Saturday, December 31, 2005

Desson Thomson's top 10

Washington Post critic Desson Thomson always has one of the best end of year lists, especially his disappointments.

Monday, December 26, 2005

My Top 10 Lists for 2005 (okay, top 13)

Nell Minow

Movie Mom Names
Top Films and Top Family Films for 2005

(Washington DC) December 27, 2005 Nell Minow, who reviews movies each week for Yahoo! Movies and radio stations across the US, has released her list of the year’s best movies – the top 10 overall and the top 10 for families, with three runners-up in each category.

This year’s lists include some first-time screenwriters and directors, like Paul Haggis with “Crash,” Dan Futterman with “Capote,” and Joe Wright with “Pride and Prejudice,” as well as champion of the box office and Oscars Steven Spielberg for “Munich.” It was again a very strong year for documentaries, with “Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” “March of the Penguins,” “Mad Hot Ballroom,” and “Murderball” as standouts. The list of family films ranges from the brilliantly imagined big-budget worlds of Narnia, Chicken Little, and Harry Potter to the warm, evocative stories of love, loss, and growing up in “Roll Bounce” and “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” And one movie made it onto both lists – the deliriously entertaining “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” the first-ever feature from multi-Oscar-winner Nick Park.

Top 10 list for 2005

1. Good Night and Good Luck
2. Munich
3. Crash
4. Memoirs of a Geisha
5. Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
6. Pride and Prejudice
7. Everything is Illuminated
8. Brokeback Mountain
9. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
10. The Squid and the Whale

Runners-up: A History of Violence, Capote, Murderball

Top 10 Family Movies for 2005

1. Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
3. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
4. Mad Hot Ballroom
5. Robots
6. Chicken Little
7. March of the Penguins
8. Roll Bounce
9. Sky High
10. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

Runners-up: Millions, Mirrormask, Serenity

Nell Minow is the author of The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies. She also writes the Media Mom column for the Chicago Tribune.

Movie Mom is a registered trademark of Nell Minow.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Salon has an excellent article by Michelle Goldberg about the pre-emptive strike against the new Steven Spielberg movie about the Israeli response to the massacre of its Olympic athletes in 1972. What I like about the movie is just what the extremists find most threatening. Everyone in the movie is trying to protect his or her home and family. That does not mean that the point of view of the movie is that all judgments or actions taken for that protection are equally valid. But the movie does explore the moral and psychic costs of retaliation on people of honor and integrity. Many people would love to have seen this be an "Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker Go After the Palestinians" shoot-em-up, but that would have been a disservice and a dishonor to the people who have died and the people who have killed in this conflict over the years and to those of us who are developing evaluating our countries' policies on terrorism today.

More on Baby Einstein

Salon's new Broadsheet blog discusses my article about DVDs for infants and toddlers. The commenter who says that Baby Einstein is not as thoroughly merchandised as Sesame Street should take a look at this press release, which lists the "must-have" gifts for the holiday season, including the Baby Einstein Sing and Learn Monkey, "the lovable, interactive plush puppet host of the Baby da Vinci(TM) From Head to Toe DVD and video." This is contrary, by the way, to the response I got from the company when I asked whether they were going to market the toys from the videos. "Baby Einstein features toys from many manufacturers in our award-winning line of developmental DVDs and videos. Although Baby Einstein does not sell these products, we do provide information on obtaining these items. Please visit and look at the “Toys in Videos” section under the Products tab. In addition to creating videos and DVDs, Baby Einstein now offers its own line of books, music CDs, Discovery Cards, juvenile playthings, toys, baby gear, bibs, soft bath items, party supplies and apparel for little ones ages 0-3."

Also, yesterday's Chicago Tribune had a great
editorial about media for babies, citing my piece.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Kaiser Family Foundation on Media for 0-24 months

The Kaiser Family Foundation has issued a report calling for more research and better labeling for products marketed as "educational" for under-twos.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Washington DC Critics Name Munich Best Film, Spielberg Best Director

Washington DC Critics Name Munich Best Film, Spielberg Best Director

Media Mom column on Baby Einstein

The more I learned about the booming world of media for 0-24-month olds, the angrier I got. The nerve of the Baby Einstein people to say that they disagree with the American Pediatric Association's recommendation of no television, videos, or computers for babies under 24 months but admit that their own materials are not "research based." They know that the research shows that kids learn less from these DVDs than from interacting with the world (and that, contrary to being calming, the refresh rate of pulsing light on any screen is both hypnotic and stimulating, neither good for babies), but they are making so much money that they do not want to have to deal with what the research will tell them.


Are 'educational' baby videos a scam?
Research lacking to support claims

By Nell Minow
Special to the Tribune

December 14, 2005

Nothing grabs the attention of nervous new parents and excited grandparents like a product they think can make their children smarter.

The market for educational "baby videos" aimed at children as young as newborn has skyrocketed, representing about $100 million in annual sales, according to Business Week.

It's ironic that while food labeled "fresh" or "low-fat" must meet very specific federal standards, there's nothing to prevent a manufacturer from labeling a kiddie video "educational" or "enriching" without providing much support for the claims. Indeed, for at least one educational baby video series, the PhD "experts" endorsing it on the box do not disclose they also are the experts paid to help develop it.

Our youngest children are growing up in media-saturated households, but a Kaiser Family Foundation report released last January found only limited research on electronic media's effects on them. (This week the non-profit private foundation plans to release a report on the marketing of educational media for babies, toddlers and preschoolers, as well as hold a roundtable discussion on the topic.)

There's also little available to help parents figure out the value of educational DVDs or videos or computer games designed for children under age 2.

Here's what we do know:

- The "Mozart effect" -- the popular idea that listening to classical music will make you (or your child) smarter -- has been discredited.

- The American Academy of Pediatrics advises zero "screen time" (videos, television, computer) -- none -- for children under age 2.

- No reliable body of research exists to support the notion that a child so young can measurably, permanently benefit from watching developmental videos.

Unfortunately for parents and grandparents, according to Dr. Susan Linn, psychologist at Judge Baker Children's Center and Harvard Medical School, so-called "developmental" videos won't put Baby on the path to the Ivy League.

"Essentially, the baby video industry is a scam. There's no evidence that the videos are educational for babies, and a review of the research on babies and videos concludes that while older babies can imitate simple actions from a video they've seen several times, they learn much more rapidly from real life," Linn says.

One of the best known series of developmental media for infants is Baby Einstein, which got its start in 1997 when new mom Julie Aigner-Clark created a video "to help her share her love of art, classical music, language and poetry with her newborn daughter," according to the company Web site.

Until then, instructional media for children usually began around age 3, with the focus on preschool curriculum content -- dancing alphabet letters and numbers and flashcard-style presentations of colors, animals and shapes.

Baby Einstein, aimed at infants, is more gentle and free-form, with music, words and images of babies, children, toys, pictures and nature.

The company names its products after people from history instantly recognizable as brilliant in the arts and sciences -- Baby Bach, Baby Galileo, Baby Monet, Baby Wordsworth, for example.

Now a part of the Walt Disney Co., Baby Einstein has expanded its series of DVDs, music CDs, books and toys to include many more titles intended for infants, some as young as newborn or a month old. The company also has launched a new line of Little Einstein products for preschoolers.

But to my mind, it's hard to figure out what these products do. Are they entertainment? Are they educational? Something between a baby-sitter and a hold button to give tired parents a break?

Smarter not the goal

I turned to the company Web site and online store -- -- and learned the videos, music and "discovery cards" (flashcards) don't promise to raise a baby's IQ to Einstein levels. "Baby Einstein products are not designed to make babies smarter," the Web site says. "Rather, Baby Einstein products are specifically designed to engage babies and provide parents with tools to help expose their little ones to the world around them in playful and enriching ways -- stimulating a baby's natural curiosity."

The Web site features parental testimonials for Baby Einstein's success at holding their babies' interest, increasing attention span, teaching colors and appreciation for classical music. There's also a separate group of testimonials attesting to Baby Einstein's power as a calming agent for fussy, fractious kids. "Thank you so much for making something that my baby is interested in because I cannot get him to sit down and watch anything else except Baby Einstein," says one.

"They have been almost like a baby-sitter to me, while I shower or wash the dishes," says another.

Nobody can take issue with harried parents thrilled to find something to keep the baby occupied for a few minutes so they can clear the table or grab a shower. But do we really want babies to learn that the best way to find something interesting to do, or to calm themselves down, is to watch a television screen?

