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. There are two movies this month about conspiracies in the White House. One is Clint Eastwood's "Absolute Power." The other one is "Shadow Conspiracy," starring Charlie Sheen. I noticed an add for "Shadow Conspiracy" that read: "Life. Liberty. And the Pursuit of Absolute Power." Do you think this was a coincidence, or an attempt by the Sheen movie to rip off the title and beat Eastwood to the finish line? (Casey Anderson, Schaumberg, IL)
A. Having seen both movies, I would say Eastwood is ahead by about four laps in the mile.
Q. Tonight I saw "Star Wars: The Special Edition" and I hated hated hated it! The original is my favorite film and is what has inspired me, from the age of four, to become a filmmaker. I have seen it hundreds of times. Lucas was not attempting to bring the new version closer to his original vision, but was simply showing off. I have no problem with going back and tinkering with the original, but only if it adds to the picture. But there was absolutely no reason for Han and Jabba to meet. There was no dramatic tension in the new scene between them. It is too short and the dialogue is stupid. Jabba's character was completely different in "Return of the Jedi," and more menacing. In the special edition he's a wimp who does nothing when Han stupidly steps on his tail. The computer generated Jabba is the worst special effect I have seen in years. You would have thought someone at ILM would have said, "George!, the damn thing looks like a hunk of playdoh!!!" Another stupid touch was to have Boba Fett walk up to the camera and all but wink at the camera at the end of the scene. If this movie is to have any hope of being remembered a hundred years from now, Lucas should burn the special edition, or at least cut out the garbage scenes. (Scott Clements, Toronto)
A. You've seen it hundreds of times, and now you hate it? Why do you remind me of a guy who doesn't want his girl friend to ever change her hair? I think it's useful for Jabba to turn up here, because that helps establish the character for his larger role later, and helps the trilogy in its task of connecting the three episodes.
Q. My wife and I were talking about the concerns Hollywood may be having with the fact that three or four of the Best Picture nominees may be independents and/or foreign films. Who's going to watch the Oscars if they haven't seen a good portion of the movies? "Shine," "Hamlet," and others haven't even been released in much of the country yet, and "Secrets and Lies," "Evita," and "English Patient" still have relatively limited releases. (Robert Haynes-Peterson, Boise, ID)
A. I don't believe Academy voters mark their ballots with a view toward the TV ratings, but this year's show does indeed promise to be heavy on indee nominations and light on Hollywood big names. Possible nominees do include Madonna, Tom Cruise and Debbie Reynolds, but those legendary billion world-wide viewers will also be treated, I predict, to "Fargo's" Frances MacDormand, England's Brenda Blethen and Australia's Geoffrey Rush. The reason is simple. Mainline Hollywood is skewing its resources toward special effects blockbusters, which clean up at the box office but not at the Oscars. Independent and imported movies are where the quality could be found this year. The nominations will be announced, by the way, this Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. (CST).
Q. I saw "Mother" and enjoyed it, but I was puzzled by one scene early in the movie. When Albert Brooks is at dinner with the underinformed date, the wine in their glasses on the table is dancing all over the place without quite spilling. It looks like an earthquake is going on, but nothing else in the restaurant is bouncing like the wine? What is happening? (Fr. Hal Weidner, Honolulu, HI)
A. Albert Brooks replies: "The reason that the wine was shaking is that he was so nervous on the date that his leg was shaking uncontrollably under the table. The lettuce was shaking too, but you couldn't see it."
Q. Usually the movies compress time, but sometimes they expand it, and that annoys me. For example, in "Independence Day," Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith are told that the nuclear warhead they are carrying will explode 30 seconds after impact. When I recently watched this movie on video, I checked on the index counter. The explosion was at 1:35. If they want a certain series of events to occur, can't they figure out how long they would actually take, then use that amount of time in the script? (Steven Stine, Buffalo Grove, IL)
A. If the movie's working, you don't think about things like that. And there's a reason. The "logical" left hemisphere of the brain is aware of time; the "artistic" right brain much less so (you know how long you've been working on a spreadsheet, but not how long you've been painting a landscape). If a movie has completely absorbed you, the right brain takes over and you have a sensuous, escapist experience. If the movie doesn't grab you, then the left brain is aware of flaws and other details. For that reason I'm much more forgiving of cliches in movies that are really working--because then even the cliches work.
Q. Regarding the TV commercial where Fred Astaire dances with the Broom Vac. My best friend's wife is angrily adamant that if a company wants to use a dead celebrity in their advertising, the only legal way is to dig up the corpse and prop it next to that box of cereal. While I appreciate that point of view, I'm not unusually bothered by the Fred Astaire ad. It's really no different from almost any other use of a dead celeb's image. If I saw an Astaire tee shirt--a natty image from the "Dancin' Man" number from "The Barkleys of Broadway," say--I'd have my wallet out in a flash. The only thing that bothered me about the Dirt Devel ads was that they were so poorly done. They looked like old footage with a bunch of digital effects embroidered in. Compare it to the wonderful Diet Coke ad of a few years ago, which featured Paula Abdul dancing with a dozen film legends. Exceptional job, and a perfect mating of subjects. (Andy Ihnatko, Westwood, MA)
A. Many actors are happy to appear in commercials because they enjoy the work and can use the money. They make a living by acting for hire, after all. But when great work of the past is recycled into TV ads, isn't that breaking a compact with their own art? And when their heirs sign the contract and pocket the change after they're dead, isn't that a little like selling their gold teeth?
Q. What irks me about that Astaire ad is that for two years now we have tried to license a Fred Astaire movie clip for the Cinemania CD-ROM. Our intention was to present the clip with the utmost affection and respect--a real tribute to his artistry in an encyclopedic multimedia showcase devoted to the love of movies. Imagine my surprise when I saw that Mr. Astaire's likeness had been licensed to sell vacuum cleaners! (Jim Emerson, editor, Microsoft Cinemania, Seattle)
A. Maybe you should have tried to license Astaire for one of your ads. He could be dancing with a giant CD-ROM disc.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A tribute to Doris Day.