Sunday, November 17, 2013

Profile — John Grisham, From Book To Film

Just Released

The Broadway production of A Time To Kill closed Sunday. Not a smash hit, but far from a flop, John Grisham’s first book, initially turned down by publishers, has now seen success as book, play and film. Will we see an opera?  Not too many contemporary crime books have done so well.  And not too many crime writers have done a well as Grisham.  It is pointed out in Wikipedia that “Grisham is one of only three authors to sell two million copies on a first printing, the others being Tom Clancy and J. K Rowling.”  As if to close the loop completely on this major work, the long-awaited sequel, Sycamore Row, was just released.

For the most part, I love courtroom dramas.  Turn it into a thriller as well, and I’m going to enjoy the book or movie.  I’ve read and enjoyed many of Grisham’s legal thrillers and have seen all of the films, including A Time To Kill.  Not only are court cases innately theatrical, they provide the author a not too blatant opportunity to step up on the soapbox and speak out for what he or she believes is social justice. And certainly Grisham, a practicing lawyer, who has held local (Mississippi) political office, has opinions on such matters.  He is also active in The Innocence Project, a highly respected nonprofit organization that investigates what it believes to be wrongful convictions, primarily through DNA.  Its mission has expanded to include “reforming the justice system to prevent future injustice.”

Major Blockbuster
Many of his novels focus on the corruption of justice, especially as it relates to the unharnessed power big corporations — insurance, oil, guns, etc. — taking advantage of average citizens who can’t possibly rustle the resources to make it a fair fight.  Grisham has written non-legal books, but is known primarily for his best-selling legal thrillers, many of which have been made into popular movies:

The Firm (1993) One of the most popular of the Grisham adaptations, this one rode on the success of his bestselling novels and, no doubt, on the immense popularity of leading man, Tom Cruise. Though not my favorite, The Firm is a solid, suspenseful thriller.  Cruise, as Matt Damon would do later in Rainbow Man, enters the treacherous world of law as an innocent.  Grisham’s films have been blessed with the best directors (Sydney Pollack here) and the attraction of fine and/or popular actors.  In The Firm, Cruise gets help from his elders, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, Holly Hunter, Hal Holbrook and David Strathairn.  Recommended.

Major Stars, Major Hit
The Pelican Brief  (1993) Another big moneymaker, largely on the popularity of stars Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington and Grisham, himself this too is a solid feature, more action-packed than the others.  Alan J. Pakula directed this film with another all-star cast, including John Lithgow, Sam Shepard, Hume Cronyn, Stanley Tucci, John Heard and Robert Culp.  Roberts, a young law stent is in possession of documents that point to the killers of two U.S. Supreme Court Justices.  Big-time crimes and big-time villains can only mean danger for those want to expose the evil doing.  The Firm and Pelican Brief would make a great Grisham double feature. Not intellectually taxing, but solid suspense excellently executed.  Recommended.

Academy Award For Sarandon, Great Movie
The Client  (1994) In this, my favorite of all the films made from Grisham’s novels, Brad Renfro plays a mature (beyond his years) teen caught between an overly ambitious U.S. attorney (Tommy Lee Jones) and some gangsters who killed a high-ranking Louisiana politician.  Susan Sarandon plays Reggie Love, an ex-alcoholic attorney on the comeback trail.  She is the character who must keep young Renfro, a prosecution witness, from being run over by the competing forces, both, it seems, intent on destroying him as well as his moonbeam of a mom in order to protect the killer.  All three main characters are strong, as is the plot, but Renfro is the draw here.  He plays a tough, uncannily wise country bumpkin. Sarandon was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Actress.”  Anthony LaPaglia, Ossie Davis and William H. Macy also appear in the film.  Joel Schumacher directed.

