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Desson Howe
Desson Howe
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Behind The Screen
With Desson Howe
Washington Post Film Critic

Monday, April 14, 2003; 12:30 p.m. ET

Washington Post film critic Desson Howe brings Behind The Screen Live Online for a discussion on filmmaking and the art of the cinema. Have you ever wanted to know what the director had in mind when making a particular film? Or why the producer altered the original screenplay? Why was an actor or actress cast over another? Howe has answers to these and other questions about filmmaking.

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

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Desson Howe: Hello everyone. And what are you doing inside? It's so beautiful outside. Oh, I know. You came in so you can ask questions on this online session because you can't keep away can you? It's that good. Questions, questions?

Arlington, Va.: Since you're from England, do you know Minnie Driver?

Desson Howe: Yes, she's my neighbor. And my sister.

Phone Booth: Saw "Phone Booth" over the weekend. Colin Farrell was phenomenal. He really carried the film well, and even had me teary-eyed in one scene. Have you seen him in "Tigerland"? He really is a great actor -- right up there with Ed Norton, as far as I'm concerned. They really inhabit their parts and are totally convincing, unlike some I could mention who just play the same part over and over again.

Desson Howe: Yes, I agree he was on the money in "Phone Booth," which was more of an experiment in suspense, a sort of crazy divertissement rather than a fully fledged movie. I think he does have talent. He's got that hungry Irish lad thing going, trading almost good naturedly on his looks. I think he's got potentially more to him than stud muffin credentials.

Virginia: Desson -- in light of world events, I rented "Three Kings" (again) last weekend. Man, what a movie. I think it compares favorably with the best war satires like "Catch 22" and "M-A-S-H". Your thoughts?

Desson Howe: Absolutely and extremely timely.

Arlington, Va.: Mr. Howe,

Do you think the Academy gives its awards to people who play politically correct characters a little too often and a little too undeservedly? I do.

Some examples:

1999 -- Roberto Benigni playing a holocaust victim beats Edward Norton playing a Neo-Nazi. Norton turned in one of the great acting performances of all time in my opinion.

Same year. Michael Caine, playing a doctor who performs underground, illegal abortions beats out Tom Cruise who plays a misogynist. Michael Caine was good, but Tom Cruise was brilliant (sounds awkward I know).

There are other examples, but I'll turn the time back over to you.

Desson Howe: You've hit a point that's perhaps even bigger than that. The Academy are industry insiders and also human beings, with all the pros and cons attached. And they are, it's true, (as the whole industry) going to always rate a good feelings hero higher than a bad feelings hero (someone who's scuzzy in some way). It's cultural. But remember Denzel won the acting Oscar for a fairly shady guy. Certainly we'll never be able to avoid the happy endings uber alles approach to movie writing -- and with that comes a really nice hero than twinplex crowds can immediately warm and relate to.

Washington, D.C.: ... Did you ever see The Thief of Bagdad, the Douglas Fairbanks/Raoul Walsh-directed silent version? ... Wonderful film!

Desson Howe: Of course. A classic. Glad you appreciate it too.

ArtMovieLover, Va.: Did you watch "A Mighty Wind" a second time? Was it funnier than you had initially thought?

Desson Howe: Happily yes. It got more precious to me. And now I like it quite a bit. Glad I went again.

Washington, D.C.: Desson,

Are there any summer movies that you are really looking forward to this year?

Desson Howe: Mostly Matrix Reloaded like everyone else. And the Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines movie. I can't say I have the same overwhelming enthusiasm for Bad Boys 2.

Philadelphia, Pa.: Desson, Just picked up and watched Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Blue," "White" and "Red" series (great commentary by the director on the DVDs, by the way). What other films by Kieslowski do you recommend checking out?

Desson Howe: Well, you have picked up three truly great pictures. And I'm thrilled you appreciate them. Red is my favorite of the trilogy. He also made the Decalogue, a 10-part TV series based on the Ten Commandments, which you should rent. Also: The Double Life of Veronique starring Irene Jacob from Red.

