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Movie Answer Man (11/02/2003)

Q. I am a New Yorker who lived in the Caribbean from '75 to '01. I've seen hundreds of martial arts films, a good portion of them projected on bed sheets during those first 10 years (I lived 50 miles outside of Montego Bay). Jamaicans called them "kickers." When I was watching "Kill Bill" in New York I leaned over to my Jamaican-born son and said "this is a kicker on steroids." OK, yes, its a slick homage to the genre, and yes, there is a certain joy or exuberance to it, yes yes yes, but Roger--was it really a religious experience? I thought "Pulp Fiction" was excellent. I don't have anything against the man, but it seems whenever Tarantino the Great makes a movie a lot of people kneel at the altar. I have to wonder what critics and movie fans alike would have said if an unknown director delivered that film. I saw "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" at the behest of that same son of mine, and yes it was predictable and boring--and so what? Was it really worse than the thousands of movies you have seen and given 1/2 star or higher? Why are you so pissed off? My kid said he got a kick out of it. If he did then I suppose he wasn't ripped off. What do you think? (Nick Minotti, Pompano Beach, FL)

A. It's arguable, but I thought Tarantino wanted to exhilarate, and "Chainsaw" wanted to disgust. Ask your son for his response to that theory. I wrote in my "Chainsaw" review, "I doubt that anybody involved in it will be surprised or disappointed if audience members vomit or flee." Turns out I was correct. Marcus Nispel, director of "Chainsaw," told the Washington Times: "What he complains of is what I'm most proud of."

Q. Like a lot of people, I went to Best Buy to purchase "The Matrix Reloaded" on DVD on its release date. Just inside the front door, the store had a table with all kinds of merchandise that was free or discounted with purchase of the DVD. Next to the table was a display stocked with hundreds of copies of the DVD. Each one had a free bonus disc attached, as promoted by signs taped to the display. While the other customers swarmed over the display and grabbed their copies, I took the time to check these DVDs: They were all full-screen. In order to get a widescreen copy, I had to actually go to the DVD section of the store and take it off the shelf. It was the same price, but it didn't come with a bonus disc, nor did I get any free merchandise with purchase. Are we to really believe those studies that show that customers prefer full-screen to widescreen, according to sales volume? (Scott Hardie, Tampa FL)

A. This is a sad story. "Matrix Reloaded" is precisely the kind of movie where you want to see every last inch of screen real estate-the picture is jammed with details, and depends on special effects. For Best Buy to steer customers toward the inferior format is inexplicable. Even Blockbuster has finally gotten the widescreen message.

Q. You were wondering if the skinny starving baby in "Beyond Borders" was real. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, director Martin Campbell revealed that it was done with CGI. He did say that the Khmer Rouge amputees were real land mine victims though. (Tony Ward, Glenview IL)

A. Although the baby was made skinnier with computer techniques, that doesn't change the nature of the film's offense. Whether or not the baby is really a starving stick-figure, it looks like one, and the image itself is offensive in a movie that uses his suffering as a backdrop for movie stars in love. In this era of CGI, it's important to note that movie images have a reality of their own, apart from their sources.

Q. Concerning your Great Movies" review of "Alien," you refer to suspense as being the anticipation of terror. I agree but even great suspenseful movies like "Psycho" (1960), "The Wages of Fear," or "Alien" have payoffs to their suspense. Not like Hitchcock's statement of the bomb never exploding. Has there ever been a full-length feature that continually builds suspense with no payoff or resolution? (Tom Prosser, Sacramento CA)

A. M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs" came pretty close. The payoff in many thrillers is perfunctory, and it's the buildup that keeps us on the edges of our seats. "Signs" is still building when it's over.

Q. It is very apropos that you invoked the name of John W. Campbell in your Great Movies review of the re-release of "Alien." Although he is most famous as an editor, he also happened to write the original short story "Who Goes There?" on which the Howard Hawks film "The Thing From Another World" was based, thus providing the inspiration for "Alien." (Karl Loeffler, Quebec QC)

A. I knew that and forgot to mention it. The editor of Astounding (later Analog) was arguably the most influential figure in the development of modern science fiction, a champion of such as Asimov and Heinlein.

Q. I saw "My Life Without Me" at the London Film Festival after reading your review, and became more and more annoyed with Sarah Polley's character during the film. Afterwards director Isabel Coixet stood up and explained that Ann made the choices she did because she didn't feel like she had any control over her life, and didn't have anyone she could talk to, especially her husband, who was "just like another kid to her." This put me in mind of "Y Tu Mama Tambien," in which Maribel Verdu's character makes a similar choice--but in her case it seems completely justified based on what we've seen in her life and marriage, and we can't say that about Sarah Polley's. So I asked Ms Coixet how she had been influenced by that film, and she said not at all, as there were a lot of movies that dealt with this subject. On my way home I thought this over and realized that the choice in "Y Tu" is completely believable, but the choice in "My Life" is not. At no point did Sarah Polley show that she felt her life was out of her control, that she regretted the choices she'd made, that she didn't really think her husband was her equal, or that she understood how her death would affect her daughters. If this had been shown, I think we could have understood her choice, whether or not we agreed with it. If you have to rely on the director to explain the logic afterwards, that's bad. (Sarah Manvel, London UK)

A. I agree with your comparison of the two films. One of the things that annoys me about "My Life Without Me" is that the woman's actions feel more like plotting than psychology. If you were happily married with children you love, shouldn't you spend your last days sharing with them instead of indulging a screenwriter's fantasy?

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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