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.
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.
Desson Thomson: Good afternoon everyone! Welcome to the post-inoorghoural movie chatterbox corner. Let's talk about les flicks. Slim pickings opening this weekend, I must say. But lots of movies flying around with Oscar announcements just days away.
I also want to tell you I will be hosting another special chat this Tuesday, right after those Oscars are announced. So, be sure to join me then.
Will Miss Congeniality 2 be the greatest of the Sandra Bullock sequels?
Desson Thomson: Oh I really really hope so. And I think the whole nation is praying accordingly.
Does the existence of Brad Pitt make a more convincing argument for evolution or creation?
Desson Thomson: Haha. Discuss.
You were all wet in your review Beyond The Sea.
You quoted a critic who said that BTS was not a movie about Bobby Darin, it was a movie about what Bobby Darin meant to Kevin Spacey.
True, but so what? I would rather watch a movie about the latter than the former.
I also disagree that the film failed to tell the audience why Bobby Darin was important. The film is about death and fame. Those are important subjects.
Can't you admit that the opening seen, where Kevin Spacey played Darin performing, was terrific?
Desson Thomson: I feel so drenched, Alexandria! I appreciate that you had a better experience with it than I did. In fact, I envy you. I can appreciate your points but I simply didn't think as much of the movie as you. But I will agree that the opening scene was terrific. He is a brilliant imitator. But other than enjoying his art of mimicry I never had a moment of empathy. I just felt cold. I even watched it twice to make sure. I thought it was interestingly ambitious. But I felt its method of doing that movie within a movie failed. As I said, you had a good experience with it. And I'm glad you did.
I've tried to come up with who I think is the best actor (male actor -- I picked Bette Davis for best female actor) of the 20th century and I think I'm stuck.
I've narrowed the list to five. Any suggestions?
(in no particular order)
Desson Thomson: These are all fine actors, obviously. I would say that Marlon Brando in his prime was the most exciting. I would say that Guinness is the most assured and brilliant. Humphrey Bogart is a legend, plain and simple. Nicholson is so exciting to watch all the time. And Peter O'Toole has had many wonderful roles. Hey, I like all of them for different reasons.
Peter Saarsgard, Morgan Freeman, Brendan Gleason, there are many fine actors. I like Russell Crowe too. And yes, Brad Pitt. But somehow those you mentioned seem to have something even higher.
My wife and I have Sexy Beast and Garden State at home from NetFlix. Which should we watch tonight?
Desson Thomson: Both good movies. Toss a coin, my friend. You'll win either way.
Just a comment: While I liked Million Dollar Baby, I can't help but feel it was a bit formulaic -- the curmudgeon with a heart of gold, the spirited survivor with a heart of gold, and the wise narrator with, guess what -- a heart of gold. It just ended up being too much. Good, but not as good as the best film of the year -- Sideways.
Desson Thomson: I understand the comment, Morristown. Can I call you Mo? I think the formula stuff is the POINT of the movie. It's as if you are watching an old fashioned Hollywood B-movie. All those characters are familiar archetypes and it's fun to see all those chestnuts rewarmed over the fire.
Desson -- I liked Beyond the Sea (although no one else seems to have.) Funny part was that I was the youngest person in the theater at age 32. My dad, age 56, was the second youngest!
Desson Thomson: Glad you both liked it.
Saw Shaun of the Dead this week and loved it. Can we expect more from this crop of writer/actors?
Desson Thomson: Yes, isn't that a terrific, fun movie? The notion of killing zombies with a cricket bat (which every Brit has sitting in his or her garden shed from old school days)especially resonated with me. And yes, those guys are doing more of the same. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright are collaborating on Hot Fuzz, which will be another comedy in the same vein, this time about cops and action.
I don't know who Bobby Darin is. Should I see Beyond the Sea or continue living in ignorance?
Desson Thomson: It will tell you about Bobby Darin. If you are interested, check it out. He was the singer who did such hits as Beyond the Sea, mack the Knife and Splish Splash. He was a big pop singer and then the Beatles came and changed everything.
