Behind the Screen

Desson Thomson
Washington Post Film Critic
Friday, December 7, 2007; 12:30 PM

Washington Post film critic Desson Thomson was online Friday, Dec. 7, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss "Atonement," "The Kite Runner," "Juno," "Revolver," "I Am Legend," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "The Savages" and many other Hollywood and indie movie releases.

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: Holiday hello to all. Good to be back again with my chattin, postin, lurkin peeps. How we all doing? Big mess o movies on the holiday horizon, yes? Feel free to chat about any thing to yo lil hearts desire. The chatty hour begins.

_______________________ Welcome to Tinseltown ( Weekend, Dec. 7)


Rockville, Md.: Desson -- Have you seen 'No Country for Old Men'? It seems my wife and I, together with your esteemed colleague Stephen Hunter, are the only ones who refuse to recognize the film's alleged greatness. To me, it builds and builds and then fizzles out to a very unsatisfying resolution, puncutated by some philosophizing by Tommy Lee Jones. What is your take?

Desson Thomson: I seem to have heard many takes on this movie, with many criticisms pointed at the ending. I liked it a great deal. And even though I felt surprised by the ending, I thought of it as novelistic and intentionally cliff-hangerish. I liked the movie so much that I accepted it. And perhaps because of it the movie has stayed even more with me as I wrestle with what it all means. But I can understand people needing an easier to understand conclusion. You seem not to have liked any of it, so I guess we are, sadly, in different camps.


Washington, D.C.: Dear Desson,

I love movies and consider myself to be something of a high-brow movie watcher. I love independent films, foreign films, documentaries...and yet, every time I see a commercial for Alvin and the Chipmunks, I laugh out loud.

Does that make me a bad person?


Anonymous and Ashamed

Desson Thomson: Hahaha. I like that. My friend Mike Clark of USA Today, clearly a fan, admonished me not to even consider showing Alvin and the Chipmunks anything but reverence. So you are in good company. Now say that back with a sped up voice.


Alexandria, Va.: Nice to have you back on chat.

Two questions:

What's your opinion on "Breach"? Watched it this week and was a bit underwhelmed. Not that it wasn't good, but not as good as the hype.

What's your favorite Christmas movie? Mine would have to be either Christmas in Connecticut due to the talents of Stanwyck and the unconventional setting(non-domestic career women in the 1940s). My other favorite is The Bishop's Wife. I'm not particularly religious but the 'Empty Stocking' sermon at the end sums up what I think Christmas should mean.

Desson Thomson: Thanks. Glad to be back. My take on Breach was informed by all my readings I did on Robert Hanssen. I think I was frustrated that the film chose only a short window of time -- the stakeout leading up to his arrest. But director Billy Ray was smart to keep the parameters of his subject very tight and focused. Or focussed, as I spell it. I'm saying I wanted more, more more. Hanssen was quite a character and I think there is still room for a sort of Nixonian/Shakespearean exploration of his complex psyche.

As for Christmas films, there are so many classics I couldn't even begin to say which is best. But I have to be honest and confess my guilty favorite is Bad Santa.


Dunn Loring, Va.: Saw Juno last night at a screening. Certainly one of my ten best! Have you seen it? Will Ellen Page be nominated for an Oscar? Can't wait to see it again and that's rare for me.

Desson Thomson: Junomania is growing. I loved it. And this Sunday you can read my article/interview with Diablo Cody, the blogger-turned screenwriter who penned it. I have a gut feeling that Ellen Page could well be nominated. I am all but certain that Diablo will be, for her script. It's very funny, witty and charming.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Desson, any thoughts on the Golden Compass (Northern Lights for you Brits)? Do you think the protests from certain folks will hurt it at the box office? It seems it can't make anyone happy -- they find it too anti-religion, whereas fans of the book find it doesn't go far enough.

Desson Thomson: You never know whether those protests will get traction. It seems to me similar protests about Harry Potter didn't exacly derail the movie's business. I'm a horrible predict merchant but I think that Golden Compass might not be as successful at the box office anyway, given the mixed critical reception. It sits in the middle as you suggest. Not anti religious enough for the aficionados but still anti religious enough for some of the religious community.


Atonement: Hi,

I am miserably unhappy. I knew it had to happen, but still. "Atonement's" main character and I have the same name. Now Briony will not be a unique name anymore...there'll be a sudden surge in little girls with the name.

Desson Thomson: Your fears are greatly founded, B. Sorry.


Rockville, again: In response to my comments on 'No Country,' you said, 'You seem not to have liked any of it.' Just to clarify, I really enjoyed 3/4 of the movie, which was way the final 1/4 was such a disappointment, at least to me.

