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. Apparently there is a new movie coming out named "An Alan Smithee Film," written by Joe Eszterhas and directed by Arthur Hiller, and it has led to a lot of publicity about "Alan Smithee" and his checkered career. What is your favorite Alan Smithee film? (Casey Anderson, Schaumberg)
A. Easy. That would be "The Man in the Moon" (1991), directed by Robert Mulligan, which was released under Mulligan's name and made my list of the year's best. He insisted his name be removed from the airline version, which was so severely censored that all sense was lost. "Alan Smithee," of course, is the pseudonym used to replace the name of a director who has removed his name from a film in protest against changes he has no control over.
Q. Why is Tom Arnold allowed to star in--much less appear in--movies? Shouldn't something be done about this? (Michael Donovan, Minneapolis, MN)
A. Pauly Shore is a star and you're worried about Tom Arnold? Actually, in the right role, Arnold can be pretty good.
Q. In your discussion of "Breakdown" in the Answer Man, I noticed that both you and Paul Gabriel were noting your surprise that Kurt Russell pulled the gear shift to flatten the J.T. Walsh character. I discussed this with a few people I know and we seem to recall it was the Kathleen Quinlan character who actually reached into the pickup to release the gear. We figured that Kathleen Quinlan's character did it as her one way of lashing out at the injustices that were done to her--up to that point she didn't really have any outlet for her revenge. (Kelly Dyment, Toronto, Ont)
A. That was my mistake and not Paul Gabriel's. I had it right in my review, but in writing the Answer Man somehow recalled it was Russell, not Quinlan. The fact that the Quinlan character kills the villain is probably sounder from a dramatic point of view, but it still disturbs me that a helpless man is deliberately murdered; it crosses a moral boundary that usually separates the good and evil characters in thrillers.
Q. Something has been bugging me. Female performers are now called "actors." What does that do to the "best actress" and "supporting actress" categories of the Oscars? Can they really have it both ways? What's wrong with being called an "actress?" Lest you think I'm a conservative anti-feminist, know that I'm a knee-jerk liberal, but enough is enough! (Marilyn B. Signer, Lakeland, FL)
A. The politically correct line is that gender distinctions should not be applied when a job is not gender-specific. An actor is an actor is an actor. It is only a matter of time, I suppose, until the Academy category is renamed "best female actor." Of course to be truly consistent there should be no separate categories for men and women, and they should all compete equally for "best actor." After all, there isn't a category for "best female director."
Q. What is your policy regarding ratings? My interest was piqued after reading your review of "The Godfather, Part II." You gave this film three stars. My thoughts on the film aside, your review solidly justifies this rating. (You said the De Niro parts interrupt the structure.) But in recent weeks you have given "Private Parts" and "The Fifth Element" the same three stars. Given that three stars is certainly an accurate representation of the quality of these two films (OK, three is a little generous for "The Fifth Element"), what does this say about "The Godfather, Part II" by comparison? Do you have a de facto statute of limitations on your ratings? Or do you categorically stand behind them? What, short of re-reviewing them (as in your "Great Movies" project, a wonderful section) can you say about these older films you have reviewed? (Michael C. Kingsley, New York City)
A. Star ratings are of course relative to the genre of the film. What "three stars" means, essentially, is that I recommend you see the film if it is the sort of film you might be interested in. (Four stars means I recommend you see it no matter what.) On a scale where "The Godfather" rates at four stars, I think three stars is a fair rating for its sequel (I was more or less alone among critics in preferring "Part III" to "Part II," although of course I would not want to do without all three films). In my "Great Movies" feature I am going back and reviewing classics from the past, most of which I have not reviewed before. Occasionally on these excursions I find that my opinion has changed over time, as it did with "The Graduate," which I no longer find as exciting as I once did.
Q. I've spoken to several knowledgeable film goers and no one has given me a satisfactory explanation as to why the scene with Chief Gunderson (Frances McDormand) and her Asian high school friend Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) was included in the film "Fargo." Your comments? (Kerry Glicken, Highland Park, Il).
A. This is the most common question asked about the film, and now that it's out on video, people are asking again. The scene functions in several ways. (1) It works on its own terms, as a wonderful little human drama. (2) It shows that Marge Gunderson, so competent as a police officer, is still capable of being thrown in a social situation. (3) Most importantly, it separates her two crucial meetings with the suspect Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy). She interviews Jerry almost as an afterthought at the car dealership (where she went looking for Shep Proudfoot). Then she has dinner with her old friend Mike. The next morning, she learns in a phone call that everything he told her was a fabrication. Then we see her looking thoughtful in her squad car. Then she returns to the dealership to ask Jerry more questions--and this time he cracks and flees the interview. Being deceived by the school friend nudged her to replay her original interview with Jerry. Imagine the Lundegaard interview as one unbroken scene, and you can see how much less effective it would have been. The delay between the scenes also allows us to imagine Lundegaard marinating in his guilt and fear, setting up his extreme nervousness when she returns.
Q. Now that you're back from Cannes, what was the single funniest thing that happened? (Susan Lake, Urbana, IL)
A. At his party at Planet Hollywood for "She's So Lovely," Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein was told by a publicist, "Harvey! Prince Albert of Monaco is here! Want to meet him?" And Weinstein replied, "Sure. Send him over."
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...