaron and Jane may avoid stage-manging their stories as overtly as others – but they’re more than happy to fill them with heart-string-tugging references and shots to get the audience reactions they want. In fact, you can see Tom’s point – what’s really wrong with him interjecting a shot of his own teary face while interviewing a rape victim (a moment he recreates)? Isn’t that basically the same?

Broadcast News tries to outline the difference, but I’m not sure it goes the full distance – or makes the debate accessible or interesting. That might be partly because the film can’t decide whether to give more attention to the satire or the romance – Jane is attracted to Tom (who returns her feelings), but is extremely close with Aaron, who carries a not-even-concealed passion for her. Both plots sit awkwardly side-by-side, getting in each other’s way and not adding insight to each other.

But then the film is fairly shrill. That partly stems from the two characters we are meant to relate to being tough to like. Holly Hunter is dynamic as the forceful, passionate Jane, but she’s also a rather tiresome character. Her purist demands are slightly holier-than-thou and while there are nice touches of humanity (on a date with Tom, she doesn’t want her handbag opened at a security check because she’s put a pack of condoms in it)  the film doesn’t manage to warm this control freak (so domineering she can’t get in a taxi without dictating the route). Jane also has a tendency to burst into tears – a suggestion of some underlying emotional problems the film instead treats as a joke.

That’s nothing compared to Albert Brooks’ Aaron Altman. This is exactly the sort of character beloved by film-makers, but who if you met in real life would come across an an unbearable creep. Like Jane, he’s an uncompromising idealist whose pious self-importance quickly grates. The film doesn’t appreciate the irony that its champion of professional reporting yearns to be the pretty-boy face of the network and resents that he’s neverbeen the popular kid.

His tantrums and rudeness are meant to be signs of his genuineness and the film leaves no doubt that his love for Jane should be requited because he knows what’s best for her. He’s the Nice Guy who doesn’t get the girls even though he really deserves them.  A scene where he furiously berates Jane when she confesses her feelings for Tom, then demands she leaves, then demands she stays so he can lecture her on his pain and why her feelings are wrong smacks of a thousand male script writers who didn’t get the girl they wanted and it was so unfair.

The film’s view of women is often questionable. Today, Aaron looks more like a Proto-Incel, one emotional snap away from strangling Jane because she won’t love him when she SHOULD. The film sees him as a relatable, principled hero. Jane may be smart and principled, but she’s hysterically over-emotional for no given reason (Women! They’re so crazy!), domineering and controlling. The film’s only other female character is Joan Cusack’s production assistant who spends her time either shrieking in shrill panic or talking with nervous incoherence.

So, it might be a fault of the film that the character I related to most was the one we were meant to condemn. William Hurt’s Tom is nice-but-dim, superficial but polite, supportive, hard-working and honest, self-aware enough to feel guilty that he’s not really qualified to do the job. He tolerates being mucked around by Jane far more than many others would and despite being constantly abused by Aaron, offers him no end of support. If Tom is the nightmare shape of TV news, you end up thinking “well heck, is it really that bad?”

Broadcast News overall is an underwhelming experience, not funny or romantic enough to be a comedy, or insightful enough about journalism to be thought-provoking. Brooks directs with his usual televisual lack of flair, but there are some decent comedic set pieces: Cusack has a mad-cap dash through a TV studio to deliver a taped report for a deadline that is a masterclass in physical comedy, while the film’s best set-piece is Aaron’s sweat-laden anchor appearance on a weekend news bulletin. But the film gives too many characters a pass and avoids asking itself the tough questions. It ends up a bit of a slog that probably has more appeal to insiders than audiences.

Black Widow (2021)

Scarlett Johansson crashes through a film that seems to exist by contractual obligation, Black Widow

Director: Cate Shortland

Cast: Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Florence Pugh (Yelena Belova), David Harbour (Alexei Shostakov), O-T Fagbenle (Rick Mason), Olga Kurylenko (Antonia Dreykov), William Hurt (Thaddeus Ross), Ray Winstone (General Dreykov), Rachel Weisz (Melina Vostokoff)

After the events of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run, when she receives a mysterious parcel from her “sister” – or rather the young girl she spent a few years with as a “family” of Russian agents undercover in America in the 1980s – Yelena Beloba (Florence Pugh). The parcel contains a drug that can be used to break the mind-control that nasty General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) has over his army of Widows: young girls like Natasha and Yelena, forced to become assassins in a torture chamber/training room called The Red Room. Natasha and Yelena team up to free the other assassins, but they will need the help of their “parents”, Russian super-soldier Shostakov (David Harbour) and genius inventor Melina (Rachel Weisz).

