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: Hello everyone ! Sorry I have been away for some time, folks. A combination of being away at the Toronto film festival and holidays (which always happen on Mondays), and the dog ate my homework. Since we have chatted so much has happened. Visions Bar Noir is no more. S. David Levy, the founder of the Key Theatre in Georgetown has passed away. And people are still lining up to see Hero. And I just saw Kirsten Dunst in that terrible tennis movie. What's on your mind, everyone?
Ann Arbor, Mich.:
Do you think the upcoming election might have some impact on whether Fahrenheit 9/11 might get nominated for best picture or not? IF Bush gets reelected, then there might be more incentive for Liberal Academy members to nominate this movie as some sort of retribution. However, if Kerry wins, the buzz to nominate this film will die down. What do you think?
Desson Thomson: Hi Ann Arbor. Lions Gate, who has theatrical rights to the movie has already capitalized on this by rereleasing the movie just ahead of the election. With Bush's gains politically, this may give the movie so more power, or less power. Not sure. He (Moore) is certainly angling for a best picture nom, and rejecting it as a documentary offering. Hard to say how this film will do with the Bush-Kerry dynamic. I think once the election is held, this movie will lose its luster, either way. But if Bush wins, I agree, it'll become a rallying call for many of the Bush opponents.
Try and discard your English bias for this question:
Who is sexier? Brad Pitt or Ralph Fiennes? (Remember, Brad Pitt has pock marks.)
P.S. Is anything on the horizon for Fiennes (and please don't tell me it's "Maid to Order 2").
Desson Thomson: I don't need an English bias to state that Brad Pitt is sexier. I think Ralph Fiennes is rather insipid as a sex symbol. I like him as an offbeat character. He was terrific in Quiz Show. Sex symbol? Not from my POV. He's probably not doing Maid to Order 2 because he has so many projects in the offing, including the Harry Potter 5 movie (Voldemort), a Wallace & Gromit movie, Chromophobia and the Constant Gardener.
Is there a movie on the horizon that won't waste the talents of Ben Stiller or Owen Wilson (or both)?
Lately, it seems like they are scoring more misses than Ben Affleck.
Desson Thomson: Owen's got a part in the next Wes Anderson movie : The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. So there's hope for him. But he's shamelessly overexposed. There should be a gag order on the three you have mentioned.
Do you know anything about the upcoming film version of the Broadway hit "Rent", i.e., casting? I know it's being directed by Chris Columbus, but nothing beyond that ...
Desson Thomson: If Chris Columbus is directing it, say goodbye to subtlety and taste. Say hello to the obvious and over the top. The difference between his goofy junk food versions of Harry Potter and Alfonso Cuaron's darker and far more interesting HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is markedly obvious.
Denver, Colo.: The Mile High City:
Hey Desson! Hope my input here finds you in great spirits.
I had one comment (spoiler warning!!!) and one question.
Spoiler... Manchurian Candidate. Generally, an enjoyable film to watch. But there was one part that was off the charts in terms of believability. When Liev Schreiber's character goes to kill the two people toward the end of the movie, it is completely unbelievable. This guy's the VP, with the press following every move and not to mention the secret service covering his back. I just didn't buy it!
Question. Is it just coincidence that Jamie Foxx or other actors have several movies that come out at the same time. He co-starred with Tom Cruise in a recent movie and I also see he is in the Ray Charles biopic. Do the studios line these releases up to take advantage of star power or is it just scheduling coincidences?
Desson Thomson: Yes that is a SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT. But you are right. It is a ridiculous notion at that point in the movie that he can do the things you mention. Manchurian basically becomes a ridiculous farce in its final 3rd. Its credibility gets very lost by then. Check out the original movie on DVD sometime if you haven't already. It's got a darker, quainter believability--it helps that it was made in a film noirish moment in human history. Just after the JFK assassination and with the Cold War still raging.
While Hero is a beautiful movie, were you surprised to see it as the top grossing film 2 weeks in a row? Is the movie-going public getting a bit more sophisticated, or is this simply an indication of the total dregs that are otherwise available for viewing?
