Filmmaker Mike Leigh's biography of the landscape painter J.M.W. Turner is what critics call "austere"—which means it's slow and grim and deliberately hard to love—yet…
Q. What did you think about Tom Hanks' emotional acceptance speech on the Oscar telecast? (Harris Allsworth, Chicago)
A. It was great drama, but not strong on continuity. The transcript makes confusing reading. I am reminded of the speech Sir Laurence Olivier gave after winning his honorary Oscar. Like Hanks', it was delivered in a tremendously dramatic manner. In a reaction shot of the audience, you could read Jon Voight's lips as he said, "God!" The next day, Olivier called up his pal Michael Caine and asked what he thought of the speech. "Wonderfully said," Caine replied, "but I didn't quite understand what you were getting at." "Exactly!" said Olivier. "I didn't have a clue what to say, so I just fell back on that old We're off to Salisbury! business that one uses when one wants to sound like Shakespeare but can't remember the words."
Q. I was wondering how you felt about the young girl, Anna Paquin, winning for best supporting actress? (Mike Chelucci, New Castle, DE)
A. She gave an extraordinary performance in the film. That cannot be denied. But how did I feel? A little like when a tourist from out of state comes in and buys one ticket and wins the lottery.
Q. I just saw "Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult," with a reference to the Tonya Harding affair. Considering how recently that whole story broke, how difficult was it to shoot and insert a scene so quickly? (Evan Mather, Seattle)
A. New scenes can be added right up until the moment the final version goes to the lab for prints to be made, which in rare cases can be as little as a week before their release dates.
Q. At what point in the film do you feel that the Oskar Schindler character's motivation changed to one of saving Jewish lives instead of just making money at the expense of these people? (Graham Kerr, Edmonton, Alberta)
A. There is no specific scene where that happens--no stereotyped Hollywood scene where Schindler makes a big heartfelt speech. One of the strengths of the film is that he and his motives remain mysterious.
Q. You described "The Thing Called Love" (1994) as River Phoenix's "last finished film." But then I saw that another movie with Phoenix and Alan Bates -- "Silent Tongue" directed by Sam Shepard -- is opening. What's the deal? (Thom Geier, Washington, D.C.)
A. "Silent Tongue" was filmed earlier, making "The Thing Called Love" his last work.
Q. Why wasn't "Like Water For Chocolate" nominated for best Foreign Language film in the Oscars? Was it ineligible for some reason, or were the other selections that much superior? (Alex Fallis, Ormond Beach, FL)
A. It wasn't this year's film. It was submitted by Mexico for last year's Oscars, but not nominated, perhaps because it was then about 40 minutes longer and did not play as well.
Q. Regarding Steven Seagal's sanctimonious speech about the ecology at the end of "On Deadly Ground": He probably released more toxic fumes into the atmosphere during the making of this film than the Hertz fleet could over the course of a year. I wish that somebody would assess the environmental impact of a blockbuster movie (landfills of paper waste from refreshments and merchandising tie-ins, emissions from cars commuting to and from the theater complexes, etc.) and put one of these rich, hypocritical "environmentalist" stars on the spot. (Jeff Levin, Rochester, N.Y.)
A. Seagal originally wanted to make his closing speech 20 minutes long, which might have rivaled the atmospheric effect of bovine gas emissions.
Q. We Minnesotans are chuckling about a glaring inaccuracy in "Grumpy Old Men." A fish placed in the back seat of a car here wouldn't rot during one of our frigid winters. It would take at least a week or two of operating the vehicle day in and day out, using the heater, to got a fish to rot. (Terry McKinley, Minneapolis)
A. How did you find that out?
Q. In the film "Blink" there's a St. Patrick's Day scene in a bar. Then we see, in what feels like only a day later, Madeline Stowe and Aidan Quinn watching a Cubs game from a rooftop across Sheffield Ave. Last I checked, opening day isn't until the first week in April. Any clues? (Matthew Mendelsohn, Arlington, VA)
A. It is not unknown here for people celebrating St. Patrick's Day to find themselves on rooftops, imagining they are watching a baseball game.
Q. In the credits for "Schindler's List," I noticed a slash bridging from one letter through the next letter, which is always an "A." Do you know what this means and why they did it? (David Lyell, Pala Alto, CA)
A. Blair Finberg of Universal says there's a "slash bridge" from the letter preceding an "a" to the "a" because that's the way the Polish write it. The credits were done in Polish fonts.
Q. My wife and I were watching "The Firm" and noticed an inconsistency in the scene where the private investigator is shot by the two hitmen. The girl friend (Holly Hunter) crawls under the desk in a hurry, and never looks out from underneath the desk until after the hitmen leave. Yet later she describes both of them with great detail and says one got shot in the leg and would be easy to identify. How did she see them? (Douglas Pearn, Windsor, ON)
A. Jeffrey Graebner of the CompuServe ShowBiz Forum replies: "When the PI shoots the guy in the leg, he shoots right through the desk. In a later shot, you see that the shot left a great big hole in the front of the desk. The girlfriend could very easily have seen the hitmen through that hole."
Q. I wasn't surprised that Tom Hanks won the Best Actor Oscar--because he is the only actor who portrayed a character with some illness or disability. This seems to be a guarantee of Oscar success. In the last six years we've had Al Pacino (blind), Anthony Hopkins (insane), Daniel Day-Lewis (only one working foot), and Dustin Hoffman (autistic), and now Hanks. Only Jeremy Irons in "Reversal of Fortune" goes against the trend. (Eric Polino Cranford, N.J.)