As the credits rolled on this formulaic slice of Marvel adventurism, I couldn’t for the life of me work out why it even existed in the first place. For a film centred around Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow character, I expected to come out of this epic with some new understanding of her character. Not only do we not learn anything about her at all, we get no additional insight into what makes her tick, no deeper look into her character. We learn nothing about her that we don’t know already: and the film isn’t even smart or profound enough to reflect on the fact that we all know that the character died in the last film we saw her in. Does it exist solely so Marvel can say “Look we made a film about the only female Avenger, so shut up already!”

The film is stuck between being a greatest hits celebration of Johansson’s work elsewhere and providing as much focus as possible for Florence Pugh to take up the mantle in future films. In fact, the focus is so much on Pugh – who is terrific and gets all the best lines – that Johansson becomes a bit of a straight-man in her own damn movie. It’s Black Widow who has to say all the unhip, dull things (“We can’t steal that car!”) while her sister snipes, swears and plays devil-may-care with the consequences. For what should be her moment in the sun, Johansson gets rather short-changed here. But then perhaps she didn’t really care – it certainly never feels that she had anything she was determined to say or do here, other than cash a huge cheque.

The film is framed around a back story of villainy involving the nasty Dollshouse-style assassin school that both sisters were forced to attend, here revealed to still be in operation with a team of brainwashed female assassins. At the centre, like a creepy Charlie with brain-washed Angels, is General Dreykov, played by a barely-even-trying Ray Winstone (his accent is laughably atrocious). Dreykov is such a peripheral figure in the film that he never feels like either a threat or a dark manipulative force and his “plan” is such an after-thought, Winstone has to hurriedly state it for the first time in a final act monologue.

The film is supposed to be about misogyny, and how Dreykov has left a poisonous legacy of abuse of young women for his own ends. This includes forcing his daughter (a thankless mute role under a helmet for Olga Kurylenko) into a killer robber-suit as the sort of uber-assassin. Natasha is plagued with guilt about harming this character in the past – a guilt that would have way more impact on the viewer if we had seen even one bloody scene of them together to establish a relationship. How much more interesting, too, would the film have been if we had seen Kurylenko’s character as the new head of this abusive ring of spies, having taken up her father’s mantle and absorbing his poisonous world view. But no, such nuances are beyond this film.

There are a few moments of emotion and comedy gained from Natasha’s fake family – the parents who are not her parents, the sister who is not her sister. This odd group reunion makes for some laughs, but its noticeable that the main emotional impact is on Pugh’s younger, less settled character rather than the confident, assured Natasha. It’s another major flaw in the film: at the end of the day, I can’t imagine this had any real impact on the character at all. Does Natasha really change her view of herself at the end? No: she talks the talk about having “a new family” but her level of connection with them (certainly with her parents) doesn’t seem to go much beyond patient affection. Again, the real emotional impact is on Pugh’s character who has finally found something to base her life on: this would have worked so much better as an origins story.

Instead, this seems to exist solely to answer a trivia question I’m not sure anyone was asking: “What did Black Widow do in between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War?” If your life really was lacking without the answer to that, this is the film for you. Otherwise, there is little at all to make any of this stand out from any of the other 20+ Marvel films. Its action scenes are cookie-cutter (naturally everywhere Natasha goes, the place is destroyed), the emotional beats are completely unrevealing, the baddie so forgettable you might even miss it when he dies, and we get a few actors (Harbour and Weisz) coasting on a couple of decent lines and bit of comic business. Apart from anything involving Florence Pugh, this film is totally and utterly forgettable.

