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Saturday, September 19, 2015

BLACKBOARD JUNGLE

   Ah, to be uncool now that Death stands outside the bedroom window rattling his chains, a disappointed grin glowing yellow beneath the self-created smog.
   A plot-line can be dependent on conflict between us and them. That approach legitimizes any number of trashy squirm flicks, most of such dribble indicating a lot less imagination and guts than Blackboard Jungle. Glenn Ford plays the prototypical square, the war vet with wounded pride, yet the whore with a heart of gold. Because his wife Ann (Anne Francis) suffered a miscarriage before the story began, ole Glenn wants to reach the souls and minds of troubled high school kids who might otherwise be denied the divinity of his presence. (If that sounds a bit far-fetched, I guarantee you it plays out with more honesty here than the sniveling cynics who have populated the majority of teen movies by the likes of, say, John Hughes, a hack if ever such existed and whose ability to retain fame after death mystifies me more than the properties of enhanced uranium.) The juvenile delinquents--as the written warning at the top of the movie terms them--have other ideas, as befits the members of a crowded urban data factory where the institutional goal appears to be to warehouse the young folks until (and if) they reach the age of maturity. These kids do not obsess over Halloween, Christmas, New Year's Eve, Graduation Day, or any other conventional celebration. What they care about is using rebellion as a means. What Glenn Ford, as Richard Dadier (Daddy-o), cares about is proving to himself that he possesses what it takes to motivate the students' interest in getting an education. It will not surprise you to learn that he teaches English. 
   What sets this movie apart from a hundred other films about what a bunch of little monsters the kids are and how impotent the educational system is to combat them lies in its inspirational yearning to connect sympathy from even the worst of the kids without vomiting up phony sentiment. Daddy-o may be ex-military, but he isn't a Michelle Pfeiffer or a Jim Belushi looking to beat sense into these kids. On the contrary, Ford takes several unwarranted beatings with better grace than any "cool" teacher could muster. 
   The worst of the kids, Artie West (Vic Morrow), comes across with complete believability, so much so that when he tries to con Ford into believing his innocent act, we cringe a bit when the teacher sees through his malarkey. A very young Sidney Poitier earns every good word ever written about him as a complex student named Miller, part antagonist, part future Temptations singer, part leader, part friend. 
   The one thing that unites every character here is that none of them give a warm glass of spit about being cool. These folks struggle to survive, usually in spite of one another. Cool doesn't enter into it. Naturally enough, that lack of concern and effort paradoxically makes even the worst of them hip, which is always better than cool. Hip waltzes with passion, while cool skips to a superficial dance. Hip implies an unspoken knowledge, an awareness of how the game is rigged. Cool comes from the asshole who rigged the game in the first place. Hip can be tasted. Cool can be worn. 
   Glenn Ford, for all his infernal squareness, develops a type of hipness. It comes to him when he shows the class a cartoon movie of "Jack and the Beanstalk," a device he uses to get the kids to identify with various fictional characters. Vic Morrow, for all his murderous inclinations, spells hipness out to Daddy-o that a stint in reform school or prison will be a swell way to beat the draft. Poitier is hip to what his future probably holds, but he refuses to knuckle beneath the artificial pressures of ghetto life, so he has taught himself both piano and auto repair. He also exudes a smart kind of fearlessness that falls just short of bravado. We know from the second we meet him smoking in the boys room that he is the one kid on school who can back up the bullshit. 
   The tension that director and screenwriter Richard Brooks works out of Ford and Poitier together threatens to snap at any moment, so watching those two relatively young men at what may have been their respective primes shakes the viewer out of any somnambulance he or she may be stifling. At the outset, Ford tries to play Poitier by enlisting him as a type of narc. Poitier does not care to be anyone's Mod Squad stooge, yet he feels antagonized by the racial tension coming from the Irish students against the Latinos and the Blacks. Meanwhile, Ford has to put up with the misguided efforts of his fellow faculty member caricatures (cynic, lush, debutante, etc) while hoping that his wife doesn't blame herself if the child they are expecting does not come to term. 
   In short, the movie that no less than John Lennon claimed as an inspiration to him when he saw it way back in 1955 holds up better today than craven crapola such as Dangerous Minds or The Principal. It may not be cool, but it sure do be hip, satchmo. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

