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Classic Movie Review: A Time to Kill (1996) August 18, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Movie Reviews, Reviews.
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After reading the book of the same name by John Grisham (my review here), several people have recommended that I watch the film adaptation of A Time to Kill, directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Matthew McConaughey (in his breakout role).  It’s one of those films that I really wanted to, but for whatever reason never saw when it was first released in 1996.

For those who don’t know the background, it’s Grisham’s first book but the fourth of his adaptations (behind The Firm, The Pelican Brief and The Client).  It stars McConaughey as a young hotshot lawyer, Jake Brigance, who is tasked with defending a black father who took the law into his own hands after two white drunks raped his little girl.  Due to the racial politics of the time and place (very important to remember when watching), Brigance not only has to fight a seemingly unwinnable case, but also has to deal with the dangers of representing a black man in a racist community.

I quite liked the book, but didn’t think it was anything special.  For me, the film version was a rare improvement on the book that addressed some of the things I felt the book could have done better.

For starters, Brigance is a much more likeable character in the film than the book, where he was more egocentric, obnoxious, and cared far too much about publicity.  In the film they really toned it down and made him more of a ‘hero’, which works well because the audience really needed to connect with him.

The second big alteration is that Ellen Roark, the brilliant college student played by Sandra Bullock, is given a much bigger role in the film than the book.  In the book, Roark doesn’t appear until halfway through, but in the film she’s there almost right from the beginning.  In fact, Bullock received top billing even though she was a secondary character — most probably because she was coming of the phenomenal success of Speed and The Net and was a huge cash cow at the time.  Nevertheless, I liked Roark’s expanded role because I always felt she was one of the more interesting characters in the book.

Plenty of scenes, characters and subplots were condensed or removed in the film version, which I personally thought was welcoming because they clogged up the central narrative and slowed the pace.  When I read the book I always felt there was something not quite right in the structure and the development of the plot, as though Grisham couldn’t figure out what was important to the story and what wasn’t.  In the film, they were able to adjust the equilibrium to create a smoother, less stilted delivery.  For instance, I was glad to see the actual trial commence relatively early, unlike the book, which waited until the final 100 pages or so.  The final climax, in particular, was reformulated to make it more about Brigance’s ability than luck, which made for much better cinema.

The most pleasant surprise for me was the number of stars or would-be stars in this film and outstanding performances they delivered.  Of course, McConaughey went on to be a big star after this film, and even though I’ve paid him out ever since Contact (‘By doing this, you’re willing to give your life, you’re willing to die for it. Whyyyyyyy?!!’), I must admit he was excellent here as Brigance.  It also made his solid performance in the more recent Lincoln Lawyer easier to comprehend.

I already mentioned Sandra Bullock as the top-billed star of the film, and she was probably at the height of her stardom at the time (some may say she was ‘bigger’ when she won the Oscar, but I disagree), just before Speed 2: Cruise Control knocked her down a few notches.

Of course, there was also Samuel L Jackson, one of my favourite actors in one of the best performances of his career as the father, Carl Lee Hailey (I’d still say Pulp Fiction was his greatest achievement, but others might say Snakes on a Plane or Deep Blue Sea or perhaps The Search for One-eye Jimmy).  In 1996, Jackson was coming off a string of less than impressive films (with the exception of Die Hard with a Vengeance) and this film helped boost him back up to where he belonged, as he would then go on to appear in a number of blockbusters/hits over the next couple of years, such as  Jackie Brown, Sphere, The Negotiator and Out of Sight.

The list of goes on.  There’s Kevin Spacey as the snooty DA, Rufus Buckley, who was, as usual, marvellous, and one of the highlights of the film.  He brought out the essence of Buckley without overdoing it, making him less of a caricature than he was in the novel.  Remember, in 1996 Spacey was coming off his masterful performances in Seven and The Usual Suspects,  and would go on to appear in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, LA Confidential and The Negotiator, right before his career defining performance in American Beauty in 1999 (personally, Verbal Kint is still my favourite).

What about the always-good-to-have-around Oliver Platt, who plays Brigance’s best buddy Harry Rex, or Donald Sutherland, who plays Brigance’s mentor Lucien Wilbanks?  What about veteran actor Chris Cooper as poor officer Dwayne Looney, before he rose to prominence in films like American Beauty, The Bourne Identity and Adaptation?  Or Ashley Judd as wife Carly, at the start of her strong career, before she broke out in films such as Kiss the Girls, Double Jeopardy and Eye of the Beholder?  Heck, there was even Mr Jack Bauer himself, Kiefer Sutherland, as a KKK redneck, before he became the butt-kicking CTU agent in 24.  I knew the film starred McConaughey, Bullock and Jackson, but it was a pleasant surprise to see just how much star power this film had.

In all, I enjoyed A Time to Kill (the film) a lot more than I thought I would.  Yes, it is a little self-righteous, melodramatic and contrived at times, but for the most part it was still an entertaining, thrilling, though-provoking courtroom drama that was boosted by its awesome star power.

4 out of 5 stars

Book Review: ‘A Time to Kill’ by John Grisham July 30, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews, Reviews.
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I’ve always been interested in the massive global phenomenon that is Mr John Grisham, and despite my disappointment with The Associate and relative disappointment with The Firm, I decided to check out Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill.

Grisham names the novel as one of his favourites, and most people have told me it’s one of his best.  And I think it has one heck of a premise — a young black girl is brutally raped by two racist rednecks, the girl’s father seeks retribution, and a predominantly white Mississippi community deals with its aftermath.  Caught in the middle is a young, brash criminal defense lawyer by the name of Jake Brigance (a character Grisham admits was modelled on himself).

