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Behind the Screen

Hollywood and Indie Offerings

Desson Thomson
Washington Post Film Critic
Friday, February 11, 2005; 2:00 PM

Washington Post film critic Desson Thomson brings Behind The Screen Live Online for a discussion on filmmaking and the art of the cinema.

Have you ever wanted to know what the director had in mind when making a particular film? Or why the producer altered the original screenplay? Why was an actor or actress cast over another? Thomson has answers to these and other questions about filmmaking.

Desson Thomson (washingtonpost.com)

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_____The Name Change_____
I have changed my name to Desson Thomson. The story is thus: I started life as Desson Patrick Thomson. But my parents divorced when I was a wee lad of five. I lost touch with my father. And my mother remarried to a Howe. To cut a long story short, I was Desson Howe for 40 or so years. And after some personal events which I'll glide over, I felt a need to go in search of my birth father (I have learned not to say "real" father to respect those who are fully connected with their adoptive parents). I eventually traced him to Aberdeen, Scotland. We met and had a wonderful reunion. I also discovered two siblings I didn't know I had. So suddenly, the family name of Thomson made a lot more sense to me than Howe. So I changed my name, and so did my three sons. Hope that explains it, said the Critic Formerly Known as Howe.

Thomson, a movie critic at The Washington Post for 15 years, was raised in England where he was entranced, like most, by Hollywood movies. And it was a visit to see David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia," that made him realize movies had to be a part of his life.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Desson Thomson: Good afternoon, chatters, lurkers and shirkers. Welcome to today's rap a tat tat about anything on your mind. (Well...almost anything). To do with the movies that is. Just came out of Off the Map, Scott Campbell's new movie, a lovely story , filled to the brim with magic realism, and set in New Mexico. It's coming here very soon. Anyway, after this chat I am booking a flight and settling in that beautiful corner of the world immediately. Send all correspondence there from now on. Well, for now, let's talk.

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Bethesda, Md.: My favorite theater (Bethesda Row) is showing The Woodsman. Worth going to see?

Desson Thomson: Surely so. Kevin Bacon's performance is very strong. And it's a very assured story about a pedophile trying to start a new life, free of the demons that plague him. Off kilter subject, yes. But well done.

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Vienna, Va.: OK, I saw Sideways last week. Absolutely fabulous movie. But I'm scared to death that I'm Miles! Hax is too busy to take my question, I'm sure, so re-assure all us wine drinkers that we're not a bunch of basket cases, please!

Desson Thomson: If you drink wine, you automatically have to have some good qualities, right? It's a fine drink, a mark of your good taste. So let's start with that baseline. And also, if you are indeed Miles and are concerned about similar issues, you can also follow his redemption path in the movie. You're fine. Pass the pinot noir. Wait a minute, is Hax channeling through me now?

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Richmond, Va.: Why do you think that as we get older, movies hold less and less appeal? I rarely want to see any movies like I did when I was a teen/young adult. I can't even find anything good to rent!

Desson Thomson: Now there's a question. I suppose you could say that as we age, we became finer, purer, more cooked down versions of ourselves. And maybe we know what we want as we get older and if a movie doesn't give it, we no longer have the energy to bother with it.

There's also the problem that movies are made for the 16-25 or thereabouts age group. This is the age group that will produce the biggest box office, potentially. So studios and filmmakers looking for profit tend to skew towards the issues that will interest them. And the characters in them are also in their teens and twenties. The older you get, the less many of those issues are so important.

Stop me if I'm getting too heavy.....

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Crownsville, Md.: Re: Sideways. Friends don't let friends break all ten Commandments the week before the wedding, and then help them cover this up. Sheesh.

I wasn't thrilled with the ending of Million Dollar Baby, either, but Sideways was unconscionable.

Desson Thomson: Sorry you felt that way. Movies aren't morality sessions. They are stories about people. And this was a movie about imperfect characters who aren't saints. That is the movie's whole point, instead of connect-the-dots characters who are either good or bad. I don't understand why there can't be movies with these characters. I guess it's not a film for everyone.

