Behind the Screen

Desson Thomson
Washington Post Film Critic
Friday, October 5, 2007; 12:30 PM

Washington Post film critic Desson Thomson was online Friday, Oct. 5, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss the current movie offerings, including his reviews of "Rush Hour 3," "Daddy Day Camp" and "Interview."

Thomson, a movie critic at The Washington Post for 15 years, was raised in England where he was entranced, like most, by Hollywood movies. 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.

A transcript follows.


Desson Thomson: A massive passel of flicks heaped upon our cultural plate this day. Unfortunately - just to break the news right away - I have not had the priv of seeing Darjeeling - the film by the immensely talented Wes Anderson. It intrigues me that he uses the music of Satyajit Ray for the soundtrack. Cannot wait. But I'm more than happy to talk about anything on your minds, including "The Heartbreak Kid," "The Seeker," "Lust, Caution," the brilliant, upcoming "Control," "In the Valley of Elah," "Into the Wild," "The Kingdom," "Blame Fidel" and so on.

Fire away, me friends.


Alexandria, Va.: GF and I saw a sneak preview of "Heartbreak Kid," and she thinks if this is a hit it means the end of civilization as we know it. She's not a prude or religious freak, either. It set us to wondering if there is currently any point at which gross/etc., humor is found to have crossed the line? I thought it was pretty funny, but I can see her point.

Desson Thomson: That Rude-bicon line you speak of - it's way, way in the distance behind all of us.

_______________________ 'Heartbreak Kid': And Now, You May Ditch the Bride ( Post, Oct. 5)

_______________________ 'Lust, Caution's' Open Hearts Aren't For Closed Minds ( Post, Oct. 5)


U Street D.C.: Desson,

I know that Ann Hornaday, not you, reviewed "Darjeeling Limited," but have you seen it? Wes Anderson is one of my favorite current filmmakers, and I'm so excited to see it. What are your thoughts on Anderson, and if you've seen "Darjeeling Limited," where do you think it ranks among his movies?

My favorites are the "Royal Tenenbaums" -- for its beauty of emotion and quirkiness, and "Rushmore" -- for its all-out silliness and Jason Schwartzman's awesome performance. And of course, I love the soundtracks. A Road Trip to India On 'The Darjeeling Limited' ( Post, Oct. 5)

Desson Thomson: Wish I could speak to Darjeeling. But must view it first. But here is the excellent Ann's review for everyone. I think Anderson - along with the Coens, David Gordon Green (loved that he made a movie called George Washington that's not about George Washington at all), Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze et al - is one of our great movie making treasures. So hear hear to ya.


Darjeeling Limited: You have no idea how excited I am for the new Wes Anderson movie! I've decided that he is my favorite director. What do you think of him?

Desson Thomson: Well, as I just said...


"Darjeereling Limited": How sad is it going to be to see this movie, knowing Owen Wilson's situation? Have there been any recent updates? I certainly wish him the best.

Desson Thomson: I think most of us wish him well. I met him when he was just an aw-shucks adorable kid promoting a little indie comedy called Bottle Rocket. He, Anderson, and his brothers, were engaging, fresh and exciting. I had a feeling he'd be a cult star, had no idea he'd become household. And his recent tragic issues were a huge surprise.


Morristown, N.J.: Okay, Desson -- if forced to choose -- the premiere of a brand new Farrelly Brothers movie or a Judd Apatow movie, which one would you look most forward to seeing?

I'd pick Judd myself.

Desson Thomson: So would I. And I must add him to the list of promsing talents.


Colesville, Md.: Good afternoon,

So ever since "Hero" I have been captivated by Tony Leung. I am not interested in this new "Lust" film, what of his other works should I catch up on? I just saw "2046" last weekend. I am not sure I understood it, but he was captivating. I might even argue that he is the most underrated actor working today. Although I suspect he is huge in Hong Kong. Thanks.

