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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 (08/29/1999)

Q. There was an article in Entertainment Weekly about your feud with Jack Valenti over the MPAA rating system. Discussing your call for a new A rating, Valenti said if a film got rated NC-17 under your system, the producer could sue for punitive damages. He added: "If Mr. Ebert's employers would legally indemnify the ratings system, then I'd serious consider the A rating in a week." Any comment? (Casey Anderson, Schaumberg)

A. Now I understand. Valenti agrees with me that the A rating is worthy of serious consideration, but it prevented from implementing it because he fears pornographers would sue him if the MPAA said their movies were dirty. Jack's argument is pure horsefeathers because porn movies are never submitted for ratings, and the A rating would cover all adult movies that were not hard-core pornography.

Q. Just finished reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John LeCarre. On page 97: "The Dutch set him a honey trap, my dear, and he barged in with his eyes wide shut." Do you know the origin of the expression? (Michael Marren, Chicago)

A. In Eyes Wide Open, his disillusioned memoir about writing the screenplay with Kubrick, Frederic Raphael writes: "Can he really consider 'Eyes Wide Shut' a poetic title? Perhaps its charm is that it is undoubtedly of his own composition." Perhaps, too, Kubrick read the LeCarre novel and the phrase stuck in his memory.

Q. I generally agreed with your op-ed piece about Creationism and the Kansas Board of Education, but found this sentence curious: "We think of a day as having 24 hours, because that's how long it takes the earth to circle the sun." Do you know something you'd like to share? (Susan Lake, Urbana IL)

A. Yes. That's how Methuselah got to be 969.

Q. After seeing "The Sixth Sense," my friends and I had a question. Donnie Wahlberg's character, Vincent, has a birth mark (white spot) in his hair, right behind his right ear, and so did Haley Joel Osment's character, Cole. Is there are any relation to be made here? (Derek Jennings, Raleigh, NC)

A. Jose Rodriguez, assistant to director N. Night Shyamalan, says: "During research for the story, the director found that people who experience extreme trauma sometimes lost pigment in their hair. The relation between Cole and Vincent is that they both experienced extreme trauma and lost pigment in their hair."

Q. In the repeat of your show about animation, you seemed to be changing your mind about "South Park." Yes or no? (Emerson Thorne, Chicago)

A. I gave "South Park" a marginal thumbs down (2.5 stars) because of what I called the movie's mean spirit, but I did like its intelligence and energy, and as the smoke clears from the summer of 1999 it's clear to me that this was a movie that took chances and made scathing criticisms of the broken-down MPAA rating system. I got carried away by my immediate reaction; but at least I was right when I called it "the most slashing political commentary of the year."

Q. In "The Thomas Crown Affair," Brosnan and Russo are having dinner and he refers to her hometown of Lima, Ohio. He pronounces it "Leema." She does not correct him by telling him it's pronounced "Liema." I thought this might be part of the plot--that he was testing her and that this would be proof that she was someone other than who she said she was. Finally I realized it was just a gaffe. Aren't there dialog coaches in movies anymore that catch these things? (Teresa Ash, Rock Island, IL)

A. Maybe they were focusing on her pronunciation of "Monet."

Q. Just read your review of "After Life" and while I am intrigued by the premise I have to say that the contemplation of spending eternity with a single memory, however delightful, is truly frightening. Even the best memory would lose its appeal after repeated "viewings." From a more metaphysical point of view, what is a soul if not the culmination of a one's life experiences? Being left with but one piece of your life means losing who you are. Can anyone name a single event that defines them wholly? I can't. Hirokazu Kore-eda's vision of heaven seems hellish to me. (Jason Fortun, Minneapolis MN)

A. I think Kore-eda intends you to spend eternity within the memory, not just remembering it. In any event, the premise is not so much a literal idea of the afterlife as a way to show people trying to decide what truly made them happy--why their life was worth living. "After Life" is a wonderful film.

Q. In your review of "The Sixth Sense," you say that the ending "doesn't cheat." However, you criticized "Arlington Road" for its surprise conclusion, saying the ending is "so implausible that we stop caring and scratch our heads". Do you find that a logical analysis of "The Sixth Sense" proves its ending more plausible than that of "Arlington Road?" (Ron Porto, Palisades Park NJ)

A. Sure, the ending of "The Sixth Sense" is a stretcher--but perfectly logical within the terms of the story. If the film had ended with everything depending on the exact timing and outcome of a high-speed traffic accident, then that would have been implausible.

Q. No matter how supposedly great "The Blair Witch Project" may be, I will not see it in the theater. I can't see paying admission to a theater with state-of-the-art surround sound, and quality projection to view a film that doesn't fully utilize the available technology. I will do without the audience reaction and wait to view this film (that cost less than $100,000 to make) when it's relesed on video--in the theater I call my basement. (T. R. Munson, Smithtown, NY)

A. I go to see a movie, not the physical plant.

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