Desson Thomson: Gotcha. But you described it as buildup, so I mistakenly thought you meant "that's good so far but ...." Me, I liked the buildup whether it led to a good OR bad ending. Anyway, I get now that you liked three quarters.


Herndon, Va.: Mr. T: Watching one of the HBO channels the other night, I stumbled on "The Princess Bride." I had forgotten how good it was. I don't believe it won any Oscars, but it's an almost perfect blend of romance, humor and a little violence. The "battle of wits" scene between Wallace Shawn and Cary Elwes remains hysterical, and, after 20 years, the movie hasn't aged a bit. Truly great for (nearly) all ages.

Desson Thomson: You are so right, Herndon. A true classic. Reminds me to watch it again!


Worst. Movie. Evaar.: Hi Desson,

What were your thoughts on Before the Devil Knows You're Dead? In my 30 plus years on god's green earth, this was the second movie I've ever walked out of.

Grindingly, relentlessly depressing, and insistent that we watch the same scenes of misery over and over (and over) again. I suppose the acting was good because I truly loathed the various characters, but damn.

Yet it seemed to get decent reviews? Were people watching the same horrible movie I was?

Desson Thomson: I didn't see it because of what I heard about it. Your comments confirm it!


Washington, D.C.: How is Jennifer Gardner in Juno?...Seems like she trying to become a "serious" actor with this role and her stint on Broadway.

Desson Thomson: I think you typo'ed there by mistake. Jennifer Garner is respectable enough. She plays a heavy, sort of. And she's just right for it, as a prissy, control freakish maternal wannabe who -- at one point - tells her husband to read a book about raising babies and says: "I flagged the Daddy chapters for you."


Washington, D.C.: Maybe you can explain this. Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books are just better than the Golden Compass Trilogy: smarter, incomparably better written, genuinely imaginative (polar bears in armor shows a deficient imagination). So why does the Golden Compass get the big movie treatment and LeGuin gets a cheesy made for TV flick?

Desson Thomson: Good question!


Washington, D.C.: Hiya Mr Thomson,

Have you been able to see a sneak preview of "The Kite Runner"? I haven't read the book, so I don't know how closely the movie and book coincide.

Also, Mr Hunter didn't think much of "Golden Compass." What's your take, if you've seen it?

Cheers, thanks!

Desson Thomson: Hiya yo'self mate

Have not seen Golden C. Not in a rush, quite frankly, to watch another CGI movie in a hurry. I crave good old analog reality when I see a few too many computerized epics. I saw the Kite Runner and liked it. It felt a wee bit contrived at the end with its rescue scenario - but that may reflect the book, which I did not read. As I understand it from readers, the book and film are pretty much in synch.


Fave X-mas movies: Bad Santa, eh?

Do you have any Xmas movie traditions? You know, a movie that you just HAVE to watch at Xmas, such as "It's a Wonderful Life" or "A Christmas Story" or "The Grinch," and if you don't watch it's just not Xmas?

My Xmas movie tradition is the original "Die Hard." This IS Christmas music!

Desson Thomson: Haha. As I mentioned, Bad Santa tends to be my go-to Christmas film.


Silver Spring, Md.: How do I find your reviews on When I use the movie search box, I get the "City Guide" version, and I want to read your Style section reviews. Is there a link somewhere to all of your reviews? Thanks!

Desson Thomson: First off, thanks for wanting to read my reviews!

Go to, then under The Washington Post logo banner in center at top, click on Today's Paper. Then on left select from list Style. That gives the full reviews


Herndon, Va.: Mr. T: At the risk of being hit on the head by Russell Crowe fans -- did you ever catch "3:10 to Yuma," and am I the only one who thought the ending totally ridiculous? Rating: 15-16ths good, 1 - 16th lousy!

Desson Thomson: Well, let's put it to the jury. I'll take the first 3 callers.


Virginia: Christmas movie. Gotta be "Elf." That snowball-firing scene.

Desson Thomson: Uh oh, Christmas movie free for all.


Rockville, Md. : Any comments on the "new" Blade Runner?POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT!

Ford says he was a human and Scott thinks he was a replicant. I think it makes no sense for a story to be about just replicants. The interest is in the human/replicant interaction for my part.

Besides, the book had him as a human -- he passed the test.

Desson Thomson: yeah, it's a question that confounds me too.


Washington, D.C.: How did you feel about "The Life of Reilly"?

Desson Thomson: My colleague Ann liked it so much it makes me want to see it. Haven't yet. You see it/like it?