Desson Thomson: I'd recommend you see "In the Mood for Love." To me, he's the Bryan Ferry of the East. Love him.


Fairfax County, Va.: How does the new "Heartbreak Kid" compare to the original with Cybill Shepard? Neil Simon and the Farrellys don't seem to have much comedic overlap. Funny line about pagan devil worship in your review, by the way. 'Heartbreak Kid': And Now, You May Ditch the Bride ( Post, Oct. 5)

Desson Thomson: Thank you! I would say that there are some basic similarities between the two movies, but the tonal and textural differences (kinda intellectually wussy words to use in the same sentence as the Farrellys, I know) are enormous. Not even the difference between an apple and an orange but maybe an apple and a tossed brick.

_______________________ Fall Movies Preview


The Heartbreak Kid: Ummm, I'm assuming if you hate Ben Stiller, you're not going to like this movie?

Desson Thomson: well, I won't say I hate Ben Stiller, because he is very talented. But thanks to his overexposure, I have zero desire to see him on screen for the next umpteen years (maybe the same amount of time it takes for nuclear radiation to die down). Which is to say, even though I had this feeling coming into The Heartbreak Kid, he still amused me.


Baltimore, Md.: Wow, lots of love for "The Heartbreak Kid" -- is it really in the same class as "There's Something About Mary?" The commercials have been really lame and I had written this off as a bad dark comedy similar to Stiller's bomb "Duplex" but I may have to give it a look.

Desson Thomson: Something About Mary is the greater comedy because all the pistons are working (story and comedy). Heartbreak is more disjointed - sometimes it tries to actually be sensitive and story oriented, which comes across as jarring. It is, however, a great laff-riot.


Wheaton, Md.: Am I the only one who thought that the critically acclaimed "The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" was WAY too long? I really appreciated Sam Rockwell's performance, but Brad Pitt and Casey Afleck were kinda average to me. I don't mind long movies if they've got a story to tell, but 2/3 of this movie was the same thing...Show how dorky, wimpy and weak Ford was in comparison to the vibrant, contemplative, yet pensive James. If only the editor could have been honest to the director and chopped 30-45 minutes off the runtime, they could have really had something here.

Desson Thomson: Hmm, good thoughts to ponder over. I'd like to meet one editor, though, who has the authority to tell a director (apart from a neophyte) what to do!


Washington, D.C.: I really enjoyed "The Kingdom," but after watching it, I wondered why Ashraf Barhom was not getting more credit for his performance. Sure Jamie Foxx and Chris Cooper were strong and Jason Bateman was pretty funny, but Jennifer Garner and Jeremy Piven were downright pitiful. Barhom gives a solid, real performance that gives this movie credibility, something the rest of the cast could not contribute.

Desson Thomson: Well, hey, you and I are on the same page. Read my review of that movie, which we are about to post.....

_______________________ A New Star Holds the Keys to 'The Kingdom' ( Post, Sept. 28)


Washington, D.C.: My husband and I are of a certain age (old) so as to have thoroughly enjoyed "Across the Universe," a montage of Beatles songs and other 60s-70s images. But the names Jude and Lucy for the leads were just too obvious! There's a cameo appearance by a character named Rita, which makes me wonder if "Lovely Rita, Meter Maid" was cut from the movie. My name is also Rita and some people, again of a certain age, still sing a few lines of that song when they meet me.

Desson Thomson: Oh poor you. They really do that Rita thing on ya. Hey, we're all so obvious, what can I say on behalf of humankind. When I used to be called Howe, you can imagine the "hilarious" responses. ("Howe do you do it?" was the one they said most. Oy.) Not sure if Rita-the-song was cut out. Good question. Maybe Taymor just wanted to have passing references like that peppered in for overall effect. Still haven't caught up with it. Curious about it despite the bad reviews.


Alexandria, Va.: Who would you like to see in wax in the new D.C. wax museum?

Desson Thomson: No one I love or respect, given Henry Allen's brilliant take on how bad those exhibits apparently are. So I'm thinking maybe Michael Moore.


