Behind the Screen

Desson Thomson
Washington Post Film Critic
Friday, February 29, 2008; 12:30 PM

Post movie critic Desson Thomson talks about "Semi-Pro" and "The Other Boleyn Girl" as examples of movies that seem geared towards gender audiences.

Is there a place for gender-specific movies? What movies do we consider exclusively the domain for "chicks" or for "dudes"? Shouldn't we be able to see, appreciate and enjoy all kinds of movies? In a world where we pay lip service to gender equality what are the standards here?

Thomson will be online Friday, Feb. 29, at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss.

The transcript follows.

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.


Desson Thomson: Top of the afternoon to you, faithful and drive-by chatters. Let's have ourselves a movie chat!


Washington: Not sure if it's just me, but doesn't Will Ferrell just seem to be making the same movie over and over again with minor variations while also basically playing the same character over and over again (i.e. a not very bright, very hairy doofus who enjoys removing his clothes at inopportune times)? 'Semi-Pro' Fouls Out (Post, Feb. 29)

Desson Thomson: I don't think it's just you, amigo.


Bethesda, Md.: I think certain movies are geared to certain audiences, and there is nothing wrong with that. My problem is with your use of the word "exclusively." I'm a bit old to be considered a chick, but never have liked bodice-rippers or really violent movies. I do enjoy most sports movies, however, because I'm a big sports fan. I'm sure plenty of other women fit into this same category. If any men like bodice-rippers, however, I doubt that they are willing to admit it! When Hollywood Knows Its Audience (and Doesn't Like It) (Post, Feb. 29)

Desson Thomson: Bethesda, I understand where you are coming from. Of course you are right. When I dare to write a movie about the beings we call "men" and "women," I of course am treading on very thin ice. But if I run quickly, and make people laugh at least a little, I hope I can sort of get away with these generalizations. Well, sort of.


Fairfax County: Very thoughtful and provocative pieces recently on Haneke, "Semi-Pro" and "Boleyn" -- in a way, they are two sides of the same issue. Haneke unsettles us by tweaking our genre expectations, while "Semi-Pro" and "The Other Boleyn Girl" pander to them. I wish The Post had more of these meta-pieces with insights into what we see when we go to the movies. Especially liked the comparisons between AB's execution and what the film does to history and Ferrell's film to a La-Z-Boy. A while back you said you were looking forward to the Scorsese documentary about the Stones. Have you seen it yet? Was it what you were hoping for? Filmmaker Michael Haneke Pours Blood on Troubled Waters (Post, Feb. 24)

Desson Thomson: Fairfax, first of all, I am deeply honored that you have such a familiarity with what I have written lately. Thanks! And I appreciate the nice comments. And indeed, that subject -- the meta-viewing thing -- is slowly becoming my bailiwick, which is why in recent months I have begun (and hope to continue to) engage you wonderful people in this subject. You are my subject. Or should I say we are my subject.

Yes, I have seen the Stones documentary and will be be reviewing it very soon. I am holding cards close to the chest on this one for political reasons. Studio folks have been trying to find out what I think in advance, and for some reason I am feeling friskily circumspect.


Herndon, Va.: Mr. T: I'm one of those who agree pretty much with the best/supporting winners at the Oscars, although I've seen better performances (with less carpet-chewing) by Mr. Day-Lewis. That said, my wife and I very much enjoyed "In Bruges," but I see the critical reaction has been mixed -- to put it mildly. Your view?

Desson Thomson: You caught me with my pants down. I promised in recent chats to catch up with that one, and a recent friend who has good taste said she and her husband liked it too. I hope to catch up with it very soon and respond with something more than circulatory nothingness.


Alexandria, Va.: With the cold weather, I'm dreaming of June. What are the "must see" movies for the summer?

Desson Thomson: I am wearing an "Iron Man" T-shirt today. Also, there is the "Indiana Jones" movie. For starters.


Mary Boleyn: Oh boy, another "historical" movie that gets nearly everything wrong. Nothing wrong with that, of course -- poetic license and all that -- but it would be nice if at least some viewers kept in mind that virtually nothing in the movie, other than the fate of Anne Boleyn, has any basis in fact.

Desson Thomson: As I understand it, there are some historical truths still in place in the movie and the book (Philippa Gregory certainly did her research and knows exactly what she is misrepresenting and spinning) but most of them are radically spun -- you're right.