Washington D.C.: Yet another sign that the apocalypse is surely upon us: Adam 'not-shred-of-talent' Sandler gets top-billing over three-time Oscar winner Jack Nicholson. Absolutely shameful. What kind of bizarre sex acts did Sandler have to perform on the producer to make that happen? And what kind of lame-ass agent does Nicholson have that he would allow such an embarrassment to his client?

Desson Howe: Sandler is hot, in terms of box office clout. And he's exec producer, so this was pretty much his project. Obviously Jack Nicholson is every bit his superior, from soul to talent. I think Nicholson expected great box office, and figured his sense of mischievous fun would bring a fascinating dynamic to the brat-Sandler mix. I think he was right.

ANGER MaNaGeMeNt!: So far Old School and Anger Management have been the best movies of the year. I've never laughed so hard. Your review was right on the money. Jack was hysterical. I was surprised the previews did not give the movie away.

Thanks for writing a great review. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go beat up a monk.

Desson Howe: Glad you enjoyed it. And thanks for your comments.

Laurel, Md.: Desson,

Could I get your and some clicksters' opinion on something? A relative of mine who does not live in this area has begun protesting the showing of commercials in theaters by booing audibly while they're playing. He does NOT do this for previews of coming attractions, just commercials for things like soft drinks.

Do you think this a responsible form of protest, or just rude to the rest of the audience, like talking on a cell phone is?

Desson Howe: I think it's a good form of protest. Certainly better than a cell phone in the middle of a movie.

Hounslow: Did you see the "Beckham" girls online or in person here this week? Quite feisty! I was surprised to read that Jess is actually 28, and Jules was only 17 when the movie was made. Thanks for sending us all in the direction of that wonderful flick!

Desson Howe: You're welcome, Hounslow.

Washington, D.C.: I'm old enough to remember the great British comedies of the late forties and fifties; for example, the "Carry-On Gang series". What ever happened to stop that genre? Or, are we simply being deprived of them here?

Desson Howe: Well, they were peculiarly English. I can't imagine them exporting well. But then, I was surprised to see that Americans would laugh at Benny Hill and Monty Python. Nonetheless the Carry On films, a staple of Brit pop culture in the 60s and 70s, haven't been more than great nostalgia for Brits. However, the movie Rat Race was pretty much a tribute to the Brit caper comedy, including such movies as The Great Race.

Re: Academy Award question: I don't think the Academy hands out awards based on politically correct thinking or "good guys/bad guys." However, you can certainly make a case for the Academy giving out a strangely large number of awards for Holocaust-related films. The Benigni wins might have been the most significant, but it seems that half the documentary awards in the last 20 years have gone to Holocaust-related movies, even when most of the films in those years were much higher praised by critics.

Desson Howe: You're right. The stats are pretty clear on that point in the doc section. I think it helped the Pianist too.

Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Desson,

Speaking of Kieslowski, did you ever find out if the Heaven, Hell and Purgatory trilogy will be completed, sans Kieslowski?

Desson Howe: Well, part 1 was completed (Heaven) by Tom Tykwer. It's come and gone.

Arlington, Va.: How about "The Thief of Baghdad" with John Justin and Sabu?

Desson Howe: Loved it. Alexander Korda's British version. A wonderful film.

Georgetown, D.C.: Hi Desson: Caught "Laurel Canyon" over the weekend and loved it! I'm wondering if you think Frances McDormand has a shot at another Oscar in '04? Seems like a premature questions but her performance was simply fabulous.

Desson Howe: Definitely she'll be nominated. No question.

Washington, D.C.: Hi Desson: Do you know when "The Dancer Upstairs" is coming to the D.C. area? (And have you by any chance seen it yet?)

Desson Howe: Haven't seen it yet. Will do this week I believe. It opens Filmfest DC. And it opens commercially May 9. This is the film by John Malkovich.

