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Behind the Screen

Hollywood and Indie Offerings

Desson Thomson
Washington Post Film Critic
Monday, October 11, 2004; 12:30 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.

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.

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.

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: Happy Columbus day everyone. Hopefully many of you are home and enjoying a long weekend. And hopefully enough of you are online to chat about movies. Sad news about Christopher Reeve's passing. Very sad. What's on our minds today?

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Detroit, Mich.: Favorite Christopher Reeve memory?

Desson Thomson: I have a few. At first he used to strike me as the actor who always got the plodding side role, the major, the doctor, the colonel, that sort of thing. But he pleasantly surprised me in his roles in Noises Off, The Remains of the Day and a lesser known film called Street Smart. He could play funny and sensitive. And of course who can think of Superman as anyone other than Reeve? Ultimately, his greatest role was as himself, struggling against a formidable problem. He was a man of great courage and heart. I salute him.

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Finding Nemo rip-off: Full disclosure: I haven't seen Shark Tale, but then again I have no desire to. It revisits so many little bits already done in Finding Nemo, but with more charm and humor -- vegetarian sharks, little crabs, father and son, etc., etc. Why are people turning out in such droves to see this film? Parents will take their kids to see ANYTHING.

Desson Thomson: I think you answered the question with the last sentence. One of my biggest disappointments is: there isn't enough artistic rivalry and competition among filmmakers for family entertainment. Everything's got to be PG-13 action oriented fare. There simply aren't enough creative entities trying to make excellent G and PG rated movies. Shark Tale is getting box office almost by default. And things like Raise Your Voice with Hilary Duff is nothing more than an empty star vehicle for Duff, which is PG rated for her fans. Is that serving the PG audience? Absolutely not.

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Gambrills, Md.: Hi, Desson. I saw Red Lights over the weekend and thought it did an amazing job atmospherically, if that's a word, in making you sense from the opening frames that this was a marriage in very deep trouble. However, SPOILER ALERT, I found the movie's amazing plot coincidence to almost, but not quite, turn me off the film. And some of the husband's actions were not exactly logical, even though he had been drinking heavily. But anyone who likes a creepy, crawly thriller should put this one on their list.

Desson Thomson: Love that name: Gambrills. Glad you liked the movie and happy to post your recommendation!

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Falls Church, Va.: I missed the "sneak preview" of "Let's Dance" in the Falls Church area but caught it in Alexandria at Mt. Vernon. The movie was delightful, lots of fun and a wonderful story with a happy ending. It starred Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Jennifer Lopez supported by Tony Tucci. What fun! What happened to it? Will it open as a regular movie or go straight to video? I would not mind seeing it again.

Desson Thomson: Dear Falls, we are reviewing it this coming Friday. It is very much coming to a theater near you. Not sure what our reviewer Jen Chaney has made of it, yet, but her review will appear in Weekend Friday.

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Washington, D.C: I went to see Shark Tale and it really did not impress me at all! What were these idiots thinking when they made this movie! They should have taken a few lessons from The Cat In The Hat at least!

Desson Thomson: Wash DC I share your dismissal of Shark Tale but I'm sorry to say that Cat in the Hat wasn't one of my faves either. (Of course the book is terrific) But both movies, I felt, were bland offerings, right in keeping with my rant about mediocrity in the PG rated ranks.

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Bethesda,. Md.: OK, Desson, here goes: I've been trying literally for decades to find a reviewer with whom I'm more or less consistently on the same page, without great success, though you come closer than most. But I'll soon be putting you to the test: You gave I (Heart]) Huckabees one of the worst reviews I've ever read, while every other review I read praised it, and in some instances lauded it highly. I wouldn't ordinarily be seeing it anytime soon, because here are several other films I want to get to first, but a friend was so taken by the favorable reviews that he is taking me out to see it later in the week. I'm sure you're now on pins and needles awaiting my report in your next chat!

