American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Q. You mentioned the time-slippage in "Cop Land," where the characters are betting against the five-time champion Bulls even though it was not yet the season after their fifth championship. Are all movies going "back to the future?" In "Conspiracy Theory," at the end we see a death certificate which says "10-2-97." Were the producers planning a release later in the year? (Casey Anderson, Schaumberg)
A. A Warner Bros. spokesman replies: "The movie takes place in the fall regardless of the release date. If you look at the scene in the graveyard again, you'll see that the trees are brown and Julia Roberts is wearing a wool jacket. The same is true throughout the movie." While this is undoubtedly true, it does not explain how an August 1997 release could take place next fall, rather than last fall.
Q. Just before Ellie (Jodie Foster) departs on her expedition in "Contact," one of the scientists gives her a vial containing a single pill. He tells her if she's faced with death, this pill will end her life painlessly and quickly. He also says all our astronauts have been given this pill in the event of capture, torture, or being helplessly lost in space. Is this based on fact? (Deborah Ann Keith, Lakeland, FL)
A. A Warner Bros. rep replies: "According to Steve Starkey, producer of 'Contact,' Carl Sagan told him and director Robert Zemeckis that the space program had provided pills of this type to astronauts. However, Gerry Griffin, the NASA consultant for 'Contact,' denies that such pills were used by NASA. According to him, there are other ways an astronaut can easily end his life if he is stranded in space--such as cutting off his oxygen supply." The studio source adds: "It seems unlikely NASA would ever confirm the existence of such a pill, so we are left to draw our own conclusions."
Q. Why has it become an increasingly common cliche for movies to always decorate dingy old apartments with Chinese food take-out boxes? And why Chinese food? Is there something about the way those little boxes look? (Joseph Tsai, West Covina, CA)
A. Yes, as a matter of fact, there is. They are white, stand up straight, photograph easily, and "read" well--which means, you can look at one and see instantly what it is. Other takeout options include pizza (comes in flat brown boxes that blend into surfaces), brown paper bags (could be holding anything) and little aluminum foil trays with cardboard covers (a nightmare to light because of the reflections). By a process of elimination, Chinese food is the movie takeaway of choice. Second place goes to Dunkin' Donuts, with the giant pink letters that leave no doubt what's in the box.
Q. I saw something on the Internet about a poll of the top movie bad guys of all time, but forgot where I saw it and can't find it again. I remember Hannibal Lecter placed first. (Pet Danforth, Oak Park)
A. Lecter, as played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, did indeed place first, in a poll by the British magazine Total Film, which I found with a Web search engine, as you could perfectly well have done for yourself. Second place went to the title character in "Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer," played by Michael Rooker. The rest of the top five: John Doe (Kevin Spacey) in "Seven," Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) in "Good Fellas," and Frank Booth, the gas-sniffing weirdo played by Dennis Hopper in "Blue Velvet." The top female villain was Kathy Bates's enthusiastic literary fan in "Misery;" she placed 15th. My own choice? Count Orlok (Max Schreck) in Murnau's "Nosferatu," who makes Hannibal Lecter look like a guidance counselor. Runners-up: Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in "The Third Man" and Norman Bates (Anthony Hopkins) in "Psycho."
Q. About the whole "urban legend" surrounding the "Wizard of Oz" thing....this is one of those things that people believe because they want to believe it--the truth isn't as interesting as the myth. Just some crewman who got caught on camera? No, that's a guy hanging himself! A guy standing on the soundstage set of "Three Men and a Baby"? No, that's the ghost of the guy who died in the apartment! Hey, if these people want to believe it, nothing we can say will convince them otherwise, so why bother? (Jeff McGinnis, Bowling Green, Ohio)
A. I never tire of explaining that M-G-M had a guy on the payroll whose job it was to check every set and make sure there were no dead bodies hanging where the camera could see them.
Q. In "Conspiracy Theory" movie, there's a scene where the Mel Gibson character runs into the crowded theatre viewing the movie "Ladyhawke." Now, I've seen "Ladyhawke," and I liked "Ladyhawke," but I can't for the life of me figure out--why "Ladyhawke"? (Cynthia Gonzales, Waco, Texas )
A. It might have something to do with the fact that "Conspiracy Theory" and "Ladyhawke" were both directed by Richard Donner.
Q. Regarding those TV commercials in which the images of dead movie stars are used to promote products (such as Fred Astaire in the Dirt Devil ad): While some are happy to see these screen legends regardless of medium, others feel their work is being prostituted and degraded by family members. What do you think? (Leora Broydo, San Francisco)
A. I don't have a problem with the re-use of moving images for artistic purposes, as in "Forrest Gump," because it falls under the artistic license of the new artist. But in the case of TV commercials, unless a deceased star has specifically granted permission for this use, I think it is close to grave robbery. To sell an "image"--i.e., the likeness and name--might be within the legitimate rights of an estate. But to recycle an actor's actual work--their acting--is shameful. The use of Fred Astaire in the Dirt Devil ad is all the more reprehensible because the actor's estate refused permission to use any clips of Astaire in the Ginger Rogers tribute at the Kennedy Center.
Q. We saw "She's So Lovely," and agree that it is a piercingly intelligent fable of self-delusion and truth. This is underscored by the song over the final credits, "The Toughest Whore in Babylon." There was no vocal credit on the song that I could see, but it sounds very much like John Travolta. Is that him singing at the end? (Scot Murphy, Highland Park)
A. According to Miramax rep Tracy Ury, that's not Travolta but a singer named David Baerwald.
Q. In the Answer Man you recounted the nominations at the Oscar ceremony in "In & Out," and said Sylvester Stallone was nominated for "Snowball in Hell." As I'm sure you've been told many times now, that nomination went to Steven Seagal. (Christopher Clark, London, Ontario)
A. I've been told many, many times. And often the correspondents add, "...who makes it a lot funnier."
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A review of Netflix's new series, Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events," which premieres January 13.