Behind the Screen

Desson Thomson
Washington Post Film Critic
Friday, January 4, 2008; 12:30 PM

Washington Post film critic Desson Thomson was online Friday, Jan. 4, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss "The Orphanage," There Will Be Blood," and many other Hollywood and indie movie releases. Plus, a look at the best films of '07.

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.


Inside the Beltway: That was a great top 10 list! Why do you think "Zodiac" did not get more support from other critics? Do you think it was the ambiguous (real-life) ending?

And another question. I know you are a big David Lean fan. "Dr. Zhivago" was on cable last night and I wonder how you think it compares to "Lawrence."

Desson Thomson: Thanks much. It is always fun to compile those. And by the way, Bill Booth did a very entertaining piece about the 10 worst of the year. Hopefully we'll get the 2 stories posted now -- the Post critics' top 10 and Bill's article.

I think Zodiac had two problems. It came too early in the year. So that critics--still reeling from the sudden spasm of prestige pix that come out--forgot about it. It was very long and, yes, it was based on true stuff so it didn't give audiences the kind of emotional payoff they crave in dramatic police procedurals. But what a magnificent film. I really think it was the best of the year. And such terrific performances, particularly from Robert Downey Jr.

As for Dr Zhivago, it's a terrific picture in the old David Lean sense, epic sweep, romance, historical depth. I have always loved it. And it's certainly up there with the likes of Lawrence.


Bethesda, Md.:"The Great Debaters" is a very good movie, a bit slow at times, but also very powerful and gripping. But why did they "improve on history" by substituting Harvard for USC (Southern Cal)? Sure, Harvard is Harvard, but it already has the title of Eastern liberal bastion. Why not give us Westerners (I'm originally from L.A.) our due?

Desson Thomson: Thanks for spreading the enthusiasm. Great for folks to know amid this barrage of big pictures. Hope people give it a chance. I suspect the Harvard thing fulfills Hollywood's usual over-earnest need to make sure the college in question has a highly recognizable vibe as the ultimate citadel of highest learning, so that it's even more of a prestige to beat the Ivy Leaguers.


New York ,N.Y.: Who are you most confident will win an Oscar this year from any category and why?

Desson Thomson: I like that question. I feel confident that Daniel Day Lewis will win as best actor. And I based that confidence on how bloody amazing he is. I saw the movie again last night and I think it is a truly outstanding American film. And his performance blows every other competitor right of the water.

_______________________ Year in Review


North McLean, Va.: What's you theory on why "Walk Hard" tanked so badly? It had reasonable reviews, but it seemed to vanish faster than glazed donut.

Desson Thomson: I believe it has to do with the casting of John C Reilly who is a fantastic character actor but no movie star. And he is also "old"--I mean, by the standards of the audiences who flocked to see Superbad. Personally, although I laughed at times during the film, I was kind of disappointed. It was too specific to one film in its satire. I liked the funny songs most of all.


Ocala, Fla.: Happy New Year! I don't know if you can answer this, but I have noticed that there appears to be a trend in B and W films over the last few years. "The Man Who Wasn't There," "Good Night and Good Luck," and "Control" were all shot in color and then printed in B and W. Why? Has the art of B and W movie photography been lost? This just seems wrong, somehow.

Desson Thomson: You may not know something that I haven't found. Was Control, for instance, really shot in color and then printed in B&W.? The interviews I have read with Anton Corbijn quote him talking about making it in black and white with no mention of it being color first.

Technically it would be stupid to do it that way, as I recall from my old film production and direction classes at American University, because you light differently for color than black and white. You take different light readings. And you pay attention to the shades of color for B&W, because a red figure versus a green background would come out as a black figure against a black background, and so on.

So if you are right, it is a terrible shame and a bad way to do it, given the amazing possibilities of B&W filming, as in the classic 1967 "In Cold Blood."


Washington, D.C.: Hi Desson,

Saw you at the "TWB Blood" screening last night, and am curious for your thoughts. I was frustrated, personally, by the ending, largely because I think the younger man could easily have ran out and escaped the lethargic drunk. It seemed ridiculously illogical, and I think the director could easily have arranged the room differently, or shown us that the obvious exit had been locked. Instead, I left thinking "BS!" and actually wondered if I hadn't just seen a really silly film.

