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'Basic' rules of criticism

May Contain Spoilers

Q. In your review of "Basic Instinct 2," you struggle with whether to give it a favorable rating; you know it's not a good movie, but it's very watchable and you enjoyed viewing it. Doesn't that contradict a rule you usually apply: You have to be true to the moviegoing experience? If you got into the film, shouldn't you give it a positive review, even though you know it's flawed? Michael Hart, Staten Island, N.Y.

A. I struggled with the conflict between my belief that it was a bad movie and my knowledge that it was not a boring one. I tried to reflect that in my review, as if signaling that you could like it even if you didn't admire it. Maybe it was a cop-out.

Q. Did you read that Paul Verhoeven, who made the original "Basic Instinct," said that America has become anti-sexual? I agree with him, although I would say we have become not anti-sexual but anti-erotic. "Basic Instinct 2" and "Showgirls" are erotic films. Eroticism is about the feminine, whereas pornography is about the masculine. I live in Las Vegas, where sex-for-sale is male-dominated. It's one of the least "erotic" cities in the world, and the women who are the focus of sexual interest are in the service of the patriarchy. I write erotic fiction that has some elements of "Basic Instinct 2" -- it can be hard and bitchy, but it's still definitely erotic. America doesn't seem to have a problem with the pornographic, but it frequently reviles the erotic. I wish critics would take note of this dichotomy and stand up for erotic movies. Martha Woodworth, Las Vegas

A. Most sex in American movies is indeed seen from the male point of view, and "Basic Instinct 2" at least seems to be controlled by the woman character. Did the movie fail at the box office because of its female eroticism? I doubt it: "BI2" was so quickly and definitively a commercial failure that potential moviegoers apparently had made up their minds they didn't want to see it no matter whether it was good or bad or whatever anyone said about it.

Q. Having read your reviews of "Basic Instinct 2" and "Slither," I must ask, why not just abandon your star rating system? This is not the first time you've dealt with your unhappiness about the stars. Since you provide full-length reviews, you have plenty of space to explain why the movie was good or not. Why torture yourself over whether "Basic Instinct 2" deserves 1-1/2 or 4 stars? If it's a "good bad" movie, just say that. If people are too lazy to read the review and must rely on the star rating alone, I say screw 'em! Colin Woodward, Richmond, Va.

A. I think the Sun-Times would let me drop the stars if I asked to. But I've got 39 years of star ratings in those thousands of past reviews on my Web site, and the ratings I gave those movies would hang around no matter what I did now. I was all set to drop the stars in the late 1960s, but Gene Siskel was named film critic of the Chicago Tribune and immediately insisted the Trib start using stars to compete. And that was that.

Q. You claim in discussing the movie "Tristram Shandy" that you have never met anyone who finished the novel. When I was an English major at Barnard College in the mid-1980s, I read it cover to cover. When I told my professor, she was surprised, claiming that while it was on the syllabus, she didn't expect anyone to read the thing in its entirety. Rachel Leventman Shwalb, Brookline, Mass.

A. In a previous Answer Man, a reader told me of a Tristram Shandy book club whose members have met for 22 years although none have finished the novel. Now I have heard from many readers who have indeed finished it, including:

  • Clare Flanagan Ahearn, Rutherford, N.J.: "As an English major at Emmanuel College, Boston, from 1966-70, I had to read Tristram Shandy. I did, because I was expected to. I recall little; like the pangs of childbirth, some things are too painful to remember. I was paying for college myself, and I wanted to get as much out of it as possible."
  • Tracey S. Rosenberg, Edinburgh, Scotland: "I have read Tristram Shandy. I must admit, however, that I read it for the same reasons I read James Joyce's Ulysses: (1) that I will be able to tell people that I have read it; and (2) that, having read it, I never have to read it again."
  • David Van Court, Houston, Texas: "Tristram Shandy is not nearly as difficult as something like Ulysses, and is a pure delight. I would put it on a list with Tom Jones, David Copperfield, Lucky Jim and anything by Evelyn Waugh."
  • John Marble, Los Alamos N.M.: "I've read Tristram Shandy three times. I think it inspired contemporary writers such as Vonnegut, Douglas Adams and Philip Jose Farmer (writing as Kilgore Trout)."

  • Q. (Spoiler warning) My wife and I attended a screening of "Cache." Everyone in the theater was puzzled by the last scene. Does the last scene at the school reveal the identity of who had been doing the tapings? Someone in the audience said they thought they saw the two sons talking to each other as though this provided a possible answer. Al and Pat Ralston, Fullerton, Calif.

    A. "Cache" has struck a nerve, and is doing surprisingly good business in the United States and Europe. I'm asked about it constantly, as if there is an answer. The last scene does indeed show the two sons talking, and there should be no way they know each other. But what does that explain? Does it account for the videos? Consider that the film's last shot is exactly in the style of the videos that were received. Is someone else behind the camera? The film offers no possible closure.

    Q. I am currently serving in the U.S. Army, deployed to Iraq. My R&R falls during the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, and as a movie lover I am excited about the possibility of joining in the excitement while practicing my French a little. Is there a way for a guy like me to not only view the open-air screenings but the films in competition? 1LT William J. Sherman, Iraq

    A. Yes, you can attend the free screenings on the beach every night. And if you get up early enough to stand in line, you may be lucky enough to get tickets to a few official screenings. But in general, you need a photo pass to get into anything. You can absorb a lot of the fun by just hanging around. Hotel reservations are scarce and expensive. Some people on a budget stay in Nice and take the train every morning.

    Q. Re: your statement about Hugo Weaving's character V, in "V for Vendetta." I see your point about the distraction when the lips of a character don't move when he talks. But I'm vividly reminded how effective both the characters Darth Vader and C-3PO were in "Star Wars." Anthony Daniels' performance as C-3PO stands out as an extraordinary use of vocal and body expression. Jason Burnett, Seoul, South Korea

    A. C-3PO didn't bother me because I would expect a robot to have a mechanized voice, and it wouldn't make sense for his lips to move. Darth Vader, like V, has a good reason for covering his face, but in the beginning I somehow related to him as if there wasn't a human body under that cloak. In my review, I also asked why V's mask doesn't limit his peripheral vision. Corey Buran of Knoxville, Tenn., informs me: "It's simple: He doesn't have eyes. Recall the scene at the prison camp, when the head doctor sees him emerge from the flames. 'He had no eyes, but he could see me. I could feel it.'"

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