Behind the Screen

Desson Thomson
Washington Post Film Critic
Friday, November 9, 2007; 12:30 PM

Washington Post film critic Desson Thomson was online Friday, Nov. 9, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss "American Gangster," "No Country for Old Men," "Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten" and other Hollywood and indie movie offerings.

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 will be with us in a few minutes. Thanks for standing by.


Desson Thomson: Hey everyone. Welcome back to our cine-huddle, in which we engage like mud wrestlers on the great subject of movie-ola.

I hope everyone read last Sunday's piece I wrote about crying at the movies since the idea for that article came from y'all. It was a chance question directed to me (when was the last time you cried at the movies? someone asked), followed by so many people responding to the subject that made me realize it was a subject that resonates with just about everyone.

Will post it in case you missed it.

How are we feeling? What's going on, mateys?


"Amer Gangster": Desson,

Good afternoon. I really like "American Gangster." Denzel and Russell were great. The only thing I did not like (or think it was necessary to show the torture/brutality) was the first 30 seconds. Couldn't they have a much less grossing scene?

Do you agree?

Desson Thomson: I just saw it myself. And yes that opening scene was pretty horrific. It was meant to show how determined Denzel Washington's character was, and how brutal he was prepared to be to get what he wanted. So I understand why it was there. I am never thrilled about violence but when violence is a centerpiece of a story I (usually) get into the necessary mode.

_______________________ Desson Thomson's Top 10 Tear-Jerkers ( Post, Nov. 4)

_______________________ Watch 'Em and Weep ( Post, Nov. 4)


The Sea Ranch, Calif.: I just finished reading some of the of the readers' weepy favorites. The one about Dumbo really got to me. I still cry when Dumbo goes to visit his mother and she snuggles him by lowering her trunk between the bars. As a matter of fact my eyes are teary now just thinking about it. The first movie I ever saw in the theater was "Bambi." I was 5 or 6 years old and couldn't stop crying when his mother was shot and killed. How was Bambi going to survive without his mother? I guess it's a mom thing with me.

Desson Thomson: Ah yes, Dumbo and Bambi. I don't think you have to be a mom to appreciate a dilemma like that in Bambi. And it has struck many people of both genders because it's the loss of a parent. And everyone has been the child of a mother.


Alexandria, Va.: Stephen Hunter gave "No Country...." a pretty bad review. CNN, among others, raved about it. If you've seen it (and I agree your reviews above anyone else at The Post), what is your opinion? What's your recommendation for a movie this weekend? I've seen "Lars..." and "Before the Devil....". Liked them both. 'No Country for Old Men' Chases Its Literary Tale ( Post, Nov. 9)

Desson Thomson: First of all, thanks for your confidence in me. Much appreciated. I think No Country for Old Men is a great movie and would have said so had the review fallen to me. One of the positive things about having the three critics we do at the Post is having three distinctive different voices - of which I am naturally the greatest, smartest and cutest. Looking around the country I can't help noticing that No Country is almost universally raved about. So you can draw your own conclusions about whether you should see it.


Control: Thank you for your glowing review of "Control." I would have gone anyway, but it was nice to see someone else was affected by it. I agree with your take on the portrait of a life wasted. Am also feeling nostalgic for my 18-year-old self who loved this music and the grimness of it and hating my sunny California upbringing, wishing I was in dark north England. Great movie, but definitely only for the initiated. Now I need to rewatch "24 Hour Party People."

Desson Thomson: You're welcome. I am so glad you responded to it too. Yes it is very dark, very Manchester. I have been steeped in this culture lately, what with watching Control and having just watched Morrissey at the DAR last Friday. Yes, go check out 24 Hour People again. And don't hate your Cal upbringing dude or dudette---everyone's jealous of it.


Laurel, Md.: Hey Desson!

