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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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Movie Answer Man (02/21/1999)

Q. I recently saw Roberto Benigni's terrific "Life is Beautiful," and wonder about a possible oversight. What ever came of the last riddle Dr. Lessing presented to Guido at the dinner party--the one he thought represented a duck? I kept waiting for the answer and it never came. (Matt Ramm, Birmingham, AL)

A. A Miramax rep says, "The riddle is never explained in the film."

Q. In your piece about this year's Oscar nominations, you quote the "old actor's deathbed lament" that "dying is easy; comedy is hard." Which old actor was that? (Charlie Smith, Chicago)

A. I wish I knew. Edmund Gwenn is credited with a very similar phrase in the book Hollywood Anecdotes. My editor at the Sun-Times insists it was Edmund Kean. I searched the Web using the exact wording of the phrase, and found it attributed to Kean. Also to Gwenn. Also to Nell Gwyn, Sir Donald Wolfit, Edwin Booth and John Barrymore. Bartlett's Familiar Quotations steers clear and doesn't deal with it at all.

Q. I'm a freelancer assigned a story by Newsweek's Japan edition about a movie theater in Lombard called Premium Cinema. It features comfortable leather seats, a nice restaurant, valet parking, a coat check, etc. Do you think such a concept will catch on? I was thinking perhaps people have complained to you about the rudeness of theatergoers. (Don Babwin, Chicago)

A. I have not been to the theater and cannot testify from personal experience. Of course the concept is tempting, and I see no downside to it. It is optimistic, however, to assume that the audience in such a theater would not talk during the movie. My suspicion is that they would talk even more than the usual audience, especially if drinks are served.

Q. A friend of mine has told me they'll be releasing a longer version of "Titanic," as if 3-plus hours wasn't enough. When is this five hour video supposed to be released? (Mike Colfin, Queens Village, NY)

A. Dorrit Ragosine of Paramount home video replies: "There has been much speculation regarding an extended version of 'Titanic,' but a five hour (or even a four hour) expanded version would be literally impossible given the available materials. Although James Cameron is flattered that fans would want to view a longer picture, the film as theatrically released is the director's cut, and there are no plans to create or release a modified or extended version."

Q. My husband thinks he heard Jane Horrocks mimic Julie Andrews in "Little Voice." I think it must have been someone else; Andrews is of the wrong era to join Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, etc. Or maybe my husband and I are of the wrong era. Does someone have a list of all the "voices" that come from LV's throat? (Amy Hoffman, Cambridge, MA)

A. Jayna Pakman of Miramax says: "Marilyn Monroe, Gracie Fields, Shirley Bassey, Judy Garland, (both as herself & as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz"), Billie Holliday, Cilla Black and Marlene Dietrich."

Q. I saw "Message In A Bottle" at a sneak preview the other night. How is it that the heroine's newspaper builds up this big story, sells thousands of papers with it, spends untold sums in research on it, and then as soon as the heroine says there's no story, her boss just walks away from it with a shrug? (Steve Bailey, Jacksonville Beach, FL.)

A. The paper is the Chicago Tribune, which may help answer your question. Right now I am looking forward to "Never Been Kissed," the new Drew Barrymore movie, in which she plays a Chicago Sun-Times reporter who pretends to be a high school student. Hey, have you seen that TV show "Early Edition?" Its hero prevents problems by magically getting tomorrow's Sun-Times a day early. They considered using the Tribune, but found that tomorrow's Tribune was so much like today's Sun-Times that it just wasn't much help.

Q. Re your Answer Man item on theaters that have dim images on the screen because they turn down the juice to extend the life of expensive bulbs: You quoted Martin Scorsese as saying movies are projected at the correct brilliance in New York and Los Angeles, "because that's where the filmmakers live, and they squawk." Based on my experiences here in LA, at least 50% of the theaters here show movies too dimly as well. Bulbs are expensive, several hundred dollars apiece. And they burn out pretty quickly; sometimes they get dim after a few months. Multiply that cost by an 18-plex and you'll see why they are usually dim. (David Bondelevitch, Studio City, CA)

A. A scandal. Undercover reporters should be sent to theaters with light meters.

Q. Given the past horrors of video games made into movies, what do you think the chances are of the upcoming games-to-films ("Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," "Final Fantasy," and "Resident Evil," to name a few) being any good? (Zach Savage, Pitman, NJ)

A. I'd like to delay my answer until I find out who they're casting as Lara Croft.

Q. In one of your articles from Sundance, you mentioned digital documentaries. But what about digital features? Will these find any kind of distribution. What form of exhibition could they hope for? I am about to produce a digital feature myself, and at the very most I was hoping for it to be picked up by Film Threat Video or some other little video distribution chain, but what's the buzz? Is there any hope for a digital feature to be seen in theaters? Or to be picked up by a larger company? (Jack Bennett, Blacksburg, VA)

A. The technology now exists for prints of acceptable quality to be made with digital video cameras. Professional models can cost upwards of $10,000, but a home model, priced between $800 and $2000, is capable of shooting a theatrical movie. Video is not yet capable of recording dazzling images of the sort we associate with movies like "Lawrence of Arabia," but it's fine for low-budget features. "The Blair Witch Project," a Sundance entry with lots of buzz, was shot mostly on video, with some 16mm. Another entry, "The Invisibles," cost only $9,000. One video expert told me, "This will be the last Sundance where a majority of the films were shot on film." This development could reduce the below-the-line cost of a feature from 30 to 90 percent, putting filmmaking at last within the means of ordinary people.

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