Armchair critic returns: I really despise Wes Anderson's films. They come of as these smug trite, self indulgent, nearly inside joke productions. That's pretty much how I felt about two of his films I saw ("Rushmore," and "Aquatic Life"...). You couldn't drag me to see anything else of his... I really can not picture myself sitting in front of the screen knowing he made those previous pics.

The fact that you name David Gordon Green, in the same breath is a travesty. He is a genius and his films actually have a SOUL.

More Green! LESS WES... Thank you as always .

Desson Thomson: Armchair, thanks for your response. I like your passion and conviction.


"The Kingdom": What was the point of Jason Bateman's character? It made no sense why he was sent on the mission and seemed like he was the whiny worrier the whole time

Desson Thomson: What was the point of ANYONE's character in that movie?


Silver Spring, Md.: I know you haven't yet seen "Darjeeling." However, given Hornaday's review and your own thoughts of "Into the Wild," which would you see first? Thanks. A Road Trip to India On 'The Darjeeling Limited' ( Post, Oct. 5)

Desson Thomson: I would see Into the Wild. I thought good things about it. And judging by what I've read, and my issues with Anderson's Tennenbaums (an inspired dress and production rehearsal in search of a story) I anticipate Darjeeling to be as problematic as it is good.


But is Ben Stiller...:...ever going to do any real acting? He seems to have range, but no roles to express it in.

Desson Thomson: So comedy isn't acting? This is something our culture needs a little edderkating on, me thinks.


Arlington, Va.: Hi, Desson, I saw two very different small gems at the E Street Theater this week, "Live-in Maid" and "Blame It on Fidel." The final scene in each was mesmerizing. I love their weekday matinees, but one had four people and the other just had two! I moved here from the heartland where movies like this are never shown at all, so am just writing in to encourage folks to take advantage of these marvelous opportunities! Thanks!

Desson Thomson: I agree. It's vital that people support the E Streets, Avalons, Bethesda Rows and AFI's and National Gallery of Art's East Building programs (Saturdays and Sundays, free shows of fantastic films of past, present and other cultures), or we'll all be stuck with the Podunk Multiplex fare. I DID see Fidel, which I thought was terrific. So hear hear.


Arlington, Va.: It seems to me that the only thing the studio did right with "The Seeker" was to change the name so that people wouldn't confuse it with "The Dark Is Rising" novel.

Since, as far as I can tell, the two stories have pretty much nothing to do with each other.

If there is any justice, this appalling "adaptation" will tank, and my childhood will not be further molested with other "reimaginings" of the Cooper books.

Desson Thomson: To answer the last question, I can only hope so. What a horrible movie that was. I still cringe at having sat through it. (my quick take is in today's Weekend section.) And to think that Ian McShane participated. Gack.

_______________________ Blame It on Fidel


Indianapolis, Ind.: I love that you agree with me that Oliver Stone's "Alexander" and Paul Verhoeven's "Robocop" are good films. However, some of your elitist colleagues disagree with your reviews of such movies. Do they ever belittle your tastes or are they a professional bunch?

Desson Thomson: Do you mean my colleagues at the Post, or around the country? At the Post, we three critics (of Orient are)are entirely different beings who respect one another. And no one of us is elitist. Oh wait, I am. But I mean the other two. And we certainly don't belittle each other. I actually LIKE critics who have esoteric taste because they can tell me something I DON'T know. There are far too many critics, mostly on the Internet, who only provide us mediocre, pat opinions about mass media films. Elitists add spice to the banal stew.

All of that said, I delight in NOT being an elitist too. Hence my review of Heartbreak Kid today.


Stiller and acting: I should have said, "When is Ben Stiller going to quit playing the same character in all of his movies?" There's great comedy, and there's the Farrelly Bros.