I understand what you mean about Million Dollar. But after reflection it sort of grew on me. And the 2nd time I saw it, I totally accepted it.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Desson,

Glad to hear you liked NM. It's usually overshadowed by its more populous sibling to the west, but Santa Fe is a great place to visit, the food is excellent, and when you are driving out in the desert, you really are in Hillerman country.

On to the films. I have been reading a lot about "Paullettes" lately, and while it is interesting, I find that I am almost always in total disagreement with many of their assessments. Does that mean that I'm a hopeless film hack?

Desson Thomson: Nice to hear about NM. Paulettes can be an exclusive bunch and they have their own bylaws and in-house rules. or so it seems sometimes. They are like freemasons or something. Don't feel bad for having idiosyncratic tastes! This is the United States of America. We're supposed to be free.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Who is more likely to avoid the Star Wars curse of typecasting Natalie Portman or Hayden Christianson? ?

Desson Thomson: Well, both have shown themselves to have other qualities. Christensen in Shattered Glass. And Portman in Garden State and Closer. Plus she showed her quals in prev. movies too.

There is hope for them, especially if Lucas promises not to make any more of these CGI adventures.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Desson -- I was surprised to recognize the Asian actress in Sideways. The one who plays the second waitress. Wasn't she also in 'Under the Tuscan Sun'?
I think she's great, although a bit typecast in the two movies I've seen her in. Do you know who she is and what else she's been in?

Desson Thomson: She is Sandra Oh, a Canadian of Korean heritage. She's terrific, isn't she? She is also the wife of Alexander Payne who made Sideways. Yes she was the best friend in Tuscan Sun, who had the baby. And she has been in movies and TV shows all over the place, including Guinevere, Permanent Midnight and Red Violin. But these last 2 are her most prominent films. Expect to see a whole lot of her in the coming years!

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Morristown, N.J.: One of my favorite movies is "Being There". (although my wife hates it). It is just such an off-beat movie and Peter Sellers is fantastic in it. They only thing I don't get is the last scene in the film where Chauncey Gardner literally walks on water. What is this supposed to mean?

Desson Thomson: That he is sublime, holy, charmed, a quasi Christ figure, or just plain magical. Any of the above.

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Bethesda, Md.: Desson
Any word on the release of Sorstalanság's Fateless, due out this month?

Desson Thomson: Haven't seen it or heard any word. Just know it's a Hungarian movie that deals with Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. Sorry. I'll keep you posted.

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Arlington, Va.: I hated Sideways -- perhaps you have to be a middle-aged man to relate to it? I loved Million Dollar Baby -- we forget that endings don't always have to be happy. I'm rooting for Hilary Swank on Oscar night!

Desson Thomson: Yes Sideways does seem to divide on the age fault line. If you have lived a little longer --it seems--- you tend to appreciate it more. Hilary is a definite strong contender since she won the SAG award--screen actors guild. It's her versus Annette Bening who won a Golden Globe. And Imelda Staunton is (I think) the only possible upset candidate.

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Washington, D.C.: Your discussion on changing your name sounds like it could make an interesting movie. Any thoughts?

Desson Thomson: well, it was a great story to me, on a personal level. I'm not sure how I feel about a memoir or a movie or anything. I am too busy actually living and enjoying that life for now. But thanks for the thought!

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Arlington, Va.: Why wasn't Bad Education nominated for an Oscar this year? I thought it was one of Almodovar's best.

Desson Thomson: Glad you thought so. I think it's a great film. Spain decided that the Sea Inside was going to be their candidate, I think, because it's the kind of movie that an audience can instantly pull out the handkerchiefs for. Bad Education is also an NC -17 movie, and that might have been a factor in some decisions, on the Spanish side and maybe the Oscar side (in terms of other noms), but I can only speculate. Although Midnight Cowboy was X rated and it had 7 Oscar nominations. It won for Best Picture, director and screenplay.