What is the possibility of a kid from a small town, under 10,000 people, succeeding in the film industry? Would there be any specific course(s) of action that should be taken to diversify myself to fit into the film industry?
Desson Thomson: Lewistown. Your question is already phrased in terms of you and a small town, as if there is barbed wire around the town borders. This should mean nothing, in terms of whether you have something to say, drive to succeed and all those variables. Remember, anyone who has ever made it started life as a helpless baby. After that, it didn't matter if they were from a small town or New York City. It was all up to them. Your chances are as good as you want to make them. Best of luck. Do it.
New York, N.Y.:
Best Actor List --
I would add Cary Grant to the list -- he was, I think, the one unique actor in film history. He was the ultimate leading man but handled slapstick and screwball comedy as well as anyone else. There really hasn't been a replacement for him, although Hollywood has tried for years.
Don't forget Laurence Olivier and George C. Scott.
Desson Thomson: Hear hear to all three. Thanks.
So, Desson, how hard to watch is Hotel Rwanda? My wife is squeamish, couldn't bring herself to go to the film on female genital mutilation, and I don't blame her. But we like to watch films together. I'm hoping most of the atrocities happen off-screen. Thanks!
Desson Thomson: You mean your wife didn't jump up and down with delight at the thought of seeing female genital mutilation? :) Yes, Hotel Rwanda is a fantastic experience, intense and harrowing. And Cheadle's performance is on a par if not better than Jamie Foxx's in Ray. It IS a movie about the wholesale slaughter of a million people, so , yeah, there is a lot of killing. It's not focussed on all the time but you definitely see people being killed in great numbers. If your wife is squeamish, I would hesitate to recommend she sees it. depends on her. But a fine movie if you/she can get around that.
I missed your end-of-the-year top-10 movies list. Got a link?
Desson Thomson: Yes, I think so. My good friends at dot.com should be on it soon enough.
Do you think it's possible for the next Chinese Kung Fu movie to hit the states to possibly feature the romantic leads actually getting to live together and not die? Is there someone I can talk to about this or a number I can call?
Desson Thomson: Arlington, that's very funny. Here is the number 011-555-1212.
To: Fairfax, Va.:
Watch Garden State tonight and send it back, so that I can get it. Thanks!
Desson Thomson: The Netflix community in the house! Chatting. Swapping. Doing the movie thing.
Any list of the best actors of the 20th C without DeNiro on it is worthless.
Desson Thomson: You go, Raging Champ. Yes, although lately, he has tended to overexpose himself. I hear talk of a sequel to Taxi Diver BTW, starring him as the older Travis Bickle and with Scorsese directing, which is either an amazingly good idea or an amazingly bad one. We'll see. I'll be very excited and hopeful.
I was surprised that Garden State didn't get any kind of recognition/award at the Golden Globes. I just loved Garden State. I would have preferred to see Natalie Portman get her award for her performance in Garden State rather than for her performance in Closer, which I feel is an inferior movie.
Do you agree, or is it just me?
Desson Thomson: I agree with you that her performance in Garden State was a better one than in Closer. I too am surprised that Garden State hasn't made more of a dent. Closer had bigger guns behind it. Which unfortunately is at least 2/3 of the battle for recognition.
Metro Center, Washington, D.C.:
In an attempt to avoid inauguration viewing, I saw Sideways yesterday and loved it. I was also reassured to know that no oak trees were harmed in filming. Any ideas on who Lulu the editorial cat might be?
Desson Thomson: Haha. Yes, the best movie of the year. I would be thrilled to see it take the big prize. As for your Lulu reference, I don't know what you are referring to. My brain is mentally flatlining. Was this a credit on the movie? (In which I duck waiting for a bevy of posts telling me what a dumbo I am.... )
What was the film on female genital mutilation? I might
want to see it.
Desson Thomson: Boston. Please seek professional help. Now.