I e-mailed Baby Einstein to ask if staff members know of any independent research showing what babies and toddlers learn from material like their videos. I heard back promptly from a publicist who ran my questions by the company's vice president for marketing, communications and educational products, Rashmi Turner.

"It is important to note that Baby Einstein products are specifically designed to provide parents with tools to help expose their little ones to the world around them through parent-child interaction," Turner said.

"The Baby Einstein Company does work closely with child development experts and relies on their insights and expertise to help ensure its products are appropriate for both parents and babies alike."

I brought up the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that babies under age 2 not have any "screen time" at all, whether television, DVDs or computers because children learn best through hands-on experience and interaction.

"As stated on the Web site, The Baby Einstein Company respects the American Academy of Pediatrics," Turner said. "While we don't necessarily agree that children under the age of 2 should not be exposed to television, as we believe it can be a powerful learning tool when used appropriately, we do agree with many aspects of the AAP's recommendation."

Notably, Baby Einstein agrees that parents should watch programming with their children and parents should interact with their children throughout -- talking, playing, singing and reading together. That part of the Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation, however, is supposed to apply to older children, not infants and toddlers.

Turner said the Baby Einstein DVDs are "not research-based" and the company does not have any data showing that children learn anything from watching them.

Evaluation difficult

It is very difficult to evaluate how much infants can learn from watching videos and DVDs, first because we can't ask them, but more important because infants are at the most receptive stage of life for learning. It is almost impossible to measure how much they pick up -- much less how quickly or how well they learn -- from a DVD compared with having a parent or caregiver sing a song or play with them.

Still, an academic review of the research to date by Daniel R. Anderson and Tiffany A. Pempek of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, discussing studies from different perspectives (measuring attention, imitation, new vocabulary), shows babies learn less from watching DVDs than from the same amount of time playing and interacting and observing directly.

In other words, your baby will learn more about gravity from throwing her spoon onto the floor than she will from watching a video of a baby dropping spoons -- no matter what kind of music is playing in the background.

If you look and listen carefully, that's what the producers of the baby DVDs themselves tell you.

Three "academic leaders" (who also are paid consultants, though that isn't disclosed) appear in a segment for parents on the Eebee DVD by Sony Wonder, for example, to explain to parents that babies need interaction and experience. They advise parents that "play is the work of childhood" and that children need to feel textures and explore objects for themselves.

"We know that passive viewing is not good for children," says Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, identified as a PhD and co-author of "Einstein Never Used Flashcards." On the DVD's box, however, which does not identify her as a consultant in developing the material, Hirsch-Pasek, provides a cheery blurb that reads: "Eebee's adventures sparkle with a creativity that shows how the magic of everyday moments can become extraordinary learning opportunities."

Also on the Eebee DVD, Dr. Deborah Linebarger of the University of Pennsylvania, another paid consultant, says, "It's not realistic to tell a parent no TV or no videos."

Not realistic? That makes me furious. Are babies going to tell you they're going to the library to study and then sneak off to a friend's house to watch something on a screen? One lesson babies cannot learn too early is that parents know how to set limits.

`What are we learning?'

Former FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson once said, "All television is educational. The question is what we are learning from it."

Despite adults' best intentions in turning on "enriching" videos, there's a danger babies and toddlers may be learning they don't need to develop imagination, curiosity and the ability to entertain and quiet themselves. As Linn says, "What babies do learn . . . is to turn to a screen for stimulation and for soothing."

These DVDs don't teach babies nearly as much about colors or words or shapes or the world outside as they teach them this: Watching television is and will be a major occupation.

So when we sit babies down in front of a video about how wonderful it is to touch, squeeze, roll, stretch, hide and feel -- instead of encouraging them to actually do those things -- the lessons they are most likely to learn are that watching television is important and that the grown-ups in their life will tell them one thing but do the opposite.

Maybe that's a new line of products. We can call them Baby Irony.

- - -


Media Mom suggests:

- Play music and sing to your baby (she doesn't care that you're not a candidate for "American Idol").

- Read books out loud and make audio tapes of yourself reading them to play to the baby when you are away.

- Give the toddler measuring cups and something safe to scoop and spill -- his cereal, maybe, or mashed potatoes. (Let him enjoy getting messy and be sure to take pictures before he takes a bath.)

- Describe what you're doing, and describe what you see. "We are driving to the bank, and oh, look! A fire engine! Where's it going?" is thrilling repartee for a toddler in a car seat, and your excitement and curiosity will be inspiring.

- Remember, you are doing much more than practicing words or pointing out things about the world around you. You are teaching your baby he or she is important to you -- that's a lesson no video can match.

- - -

What the American Academy of Pediatrics says about television, children and learning:

Television affects how your child learns. High-quality, non-violent children's shows can have a positive effect on learning. Studies show that preschool children who watch educational TV programs do better on reading and math tests than children who do not watch those programs. When used carefully, television can be a positive tool to help your child learn.

For older children, high-quality TV programs can have benefits. However, for younger children it's a very different story. The first two years of life are especially important in the growth and development of your child's brain. During this time, children need good, positive interaction with other children and adults to develop good language and social skills. Learning to talk and play with others is far more important than watching television.

Until more research is done about the effects of TV on very young children, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend television for children younger than two years of age. For older children, the AAP recommends no more than one to two hours per day of quality screen time.

- - -

A crowded field

The popularity of the Baby Einstein series has inspired other companies to further pry open the wallets of competitive or worried parents. Psychologist Susan Linn has counted more than 200 titles for this age group. Among them:

Baby Chatterbox (where "learning is always fun!!!") is "designed by caring parents, teachers and speech language professionals" to "focus on promoting your child's vocabulary acquisition." Recommended ages: 3 months to 3 years.

Baby Bumblebee, which claims to rely on "a scientifically well-established teaching method," says it will "build your baby's brain" with DVDs devoted to vocabulary building and numbers. Recommended ages: 4 months to 11 months, though it adds that "many parents have successfully started earlier or later."

Eebee's programs ("when adventure becomes understanding") show adults interacting with babies and a baby puppet, playing with a ball and pouring cereal.

Tiny Tot Sports says it helps fight childhood obesity with its DVDs about baseball, basketball, golf, soccer and football for "ages 0-4."

Sesame Street announced in November the advent of Sesame Beginnings, "a new line of DVDs, books, toys and infant products, brings everything you love about Sesame Street to you and your infant." The Web site notes, "With Sesame Beginnings, every time you and your baby laugh and connect over a silly song, you encourage your child's curiosity and interest in learning."


Nell Minow reviews movies each week as The Movie Mom for Yahoo! Movies and for radio stations across the country. She can be reached at

Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune

original link

Friday, December 09, 2005

Imbeciles at the movies, part 2

This Slim Smith column has a story about a woman who saw a 4 or 5 year old at the R-rated gore-fest "Saw II." She thinks it should be the theater's responsibility to keep the child from seeing the movie. But, as I explained to Smith, R just means that no one under 17 is admitted without a parent. Any parent can bring a child to an R-rated movie, and it really can't be the job of the theater or the movie studio to tell a parent what to do. It can be the job of the state, however, and I am all for calling this kind of exposure child abuse.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Joe Singer's comments on "Rent"

I was very impressed with the thoughtful comments of Harvard law professor (and all-star brother-in-law) Joseph Singer on the movie version of Rent, so, with his permission, I have included them here.

I saw Rent last night and overall I liked it. I think that fans of the show like me have to cut Chris Columbus some slack. To turn the show into a movie requires changes. I liked some and not others but overall I found the movie very moving and mostly liked the performances.

I didn't mind his changing the order of some of the songs and I understand the decision to use dialogue rather than the song passages to do the words between the bigger songs.

Some things that annoyed me:

1. When Joanne talks about the engineer being 3 hours late, she says "he's 3 hours late." If I'm not mistaken, the original is "she's 3 hours late." That was really annoying for them to change; there is no reason for that whatsoever and the original made a point that the engineer could be a woman. That took me back and annoyed me.

2. The absence of the homeless chorus is understandable since it's such a stage device. But the chorus is crucial to the play and its absence fuels the sense of these artists being self-indulgent. The chorus in the play sings "Xmas bells are ringing, somewhere else not here" meaning "not for us." They appear several times in the play (4 times at least) making them central characters in the play. In the movie homeless people are only on the periphery. They are the whole point of the protest and their own humanity and agency are hidden in the movie while they are central in the play. So it seems like it's just these guys having liberal guilt rather than actually caring about the homeless as human beings. The presence of a group of homeless reappearing again and again on stage emphasized that their being thrown off the lot had human consequences -- like where were they going to go? The movie makes this issue peripheral and decreases the sense of urgency about their situation. Even if a chorus would not work for the movie, I would have liked some homeless person to speak other than the woman who chides Mark for filming her.

