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Movie Answer Man (08/25/1996)

Q. Just read your review of "Alaska." It's really difficult to take seriously a movie in which kids head off into the Alaskan wilderness accompanied by A Friendly Polar Bear when one has recently had the experience of sitting in an Anchorage hotel room with two fat books of nothing but stories of unprovoked bear attacks, while watching on the TV a news report of a couple mauled by bears, followed by a public service announcement reminding people that you're nuts if you go more then ten feet into the wilderness without a shotgun about the size of your leg. I don't know why the movies encourage the youth of America to horse around with bear cubs whenever the opportunity arises. They should read passages from my bear books, for example: " I felt his teeth scraping against bone, I was struck by how strange it was that I could feel it, could see buckets of my blood, and yet there was so little actual pain." (Andy Ihnatko, Westwood, Mass.)

A. Strange indeed, that the wise old Indian in the movie counsels the children, "Trust the bear!"--when such a seasoned veteran of the wilderness should probably have advised, "Get away from the bear as fast as you can!" In my defense, I must point out that my review of "Alaska" contained these words: "I started hoping for a warning to flash on the screen: Caution! Kids! Do not try this on your next vacation to Yellowstone! Trust the bear. But keep the windows rolled up."

Q. There were news reports of the death of Kiyoshi Atsumi, said to be the most popular actor in Japan, who played an actor named "Tora-San." Have you ever heard of any of these movies? Do they ever play in the rest of the world? (Ronnie Barzell, Chicago)

A. There are 48 Tora-San movies, making it history's longest-running feature film series with one actor. The beloved Atsumi, whose real name was Yasuo Tadoroko, was compared in Japan to Charlie Chaplin; he made two Tora-San movies a year until recently, when advancing age slowed him down to one a year. His films were rarely exported. I have seen only one of them. They all follow more or less the same story line, in which a everyman gets a few weeks off from his job, visits his family in their old neighborhood, doesn't get along with them very well, and then decides to go on vacation to a famous Japanese tourist area. While there, he meets a beautiful girl and falls in love with her, but the romance never works out, and he ends up helping her in some way and then returning to his lonely bachelor life. Audiences enjoyed the predictability of this plot, which was repeated with variations, in film after film. In their unassuming way, these human comedies reflected the Japanese notion of "nolo con aware," or the bittersweet awareness of the transience of earthly things. Some of the "Tora-San" movies are available on video in the United States.

Q. So far this year I have seen two truly extraordinary films: the Coen brothers' "Fargo" and John Sayles' "Lone Star." I feel that these movies should be in contention for the Academy Award for best picture, yet I am very skeptical that they will receive any nominations, simply because they are low-budget independent films and did not receive a very large viewing audience. Do you believe that there will ever be a time when movies such as these receive the recognition from the Academy that I believe they deserve? (Cramer Kern, Broussard, LA.)

A. I agree that these are the two best American films so far this year. Actually, both films did well at the box office, and neither one was low-budget by independent standards, although you could have made a dozen of each for the same cost as "Independence Day." A greater problem may be the Academy's notoriously abbreviated attention span. Oscar voters frequently respond to the hype of big year-end releases, and forget about films that opened earlier in the year. Both films will inevitably win lots of year-end critics' awards, which may help to nudge the Academy's memory.

Q. I though "Escape From L.A." was a pretty good movie. But after thinking about it, I realized something that few if any of the reviews even touched on. (If you use this in the Answer Man column, please say SPOILER so people who haven't seen it won't learn the ending.) Anyway, do you realize that if Snake truly did shut off the planetary energy source in the last scene, he killed more people in one instant than any war, and became the biggest mass murderer in history? By shutting off the power, he caused all airplanes to crash, countless cars to have wrecks because of dead traffic lights, all computers and all of their functions to stop dead, all hospital emergency power to shut off, etc. The movie ends without dealing with the fact that Snake has killed probably more than half a billion people. (Andre R. Mallette, Wilmington, N.C.)

A. I did write in my review, "the implications of his final scene are breath-taking." But I saw his act more as a defiant gesture against the mega-state. Your more logical approach is chilling. Interesting, how in special effects and science fiction movies the hero becomes so overwhelmingly important that when he makes a grand defiant gesture, it is somehow justified even though, as you point out, half a billion people might die to satisfy his ego. I guess we should not be surprised that this did not occur to Snake.

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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