In all seriousness, it's called Moolaade, an African film, and if you click on the upcoming link of my top ten, you can find out more about it.
Re: De Niro:
Can someone remind me the last time De Niro had a good role?
Desson Thomson: So it would seem. There was Jackie Brown. And he was funny in Meet the Parents and Wag the Dog and Analyze This. But I understand what you mean.
Silver Spring, Md.:
Surprised to see Spencer Tracy left off the best actors of the 20th century list.
Desson Thomson: There's an even longer list, I am sure, that could be compiled. Yes, he is great, great. Love him.
Hi Desson, I recently saw Million Dollar Baby and was less than blown away by it. The acting was great, but I think the twist threw me off. What am I missing about this film? Thanks!
Desson Thomson: I know what you mean. It is a great big surprise. And the first time I saw it, I was upset and thrown off too. But the more I thought about it, the more I was still entranced by the movie. When I saw it a 2nd time and knew the outcome, it made much more sense. I could see the clues.
My co-workers all claim (without seeing it) that Garden State is a chick flick. I have told them that it is in no way a chick flick. How can I convince them of this since I know at least two of them would really enjoy this well done movie?
Desson Thomson: Offer beer afterwards, to be paid by anyone who still maintains it's a chick flick. What does chick flick mean, exactly? That's it's too smart and sensitive?
So who was the best chance of turning Globe success into an Oscar: Hillary S or Annette B? Leo or Jamie Foxx?
Desson Thomson: I would say that Annette vs. Hilary is a great match. I think Annette gets it, maybe, for being the older of the two and being in a role about being older. A female role in which a woman is fighting society's perceptions of older women, that's going to resonate big time.
Jamie Foxx will emerge stronger I believe. No one wants to give Leo an award for great acting when he's up against someone ace-ing Ray so well. And I still believe Don Cheadle is the wildcard man who could slip in and win.
By the way, Lulu the editorial cat, I have learned, is on the credits of Sideways. This could mean, literally, someone's cat (who was maybe the editor's cat), or it could be some insider joke.
Went to see the new Clint Eastwood movie. Very impressed -- made scenes of boxing (a sport I utterly loathe) as compelling as the scenes of football in "Bend it like Beckham." Not an easy task, by any measure! Good acting, too.
Desson Thomson: Yes WDCFN. My thoughts exactly.
Do you have a twin brother that I can marry?
Desson Thomson: Let me check..... Uh, no. Sorry. Appreciate the indirect compliment, but if you saw how much I sit around the house just watching British soccer games and not clearing up certain garages which have become filled with clutter and ... and ... I could go on.
So what was the twist? Is she transgendered?
Desson Thomson: Haha. You'll have to see, my friend, for yourself.
Best Actor, Washington, D.C.:
Cary Grant. End of discussion.
Desson Thomson: I want to be Him, as I said last time.
Hi, Desson. I thought Coach Carter was a good but not great movie, fairly predictable but still quite inspiring. However, there is a very incongruous note right at the start, when a reporter asks one of the players what it's like to be "the next LeBron James." Clearly the film is set when LeBron was still years away from the NBA radar screen.
Also, folks, the film is set in Richmond, California (a suburb of S.F.), not Richmond, Va. There were many surprised murmurings when the school was invited to the California State Tournament. The palm trees and shirt-sleeve-in-December scenery, not to mention the Golden Gate bridge, should have been a give-away.
Desson Thomson: Hi Dover, say hi to the White Cliffs for me, Oh wait, Del. Yes, it was a movie that put a lot of entertaining oomph behind the cliches. And yes, it was set in Richmond, Calif, not Virjinya.
Gene Kelly ... :
I was much younger and channel surfing one evening and came across "An American in Paris" -- not exactly designed with the pre-adolescent male audience in mind! Singing and dancing? Yuck! Yet I was just riveted. Amazing movie. And Kelly certainly deserves to be on your list.
