Leonard Schrader adapts Manuel Puig’s novel for director Hector Babenco with a light touch considering the gravity of the subject matter; Valentin (Raul Julia) is a political prisoner in a South American jail, who finds an unexpected friendship with his fellow inmate Molina (William Hurt). Despite the degradations of their situation, Valentin finds himself charmed by Molina’s gift for storytelling, and Babenco creates a meta-narrative in which Molina’s stories blend with the stark backgrounds of the jail-cell the two men are cooped up in. Hurt won an Oscar for his performance, and his sonorous tones create cinematic magic as he intones stores of Nazis’ romance, and the mysterious spider-woman. A populist hit from unlikely subject-matter, Kiss of the Spider Woman is an adult, imaginative high-brow entertainment.
Wim Wenders takes a look into his crystal ball and has a guess at what life in 1999 might be like; the results are impressive, with both the internet and satnav fully realised, even if the screens used look like portable TV’s. His 1991 opus is sci-fi of a thoughtful kind; party girl Claire (Solveig Dommartin) gets mixed up with bank robbers after a car accident, but half the loot is stolen by the opportunistic Sam (William Hurt). He’s suffering from problems with his eyes, and soon a larger prize comes into focus; a camera which can record and share dreams. With a great soundtrack ranging from U2 to Lou Reed, and a curiously low-fi production design that uses real, futuristic-looking architecture rather than effects, Wenders film is somewhat broken-backed in structure; the first half is a breathless chase across several continents and time-zones, the second a reflective meditation of the nature of dreams. Both are fascinating; if anyone asks what life was like in 1999, it would be fun for them to imagine that it was just like this.
The perfect example of a talkfest movie, Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 movie saw the writer director graduate from his Indiana Jones scripting to direct this thoughtful portrait of a group of friends reunited for one weekend after the death of their estranged friend Alex (a barely seen Kevin Costner). There’s at least on direct Raiders call-back, with a character singing the theme song as he battles a bat, and tv actor Sam Weber (Tom Berenger) appears to have been based on Tom Selleck, who famously passed on the role of Indy. Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Jeff Goldblum and William Hurt all convey a convincing rapport as the group, and Kasdan’s gift for dialogue peppers the script with smart one-liners mixed with hidden melancholy. The soundtrack looks back to the 60’s, but The Big Chill’s portrait of baby-boomers reassessing their lives is a timeless, joyful slice of Americana; it’s The Breakfast Club for grown-ups.
Michael Apted adapted Martin Cruz Smith’s bestseller for this wintry thriller, with Helsinki doubling for Moscow. Three faceless bodies are discovered in the snow, leading investigator Arkady Renko (William Hurt) into a cat and mouse game with Soviet authorities, with American agent Jack Osbourne (Lee Marvin) also blocking his path. With a screenplay by Dennis Potter, Gorky Park is very much a product of the Cold War, building the police procedural into an international conspiracy; unusually, there’s a selection of Scots playing Russians, with Alexander Knox, Ian Bannen and Scots comedian Rikki Fulton amongst the top brass who disapprove of Renko’s investigation. Gorky Park is slow but sure in its development, with some pathos too from Joanna Pacula’s love interest.
Mark Medoff’s hot Broadway property comes to the screen in a sensitive adaptation by director Randa Haines. William Hurt plays James Leeds, a speech teacher specializing in deaf students, who takes a post at a remote new Brunswick school. He makes good progress with his students, but finds himself involved with his cleaner Sarah (Marlee Matlin), a gifted student who refuses to leave the school. James and Sarah have a turbulent sexual relationship, and one which brings his unconventional methods to the attention of the headmaster (Phillip Bosco). Matlin won an Oscar for her remarkable performance, but Hurt matches her intensity; it’s refreshing to see a Hollywood film that doesn’t rely on actors feigning disability, but instead casts a genuinely deaf woman in a central role. A thoughtful view of teaching, relationships and deafness, Children of a Lesser God still offers plenty of romance without being sloppy.
The absorbing questioning of television, media and business ethics in Paddy Chayefsky’s acerbic Network provide little hint of the mind-blowing antics of his follow up, Altered States, directed in his US debut by Ken Russell. William Hurt stars as the scientist using a sensory depravation tank and some prime peyote to experiment in regression. That he unleashes a monster is no surprise, but Russell’s film is much more cerebral that the lurid visuals suggest, zooming in with relish on a hallucination of a nine-eyed goat. There’s down to earth support from Charles Haid (Renko in Hill Street Blues) and the always entertaining presence of Bob Balaban, but Hurt fills out his lead character with convincing zeal and doubt, anchoring the film’s serious intent. Any films that sets up the question of discovering a final truth, and then answering it, risks derision, but Altered States stimulates both the mind and the intellect, although not always at the same time.