Desson Thomson: Well, hello fellow movie watcher, and I 'm glad you saw the movie. And hopefully this question and my answer won't ruin the movie for people. If anyone's planning to see this great movie DON'T READ ON.

Both doors at the end of the alley were locked. The boy tried them both and they were locked. And the main entrance was blocked by Daniel Day Lewis. He wasn't lethargic at that point , he was full of energy.

If this had been an action movie, where the banal issues of physical reality are followed, your comments might have made some sense to me. But in my opinion, realism --and those kind of questions -- had very little to do with that scene, or even that movie. The style of the film was theatrical, in keeping with the movie's agenda: an American allegory about greed, religion, family and the American Dream. The point of that scene was nothing to do with some old man fighting a younger one. It was American secular financial greed and even deviltry versus religious dogma and hypocrisy, at least I think.

_______________________ MovieWeb/Control


Alexandria, Va.: Why would they name a movie "There Will Be Blood." It's a real turnoff for me to even buy a ticket, even though the subject sounds good.

Desson Thomson: Because they wanted to make the point that this is a movie that is unrelenting and anti-sentimental about its subject, and intentionally at odds with most mainstream Hollywood movies which seek to endear themselves to audiences. At least the title warned you away, right?


Washington, D.C.: I think I may have seen you emerging the Dupont Circle Metro station on New Year's Eve morning! I should have said hi and wished you a Happy New Year!

Of these three films: Atonement, The Savages and Charlie Wilson's War, which should I see this weekend?

Desson Thomson: I did emerge from that tunnel around that time, I believe. I was on my way to an acting rehearsal at Studio Theatre, where I am taking classes. Yes you should have said hello! And to answer your question, you won't go wrong with any of those three choices. Depends on your mood. They all hit the spot in different ways: Atonement for smart prestige pic, Savages for smart, character-oriented indie experience, and Charlie Wilson's War for a rollickingly funny political satire.


Haymarket, Va.: Is there any way Tim Burton can rationalize casting Helena Bonham-Carter as Mrs. Lovett other than she's the mother of his children?

She's a fabulous actress but the songs seem to go to waste with her. I can't imagine there's no one better than HBC.

Desson Thomson: Well, you seem to have answered your question with the marital connection. She certainly didn't need an agent to broker the deal, it would seem. But seriously, I think she was very good in the movie. She has that otherworldly gal-from-another-planet quality to her that seems entirely appropriate for Burton films. And remember, she has worked for him before in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Big Fish, and Corpse Bride.


Washington, D.C.: Seen or heard any word on Gondry's "Be Kind Rewind?" Every time I watch the trailer I crack a smile.

Desson Thomson: It's coming in February. Pushed from January. Hope that's not a bad sign. It sounds intriguing doesn't it? The premise, I mean.


Anonymous: Is there any buzz on JJ Abrams' Cloverfield?

Desson Thomson: Its publicity campaign has been creating so much of its own "buzz," there isn't much room for anyone else to join in. We'll be reviewing it Jan. 18. Haven;'t seen yet.


Silver Spring, Md.: I know you didn't do the review of Sweeney Todd but I wondered if you'd had a chance to see it yet? Further, what would be your Oscar predictions, if any?

I'd love to see Depp snag a Best Actor, but Tom Hanks' Charlie Wilson concerns me.

Thanks! Happy Friday!

Desson Thomson: Happy Friday to you as well!

I did see ST, and thought it was very good. Fun. well done. I have my doubts about him being nominated at all to be honest. But I am no great predict merchant. Hollywood usually looks down its nose at musicals and comedies when it comes to acting noms.


Silver Spring, Md.: The Post published top 10 movie lists from its three reviewers and they came up with a total of about 27 or 28 different movies. What accounts for such variation and how can any one movie be judged "best for the year."

Desson Thomson: We ... are ... individuals...

Reviewing movies or plays is a fundamentally subjective enterprise. We are not grading beef or eggs where objective criteria are important. And Steve, Ann and I are fundamentally different people, which makes for a very interesting blend.

I think it's fun to stand up and make a call as to what's the best of the year. We are trumpeting what movie spoke to us most compellingly. And isn't that fun to read? I think so.