Desson Thomson: Probably both things are true. Poor competition. And people are more sophisticated. Whetted too by Crouching Tiger. It's also a pretty spectacular movie. I am thrilled to see people flocking to see a movie with subtitles. Moviegoers can read and don't necessarily stay away. I love it when movie conventional wisdom is negated.
Wait till you see Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers. Coming later this year.
What has happened to the Outer Circle theater?
Desson Thomson: Its lease ran out and no one has stepped up to buy it. There are other Loews Cineplex theaters still on the possible chopping block--depending on the whim of the company. The Dupont, the Cinema on Wisc, 4000 Wisc--these are 3 living on borrowed time. But they've been living on borrowed time for years. So they might hang in there longer.
I just saw Hero over the weekend and I thought the acting was tremendous. It was good enough to stand out amongst the beautiful shots, costumes and fight choreography. I thought the person playing Broken Sword was particularly effective.
Do you think any of Hero's actors can compete with Renee Zellweger or Alec Baldwin for a Golden Globe?
Desson Thomson: I doubt it. When it comes to competing with western actors talking and acting, and doing it well, all in English, I can't imagine voters going for the arty Chinese performance.
Saw an excellent movie yesterday, "We Don't Live Here Anymore" at an excellent theater, the AFI Silver Theaters in Silver Spring. Laura Dern was, as usual, particularly good and the rest of the cast gave top performances. Have you seen the movie? If so, what did you think of it? Did you find it reminiscent of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf"? Have you been to AFI Silver Theaters?
Desson Thomson: Yes of course I've been to the Silver. Its big theater is one of the best screens in town. They are well funded and can show all kinds of great films, past and present, on a sort of subsidized basis. So people should jump at those opportunities while they exist. I have been trying to see that movie. Hear great things about it. Was going to see it. But at the last minute, a week ago this is, my wife and I opted to see the tennis movie (we were lazy and geographic proximity won the day). What a mistake. Looking forward to seeing it at the Silver or DVD if I don't get the time.
Over the weekend I had the opportunity to see "Garden State". I went because I enjoy Zach Braff's work in "Scrubs", but I came out of the theater with a newfound respect for him as an actor, but more so as a director. At points in the movie, I had to remind myself that I wasn't watching a film by a cinematically accomplished director, but by a newcomer. It is easily one of the best, if not the best, film I have seen all year, and both Braff and Natalie Portman were superb in their roles. Can we expect more from this talented young actor and director soon?
(As an aside: I do realize he also wrote the screenplay, which, while good, I did not find to be as stellar as his acting and directing.)
Desson Thomson: Of course we can expect more from him. Clearly he is a talent. You know who was also terrif in that movie? Peter Sarsgaard -- the gravedigger. The more I see him the more I appreciate him. Natalie Portman irritates me hugely, to be honest. But yes she was strong.
Is about to become an outdoor furniture store ...
Desson Thomson: Oh really? In keeping with the MacArthur and the Biograph being drugstores ....
Hi, Desson. Why isn't Vanity Fair doing better? Sure, it's a little draggy, but very sumptuous, and what else is out there? Are the Merchant/Ivory/Masterpiece Theatre crowd still at the beach?
Desson Thomson: Maybe because the critical word of mouth on this was very so-so. Not sure. But it's a beautiful spectacle. Mira Nair knows how to make a picture look good.
Falls Church, Va.:
Shaun of the Dead has fantastic reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Is that accurate?
I tried to get friends to see it this weekend, but all said it sounded stupid despite the good reviews I mentioned. Darn.
Desson Thomson: Believe the reviews. It's hilarious. And inventive.
We missed you, Desson! Did you check out any place new while you were in Toronto (I'm a fan of Brassail, myself!)? This is a plug for "Hero": if you haven't seen it yet, GO NOW! It is definitely worth seeing on the big screen, where the colors are done justice. What have your seen and heard about "Flying Daggers"?
Desson Thomson: Why shucks thanks. I went back to my favorite soccer bar there, the Duke of Gloucester. Heard however, there's a Manchester United reds bar elsewhere on Eglinton and something. So I'll check that out next time. Agreed on Hero. I enjoyed it too. Saw it about 2 or 3 years ago when it showed in Berlin. Saw it with German subtitles and still loved it. Why Miramax who bought it in Berlin took so bloody long to release it is a mystery to me. It's made incredible money abroad and now here.
