Is The Dark Knight a cursed production? Plus, the celebrity name game, name that movie and more movie questions answered

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Question: Do you believe that some movies are cursed? I know it sounds ridiculous, but there's been some talk about a curse of The Dark Knight and it seems as though a lot of bad things have happened to people who were involved, starting with Heath Ledger. -- Kara

FlickChick: In a word, no.

In a few more words, I think the twin curses of recklessness and cutting corners to save money have caused more grief than any malevolent supernatural forces.

In the case of The Dark Knight, a visual effects technician named Conway Wickliffe died during a test run of a car stunt on September 25, 2007, before principal shooting started. By all accounts, that was simply a very unfortunate accident -- Wycliffe was on a camera truck, which ran into a tree -- he wasn't even in the stunt car, which was unmanned.

Heath Ledger died of an accidental overdose of prescription medication long after production wrapped; technically speaking, if he died because of a curse it would be the curse of Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, the Dark Knight follow up Ledger had already started shooting. God knows, Gilliam's bad luck is notorious -- the curious should take a look at the documentary Lost in La Mancha (2003), which started out as a behind the scenes feature about the making of his The Man Who Killed Quixote and wound up the chronicle of a film that never was.

And Morgan Freeman was involved in a non-fatal car accident on August 4th, a good week after The Dark Knight opened. The accident had nothing to do with any movie: Freeman was driving in Tennessee and reportedly told the first medical personnel on the scene that he may have fallen asleep at the wheel.

All that said, The Dark Knight is hardly the first movie associated with a so-called "curse," and I think part of that is that the human mind is designed to look for patterns: It's how we make sense of the world.

There's always been talk about the curse of Poltergeist (1982), for example, though it boils down to two awful incidents: 22-year-old Dominique Dunne, who played the older sister of the Freeling family, who had the misfortune to move into a house built on top of a ancient Indian graveyard, was murdered by her boyfriend some five months after the movie opened and 12-year-old Heather O'Rourke, who played younger sister Carol Anne -- she uttered the immortal words "They're he-eeere" -- died horribly young of septic shock in 1988 after making two Poltergeist sequels. Dreadfully sad, but more indicative of life's casual cruelty than the evil eye.

Actor Julian Beck, who played the evil Reverend Kane in 1986's Poltergeist II (and co-founded of the Living Theatre in 1947 with his wife, Judith Malina) died in 1985, but he was 60 and fought a long battle against stomach cancer. And Will Sampson, also of Poltergeist II but best known as the silent Indian in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), died in 1987. He was only 53, but he had also just received a heart-lung transplant, which is about as serious a medical procedure as there is.

Similar rumors surround The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) and The Crow (1994), but when you look at the "mysterious incidents" they come down to bad luck, the usual accidents and delays that plague all film sets and the fact that you can die of the flu (54-year-old Jack MacGowran of The Exorcist), fall victim to special effects mishaps ( Brandon Lee of The Crow) or narrowly escape death a la Gregory Peck of The Omen, who cancelled his reservation on a chartered flight that subsequently crashed and killed everyone aboard. As the Book of Common Prayer says, "In the midst of life, we are in death."

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Question: I'm probably the last person to know, but when I read that golden-age Hollywood actresses Joan Fontaine and Olivia De Havilland were sisters I was totally surprised. Was it just the way things were done back then that relatives took totally different names? I mean, today it seems pretty normal for actors to keep their family names when they have close relatives who are also in the business. Or am I inferring too much from one example? -- Ames

FlickChick: I think then, as now, it was a matter of choice. The pros and cons come down to having a name that can open doors vs. having people think you're getting gigs you don't deserve because of family connections.

In the case of older actors and actresses, you should also remember that people habitually changed their names then in a way that they don't now: Anything foreign-sounding was a no-no, as were names that sounded Jewish or were just too ordinary or unglamorous for a movie star.

As far back as the silent era, there were siblings who proudly shared their family name, witness the Bennett sisters Constance -- who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame -- Barbara, the mother of 1980s TV shock-jock Morton Downey, Jr., and Joan, whose lengthy career included at least two film noir classics ( Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window) and the 1960s and '70s gothic soap opera Dark Shadows.

And there were Barrymores everywhere: Born into a famous/notorious theatrical family, John, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore started making films in the silent era and enjoyed careers that lasted well into the sound period. John's son and daughter, John Drew Barrymore and Diana Barrymore, carried on the family tradition (including a tendency to alcoholism), and John Drew's daughter, Drew Barrymore, has ensured that the family is still a movie force with which to be reckoned. Despite a rocky start, she seems to have outrun the family demons and become a formidable filmmaker who acts, produces and is about to make her directing debut. Legendary Western director John Ford and his brother, actor- director Francis Ford, never hid their kinship.