Desson Thomson: I understand what you meant about Stiller, but you brought that acting versus comedy issue to my mind. So I was responding to that bigger issue. But you're right about Stiller frequently being in the same kind of role. (Although there's huge variety between him in Heartbreak and Dodgeball, and also Zoolander.) But you can blame writers and studios for that too.


Arlington, Va.: I saw a feature recently that dubbed Greg Kinnear this generation's Jack Lemmon. I thought it was supposed to be Kevin Spacey. Seems like "The Apartment" is starting to get crowded. Anybody else that should be nominated?

Desson Thomson: Hahaha, Kinnear as Jack Lemmon. What a hilariously meaningless idea.


New York, N.Y.: I too caught an early screening of "Heartbreak Kid" and I am really surprised to see you recommending it. Not only did I not laugh once, I thought its message was pretty toxic towards women, with the bottom line that we're all either crazy, domineering or both. I'm not uptight about gross out movies -- loved "Something About Mary," "Knocked Up," "Superbad" -- but this particular movie is flat-out not funny and Ben Stiller's character is hateworthy, not charming.

Desson Thomson: Hey, we just disagreed, I guess, about the movie. And I disagree with your take, to be honest. The Michelle Monaghan character is clearly a positive one. And I do wonder if you contemplated how the movie treats men. They don't exactly come across as great. They're pretty much morons, jerks and buffoons. To me this is a non-starter argument.


Herndon, Va.: Mr. T: You are spot on about the lack of respect for comedy. Let's look at it this way -- think of the many, many comedians who were great in dramatic roles in movies or TV -- Jackie Gleason, for example, plus (yes!) Jerry Lewis and Milton Berle. Now, name the many great dramatic actors who were great as comedians -- hardly any. Of course Dustin Hoffman was funny in "Ishtar," but that was unintentional.

Desson Thomson: Hahaha to the Dustin comment. And thanks for the agreement. I would also add this: comedians are good as serious actors. Jim Carrey, Robin Williams and others have proved they can handle very serious fare.


Knox, Tenn: I saw "Death at a Funeral" last weekend, and thought it was really funny. It was mainly olderwomen in the audience (at 52 I was one of the youngest). I did wonder what the purpose of the poop scenes were, however, since this movie clearly is not geared toward the adolescent males who enjoy that sort of humor. I overheard one older woman on leaving the theater tell her friend she had to keep sipping on her Pepsi to get through that part.

Desson Thomson: I totally agree with you about that bathroom element. But apart from that, a very funny film. That's funny about the Pepsi.


Ben Stiller:"Keeping the Faith." A sweet little movie that showcases his comedic talents but also shows he can act.

Desson Thomson: Good point. He was also in Permanent Midnight, don't forget.


Silver Spring, Md.: I grew up love, love, loving Susan Cooper's "Dark is Rising" books, and was so excited they were making a movie. Until I heard they'd changed the title. And that the kid was American. And then I heard the NPR story on it the other day and almost had to cry. It just sounds -- horr-ible.

Author Uncertain About 'Dark' Leap to Big Screen ( NPR, Oct. 5)

Desson Thomson: It is beyond horrible. And I haven't read the book but I hear the kid is 11 in it, but 14 in the movie. I assume that's just one of many departures.


Silver Spring, Md.: I saw the "Darjeeling Limited" on Tuesday and it's very funny. I enjoyed it much more than "The Life Aquatic" (okay, I fell asleep in "The Life Aquatic," out of pure disgust -- taking a nap seemed like a better use of my time). But "Darjeeling" is also very problematic. The serious themes he tries to bring in? It just doesn't work. On the other hand, it's visually lovely and the funny parts are quite funny.

Going to the screening, my first in a while, reminded me of an important note some irregular audience members may not know: you can not roll up to a 7:30 advance screening of a much-anticipated movie at 7:10 and expect to get in. When I got there, the line must have been 100 people long and the theater was full. (Yay for reserved seats in the press row.)