Montreal, Canada: I can understand most of your choices for the 10 best films of 2007, but not "Waitress."

Thinking back on it, I remember a film with characters who were too-cute-by-half (except for the brutal husband), shot in nursery colours and with a banal plot. At the time, I figured that the hype over the film resulted mainly from the unfortunate backstory around the murder of the director a few months before the film opened.

Also, do you ever "fall in love" with a film which most people seem to think is a "nothing" film? I do, and my prime 2007 example is "You Kill Me," which I found to be a 21st century successor to the classic screwball comedies, with a solid ensemble cast and with Tea Leoni coming across as the contemporary equivalent of the young Lauren Bacall.

Desson Thomson: I loved You Kill Me. And it is one of the most overlooked of the year. So is Ben Kingsley's performance. Glad you appreciated that one.

As for Waitress, I believe it was very smart in its superficially-superficial show of naivete, cuteness and those colors you mention. It was deceptively good. But as I just mentioned these judgments are subjective. And our judgments are based on our own crazy criteria. You and I just demonstrated ours.


New York, N.Y.: Desson:

Although movies are not documentaries what relevance to you put into historical accuracy when watching a film? There are egregious examples, such as JFK, but even in Charlie Wilson's War, President Reagan is barely mentioned at all, and the film is rife with historical inaccuracies that made the dismantling of the Evil Empire the sole doing of a mischievous Democrat.

Do films have SOME responsibility to be accurate in historical recounting?

Desson Thomson: Alas and alack, but also luckily, movies have to decide on their own as to what balance of accuracy and dramatic (or in the case of Charlie Wilson, satirical) license they have. There are no hard and fast rules. Obviously, this was a tongue in cheek movie and obviously it was only suggested by real events. I think it was a delightful movie, in the tradition of Primary Colors or M*A*S*H. Those points you make, while valid in maybe a differently textured version of the Charlie Wilson story, don't really apply to this particular case, I think.


Rosslyn, Va.: As a Michael Mann fan, I'm pleased to find that Miami Vice is more enjoyable watch on DVD than in the theater (in my opinion). I think part of it is that I found the dialogue hard to understand all too frequently, which made the plot confusing and hard to follow at times. Watching on DVD with the subtitles on takes care of that, and some of the cinematography is quite impressive in HD. While not his greatest film, I've warmed up to it more on second run through.

Desson Thomson: I agree with you about DVD being more forgiving. It applies to many movies. Interesting that a movie which many have derided might also be one that makes better viewing in this medium.


New York, N.Y.: How often, if at all, do you get your hands on the screenplay of a movie you reviewed?

Desson Thomson: Almost never.


Silver Spring, Md.: Just to back up Ocala, I did read that "Good Night and Good Luck" was shot in color and then transferred to black and white.

Desson Thomson: Thanks. Good to know.


Outside Hollywood:"The Great Debators" is another in a long line of movies that are supposedly based on a true story, but take huge liberties with accuracy to show yet another black college taking on a beating a white, racist group of college kids in an activity.

It felt good once, but this type of films seem to come out every couple of years and is reaching the level of PC absurdity!

But, of course, you will disagree.

Desson Thomson: How do you know I will disagree?


Butternut, Wisc.: Hi, Desson!

I'm really excited about Sweeney Todd. Do you see it as a major Oscar contender?

Desson Thomson: Judging by its lack of presence at the Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations, it doesn't look good for the murderous barber; plus my prev. post about Oscar's general (but not always, given 'Chicago') attitude to "lesser" genres.


Four Corners, Md.: What sources, if any, do you use to track possible castings, films in production, etc.? I would be curious to know about upcoming movies or what my favorite actors are working on, but I don't know where to look.

Desson Thomson: You can start with where each actor or filmmaker's forthcoming projects are mentioned.


Eastern Market, D.C.:"Juno" is popping up on all kinds of top 10 lists, but when I went with a group of four friends to see it, the consensus was that we were underwhelmed. Funny, sweet, entertaining ... but not a "movie of the year" by a long shot. Oddly enough I had the same reaction to "Little Miss Sunshine" last year.