At the same time, sisters and lifelong rivals Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland established themselves under dramatically different names. So did brothers George Sanders and Tom Conway (whose looks and mannerisms were so similar that they could have passed as twins), siblings Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine, sisters June Havoc and Gypsy Rose Lee and brothers James Arness ( Gunsmoke) and Peter Graves ( Mission: Impossible).

Today we 're familiar with, to name only a few examples, the multitudinous Arquettes, Clint and Ron Howard, siblings Tim and Tyne Daly and brothers Matt and Kevin Dillon and Owen and Luke Wilson. Natasha Gregson Wagner is the daughter of Natalie (Natasha) Wood and Robert Wagner, Amber Tamblyn is the daughter of West Side Story star Russ Tamblyn, Josh Brolin, Cole Hauser, Campbell Scott and Jake Busey are the sons of James Brolin, Wings Hauser, George C. Scott and Gary Busey. Maggie And Jake Gyllenhaal are siblings, as are Ben and Casey Affleck, Julia and Eric Roberts (up-and-comer Emma is Eric's daughter) and Donnie and Mark Wahlberg.

On the other hand, Judy Garland's daughters took their dads' last names -- Liza Minelli and Lorna Luft -- and Nicolas Cage's surname (borrowed from a comic book character) doesn't exactly scream that Francis Ford Coppola is his uncle. But director Sophia Coppola wears her dad's name proudly. And who could have guessed that Fox reality show phenomenon Darva Conger, of the 2000 Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, was the daughter of actress Susan Harrison, of the classic Sweet Smell of Success (1957)?

As to Fontaine and de Havilland, Joan changed her last name when she followed her older sister into acting, supposedly on the advice of a fortune teller. But the fact that the two of them fought tooth and nail from the time they were small children may have had something to do with her wanting to carve out a separate identity for herself. Not that it worked -- the entertainment press of the day found out quickly enough and sold plenty of fan magazines with tales of the feuding sisters. Fontaine and de Havilland did nothing to defang the stories, and their frosty moment on stage during the 1946 Oscars -- Joan presented Olivia with her best actress statuette for To Each His Own and Olivia gave Joan the cold shoulder -- ensured that their personal and professional rivalry went down in history.

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Question: When I recently saw the Michael Mann movie Collateral (2004) it dredged up a memory of seeing a movie on TV -- maybe a made-for TV picture, maybe a real movie playing on TV -- that kind of reminded me of it. There was a black actor driving a cab and a passenger who'd committed some kind of crime. I know this isn't much to go on, but can you help me? -- Maya

FlickChick: You saw Jack Starrett's made-for-television Night Chase (1970), shot as "The Man in the Back Seat" and starring David Janssen of The Fugitive (1963-1967) and Yaphet Kotto, probably best known today for his portrayal of a working stiff in space in Alien (1979). Like Collateral, which stars Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise, this character-driven thriller, is rooted in the relationship that develops between the driver and his passenger over the course of a long night.

But that's where the similarities end: Where Collateral is about a driver who's dreaming his life away and a professional hit man, in Night Chase the cabbie is street smart and tough and his passenger is an ordinary businessman who shot his wife's lover in a moment of impulsive rage and, thinking he's now a murderer, is fleeing to Mexico.

When Night Chase came out on video in the mid 1980s it was retitled L.A. Cab, presumably in hopes of making renters think it was something along the lines of the popular comedy D.C. Cab (1983), starring Mr. T and directed by Joel Schumacher.

Though this is slightly off topic, you might be interested to know that Michael Mann actually did a made-for-TV movie called L.A. Takedown (1989) that was essentially a run through for his own Heat (1995), with Scott Plank and Alex McArthur in the roles taken over by Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. And here's the best part: There's a new movie called L.A. Takedown that isn't a remake of the Mann film, but is about an Indian cabbie forced to drive a pair of killers around Los Angeles. Weird.

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Question: I just saw a movie called Frailty, directed by Bill Paxton from Big Love and I thought it was pretty amazing: Paxton plays a small town dad who thinks God is telling him to kill "demons" and makes his two little boys help. Anyway, my question is this: When Paxton's character starts having visions, is the angel played by Matthew McConnaughey, who's in the movie as one of the sons grown up? I've looked and looked and it would be really cool if it were McConnaughey in both roles, but I really can't tell. I hope you can clear this up for me -- thanks! -- GMS

FlickChick: You know, I thought the same thing when I first saw Frailty (2001), but the angel is actually played by one of the movie's prop men, Edmond Ratliff. The resemblance is striking. I rewatched Frailty a couple of weeks ago in preparation for talking about it on an upcoming Bravo ...Scariest Movie Moments documentary (the third, for anyone who's counting) and it's as good as I remember -- even Matthew McConaughey is teriffic. I highly recommend it.

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See Maitland McDonagh and Ken Fox review this week's new flicks on the Movie Talk vodcast.