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The passion of the slump

Q. If this was such a great year for movies, why are box-office receipts so far down from last year, even though admission prices are at an all-time high? Do you feel that there is such a growing disconnect between Hollywood and America that Hollywood had better wake up or face serious consequences? Cal Ford, Corsicana, Texas

A: No, I don't, because the "box-office slump" is an urban myth that has been tiresomely created by news media recycling one another. By mid-December, according to the Hollywood Reporter, receipts were down between 4 percent and 5 percent from 2004, a record year when the totals were boosted by Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," which grossed $370 million. Many of those tickets were sold to people who rarely go to the movies. 2005 will eventually be the second or third best year in box-office history. Industry analyst David Poland at has been consistently right about this non-story.

Q. We have just returned from "King Kong" (2005) bewildered, disappointed and even angry that you gave it such a great review without mentioning its stunning racism. From the moment we saw the dark-skinned, aboriginal child in the movie, we knew it was going to be bad. It was worse than we expected.

The African- and indigenous-influenced dance, drumming and rituals, the elaborate face piercings, the bloodshot or rolling-back eyes, the skulls everywhere, and the sacrifice of the pure white blond beauty by the nappy-haired old woman combine to produce an image that was so offensive, it was nearly impossible for us to stay interested in the rest of the film. Maria Rosales and Tiffany Holland, Greensboro, N.C.

A. I am not sure the islanders would agree with you that their face piercings and dancing are racist. I agree that the stereotyping of the local population has been negative in the Kong pictures, and wonder why Peter Jackson didn't simply show the island as having been abandoned by its human civilization after the erection of the wall failed to contain the creatures on the other side. How long could humans survive on Skull Island with all of those dinosaurs, snakes, giant insects, man-eating slugs, etc?

Q. The character of the director character, Carl Denham, in "King Kong" wasn't based on DeMille so much as on Merian C. Cooper himself. Cooper, as you may know, had a very adventurous life, worthy of its own movie. Steven Doyle, Atlanta

A. Here it gets complicated. Do you think Cooper based Denham, in his 1933 movie, on himself? I believe he was having a little fun with DeMille. You may be right that Jackson was thinking of Cooper. The Internet Movie Database says Cooper was "partially inspired by Douglas Burden, who brought the world's first captive Komodo dragons to the Bronx Zoo in 1926."

Q. What's with the strange punctuation in movie titles these days? Especially titles with unnecessary use of ellipses. This fall has brought "Waiting ..." and now "Rumor Has It ..." Of course, the godfather of such titles is "When Harry Met Sally ..." This kind of punctuation abuse reminds me of my high school composition teacher, who used to ask, "Are you using those dots for decoration?" Laura Avila, Chicago

A. In my review, I renamed "Rumor Has It..." as "Rumor Has It" because all titles ending in "..." annoy me. How do you say it? "Rumor Has It Dot Dot Dot?" "Rumor Has It Ellipsis?"

Q. In your review of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," you write: "Remarkable, isn't it, that the Brits have produced Narnia, the Ring, Hogwarts, Gormenghast, James Bond, Alice and Pooh, and what have we produced for them in return?"

True, the Brits have given us many wonderful, fantastic worlds. But we are not as bereft as you make it seem. L. Frank Baum gave the world Oz, and the wonders therein. Theodore Geisel gave us the wonderful world of Dr. Seuss. Not to mention Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, X-Men, etc. The world of fantasy extends to graphic novels, too. Most of the top writers of fantasy these days, David and Leigh Eddings, Terry Brooks, Mercedes Lackey, are American. You sell us short, sir. We hold our own. Dean Grant, Simpsonville, S.C.

A. You neglect Tarzan, but be honest: Would you trade the movies inspired by my list for the movies inspired by yours?

Q. Replying to my Answer Man letter about Chinese name order, you asked about my own name. My family name is Zhang, given name Mengmeng. But I go by Mengmeng Zhang because I've been here for many years and that's how I think of myself in English. I'm not sure really how it should be done in the West.

It's especially confusing in a case like Gong Li, because Li is a very common family name (the most common in China and thus the world at last count, I believe). There was a figure skater a few years ago named Chen Lu, both of which are common Chinese family names, and I'm still not sure which is her actual family name.

