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 reviews "Ray" (Article and Video) Soulful Foxx Shines as 'Ray' (Post, Oct. 29)
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: Hello everyone. Rain is pouring. Just saw The Woodsman (again) starring Kevin Bacon. Terrific movie for you to look forward to -- at least, as much as you can look forward to a movie about a child molester. But a good script, good acting. It opens in January. Anyway, here we are again. Let's chat.
Polar Express has received wildly diverging reviews -- NYT and WSJ despised it, while others (Ebert, SF Chron) loved it. Reminds me of the reviews for Sky Captain and the Worlds of Tomorrow. Both movies relied on CGI and other techniques to create wholly artificial new worlds. Do you think we'll see more of these, or are they the "Tron" of the 21st century?
Desson Thomson: No question we'll see more of these. I am one of those who enjoyed the movie. I don't understand why anyone would have an actively negative view of it, even if they didn't care for it. It is extremely well done. But hey, this is a world full of diverse opinions. So you can make your decisions accordingly.
Was it just me, or did you find "The Incredibles" a little too violent and intense for kids under the age of, say, six or seven?
Desson Thomson: Hi. Yes, it is definitely too violent for kids under the age of 7. I agree. This is the culture in which we live. Violence okay. Sex not. It's a terrif movie otherwise.
The villain has an evil plan to fly a plane into a building. The villain is from another country.
Sheesh! We can't even get away from the fear factor in cartoon movies!
Desson Thomson: Interesting. It seems we have been conditioned to distrust the world out there ever since 9/11. It's a tragedy.
Crystal City, Va.:
Hello Mr. Thomson.
Are you aware, or have you ever heard, about teens, who will buy a movie ticket for a PG or PG-13 movie, but then go in to see a rated R movie? Does that affect the sales in any way? Please respond. Thanks!
Desson Thomson: Oh no that NEVER HAPPENS. Haha.
I guess that means the R-rated picture would lose out business wise, since the ticket would have been purchased for the PG or PG-13 movie.
I've got a Bunuel DVD on loan, but I'm wondering how to approach his work, with which I'm unfamiliar. This film, "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie," is from the Criterion Collection DVD label, and it includes a documentary on Bunuel that I'm sure will be helpful. But I'd like to dive into the film first, with a few words of wisdom from you. Thoughts?
Desson Thomson: The Discreet Charm is one of Bunuel's many great films. This one was a big hit in the 1970s, a sendup of the bourgeoisie as the title implies. Definitely worth a look. He's a great artist and there are many others of his you should see, if you're interested. Belle de Jour, Tristana, Viridiana, Diary of a Chambermaid, Nazarin, the Exterminating Angel, the list goes on. I wonder if I saw Discrete Charm again how dated its satire might seem. I was a college boy when I last saw it.
What's the buzz on "The Life Aquatic"? Is this going to be something good on the order of "Lost in Translation" Is the imprimatur of Wes Anderson enough to get Bill Murray over the top and finally give him the Oscar he deserved for "Rushmore"?
Desson Thomson: Hello Dayton. There is cultish buzz for this movie. Wes Anderson deservedly has a lot of fans. The interest is strong. And Murray has broken through on the indie front, with Lost in Translation and Jim Jarmusch's Coffee & Cigarettes. Anderson doesn't write the kind of movies that allow for Oscar winning performances in my humble opinion, because the story's are so quirky and postmodern. That's a lefthanded compliment to Anderson, by the way. So the emotional level is likely to be relatively restrained--at least in the minds of Oscar voters. I haven't seen the film yet so I am hypothesizing or is it apothecarying? I certainly look forward to the movie. I am a fan of Anderson's.
Re: The Incredibles:
To be fair, I think there were a few movies before 9/11 that featured villains from foreign countries. I think the commenter was focusing more on the use of an airplane as a weapon. Perhaps this was done, sadly, to ground the movie in reality.
Desson Thomson: Perhaps so. Thanks.