MUD

   Somehow I had it in my head that a woman wrote and directed Mud (2012). That would have been impossible and I should have known better. No woman could have written and directed this movie. That observation conveys no misogyny. If anything, it reflects a general state of misanthropy. No woman ever interpreted herself as having anything in common with the character Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) in this excellent motion picture. To have the necessary degree of self-awareness to construct that character in a way that is not unsympathetic would have made the character impossible. Juniper is a loser who elevates her own sense of self by attracting, for the most part, men who want to do her harm. She finally (and, we suspect, by accident) found one man, Mud, who actually wants to do well by her, so of course she does not stop until she has completely pauperized him, or allows him to pauperize himself, depending on your point of view. Juniper is not an evil person. She lacks the personal charm of someone inherently bad. She is simply a vessel of vacuity, a bottle that appears to need to be filled, a universe lacking lifeforms. And because of that, she exudes a type of vulnerability appealing to men who view themselves as heroes. 
   And make no mistake: Mud is a genuine hero. Everyone else in the movie takes considerable time telling the two kids that Mud is a pathological liar--a statement which the title character does not deny--when in fact he is the only person in the movie who invariably tells the truth. When the two fourteen-year-old boys, Ellis and Neckbone, ask Mud (Matthew McConaughey) why he is hiding out on a small island near the Mississippi River, he explains with neither pride nor shame that he shot and killed a guy. The guy he murdered messed over Juniper, the woman for whom he is waiting to reunite. The dead guy did a bit more than merely injure her pride. He impregnated her, raped her, beat her, caused her to lose the child. He deserved to be shot and shot repeatedly. Mud accomplished this and the two boys find nothing inappropriate in it.
   Ellis, the stronger of the two boys, believes in love. His parents are breaking up, his girlfriend does not think of herself as his girlfriend, and he does not understand the things that motivate most of the adults he encounters. But he thinks he understands Mud because Mud believes in love. 
   McConaughey's character really does believe in it. His life has known no shortage of excitement, no lack of superstition and folklore magic. He has made his own life far more challenging than it needed to be. And when we meet him, he is living in a boat in a tree. I suspect he would have resisted having things any other way.
   If all the movie accomplished was the type of running commentary on the dismal state of relationships recited above, it would be something of a drag and I would be nothing more than the misanthropic drudge I claim to be for loving it. Fortunately, the movie uses these intriguing scenarios to say something about friendship and faith in the same. I will digress here (he said mechanically) to declare that nothing we value on this madly spinning orb is more important than friendship. Food comes a close second. Sex hardly even makes the list and if it were not for our ridiculous compulsion to over-propagate the species, it wouldn't be on the list at all. Sex is nothing more or less than that thing we use to distract ourselves from how bitterly hopeless we feel when friendship looks elusive, which is no doubt why Mud keeps a stack of old Penthouse magazines shoved into a drawer in his boat. What he really wants out of life is for Juniper to love him for the man he is, which I suspect is a pretty good definition of friendship. I will go out on a slender limb here and guess that if you have the courage to recognize it, most of the people you tell yourself are your friends are distractions you use to disguise the emptiness you feel when your mind gets tired of fighting off the acknowledgement of just how superficial and stupid most other people behave.
   Take for instance the dead guy's family. Led by the father, King (Joe Don Baker), the avenging family can't get their friends in law enforcement to kill Mud, so they set out to do it themselves. They see themselves as better than everyone else, certainly more righteous, as befits a family of entitled, bullying thugs. What they do is right simply because they are the ones doing it, not unlike neighbors who take a shortcut through your yard, or the old guy at the grocery store who cuts ahead of you in line, or the state trooper who shoots first and never gets around to asking questions later. 
   Most of us contain a bit of that, just as the two boys exhibit when they steal a boat motor from a junk man. Their beliefs are superior to the need of the man who owns the junkyard, their cause (love) trumps his need to make a living, so they steal it. Mud stole the life of the bullies' family member, so that family figures whatever they choose to do about it is justified in the name of the Lord. 
   All this sounds bitter and it would be a mistake to envision Mud as a stupid feel good movie. It is, on the contrary, an intelligent feel bad movie. Like the title character himself, this movie tells the truth. It tells that truth in a way that is simultaneously bitter, confused, desperate and even funny, but one of the things we may discover is that there comes a certain enlightenment from finally letting go of our own delusions, however fleetingly gratifying those delusions may be. John 8:32 says: "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make ye free."  In Latin, it sounds even better: "Veritas vos liberabit." Those words serve as the motto for several universities, including one where I used to teach. It has also been used as a motto for the Central Intelligence Agency. 
   Jesus was not referring to intellectual honesty. He was talking about faith in Himself, which some might say is a form of superstition. There is a Christ-like quality glowing off Mud throughout this film. He must confront his temptations, he must prove his courage, he must forsake a normal life and transition into whatever awaits him after the movie ends. His freedom, however, is never once in doubt.