Stayed Awake in History Class: Too bad you dozed. Otherwise you might have known that staying a virgin until she got the royal ring was very much one of Anne Boleyn's more successful tactics. And in fact Henry did bed Anne's sister Mary (and many others, of course). Philippa Gregory's book may be history-lite, but it is nevertheless quite accurate, and entertainingly well-written -- much more so than your rather cursory review. I strongly recommend Antonia Fraser's "Six Wives of Henry VIII" for some background on both Henry's libido and the social dynamics that drove both the Boleyn and Tudor dynasties.

Desson Thomson: Thanks for the caning. And readers take note.


Washington: Desson -- enjoyed your review of "The Other Boleyn Girl." My hopes for this costume drama died when I heard when it would be released. And there aren't any British actresses who could have taken these roles? Sorry you missed that bit of trivia about Anne refusing Henry VIII's advances in history class. It was a key plot development in "Anne of a Thousand Days" with Genevieve Bujold and Richard Burton, too. 'Boleyn Girl': Insipid Sibling Rivalry (Post, Feb. 29)

Desson Thomson: Thanks very much. My review was making its points about cynical gender marketing more than historical analysis. But thanks for pointing it out in a nice way! (Correcting me on history is pretty much like shooting a turkey in a barrel.) I think the fact that well known Americans were playing British historical figures speaks volumes for the movie-makers' priorities.


Silver Spring, Md.: I don't if this is your territory or not, but why does The Post have such weak or nonexistent DVD reviews? This week the New York Times reviews a new Jean-Luc Godard collection, last week a collection of Ernst Lubitsch musicals of the 1930s -- while The Post has a blurb on "American Gangster" and "Cops -- 20th Anniversary." While I have nothing against anyone enjoying these, why is The Post promoting such light-weight fare? DVD Reviews

Desson Thomson:, as you see, does have its DVD coverage, and the Weekend section also has a DVD watch. And yes, the New York Times does have very good, and very deep, coverage of DVDs. Perhaps you could make your opinions known to the appropriate editors at Weekend and


Western New York: Desson! My favorite movie chat host! For people who're more on the backlash side of such Little Movies that Could as "Sideways" and "Little Miss Sunshine," do you think we'd gag at "Juno"? Thanks.

Desson Thomson: Aaaaw, you know how to get on my good side. I get the feeling that if you hated the first two movies you mention, you almost certainly would gag at "Juno." I would think those three movies are all within a few Kevin Bacon steps of each other on the indie movie taste spectrum.


Arlington, Va.: I went onto YouTube the other day, and found a clip of Dennis Hopper's entrance scene into "Blue Velvet." It's been quite some time since I last saw "Blue Velvet," but I'd actually forgotten just how hilariously psychotic Dennis Hopper's performance in that film was! It was outrageously over the top, borderline offensive, downright scary, and hysterically funny all in one! A great feat of acting, if there ever was one. Though I may never look at a bottle of Heineken or an oxygen mask the same way again.

Desson Thomson: Haha, I love it. You remind me to revisit that movie. I loved it when it came out. Pabst Blue Ribbon has had a new special ring to it ever since I watched it.


Arlington, Va.: I just saw "Michael Clayton" on DVD and I kind of thought the film was ho-hum until the great final encounter between George Clooney and Tilda Swinton -- I think that Swinton really won her Oscar for her performance in that final scene. The film made me realize how important the ending of a film can be in redeeming a film or bringing it home to an audience, because I didn't realize until the film's end how emotionally invested I was in Clooney's character and the film's plot.

Desson Thomson: That's kinda interesting that the end made you reflect -- or maybe re-reflect -- on the movie, and think better of it. I thought more of the movie than you, I think. And when I saw it the second time I really appreciated it. And I also appreciated Clooney's acting, which is hidden behind his star presence all too often.


Will Ferrell : What about "Stranger than Fiction"? That was a very good, and different role for Will. How quickly do we forget...

Desson Thomson: That was truly horrible.


Washington: Hi. Do you know when "The Band's Visit" is coming to this area? Thanks.

Desson Thomson: It opened here about two weeks ago. A good movie. We reviewed it, and liked it. Ann Hornaday was the reviewer. Hoping to post it in a moment.

