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The Killing of John Lennon Vs. Chapter 27

Jonas Ball as Mark David Chapman stars in "The Killing of John Lennon." Jonas Ball as Mark David Chapman stars in "The Killing of John Lennon."
Jared Leto stars as Mark David Chapman in "Chapter 27." Jared Leto stars as Mark David Chapman in "Chapter 27."

12/04/2008

In many reviews, I will compare and contrast films that feature the same actor or same director. Occasionally, more frequently than I would like, I'll be forced to compare sequels to their predecessors or remakes to their originals.

It is often said that there are no new ideas in Hollywood. Yes, there are plenty of copycats, but usually they're never as bold to copy each other in the same year, or, for that matter, within a few weeks of one another. Copycats will usually wait awhile unless they're spoofing.

Yet, in 2005, a curious thing happened. Two movies were made about Truman Capote and how he came to write his most popular book In Cold Blood. They were two films made by two completely different groups of people, independent of each other, and, both were set for distribution at the exact same time.

The companies behind the two very similar films decided they didn't want both films playing in theaters simultaneously. They eventually reached an agreement that one film would be delayed for a year.

Therefore, Capote (2005) was released first and Infamous (2006), its fraternal twin, was released the following fall. Both were about the same real-life murders and both were made at the same time. Capote went on to become nominated for five Academy Awards and received rave reviews. Infamous wasn't panned but critics were less than lukewarm. It went overlooked at the Oscars and made little money in the box office.

Many critics who reviewed Infamous, however, said that their bad critiques were due to the fact that the second film stood in the shadow of the first. Personally, I felt that the second film was superior and probably was slighted because it was push back.

It made me wonder what would have happened if both movies had been released the same year and within the same season. How would they have stacked up? It also would have provided an interesting opportunity for real competition at the award shows.

This past year, for example, had No Country for Old Men (2007) vying for the top Oscar prize against such lightweight and categorically different films as Juno (2007). In all honesty, was there ever any doubt in anyone's mind which film would win? If nothing else, putting those two in contest was really comparing apples and oranges.

Yet, if you had Capote versus Infamous in the same year, that would have made more sense. But, obviously, due to various industry reasons, something like that hardly ever happens. Two different films about the exact same thing hardly ever come out at the same time.

Except, earlier this year, two films about the 1980 murder of beloved Beatles singer and songwriter, John Lennon, were made. One was called The Killing of John Lennon and the other was called Chapter 27.

Like Capote and Infamous, both involved well-known people and real-life events. Both were independently made, and, both were completed simultaneously. Both were filmed in the same spot, the actual location of Lennon's death.

Nevertheless, the companies behind them decided not to space the release of the two so far apart. Both films were released this year within weeks of each other. This provided an interesting, if not unique, opportunity for a film critic like me finally to compare two films and truly analyze the craft and the choices the two made to tell the same story, and how those different choices can explore and enhance the story, or, conversely, confuse and hinder.

The first of the two films I saw was Chapter 27. The film was written and directed by German filmmaker J.P. Schaeffer in his directorial debut. It's largely based on the biography Let Me Take You Down by Jack Jones. It starred Jared Leto (Requiem for a Dream and Panic Room) and Lindsay Lohan, who in real life is a friend of Sean Lennon.

Leto plays Mark David Chapman, the man who eventually shoots and kills John Lennon just outside the door of the singer's residence in New York City, the Dakota Hotel on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Lohan plays Jude, a Beatles fan that Chapman encounters outside the hotel while waiting for Lennon to appear so she can snag an autograph.

The second film I saw was called The Killing of John Lennon. It was written and directed by British filmmaker Andrew Piddington. It starred new actor Jonas Ball as Mark David Chapman.

Now, strangely, even though both movies are about the same person and takes place in the exact same time, there are vast differences. The first big difference is the way in which Chapman is portrayed.

Much the way Robert De Niro did in Raging Bull (1980), Leto put on a lot of weight and really made a bolder attempt to replicate Chapman's physical appearance for the screen. Besides the glasses, the voice, and slight mannerisms, Ball didn't go as far.