Desson Thomson: Oooh, put me to the test. I like it. As you can see, I'm not one to jump on board the ocean liner with everyone else. I just found the movie to be underwhelming--and I'm a fan of David O. Russell, so go figure. Let me know what you think. If you like it, great. If not, then join me in the independent waters next to that ocean liner. We can play water polo for two.

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New York, N.Y.: Hi Desson,
I love your chats and look forward to your reviews each week.
Have you seen Bride and Prejudice? Is it really as bad as the foreign (UK/Indian) reviews have indicated?
Thanks for taking my question.

Desson Thomson: NY NY, thanks so much for saying that. It is the readers that I write for, pure and simple, so it's always gratifying to hear it. I am still hopeful for this movie. It sounded like such a brilliant idea. So whether or not those reviews are negative, I'll watch it with my own judgment. Hope it's good.

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Washington, D.C.: Will Wooly Boys be playing anywhere around here? I heard once (on your chat?) that it might come here this fall.

Desson Thomson: I have been told--and quite recently too--that it's on the way. They don't know when. But they tell me it's coming. That's all I can tell you. There is a Web site to check too. I believe it's woolyboys.com or something. Check Yahoo or Google for the title and you'll find.

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Reston, Va.: Desson -- do you know when Bride and Prejudice will be released stateside?

Desson Thomson: Haven't heard anything definitive yet. Before the end of the year or just after I'd guess.

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Silver Spring, Md.: On the subject of good G and PG movies, where can I find reviews of such films, not just for their appropriateness, but for their artistic merit or ability to entertain parents too? Thanks.

Desson Thomson: You could start by reading the Movie Mom. She follows such things and observes with that special eye that I think would serve you. http://movies.yahoo.com/moviemom/

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washingtonpost.com: woolyboys.com

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washingtonpost.com: The Movie Mom

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi, Desson. I thought you were a bit unfair when you made assumptions in the last chat about how Chris Columbus would handle the "Rent" movie. I know from a personal connection that he was chosen very carefully by the family of "Rent's" late creator, with assurances (and family input) on how it would be handled. Would you have thought the director of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Hook" could direct "Schindler's List"?
That the female star of the "King Kong" remake could go on to win two Oscars? How about giving people a chance to do something different (or, in Jessica Lange's case, improve) before making snide assumptions?

Desson Thomson: I don't have that personal connection you have; and I don't mean to upset you on that level. I'd love to be pleasantly surprised by Chris Columbus and will be the first to high-five him if he does. But I don't think it's untoward to talk about one's dubiousness about a filmmaker's suitability, based on one's experience of him/her thus far. I don't doubt his intentions to do as great and respectful a job as he can. Am I snide? Wary and dubious, I'd say. But I'm not going to watch the film with a bias, which would be the thing to watch for.

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Centreville, Va.: I asked this last chat, but in such a roundabout way (trying to avoid being a spoiler), that I'm not sure I was clear. Re: "Garden State" -- SPOILER ALERT!! -- Do any of the major characters we actually meet during the course of the film (not counting animals) die during the course of the film?

Desson Thomson: As you said, it would be a spoiler alert to answer.

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Fairfax, Va.: What did you think of Friday Night Lights? And have you seen the Che documentary -- Motorcycle Diaries?

Desson Thomson: Michael O Sullivan saw Friday Night Lights and his review was in the Weekend section just three days ago. He loved it. I intend to see it myself (when time permits, which in these days of 12 movies a week is an uncertain thing) because the word is good on that film. Seems like it's a sure bet.

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Rainsville, Ala.: I saw Friday Night Lights twice this weekend. I grew up in the football obsessed town of Gaffney, S.C., and I get it.
My hometown won state last year in the 4A Big Sixteen!
I got Lucas Black's autograph few days after I saw Slingblade in '95. He lives just an hour or so away, or grew up there.
He and Billy Bob are great. This movie will have the staying power in the South that Oh Brother Where Art Thou had, will still be playing in major markets Christmas I predict, and will do well nationally.

Desson Thomson: And here is further testimony that's it's a good film. Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for posting that. Very interesting.

