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At the Movies With Stephen Hunter

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Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Movie Critic
Friday, December 21, 2007; 11:30 AM

Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter will be online Friday, Dec. 21 at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss the latest holiday movie releases. Whether you're in search of a popcorn cruncher or a quality indie film, Hunter will provide guidance about what to see and what to skip.

A transcript follows.

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Arlington, Va.: If you have to pick between "Dr. Strangelove" and "Fail-safe," which would you go with?

I just watched "Fail-safe" for the first time last night, and found it to be much more compelling, captivating, and fear-inducing than "Strangelove" -- even though Strangelove seems to have stood the test of time much better.

Stephen Hunter:"Fail-Safe" is underappreciated, no doubt about it. It even has a connection to today's film world, in that it was directed by the magnificent Sydney Lumet, who's currently (at age 83) got "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" in theaters (it made my ten best list). Still, I'd pick "Dr. Strangelove," first as Kubrick's best film, second for its totally absorbing story and third for its humor. Though its politics are outmoded, it still makes me laugh with lines like, "Okay,buddy, but if this doesn't work, you're going to have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company." It also recalls the world of the early '60s, where "black humor" was the cool thing and Terry Southern its coolest example. Plus it was a movie I took my first high school girl friend to, so it has sentimental attachments way beyond the cinematic.

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Shopping question: First, in the holiday spirit, big sloppy praise for you. You've been a must-read for me since your days of doing capsule reviews for the Sun's Sunday TV magazine. Thanks for your great work.

Now, a question. Where in DC can one go to buy more eclectic movie selections? I'm looking to get a copy of the Scottish movie "Comfort and Joy" (not available on DVD in this country) and don't know where to go. Thanks.

Stephen Hunter: Hard question as far as "buying" is concerned, as opposed to renting. One place I've found is e-bay where all kinds of obscure bootlegs are offered. Now they may blow up your DVD player or earn you a raid from Customs (note: Customs raiders usually don't break in with MP-5s and hose down everything that moves, so aside from the breakage and the loss of sleep, you should be okay; ATF, on the other hand, can be a little problematic) but generally they'll slake your thirst for a certain title. But you touch on a larger problem which is the huge number of classic films that haven't made it to DVD, like "The Phenix City Story" and --well, I'm too old to remember, but you know what I mean.

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ArtMovieLover, Va.: Where's this ten best list of yours' that you mentioned?

Stephen Hunter: They'll be publishing it, hmmm, I don't know, some time in the next few days somewhere or other in the paper. I don't do tech stuff, as Michael Biehn said in "The Terminator." Also being published: my favorite movie thrill of the year. THAT one should get me in even more trouble than I'm in now. Can't wait.

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JD, Conn.: This year's Best Picture Oscar crop is threatening to be the goriest ever, even without a war picture. Violent films have won before (hello, "The Departed"), but do you think voters -- and we filmgoers -- have become so innured to violence that we just shrug? I don't mean to sound pansy-ish, but do you think a corner has been turned?

Stephen Hunter: Hmmm, I haven't really picked up on any spike in violence, but then I am clearly innured and, worse yet, I sort of like it in movies. (I watched the end of Kill Bill I last night on my new 700 inch drive in movie scale plasma TV!) It does show up in surprising places and the culprit seems to be the Computer Generated Imagery which is capable of blood spurts everywhere. I noted in "Charlie Wilson's War" that the scenes of the Soviet gunships wrecking havoc on the Afghanis were quite violent (i.e. gory) in that we got glimpses of severed limbs, pools of blood, bodies being blown apart, and the movie only visited, but never covered, the war. I know they wanted to make a point about Russian brutality but when a political comedy is more violent than, say, a Korean monster-attakcs-the-city movie like "The Host," something does seem to be going on.

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Maryland: Okay so many choices this weekend and my husband is NOT a movie lover (would rather read a book). Is "I Am Legend" really not worth it? "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" or "Charlie Wilson's War"?

Stephen Hunter: If hubbie is a book guy,why not sit him down with "The 47th Sam--" No, no, just joking, Madam Maryland. Since he is a book guy, he'll probably already have a policy on "legend" and "Charlie," having read the books. I think Charlie's probably more to his taste, because it's literate and funny and it has a few splashes of action and watching Hanks and Hoffman try to outham ieach other is fun. "Legend" works best if you have an attitude toward New York, as the best thing in it is a sense of that great loved and hated place as a ghost town. The plot is okay and goes a little hokey at the end, but the zombies are fast and cool, there's no Anthony Zerbe anywhere in sight, and, as I say, the production design is first class.

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Washington, D.C.: Stephen, did you see "I Am Legend"? What did you think? For some reason, despite its flaws, the first part of the movie (before the vampires/zombies/whatever appear) was great.

Stephen Hunter: You and I obviously have the same take; didn't see your comments till after my last posting. Didn't think that Will Smith and the chick had much chemistry and wouldn't the "Marylanders" have sent of Green Beret to contact him instead of a mom in an SUV? I mean you send a mom in an SUV to pick up the soccer team, not pick up the serum that saves the world!

