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.
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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.
Desson Thomson: Greetings everyone. Here we are on the eve of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 911," which opens this Friday, as well as a movie that I hope won't get lost in the tumult of Moore's publicity: "The Mother," a very compelling movie about a woman in her 60s who rediscovers (or rather, discovers) her sexual feelings after she loses her husband. It's directed by Roger Mitchell (Notting Hill) and written by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette). And it also opens this weekend. Have you seen the delightful "Terminal" by Steven Spielberg? See it. Cute and charming. And check out the amusing "Napoleon Dynamite." Well, fire away!
washingtonpost.com: In Praise of Older Woman (Post, June 20)
Have you seen Farenheit 9/11?
Do you know what theaters it will be playing at?
Desson Thomson: Yes. It's a very powerful film whatever your political persuasion. And it opens at several theaters around the area: the Avalon, E Street Cinema, Cinema Arts Fairfax, AFI Silver, Loews G/town, Bethesda Row, Loews Rio 8, AMC Courthouse Arl, AMC Hoffman Center 22, AMC Potomac Mills 18 in Woodbridge, the Shirlington and the Regal Cinemas Countryside 20 in Sterling.
I liked your review of The Terminal better than Mr. Hunter's, but he did have one of the best lines I've read in a while -- discussing the Zeta-Jones character, Hunter observed: "it's as if she's wandered in from a David Mamet play about Hollywood."
Desson Thomson: Thanks much!
Embassy Row, Washington, D.C.:
I enjoyed the Silverdocs film festival this weekend, especially the film on Herge, the creator of TinTin.
But mst interesting was the panel discussion I attended on Thursday which focused on documentaries about political candidates. Very interesting, especially the discussion about Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 ... the two panelists who saw it believe it may be the first documentary in history to affect a presidential election.
My Q. is: What are the projections for the success of the film? Do you think it could have an impact beyond just the current controversy?
Desson Thomson: Well, obviously the filmmakers are projecting all kinds of success, including the unseating of the president. But it's up to the public. If I could foretell what will happen, I'd be in a lottery line right now.
Biloxi, Miss. (retired from D.C.):
Hi, Desson. I review movies for my retirement community newsletter, which hardly compare w/yours or any other professional critic's, but I love movies and want to do a good job. My question is, do you have any advice for how not to let your personal situation interfere w/your reviews? Maybe you just learned that a close friend has cancer, or your spouse lost his or her job; or maybe you got some really terrific news. Over the years, there have been times when I really liked a movie that most people didn't, or vice versa. Sometimes it's a genuine disagreement, but sometimes I later think, actually that movie was not all that good, but I was so happy to learn a new grandchild is on the way, or whatever, that that may have influenced my thinking. Thanks! I always enjoy these chats and learn a great deal from them.
Desson Thomson: Thanks Biloxi, and great to hear from you. Let me tell you right away, don't make the mistake of thinking a review is meant to be objective. You should always let your personal situation interfere with your review. It isn't an interference, it's an insight. Other than rehashing the plot description, what would be the point of an objective review? You must not only write your own subjective opinion, you must be informative as well. That's all you have to worry about. Enjoy it. Write it like you're talking to your best friend. And let it all hang out. That's the kind of review to write and which people will appreciate. Good luck writing it!
As far as Spielberg movies go, how would you rate the Terminal? Better than Catch me if you Can? I generally like his movies, but haven't been hearing much buzz about The Terminal.
Desson Thomson: As I said in the intro, it's cute and charming. Catch Me If You Can is maybe a little better, more inventive. But The Terminal is greatly enjoyable.
With all the attention being paid to Farenheit 9/11, why is this one seeming to slip through the cracks? It should be seen by everyone, regardless of whether you support or oppose the war.
The documentary ends w/the U.S. occupation of Baghdad. We can only imagine what Al Jazeera is broadcasting today!
Desson Thomson: I don't think it slipped through the cracks. The Post has written extensively about it already. It's been a big feature at the AFI Silverdocs festival. People should see it, for sure.