Lots of stuff happens in this book, which is ultimately a courtroom drama/thriller centred around this very provocative premise.  Would you do the same thing if it happened to your child?  Would the jury convict?  Would you vote to convict if you were on the jury?  Those are the types of questions Grisham keeps asking throughout the story.

Grisham paints the fictional town of Clanton (also used in a later book, The Last Juror) extremely well.  There is a whole cast of characters, with almost a couple being introduced every chapter, and many of them are memorable and well-developed, especially the town sheriff Ozzie, the trial judge Noose, the obnoxious DA Buckley and Jake’s mentor Lucien.  A number of minor characters also have their moments.

A Time to Kill is a very good read, but not a great one.  The opening chapters sucked me into the world of the story but every now and then throughout the 500+ pages there were times when I lost interest in the narrative.  The strengths are the characters (good to see Jake Brigance has his own agenda and isn’t acting out of the kindness of his heart) and the moments of tension — either from the trial itself or the occasional threat of physical danger.  However, as Grisham admitted himself in the book’s introduction, he does waffle on far too much about things that didn’t need to be.

Like many first novels, A Time to Kill could have been pared back a lot more to speed up the pace, especially considering that the actual trial itself does not commence until almost four-fifths of the way through the book.  I felt some parts could have been condensed (the pointless, sometimes repetitive chatter) while others (such as the trial testimonies and jury deliberations) could have been drawn out more.  It’s a shame because with better plotting and pacing it could have been unputdownable.

As for the moral debate in the book — I had to keep reminding myself that it was originally published in 1989 and that a small, predominantly white town in Mississippi where the KKK still roamed is a completely different world to the one I know.  With that in mind I think Grisham handled it rather well.

Ultimately, A Time to Kill is the best Grisham fiction novel I’ve read thus far, but it still fell short of the lofty expectations I had for it, given its reputation and the premise.  Now, which Grisham book should I tackle next?

3.75 out of 5!

PS: I first had a look at A Time to Kill when I was in a Border’s book store (back when they still existed in Australia) and read the author’s introduction, where Grisham discusses his fondness of his debut novel.  It took him three years to complete it while still working as a lawyer (an amazing feat in itself), but didn’t gain success until The Firm became a bestseller.  It’s an inspirational story I continue to use to push myself down the writer’s path.

PPS: I can’t believe I still haven’t seen the 1996 movie based on the book.  Might be my Matthew McConaughey aversion.  I’ll have to check it out.

Book Review: John Grisham’s “The Firm” August 21, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Book Reviews.
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My first John Grisham novel, The Associate, was a shocker, and I said as much in my review of the book here.  However, several Grisham fans who commented assured me The Associate was an anomaly, and that Grisham’s other books, especially his older ones, were much better and advised me to give them a go.

And so, roughly 6 months after The Associate, I decided to read a Grisham “classic”.  My first choice was his debut, A Time to Kill, but I couldn’t find it on special.  Instead, I found a copy of The Firm at a bargain bookstore (it was part of the Grisham “Gold” Collection) and dived straight into it.

Most people should be aware of the basic plot, so I won’t go into it too much.  Young Mitch McDeere is a hotshot Harvard graduate with a pretty wife and a jailbird brother.  After fielding a bunch of offers from the big Wall Street firms, he chooses a small but tight-knit and extremely exclusive firm in Memphis — because they paid better than anyone else and the perks were great.  But of course, as he settles in, Mitch realises that not everything is as it seems and that once you join The Firm, you can never leave.

To my great surprise, The Firm was actually very good.  It had a good premise, interesting characters; it was well-plotted, meticulous with details; and it was exciting and suspenseful.  A real page-turner.  Everything The Associate was not.

I suppose the biggest compliment I could pay is that it was the first book in a while that I actually wanted to keep reading and find out what would happen next.  While it was far from perfect, The Firm was still a cracking good read.

Written 18 years apart, it was interesting to see the parallels and differences between The Firm (1991) and The Associate (2009).  They are both about young hotshot lawyers who join powerful law firms with great ambition and excitement, but soon find that they are in over their heads.  But the main difference is that The Firm, though relatively raw and unpolished, really gives you a sense of Grisham’s passion and enthusiasm for the story.  On the other hand, to me it was clear The Associate lacked those qualities, and as a result was dull and lifeless.  The Associate whinged endlessly about the atrocious hours worked by young associates, but Mitch McDeere in The Firm worked even longer hours and loved it.  Perhaps it’s a reflection of the changing attitudes of today’s top lawyers, or maybe it’s a sign that Grisham is getting tired.

Anyway, The Firm has whetted my appetite for more vintage Grisham.  Any suggestions on what should be next?

4 out of 5

[PS: The Firm (published in 1991) is a book that has always stuck in my mind for a couple of reasons.  First, I saw the 1993 Tom Cruise adaptation at a time when I was too young to understand it, and when I got older, it was one of those films that I made a mental note to re-watch when I had time (I did re-watch it recently and it wasn’t quite as good as I imagined it, and it was also very different to the novel).  Secondly, it was burned into my brain when I watched that horrible 1995 Pauly Shore movie Jury Duty, in which he unwittingly borrowed a number of adult films named after popular movies in an effort to beef up his legal knowledge, and one of them was “The Firmness” (another was “Three Men and a Maybe”).  I don’t know why, but I always find that funny.]

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