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Movie Answer Man (05/18/1997)

Q. In your review of "Volcano," you wrote, "I expected to see a mountainous volcano in "Volcano," towering high over Los Angeles. But the movie takes place at ground level." We all know how to tell "Volcano" and "Dante's Peak" apart, right? "Dante's Peak" had an andesitic cone volcano which occurs at a subduction zone (in this case where the Pacific Plate is subducting beneath the North American Plate). "Volcano" consists of a flood basalt system which occurs over a "hot spot" on the continental crust. See? Completely different movies--right? (Robert Haynes-Peterson, Boise, Idaho)

A. Not entirely. They both had brave dogs.

Q. Way back when "Schindler's List" was released on video, I wrote to the Answer Man about a newspaper article I had read about Blockbuster Video's policy against carrying letterboxed videos. The article mentioned that the corporate policy was never to carry letterboxed videos if a non-letterboxed version was available since letterboxing tended to confuse customers. Well, I was in a local Blockbuster store yesterday and thought you might be interested in what I discovered. In both the sales and the rental sections, they had large displays of nothing but letterboxed videos. They had professionally printed signs with "Widescreen" in big letters and the slogan "See what you have been missing." A large selection of letterboxed VHS tapes were available for either rental or purchase. (Jeffrey Graebner, Los Angeles, CA).

A. Inexorably, the tide is turning, as increasing numbers of viewers request letterboxing. Since many cable channels have a policy of showing the widescreen letterbox versions instead of the despised pan-and-scan, people have grown more familiar with the format. Most of new DVD discs offer a choice between letterbox and p&s, where applicable, and that will accelerate the process; when you can sit at home and see for yourself how much of the total picture area you're missing with p&s, it's very persuasive. A Blockbuster person once told me it was too difficult to educate clerks to explain letterboxing to customers. My observation was that both clerks and customers understood it better than many Blockbuster executives.

Q. Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery, says: "This is my happening, and it freaks me out!" Now I just wonder how many people (other than true "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" main-liners) will catch that reference. (Paul Kedrosky, London, Ontario)

A. Ahem. It is always an honor for one artist to be quoted by another, and for Mike Myers, a true auteur, to refer to my 1970 screenplay is just one more evidence of his (and its) greatness. Did you notice that "Austin Powers" also used the original Strawberry Alarm Clock soundtrack?

Q. Did you moan as loudly as I did in "The Devil's Own" when the Reuben Blades character (Harrison Ford's partner) announced that he would be retiring from the force in two years to "raise potbellied pigs?" I turned to my movie companion and said, "Well, he's dead." The lesson I've learned from the movies is: never announce your retirement; it's the kiss of death. (Denise Leder, Las Vegas, Nev.)

A. "And will there be rabbits, George?"

Q. When all is said and done, was "Private Parts," the Howard Stern movie, a success? I saw it in maybe the fourth weekend of its release and sharing a screen with earlier screenings of some "Power Rangers" flick. It was only showing at 10 p.m. by that time. I had to complain twice (once to Beavis, once to Butthead) before they got the movie started, a half hour late. (Jim Crossan, Columbia, S.C.)

A. It was a success, but is not perceived as one within the industry, because it is a victim of its own high expectations. The film opened like gangbusters, no doubt because Stern's listeners stormed the box office. But he has a finite number of listeners. The industry question was: Will it "cross over" to the mainstream public? It was carefully tailored to do so, and indeed most mainstream types who saw it liked it. But many apparently were kept away by Stern's reputation, so the movie didn't exhibit the "legs," or staying power, to maintain its opening pace. It was profitable, but not a monster hit. It will no doubt get good TV and cable ratings because of its curiosity value, and when home viewers see that Stern doesn't have horns, they may be more willing to test his next picture. Meanwhile, I ran into Stern at the Cannes Film Festival, where he is selling the film internationally. There's a big question mark about his market outside the U.S.: Will the film flop because he's unknown, or do well because it gets good reviews and there's no built-in antipathy to him in say, Belgium? Stay tuned.

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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