The mention of "Lawrence of Arabia" in your bio reminds me of how often I've thought that the film should be seen by anyone, including the president, as an enjoyable briefer on recent politics in the area, including some (not all) reasons why so many in the area distrust the motives of Western powers (who promised the Arabs independence in return for help in fighting against the Turks in World War I, then kept much of the area as colonies). I still don't understand how Peter O'Toole did not win the Best Actor Oscar for that film (as good as Gregory Peck was that year).
Desson Thomson: Yes, I agree with you, Wheaton. Lawrence of Arabia has a very prescient quality about it, in light of the Iraq war and its aftermath.
I hereby nominate Herr Governator for a Razzie for his performance in Around the World . . . What a dud!
Desson Thomson: Hear hear.
Falls Church, Va.:
Movie-going this spring doesn't seem to be as visually pleasurable as it used to be. Several big movies -- notably The Chronicles of Riddick, Van Helsing, and (to some extent) Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, are too visually "busy" -- too rapid video-style action and dramatic lighting changes. After a while, this gets tiring on the eyes and even makes my eyes feel sleepy. Riddick was especially difficult to stay focused on because of all the light to dark motion, although this fits in with the hero's preference for dark settings because of his special eye condition. Are you aware of this problem, which is exacerbated by the length of these movies. They are simply too much like video games. Also, any advance word on Alexander the Great? Thank you.
Desson Thomson: I agree. There's too much visual flashing around. And the drama is simply tacked on to the special effects.
As for Alexander, it's in post production right now. There's no saying how Oliver Stone's movie will turn out. But it's bound to be hugely watchable, even it bombs. Colin Farrell as Alexander? Hmm. Well, we'll see.
Hunter seemed to think Hanks's performance was the only really good thing in Terminal. I know you liked the film overall, but what did you think of the acting (Hanks and others)?
Desson Thomson: I liked the movie, plain and simple. So by inference, the acting too. I would say this however: the romantic subplot between Hanks and Catherine Mega-Bones, I mean, Zeta-Jones, is the weakest. It's not bad. And she performs fine. It's just the least important element. But the film's funny and inventive.
Thanks for the piece you wrote about the Mexican film series. Haven't been able to see all of them -- I rue missing the Bunuel selection(s). But that's not why I wrote.
I found the two Mafouz adaptations ("Beginning and End" and "Midaq Alley") emotionally and devastating, and that's an expression of praise, not denigration. I want to laud the curators who assembled these movies for us in a place we might not have seen them otherwise.
Would you please post this comment today so they get public recognition? The series runs through the middle of July, so your readers can still catch quite a few more ... as I think anyone who enjoys really good film should.
Desson Thomson: I'd be happy to run this to get attention to that show. People should catch whatever they can of this Mexican cinema retro at the National Gallery of Art's east building. Peggy Parsons the curator of film at the Gallery always provides interesting films there, and it's free for goodness' sake.
I would think the producers of Alexander are shaking in their hot tubs after the less than impressive reception for Troy, n'est ce pas?
Desson Thomson: Yes and no. Troy will be a distant memory by then, I would think. And it's not like Troy didn't make money.
To the chatter last time who was asking about Canadian movies, don't forget "Strange Brew" -- beer, Hamlet, and the MacKenzie Brothers (you hoser, you!). Also, I just saw a fun short in Toronto called "The Crypt Club", a horror film with a small budget but good cast. Also, there is a movie out called "The Saddest Music in the World" with Mark McKinney and Isabella Rosselini, filmed in Winnipeg and set in the Depression.
Desson Thomson: Okay Pittsburgh. And thank you.
Northeast Washington, D.C.:
I was at the sneak preview for The Terminal. Were you there too? In one of the gazillion seats reserved for "Press"? Do they all get taken? What if I sat in it? If I were challenged would I be required to protect a source, reveal my liberal bias, or complain about my editor?
