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. After seeing "Forrest Gump," I got into a big argument with my friend Sarah about how they made Gary Sinise's legs disappear. She claimed he just tucked them under, but I contend that if you are going to involve special effects wizards extensively in a film, they are going to be more hi-tech. Which one of us is right? (Lydia Smith, Winnetka)
A. You are. Special effects expert Marc Wielage of the CompuServe Consumer Electronics Forum, explains: "Three techniques were used to hide Lt. Dan's legs: (1) digital computer removal (very expensive and complicated); (2) an incredible "mirror" arrangement in the wheelchair, partially designed by magician Ricky Jay; and (3) holes in the bed, holes in the floor, and careful shooting. It's the best effect of its type I've ever seen, and I swear, I've seen 'em all. If this movie doesn't win the Oscar for best special effects, they should digitally remove the Motion Picture Academy's building on Wilshire Blvd." And Paul Voisine, also from CEForum, adds: "Notice particularly the scenes in the hospital where the orderlies have to pick up Lt. Dan off the bed and you can clearly see there are no legs, and no room to hide them bent under him. But there's something a little 'wrong' that a sharp eye can see. My gut feeling is that it's the shadows and lighting on the bed under them, since they had to digitally erase the shadows of his existing legs."
Q. "Forrest Gump" has me wondering about something. When is it okay and when is it not okay to use computerized versions of real people, deceased, in a film? Is it okay to use historical figures such as past Presidents, but not okay to use actors since it's a little too close to home, and the real actors might very well have performed quite differently? Was it okay to use Elvis in this way in the film? I'm trying to get a grasp on why this is fine, but putting Bogart in a Coke commercial seemed to lean more toward bad taste. (Barb Schroeder)
A. Hmmm. Now that computers edge us closer to the day when a movie "performance" can be totally manufactured, this is a question with fascinating aspects. I was offended by Bogart in the Coke commercial--it seemed to me they were ripping off his memory--but I enjoyed Forrest Gump's computerized encounters with Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Elvis, and so forth. Maybe art redeems what commerce exploits?
Q. I sat through the endless credits of "Forrest Gump" to find out who the dialect coach was, just so I could find out if it was the same one responsible for Jodie Foster's disastrous attempt at an Appalachian accent in "Silence of the Lambs". Yeah, I know she won an Oscar, and Tom Hanks will at least be nominated for "Forrest Gump", but neither of them has an ear for dialect. I hereby demand that neither of them ever, ever make another movie which calls for a Southern dialect. Ever. The coach is one Jessica Drake, and either she is an incompetent pretender or she just gave up with Tom: "Just do it any old way, dear, no one will notice! You're supposed to be stupid anyway." By the way, in the South, they say "Fah-rest", not "Fore-est", so everyone had that wrong, too. (Guenveur Burnell, Kent, Ohio)
A. Lawd-a-mercy, chile, you DO speak yo' mind!
Q. I just saw "Forrest Gump" and feel it is the best picture I have seen this year. Do you think that Tom Hanks has a chance to get back-to-back Oscars for this outstanding performance? (Stanley M. Glassover, Boulder, Colo.)
A. He's a shoo-in for a nomination, anyway. "Forrest Gump" has generated more positive mail and feedback for me than any other film in years. It's amazing how intensely so many people admire it.
Q. I heartily agree with your comment in the "Lassie" review about the annoying habit of young characters who hiss a sibilant "yessss!" and do a slam-dunk whenever something turns out their way. Maybe Ronald Reagan started it with his usage of "yes" as a conjunction, eg., "Yes and health care, too." Whoever started it, it drives me nuts and, unfortunately, it's starting to make its way into Canada. Maybe because we have an NBA franchise now, who knows. (Rob Heslin, Toronto, Canada)
Q. Your comment in your review of "Black Beauty" about tuning into animals' true thoughts reminded me of a Gary Larson cartoon--the one in which a scientist walks down the street wearing a bizarre helmet that lets him hear what dogs are really saying. They're saying, "Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!" and "Hey! Hey! Hey!" and "Heyyyyyyyy!" In Beauty's case, of course, it would be "Hay!" (Jan Strnad, Los Angeles)
Q. In "Barcelona" the character played by Taylor Nichols seems to stumble over some of his lines. Isn't that unusual? Everybody in films is always articulate, unlike real people. No? (Alexis Bakaysa, San Antonio, Texas)
A. The character has a slight speech impediment. For me, this added to his interest. It always seems a little strange that in the movies nobody ever pauses to search for the right word. John Wayne used to make a style out of coming to a halt halfway through every sentence ("You'll never stop...Genghis Khan!") and it gave him a curious believability.
