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A fascinating piece of filmmaking that challenges the form in new ways as it recalls themes its director has been interested in his entire career.

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Video games as brain aerobics

Yes, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal is generally an intellectual black hole. (Check that metaphor: Can a black hole be shallow? After all, doesn't it, too, instantly narrow to a single teeny point?) But this piece by Brian C. Anderson extolling the mental health benefits of video games does provide some amusing and intriguing fodder for our neverending debate about games and art and the human brain:

Video games can also exercise the brain in remarkable ways. I recently spent (too) many late-night hours working my way through "X-Men: Legends II: The Rise of Apocalypse," a game I ostensibly bought for my kids. Figuring out how to deploy a particular grouping of heroes (each of whom has special powers and weaknesses); using trial and error and hunches to learn the game's rules and solve its puzzles; weighing short-term and long-term goals -- the experience was mentally exhausting and, when my team finally beat the Apocalypse, exhilarating.

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Letter: Inconvenient truths

This letter from Leland McInnes eloquently sums up so many of the issues I keep returning to in Scanners (recently in regard to "United 93," "The Da Vinci Code," "An Inconvenient Truth") -- because, well, I'm obsessed with their vital importance: (film) criticism and critical thinking, skepticism, logic, conspiratorial thinking, art, religion, science, politics, you name it:

Joe Killin wrote a letter on the topic of theories and skepticism. There is a valid place for skepticism, especially in science where no result is ever certain, merely highly likely given the evidence. There is a distinct difference, however, between the skepticism that keeps an open mind and the sort of perverse skepticism required to reject well-supported theories.

There is a classic tale of Pyrrho, the founder of skepticism as a philosophy. He took the view that without certainty it was impossible to know which course of action was wiser. When out walking one day he found his teacher stuck in a ditch, unable to get out. After contemplating for a while, he walked on, having decided that he could not be certain he would actually do any good.

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Ebert has another surgery

Ebert takes the stage at the Overlooked Film Festival.

Roger Ebert, who has been under treatment for slow-growing, non-life-threatening tumors on his thyroid and salivary glands for some years, will be having another surgery in June. Roger's energy level has certainly not flagged in recent months (he just got back from covering the Cannes Film Festival -- and was out late at the Steak & Shake after the movies at his Overlooked Film Festival in April).

More details from a report in the Chicago Sun-Times by Robert Feder:

"It is not life threatening, and I expect to make a full recovery," [Ebert] said. "I'll continue to function as a film critic during this time."

Ebert had surgery to remove a malignant tumor on his thyroid gland in 2002 and two surgeries on his salivary gland in 2003.

Unlike those earlier procedures, Ebert is not expected to require radiation therapy this time.

"This is known as a slow growing and persistent cancer," he said. "You live with it."

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Letter: When theories become fact

From Joe Killin, Lakeland, FL: I am a nineteen year old college student in Lakeland, Florida, I am a self-proclaimed thinker, and more often than not, I am a fool. I was originally homeschooled as a child by -- of course -- my mother. I have been brought up as a Christian (a term I hate, by the way), I've been educated with Christian cirriculum, but only recently did I decide that I wanted to be a Christian.

I'm sure you have received a multitude of letters on this topic already, but I hope mine stands out because I want to point out some things that I have not seen anyone else point out -- namely, things about our culture's way of educating people.

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Diminished by the movies

Hugh Laurie as Dr. House. His mind is his temple, his body is his house.

"Two TV icons are demoted to the big screen." That's the headline over Christopher Orr's piece in The New Republic about the careers of Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker, who seem diminished in the multiplex. Not that their TV shows -- "Friends" and "Sex in the City," respectively -- were anything special. They made for mediocre television at best, and on the occasions I attempted to pay attention to them I likened the experience to visiting a distant planet populated by synthetic creatures who could not have been less interestingly humanoid if they tried. I did not enjoy my time spent in the company of these banal, studio-fashioned aliens, and I question their resemblance to any carbon-based life-forms on Earth.

But at least on their long-running series Aniston and Parker were big, pretty fish in their teeny-tiny sitcom puddles. In the movies ("Rumor Has It," "The Family Stone"), the comedy hasn't gotten any bigger or better, but they've seemed outscaled, like little floundering fish out of water. I'm not convinced either has the presence for the big screen, although Aniston was terrific in "The Good Girl" (a small movie) and Parker, who strikes me as more of a character actress than a leading lady, was suitably kooky and vivacious in Steve Martin's "L.A. Story" and hilarious as Johnny Depp's exasperated wife in Tim Burton's low-scale "Ed Wood." On the other hand, in the company of incandescent actresses such as Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack in "Friends With Money," Aniston -- ostensibly the biggest name in the cast -- faded out, becoming blurry and indistinct almost like that actor played by Robin Williams in Woody Allen's "Deconstructing Harry."

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Letter: In defense of (some) Christians

From Nathan Marone, Chicago, IL: I am an evangelical Christian from Chicago. I've been very interested in your blogs concerning "The Da Vinci Code" (naturally). Much of what you say is true. There are many Christians who don't really read the Bible much, or for that matter any literature that seriously deals with their faith. The subject of Church history eludes most Christians, and the complexities of academic theology can often be too much for them (and me sometimes, for that matter). I wish that this weren't true, but sadly it is.

But I want to take the opportunity to defend some Christians.

If the Church were to reach my ideal, we'd all know Greek and Hebrew, know Church history pretty well, understand the various opinions on theology and philosophy... and then make sense of it all. But there are a few reasons that this does not happen. 1) People are lazy. It's easier to be ignorant and believe. Much easier. Even the Bible acknowledges in Ecclesiasties that "with much knowledge comes much pain." 2) I'm not sure that everyone has even the time to know all of the things that we ideally would have them know. Many Christians have jobs, families, and other obligations in life.

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A Convenient Semi-Truth

Without greenhouse gasses, cute little girls and weeds would be impossible.

I am a big fan of absurdist advertising campaigns. My all-time favorite is still Monsanto's astonishingly brilliant '60s slogan: "Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible." The delicious disingenuousness of that tag line still makes me well-up with laughter and delight, even when I am chemically depressed. I treasure its Pythonesque logic: Chemicals support life. Monstanto manufactures chemical products. Therefore, Monsanto supports life! (My second-favorite is the possibly apocryphal story of the launch of Pepsi's "Come Alive!" campaign in Taiwan, which was supposedly translated into a distasteful and not-at-all easy-to-swallow: "Pepsi raises your ancestors from the dead.") Now the concerned folks at the Competitive Enterprise Institute have come up with an ad to counter Al Gore's global warming documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth" (recently unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival) -- and it's bold and hilarious enough to rival Monsanto's.

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Letter: Intelligence and religion are not incompatible

From Sam Vicchrilli, Salt Lake City, UT:

As much as I typically despise letters to the editor, I would like to write a few words to you about your blog on "The Da Vinci Code."

I have not read Brown's book. I read the first several chapters and thought the writing was pedestrian and the mystery too obviously teased out. There is a stack of books I wish to read before returning to that bit of fiction. But I have heard about the book endlessly from my mother who adores it. We are Mormon. While it has not deterred our religiosity (rather it drove us to the bible for clarification on doctrinal points), I can understand why Christians around the world are questioning themselves due to this piece of pulp fiction. I think part of it is that they are unaware of what the bible says and how it was put together, as you have suggested. Moreover, I think most people are not very bright to begin with.

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