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Washington, D.C.: Any hope for any good (intelligent and entertaining) kids movies coming out this fall? I have a soon to be 6-year-old, and I love to take her to the movies, but can't sit through a lot of the dreck that's out there -- and that's when I can find something that's appropriate for her age!

Desson Thomson: There's good word for "The Incredibles" and "Polar Express" which are all coming out this fall. And then there's "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" too. Those are the big ones. Let's hope they're good!

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FLYOVER COUNTRY: Desson -- Saw Ladder 49 this weekend. What a horrible BORE! What is the consensus on this one? Could they have fit in any more cliches? I'm so mad I spent the time and money on this one!

Desson Thomson: I felt the same thing, FLYOVER. It was like watching a pubic service announcement or an army training video -- the Heroic Firefighters! I found almost nothing in it that entertained or challenged me.

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Southeast Washington, D.C.: So what about Team America? Will it live up to the level of comedy set by the South Park movie?

Desson Thomson: I hope so. I see it tomorrow night. I love doll and puppet movies! They're so weird.

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Washington, D.C.: Indie/Foreign films:
Hi Desson, so much controversy over the Brown Bunny movie and what Chloe Sevigny did in it. I remember some twenty odd years ago that Sonia Braga nearly approached this same borderline of being X-rated in a few of her Brazilian-made flicks. I know V. Gallo put those scenes in BB for publicity and self-promotion and that's just being smart. But why do we in America still have such a problem with sex in a mainstream movies in comparison w/ other countries?

Desson Thomson: Why indeed. I have my opinion on that but I don't want to inflame any political or religious sensibilities. But as a friend put it once (referring to the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board): if a nun's head and arms are cut off in a movie, that's okay. But if her dead body rolls over and the clothing falls away, it's not. America is still in a self-imposed choke hold of shock about sex -- at least in the movies.

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Tenleytown, Washington, D.C.: Desson: I too was sorry to read your pan of I (heart) Huckabees, especially given the wonders of Three Kings. My family also laughed ourselves silly at Flirting With Disaster, which as I recall only received middling reviews. However, I found Spanking the Monkey unwatchable -- but then it was his first film. Your review implied that you also liked Flirting, but I don't recall any favorable local reviews at the time. Has your opinion changed on this film?

Desson Thomson: Hey Tenley. I DID like Flirting with Disaster and wrote a favorable review. I also liked 3 Kings. I wasn't as wildly impressed with Spanking as everyone else. But I still thought it was a good debut. Hoping to post my review of Flirting in a second.

Also, I forgot to reply to the second question of a previous poster about The Motorcycle Diaries. It is NOT a documentary. It's an adaptation of Guevara's diaries (also draws from his companion's diary of the same trip). And I liked it a great deal. Maybe I can post that review too.

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Washington, D.C.: "The Polar Express" book totally gave away the whole there-is-no-Santa-Claus thing when I was a kid (probably to my parents' relief, as I was 10 and most definitely should have known better). Do you know if the movie intends to do the same? Seems like it could be kind of a Christmas downer, in that case ...

Desson Thomson: Interesting question. I haven't seen the movie so I can't answer it. Sorry. Will be seeing it soon. I am sorry to hear of your Santa heartbreak. Many of us have experienced the same thing. But we must live on.

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New York, N.Y.: Hi, Desson,

To what do you attribute the (relative) mainstream embrace of movies that have heavily surreal elements to their plots? I'm thinking of "Eternal Sunshine ..." and "I Heart Huckabees." (Could it be the MTV generation having grown up to be so comfortable with visuals that fast-cut among a lot of disparate images?)

I saw "Lost in Translation" last year and thought, "Hey, this is probably about as abstract as a mainstream movie is allowed to be these days," but have been proven wrong. (Which is fine by me.)

Desson Thomson: Yes, I think the answer is: filmmakers are growing smarter and more sophisticated and so is the audience, in part because of what you indicate. We aren't as dumb as Hollywood has assumed for so long.