3. Showing Roger in an open convertible with the wind in his hair and standing on buttes in Santa Fe was just laughable. I liked the image of him playing guitar on the street, not making it in Santa Fe, but the scene in the desert made people in the movie theater guffaw.

4. I really didn't like having Mimi's song "Take me out tonight" start in the Club where she was dancing. Perhaps it would have been ok if it had been there for a few lines or so but most of the song was there and only gets into Roger's apartment at the last minute. On stage, this song is very funny and touching partly because the whole thing is sung to Roger, begging him to take her out. The fact that she goes on and on trying to seduce him is part of what makes him so angry. The song's place for me is the sense of her pleading with him to get him out of the apartment and that is mostly lost in the way it was done in the theater. I especially didn't like having half the song sung in the street on the way to his place, again perhaps needed for the transition from the club. But then I would have not placed it in the club at all, maybe starting on her balcony or something. In the theater, the length of the song allows Roger to start out listening but he gets angry over time during the song. In the movie, she sings only for a few lines before he blows up and his emotional reaction is not as believable. I really missed the sense of the song as her pleading with him, partly for her sake and partly for his. Also in the theater, the seductive moves are for him, not for the guys in the club; they are real not fake and the movie mixes this up and suggests that her seduction is fake; she is treating him like the guys in the club about whom she has no feelings, but in the theater version she really wants to get to know him and the moves are for him really, not just as any guy.

5. Why did they leave out the information that Roger's first girlfriend committed suicide when she found out she had AIDS? That was part of the reason Roger was so traumatized and had not left the apartment in a year. Perhaps they thought it was touching enough seeing her get the news but it's an odd way to sanitize the story.

6. I like the actor who played Alexi Darling but she was not sleazy enough. The show gives a sense not just that this is corporate America but that the show is really really bad, not an ordinary TV show. The selling out part is not so much about making money as making it in a way that makes it hard for Mark to look at himself in the mirror in the morning. The sense I got from the show was that it was like working for the National Enquirer, not like working for CBS or something. This failure to show the show as really sleazy helped to exaggerate the sense of self-indulgence of these guys rather than their commitment to their artistic integrity. The selling out point was weakened considerably if it was just about not making money or doing something popular; in the play, it's not just that Mark wants to do his own work but that he doesn't want to do something affirmatively bad; the movie makes it look like he just doesn't want to work for corporate America.

7. The commitment ceremony was not a bad touch but I really didn't like having them do the argument in front of all their friends and family. I had envisioned the song as an argument between the two of them. Having the family follow them made an emotionally wrenching song funny when it wasn't supposed to be. I also imagine the song being less a challenge from Maureen than an effort to go back and forth from being angry (take me as I am) and reassuring (who's in your bed every night?) and the way Menzel played it, very little of the reassurance comes through, but that may be because the music is so aggressive.

8. I really missed one of my favors songs/scenes, which is a song in the street that is a very complicated medley of songs (It's Beginning to Snow) between Angel and Collins, Roger and Mark, drug dealers and junkies, street vendors, and homeless people, and at the end they are all singing together in a very complicated quartet/quintet like an oldstyle classical opera. It may have seemed too complicated to stage on the screen or maybe Columbus thought it got get in the way of the plot or made the movie too long, etc. But this was one of the Xmas Bells songs started by the homeless chorus asking if others can spare a dime, and then lamenting that they would have no tinsel, no reindeer, and no room at the inn. This song also would have in some sense been easier to show in a movie than the stage because it involved so many different groups singing. And again the "no room at the Holiday Inn" theme showed the homeless chorus singing for themselves, drug dealers doing their damage, all at the same time Angel and Collins were falling in love, and Roger had emerged from the house for the first time and approaching Mimi outside the house. And again and again in the song, the homeless are saying in different ways they're not getting Xmas; they seemed to me in the theater both desperate and strong at the same time -- very human. The contrast between Xmas and their having no where to go and really having no where to go after the lot is rebuilt is manifest in the play and the movie makes this issue very peripheral.

9. It was exceptionally important to me the first time I saw the play (and afterwards when I analyzed it) that Collins's coat is ripped when he is mugged and Angel notes this by singing "you've missed a sleeve." The ripped garment immediately made me recall the "rent garment" which is the custom seen in the Bible with Jacob who rips his cloak when he believes Joseph has been ripped to pieces by wild animals. It is a sign of grief at the death of a loved one and foreshadows the deaths of both Angel (and Collins at some point after the play ends). It also suggest the meaning of rent as "torn" and the very few song (called "Rent") contains language stating that they feel torn apart. The last line of the song is "We're not gonna pay rent cuz everything is rent" uses different meanings of rent for the two words; the first is the obligation to pay money to a landlord; the second is the experience of being torn apart by forces in the world (the economy, homelessness, AIDS), as well as torn apart by grief. Not using the symbol of the rent garment in the movie is sort of incomprehensible given the title of the play/movie and what I believe to be its deep double meaning.

Things I did like:

1. Showing the support group 3 times instead of only once and having Roger show up at it as the first thing he does when he leaves the house after a year. That was really touching. I also really liked showing the characters disappearing as a prelude to Angel's death; having seen them all before and hear them speak and then seeing them disappear was very powerful. That was a change from the show that I liked.

2. Shortening the second act considerably. Since I don't consider it finished and the songs aren't as good, etc.

3. Showing how AIDS is central to their existence and their fragile and damaged psyches. Mark is afraid of being left alone; this is before the better drugs we have now and he can anticipate deaths of Roger, Mimi, Collins, as well as Angel. The only ones left will be Maureen and Joanne and as the ex-girlfriend that doesn't leave Mark with any real family. Benny is no longer family to him, and Mark is going to be alone. This doesn't come through that well in the film but the importance of family does.

I do think your reaction that they are somewhat adolescent and not sophisticated in blaming "yuppie scum" comes through loud and clear in the movie version. It felt much less that way to me in the theater because in a sense their Bohemian lifestyle meant that they were in a precarious position somewhat like the homeless people they championed. In some sense they were able to identify with the homeless and see them as human and sympathize with them in a way that Benny couldn't (or he forgot how to do this). Of course, they have options the homeless don't have; they all could emerge from their state if they wanted to do so, and that fact suggested to me the need for some response to people who do not have options. I understood the play to criticize 2 extremes; no property (homelessness) and absolute property ("any owner of that lot next door has the right to do with it what he pleases"). The message was not so much against Benny as against the tendency not to see the homeless at all or to see them merely as obstacles or as not fully human. The movie did a much worse job of humanizing them than than the play did and that was one reason the naivete seemed much greater in the movie than in the theater.

But I guess in the end I have to say that Columbus did ok; I knew the movie would be different from the play and since I'm a musician I believe in interpretation and this was Columbus's interpretation of the play and it was really interesting to see how he viewed it when he had the job of making it a movie rather than merely a stage production. He got to me emotionally even though some of the scenes made people near me laugh inappropriately (like seeing the wind go through Roger's hair on the mountain in Santa Fe) and interfere with my (and their) listening to powerful lyrics where Roger was realizing he'd been a jerk and decided to come back home.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Marin/Minow interview

Distinguished broadcast journalist Carol Marin interviews Newton Minow, former FCC Chairman, statesman, eminence grise, all-around brilliant guy and my dad.