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Bethesda, Md.: Desson -- Love your chats ... what are the film backgrounds/future prospects of two of my favorite HBO actors -- Ian McShane (Deadwood) and Dominic Weist (sp? -- The Wire)

Desson Thomson: Ian McShane, a Lancashire boy, was in that terrific role in Sexy Beast. And he's done an awful lot of TV. I would say he's got a nice future, especially. with the success of Deadwood. Same goes for Dominic West, a Yorkshire lad, who was Jasper in 28 Days, and had roles in Chicago and A Midsummer Night's Dream, and he was in the Julia Roberts film, Mona Lisa Smile,, to name a few.

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Nova Scotia: Have you heard anything about an upcoming X-files movie? I read an interview with David Duchovny about a possible script.

Desson Thomson: As far as I know, he (Duchovny) wants to do, not to mention many more. And I just read they were waiting for Agent Scully (Gillian Anderson) to join the project. I'm wondering about it myself.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Will Bride & Prejudice get a wider release here in D.C. in the coming weeks? I'm disappointed it's only showing in two theaters (Shirlington and Dupont Circle).

Desson Thomson: Like many mid-range or indie movies, they have to incubate it before hatching it wide. If there is strong support, it will expand.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: This is a comment to Richmond:

The DVD player has made me the film student I never knew I could be. It has given me Fellini, Passolini, Truffaut ... allowed me, via Peter Jackson's Tolkien trilogy, to understand a wee bit of the science, art, and luck involved in moviemaking (all the backstory material that you never saw in the 60s and 70s).

I find that as I age (born in '60), I have a HUGE backload of movies to enjoy! If today's Hollywood wants to cater to young, moneyed folk, fine. But I watched "The STING" almost three times last week, having never seen it before, and I'm STILL stunned.

Just my experience, I know. But don't give up hope!

Desson Thomson: Right on Ann Arbor!

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Bethesda, Md.: Desson, I'm sure about the exact title, but am wondering if you've seen the documentary "Born into Brothels", about kids born to women in brothels in India. Heard about it on NPR the other day, and it sounds wonderful.

Desson Thomson: It IS wonderful. It opens next Friday and my review will appear in Weekend on that day.

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Wells, Mich.:

Good afternoon. Why isn't "Hotel Rwanda" getting more circulation and why is it nominated for only one Oscar (Don Cheadle for best actor)?

This is the BEST movie I have seen since "Schindler's List." It shows the horrible impact of the genocide without being bloody (although the field full of dead children was very disturbing).

This is an important film that depicts accurately how the U.N. ignored repeated warnings and pleas to help prevent the genocide. As a result, nearly one million people were killed. If you compare that on a population scale, that is more people than were killed during the Holocaust.

"Hotel Rwanda" deserves more distribution and more Oscar noms.

Thank you for allowing me to vent.

Desson Thomson: You've got no argument from me. Great movie. Everyone should see it. I even think Cheadle's performance is better than Jamie Foxx's in Ray. I think it has gotten a lot of attention thanks to his nomination. It has won at least 2 audience awards at big festivals too.

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College Park, Md.: Welcome Back, Desson!

Finally saw "Million Dollar Baby" (MDB). If you had to cast your vote for best cast ensemble would you give it to MDB or "Sideways"?

Hilary Swank's performance was superb, but I have to say that I absolutely loved the rapport between Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood. Their dialogue was worth the price of admission in my opinion. After "Unforgiven" and this one, I would run to see these two work together again. I say revive the "Grumpy Old Men" franchise and recast Freeman and Eastwood.

Desson Thomson: Thanks so much for the welcome! I couldn't agree more with your sentiments!

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Chantilly, Va.: Do you think that any films or performances released in the first half of last year got snubbed of nominations by less deserving films released in the last few months? Personally, I think Eternal Sunshine got pushed aside because of its early release date.

Desson Thomson: Agreed that Sunshine State would likely have gotten bigger buzz if it had been released later in the year. There is often a real airhead quality to the Oscar noms, in case you hadn't noticed.

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Staunton, Va.: I know it has been discussed before but really, how did "The Aviator" pile up all the good reviews and Oscar nominations? All my friends thought it was no more than a B-/C+ movie. For this one, are the big time reviewers and Oscar voters just lemmings??