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Columbia, Md.: I've seen Zodiac mentioned on lots of 2007 top ten lists, which has me questioning my tastes as a movie watcher. Am I some sort of heathen for feeling like that movie was a waste of three hours?

Stephen Hunter: By no means. I, too, am not an admirerer of the film, which seemed to me to spend an awful lot of time to produce very little emotion or satisfaction.

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Atlanta, Ga.: My husband and I are trying to secure a babysitter on Christmas (mother in law, cousin, whoever!).

Since there are no G-rated non-Christmas films out this year (and last year I took the kid to see "Charlotte's Web") -- I thought my husband and I could go to the movies. We NEVER go and we hardly ever RENT movies anymore.

So, if you had ONE movie to see, what would you pick (I'm leaning towards "Sweeney Todd," since I was probably barely 10 when I saw it on Broadway oh so many years ago)?

Stephen Hunter: The two big ticket prestige items seem to be Atonement and Sweeny, neither of which I've seen, but as an admirer of both Ann Hornaday and Peter Marks, I endorse by proxy. I think you guys would really enjoy Charlie Wilson's War as well; it's an adult picture, fast and funny and always illuminating and at the same time--as you willdiscover--with a subtext of melancholy. Another good one out there--this is sort of counter Christmas programming if all the red and green lighting and the muzak is making you crazy, is "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" which is very funny in that sick way some of us snarky trolls like.

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Fairfax County, Va.: How does a "Hunter Groupie" make the transition to "Friend of Hunter" without incurring a protective order?

Stephen Hunter: You know what. You're better off as a groupie than as a friend. Other than bang keys, I'm not much fun. I write, I shoot, I sleep, I drink. My wife and I say snotty things about other people and do rude imitations of the obsessive Colt fans who clog Baltimore sports radio, and that's about it. It's hardly parties at the Plaza with Mrs. Graham 24/7.

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No Country:

"No Country For Old Men" is the best movie of the year. Any review of this movie which says that it improperly used irony and lacked complex characters is inaccurate, and the product of someone who had an agenda before typing commenced.

Stephen Hunter: Thank you. I'll turn to you for clarification whenever possible. Pompous certitude is so attractive.

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Ocala, Fla.: Movie that isn't on DVD: "The Mask of Dimitrios," the great Peter Lorre, Syndey Greenstreet, Zachry Scott adaptation of Eric Ambler's "A Coffin for Dimitrios." A precursor of "The Usual Suspects."

Stephen Hunter: very good. send in others, folks, and if I get a long enough list without having to do any actual research I may actually write a piece on the issue.

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Baltimore, Md.: My wife wants me to get her a "chick flik" for the weekend. Is "Nanny Diaries" any good? Or could you recommend something else?

Stephen Hunter: Nanny is not good. I think she'd really Enchantment. Also, it is said that Atonement has the wonderful virtue of being both a chick flick and a boy toy, combining equal amounts of romance and war.

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Washington, D.C.: Having just seen "No Country for Old Men," I was suprised to find it no more than a polished potboiler. Yet it's making many best-of-year lists, sometimes at the top. You were one of the very few critics not to join the hosannahs. What do you think accounts for the over-the-top reaction to it on the part of so many others?

Stephen Hunter: I would subtract the word "polished" from your assessment, but otherwise I agree. As for why the crits went nuts over it, I can only make a contribution in one little area (eschewing conspiracy theories which I don't believe in) One insidious influence on criticism that, as far as I know, hasn't been mentioned anywhere is the arrival of critic collection and analysis websites, like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. So whereas before, critics' takes were never gathered; to find out a consensus, you had to go to each website, a lot of work. Now in two or three keystrokes it's all there, calibrated, and nobody, I'm guessing, really wants to be in the 2 per cent who is out of consensus. So there's an unconscious pressure for confomity, particularly when movies get advance raves (as did "No Country" on the non-Ebert Ebert show). And thus a very few movies benefit extraordinarily from the pre-release spin. Does that make sense to anybody?

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Arlington, VA: Looks like New Line and Peter Jackson hammered out their differences, and "The Hobbit" will happen. I'm looking forward to seeing Jackson do this move. What are your thoughts?

Stephen Hunter: This to me appears to be a marketing deal more than a filmmaking deal. As I understand it, Jackson will produce but not direct. Not quite the same thing but it let's them sell the film as "Peter Jackson presents "The Hobbit," directed by Brett Ratner." Ugh. Anyhow, I'd rather see Jackson take his fabulous talents to some new project that tred the same ground again, though I also know from personal experience the pressures in big entertainment media to repeat a formula that's been successful before. Hmm, Peter Jacks to direct Lady Murasaki's "A Tale of the Genji"? I don't think so.

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Movie that Isn't on DVD: Not on DVD: "Welcome to Woop Woop!," "Barfly" and "London Kills Me."

