Friday, November 25, 2005

The Bio pic is back....

Once you get beyond the somewhat distracting nasal tone of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote, Bennett Miller's "Capote" is certainly nothing to laugh at. "Capote" succeeds where a lot of biopics fail. Instead of saddling itself with 30 or 40 years of the ubiquitous 'rise and fall' of its protagonist, the film focuses on a sliver of the writer's life- specifically the five years spent on his research and relationship with two men accused of murder in a small Kansas town, and the ensuing masterwork that resulted from those acquaintances. This compression of time allows the film to create layer upon layer of emotional complexity between its characters and it serves as a terrific representation of guilt versus complicity.

I'm not one for writing plot synopsis, but I feel that in the case of "Capote", the film's excellence lies in its narrative trajectory. More observant viewers will recognize the theme of the film from it's opening moments- a shot of a Midwestern farm treeline juxtaposed with the New York skyline at night- director Miller's perfect evocation of the violent and jarring collision between personalities and cultures that soon become enmeshed as the film wears on. New York writer Truman Capote (Hoffman) reads an article in the paper about a Kansas family that were brutally bound and murdered. He immediately feels this is the proper idea for his next book, his first non-ficition entry. Traveling with his friend and research companion Harper Lee (the outstanding, reserved Catherine Keener) they quickly ingratiate themselves into the small Kansas town where the murders took place. Capote's fame and penchant for rabid storytelling win him inside the graces of a local policeman's home (Chris Cooper). This gives Capote detailed, unedited peeks at the crime scene photos. Soon after, two drifters are arrested and accused of the murder. Capote is on the steps as the two men (Mark Pellegrino and the should-be-nominated Clifton Collins Jr.) are led back into town. He and Perry Smith (Collins Jr.) locks eyes and its obvious there is an unspoken (sexual?) attraction between the two men. Soon, Capote finds himself spending days with the incarcerated killer Perry where he quickly identifies with the man's sense of abandonment in childhood. The film's poetic script sums up their relationship best- "Perry and I were like brothers. Except at one point he went out the back door and I went out the front." Perry and his accomplice receive a swift "guilty" verdict and are placed on Death Row where Capote continues to investigate Perry's psyche through random visits. Capote becomes infatuated with Perry, eventually helping him find a better lawyer to raise an appeal. Or is because Capote has yet to find out exactly what happened inside that Kansas farmhouse from Perry himself? Is his dedication to finding a stay of execution for the killers done out of compassion or artistic selfishness? These are only a few of the complex emotions and unspoken drives of the film.

The film is continually enthralling, eliciting grand emotions out of small moments. Take for instance the honesty in which Clifton Collins Jr. responds to Capote as he breaks down, wishing he could've done more for the convicted killer. Or the monumental scene in which our perceptions of Perry drastically change and he talks about that night in the farmhouse. But even that grandstanding scene is shaded with complexity, especially since Perry's "confession" comes right after the realization that Capote may not be the 'amigo' he had once thought. Without seeing the film, I understand all of this is hard to comprehend. It's one of the best of the year. Someone should just give Clifton Collins Jr. the Oscar now.

James Mangold's "Walk the Line", by definition of the above writing, should not succeed as a biopic. It does conjur up those excessive 30 or 40 years of a struggling artist's life that usually sinks all the energy out of the film (as it does in "Ray" from last year). And it almost does here, starting back in childhood where the tragic accident and death of Johnny Cash's older brother instills the prerequsite demons and addicition in him. But, the performances of Joaquin Phoenix and especially Reese Witherspoon carry "Walk the Line" towards a climax that is suprisingly affecting. A nice film indeed.

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