Welcome back, Desson.
Michael Moore's "doc" SHOULD be in the Best Picture category, rather than Best Documentary. Why? Because it's a work of pure fiction.
Desson Thomson: Ba doom.
Owings Mills, Md.:
We recently saw Vanity Fair, which was very disappointing to me -- it seemed really slow; we also saw Evergreen -- also disappointing and we saw Garden State, which I loved. It was great and a nice change from everything else.
Desson Thomson: Interesting and maybe answers the prev. Vanity Fair question.
Just wanted to drop you a note about Napoleon Dynamite. I saw it several months ago at Shirlington. Good size audience, mainly middle-aged, art house-type crowd. Took a friend to see it last weekend at the new Hoffman Cineplex. Place was packed, 75 percent of the crowd 16 years old or under, many of them obviously seeing the film for the umpteenth time, judging from the anticipatory laughter and the audible speaking of lines. Very different viewing experience between the two but especially great to see that the film has grown an audience apparently through word of mouth.
Desson Thomson: Oh yes, this has become a big cult item. Just 2 nights ago, my two 20something sons were reciting major portions of the movie. And laughing heartily. Big hit for the high school/college crowd.
About "Hero" - This might contain spoilers!;
Hi Desson, I realize you loved "Hero" and I think it's the best color cinematography I've seen about 30 years. But as gorgeous as the film is and as amazing as the fight scenes are, the film's central message is repugnant. Though, I now understand why the film has the approval of Chinese leaders. The guy who made "Ju Dou" and "To Live" has become a mouthpiece for Jiang Zemin.
Zhang's turned into Leni. He's arrogant to sell the idea of national unity when Tibetans are oppressed, innocent students are killed at Tianenman Square and Taiwan fears attacks from the mainland.
There's no irony in Zhang's film and as it ended, I wondered what a western audience's reaction would be if the story were set in the last century and the end credits praised Nameless' bravery for it "the preserved the Reich."
It's a stunningly beautiful film, but Zhang's metamorphosis from a great director to a propagandist is ugly and terribly disappointing.
On the other hand, thanks so very much for recommending "Maria Full of Grace." I doubt this will happen, but boy I'd love to see Catalina Sandina Moreno win the Oscar. That film had more suspense than a genuine thriller.
Desson Thomson: Hey Wexford. I too feel passionately about Tibetan independence. China needs to set them free. And work on their human rights while they're at it. But I sure wasn't thinking about that when I watched this movie. And the fact that the govt has extolled this movie, well, I don't feel qualified to comment on what that really means.
Maria is a great movie. Glad you liked it.
Tacky way to get people to read your messages.
Desson Thomson: Okay. you succeeded.
Since you have broken the ice, can I just wonder aloud how Kirsten Dunst is a star? I think I remember a terrible career arc that started with an insipid performance in Interview with a Vampire, followed by horrible movies like Bring it On and Mona Lisa Smile, one standout role in Virgin Suicides, and HUGE STARDOM AND THE LEAD IN TWO OF THE HIGHEST GROSSING FILMS OF ALL TIME. I will never understand her appeal. She is an annoying airhead who looks like a mule kicked her. Sorry, that was low. As always, thanks for your time.
Desson Thomson: I think she is talented, actually. And many of us men are secretly grateful that she was caught in the rain in both Spider-Man movies.
My wife and I saw Shaun of the Dead and enjoyed it. I think it could have been scarier but, of course, then it would have been a different movie entirely. Has the filmmaker(s) done anything else we might like?
Desson Thomson: Edgar Wright's big claim to fame is directing and cocreating the Spaced Tv series in England from which Shaun was spun off. It's been showing on cable. Cant remember which channel.
How would you rate Julianne Moore as an actress? Her career seems to be moving from high quality independent films to lower quality Hollywood productions. I guess that's where the bucks are but has her acting suffered?