Thanks so much for including my quote in Sunday's column. I really enjoyed it. My boyfriend said I dropped the ball by not submitting "The Lion King, Imitation of Life" and "Hotel Rwanda" (which was the first movie I've ever watched where after the screen went black no one in the theatre moved and all of a sudden this one lady started crying then the entire theatre started bawling).

Desson Thomson: You are welcome. More importantly, thanks for making the article a success with your contribution! Ever since the piece came out I have been deluged with people telling me how I missed the greatest tearjerker of all time--and then they mention theirs, ranging from "How Green Was My Valley" to "Saving Private Ryan." Everyone seems so outraged that I "missed" their favorite. But the fact is, everyone has their own subjective list and more power to each and everyone for having their own emotional history in the dark.


I'm Feeling Good Desson...: It's Friday, the weather is chilly and it's the fall movie season. I plan on seeing a double feature this weekend. What should I choose between "Gone Baby Gone" "Lions for Lambs" and "Michael Clayton?"

Desson Thomson: You are feeling good. That alone is awesome. (I just imagined myself as Chris Farley writing that.) I would definitely recommend Gone Baby Gone and Michael Clayton before Lions. I haven't caught up with Lions yet but the word seems to be mixed.


DUH! How could I forget...: GLORY! My social studies teacher showed us "Glory" in 7th grade and I will NEVER forget it. They should still be showing this movie in classrooms today.

Desson Thomson: Absolutely. What a great movie.


River City: Dude, have you seen "Perfume"? What did you think about the end? I didn't like the change in tone, but it was my husband's favorite part. The acting was phenomenal overall.

Desson Thomson: I saw it yes. I was amazed by many of the sequences. And I did my best to support it. You know what I mean? You're trying to help the movie along so you ignore things you might not forgive in other films. But ultimately, I felt too many flaws creeping in. But what a viewing experience. The ending was wild. I liked its boldness. What an epic undertaking to watch.


Washington, D.C.: Speaking of three different voices, you all got exactly the assignments I would have expected today -- you got Strummer, Ann got the Redford movie and Stephen got Fred Claus. Was there any discussion about switching off on those, just to throw a curve? (Not that you needed to, enjoyed reading them all.)

Desson Thomson: Hah! So we are all typecast, I see. Steve is officially the chief film critic which means he gets the high profile ones most of the time. And I agree with the sentiment of switching off. We don't get movies in any particular way, although Ann does enjoy music related films and I like British culture films, and Steve likes guns and action. But I am happpy to watch anything, gun flicks, backstage musicals or sports films. Whatever. My feeling is, whatever movie I get assigned to watch, I'm going to bring in my own perspective. And I am glad to have reviewed the Joe Strummer one because of my personal connections with England and Strummer himself, with whom I went to school in the 1970s.


Falls Church, Va.: Personally, I'm ready to see the gangster movie go the way of the Western. Is there anything in American Gangster that we haven't seen ten times before in every other mob movie ever made?

Desson Thomson: I understand your feelings. Frankly, I was not that impressed with AG as I wanted to be for the reasons you mention. However, it did have a unique twist or two. It was about an African American who got more lucre than the Italian mob--an upending of cliches there. And Denzel's character believes in roots, family and unity in spite of his morally indefensible activity. Of course, the family conceit was already used in The Godfather but, again, with an African American family, it puts an original twist on a cliche.


Denzel Should Have Won...: the best supporting Oscar for "Glory." POWERFUL performance.

Desson Thomson: He was great in that role, yes. And it's the role that catapulted him into one of the industry's top leading men.


Arlington, Va.: I, too, have been immersing myself in all the great Madchester/baggy/Brit pop I missed out on while I was into grunge. If you haven't already, check out the documentary "Live Forever" when you have a chance. It covers the Brit pop scene up to and shortly into the reign of Tony Blair, when such great music (Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Suede, Sleeper) was being made. I highly recommend it.

When are the Stone Roses going to get back together?

Desson Thomson: Hah, thanks for that. And as for the Stone Roses getting back, I can offer no fortune telling insight.