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Reston, Va.: Hi Desson,
I don't watch TV much anymore, or see movies in theaters that often (many are not worth the money, imo), but I wanted to ask if you had any insight into what this year's holiday films are going to be, and if you think any might be worth seeing? Thanks.

Desson Thomson: Kind of too big a question for me to answer you at speed today, but Style did a fall preview of movies, plays, and other visual arts Sunday September 12. I'm trying to get that posted for you. But you can find it in the archives I would think.

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Reston, Va.: Desson --

We saw Motorcycle Diaries this weekend and really, really liked it. It was so refreshing to see a movie about someone questioning and then rejecting the status quo. More powerful than any of the anti-Bush, anti-establishmentarian movies out this year. We found it refreshing, funny, and not at all preachy (ok, once, but only once). Lovely metaphors with being overly symbolic. I would recommend it to anyone -- and I thought that it could be particularly inspiring to teenagers.

Desson Thomson: Thanks so much for the comments. I agree. A very nice and lyrical movie. Go see it everyone!

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washingtonpost.com: Viva Che!/"The Motorcycle Diaries" Review

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Fairfax, Va.: I went to see I Heart Huckabees after being drawn in by the trailer and several favorable reviews (in a variety of publications). This was one of the WORST movies I've ever seen ... I actually walked out about 3/4 of the way through and I feel like I wasted part of my life. Just for reference, I don't think I've ever walked out of another movie. They tried way too hard to be smart and funny and it just comes off as a bog sloppy mess.

Desson Thomson: Awright, another Huckabees dissenter. I'm not crazy. Well...

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Easton, Md.: I, too, saw Red Lights over the weekend and want to 2nd the recommendation. Sure, afterwards you think, hmmm, about a couple plot elements, but you are so caught up in the movie while you're watching it that you don't realize this until afterwards. Amazing performances by practically everyone. Go see it!

Desson Thomson: Easton, thanks. Hope people get to see this too.

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Lake Ridge, Va.: Good afternoon!

I caught my first preview for The Phantom of the Opera over the weekend. I love the music and am excited about the movie. What's the early buzz.

The biggest negative, though, was that the preview gave me a headache. It was set to the music from the movie (good) but the entire preview was maybe two hundred one to two second shots from the movie. Nothing was on screen long enough to register. Dancing! A horse! An opera! A masked man! A beautiful girl! What a terrible preview. If you didn't recognize the music right away, you'd have no idea what you were seeing.

Desson Thomson: The movie is to be directed by Joel Schumacher who can tend to make the kind of flashpoint edited movie you mention. If that's true, it sounds like it might not evoke the enjoyable theatrical spectacle of the musical. But I'll just have to find out when it gets here. Around Christmas time I am told.

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washingtonpost.com: "Flirting With Disaster" Review (Post, March 29, 1996)

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Oakton, Va.: Did you think Friday Night Lights was a good film (passable), very good, or great? I am a skeptical movie goer, especially with sports themed movies (I love sports but quality sports movies are few and far between) and hate wasting time/money. Thanks.

Desson Thomson: As I said earlier in this chat, Michael O Sullivan saw it and loved it, and I am hearing nothing but good about it, especially Billy Bob Thornton's performance. It certainly makes me interested to see it.

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Boca Raton, Fla.: Any word on "A Very Long Engagement" which reunites Audrey Tautou with "Amelie" director Jean-Pierre Jeunet? I saw a preview this weekend before "Motorcycle Diaries" (which I loved, by the way) and it looked promising.

Desson Thomson: It's coming soon. And I can't tell you any buzz as of now, sorry. But I know it's coming to the E Street Cinema and probably Bethesda Row.

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washingtonpost.com: Fall Movies

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Desson Thomson: Thanks everyone for your time and enthusiasm! We are still looking for that fall preview which will be posted on this chat. Have a great rest of Columbus Day and we'll catch up with each other in two weeks. Check out Motorcycle Diaries and Intimate Strangers -- both good movies. See ya.

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