Desson Thomson: Well, that awful movie she was in, sure. I am refusing to remember the title. I only reviewed it last week. Uhhh. Beavis and Butt-head moment. Uuuh. Oh yeah, the Forgotten. Maybe that's why I couldn't remember. She maybe is taking a break from low paying indies for a while. But she is a great actress. Hope you've seen her in Far from Heaven, Safe, The End of the Affair, the Hours, Magnolia.
So as an homage to Visions I went to see the Brown Bunny. What a terrible movie!, but not because of the controversial scene, but because it's very poorly written and directed. It would seem like a scene of that nature might actually work for it's disturbing factor if the characters had been developed a little more. Have you had the misfortune of seeing that movie? What do you think?
Desson Thomson: yes I reviewed it. We're trying to post it in a sec.
Hey Desson, we've missed you.
I'm a college movie critic and was unfortunate enough to see an advance screening of "Sky Captain." I hated it. Then I read everyone else's reviews, and with the exception of the Post, they were generally positive.
Have you ever thought to yourself after a similar experience ... "Did I miss something?" What movie was it, and did you rewatch the film to see if you saw the same one everyone else did?
Did you see "Sky Captain"? What did you think?
Desson Thomson: Hey Med. Thanks so much. Always nice to hear. I was away when that film came out. Heard it was horrible from just about everyone so I haven't exactly killed myself to catch up! It doesn't sound like you missed anything!
Just a little rave.:
For anyone who hasn't, find a theater playing the Bourne Supremacy and run to see it. It is an unusual movie in that it is an action/thriller/spy movie that is, gasp, intelligent, credible, and dark, even. Plus, Matt Damon is adorable. He is head and shoulders above Affleck in acting, and also in looks, IMHO.
Desson Thomson: I agree. yes. I was surprised at how many people did not care for that movie. I thought it was better than the stagnant formula that James Bond has become.
Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.:
After having purchased from an Asian dealer a region-free DVD of "Hero" more than a year ago, I'm thrilled that Miramax finally got around to showing the film in U.S. theaters. It's definitely a movie that must be witnessed on a huge screen. But I've been repulsed by how Miramax advertised "Hero" as a "Quentin Tarantino" presentation -- with no mention of Hero's director, Zhang Yimou. What a slap at Yimou, a genuinely legendary director. But I've been even more turned off to read interviews in which Tarantino, smug as ever, takes credit for persuading Miramax to finally take "Hero" off the shelf and show it. But I've read elsewhere it was actually the Disney Company that put the pressure on Miramax to show "Hero" in order to curry favor with the Chinese government and help its plan to open a huge theme park in Beijing. Do you know what the real story is on why "Hero" was held up so long by Miramax?
Desson Thomson: Hmmm. These are interesting questions. I had a talk with Yimou about these issues and he didn't mention that business. Of course he's apparently in with the govt, so he prolly wouldn't. There were some choice words he had to say about the delay which I have been foresworn not to pass along. Let's say he and producer William King were pleasantly surprised to see it finally released and successful.
Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.:
Desson--Speaking of overexposure, is there ANY of the recent or upcoming SIX movies with Jude Law (count 'em, six!) that doesn't waste his talents?
Desson Thomson: I am not one of his fans, to be honest. As an actor, I mean. So my opinion would be pessimistic.
Eastern Market, Washington, D.C.:
Desson -- It's too bad about Visions but not totally surprising -- it seems like the market for independent and foreign films in the D.C. area may be saturated now with multiple venues that have opened. (Plus, sad to say, but sometimes Visions was pathetically short-staffed.) That said, what do you think is missing from the D.C. theater scene? Or is there some part of the area that is particularly underserved by non-mainstream movies?
Desson Thomson: I think Visions could have survived with more money pumped in at the beginning for better seats and screens, and maybe some better choices for certain of their movies. But they had their hands tied -- the competition was pretty strong. And they had a great programmer in Andrew Mencher, who is going on to greater things.
Julienne Moore broke my heart in Boogie Nights!
Desson Thomson: Forgot about that one. Yes she was good in that too!
I saw Cellular the other weekend and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Do you know why it wasn't release this summer? It seems it would have done well financially. Thanks.
