Tag: john hurt


1984 (1984)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Despite living in a totalitarian state where independent thought is considered a crime, Winston Smith (John Hurt), whose job is to edit newspaper articles in accordance to what the Party tells him to alter, thereby rewriting history, keeps a journal, most of the time hidden behind a wall of his sleeping area, of his supposed transgressions. He is fully aware that if he were to get caught by the Thought Police, punishment would be severe.

Written and directed by Michael Radford, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is an enveloping shroud of misery, a vision of a future so hopeless and fully realized that it is almost like we are Smith, hovering from above during his every day yearning to break out of the passionless routine.

It is appropriate that the color scheme of the picture looks denatured. Although we see colors that pop out against the boring gray, such as tranquil blue and celebratory red, they are more or less suppressed, muted as if even a color standing out can be considered by the state as a crime. When we are allowed to look inside Smith’s dreams and fantasies, we feast our eyes on verdant green but is almost always interrupted by an unpleasant thing—almost as if we were a part of a behavior modification program.

The dialogue is minimal but it is used in great effect. Since Oceania’s citizens are expected to behave like toy robots, the way they move collectively communicates more than lines being uttered. In the first scene, for instance, although people yell various proclamations and profanities at the screen, more attention is paid to the fact that they are in rage as a group. The anger is communicated not only in the sounds produced by their larynx but in the fire smoldering in their eyes and their potential to perform mass violence.

Conversely, when the picture does turn to one-on-one conversations between Smith and Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), his lover; Smith and O’Brien (Richard Burton), a member of the Inner Party who takes an interest in Smith’s work; and Smith and Mr. Charrington (Cyril Cusack), owner of the pawnshop Smith visits frequently in search for remnants of the past that provides him evanescent hope, the interactions are filled to the brim with paranoia of getting caught. Hearing them speak at times feels like deciphering code. Although they use words we can easily understand, the intentions behind them are often obfuscated. It makes creates a taut and compelling experience because not only do we wonder how much the other really knows, we also cannot help but wish for Smith to be smart enough not to assume.

Based on the novel by George Orwell, “1984” may have messages about love but they are not lessons we come to expect. Love is used as an act of rebellion and to serve as reminder of one’s fading humanity, not for the sake of making us feel good. Although some may spit at the film’s several full-frontal nudity, it is never exploitative. In fact, it is very appropriate given that choosing to be naked in front of someone—and in front us an audience—accomplishes two things: a message of self-empowerment within the film’s context as well as a critique against groups nowadays that are too quick to jump into the idea that all nudity is some sort of a moral crime without putting into consideration a work’s artistic intent or merit.

Owning Mahowny

Owning Mahowny (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★

Dan Mahowny (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has a gambling problem—and that is an understatement. Promoted by his superiors to assistant branch manager of the bank for excellent record and judgment, little do they know that Mahowny owes over ten thousand dollars and has been using money from clients to sustain his addiction to gambling. Meanwhile, the police begin to suspect that Mahowny, a man who earns just about twenty-two thousand Canadian dollars annually, might be involved with selling drugs. After all, where does he get all the money to frequent casinos?

Based on a true story that happened between 1980 and 1982, “Owning Mahowny,” directed by Richard Kwietniowski, takes a magnifying glass onto the life of a man who has no control over his need to gamble. Although a dramatic picture, it reaches a balance of humor and suspense, from the characters who are convinced they understand what the man is all about to the authorities about to discover that a seemingly ordinary man is committing all sorts of crimes behind their backs. Hoffman plays his character with magnetic intensity.

We feel the gravity of the scene when Mahowny is sitting at the casino table. A person may know nothing about card games and the like, but the picture remains engaging because the camera focuses on Hoffman’s determined and desperate facial expressions as well as dejected body languages—without relying on showing the cards of a given play. The scene unfolds, camera still sticking to the character, and we feel that once Mahowny starts losing thousands of dollars, there is little hope of getting them back.

Less effective are scenes between Mahowny and his girlfriend, Belinda (Minnie Driver). There are many expected scenes in the latter first not being aware of the former’s gambling addiction and then discovering it. Although Driver does the best she can with a predictable role, there is little excitement or intrigue in the relationship. One might argue that perhaps that is the point—that Mahowny is seeking thrills somewhere else. But it would have been nice to get an idea as to why Belinda, after everything she learns eventually, chooses to remain in a relationship with Mahowny.

