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Movie Answer Man (02/10/2002)

Q. I just saw a TV commercial for the new kids' movie "Big Fat Liar." The voice-over said it had won an "Award of Excellence" from the Film Advisory Board. Since the movie doesn't exactly look like "Citizen Kane"--who's on the board and what's with the award? (Ramin Setoodeh, Stanford CA)

A. Go to and you will discover it is involved in honoring family films. A far better source for information about the suitability of films for children and families is

Q. I'm the editor and webmaster of, a DVD review site. I have to say that your idea for a web archive of homespun DVD commentaries is one of the best ideas I've heard in a long time. For my first one, I'm tackling Renny Harlin's "Deep Blue Sea," a film only I seemed to appreciate. (Mike Jackson, Eugene OR)

A. I wrote a column in Yahoo Internet Life magazine suggesting that movie fans record their own personal shot-by-shot DVD commentaries, and post them on the web in the MP3 format (the column is at www.yilcom). Commentary tracks are recorded by directors, actors, critics and scholars--why not by fans, who sometimes know more about a movie than anyone else?

Q. Your idea for do-it-yourself commentary tracks is brilliant. I plan to do some myself. You suggest that most commentary tracks are "inside jobs," but certainly there are a few that have been overtly critical of the film. Lem Dobbs' commentary for "The Limey" is very argumentative at times, Kevin Smith's the commentary for "Mallrats" is deservedly self-deprecatory, and the commentary for the out-of-print Criterion Collection "Sid and Nancy" is scathingly critical of the liberties the filmmakers took with the life stories of the subjects. Do you have any favorite "critical" or "negative" DVD commentary tracks? (Sean Duncan, Oxford OH)

A. You may have exhausted the list. I'd love to hear a commentary track by someone who hates a movie.

Q. Your Yahoo! Internet Life column is a little too quick in concluding that consumers should record MP3 commentaries to DVDs and trade them over the Web. I teach copyright law, and although I'm not altogether happy about where the law is headed these days, it seems at least possible that these MP3s could be considered unlawful derivative works by the holders of the copyrights in the original movies. In the language of the motion picture industry, that makes "critics and fans on the Web" into copyright thieves and pirates. This raises some interesting issues under the First Amendment, but I think this is the direction that recent court decisions take us. (Prof. Michael J. Madison, University of Pittsburgh School of Law)

A. You're the expert, but wouldn't spoken freelance commentaries be protected in the same way as written commentaries? How are the copyright holders harmed? The original DVD must be purchased by both the commentator and those who want to listen to the commentary, and its copyrighted content is not being distributed.

Q. The blatant product placements, especially for Marlboro cigarettes, in "In the Bedroom" were so conspicuous, they distracted from the movie. What can we, as movie viewers, do to voice our objections? (Annette Osterlund, Boulder CO)

A. A full-page ad in The New York Times, previously turned down by Variety, made the same point. But Todd Field, who wrote and directed the film, says it contained no paid product placements. "Sissy Spacek's character smokes in the [Andre Dubus] short story," he told me. "I asked myself, why did she smoke? Should she continue to smoke? I projected how my own parents might behave. My father smoked for many years. If one of his children were killed, that is the first thing he would go back to. When people are grieving, they pick up old bad habits. No one notices, but Matt [the Tom Wilkinson character] nurses a soda at the beginning, when other people are drinking. After the death, he starts drinking, and his wife starts smoking." The New York Times ad by the anti-smoking group recommended that movies with smoking in them be rated R. "That's cultural. McCarthyism," Field said. "Does that mean 'Casablanca' and 'Lawrence of Arabia' should be rated R? And Groucho Marx?"

Q. Regarding the "Fiction" section of Todd Solondz's film "Storytelling:" I read that in order to get the film made, Solondz had to guarantee an "R" rating for the final cut. When the MPAA objected to the scene in which Selma Blair has sex with her professor, Solondz refused to cut the scene and placed red quadrangles over the more graphic portions of the frame. I saw the film here in Paris where I am studying. I saw no bars of any kind and the figures were mostly shadowed. Bars hardly seem "necessary." Did I see the uncensored version or were certain angles simply cut out to avoid bars entirely? (Justin Canada, Dallas TX)

A. I saw it uncensored at Cannes. You may not have thought bars were "necessary," but the MPAA did object to the scene. I credit Solondz for dramatizing this de facto censorship by blocking the targeted scenes with bright red oblongs, instead of meeking trimming them. The MPAA continues to deny America a workable adult rating.

Q. Re widescreen DVDs: I work for Blockbuster and the company did indeed make the decision to stock only pan-and-scan DVDs for rent. Apparently, they would rather cater to the public's ignorance than try to educate them to the benefits of letterboxing. I have tried on numerous occasions to explain wide screen to customers, with some success. The visual example on the "Die Hard" DVD changes a lot of minds. Some DVDs have both pan-and-scan and widescreen versions available and I have changed customers' minds by telling them to watch five minutes of one version and then five minutes of another. All it takes is a little effort to educate the customer. (Toby Schmidt, Dayton NJ)

A. True, but Blockbuster has made a corporate decision that casts a pall over the emerging DVD market. The majority of DVD users want letterboxing, which is why most DVDs have been widescreen or offered both formats. Now Blockbuster has asked manufacturers to supply DVDs in the pan-and-scan format. and does not carry letterboxed DVDs in many of its stores. This takes me back to a day years ago when I had one of the founders of Blockbuster in my home and was proudly showing off a letterboxed laserdisk. To my disbelief, he did not understand the format and I had to explain it to him. He was a retailer, not a movie lover. The company follows in the same tradition.

Q. I recently rented the film "Bully" by Larry Clark, and was played for a fool. On the box it was given an R rating, even though I knew it had been rated NC-17. Yet there was no disclaimer on the box stating that it had been altered from the original. I went home to watch it and sure enough before the movie began there was a title screen explaining that the version I had rented was not the version the director intended to be seen! I was unable to return the film for a refund--nor would anyone else who made the same mistake! How could they market this film without a written disclaimer stating it had been altered, and why can't they carry the original "Director's Cut" as well? (Kevin Young, Whitman MA)

A. You did not name the video store. If it was Blockbuster, the chain refuses to handle NC-17 movies, insisting that R-rated versions be supplied. Blockbuster thus dictates both format and content. Imagine the outcry if a book store stocked only the Reader's Digest Condensed Book versions of a novel, and quietly removed all the offensive parts.

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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