Behind the Screen

Desson Thomson
Washington Post Film Critic
Friday, December 15, 2006; 12:30 PM

Washington Post film critic Desson Thomson was online Friday, Dec. 15, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss the latest movies, both Hollywood and indie, and the art of film.

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.


Desson Thomson: Hey good people, it's movie chatting time. I'd love to hear what's on your mind these days--not necessarily just movies you loved or hated but your lives of moviegoing. What do you love or hate about your lives as film watchers? Or how about your lives at home, watching DDS? Are there people out there who cluster in groups to watch DDS and discuss them like the old-school book clubs? But feel free to talk about anything!


Running in Empty: I was on checking out one of my favorite movies, "Running on Empty" with River Phoenix, and was shocked that despite a 90 percent approval rating, a certain Desson Thompson gave it a negative review. Was it a "youthful indiscretion" that you wish you could take back, or do you still not like the movie?

Desson Thomson: Interesting. I remember thinking that it was too cheesy and heavy handed--but that was the last time I saw it. And I have long since learned that our opinions change on films, especially as we get older. What I thought was great in previous years becomes banal. Or something I hated suddenly seems great. It would be interesting to view that one again-- assuming it's available.


Morristown, N.J.: While I tend to like the same movies as you ("Sideways," "Little Miss Sunshine," etc.), your review of "Happy Feet," along with many others who wrote about it, failed to warn parents of how dark and preachy the movie gets. My five-year-old daughter cried during the second half.

I feel like the ads for the movie and too many reviews did not portray this film accurately. As a result, my kids are probably not looking forward to going to an aquarium any time soon. To parents of little kids: you've been warned!

Desson Thomson: Thanks for bringing this up. Unfortunately, I was only allowed to write a short review of the movie which turns out to have been a bad call--given how popular the film has become. In a fatter review I would certainly have delved into this more. So I was resigned to alluding to serious thematic material in that short piece. Glad to help emphasize this element of the movie.


Washington, D.C.: Care to dis the Golden Globe nominations? Ben Affleck for Hollywoodland? As what, Best Corpse?

Desson Thomson: Hahaha. We'll get to those Globes soon enough.


Rockville, Md.: Hello Desson -- I'm wondering how movies are divvied up amongst you, Hunter and Hornaday. Do you put in dibs, draw straws, seniority, what? I thought about this last week when you were stuck reviewing some bomb about kids stranded in an airport while Hunter gets movies like 'Blood Diamond' and 'Apocalypto.'

Desson Thomson: Let me put it this way: Steve is the Post's chief film critic. He gets the lion's share of the high profile movies. It's a mixed blessing for him, since he also gets the high profile dreck. And I believe my presence within the hierarchy is growing in leaps and bounds. I for instance get to review Volver next week, and I'm thrilled about that.


Los Angeles, Calif.: The one film that's truly blown me away this season is "Children of Men." The scene of the attack on the road sets a new action filmmaking standard in my view, and I found the rest of this story's dystopic vision of the future well nigh overwhelming. What say you sir?

Desson Thomson: It's on my busy list to see. Sorry I can't respond, since I haven't caught it yet. Your comments make me excited to catch up with it. Did others dig it too?


Alexandria, Va.: If I go into "My Super Ex-Girlfriend" expecting "Kill Bill," will I be disappointed?

Desson Thomson: Oh yes.


Dumfries, Va.: Is "Pursuit of Happyness" the feel-good movie of the year? Two thumbs WAY up?

Desson Thomson: My good friend Nell Minow, the Movie Mom, told me it's exactly what you'd expect. Which I take to mean a yes vis a vis your question. There's another one on my list - holiday movies sort of pile up.


A missing Christmas classic: Desson: I just discovered that "Comfort and Joy" is not available on DVD in this country. That is one of my favorite movies ever and certainly one of my favorite Christmas movies. Nothing like a kleptomaniac ex-girlfriend and an Italian ice cream war in Scotland to get me in the Christmas spirit.

Desson Thomson: Too bad! Loved that movie.


Anonymous: Penelope Cruz has been nominated for a Golden Globe for her acting in "Volver." I recently saw the film and, while I like Cruz¿s acting and she is certainly pleasant to watch in any circumstances, I found the film kind of slow and with several plot lines seemingly wrapped up at times with little thought as though the director realized he was running out of time. I told my wife I considered the film somewhat of a chick flick but she disagreed. Have you seen the film?

