Tuesday, January 30, 2007

"Because I Said So" SPOILER ALERT

I've just come from the appalling "Because I Said So." I have often thought that Johnny has been the single most popular male character name for men in movies over the decades, but tonight I wondered in particular -- has anyone named Johnny in a movie ever been the one who didn't get the girl?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Dave Bossert

After discussing Baby Einstein, it is a breath of fresh air to talk about some of the quality educational animation for kids coming out of Disney. Rather than the parade of product placements that Baby Einstein dangles in front of limp one year olds and their over anxious mothers, Disney has come up with all new animation and songs for its Winnie the Pooh series to engage kids from 3 to 6 on subjects like shapes and sizes and ABC's. The series has been nominated for an Annie award. The director, Dave Bossert, is Creative Director of Walt Disney Animation, Special Projects. He is also a young father and a veteran of some of Disney's better feature animation, and seems to bring the same creativity and enthusiasm to this educational project (working with a Harvard educator). My husband, David Apatoff, interviewed Bossert for his blog and mine:

Dave Bossert started in the animation business before the big transformation to digital technology, and he has been responsible for digitally restoring some of the Disney classic movies such as Bambi. I asked him how the animation today compares with the classics:

Q: what's better about animation today and what's worse?
A: Things are terrific today. Animators have enormous new tools at their disposal. Digital technology helps us to make films without the inherent flaws of hand painting, such as dust, scratches and cell shadows. The clarity and consistency are much closer to the original intent of the artist.
Q: What part of your job is technology and what part is art?
A: You have to maintain a balance between what the machine does and what you do. In my office I have a traditional drawing board, pencils and brushes alongside computer monitors. But the art has to lead the technology. The technology shouldn't lead the art.
Q: Does the technology hinder you at all?
A: I look at the computer as another tool, just like a neat new pencil or a really cool brush.
Q: Are you worried about keeping up with all the changes? Aren't you concerned that 20 years from now this will all look out of date?
A: Twenty years??? Try twenty months! But we do our best to stay on top of things. Over the past 6 to 8 years, we at Disney have seen a real convergence between the computer jocks and the artists. It use to be that the new talent was good at one or the other, but these days they are good at both. That needs to continue for some time before it makes a big impact.

Talking with Bossert, one can't be help but be impressed by his curiosity. "The most important thing I've learned about animation," he says, "is that I haven't learned everything." A self-confessed "sponge," he is constantly exploring Youtube and other internet phenomena, trying out blu-ray and other new technologies, and reading all he can. All that, and he draws, too. As director of the new Winnie the Pooh series, he was involved at every stage, from the pencil on paper for the initial concept sketches to the marketing of the finished product.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

CCFC on the Bush/Baby Einstein plug

Who could imagine that one of the most controversial statements of the 2007 State of the Union was the plug for Baby Einstein? Here's the statement by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which has filed a Federal Trade Commission complaint against Baby Einstein for false and deceptive marketing.

It is extremely disappointing that the President used his State of the Union address to provide a free infomercial for a company built on false and deceptive marketing. Despite its claims, there is no evidence that watching Baby Einstein videos is educational for babies and toddlers.

The President claimed that Ms. Aigner-Clark "represents the great enterprising spirit of America." We respectfully disagree. We don't believe that preying on parents' concerns about their children's well-being; deceiving customers about a product's benefits; or exploiting our youngest and most vulnerable children should have any role in the American marketplace.

Research suggests that -- for babies -- TV viewing may be harmful. It's been found to interfere with cognitive development, language development and regular sleep patterns. The more time babies spend in front of TV, the less time they spend engaging in two activities that really do facilitate learning: interacting with parents away from screens, and spending time in creative play.

TV viewing can also be habituating. For older children, hours of television watched are linked to bullying, poor school performance and childhood obesity.

Despite these concerns, more babies are spending more time in front of televisions than ever. They do so, in part, because well-financed sophisticated marketing campaigns insure that we've all heard of Baby Einstein. Meanwhile, only 6% of parents are aware of that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under two.

Americans would be much better served if the President used the bully pulpit to promote the AAP's recommendation rather than promoting a company whose marketing deceives parents into believing that it's educational to plop babies in front of screens.

Movie Mom in Ask Amy and Slate

I'm in "Ask Amy" today!


Thursday, January 25, 2007; C04

Dear Amy:

My husband and I made a New Year's resolution to give up television. We were going to try it for only a week, but I wanted to write and tell your readers what a revelation this experiment has been for me. I expected to gain more time in my life, but I never expected to feel completely different.

