Sunday, April 30, 2006

First notes on Tribeca

My first dispatch from Tribeca is here at Yahoo! movies. More coming soon.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

David Junior interviews me at Tribeca

Here I am, talking to David Junior, just before the panel discussion on Jeff Garlin's charming new romantic comedy, "I Just Want Someone To Eat Cheese With."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


I'm off to the Tribeca Film Festival early tomorrow and will be filing reports on Yahoo! Movies. This is Tribeca's fifth, but it is my first and I will try to see as much as I possibly can.

A Scanner Darkly

This has to be one of the movies I am most looking forward to right now, even moreso after taking a look at the website.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Interview with Paul Weitz

Paul Weitz, writer, director, and producer of “American Dreamz,” met with the press in Washington to talk about what inspired him to create a film that combines politics and the obsession with celebrity and reality television in a wild satire that has a dim, out of touch U.S. President acting as a guest judge on an “American Idol”-style television program.

Your President character is a not very bright, detached Texan who seems to have awakened after his re-election to understand for the first time how difficult and daunting our situation is. Is he supposed to be sympathetic?

One problem I have with most satire is that it is easy to detach from it because you don’t really connect to the characters. This character gets redeemed at the end of the movie. He's learned that he doesn't know everything by the end of the movie. It is relatively shocking and perverse, with good deal of optimism amid the apparent cynicism. If cynicism is an end product then I think it's deeply naive. I tend to gravitate to at least some hope for the characters.

But I would want Bush to weep profusely if he saw the film (laughs).

What inspired the idea for this story?

It was a reaction to my own odd feeling hat I would wake up and read the paper and stress out about terrorism and whether the administration was doing the right thing, but by the end of the day I was watching “American Idol” and worrying about whether Constantine was going to get voted off. People watch “American Idol” because we all want to see people pursing their dreams. The people on the show are not so good you can't fantasize they're like us. It’s the purest form of democracy we have.

People's attention spans have been carved up and the less time you have to deliver the message the simpler it will be. The internet gives the impression that everyone's an expert. The danger is of non-experts having as much of a sounding board as people who have spent a lot of time studying things.

How do you create characters who serve the satire without making them so unsympathetic that the audience doesn’t connect to them?

Hugh Grant's character [the show’s producer and master of ceremonies] is kind of an addict. He thinks the show is really lame but he's kind of addicted to the fame so I wasn't really drawn to a happy ending for him. Mandy Moore’s character is kind of like a shark. Both are kind of depressed people but she's fresher and more suited to it. She's so narcissistic. She even has a line: “I’m not physically attracted to other people.”

With the political stuff, it’s very far from like a SNL parody; Dennis Quaid is a good enough actor that he can make this a fully rounded character and someone your heart really goes out to. The most sympathetic characters are the bumbling President and bumbling terrorist, both redeemed by the end of the movie.

My model was SCTV. I became fan of Eugene Levy – he created broad characters but you really cared about them.

One of the core aspects of the American identify is that everyone has a dream and that's always looked on as a positive thing. It is a positive thing but it makes it difficult sometimes to deal with reality. We're obsessed with part of what's happened to celebrity culture; we used to romanticize them but now we want to tear them down. Another aspect of our thinking is that we're all two seconds away from fame. The idea of no class system here is becoming strange.

What do you like about making comedies?

It is addictive sitting in a theater and hearing people laugh. It's a total kick and you kind of dread the parts where people aren't laughing. I’m not sure it's the best thing as a film-maker. Any good comedy will have its range of subtle and broad but each one has its space on that spectrum. When you're in really dramatic situations in life there tends to be a gallows humor around it -- when people are going through really serious things they make a lot of jokes. There are certain things comedy is not suited for. It would freak me out to do something where people are casually shooting each other and to think about exposing people to it. People like their medicine to taste bad so if they're having a good time in the theater they don't think it's good for them.