Desson Thomson: There are trained snipers nestled just behind the curtains of the screen. Had you even set foot there, your ear lobes would be now missing.
What movies based on current TV shows do you see in Hollywood's future? I suggest "The Sopranos" and a scripted version of "Survivor".
Desson Thomson: Sopranos will definitely be a movie, I have heard. I wish people would make a movie based on an original script more often!
Suggestion to Falls Chuch, Va:
If you want something visually pleasing on the eyes and a great film to boot, check out the Korean film, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring.
Pure visual eye candy, and one of the best of the year ...
Desson Thomson: Yes, agreed. A beautiful little film.
Hi! Finally saw The Station Agent and LOVED it. Parts of it were so funny. Its definitely on my list of favorites now! Just thought I'd share. Anyone who hasn't seen it yet should definitely check it out!
Desson Thomson: Again, I agree totally. Let me tell you: Peter Dinklage who plays Finbar, the central character, is wonderful in it. And in real life, I gotta say, he's a handsome, compelling guy. A ladykiller. Really nice too. Anyway, enjoyable film, yes.
I saw "Saved" over the weekend, and I find it astounding that any Christian groups are upset by this movie, which is ultimately very pro-Christian. No surprises in the plot, but the performances were universally excellent, and my wife will someday forgive my crush on Mary-Louise Parker. Don't you think the girl who played the (only) Jewish girl at the Christian school looks like a star in the making?
Desson Thomson: Thanks for that. Can't comment myself because I have to catch up with that one! I hear nothing but good about it. I will watch for that character you mention too.
I don't get out to the movies with any regularity but enjoy your reviews nevertheless. I do use Netflix for rentals and was wondering what recommendations you had for recently released films on DVD.
Desson Thomson: Gee Annaps. Thanks for the nice comments. I don't pay attention to what's just out in DVD, since I am breaking a sweat 24-7 to keep up with the theatrical releases. But obviously, if you like the ones I have reviewed early this year and late last year, those are the ones coming out now. There are hundreds and hundreds of films out there.
I saw this and was howling. I think the filmmakers pulled it off very well. Is there anything with the younger Culkin (Kieran) coming out soon?
Desson Thomson: AGain, another thumbs up for the movie. I haven't heard what his latest stuff to be is, but have you caught up with Igby Goes Down or the Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys? He's in both.
Upper Marlboro, Md.:
The girl who plays the Jewish girl in Saved! is Susan Sarandon's daughter, so she's got some good acting genes ...
Desson Thomson: Her name is Eva Amurri. And she's a dead ringer for Mom.
I saw "The Terminal" this weekend. Like you, I basically liked it -- primarily for the humanistic performance by Hanks. However, I was disappointed that the movie fell into the old Hollywood cliche of making Stanley Tucci's character sort of a moral monster, rather than just a harried, self-interested bureaucrat. Is it just that Hollywood thinks we're incapable of dealing with a story that doesn't have a conflict between good and evil?
Desson Thomson: Glad you enjoyed it. I thought that Tucci showed some possibilities of being a harried human, not just a monster. But I guess you could also say that, had he turned around, it would have been a cheesebally development and just as old Hollywood.
Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.:
Have you seen "Dodgeball" yet Desson? Oh my gosh, it was awful and almost totally unfunny! How could Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller turn out such a stinker?
Desson Thomson: I laughed, I have to admit. Sorry to differ! I thought it was particularly funny when the trainer (Rip Torn) made his dodgeball team tougher and better at reacting by throwing metal wrenches at them. Low comedy, yes. But amusing, I thought. Obviously not art.
Hi Desson, love the chats -- they should be weekly! Have you seen Dodgeball yet? I had no plans to see it but since I couldn't get into the sneak preview of the Terminal last week was offered a sneak preview of Dodgeball. Yes, it was lowbrow humor but I (and everyone else in the theater) was laughing the whole time. I guess my point is I went in with NO expectations and came out pleasantly surprised. Am also surprised that it doubled the take of the Terminal.