Desson Thomson: Gene Kelly is magnificent. So is Donald O'Connor, who steals the movie from him in Singin in the Rain in the "Make 'em Laugh" number. I wish I could run sideways up walls and somersault like that.
Paul Newman, who's still quite the daredevil. Thank goodness he survived the race car crash.
Desson Thomson: Ten million salads are also grateful.
I guess I'm alone in thinking "Garden State" is overrated. Except for the final scene between Braff and Portman, which was incredibly strong, the film didn't do a whole lot for me. I found "Sexy Beast" far more entertaining.
Desson Thomson: I liked 'em both.
I'm guessing they're all likely to get Oscar nominations, so who's more likely to win: DiCaprio for "The Aviator," Cheadle for "Hotel Rwanda," or Giamatti for "Sideways?"
Desson Thomson: Which one will win? Don't know. But I would put Leo 3rd right away. Don's the man, I think, in the remaining match-up. But Jamie Foxx is also the one to beat. And Clint might get a nod too for Mill Dollar Baby.
What's the buzz on Russell Crowe's upcoming Cinderella Man?
Desson Thomson: Previews look good, actually. But it has been held up for quite some time which is always suspicious.
Re: Hilary Swank:
No way is any boxer going to have a set of teeth like Hilary Swank.
Desson Thomson: Tell me about it. Assault on Precinct 13 has John Leguizamo as a smack addict and he's got amazing bright teeth. What, he finds time between heroin highs to visit the ortho?
But teeth aside, she is terrif in that role. Hilary is a great performer. Very impressive.
Re Hotel Rwanda: I'm pretty squeamish myself and wasn't at all looking forward to it. Perhaps because of that, I found it not nearly as graphic as it could have been: most of the violent images shown were implied or in the aftermath.
And Desson is right, Cheadle is not to be missed. What a sensitive and realistic portrayal of someone who never set out to be a hero ...
Desson Thomson: Thanks Chicago!
With 'Elektra' coming to the screen after
'Daredevil,' 'Spiderman,' The Hulk,'
'X-Men,' et al, I keep seeing Stan Lee's
name as executive producer. This would,
one might think, have made him filthy rich.
Yet he's in litigation with Marvel over ... Do
you know exactly what? Further to that, I
may be the only person on earth who
really enjoyed Ang Lee's storytelling style
in 'The Hulk'- not to mention the brooding
talent of Eric Bana. Is there no chance
we'll see a sequel by the same team?
Desson Thomson: Lee, in his 80s now, filed suit in 2002 against Marvel for reneging on him getting 10 percent of Marvel's profits from movie merchandising deals for Spider-man and other projects. he won a judgment recently. As for the Hulk, yes, it was very unusually told and I liked that approach. I haven't heard of a sequel as of now. But I wouldn't be surprised. I liked Bana as Hector in Troy, too.
What do you think of Stanley Kubrick?
Desson Thomson: He has made some of the greatest movies ever: Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, Clockwork Orange, the Killing and 2001. Wow. And I have come to really admire the Shining and Lolita. I plan to watch Barry Lyndon sometime soon to give it another shot. I hated it when I saw it umpteen years back.
he's also one of the strangest people to have ever made films.
Thanks for doing this show.
I saw Garden State the other day and had a very different take on it than I've read by critics and others.
Has anyone considered the possibility that the Zach Braff character actually dies in the opening sequence (the distressed airplane), and everything that follows is his personal atonement/coming to terms with his personal life? The immediate next scene is Zach lying in a completely white room under white sheets, as if he's waking up into some other life/dimension.
It's a pretty surreal film, along the lines of The Graduate, and I think this theory makes sense, but was wondering what you and other clicksters thought about it.
Desson Thomson: You know : You should get out more. Just kiddddddding. An interesting theory, Bethesda. I 'll have to take another look at it and see what you mean. I don't remember thinking that theory at the time.
The slaughter in Rwanda was horrible, but, I believe the number of dead was around 500,000 not one million.
On a totally different subject, did you see the "60 Minutes" story on Manchester United's American goalie?