Thanks.

Desson Thomson: Staunton, you got me! I am just as bewildered. But not surprised. It's a Scorsese film and it has major film industry support. I'm one of those who felt very little emotion during or after seeing that movie. It just wasn't as moving as it could have been in my opinion.

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Herndon, Va.: I never thought I'd see it happen, but the "right-wingers" are going after Clint Eastwood!

SPOILER ALERT!! - the ending of "Million $ Baby" with Clint doing a "mercy" killing on Hillary Swank apparently is being read as support for euthanasia.

What's next? The "left-wing" going after Michael Moore? We've got a lot of idiots out there!

Desson Thomson: This tells me how powerful movies have always been in our culture, so much so that they produce strong emotions from political groups and others. This is a country full of people carrying torches for many moral issues. I remember when Basic Instinct drew fire from many people for portraying a lesbian as a killer. (although Sharon Stone played a bisexual character.) Well, there are tons of examples all the way back in history. There were riots against 1915's The Birth of A Nation for its racist stand on miscegenation.

Your opinion has been expressed. Thanks for posting it.

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Washington, D.C. (Continuation): Re: Downfall - I hope it makes it to the U.S. soon so I can watch it again with English subtitles.

Desson Thomson: Yes, it is coming soon. Pegged for March right now. This is the German made movie about Hitler's last days. Starring Bruno Ganz.

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Springfield, Va.: This has been driving me crazy for the past several weeks. I saw an independent movie on cable set in a trashy small town about the daily life of some real strange characters, especially a teen boy who had some sort of congenital defect and his cohort who would kill and collect cats for their fur in order to get money. What is the name of this film?

Desson Thomson: Someone help me with this one? It's not stirring my memory--a faulty doddering issue I have, I'm afraid. I might even have seen it but it's not ringing the bells. Someone? We are running out of time, too.

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Washington, D.C.:

I was in Paris a few weeks ago and saw the new German film "Downfall" about Hitler's last days in the bunker and the fall of Berlin. I didn't get all the French subtitles, but it was still a powerful film. Bruno Ganz gives an amazing performance as Hitler. My only quibble was getting confused among all the different generals and other secondary military staffers.

Desson Thomson: Ok, thanks. As I said, it comes here in March. I'll be looking at it a 2nd time. I wasn't as enthralled as you about it. But I didn't hate it by any means.

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Wexford, Pa.: I saw "Ray" the other day and while Jamie Foxx's performance is terrific, I felt the film seemed more like a series of "greatest hits" clips than anything else. And the repeated flashbacks to his childhood were positively heavy-handed, as were the constant shots of his drug use. We get the idea; there was no need to keep hitting us over the head with it. Certainly not Best Picture Oscar material, not when "Hotel Rwanda" and "Eternal Sunshine ..." were ignored for that award. And what does Paul Giamatti have to do to get an Oscar nomination? Geez!

Desson Thomson: I understand all your points. And I hear you on those movies being ignored. Biopics always have that quality you mention. But I was so amazed by his Foxx's performance, I had no problem going through those connect the dots highlights!

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Desson,

Are there any new movies that you are looking forward to? After seeing the Super Bowl movie ads, about the only "blockbuster" that looks interesting is the new "Batman" movie. How about any gems of 2004 that might have been overlooked, because they were indies, foreign, or whatever?

Desson Thomson: Wow, I wish I could reel them all out for you. Seems like they come and go so fast I can't even remember them. I refer to the indies that are in and out before people have a chance to see them. That's the nature of the biz now with so many films being made. Sorry. Rushing to answer everyone.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Desson,
Do you know if movie "Embers" directed by Milos Forman was ever started?

Desson Thomson: Been checking around. Can't seem to find anything on that.

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Kids killing cats movie: The only disturbing movie I can recall is Gummo, by the same director who made Kids.

Desson Thomson: Maybe that is it? There was also the Canadian film about the group in Canada that killed cats as an artistic statement.

