Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
Q. I just saw "The Dying Gaul" and really liked it. I am a Buddhist, as is Robert, the character played by Peter Sarsgaard. Robert believes he may have encountered his dead lover in a chat room. You mentioned that you had two big problems with the film: "(1) There is no reason to believe Robert particularly believes in the supernatural, and (2) Would it not occur to Robert that he had, after all, told Elaine about his favorite chat room?"
Your second point is a good one. But as a Buddhist, I would differ a bit with your first point. Robert mentions that after his lover's death, he was afraid to step on insects for fear that a bug might be his lover reincarnated. So the idea that perhaps his lover might speak to him through a chat room struck me less as a supernatural event than as a possible reincarnation manifestation. Dwight Okita, Chicago
A. I wrote back to you: "Does the Buddhist theory of reincarnation include becoming reincarnated as the very same person, with the same memories, and the password to the correct chat room? In other words, was the lover reborn as the same person at the same age as when he died?"
You responded: "I'm not sure if most Buddhists believe one's memory is erased at the moment of reincarnation. I know that SGI Buddhists like me do believe that one is born back into the world with whatever wisdom one has achieved in previous lifetimes. So wherever you are on your progress toward enlightenment, you re-enter the world with that progress intact. Maybe passwords come with us, too! But in the end, one never really knows until one is there to experience it oneself."
Ebert again: To die, be reborn, and know that one is NightRider with the password ledzeppelin is too depressing to contemplate.
Q. An Answer Man letter mentioned the poster for "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" and said the movie's poster includes the prophetic quote: "Sure to be one of the best films of the year." But the writer saw the poster on the Web, and the type was too small to read the name of the critic who made that statement. I have seen the poster. The critic is Jeffrey Lyons of NBC-TV. Jerry A. Taylo, Tucson, Ariz.
A. I hope he will not keep us waiting for his reviews of next year's best films.
Q. I applaud your recent addition of Alex Proyas' "Dark City" to your Great Movies collection. I saw the film for the first time when I was 14, and it changed my conception of what science fiction films could do. Yet my uncle, a true cinephile, assured me that it was a rehash of the superior "Blade Runner" and would be forgotten in 10 years. It has been seven years since I had that conversation. Has the film left any lasting imprint on the cinema yet in your mind? Paul Babin, Yarmouthport, Mass.
A. After being missed by many moviegoers in its original release, "Dark City" has become a best-seller on DVD and developed a large and devoted following (see recent discussions at the blog Cinematical.com). Proyas is working on a new director's cut to be released in early 2006; I will expand my commentary from the original DVD to reflect the changes. Tell your uncle the movie stands on its own and is not a rehash of anything -- but that I feel I may have undervalued "Blade Runner." "Dark City" helped me appreciate the values of the earlier film.
Q. In your interview with Bai Ling from the Hawaii festival, you wrote: "I have seen Bai Ling many times in the movies, often billed as Ling Bai. In China, the practice is to put the family name first and the given name second. So properly she should be referred to as Ling Bai, right?
"'Your theory is correct, but you have one thing wrong,' I am told by Liwei Kiumra, the China expert of the Hawaii festival. 'Ling is her first name.' Therefore, Bai Ling. Everyone who has it wrong has it right."
Congratulations, Roger! You could not have been any more confusing! What does "properly" mean in that context? Properly for the Asians or properly for us? And what does Mr. Kiumra mean when he says "first name"? Does he mean family name or given name? And while we're at it, is it Mr. Kiumra or Mr. Liwei? Alexandre Rowe, Montreal
A. It's Ms. Liwei Kiumra, because that's what it says on her card. As for Bai Ling's name order, of course by "first," she means "given." Whenever I review an Asian movie, this question arises in exchanges with the copy editors, because if you use the accepted Asian word order, Western readers get confused; should I write "Li Gong" when everybody in the West thinks of "Gong Li"? Consulting the reviews of "Raise the Red Lantern," for example, I find that the New York Times, Washington Post and Variety use "Gong Li," and director "Zhang Yimou," but the Internet Movie Database, which always follows local usage, has "Li Gong" and "Yimou Zhang."
Q. We have a cat who loves to watch TV (his faves are Teletubbies and anything with a live-action cat, big or small, in it). We had a screener of "Duma," which I procured so I could watch it again before writing about it, so we put it on for him.
He watched it for 20 minutes straight, without moving, except for going behind the TV cabinet for a moment to see if he could find a real cheetah. And I'm thinking I could market this thing to cats, and Warner Bros. can't figure out how to market it to kids? Stephanie Zacharek, film critic, Salon.com
A. Yours is a brave cat. I would certainly not look behind the TV if I thought there might be a cheetah back there. You were one of the original champions of "Duma," a wonderful and overlooked family film that critics were able to help find a limited release in several major markets. In another strange marketing decision, Warner Bros. will release "Duma" on DVD on Jan. 1, 2006, just a little too late to be a Christmas present.
Q. I've been a gamer since I was very young, and I haven't been satisfied with most of the movies based on video games, with the exception of the first "Mortal Kombat" and "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within." These were successful as films because they did not try to be a tribute to the game, but films in their own right.
I have not seen "Doom," but don't plan to, nor do I think that it's fair to say that it pleases all gamers. Some of us appreciate film, too. That said, I was surprised at your denial of video games as a worthwhile use of your time. Are you implying that books and film are better mediums, or just better uses of your time?
Films and books have their scabs, as do games, but there are beautiful examples of video games out there -- see "Shadow of the Colossus," "Rez" or the forthcoming "PeaceMaker." Josh Fishburn, Denver
A. I believe books and films are better mediums, and better uses of my time. But how can I say that when I admit I am unfamiliar with video games? Because I have recently seen classic films by Fassbinder, Ozu, Herzog, Scorsese and Kurosawa, and have recently read novels by Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, Bellow, Nabokov and Hugo, and if there were video games in the same league, someone somewhere who was familiar with the best work in all three mediums would have made a convincing argument in their defense.
Q. An oversight in your "Corpse Bride" review calls into question your competency as a critic. I speak of skeletal fleas. Fleas, like other insects, have exoskeletons; a skeletal flea would look just like a regular one, so there's no point in differentiating between the two. Ed Resnick, San Diego
A. It makes a great deal of difference to the flea.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...