The first few days were hard. To determine the effects, I decided not to listen to the radio and to spend the day in silence. I was off work that week. In addition to gaining hours of time, I am finding myself mellower than I ever would have imagined. I was always multi-tasking, and the TV was generally on as background noise.

It seems that even the sheer volume of sound kept me agitated. Now I'm feeling relaxed all of the time! My Type A personality is morphing into something very different. I'm even driving completely differently.

Even though we agreed that we could now put the TV back on, neither of us wants to go back to it. We are getting our news from the newspaper. I'm wondering if there are other readers who have tried this?

Very Mellow

Your choice to give up television shouldn't seem like such a radical concept, and yet it is. A recent Nielsen study shows that the average American household has the television on for more than eight hours each day.

I shared your letter with Nell Minow, who as the "Movie Mom" reviews films for Yahoo and who often writes about the effects of media on family life.

Minow and I love your New Year's resolution. "People have no idea about how much they can reduce the 'frenzy factor' in the home by simply turning off the TV. I'm convinced that this media overload contributes to attention issues for children and adults," she says. She suggests that, like you, people occasionally go "cold turkey" by eliminating all screen time for one week each month, or a day each week, to reconnect with life without media noise.

People can make a significant change in their lives by simply not using the television as visual wallpaper.

Also, Timothy Noah of Slate shares my view of the President's shout-out to Baby Einstein in this Chatterbox column and is nice enough to quote my original Tribune piece on the subject.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Bush pushes Baby Einstein

It is appalling that President Bush used the founder of Baby Einstein as an example of American entrepreneurial zeal in his State of the Union address. It's like some intrusive product placement. Worst of all, he has turned the annual address to the nation into an infomercial promoting DVDs for infants and toddlers, a product that is contrary to the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics* that children under age 2 have no "screen time" at all in front of a television or computer. Not one study has shown any benefit to children from these materials (which is why they say they make no "educational" claims and admitted to me that their materials are not "research-based"). Several studies have documented deficits in what children learn from them compared to what they learn from direct observation and interaction.

A President who is married to a former teacher and host of the National Book Festival should know better. No child left behind? Then maybe he could recommend that parents read to their children instead of sitting them down in front of the television.

*Thanks to my commenter Bryan for correcting the name of the organization.

Popwatch stumper

Entertainment Weekly's Popwatch has a weekly Headscratcher and I'm proud to say I got the answer to this one. What do the following actors have in common?

Morgan Freeman
Robert Redford
Kim Stanley
Spencer Tracy
Joanne Woodward

I'll give the answer on Monday, after EW posts the winners.

And here it is -- all were narrators in feature films in which they did not otherwise appear.

Freeman narrated 2005's War of the Worlds. (He also narrated March of the Penguins that same year, a movie that neither he nor anyone else acted in.) Redford narrated (and also directed) A River Runs Through It. Stanley voiced the adult Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Tracy narrated How the West Was Won, and Woodward gave an Edith Wharton-esque voice to The Age of Innocence.

And all were nominated for Oscars, which makes it timely. Happy Oscar nomination day!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

And more from EW (my dad and another list...)

Stephen King not only quotes my dad in his latest Entertainment Weekly column about television; he agrees with him! And the same issue of Entertainment Weekly busts the biggest stars in Hollywood for their biggest sellout roles, from Ben Affleck in "Paycheck" to Faye Dunaway in "Supergirl," Marlon Brando in "Superman," and Robert DeNiro in "Rocky and Bullwinkle."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Hanks. Tom Hanks.

I'm pretty much over the usual faux trailer mash-ups, "Finding Nemo" crossed with "Mission Impossible III," "Star Wars" in the silent era, etc. etc. But this Hanks-as-Bond clip is worth a look for its exhaustive mining of the Hanks oeuvre (bonus points for the clips from "Big" and "The Money Pit") and its Chuck Workman-level mastery of the timing of the edits.

Friday, January 12, 2007

It's a Crock!

Thank you, EW's popwatch for this public service announcement:

You've probably seen advertisements for the horror flick Primeval -- opening today in theaters nationwide -- touting that the film is "inspired by the true story of the most prolific serial killer in history," that this monstrous killer has taken "over 300 victims," and that "to this day, he remains at large." You probably wouldn't guess, however, that this killer is, in fact, a giant crocodile.

