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Movie Answer Man (10/10/1999)

Q. I have heard that at least one special effect in "Three Kings" was filmed by inflicting damage to a cadaver. Is this so? Were arrangements made with the deceased prior to death, along the lines of donating one's body to science? What do you think are the ethical considerations here? I'd love to see the movie, but I feel this is going too far. (Patrick Logan, Portland OR)

A. You are referring to shots that seem to take place inside human bodies. Director David O. Russell tells me he jokingly told an interviewer that he used real corpses for those shots. Not true. "It was a prosthesis," he said. "Was it too hard to control the lighting inside a real corpse?" I asked. "Yeah."

Q. I saw "Double Jeopardy" last night. Not to be gross, but when Ashley Judd was inside the coffin do you think there would be gases from the corpse that might ignite when she used the cigarette lighter? (Bob Ludwig, Scarborough ME)

A. Apparently not. Probably another prosthesis.

Q. Went to "Three Kings," which I liked, but I found the audience response at one point disturbing. A cow accidentally stepped on a land mine. The audience broke out in uproarious laughter, the loudest of the whole show. To my mind the director didn't play this scene for humor. I suddenly felt I was in an auditorium full of vicious cretins. But then, it's Colorado. Do you have a take on this? (Timothy E. Klay, Boulder, Colo.)

A. Not a real cow. After seeing hundreds of cows playing every imaginable role on the boulevards of Chicago all summer as part of our wonderful Cow Art project, the exploding cow seemed like just another show-off.

Q. On the Howard Stern show you said "Three Kings" uses the cliche of a truck explosion being shown from several different angles. Actually, it was quite the opposite. The truck set off a mine that flipped it into the air, then hit the ground--and landed on another mine! This is why the truck blasted back into the air. (Tim Tori, Glendale, CA)

A. You are correct. Apologies to director David O. Russell, who told me he deliberately planned the scene to avoid the cliche.

Q. Thora Birch is under 18. Was that a stand-in for her topless scene in "American Beauty?" Isn't it illegal for minors to be shown nude in films? (Buddy Hurlock, Hockessin DE)

A. A spokesperson for the Jinks/Cohen Company, the producers, says: "It is not illegal. to have people under 18 nude or partially nude on film. The California Child Labor Board approved the scene, and its representative was on the set when it was filmed, as were Thora's parents."

Q. In the credits of "American Beauty" one of the thank yous is to "Dr. Bill and Alice". I'm convinced that this is no coincidence, but a reference to the characters in Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut." The couples in both movies have been asleep throughout their marriages and each movie chronicles events that may or may not cause each partner to wake up. Then again, maybe I didn't escape grad school in time to not overanalyze everything? (Nicole Cody, Memphis, TN)

A. You got out in time. A DreamWorks spokesperson says: "Yes, it is an homage to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, who are good friends with 'American Beauty' director Sam Mendes. Sam directed Nicole on Broadway in 'The Blue Room'."

Q. I've noticed in several movies the California license plate 2GATI23, usually on the star's car. Is there something special about that license plate? (Kevin M. Evans, Boston MA)

A. Those plates are the equivalent of the nonexistent "555" prefix on movie phone numbers. But what do they mean? At Leon Poole's Vanity Plates site (, I learned more than I cared to know. Theory one, from Randal L. Shwartz: "2G = 3D 2 G (2000) (rpm). AT = 3D at. 123 = 3D 123 (mph). In other words, it's coasting at lo-revs at that speed." Theory two, from Arthur Bagiski: "G stands for acceleration equal to Earth's gravity (9.8 m/sec2). So the plate reads: two times the acceleration of 9.8 at 1 (first), 2 (second) and at 3 (third) gear."

Q. In response to the Answer Man item about Robert Altman's "Nashville," sadly the film will never again be seen in a widescreen format. There aren't any more usable prints to make a transfer. Even Altman himself doesn't have a 35mm print of the film. (Gary Spinelli, Los Angeles Ca)

A. I also heard from Eric Richmond of the University of Iowa, who writes: "I have heard that the color-process used for the film was unstable and now the negative is destroyed. According to my professor Rick Altman (no relation) unless a great 35mm print is found, this film could be lost forever in its scope version."

Q. How should we understand the title of the Hitchcock movie "North by Northwest"? The hero is not traveling North via Northwest; neither does he fly Northwest Airlines (unless it was that short moment when I dozed off). I will be perfectly satisfied with an answer such as "Hitchcock wanted to intrigue the viewer with a title as ambiguous before watching the movie as it is afterwards; and obviously he succeeded in your case." However, if you have any explanation that is more precise or insightful, I would appreciate it. (Alexei Tolkachev, Moscow, Russia)

A. Hitchcock wanted to intrigue the viewer with a title as ambiguous before watching the movie as it is afterwards; and obviously he succeeded in your case. According to some sources, the title comes from Shakespeare, although that doesn't help explain it:

Q. Regarding "Double Jeopardy," I thought I'd point out what is ignored by virtually every movie on the subject. Double jeopardy protects a person from multiple prosecutions for the same crime. (Mike Ruskai, Sayreville NJ)

A. Absolutely correct. Just because Ashley Judd's character was convicted of killing her husband on the boat doesn't mean she's free to kill him in Times Square. The ending of the movie neatly sidesteps the issue, of course.

Q. I know of at least two movies that mention my hometown of Ash Fork, Ariz: "The Baltimore Bullet," and "Universal Soldier." Do any other movies mention the town? Or where could I find the info for myself? (Timothy Roeder, Mebane NC)

A. You can search under locations and keywords at the Internet Movie Database (, but it's far from complete. You will however be fascinated to learn that my home town, Urbana Ill., is mentioned in better movies than yours: "Some Like It Hot" and "2001: A Space Odyssey."

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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