Fairfax County, Va.: What's your favorite Christmas movie?

Desson Thomson: When I am in good boy mode, White Christmas I guess.


Washington, D.C.: Desson,

Seems like all the movies opening in D.C. this weekend are the only ones I 'don't' want to see!

That said, which of these upcoming movies would you say is the best? I can't wait for pretty much all of them.

The Savages

There Will Be Blood

Grace is Gone

Walk Hard


Charlie Wilson's War

Desson Thomson: Between what I have seen and what I have heard, the order goes like this (best first)


The Savages

Charlie Wilson's War

Grace is Gone

There Will Be Blood

Walk Hard - got no reading on this at all. But looking forward to it.


Must-see Christmas movie...:...A Christmas Carol with Alistair Sim as Scrooge (I think it dates from 1950?). Sim makes the best Scrooge ever!

Desson Thomson: Ah yes, I remember. Yes.


Towson, Md.: Happy holidays, Desson!

I saw a trailer for Charlie Wilson's War recently and thought it looked interesting. However, I'm hearing mixed comments about it. Have you seen it yet and what's your opinion?

Desson Thomson: Heard it's funny.


Xmas Movie: You can't beat the original Die Hard as a top Xmas movie.

Desson Thomson: What about Die Hard: Blow Away That Christmas Tree with A Vengeance?


Boston, Mass.: I've seen and read "The Kite Runner." The contrived rescue scene is lifted directly from the book, for what it's worth. I've been telling people to see the movie; it's the first film adaptation I've ever preferred over the book. I was very impressed by how "authentic" it seemed, down to how little English they used, especially given that it was produced by Americans and Brits.

Desson Thomson: Cool, thanks for passing that along, Beantown.


Arlington, Va.: Here's a timeless Christmas classic (at least the opening scenes) -- Monty Python's Life of Brian!

Desson Thomson: Interesting choice! Love that film. Quote it in my sleep.


RE: Princess Bride: If Princess Bride was worthy of 'any' Oscars, it would have to be for Mandy Patinkin, whose Inigo Montoya won our hearts as he searched for the six-fingered man who killed his father.

Desson Thomson: Ha, yes.


Breach: I was a bit underwhelmed myself, but I thought Chris Cooper was fabulous! Probably his best role outside of Adaptation (of which he was the ONLY redeeming quality).

The one thing I enjoyed the most about Breach was its local authenticity. I have a weak spot for movies that take place in D.C., and the fact that it stayed true to all the local color (even filming a few scenes inside a Metro station!) were golden for me.

Desson Thomson: I concur.


Jamon Jamon: Desson,

Hi. Just saw Jamon Jamon on HBO with Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardiem. Quirky type of movie but interesting to see these actors as the movie is over 15 years old (I think).

Excited as I am seeing "Before the Devil Knows Your Dead" tonight.

Desson Thomson: Javier Bardem is totally amazing. He's transcendent in No Country for Old Men. And you should see him in Goya's Ghosts, an otherwise flawed film, and Mondays in the Sun,a Spanish lang. film which everyone missed.


Morristown, N.J.: Hey, Rockville -- You and your wife are not alone in your feelings about "No Country." I was totally disappointed in the end as well, and it ruined the whole movie for me. And it is even more disappointing because I am a HUGE Coen Bros. fan, and waited so long to see this.

Desson Thomson: I pass this along to unite the anti-No country eastern seaboard brother/sisterhood


Ballston, Va.: At my house, we watch Christmas Vacation every year while we put up the tree - that movie never gets old for me. This year I did some poking around on IMDb and was impressed with the distinguished careers many of the actors playing the older relatives had (most of whom, sadly, have passed on). Especially Mae Questel (Aunt Bethany), who was the voice of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl from the 30s through the 50s.

Desson Thomson: Nice to hear.


3:10 to Yuma: My wife and I loved the ending. It was unexpected but at the same time what we wanted the ending to be.

Desson Thomson:10 out of 10 to 3:10, take one.


EarthSea Trilogy: I'm pretty sure that LeGuin refused for years to option her books (or allow the book company to option them). When she finally agreed to a deal with the Sci Fi channel, she was horrified at the outcome, included the fact that Ged was played by a Caucasian actor. Her screed about the adaptation was on her Web site for some time, but I don't know if it's there still.

Desson Thomson: Thanks for telling us. Might answer the question.


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Okay -- I finally saw Knocked Up and I don't get it. Can you please explain to me why this movie was funny? According to rottentomatoes, 90 percent of critics raved about it. I was bored and did not find any of the characters charming.