Looking ahead to the Oscars: I have a theory that Mel Gibson will be nominated for best director for "Passion," but that the picture won't be nominated. I think the reverse will be true for Michael Moore's "9/11." Does that sound right to you?
Desson Thomson: I feel that both movies have to be given something. The Passion is the red state choice and Fahrenheit is the blue state choice. Two halves of America with huge expectations. I can't imagine there won't be some kind of nom or more for both. The question is, do both or one or neither get a best pic nom? And does either get the consolation awards: e.g. script writing from another medium nom for Passion? Passion is anti-Hollywood in many ways because Gibson went on his own, so it'll be interesting to see what happens. Stay tuned!
Hi. I saw "Ray" over the weekend. Is this just right actor in right part at right time or is Jamie Foxx going to be an actor to be reckoned with in the future?
Desson Thomson: Both are true.
Silver Spring, Md.:
Why is Finding Neverland not coming out today? I've been seeing the commercials and I thought it was coming out today. I didn't know this was a limited release. Is it coming out next week?
Desson Thomson: It was scheduled for today. It opens next Friday. Good movie.
Did you ever hear back from E Street on the issue of parking validation -- that often the time it takes to see a longish film exceeds three hours?
Desson Thomson: I answered the question last time (I think it was within an answer for another question). The manager told me that he worked out the best deal he could with that private parking company and that's as good as it gets. It's unlikely he said that things will change. Sorry! I'm just the messenger.
Crystal City, Va.:
About the teen ticket buyers: No wonder "The Grudge" beat out "Ray."
Desson Thomson: Interesting.
For the life of me, I do not understand why anyone thinks Tom Hanks is a good actor ("Big" and "Philadelphia Story" excepted). Clips I've seen from "The Polar Express" -- which uses "movie magic" to make his wooden performances even MORE wooden! -- only seal my argument.
I don't have anything against him personally ... I just don't get it. Do you? What is the reason for such continued success beyond his due? Is he just really popular with audiences, or is it some insider Hollywood thing?
Desson Thomson: Well, you've said that he's good in two movies. He has even impressed you twice. He must have something, right? I prefer him when he's being funny to when he's being a serious grownup so I can sort of understand where you're coming from. The whole point of Polar is the animation of inanimate material--the almost literal transformation of book to pixel movie. I would think anyone would look wooden because the surface of the movie is obviously artificial. But that's what fascinated me.
Any word on where the "new" Almodovar will be showing (and if it is in fact being released in the D.C. area next week)?
Desson Thomson: It's coming Jan. 14. Well worth your while. I loved the movie when I saw it in Cannes. Very touching, funny, inventive, sort of eerie, very poetic and definitely Almodovar-ian.
Silver Spring. Md.:
I realize that Tom Hanks is a well-liked actor and "Saving Private Ryan" respected, but it seems no one saw any irony in choosing this film to highlight Veterans Day. A U.S. soldier being compassionate towards an enemy prisoner eventually leads to the death of several American soldiers. After the scandal at the prisons in Iraq, do we need such a message (even if it's one apparently lost on audiences)?
Desson Thomson: I suppose you could choose many "messages" from this movie, including the fact that the Allied forces beat Hitler and saved the planet on that particular occasion. Your reading is an interesting one. I don't happen to buy it, as the main message of the movie, or even the biggest irony. But it makes an interesting topic of debate, certainly.
Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.:
Vera Drake is a very powerful movie. Powerful story and extremely well acted. When my showing was over, everyone quietly filed out without speaking. Some were crying.
Note to the religious right: Do you really want to return to those days? Oh yeah, judging from last week's election results, I guess you do.
Desson Thomson: You certainly reflect the feelings of a majority of Washingtonians. But there are likely to be more divisions across the Potomac. That's all I should say, I think.
I was in England last week and saw Bride and Prejudice (not the reason I went over ...). Is the movie coming over here any time soon? It was fun to watch.
Desson Thomson: Glad you enjoyed it. It's coming here possibly in February I just heard. Was coming sooner but it got changed.