20011: OK, finally, after a long dearth of movies, so many that I want to see!

"Bend it like Beckham," "He loves me, He loves me not," "A MIghty Wind", (Any thoughts on that one?) the re-opening of the Silver theater ...

An embarrassment of riches. Where shall I start?

Desson Howe: The Silver Theater is the place to visit right now. And I would opt for Beckham and Wind a few centuries before He Loves Me.

Petworth, Washington, D.C.: I hate commercials. I love previews, but I hate commercials. I especially hate those commercials for charities where they attempt to collect money after the commercial. Never in a million years will that get money from me. Ever.

I bought a ticket. I bought expensive drinks and snacks. Now you want me to watch commercials?

(Sorry if this comes through more than once. I am getting server errors when I try to submit.)

Desson Howe: Agreed.

McLean, Va.: Mr. Howe,

I recently heard Robert Duvall mentioning the names of some excellent Argentinian actors, piquing my interest in foreign film. Can you give me a few great foreign films (Argentinian, Italian, French) where I can start my appreciation for this genre?

Desson Howe: Foreign film is not really some genre. It's the rest of the world's movie output. That's a pretty big place, the rest of the world. And it has been making movies as long (in some countries, even longer than) as the Americans. There are scores and scores of films per country I could recommend for Italy, France, Japan, China, England, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Russia and on and on. So when you say you'd like to start this foreign film thing, well, do you see what I mean? It's a bloody great universe. I'm not avoiding the question but it's really hard to just pull something out that's "foreign" and "good."

Just for the hell of it:

Italy: Anything by Federico Fellini or Vittorio de Sica
France: Anything by Francois Truffaut or Jean Renoir
Spain: Anything by Luis Bunuel
Germany: Anything by Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders
Japan: Anything by Akira Kurosawa
Sweden: Anything by Ingmar Bergman
Africa: Ousmane Sembene
Iran: Abbas Kiarostami

If that doesn't keep you busy, I don't know what will.

There are many more films from those countries, but you should start with their greatest (some of their greatest) filmmakers.

Re: Previews: Previews are commercials for movies. Right?

Desson Howe: Yeah.

Pass for Bend It?: Bend It Like Beckham is finally opening up out my way but wouldn't you know it, I did my taxes this weekend and I'm getting whacked with a huge payment. Now I'm broke. Can you slip me a couple of passes to see Bend It Like Beckham?

Desson Howe: Not any more. Sorry. Before it came out I could have.

Looking for suggestions: Loved Phone Booth, hated Big Fat Greek Wedding, anticipate moderately liking Dysfunktional Family but thinking that Eddie Murphy Raw was still much better. Based on that, can you suggest other upcoming or recently released movies that I should check out?

Desson Howe: Maybe you'd like Bulletproof Monk, starring Chow Yun Fat. And Confidence by James Foley, stars Edward Burns, Dustin Hoffman, Andy Garcia. Monk opens next friday. Confidence the week after.

Argentine movies ... : Official Story, Nine Queens, Son of the Bride. All stellar films.

Desson Howe: Yes, yes, I forgot to mention Argentina. Sorry. Thanks.

Clever commercials: Well, films in England were shown with commercials prior to the feature film. I always loved it -- but the commercials were usually pretty wacky and crazy.

I don't really sense the same wacky-crazy factor in the commercials that precede feature films in the U.S.

Desson Howe: Yes, I remember those commercials.

Washington, D.C.: James Cameron's Ghost of the Abyss continues Cameron's Titanic franchise. Didn't it come out this weekend in selected IMAX theaters at the appropriate calculated time? ... For today is the 91st anniversary that the real ship hit that iceberg.

Desson Howe: True about the anniversary. It opened this Friday at the Baltimore Science Center. Nearest place for Washingtonians to see it at the moment.

Tyson's Corner, Va.: Did you make it to the "Holes" preview? I looked for you among the sea of 11-year-old girls, but I didn't see you.

