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A role in a Wonka of its own

Q. I keep hearing that Johnny Depp based his performance as Willy Wonka on Michael Jackson. I think everyone is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. It has seemed to me for years that Michael Jackson at some point decided, perhaps unconsciously, to become Willy Wonka. It should be no surprise then if Mr. Depp evokes the character Michael Jackson has become. Seth Derrick, Phoenix

A. The strange thing about "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" is the way that Depp's performance seems to exist in a world of its own, while the film succeeds despite him. Depp is so consistently good that this miscalculation may simply be an illustration of his willingness to take chances. It's not a bad performance, just somehow a wrong performance.

[To find out what similarities other critics and readers detected in Depp's performance, see our article "Is Willy Wonka Wacko Jacko?"]

Q. Let me start off by saying that Tim Story's "Fantastic Four" is a lackluster film, with very little going for it. In this sense, your appraisal is correct. To call the Fantastic Four "second-tier heroes," however, is not.

The Four, one of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's earlier creations, are also one of Marvel's longest-running comics. They have been rightly coined comics' "First Family" and their own comic subtitles itself as "The World's Greatest Comic Book." They are miles more popular than many other characters who have been given the film treatment in recent years -- for evidence of this, look at how this mediocre, critically panned film nearly doubled its initial box-office projections.

How you could confuse The Human Torch with The Flash is baffling. One lights on fire and flies, the other runs really fast. At least mix him up with X2's Pyro, who could control flame (but not create it). And comparing Storm with the Invisible Woman -- why, because they both have blond hair? I had thought you were beginning to catch on to the fact that powers and personality were intertwined -- that comic book films contain some depth of character.

These are not films about flashy powers, they are stories about people. I will give you this much, however: the film's version of Dr. Doom (much changed for the worse from his comics incarnation) is derivative. Instead of a vengeful and scarred totalitarian dictator, the film offers up a Trump-wannabe tycoon whose every "motive" scene to fuel his hatred for the Four is completely ripped from Willem Dafoe/Norman Osbourne's exposition in the original "Spider-Man."

I don't expect you to do all the homework in reviewing these films, with long and storied histories in other mediums. I do wish, however, that if you don't know what you're talking about, don't act as though you do. Justin Morissette, Vancouver

A. It is easy enough to label yourself "The World's Greatest Comic Book," or "The World's Greatest Newspaper," for that matter. The trick is to get someone else to describe you that way.

But you make a good point. Many, many, many Fantastic Four fans have written to me complaining that since the Four pre-dated the appearance of X-Men, they could hardly be ripping them off. My defense is that I was thinking of the movies, not the original comic books, and so "Fantastic Four" seemed like an afterthought to "X-Men" and "The Incredibles."

What I learned while reading dozens of messages is that comics fans have made enormous psychic investments in their favorite characters, and follow their origins, adventures, opponents and character changes with an attention bordering on obsession. I saw a bad movie. Many of them saw a movie whose goodness or badness was secondary, since whatever happened on the screen was linked in their imaginations with an extensive pre-history.

Q. In his new movie "Broken Flowers," Bill Murray wears a blue track suit with orange stripes. Since he was courtside to cheer Illinois during the NCAA tourney, is his wardrobe intended to represent the Illinois colors? Betsy Hendrick, Champaign

A. Since they are the precise shades of orange and blue used by Illinois, it can't be a coincidence.

Q. When you wrote a review of the movie "Bewitched," you sir, were a liar and a charlatan. You stated you never saw the program when it was on television because you were reviewing hundreds of films per year, which did not leave you much time to watch the tube.

May I remind you that you did not write your first review until 1967 and by then "Bewitched" had been on for three years? Possibly you might like to rethink that line of reasoning and pursue another feeble excuse. All you had to do was look at one or two episodes and I suspect even you might be able to determine the present piece is nothing more than garbage that should not be considered in the same breath as the original series or movie. Gil Effertz, Frazier Park, Calif.

A. My bad. I forgot when I started not watching it.

Q. About the record-breaking slump that movie ticket sales are experiencing:

1) Since a lot of the audience is being lost to DVDs, aren't the real losers in this the theaters and distributors? The studios still get their money, only a few months later.

2) And isn't another part of the problem that this (so far) has been a very lackluster year for the movies? How many must-see movies have there been this year? Do you think this has been a down year, both in terms of "event" films and quality small films? Tim Gregorek, Chicago

A. There have been some wonderful films this year, from "Batman Begins" to "Crash" to "Millions" to "Me and You and Everyone We Know" to "Yes" (2005) to "Murderball."

The most interesting thing about the "slump" is that there may not be one. David Poland of Movie City News has been calling the slump a non-story all summer. He points out that the grosses for 2004 were skewed by the performance of "The Passion of the Christ," one of the most successful movies ever made, which attracted enormous numbers of people who do not ordinarily go to the movies.

Even so, 2005 may end up as the second or third highest-grossing year in movie history. "There is no real slump," he writes. "If you think you are analyzing a real trend, but it can be changed by the actions of a week or two or a movie or two, it is not really a trend, it is a blip."

Q. I recently attended the screening of "Citizen Kane" at the free Chicago Outdoor Film Festival where you and Mr. Roeper gave a nice introduction. I am a film nut and have been accused of being a bit oversensitive to crowd noise when I attend a screening at indoor movie theaters.

At the outdoor festival, however, I adjusted my expectations, as a certain amount of noise and conversation is inevitable. One fellow, however, perhaps encouraged by his liquid dinner, insisted on shouting "Chicago!" every time a character in the film mentioned the broad-shouldered city. As if that was not enough, he gave a mighty yell of "Yeah! Slap that [expletive deleted]!" during one of the key scenes in the film -- when Charles Foster Kane struck his second wife.

I spoke up (rather rudely myself, I am afraid) by yelling "Shut up!" While Mr. Chicago was more or less quiet after my outburst, I feel a bit conflicted. Is shushing a fellow moviegoer at an outdoor film festival a sign of hypersensitivity to sound? Jeff Waldhoff, Chicago

A. I think you should have told him what he could do with his sled.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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