Friday, November 04, 2005

IndieFlix: Host your own indie film festival

This site provides a place for independent film-makers to take their movies straight to the audience, without going through distributors or theater owners. Just pick the movie you like and they'll burn you a CD. No more multi-plex fodder just because there's nothing else to see.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Imbeciles at the movies

What are they thinking? This Chicago Sun Times reporter says that at a recent showing of "40 Year Old Virgin," she sat near two women who brought three little girls, about 3, 6, and 8. The American Academy of Pediatrics says (and any person with an IQ over 30 knows) that what children see has an impact on them. And even children know when the adults in their lives do not care enough to protect them from inappropriate material. John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners says that theaters have actually been sued for trying to stop parents from taking their children to movies with mature material. I almost always see underage children at the R-rated movies I attend. Before a screening of "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," I told the woman sitting next to me with her 10 year old daughter that it was a very violent movie. "Oh, she's not going to like that!" the mother said brightly, but made no move to leave. The reporter says that the next time she sees young children at an inappropriate movie she will complain to the management. I hope she does, and writes about the result.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Just Browsing? Five Places to Linger

The Washington Post's Ann Hornaday has a great guide to some of the best time-wasting movie-related websites. Be sure to check them out.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Chicago Tribune | The man who gives Plasticine life. Lips too

The Chicago Tribune has my interview with Wallace and Gromit's Nick Park, who is every bit as quietly hilarious and perfectly delightful as his characters.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Trevor Romain Gets It

The most neglected group when it comes to movies and DVDs are the 4th to 8th graders, so I am especially happy when there is something just for them. Trevor Romain has put together a great series of DVDs based on his books about subjects kids really care about. "Facing Fear Without Freaking Out" and "Taking the 'Duh' Out of Divorce" join the earlier ones about bullies, loss, and my favorite, "How To Do Homework Without Throwing Up." Each one speaks frankly and accessibly about the tough issues, with practical tools kids can use to address these problems.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Spoiler central

For my radio broadcasts, I have introduced the "Gothika" rule -- every so often, there will be a movie so terrible that I offer to spoil the ending for anyone who sends me an email. I got over 500 requests to divulge the ending of "Flghtplan" this weekend (didn't stop it from being #1 at the box office, though). Those who are looking for other spoilers can check out The Movie Spoiler which happily (and accurately) warns not only that endings will be revealed but that the archive section is very addictive!

My further thoughts on the problems with "Flightplan" appeared in the Chicago Tribune on September 26:


Does movie's premise fly?

By Nell Minow
Special to the Tribune
Published September 26, 2005

If you don't want to know key plot points of the movie "Flightplan," do not read this

In the new movie "Flightplan," Jodie Foster plays a recent widow bringing her husband's coffin home to be buried. Her young daughter disappears during the flight, and Foster's character, an engineer who helped design the plane, searches the entire aircraft as the crew and the federal air marshal onboard go from being concerned about a lost child to wondering whether the little girl was ever on the flight in the first place.

It turns out there's a massive murder, smuggling and extortion scheme afoot and, according to one of the characters, coffins are the only passenger flight cargo that do not get checked by security.

Can that be true?


Not exactly.

Obviously, the most preposterous aspect of the fiendish "Flightplan" plot is the very idea of hitting up a modern airline for millions. Tell it to the bankruptcy judge.

But as for the rest, we checked with Carrie Harmon, a spokeswoman at the Transportation Security Administration, the federal agency in charge of airport (and baggage) security. She said there are no security exceptions made for coffins. "Coffins are screened like other cargo through our `known shipper' program," she said. "Any cargo that goes onto a passenger airplane must be sent through a shipper that meets a broad range of very specific security requirements. It's not technologically feasible to screen 100 percent of the cargo, so our screening of items from known shippers is based on a risk-assessment system."

Cremated remains get X-rayed, though. "At one point we accepted documentation from a funeral home about the contents of funerary urns, but in September 2004 we determined that all crematory containers must pass through an X-ray machine," she said.

We also talked about the film with Dave Adams, spokesman for the Federal Air Marshal Service. Played by actor Peter Sarsgaard, the lone air marshal onboard in "Flightplan" has a secret.

Not realistic, Adams said. "We don't divulge the number of our people on the flights, but I can guarantee you that we never fly alone." What's more, he added, "there is a thorough background investigation. These are very highly screened, talented men and women doing an outstanding job every day."

He did endorse the film's accuracy on one point, however, when we asked if all federal air marshals are as attractive as Sarsgaard.

Adams said, "Of course!"

This week's best bad review

Mr. Madge, Guy Ritchie, made the brilliant "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels" and the almost-brilliant "Snatch." But life with Madonna may be too happy for him to keep that edge. According to Fleet Street, "The critics have been scathing - some claiming it [new Guy Richie film, Revolver] is even worse than Swept Away, which starred Madonna and went straight to video in the UK.

'After Revolver, Swept Away now looks like Citizen Kane," the Guardian said. "Words can not easily express how emphatically this film withholds the pleasures of film going.'"

Monday, September 12, 2005

One degree of separation from Minow to Gilligan

We'll all miss Bob Denver, best remembered as Gilligan. I was touched and amused that many of the newspaper stories about him noted that the famous sinking ship, the S.S. Minnow, was named for my dad, Newton Minow, former chairman of the FCC, who riled Gilligan-creator Sherwood Schwartz by calling television a "vast wasteland." Long before Gilligan, we had a cat named "Maynard G. Minow" in honor of what I still like to think of as Denver's greatest role, the proto-beatnick Maynard G. Krebs from "The Adventures of Dobie Gillis."

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Big Payday for Lawyers In Sony Fake-Blurb Deal

I would be surprised if anyone is surprised that the only people who got anything out of the "David Manning" fake critic consumer lawsuit are the lawyers.

Monday, September 05, 2005

What's the difference between an associate producer, an executive producer, and a producer?

An exchange in "State and Main" addressed the same question:
Joseph Turner White: What's an associate producer credit?
Bill Smith: It's what you give to your secretary instead of a raise.

Ask Yahoo! has a more straightforward look at this question, but doesn't contradict Mamet's version.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Business in movies

This draft article about the way business is portrayed in movies by a University of Illinois law professor proposes that the movies tend to portray businessmen (and women) as bad guys, though they don't do much to promote the idea of workers as the good guys. "Filmmakers’ main problem with capital being in control seems to be that the filmmakers are not."

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Independents' Day

The Washington Post's Desson Thomson has a good beginner's guide to independent films.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Movies Are Rated R, but Not on the Billboards - New York Times

Movie ads are supposed to reveal the movie's rating. But as this article shows, many billboards have "not yet rated" designations. The same artwork is not just on billboards meant to be glimpsed while traveling but also on posters on buses and subways, so the claim that it isn't important whether the rating information is there or not is as specious as the claim that they don't intentionally delay submitting the movie for review so they can leave the rating information ambiguous for as long as possible.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Smoking on Film

The Health Section of the Washington Post reports that a study of cigarette smoking in 447 popular movies from the 1990's showed that 35 percent of bad guys smoke, while only 20 percent of the good guys. R-rated and independent movies are especially smoke-y.

Chicago Tribune | READERS RESPOND

The follow-up to my Chicago Tribune column on children's books has responses from readers, including my own 6th grade teacher.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Sony settles "fake critic" lawsuit

The two dumbest things about this story?

1. You don't have to make up a critic to get fake raves, while people like Earl Dittman will obligingly call any movie brilliant, hilarious, and thrilling.

2. The studio actually tried to argue that creating a fake critic was the exercise of its First Amendment rights. Hey guys? If the First Amendment does not protect those who falsely shout "fire!" in a crowded theater, it doesn't protect those who falsely shout "brilliant" to get people to crowd the theater.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Media Mom: Never too old for children's books (Chicago Tribune)

My Media Mom column in today's Chicago Tribune is a valentine to my family and the books we have shared:

Never too old for children's books

By Nell Minow
Special to the Tribune
Published July 26, 2005

Charlie Bucket is still finding the golden ticket for a tour of Willie Wonka's candy factory, 40 years after Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" was originally published. A new anniversary edition of the book is out in time for the release of the second movie version. It holds up very well, though the movie understandably updates Mike Teevee's obsession from television shows to video games and the Oompa Loompas are not African (as in the book) or purple (as in the first movie), but computer-generated duplicates of one actor.

The book first came out just as I was proudly using my brand-new adult library card and thinking of myself as much too old to check out books from the children's room. But my younger sister's copy proved as impossible to resist as a Wonka bar, and it taught me a lesson I have been grateful for ever since -- that no one is ever too old for children's books.

For the good ones, anyway. My friend Kristie Miller, a biographer and historian, says revisiting the books she loved as a child is like going to a high school re-union. Some old friends have grown along with you and are more meaningful than ever, but others suddenly look immature, superficial and sugary.

When I read "The Secret Garden" and "Little Women" aloud to my children, I had the combined pleasure of remembering reading them myself, sharing them with another generation and seeing a depth and subtlety and structure I had never appreciated before.

As a child, when I loved a book, I went down the library shelves and read everything else I could find by the author. "The Secret Garden" led me to Frances Hodgson Burnett's "A Little Princess" (has there ever been a sweeter moment of vindication than when Miss Minchin finds out about the diamond mines?), and "Little Women" led me to its sequels and also to Lousia May Alcott's "Eight Cousins," "Jack and Jill" and "An Old-fashioned Girl."

