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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

Capote (2005) vs Infamous (2006) August 29, 2010

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Toby Jones (left) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (right) as Truman Capote. Source: Guardian.co.uk

A recent revisiting of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood sparked some interest in the two films about him that were released in quick succession in 2005 and 2006 — Bennett Miller’s Capote and Douglas McGrath’s Infamous.

Being the first released, Capote stole most of the limelight, especially as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Capote won him an Oscar for Best Actor (not to mention the Golden Globes, BAFTAs and SAGs).  The film itself was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (for Catherine Keener as Harper Lee), and was at the top of most critics’ lists for the year.

On the other hand, Toby Jones, who played Capote in Infamous, won high praise for his performance too, and physically he was closer to the real life counterpart.  Sandra Bullock’s portrayal as Harper Lee was also praised, but did not receive the same recognition as Keener.  Infamous also had an arguably better cast, featuring stars such as Jeff Daniels, Daniel Craig, Sigourney Weaver, Hope Davis, and a cameo from Gwyneth Paltrow.  But despite all of this, and the fact that most critics thought the film was pretty good too, Infamous could not avoid being compared to the earlier film, which they almost unanimously agreed was superior.

The real Truman Capote

Having read the book and watched both films in quick succession, I thought I would throw in my two cents on the two film versions.

Capote was based on the biography by Gerald Clarke, whereas Infamous was based on the book by George Plimpton.  Nevertheless, the story is essentially the same — Truman Capote is fascinated by a 300-word article about a family that was brutally gunned down in the small town of Holcomb, and decides to travel there to write an article.  He brings his good friend Harper Lee with him, and after a lengthy investigation, decides to turn that article into the “first” non-fiction novel (ie a non-fiction book written with fictional techniques).  In order to write the book, Capote gains access to the two killers in prison, Dick and Perry, who are facing the death penalty.  Capote befriends both men, and is particularly drawn to the sensitive and artistic Perry.  Despite becoming extremely close with the men over several years, Capote knows that the book’s ending can only be effective if they are ultimately executed for their crime.

Both films were good, but in different ways.  Capote is a classy production with a classy performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who really brings out the genius and the narcissism in the titular character.  It’s a slow burning film full of pain and contemplation, where the pauses are long but meaningful.

Comparatively, Infamous is lighter and flashier.  Toby Jones is a more flamboyant, less subtle Capote who is portrayed as a shameless gossip with the high society women in New York.  Jones also makes Capote seem like a prick, though Hoffman’s Capote is colder, more reserved but definitely more manipulative.  As good as Jones was, the edge goes to Hoffman in my opinion.

Catherine Keener and Sandra Bullock both make fairly good Harper Lees — but again, Keener is more subtle whereas Bullock is more in-your-face.  Not to say that makes her a weaker Harper, just a different one, though this was probably attributable more to the script than the actresses.  I’d say they were equally good.

I found it interesting that both films focused almost entirely on Capote’s relationship with Perry, even though Dick also played a very large role in the book.  Nevertheless, I thought Capote handled this crucial part of the story better than Infamous did.  In Capote, you really get a sense of the struggle Capote is facing — he clearly feels something for Perry (though exactly what that feeling is is left rather ambiguous) but he also knows he must finish his masterpiece — and that obsession, vanity and selfishness eventually gets the better of him.

As for Infamous, I thought getting Daniel Craig to play Perry was a bizarre choice.  He’s a very good actor, but having read the book, he does not exactly fit the bill (Perry’s supposed to be very short and half American-Indian).  I didn’t fully buy into the relationship, which lacked the emotional power of the earlier film, even though it actually depicted a physical relationship between the two men.

Ultimately, Capote is more serious and reserved, much like the performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Infamous, like Toby Jones’s performance, is more “out there” and talkative, especially as we get to see more of Capote living his high society life in New York, and there are occasional mock interviews with his friends that remove a layer of realism.

So yeah, same story but different approaches and different results.

Capote: 4.25 stars

Infamous: 3.5 stars

Thoughts on the crappy 2010 Oscars March 8, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Entertainment.
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Ben Stiller's Navi impersonation was one of only a small handful of good moments at this year's Oscar ceremony

I watched the 2010 Academy Awards at a fellow unemployed friend’s place.  I’ve always loved the Oscars – not so much the ceremony itself, but the concept of crowning the best in cinema.

Anyway, this year’s Oscars ceremony was crap.  Too safe, too boring, too cheap, not entertaining enough.  Everyone seemed unnecessarily serious and uptight for some reason.