Piddington developed an original and probably more authentic screenplay based on police reports, court records and other official documents, including the personal writings and interviews of Chapman after the police apprehended him. However, it's interesting to note the way this film explains Chapman's motivation and ultimate reason for shooting Lennon, as opposed to the other. It's also interesting to note the slight structural differences between the two.

First off, Chapter 27 began with Chapman's arrival in Manhattan from his home in Honolulu in early December 1980. Initial impressions would have you believe Chapman to be a shy, slightly introverted fan who's only there to catch an autograph of Lennon.

Chapman waits in front of the Dakota Hotel, talking to Jude regularly. At first, Jude is fascinated but eventually becomes creeped out. Chapman becomes frustrated with waiting for Lennon and not seeing him after standing on the street for hours and days on end. Eventually, a slow buildup of hatred, bitterness and jealousy forms in Chapman based on articles he reads about Lennon.

I don't know if it's the truth or not, but, in Schaeffer's version, Leto made it seem as if Chapman had a moral conflict. You see the loneliness and desperation that Chapman probably felt. At the end, there's definitely an inner struggle where Chapman resists the urge to kill, and it gets to the point where one questions if he'll even do it.

In the other film, The Killing of John Lennon, no such conflict nor inner struggle exists. In fact, there's no slow build up. It's all pretty much premeditated from the beginning. Except, here, the filmmakers start three months prior to Chapman's arrival in Manhattan and shows us what life was like for Chapman in Honolulu.

Interestingly, here, one gets more of Chapman's history, more of what his family was like and how his life was before he became infamously known as John Lennon's assassin. Weirdly, despite this film not having the same name, this version does more to explain the meaning of "Chapter 27" than Chapter 27 does.

Much like De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976), Leto gives an amazing and a better acting performance than Bell, but, it's through Piddington's script that we learn more and come to understand more about Chapman. Piddington's version is a more detailed road map whereas Schaeffer's feels more like sketchy directions, more ephemeral and emotional.

In Piddington's version, we see how Chapman's obsession with Catcher in the Rye started, and how this idea of rejecting the phony way of life manifested. The only problem is toward the end when Piddington tries to understand Chapman too much.

The Killing of John Lennon follows Chapman in the aftermath of his crime. We see his trial, his media attention, his interviews, and on and on. All of this becomes pointless and Piddington loses focus, as he tries to make Chapman seem more slick, sophisticated, and smarter than he was. Perhaps, Piddington was merely trying to expose the sick obsession both Chapman and the media shared, or, perhaps he wanted to satirize the vain attempts that most would do to try to understand. It all just becomes repetitive drum-beating with a hammer.

It then becomes a game of picking apart the opposing details between the two films.

For example, in Chapter 27, the hotel room where Chapman lives looks a whole lot more dingy and dreary than the bright and swanky, Waldorf-Astoria and Sheraton hotel room into which Chapman checks into at The Killing of John Lennon.

In both films, at one point, Chapman hires a prostitute to come to his room. In the first film, the scene is very awkward as Chapman fumbles to enjoy a short-haired, thin and flat-chested brunette like Joyce DeWitt from the TV series Three's Company (1977). In the second film, Chapman is a veritable Rico Suave, as he lives la vida loca with a long-haired, blonde with bigger breasts and thicker thighs, a virtual Katherine Heigl.

In one film, Chapman is seen watching the Oscar-nominated films of that year. In the other film, he says he hates movies. In one film, he fantasizes about a couple of homosexuals in the hotel room next door. In the other film, he's put off by them.

In both films, there's a scene where Chapman invites Jude and her friend to have Japanese food and listen to Lennon's new album with him. In one film, that scene is longer and reveals a lot of character. In the other film, that same scene is so quick and nonchalant that it felt almost unnecessary.

One film felt more planned and the other felt more spontaneous. The sad reality is that neither felt real. Even though I know that everything in The Killing of John Lennon was factual and, according to Piddington who recounts the incidents on the DVD commentary, there is not a line of dialogue or narration piece that doesn't come from actual words that Chapman either spoke or wrote, his film still feels false.

There was an air of disbelief when it came to Schaeffer's film as well, but Leto's performance is so outstanding that it makes up for a lot of the films flaws.

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