A. Yeah, he only maybe murdered his wife.
Q. My wife and I just saw "I'll Do Anything." We had a baby three months ago. In the scene where the baby in the movie is crying into the baby monitor, my wife says that the transmitter and receiver were backwards! The transmitter was by the parent's bed and the receiver was with the baby. The movie makers probably didn't think anyone would notice the difference. (Michael and Linda Hildebrand, Riverside, CA)
A. And the poor kid was up all night listening to its parents snoring.
Q. Did you notice that the military school commandant in "The Ref" is named Siskel and even looks a little like Gene? (Rich Elias, Delaware, OH)
A. The movie was written by Richard LaGravenese, whose screenplay for "The Fisher King" was selected by Siskel as the worst Oscar nomination of 1991. In "The Ref," the character is blackmailed by one of his students, who has photos showing "Siskel" with topless dancers. Such revenge has historical precedents. After critic John Simon panned the Broadway debut of Bob and Ray, they made him a running character on their radio programs, where he invariably gobbled a giant sandwich very loudly.
Q. I am a theater owner. The reason Paramount keeps losing at the box-office is because I put a curse on them because they refuse to license films in my theater. They concocted a flimsy excuse to shut me out so they could 'exclusively' play at a cheapjack, mega-shoddy exhibitor in the area. I just thought you'd like to know why lately you have been forced to give terrible reviews to Paramount films like "Intersection" and "A Thing Called Love." (Rusty Gordon, Nashville, Tennessee)
A. Now would you put a curse on Steven Seagal?
Q. I recently saw the movie "Tombstone," and could have sworn I saw Mel Gibson in one of the scenes, in the background. He did not appear in any credits. Am I imagining this? (Christopher Voisey, Willowdale, ON)
A. Disney spokesman Jeff Marden says Gibson was not in the film.
Q. Why are European movies not popular in the U.S.? I am originally from Russia (I'm 20 and I've lived here for 3.5 years now) and even in the worst years we were able to watch many good French and Italian pictures. And I don't mean only Fellini or Truffaut; there were a lot of good action and comedy flicks. The reason that the American public doesn't like subtitles is not good enough, since in Russia they used to put a different voice over the original soundtrack. (Dmitri Pekker, Dallas)
A. Hollywood has a worldwide near-monopoly on commercial blockbusters, which is why even the French and the Italians go to more American movies than European films. In this country most subtitled films rarely venture beyond the largest cities, unless they're big hits such as "Like Water for Chocolate." Yet the primary audience for foreign films here prefers subtitles, so they can hear the voices of the actual actors.
Q. In "Schindler's List," what was the significance of putting stones on Oskar Schindler's grave? (Marilyn and Raymond Kabat, Cicero, IL)
A. Rabbi Mordicai Simon of the Chicago Board of Rabbis replies: "Flowers are considered more of a decorative item, and thus not for mourning. Instead, a rock of pebble is used to say, 'I've been here',"
Q. Ever notice that if a movie is filmed in Canada every single thing that would point to the film being set there is obliterated? Do filmmakers think Americans are (a) so bigoted or (b) so stupid that they couldn't accept a film being set in Canada? Or (c) do they think American viewers would expect a line of dancing men singing "Alouette" on every corner? (Charlene, Chicago)
Q. Recently, I rented "Dragon," which is supposed to be based upon the life of Bruce Lee. If you read the book written by his wife you will find that the movie is essentially fiction. What do you think the responsibility of the film critic should be in reviewing these biography-type movies? The unaware viewer is likely to swallow the movie whole and to consider it to be the "truth." (Carl S. Lau, Los Angeles)
A. "In the Name of the Father" is another movie "based on fact," which nevertheless differs greatly from the real events. Moviegoers should consider such movies "inspired by" real life, but not as an accurate record. Accuracy always finishes second to the devices of drama, pacing and storytelling. The film critic can only review the film, not the facts.
Q. I just have to say something about that much-lauded flick "The Piano." Of course, it is a fine movie, BUT I couldn't help thinking, as I was watching all that overwrought, inchoate lust: "Where are Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca when we need them?" I could imagine their parody so clearly that I spent most of the movie stifling giggles when I should have been overwhelmed by the passion of it all. Think about it: This guy under the piano, fingering a hole in her stocking, and she writing a note: "Get yer grimy claws offa my leg, buster! Geez, what are you, some kind of pre-vert?" And the music! Did the person who composed the score study with Yanni? The only real music, the Chopin Prelude, was banged out to show her anger and the rest of the time it's "Twiddling from Wyndham Hill," that music that people who believe in unicorns and meditation listen to all the time. (Guenveur Burnell, Kent, OH)
A. Thanks for your note, which can serve as my answer to all the people who wrote in asking why the score for "The Piano" was overlooked in the Oscar nominations.
Q. In the latest issue of Detective Comics, the Joker offs two movie critics who happen to have an uncanny resemblance to two movie critics on TV. The Joker is making a movie ("The Death Of Batman") and these two critics offend his artistic sensibilities. (Felipe A. Vicini, New York, N.Y.)
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
The ten best films of 2014, as chosen by the film critics of RogerEbert.com.
Ten underrated female performances from 2014 worthy of Oscar consideration.
Some thoughts on the hit podcast "Serial".