Silver Spring, Md.:
Desson, you and so many other reviewers were blown away by the Incredibles, but let me offer another take for you. All the reports said this was a great family film (I could offer you quotes) -- but in reality it is an adult film put into cartoon form to attract families to as subject matter that is not for most families -- certainly not for children younger than 10. I think the problem is that reviewers such as you don't look at cartoon films (or live action films) from the viewpoint of a child. My 8-year-old, wise beyond her years because of a 14-year-old brother, really disliked The Incredibles because of the violence. Do you ever take along a child to see their reaction to a film that is billed as a family film? Or view the film where children are in the audience? You should. By the way, my 14-year-old, quite the film buff, couldn't believe anyone would tout The INcredibles for a "Best Picture" Oscar -- he even doubted it deserves "Best Animated film",.
Desson Thomson: That's an interesting perspective. I hear you on the violence issue. I take children now and again to movies. And I listen with interest to their opinions. So it's interesting to hear your children's ideas. I beg to differ with your statement that it's not good for most families. Families include husbands, wives and older children too. Perhaps as you qualified it, it's not suitable for children under 8 or so. It certainly has its adult subtext but that's why I said in my review it's good for families, as opposed to just children.
Washington, D.C. :
Loved Ray. LOVED IT. Who knew Jamie Foxx had all that in him? Why do you think the movie was better than some other recent biopics (Ali comes to mind -- I thought it sucked)?
Desson Thomson: I think it was a good script, which is almost always the secret ingredient. And Foxx was outstanding. He'll win the Oscar in my opinion.
Hey, Desson. Is it true Michael Moore's Oscar campaign is "vote again?" Can we expect that he will be nominated and can he win any of the major categories? I mean, is the academy made up of enough younger, hipper people to actually vote him onto the podium again?
Desson Thomson: As I mentioned, I can't imagine him not getting something out of the Oscars. He's a showman and he's working with fellow showman Harvey Weinstein, who can wring an Oscar out of a stone. And Hollywood is far left politically (although it has a bigger share of conservatives than people think). We'll have to see, won't we?
I'd like to see a movie tomorrow -- torn between the Incredibles and Neverland -- which would you recommend?
Desson Thomson: Well, the choice is clear, since Neverland doesn't open until the 19th. Both are good.
Severna Park, Md.:
Hi, Desson. A group of us traveled down to Bethesda Row to see Sideways on Sunday. We uniformly loved it, except (SPOILER ALERT) for the ending! At the wedding scene, the entire theater was booing and hissing and shouting NO! So that sort of ruined the movie.
Without going into details, would you want to marry, or have one of your children marry, a person who behaved like that on the week leading up to the wedding? The guy is pure scum. BTW, we are seven people ranging in age from 21-33, not little old ladies or fundamentalist preachers. We are not recommending the movie.
Desson Thomson: The interesting thing about this movie is that it doesn't take the obvious morality route that most Hollywood films would. I would suggest that you think about why the filmmaker would make a choice that was controversial and thought provoking rather than rah-rah obvious. Don't you think he knew that many people would have that reaction? Would he do that for no reason? We need movies that are not formula morality plays. I'm not condoning the character's behavior at all. But this is a movie about characters who are not perfect, who have their sleazy side. It's an interesting movie because it doesn't play safe with the connect-the-dots morality crowd. You are entitled to your opinion but I would strongly suggest you revisit this movie later in life when you might have seen firsthand how people make mistakes in life and are imperfect. You might have different opinions. Maybe not. And I would urge people to see this movie. It is one of the best of the year.
Aloha Mr. D -- Hanks is mediocre. He can do comedy (Big) but serious drama is a little much. Being likeable (and good friends with great directors) does not an American movie icon make ...
Desson Thomson: Okay thanks Chantilly.
Have you ever heard anything about a movie starring Steve Buscemi about the Holocaust? I saw a preview for it when I saw "Mostly Martha" up in Bethesda two years ago.
Desson Thomson: Not sure. Anyone?
Is Infernal Affairs coming to D.C. soon?