Now that the statute of limitations on elementary school truancy has expired, I can admit that the one time I ever pretended to be sick so I could stay home from school was to finish reading "The Phantom Tollbooth," by Norton Juster. Any judge would find me innocent by reason of necessity, especially if, like me, he or she had read only the first half and was dying to know whether Milo would find Rhyme and Reason and solve the disputes between the kingdom of words and the kingdom of numbers.

I find something new to love in Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" with every reading. "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," by L. Frank Baum, and several of the sequels, the "Little House" series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and the "Shoes" series by Noel Streatfield, "A Wrinkle In Time" by Madeleine L'Engle, all are every bit as wonderful as I remembered, and then some. So are the books by E. Nesbit (especially "Five Children and It") that delightfully combine practical-minded children and magical adventures, and those she inspired by Edward Eager (especially "Half Magic" and "Knight's Castle").

I read all of those to my children along with some childhood favorites now forgotten, including "The Trouble with Jenny's Ear," by Oliver Butterworth (a girl who can read minds goes on a quiz show to win money to save a beloved playground), "Nobody's Boy," by Hector H. Malot (a foundling sold to a traveling
performer has many adventures before finding his real family), and "Beginner's
Luck," by Oriel Malet(three orphans run away from a mean guardian to find a sweet-natured aunt and end up on stage).

Recommended by kids

And there were books my children brought to me -- the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, Philip Pullman's series that starts with "The Golden Compass," the books of Lloyd Alexander, especially "The Arkadians" and "The Iron Ring," and of course J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, all as endlessly inventive and as enthralling for me as they were to my children.

On the other hand, I adored the "Anne of Green Gables" books by L.M. Montgomery as a child but can't read through two pages now without feeling my fillings ache from the undiluted syrup. "Heidi" by Johanna Spyri and "Pollyanna" by Eleanor H. Porter are also too saintly to appeal to me now. I'm glad to say that the film versions of all three hold up much better.

Some of those older books I remembered with affection have more serious problems than sugar shock. At a used book sale, I excitedly grabbed a book my mother had read aloud to me, a favorite from her own childhood called "A Dixie Doll," by Katherine Verdery. I had not seen or even thought of the book in decades, but I immediately turned to a page that, in our copy of the book, had been torn out. I remembered very well how curious I had been to find out what was on it.

Apparently, someone had torn out that page because it included the casual use of a racial epithet that is shocking nearly 100 years after the story was written. It reminded me that when I went to New Trier in the late 1960s, I brought one of my old Nancy Drew books to a little girl I was tutoring but ended up putting it back in my bag when I looked ahead as she was reading and saw an insensitively stereotyped character.

The Nancy Drew books have all been updated and reissued -- the blue roadster is long gone -- but the books are still just pluck and puzzles and do not have a single memorable character, description or line of dialogue.

Neither does the current best-selling Gossip Girl series which, even worse, also manages to be simultaneously slack and vile. The neurasthenic rich-girl characters have less depth than paper dolls. All they do is get loaded, spend money, have sex and betray one another.

The books are poorly written ("Nate had come over after a party with a half-drunk
flask of brandy in his pocket and had lain down on her bed and whispered, `I want you, Blair.'"), with more attention to the brand names than the plot lines. But they are wildly popular.

Resisting trash

Teaching kids to resist the appeal of trash books is not a new problem. Alcott's "Eight Cousins" has a wise mother tell her sons: "It does seem to me that some one might write stories that should be lively, natural and helpful tales in which the English should be good, the morals pure, and the characters such as we can love in spite of the faults that all may have. I can't bear to see such crowds of eager little fellows at the libraries reading such trash; weak, when it is not wicked, and totally unfit to feed the hungry minds that feast on it for want of something better."

At least the relentlessly wholesome Heidi and Pollyanna meet that standard.

Bridging the gaps

On this summer's vacation with my extended family, each of us was asked to bring a book we loved and share it with the group. One night, all eleven of us -- ranging in age from 13 to 79 -- sat down together to describe our books and swap them around. The enthusiasm was so infectious that my serious lawyer father who can't tell Mick Jagger from Steven Tyler ended up reading my college senior son's selection -- Frank Zappa's autobiography.

I loved my daughter's description of Natalie Babbitt's wonderful "The Search for Delicious" so much, I am on the list to reread it as soon as my sister is finished with it. My daughter borrowed her uncle's copy of the new Jonathan Safran Foer book, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," and her uncle took my copy of Connie Willis' book, "Bellwether."

I can't wait to begin my niece's "The Gammage Cup," by Carol Kendall, which she read because it was her much older cousin's favorite childhood book. She promises me it is completely engrossing.

- - -

Favorites from childhood

Media Mom's list of childhood favorites:

"Little Women," "Eight Cousins," "Jack and Jill," "An Old-fashioned Girl,"
by Louisa May Alcott

"The Arkadians" and "The Iron Ring" by Lloyd Alexander

"The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," by L. Frank Baum

"The Secret Garden" and "A Little Princess" by Frances Hodgson Burnett

"The Trouble with Jenny's Ear" by Oliver Butterworth

"Alice in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll

"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald Dahl

"Half Magic" and "Knight's Castle" by Edgar Eager

"Redwall" series by Brian Jacques

"The Phantom Tollbooth" by Norton Juster

"A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L'Engle

"Beginner's Luck" by Oriel Malet

"Nobody's Boy" by Hector H. Malot

"Anne of Green Gables" and others in the series by L.M. Montgomery

"Five Children and It" by E. Nesbit

"Pollyanna" by Eleanor H. Porter

"The Golden Compass" and others in the "His Dark Materials" series by Philip

"Heidi" by Johanna Spyri

"Shoes" series by Noel Streatfield

"A Dixie Doll" by Katherine Verdery

"Little House" series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

- - -

One family's book swap

These are the favorite books my family members, ranging in age from 13 to
79, recommended to one another on vacation this summer.

"The Search for Delicious" by Natalie Babbitt

"Wizard's Bane" by Rick Cook

"The Star Thrower" by Loren Eisley

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Safran Foer

"Act One: An Autobiography" by Moss Hart

"The Gammage Cup," by Carol Kendall

"A Gift From the Sea" by Anne Morrow Lindbergh

"Letters to a Young Poet" by Rainer Maria Rilke

"Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser

"A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

"Mrs. Miniver" by Jan Struther

"Bellwether" by Connie Willis

"The Real Frank Zappa Book" by Frank Zappa

Saturday, July 23, 2005

What's the biggest box office bomb ever?

Yahoo answers the question: What's the biggest box office bomb ever? Yes, Eddie Murphy's "Pluto Nash" wins top honors, though it seems like only yesterday the title was held by "Ishtar" or "Town and Country" or "Heaven's Gate" or "Cutthroat Island," all of whose directors (that would be Elaine May, Peter Chelsom, Michael Cimino, and Renny Harlin) give sighs of relief as newer and more expensive duds come along to move them further down the list. Yahoo! doesn't mention it, but this site has some terrific data about the most and least profitable films of all time.

Friday, July 08, 2005

What movie has been remade the most times?

Yahoo! has a surprising answer to the question of which movie has been remade the most times, though its definition is rather elastic. I'd be more inclined to side with those who say it's "A Christmas Carol."

Sunday, July 03, 2005

War Of The Worlds eComic

The Dark Horse War Of The Worlds eComic is a fine companion to the movie, not a shot by shot re-creation but a fully-imagined retelling of Wells' story.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Gold Derby out front with 2006 Oscar Predictions

Omni-awards site Gold Derby is ready to predict next year's best picture nominees, even though none of them have been released yet and at least one hasn't even finished filming and doesn't have a title -- Steven Spielberg's film about the search for the murderers of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. The other predictions are "Jarhead," "Memoirs of a Geisha," George Clooney's "Goodnight and Good Luck," and Tommy Lee Jones' "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," which got a very positive response at Cannes.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Bambrick on Batman

Devin Bambrick wrote to share some thoughtful comments about "Batman Begins:"

Rachel has assured me that you won't be as bored by this as I feared
you would, so perhaps against better judgement, a young film-buff
wearing one of his two Batman t-shirts (seriously) composes a bit of a
minority judgement in the case of Christopher Nolan's Batman for a
well-respected movie mom.