Desson Thomson: It takes a sort of popcultural transition to like it, I think, a sort of Iron Curtain of good taste/bad taste. And I can understand why you'd have that reaction.


Boston, Mass.: People never think of it as a Christmas movie but it is -- "The Apartment" (Billy Wilder, Shirley McClaine, Jack Lemmon) -- probably my favorite movie of all time as well as my favorite Christmas movie (nothing like an overdose on Christmas eve...).

Desson Thomson: What a classic. You know, I don't ever think to myself, hey, it's Yuletide, I need to see a Yuletide movie. I just look for a good movie, and I hardly notice if it's a Christmas, easter or whatever theme. Case in point: The Apartment.


River City: Beautiful Xmas movie: "A Midnight Clear" based on book about a Xmas eve truce in WWII. Lots of young talent.

Desson Thomson: Yeah, that was a nice little film.


Life of more of an Easter movie to me.

My go to Easter movies are JC Superstar, Ben-Hur and of course the Ten Commandments.

Desson Thomson: Ah, interesting point.


The Golden Chipmunks: Two-parter:

1. I'm getting alarmed at the bad reviews for The Golden Compass. The cast is kick-a--, and the cinematography looks great. But several reviews mention that the story is rushed. Have producers learned nothing from Lord of the Rings? These epics need room to breathe, and the payoff -- both artistically and financially -- are great when they're allowed to. Huff.

2. Me too, snooty art film lover! I too laugh every time I see that Alvin and the Chipmunks trailer!

Desson Thomson: Thanks. I look forward to seeing the trailer.


23112: Three items:

1. I am very interested in The Golden Compass, if for nothing more than the alternate-universe vision of Oxford. I know Hunter didn't care much for it. Have you seen it?

2. I loved (in a chilled sort of way) the novel I Am Legend, but even knowing the story, I'm scared to see the movie. It was dark enough in my mind's eye; I'm not sure I can take it put to screen.

3. Are you looking forward to Cloverfield?

Desson Thomson: I did see Legend and (still mulling this in my head) liked it and also didn't. Loved the first half. Second was problematic--for me, that is.

And yeah, looking forewad to C/field. Like the premise.


Annapolis, Md.:"If Princess Bride was worthy of 'any' Oscars, it would have to be for Mandy Patinkin, whose Inigo Montoya won our hearts as he searched for the six-fingered man who killed his father."

First of all, what is Lisa de Moraes doing in your chat when she's doing her own chat next door?

Second, it was nominated only for Best Original Song for "Storybook Love," which wasn't even that good. The Oscar should have gone to the much-lauded William Goldman for adapting his own book (and making it very different indeed). He wasn't even nominated; Mark Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci won for "The Last Emperor." (And when was the last time anyone said, "Hey, let's go watch 'The Last Emperor' again!"?)

Desson Thomson: Noted. And Lisa is clearly multidimensional.


Favorite Christmas movie:"Comfort and Joy," the Scottish (Scotch?) movie by Bill Forsyth. I just went to rent it from Netflix and it's not available. Bah humbug!

Desson Thomson: Now, see? Another movie I like, but I don't think of it as a Christmas film. Just an enjoyable one. Clearly I have seasonal affective disorder.

_______________________ Updated Information for Silver Spring: The best way to access movies reviewed by Post critics, go to, click on Arts and Living and then select Movies. Both short and long versions of the reviews appear there. Thank you.


Ashburn, Va.: Last week I watched "Woman in the Dunes" (1964), directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara.

First of all, it was an amazing film and I'm so happy I rented it (and thanks to Criterion Collection for releasing it). It's probably a top ten or fifteen selection for me.

Second, the imagery throughout is spectacular, which is a statement considering much of it occurs, literally, in a sand-ditch. Roger Ebert mentions in his review of the film that "there has never been sand photography like this (no, not even in 'Lawrence of Arabia')," and I have to say, I agree with him. Which brings me to my questions: (1) what is your favorite sand-related movie (what film "gets" sand the best) and (2) is there another film out there that you left the theater saying, "I've never seen (insert natural phenomena or element here) visualized better than I just saw it visualized in that film!"

Desson Thomson: Well, for sand, it's Lawrence. For natural phenom, I think of the sea. And that would be Das Boot. But then, you don't actually see much of the sea, do you? And Lifeboat is a soundstage movie. I did like the documentary Deep Water about Donald Crowhurst in the round the world race. And Open Water, that one with the two poor folks stuck in shark infested water in the Caribbean.


