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Behind the Screen

With Desson Howe
Washington Post Film Critic
Monday, November 3, 2003; 2:00 PM

Washington Post film critic Desson Howe 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? Howe has answers to these and other questions about filmmaking.

Howe, 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.

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 Howe: Hey everybody. Sorry about the delay today. Reason is, I was watching the Matrix. More on that in a second--questions about that movie already in the dock. I was hoping to get back in time for 12:30 but the reel had at least 12 previews before it. I kid you not. I was a middle aged man when I first walked into that screening. Now I'm going to apply for a senior citizen card. Fire away.


Capitol Hill: Any thoughts on the new movie Gloomy Sunday coming to the Avalon this Friday?

Desson Howe: Its title is all too apt, I'm afraid. And I'm as supportive of the theater as I can be.


The Hill: Hi Desson, here are my thoughts on several movies I've seen recently at the theaters and at home:

Charlie's Angels 2 -- so bad I turned it off after 20 minutes.

Put in The Italian Job instead, I was pleasantly surprised, considering I thought the trailers were terrible. Also features one of my favorite up and comers, Jason Statham. He was great in the Transporter.

Bend it Like Beckham -- As a huge soccer fan I liked this movie but was a little disappointed, guess it didn't live up to the hype for me.

Kill Bill -- Also disappointing, I actually was bored half way through, surprising considering the body count ... although I liked the final fight scene in the restaurant/club

Finally perhaps the best 5 minutes of cinema all year ...Lord of the Rings Return of the King trailer ... WOW, this looks epic!

Desson Howe: It's clear you have your standards. I expect you'll be happy with LOTR though. Those films seem to be uniformly good.


Charlottesville, Va.: Desson, I saw "School of Rock" yesterday. It was very funny and tailor-made for Jack Black. I was curious, though, if the children in it really played those instruments. How do 10-year-olds get that good?

Desson Howe: Having to do this session at speed, I know I cannot answer that. I suspect they might have been musical students with talents. But I also suspect the music was done by some session band.


Glenarden, Md.: What is up with the Matrix? Any good?

Also, how can you gain passes to a movie screening before the movie comes out?

Desson Howe: Oh Glenarden, can't help you with the passes, I'm afraid. As for the movie, well, I'm waiting for my reaction to become fully clearer. There are some good elements here and there. But on the whole, I am not jumping for joy over it. I'm even thinking that I liked the 2nd one better--and many people were disappointed over that.


Silver Spring, Md.: I'm going to Bethesda Row on Thursday -- my choices, dictated by time constraints are: Thirteen, Pieces of April and Dirty Pretty Things. What's my best bet? (Lost in Translation is out of the question -- I loath Bill Murray.)

Desson Howe: You loathe Bill Murray??? Oh Silver Spring, say it ain't so. On the choices you have, well, it's clear enough to me and my silly opinion. All 3 of those are thumbs up films. But each in their own way. Dirty Pretty is first choice, Thirteen and Pieces of April, if I had to choose. But if you are the kind of person that feels movies should be uplifting, maybe 13 isn't for you. In fact all 3 have a pretty dark POV. But all are good indie films.


Here: Desson,

Bravo to the poster saying they were bored with 'Kill Bill!' Me too. What's wrong with Tarantino? Was this a vanity project like Soderberg's mess last year?

Desson Howe: I'm surprised to read the word bored, in connection with this film, even if you hated it. Seems to me it was relentless, nonstop action. And so visually inventive. Bored? But hey, you didn't like it, then you didn't like it.


Alexandria, Va.: Hi, Desson:
When a critic reviews a film, what kind of metrics does he or she uses to determine if the film merits viewing?

Desson Howe: Persono-metrics.


Maryland: I saw Mystic River this weekend and I'm so impressed.

I can't imagine any other actors playing those roles -- they were completely believable and brought out the nuances of the book so wonderfully.

I think this is one of the only movie adaptations of a book that I've liked as much as the book.

Desson Howe: Terrific that you liked it. It's a somber tragedy. No one ends up better off, well, almost no one. But a solid film.


Denver, Colo.: Hi Desson:
I wanted to comment on a couple items.