I was happy with most of the results.  Even though I predicted that Avatar would win Best Picture and Director (and failed on both accounts – see full list of predictions here), I was rooting for Bigelow by the end of the show.  I’m glad a female director won, and I’m glad that an independent film won.  And I’m very glad James Cameron didn’t win.

Here are some random thoughts.

(Click on ‘more…’ to continue!)

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Movie Review: The Blind Side (2009) February 24, 2010

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I can’t believe I am saying this, but I loved The Blind Side.

When I first laid eyes on the poster with a blonde Sandra Bullock and a big, black American footballer, I groaned.  With a name like The Blind Side and a poster like that, I expected a sappy, saccharine melodrama in the vein of Pay It Forward and Stepmom.

I was wrong.

The Blind Side is a film about compassion, prejudice, family, chance, and the virtues of hard work.  It tells the inspirational true story of Michael Oher, an underprivileged (albeit talented) African-American youth, and his relationship with Leigh Anne Tuohy, a wealthy white woman from the other side of town.  As per usual, I won’t say much more than that.  If you don’t know who Michael Oher is, great.  Don’t look him up before seeing the movie.

Two things really surprised me about The Blind Side.

First, it is so much better than it should have been.  The Blind Side is truly a terrific film.  One that pulls at the heart strings without trying to tear them down.  It may have been a little sappy and a little melodramatic at times, but for the most part, director and screenwriter John Lee Hancock (The Rookie, The Alamo) manages to keep the film from tipping over the edge.  There are numerous moments that will warm your heart, but very few that will make you cringe in discomfort.

Second, Sandra Bullock is good.  There, I said it.  Sandra Bullock is good in The Blind Side.  I may have ranted about her Oscar nomination but I now think she is deserving.  Bullock’s really not that much better than she was in her other movies, but when you stick an average actress in a great film and the perfect role, anything is possible.  While I don’t think Bullock deserves to win (though I think she probably will), I admit I was wrong to compare her to Matthew McConaughey.  That was low, even for me.

There’s not too much to complain about The Blind Side.  The length (128 minutes) is fine, the pacing is good, and the sporadic humour is lighthearted and in the right spirit.  The only thing is that it’s a little too neat and tidy.  There are some very ugly issues underlying the film, but it never felt like they were properly confronted.  Too sanitised, perhaps, and consequently missing that raw emotional power.

It would have been easy to dismiss The Blind Side as a “white people are so wonderful” movie, except that it is a true story.  Romanticised, perhaps, but a true story nonetheless.  That’s what makes it remarkable.  Every time you think things are too good to be true, you just have to remind yourself that it (or something like it) actually happened.

Movies based on inspirational true stories aren’t supposed to actually leave you feeling inspired, but somehow, The Blind Side does.

4.5 stars out of 5!

DVD Review: The Proposal (2009) February 6, 2010

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The Proposal is one of those romantic comedies that you wouldn’t necessarily call good, but there are worse ways to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon than watching Sandra Bullock (Ms Oscar Nominee) and Ryan Reynolds (Mr Scarlett Johansson) on screen (though let’s face it, not many).

Without giving too much away, Bullock plays Magaret Tate, the bitchy executive editor-in-chief of a publishing company, and Reynolds is Andrew Paxton, her hard-working assistant.  You can pretty much work out the whole story from there if you have a think about the name of the film (ie The Proposal), the poster, and what type of roles Bullock and Reynolds seem to always play in rom-coms.  And to top it off, the director is Anne Fletcher, who was at the helm of Step Up and 27 Dresses.  Let’s stop pretending the movie is not entirely predictable.

Fortunately, The Proposal does have some funny parts, and it does have a bit of heart.  There are a few decent laughs, mostly involving Bullock and her silly character traits, though Reynolds does have surprisingly good comedic timing.  However, it’s not what I would call a hilarious movie – a number of jokes don’t quite have the intended effect, and a few simply fall flat.

Another plus of the film is that there a couple of minor breaks from the ordinary rom-com cliches, and a few unexpected little twists.  You probably wouldn’t even notice them, but they’re there.

What I probably liked most was that the film was set in a major publishing company.  Though the opening scenes were relatively short, it was interesting to see how a place like that worked.  I’m not so sure I’d like to work in one now!

3 out of 5 stars!

[PS: Sandra Bullock’s character unfortunately reminds me of quite a few power women at work.  Despite the fact that it’s hilarious to make fun of them, their lives are actually really really sad.]

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