I've not read the book on which the film is based, but the movie itself, despite a promising start, was a bit of a misfire I thought. I enjoyed Sigourney Weaver and John Voight hamming it up, but that wasn't enough to save the movie. Too bad.

Desson Howe: I was not among the 11-year-olds, no. But I am seeing Holes tonight. It's been highly recommended to me by family and friends who were at the screening with you. They loved it.

More Foreign Film Recommendations: Australia -- Anything by Gillian Armstrong and early Peter Weir.

Desson Howe: Yes, yes.

Bethesda, Md.: I can't imagine that many people LIKE commercials before the film -- but protesting by booing is aiming the protest at the wrong audience (so to speak). The place to protest is to the theater management -- either by phone or in person. And you can always vote with your feet -- i.e., only patronize theaters that don't have commercials.

Desson Howe: Good point.

Humble Pie-town: I'm sitting shell-shocked today after watching your ManU dismantle my beloved Newcastle at St. James' Park yesterday.

Your guys looked unstoppable (and better with Beckham out injured). And we wait till next year ...

Desson Howe: There's always next year. You no doubt remember Newscastle dismantling us 4-0.

Michigan: Hi Desson,
I've decided to start watching some Elizabeth Taylor films, as I haven't really seen any of her stuff before. What really good films would you recommend I start with? I was thinking Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.


Desson Howe: You should see her in National Velvet. She was a dream as a child. Also: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? Butterfield 8, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Father of the Bride, A Place in the Sun, and Cleopatra. For starters ...

Washington, D.C.: Wait ... People are against commercials, but are FOR previews? Preview ARE commercials! And they're terrible since they usually give away the entire plot!

Desson Howe: Yes. True.

Silver Spring, Md.: I went to the community open house for the Silver Theater this weekend, and must say that it is amazing. My boyfriend can't wait to see The Godfather there in a couple of weeks.

Desson Howe: Thanks for telling us. It's truly a jewel.

Nani/Texas: Minnie, your sister? Blimey! I think I do see the resemblance. She was in Good Will Hunting,right? I must dust off my tape and re-play. I remember thinking what a good actor she is, rather different from the run of mill, and wondering why she isn't in more films. What other films has she made?

No disrespect to Mr. Hunter in the slightest degree, and congratulations to him on the Pulitzer, but I do prefer your reviews. But I must admit his review of Adaptation was startlingly beautiful. Do the film critics get to choose what films they review?

Desson Howe: Minnie and I try not to spread it around. yes she was in Good Will Hunting. And she does have a spunky quality which I like. And thanks for preferring my reviews. What would I do without you? As for which films we review,well, I review most of them. All the ones I can get to. Steve and Rita (and sometimes Ann Hornaday) get to divvy them up.

Foreign recommendations -- Spain: Anything by Almodovar, especially All About My Mother.

Desson Howe: Right on.

Drumaville: Desson -- been catching any of the Harold Lloyd retrospective on Turner Classic this month? Thoughts? I caught "The Freshman" and felt it was very well made. Not as funny as I thought it would be, but also a much sweeter movie that spent more time on a character that people could identify with than with gags.

Desson Howe: Harold Lloyd was a charmer, a contemporary of Chaplin's who was fabulously popular in his time. I still adore Safety Last, the one in which he hangs from a clock above the city. He had this infectiously wonderful personality. The silent movie's Buddy Holly. I enjoyed the Freshman too.

Arlington, Va.:
Do you teach a movie appreciation course anywhere? If not, would you? Please??

Desson groupie

Desson Howe: Aw shucks. Too much, mate. Well, as it happens, I am teaching something like that. And it's being offered through the Smithsonian Resident Associates. The films are shown at Visions, without the audience knowing what they are, and then we discuss it. Not me teaching so much as helping the audience come to grips with the film.

Another Liz Taylor Film: Reflections in a Golden Eye with Marlon Brando and a very young Robert Forster. Very interesting film. Did you like it Desson?

