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. In your review of Jackie Chan's latest American release, "The Legend Of Drunken Master," you praised his athletic skills but wrote that computerized special effects have made them sort of obsolete: "When you see bodies whirling in air in 'The Matrix,' you don't think about computers, you simply accept them. But what Chan does, he is more or less, one way or another, actually doing." I disagree with your remarks about computers. In "The Matrix," yes, I accepted the fight scenes--I thought they were very cool because the style was completely new--but I couldn't HELP thinking of computers. There was nothing even remotely "real" about those fight scenes. The "whirling bodies" defied gravity in a fascinating but totally artificial way. And now we have "Charlie's Angels" (unfortunately), which employs the exact same animation techniques in its fight scenes. When I watch Chan in action, I feel awe and exhilaration; when I see Drew Barrymore jump in the air, kick a bad guy in the face five times, do a back-flip, and land lightly on her feet, I feel nothing but ennui. (Brad Miller, Dallas, Texas)
A. But do most audiences know the difference, or care? Clint Eastwood risked his life by literally hanging suspended from a single rope thousands of feet in the air in "The Eiger Sanction," and slipped into a sneak preview where he overheard someone asking, "I wonder how he did that?" Computers have, I think, devalued the special skills and grace of someone like Jackie Chan.
Q. In "House on Haunted Hill" there is a scene where Giovani Ribisi is tooling around with some video hardware. Near him are some video boxes. On the Blockbuster version of this video, they have super-imposed the Blockbuster logo onto the boxes! The reason it caught my eye was the visual effect looked superimposed--these didn't look like Blockbuster videos just sitting there. They've taken the liberty of forcing product placement into the film. I was wondering if the studio knew about this, and what their opinion was. (Chris Bushnell, San Francisco CA)
A. Oh, yeah, the studio knew, all right, although director William Malone was none too happy. He replies: "The studio made a deal with Blockbuster prior to the theatrical release of the film. An optical effect was indeed utilized in placing the Blockbuster logo onto the video cassettes, and this effect appears in all versions of the film. It's part of the commercialism in film today."
Q. I am finding it hard to adjust to the stadium seating arrangement of the new generation megaplexes. Don't get me wrong, most of the theaters are beautiful, the seats comfortable, and the sound excellent (if sometimes too loud.) What I don't like is having to sit so close to the screen. I am used to that 70's rule that said the best way to view a film is to sit at a distance proportionate to one and one half the width of the screen. I can't do that in these tiny "screening rooms." What do you think? (Lou Rosenberger, Bethlehem PA)
A. Stadium seating seems like a good thing but may be a mixed blessing. Apart from patrons stumbling down the stairs (which is a real problem), there is the psychological argument that a movie plays better when we look up at it, not down at it or straight at it. The solution is not to raise the seats for better sight lines, but to raise the screens while gently raking the floor--just like in the classic movie palaces. According to some vision specialists, the ideal place to sit in a movie theater is twice as far back as the screen is wide. Most stadium seating makes that impossible. On the other hand, two of Chicago's best-known film critics always sit in the front row, so go figure.
Q. My aunt in Minneapolis, Dolores DeFore, has a question for you. She is a big fan of "Singin' in the Rain" and recently saw the re-released version at a local theater. But she was aghast to read in a local paper that Debbie Reynolds didn't do her own singing in the movie. If not, why not, since she has a great voice? (Mary Houlihan, Chicago)
A. Debbie Reynolds has a great voice but was not a seasoned pro when, at 19, she got a lead in the greatest of all musicals. She had her work cut out for her with nonstop dancing lessons to keep up with the gifted hoofers Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor. Some but not all of her songs in the movie were dubbed. According to Tim Dirks of the Greatest Films website (www.filmsite.org), her singing voice was dubbed by Betty Noyes in "Would You?" and "You Are My Lucky Star." And here's a twist. Remember the big scene at the end where Lina Lamont (Jean Hagan) has a speaking voice so raspy that Kathy Selden (Reynolds) stands behind the curtain and dubs it live? Dirks says: "Debbie's speaking voice as Kathy--when impersonating Lina Lamont's lines--was dubbed by Jean Hagen herself!"
Q. Someone asked the Answer Man about a staircase railing in front of Amanda Peet's naked parts in "The Whole Nine Yards," and you told him the movie had probably been bowdlerized. Actually, that railing was in the theatrical version, too. That's just the way the movie was shot. Blaming the poor fellow's video store manager was mean. (Binky Melnik, New York)
A. But not as mean as telling the poor reader he only thought he saw the naughty bits.
Q. "Picnic at Hanging Rock" has always been one of my favorite films. I was astounded to discover that Blockbuster Video has tagged the DVD as an "adults only" rental due to its nonrating by the MPAA. Tell me something. Do the people who work at Blockbuster watch their own movies before deciding who can and can't check them out? (Joe Schwind, Frederick Md.)
A. "Picnic at Hanging Rock," one of the titles in my series of Great Movies reviews, is far from an "adults only" movie. Blockbuster slaps the same "Youth-Restricted Viewing" sticker on any movie that is not rated, whether it's a wet T-shirt documentary or a children's film from Czechoslovakia. It's their way to score points as a family store without making the slightest effort to actually evaluate the films in question. More hypocrisy: It will not carry NC-17 movies, but it will carry the unrated "director's cuts" of R-rated movies which sometimes must, by definition, be the NC-17 versions.
Q. Bored on a Thursday evening, I decided to watch Van Sant's "Psycho" remake with the color turned off--and what an improvement! The film was far better. I turned on the color a few times through-out, and found it to look rather cheap. But when the black and white was on, the film (unnecessary as it was) was easily watchable. (Leigh Emshey, Innisfail, Alberta)
A. I've done that with films too, especially films that want to be b&w, like "Fargo." Color often provides distracting emotional cues.
Q. In "The Contender" the Vice-President dies and the President has to decide whom to appoint as his successor. Forgive me if I am in error, but in America, isn't the successor to the Vice-Presidency the Secretary Of State? (Michael Mandy, Antioch CA)
A. No. The 25th amendment provides: "Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice President who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses of Congress."
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...