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Transcendence

"Transcendence" is a serious science fiction movie filled with big ideas and powerful images, but it never quite coheres, and the end is a copout.

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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Does your intelligence provide little or no survival value?

Q. You had a good quote in your review of "Benjamin Button: "You can't go through life waving goodbye" I really liked this quote--for about 3 seconds. The sad fact of life is this "We all go through life waving goodbye". I hate this, but it's the truth. Eric Peffer, Spokane WA

A. Yes, but we're waving goodbye to the past, not the future.

Q. I just read your review of the film "The Prestige." In it you mention Harry Houdini and say that you "read anything you could lay your hands on" about the man. Maybe you know the story (as I have read it somewhere) of what led to his death. Please correct me if I am wrong.

As I remember, Houdini was in a dressing room after for a performance when some students came in. Houdini used ask volunteers to punch him in the solar plexus with all their might. It was a show of strength, plain and simple. The students considered themselves strong and wanted to see whether they could "lick" Houdini, who was, of course, completely unprepared (he didn't have time to tighten his stomach muscles).

When struck by one of the fellows, Houdini barely acknowledged the tremendous blow by the thoroughly prepared and "pumped up" student. However, the blow had ruptured some internal organ and he died from it a few weeks later. Perhaps you could set me straight if I'm wrong. Gopran Ingvarsson, Sweden

A. That is certainly the most widely heard version. However, Wikipedia offers a more detailed story. The name of his assailant was a McGill University student named J. Gordon Whitehead, who struck Houdini many times. Wikipedia continues: "Although in serious pain, Houdini nonetheless continued to travel without seeking medical attention. Harry had apparently been suffering from appendicitis for several days and refusing medical treatment. His appendix would likely have burst on its own without the trauma."

Q. I came across a foreign movie I thought my wife and kids would like, "CJ7." They loved it! So I have been trying to find other foreign films for kids that are not animation. Do you have a list you can think of at the top of your head that would be OK for kids 9 and up? Anthony Thacher, Corona, Calif.

A. Here are a few: "Children of Heaven," "King of Masks" and "Millions." Some useful guides are screenit.com, which provides detailed information for parents, and film critic (and Sun-Times contributor) Nell Minow at http://blog.beliefnet.com/moviemom/.

Q. I'm reading your new book about Martin Scorsese and had a question. In the section introducing "Casino," you mention that you spotted Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal in Florida at a restaurant. Did you ever talk with him or discuss "Casino"? Joseph O'Driscoll, Salt Lake City

A. I didn't dare. It was in Joe's Stone Crab in Miami Beach, and he was pointed out to me by the owner, Joanne Bass (the third-generation Joe). She said he had lunch there almost every day, usually alone, usually at the same table.

This showed his good sense. As Gene Siskel once told me, "Roger, everything there is good. Everything. Not just the entrees. The potatoes. The coleslaw. The onion rings. The spinach. The Key lime pie. The bread basket."

I wouldn't violate Joanne's confidence by sharing this if Mr. Rosenthal were still alive, but he died on Oct. 13, 2008. It was enough for me to simply see him. I was reminded of a story about William Faulkner, who spent a semester as a writer in residence at a famous university. He was asked by a pal, "What do you do?" His reply: "I walk across the campus twice a day so the students can say, 'There he goes.'"

Q. I don't understand the thumb ratings posted on your site. Are both thumbs yours, or does some unknown entity provide the extra thumb? Kevin Cecil, Columbus, Ohio

A. Both thumbs are mine.

Q. After watching both parts of "Che" last weekend at the Landmark theater in Chicago, I noticed that the light in each part was different. The first part, in Cuba, the light is warm and the colors are rich. Yet in Part 2, in Bolivia, the light is harsh and the colors always look washed out. Why? Was this on purpose? Was this simply a function of the time of year the movie was filmed and the angle of the sun?

For example: I notice in winter, the light in Florida is warm and colorful due to the angle of the sun being low on the horizon. Yet go back to Florida in the summer, when the sun is directly overhead and the light looks harsh and washed out, it's not as warm. Stuart Bagus, Chicago

A. I believe it was deliberate -- director Steven Soderbergh subtly indicating a time when things went right for Guevara and a time when they went wrong. One reason for the intermission between the two halves is that audiences do not notice (except unconsciously) that the two parts were filmed with separate aspect ratios: Part 1 in 2.35:1, and Part 2 in 1.85:1, limiting the space around Che visually as it was also actually closing in.

Q. In your review of "Defiance," you mentioned the character Shimon Haretz, who tells the group he is an intellectual. You wrote, "This is no use to the partisans, although he is allowed to stay. ... I thought, I'm also an ... intellectual. Of what use would I be in the forest?"

This reminded me of a comment by John W. Campbell Jr., science-fiction writer and editor of Astounding/Analog magazine. Campbell threw this provocative thought at his readers: "It has yet to be proven that intelligence is of any survival value." That shook up a lot of his readers. He then went on to explain, by way of example, that if a group of intellectuals and strong men were trapped in a cave by falling boulders, no amount of logical thought would move those boulders an inch. Obviously, Campbell was not abandoning logic (he codified Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics"), but pointing out that it had limits. To me, it suggested that it would be a good idea to build body and mind! Mike Reese, Chicago

A. Of course intelligence would be useful in knowing survival skills, such as how to tell direction or start a fire. But as several reality shows have demonstrated, it is of no use in becoming a TV star.

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