Desson Howe: Of course. One of John Huston's many great films. I'm a big Brando fan, so I'd love it anyway. And it's good to see Forster has had a comeback in his career, thanks to Quentin Tarantino.

Silver Spring, Md.: With the opening of the Silver and the upcoming reopening of the Avalon, I'm delighted that we in the Maryland suburbs have an alternative to the multiplex experience -- yecch. I've heard that the Avalon restoration is absolutely beautiful, but how do you think they will fare, commercially?

Desson Howe: I think most of us hope the Avalon will do well, since its rebirth is born out of community love more than making a buck. I hope it does wonderfully.

Rockville, Md.: Hello,

I'm taking a digital video class right now, and for my final project, I have to come up with a story and shoot it myself. It's not too hard to come up with a story, but it is very hard to come up with a good story with an inciting incident and climax and all as my professor wants. Do you have any suggestions on creating a story or is this something that I can never get any help on? Is this something that takes talent?

-- Feeling stuck and very dumb.

Desson Howe: Contact me by e-mail. Howed@washpost.com.

Washington, D.C.: What's the deal with Gywneth Paltrow's movie career? She has made some odd choices since "Shakespeare in Love." I can understand an actress trying to avoid being pigeonholed by audiences and critics, but some of the movies she has done -- like "Shallow Hal" for instance -- have been truly awful.

Desson Howe: She hasn't had a good run lately, it's true. I can offer no explanation!

Laurel: The poster who compared Three Kings to M-A-S-H and Catch-22 missed the most obviously parallel -- Kelly's Heroes, which has the same plot but set in WWII.

BTW, all three were released the same year, 1970. Kelly's Heroes is probably better known for having a cast of superstars from the subsequent decade: Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland, Carroll O'Connor and Telly Savalas.

Do you think, as a complete film, that it belongs in the pantheon of great war spoofs?

Desson Howe: I loved Kelly's Heroes when it came out. God knows what I'd think if I saw it today. Thanks for reminding me about that one.

Disappointed by Beckham: I've been waiting for Bend it like Beckham to finally get over here ever since it came out in England. I'm a huge Beckham fan (got a lovely calendar of him on my office wall) and from the reviews I'd read really, really wanted to see the film.

Saw it with another friend visiting from England (who doesn't rate Becks at all as a football player), and his pre-film opinion was spot on post-film. The whole culture clash thing has been done before and much better in things like East is East. The football parts were okay, but the film wasn't funny at all. Oh strike that, it was only funny towards the last 15 minutes.

We could have had a lot of fun with Jess' mum, but she wasn't in the least bit funny and the acting overall was well dodgy, and what was wrong with Jonathan Rhys Meyers and his perpetual pouting?

There, Desson, I just had to get that off my chest. My conclusion (and I know you don't agree) -- "don't believe the hype!"

Desson Howe: Thanks for sharing. And venting.

Booing at Commercials: I have been tempted to boo those blasted commercials but haven't had the nerve. Now that I hear others are doing it, I may try it, especially if my ticket costs more than $8.00.

Desson Howe: Free country.

Baltimore, Md.: While I will see Bend It, how can you purport to be objective when the film's namesake and (presumably) the object of the young girl's motivation is, in fact, ManU's top player! I'm shocked, Desson, shocked! I reckon if it was called Bend It Like Baggio or Move It Like Maradona, you would not have been so kind.

Seriously though, the previews and an appearance on Letterman by "The Folksmen" lead me to think that the law of diminishing returns is setting in for Guest and Co. The impression I get is that they treat the subject matter rather benignly when I was hoping that they would go very dark with it. The bite of their satire seems to have declined from Guffman.

Desson Howe: Shocked, huh? I can understand.

The Wind thing is kinder and gentler. You may not go for it. But as I said, it really grew on me. Subtler.