First, you advised those who enjoyed this to see Batman Forever. I
have trouble seeing that flick as anything but a neon-tinged attempt,
with the requisite gosh-wow starpower, to sell Happy Meals to
snotnosed children (I was one of them, I still have the entire Batman
Forever set of Pogs). But kudos on the Frank Miller recommendations.
I'm heading to the MLLL as soon as I get back to Portland.

Personally, I loved the 60's Batman work. The 1966 movie version is
hilarious (if not maddeningly long--but I guess that's the sixties
for you), and I love Gorshin's Riddler--the absurdity is pitch

But Batman Begins is something different. It's something children
shouldn't see. Sure, if we are talking MPAA semantics, it doesn't do
much in the way of swearing or bloodwork. It just wasn't made for
them. We knew that when Darren Aranovsky was briefly attached to
direct. And the last action sequence is a bit of a yawn-fest. It's
clear Nolan's strength was in atmospherics, something you've noticed
quite well in your review (and how cool was that Hong Kong set!?). So
when things get to exploding, it got to be boring. In fact, all the
action sequences were underchoreographed, stealthy affairs of quick
camera work. It was an action movie without the action. In fact,
Batman Begins has more to do with Kill Bill, comic books, and martial
arts films than any other Batman movie. Because seventy one million
dollars be damned, America just got fooled into seeing a movie about
stoic philosophy, justice, and the very existence of superheroes.

When I stepped into my nearest megaplex, I didn't "check my brain at
the door." I don't believe in doing that with movies ever. But I had
to do something else I did with Troy and Lord of the Rings and Star
Wars. I had to gird myself with the understanding that this movie was
going to be told in epic language. Speeches would be improbable,
themes would be drilled into our heads, and imagery would be clear and
iconic. Batman did this. But here's the thing: it did it better than
any movie I have ever seen.

When I came out of the theatre, I told my dad "That was awesome. So
perfect." He looked at me, incredulous. "Really?" Astounded. Well,
Nell, take it from me. Parents just don't understand. But after
reading epic poetry and big tragedies all year, it'd be pretty silly
for me to call Batman on specifics. (why exactly did these Shadow cats
need Bruce Wayne? Why does a pretty boy from a rich family fight so
well in prison brawls with dudes who did way harder stuff than
stealing some Wayne Enterprise sprockets?)

I disagree with your villain analysis. While Batman surely had some
good ones-- Egghead, King Tut, Two-Face-- Begins put the focus where
it needed to be: the genesis of a legend. As for too many, I thought
it was the screenplay's attempt (which I thought brilliantly
conceived) to complete the requisite ramping-up of a superhero in a
shorter time frame. While Spiderman had his little wrestling scene and
his minor successes at the beginning, told via near-montage, Batman is
thrust right into the main conflict--his training is realizing it's
bigger than the crime boss and then the Scarecrow. But really, the
villain is there to challenge Batman's mission. It's a movie about
morals, really just hacking away at the Batman myth and succeeding
surprisingly well in justifying his existence. What about society's
role in crimefighting? Is the superhero simply revenge? Wherein lies
the human aspect? The brilliant dialogue between Katie Holmes and Liam
Neeson is played out throughout the movie (and thank God, not in
flashbacks or overdubs! Enough is left to the audience. The only
pandering imagery is the repetition of Batman's trauma, and that seems
reasonable) We didn't get this level with Tobey's webslinger. We were
so busy mired in CG crap that we didn't get the cool discussion of
superheroism. And here's my point, finally. Batman Begins doesn't skip
to what Neeson's character calls the theatricality of superheroism.
Sure it does that fine. The gadgets are awesome, the icon-creation is
riveting, and the imagery is absolutely beautiful, but this is a
questioning movie, meditative. It's a reconsideration, not a slick
Burton-does-Planet-of-the-Apes style reimagining. But the Batmobile is
slow and clunky, the action scenes don't deliver the Zap! Whoosh!
Bang! we've come to expect.

Katie Holmes delivers the most important line (unfortunately she comes
off as annoying rather than passionate and wise like her character
demands) when she tells Bruce that Batman is the real him and Bruce
Wayne is the costume. Exactly! David Carradine's monologue from Kill
Bill, anyone? Here is the thematic examination we need! And the theme
of fear is so well executed, from the bats to the chemical weapon
threatening Gotham. In fact, there are hardly any wasted lines. They
are all perfect comic book philosophy, pop art's intellectualism. If
it doesn't have a huge "oh my God, that's so deep" ring to it, it's
probably a perfect goofy quip from someone or other (probably Caine).
I guess one really just needs to allow oneself to get into this stuff
to enjoy it. It's the same with goofy martial arts flicks. The stuff
is all discount Stoic philosophy, packaged for the stoner and the
twelve-year old. It requires getting into. Which is why I was wholly
interested while that ten-year-old behind me talked through the flick.
But when I left that theatre into the blinding light of a June parking
lot, I wanted to be right back in that dark place with Batman.

Anyways, I'm sorry for completely geeking out on you there. Perhaps
you can forgive me with time. Oh and I really liked Cilian Murphy, but
to each her own.

Here's my response:

My dear Devin,

I loved your email. I wish I had enjoyed the movie as much as I
enjoyed your discussion of it. Can I post it on my blog?

It seems to me that you raise three key issues, and I will address
them sequentially.

The first issue is the origin stuff -- does it provide depth and
texture and context or is it some "are we there yet" distraction on
the way to the good stuff we really care about? We are basically in
agreement there but you come down a bit farther to the left on that
continuum than I do. Yes, I am glad to see how Bruce Wayne becomes
Batman, especially because, as you so Kill-Bill-esque-ly know, it is
really a story about Bruce's becoming his true self -- he is taking
off layers, not putting them on. And all of that connects him more to
the bad guys than to his fellow good guys. His attraction/repulsion
relationship to evil is part of what makes him such a compelling
character. You think all of that was handled better than I do -- I
guess I would like to have seen more choices by Bruce than the usual
origins-style stuff of here's your suit, here's your car, here's your
martial arts boot camp. So, I appreciated it, but not as much as you

Second is what for want of a better term we'll call "production
design." I'm a Tim Burton girl, which is why I liked the look of the
Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson "Batman." But I liked this one a lot,
too (I grew up in Chicago and loved the architectural nod to my home

Third is where we part company the most decisively. All of that good
stuff in the first category really has to pay off when he has his
first major confrontations with bad guys, and for me, that didn't work
at all. I didn't think any of the villians were worthy -- I wanted
bad guys as tortured and demented and unnervingly twisted as Batman is
at his core.

Thanks for a fabulous email, which made me think more deeply and
appreciatively about the movie. Keep letting me know what you think
about the movies you see.

All best, Nell

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Bad News Poster art for Bad News Bears remake

This comparison of the posters for the original and remake of "The Bad News Bears" is not, I hope, an indication of the quality of the new version. Not that the original was a classic, but, like the Jack Davis artwork on the poster, it has an unpretentious sincerity. I have a lot of faith in Richard Linklater ("School of Rock," "After Sunset"), and hope this remake is more than "Bad Santa" coaches little league.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Rated R for Rude -- Media Mom column in the Chicago Tribune

My latest Media Mom column in the Chicago Tribune, inspired by "Mad Hot Ballroom," encourages parents to remember that it is important to teach -- and practice -- good manners and respect.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005


As I have said before, all lists are "indefensible but irresistable" and this latest AFI list of the top 100 movie quotes is no exception. All the quotes on the list have in common is that they are memorable -- anyone with a Netflix account can probably identify at least 2/3 of the movies from the quote alone. Any list is susceptible to endless debate, which is part of the fascination. So here come some quibbles from me.

First, and most unassailably, I don't think the list should include any quotes that are in essence instant spoilers. The quote from "Solyent Green" gives away the ending, for goodness' sake.

Second, some of the quotes are more memorable as catch phrases than lines of dialogue. "No wire hangers" from Mommy Dearest was instant camp. It took you out of the movie rather than revealing character, developing relationships, or taking the story forward. I'd argue the same applies to "Say hello to my little friend" from Scarface, a pretty delirious movie to begin with.

The list sets the record straight. It's "Play it, Sam," not Play it Again, Sam, even if Woody Allen gets it wrong in his tribute title. And Mae West's invitation (to Cary Grant!) in She Done Him Wrong was not "Why don't you come up and see me sometime" but "Why don't you come up sometime and see me?" (She adds, "I'll tell you your fortune.")