Desson Thomson: Aaargh. Take back that chick flick insult! It's so much more than that. It's a story that moves at its own pace-- I didn't think of it as slow. It's about textures, character, irony, and the uncovering of family secrets. It has a cast entirely of women, sure, and one could label it a chick flick, but that would be so reductive and not even true--at least in my opinion. Cruz is terrific in that movie. She really acts. I loved it.


Baffled in Bowie: Hi Desson! I am submitting this question early since I have to leave for work. There seems to be a rumor that AMC may be closing the Uptown theater? Have you heard about this or know anything that can shed light on this? I hope it is not true but of the few times that I've been there, it seems the audiences have not been there. Also, the bookings for movies that would have been better suited to that theater have gone to the Georgetown or Regal.

Desson Thomson: I'll check into it... There have been rumors for a long time about this place being closed down. The same for the 4000 Wisconsin Ave. If I get anyone at AMC to call me back within this session or in the future, I'll let ya know.


Flags of Our Father and Frank Herzog: Desson,

Just a comment. I thought I saw our own Frank Herzog on film during ending of "FOOF." And in fact, he confirmed that he was indeed in the film. BTW, for you non-sport fans, Frank was the one who got robbed of his "voice of the Redskins" job several years ago.

Love that Clint got nominated for BOTH of his Iwo Jima films for Golden Globes.

Desson Thomson: Thanks for passing that along. I would second your enthusiasm for Letter from Iwo Jima. Very nice movie.


Falls Church, VA: Why has there been this marked trend towards excessive human torture in horror movies, such as the Saw series, Hostel, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, and now Turistas? (And note similar elements in Mel Gibson's Apocalypto.) This stuff is just gross without generating much in the way of escalating suspense that traditionally good horror movies are known for. The latter, better trend would be exemplified by the recent series of Japanese-style ghost movies, such as The Ring and The Grudge.

One possible explanation is that horror cinema is now all about outdoing the competition in special effects, and realistic-appearing, visceral torture scenes are simply another special effects gimmick like computer video graphics.

Any comments? Thank you.

Desson Thomson: My gut reaction to these movies -- and I hate them --- is that they are desperately trying to get the attention of an increasingly jaded seen-everything audience. What gets to me is the cat-and-mouse sadism of these films. It's not enough to slice and dice the victims they have to fight for their lives in a cruel game.


St. Mary's City, Md.: Do you think it's ironic that Beyonce Knowles is playing the pseudo-Diana Ross role in "Dreamgirls"? From my perspective, both Ross and Knowles spent much time preparing for solo careers when they were still with their groups. That is well-documented in the Supremes' case, notably in Nelson George's book about Motown. But I don't know enough about Destiny's Child's history to know for sure. Is that a question for your colleague Freedom?

Desson Thomson: Undoubtedly J. Freedom would have a lot more to say about this than I - but from what I understand, yes, Beyonce's relationship with Destiny's Child does sort of parallel Diana Ross's. Her performance, no surprise, is powerful. And close to Diana Ross's style. But as one colleague here has noted, the music is more 1980s broadway rock than Tamla.


Washington, D.C.: Hello ... thanks for the great chats.

I wrote you several weeks ago about seeing either "Casino Royale," "The Last King of Scotland," "Babel" or "For your Consideration."

I took your advice and saw Casino Royale ... Yuck! It was just plain boring ... plus he fell in love. James Bond never falls in love.

OK ... you now have a chance to redeem yourself.

"Last King of Scotland," "Babel," "Bobby" or "For your Consideration"?

Desson Thomson: Oh no, redemption for me. My last chance. Well, I still stand by my liking of the latest Bond-- and I seem to remember previous Bonds frequently falling for women who then get killed -- Remember a certain Mr. Lazenby trying to marry his love and being, uh denied? I would recommend Last King of Scotland and Babel and put FYC a very distant 3rd.


Locust Grove, Va.: Any tips on getting my 11-year-old Sunday school class to stop their incessant "Nacho Libre" references?

Desson Thomson: Come dressed like Nacho Libre and threaten to do it every time they refer to it. They'll stop immediately.


Dunn Loring, Va.:"Comfort and Joy" is on TMC tonight. Enjoy it, TiVo it, tape it, your choice!

Desson Thomson: Awesome tip! Thanks! Did our Comfort and Joy fan read that, I hope?


Washington, D.C.: What did you think of "Blood Diamond"?