From His most Touted Book
A Time To Kill (1996) I had a really rough time getting through the first pages of the book.  The same goes for the first few minutes of the movie.  It’s a gruesome crime.  And we, as an audience (some of us anti-death penalty) will have our views challenged by the drama that sets up even the most pacifist of us to want revenge. If you set aside the fact that this is a well-done, suspenseful thriller, the acceptance of vigilantism is a question we are facing today in real life and is an increasingly popular and a seemingly validated device for satisfying the reader in crime fiction. Is this what we want? Joel Schumacher directed this compelling adaptation with a cast most directors could only dream of:  Matthew McConaughey, Sandra Bullock, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, Ashley Judd, Donald Sutherland, Chris Cooper, Patrick McGoohan, and Kiefer Sutherland.

The Chamber  (1996) While I usually enjoy films that engage the brain in debates about social justice, while telling a compelling story, other than providing further proof that Gene Hackman is one of this country’s finest actors, there is little point in spending a couple of hours here.

Solid Filmmaking, Story Telling
The Rainmaker (1997) Set in Tennessee, Francis Ford Coppola directs a stunning veteran cast in a film that shines an unflattering light on health insurance companies.  Matt Damon is the perfect innocent to go up against a highly paid team of corporate attorneys, headed by Jon Voight after the denial of a young man’s claim caused his death.  He also helps fend off the greedy relatives of an elderly woman and falls in love with a battered housewife.  All of this holds together very well thanks to Coppola who also wrote the screenplay, and actors: Danny DeVito, Clare Danes, Danny Glover, Virginia Madsen, Teresa Wright, Even smaller roles were given maximum impact with brilliant brief appearances Roy Scheider and Mickey Rourke. 

The Gingerbread Man  (1998) This wasn’t a book, but one of Grisham’s “discarded manuscripts” picked up by actor Kenneth Branagh, who brought director Robert Altman into the project.  It was Altman’s decision to rewrite it to keep the drama out of the courtroom. A mistake, I’m guessing. The result was a non-starter that was more about the weather than anything of substance.  Missing was any underlying social inequity that the usual Grisham main character wants to correct.  No shortage of fine actors, however, who run around in stormy Savannah.  In addition to Branagh, you’ll find Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Tom Berenger and Daryl Hannah.

Gene Hackman In Three Grisham Films
Runaway Jury (2003) Grisham’s movies were beginning to trail off at the box office.  And this quite fine film is the last of the film adaptations for the time being.  Director Gary Fleder had fewer per capita big names in the large cast — Gene Hackman, John Cusack, Dustin Hoffman and Rachel Weisz  — in a thriller about some serious and dangerous jury tampering.  The film is set in New Orleans. The verdict in this could seriously diminish profits for the gun manufacturing industry.  A worthwhile movie Runaway Jury nonetheless has a slightly more independent feel to it than the first four.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Film Pairing — Two That Might Have Slipped Your Notice

Julianne Moore is one of the finest actors you might not have noticed, though she has been nominated for an Academy Award four times. She often appears in offbeat films that prove challenging for critics and don’t quite meet box office expectations.  Among her many movies are: Far From Heaven, The Big Lebowski, The Hours, Savage Grace, The Kids Are All Right and A Single Man. However, two of her films seemed to have slipped through the cracks completely: Chloe, a semi-lovely erotic puzzle and 6 Souls, a gamble for even the most tolerant of audiences.

Chloe is a beautiful young woman confident she can bring sexual happiness to others and apparently sees no reason she shouldn’t be paid if that too brings pleasure to the other.  But nothing and no one are what they appear to be. It would be too easy and very wrong to say too much.  Liam Neeson plays the husband with a roving eye, but is it any more than an appreciation of beauty in passing? Julianne Moore is the wife who suspects her husband is having an affair. Is she more jealous than hurt? Amanda Seyfried is Chloe, the sex kitten who disturbs the entire dysfunctional family, including Max Theriot, the couple’s barely post pubescent son. Atom Egoyan directed this intelligent, steamy 2009 film.

The idea of dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality) in fiction was a trend for a while.  It was a great device for crime fiction in particular (Think Psycho). In 6 Hours (also released as Shelter), Julianne Moore finds herself trying to unravel the five people inhabiting Jonathan Rhys Meyers body and preventing the deaths that seem connected to them. It is meant to be a haunting story of one powerful evil spirit trying to keep himself alive.  The setting in part of Pennsylvania that time forgot makes some haunting cinematic moments.  The original idea, the cast and the cinematography are promising. In the end this is one of those films that can be watched and enjoyed with a talkative friend.

