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Mr. Turner

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…

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Annie

The new version of "Annie" is fashionably artificial and not very well directed, but its unabashed good cheer is very welcome.

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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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Movie Answer Man (07/14/2002)

Q. You cluelessly missed your own point by devoting a whole paragraph in your "Mr. Deeds" review to the Special K cereal cameo. Didn't you give Special K an extra product placement just by mentioning it in your review? (Patrick Keys, Houston TX)

A. Yes, but it's a funny thing. I think I missed the point. In a burning building, when the only thing on fire in the kitchen is a box of Special K, maybe the shot was intended as a satire of product placement.

Q. Critics rarely discuss films among themselves afterwards. However, "Mr. Deeds" had everyone jawing about the surprising amount of violence in the film, which is not only gratuitous but wholly inappropriate considering what the film is about. And yet, the MPAA's explanation for the PG-13 rating cites only "language, including sexual references, and some rear nudity." (Rear nudity!) Nothing about Adam Sandler clobbering Allen Covert, or Winona Ryder hitting a kid's head against a wooden banister or her brutal fight with Conchata Ferrell. Go figure. (Joe Baltake, film critic, Sacramento Bee)

A. The reasoning of the MPAA should be turned over to the team that cracked Enigma.

Q. Thanks to one of those DVD-mailing services, I recently viewed as much of the work of Keaton and Chaplin as possible. I was astonished by how much better Keaton is. He doesn't repeat gags, like Chaplin does. Chaplin acts out the same character. Keaton just is a character. When it comes to stunts and gags, Keaton is about three times as creative and daring. Chaplin has an edge over Keaton in one area, however--pathos. The Little Tramp tugs at the heart like Keaton's rocky expression can't. I would think in this age of post-modern irony that Keaton would be ten times as huge, with his acerbic roles, cynical wit, and gasp-inducing stunts skilled enough to out-Jackie Chan Jackie Chan. (Luke Gibbs, Springfield MO)

A. You are not alone in preferring Keaton. Both men were geniuses, but Chaplin speaks to a more sentimental world-view, and Keaton seems fiercely modern. I'm preparing to teach a class on Keaton's films right now, and am astonished by his freshness. Most of his features are now available in good prints on DVD, although some buffs believe better prints have recently turned up in France.

Q. Angela Bassett was recently quoted in Newsweek as saying she turned down Halle Berry's role in "Monster's Ball" because she "wasn't going to be a prostitute on film" and "I couldn't do that because it's such a stereotype about black women and sexuality." I saw "Monster's Ball" twice and felt that in no way were the sex scenes exploitative or pornographic. (Matt Moreira, Brooklyn NY)

A. I agree. It is a great performance. An article in the July 1 Los Angeles Times covers the controversy, quoting some blacks who feel the role was demeaning, others who support Halle Berry. What we have here is an inability to see the role apart from the color of the character. Berry was playing a specific woman in a specific dramatic situation, and to expect that role and that woman to "speak" for black women in general is limiting.

African-American actors deserve the freedom to play a wide range of roles, without being restricted to "positive" portrayals. The article notes that Denzel Washington, who won an Oscar for a character who was, frankly, vicious and evil, has been spared the criticism directed at Berry, whose character was not evil but simply desperate and grieving. If this sort of backlash gains ground, it could have a negative effect, making other African-American actresses hesitant to accept challenging, controversial roles.

Q. "Be Kind--Rewind!" I've seen this label on rental DVD cases at my local Blockbuster. I asked a person who worked at Blockbuster why rewinding would be necessary on DVDs, and was told, "DVDs can be rewound so please rewind it." I asked the manager and he told me, "DVDs can be rewound like VHS." I emailed Blockbuster. They told me, "Most DVD players have a 'Rewind' button. What it does is spin the DVD the opposite direction from the play mode. It's similar to the rewind feature on a VCR." I emailed them and told them they were wrong, Blockbuster emailed me, "Sir, you are very wrong, please don't contradict what we say, we know more than you do about DVDs. Please don't email us regarding this topic again." They were very rude. But I know that a DVD cannot be rewound. (Kun Sun Sweeley, Baltimore, Md.)

A. Your message first appeared on a web site devoted to "useless warnings." It sounded like an urban legend to me, but when I contacted you, you replied: "This is true. I have seen labels on DVDs at my local Blockbuster, asking for the DVDs to be rewound. The post that I wrote is true." I asked around, and columnist/critic David Poland supplied the likely explanation: The stickers double as magnetic security tags. The tags for VHS ask you to rewind. When they run out of DVD tags, they just use the VHS tags. What that doesn't explain are your phone conversations and e-mails with Blockbuster. Is it possible the chain has employees who don't know the first thing about DVD? Judging from their cluelessness on letterboxing, I think it's a possibility.

Q. You've mentioned that the actor David Ogden Stiers is someone whom you have known for years. Do you ever have trouble suspending your disbelief when you "know" the person you are watching? (Dave Jaycock, Victoria BC)

A. I went to Urbana (IL.) High School with Stiers. When I see him on the screen, I think "Hey! Dave Stiers!" But since I knew him when he was 16, he's changed enough so that it's not a big distraction.

Q. I read the Credit Suisse/First Boston report on digital projection vs. Maxivision. Interesting, and certainly well researched. While some of the financial concepts just barely made it through my gray matter, I did notice something that seemed off. There is a mention of the average life of the hardware used in projection. While I have little doubt that the electronics used for digital projection would need to be replaced/upgraded/ supplanted every three years, I don't understand the number of seven years placed upon 35mm projection equipment. Many theatres have projectors with bodies which go back to the 1940s and 50s. Lamphouses and audio gear may be upgraded, not a huge investment, but those old 35mm projectors just keep chugging along with only reasonable servicing. Re the visual quality of digital: My son went to see Clones at a film venue and reported that it looked "soft." At 1.8k, it can't look anything but soft. As long as 1.8 is all that folks desire out of the theatrical experience, it certainly works, especially when the use of 24fps digital allows for ultra-fast post-production and multiple layers of digital efx. The only problem, as you've properly stated, is that the experience of cinema is gone. I still haven't been able to create an acceptable film look using digital restoration in anything less than 4k--and that with emulsions from the 50s and 60s (Eastman 5248). What the public doesn't seem to recognize and what the uneducated eye will not confirm unless the two are literally viewed side by side, is that current digital technology in the ultra low-res of 1.8k looks like just so much mush when compared to a 35mm frame. (Robert Harris, The Film Preserve)

A. As the ranking genius of film restoration, you should know. I treasure your restorations of film classics from "Lawrence of Arabia" to "Vertigo." What has happened, I think, is that executives who are only semi-literate in technical matters have been seduced by the magic word "digital" into embracing the idea of digital projection, and are too busy, lazy or unprepared to do the necessary homework. The Credit Suisse/First Boston report essentially said the digital emperor has no clothes, by pointing out digital's shortcomings in quality, maintenance and cost. The surprise was its endorsement of Maxivision, and its conclusion that Maxivision was a natural fit for Kodak.

Q. Who would win in a fight between the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and the Power Puff Girls? (Peter Sobczynski, Chicago)

A. The Power Puff Girls would win if they attacked after the cocktail hour.

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