By NR Staff • 

Reviews — May 10

Sean Penn has, admittedly, acted in some poor and even atrocious films, but as a director, he’s not yet made a bad one that I’ve seen. “Into the Wild” expands Penn’s solid credentials behind the camera as he tackles Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book about Christopher McCandless, who hiked alone into the Alaskan wilderness in the early 1990s and died of poisoning.

I avoided this film for several years because it sounded terribly depressing, but the bulk of the film is actually inspiring and even amusing at times. McCandless’ awful demise occupies only a few minutes at the end of what is essentially a road movie. He met a lot of interesting folks while he was hitchhiking, boating and hiking across the country, and it makes for a fascinating story.

McCandless was a young man who apparently looked at what the American Dream expected of young people in order to be “successful” and decided he could do better. In his own way, he did for a while. Emile Hirsch, who bears a striking resemblance to the real person, is awesome in the role.

It’s a terrific film.

“Into the Wild” (2007) Directed by Sean Penn, who also wrote the screenplay (which quotes extensively from McCandless’ journal). Starring Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart and an amazing Hal Holbrook. 148 minutes. Rated R for brief nudity, language, adult themes.

 David Bates



Unquestionably, John Grisham is the master of his genre — character-driven fiction about the legal system. His books include tales of crime, from murder to white collar, but the crimes are merely vehicles for examining the law, social issues and people.

The prolific author’s 2004 novel, “The Last Juror,” is a particularly good example. Like most of his books, it’s set in the South — in a small town in Mississippi in 1970, when civil rights was still a tender and explosive issue.

The narrator is Willie Traynor, a just-sprung-from-college kid who blows into town thinking he can make his fortune by reviving the ailing newspaper. He did major in journalism, between parties, but he’s really more enamored with money than news when he arrives. It’s interesting to watch his transformation into a real newsman and active member of the community.

Willie’s transformation takes place alongside, and partly because of, a horrific murder and trial that shakes the whole town.

The clearly guilty suspect is the scion of a well-entrenched crime family that’s known to have bought off the sheriff, other politicians and law enforcement agents. But the judge is independent, and he makes it impossible for the criminals to get to the jurors before the trial starts.

Convicted, the murderer threatens to kill everyone on the jury.

Thank goodness he’s given two life sentences, Willie thinks. And then he discovers that, under Mississippi law at the time, two life sentences can mean just a few years in prison. And in this case, paid-off politicians have made it even easier on the murderer — he’s assigned to a minimum security facility, and instead of breaking rocks, he does light work in a county office.

Willie fights with his pen to expose and change unfair laws and shed light on corruption. And he fights to protect his friends, as well, especially a motherly black woman who was one of the 12 threatened jurors. That friendship also gives him a firsthand perspective on the fight for true civil rights, which Grisham weaves seamlessly into the narrative.

If you’re looking for an enjoyable read, or if you’re looking for something more substantial and thought-provoking than the average courtroom drama, or if you’re looking for stories whose characters really come to life — no matter what, you can’t go wrong with John Grisham.

“The Last Juror,” by John Grisham, 2004, Bantam Dell.

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