Dog beats racism

A TIME TO KILL Joel Schumacher (15) LE MEPRIS Jean-Luc Godard (15) L'AMORE MOLESTO Mario Martone (15) FROM THE JOURNALS OF JEAN SEBERG Mark Rappaport (nc)
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To criticise A Time to Kill for being manipulative is like complaining that it's in English, or in colour. It's adapted from a novel by John Grisham (his first, and most sanctimonious), so we would be justified in claiming a refund if we found one syllable in the script that didn't advance the plot, plant a clue or persuade us to be angry/upset/deeply moved.

Early on, the movie tries to suggest that it won't be like other courtroom thrillers. "There's no place in my court for grandstanding!" bellows the judge (Patrick McGoohan). What, none? Oh, come on. You mean no harrowing descriptions of human suffering? No shaky witnesses spectacularly discredited by the prosecution? No impassioned speeches about how, if we only let our children play together, irrespective of colour, we can piece this shattered world back together, God damn it? Well, all right. Just a few. A few hours' worth, that is.

Like Primal Fear, A Time to Kill is distracted by the narcissism of its hotshot lawyer, the young Mississippi idealist Jake Brigance (Matthew McCon-aughey). Jake comes to the aid of Carl Lee Bailey (Samuel L Jackson), a black vigilante who has killed the white brutes who raped his daughter.

Now Carl is up for murder, and heading for death row unless the Boy Wonder can pull off an insanity plea. Jake may be braces-deep in debt and run a ramshackle ship, but he's got some secret weapons: good hair, bland pretty-boy looks and Ellen (Sandra Bullock), the researcher extraordinaire who fights for justice armed with only a library card and a highlighter pen. Playing twin Goliaths to Jake's David are the prosecutor Rufus Buckley (Kevin Spacey), and the local branch of the Klan, whose methods are only slightly more ferocious than Buckley's.

Until the final courtroom confrontation, the film jerks between legal offices, front porches and hospital waiting rooms (after the Klan ride into town, most of the supporting cast get a crack at playing poorly). It may be this scrappy structure that is to blame for the faltering pace. Or it may just be that the ethical puzzles are shoehorned so awkwardly into the narrative that you half expect the director Joel Schumacher to halt the film after each issue is raised - there goes Conditioned Racism, here comes Old Testament Revenge - to give us time for discussion.

Schumacher did a slick job with Grisham's The Client, but he wasn't juggling any moral conundrums there. It was honest trash. A Time to Kill tries to combine calculated plot logic with obsequious rhetoric, and the fusion jars. It's hard, for instance, to be convinced by the movie's conscience when the catalyst for Jake pursuing the case to its conclusion is the appearance of his pet dog. Jake is about to throw in the towel after the Klan have burnt his home to ashes, when suddenly, out of the woods bolts the family pooch, missing presumed flambeed.

Jake's eyes, suddenly ablaze, say: If Rex can triumph, then so can I! It becomes impossible to sustain intelligent debate after that. How can it be otherwise when that debate has been reached via a plot device from Lassie?

Most of the film's attempts to ingratiate itself with a caucasian audience, such as having Carl explicitly reject the assistance of black activists so that white viewers won't be ostracised, are faults of the novel, and Hollywood; they come with the territory. But to have kindly Klan members keep saving the day - one tips off the victims of an arson attack, another rescues Ellen from certain death - is surely a dangerous overestimation of racial allegiances. Fair enough that mainstream cinema should try to please all the people, but does that have to include the bigots which it indicts? Typically, A Time to Kill refuses to elaborate. It finally has nothing more succinct to say than "somebody should do something". Yes, somebody should. Like stop optioning John Grisham novels.

Together with Weekend, which followed four years later in 1967, Le Mepris is Jean-Luc Godard at his most concise and brutal, confronting, or rather goring, two of his obsessions - love and movies. Paul (Michel Piccoli) is a playwright persuaded by a bullying American producer (Jack Palance) to work on a new version of the Odyssey, but distracted by the fact that his wife (Brigitte Bardot) has begun to despise him. Godard relishes the inexplicable nature of the couple's disintegration and creates some surprising claustrophobia: despite the bright, yawning Capri locations, the film feels as comfortable and spacious as two hours in a coffin.

L'Amore Molesto is a dark Italian thriller about a young woman (Anna Bonaiuto) whose efforts to retrace the last weeks of her mother's life lead to some revelations about her own past. It's stylishly shot and edited, but regrettably shallow.

When From the Journals of Jean Seberg opened at London's ICA last week, it received very little attention, but do try to catch it. Mark Rappaport's part-fiction, part-documentary uses the actress Mary Beth Hurt, excerpts from Seberg's films, and some of her imagined musings to create a collage- effect portrait of an actress steeped in style and sadness.

All films are on release from tomorrow. See listings on page 28 for details