Lawrence of Arabia
The first time I saw this movie was at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, Mich. The screen was huge. I just remember having a dry mouth as a reaction to spectacular desert scenes. I was a political science major at the time.

I remember a comment from another reader a couple of weeks ago who said that she just didn't get it. Oh my God what a comment of such relevance today. That person spoke for the country as a whole at that moment. We really don't get it, do we? The British didn't get it in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. We just don't get it either. That is the relevance of Lawrence of Arabia.

Went to see Alien this weekend. Went to the biggest screen I could find in Denver. First, what a work of art that film was in its original form and with the Director's cut. The original was such a classic compared to the subsequent films, which were really repetitive and overdone in so many ways. Also loved seeing Tom Skerritt and Yaphet Kotto in their younger days. And who can forget Sigourney Weaver. Did she start the whole strong woman action hero character? I remember seeing the original in 1979 and being taken by what a forceful character she was ... it was so powerful. Seeing her again in 2003, I also saw the reluctance in her character. Especially the final scenes, where she changes her mind about blowing up the ship, only to have to turn around (when it's too late) and go back to the shuttle to face the Alien swearing the whole way back.

Desson Howe: Denver, standing ovation to you, my friend. Thanks for your comments.


Bowie, Md.: What is your input on Mel Gibson's the Passion?

Desson Howe: I haven't seen it yet. But I'm looking forward to it. Interesting piece in the New Yorker recently about Gibson and his father and their pre-Vatican II beliefs, and whether or not Gibson's dad is antisemitic. Novak's column today was encouraging. He says he doesn't feel there's anti-semitism in the film at all and that those who declaimed it based their views on scripts without seeing the film. Of course many feel the New Testament is antisemitic anyway, so there's little leeway they're going to give the film in the first place. The point is, I remain open on the subject thus far.

This isn't on the subject but I also read a fascinating piece in the paper today, in which a Georgetown student measured the way the Supreme Court justices votes, as measured against the questions they ask both parties. Thay always seem to ask more questions of the people they ultimately vote against.


Alexandria, Va. -- looking for audience: Hey, I am an armchair critic looking for an audience for my written reviews.

Any suggestions on where to send reviews for publication? Kind of having a hard time getting started or finding an outlet.


Desson Howe: With all due respect, GET OUT OF THE ARMCHAIR.

Read the internet, read film magazines, you'll find a niche somewhere. And without knowing a thing about you, I implore you to proceed only if you have something interesting to say.


Oakton, Va.: Hi Desson:

How come there have been almost no ads for the Luther movie. I found out about the movie by reading an interview in Spiegel with Sir Peter Ustinov. How come it is only playing in two No. Va. theaters, Ballston and Leesburg? I have read the reviews which are not great, but still want to see it.


Desson Howe: It was promoted by a combination of religious and private interests who either chose or didn't have the sophistication or awareness to get out the word -- this is in my opinion. I had to really work hard just to get information out of those folks about the film so we could do a review. So they didn't exactly do themselves a favor there. I suspect that's one huge factor. Also, it didn't get great reviews from secular press, because it was religiously partisan at the cost of being general-interest entertaining -- this is from what I can see. Of course, for people of Lutheran or sympathetic faiths who will watch this on a different level, this movie may be greatly rewarding.


Washington, D.C.: Shattered Glass: Good? bad? (My guess: Good, but a minor movie ...)

Desson Howe: Good. Minor on one level, perhaps. But nonetheless very absorbing.


Hyattsville, Md.: My wife and I rented both the original Swept Away and the Madonna remake over the weekend, just to see how bad the remake really was compared to the original. Frankly, we didn't see much difference. We did not understand how the original could be thought to be brilliant while the remake (which was an almost exact shot-for-shot replica) was so horribly panned. Any insight?

Desson Howe: It's been years since I've seen the original but I remember liking it a great deal. I would guess that even if it seems dated or doesn't have the same effect, it would still be miles above the Madonna remake which was truly horrible.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Desson,

How can I get Post reviews for recent movies? I have been looking online, and I can't find the Hunter review of "Lost in Translation", as well as some of your older reviews. Can you help me, please?