But some lines do it all. Two on the list are just one word apiece. "Rosebud" is the mult-layered mystery at the heart of Citizen Kane and "Plastics" is the literal and metaphorical advice that tells us everything about what Benjamin feels trapped by in The Graduate.

Some of the quotes helped to define characters, like “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” in The Godfather or “Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night,” in All About Eve. The same goes for “They call me MISTER TIBBS,” from In the Heat of the Night, which was so memorable it became the title of the sequel. One quote isn’t even words. It’s “La-di-da, la-di-da” from Annie Hall. But it was as much the reason we fell in love with Annie along with Alvy as her vest and tie, her unwillingness to cook the lobster, and her black soap.

But what is “No one puts Baby in a corner” doing on this list? That line from Dirty Dancing is remembered for its crashing awfulness.

Some remind us that real people say things worth remembering – George M. Cohan told us that everyone in his family thanked us for being in the audience and Lou Gehrig left baseball telling us he felt like the luckiest man in the world. But the best thing about this list is the reminder that movies have benefited from great writers as well as great stars and directors.

Six quotes from Casablanca, all magnificent, and they don’t even include my favorite. Rick says his gun is pointed at Louis’ heart. And Louis says, “That’s my least vulnerable spot.” “There’s no crying in baseball.” “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room!” Now that’s writing.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Movie Mom meets Traveling Pants Girls (Chicago Tribune)

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is the story of four close friends who are separated for the first time the summer they are 16, and who stay connected by sharing a very special pair of blue jeans. It's based on the popular book by Ann Brashares.

Two of the stars of the movie, Amber Tamblyn and Blake Lively, sat down for an interview, and it was clear that they were friends off-screen as well, as Amber draped her legs across Blake’s lap and questions led to memories that made them laugh and each wanted to make sure the other got the most attention.

What’s on your iPod?
Both: Everything!
Amber: John Lennon – the last thing I got was Ono Band Live. Also Tony Bennett, Squarepusher, and Autechre.
Blake: Etta James, Chet Baker, Britney Spears, Eminem, country, anything but hard metal rock.
Amber: Oh, I have to get you to listen to some Metallica! I like stuff that can’t be found on iTunes, like Master of Puppets.

Any favorite television shows?
Amber: I don’t watch anything but “Arrested Development” – pure genius, and “Carnivale”
Blake: “Rugrats!”

Last year, it seemed like all the movies were about mean girls, but your movie is about close and loyal friends. Which is more like your own experience?
Amber: Both are equally true. Mean Girls gets a lot of credit because it’s about the psychology of young women and how they treat each other. For some reason, we like to watch that more – we think it’s funny. Girls sticking together and not being pitted against each other the way they are in our movie is not in movies as often.
Blake: There are mean girls in high school, but your friendships are what get you through. That is what I’ll remember, the people I’ve had a connection with and who know me inside and out will be lifelong friends.

The girls in the movie are so different. What keeps them close to each other?
Amber: It’s the difference that makes them close. They have their separate lives but when they get back together it’s like old times. They have that great familiarity, which especially matters in hard times. Not having a lot in common makes conversations more interesting.

Even though the girls in the movie are the closest of friends, they don’t spend much time together on screen. What did Ken Kwapis, the director, do to help you create a sense of connection to each other?
Amber: He had us sit in a circle and then everyone else left the room so we could decide for ourselves what we wanted to do in the scene, how we wanted to handle the pacing and everything.
Blake: He trusted us. He was very open, very sweet, very loving, very patient. He shared stories about himself that showed he understood a story about young girls. And he showed he understood by letting us work together to let the scenes evolve instead of telling us what to do.
Amber: And off screen we joked and laughed and hung out, we went to movies and slept over, and did loads of shopping.
Blake: We meshed right away. When we got together, it was mayhem. We choreographed routines to Vanilla Ice songs! We had the same sense of humor and lots of inside jokes. So we were friends for real. If one of the four of us hadn’t been as weird as we all are, it wouldn’t have worked.

Most movies, especially movies for younger audiences, make sure they have happy endings with all the stories neatly tied up, but this one does not. Why is that?
Amber: I like it when things are not wrapped up. You want to see that there are still places to go. At the end of the movie, Tibby is still not sure how her experience has affected her. She began by looking for what was boring or stupid, but she learns from Bailey (played by Jenna Boyd), who looks for the light and the good, even in Tibby herself. The ending is happy because the friendships are still together.
Blake: It’s more like real life. Even movies about mean girls have happy endings, but that doesn’t always happen.

How is making a movie different from your previous experiences?
Amber: TV is 16 hours a day, 5 days a week. Film gives you a lot more room for the creative process, more time to spread it out, get into certain scenes. It gave me time to let go of physical habits that become repetitive to think about how this character sits, stands, and moves and think about quirky, cool things I wanted to do. For my part in Joan of Arcadia I have a certain way of talking and do a lot with my hands. For the part of Tibby in this movie, I had bad posture, didn’t use my hands so much.
Blake: This was my first job! Before you do it, you think about the glamour – someone to drive you, do your hair and clothes, you act like someone else for a little while and go home. I was surprised by how much work goes into it. We worked some 20-hour days and when we were shooting at night we didn’t see daylight at all for a while. You have to have as much energy 16 hours later as you did when you started.

Were there any scenes that were especially difficult?
Blake: I had to train for two months for the soccer scenes. And there was one scene of running on the beach that we had to do over and over because of a problem with the film. The running was hard, but important because the character is running away from her painful memories and feelings.

What’s next?
Amber: More films, including “Stephanie Daly” with Tilda Swinton, which I might also co-produce.
Blake: Next for me is graduation; no time to do anything else!

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Star Trek, RIP

Clut stud journal Flow finds a way to
argue in high brow terms that the end of "Star Trek" is a devastating loss for television in an engaging piece by Montana State's Walter Metz. He admits, "I find these series' Gene Roddenberry-inspired utopianisms thoroughly unpalatable. I see little evidence that the dysfunctional United Nations might serve as a model for interplanetary politics, even in the very distant future. I also find the racial allegorizing of most of the series completely impotent: the representation of discrimination against aliens does not necessarily engage real-world racism because people's racist impulses on Earth are founded on misguided interpretations of their surroundings."

But he adds, "Of all the Star Trek shows, I liked Enterprise the best. It muddied the utopianism of Roddenberry's Star Trek by making our intrepid human explorers thoroughly incompetent and outgunned at every turn. Furthermore, the Vulcans, those Mr. Spock-like rationalists praised by Roddenberry's system, are revealed as scheming hypocrites. What is important about this is that the ever-expanding Star Trek televisual universe requires radical alterations to the basic premise of the franchise to keep it alive. Enterprise accomplished this radical modulation with virtuosity."

Meanwhile, unscholarly but equally engaging Mutant Reviewers is devoting the first week of June to Stars Wars and Trek. Should be a treat.

Guess Which Movie

Guess Which Movie is an addictive little site that gives you four stills to identify a movie. You may find yourself still clicking "next image" an hour later. And logging in so you will be able to brag about your score.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

List of lists: Top 100 Voices in the Movies, Salon's best movies, Slate's worst couples

To use one of Mrs. Miniver's favorite expressions, movie list-making is "indefensible but irresistible." Here is one that is especially delicious,'s list of The All-Time Top 100 Voices in the Movies.

And Salon's premium subscribers (oh, go on, sign up, you know it's worth it) can take a look at Andrew O'Hehir's engagingly offbeat list of mostly non-canonical but very worthwhile films he thinks everyone should see, reposted as a response to the more mainstream Time Magazine list more notable for what it leaves out (Gone With the Wind) than for what it includes (The Godfather and E.T.).

O'Hehir has two categories, 20 movies you'd better have seen already (yes, The Godfather again, along with All About Eve, Blue Velvet, and Nashville). Then there is the list of "Films You Might Never See (Without My Benevolent Guidance)," an edgier selection that includes Bride of Frankenstein, Persona, and The Searchers -- okay, that one is also on Time's list, and mine, too, if I had one.

In Slate, David Edelstein has another great contest -- the most mis-matched movie couples (scroll down below the review of "The Longest Yard"). From Roger Moore and Grace Jones in A View to a Kill to Woody Allen with just about anyone, the list includes Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn in "The Iron Petticoat" and the three-generation combination of Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, and Matthew Broderick as grandfather, son, and grandson thieves in Family Business. But no one mentioned my favorite odd couple -- Barbra Streisand and Jack Nicholson(!) as romantically inclined step-siblings(!) in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.