Comedy is tough to do well, and humor is so much more subjective than drama ... but I think we're so starved for intelligent humor anymore that even decent efforts get praised to the moon.

Desson Thomson: Too bad you didn;t like it. I thought it was a prime example of intelligent humor. As was Mss Sunshine. And as you say it's all subjective. People mean different things when they say "intelligence in comedy" too. Hope you find something you enjoy soon!


RE: John C. Reilly: What I don't get is why he's trying to break into the Frat Pack. Will Ferrell he is not, but if you watch a movie like Magnolia, you see a Reilly performance that was just as Oscar-deserving as Tom Cruise's for that film (way back before he became tabloid TomKat material).

Desson Thomson: I agree about his great acting. I was just watching Magnolia again and he is terrific.


Washington, D.C.: What did you think of Orphanage?

Desson Thomson: I reviewed it in today's paper, the one you are reading right now.


New York, N.Y.: Desson: For aspiring critics, do you have any advice as to how to someday write for a major publication? What is your average week like?

Desson Thomson: To write for a major publication, you need to build up a great resume. You need to start anywhere you can - writing about anything where you can demonstrate your ability to wrote deeply, sightfully and gracefully - none of the skills that I have. I wish you luck!

_______________________ If These Walls Could Talk, They'd Scream ( Post, Jan. 4)


Rochester, Minn.: Cry baby here: Interesting comment about watching Miami Vice with the subtitles. I watch EVERY DVD with the English subtitles on. (Even when the kids are in bed!). There are some movies that I'd watched a dozen times, then watch it with the subtitles and I have a handful of "a-ha" moments. Does everybody do this, or am I (and the other guy) the only ones?

Desson Thomson: I know people who do the same. I like to do it occasionally especially when the script is good or the words are hard to understand, or the verbiage is heavy.


"Intelligent Humor": can be high-brow references, or dimensional, believable characters. Either way I think irony's involved. Maybe there wasn't enough of the former for that last poster?

Desson Thomson: These are all good observations. Sometimes the verbal humor itself is sophisticated, or the characters are conceived intelligently. And yes, often irony is involved.


I know you will disagree...:...because you are British, and the British LOVE PC absurdity!

Just kidding.

Serious question: did you see The Orphanage too? I'm wondering how it compares to The Devil's Backbone. When I saw an ad for the movie, I thought 'didn't they already make that one?' But as the buzz grows, I'm getting excited. I love creepy horror films. So is it the same movie with a bag over the kid's head? or an innovative cinematic experience?

Desson Thomson: Hahaha.

Yes, I did see Orphanage and as mentioned, and now as posted, write about it today.

Check tomorrow's Style section too for my article on the filmmakers Juan Antonio Bayona and also Sergio Sanchez, the scriptwriter, talking about cultural differences between the two cultures.


Top '07 movies: Desson,

Happy New Year. Of the 2007 movies seen, my top in no order:

No Country for Old Men

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Charlie Wilson's War

The Lives of Others

Michael Clayton


American Gangster

Honorable Mention:


Knocked Up

I Am Legend

Desson Thomson: Interesting. I liked most of these films too !


Silver Spring, Md.: If it's going to happen, when will film audiences feel an impact from the Writers Guild strike?

Desson Thomson: A movie takes 5 years to make from script to screen, approximately. You do the math.


Bethesda, Md.: Do you think that 3:10 to Yuma got snubbed or will get snubbed? And also what about Gone Baby Gone..that movie was insanely great and yet only Amy Ryan is getting recognition?

Desson Thomson:3:10 seems to have been lost in the shuffle. As was Jesse James etc. (in that latter film, Casey Affleck was great). And at least Amy is getting some kudos, right?


New York, N.Y.: Is there really Oscar buzz for Amy Adams in "Enchanted"? I just saw it, and while she was super-cute and wide-eyed, don't you need to...ACT to win an Academy Award? It didn't seem to be a very deep role, as charming as she was.

Also, did everyone do his/her own singing in the film? (What a waste of Idina!)

Desson Thomson: I think you are showing how hard it is for a comedic performance to be recognized as an acting performance. She was very good, even in this cartoonish role. The way she used her body and inflections--all of this was good acting.