Cleveland Park, Washington, D.C.: Just thought I'd mention that Turner Classic Movies is showing films by the great Harold Lloyd every Sunday night this month -- this guy is brilliant.

Desson Howe: Yep.

Herndon, Va.: Mr. H: Also, the Oscars will (nearly) always goof if you have a well-established or veteran star who's been skipped over before. Example, Liz Taylor for "Butterfield 8" or John Wayne -- who should have received one for "The Searchers," getting one for "True Grit." Of course, Hoffman and Voight splitting the "Midnight Cowboy" best actor vote was also a factor. But sometimes, it's never -- i.e., Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.

Desson Howe: Thanks.

Alexandria, Va.: Speaking of the Academy Awards ... I predict that when Martin Scorsese makes a holocaust movie, he will finally win his Academy Award.

Desson Howe: Oh, come now.

Jackson, Miss.: I'm going to be in Alexandria this weekend and would love to see Bend it Like Beckham (and other movies that never come to Jackson, Miss., i.e., every Oscar nominated film except Chicago -- you have no idea how good you have it in D.C.). I have looked at the listings online and cannot find a theater that has released listings/showtimes for this weekend (everything is through Thursday). When do theaters generally release this information and am I in danger of missing Beckham by one day?

Desson Howe: The information should be out Thursday in online versions of the local paper.

Washington, D.C.: Regarding your comment on things peculiarly British, I saw The Play What I Wrote in London last December. It was funny and I enjoyed it but it too was peculiarly British. How do you think the American audience will respond to it on B'way?

Desson Howe: Haven't seen the play, so I don't have any idea. But would love to see it, based on your enthusiasm. But would probably want to watch it in England with Brit actors.

Anger Management: Read your review of "Anger Management" and was wondering if we saw the same movie. I was looking forward to seeing Nicholson and Sandler together but the film was a thorough disappointment. Gotta side with Ann Hornaday. Sorry, Desson. I mean the "air rage" scenes on the plane were far better done in "Meet the Parents" by Ben Stiller as Greg Focker. And speaking of "Parents", Nicholson's participation in "AM" reminded me of the run of comedies that Robert De Niro has been in. But "AM" reminded me more of the awful "Analyze That" than the wonderful "Analyze This." Message to Jack: stick with quality comedy films like "About Schmidt." Don't follow the path of De Niro when it comes to comedies. If you do, then we should see you in your "Showtime" a theater near us soon.

Desson Howe: Don't be sorry. if we all agreed, we wouldn't need critics.

Silver Spring, Md.: Argentinian films: please mention "The Dark Side of the Heart" or anything else by Eliseo Subiela!

Desson Howe: Yes, good one.

New York, N.Y.: City of God -- WOW! Saw it this weekend and was truly awed ... I'd be intrigued to see a comparison between a moderately decent slum and gang movie like "Gangs of New York" and the extraordinary "City of God." In my opinion, the Brazilian's got Scorsese beat on most counts, including believability (although they're both based on true stories), performances, storylines and honesty. Your thoughts.

Desson Howe: Agreed. City of God is an incredible movie. I think Gangs of New York was one of the year's worst.

Memorable Lines: One day you ought to do a show on great lines from movies. I was watching Pam Grier in Foxy Brown into the wee hours of the night last night and she says this bit of dialogue to the thug frisking her ... Pam: "DONT PINCH THE FRUIT F-gg-t."

Desson Howe: Naughty, naughty.

D.C. Metro: Hi Desson, have you heard anything about "Identity", that flick with John Cusack about a group of people that meet at a Bates-like motel only apparently at random, then things happen? Can't tell much because, refreshingly, the preview doesn't give much away. This leads to high hopes for the movie, but maybe it's only the publicity/promotions department that's really skilled.

Desson Howe: Opens the 25th. I see this Thursday. Hope it's good. As always.

Desson Howe: Get back in the sunshine everyone. I've had a great time in this session. Look forward to hearing from you all in a fortnight. Have a lovely 2 weeks.

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