Desson Howe: Let me get this straight. You want me to help you find some other critic's review? :) But seriously, go to the entertainment page and do a search. Click movies and search all categories. Also, we're going to post a link to Stephen's review in a moment.


Washington, D.C.: Have you seen "The Singing Detective" yet? It's gotten horrendous reviews, but I've loved everything Robert Downey Jr.'s ever been in. I see it starts here on Friday.

Desson Howe: Let me put it this way. Downey is terrific in it. That's as far as I can say in terms of good things.


washingtonpost.,com: Lost in Translation


Washington, D.C.: What is your take on the "piracy issue?" That is, voting members of the Academy will no longer be receiving tapes of the films/performances up for consideration for an Oscar? Do you think this will hurt smaller films that voting members might not go to see, such as "Lost in Translation?"

Desson Howe: Well, things have moved beyond that. They are sending tapes to the 5,600 plus members of the Academy. And that was my biggest gripe: that indie films would be run over by the Valenti machine. The next question is, do critics (such as the National Society of Critics or DC's own society of critics) get tapes so they can vote for their particular choices. That's still up in the air. I do believe that critics who are real critics should have seen most of these films in the first place. But that's just a kinkers thought. Maybe I'm missing some issue there. If they're claiming they need the tapes, well, I guess maybe they have their reasons (hopefully, other than building their own free collections of DVDS). I certainly don't need any tapes for my choices. But the more tapes out there, the more that small films get an even shot. So ultimately, I'm for small films getting an even shot, and the heck with piracy. (Do they really think there's going to be a run on $2 bootleg copies of Pieces of April? Where it's dangerous for piracy is where they're sending out tapes of Mystic River.)


Starbucks, WiFi:
Which movies on the horizon are you eagerly awaiting?

I recently saw Singing Detective and thought Robert Downey gave a great performance in an uneven movie. Left me wanting to find a copy of the original TV series.

Desson Howe: Yes you should see the original series. You can rent it on netflix or at cool places like Potomac Video in DC or Video Americain in Takoma or Video Vault in Old Town.


Washington, D.C.: Saw a screening of the new Matrix movie. Was interesting to see a flick before the critics get a chance to weigh in ... I thought it was an awful mess. I had no idea what was going on for most of the movie -- and when I did understand what was going on, alas, I didn't care.
How about you?

Desson Howe: You are reflecting my reaction somewhat, I'm afraid to say. Afraid for the movie's success, that is. Not afraid that I share your opinion!


Portland, Ore.: Howdy,

When is Bob Dylan's Masked movie due out? Any word on it?


Desson Howe: That one came out already. And it slid out of town, I believe. Word is, weird and arcane.


Re: Luther: Desson

My husband decided this was the movie he wanted to see on his birthday (we were both off from work) -- we trekked up to Gaithersburg where we were two of about 10 people in the audience and, I can guarantee it, the only Jews in the crowd. I thought it was a bit of an overwrought bio-pic with a wasted good cast (in addition to Ustinov, who was a hoot, Joseph Fiennes played Luther). It certainly didn't present the Catholics in a very favorable light, and, as my husband noted, totally ignored the virulent anti-Semitism of Luther himself.

My husband enjoyed it, however, since he's a sucker for the old fashioned costume-dramas they just ain't making anymore (perhaps for a reason). Am I a good wife or not?

Desson Howe: I am sure you are a good wife. And if he doesn't appreciate you, I can suggest 95 things of his you could nail to the---never mind. Seriously tho, thanks for the feedback. Very interesting.


Cleveland, Ohio: What leads to directors going into decline? Do they lose their skill as a storyteller? Do they have nothing new to say? I once thought Jane Campion was going to be great, but after "Holy Smoke" and the awful "In the Cut," she seems like one of the worst major directors working (along with Woody Allen.)

Desson Howe: She's in a tailspin all right. No accounting for it. The truth is, many people are good for one movie, perhaps two. But it's harder to be good for 6, 7 or 50.