Desson Thomson: The very end of the movie says it, a million. And 800,000 were slaughtered in 100 days. The final tally was about a million. This is confirmed in any news report you want to look up.
Darn, I made a mental note to see that show. I will get a tape of it somehow. I have to make a mental note not to depend on mental notes.
So, drawing from the Greatest Actors list, who'd you like to see most do a buddy comedy?
Desson Thomson: Steve Buscemi and Margaret Cho.
"How are the twins?" -- John Cusak to Annette Benning in The Grifters
Desson Thomson: yes. It's a twin motif today.
Don't you have an obligation to reveal that the "Million Dollar Baby" twist will be morally reprehensible to many potential viewers? Or are you so self-righteous that you assume everyone will agree with moral decisions the characters make? It's outrageous that critics are playing this game that the studio wants them to play. It's obviously in the best financial interest of the studio that people NOT know the outcome, but as a critic, you have some duty to provide strong indicators, if not to spoil it.
Desson Thomson: Whoa. I guess I don't give away endings to respect the artists who made the movie, nor would I be self righteous enough to assume I can speak for the morals of everyone else.
I asked last week about whether Hotel Rwanda was as intense as Schindler's List and I think you misunderstood my question. I'm certainly not asking you to compare the tragedies (which is what your response seemed to indicate). I'm asking, from a cinematic standpoint, how do they compare. In other words, if there was a young person who I felt was not emotionally ready for the depictions in Schindler's List, is there a chance that Hotel Rwanda would be more appropriate? Or are the scenes/issues/etc., as intense or more so then those in Schindler's List?
Desson Thomson: Sorry I missed the fine point. I think that as Chicago said earlier, the violence is kept relatively in the background in Rwanda. And in Schindler, there's a horrible orgy of slaughter in the streets. So Schindler takes a more focussed look at the slaughter than Rwanda which makes the violence more of a backdrop.
It took some convincing to get the late great Mr. Nani Texas to take me to see An American in Paris (he wanted to see a cowboy movie). We fell in love at the drive-in and named our first daughter, Leslie after Leslie Caron.
Best Actors: Edward G. Robinson, Fred McMurray. Agree that Bette Davis was the greatest female actor ever.
Desson Thomson: Very charming story, Nani. Sorry to hear that a Great is now Late.
Hi, Desson -- thanks for the chat! My question is this: who do you think are the most intelligent actors and actresses working today? I enjoy watching folks like Jodie Foster and Tobey Maguire specifically because there appears to be intelligence lurking beneath their ability to assume characters. And I don't (necessarily) mean who have the benefit of the most book-larnin'.
Desson Thomson: Intelligent can mean many things. Most actors are, by definition, intelligent in terms of dramatic interpretation. And then they can be doofi in real life. I hear de Niro is less than stellar in real life but he's clearly an acting genius. Clearly Foster is a gifted person. I was impressed with her French speaking skills in A Very Long Engagement. She was terrific, best performance in the film. I believe the most intelligent, perhaps in the manner you mean, are the ones who speak out politically or on other moral matters, such as Richard Gere.
I was kind of surprised to see Sandra Bullock doing Miss Congeniality 2. I thought she announced she was out of the film business. After all, doesn't she have a flourishing career as a TV producer. Also, it isn't like her latest films have been commercial or critical successes.
Desson Thomson: The Girl Can't Help It? I dunno.
McLean with Million $ Issue:
It's a MOVIE. Geez.
Desson Thomson: No comment.
Tim Howard on 60 Minutes:
Nice piece, but no new information (Yankee in the Premiership, Turrette's Syndrome, Sir Alex says he's a good lad). It was filmed before the 2004-05 season and doesn't mention him being benched. I hope he wins back his starting position soon. After 2 strong years, U.S. keepers haven't done too well in the EPL.
Desson Thomson: Thanks. Guess I didn't miss that much then.
Re: Man Utd:
Please tell me you're not a Man Utd fan. As a fellow ex-pat Brit and a Liverpool fan, I will have to disregard all your advice if it turns out you are so misguided ...