Finally on DVD: "Night on Earth" by Jim Jarmusch...one of my all-time favorites.

Stephen Hunter: Cool. Ten more and I have a piece.

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Charlotte, N.C.: Stephen:

I know that you enjoy a good action movie as long as it does not fall into the really dumb category. Any suggestions for the next couple of months? By the way, I really have enjoyed your radio appearances with TK over the past several years.

Eric from Charlotte

Stephen Hunter: I'm actually taking the next three months off to work on my important new book "The Myth of Foreplay" so I have happily not scoped it out. Thanks for kind words regarding my shots with TK; they were fun, and I hope they happen again.

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Washington: For the record, I think it was ridiculous for the Post to have Peter Marks, the theater reviewer, write the review for "Sweeney Todd." Yes, it's based on a stage show, but let's have movie reviewers review it for its merits as a movie. Is your oil and gas reporter going to review "There Will Be Blood" now? Please, tell your editor to respect the medium and leave film to the film experts.

Stephen Hunter: I seem to have nothing to say regarding this post.

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Washington, D.C.: Great movie not on DVD is "Caro Diaro" (I know, it's foreign, but it has a Jennifer Beals cameo!). It also doesn't have much of a plot (though it loosely tracks "The Odyssey").

Stephen Hunter: I've not seen it, but since you're from washington d.c., you must be pretty damn smart, so I pass it on.

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Reisterstown, Md.: John Wayne movies:

Your order of significance for:

"Hondo," "The Searchers," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "True Grit," "The Shootist."

Stephen Hunter: Well, I'm also a John Ford guy. So my order would be "The Searchers" with a close second ("Pilgrim, you wouldn't want to live on the difference!") "The Man Who Shot." Of the last three, I'd do "Hondo" (because it's essentially an imitation John Ford film, and very good), "The Shootist" because it's serious and lets Wayne "act" instead of parody himself late in his career, and finally (though it's enjoyable as all get out) "True Grit".

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Reading about movies?: Hi Stephen from way out here in NJ -- I've been using my Netflix for the past several months as a film education, finally seeing all the movies that are important in understanding film, like "Metropolis," "Rear Window," "Roman Holiday," etc. I've got "The Big Sleep" at home right now. I've gotten to the point where I look for the credits to see if Edith Head did the costumes!

But I've started to find that I need some sort of educational background. Like, in "North by Northwest," which has to be one of the greatest films ever, I'd love to read some sort of commentary, besides the actual movie review, about the times and issues of the day and why this film (or whatever film) even back in the day was recognized as an important picture.

Can you give a girl a suggestion of a layman's book to read?

Thanks!!!

Stephen Hunter: Sure. I'd get Pauline Kael's great collection "A Thousand and One Nights," which was basically all her stuff and most classic movies are covered. She was funny, insightful and great fun to read. Roger Ebert has very quietly produced a series of movie books too, many on the great movies; he has "Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert" out too. Finally, Michael Schragow has collected and annotated the works of the great critic James Agee, who was also a very fine writer as well as a great critic. (I make that distinction, though some don't). Happy reading.

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Columbia, Md.: Your theory on groupthink in modern criticism is spot on. Websites that present 1-10 ratings based upon some loose consensus among the critics really miss the point. Movies aren't numbers, and they hit everyone differently. I enjoy your writing because you bring such a strong perspective. Even when you are wrong about a movie ("No Country for Old Men"), your criticism is more honest than some aggregate score.

Stephen Hunter: Very smart comment. Even though you are wrong about--no, no, ladies and gentlemen, can't we just get along. Thanks.

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Annapolis, Md.: I really enjoyed the wonderful piece on Frank Langella. It evoked the man as well as the particular journey that some leading men take as they get older. Thanks for that.

Are there other actors who come to mind who have followed the "hard" path with similar grace? Henry Fonda, for example, never did -- he was always HENRY FONDA, even when he was no longer the leading man.

Stephen Hunter: One guy that comes to mind is Daniel Day Lewis, who essentially walked away from conventional stardom after "Last of the Mohicans," and works sparingly, always in very finely chosen films, even if, like me, you didn't care for Gangs of New York. And re Fonda: remember that he was largely a product of the studio system, so he didn't really have the freedom to select his pix until quite late in his career. What I always liked about him was he really did want to keep working. Does anybody remember that he did a series on TV called "The Deputy" sometime in the Mid-part of the century. I don't think he needed the money, but he had to feel useful, I'm guessing, like most of the other men in his generation.

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Washington, D.C.: Just wanted to thank you for your review of "No Country for Old Men" and I wish I had taken heed before I saw it. I couldn't stand it for largely the reasons you outlined. But I'd add at least one more: a villain who basically shoots defenseless, unarmed people with no serious opposition is NOT a great villain. Take on an army by yourself? That could work. But this was way, way too easy. And pointless.

Stephen Hunter: Thanks. On that note of confidence, I now close the shop, with appreciation for all who participated. See you in April.

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