The quest to be naked: Girl next door Meg Ryan appears, so I hear, sans clothing in "In the Cut." As, apparently, did Nicole Kidman in her latest, "The Human Stain." It used to be that up and coming stars appeared naked in a film in order to jump start their careers, only to hide behind the nudity clauses in their contracts once they made it in the biz. My question for you is, do you think that big named stars appearing naked in movies will become more commonplace and that actresses like Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Cameron Diaz, and Julia Roberts will follow Meg and Nicole's lead?

Desson Howe: Naked, naked, naked. I'm not profoundly moved to care about this issue. But I was brought up in Europe where nudity is not so tinglingly amazing and shocking in a movie. I mean, do we really care? I guess so.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Thank you, Desson and Post Producers! (I also meant your review too, just Hunter's name blurted out -- so sorry!). The reason that I asked for your reviews was because I really liked the movie a lot (that and "Mystic River" were two of the best movies that I have seen in a while). Thanks again!

Desson Howe: You're welcome!


Matrix Fan in Bowie, Md.: Have you seen the final Matrix movie? What can you tell us? Is it good or bad?

Desson Howe: The smell is starting to clog the nostrils. Do you see the process here? I was dithering and feeling negative mostly, now I'm reaching for the clothes peg. It takes me an hour or two and then the picture emerges.


Edison, N.J.: A note re: Scary Movie III. I love a deep thoughtful movie as much as any movie aficionado but I have always LOVED the Scary Movies (I and II) and was excited to see the next one. It was painfully unfunny. I should have known the departure of the Wayans Brothers (and replaced with the Naked Gun guy) would have spelled disaster. The third one was less urban and pop culture satire and more bland Naked Gun humor. And I thought the jokes focused way too much on a few references (Signs, The Ring, 8 Mile) so that you were lost if you didn't see these movies. The first two were not so narrow. Hated IT. SO unhappy.

Desson Howe: Too bad. Sorry you didn't like. I have to say I thought it was pretty funny because I love David Zucker and his physical comedy. You're right, you had to know those movies. But I think that's always been the point of the Scary franchise.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Mr. Howe,
I saw "Kill Bill" a little while ago, and was appalled by the violence, and the attitude towards violence, and am not moved by the argument that "it's so unbelievable that you can't take it seriously". I don't know, am I just too unhip for pop culture? I liked "Pulp Fiction" when I first saw it, but I'm starting to question my judgment in that case as well. Tarantino (or possibly his art director or cinematographer) is a visionary when composing some of the amazing images in his films, but I'm tired of the cleverer-than-thou dialogue, and the hipper-than-thou attitude. Should I feel bad that I haven't seen every chop-socky movie from the past 40 years? Sorry, I know I'm rambling. I'll stop.

Desson Howe: I can understand your POV completely. It's your call. But I am extremely curious as to what compelled you to see it in the first place, given your sensibilities. Why on earth would you go, if you knew about its violence?


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Hi Desson,

I just saw "Bubba Ho-tep", starring Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis last night, and loved it! I thought it very nicely mixed horror, comedy and even a little bit of drama. Have you seen it, and what did you think?

Desson Howe: I'm mystified as to why I missed this. I must have been on vacation at the time. Didn't see it. Glad you liked. Maybe I should check it out. I'll check out the reviews and see if it's a big fave.


Washington, D.C.: I haven't seen the Director's Cut of Alien yet, and haven't been able to find a review of it either. Have you seen it, and if so, what did you think? How much different is it from the original version? And is the additional material beneficial to the story?

Desson Howe: I saw it late night with my 11-year-old son Andrew. He's a big Alien fan. We loved it. Hadn't seen the original since it came out so couldn't see that much different. I think a lot of the getting-to-know-the-crew exposition at the beginning was the added stuff. Definitely go see it.


Mitchellville Movie Fan: Hi Desson,

Have you had the opportunity to experience a movie in the DLP format? We have a theater in Annapolis, the #11 theater that has both shows movies in both DLP and THX Digital sound. It's an awesome experience much like watching a DVD on the big screen? What do you think are its chances of expanding in the D.C. Metro area? It would be nice if all films were exhibited in this format.

Desson Howe: I'll ask the IMAX theater folks sometime. I'm intrigued to hear DLP, from your comments.


