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Movie Answer Man (02/07/1999)

Q. In your recent review of "Virus", you commented: "It didn't help that the print I saw was so underlit that often I could see hardly anything on the screen. Was that because the movie was filmed that way, or because the projector bulb was dimmed to extend its life span?" A dirty secret is that movies are under-lit in most theaters. Films are produced with the intent that they be projected at the brightness of 16 foot-lamberts. Field research by Kodak found that they are often shown at 8-10 foot-lamberts, well under the SMPTE standard for brightness. To get theaters up to this and other standards, Kodak is introducing the Screencheck Experience program. The under-lighting of screens may be acceptable for a few movies--lest you see the entirety of their badness--but in general it unnecessarily degrades the theater experience. (Carl Donath, Rochester NY)

A. I've seen thousands of movies and I believe the Screencheck Experience program would only confirm that "Virus" was severely deprived of foot-lamberts when I saw it in a Chicago theater not a million miles from the Water Tower. Martin Scorsese, who travels with a light meter, once told me movies are projected at the correct brilliance in New York and Los Angeles, because that's where the filmmakers live, and they squawk. In a lot of other places, he said, the theaters turn down the juice to save on the replacement costs of expensive bulbs.

Q. Seems like people have been asking this question for years: What's the latest on Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman? (Casey Anderson, Schaumberg, IL).

A. The movie is set to open July 16. I hear that Warner Bros. executives were jolted when they saw the sexuality in Kubrick's two-minute trailer. Warners has recently been touchy about the sex in even its R-rated films, but now confronts an adult film by its greatest directorial star, who has total right of final cut. "Eyes Wide Shut" is said to contain graphic sex, and is a candidate for NC-17 unless it goes out unrated. Warners is well aware of the incredible success of Kidman's sex-oriented play "Blue Room," which has sold out in London and New York and brought scalpers $500 a ticket. They believe an erotic film by Kubrick, with these two stars, has enormous earning potential--so that if they do decline to release it, they'll say goodbye to millions, and it will be grabbed by another distributor. At present, "Eyes Wide Shut" is a good description of how Warner executives regard the film.

Q. The box of David Mamet's "The Spanish Prisoner" shows a photograph of Steve Martin pointing a gun at Campbell Scott on a boat. It goes without saying that this spoiler snapshot from the movie's penultimate scene reveals a number of key secrets. By contrast, "The Spanish Prisoner" trailer craftily displayed a pistol being pointed at somebody, but cut away before the identity of the gun-toter was revealed. The foolish video cover negates the effort put into creating a scintillating trailer. Who designs video box covers? Why are they so ignorant of the film's narrative? (Andrew Nutting, Notre Dame, IN)

A. The people who design many video boxes have only one mission, and that is to persuade browsers that a film contains sex or, preferably, violence. I'd guess that more than half the video boxes in the typical Blockbuster display guns, cleavage, or both. You are quite right that the "Spanish Prisoner" box gives away the crucial plot twist. Will you have another look at it and see if you can find a shot of Rebecca Pidgeon's chest?

Q. "Shakespeare in Love" is a wonderful film; thanks for recommending it. However, much of the film appears to have been inspired by No Bed for Bacon, written in 1940 by Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon. Although there are major differences between the film and the book, the similarities in characters and story lines are too close and too many to be sheer coincidence. The story concerns Viola Compton, a lady at the court of Queen Elizabeth, who is having an affair with the Earl of Essex. She sees Shakespeare rehearsing one of his plays, and decides that she wants to be an actor. She disguises herself as a young man and is hired by Shakespeare. In the movie, the heroine is named Viola, she is having an affair with Lord Wessex, she disguises herself, etc. The first time Shakespeare appears in the movie, he is practicing his signature, spelling it many different ways. This is a running gag through the book. At the end of the book, Shakespeare, thinking of Viola, begins to write "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day..." Same in the movie. Even the joke about coming up with the right play title, "Romeo and Ethel," seems to originate from the book, where Shakespeare struggles over "Love's Labour Won!" (John and Rosalie Price, Palo Alto, CA)

A. Here's the response from Miramax, the film's distributor: "Neither of the two writers of 'Shakespeare in Love,' Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, have read the book, although Stoppard is familiar with it. The similarities are minor; the differences are major. Given that these are two fictional works set in the Elizabethan theater drawing on the same facts and events, historical characters, lore and the work of the Bard himself, it shouldn't surprise anyone that they contain superficial similarities. For example the different spellings of Shakespeare's signature is a historical in-joke that every English lit major would know. In 'Shakespeare in Love,' the final spelling is 'Shagsbeard,' a play on Shakespeare's impotency problems.

Q. How could "A Civil Action" use the names of Beatrice and W.R. Grace in the movie, and show W.R. Grace's trademarked name? I would assume if both companies had their preference they would not have their names mentioned at all. (Joshua McFeeters, Madison, WI)

A. I would assume the same. But what would an expert say? I'm writing this column on my laptop, en route to Chicago from the Sundance Film Festival, and who should be across the aisle, also returning from Sundance, but Burton Joseph, the famed Chicago first amendment attorney. He advises: "It isn't a violation of the law to identify individuals or companies involved in a public controversy. Wide latitude is given to depict even uncomplimentary events, and in order to bring a successful action for libel, the plaintiff would have to show that the producer knew that what he represented was untruthful, and depicted it anyway. Under the circumstances involved in 'A Civil Action,' the producers could reasonably rely upon the publication in the book of the facts on the screen." (Mr. Joseph has kindly agreed to waive his usual fee, and will not bill you for this opinion.)

Q. Have you noticed that all the kind, decent, down-to-earth movie characters now come from Wisconsin? Several examples come to mind immediately, and "The American President" and "Contact" went out of their way to establish their protagonists' stately origins. The cheese state has clearly replaced Minnesota as the screenwriter's favorite "normal" state (I wonder if "Fargo" had anything to do with it), and Pennsylvania is running a distant third. I think it has something to do with all three states combining farm life with access to a major city; the character can seem both salt-of-the-earth and worldly. (Matt Chaput, Toronto)

A. And of course the hero of "Ed's Next Move" made a big deal of coming from Wisconsin. Also, the salt-of-the-earth filmmaker heroes of "American Movie," this year's Sundance-winning documentary, are from Menominee Falls. Kind of makes you forget all about Ed Gein.

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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