There are definitely things that I’m drawn to, like trying to champion the idea of relativism. You can't make snap judgments about people – that is an idea I got from Chekhov. We tend to dehumanize people who disagree with us and I think that's a very dangerous proclivity. I like the idea of taking this thing that's been totally been discredited, like that Kerry's worst knock was that he looked at two sides of an issue, and champion it. You can be really cynical and at the same time be optimistic about human nature.

What made you decide to cast Dennis Quaid as the President?

Most prominent American actors of a certain age have already played the President. We were doing PR in Madrid for In Good Company. I asked him after he had a few beers and he said he'd be in it without asking what it was. He's convinced he's going to get audited after this film.

How did you select the musical material?

My last two films had soulful singer-songwriters and with this one I wanted something very different. I loved the idea of making a terrorist as goofy and hopeful and naive as possible, and show tunes seemed like such a hopeful form of music. I listened to a lot of show tune albums, but didn’t realize that when those songs were placed in the terrorist context they would have such meaning: “To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause.” It put a weird twist on it. That combination added elements straight out of a Woody Allen or Mel Brooks movie.

How do you keep a film like this timely, given the inevitable lag between writing and releasing it? And how do you keep it sharp when studios worry about offending audiences?

It was the tightest schedule I've had since American Pie. That was a challenge with big stars and singing and video playback. The way you get freedom in Hollywood is not success but lower budgets. If you can put these people together and make it for less than what one A-list actor would normally get paid they can't say no.

This film had two strikes against it. Satire is box office poison, and it’s not necessarily a worthy film. A character says Americans are such nice people but they cause harm in the world. That’s not usually the subject for comedy, but a subject for a low budget French film that gets played in one theater. When I first wrote it I sent to the head of Universal and told her she wouldn't want to do it but should send it to their indie wing. Then Stacy Snider said, “I don't want you to go somewhere else, so get some big stars and make it really cheap.” My main challenge with this movie was to just go ahead and do it.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Freezing Out The Critics - explains why cold opens might be good business. And hey, guys, thanks for the name check and shout-out!

Unsolicited Advice
Freezing Out The Critics
Marc E. Babej and Tim Pollak 04.19.06, 1:30 PM ET

Here's a $64,000 question: Say you're running a movie studio and you know your upcoming release is bound to be panned. How do you sell it to the critics?

Answer: Check your premises. Don't assume advance screenings to critics are a must.

Increasingly, that's what studios are doing. According to a recent AP report, 11 movies so far this year haven't been shown to critics--up from two in the same period last year.

For the folks who make their living reviewing films, this new tactic adds insult to injury. Not only do they have to forgo the ego boost of VIP treatment--but now they also have to rush to regular old premieres, sitting next to the hoi polloi (read: you and me). Being able to drop hints about the new Woody Allen or Terrence Malick flick makes you the envy of any social set. Having to spend the evening at the local multiplex to catch the opening of Benchwarmers or Phat Girlz makes you a regular working Joe or Jane.

For movie studios, freezing critics out of select premieres might have been a smart move even decades ago. As with all complex products, there's plenty that can go wrong with a movie. Inevitably, there are films in which just about everything that could have gone wrong, does. Why throw a dog of a movie to a pack of wolves if you can avoid it?

Also, some movie genres get a much fairer shake from critics than others. Let's face it: Film critics are movie buffs first–and as such, they're much more inclined to rave about an independent film than a horror flick. And they invariably prefer sharp wit to sophomoric humor. Little surprise, then, that the "unseen 11" skew heavily to subject matter that reviewers are prone to disdain.

But there have always been bad films, and critics always had their biases when it comes to genre. The tactic of skipping advance screenings is taking hold now because the dynamics of movie marketing and pre-release publicity have changed. Like other professional arbiters of taste, movie reviewers just don’t matter quite as much as they used to. Once upon a time, they were the point of origin for popular opinion. In an age of ratings Web sites and consumer-generated content, they are just one voice of many. Maybe a particularly authoritative voice, but no longer the popes they used to be,

Movie Web site operates on the hive mind principle. Read a review and you get an opinion–hit or miss. But aggregate dozens of reviews in one place and you get a good sense whether a movie is worth watching. Not that we would ever do such a thing ourselves, but there have even been reports of people using ratings to talk their better halves out of going to, say, a romantic comedy.

