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. Watching "Juno" again, I think I've figured out why the story is bookended with a motif of chairs. Juno narrates her story beginning with "It started with a chair," and we gaze upon a big, worn-out, comfortable-looking chair. Near the end, she tells us "It ended with a chair," and we see a different chair, this time, a lovely slimmer, not-so-comfortable rocking chair. These two things illustrate the journey our hero has taken, that our security blanket in childhood becomes not so comfortable when our eyes are open to the realities of the world. Jerry Roberts, Birmingham, Ala.
A. I think the chairs invite us to attach our own associations, without insisting on anything in particular. You can bring a symbol to a movie for your own pleasure as long as you don't insist it's what the director intended.
Q. We finally got around to seeing "Juno" and enjoyed it as much as you; but you say, "The film has no wrong scenes and no extra scenes," which is correct, but it does seem to be missing a scene. Juno and Paulie talk about how she broke up with him, and that doesn't happen onscreen, nor is it really suggested before that line is spoken, or am I missing something? Ken Dintzer, Bethesda, Md.
A. That does seem to be implied off-screen action, but would a breakup, coming as it would at a crucial point in the film, interrupt the flow of Juno's story? Paulie, in a funny way, is not a major character, only an indispensable plot element.
Q. In real life, teenagers have acne. How come Hollywood expects us to believe that teenage actors and actresses without acne are realistic? And of course, teenagers in films also are often played by actors in their 20s who have perfect haircuts and expensive clothes, two other things that the majority of real-life teenagers don't usually have, do they? I think of Tom Cruise in "Risky Business," for example. Nelson Kane, Charlottesville, Va.
A. The movies have historically idealized the look of characters, and movie stars in general look much better (or worse) than the rest of us. True, if you get a teenager with acne in the movies, it's usually in a cutaway designed to get a quick laugh. Although I can't remember acne, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) of "Juno" looked more realistic in general than most movie teenagers, and that certainly includes his wardrobe.
Q. In your review of "There Will Be Blood," you state some possible doubts about its being a great film by noting the film's lack of "unbending characters, its lack of women or any reflection of ordinary society, its ending, its relentlessness." I was just wondering if you realize that you just basically described the psychology of the film's main character, Daniel Plainview, and if the odd narrative was a reflection of a near-psychopathic character and, therefore, seemed flawed as such? Bryan James, Corpus Christi , Texas
A. Of course you are correct. I was committing the sin of requiring the movie to be something it was not intended to be.
Q. Is the presence of all those feet in "No Country for Old Men" an homage to Robert Bresson? I ask because I note that there is an extra on the DVD titled "Diary of a Country Sheriff." Steven Paulson, Arlington Heights
A. I would think you are reaching too far, were it not for the obvious reference to Bresson's "Diary of a Country Priest." But it is what might be called an invisible homage, since you require the extra DVD.
Q. Many films in the past have come out with more than one edition, "extended versions" and what not. Do you believe it is indulgent for directors to release different versions of the same movie? "Dark City," which is one of your Great Movies, is being re-released as a Director's Cut on July 29. Does this excite you? Or make your stomach churn? Brice J. Hagerman, Galloway, Ohio
A. I find such cuts interesting, but important only if they represent a director's intended version rather than if they are just sort of noodling around. I prefer self-contained "deleted scenes" rather than a re-edited movie. And you didn't ask, but I hope they keep my brilliant commentary track under the parts that didn't change.
Q. I recently saw "The Seven Samurai" for the first time. I hoped to enjoy the enthusiasm shared by so many, but such was tempered by three things: (1) I could keep track of only four of the seven samurai; unless they had a solo scene, it was hard to distinguish the other three among the villagers. (2) Some of the villagers were silly/ hysterical, giving a sense that they were more crazy than downtrodden. (3) While most of the scenes had a clear purpose, there were several very short scenes (i.e., a villager action or a piece of battle footage) that seem to be pointless. Am I missing something general in this film because I am seeing it 50 years after release? Greg Burglin, Larkspur, Calif.
A. (1) I don't think all of the seven are supposed to be identifiable characters, but part of a group. (2) Overacting, if that is the word for it, is a familiar component of some Japanese films. (3) Kurosawa may have intended them as "pillow shots," used to govern and modulate the rhythm of the film.
Q. This is a response to the reader who complained that he couldn't watch "Swing Time" in 4:3, because his TV automatically switched to widescreen. It isn't the fault of the TV, it's the fault of the DVD player. If you go to the setup menu for the player, you should be able to switch from 16:9 wide-screen to 4:3 full-screen. With the exception of Blu-ray, all DVD players should have this feature. It allows people without wide-screen TVs to watch wide-screen DVDs in the correct ratio. If you put a DVD player in 16:9 wide-screen mode on a full-screen TV, everything gets stretched vertically. Brad Ruhle, Los Gatos, Calif.
A. The Answer Man queried his own personal A/V specialist. Fredrik Thomas' expert reply: "Can't speak for all brands, but Sony Blu-ray deals with the 4:3 display issue in their video 'initial settings setup.'
"I installed a Sony Blu-ray player in my system about three months ago and did the initial setup just as I would do a standard DVD. There is an option provided in the video setup section that asks you to select between normal and full for your 4:3 playback mode. This is a critical selection because if you select the 'full' setting on a movie like 'Swing Time,' it will be stretched horizontally to fill the 16x9 picture display. If you select the "normal" setting, the picture will be presented in its original 4:3 (1:33 to 1) aspect ratio, so this will leave unused display space to the left and right of the image. Unfortunately, many people have an aversion to this unused space, hence the creation of this 'full' option that fills the display. In my opinion, the image looks awful when it's distorted and mashed to fit, but there's no accounting for taste."
Q. Readers want to know if the Movie Answer Man is too PC to review "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed"? Ruddy Spencer, Tucson, Ariz.
A. The last I heard, it is not considered Politically Correct to agree with Darwin. I think it is more like, oh, intelligent.
Q. You have praised the film "Joe Versus the Volcano" for years. Why not change your original rating to four stars instead of 3.5? Sean Elder, Dayton, Ohio
A. Revisionism! The old reviews are left as they were originally written, except for the correction of errors, typos, etc. Of course, not giving it four stars might have been an error.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...