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Star power overrides ethnicity

Q. I'm curious to know what you think about Chinese actress Ziyi Zhang being chosen to play the lead role in "Memoirs of a Geisha." Ms. Zhang is a lovely and talented actress, but don't you think that in all of Japan there is an equally talented and lovely Japanese actress who could play the part? I wonder if the selection of a Chinese actress to play a Japanese woman will sit well with Japanese fans of the book. Rosanne O'Toole, San Antonio, Texas

A. Ziyi Zhang at 26 has become an important international star, after such films as "House of Flying Daggers," "Rush Hour 2," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hero" (2004) and "2046" (2005). No other Asian actress currently has the same international fame, and star power is crucial in a project where the title character is central to every scene.

Q. The first battle scene in "House of Flying Daggers" involves the death of several horses during the melee. In this sequence I noticed that when a horse was injured, its front legs would give way, and the horse would fall forward, on its head or neck. The end credits do not contain a disclaimer that "no animals were harmed." This made me think that perhaps trip wires were used to cause the horses to fall. If this is true, do you feel that our obligation as movie lovers is to attend wonderful films like this one, or that as believers in animal rights we should avoid such a movie? Richard Shore, Longmont, Colo.

A. It is a question you do not need to answer for "House of Flying Daggers," since reportedly no animals were injured. Michael Barker, the co-president of Sony Classics, tells me: "We have been assured by both the producer and director that no animals were harmed during the shooting of this movie."

Q. Unfortunately, I heard Michael Medved review "Million Dollar Baby" on the right-wing Christian show "The 700 Club" the very day I was going to see it. Ouch. Medved did not really review the film. What he did was deliberately give away vital secrets and surprises, and then label the movie as an "issue" piece. I imagine that his intention was to drum up a Red State "moral issue" boycott of the film. I believe most "700 Club" viewers would be moved, entertained and inspired by this movie and would engage in provocative, think-for-themselves discussions about its story after seeing it.

While I'm aware of the subjectivity that is required for film reviews, I found Mr. Medved's technique really disgusting -- especially after seeing the movie, which is a masterful piece of work, a sobering, powerful and moving examination of the human condition. I won't ever forget the characters in "Million Dollar Baby," and I doubt that I'll ever forgive Michael Medved. Peter Crooks, Walnut Creek, Calif.

A. Revealing key plot points of a movie very early in its release amounts to a desire to damage the movie. Medved knows better, so what he did was deliberate and unforgivable. Some film critics on the Christian right use their reviews to advance their political agenda (which is their privilege, so I am only observing this).

For example, because "Polar Express" was seen in those circles as being offensive, for reasons I cannot imagine, they obliquely attacked it by pushing "Christmas with the Kranks," urging their followers to "support" it. The Kranks movie is totally secular -- no Jesus in the manger, no hymns, the priest skips midnight mass to be at the party -- but it does contain the message that people who do not celebrate Christmas are somehow anti-social, anti-American or haters of the holiday.

Q. In your review of "Virgin" you stated: "The priest in 'Million Dollar Baby' is the first good priest I can remember in a film in a long time." I would also like to point out the priest in the film "You Can Count on Me." As someone who felt a close affinity to the siblings in that film, I was apprehensive when the sister sought the advice of her priest. The scenes between them ended up being my favorites. So often religion is used as a crutch, target or burden in movies, but the priest in Kenneth Lonergan's film (played by Lonergan himself) was a welcome surprise. Mack Lewis, Boise, Idaho

A. Quite true. What I liked about Father Horvak in "Million Dollar Baby" (played by Brian F. O'Byrne) is that he was having an ongoing discussion with the Eastwood character, rather than simply dropping into the plot as a convenience.

Q. (1) "Gloomy Sunday" is still playing at a local art theater after 60 weeks! (2) In Kieslowski's "White," one of the tunes that Karol plays on his comb in the subway is called "The Last Sunday." I believe it is the title song from "Gloomy Sunday." Robert Sprich, Waban, Mass.

A. I have just listened to the comb performance by Zbigniew Zamachowski in "White," and agree with you: It is the very same song. "Gloomy Sunday" played for more than a year in Australia and New Zealand. In June 2003, it opened in only one American theater, the Wilmette, north of Chicago, and ran for weeks. It had a "limited" national release in November 2003 and is still playing here and there. It's one of those films that inspires enormous interest while keeping a curiously low profile. The movie is set in Budapest before and during the Nazi occupation, and the plot centers on "Gloomy Sunday," a song said to drive its listeners to suicide. Recorded by artists as diverse as Billie Holiday, Artie Shaw, Bjork and Elvis Costello, it was at one point actually banned by the BBC because of its supposed effect.

Q. In your review of "The Life Aquatic," you write, "Steve Zissou is very tired. I suggest for his epitaph: 'Life for him was but a dreary play; he came, saw, dislik'd, and passed away.'" I was initially taken with your poetic elegance, but then realized that this is from Southwark Cathedral in London, from the headstone of the young Mary Buford. Is this an incredible coincidence, or have you been south of the Thames lately? Steven Dagdigian, London, formerly Chicago

A. I was hoping someone would spot that. Yes, Southwark and its cathedral are two of my favorite places in London.

Q. On, an urban legends Web site, a message talks about a possible rape in "Citizen Kane." It then goes on to talk about the recycling of sound effects. Apparently these sound effects are from another movie and include sounds like screams. Lem Smalley, Fayetteville, N.C.

A. The scene in question is when Kane and Susan take their guests on a picnic. Tents are pitched, a band plays, and in the background, between trees, if we look closely we can see pterodactyls, the prehistoric flying dinosaurs. The back-projection footage for these shots was borrowed from "Son of Kong" (1933). When Kane and Susan have an argument inside their tent, a loud woman's shriek is heard on the soundtrack. It's not a rape, in my opinion, but simply provides a counterpoint to the emotional shriek in Susan's mind.

Q. In your review of "Racing Stripes," you write about the love affair between a horse and a zebra: "... the movie wisely avoids the question of what would happen should they decide to begin a family."

Their offspring would be called a zebroid, a cross between a zebra and a horse. Bennett Haselton, Seattle, Wash.

A. As Michael Caine likes to say, "A lot of people don't know that."

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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