A History of Violence (2005)

Viggo Mortensen: Hero or Villain? A History of Violence

Director: David Cronenberg

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

Cronenberg’s films redefined ideas around body horror. And one of his most accessible – and perhaps one of his richest and finest – films takes these ideas to another level by looking at the lasting – and damaging – impact of violence. That’s not just the immediate, visceral impact either – and lord knows Cronenberg doesn’t shirk on that here – but also the intense, long-term psychological impact and how it shapes entire lives. A History of Violence is a brilliantly told and superb piece of film-making that mixes thought-provoking content with a gripping, Western-tinged plot. It’s got a claim to being one of the best American films of the Noughties.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a regular Joe in a very small town in rural America. Running a small café, he lives a blissfully happy life of Americana with his wife Edie (Maria Bello), a lawyer, and their two children Jack (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah (Heidi Hayes). Their world changes forever though when Tom’s diner is held up late at night by two ruthless killers (Stephen McHattie and Billy Orser) and – with an instinctive ruthlessness – Tom ruthlessly dispatches the killers and saves the lives of his co-workers and patrons. His heroism makes him a local hero and brings plenty of excited press attention – but why does Tom seem so uncomfortable with this? Could it be linked to the swift arrival in the town of big-city criminal Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) who claims Tom is none-other than Joey Cusack, psychopathic hoodlum from Philadelphia who gouged out Fogarty’s eye? Are Tom and Joey one and the same? And how will the doubts affect Tom’s family?

Cronenberg’s film brings brilliant tension to this question of identity, setting it in a very modern-feeling Frontier town, which has more than a sense of a classic John Ford western town, complete with disturbance from murderous figures from outside, shattering the peace. But the film adds that distinct Cronenberg touch by suggesting that, behind the quiet diners and picket fences, the real danger may already be at the heart of the town. Is Tom who he claims to be? Or is he a malignant dark force at the centre of the town (and his family) bringing destruction to everything? What other dark truths, you can’t help but think, might be hiding behind those shutters?

But then that’s what you get with violence. It taints and ruins everything it touches. Innocent lives are shattered. Families and loved ones are left mourning. But it also twists and shapes the personalities of its perpetrators. It marks them and changes them, washing out positive qualities and leaving those who use it the most drained, empty and uncaring. The film opens with a chilling long shot as McHattie and Orser check out of a motel. Cronenberg keeps the camera still and holds the camera still to study the casual body language and chilling lack of engagement of its killers (“Why the delay?” “I had a little trouble with the maid”). The scene continues for an agonising length, making us dread the reveal of what these clearly dangerous, amoral men have done in this motel – the reveal eventually shown with a clinical precision, which serves as an entrée to even greater horrors.

The final killing in the motel is the last time the film will shy away from the immediate horrors of violence. Even Tom’s heroic slaughter of the killers to save lives doesn’t shirk from showing us the impact on the bodies of the killers as Tom dispatches them – bodies torn apart by bullets, with McHattie’s killer left with most of his lower jaw destroyed beyond recognition. Later we’ll see the impact not only of bullets, but also the jerking death spasms of those who have had their noses smashed into their faces, necks snapped or bullets pass through their heads. Never is this glorified – and never are we allowed to simply categorise some killings as good or bad. No matter who it is, the human body will still suffer staggering trauma.

But violence’s impact isn’t only physical. As Tom’s increasing comfort with using his natural propensity for brutal killing (“Have you never asked, why is he so good at killing people?” Fogarty asks an Edie still in denial) grows, so violence takes over his family and starts to shape the actions and decisions of those around him. Arguments become more regular and more visceral. Tom’s gentle son brutally beats his bully at school. The loving father Tom suddenly slaps him across the face. Edie and Tom’s blissful life – we see them playfully making love on a date night – degenerates into conflict, distrust, flashes of violence and finally an angry, intense and passionate sex scene on the stairs that is an exact mirror image of their earlier love scene.