Sunday, September 13, 2015

THE BIRDS

  The two best parts of Alfred Hitchcock's movie The Birds (1963) remains the final scene as the car full of survivors creep off into the doom, followed closely by the exercise of keeping track of how many days Tippi Hedren wears that infernal green outfit. Oh, sure, waiting for the toss-pot in the diner to bemoan the fact that it's "the end of the world" has its kicks. But the real reason that Brian DePalma didn't pretend homage to this particular Hitchcock installment is that, on the whole, it simply isn't very good. Loyal viewers of big Al's pantheon have learned to endure the great man's tendency to drag his heroines through every conceivable mud hole on the planet. But it's one thing to humiliate Kim Novak by putting her in a slummy apartment, or to diminish Barbara Bel Geddes by having Jimmy Stewart reject her advances, or by slashing up Vivian Leigh. It is another thing altogether to take the free-spirited goddess of the Sixties in the form of Ms. Hedren and have her wild side bring about the end of the world as we  know it. Heck, it was bad enough that Hitch killed off Suzanne Pleshette--the only sympathetic character in the movie--even after she had to listen to those rotten school kids sing that bloody awful song over and over. Go putting the blame for human extinction by bird-dinosaurs on the crazed mane of Tippi is simply more than we want to experience. 
   By all reports, actor Rod Taylor hated the movie. Probably he didn't understand it. Playing his mother, Jessica Tandy evokes a bit of commiseration, but for all the wrong reasons. And Veronica Cartwright, as Cathy, the younger sister, whines more than any child in the history of cinema. Worst of all, what at the time was hailed as Larry Hampton's amazing visual effects have not held up well. There's a lesson there, I suspect. When a movie's appeal is dependent on technology, the acting had better be more impressive than this if you want people to not laugh at you later in life.

   

Friday, September 11, 2015

WE ARE MARSHALL

   The day I began my stint as a professional student at Marshall University, way back in 1976, the shock waves from the crash of Southern Airways Flight 932 still rippled the morale of the local Huntington population. Six years earlier, on the evening on November 14, 1970, the chartered plane that carried seventy-five football players, boosters, coaches and crew, drew bad weather, tried to avoid it, and crashed just one mile short of the Tri-State runway, killing all the passengers. I knew nothing of this tragedy the day I wandered around the campus, looking for Harris Hall, where my Intro Psych class had already started. But I could discern that something crippling had happened. Anyone could have detected it. The tired shoulders of the short-skirted girls, the sunken eyes of the wizened faculty, the dazed expressions on the maintenance crew's faces: everywhere you looked, people with no acting experience whatsoever tried to compensate for their own personal destruction by trying to behave as if nothing was wrong. This was Huntington, West Virginia. Something was always wrong. If it wasn't the snide condescension of outsiders mocking John Denver's tribute song, it was the industrial exploiters ravaging the once-pristine landscape. Even more than one hundred miles from the nearest active coal mine, black soil hung in the air on the sunniest of days. When you opened the door to a grocery store, you were met with the rattle of an old air conditioner tempered by a silent wave of human despair. People may no longer have worked their personal feelings of the plane crash into every conceivable conversation, but that was only because there was no longer a need to do so. Everyone who had lived in the area either knew someone who had died that horrible night, or knew someone who knew someone who had. Like the rust of an old jalopy, grief was much of what was holding Huntington together in those days. 
   In a lot of schools, Marshall among them, the community that built up around the university was tie to athletics. This is no coincidence. Ivory academicians and their pencil-clutching administrators learned a long time ago that the best way to prevent the townsfolk from resenting the hell out of the college students is to unite the two sides (working class and middle class) through sports, and especially through football. For all intents and purposes, after the plane crash that destroyed the Thundering Herd, Marshall no longer had a football team. Because of regulations preventing freshmen from playing Varsity ball, talk had been widespread that the university might suspend the program altogether. 
   By the time I graduated in 1982, the football team had amassed a miserable record. Indeed, during the 1970s, Marshall had the worst record in all of college football. It may therefore surprise you to learn that morale had soared in some quarters in those days, and not only because I was at long last leaving the institution.
   A beautiful fountain rises up out of the center of the entryway to Marshall's student union. Created by sculptor Harry Bertoia, the Memorial Student Center Fountain stretches over thirteen feet overhead and through the years has been used by some students for not altogether sacred purposes, a fact that I like to think would have slyly amused those who perished in the wreckage. We see a bit of the sculpture in We Are Marshall (2006), along with much of the local community. 
   I cannot with certainty tell you the exact purpose of this movie. As a biopic, it does not need to justify itself. I can, however, tell you what it does not aspire to do. It makes no effort to evoke cheap sentimentality. It does not grind grief in your face. It does not create heroes where they do not exist. And it certainly is not the football equivalent of Lassie Come Home. Rather than focus on the plane crash, director McG (whose previous film credits gave no indication of his abilities to touch the heart with such humanity) sharpens his camera on the rebuilding processes--both the emotional and the real. Coach Jack Lengyel, played to the edge of amazement by Matthew McConaughey, comes from a nowhere town to a college surrounded by people with minds paralyzed by shock--by a town that actually seethes with the need to exist--enlists a defeated administration, exploits the naive dreams of the few surviving players (those who did not attend the away game), and gains his own inspiration from the bare bones yearning of the town and school to resist death. 
   As great as McConaughey's supporting actors are (among them Matthew Fox as Red Dawson and David Strathairn as the University president), the real support comes from the football practice sessions and the game itself. A lot of movies have tried to replicate the sense of being involved on the field during the big game. Few have come close. We Are Marshall rebuilds the sense of that conflux of sensations not only from the perspective of the fans but, far more to the point, from the awareness of being right there in the middle of the fifty-yard line, with all the actions and reactions snapping in a ballet of military-style combat. 
   It is, in the final analysis, more than an inspiring film. Rather, it is the sports equivalent of high art, something whose aim is irrelevant, and its results inescapable. True beauty has nothing to do with the eye of the beholder. True art, as with beauty, presses its objectivity right up against you and dares you to blink. When you cannot look away, you know you have met something of genuine value. We Are Marshall is just such a movie. 

THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN

   You may have heard that Sean Penn is the greatest actor of his generation. Even though we witness most of the movie through the senses of Timothy Hutton's character, nothing you see in The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) will undermine that assessment of Mr. Penn.
   Penn plays Daulton Lee, an upper-middle class drug dealer (cocaine and heroin are the substances of choice), former altar boy, and best friend of Christopher Boyce (Hutton), a recent escapee from the seminary, bird-of-prey fancier, and malcontent regarding matters of popular politics. Nixon is facing impeachment proceedings, driving Chris' retired FBI father crazy, and the junior Boyce finds himself more than a little disgusted with the treachery of the President and what he represents. 
   In short, The Falcon and the Snowman is a buddy film of a particular type, the most obvious comparison being director John Schlesinger's earlier film, Midnight Cowboy
   Chris and Daulton share a past that should be wider than their future. But being the King of the Cosmos, the Future does not care how things are supposed to be. 
  Somewhere along the line, Daulton began to disappoint his family. Eventually he breaks their hearts, calcified as those hearts have become. Chris, of course, has always been the golden boy, and when his father gets him a job with a defense security company that occasionally receives misdirected telex messages from the CIA, no one is terribly surprised, despite his pet falcon being named after Guy Fawkes. 
   The world of defense security takes Chris by surprise. Margaritas are the drink of the day, no one takes their job with high degrees of seriousness, and after-work debauchery is the order of the day. Cynical and detached, Boyce acclimates without much effort, until one day a pesky telex message alerts him to CIA influence in Australian elections. "Here we go again," Hutton's face says, and in a flash we recall Salvador Allende, The Shah of Iran, Guatemala, The Bay of Pigs, and hundreds of other Central Intelligence leisure activities. Rather than allow himself to implode from apathy, Boyce shares what he has learned with his old pal Daulton. The drug dealer has run afoul of federal agencies and has no interest in serving serious prison time. The idea gets floated to sell the secrets Chris has unearthed to the Soviets. Daulton thinks of himself as a world-class negotiator, someone who can push the Russians around, as the need should arise, so he offers to go to the Soviet embassy in Mexico City to make the deal.
   The Russians immediately suspect Daulton of being too sloppy to be the brains behind the operation. But Penn's character has learned to survive in spite of his own deficiencies and we find ourselves impressed with his bumbling savoir faire. Schlesinger gives us a marvelous scene where Penn sits with two Soviet spy-coordinators with whom the "negotiator" is growing increasingly impatient as the latter two fret over minor details. Frustrated with their old-world ways, Daulton interrupts to inquire if the two men would be interested in expanding the operation to include some heroin trafficking. 
   The Russians' response, if there was one, went unreported.
   After a few successful exchanges of cash for intelligence, Chris and Daulton decide to shoot for a big pay-off. The Russians, exhausted with the amateurish nature of the boys' behavior, allow Daulton to get arrested by Mexican authorities who, after a rather unpleasant interrogation, offer to transport the young man to either the Soviet Union or the United States. "I'm an American," the self-proclaimed Republican spy replies. 
   Penn's performance moves beyond believability into something far more important to the artistic success of a motion picture. He sits right next to you in the theater, chomping popcorn, slurping your soda, and tapping your shoulder to find out what you think of every performance in the movie except his own. Almost anyone with the proper amount of good training, work experience and self confidence can become a competent actor. Sean Penn, on the contrary, gives every indication of being consumed with self-doubt every step of the way. And this is all to his benefit. If you remember the scene of W. Bush sitting in the classroom reading the goat book to school kids when his aid whispers into his ear that the United States is under attack, the muted reaction on the President's face comes as close as anything I have ever seen to matching the credibility of Penn's performance in this movie. This man really is as good as it gets.
      To tell further details of the story is to wreck more than the plot line. If you want more information than the movie itself reveals, you can also read the excellent book by Robert Lindsey. Boyce himself (released in 2000) wrote a memoir called American Sons. While perhaps not as well-written as Lindsey's story, it still makes for a fascinating look into the minds of two kids who, for very different reasons, descended into a madness not entirely of their own making. 
   It remains a minor ironic footnote that upon his release from prison in 1998, the real-life Daulton Lee accepted an offer to work for Penn as the latter's personal assistant. 
  
