David O. Russell out-Scorseses Martin Scorsese himself with "American Hustle," a rollicking '70s crime romp that’s ridiculously entertaining in all the best possible ways.
Q: "Taxi Driver" scribe Paul Schrader's long-shelved version of "Exorcist: The Beginning" is finally seeing the light of day at the International Festival of Fantastic Film in Brussels. Given the lukewarm reception toward Renny Harlin's version, is there any chance of success for Schrader's more restrained, theologically terrifying film here in the States? Chris Lettera, Youngstown, Ohio
A: The Brussels festival says "when the financial backers of 'Exorcist: The Beginning' saw that Paul Schrader had directed a psychological horror film and not the expected special effects extravaganza, they hired Renny Harlin to re-shoot the entire picture." The Harlin version opened in August to bad reviews (89 percent unfavorable on the Tomatometer, a 30 score at Metacritic) and moderate business ($41 million in the United States, against an estimated budget of $80 million for the two versions).
Paul Schrader writes me: "The first print was struck last night and sent directly to Brussels for the premiere March 18. The first time I'll see it onscreen is then. I'm working on getting a video copy for myself. Warner Bros. has apparently reversed its position and will now give the film a limited release in April or May, albeit only if it is positioned as a 'new' film. But that can change."
Q. Your piece about the Sundance Audience Award winner "Murderball" -- and every other review I've read -- refers to the players as "quadriplegics." They sure look like paraplegics to me. Richard Hart, San Francisco, Calif.
A. Quadriplegia does not mean, as many believe, that all movement has been lost in all four limbs. The "quad" in quadriplegia refers to the fact that all four limbs have been affected by some degree of paralysis, resulting from a spinal cord injury between the first to seventh cervical sections of the spine. (Paraplegia results from injuries lower than that.) Higher level injuries result in more severe disability (for example, Christopher Reeve's injury resulted in paralysis from the upper chest down and dependency on a ventilator).
Some 55 percent of spinal cord injuries are classified as neurologically "incomplete," referring to varying degrees of sensation and function that remain after injury. The quads in "Murderball" have varying degrees of movement, within a wide range. There is actually a point system in wheelchair rugby that reflects the degree of injury, and a team is only allowed to have a certain total number of points on the floor at any time, to reflect the fact that some players are more disabled than others.
Q. Saw "Sideways" tonight for the second time and noticed something new. Paul Giamatti's character is in his mother's bedroom, stealing from her secret bankroll. He glances up and is shamed by the family photos arranged on the top of the dresser. One of these looks like a picture of a younger Giamatti with Francis Ford Coppola. I can't think of any connection between the two guys. But it makes sense for Coppola to make an appearance in a film about wine. Andy Ihnatko, Boston, Mass.
A. Director Alexander Payne replies: "No, the man in the photograph is not Francis Coppola but rather Bart Giamatti, Paul's real-life father, who was both President of Yale and Commissioner of Baseball. It is a real photograph, undoctored, of father visiting son while the latter attended Choate."
Q. In your review of "Be Cool," you mention that The Rock plays a character named Elliot Wilhelm, which is the name of a friend of yours who runs the Detroit Film Theatre. You guessed that author Elmore Leonard knows this and used the name since he also lives in Detroit. Here's the actual story: Wilhelm, who's run the DFT for the past 30 years as the film curator of the Detroit Institute of Arts, made the top bid of $2,700 at a 1998 DFT fund-raiser to have Leonard use his name in an upcoming book. The book was Be Cool and moviemakers kept the name for Rock's character. The real Wilhelm also turns up as an extra in the bar scene where Travolta meets Rock, which is a great inside joke for those of us who are fans of the DFT and Elliot. Robert Musial, Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich.
A. Elliot Wilhelm is a brilliant programmer and critic, and a heck of a nice guy, and on the basis of his cameo I think he has a promising future ahead of him as a programmer, critic and nice guy.
Q. I always thought the most profitable movie of all time (based on percentage return) was "The Blair Witch Project." However, the movie poster for "Inside Deep Throat" claims that "Deep Throat" is the most profitable movie ever. Is there an authority who can settle this once and for all? Andrew Woodhouse, Tempe Ariz.
A. Startled by the claim in "Inside Deep Throat" that the original movie grossed $600 million in circa-1970 dollars, Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times ran the numbers and wrote an article suggesting that figure was a fantasy that has been repeated for years without any fact-checking.
Hiltzik writes me: "The Web site www.the-numbers.com says $40.8 million. That could be in the ballpark, keeping in mind that given the cash nature of the distribution, it's a pretty muddy ballpark. At the time of the Memphis verdicts, the standard newspaper estimate seemed to be $30-$50 million, and then it abruptly jumped up to $600 million and no one ever looked back. When Linda Lovelace appeared before a Congressional committee in the mid-'80s, the chair, Arlen Specter, said something like, 'So it grossed $600 million and you got a lot of bruises?' and she replied, in effect, 'Yeah.'"
Q. Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is to be re-released this week as "The Passion: Recut." In the ads, Gibson is quoted as saying: "By softening some of its more wrenching aspects, I hope to make my film and its message of love available to a wider audience." Gibson says he will cut about six minutes of his 126- minute film (mostly from the flogging section). I'm not sure that "softening" (his word, not mine) Christ's Crucifixion is really the answer to getting a "wider audience." If Gibson wanted to make an unrelenting film about Christ's passion, that's what has happened with this film, and I'm not sure any editing will do it justice. Eric Robert Wilkinson, Oregon City, Ore.
A. Avoiding the usual press-release cliches, Gibson says many people felt the film was too strong for their "Aunt Martha," and he listened to their feelings and has made a version that might be more to their liking. This is his right as the director, and I think it's refreshing that he flatly and without adornment says what he has done and why he has done it.
Q. I have finally figured out how to read your reviews. A review isn't about what it says; it's about how it goes about saying it:
If you are stimulated to eloquence by the movie, then the movie is a must-see. It doesn't matter if you rate it well or poorly; it is the fact that you reacted strongly to the movie, and worked hard at clarity, that tells me what I need to know.
If the review looks like it "wrote itself," then you enjoyed the film and I may or may not like it based on personal preference.
If the review seems to lack punch, or seems confused, then I know the film was a stinker no matter which way you look at it, and should be avoided for mental health reasons. Ron Wodaski, Cloudcroft, N.M.
A. By following these rules, one would not always see good movies, but one would usually see interesting ones.
Gerardo Valero sees the potential for a good remake in "Escape from New York."
Omer Mozaffar reflects on "12 Years a Slave."
The first in a monthly series of video essays about unloved films, Scout Tafoya's video essay is an appreciation of "...
Erik Childress looks at the first awards of the season and their possible impact on the Oscar race.