Q. Here in Kansas City, there is only one video store I have found which has a copy of "The War Room." Because IT only has one copy, I have not had a chance to see it since it was released. Blockbuster seems to stock many other videos that would be commercially less viable than this one, including some documentaries. They wouldn't make the decision not to carry it because they don't like Clinton, would they? It's all about money, right? (Jonathan Plummer, Kansas City, Mo.)
A. Right. "The War Room" is a behind-the-scenes documentary about the Clinton advance team during the 1992 campaign. Documentaries traditionally do poorly at the box office and in rentals, and many video chains have grown hit-oriented, ordering multiple copies of box office successes but few copies of "marginal" films. Many film buffs use mail order to find obscure titles. Two of the most comprehensive outlets are Facets Multimedia (1-800-331-6197 or, in Illinois, 312-281-9075) and Movies Unlimited (800-466-8437).
Q. I've been showing your review of "North" around and it has been thoroughly enjoyed by all. Thank you for passionately using the word "hated" twelve times in one paragraph! (David Munier, Peoria, Ariz.)
A. You should have read the first draft.
Q. Here is a footnote to "Reality Bites," the Generation X movie you criticized because you thought the heroine chose the wrong man. I wish that you had been there when, out to dinner with a friend's 23-year-old sister and her girlfriends, I explained to them that, in real life, the Ethan Hawke character was an abusive, self-destructive, substance-addicted, neurotic, selfish loser, and a jerk to everyone around him. Ben Stiller's character was a normal, functioning human adult: morally compromised and corrupt--that is to say, alive. To step into the circle of life is to choose not to be pure, whether you are Gandhi or Donald Trump. Needless to say, I got from the MTV generation nothing but hostile stares. What can you expect from a group whose aim is to revive the worst music and fashions of this century? (Michael E. Isbell, New York)
A. Of course, it wouldn't pay to look too closely into which generation popularized that music and those fashions the first time around.
Q. I know that rating movies is difficult, because in a sense, it's rating art. How many stars would you give the Mona Lisa? But I am curious to know if you have ever felt like giving a movie like "Schindler's List" some kind of special rating, to signify that it's a very special movie. Perhaps a fifth star? (Steven H. Schlesinger, Chino Hills, CA)
A. Any movie rating system is of course arbitrary and silly, but the only way to make it useful is to play by the rules. There is a critic in Los Angeles who says things like, "On a scale of one to 10, I give it a 20!" That way madness lies. For me, "four stars" means a movie is truly excellent. Of course, some "four star" movies are better than others, because no two movies can be quite the same, but I think most readers understand that.
Q. I have to tell you about a recent movie-going misadventure. My wife and I saw that you gave "Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould" four stars. That was good enough for us, so we trundled down the theater. It didn't take long to figure out that "32 Short Films" was like one of those Moroccan dishes with calf's brains and honey. To some, it might be a delicacy, but to others its just, well, calf's brains. So we sneaked across the hallway of the mega-plex to the other movie starting about that time: "Renaissance Man." I've never seen a more illogically constructed, bogus piece of celluloid tripe since "Last Action Hero." The point of this note is to suggest you add an intelligence grade for each of your reviews, based on the one-to-five scale. We could call it the Ebert Highfalutin Quotient (or EHQ). For example, "32 Short Films" would then get a four-over-four (4/4), whereas "Die Hard" would get a four over one (4/1) and "Renaissance Man" would rate a 1/1. Please, take pity on those who don't know the difference between Film Noir and Pinot Noir. (Mark Firmani, Seattle)
A. In other words, the first number represents how good I think the movie is, and the second number represents how smart I think you are?
Q. When a movie ends, do you get up as soon as the credits start to roll or do you watch all of the credits and see who was involved behind the scenes? (Noah W Kadner, Albuquerque, NM)
A. Depends on (a) if I was interested in the movie's technical credits, (b) if I like the background music, and (c) whether it's one of those "Airplane!"-style movies with extra bonus gags to look forward to. If the answer to all three questions is "no," you'll find me, in the immortal words of Variety, "ankling for the exit."