Desson Thomson: As I just mentioned, I shared your reaction. And yes, I came in with zero hopes of a good time.
College Park, Md.:
I just saw Return of the Living Dead, a bad zombie movie from the 80s, that I first saw as a teenager with some friends, beer, and grub from Pizza Movers late one night.
Although it fails as horror, it really is one of the funniest films I have seen in quite a while, and the comedic timing of the major players was right on, I thought.
It's worth a rental ... my 2 cents...
Desson Thomson: Cool, thanks. There is nothing funnier and scarier than zombies. I love those guys.
I saw "The Notebook" last weekend, without knowing a thing about it because my wife suggested it. I loved the movie -- the story and the affection for the characters demonstrated by Garner and Rolands. How is the movie doing?
Desson Thomson: Hasn't opened yet. Opens this weekend.
Have you heard anything about the movie that Zach Braff wrote/directed/something? I saw a preview a while back, but haven't heard anything about it since. Awards? Release date? Anything?
Desson Thomson: You're talking about Garden State. I have heard many good things about it. Will have to tell you when I see it. It opens July 2nd.
The Lawrence question made me think of a question for you: what, in your opinion, are the best performances by Peter O'Toole? My short list is Lawrence of Arabia, the Lion in Winter, and Masada. Anxious to hear what you think.
Desson Thomson: Those are all good performances, for sure. I also liked him in My Favorite Year, The Stuntman and Murphy's War. Check those out. And also: Lord Jim and How to Steal A Million.
More on Saved:
I was impressed with Mandy Moore. She was quite convincing as an overzealous do-gooder. And, of course, Jena Malone was fabulous.
Desson Thomson: Sounds better and better.
For Burke, Va.:
I think I read somewhere that the actress who plays the Jewish girl in "Saved!" is Susan Sarandon's daughter . . .
Desson Thomson: Yep.
More suggestions from the armchair..:
Great Canadian movies
Jesus of Montreal
Decline and fall of the American Empire
The Sweet Hereafter
Felicia's Journey (at least directed by Egoyan)
The Grey Fox
Goin' Down the Road
Just off the top of my head.. P.S. -- Someone get me a movie job!
Desson Thomson: Thanks!
Hi! I just saw Donnie Darko again on DVD. I love that film more and more every time I see it. I'm looking forward to the theatrical release of the director's cut next month. I know Visions is showing it but do you know if any of the other theaters will? Thanks.
Desson Thomson: Not sure the booking is settled yet. Since Visions has been showing Darko as a midnight show for some time, they deserve exclusive status.
Mr. Thomson, When will the new Metallica documentary hit wide release? I missed it at the Silverdocs showing last night and would love to see it soon.
Desson Thomson: It opens July 30. And it is one of my favorite films seen this year. Tremendous.
Hi Desson, I admit that I was one of the few that did not see Dodgeball this weekend. However, Isn't Ben Stiller just reprising a roll he played in an early 90's movie "Heavyweights"? He played an obsessed camp counselor at a camp for overweight kids and of course the kids get their revenge against him.
Desson Thomson: He's kinda reprising that and a little Zoolander too. But he's still funny. I was sure getting sick of seeing him again and again. But I laughed at this role. I don't say that with any pride, just honesty.
Hi Desson. During Prince's symbol phase, I wanted to shake him and tell him to get his act together again. Although I can't take credit for it, he seems to be back on track. Is there someone connected to the movies whom you would like to shake and wake-up? Director? Screenwriter? Actor?
Desson Thomson: Spike Lee. Owen Wilson. Gene Hackman. Brendan Gleeson.
Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane(1976)
Desson Thomson: Thanks!
I, Surfer (Washington, D.C.):
I'm a big Isaac Asimov fan, and love his robot novels, which are really all about what it is to be human.
Fortunately the commercials for Bicentennial Man were so dreadful that I didn't have to waste $8 seeing that wonderful story dismembered.