12th and Pennsylvania: Do you ever wonder if your colleague, Stephen Hunter, has a slightly colored view of other peoples' action sequences due to his own preference for ultra-military-realism in his own books (and movie)?

His review of "No Country..." in today's Post was pretty harsh, and his criticism of the gunplay came across as a little nit-picky. Especially since the book itself reveals how the Coen Bros. draw so directly on McCarthy's book for the gunplay.

On a similar note, if this film is successful, any chance that we'll see a film adaptation of "Blood Meridian," McCarthy's masterpiece?

Desson Thomson: Of course Steve has that prism across his perspective. We all have our own. But he openly acknowledges it and it endears him to many fans. I do enjoy reading his perspective because it's so unlike my own. I didn't have the same opinion on that movie as I mentioned. And I am personally sorry the paper didn't give the film the nod I would have. But the film will find its audience. And as for Blood Meridian, Ridley Scott (who directed American Gangster) will be helming this 2009 film.


Arlington, Va.: I just gave "The Silence of the Lambs" a viewing recently, and was quite surprised by the power of the film (even though it looks incredibly dated). It's been a number of years since I saw it last, and what struck me the most was the straight-at-the-camera views of all the characters. Given the manipulative ways of Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter, this technique unnerved me more than any of the other times I'd seen the film, because it was like Lecter was looking directly at the audience, rather than at Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling. Further to that, Foster's straight-at-the-camera view allowed the audience to see into her character's soul, see all her weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and skeletons in the closet.

No wonder this film won so many Oscars way back in the day! I'm willing to bet that that camera angle helped greatly!

Desson Thomson: Yes a super film and also an interesting way to look at it. Next time I watch, I'll think about that. It is -- as you say -- unnerving for the performances. And therefore there is no need for the camera to do much more than record the actors' great work.


McLean, Va.: In "Biloxi Blues" Neil Simon makes the observation that thoughts are taken much more seriously when written then when merely spoken.

Do you think that, in a similar way, the folks behind "Lions for Lambs" are hoping that their well-known political views will somehow be taken more seriously simply because they have now been expressed in movie form?

I don't know which is scarier, the idea that this might be how filmmakers think, or the idea that they might be right.

Desson Thomson: Hah! Food for thought. It is true that the written word gets more respect than the spoken one. But not if you're in another world--let's say the arable, farming world where the spoken word is often bond. Or in certain other areas, even of this country, where written words (for the inhabitants) imply elitist educated trickery.

Certainly, yes, those folks are foisting their political views on the audience. And this usually means they'll preach only to the converted.


Thomas Circle, NW, Washington, D.C.: Hey Mr. T,

I'm so glad out of 50 entries you picked 20 variety of movies --cartoons, sci-fi, chick flicks, love stories, sports and I was surprised to see so many entries from men! Good for them!

Desson Thomson: wonderful way to put it, and thanks. It was great to debunk the myth that men are somehow incapable of emotion - or expressing it.


Fairfax, Va.: Some people said American Gangster belongs in the Godfather category in the line of great American pictures. Do you agree? Was AG great? Was Denzel great? Russell Crowe?

Desson Thomson: Great? No. Good, yes. The movie is way below the Godfather. I could see the Godfather a thousand times. I never want to see American Gangster again.


San Francisco, Calif.: I just watched Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book" (Zwartboek). I liked the movie, but didn't like the reviews, which complained about his previous movies and seemed over shocked by the film's nudity and once sex scene. Shouldn't critics judge a film on its merits and not what the director did in the past?

Desson Thomson: It's true that critics are often influenced by a filmmaker and consequently give them more leeway. Brian DePalma got away with a lot of crap I think, after he excited the Pauline Kael-weaned critics, for example. And I am guilty of giving Stanley Kubrick the benefit of the doubt, perhaps, with Eyes Wide Shut. Reviews are subjective.


