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Movie Answer Man (07/30/2000)

Q. Homage alert! Did you notice the striking similarities between Amy Heckerling's "Loser" and Billy Wilder's "The Apartment"? The skeletal plots are identical: Nerdy guy has a crush on a woman who likes him but who, in turn, has a crush on an authority figure who's taking advantage of her. Beyond that, there are several scenes in "Loser" that echo Wilder's film: (1) In "The Apartment," Shirley MacLaine stands up Jack Lemmon at a performance of "The Music Man." In "Loser," Jason Biggs is stood up at a concert. (2) In "The Apartment," a good doctor pumps Shirley MacLaine's stomach and gives a warning to Lemmon, who pretends to be her boyfriend. In "Loser," a good doctor pumps Mena Suvari's stomach and gives a warning to Biggs who pretends to be Suvari's boyfriend. (3) In "The Apartment," Lemmon's unsavory superiors party at his place and he has to clean up afterwards. In "Loser," Bigg's unsavory roommates party at his place and he has to clean up afterwards. (4) In "The Apartment," MacLaine stays at Lemmon's place to recuperate and he offers to cook for her. In "Loser," Suvari stays at Biggs' place and he offers to cook for her. (5) At the end of "The Apartment," Fred MacMurry complains to MacLaine how Lemmon "threw that big, fat promotion in my face." At the end of "Loser," Greg Kinnear complains how Biggs' threw a big A grade back in his face. (6) Both films end with the heroine finally wising up and rushing back to the hero's apartment/animal hospital quarters for a happy ending. Are you as shocked/impressed as I am? (Joe Baltake, film critic, Sacramento Bee)

A. As a wise man once said: In literature, it's plagiarism; in cinema, it's homage.

Q. I have been buying nothing but wide screen DVDs, whenever possible. Wide screen allows you to see the movie as it was intended to be seen, while pan & scan robs you of the director's visual composition. But I've noticed a peculiar thing: In "Network," for example, there is a scene in which Faye Dunaway and William Holden enter a room with a bed and she begins stripping. In the theatrical release, her nipples show clearly as she is about to get into bed. Ditto in the pan & scan version, but not in the widescreen version! I recently bought, "Ghost Story" (1981). In it there is a scene where Alice Krige is standing nude before a glass door. When Craig Wasson enters the room, she turns. In the pan & scan version, her pubic area may be seen; in the widescreen version, the picture is cut off below the navel. I am not a dirty old man, but I despise censorship. Please tell me this is not a trend in widescreen; that anything near the edge of the frame that may be objectionable will just be clipped. (Jim Cameron, Soddy-Daisy TN)

A. There is an innocent explanation, and it has to do with framing, Many movies are shot with more headroom and footroom on the frame than is ever intended to be seen in the theater. A widescreen plate in the projector gate defines the area intended to be framed and shown. When the widescreen movie is transferred to a pan & scan video, areas may be revealed that the director never intended to be seen. If you indeed saw nudity in the theatrical version of "Network," that was probably because the projectionist in that theater had the film incorrectly framed.

Q. Regarding "Disney's The Kid:" The Answer Man reported that the Chaplin estate got nasty over the use of the title "The Kid", so Disney altered it. I wonder if this is really true, because (1) The Kid is from 1921 and clearly in the public domain; and (2) You can't copyright a title in any event. Presumably, Disney has lawyers who know this stuff. (Jeff Joseph)

A. My source was Ray Pride, film critic for New City in Chicago, who responds: "Yes, but Chaplin did sometimes perform that sweet little trick of adding musical scores later and presenting the result as a new, freshly copyrightable artifact. In the late 1970s when I was programming at Northwestern, the Chaplin estate was formidable at repackaging and protecting the work (not that I know that's the case with "The Kid.") The non-copyrightability of a title is true, too, but there is the MPAA registry to contend with--the gentleman's club among the major studios that banks all the potential titles they can think of, then horse-trade them when necessary. (As in Columbia browbeating Miramax over "Scream," as if anyone remembered their "Screamers" of a couple years earlier.)"

Q. About "Scary Movie." I would say "uncivilized" is the only word to do it justice. I was curious to see it after the mention you made in reply to a reader's query on Sunday. So I went. The thought of any child seeing that movie makes me want to track down each of the film-makers and somehow call them to account for the damage they are doing. With garbage like this, I am in favor of outright censorship. A society that puts up with "Scary Movie" (and I suppose there may be even worse) is a society without the will to defend itself. Anyway, my point was to ask, since the rating system is an obvious failure, if you have ever thought of devising a rating system of your own, to guide parents wondering whether a movie is suitable for their children. I am sure parents would be grateful. I note that you did mention the coarse nature of the film -- but wouldn't a "don't let your kids watch this" be more effective? (Nick Hamilton, Chicago)

A. I do sometimes warn parents when I think a PG-13 movie is not for the kids, but now I see that since parents completely disregard the R rating, a warning is sometimes appropriate there, too. The amazing thing is that this movie did untold millions in business and lots of parents took their kids. I got other letters from shell-shocked parents. The MPAA's greedy refusal to allow a workable adult rating means the R rating has been stretched beyond all reason and now encompasses material which is clearly for A "adults only," including the genital gags in "Scary Movie."

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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