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Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.: Desson--I understand that the DVD of "Ray" is much better than the theatrical release because it shows more of Charles's dark side. And I also hear that the DVD of "Unforgotten" has a re-edited version of the movie that is far superior to the theatrical version. If that's the case, why do we even bother going to the movies if the better version is coming out on disk, outside of the "big screen" experience?

Desson Thomson: Well, it's a good question. But I don't think there's any substitute for a movie on the big screen with an audience around you. A DVD in your living room ain't the same. I would say, see the movie and see the dvd!

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Hotel Rwanda:: Actually, it got three nominations: best actor, best supporting actress, and best original screenplay.

Desson Thomson: Good point. I was rushing to answer. Yes, this can hardly be seen as a snub, can it?

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Peter O'Toole: I decided a couple of weeks ago to rent as many Peter O'Toole movies as I could to determine for myself what I should consider his best performance. So far I've seen "Lawrence," "Masada," "My Favorite Year" (good O'Toole performance in a horrible movie, in my opinion), "The Stuntman," "Becket," and "Lion in Winter." What should I get next?

Desson Thomson: How to Steal A Million, Murphy's War, Kim, the Ruling Class, the Night of the Generals.

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For the HBO fan: Ian McShane has a role in the "Battle of Britain" (man was he young) and Dominic West is in that Mark Wahlberg movie about the heavy metal group that hires a singer from a cover band. Mr. West looks hilarious in a wig.

Desson Thomson: Thanks.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Desson, I'm the one who came up and said hello at halftime of Man U - Arsenal last week. While it was a pleasure to meet you, I must apologize for interrupting your conversation! Very rude of me.

A question for you: what's a good recommendation for the best soccer movie you've ever seen? Anything nearly as dramatic or ferocious as the game we saw?

Desson Thomson: It was nice to meet you by the way. Nothing in the movies can compare to the drama of that particular game. Wow.

A Shot At Glory by Robert Duvall isn't much of a movie as a story, but the soccer footage was excellent. And soccer fans like the movie Victory with Pele.

As of now I have yet to see the quintessential soccer movie. I hope to make it myself one day. Just a pipe dream, maybe.

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Armchair Mentions: If you are a big Sandrah Oh fan you MUST see the film 'Double Happiness'. Great picture with her as the lead (a Canadian film).

Desson Thomson: Yes.

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Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: I noticed that all of the National Archives' showings of the Oscar-nominated cartoons, shorts and documentaries are fully booked. Do you know if there is any chance that they or anyone will show all of these? It sounds like there's plenty of demand if they can fill that large theater for all those shows!

Desson Thomson: I intend to ask them. If they say yes, you can read it in Film Notes next week in Friday's Weekend.

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Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: I am over the age divide, and I thought Sideways was completely sophomoric and boring. I don't expect movies to be morality plays, but I just didn't find ANY of the characters engaging or interesting in any way. Thought it had a Hollywood ending too. Anyway, where is the story about your changing your name?

Desson Thomson: Okay.

As to my name change story, it is posted on this page. Under my picture somewhere.

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Silver Spring, M.: Do you think Clint Eastwood enjoys getting flak from both the left AND right about MDB?

Desson Thomson: He must be doing something right!

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Eastern Market, Washington, D.C.: My partner and I have been enjoying the Almodovar retrospective at the Silver Theatre, but I notice that they have not booked "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" or any of his movies prior to that (Matador, Law of Desire). Why do you suppose that is? Are they too gay or otherwise risque?

Desson Thomson: They were, as I recall, just doing recent ones. Those films you mention are earlier. As I recall, I believe they tried to get Women and couldn't get it--for boring distribution or availability reasons, something like that. (I haven't checked the retro in my haste. Maybe they did show that one?) Anyway, you can be sure they are not shirking from his films being too gay.

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Desson Thomson: There were some questions I didn't get to--I am sorry. Including the wonderful Manchester United related question. Sorry. It's been fun as always. There were some q's about Million Dollar too. Please re-post next time and I will try and answer them then! Have a great weekend everyone!

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