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'Closer' looks and 'Sideways' glances

Q. I saw both "Closer" and "Sideways" recently. I know that both of these films got rave reviews, but I left both feeling disappointed and wondering "what am I missing?" I didn't like any of the characters in "Closer" and just saw a narcissistic emptiness. I had no idea why they did what they did.

In "Sideways," it felt like when I go to a museum -- I know I should like it, but I don't. Again I found the characters to be narcissistic and self-absorbed. There was nothing about them I liked, so the movie felt flat to me. Stew Frimer, Forest Hills, N.Y.

A. Your doubt is based on the assumption that to be good, a movie must be about characters you like. Both "Closer" and "Sideways" were, indeed, about characters who were narcissistic and self-absorbed -- and brilliantly acted and seen. I believe that a movie is not good (or bad) because of what it is about, but because of how it is about it. I didn't like the heroine of last year's best movie, "Monster," but I wasn't supposed to. I was deeply touched by its power of observation and its attempt to see into a tortured soul.

Q. I was given Frank Capra's "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" on DVD. I eagerly put the disc in for viewing but was disappointed. There appear to be a number of scenes missing from the original: (1) an altercation during his society/opera gala, (2) the scheme between the lawyer, the nose-twitching Semple and his wife, and (3) possibly another scene leading up to Mr. Deeds giving away plots of land to folks willing to become selfsufficient through farming. Am I crazy, or were these scenes lost in the years before many of these old gems were preserved?(Sabrina Martin, Batavia, IL)

A. You may be a victim of the Phantom Scene Phenomenon, in which we "remember" scenes that are described, implied, or happen offscreen. It has been so long since I saw "Mr. Deeds" that I turned for a definitive opinion to Tim Dirks, whose awesome website (www.filmsite.org) contains detailed descriptions of 300 great American films, along with many other riches. He writes:

"There is always the possibility that the original theatrical release of 'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town' contained some scenes that were edited out, or have since been lost. Secondly, the question raises the bigger question of people's memories after viewing a film. I find that when filmgoers try to recollect various scenes from films, their memories invariably play tricks on them, and they cannot recollect accurately. I believe that this person has falsely remembered what the 'original' film contained.

"Regarding the three scenes in question: (1) This scene exists in my DVD copy. The 'altercation' is merely an off-screen action, however. There is no on-screen altercation in the screenplay, either. (2) This scene also exists in my DVD copy of the film, although it appears earlier in the film before the 'altercation' scene. (3) This is an unclear description, so I can't tell what scene(s) she is remembering. Amazon.com is currently selling a DVD version with a different cover. Whether it is different or not from my version is something I can't compare."

Q. So I'm watching "Million Dollar Baby" for the second time. Fine. Then, during the last time we see Frankie talking to the priest (arguably the best scene in the film), somebody's cell phone rings. It rings and rings and rings some more. The audience member frantically searches and finally yanks it out of their bag -- only to answer it!! Someone makes a comment and someone makes a comment about that comment. The scene finishes and is ruined for the whole audience. My question: What is being done to prevent people from using cell phones in theaters?! Michael Armstrong, Toronto

A. A special circle of hell is being reserved for them. And on a more pragmatic level, Anant Singh, a leading producer and exhibitor in South Africa, tells me of devices which can block cell phone signals in theaters. Meanwhile, we face the prospect of cell phones being legalized on airplanes, which may force us to undergo the unspeakable experience of watching the in-flight movie in order to block the chatter.

Q. I saw "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" on HBO. On countless Web sites, people are praising Geoffrey Rush's performance and bemoaning the fact that he will not be eligible for an Oscar since this film has not been released theatrically in the States. Rumor has it HBO felt Peter Sellers was not "famous" enough in the U.S. Is there any truth to this absurd explanation? Sid Wagner, New York

A. It may be that the film simply did not appeal to test audiences. I saw it at Cannes and wrote: "Of the official entry 'The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,' directed by Stephen Hopkins, starring Geoffrey Rush as the great comedian and Emily Watson and Charlize Theron as two of his wives, what can be said is that Sellers was one miserable SOB. 'I have no personality, except for what I get from my characters,' he said. Not quite true. The film sees him as a neurotic, cruel, selfish, immature monster even whose charming moments have a cloying insincerity. Rush brilliantly embodies these qualities, which may not be what Sellers fans are hoping for. Here is a good film about a very unpleasant man."

Q. Last March, you rated "Spartan" as one of the best and gave it four stars, but it didn't make your Best 10 or your honorable mention list. Oversight or intentional? Dennis Hussey, Mountain View, Calif.

A. Stupid oversight. I reviewed 274 movies last year, gave four stars to 26, did a search for "four star reviews" to compile a working list, and "Spartan" failed to show. My admiration for it remains undiminished. My enthusiasm for Best 10 lists remains muted. I absolutely refuse all invitations to compile additional lists of the Best 10 Horror Films, Best 10 Date Movies, Best 10 Movies to Watch on TV, Best 10 this and Best 10 that.

Q. I know to be politically correct you had to back-pedal on your statement about Kevin Spacey being a better singer than Bobby Darin. I don't agree. I was a big fan of Bobby Darin music and sent all my friends his greatest hits. I got the soundtrack to "Beyond the Sea" and thought Spacey was great, maybe even better than Darin -- albeit he had Phil Ramone and Abbey Road Studios. Then I got tickets to see Kevin Spacey at House of Blues last week. You should have been there. Then you wouldn't have had to do your apples-and-oranges statement. You were correct in your initial judgment. Spacey is better. Nancy Kranzberg, Highland Park

A. With all due respect, I think I was wrong to compare them in the first place. Pop singing is a subjective art form, and the good and great singers are in some sense literally incomparable. But I remain surprised by how good Spacey was. Not that he should give up the day job.

Q. Do you hold different genres to different standards? It would seem so. You gave "The Stepford Wives" three stars, most likely just because it wasn't the WORST remake you'd ever seen, but you gave "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" 2.5 stars, probably because to you it was not on par with "The Royal Tenenbaums." Would you honestly rather sit through "The Stepford Wives" again than "The Life Aquatic"? I know I'd sooner have a Charles Nelson Reilly movie marathon. Jeff Robinson, Los Angeles

A. Stars are relative, not absolute, and analyzing them represents a waste of valuable time that could be profitably spent watching aquarium fish or memorizing the sayings of Dr. Johnson. I am compelled to award them because of market pressures. I, too, would rather see "The Life Aquatic" again than "The Stepford Wives," but within the context of the two films, I think "The Life Aquatic" falls further short of what it was trying to do -- even though what it does is better than anything in "The Stepford Wives." I realize my logic is impenetrable. I recommend just reading the reviews and ignoring the stars.

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