So any word on I, Robot? The trailer is already setting off alarm bells, but given that it's a Will Smith-Hollywood production, is there any hope that it will be at least halfway decent?
Desson Thomson: Halfway is probably about right.
Miss Edie the Egg Lady in D.C.:
I saw the new Harry Potter, and must say I was blown away. My sources tell me that this is a one-time deal for the director; that he'll not direct the next one. Big mistake, says I.
What did you see that was fun this weekend?
Desson Thomson: Yes, I agree with you. He really directed it nicely. Didn't make it into a cartoon. As for this weekend, I didn't see any movies, but a few days before that I had fun with Napoleon Dynamite.
... was excellent and humorous, without being offensive or grotesque, though the end was a bit disappointing -- a little too much Lifetime-movie-preachiness. And I wish they'd given 'Almost Famous' Patrick Fugit more to do than look sweet and endearing. But 100 percent recommended, overall fantastic
Desson Thomson: Great. Ta.
Harry Potter -- went to see that this weekend and loved it! Much better than all the other ones.
Desson Thomson: And again. Ta.
Hi, Desson. I went to see Raising Helen for some light entertainment, which it was. I didn't think it was as bad as some of the reviews, but, as these reviews accurately pointed out, there was absolutely no chemistry between Kate Hudson and John Corbett. Sort of like Ralph Fiennes and Jennifer Lopez in Maid in Manhattan. (Does RF need money that badly?) Don't casters conduct screen tests with both romantic leads TOGETHER to see if anything clicks?
Desson Thomson: I didn't see it and from what I've heard I'm glad.
College Park, Md.:
Re: The Notebook. As a guy, I like well-acted dramas even if it may be on the romantic end, but the marketing of this film seems like an SNL skit ... it seems to over-the-top in its embrace of chick-flick sentimentality. I literally almost choked on my own vomit when I saw the commercial.
Desson Thomson: It's better than that.
Did you get to see any of the Silverdoc films? What did you think? I saw Born into Brothels yesterday. The kids filmed were amazing, not so much for the photographs even, but their own insights and comments on their condition. It's supposed to be released in theaters and shown on HBO in the fall. I also saw Control Room this weekend which was also impressive. It really leaves you with a lot to think about, without feeling like an agenda was just crammed down your throat. Not that there aren't biases, but it seems the director let about three different groups' (Al Jazeera reporters, "Western media", U.S. military officials) differences and similarities, in attitude if not opinion, play out.
Desson Thomson: I have seen a few: The Joe Strummer film, Let's Rock Again, the Control Room. There are many good ones there which I haven't had time to check out. It's a good festival and I'm glad it's around. the AFI have done a good thing there.
I heard that Ang Lee's new movie, a love story between two cowboys in the 60s, will not even feature a same-sex kiss, much less a sex scene.
It's not that I'm looking for highbrow porn or something, but it would be nice to see gay relationships treated the same as straight ones on the big screen. So they kiss or wriggle around in bed for a few seconds on screen. The world's not going to end. Heck, I don't really enjoy watching the straights get it on in the movies, but I manage.
Desson Thomson: Haha, that's funny. Your last comment. I suppose that the reason mainstream films about gay characters are squeamish is that the people who finance the movies are skittish and so is a large chunk of humanity who have no problem with gay rights in general and might even venture to say a gay themed film but still don't to deal with watching physical displays of it. I assume this is an attempt to get that middle ground of moviegoers.
I am curious about the movie Gothic from the 1980s which is about the night Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, etc., told ghost stories together which eventually led to the book Frankenstein. Do you think this movie is worth seeing? Reviews on imdb are even less than mixed although it seems like a great idea for a movie.
