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Office Christmas Party

Another reminder that allowing your cast to madly improvise instead of actually providing a coherent script with a scintilla of inherent logic often leads to…

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Harry Benson: Shoot First

The filmmakers are themselves too celebrity besotted to comment in a meaningful way on how Benson’s career balanced depictions of the rich and famous with…

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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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Truth is the curse of the critic

Q. On "The Tonight Show" last week, I was a little surprised when you named "Kill Bill, Volume 2" as the best film of the year so far. I thought it was exemplary in lots of ways, but I'm not sure that it really taught me anything about real life or real people.

Also, I wonder if you owe Michael Moore an apology. He's probably not the thin-skinned type, but it seems you could have been a little more tactful than in NOT naming his film as the best of the year, since he was sitting on stage right there with you. Steve Replogle, Denver

A. The curse of the critic is that we are required to tell the truth. Years ago Chevy Chase appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, promoting "The Three Amigos." Then Gene Siskel and I came out, I sat down next to Chevy, and Carson asked me which holiday movie I liked the least. "Uh, 'The Three Amigos'," I said. "I wish I hadn't asked you that," Johnny said. "So do I," I said.

Q. M. Night Shyamalan's affection for "The Twilight Zone" is well documented, so I can't help but wonder if the so-called surprise in "The Village" wasn't at least partially borrowed from "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim," a "Twilight Zone" episode written by Rod Serling that starred Cliff Robertson and originally aired on April 7, 1961.

The exact nature of the surprise, and the way it's presented (also prompted by a medical emergency, by the way), are nearly identical to what Shyamalan serves up so unconvincingly in "The Village." You could argue that there are no new ideas, only new ways of presenting them, and of course filmmakers borrow from their pop-cultural inspirations all the time.

But it seems rather sad that someone of Shyamalan's proven talent would borrow so obviously, and then turn a good idea (like Serling's) into -- let's face it -- a really bad one that collapses under scrutiny. Jeff Shannon, Lynnwood, Wash.

A. "The Village" stirred up a lot of activity in the Answer Man's world, with 162 readers passionately defending or attacking it in about equal numbers. Some of its defenders argued that the "surprise ending" was beside the point.

Ben Angstadt of Irmo, S.C., wrote: "So did you totally miss the point that 'The Village' was about the politics of terror and George W. Bush, or did you just not care?"

And Erik Goodwyn of Cincinnati wrote -- spoiler warning: "What I mean is that even though the creatures aren't scary once their secret is revealed -- that's the point! Shyamalan is saying something very pointed about the peculiar nature of fear."

Several other readers saw the film as an allegory for terror used as an excuse for political repression. That didn't occur to me, but as a theory it doesn't make the film any more entertaining, in my opinion.

Q. I was disappointed when I read in your review of "The Village" that you agreed to "avoid revealing the plot secrets." Not a big deal, I thought, until I read a review empty of all but the most basic facts. Some restraint is necessary for the sake of your readers, but not for the sake of the producers. Next time, why not refuse such "enjoinings" and reveal what you -- not they -- want you to reveal? James Holter, Aurora, Ill.

A. Your exhortation is fascinating to me because of the angry communications I got from readers accusing me of giving away too much -- the whole plot, said one, while another said that I had spoiled everything by even hinting there was a surprise.

Scott Robinson of Pierrefonds, Quebec, on the other hand, wrote: "What I find strange is that the marketing of this movie promises a surprise that is not really there. Shyamalan's first couple of films deliver a surprise that you are not expecting, but 'Signs' and The Village' seem to promise a surprise or at least an answer that never appears. While I must agree that no amount of marketing, however honest or creative, could save this film, I do believe that promising a little less would certainly allow the movie to deliver a little more."

Q. In your review of "Thunderbirds" you wrote: "I had never heard of the series and, let's face it, neither have you." This is one of those situations where there is a clear pop-cultural disconnect between the United States and other parts of the world, because the "Thunderbirds" are quite iconic in Britain, Australia, Japan and a few other places.

In Australia when I grew up, the original television episodes were shown and reshown endlessly, and "Thunderbirds" merchandising items have been sold in huge quantities for 40 years now and are extremely lucrative. Michael Jennings, London

A. I was wrong to imply the series never played in America. Jim Carey of Aurora, Ill., writes: "I was born in '63 and I remember 'Thunderbirds' from WGN or WFLD. I think they played the series a couple of years after it first aired. But ... will Hollywood ever revisit "Clutch Cargo"?

Q. You've gotten some harsh reactions from people in Hollywood due to your negative reviews of their films. Vincent Gallo and Rob Schneider have publicly insulted you. If this type of person made a film which you absolutely loved, would you be able to do the film justice in your review, or hold a grudge based on the relationship with the filmmaker? Andrew Shuster, Merrick, N.Y.

A. I would say I absolutely loved it. If you can't take it, you shouldn't dish it out. Oddly enough, just today I had a long conversation with Vincent Gallo, and will write about it when "The Brown Bunny" opens in September.

Q. You ended your recent review of "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" by quoting some advice you got from Dann Gire, president of the Chicago Film Critics Association, and then writing: "Still another reason our leader's photograph should be displayed in every government office and classroom."

I just didn't get this joke. Was this a reference to A) Dubya, or B) Dann Gire? If there's a laugh there, I'd like to laugh, too. Miguel E. Rodriguez, Tampa, Fla.

A. There is only one president mentioned in the review, and that is President Gire.

Q. I just saw "Before Sunset," and thought it was one of the best movies I've seen in a while. While I enjoyed "Before Sunrise" very much when I saw it nine years ago, it now seems to me that the first film was really a set-up to this encounter -- that this is the real payoff of the story.

My question is about the ending. I thought it was perfect in its own ambiguity. It seemed to me immediately while walking out of the theater, that Jesse had made up his mind to stay with Celine. But after thinking about it some more, I'm not so sure. Maybe he was still indecisive, and overwhelmed by the circumstances to know what to do. What do you think he meant by his last response? John Cochrane, Tempe, Ariz.

A. I think he's going to choose to miss his plane, but that doesn't mean he won't take a later flight. By the way, Richard Linklater's brilliant animated film "Waking Life" (2001) apparently exists in an alternate Jesse-and-Celine universe, since in that one they're waking up in bed together, something they never do in "Before Sunrise" or "Before Sunset," which presumably chronicle every moment they've spent together.

Q. In your recent "Catwoman" review you state, "Her eyes have vertical pupils instead of horizontal ones." I don't know about you, but most of my friends have round pupils. Unless you're hiding the shameful truth that you are indeed Goat Boy's father. Bob Bailin, Hamden, Conn.

A. The little dickens starts his freshman year at Connecticut in September.

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