More compelling is Victor Foss, a casino manager (John Hurt) in Atlantic City, a place that Mahowny visits quite often. Foss’ greed is highlighted by the way Hurt engineers to look at Mahowny, like a vulture setting its sight on a dying prey. Scenes that take place in the casino could have been straight forward, but there is humor because of the performances as well as the variation of characters that choose to come along with the main character—often under false pretenses.

The detective subplot goes nowhere even though it is a necessary ingredient which inevitably leads to an arrest. Ian Tracey plays Detective Lock with a level of intensity but there is very little convincing and impressive investigation. It gives the impression that things are falling into place for the cops quite randomly and I found that the subplot obstructs the pacing at times that it becomes frustrating to sit through.

Still, “Owning Mahowny,” based on a book by Gary Stephen Ross and screenplay by Maurice Chauvet, is worth seeing because although the film offers humor and suspense, there is always an underlying sadness just below the surface. Although Mahowny is a liar and thief, we feel bad for him because Hoffman successfully communicates that his character has a disease and is in need of serious help. Before getting therapy, however, he needs to get caught. It might be the only way to turn his life around.

The Oxford Murders

The Oxford Murders (2008)
★★ / ★★★★

Martin (Elijah Wood), an American, moves to England with the hope of working with Arthur Seldom (John Hurt), a renowned professor in mathematics. Martin is so obsessed with the idea of Seldom being his advisor that the house he chooses to live in is owned by none other than Seldom’s longtime friend. But when the landlady (Anna Massey) ends up dead, Inspector Petersen (Jim Carter) suspects that the killer is someone the deceased knew.

Based on a novel by Guillermo Martinez and directed by Álex de la Iglesia, “The Oxford Murders” embraces an in-depth dialogue about math, symbols, and logic to the point where it becomes stifling. Couple it with characters of paper-thin motivations but are treated by the screenplay as fully functioning individuals, its universe is repellent and unconvincing.

Martin is brilliant but he does not hide behind an intellectual facade in order to be respected. It is easy to root for him because, unlike personalities he meets along the way, he is likable. But the screenplay makes one glaring mistake: in its attempt to complicate for the sake of complication, it makes Martin a suspect. This is most unnecessary because everyone else is already a suspect.

There is Beth (Julie Cox), the landlady’s daughter, who falls for Martin minutes upon their first meeting, Lorna (Leonor Watling), a nurse who knows more than she lets on, and Yuri (Burn Gorman), a fellow mathematician who shares an office with Martin. Take a labyrinthine mystery and a bunch of untrustworthy characters, you get a confused audience. Since I did not know who to trust in terms of my own hypotheses regarding the identity (or identities) of the killer, ultimately, I found myself not caring.

Furthermore, there is a handful of scenes that beg to be reshot. Sometimes it feels like we are watching an audition tape rather than a final cut because of the way some lines are delivered. For instance, when Beth allows her feelings to be out in the open, only to be shut down by Martin, she storms out of the room while Martin yells, “Don’t go!” The way the scene is set up and the insincerity of the supposedly dramatic line are so laughably bad that the scene holds neither tension nor an air of seriousness. It feels like a waste of film and time.

In addition, Cox is either miscast or not given enough direction to prevent her character from appearing obvious and fake. Cox is good at delivering extremes, like coming off as very insecure to the point of craziness, but Wood is more about playing what simmers just below the surface. Since the actors are rarely on the same wavelength, they share no chemistry.

Still, there is a reward at the end of the tunnel. The way everything is explained is appropriately logical and clear. But the journey there is like pulling teeth because I could not help but feel like I was being tricked with all the red herrings in the atmosphere. Based on the screenplay by Álex de la Iglesia and Jorge Guerricaechevarría, “The Oxford Murders” is ambitious but it collapses on itself because not only is it uncompromisingly pedantic, its lack of focus on technical details push us out of the experience. Watching it is like listening to someone so smart but that person radiates no charm: in one ear, out the other.