Is Miramax really planning a remake?
Desson Thomson: This movie is something I am very interested in seeing, an Andy Lau film. It was released in NYC in september then boston months later. I hear from Miramax it's coming sometime in Dec or Jan. No word for now.
I was so looking forward to the new Bridget Jones, the first one having been a delight. Then the supremely negative review from your colleague -- a middle-aged male.
This raises the question to me of target audience. Is it ever possible for a reviewer to truly step into the shoes of the audience for whom a movie is meant if he is coming from a totally different world?
Desson Thomson: A movie isn't always designed for one type of person. It's supposed to be somewhat universal. So right there, I have problems with the premise of the question. Are you suggesting ( I am interpreting) that the only person to review Brigitte should be an overweight British female just like her, or even a woman of her age? Who then should we recruit to review Fat Albert? What about Schindler's List? I think you run into problems there. Plus, reviewers (in theory of course) are qualified to write film reviews and to have a sense of all kinds of different films and different viewpoints.
I believe the Style review was by a woman in Brigitte Jones's age group, roughly speaking, who wasn't completely taken by the movie.
Washington, D.C. :
Right on w/your reply to Severna about "Sideways." I was most affected by the redemptive aspect of the movie (and I am a 33-year- old woman who has been around the block enough to know that nobody's perfect!). It was a brilliant movie because it was often uncomfortable, not obvious, and for that reason so true.
Desson Thomson: Thanks! And no I didn't pay this wonderful 33 year-old woman to write this. :)
Lake Ridge, Va.:
I'm not sure what the point is of the type of animation used to create the Tom Hanks characters in Polar Express. If they wanted Tom Hanks in the movie, why didn't they do a live action film? If they wanted the magic of animation, why didn't they just do animation. From the previews, I find the look of the characters to be unappealing and plastic.
Desson Thomson: I guess you shouldn't see it then. I think it was an interesting experiment precisely because of your questions. It found an interesting cross section of live action and animation.
Would you please tell me what is up with The Machinist? Is it just a "limited release" and I'll have to wait for the DVD, or have they actually scheduled a release date? I see that it's in some theaters (at least one in DC) but not anywhere in Maryland. Have you seen it? Thanks for your help!
Desson Thomson: I'll see if we can post Michael O Sullivan's review of that movie before the end of this. I didn't see it myself.
Re: Tom Hanks:
Tom Hanks is the best actor in my generation (I'm 43)! Just looked at his acting film credits and that doesn't even include his off screen credits (e.g., Band of Brothers).
His movies are not one-dimentsional. He can play in comedies or dramas. From Bachelor Party to Philadelphia.
P.S. I think an often overlooked movie he was in was "That Thing You Do".
Desson Thomson: Thanks for those comments. Yes I enjoyed That Thing You Do. A little movie but sorta charming.
I have been waiting for the DVD release of the documentary on the failed coup d'etat of the Hugo Chavez gov't in Venezuela "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" that you and many others so favorably reviewed in 2003. I missed its brief run in the D.C. area. Now the Chavez gov't survived the referendum earlier in the year, but the film is still nowhere to be seen in theaters, DVD or even VHS. It seems odd that such a well-reviewed film would disappear from the scene. Any ideas what may have happened?
Desson Thomson: I don't know to be honest. But I am sure it's on its way. Try calling Potomac Video stores in this area and see if it's on the horizon; and try Netflix.com a great dvd renting service.
No Almodovar until January? I read that the U.S. release was 11/19 ... is that only in select cities?
Desson Thomson: Well, it's jan 14 here. That's what I've been told.
Can we even hope for Oscar films to be judged on their merits rather than the political message such nominations/awards send? Michael Moore gets a salve for his wounded ego and Hollywood can show its contempt for Americans who didn't vote the way they wanted?
Desson Thomson: Many political films have followed in the wake of Fahrenheit and they have been merely political messages. Moore's film has a certain tone, wit and structure and charisma, and I say that independently of political consideration.
In your review of Sideways, you refer to it (twice, I think) as a comedy. It had plenty of funny bits, but I'd've said drama.