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

Just wanted to add a recommendation: "I'm Not There." Very strange, I thought, but strangely moving. Cate Blanchett is amazing. Seems ironic, though, that she may get the typical Oscar nomination for a "biopic" role in a film that supposed to be blowing up the whole "biopic" formula.

Still, if you try and leave your expectations at the door, it's a moving film.


Desson Thomson: Glad you liked. She won an award for this role as best actress in the Venice film fest but was upset she didn't win for best 'actor.'


Washington, D.C.: Favorite Christmas Movie: Love Actually -- and I tend not to like romantic comedies, but this one gets me in the holiday spirit.

Desson Thomson: Good choice.


Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: Hi Desson,

Do you think that Little Miss Sunshine paved the way for Juno to become this year's beloved indie comedy or that the film would have been just as successful without last year's Fox Searchlight film?

Desson Thomson: I think it did pave the way in a certain way, yes.


A forgotten Christmas movie: I generally like nontraditional Christmas movies (the Ref, Planes Trains and Automobiles, Nightmare Before Christmas) but there is a feel-good one that appears on no one's list that I've seen so far: "We're No Angels" (1955). I like the holiday combination of Devil's Island and Humphrey Bogart. It's not a great movie, but it's a watchable one.

Desson Thomson: I enjoy Bogart in that film more than the movie itself, yes.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Christmas tradition: Not a movie, but the Twilight Zone episode where Art Carney plays a recently fired, down on his luck department store Santa Claus, who, while walking home on a snowy Xmas Eve, finds a bag that can contain any present possible. After handing them out to the the poor and needy, except he finds that is no gift left for him. Or is there? A twist on the usual Twilight Zone twist, and written by Rod Serling himself.

Desson Thomson: Hmmm, sounds great. Love Art Carney. I will use this as a lame excuse to express my fondness for The Honeymooners. One of the great TV comedy shows of all time.


Alexandria, Va.: Problem with Charlie Wilson's War is Julia Roberts' accent. It is such a bad fake southern accent, the trailer sets my teeth on edge.

Desson Thomson: She sets her own teeth on edge.


Fairfax, Va.: The buzz on "Atonement" is amazing and is getting me really excited to see it. Is the hype right? Is it truly a great movie?

Also, how are the Oscar predications heating up this year? Other than "Atonement" and "No Country for Old Men" (an excellent movie...), what else do you think is good enough for a nomination? Do you think "No Country" is better than "Atonemen"?

Desson Thomson: I like No Country much more. but Atonement is very good.


(Scotch?) : is what we put in our egg nog.

Desson Thomson: Where's mine? I'm ready.


Washington, D.C.: I took the train up to New York City last Thursday. Any chance I saw you getting on the same train?

Desson Thomson: If I did, I have memory loss. Maybe you saw George Clooney and mistook him for me?


Christmas movie: For me the go-to film is "Holiday Inn": bracketed with Christmases, but not so Christmasy that you gag on the egg nog. No miracles, no children (well, hardly any). Great dancing by Astaire ("Let's Say It With Firecrackers" is my favorite Fred solo ever), and of course great singing by Crosby. Plus I think Marjorie Reynolds was a stone hottie.

Desson Thomson: I do like that movie.


Cleveland Park, D.C.: Re: LMS vs. Juno -- Can you elaborate?

Desson Thomson: Similar crossover films. I think it's the same audience. Juno has a little more dark wit to it. I would say they are equal rivals.


At Home, Va.: I've read several reviews of Golden Compass and it's clear to me that of the Wash Post reviews, the one by the Family Movie critic was the most helpful, because they had read the book. Assigning that movie to Hunter to review did a disservice to all, especially Hunter. If he had read the book he would have known the answer to his "witty" question of who made up the cowboy...the author did.

Desson Thomson: Noted.


Boston, Mass.: Hi Desson,

If I read your earlier comments about "The Golden Compass" right, it seems like it might fizzle in much the same way "The Chronicles of Narnia" did. When I saw "Narnia," I found myself wishing that they'd either decided to play up the religious side of it, or disregard it altogether -- straddling the middle ground just seemed to make for a lackluster movie. Does it look like "The Golden Compass" is headed in the same direction? Or might it have a better chance for success because the book is less canonized than "Narnia" (Or at least I assume it is; I'd never heard of it before this), and therefore fewer people have preexisting ideas about the story?

Desson Thomson: It does seem to be on the same course as Narnia, though not-- I would guess - as successful. But as I said, I am a moron with predictions.


Desson Thomson: This brings our chat to a close. Thanks everyone for turning up in your awesome virtualness. Will be chatting with you in a week or 2. Think peaceful thoughts and see some great movies. Take care.


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