Desson Thomson: I thought it was good but I wasn't as deeply moved as I'd hoped. Leonardo was excellent, I have to say, as was Hounsou. But Edward Zwick has a sort of cheese factor in there that got to me. It was a little too heavy handedly issue oriented at times. And Jennifer Connelly always makes good viewing.


Fredericksburg, Va.: Was Adam Beach snubbed by the Globes?

Desson Thomson: The problem is, there's always someone snubbed, in awards season, right? Maybe so.


Leesburg, Va.: Any buzz on the new "Rocky" movie? When I first heard about this project, I thought Stallone was crazy. Why couldn't he let the "Rocky" franchise die. Now I'm hearing that the movie is actually really good. What have you heard about the movie?

Desson Thomson: You know what? I am grappling with this myself. I think it's pretty good in the old fashioned way that the 1st Rocky was. I'll be writing that review over the next few days. So this stuff is very much on my mind.


Children of Men -- What a Tease!: The previous post about this got me excited to go see it this weekend (the book is great and I had no clue it was being made into a movie). But it's not out until Xmas day! I guess the other poster saw a sneak preview. I'm glad s/he liked it, now I'm really looking forward to it.

Desson Thomson: Just breathe slowly... you'll see it.


Washington, D.C.: Are the Golden Globes still considered something of a joke? I've heard that the Hollywood Foreign so-called Press consists of carwash and dry cleaning store owners and no real journalists. Also, that a lot of the resulting nominations have much to do with which Hollywood stars are willing to prostrate themselves before the carwash owners and little to do with real merit. Is this really the case?

Desson Thomson: The Globes are definitely a joke. Three words - Pia Zadora, winner. We are posting Sharon Waxman's previous article about this very subject which is definitely worth a read.


Los Angeles, Calif.: My all-time fave Christmas movie is "Christmas Holiday" (1944) with Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly. Are you familiar with it?

Desson Thomson: Sure, sweet movie.


Minneapolis, Minn.: I'm really glad you're online today, I have a movie dilemma. I like movies a lot, but haven't been able to see many recently. Therefore, my "must-see" list is getting a little long and I need to see 1-2 this weekend. On the list are "The Queen," "Borat," "For Your Consideration," "The Pursuit of Happyness" and "Stranger Than Fiction." Paying no attention to what I'm in the mood for, which would you recommend?

Desson Thomson: Thanks-- glad you're glad!

The first 2 are the ones I'd recommend. (The others I wouldn't so much. But I haven't seen Happyness to be sure of that one.) The Queen is great. And I hurt myself laughing in Borat. But Borat is not for everyone. The Queen will appeal to more people-- at least with mature sensibilities. Since I have immature sensibilities as well, I can enjoy Borat. Maybe you too, I don't know.


Uptown in peril?: Say it ain't so! Let me guess: Dan Snyder plans to buy it just so he can broadcast Redskins games from there. Please let this "Uptown to be sold" meme be another ephemeral rumor. There's no other place like it to see an epic or "event movie."

Desson Thomson: Agreed. It's a longtime Washington institution.


Defense of "Hostel": I wouldn't try to defend "Saw" or "Turistas," but I think that, given world events, there's a level of anxiety about the subject of torture these days. These sado-horror movies may be playing into that. "Hostel" has its dumb moments, but I do think it's trying to tap into our fears about the ramifications of the U.S.'s recent foreign misadventures. I actually liked the movie, because I was happy to see something actually engaging with world events. Plus it's pretty well made.

Desson Thomson: I'm not sure that the likes of "Hostel" should be extolled for being timely or examining the ramifications of American torture. I would say these films exploit these things. And I hardly tip my cap to them for that.


One's movie-watching life: That's a good question. One thing that might be of interest to you is that movie-watching for me is a very personal process, since I watch most of them now on DVD. I have very different tastes in movies than my wife and kids, so I use Netflix to get one for me, one for them and one for me. I watch alone at night, which makes the experience very personal, as compared to the communal spirit of watching in a theatre. It can sometimes making comedies less enjoyable without others around laughing along with you, but dramas seem to have more impact when you take them in by yourself. Just my thoughts.

Desson Thomson: Thanks. Very good thoughts.


Chicago, Ill.: What are the most movies you have ever seen in one day?

Desson Thomson: I think I saw 6 once at the Toronto Film Festival. Started at 8. End at about 4 am.


Baltimore, Md.: You do so few reviews these days (don't worry, I already let the Post know I miss you in Weekend) -- is there anywhere else we can catch your work?

Happy holidays!