Desson Thomson: Can't answer why it wasn't released earlier. Could be any number of things. Glad you liked.
Welcome back. Just wanted to share that I was dragged to see Shaun of the Dead this weekend. Although I was predisposed to hate it (I don't like horror movies), I ended up absolutely loving it. What a funny movie! I saw in your review that you loved it too. What good taste you have!
Desson Thomson: Well, thanks. Nice to see that I have good taste. Unfortunate choice of word perhaps, given that it's a cannibal comedy. Isn't it fun! Everyone go see this movie!
The previous posts about Kirsten Dunst's and Julianne Moore's questionable star qualities brought Ashley Judd to my mind. Although she is not in any current releases (that I know of), I would love to know if you would agree that she is a terrible actress. She is lovely, yes, but her acting is so wooden that it makes me uncomfortable to watch. Could you explain her success to me?
Desson Thomson: She is a good actress, I think. A little, uh, eccentric in person, but a good actor. She was in over her head in De-Lovely. She can't play a grownup. Not yet. But I expect good things from her.
Going to see the Motorcycle Diaries tonight, will I like it?
Desson Thomson: You'd better! I did. Seeing it again tonight myself. It sort of turns Che Guevara into a goofy saint, which has already drawn criticism. But a lovely road movie.
"Who is sexier?" I must be on a different page than most folks when it comes to sexiness (is that a word?) Rita Kempley and her unusual suspects ridiculed my honest assertion that I found Karl Childers's character (Sling Blade) rather sexy in a gentle kind way. Good acting is sexy. John Turturro is sexy; Tom Cruise is not. Rene Zellweiger is sexy; Cameron Diaz is not. Charlize Theron is sexy; Julia Roberts is not. And so on ...
Desson Thomson: Well, this gets into one's own definitions of sexy. And isn't it wonderful that we get to define what those are? Part of being alive. I like almost all of your choices there. So maybe we're on a similar page.
I saw Criminal on Saturday. I was kind of surprised that it acknowledged the movie, Nine Queens, in the credits. I don't recall a movie crediting another movie before. Have you ever noticed it in other movies?
Desks Thomson: No. It was unusual. By the way, Nine Queens is about 15 times better. Make sure you see it!
washingtonians.com: A Bizaree 'Brown Bunny'
RF is playing Voldemort in HP$, Goblet of Fire, not 5, which I don't think has begun being cast/filmed yet.
Desson Thomson: OKay. Thanks.
We recently saw Garden State and loved it. What other movies has this writer/director done?
Desson Thomson: His debut. he's been an actor up till now.
Re: Hero's Broken Sword:
The actor that plays Broken Sword is Tony Leoung, a well-established and popular Hong Kong TV and movie stars for a very very long time.
I hope he gets some recognition in the west for his wonderful work.
Desson Thomson: Absolutely.
Do you know what's going on with Willard Carrol's "Marigold: An Adventure in India"?
Desson Thomson: Not much. Just that it's coming one day. With Ali Larter.
Given all of the exciting new development in D.C. and the revival of the downtown and other areas, what can be done about the reduced filmgoing opportunities? Visions is closed and I hear the Dupont 5, the last theater in Dupont Circle, may also close. Are these neighborhood theaters a thing of the past? You'd think with increasing urban renewal there would be more theaters, not less ...
Desson Thomson: Most of these theaters going down the rubes are old buildings and can't be maximized to more screens. The trend is multiscreen, so that people can see Kirsten Dunst in dumb tennis movies and also indie films at the same place.
Posted earlier a question about French films of the 80's (maybe it slipped through your net), but was hoping you could suggest/recommend other quirky, kinetic movies like Nikita, Diva, Betty Blue ...
Desson Thomson: Seem to have missed your earlier posting. Well, for one, go see Intimate Strangers. A fine character film, French, still playing (I think) at 2 or 3 theaters. Garden State is quirky. But not French of course. Not sure if you mean films from the 80s or out now.
And alarmed to hear about Dupont 5. Will those of us in the Dupont/Adams Morgan area have learn to live without movies or face a half hour commute by metro or fight the nightmarish traffic in Georgetown? Why or why did Loews build in Georgetown and not somewhere more accessible?