As the nights get colder and the films won’t keep you awake all on their own — though Chloe (2013) has some fascinating twists — I’d suggest some Irish coffee as an accompaniment to this double feature, most of your friends probably never heard of.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Book Notes — The Shadow Of The Wind, Lovely And Long Winded

Don’t let the headline fool you.  Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s bestseller The Shadow of the Wind is worth every word. 

Several weeks ago, I posted a blurb about the acclaimed novella, The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura.  Short book, short words, short sentences. It was masterful.  Far away from the short powerful linguistic punches of Nakamura comes the exquisitely, endlessly detailed prose of Zafón. From the here and now of someone like Nakamura to the then and now and for all eternity of Zafón, a reader might consider a book fast between authors or suffer the shock of suddenly changing worlds.

Shadow isn’t necessarily a book for readers interested in romance, but for readers who find books a romantic undertaking.  We walk through a romantic city Barcelona), watch our main character grow up, discover beauty, solve a mystery, fall in love and survive all sorts of danger.

The truth is that I was more engrossed in Zafón’s style, especially compared to Nakamura’s.  I’m much more inclined to the latter, unless I’m under the influence of Demerol. My monkey-mind will not allow me to move that slowly and that specifically directed. Perhaps we can love or forgive — whatever the case may be — a character the writer does not. I suspect how much we, as readers, want to participate in the creation of the story may determine the kind of writer we favor.  When you read Shadow, Zafón will take complete control. You will see what he wishes you to see. Isn’t that true of all writers?  Yes, to a greater or lesser extent.  Here you will see through the author’s eyes and you will draw his conclusions, accept his interpretation of events and his assessment of characters.  This is his story, his novel, his invention, all beautifully, masterfully rendered. Sometimes, wit h some writers — and this is the case, I believe, with The Thief — the reader must help create all this with the clues he or she has been given.  The central character needs the reader to help define him. We must color the walls in a room, put people on the street.  Personally, I’d rather co-create. I don’t need and rarely want a detailed description of a doorknob unless it’s distinction is vital to the story.  I want to be taunted and teased to follow the plot, not led by the nose.

This is not to demean this kind of storyteller. If you want to be taken, then give in completely to an extraordinarily, long, highly detailed, mood-inducing well-written epic novel. Read Shadow. You won’t be disappointed.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Film Pairing — William Powell and Myrna Loy, Not Always Nick And Nora

Non Nick & Nora Thriller
William Powell and Myrna Loy made 14 films together.  Six of them were part of what would now be called the Thin Man franchise.  In 1934, America’s favorite couple paired for Evelyn Prentice, a slightly tougher and less comedic film than those in the Thin Man series, which launched the same year. 

In Prentice, a courtroom thriller based on W.E. Woodward’s novel, Powell portrays a prominent defense attorney who finds himself dealing with two seemingly adulterous affairs. With a clever Hitchcockian twist, the attorney finds he must not only defend his client who is charged with the murder of conniving gigolo, but also his wife (Loy) who confesses to the crime.  Rosalind Russell makes her debut, and supporting actress Una Merkel, as Loy’s best friend, nearly steals the show providing needed comic relief.

Song of the Thin Man
Song of the Thin Man was the sixth and last of the series based on the popular characters in Dashiell Hammett’s last novel, The Thin Man.  Most fans will agree that the first films were the best (Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich wrote the screenplays). However audiences wanted more from the comically elegant Powell, the spirited and beautiful Loy and their dog Asta.  In this outing, 13 years after Powell and Loy teamed up for Prentice and The Thin Man, guns, gangsters, jewelry and jazz create an environment that is more fun than believable.  Still, the film, beautifully shot in black and white, is a pleasant escape.  Jayne Meadows, Gloria Grahame and Keenan Wynn have key roles.  A young Dean Stockwell plays Nick Charles Jr. And if you pay attention you’ll catch Julie Wilson (“My Friend Irma”) in a small role.