Aggregation and indexing have also had the unintended consequence of flattening the hierarchy of movie critics: Inevitably, The New York Times or Chicago Tribune reviewers are taken off their perch when their sound bites appear next to Movie Mom at Yahoo! Movies,, or (our favorite) Hollywood Bitchslap. Even worse, their opinions are devalued when they become just one datapoint in an average score.

If professional critics aren't what they used to be, amateur aficionados haven't wasted a moment filling the gap. There are millions of consumer-generated Web sites and blogs on just about every topic, including every movie genre, sub-genre and sub-sub-genre. Many of these sites are particularly effective at generating word of mouth among die-hard fans on just about every topic. For movie studios, fan outreach represents a golden opportunity. As it happens, many of the mainstream critics' least favorite genres, such as horror or sci-fi, have fan bases that use the Internet heavily and accept the opinion of a passionate amateur over that of a critic any day. It won’t be long until the next big horror release is pre-screened to top horror bloggers, while professional critics are left out in the cold.

The upside for viewers: and its ilk help viewers avoid bad movie decisions. The downside for studios: Aggregate and fan reviews help moviegoers avoid bad movie decisions. The ultimate upside for studios, however, remains that some people will see bad movies no matter what: Benchwarmers–one of the "unscreened 11"–got only 11% on RottenTomatoes' aggregate index. Even so, it came in second on its opening weekend, pulling in a respectable $19.7 million.

Marc E. Babej and Tim Pollak are partners at Reason Inc., a marketing-strategy consulting firm that works with clients in a range of categories, including media and entertainment, financial and professional services, packaged goods and the public sector. They are also the writers of Being Reasonable: The Blog.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Washington in the movies

The Washington Film Critics often talk about adding a new category to our annual movie awards: best and worst portrayal of Washington in a movie. Legendary candidates for the "worst" title would be "No Way Out" (with its fictional Metro station in Georgetown) and "Along Came a Spider," with dozens of insanely innacurate moments, including its premise that the Secret Service would be assigned to protect a Congressman's daughter. My favorite part, though, is that in this movie, the President of Russia lives in....Washington. A heck of a commute.

Today's Washington Post's "Reliable Source" column has a cute list of inaccuracies in the new Michael Douglas/Kiefer Sutherland movie, "The Sentinel." And take a look at this list from the Onion's always-reliable AV Club of classic Washington (and other politics-related) films. I'm glad to see "Advise and Consent," which Christopher Buckley mentioned as one of his favorites when I interviewed him about "Thank You for Smoking." I have a special affection for that movie. In the confirmation hearing scene, the pretty lady sitting behind Secretary of State nominee Henry Fonda is none other than my mom.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Feedback on DVD column

I've received three emails from parents of special needs kids who think that the litle girl I wrote about who was watching "Cinderella" in the restaurant was autistic. I wrote back to assure each of them that the first thing I thought of when I saw that family was that the little girl might be a special needs kid and I watched them carefully to make sure that was not the case before deciding to write about them.

Both my father and my husband come from families with special needs children
and I studied developmental psychology in college for a while with the thought
of working with autistic children as a career. I am sorry to have caused some readers and their families any concern, but I do know there is a difference between a family accommodating special needs and one that was so clueless they didn't know how to take advantage of their good health and ability to communicate.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Media Mom column on DVD in a restaurant


Kids, DVDs and the lessons involved

By Nell Minow
Special to the Chicago Tribune
Published April 13, 2006

My husband, daughter and I had just settled in for lunch at one of our favorite local restaurants when another family was escorted to the next table. The mother helped the little girl, who looked to be about 4 years old, off with her coat and lifted her into the booster seat.

Then, before removing her own coat, the mother placed a personal DVD player on the table in front of her daughter and hit the "play" button. Disney's "Cinderella" started up, and the little girl began to watch. Without headphones.