Q. My wife and I are trying to figure out where else we've heard that music that's used in the TV ads and promos for "Forrest Gump." Very big, sweeping theme. It's got to come from some other movie, but we can't figure it out. Do you know? (Noel Boulanger, Medford, Mass.)
A. David Abrams of the CompuServe ShowBiz Forum replies: "The music is from 'Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.' I liked the theme so much, I bought the soundtrack!"
Q. In your previous Movie Answer Man column, you wrote about whether the Turner cable operation uses "time compression," which you described as "a technique for speeding up film in a way that is allegedly not noticeable to the audience, so that a few more seconds or minutes can be crammed into a time slot." This was in response to a question about characters seeming to fly around in "Gone With the Wind," and you said Turner claims it doesn't do it. Shortly after you mentioned this, TBS began running a disclaimer at the beginning of many movies saying they had been time expressed or time expanded to fill their slots. (Bob Rusbasan, Lafayette, Ind.)
A. A TBS public relations person says he hopes to have a statement "soon" to clarify their policy. I guess time compression is what we should expect from the same Turner folks who colorize classic black and white films like "Casablanca," and are now trying to muscle American Movie Classics off of cable systems. AMC never compresses and never colorizes; here's another example of the bad driving out the good.
Q. Tommy Lee Jones, the mad bomber in "Blown Away," has his secret headquarters on a beat-up old abandoned boat. Yet his TV picks up a cable channel, Arts and Entertainment. This is obvious from the large overpromotion of its logo in every shot. How did Jones get cable in his secret hideout when I can't even get the cable company to come to my house? (Eric M. Davitt, Toronto)
A. Have you tried bomb threats?
Q. There was no reason for "The Lion King" to deal with murder. I am not a shrinking violet; I have worked as a reporter, police officer and now a government prosecutor. I have dealt with death many times although I have reached the age where I am totally burned out by tragedy, particularly senseless random killings. What we as parents expect from Disney is a "safe harbor." We would hope for Disney to provide warm "G" movies for children and give them a chance to escape the horrors of our society. Kids need opportunities to be kids. To feel safe and secure. We're bummed out because our 10 year old dog died suddenly today and I have a five year old daughter who we're trying to help though this when we can barely get through it ourselves. Maybe Disney can rationalize this movie. I'm sure they can. But that's not the point. If parents and kids can't turn to Disney, what's left? (Dick Ginkowski, Kenosha, Wis.)
A. I mentioned in my review that "The Lion King" was probably too intense for younger children, and several letters have confirmed this. I think Disney is essentially reaching for a mass audience of all ages by including themes that are more mature than smaller children are capable of handling.
Q. After seeing "Hudsucker Proxy" this week, I decided to pull out my copy of "Raising Arizona" to enjoy some other work by Joel and Ethan Coen. Lo and behold, I noticed that a patch worn on the overalls of M. Emmet Walsh in the prologue reads "Hudsucker Industries!" Has this corporate name appeared in their other films as a running gag, or is this a sole incident? (John Muller)
A. Frank Casey of Warner Bros. says it's not a running joke. While making "Raising Arizona," the brothers completed the script for "Hudsucker Proxy," and when the scene with M. Emmet Walsh came up, they just slapped "Hudsucker Industries" on his overalls patch. It was a one-time thing.
Q. You said in your review of "It Could Happen To You" that you wondered if it was from a true story. I saw it today with friends and we all swore we'd seen it in the papers. Someone said she heard that the cop had actually been a 20-year customer at the diner and shared with the waitress as an act of generosity. Any truth to this? (Alex Fallis, Ormond Beach, Fla.)
A. Much truth. A real cop from Yonkers, N.Y., named Robert Cunningham, offered to split a lottery ticket in lieu of a tip, with a real waitress, Phyliss Penzo. They won, and have been splitting $285,715 annually ever since 1984. In the movie, the characters played by Nicholas Cage and Bridget Fonda went on to fall in love, but Cunningham and Penzo remain happily married to their original spouses.
Q. Superman's girl friend is named Lois Lane. The Shadow's girl friend is named Margo Lane. Could they be related? (Nissen V. Vexler, Skokie)
A. If they are, I'll bet they need a good support group.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...