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Monday, May 23, 2005

At Play in a Grown-Up World (Washington Post)

At Play in a Grown-Up World is a terrific story by Caroline E. Mayer about a new indoor theme park that lets kids try out different careers. "The size of 2 1/2 football fields, this $40 million indoor theme park near Fort Lauderdale provides 3- to 13-year-olds with what its developers say is a taste of the grown-up world. They get to "play" at more than 100 professions, from attorney to paleontologist, dentist to pizza maker, hairdresser to detective. For their hard work, they earn Wongas, which can be spent on cookies, rock climbing or carnival rides purchased from park employees, or manicures and hair styling done by other role-playing youngsters.

But what's real life without brand names or corporate marketing? As Wannado's chief creative officer, Luis Javier Laresgoiti, says, a city without corporate names "doesn't look like a real city."

So it's no surprise that the theme park aggressively courts brand-name firms as sponsors to give companies an opportunity to reach out to children and their parents in hopes of turning their Wannado enthusiasm into can-do spending."

'Star Wars' a PG-13 dilemma (Mercury News 05/20/2005)

What kind of parents take four and five year olds to see a PG-13 movie? This article in The San Jose Mercury News reports that one brought a four year old dressed as Darth Vader who got up and swung his light saber around during the fight scenes (showing a complete lack of consideration for the rest of the audience) and another brought his five year old because it would give her "bragging rights" as the first of her friends to see it (showing a complete lack of consideration for the parents of those friends, who will now have to suffer through the "But Zoe's dad took her!" whine-a-thon). One mother interviewed in the story said, "They don't need to see violence like that...If I had thought about it before, I would have left them home.''

Thursday, May 19, 2005

"Star Wars" -- technology glass half full; acting and dialogue glass half empty

This week is all about Revenge of the Sith and the critics are all so happy that this one is better than the last two, so relieved that it doesn't have anything about tariffs and only a few seconds of Jar Jar Binks, and so nostalgic about the end to a series that has spanned a generation that most of them were willing to overlook details like, say, the script and the performances.

For example, Gary Arnold of the Washington Times finds that "The merely clunky or absent-minded features of his screenwriting generate a certain fondness, but he leaves the lovers in a permanently immature fix."

The New York Times' A.O. Scott recognizes that "Mr. Lucas's indifference to two fairly important aspects of moviemaking - acting and writing - is remarkable," but he finds that not only is "Revenge of the Sith" better than the original "Star Wars," but that "It comes closer than any of the other episodes to realizing Mr. Lucas's frequently reiterated dream of bringing the combination of vigorous spectacle and mythic resonance he found in the films of Akira Kurosawa into American commercial cinema." Scott doesn't find much to praise in the performances of the actors, with the exception of the CGI Yoda, who "some of his finest work in this film does," with robot droid R2-D2 "also in fine form." Scott is so delirious over the movie that he even finds a way to rhapsodize over it when -- even because -- the technology falls short: "Even the single instance where the effects don't quite work -- a climactic battle superimposed on a filmed eruption of Mount Etna -- suggests not a failure of vision but a willingness to try what may not yet quite be possible." He says that the most profund thing about the six-movie cycle is "the inverted chronology....Taken together, and watched in the order they were made, the films reveal the cyclical nature of history, which seems to repeat itself even as it moves forward. Democracies swell into empires, empires are toppled by revolutions, fathers abandon their sons and sons find their fathers."

Dann Gire of Chicago's Daily Herald is not as enthusiastic: "Flourishes of cleverness, eye-singeing action sequences, and finally, Anakin Skywalker’s long-awaited, long-overdue transformation into the darkest of Darths propel the last part of 'Episode III' into the ranks of the best-written and best-directed chapter, The Empire Strikes Back, which Lucas neither directed nor scripted. But before we arrive at the really good stuff compressed into the final 30 minutes, we must first slog through an eternity of ear-infecting dialogue, Prozac-induced acting and fight sequences edited so tight and quick that they numb the senses instead of excite them." He also notes the poor performances and wooden dialogue: "'I’m not the Jedi I should be,' Anakin robotically intones. Equally lethargic, Portman’s Padme emits all the passion of a mating gondark in her awkward, bluntly written romantic scenes with Anakin." And he points out that it is a bit odd that technology, while advanced, doesn't seem to develop much over the generations covered by the cycle. "If droids were the cell phones of their time, they’d be scrap metal in three months."

The Oregonian's Shawn Levy finds the simplicity of the script intentional and compelling: "The simplified morality, the easy mysticism, the emphasis on action and novelty, the chaste romances, the cartoonish dialogue -- it's deliberately science fiction akin more to Buck Rogers than Robert A. Heinlein." He says, "The story of Anakin Skywalker reaches a satisfying conclusion, the saga of galactic politics and struggles between the Jedi and Sith orders reaches a plausible crescendo, and the technological experiments of the preceding prequels (in particular, the use of digital actors alongside humans) generates several eye-popping moments. The result, if not great art, is great popcorn moviemaking."

At the Washington Post, Stephen Hunter waves aside both the obsessive fans ("bye-bye, Count Dooku, whoever you were, and it doesn't really matter") and those who are looking for, what was that again, oh yes, acting and dialogue: "It would also help if Christensen and Portman were more expressive actors and if the dialogue they were forced to utter didn't sound like it was stolen from The Black Shield of Falworth starring Tony Curtis, in 1954, but he's not that kind of director either." Hunter likes the way the movie disects Anakin's seduction by the dark side of the force. "Anakin is the classic man who gives up freedom for security, and ends up with neither."

Monday, May 16, 2005

Joel Fowler interviews the stars of Crash

"It’s entertainment. It’s drama. It’s fiction. But, you need to hit the nail on the head to get people’s attention in regards to who is who in such a huge cast. On top of that, I think Paul was clever in casting against type in many ways, because I think that makes the audience sit up and pay more attention in many ways." Brendan Fraser

This comment and more are in an insightful interview with Brendan Fraser and Michael Pena by YTIC's Joel Fowler.

Next, the Trix Rabbit plays Jabba the Hut

"Star Wars" characters have been licensed since 1977, and over the years they have appeared on everything from toothbrushes to iPod covers.

But with this last scheduled movie in the series, George Lucas has for the first time permitted the use of the characters outside of their own "galaxy far, far away." Darth Vader appears on commercials for Cheerios and Yoda is pushing Diet Pepsi. It's sad to see these characters diminished from mythic figures on a scale with Frodo and Robin Hood to walking logos like the the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Energizer bunny.

As the Washington Post's Frank Ahrens says in this article, "Darth Vader, the manifestation of evil in the films, is getting plenty of work in the "Sith" promotion, in a way that's oddly counter to his 'don't-cross-me-or-I'll-telepathically-strangle-you' character. There he is, holding a huge bag of M&M's. There he is, trying to con someone out of a burger in a Burger King commercial. It's almost enough to make one feel sorry for the lord of the Dark Side, reduced to a heavy-breathing pitchman."

Even more disturbing is the marketing of the movie through Burger King "kids' meals" to very young children, even though the movie is rated PG-13.

My essay on the marketing of the new Star Wars movie appears on the Common Sense Media website.

Update on May 19 from the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, objecting to "Star Wars" sixtreen different food promotions for twnety-five different foods, every one of them of little or no nutritional value. "Ten Star Wars food products have 35 or more grams of sugar per serving; another seven have more than 20 grams of sugar. Many Star Wars foods are also high in fat and full of empty calories. A two-ounce serving of Limited Edition Star Wars Frito Lay Cheetos contains 20 grams of fat and 320 calories. Two Lava Berry Pop Tarts contain 400 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 38 grams of sugar. The smallest size Star Wars collectible M&M package contains 440 calories, 19 grams of fat, and 56.5 grams of sugar."

CCFC also notes that the promotions are directed at children too young to see the movie. Furthermore, "Star Wars Promotions Encourage Repeated Purchases of Junk Food:
The Skittles website encourages Star Wars fans to collect all 48 collectible Star Wars Skittles wrappers. It fails to mention that fans will need to purchase eighteen pounds of Skittles in order to complete their collection. This figure pales in comparison, however, to the forty-five pounds of M&M’s (containing more than 10,000 grams of sugar) kids need to buy to collect all seventy-two M&M Star Wars wrappers. To collect all thirty-one Star Wars Super D toys “for free,” kids will need to buy more than five Burger King children’s meals (690 calories, 28 grams of fat, and 35 grams of sugar) per week during the six-week promotion."