Desson Thomson: I appreciate the thought, very much. I do not have any other outlets where my reviews are published although I am a member of the National Society of Film Critics for whom I vote and the Film Comment annual poll. But I think this year my output at the Post will grow, as I grow into the Style family. You can also catch my musical work with the band Cairo Fred. ( We aren't playing out as much as we did earlier this year but will do sometime soon. Anyway, appreciate the nice words.


McLean, Va.: No question, just a comment -- I just saw "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" again on cable last week, and was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable it still was. Mos Def, Sam Rockwell and Bill Nighy are fantastic in that film.

Speaking of Bill Nighy, "Love, Actually" has now become part of our family's holiday movie-watching tradition (along with "Christmas Vacation" with Chevy Chase).

Finally, how long do you think young Freddy will be in Salt Lake City before Man. U., Arsenal, or some other Premier League team comes calling?

Desson Thomson: Yes, I enjoyed Hitchhiker too, surprisingly, since I was a big fan of the English original. It was pretty good. And Love Actually is also a favorite of mine--such good writing, albeit sometimes kitschy. Mr. Adu came to Manchester United for a trial very recently--just weeks ago---but is still too young to join the team, legally speaking. But United are watching him for sure.


No need to post reply: Off to England/Manchester for the holidays. Will give your regards to Old Trafford. Go Red Devils!

Desson Thomson: I salute you. Enjoy!

_______________________ Golden Globes Group Seeks More Respect -- and Money (Post, Dec. 19, 2002)


Rockville, Md.: You asked about our movie viewing. Well, my husband and I probably see 75 percent of the movies that they have at Landmark Bethesda. It's a great theater, they have free refills on large popcorn and soda (when we see two movies in a row), stadium seating, good film variety (although we'd like to have some of the E street movies, too), and a generally respectful (read: quiet) audience.

Of course we go on Saturdays or Sundays during the day when Bethesda isn't a zoo yet.

Desson Thomson: That's great. Please feel free --- you and anyone else who cares to talk about issues in the moviegoing life--- to e mail me about anything. I intend to write occasionally about these issues.


Farragut, Washington, D.C.: Will "Indigenes" (Days of Glory) be showing in the D.C. area soon? I made it to a showing as part of AFI's African Film Festival last weekend and want to recommend it to my friends.

Desson Thomson: I am pretty sure it's coming - I don't see it in the immediate future. But it's a 2006 release and there's good buzz on it.


Hyattsville, Md.: Desson -- did you see "Bobby"? What did you think of it? I thought it was okay, but very distracting in two aspects: the large number of stars and trying to link the (supposedly fictional) events to real events and characters. I did not think any of the stars gave better performances than lesser-known actors would have. I was especially distracted by Lohan and Sheen and Hunt. I didn't buy the Sheen-Hunt relationship, in part because of the huge age difference and in part because Hunt just leaves me cold. I wish they had not gone with the stunt casting. Why use it? I don't remember the assassination, but still was trying to determine during the movie who the character was representing from real life.

Desson Thomson: Hey. As I wrote in a recent piece about the use of news footage of the past in movies, I thought the use of Bobby Kennedy was very good. He felt very much alive. And I liked the idea of a Magnolia/Short Cuts approach to retelling that fateful night. I liked it and I didn't like it, I guess./


Anonymous:"Blood Diamond" sounds a lot like the Nicholas Cafe film about an arms dealer in Africa (who is paid with diamonds in Sierra Leone). Any comparisons? I am not a Cage film but liked that film.

Desson Thomson: Yeah I saw that. Yes, some comparisonks. But Blood Diamond is more old fashioned and more of a Hollywood type story, I think. More enjoyable in my opinion. But if you liked the older one, which I didn't care for as much, you may have a different reaction.


Washington, D.C.: Okay, last night I saw "Dreamgirls" and it left me with one question. Is there any way academy members can revolt and vote for Jennifer Hudson as Best Actress and not Best Supporting Actress? It's so clear that she's the lead in that movie. It's a shame that she's not getting the credit she rightfully is earning.

Desson Thomson: Good question.


Tenleytown, Washington, D.C.: Desson: Happy holidays to you. Now that the Post only has one review per movie, can you tell us which review (or two) over the past year which was published by your colleagues that you disagreed with most and why.

Desson Thomson: I could but won't.


Desson Thomson: I have run out of time--as usual--before I could answer the rest of the questions. My apologies. (And I appreciate the nice compliments one poster sent about me about my reviews). We'll pick up in a couple of weeks. Have a great holiday!


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