How do you define these sorts of things?
Desson Thomson: Dramedy is the horrible word for that. As in Broadcast News.
The remake will be set in Boston with Scorcese directing and Damon and DiCaprio leading the cast.
Desson Thomson: Thanks, assuming that's true. Haven;t had time to check.
Have you seen any Indian movies? For example: 'Devdas', which played at the Cannes Film Festival or 'Choker Bali', which played at the Sundance Film Festival.
Also, have you heard anything about the new movie 'Bride and Prejudice', directed by the same director as 'Bend it Like Beckham'?
Desson Thomson: Haven't; seen those 2. Sorry! I hear the Bride film is fun. By Gurinder Chadha.
Friendship Heights, Washington, D.C.:
Perhaps those parents who object to The Incredibles for their children should pay more attention to the MPAA rating for the movie:
PG: Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
From the MPAA Web site (they have more): "This is a film which clearly needs to be examined or inquired into by parents before they let their children attend. The label PG plainly states that parents may consider some material unsuitable for their children, but the parents must make the decision."
Why don't parents stop complaining about movies and start being proactive about what they let their kids watch?
Desson Thomson: Great point.
Falls Chuch, Va.:
So what's the buzz on the new Alexander the Great movie coming out, I believe on Nov 24? I am looking forward to it, because I love history, but I wonder if the public is starting to get tired of all the ancient history movies since their Hollywood resurrection by Gladiator five years ago. Is Alexander presented as gay or bisexual in the movie, and why is Angelina Jolie acting as his mother rather than his girlfriend (ha,ha)!
Desson Thomson: Not sure about the gay/bi element yet since I haven;t seen it. But yes Angelina does get to be his Mama. I want to see it before even thinking of giggling.
If you had a big budget, CGI, action, sci-fi pic that you could make, what low budget, indy film director would you choose?
Desson Thomson: Kevin Smith.
I enjoy your movie reviews and almost always follow your lead in which movies to see. You seldom disappoint!
Do you find it difficult to judge a movie completely on its merits? Say, for instance, you sit through a film and believe that it is well done but don't happen to admire the work of the lead actor ... is it hard to say, "This is a good movie," without letting your viewpoint be swayed somewhat by your disdain for the star?
Or, what if you're simply in a bad mood on a given day? Do you have to fight to keep personal factors from causing you to pan a movie?
Desson Thomson: Thanks for the nice comments. I have to watch out for all the things you mention. But even in a bad mood I'm always ready to see a film maybe even more so! I often give the thumbs up to movies I wouldn't have other wise seen. So I believe I do transcend my tiny little bubble.
Any suggestions for a rental for tonight (wife and two teenaged sons).
Some movies we've enjoyed together: Whale Rider; 28 Days Later; Supersize Me; Big Fish;
I keep pushing for Help! with the Beatles, but nobody listens. Is The Station Agent age appropriate?
Desson Thomson: I like your taste. I loved Station Agent. It has drug material and obscenity in it though. So it depends on what you feel is appropriate.
Good Mid-Career Cary Grant:
Looking at some mid-career Cary Grant,
can anyone recommend some lesser-known gems from the following?
Monkey Business (1952)
Room for One More (1952) .
I Was a Male War Bride (1949)
Every Girl Should Be Married (1948)
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)
Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, The (1947)
Night and Day (1946)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
None But the Lonely Heart (1944)
Mr. Lucky (1943)
Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942)
Talk of the Town, The (1942)
Penny Serenade (1941)
My Favorite Wife (1940)
His Girl Friday (1940)
In Name Only (1939)
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Topper Takes a Trip (1939)
Awful Truth, The (1937)
Desson Thomson: I will leave this question hanging for next time. Come back with your answers! Our chat is coming to a close.
Andrew (Los Angeles, Calif.):
To answer a question posted earlier, yes, Warner
Bros. is remaking the fantastic "Infernal Affairs". The
titled has been changed to "The Departed" and it will
star Leonardo Dicaprio and Matt Damon and will be
directed by Martin Scorcese.