Edie is, for all her horror at Tom, partly excited by finding her husband has such a capacity for danger and brutality. That’s the dark attraction of violence in this film: it reveals secrets about ourselves. Tom seems to subtly shift within conversations from the gentle Tom into the chillingly distant Joey. Worst of all, the more that muscle is stretched the more Tom seems to take comfort and enjoyment in it. Taking what we want, with no regards for the consequences, is liberating and makes us feel strong. No wonder it’s so attractive. And no wonder violence has so shaped and defined humanity’s history. It tends to get people what they want and it can feel good. And it looks cool. Because despite the horrors of the impact of the violence, Cronenberg is also honest enough to admit that it’s exciting.

At the film’s centre is a superb performance of cryptic unknowability from Viggo Mortensen, in possibly his finest role. Mortensen uses micro expressions, small beats and body language that moves between casual and chillingly precise to show two personalities in one body. And Mortensen also demonstrates the struggle between these – between the man he wants to be and the man he might well be. He’s equally matched by Bello, wonderful as a woman who finds her whole life destroyed but can’t shake an unnerving attraction to this man of danger who has suddenly emerged.

The entire cast are pretty much faultless. Ed Harris gets a decent role of gruff menace, but the film is almost lifted in a final act cameo by William Hurt. Oscar nominated for (what amounts to) less than five minutes of screen time, Hurt is simply a force of nature as a Philadelphia crime boss kingpin, purring out his lines with all the fury of a caged lion, mixing a readiness for violence with a darkly comic menace. It relaunched Hurt’s career as a leading character actor – and arguably he should have nabbed the Oscar for it.

Cronenberg’s film engages with ideas of identity throughout. What defines us? The things we’ve done? The choices we’ve made? How many years need to pass before we can say that we’ve changed? What makes us better? And can we decide the sort of people we want to be? It’s impossible to say for sure. If your whole family life is founded on a lie, how do you know what about yourself is true or not? These are fascinating questions and the film offers no easy answers at all. Can Tom return to the life before a violent history shook everything up – perhaps he can, perhaps he can’t. But one thing’s for sure (and Cronenberg makes clear) it won’t be a simple overnight fix and a Hollywood ending. For all the hoodlums Tom dispatches, the real damage is on the workings of his family and the real casualty is the life his family thought they had. And those wounds don’t heal.

Syriana (2005)

George Clooney gets crushed by the corruption of major oil companies in Syriana

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Cast: George Clooney (Bob Barnes), Matt Damon (Bryan Woodman), Jeffrey Wright (Bennett Holiday), Christopher Plummer (Dean Whiting), Nicky Henson (Sydney Hewitt), David Clennon (Donald Farish III), Amanda Peet (Julie Woodman), Peter Gerety (Leland Janus), Chris Cooper (Jimmy Pope), Tim Blake Nelson (Danny Dalton), William Hurt (Stan Goff), Mark Strong (Mussawi), Alexander Siddig (Prince Nasir Al-Subaai), Mazhar Munir (Wasim Ahmed Khan), Nadim Sawalha (Emir Hamed Al-Subaai), Akbar Kurtha (Prince Meshal Al-Subaai)

The more I think about Syriana the more I think Stephen Gaghan was unlucky. If he had made this story today, you can be sure this would have become a ten episode series on HBO or Netflix. Instead, Gaghan made it into a film in the early 2000s. This means the bloated, over expanded plot gets crammed into two short hours at the cost of much of the emotional and political complexity it needs. Without this Syriana is an angry lecture, something that throws some interesting observations at the viewer, but basically resorts more often to shouting at them about how shit the world is. With its interlinking storylines and “serious” content it looks like intelligent filmmaking, but it’s more like a misguided opportunity.

Gaghan’s film follows four plotlines. Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is a CIA field agent, and expert on the Middle East, coming to end of his effectiveness as a field agent, struggling to get his superiors in Washington to understand the complexities of Middle Eastern oil politics. He is ordered to arrange the assassination of the eldest son of the Emir of a Persian Oil Kingdom Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig). Nasir is suspected of the States of harbouring terrorist sympathies. In fact he is a passionate reformer, desperate to modernise his country. Nasir is working with Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) a representative of an American energy company, whose son is tragically killed by an electrical fault at one of the Emir’s estates during a business trip. The Kingdom is also being courted by a newly merged US oil company Connex-Killen for exclusive drilling rights – with attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) tasked to ensure that nothing stands in the way of the merger and the riches that will follow. As these three storylines of political and economic oil matters interweave, migrant oil worker Wasim (Mazhar Munir) struggles to find work in the kingdom, and is slowly wooed by extremists.

