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Movie Answer Man (03/03/1996)

Q. I read wonderful reviews of excellent movies and then the film vanishes. I'm dying to see "Persuasion," so where is it? (Mrs. M. Stern, Gary, Indiana)

A. "Persuasion," which was a much better Jane Austen adaptation than "Sense and Sensibility," did not get much of a shove from its distributor. Theaters are often booked by computers according to cynical demographics that favor the kinds of movies that can appeal quickly to younger viewers and rack up a hot opening weekend. Films intended for older or more discerning audiences get penalized by this "top ten" mentality. A current example: "Once Upon a Time...When we Were Colored," one of the best films of the year, is tailor-made for those who hunger for a film with positive, nonviolent, family-oriented African-American material. But it has a puny advertising budget, and unless audiences actively seek it out, quickly, it be shoved aside by junk like "Black Sheep" and "Happy Gilmore."

Q. Sometimes in the opening credits all the actors are listed by name except for one who is listed along with the name of the character he plays. It even happens on television; "Seinfeld" has "Jason Alexander as George." Please tell me why they do this. It eats at me and my girlfriend every time we see it on the screen. (Sean Polreis, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan)

A. It's an ego thing. Best of all is top billing, of course. But when an actor gets aced out of the top position, his agent may angle for other special billings. For example, last billing ("...and Sean Polreis"). Or character billing ("...Sean Polreis as the Joker"). In France, they get really fancy ("With the kind participation of Sean Polreis"). You may have noticed that this does not eat away at you nearly as much when it's your name.

Q. I was surprised to learn that the producers of "The Postman (Il Postino)" sent video cassettes to members of the academy in order to get them to vote for the film. Is it considered acceptable to lobby members of the academy for a particular film? (Bruce Worthen, Salt Lake City)

A. Absolutely. Oscar season is like Christmas for Academy members, whose mailboxes are stuffed with dozens of free cassettes--sometimes of movies that will not be released on video to the general public for months. There are also free screenings in Los Angeles, New York and even Chicago and Toronto theaters for Academy members. And the trade papers are filled with ads touting the possible winners and urging voters to view the cassettes.

Q. Re the made-for-TV movie "The Late Shift:" When you make a movie about someone as entertaining as Letterman, you need to have him played by an actor who can at least approximate wit. The guy playing Leno was a little better, but neither of these guys are imaginable as great comic talents in this movie--and that is ultimately what it is all about. (J. Walker, Nashville, Tenn.)

A. Exactly. You can't imagine anyone bidding millions for those doofuses.

Q. Your Little Movie Glossary should include he "Left is Right Principle of Movie Reviewing. This law, employed by many reviewers, is used faithfully by you. Simply stated, if the movie in question promotes an agenda that agrees with your politics, it will automatically get four stars (current examples: "Nixon," "The American President"). You will point out a few examples of "left" films that you trashed, but for the most part, you to praise anything that believes like you do. (Dave Wilkie, Ozark, MO.)

A. Here is the real test: Are "Nixon" and "The American President" good films? I say they are. I tried to explain why in my reviews. If you say they aren't, is it because they disagree with your politics? You seem to feel the movies are bad primarily because of their political orientation. A critic who says a good film is bad, or a bad film is good, is a bad critic regardless of his politics.

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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