   

THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS

   By the time Steven Spielberg's of first theatrical release, Goldie Hawn had already established herself as a first rate movie actor in Cactus Flower, There's a Girl in My Soup, and Butterflies Are Free. What she had yet to achieve was finding a role in which the people around her being satirized could simultaneously identify with her character. With The Sugarland Express (1974), she broke through to the other side.
   Satire, at least the way I'm thinking of it here, is least dependent for its success on its humorous components. The exaggeration may lead to guffaws. It may not. In this case, the laughs ring of superficiality, unless your idea of a hearty belly laugh involves gun-popping highway patrolmen blowing into caravans of other law enforcement officers and their heavy metal machinery. 
   As well it might. Director Spielberg reveals himself for the first time as the great isolationist--unless you count the made-for-TV-movie The Duel, which only reinforces the point. The behavior of the masses in Sugarland gets repeated in almost every movie the director would make over the next two decades. Think of the Okies who come to the aid of the town early on in Jaws--the folks who try to capture the deadly shark by throwing dynamite into the ocean. Or the skeptics in Close Encounters. The townspeople in E.T. The Nazis in Indiana Jones. In all cases, the misunderstood social misfits must contend with the even more pronounced ignorance of the majority. In the case of The Sugarland Express, this soon-to-be accelerate of the "Spielberg glow" manifests in the plot and explodes in the execution. 
   Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie) breaks her husband Clovis (William Atherton) out of an early-release prison four months before he would walk away free because she needs his help in getting back their two-year-old son Baby Langston from the evil well-heeled foster family that clearly does not love the child the way his real parents do. Clovis isn't initially married to the idea, but Lou Jean does have her persuasive ways, and besides, these two are outlaws more than they are criminals. They have always lived outside of society (in the Patti Smith sense of the expression) and so hijacking a highway patrol car and the officer who drives it (Michael Sacks) is just business as usual. Naturally, the forces of order can't allow their foot soldiers to be kidnapped, even if the outlaws end up as local folk heroes, so a monster car chase ensues. And ensues. And ensues some more. Despite the relative visual success of the extended chase scenes (and this is by no means the original Mad Max, much less The French Connection), what we end up with is wanting very much to make a join with the two main characters, as well as with the patrolman, and perhaps even more so with Ben Johnson's character, Captain Harlan Tanner. The boss law enforcer damn near steals every scene in which he appears and not only because of the actor's considerable skills. The writing of his character remains to this day one of the most fascinating in the Spielberg pantheon. He has been on the job for eighteen years and has never killed anyone himself and has never issued the order that anyone be killed, two facts of which he is quietly proud. He admires the panache with which these two twenty-five-year-olds are able to outsmart hundreds of patrol officers. He relishes arresting a pair of vigilantes who try to murder the young couple. And he surveys with mounting dread what he correctly perceives to be the danger inherent in their futile mission. 
   And then there's Goldie Hawn, leaning out the back of the patrol car window as they pull up to a gas station, asking if she can have Gold Stamps because she is collecting them so she can use them to buy presents for Baby Langston once they get him back. 
   Based on the true story of Bobby and Ila Fae Dent, the movie was not quite as funny as the real events, although the ending--which is anything but funny--rings true. Check out the gasoline prices and genuine Texas landscape beauty. And be prepared to be amazed at just how Hawn works every ounce of brilliance out of every scene.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

