In 1959, Capote, already a very popular fellow in the writing world – his Breakfast At Tiffany’s had made him a literary star - read a short newspaper story about the slaying of the Clutters; simple, decent folks who lived quiet lives in Holcomb. They had no connection to the drifters who would kill them. Capote phoned William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker magazine and asked him if he would be interested in a story about the murders. That phone call changed Capote’s life and it’s this period that is covered in the new movie Capote, which is drawn from Gerald Clarke’s impressive biography of the same name. Capote initially thought his article would detail how rural Kansans were coping with the murders. But everything changed after Perry Smith and Richard Hickcock were caught and charged with the killings. The author became fascinated with the two men, especially Smith. In fact, his relationship with Smith would become an unrequited love affair that is horrific to consider. The resulting book, which Capote dubbed a “non-fiction novel” was a sensation. It made him a rich man, but the writing of it would emotionally devastate Capote. The film details the author’s obsession with finishing the story – he had to wait until the two men were hanged to submit the completed book.

Like many other recent movie biographies, Capote features a magnificent performance at its core. Philip Seymour Hoffman is superb as the diminutive, falsetto-voiced writer. Already one of the best film actors working today, Rochester-native Hoffman – who has mostly taken secondary character parts – truly becomes Truman Capote. It’s a brilliant transformation. If the Academy Awards mean anything to anybody, Hoffman has to be in the best actor running. Cinematically, Capote is a joy to watch. Screenwriter Dan Futterman (an actor in film and on television) improves upon most biographical screenplays by concentrating on the most important life-altering event in Capote’s life and soars with it. Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay, please. The movie never strays from the author’s singular focus once he arrives in Kansas. After all, the eventual book resulting from his investigation of the tragic tale would change the face of publishing. Because Capote never really recovered from the experience of writing In Cold Blood, it’s all the more remarkable that the movie succeeds. This is because one of the duller film experiences can be watching a character’s psychological deterioration. It’s here that Hoffman really shines. The audience becomes mightily fascinated by the writer’s craft and by Capote’s conflict, which is essentially this: should he complete his book or use his influence to try and save Smith and Hickcock’s lives? Especially Smith’s. Capote is wonderfully cast. Alvin Dewey, the laconic Kansas cop, is acted by Chris Cooper with just the right blend of disbelief at the elfin Capote and determination to bring the case to justice. Catherine Keener is excellent as novelist Harper Lee (celebrated author of only one book, To Kill A Mockingbird). She is one of Capote’s best friends, and is his intellectual sounding board and emotional anchor. Smith and Hickcock are well-played by Clifton Collins, Jr. and Mark Pellegrino.

Other key characters are Capote’s lover, Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood) and William Shawn (Bob Balaban). Both actors do well with their small roles, and both men are interesting and perceptive. Truman tells Harper that “Jack thinks I'm using Perry. He also thinks I fell in love with him in Kansas.” And Shawn believes that In Cold Blood, once published, “going to change how people write.” It did. The editor prints the entire book in The New Yorker. Capote the man had his insular moments. The movie shows his ebullient side as he excessively drinks and delights his worshipful pals at dinner parties. But the film also shows the author spiraling into the abyss, controlled by the lives of a family and their killers. There are extraordinary moments in the movie as when Capote seems to disappear in a crowded room. He is alone with his thoughts, a man haunted by his craft and by the truth he is telling. It’s brilliant acting by Hoffman and it will astonish you.

Murder is also the subject matter of A History Of Violence, an in-your-face exercise in the brutal power of carrying out threats and the seething undercurrent of intimidation, from Toronto’s David Cronenberg, the auteur behind such films as Scanners, Dead Ringers, Crash, Videodrome, Naked Lunch, the remake of The Fly. Loosely based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, The History Of Violence has plot secrets that need to be kept secret for maximum movie enjoyment. This is not the kind of film that you relish for its popcorn entertainment value. Oh, believe me, it’s engrossing, but it’s the kind of movie that demands conversation afterward, if only to channel your tension and possible rage in a calmer direction. Cronenberg and screenwriter Josh Olson are telling a story about Norman Rockwell America. But don’t be fooled by the façade they’ve engineered. Something is going on in Millbrook, Indiana. Who is Tom Stall? Do we really know our neighbors, spouses, boyfriends, or girlfriends? As Stall, an excellent Viggo Mortensen runs the village diner and delights in sexual adventures with Edie, his gorgeous lawyer wife, well-played by Maria Bello. The couple has two kids, Jack, 15 (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah, 6 (Heidi Hayes). The Stalls are a happy family. The marriage has lasted 20 years and it’s obvious why the two are still hot for each other. Talk about Illyria.

Then one day the peaceful world of the Stalls is shattered when a pair of armed robbers enter the diner. With a figurative crack-of-the-whip, the mild-mannered Tom is suddenly Mr. Superhero. He dispatches the bad guys with hot coffee, a leap across tables, and gunfire. Local hero, indeed. However, the media attention paid to the heroics and the two dead villains draws the attention of a – dare I write it – hoodlum from Philadelphia. He’s a classic cinema baddie: black suit, scars on his face. The thug, deliciously played by Ed Harris, arrives in Millbrook and confronts the heroic Tom. Ain’t he really Joey Cusack, a mobster some peeps want dead? What to do, what to do?

Tom denies everything, but Cronenberg and Olson have some surprises and other delightful characters up their cinematic sleeves. William Hurt as a mob boss, anyone? So we zero in on the movie’s central question: Is Tom a killer or part of a “wrong man” scenario straight out of Hitchcock? I’m not telling. But I will mention that there are additional bouts of violence. High school bully subplot? It’s in there. The surface mayhem is Cronenberg’s attention-getter. He’s not out to preach, but he seems to saying that Americans actually relish a tussle or two. Or three. A History Of Violence is the medium with a message. Love it or hate, just go see it. By Michael Calleri

ALT Movie Editor

Truth in writing department: I’ve never been able to finish Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood. Every time I try, and I’ve tried more than a few times, I get bogged down in the middle as Capote gets bogged down telling his story of two nasty fellows who murdered a Kansas farm family. I do enjoy mystery and thriller novels – especially books by Michael Connelly and Lee Child, but there’s something about Capote’s dense volume that leaves me, …well, leaves me cold. I have seen the stark, 1967 Richard Brooks-directed black and white movie based on the book and think it’s terrific.