Desson Thomson: It's all money.
I saw this with my mom and we both enjoyed it. She loves tennis and liked the match, especially at the end. I love Paul Bettany and just enjoyed him. I saw him on Conan and he is really funny but the movie wasn't sharp enough to utilize is witty, if dry, humor. As for Kirsten, she looked too young for him. There wasn't much chemistry between them.
Desson Thomson: I rest my case. Thanks for the feedback.
Now that Visions is gone, where can someone who wants to see the types of films Visions offered, go?
Desson Thomson: E Street Cinema comes the closest. And Avalon and the AFI Silver. And the Cinema Arts in Virg. But not completely covering some of the material you could get at Visions.
Garden State Question -- SPOILER ALERT:
I'm actually going to try to write this question so I don't give anything away, but have included the cautionary "spoiler" caption just in case. A friend saw "Garden State" before I did and emerged with a radically different view of the ending -- one completely at variance with mine, and with everyone else who's seen the film, so far as I can tell from searching the Web. Without going into detail, his view would make the film a tragedy, rather than a comedy (albeit a black comedy). Who's right?
Desson Thomson: It's a movie that combines both things. And that's its strength. It's a comitragedy or tragicomedy. So possibly both interpretations are valid.
Can you recommend any of the movies currently showing during AFI's Latin Americans film festival? I want to go, but am not sure to which one.
Desson Thomson: I am woefully ignorant. I just know it's ongoing at the AFI and that all of them looked promising. Go to as many as you can. Seriously.
Sky Captain has an anachronism that should
appeal to film buffs. Although the story
is supposed to be set in 1939 (Wizard of Oz
at Radio City and a marquee for Wuthering
Heights), another marquee is for Kings Row,
which was not released until 1942.
Desson Thomson: Okay, thanks.
Desson, saw Mr. 3000 over the weekend and was amused -- Bernie Mac is Bernie Mac. I actually had the chance to say "the romance seemed tacked-on!" But he big thing for me was the directing. I thought it was excellent -- esp. for a sports comedy. Some very arty shots, of Mac watching The Best ... Sports Show Period, for example. I am not familiar with the director Charles Stone III's other work, but maybe I'll rent Drumline now! Did you see it, any thoughts?
Desson Thomson: Drumline is good. You should see that. Bernie Mac is always funny. But he needs to be in edgier movies. He's funny when he's more dangerous. Not when he's the big teddy bear.
I just wanted to give everyone a head's up about the Old Town Theater in Old Town Alex. (no, I DO NOT work there -- just a recent fan and want it to stay in business). It really is a gem. We've seen Weeping Camel, Outfoxed, We Don't Live Here Anymore there, plus they have football and often do things at lunchtime like Ken Burn's jazz series. You can buy food and beer. Check out their site Old Town Theater Please, everyone -- help keep a small local theater in business. (Unlike Visions)
Desson Thomson: Absolutely. Hear hear. Check it out everyone.
I saw Collateral recently, and came out astounded that I recalled good reviews for this ridiculous and boring excuse for a movie. It exemplified style over substance, and simply grew more and more unbelievable as the movie dragged on. So, my questions: what, if anything, was good about the film, and what did the two coyotes symbolize?
Desson Thomson: WDC, no, no, no. It is a good movie. Good writing. It's actually a chick flick in disguise-- a character based action movie in which two men find out about each other's lives, dreams and disappointments. I thought it was good Hollywood entertainment. Sorry to differ with ya.
I heard a little hubbub about the new Terminator movie today. Any idea what that was about? Also, any news on the new Batman film? I really hope that breathe some new life into that franchise. The last one made we wish I had thrown my $12 out the window and rapped myself on the head with a hammer 8 times, so that I hadn't wasted 2 hours of my life.
Desson Thomson: Always in the market for those 2 franchises, if they come up with something good. I'd heard some things about the new Batman. But not Termn. Bring it up next time and tell me what you heard.
Desson Thomson: Gents and gentettes, it's been real. Thanks so much for being here with me. Talk to you all real soon. Peace out.