Prediction for biggest flop of the year -- Alexander.
Saw a screening of this flick the other night and it's
an absolute mess.
Scorsese Thomson: Okay, thanks. And depressing news about A the G. But let's see when it gets here.
Silver Spring, Md.:
So Hugh Grant is retiring. How can we go on?
Desson Thomson: You'll live. You did before you knew Him.
Why doesn't D.C. get the limited release movies at the same time as NYC or LA? With all of the theaters showing "independent" movies, and the cosmopolitan nature of theater goes in the area, I'd think that D.C. would be up there with the "big two".
Please explain. Thanks!
Desson Thomson: We should be up there./ We are hip too. But NYC I guess is considered the premier intellectual town for experimental/cutting edge etc. movies.
I saw The Incredibles on opening weekend, and while I have slept since then, I don't remember the bad guy being from a foreign country. He had no accent (except an occasional deep South word or two), and with red hair and freckles, certainly didn't "look foreign"--- unless he could be seen as Irish. So why is everyone saying he was foreign? And, actually, his real plan was to have his robot to destroy the city, not fly a plane into a building. Can't people stop looking for post-9/11 "agendas"?
Desson Thomson: Indeed.
Re: Passion and F911:
No, no, no... As an atheist who voted for Bush please don't contribute to the false notion that all Red Staters = Religious Right Wackos and all Blue Staters subscribe to MM's world view (if you can even call it that). Both films, beyond any technical merits, are trash.
Desson Thomson: Okay. Thanks.
washingtonpost.com: Dark 'Machinist' Carries Weight (Post, Oct. 29)
I really liked your review of P.S. Laura Linney is one of my absolute favorite actresses and I have been a big fan of hers ever since seeing her two great performances in 2000 in You Can Count On Me and House of Mirth. Considering the strong reviews that her performance in the film is getting, what do you think her chances of getting a Best Actress nomination for the film? I am concerned that reviews for the film (which seem to be pretty mixed) might hurt her chances. I know that there's also Oscar buzz about her performance in Kinsey and I hope that the two performances don't cancel each other out in Oscar voters' minds when it is time for nominations to come out.
Desson Thomson: Thanks so much! I agree with your enthusiasm for her. This has got to be her year considering Kinsey word of mouth. So cross your fingers for her.
San Francisco, Calif.:
I recently moved from D.C., but still read your reviews because we seem to have similar taste in movies. You didn't review Bridget Jones and I'm not sure if I should trust the other reviews. Did you see it? If so, what do you think?
Desson Thomson: Wow, thanks for the coast to coast spiritual connect. Didn't see it, no. Am I going to? Not on your life. Doesn't sound like the best. The preview looked horrible to me, just the first one rehashed. But O Sullivan disliked it and Style semi liked. You'd better draw your own conclusions.
Desson -- What new films are coming out of China that you've heard about and we should keep an eye out for? Also, Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers" and Wong Kar-Wai's "2046" have just opened in theaters overseas. Have you seen either of them yet? I see that the young Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi (of "Crouching Tiger" fame) stars in both of them. How big of a star do you see her becoming in future years
Desson Thomson: I loved House of Flying Daggers. I was less than thrilled with 2046 but I hear it has been recut and reconfigured since its Cannes screening. So I will watch it again with interest and new faith.
I see that the re-release of "The Big Red One" (with 40 minutes restored) has been getting great reviews, but I'm afraid I won't have the chance to get to the theater to see it before it leaves. I always felt that this was a very good, yet unappreciated, movie and I hear that the restored footage elevates it to another level. Have you seen it? Any word on a DVD release of the restored version?
Desson Thomson: Dvd release coming. A great movie. I saw the original not the newly cut one yet. Looking forward to getting the DVD.
Desson Thomson: Everyone. I am way over my time and have to see... Kinsey! (review will appear next Friday) So I will speak with all of you again. Thanks so much for being a part of this. Have a great weekend and chat again with me soon!