_______________________ 'The Band's Visit': A Fine and Mellow Riff (Post, Feb. 29)



Desson Thomson: Hey Ocala. Yes, there are always movies -- good ones -- that somehow aren't available. But yes, it is good to be able to see gems such as Medium Cool on cable.


Annapolis, Md.: Another "gender" movie, "Bonneville," is opening here in Annapolis. It looks to be a women "roadie" movie with a good cast but rather stupid plot. Do you know anything about it? I may give it a try, as there's not much else out there that looks too promising.

Desson Thomson: I haven't seen it but I especially liked this quote about it from the wonderful Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly:

"It took brass hubcaps to make Bonneville," a midlife-chick-road-trip movie starring a '66 Pontiac convertible and a trio of middle-aged driving girlfriends in cool sunglasses, and not once have the gals give props to 'Thelma & Louise.' "


Baltimore: Matt Damon signed on for "Bourne" 4. Are you as excited as I am?

Desson Thomson: Yes -- being a guy, I am thrilled.


Indecision-ville: Help! I pretty much missed the entire second half of last year's movies because of house renovations and work travel. I'm committed to catching up one movie a weekend now that things are out on demand. Last weekend I watched "Ratatouille" (liked it a lot). This weekend I can't even decide on a genre I want to see! My choices are- "Michael Clayton," "Harry Potter," "Borne Ultimatum," "Superbad" and "Waitress." What would you watch this weekend?

Desson Thomson: Indecision-ville -- what a place to live. So many of us live there too. I would say that (and without being wishy-washy, or "everyone wins in kids soccer" about it), all of those movie in their own different ways are entertaining. All of them. Although I liked the latest Harry Potter the second least of the series this time around. (The first one was the worst, I think.)


Arlington, Va.: Hey Desson, any word on "The Bank Job"?

Desson Thomson: Yes, I am writing it right now. The review, that is, not the movie. (And assuming you are not a member of the movie publicity world posing as a normal citizen,) I would say that I enjoyed it much).


Ohio: Why was Ferrell "truly horrible" in "Stranger than Fiction"? I kinda liked it.

Desson Thomson: Funnily enough, we are both right. You are right to have enjoyed it, and I am right to have hated it. Just my opeeen-yun. I thought a really good premise was squandered. How cool was that -- Will Ferrell talking to a disembodied narrator? Absolutely fabulous premise! And then, it just sort of foundered, ran out of its own promising gas, or whatever metaphor you like. I had such high expectations, and felt disappointed. I especially thought Emma Thompson was wasted (what was with her smoking and standing on a ledge -- a sort of cheap and easy way to signal her world weary anxiety? How about acting instead?). And Queen Latifah was a narrative fifth wheel. That was my take anyway.


Wheaton, Md.: I'm a "chick" who likes most sports movies too, but after reading your review "Semi-Pro" is not on my list. My guy can see it with my blessing, but I'm not planning to tag along.

Desson Thomson: I am glad I saved you.


Alexandria, Va.: "Bourne" movies are underrated and fantastic. I, as a woman, am thrilled there will be fourth. (Though you could tell from the ending of the third that there would be.)

Desson Thomson: There I go again, promulgating stereotypes. But I believe I was speaking for my gender as a rule by saying that yes, I like those movies. Didn't mean women can't also like 'em. And sports movies, etc.


Washington: Will Ferrell is just the latest in a long line of Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Michael Myers, Ben Stiller -- stuck playing the same role over and over in every movie.

Desson Thomson: You may be right. I hope he finds better material, because I am a big fan of his. But studios want more of the same money they made last time, so they green-light comedies like that, which give audiences more of the same. They play the same numbers at the gambling tables. They don't want to charter new territory if they don't have to -- makes them nervous.


Freising, Germany: Regarding this year's Oscarfest showcasing high-quality, depressing movies that no one went to see, how often do the Academy Awards highlight films that aren't popular? Also, I've noticed that British actors and actresses have dominated the Oscars at various times through the history of the Academy Awards, including this year's. Mark Harris, author of "Pictures at a Revolution," mentions several British actors and actresses who were hugely successful during the 1960s. He missed one of my favorites, Peter O'Toole. Is there any chance left for O'Toole at the Oscars? Discussion Transcript: 'Pictures at a Revolution' (, Feb. 26)

Desson Thomson: As I said in my Oscar chat earlier this week, the ones who dismiss the Oscars for showing movies no one went to see are being disingenuous, in my opinion. If everyone saw all the movies made, they would start to get a wider latitude for good quality, instead of simply responding to the movies that have the most bankable stars in them or the most effective ad campaigns. And I firmly believe they also would nominate the movies that we see on the short list every year. Kinda makes me think of Plato's cave metaphor, and the people who are chained in one position and can only judge only what they see, based on the shadows on the wall before them, unaware of the greater light behind them.


