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. Doesn't the Wilson character in "Cast Away" picture strike you as the Mother of All Product Placements? (David Garcia, San Antonio TX)
A. No. Wilson is not named for the sporting goods company but for Tom Hanks' wife, Rita Wilson.
Q. The trick to making bad movies more interesting is red eyes. Imagine that for a brief moment a character's eyes become supernaturally red. You'd be surprised how often this helps explain things. In "Volcano" there is this little boy who spends the second half of the film walking through the city as it crumbles around him, threatening to crush him at any moment. At the end of the film the boy is reunited with his mom and there is a big hug. Right then I imagined the little boy's eyes flickering red, suggesting he is the satanic figure who caused the volcano to erupt in the first place. Interesting, huh? (Brad Smissen, Anaheim CA)
A. I'm trying it right now on Wilson.
Q. I just saw "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and loved the movie but didn't really understand the ending. Can you help? (Rick Klimovitz, Southampton PA)
A. Reid Rosefelt, publicist for the movie, tells me: "Director Ang Lee and co-writer/producer James Schamus are often asked to explain the ending of 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' and they have always resisted doing so, as they prefer to let the audience discover it for themselves. Part of the answer can be found in the story Lo (Chang Chen) tells Jen (Zhang Ziyi) in the desert: 'We have a legend. Anyone who dares to jump from the mountain, God will grant his wish. Long ago, a young man's parents were ill, so he jumped. He didn't die. He floated away, far away, never to return. He knew his wish had come true. If you believe, it will happen. The elders say, a faithful heart makes wishes come true.' "
Q. Recently I saw "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" In the opening credits it says that it's based on Homer's Odyssey. Not knowing much about The Odyssey, I was wondering if a better understanding of the story would help "O Brother" make more sense. I obviously noticed that the hero's name was Ulysses, the mayor's name was Homer and I knew that John Goodman's character represented a cyclops, but are there more connections that would help me understand of the movie better? (George Coutretsis, Long Grove IL)
A. Even though you haven't read The Odyssey, you were able to identify the major parallels. That may be explained by the fact that the Coens say they haven't read The Odyssey, either. I suspect they get private amusement out of red herrings, like saying "Fargo" was based on a true story when it wasn't.
Q. I was on an airplane recently and the in-flight movie was "The Contender." I'd already seen it, and noticed that the dedication by director Rod Lurie after "The End" in the theatrical version--"For our daughters" --was missing in the airline version. I can't imagine it was trimmed for content or for time, so I can only guess that it was cut because Lurie thought better of it. What led to this decision? (Tim Carvell, San Francisco CA)
A. Rod Lurie replies: "For some reason all films on airlines have to be under two hours long. Trims were necessary. In order not to hurt the storyline of the film, the reprise (which lasts a full minute) got cut from the end. I suppose that the "For our daughters" dedication got lost in the mix as well. This saddens me because that dedication represented not only why I made this film but also why Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, and Sam Elliott (all of whom have daughters) agreed to be in it. But at least we were able to maintain the integrity of the movie."
Q. In my most recent viewing of Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil," I was struck for the first time by how much the ending--as Marlene Dietrich walks away with the sound of the piano overlapping--reminded me of the ending of "The Third Man," as Valli walks away with the sound of the zither overlapping. And in each case, walking away from the grave/body of the Orson Welles character. Am I imagining this, or is it possible that Welles did the "Evil" ending as a sort of sly reference or homage to "The Third Man"? (Tom Simoneaux, Charlotte NC)
A. For a verdict, I turned to Jonathan Rosenbaum, film critic of the Chicago Reader, a leading authority on Welles. He tells me: "There's no definitive way of answering this question, but my personal opinion is that it's a little far-fetched. Valli at the end of 'The Third Man' walks directly past Joseph Cotten, cutting him dead, and is walking in the general direction of the camera. Dietrich walks away from the camera, and turns around briefly just to say 'Adios.' I can't imagine that Welles would consciously do an homage of this sort in any of his pictures, because the whole direction in his work is to do something different every time--which is precisely what made him so unbankable. Whenever Peter Bogdanovich or someone else would suggest to him that one moment in a film of his evoked another moment in another film he was associated with, he would invariably wince at the thought. The echoes of 'The Third Man' in Welles' 'Mr. Arkadin' are another matter, because 'Arkadin' grew directly out of the Harry Lime radio shows--making this less an homage than a matter of leaving behind some of the traces of its origins."
Q. In a recent Answer Man column, you said some of the character names in "Unbreakable" were changed because they "couldn't get clearance" on them. What the heck does that mean? I'm sure it doesn't mean what it sounds like--that you have to get permission from some centralized Name Clearinghouse to call a character "Billy," or whatever. So what DOES it mean? (E. Snider, Provo UT)
A. Michael Schlesinger of Sony Pictures, my favorite Hollywood executive, tells me: "This has been common practice for decades. Studios always clear character names to avoid potential lawsuits from real people with the same name who feel they might be defamed somehow. A classic example of this is "A Day at the Races." Groucho's character was originally named Quackenbush, but a real doctor by that name let MGM know he'd just love to sue the studio if they used his name for a, well, quack. So it was changed to Hackenbush. More recently, the sub captain in "The Hunt for Red October" had his name changed from Frank Mancuso (who just happened to be the chairman of Paramount at the time) to Nick Mancuso (who actually is an actor, but he didn't object), although in that case the studio did it themselves because they were afraid people would think it was a gag. Current examples of this include "Seinfeld;" the show was sued by a guy named Costanza who claimed to be the inspiration for Jason Alexander's character; the case was thrown out just last week."
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...