A slight correction again in regard to whether Zhang Ziyi or Ziyi Zhang is more popular. If you do the search on Google using quotes, so it only searches the exact phrase, "Zhang Ziyi" beats "Ziyi Zhang" 2.4 million to about 600,000. Mengmeng Zhang, South Bend, Ind.

A. Note to self and copy editors: It's "Zhang Ziyi" from now on. Except when a movie's credits have it the other way around, as they usually do.

Q. Wonderful to see that Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man" was voted the best documentary of 2005 by the Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco film critics, and shocking that it did not make the "final l5" cut at the academy for the Oscar! Tom Luddy, co-founder, Telluride Film Festival

A. This follows in a shameful academy tradition. In years past, "Hoop Dreams" and "Crumb" were also not nominated.

Q. What's up with you not liking the movie "Murderball"? You did not include it on your year-end top 10 list. What is up with that? Do you not know anything about good movies, or do you just hate cripples? Josh Radde, Algonquin

A. "Murderball" was right there on my list of the year's top 10 documentaries. Earlier in the year, I gave it a four-star rating and invited it to my Overlooked Film Festival. For an example of a film I hate, you are going to have to look a little harder, maybe under the heading "Deuce Bigalow."

Q. It seems that in past year most of your reviews end up awarding three stars or more. I had confidence in your three-star ratings until I realized that so many of them are mediocre films. For example, "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," which is composed of bad acting and unimpressive dialogue. Please be more critical of average films. Bud Schauerte, Austin, Texas

A. I often hear I am "getting soft." A correspondent helpfully writes: "My friend says that since you had cancer, you give every movie three or four stars." A New York weekly critic says I "like everything," and he must be right, because I even liked the film he cited as an example of how much more discerning he is than critics like me.

I did some math, and found that my average rating for a feature film in 2005 came to about 2.7 stars. On a bell curve, the average should be 2.0, but consider that I reviewed 284 movies in the last year, and the extra titles were independent and foreign films that tended to skew higher. I am content with my 2.7 average.

The problem is with the use of stars as a rating system. Star ratings go back to that simpler time when film critics stood on far hillsides and signaled to the grateful peasantry with torches and brightly colored flags.

Indignant readers write me: "How could you give Film A three stars and Film B only 2-1/2 stars? I will never read your reviews again." I reply: "A wise decision! My reviews are for those who are stronger in literature than math."

Q. You write that J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis hated each others’ fantasy worlds.” While you are correct in saying J. R. R. Tolkien disliked elements of Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis was most appreciative and enthusiastic of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. He wrote several reviews and essays attesting to this fact and current editions of Tolkien's work even boast the famous Lewis quote "Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron" as part of their back jacket copy. Frank Gruber, Adjunct Professor of Literature and Composition, Bergen Community College, Paramus, NJ

A. Many other readers supplied similar information, including Kevin Bush of West Palm Beach, FL, who wrote: “In fact, Lewis probably overpraised Tolkien. I remember one book review where he favorably compared Lord of the Rings to Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.”

My correspondents were quite correct. Lewis did not hate LOTR, and I have corrected the online review. My information came from a British reference book named The Reader’s Companion to Twentieth Century Writers, edited by Peter Parker. It reads bluntly: “Lewis and Tolkien, despite their friendship, despised each other’s writings for children.” In answer to your next question, yes, they considered LOTR and Narnia to be writings for children.

Q. Earlier in the year the Answer Man marveled at the prescience of the critic Jeffrey Lyons, who was quoted on the poster for “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” as writing, "Sure to be one of the best films of the year." The AM wrote, “I hope he will not keep us waiting for his reviews of next year's best films.” Your hope has come true. In an ad for "The World's Fastest Indian,” Lyons writes: "Anthony Hopkins gives one of his finest, most endearing performances in what is sure to be one of the year's best films." Greg Nelson, Chicago

A. Since in this case he describes Hopkins’ performance, we can assume Lyons has seen the film and is not, as appeared with the previous quote, to be acting as a psychic. What we are left with is the question, in what sense is it “sure to be” one of the year’s best films? It is not now, but it will be in the future? It is sure to be on Lyons’ list? It is sure to be nominated as such? Sure to be so acclaimed by others? Surely, having seen it, he has license as a critic to simply write “One of the year’s best films,” which still leaves wriggle-room unless the word “ten” is inserted.

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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