Silence of the Lambs....: another movie I watched in school. High school in drama class but I'm very surprised they let us watch that type of material

Desson Thomson: Compared to what you see on the Internet or the news, Silence of the Lambs seems almost quaint.


Re: Glory: Denzel DID win Best Supporting Actor for Glory. Personally, I liked Andre Braugher's performance better.

Desson Thomson: Duh I knew that but couldn't remember it for sure when I posed the previous post. You are so right. And it also won 2 other Oscars for cinematography and sound. Thanks for jogging my senile memory banks.


"American Gangster": There's a great interview with Denzel's character's real-life daughter in (ahem) Glamour: "My Dad, the Drug Lord" ( Glamour)

Desson Thomson: Thanks!


Washington, D.C.: On Golden Pond made me cry like crazy.

Desson Thomson: Hit home, huh? You and a lot of others too.


Bowie, Md.: Happy Friday to ya Desson!

I liked "American Gangster" (not as violent as I thought it would be and I would have liked to known more about Frank's upbringing) but don't you think the Oscar nominations are a bit hmmm...I don't know the word I'm looking for but I don't think it's Oscar worthy.

Desson Thomson: I think there'll be stronger ones as we come to the end of the year.


Baltimore, Md.: I just finished reading Entertainment Weekly's Holiday Preview and I was not impressed. The only movies that caught my eye was "I Am Legend" and "Beowulf."

Desson Thomson: Oh there are some others. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson), Persepolis, The golden Compass, Walk Hard, Atonement,Love in the Time of Cholera.


Rockville, Md.: Regarding weepy movies, the one that always gets to me is one no one has mentioned -- "Pride of the Yankees." I've never been able to make it through the farewell speech. And BTW, on another subject, why does Stephen Hunter always seem to hate movies everyone else likes? Bring back the alternate viewpoints in the Weekend section!

Desson Thomson: That, of course, is a great great movie. And I think we've gone on enough about my colleague who is guilty only of having an opinion.


Reston, Va.: Hi, Desson. I love your chats! You are the greatest.

How closely did American Gangster stick to the facts? I thought the ending was utterly implausible with the Russell Crowe character playing so many roles -- cop, prosecutor, defense attorney. Did that really happen?

Also, I would like to suggest a new kind of film chat called "Spoiler Alert" where we are free to discuss/analyze a movie in-depth without worrying about giving away the details. People who don't want to know wouldn't have to read.

Thanks again.

Desson Thomson: You are too kind. Not that I am complaining. I was entirely new to the real life story behind AG. The ending mentions how much money he gained, a staggering 250 mill in assets. Wow. And the stuff about the coffins? Amazing. The spoiler alert thing is a good question. Not sure how to tackle that. I suppose putting it in big letters at the beginning of the posting helps!


Rockville, Md.:

Paprika was the last Japanese animation movie that, as far as I know, was played in E Street Cinema and that was early summer you know if there are more Anime movies coming to the big screen???

Desson Thomson: Best way to find out now and in the future is to keep checking their Web site


Fairfax, Va.: Why didn't "Offsid" ever have any kind of theatrical release in D.C.? I saw a preview for it in a Landmark theater, but apparently it only played in NYC and L.A. I'd think, with the huge Iranian community here, it would be a sure bet. What gives?

Desson Thomson: It DID play here. I know coz I reviewed it. Posting the review.


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Denzel Washington DID win the best supporting Oscar for Glory

Denzel Washington/IMDb

Desson Thomson: We DID just mention that earlier.


Raleigh, N.C.: Two questions...

No Country for Old Men seems like one of those rare cases where the film is much better than the book. I enjoyed the book, but the character development wasn't all that rich. Did the characters in the film have a good degree of depth?

And, with the Christmas season coming up, do you have any suggestions for films with "religious" themes or that tell stories found in sacred texts? I'm a Last Temptation guy, not a Passion guy.

Desson Thomson: I felt as though great depth was alluded to in book and film.

