Nell Minow just says no to freaky flicks for kids.
When then Federal Communications Commission chief, Newton Minow, referred to television as a “vast wasteland” way back in 1961, not only did he jump-start a debate about quality programming, he instilled in his daughter, Nell, a passion for media criticism. Today Nell carries the family torch as the Movie Mom, a movie critic whose reviews of current releases specifically advise parents on what would be appropriate or inappropriate for children based on the usual suspects: violence, sex, substance abuse. Did I mention violence? Since 1995 she’s been taking Hollywood to task in her weekly online reviews (now available at www.beliefnet.com) and is now also heard on 20 radio stations nationally, including KGO where she pontificates every Friday morning at 6:40. She’s also published a second edition of her book, The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies (HarperCollins, 2004). When she’s not reviewing films, the beltway insider also finds time to advocate for stockholders as a corporate governance maven dubbed by Fortune magazine the “CEO Killer” for her success at ousting underperforming CEOs (a whole other story). Just in time for Mother’s Day, I tracked her down at (where else?) the World Bank, where she was giving a lecture on G-rated film.
Paul Kilduff: How do you have time to be the Movie Mom and keep corporations in line?
Nell Minow: Well, all my kids are grown up. That helps a lot.
PK: Good answer. Is it in your blood? Are you picking up after your father’s famous comment about TV being a vast wasteland?
NM: Of course it is. Not just the interest in media and in talking about media —and of course I grew up in a family where we talked about that a lot—but the interest in trying to hold people to a higher standard. The interest in giving people the information that they need so that they can make wise decisions. All of that I got from both of my parents. I will tell you that one of our family’s proudest moments is that my father so deeply offended the television industry that the sinking ship on Gilligan’s Island was named after him.
PK: The Minow will be lost. Are you a thorn in the side of the movie industry?
NM: I think they don’t even notice me really. I hear from them sometimes. I think probably the closest I came was when a screenwriter called and threatened to sue me for libel and I pointed out to her that, not only was I a movie critic, but I was a lawyer, so I could advise her that the expression of an opinion by a critic is not subject to the libel laws.
PK: Do the studios seek out your approval before releasing a film?
NM: They run things by me as a critic. “Would you like to give us a quote on this?” And they know that if I don’t like it, I won’t.
PK: Is identifying a good kid’s movie like former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s description of porn: “I know it when I see it”?
NM: I actually met Potter Stewart. All any critic can do is try to explain his or her own reaction to a movie in a way that you hope is both informative and fun to read. That’s it. That’s my goal. Sometimes I get emails from people who say, “How dare you not like this movie that’s a big box office hit?” or “It won an Oscar,” and I explain to them, “Perhaps you don’t understand what critic means. It means my opinions and it was in part my disagreement with the critics I read that led me to become one, too,” so I encourage them to do the same. And sometimes I change my mind. Sometimes I go back and revisit the review when it comes time to repost it as a DVD review and sometimes I say, “You know what? Now that I think about it, that was better than I thought it was and I’ll revise it.” But the important thing is I think a lot about my audience and I try to tell parents what I think they would like to know in making a decision to avoid bad surprises. And that doesn’t mean I’m not sensitive about being a spoiler. It means, however, that when it’s a question of risking the problem of being a spoiler, and making sure parents understand that there may be perhaps a suicide or an angry divorce or something that may be of concern to their family, I’ll alert them. So, I just think about two things: What can I tell them about my reaction to the movie that will help them understand it better? I also look at each movie within its own aspirations. So, for example, a movie like Fired Up is a dumb teen sex comedy. But I don’t say, well, it’s really not Citizen Kane so I can’t give it a good rating. I say, in the genre of dumb teen sex comedies it’s a little above average. It delivers the goods. This movie is not trying to be Schindler’s List, it’s trying to be a silly sex comedy and it was okay as far as that went.
PK: So you became America’s Movie Mom in reaction to this need not being served by movie critics?
NM: Yes. I started the website in 1995 when I believe there was just Fred Flintstone and me on the web and because I went to the video store—remember video stores?
PK: There used to be a Blockbuster down the street from me.
NM: Right. And this was even before Blockbuster. At that time I had young children, and I would see parents standing in front of the new releases shelf looking like they were going down for the third time and they would grab the teenager behind the counter and say, “Is The Nutty Professor with Eddie Murphy okay for a 6-year-old birthday party?” and the teenager would say, “Ow-yeow, I don’t know.” And I would say, “Hi, I’m standing here and I couldn’t help overhearing and let me suggest to you that it’s really not okay for a 6-year-old.” And people would look at me like I had just offered to squeegee their windshield. I’d been thinking about writing about media and writing about movies for a while, and I thought rather than trying to be Roger Ebert, I can just be Nell Minow, the mother of young children who thinks about these issues and wants to avoid bad surprises.