Even after we moved to a table on the other side of the restaurant, we could hear the strains of "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" as we ate our tandoori chicken and talked about how many things were wrong with that picture.

Here's what we concluded:

First, the little girl's parents were teaching her to completely disregard the feelings, the rights and the preferences of anyone else.

The DVD made it harder for us to hear one another and the waiter and impossible to enjoy the quiet music that is normally a part of the restaurant's pleasant atmosphere.

Instead of teaching their daughter good manners and consideration for others, these parents demonstrated through their own thoughtlessness that they did not believe it was necessary to devote time or energy to thinking about how their actions might affect others.

Second, her parents showed the child she had nothing of interest to tell them and they had nothing they felt was worth discussing with her.

Family meals and car rides are the best time to share the stories of our days, to coordinate upcoming plans, to discuss the news in our communities and to make clear our values and priorities. This family communicated to its youngest member that she was neither valued nor a priority.

Third, the parents failed to take advantage of the opportunity to teach their daughter an indispensable life skill -- the ability to participate in a thoughtful and courteous conversation. If her parents keep it up, this girl will become a young woman who has nothing to say to anyone and no way to respond to comments and questions at school, with friends, on dates, at job interviews.

Children need to learn the structure of a conversation, namely how to listen, when to nod, how to look the person who is speaking in the eye and how to know whether the other person understands and is interested in what you are saying. The art of conversation also involves knowing how to include everyone in the discussion, how to select the appropriate details to evoke a scene or convey an opinion, and how to disagree without being disagreeable.

Like music, these skills come naturally to some people and are harder for others, but everyone can benefit from practice and example.

Fourth, the girl's parents lost the opportunity to show their daughter how to pay attention to what is going on around her. The more we allow children to numb their brains and cut themselves off from their environment, the less we are able to encourage their powers of observation and inspire their imaginations.

By using "Cinderella" as a distraction instead of a fully engaging experience, the parents turned it into what Fred Allen called television, "chewing gum for the mind." The children who will grow up to create the next generation's "Cinderella" are the ones who are looking at the world around them and exercising their imaginations.

Parents should stretch their children's attention spans, a challenge in this media-saturated world. One way to do that is to set an example by turning off television, iPods, BlackBerrys, cell phones and PDAs when the family is together.

When our children were growing up, we had a "no headphones" rule on car trips. I preferred having my children argue about which radio station to listen to (that disagreeing without being disagreeable skill takes a while to get right) than having each of them off in separate zones of solitude.

Children need to learn to be engaged observers. Parents should both set an example and explicitly teach their families to be junior Sherlock Holmeses, seeing what they can deduce from what they see, and junior Scheherazades, telling stories to develop their senses of narrative, drama and humor. Is that couple at the next table on a first date or do they know each other well? What language are those people speaking? What can you tell about a person's profession, hobbies, education, political views and favorite sports team? How do you know?

As we looked across the room at this family -- the girl watching the movie, the father talking on his cell phone, the mother looking down at her plate -- we wished there was a "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" spell to turn their devices into pumpkins and get them to talk to each other.


Nell Minow reviews movies for radio stations across the U.S. every week and on

The Movie Timeline

This is pure inspiration.

Paul Kerensa has a simple idea that could just take over the world. It's The Movie Timeline, plotting all events that have occured in movies from

In the beginning... God created the heavens and the earth (The Bible)

26,000,000,000BC Los Angeles (and everywhere else) - The Earth's crust begins to harden (Adaptation)

A long time ago... Luke Skywalker and Han Solo lead a rebellion against the evil empire(Star Wars)

40,000 Barbarella takes on the evil, er, Duran Duran (Barbarella)

802,701 October 12: George meets the Eloi and the Morlocks, is tended by Weena, following a long stretch of time travel (The Time Machine, 1960)
Alexander Hartdegen meets the Eloi and the Morlocks, is tended by Mara, following a long stretch of time travel (The Time Machine, 2002)

2,008,000 Wizards Blackwolf and Avatar battle for the fate of the post-apocalyptic Earth (Wizards)