I haven't had a chance to really peruse the listings for religious themes this holiday. Will mention any I find in my upcoming holiday package for Weekend in December.


Alexandria, Va.: Probably the most cathartic crying I've ever done was in a movie theater while watching Life is Beautiful. It was a tough time in my life anyway, and I had gone to the theater by myself. It was totally full, so I was sitting between other people, and I was just crying and crying. I felt self-conscious, but looked around and everyone around me was crying, too. And the woman beside me handed me a napkin.

On a lighter note, I cry every single time I watch Love Actually. There is something about the opening and closing -- all the airport reunion scenes with God Only Knows playing in the background. It has actually become Pavlovian -- I tear up when I hear God Only Knows on my iPod now.

Desson Thomson: Aaaaw.

I hear you on that song. It hits me too. But that's because of the time it came out and where I was at the time -- in Sussex England, at a school I really loved. And I remember watching the song played on Top of the Pops with the Beach Boys playing volleyball.


Columbia Heights, Washington, D.C.: Desson,

I enjoy these chats and all the Wash Post movie reviews. I'm excited to see "No Country for Old Men," and I read Stephen Hunter's review today as well as A.O. Scott's in the NY Times. Hunters objects to the the unrealistic features of the film's gunplay, but for those of use who are, to borrow his words, less "gun nutty," the film seems set up to be a great western drawn one-dimensionally in a deliberate way, after myth, and to set the stage for great technical storytelling and filmmaking, which all reviews, even Hunter's, tend to agree on. That's what is satisfying to me in a film, as an avid filmgoer who is ignorant about firearms.

Your thoughts? And FYI, this is not an indictment of Hunter's reviews: one of the things I like most about the Post reviewers is your different perspectives. It all amounts to smart critical thinking about film, which is all to the good, IMO.


Desson Thomson: Thanks for the thoughtfully posed question. As I have mentioned, I really liked the movie. And I urge you and everyone to see it.

_______________________ 'Offside': Defying the Rules ( Post, May 11)


Into The Wild: SPOILER ALERT:Desson,

Question for you and the audience. In the movie, he attempted to leave the bus but could not cross the river. This gives us the impression that he really was going to leave and maybe come back to reality/civilization.

Was this point consistent with the book or just a plot line that Sean Penn threw in?


Desson Thomson: I didn't read the book so I can't answer that. Maybe we can bring it up again in 2 weeks?


Washington, D.C.: The holiday season seems stuffed with big, serious movies in search of Oscars. Is there anything fun coming out?

Desson Thomson: Sweeney Todd.


Washington, D.C.: Any word on when the Adrien Brody/Penelope Cruz movie based on the life of Spanish matador Manolete is due out?

Thank you.

Desson Thomson: It's certainly been completed. I haven't heard anything, but I am sure it's coming soon.


Tears?: Hiya Desson,

For me that would be an (obscure?) French film "Au Revoir Les Enfants," the ending scene where the Nazis take the Jewish boys that were hiding in the Catholic school off to the concentration camp. I'm neither French nor Jewish, but I am human, and it still makes me cry.

Desson Thomson: I loved that film. Beautiful.


Silver Spring, Md.:"I'm ready to see the gangster movie go the way of the Western."

I agree! Let's see some gangster flicks comparable to The Proposition, Three Burials of Melquides Estrada or the Deadwood series!

Desson Thomson: Ah yes, you have good taste.


Schuyler, Va.: I watched "9 1/2 Weeks," the Kim Basinger/Mickey Rourke steamer again recently, and talk about dated! It was controversial for the soft-S and M when it came out 20 years ago. Now it looks just 'a lot' like "Flashdance," another Adrian Lyne movie of that era. Rainy silhouettes in broken buildings, cheesy music and such. I sorta wish it was still shocking.

Desson Thomson: That's interesting. I should see it again sometime!


Desson Thomson: Ladies & gents, thanks for playing. We are at the end of our chat. I look forward to our next encounter. Have a great fortnight!


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