Besides the fact that this ad campaign is just plain misleading, it irks me to no end that the marketing team for Hollywood Pictures thinks they'll attract audiences by calling a serial killer "prolific" -- like, you know, Stephen King's prolific, or Rachael Ray. Which is not to say necessarily that the movie is bad, but since it also did not screen for critics in advance, consider this Popwatch PSA fair warning before you plunk down your money for a ticket.

Speaking of big crocs -- what other movies have had deceptive ad campaigns?

There are zillions of deceptive ad campaigns that lead you to expect the movie will be as funny or exciting as the trailer, only to find that you've already seen everything worthwhle in the trailer itself (I believe "Hercules" was the first to figure out the beauty of this approach, as by the time you realized you'd been duped, you'd already paid for your ticket). But in terms of being actually misleading, I vote for "Angel Eyes." The trailer made it seem like something supernatural when it was really a conventional story about people recovering from (1) a catastrophic accident and (2) domestic abuse.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Most inspirational Movie Quotes 2006

Thanks to Reel Fanatic for directing me to Reel Life Wisdom's list of the most inspirational movie quotes of last year.

I can't say I agree with all of them -- that fortune cookie aphorism from "Rocky Balboa?" You've got to be kidding me. And the "Man of the Year" line was old here in Washington back when Chester A. Arthur was President. But I, too, liked these, and I am always happy to see the screenwriters recognized, especially Mark Twain(!):

1) "Every show's your last show. That's my philosophy."
A Prairie Home Companion - Screenwriter: Garrison Keillor

2) "The further you run from your sins; the more exhausted you are
when they catch up to you."
Inside Man - Screenwriter: Rusell Gewirtz

3) "You got a dream, you got to protect it. People can't do something
themselves, they want to tell you that you can't do it. You want
something? Go get it."
The Pursuit of Happyness - Screenwriter: Steve Conrad

4) "He gets down to the end of his life and he looks back and decides
that all those years he suffered, those were the best years of his life
because they made him who he was. All those years he was happy,
you know, total waste. He didn't learn a thing."
Little Miss Sunshine - Screenwriter: Michael Arndt

8) "What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know. It's what we do know
for sure that just ain't so."
An Inconvenient Truth - Screenwriter: Al Gore (quoting Mark Twain)

For me, the best movie quotes from 2006 would include just about everything Dustin Hoffman said in "Stranger than Fiction," like this:

Dr. Jules Hilbert: The thing to determine conclusively is whether you are in a comedy or a tragedy. Have you met anyone who simply might loathe the very core of you?
Harold Crick: I'm an IRS agent. Everyone hates me.
Dr. Jules Hilbert: Well, that sounds like a comedy!

Dr. Jules Hilbert: Hell Harold, you could just eat nothing but pancakes if you wanted.
Harold Crick: What is wrong with you? Hey, I don't want to eat nothing but pancakes, I want to live! I mean, who in their right mind in a choice between pancakes and living chooses pancakes?
Dr. Jules Hilbert: Harold, if you pause to think, you'd realize that that answer is inextricably contingent upon the type of life being led... and, of course, the quality of the pancakes.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Movie Mom's Dad

Today's Chicago Tribune has my dad's superb op-ed about one of Gerald Ford's most significant and least remembered contributions -- his decision to debate Jimmy Carter is what made televised Presidential debates into an institution.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

List of lists and critiquing the critics

Greencine puts it all together for you with a list of lists from a wide variety of critics.

But the guilty pleasure of the month has to be from Eric Childress with his list of the most reprehensible movie critic "quote whores," those folks who will give the studios a "Magnificent!" "Oscar-worthy" "Fun for the whole family!" "A must-see!" for their most mind-meltingly atrocious catastrophes.

I was especially gratified to see Janet Stokes and the all-but-imaginary "Film Advisory Board" listed. Her utterly indefensible and misleading raves include:

Doogal - Laugh-out-loud funny! An adventure that both kids and adults will love!
Eragon - Magnificent. A magical adventure for the family.

The Pink Panther - Sheer enjoyment for all the family.
Deck the Halls - A family comedy that’s a true holiday treasure.

As he notes, the last two are truly reprehensible as the movies include raunchy humor that is completely inappropriate for children.

Thanks to Eric Childress for his tireless research in the name of integrity.

Dumbest/Worst Movie Moments

To quote Mrs. Miniver, lists are "indefensible but irresistible." And the most satisfying are worsts, not bests.