Herndon, Va.: Wow!"Pants down" and "circulatory nothingness" in the same paragraph. You da man!

Desson Thomson: Hee hee.


"La Vie en Rose": I happened to catch it the weekend before the Oscars and thought Cotillard was very good in it, but I was quite taken aback by the non-linearity in the movie. There must have been 20 or 30 cuts in time in that movie, and I'm still unsure whether Depardieu's character was murdered and whether Piaf did in fact have a child.

Desson Thomson: To me, that was the great thing -- the non linearity. I am usually allergic to formulaic biopics, so the structure made it sorta intriguing.


Will Ferrell: They'll run out of movies for him when they run out of sports. How about Will as an American trying to break into big-league cricket in India?

Desson Thomson: Just to show what an idiot I am, I already am laughing at this conceit.


Way out of Hollywood: I would highly recommend everyone who loves film to see the Hirschhorn's "Cinema Effect" exhibition. Some of the strangest, most dream-like shorts I've seen recently.

Desson Thomson: I am dying to see it. We raved about it tin he Post.


Washington:"I think the fact that well-known Americans were playing British historical figures speaks volumes for the movie-makers' priorities." Sort of like having Anthony Hopkins play Richard Nixon?

Desson Thomson: Actually, that was more of a risky venture than a commercial move, I think. I am sure the studio would have begged for an American instead, for commercial reasons. Of course this is a big subject that's hard to pin down. What about Brits playing Ancient Romans and so forth?


"Penelope": There was no way I would even think of going to see this movie until I read The Post's and the Family Filmgoer's review. Being a guy, I plan to go to a very late showing in a very obscure theater and lie about it to anyone who asks.

Desson Thomson: Haha.


Greencastle, Ind.: What spawned this insidious invasion of ads for "The Love Guru"? I am already so sick of them that I will never pay one cent to see even one frame of this atrocity! Go away, Mike Myers, I can't stand you.

Desson Thomson: First of all, I love the name Greencastle. Awesome. And second of all, yes, there is a certain tyranny of previews that can make you hate something that might even be good.


Richmond, Va.: We didn't fail to see the Oscar movies because we aren't interested -- we haven't seen them because they aren't out on DVD yet.

Desson Thomson: Yes, I understand that. I'm not saying it's anyone's particular fault, just saying there isn't the universal application to watching the movies in the theater that America used to be about.


Washington: Being a woman, I'm thrilled to see a fourth "Bourne"! I have no idea what kind of story line they'll trot out, though. What's the real scoop about "Penelope"? I hear mixed reviews, but am a big fan of James McAvoy, so I'm in for sure. Did you see "Rory O'Shea Was Here"? He was fantastic in that, as was the other lead.

Desson Thomson: Yes, I did see the "Rory" movie and remember thinking what a good actor this bloke was, before he was anyone -- at least before he was anyone here. I like a good fairy tale made modern, so I am looking forward to "Penelope." You are right about mixed reviews, so we'll have to both see what's up when it comes our way, right?


San Antonio: Hey Desson, Enjoying the chat as always. Just wanted to say thanks for mentioning the film "Once" more than once in your chats. I saw it a couple of weeks ago and totally loved it. I really didn't think it was a musical, a la "Hello, Dolly" or "Oklahoma", etc., though. The leads never just spontaneously broke out in song; the songs were an integral part of the film and not just some excuse to make a spectacle. Also, I was really glad to see "Ratatouille" snag and Oscar, too. Anyhoo, thanks again!

Desson Thomson: Thanks, San Antonio. Glad you appreciated such a lovely little film. And a nice way to close out today's enjoyable chat.


Desson Thomson: Have a great weekend everybody. And if you feel compelled to shoot me an e-mail talking about the things where you draw the line in movies -- what things are too horrible for you? -- please do so.

And thanks all for playing! See you in a couple of weeks.


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