Gaghan directs his own script and that might be his first mistake, as he is not a confident or imaginative enough director to craft something truly dramatic and engaging out of this highly researched, technical script. Instead, the script – or rather the research behind the script – drives events at every turn and leads to scenes that feel like they should be intelligent but tend to be actors reciting reams of dialogue and stats at each other. Combined with that, the film has a slightly smug preachy tone to it, desperate to let us know how shady and corrupt the world is and how trapped we are on a continual downward spiral of greed and corruption preventing us from improving and changing the world. It doesn’t always make for compelling viewing.

On top of that the complexity of the narrative is often mistaken for smartness, but often feels rather more like rushed and sudden execution of a story that doesn’t really have time to breath. Frankly the story that Gaghan wants to tell needed 8-10 hours of screen time and he doesn’t get it. Instead he throws everything and the kitchen sink into this sprawling study of oil based corruption. From Washington, to private oil firms, to intelligence agencies, to the cash rich families sitting on top of these oil geysers everyone gets a kicking as part of the same sordid mess that has led to the world being dominated by the rich and the regular guys of the middle east being left adrift and easy picking for extremists.

It feels like it should carry real weight, but it never really does because it’s hard for us to get a handle on what is going on half the time and even less harder to care once you realise the film has sacrificed character and motivation for the drive of putting together its polemical view of the world. The film is stuffed with actors, but its striking how few of the characters they play make an impression. Every part is played by a star – except of course for the inexplicable casting of jobbing 1980s Brit TV actor Nicky Henson as an arrogant oil exec, a casting so outlandishly out of place for an actor you are more likely to see in One Foot in the Grave that I kind of love the film for it – but none of the roles is really much more than a cipher.

That’s not to say there isn’t decent work. Christopher Plummer brings great heft and menace to a law firm Washington bigwig. Jeffrey Wright nailed so well playing this sort of on-the-surface meek functionary who quietly learns (albeit reluctantly) to play the game as well as the loudmouths that he has played the same role several times afterwards. Alexander Siddig owes much of his post DS9 career to his exceptional thoughtful and sympathetic performance as an Arab Prince whose forward-thinking is a disaster for the governments who want to keep using his state as an ATM. 

George Clooney won a generous Oscar (it was surely partly a compensation for not winning anything for Good Night, and Good Luck that year) but gets the meatiest role as Bob Barnes, the tired and cynical CIA agent who slowly begins to question the orders he is given and the world he has been working to build for his masters. His story contains the most actual drama, possibly why it stands out – poor George gets a rough ride here, tortured, arrested, bruised and blooded. It’s pretty straight forward stuff for an actor of his quality (Clooney plays it with a world weary outrage) but it’s also the most memorable storyline of a film straining at every moment to be important. 

It’s quite telling actually that the film’s most memorable speech is put into the mouth of Tim Blake Nelson’s oil executive (“Corruption is why we win!”) a character so lightly sketched out he barely appears other than making that speech. It’s a sign of the weakness of the film: characters serve purposes to the narrative and then disappear. These lightly sketched characters act out a lecture on world politics and economic-energy-driven corruption. Syriana needed room to breath in order to become a drama rather than a lecture. Instead it’s a decent workmanlike movie with ideas that it never manages to really express in a way that will make you care. When it tells you rich businessmen love money and powerful politicians love power you’re likely to basically say “yeah. I know. Tell me something new…”

Gorky Park (1983)

William Hurt investigates murder in Soviet Russia in ace adaptation Gorky Park

Director: Michael Apted

Cast: William Hurt (Arkady Renko), Lee Marvin (Jack Osborne), Brian Dennehy (William Kirwill), Ian Bannen (Prosecutor Iamskoy), Joanna Pacula (Irina Asanova), Michael Elphick (Pasha), Richard Griffiths (Anton), Rikki Fulton (Major Pabluda), Alexander Knox (The General), Alexei Sayle (Golodkin), Ian McDiarmid (Professor Andreev), Niall O’Brien (KGB Agent Rurik)