Keith Demko of the always-enjoyable Reel Fanatic blog has posted his worst movies of 2006 list, and his always-reliable commentors have added their thoughts.

This list of Dumbest Movie Moments prompted a great outpouring of pain from Washington Post readers eager to share their miserable moments. Here was my addition:

Unquestionably -- the end of "Sphere." The greatest gap between talent/achievement of the actors/writer/director and result in the history of movies.

Other bonehead endings: "The Forgotten," "Gothika," "Flightplan," "Desperate Measures." THE VERY DUMBEST EVER.

Radio listeners who hear my reviews will be familiar with the "Nell Minow Gothika Rule" that I invoke for movies with unforgiveably idiotic endings. I will give away the ending for anyone who sends me an email. "Desperate Measures" and "Sphere" were before my time, but the others gave me great pleasure only in saving my listeners from having to suffer through them as I did.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Alan Dale on Borat and Jerry Blank and Voltaire and Brueghel the Elder (not forgetting Judi Dench, Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers)

Alan Dale is still an almost completely cool guy. Here he finds subtlety and depth in "Strangers with Candy." It undermines "our belief in human perfectibility," "as skeptical as Candide without Voltaire's righteous anger simmering just below the ironic froth."

Taken together, the series and movie put folly, self-indulgence, and corruption on display as panoramically as Pieter Brueghel the Elder's Fight Between Carnival and Lent, except that there's not even a corner of the vision dedicated to a meaningful spiritual authority. Strangers With Candy reposes so little faith in our aspirations that life becomes one extended example of comic bathos. The makers see our species as worse than it is and laugh nevertheless, infectiously; not laughing in response would, if anything, make you more like the characters rather then less.

Of course, this kind of irony doesn't present the whole truth. Rather, it's intended as a counterweight to the countless romances that glamorize or gloss over unpleasant facts and intractable problems, and that spin fantasies of accomplishment for us to project ourselves into. Even given its extreme bias, irony like Strangers With Candy can be more honest than such romances, and more recognizable. At the same time, insofar as Strangers With Candy is comic irony, it favors impact over plausibility, shocking us by assuming our identification with the loser-protagonist as she fails in ways that are depicted with no quarter for taboos or sensitivities.


Sedaris gives the most staggering female slapstick performance in the exaggerated, creepy-frantic Keystone vein in movie history, and with more tang than any Keystone comedienne ever had. As Jerri, Sedaris embodies an ironic view of human nature that borders on a revelation of the horror of total hopelessness but then turns that glimpse of horror back into all-out burlesque. With the series and now the movie, Sedaris has become the all-time queen of the one-dimensional, so-bleak-it's-comic visionary. (For my money, she gave the most unforgettable performance by a lead actress in 2006, edging out even Judi Dench, who in Notes on a Scandal finally gave the astonishing performance she has repeatedly been credited with.)

His comments on Borat are not as provocative:

Cohen has two main sources of inspiration: a low cunning about what will puzzle, shock, offend, or outrage people and a live-comedy genius for taking his victims slowly, by degrees.

But I think this is just right:

Cohen's shtick is almost entirely opportunistic; far too much has been made of the content of what Borat says and elicits from his victims. Most of the humor that doesn't derive from the tension of live encounters with unwitting participants is dialect humor about the simplicity and backwardness of immigrants, which was a staple of the vaudeville circuit. And the fact that the rodeo audience seems at first to go along with Borat's zany oratory doesn't tell you anything besides the fact that an audience hearing something so out of the ordinary will react slowly, because it's out of the ordinary and because there can be a certain inhibition among members of a relatively random group. Cohen thus makes possible some highly unusual sociological observation, but the comic substance resides solely in what he's saying and doing.

DVD Gluttony

I just saw this Dalton Ross glutton column about the inability to resist buying a DVD. We've all been there. The trick is remembering the difference between two key, sometimes but not always overlapping criteria. There are movies that are great. We love them. We make lists of them. We respect them. But we don't often have the impulse to sit down and watch them again all the way through. And then there is that key "watchability" standard. The first category will always be there just a Netflix queue slot away. That's for "Paths of Glory," "The Grapes of Wrath," "The Magnificent Ambersons," and the Criterion edition of just about anything. That "to own" category is for movies you want to watch when you have the flu. I'm thinking "Galaxy Quest," "Happy Texas," "The Tao of Steve," "Men in Black," "Get Shorty," "Duck Soup," and, of course, "Weekend at Bernie's." Everything else...just think "catch and release."