Monday, July 11, 2011

Movie Web Monday: John Hurt

Movie Web Monday: Each week, I'll look at a specific actor's roles across three good movies. The third movie will in turn tie into the first movie of the next week's actor, whose third movie will continue the pattern. I will go through actors and movies at this rate, with the following limitations in mind: every movie(or television show) invoked will be one I either own, or wish to own; no movie or actor will be invoked twice. So sit back and enjoy as you fall into the nerdery's movie web. (Oh, and I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, telling you just enough to know if you'll enjoy the movie)

John Hurt: Man of the dour

Movie: Hellboy II (Own it)

John Hurt, as the father-figure Professor Trevor Broom, plays a small but important role in Hellboy II. As part of the prologue/exposition/flashback that opens the film, the audience gets a glimpse of his tenderly eccentric father-son relationship with the young demon, along with a fun series of engaging visuals. But what really glows in these opening moments is the softly amused love in Professor Broom's eyes. There's nothing faked, forced, or false about his feelings--which are a cornerstone of Hellboy's life, at least in the movies. The audience also gets to see that Hellboy was raised with a playful endowment of the fantastic occult that lies beneath the mundane world in these movies. It's with a jovial half-wink that the surrogate father responds to his son's certainties about the nature of the opening fairy tale:

It makes for a nice counter to the otherwise much more dark and depressing plot of the antagonist and the loss of the world's magical fancy. It's a poignant way to start the film, and helps to reinforce that fathers--even when absented by the grave--have a huge impact on the principal characters of Hellboy II.

Movie: Alien (Own it) Light Spoilers

Watching the Alien movie today is a cheap experience. It's cheap because it's one of those affectations that simply cannot replicate the effect of that first viewing. Nothing but fresh perspective can really capture the tension that fills the largely uneventful first hour of the movie, where every crappy piece of cobbled together technology, every petty grouse, every shot of these space bums sweating in their pajamas, makes you certain that they are not prepared for what is going to happen to them. John Hurt plays Kane, and though you might not remember his character's name, he is the second most memorable character of the film--maybe the most memorable. No one forgets that moment in that scene. It's set up so well, acted and directed with such casual precision, that the first time you see it you've been utterly disarmed.

The cast is composed of a prickly collection of co-workers. You get the sense that they all might have been friends at one point, if only it weren't for the claustrophobic lack of personal space and intensity of their interactions. Kind of like college roommates during finals week. John Hurt's Kane really helps to sell this impression. When he's incapacitated by the alien facehugger, the crew falls apart in the stress of the decisions to be made. Likewise, his revival is followed by a jovial meal in which all the crew comes together to laugh, eat, and co-mingle in a familial atmosphere one more time before they return to their base of operations. I mean, think of Kane's last words--his last moments before the gory reveal--and it could almost be any fond memory from anybody's own past:

Only after that he starts to choke and sputter as an alien embryo chews its way through his lungs, sending him seizing onto the dinner table, where his ribcage bursts open and the little bundle of Freudian complexes leers at the dinner guests. Without John Hurt's dry demeanor earlier and his disarming levity in the scene immediately prior, the reveal would be less scarring on the psyche of cinema. But, as it is, the dinner scene in Alien is one of the most recognizable moments of popular science-fiction.

Movie: Outlander (Own it)

And so we go from a movie and a scene that needs no introduction to a movie that few know about. Outlander is a clever take on a Beowulf adaptation, where the humans are 100% mortal except for the fact that one of them was born in another star system and that Grendel is a bioluminescent alien monster. Starring Jim Caviezel, John Hurt, Ron Perlman, and Sophia Myles, it's a tremendous piece of work for such a small, unknown film. John Hurt, sporting chic Viking braids on his hair and beard, plays Hrothgar--an old king who wields his responsibility with heavy care. We're introduced to him as he spars with his daughter Freya--redheaded(!) Sophia Myles--and talking with her about getting married to his heir-apparent. If you keep your ears open during this scene, you find that Hrothgar is a man clearly trying to get his affairs in order. The next scene shows Hrothgar talking to the would-be lucky guy, Wulfric, and giving the old stop-perpetuating-negative-viking-stereotypes talk. In a movie that is defined by bursts of sci-fi/fantasy action and kinetic gore, it's a tender moment of cinematic beauty and soft words. And it contains one of the movie's best lines, in John Hurt's gravelly voice:

With so much already done in the monster movie genre, Outlander manages to be fresh and original even when it uses some classic tools--like the guy who goes off into the woods by himself to take a leak immediately getting pasted. But, in having so much of the story revolve around images of responsibility and culpability as individuals and leaders, it really manages to feel like something much more than another fun take on a new monster movie setup.

Movie Web Monday will continue next week with a new actor, picking up with some other prolific player from the last movie listed above.

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