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Movie Answer Man (09/22/2002)

Q. I don't think I've read more consistently outstanding reviews for a movie than I have for Visconti's "The Leopard" (1963). For being an award-winning foreign film, it is strangely absent from video, DVD, movie houses, cable, etc. Any idea why this great film hasn't been converted for public consumption? (Lynn Phillips, Urbana IL)

A. Burt Lancaster considered it his best performance, and it is one of the most frequently-mentioned "missing" DVDs. Kelly O'Brien of Fox Home Entertainment says, "it's been discussed, but no definite decision has been made" about whether they'll release it.

Q. The Answer Man recently revived the story that an ancestor of James Bond" producer Cubby Broccoli invented the vegetable of the same name, and indeed named it after himself. This account seemed unlikely to me. A quick check in a dictionary reveals that "broccoli" derives from the Italian word "broccolo", meaning "the flowering top of a cabbage." Also, an internet site provides a brief precis on the origins of the broccoli plant with no mention of Cubby or his grandfather. It seems safe to say that although Cubby's family might or might not have had something to do with cultivating or popularizing the vegetable, it is presumptuous to credit them with its invention. (Charles Nielson, Arlington Va)

A. Unless they invented it and then named themselves after it? All I know is that the story was recounted in Broccoli's New York Times obituary. In double-checking it, I was disappointed to find it was not written by Johnny Apple.

Q. I just saw "My Wife Is an Actress," and I have a question. Why is that movies about the making of other movies can never manage to come up with a decent plot for the film-within-the-film? The movie that Charlotte Gainsbourg's making with Terence Stamp looks every bit as ludicrous and uninteresting as "Rendezvous," the film that the Julia Roberts and Blair Underwood characters are working on Steven Soderbergh's "Full Frontal"? Who'd pay to see these films anyway? This flaw seems unavoidable. It's plagued everything from Francois Truffaut's otherwise fine "Day for Night" to Julia Roberts' "America's Sweethearts." (Joe Baltake, Sacramento Bee)

A. I think the inner movies are considered throwaway exercises; if they were too good, they'd be distractions. While agreeing that the movie within "Full Frontal" is bad I would, however, argue that it is better than the film containing it--a first.

Q. I've just experienced "Waking Life" on video and I am disappointed with Fox's blanket disclaimer at the opening of the DVD. If "the opinions expressed in this movie do not necessarily reflect those of 20th Century Fox," then I can't help but ask, what DOES? This movie, unlike any other, respects and represents the myriad of human states in which we find ourselves today. Was this blanket disclaimer in response to feeling of unease among the media "in the wake of 911?" (George Partida, Carson CA)

A. Good lord! A movie with an opinion! In fact, countless opinions, as the movie's hero wanders around Austin and listens to dozens of talkative folks. My guess is that 20th Century-Fox, being a studio and not a person, has no opinions on anything, so it doesn't necessary disagree with them, either.

Q. When I watched "Moulin Rouge" in the theatre, I found it to be an incoherent, in-your-face, style-without-substance kind of movie. I would never have recommended it to anyone, not even lovers of the musical. I just bought the DVD for my girlfriend, and while re-watching it with her, I found it to be extremely entertaining. I could not believe how much dislike I had on the first viewing, and yet so much joy on the second. Should we always trust our initial instincts with a movie when judging it? (Vincent Santino, Phoenix, AZ)

A. Yes. If you saw it in a theater again, you would probably feel the same way. The phenomenon of "Moulin Rouge" is that for many people it seems to play better on DVD than on the big screen, maybe because they can get more distance from its passionate stylistic aggression. I liked it on the screen, loved it on DVD.

Q. I recently heard an interesting theory about John Ford's 1956 classic, "The Searchers." It was suggested to me that Ethan Edwards, John Wayne's racist ex-Confederate soldier in search of his Comanche captured nieces, killed the his oldest niece, Lucy. The evidence that was given is that when he tells his searching partners, Martin and Brad, that he found Lucy's body, he is furiously digging his knife into the sand. This and the fact that we know for a fact he originally planned to kill the other niece, Debbie, make it seem very possible that Ethan slit Lucy's throat. I was wondering what your thoughts were on this and if John Ford himself had ever addressed the theory in an interview. (Pete Dragovich, Bemidji State University, MN)

A. Ethan originally said he would kill Debbie because she had become "the leavin's of a Comanche buck." I referred your question to David Bordwell, the famed critic and professor at the University of Wisconsin, and he replies:

"Interesting, but I think it's implausible. I think that Ethan's obsession grows in the course of the hunt, and he doesn't 'originally' plan to kill Debbie--at least the film doesn't present any clear-cut moment of decision. I think that finding Lucy presumably ravaged by her captors ("Do I have to draw ya a picture?") may be part of the cause of his decision to kill Debbie. It's fairly late in the film that Marty gives voice to the prediction that Ethan will kill Debbie, and until then I don't think we can be sure.

"I don't find the digging with the knife particularly revealing because Ethan is often expressing himself in florid physical gestures (e.g., the way he gesticulates airily about Comanches leading you off the scent) and because (I think) he says he buried Lucy, so his digging with the knife may be an angry re-enactment of that, too. In all, if Ethan kills Lucy, I think our uncertainty about what he will do when he finds Debbie suffers, and I don't think Hollywood movies (except sometimes for Hitchcock or von Sternberg) are this elliptical about key events."

Q. Have you ever called a movie "spellbinding" in your career as a critic? It seems to me that when movie trailers use that as a quote, it's a red flag, as if to say "No real critics cared enough to formulate sincere praises of this movie." (Paul Zaic, Dumfries VA)

A. A computer text search of some 5,000 reviews from 1967 to 2001 shows that I have used the word 21 times, although not always positively. Sample titles: "Amarcord," "Carrie," "My Dinner with Andre," "Lone Star," "Titanic." I am pleased to discover I have not used it at all since December 1997. By way of comparison, in the same time period I used the word "labyrinthine" 82 times. I may use spellbinding again soon, however, since "Spellbound" a documentary about spelling bees, will be opening.

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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