Martin Cruz Smith’s novel Gorky Park was a bestseller in the early 1980s. It looked at grim goings-on behind the Iron Curtain, a trio of grisly murders in Moscow’s Gorky Park (the bodies are faceless, toothless and fingerless to avoid identification). The murders are investigated by Arkady Renko (wonderfully played in this film by William Hurt), a chief investigator for the Moscow militia who feels out of place in the corruption of Soviet Russia, but is equally scornful of the consumerism of the West. The investigation delves into a complex web of Soviet relationships with American business and the dissident community, not least an American millionaire fur trader Jack Osborne (Lee Marvin), and a would-be defector and possible friend of the victims, Irina Asabova (Joanna Pacula).

What I loved about this film is the novel is a rather overwhelming 500+ pages, but this film is a brisk and pacey two hours – and I literally couldn’t think of a single thing missing. But then that’s what you get when you have a master writer adapting your screenplay. Gorky Park has Dennis Potter, perhaps the greatest British TV writer of all time – and this is a sublime script, which keeps the pace up, covers all the tense greedy wrangling of the villains, and also makes subtle and telling points about the Soviet system, all in a punchier and clearer way than the books. The dialogue is also absolutely cracking, ringing with a brusque, icy poetry, with a brilliant ear for a turn of phrase.

Filmed on location around Helsinki and Glasgow among other places, what the film misses in actual Russian locations (needless to say the Soviets were not keen to host the production of a film that showcased murder and corruption at the heart of their capital city), it makes up for with Apted’s taut direction and eye for the general crappiness of Soviet life. Everything is run down, everything is dirty, everything looks cold and unappealing, even the houses and luxury bathhouses of the party leaders look a bit middle-class and uninspiring. By the time (late in the film) that you find yourself in one of Osborne’s houses you are immediately struck by the quality of the furnishings – it’s literally a different world.

This atmosphere not only creates something a bit more unique, it also allows us to relax and enjoy the quality of Smith’s story. I found it overstretched in the book, but the film gives it an urgency and a sinister creepiness that grips your attention. Apted has a brilliant eye for the little tricks to survive living in a police state, from watching what you say, to carefully placing a pencil in a dialled telephone wheel to prevent bugs from activting. Every moment is well paced and nothing outstays its welcome. Characters are introduced with skillful brushstrokes, and the relationships feel real and lived in. With such strong dialogue, it’s also great they got such good actors to do it.

William Hurt takes on the lead, and he is perfect, affecting a rather clipped English accent (all the Russians speak with various regional or RP accents). With his unconventional looks (part boyish, part stone-like), he looks the part and he totally captures the yearning unconventionality of a character who deep down probably would be a true believer in a good society, but can’t believe in the corruption around him. Far from the stereotypical would-be dissident, Hurt makes him a man who loves his homeland, but not always the people running it. He’s exactly as you would picture Renko in the book – a guy who will go for justice with the bit between his teeth, a semi-romantic hero, no superman (he frequently is bested in combat), who is looking for something to love and believe in.

The rest of the cast are equally fine. Lee Marvin is cast against type as a suave, hyper-intelligent, manipulatively greedy businessman – although his reputation for playing heavies comes in handy when the gloves come off. Joanna Pacula mixes sultry Euro-siren with an urgent yearning for freedom. Ian Bannen is wonderfully avuncular as Renko’s supportive boss (extra points for Tinker Tailor fans that Bannen is reunited here with Alexander Knox, in a dark reflection of their Control-Prideaux working relationship from that series). Michael Elphick seizes on the part of the down-to-earth Pasha, Renko’s friend and comrade, a role greatly improved from the book (largely to give Renko someone to bounce ideas off).

Apted’s film has a great sense of tension and a wonderful feeling for Soviet Moscow’s dark underbelly. The mystery is increasingly gripping and involving as the film goes on – and, in a nice rug-pull, turns out to be about something totally different than what you might expect. Even the final shootout is assembled and shot with an unexpected vibe. It avoids any Cold War pandering – the main villain is a sadistic American allied with Russians, our hero a noble Russian who partners up with a salt-of-the-earth but decent American cop (Brian Dennehy, also very good). For a late night mystery thriller, with a touch of everything thrown in, you can do a lot worse than this. I enjoyed it far more than I expected. I’d almost call it an overlooked B-movie gem.