30,000,000 Earth frozen by an eclipse, intelligent life wiped out, day and night now the same (The Time Machine)

865,427,810 Alexander Hartdegen briefly arrives from 802,701 (The Time Machine)

Be sure to read his notes at the end.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Purloined reviews in the show-me state

The University of Missouri at Kansas City school newspaper acknowledges that its film critic, Samir Patel, a 27-year-old graduate student, plagiarized at least 93 movie reviews. As a grad student (and one who taught writing to undergrads), he knew how to do research. He copied sentences and paragraphs from 19 critics during a 13-month period. This careful analysis by efilmcritic, home of most of the critics he stole from, meticulously documents the offenses, finding only five reviews that did not steal any material from someone else. Willie Waffle, author of 27 of the stolen reviews, responds here.

This is a sad situation all around, and I am sure that Patel will be expelled and fired. But I believe Patel and the newspaper owe the critics stolen from and its readers a better explanation and apology. Patel has not been in touch with the critics and his email speaks of a "misunderstanding." And the editor's column casts itself as an innocent victim, saying, "The University News considers the plagiarism Patel's responsibility. The newspaper was let down, along with its readers. Even so, the University News regrets the distress this has caused not only to those whose material was used without proper credit, but also to the newspaper's readers. Plagiarism leaves everyone feeling misled and deceived."

One of the differences between school and the rest of your life is that you can no longer insulate yourself from responsibility for the actions of others. The editors of the paper, like the editors of the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, and The New Republic must accept responsibility for their role in failing to communicate the newspaper's policies and supervise adequately.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Horrible films always seem to find praise

Why so many cold opens when, as this story shows, any film can get at least a couple of good reviews?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

IMDB user reviews

IMDB user reviews
Originally uploaded by angus mcdiarmid.
I like the way this photo from Flickr includes comments from IMDB users in notes attached to the photo.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

How to release a bad movie - Apr 7, 2006

More on the record number of cold opens in 2006.

Thanks to Tim Gordon for suggesting this link.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Beaking News: Movies Not Screened for Critics Not Very Good

Rotten Tomatoes does the math: The record-breaking number of movies not screened for critics in 2006 average only 11 percent positive ratings, and occupy all 10 of the worst-reviewed films of the year slots.

Apparently, the whole of the studio system is terrified that the following exchange will take place within the coveted teen and young adult demographic:
Teen No. 1: "Man, am I ever stoked to be first in line to see ("Date Movie"/ "Underworld: Evolution"/ "The Benchwarmers," etc.)! This film will certainly be off the chain! Oh look, there's my friend!"

Teen No. 2 (running, looking frantic): "Bad news, homie. David Denby, Andrew Sarris, AND Stephanie Zacharek all dissed ("Date Movie"/ "Underworld: Evolution"/ "The Benchwarmers," etc.). They say it's really stupid."

Teen No. 1: "Curses! I'm getting out of the line for this movie, and I shall not be seeing it on its opening weekend. Dear fellow, perchance is 'The Best of Youth' still playing in the local arthouse?"

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Cold, cold open

This is just getting silly. We've had more cold opens (movies not screened for critics) in 2006 so far than in all of 2005. This week there are two: "The Benchwarmers" and "Phat Girlz." Who do they think they're kidding. But this story is really the limit. When they decided not to show "Benchwarmers" for critics but went ahead with a screening for free ticket holders, the studio forgot to un-invite one critic who showed up, sat in the press row, and wrote a (bad) review. The studio then accused him of writing a bogus review without seeing the movie. Remember, Roger Moore (the critic, not the "James Bond" star) points out, this is the studio that made up imaginary quotes from imaginary critics. The movie, by the way? Another Rob Schneider vehicle, "The Animal."

Thanks to Willie Waffle for suggesting this post. Sex-Rays the Movie Critics

Sex-Ray the Critics by Sarah Harrison is too funny -- is it possible that those folks scribbling in the dark have unuspected passions?

Thanks to Jeannette Catsoulis for suggesting this link!