Vienna, Va.: Did I read in this thread, you liked the 2nd Matrix film? I thought it was disjointed and poorly edited with a convoluted storyline. Were we watching the same movie?

Desson Howe: I said, compared to this 3rd one. But I also liked many things in the 2nd one, mainly the choreography and the aerial fighting.


Reston, Va.: There was a compromise in the screener ban controversy. Only Academy members will receive screeners that have security devices that will track if any screener gets out into the public. The Writers Guild argues that this is still too restrictive and is threatening to cancel their awards event. Is this compromise enough?

Desson Howe: A lot of issues around all this. Important thing is: piracy got a lot of play. But also important that Valenti heard from a lot of angry people. I hope more tapes are made available. I can't imagine people are stamping their feet only because they can't get a personal DVD collection. I think Valenti needs to lower the portcullis and listen to a lot more people in the industry.


New York, N.Y.: Hello! I enjoy reading your reviews. What do you think about the new British movie coming out -- Love Actually. From seeing the promos, I can't wait to see it!

Desson Howe: Hello and thank you! By a stroke of bad luck I had to miss the review and my colleague is reviewing it. I am a big Richard Curtis fan and look forward to watching it, however. My colleague said he mostly liked it, but that something like 2 out of the 9 narrative threads weren't so great.


Virginia: Have you heard anything about this well-advertised 'Love, Actually' coming out this weekend?

Desson Howe: I refer you to the last question m'lud.


Washington, D.C.: Have you heard much about the mess the Uptown and fandango.com created for the Lord of the Rings Trilogy Tuesday (they're showing all three movies back to back-to-back the day before Return of the King officially comes out). The ticket buying process was a nightmare, tons of people ended up with tickets to only one or two of the three movies, which should have been sold as a package. I hope Loews has some extra security that day because I'm sure some nerds are going to riot when they find out the one ticket they have is only good for the first movie, or when the Uptown empties out the theater between each movie like they're planning to, when people will have camped out overnight for the best seats.

Desson Howe: Didn't hear about it. But fascinating mess, huh. Could be some anger out there.


Re: IMAX and DLP: Love you, Desson, but you're no techie. DLP (Digital Light Processing) is a digital projection system, using a hard disk rather than film. Loews Rio and the Lee Highway Multiplex Cinemas have it. One sees it; one doesn't hear it.

Saw Star Wars Episode 2 in DLP, and thought it looked awful. But maybe the look was intentional to match the rest of the film.

(And, by the way, IMAX is a 70mm film process)

Desson Howe: You're right. I now get it. you mean digital projection. Sorry. Yes, I have seen a few. And the results are very good.


Herndon, Va.: Mr. H: Getting ready to register for your "Smithsonian Course." Can you guarantee at least one Western (or an "Eastern" Western?)

Desson Howe: Anything by John Ford is great, from Stagecoach to The Searchers. I love Red River. I love Sergio Leone westerns. And Clint Eastwood's many westerns I always enjoy. And Open Range, I thought, was very good. Surprised it didn't do much better. There was a good eastern western based in England, trying to remember the name. Featuring Pakistani country and western singer/cowboys. Sorry, I'm blanking. Might remember by the time of the SMithsonian course.


Gaithersburg, Md.: I watched "Owning Mahoney" this weekend, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Do you get a change to watch it?

My wife and I enjoyed it, we tend to like good character study movies, as opposed to the action flicks ...

Also, rented "A Mighty Wind", shut it off after an hour, just seemed like an exact copy of "Best in Show". The concept was funny in the dog movie, but, this was just a re-hash with different characters.

Desson Howe: Love Phil See Hoff. Missed Mahoney, I'm afraid. I've wanted to catch up with it. I enjoyed him most recently in Love Liza. Sorry you didn't like Mighty Wind. It actually took me 2 times to like it. First time I was underwhelmed. Went again and then really appreciated its subtleties.

Want to see a great character movie? Rent The Straight Story. I was also looking at Quiz Show yesterday. Great character business in there too.


Desson Howe: Okay, that's it for this cycle. Thanks everyone. Have a great Monday and see you again!


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