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. Your review of "The Mummy Returns" was harsh on what is, was, and always will be a popcorn movie--a fun jaunt through Indiana Jones territory. It was meant to open the summer with a bang, and has achieved that. In a movie where they have resurrected an ancient mummy and there are magic powers abounding, does it really matter if Rick O'Connell can run 1,000 miles an hour, or that one of two armies can emerge unscathed from battle? So why take issue with "unbelievable" ideas and scenes? I review movies for a web site, and gave "The Mummy Returns" a mostly glowing review, as a popcorn movie. It won't go on my list next to "Fight Club," "The Usual Suspects" or "Run Lola Run," but it is still good fun. (J. Scott, Oakville ON)
A. There are good popcorn movies ("The Mummy") and bad ones ("The Mummy Returns"). Critics should not give movies a pass via the popcorn loophole, but be as rigorous with popcorn movies as any other kind. "The Mummy Returns" cheats on story and character and condescends to its audience with mindless special effects that are not engendered by anything we can care about.
Q. You wrote about the character outrunning the sunrise in "The Mummy Returns." There is another problem. The filmmakers had the shadow "disappear" from the wrong way, by having the sun rise from behind Rick and Alex. You can prove this to yourself in a home science project by using a flashlight, an object (a pillow or binder), your arm, and the wall. (1) Place the light source in one hand and hold it about a foot to your side. (2) Have your other arm about 2 feet away from the light source, and have the light source point directly at your other arm to the point where you can see the light cast upon it. Now, place your object in the direct path of the light source, so as to block the light. Here's where third grade science class kicks in. Watch your "wall" arm, as you raise the light source above the object. You will notice that the shadow "fades away" in the opposite direction than what is depicted in "The Mummy Returns." (Joel Mahler, Livermore, Ca)
A. How many arms did you need to perform this experiment? I needed three.
Q. I saw "A Knight's Tale" over the weekend and must admit that my incredulous laughter after the medieval crowd does a rendition of Queen's "We Will Rock You" turned into embarrassed enjoyment by the end of the project. Much as "Congo" could be taken as a guilty little pleasure, this film seemed to enjoy just how preposterous it was. I get angry when a film like "Gladiator" takes a flame-thrower to history, because it wants to act like an epic. "A Knight's Tale" makes no claims to being anything other than a fun movie. Should I seek help for enjoying this light hearted romp? (Roy Roychoudhury, Brentwood CA)
A. Not at all. It does what it does quite nicely. Strange coincidence, that "A Knight's Tale," "Shrek" and "Moulin Rouge," released within two weeks of each other, would both use modern songs in stories set decades or centuries ago.
A. He was not, according to DreamWorks founder Jeffrey Katzenberg, who masterminded the film. The screenwriters were not familiar with the silent classic.
Q. I read the Answer Man item about ten films that got unanimous praise from the Tomatometer at rottentomatoes.com, which tracks the opinions of major critics. Were there any movies that got unanimous DISapproval? (Bin Lee, Irvine CA)
A. Stephen Wang, chief technical officer of Rotten Tomatoes, replies: "The Top Ten Rotten movies, in order of increasing Tomatometer, are '3 Strikes,' the only movie with unanimous disapproval, followed by 'Lost Souls,' 'Chill Factor,' 'The Mod Squad,' 'The Avengers,' 'Bless the Child,' 'Battlefield Earth,' 'Down to You,' 'Urban Legends: Final Cut,' and 'Jawbreaker.' To give you an idea of the range, 'Jawbreaker,' statistically the best film on this list, scored three percent favorable."
Q. In your review of "Driven," you wrote, "Whether they admit it or not, fans go to auto races to see crashes." I usually enjoy reading your reviews, but that's because your statements usually exhibit some rational thinking process. This one did not. (Ron Hickman, San Jose, CA)
A. I should have written "many" fans. But what do you think would happen to attendance if racing was made into a safe sport? Current speeds and equipment make it a deadly profession for the drivers. The fans seem able to live with that.
Q. I just finished watching Fellini's "8 1/2" with my wife, and she made the interesting observation that certain lines of dialogue in the film were clearly spoken in English and overdubbed in Italian, while other lines remained in English. Also, the dubbing in general was terrible- it often seemed as though the actors were actually speaking entirely different dialogue from that on the soundtrack. Is there any rational explanation that you know of for these anomalies? (Sam Lustig, Los Angeles CA)
A. All Italian movies from that period were filmed with the actors speaking their own languages, whatever they were, and then dubbed later, even into the same language. Lex Barker spoke English and was dubbed into English; Marcello Mastroianni spoke Italian and was dubbed into Italian; Anita Ekberg spoke Swedish and was dubbed into Italian.
Q. Why is a films' success determined by the dollar amount of the box office take, instead of total number of tickets sold? Ticket prices today are higher than ten years ago. Therefore today's films don't have to sell nearly as many tickets to reach the $100 million mark. It would be interesting to compare the number of tickets sold for a 1965 hit like "Thunderball" with a modern hit like "Titanic," on a level playing field. (Jerome Ritchey, Champaign, IL)
A. Such comparisons are deliberately overlooked when companies tout new box office records, because the real reason for such publicity is to create a herd mentality among moviegoers who assume that popularity equals quality. It is shameful, however, that news media solemnly parrot the numbers without pointing out your obvious point.
Q. I was watching the movie "The Insider" and noticed that Al Pacino's character has the EXACT SAME phone number as Kevin Spacey's in "American Beauty"--555-0199. Is this an actual phone number, or is it a number that screenwriters are required to put in, or a fantastic 1 in a trillion chance? Or did one copy the other? (Ryan Vlastelica, Hong Kong)
A. Coincidence, helped by the fact that almost all phone numbers in movies begin with the non-existent exchange "555."
Q. In your review of "The Mummy Returns," you point out that you once wrote "no good movie features a hot-air balloon." What about "Before Night Falls," whose hot-air-balloon scene rips off Tarkovsky's "The Mirror?" (Mathew Wilder, Los Angeles)
A. Sarah Masiulewicz of Chicago and
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A tribute to Doris Day.