Robin Hood (2010)

Russell Crowe takes aim as Robin Hood

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Russell Crowe (Robin Longstride), Cate Blanchett (Marian Locksley), William Hurt (William Marshal), Mark Strong (Sir Godfrey), Mark Addy (Friar Tuck), Oscar Isaac (Prince John), Danny Huston (King Richard), Eileen Atkins (Eleanor of Aquitaine), Max von Sydow (Sir Walter Locksley), Kevin Durand (Little John), Scott Grimes (Will Scarlet), Alan Doyle (Allan A’Dale), Matthew Macfadyen (Sheriff of Nottingham), Lea Seydoux (Isabella), Douglas Hodge (Sir Robert Locksley)

When this film was developed, it was a CSI style medieval romp called Nottingham. Russell Crowe was cast as the film’s hero – an ahead-of-his-time Sheriff of Nottingham, busting crimes in Olde England and dealing with rogue thief (with good press) Robin Hood. Yes that really was the original idea. Mind you, it would at least have been more original than what we ended up with after Scott and Crowe had a bit of a rethink.

So here we are: Robin Hood: Origins (as it might as well have been called). Russell Crowe is Robin Longstride, on his way back from the crusades as an archer in the army of King Richard (Danny Huston) army. When Richard is killed at a siege in France (it was one last siege before home – what are the odds!), the messengers carrying the news back to France are ambushed and killed by wicked Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong). Robin finds the bodies and assumes the identity of Sir Robert Locksley, travelling to England to tell Prince John (Oscar Isaac) the news of his succession – then returning to Nottingham with his friends, where Robert’s father Sir Walter (Max von Sydow) asks him to continue pretending to be Robin for dull tax reasons – and soon feelings develop between Robin and Sir Robert’s widow Marian (Cate Blanchett). But John is intent on farming the land for taxes, and Sir Godfrey is in cahoots with the French to conquer England.

Robin Hood is a semi-decent, watchable enough retread of a story so totally and utterly familiar that even the things it rejigs end up feeling familiar. In fact, to be honest you sit watching it and wondering why on earth anyone really wanted to make it. Scott brings nothing original and different to it, and the film looks like a less visually interesting retread of Kingdom of Heaven. Plot wise it’s empty. What’s the point of it all? It slowly shows us all the pieces of the Robin Hood myth coming together, so best guess is that it was intended to be the first of a series (there seems to have been no interest or demand for a sequel of any sort). 

And then we’ve got Russell Crowe. Leaving aside everything else, Crowe looks about 10 years too old for the part. He delivers some sort of regional accent that meanders from Ireland to Yorkshire in its broadness, a laughable stumble around the country. Crowe does his slightly intense, sub-Gladiator mumbles and stares at the camera and attempts to suggest a deep rooted nobility, but actually comes across a bit more like a snoozing actor awaiting a pay-cheque.

Cate Blanchett does her best, lending her prestige to the whole thing in an attempt to make it land with some dignity (she of course does the opening and closing narration, which struggles to add some sort of grandeur to the whole flimsy thing). She’s saddled with a Maid Marian who is granted various “action” moments, but still has to be saved by Robin and face possible rape from a leering Frenchman (at least she saves herself from that one). 

It also doesn’t help either actor that their romance plays out in the dull middle third of the film, where the plot grinds to a halt as we deal with Sir Walter (Max von Sydow almost literally acting blindfolded) using Robin as some sort of tax dodge scheme. The film is overloaded with characters, all of whom are separated at this point and struggling manfully to make their disconnected plotlines interesting: so we get John dealing with the pressures of office, Sir Godfrey scheming and looting, William Marshal trying to find a middle ground, Robin and Marian falling in love – it’s a mess. On top of this a get a ludicrous reworking of the Magna Carta as some Medieval version of the Communist Manifesto (it’s written by Robin’s executed dad no less, giving him a bizarre “painful backstory” to overcome). None of these plots really come together, and so little time is spent with each of them that they all end up getting quite boring.