Desson Thomson: Sorry, mate. We have made brutally different choices in life.
Manchester United 1 Liverpool 0.
Me and my fellow Red fans were singing: "You're supposed to be at ho---ome, you're supposed to be at hooo-oome."
Can we still be friends? I reach across the aisle.
Is there any chance that "Vera Drake" will reopen in this area? I wanted to go see it a few weeks ago, but got sick, and by the time I was feeling up to seeing a movie it had closed! I've heard wonderful things about this movie, and really wanted a chance to see it before Academy Award time.
Desson Thomson: I suspect that Vera Drake might get a little rerelease if she gets a nom for acting, which I expect to happen.
See it, chatters! It is a must-see; don't worry about gore. It's harsh, but not gory. And I don't want to see anybody but Don Cheadle up there on stage accepting the Best Actor Oscar. Sit down, Jamie. Sit down, Leo. THIS is the role. If acting gets any better, I don't know about it.
Desson Thomson: Okay, cool. I can dig that.
Let's give props to the greats of our own time, especially Daniel Day-Lewis. There may have been actors as great as, but not greater. So sez I.
Desson Thomson: I like Daniel Day, but he needs to prove again that he can do stuff. We seem not to have seen great stuff lately.
As a charter member of AFI silver, I am dismayed by the lack of quality programming there in the last 3 or 4 months. They are basically showing the same stuff as the Landmark theaters (to near empty houses), and not honoring my membership passes (restricted by film distributorships). I know there's a lot of good stuff out there now. Why isn't AFI showing it?
Desson Thomson: Ray Barry of AFI responds: The underlying assumption is completely wrong. We have shown a great recent series on Pedro Almodovar, and there's a series on new Nigerian films coming soon. We've recently done a great Opera & film series, a Glenn Gould series. To say that doesn't stand the test of fact. And in terms of the Landmark films, we are showing quality special film such as Hotel Rwanda, and they are not playing to empty houses.
Re: Man Utd:
You're pushing my buttons now -- Liverpool are the Reds NOT ManU (who are the far inferior Red Devils). I will try and get past this and still put some stock in your reviews, but look out next season once Benitez has put his stamp on our squad.
You'll Never Walk Alone!
Desson Thomson: Okay, I have heard you and I will honor your commitment to a great and storied team. Liverpool have done England proud over the years in the European championships.
But may we always beat you for the rest of time.
What is your opinion of Kevin Spacey's directing skills overall now with two films under his belt (Beyond the Sea/Albino Alligator)?
Also, any opinion on actor Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast, Nil by Mouth, King Arthur, Cold Mountain)?
Desson Thomson: It doesn't take much to decently direct something. I think he's okay as a director.
I love Ray Winstone. Just love watching him. Did you see Nil by Mouth? What a movie! And he's THE BEAST in Sexy Beast.
For a snowy weekend: Shaun of the Dead, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Saved, and The Village.
Which is good for pre-shoveling, and which for post-shoveling?
Desson Thomson: The first 3 are all good choices. Push the Village under the pile of snow you have shoveled and never take it out again.
Do you think that 'A Very Long Engagement' was as good as 'Amelie,' since both have the same director and starring actress?
Desson Thomson: Amelie is miles better. Engagement is well made and brilliant to watch. But Amelie is a superior flick on every level IMHO.
Silver Spring, Md.:
Wow ... Barry Lyndon. I forgot that was Kubrick. I loved it. Saw it at least three times. It moved so indolently ... giving a realistic experience of the time when everything took lots of time. And the filming by candlelight produced such an intimate experience. Thanks for the memory! I may watch it again.
Desson Thomson: Cool.
Desson Thomson: OOops. I am 35 minutes over my time I guess we call it quits. Sorry I STILL couldn't get to everyone, even with the extra time.
Get back with me TUESDAY NEXT when we talk OSCARS. See you all in a few days. Have a great weekend.