Herndon, Va.: Even though he's more remembered as a superb novelist and historian, let's also remember George Macdonald Fraser for his great scripts for the 3 and 4 Musketeers and that great look at history in movies -- "The Hollywood History of the World."

Desson Thomson: And don't forget the amazing Flashman series.


Actors and Directors: Just saw Sweeney Todd (loved it). Afterwards, thought about the numerous collaborations between Johnny Depp and Tim Burton. Any other close actor and director pairs you can think of? We only came up with Scorcese and Denero and Hitchcock and Jimmy Stewart.

Desson Thomson: Ahem! Scorsese and De Niro. There have been a number of these. I am out of time but I can send you a link that will get you started with great actresses and their directors. I was written by our own Dan Zak.


Bethesda, Md.: Hi, Desson. We're the little old ladies who see movies at Bethesda Row. Unfortunately our leader, the one who sent you the e-mails, is now in assisted living, but I have promised to do my best to follow in her footsteps,

Over the past couple weeks we have seen the following movies, all of which we rate "very good" or "excellent":

Atonement: Sad and beautiful. Beautiful cinematography. It followed the book better than we had anticipated,

Juno: You might not expect this from ladies of a certain age, but we all thought it was refreshing and delightful. Numerous great lines. Our favorite was the one about sadistic doctors to which, unfortunately, we can all relate.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Absolutely exquisite. We all want to buy the DVD and only 2 of us have DVD players!

The Kite Runner: Another beautifully done, sad but ultimately redeeming film. We enjoy seeing places we will never get to in person even if we don't especially want to go there!

No Country for Old Men: Very hard to watch, but the 2 (out of 4) of us who persevered felt that it was worth it, for the scenery and for Tommy Lee Jones, among other things.

Happy New Year!

Your elderly fans in Bethesda.

P.S. How did I do?

Desson Thomson: I love you ladies and I am sorry to hear about the assisted living. Please send me your email so I can respond more fully. I am 30 minutes past my chat time as it is!

And anyone who wants to ask me anything, or if you have ideas for stories you think I should be doing, please contact me too!


Rockville, Md.: Hey Desson: have you seen The Other Boleyn girl? Any thoughts? I think both Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johannson are a bit overrated.

Desson Thomson: Haven't seen it yet. I think they are talented actors who might not be overrated so much as spread too thin these days with too many roles.


No Country for Old Men: I almost didn't see this, because I read somewhere that if you liked Fargo, you would love this movie. Well, I hated Fargo -- the humor of those gruesome deaths somehow escaped me. But, while "love" is perhaps too strong a term for "Country," it's definitely worth seeing, for the scenery if nothing else.

Side note: For goodness sakes, especially with the cost of movies these days, read about what you're going to see! People were walking out of this one; and one man who stayed until the end said to me, "This is not one to bring the wife." Not as bad as taking children to "Pan's Labyrinth," but if you're looking for light entertainment, you should look elsewhere.

Desson Thomson: Hah! Yes, I know what you mean about people reading ahead of time. Thanks for the post.


Arlington, Va.: Deeson,

I watched Stanley Kubrick's film Barry Lyndon over the New Year's holiday, and I came away unexpectedly disappointed.

For one thing, it dragged on way too long. Sadly, this was NOT one of those three-hour movies that kept me engaged the entire time (like Heat or The Godfather). Plus, there really didn't seem to be much of a plot, save beyond how Redmond Barry wheedles his way into the Lyndon family riches.

I also found the choice of actors leaving a great deal to be desired. Ryan O'Neal did little except stand around looking pretty, and the adult Bullingdon struck me as totally out of sync with his child counterpart.

The landscapes and the period costumes, however, were really the film's only saving grace. Those elements alone showed how Kubrick can transport us to another time and place so irrevocably, but if anything, the two-act narrative seemed like a three-hour experiment foreshadowing Full Metal Jacket in Kubrick's later years (now THERE was a stellar Kubrick film!).

Desson Thomson: You know, I tried watching this again fairly recently and I shut it off after a bit because I lost interest. I might agree with you. But I plan to look at it again.


Desson Thomson: Folks, there are still some of you I didn't get to answer. My apologies. Maybe I can get you next time.

Belated happy new year to everyone and talk to you all soon.


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