PK: I was reading some of your reviews online and I thought about a movie I saw recently with my 8-year-old daughter, Paul Blart: Mall Cop. She really wanted to see this. I’d seen some pretty lukewarm reviews and even though I like the star, Kevin James, a lot, I went not expecting much and I wasn’t disappointed.
NM: It was sweet, wasn’t it?
PK: I suppose. However, I think you kind of . . .
NM: Underplayed the violence?
PK: Bingo. You didn’t really address it. Admittedly, you say it’s not for kids under 10, but even my daughter commented on the violence afterward. And it was right from the beginning with the lady in the store thoroughly kicking James’s ass. That wasn’t harmless Three Stooges slapstick—they were getting it on like Donkey Kong.
NM: You’re right. I’m not going to argue with you. It wasn’t slapstick and was very violent and that’s why I said 10 and up. In fact, I’m going to be writing something soon about how, since December, we’ve had five or six PG movies, all of which really should have been PG-13.
PK: So Paul Blart: Mall Cop should have been a PG-13?
NM: I would have given it a PG-13. And I would give Marley and Me a PG-13. I think PG-13 used to be the no-man’s land of the ratings system. Now PG is just as hard to call.
PK: Paul Blart didn’t need all the pummeling, but it seems like that is a trend with all comedies today—what’s going on?
NM: You know what? If you want to make $100 million at the box office (just in case you’re thinking about making a movie) you need to do one of two things. You need to appeal to teenage boys. Or you need to appeal to teenage girls. Because they are the only audience that not only will come the first week, but they’ll come back the second week and bring their friends. That is who Hollywood is going for. They will come out with a movie like Kit Kittredge assuming it will do well on DVD, but if you want a box office success—and Paul Blart has made over a $100 million dollars—you need to bring in that audience.
PK: So, in other words, you need to ramp up the gratuitous violence?
NM: Yes. Because it’s not enough for it to be funny for teenage boys. They want to see stuff get blown up.
PK: And there’s plenty of that in that film and it’s a bit of a shame.
NM: It was over the top and I completely agree with you—the whole last third of the movie turned into Die Hard in the mall.
PK: What about Kevin James getting drunk in the bar in the beginning?
NM: Yes. That was a big mistake. And by the way, that is a huge issue for me. A lot of people who look at things have the bullet points of sex, language, and violence, but I have one on substance abuse and one on diversity because those are also big issues for me. If somebody has a glass of wine with dinner or some champagne to celebrate some good news that’s fine, although I’ll mention it. But if somebody says, “I’m having a bad day; I need a drink,” I think that is worth flagging for parents.
PK: What about Hotel for Dogs? You gave that a lukewarm review, but it sounds outstanding.
NM: Lukewarm? It was better than I thought. This is the problem with Hotel for Dogs. The kids in the movie really get away with a lot and the movie seems to think it’s charming and even heroic that they lie and they cheat and they steal. In the very beginning of the movie, they are perpetuating a scam where they take stuff to a pawn shop that is not the real stuff, and get money for it. Because it’s to buy dog food, this is supposed to be all right. But that’s really not good and so I’m a little hesitant. The dogs are adorable. The kids are adorable. But there is never any reckoning. And I’ll tell you, that in a movie—and this goes for Shopaholics, too—we do insist in our hearts, in the lizard brain, we really have this commitment to some kind of justice in a movie. And when somebody just continues to be enabled through the movie and doesn’t have any kind of recognition of the damage that they inflict, then I think that leaves the audience unsatisfied as a matter of narrative. It leaves me unsatisfied as the Movie Mom because I don’t really like saying that to kids, that there are no consequences for bad behavior.
PK: So you do want some sort of morality message in films then?
NM: Yeah, I do. I think it makes it a better story for one thing. For example there was a movie Catch That Kid about a child bank robber. And I was just horrified by the whole thing. I don’t care that it was nice that she was trying to help out the family when her father got sick, but she was robbing a bank and bringing her brother along. And I’m as big a fan of heist movies as anyone, but they are careful to instill some sort of sense of justice. If you watch heist movies, you’ll find that at the end of all of them one of three things happens. Either they’re unsuccessful, in which case you have all the fun of the heist but you don’t have to feel bad about the outcome. Or they somehow are stealing from someone who’s even worse than they are, like in The Sting. Or they’re stealing for a really good cause and no one’s going to get hurt. To make the story work you have to have some sense of justice. A movie that I really came down hard on was called Sleepover in which the girl lied, cheated, stole, drove a car (even though she’s underage), made a date with a stranger on the Internet and met him in a bar, and isn’t it funny that it turned out to be their principal? And then worst of all, and this was really appalling to me, at the end of this sleepover/scavenger hunt when they, of course, won, their prize, they got to sit at the cool table in high school. And so in the last scene, they’re sitting at the cool table and you’re expecting the payoff, which is that they’re going to be all inclusionary and open it up to everybody, and they turn out to be mean girls really. And this is supposed to be happy news? I don’t think that’s a good thing for kids.