A TIME TO KILL

  The justification implied by the title of this 1996 film raises a challenging point about the employment of the death penalty in America. Set in the new Old South, i.e., Mississippi, Matthew the Defense Lawyer McConaughey reckons how he is not only in favor of capital punishment, he admits with some fervor that we should hang "them" on the court house lawn. Sandra Bullock finds that suggestion rather disgusting and storms out of the restaurant. Meanwhile, Sam Jackson sits in a cell in Canton accused of the murder of the two rednecks who raped his daughter while the KKK uses violence to intimidate the defense. Kevin Spacey, the prosecutor, plans to use the conviction by an all-white jury to work his way into the Governor's mansion. Donald Sutherland plays the defense lawyer's mentor. Keifer Sutherland plays the aspiring Klansman. Both are disturbingly convincing. Ashley Judd comes and goes at the will of the plot contrivances and despite her unquestioned abilities as an actress, we may get the feeling that her function in A Time to Kill is simply to tell the audience about McConaughey's character development, since without her there to do so, we might not be aware that any such thing was happening.
   But we were talking about the death penalty, or at least I was. Chances look good that you will do the same after you watch this movie, which I hope you will, not because it's what I would call a good movie, but rather because it's a fair movie that involves characters who can be cared about (a little) while simultaneously being a rare thing in that it is actually about something--in this case, capital punishment.
   I don't want to pretend to know what settled into the hearts of either novelist John Grisham or director Joel Schumacher. I will tell you that one of the resonant chords goes something like this: The state has no business executing people for crimes that would be better avenged through the rage of the victim's family. 
   That idea has legs. Those legs may be crooked and stumpy, warped by disease and vice, but they remain legs all the same. By giving over power to the state to execute people in the name of justice, we hire officious bureaucrats to act out our own blood lust rather than taking matters into our own trembling hands. Or so the theory goes.
   Many years ago I sat in a Criminal Justice Administration class, studying the merits and procedures of various case laws. Perhaps because the class was packed with sophomores, an argument broke out when the subject of state-sanctioned executions came up. I knew what was going to happen, and it did, just as you would have expected had you been sitting there yourself. Some guy slammed his fist on a desk after someone else voiced moral opposition to the death penalty. The desk-slammer threw down what I'm sure he believed to be a hand full of trumps and said, "What if somebody murdered your whole family? Wouldn't you want to kill that person?"
   Since my words had been the ones this desk-slammer had seen fit to criticize, I paused for effect and responded, "And that is one reason why we have government: to prevent people like me from doing things like that."
    Thirty-odd years later, I still stand by that retort. The rights of the accused to a fair trial notwithstanding, the defendant maintains a right to see himself as he is on the inside every day for the rest of his life, be it guilty or innocent. If he is guilty, he holds a further obligation to look in the mirror as he shaves in the mornings, seeing that what looks back at him is the glare of an impassioned society, a society that despises the sin, but not the sinner. If the state assumes the role of executioner, the defendant is ultimately denied the same justice sought by the victim--that the truth be understood by all involved, no matter how unvarnished, warped and nauseating that truth may be. 
   To the extent that A Time to Kill works--and it does some of the time--you may find yourself thinking about issues of this sort. You may also discover that you recognize some of the polarizations in this film that engulf race relations in your city. You will certainly visualize the provocations of black outrage in this country. Yet by downplaying how the Klan actually voices the feelings of a lot of people who lack the leisure time to be full-time terrorists themselves, the movie often patronizes black people, or at least the black people presented in the movie. 
   So if you find it enjoyable to get angry at white trash who display Confederate flags on the backs on their pick-ups, then you will experience some sense of catharsis. The sensation won't last long, but you will experience it. On the other hand, if you are looking to reexamine your instincts regarding the ultimate punishment, you may find this film to be just what the judge ordered.