Desson Thomson: That was the first review I ever wrote for the Washington Post, so I remember it well. This is what I wrote:
Ever had one of those weekends when leeches sucked your face, a friend went into convulsions and the guy next door kept impaling his hand on a nail? Ken Russell's "Gothic," which contains all of these elements and more, is for those of you who just have to have a blood-soaked sardonic yuk now and then. Russell, the man who gave the phrase "too much" new meaning, outdoes himself. "Gothic" ostensibly is about the famous weekend at the Villa Diodati when Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, Dr. Polidori and Claire Compton went into a literary huddle and came up with "Frankenstein" and "The Vampyre." True to demented form, Russell takes that idea to the limits: In his vision, Byron and friends were a sort of 19th-century Def Leppard -- famous young brats with nothing but devilish free time on their hands. In "Gothic," the Shelleys and Compton visit Byron and Polidori to indulge in the ultimate sex-and-spookout slumber party. Byron (Gabriel Byrne), a dandyish, jaded rake, asks his guests to play in a kind of extended Ouija-board mind game, wherein everyone must dredge up their deepest, darkest fears (to provide mulch for the forthcoming horrors). Things get out of hand. Four-posters squeak with sexcapades. There's perpetual thunder and lightning. Bugs scramble out of people's mouths. Women stroke snakes. And there are enough rats in the basement to send the Pied Piper back to music school. It's a Hell of a weekend. Russell's poets romp through mud, slime and nightmare fantasies whilst dressed in the height of Romantic fashion. By movie's end, they will have purged their fears and accrued a staggering dry-cleaning bill. Byrne plays a grim-faced, perverse Byron with great presence. Julian ("Room With a View") Sands once again bares his boyish good looks, not to mention buttocks. As a sleazy, sexually repressed Polidori, Timothy Spall seems so revoltingly convincing it makes you concerned for his family. Beyond the carnalia (and if you're still with us), "Gothic" happens to be strikingly shot, the special effects inspired, albeit gruesome. Although he slops his signature blood 'n' cleavage across the screen, Russell makes it slick, with dynamic cutting, vivid lighting and framing. Who knows, you might spot a little humor in this hyperbolic lunacy. On the other hand, after a cinematic orgy like this, you might long for 15 minutes with an evangelist.
MORE Canadian flicks:
I don't know if this was mentioned during the last chat, but also see Richler's "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz", and SCTV is now out on DVD (filmed with pride in Winnipeg!).
Desson Thomson: Okay, and so ends the Canadian thread for today. Thanks.
Silver Spring, Md.:
Without giving too much away, how careful should one be that the facts presented in F 9/11 are accurate? I find that in movies Oliver Stone makes (JFK) sometimes the facts are stretched to the breaking point. Is this true of F 9/11?
Desson Thomson: It's more accurate than you'd think from Moore. Thats' one of its positive surprises. Of course he's subjective and uses those facts for his own satire and so forth. But it's surprisingly close to the known facts, as far as I could see. I am not a political reporter so I can't speak with much authority there. But that's how it appears to me.
Is Saved the first movie Eva Amurri has been in that her mother wasn't in, too?
Desson Thomson: No, there was "Made Up."
Yes I know it was cliche:
However, I just rented The Miracle and just loved it. It's so nice to have a totally heartfelt, feel good movie with no nudity, curse words, or gratuitous violence so that the whole family can sit and enjoy an evening together. Hollywood, please listen to us consumers who want more uplifting films to watch. We have lot of $$$ to spend too.
Desson Thomson: Great. Thanks for posting that. Glad you enjoyed it.
Pentagon City, Va.:
Desson, a couple of weeks ago I happened to catch on TMC a silent World War I movie called The Big Parade. I really enjoyed it and have tried to learn more about it (how it was received when it came out, how accurate its battle sequences were, how it is regarded today, etc.) but haven't had much luck. I've tried looking at film books in bookstores, but they don't give much detail (one had the great insight that the movie was a little "dated"). So are you familiar with this one? I'd appreciate your comments on it.
Desson Thomson: That was a King Vidor film. I'm certainly well aware of it but never saw it. Glad you enjoyed it.
Desson Thomson: Folks, thanks for joining me. Always a pleasure. We'll see you in a fortnight. Have a great two weeks and see you all soon!