Desson Thomson: Words to the wise! (Getting there early, I mean). Good to hear. Your reaction reflects what I assume I'll also be feeling. His movies are always cinematic, good to look at. And the soundtracks are great too. I really dug the David Bowie songs-as-samba in one of them.


Tenleytown, Washington, D.C.: Written by or adapted from the Neil Simon play. That's a dealbreaker right there. Most of his plays or films based on his work I loathed, although there were a few, mostly starring Matthew Broderick, which rose to the level of mere competence.

Desson Thomson: You specified films BASED on his work. Which I can agree with. (But a play based on his work is almost redundant, given how closely actors adhere to the text. The play IS the writing.) But if you are slagging Neil Simon as a writer, I'd have to disagree. It's easy to dismiss him and it's almost de rigeuer to do so. But in a way, he's the Norman Rockwell of comedy. Easy to miss his craft if you don't look at the writing closely.


Blaming studios is always good, but...: Are you saying that Ben doesn't ever get offered any other kind of roles? I'd be interested to know; seems like he could have whatever he wants now. (Oh, and I agree w/you about some degree of variety; I loved "Zoolander.")

Desson Thomson: I don't think that's true. Studios pigeonhole you. Stiller makes money as a comic actor, so they'll look askance at a Stiller serious project. Even if he does have every studio head on his immediate speed dial.


Washington, D.C.: Could we have a link to the Seeker mini-review? I couldn't find it on the Web site. 'Seeker': Look Elsewhere ( Post, Oct. 5)

Desson Thomson: Instant response.


Washington, D.C.: What's up with all of these bad, overhyped fantasy flicks? I know studios are trying to capitalize on the LOTR and "Narnia" successes, but producers need to understand why those movies were box office smashes (great stories, acting, and directing). I'm holding out hope for "The Golden Compass," but most of the recent fantasy releases have been pretty lackluster.

Desson Thomson: I agree with you. I have CGI epic overload.


Bethesda, Md.: Have you at least seen Hotel Chevalier? I just love Anderson's dolly work!

Desson Thomson: Sorry. haven't.


Desson Thomson: I am cut-and-pasting this question to remove the SPOILER.

YOU: Herndon, Va.: Mr. T: My wife and I saw "3:10 to Yuma," (filmed in New Mexico, for pete's sake). We both thought it was excellent, until the ending. Are we in the minority to think the ending was absolutely ridiculous?

ME: I have plans to see this, so I can't answer. But the word on this movie is very good from one of my unimpeachable authorities, film critic Gerald Peary, so I am looking forward to watching it.


San Francisco, Calif.: Re "comedy/acting"...

So what about Peter Sellers? What can I make of him? I thought "Being There" wasn't really a comedy, "Dr. Strangelove" and "Lolita" were tour(s)-de-force, but I don't care for his zaniness, a la "The Party." Can you recommend top-shelf Sellers fare?

Desson Thomson: Sellers, despite being the world's worst husband and father, was absolutely brilliant as a comic actor. Almost anything he did is worth watching, even in the turkeys. I loved him in the Pink Panther movies (some better than others). And loved the early black and whites, like I'm Alright Jack and The Ladykillers and the Mouse that Roared.


Ben Stiller: Why is "Zoolander" funny? Please. Someone tell me.

Desson Thomson: Someone tell our friend next time. I am thinking of talking about cult movies that get a second life, such as this one.


Death, funeral: At 34, I was the only person in the theater to see "Death at a Funeral," and good thing because dag, I laughed long and hard. Even at the poop scene. I just wish I could remember what old Uncle Alfie kept saying on the way to the bathroom. It was hilarious and I want to adopt it as my own "gotta do #2" line. Do you recall?

Desson Thomson: I don't WANT to recall that, thank you very much. But glad you found it as funny as I did.


Silver Spring, Md.: There are two Tony Leungs. Leung Chiu-Wai is the one from "Hero" and "In the Mood for Love" (masterpiece) and loads of other good films including the original "Infernal Affairs" where he had the Damon part.