PK: What did we learn from Beverly Hills Chihuahua?
NM: I really didn’t like that movie at all, although it did extremely well and I think they’re going to make a sequel.
PK: That was another one my daughter dragged me to.
NM: The trailers made it look like it was a light comedy and you’ve got Dobermans with big teeth.
PK: The dog fighting.
NM: I thought that was very harsh. And yet the pampered princess learned a little bit about life—the human pampered princess and the dog pampered princess. But I didn’t feel that it was all that satisfying.
PK: What about the ratings system for movies?
NM: It’s wack. It’s just awful. And this is my problem with the PGs right now. For example, you can use the F-word once in a PG-13 as long as it doesn’t refer to sex.
PK: Is that chiseled in stone?
NM: They don’t have it written, but that is the rule and they’ve been on record as saying that’s the rule. But think about it—you would need a Ph.D. in symbiotics to parse that rule. So, it’s okay to use that word in a violent way, in an angry way, in an insulting way, but not in a sexual way? If the word is that bad, why is it okay to have it there once? And so every PG-13 has got that word in once now. It’s just completely gratuitous. That shows you how idiotic the ratings system is and [how it] has been documented many times, is a lot fussier about sex than it is about violence, which is an issue for me.
PK: But ain’t that America?
NM: That is America, because I wrote this review of Coraline and I mentioned that there is a very heavyset woman wearing pasties and it’s a little over the top for a PG movie and the child is in peril throughout the movie. There’s a scary monster and there are children whose eyes have been taken away from them. And yet overwhelmingly, the emails that I got were about the two seconds of the almost naked breasts.
PK: We prefer violence over sex.
NM: But on the other hand, I talk to parents’ groups sometimes and it’s about even between the parents who come to me and say, “I don’t care about sex, I only care about violence,” and “I don’t care about violence, I only care about sex.”
PK: Speaking of ratings, when I was a wee lad, my buddy Dave Reid and I convinced an adult in line to be our “guardian” allowing us to see the classic Sam “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” Peckinpah’s The Getaway with Steve McQueen. Am I scarred for life? I mean I think I turned out all right. I don’t know about Dave.
NM: Here’s what I think about it. I was actually surprised when I wrote my book. I talked to a number of people in their 20s, figuring that they would be old enough to have some perspective on the way they related to the media but young enough to remember it very well. I was genuinely shocked that every single one I spoke to said, with their voices quavering, “You know, there was this one movie,” and every one of them said, “My parents should have been more strict.” Not one of them said, “Ah, it was no big deal.” And that surprised me very much. However, I also noticed that there’s a big difference between sneaking into a movie and being taken to one by your parents. It’s a different experience because you know you’re not supposed to be there but you can be scared by the movie and feel betrayed at the same time if your parents allow you to see it, take you to see it or encourage you to see it. And so what I say to parents is, “Do the best you can. Recognize that kids test boundaries (that’s part of the job description of being a kid), but they will feel good if you are clear about those boundaries and oppose them.”
PK: I remember I let my then 4-year-old watch The Wizard of Oz on her own once and she came into my office in tears going on about the witch.
NM: You can’t protect kids from being scared. They’re going to be scared. The question is, are you going to give them the tools that they need to deal with that fear? What you don’t want to do is say, “Oh yeah, I’m scared, too.” All right, maybe you could draw a picture of the wicked witch in jail or something like that because that’s an important life skill. Life is scary. We have to deal with it and there’s a reason that all of the top 20 box office champs of all time—all of them—are scary. There’s a reason that all fairy tales are scary. Hansel and Gretel? Oh, my God. Sleeping Beauty? Really scary. The purpose of fiction is to have us make sense of our emotions and give us a dress rehearsal to make sense of things. So I’m not saying that you want to show Psycho to every 14-year-old, you really do have to know your child, but you have to recognize that different things are scary to different people. You’re never going to get it right all the time.
PK: But, it does seem irresponsible to me to take kids to violent movies. What’s up with adults who do that?
NM: It drives me crazy. To me it’s child abuse. I never go to an R-rated movie without some children in the audience and I’m talking about vampire movies, tremendously scary movies. I was at one very, very violent movie once and there was an 8-year-old sitting next to me and I finally said to her mother, I just couldn’t stand it anymore, and I said, “You understand that this movie that’s starting in 10 minutes is one of the most violent movies ever made?” And the mother said, “Oh, she’s not going to like that.”
PK: Well, babysitters are expensive.
NM: You know what else is expensive? Therapy.
Age: 57 | Astrological sign: Pisces
Birthplace: Washington, D.C.
Planet you would emigrate to ?: Any planet my husband lives on is fine with me.
Superman or Batman: Superman
Most overrated virtue: Humility