The Proposition

The Proposition (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★

After showering the Burns house with bullets, Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mike (Richard Wilson) sat in front in front of Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), the man in charge of whoever was responsible for the rape and murder of a woman and her family. Just when Charlie was convinced that only capital punishment was in store for him and his brother, the captain surprised him with a proposition: If Charlie was able to find and kill his brother Arthur (Danny Huston), the leader of the Burns gang currently in hiding, within nine days, both he and Mike would be pardoned of their crimes. Directed by John Hillcoat, “The Proposition” was deceptive because its plot involved a man on a mission to kill another who happened to be of his own blood. While it managed to deliver many scenes of violence, from being impaled by a spear through the chest to bashing one’s skull, what kept it a fascinating experience was its insight, utilizing the sadness of the characters to communicate that some things just had to be done or finished even if that halfway through minds became convinced that the initial course of action was rash or reckless. Captain Stanley was one of the most interesting characters, a man of the law but not above stepping outside of it if he felt necessary, a leader who was intent on “civilizing” the fresh Australian land. As an opponent of disorder, although he had the badge, the gun, the men, and the reputation to work toward his vision, circumstances surrounding the Burns problem proved time and again that he was a bug in a rainforest of starving birds–as powerless as the citizens he vowed to protect. When the camera focused on his wrinkled face and tired eyes, we could sense the inner turmoil in his brain upon realizing that his plan involving Charlie was more complicated than he had anticipated. On top of the stressful nature of his job, he also had to think about his wife, the mousy Martha (Emily Watson), who wanted to know what was going on but was consistently set aside the moment she opened her mouth. What I did find somewhat strange, however, was the screenplay by Nick Cave didn’t really delve into the depths of Charlie ‘s motivations. He did a lot of laying about for most of the picture’s running time and yet he was asked to make a lot critical decisions toward the end. His importance as the film began to wrap up didn’t feel quite earned. But this isn’t to suggest that he wasn’t given some spotlight. Particularly memorable was when he met Jellon Lamb (John Hurt), a smart bounty hunter who happened to have a bit of alcohol in him at the time, and the extended conversation, with threats thrown about here and there, that led to a recommendation of Charles Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.” It was an odd scene but very skillfully executed, especially when the camera fluidly moved from one area to the next as words were being exchanged. Conversely, it stood frozen in its tracks when not a word was uttered which amplified an already high level tension and forced us to consider that perhaps we were milliseconds from witnessing something especially gruesome. I found “The Proposition” admirable because it wasn’t afraid to step inside bizarre territories while remaining true to the lyricism of inhabiting and slowly claiming an unadulterated land and culture. This was best showcased through a dichotomy: a person’s whipping in a “civilized” area and a beautiful a cappella being performed out in the wilderness.


Alien (1979)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A spacecraft containing a crew of seven (Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto) was supposed to be on its way to Earth. After waking up from hypersleep, the crew discovered that they were nowhere near Earth because their ship, known as Nostromo, received a transmission. One of the rules of their mission was if the ship received some sort of signal, it was requisite that they investigate the source which most likely could be extraterrestrial. This film held my attention like a vice grip right from the opening credits. There was something eerie and cold in the way the camera scanned the darkness of outer space. It made me feel small and almost insignificant. Even though I knew that Ripley, Weaver’s character, was the hero of the story, I liked that I didn’t immediately notice her. Her character only began to grab my attention when one of the three crew members was infected with an alien larvae and she refused to let them inside due to a risk of infection. Naturally, their leader ignored her sound reasoning and it was only a matter of time until the crew met their gruesome demise. Ridley Scott’s direction took the film to the next level. Stumbling upon an alien planet could have been done in a cliché manner such as showing too much disgusting slime and, worse, showing too many alien creatures in the beginning of the film, taking away some of the effective scares found later in the picture because we would know exactly what the alien looked like. Instead, Scott used the alien planet’s environment to mask certain corners but at the same time highlight the areas closer to a light source. Since it didn’t show too much, it took advantage of my imagination, making what I didn’t see much scarier than what I did see. (But what I was still horrified when I saw the alien in larvae form.) Granted, most of the crew members made some bad decisions. But I think the unwise decisions they made were not equal to brainless teenagers in a slasher film. It was different because the crew faced the unknown and the usual rules did not apply. For instance, there was no way they could have known that the alien’s blood was so acidic to the point where it was able to eat through metal. A major theme I focused on was human instinct being pitted against animal instinct. Both were different because human instinct, represented by Ripley, is capable of being controlled, to an extent, given that the person actively takes a moment to evaluate a situation. On the other hand, animal instinct, represented by the alien, cannot. However, both are similar in that instinct has one goal: self-preservation. “Alien” is an intelligent science-fiction film that expertly mixes wonder and horror. Undertones which comment on feminism and technology can be found but it doesn’t get in the way of first-class entertainment.