The film culminates in a totally ridiculous battle scene on a beach, as Sir Godfrey’s French allies arrive on the shores of medieval England in some sort Saving Private Ryan landing craft. The tactics of this landing and the battle that ensues are complete nonsense. Every single character rocks up at this battle, which should feel like all the plot threads coming together but instead feels like poor script-writing. When Marian turns up, disguised as a man (how very Eowyn), leading a group of warrior children (I’m not joking) who feel yanked from the pages of Lord of the Flies, it’s just the crowning turd on this nonsense.

And all this fuss to defeat Sir Godfrey? Why cast Mark Strong and give him such a nothing part? Sir Godfrey is a deeply unintimidating villain. Everything he does goes wrong. He is bested in combat no less than three times in the film (once by a flipping blind man!). His motivations are never even slightly touched upon. He has less than one scene with John, the man who he is supposed to be manipulating. He runs away at the drop of a hat and Robin gets the drop on him twice on the film. He’s neither interesting, scary or feels like a challenging adversary or worthy opponent.

But then nothing in this film is particularly interesting. The set-up of the merry men around Robin (they seem more like an ageing band of mates on tour by the way than folk looking to rob from the rich and give to the poor) is painfully similar to dozens of other film, particularly in the Little-John-and-Robin-fight-then-become-brothers routine. Crikey even Prince of Thieves shook up the formula by making Will Scarlet Robin’s brother. Scott is going through the motions, like it was one he was committed to so needed to see through to the end despite having long-since lost interest. It’s not a terrible movie really, just a really, really, really average one with a completely miscast lead and nothing you haven’t seen before.

Mr. Brooks (2007)

Kevin Costner goes for a ride, accompanied only by his imaginary friend. We’ve all done it. Right?

Director: Bruce A. Evans
Cast: Kevin Costner (Earl Brooks), William Hurt (Marshall), Demi Moore (Detective Atwood), Dane Cook (“Mr. Smith”), Marg Helgenberger (Emma Brooks), Danielle Panabaker (Jane Brooks), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Detective Hawkins)

Apparently when Kevin Costner read the script he thought it was the best script he had read in years. This probably says more about Kevin’s choices since the early 1990s than it does about the script itself but this is still a decent enough thriller with an interesting twist on the psychopath killer story.

Costner’s Mr Brooks is a successful business man and loving family man who also happens by night to be a serial killer. The twist being throughout that he is accompanied in his crimes by his imaginary friend, played with creepy relish by William Hurt. Brooks is consumed by guilt from his “addiction”, visiting AA and constantly claiming he is ready to quit. The film opens with an unexpected curtain being left open during a carefully prepared murder, leaving Brooks open to blackmail from an eye witness with a taste for trying this murdering lark.

The film is performed with such guilty and gleeful relish by Costner and Hurt that it’s incredibly easy to be swept up by its momentum and to forget that out hero is a serial murderer. The film is very careful to give centre stage to the invention and intelligence of its anti-hero which, combined with Costner’s fundamental likeability as a performer, are very attractive traits for any viewer. Only at a few points is the darkness of Brooks explored, most prominently from Costner’s near orgasmic sigh and shoulder roll after committing the first murder of the film. Otherwise the viewer is as seduced by this dark world as Brooks himself has been.

A sub plot about Brooks daughter possibly inheriting her murderous inclinations is much less interesting but does allow Costner to offer an amusing twist on the straight-as-an-arrow American heroes he made his career playing. But it never engages as much as the strange will-he-won’t-he dance Brooks has with his blackmailer  (a fantastic performance of scuzzy bravado hiding cowardice from Dane Cook). Demi Moore also gives a surprisingly effective performance as a hard as nails career copper chasing down the murders.

But it’s the performances of Hurt and Costner that really lift this film up into the higher reaches of the second tier of psychological thriller, along with the neat concept of the childhood imaginary friend gone completely over to the bad. Hurt in particular is terrific, in a performance that is part raging id monster part caring big brother. A dark guilty pleasure I’m not surprised it is slowly gaining cult status.