The other Tony Leung is Leung Ka-Fai who is pretty good and undergoing something of a renaissance now thanks to his funny/scary performance in Johnnie To's "Election" -- coming out here soon on DVD.

To's "Exiled" is also a masterpiece which needs to be seen on a big screen when it comes out in America.

Unrelated note: what's the word on "There Will Be Blood"? Paul Thomas Anderson's first film since "Punch-Drunk Love." PTA and Wes are the two unrelated Andersons whose movies are some of my faves.

Advance reaction to "There Will Be Blood" has been good -- heavy, period flick with Daniel Day-Lewis and music by Radiohead's guitarist.

Desson Thomson: Great stuff. Thanks for the Leung info. Take note, folks. I have heard good about PTA and I look forward to it myself.


Burlington, Vt.:"3:10 to Yuma" was an awesome return to a forgotten genre. Not to mention Christian Bale once again proves that he should stop being underrated as an actor. He could play just about ANY role!

Desson Thomson: Good to hear. Tx.


ArtMovieLover, Va.: Have you seen Susanne Bier's "The Things We Lost in the Fire" yet? I caught a screening last night.

I'm worried that the very things critics tend to find interesting when contained in a movie with subtitles, and an aura of "foreignness," will be dismissed in her English-language film, where we bring previous associations about the big-name actors (Halle Berry, Benecio del Toro, David Duchovny) to the screen that have the potential to get in the way of the thematic content of the story. Of course, that's a two-edged sort -- such associations can benefit a weak movie.

But as I watched "Fire," which is extremely heavy, and has one major scene of a character breaking down and crying, I thought of the upcoming reviews, and how the film will probably be quickly dismissed as "Oscar bait." It's so easy to do that, rather to engage the actual content of the film.

I don't think YOU are prone to that, Desson, but I suspect others will fall right in line. And I'm not saying the movie is above criticism. However, there's some very powerful themes at work in this movie, not all on the surface. I wonder if the film will get a fair shake.

Desson Thomson: You just made me very interested in seeing that. Thanks!


Washington, D.C.: Have you had the chance to see "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." What did you think if you have? I'm pretty pumped for this and "Darjeeling" (though I imagine one will have to wait until next weekend).

Desson Thomson: I can only urge you to read Steve Hunter's review today. Haven't seen it, sorry.

_______________________ Dang, Jesse, the Picture's Even Crookeder Now ( Post, Oct. 5)


Freising, Germany: What is your opinion on Harold Robbins in the film industry? Did the popularity of his books help shape the criteria for movie scripts in Hollywood?

Desson Thomson: Well, I don't have an answer to the last question, but his connection to the industry is unequivocal with such books as The Dream Merchants and the Carpet Baggers (about Howard Hughes, but touching on Hollywood). His books have made for some worthy films, including The Carpetbaggers, The Betsy, Where Has Love Gone and The Adventurers.


"Zoolander": Ha! Agreed! I was once at a party where there was an entire room full of dorks laughing hysterically at this thing. I couldn't understand why. I sat there staring thinking "why is this funny?" I think you really do need to enlighten us.

Desson Thomson: It's a generation thing. My now-25-year old son Alex loves this movie and so do his buddies. I hated it when it came out. But I want to see it again and see what I missed!


Dying is easy, comedy is hard: This is an actors' cliche that works. It's harder to get laughs than sobs, and anyone who can inhabit a humorous character can do a serious character as well. Comic acting is also underrated, probably because not everyone who makes you laugh is doing it with acting. (TV case in point: While both of them are funny, Jon Stewart is not acting, but Stephen Colbert is.) Every actor, serious and comic, is pigeonholed to some extent. It's just more egregious in Hollywood once you cross the $1-million-a-picture barrier. (Then there's George Clooney, who's a different story.)

Desson Thomson: Very interesting!


Desson Thomson: And with that, I believe I should close the curtain. Thanks everyone. We will reconvene again in a fortnight. So good to talk with all of you. Back at ya soon.


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