Inter­view by Paul Stathakis | Feb­ru­ary 24, 2012

This week it’s critic ver­sus critic as Paulz­eye inter­views dis­tin­guished film critic Nell Minow. Many of Minow’s essays, reviews, and inter­views have appeared in major news­pa­pers and media out­lets includ­ing Yahoo, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Tri­bune, USA Today, The New York Times, The Kansas City Star, and the The Wall Street Jour­nal.  In addi­tion to writ­ing, Minow also reviews movies every week on radio sta­tions across the United States and in Canada.  She is a mem­ber of the Online Film Crit­ics Soci­ety, the Broad­cast Film Crit­ics Asso­ci­a­tion, the Wash­ing­ton D.C. Area Film Crit­ics Asso­ci­a­tion, and the Asso­ci­a­tion of Women Film Journalists.

When­ever she’s not writ­ing about film, chances are she’s appear­ing on a tele­vi­sion sta­tion to com­ment on the finan­cial mar­kets. Accord­ing to the U.S. Secu­ri­ties and Exchange Com­mis­sion web­site Minow, “has writ­ten more than 200 arti­cles about cor­po­rate gov­er­nance as well as chap­ters in trea­tises on exec­u­tive com­pen­sa­tion, annual share­holder meet­ings, and in the books Law Sto­ries, The Dance of Change, The Finan­cial Ser­vices Rev­o­lu­tion, Lead­er­ship and Gov­er­nance from the Inside Out, and How to Run a Com­pany. She is co-author with  Robert A. G. Monks of three books, Power and Account­abil­ity, The Text­book Cor­po­rate Gov­er­nance, and  Watch­ing the Watch­ers: Cor­po­rate Gov­er­nance for the 21st Century.”

It doesn’t end there. For five years, Minow also acted as a pro­fes­sor at the George Mason Uni­ver­sity in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where she taught cor­po­rate gov­er­nance to MBA students.

Minow, a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Law School, remains an active film critic. Her reviews, as well as a com­pre­hen­sive archive of her reviews, can be found at a site named Beliefnet. Whether Minow’s busy being a mom or busy being the Movie Mom, one thing is cer­tain: she encom­passes all the qual­i­ties and virtues of the hard-working 21st Cen­tury woman. And her com­men­tary is a reflec­tion of her own per­sona: hon­est, sharp, to the point, and always very insightful.

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Paulz­eye: You’ve enjoyed a long career cri­tiquing films. What inspired you to become a film critic?

 
Nell Minow: I have always loved movies.  And I love think­ing about them and writ­ing about them.  When I was a teenager, Roger Ebert became the movie critic for my local news­pa­per, the Chicago Sun-Times, and that inspired me to start writ­ing reviews for the news­pa­per at my high school and later my col­lege paper.  I stud­ied film his­tory and crit­i­cism in col­lege and read as much as I could about movies.  In those days, it was a real chal­lenge to track down clas­sic old movies I wanted to see.  I went to art-house the­atres and pub­lic library show­ings, set my alarm to get up in the mid­dle of the night to watch old movies on tele­vi­sion, and took classes at the Art Insti­tute of Chicago and the Amer­i­can Film Insti­tute in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. After col­lege, I went to law school.  I wrote about movies and tele­vi­sion from time to time, but did not start review­ing movies again until 1995, when I cre­ated the Movie Mom web­site.  In those days, there were thou­sands, not mil­lions, of web­sites, most of them cre­ated by col­lege stu­dents.  There was not one cor­po­ra­tion or pub­li­ca­tion on the Web.  So, mine was one of the first sites to have movie reviews, and five years later, when the Inter­net had really grown, Yahoo invited me to be their movie critic.

 
Paulz­eye: As a teenager, I recall read­ing sev­eral of your reviews on Yahoo. How did you acquire the nick­name of “Movie Mom”?

 
Nell Minow: When I started writ­ing reviews, I wanted to dif­fer­en­ti­ate myself from other crit­ics.  As the mother of young chil­dren, I knew how dif­fi­cult it was to get reli­able guid­ance on the con­tent of films, and I thought I could com­bine two things I was inter­ested in, movies and parenting.

 
Paulz­eye: Your lat­est reviews, film essays, and inter­views now appear on the site Beliefnet. There, read­ers can also access your vast review data­base. Talk to us a lit­tle about the site.

 
Nell Minow:  I love being on Beliefnet, which has a lot of won­der­ful con­tent about faith, inspi­ra­tion, and val­ues.  We wel­come peo­ple of all faiths and those who are seek­ing, ques­tion­ing, in search of a sup­port­ive com­mu­nity, or just curious.

 

 
Paulz­eye:  Most film crit­ics use a four-star rat­ing sys­tem but you’ve always scored your films using a school-like letter-based grad­ing sys­tem. Why is that?

 

Nell Minow:  I thought it was clearer than a star rating.

 
Paulz­eye:  What are some of your ear­li­est film memories?

 
Nell Minow:  The first movie I remem­ber see­ing is Disney’s “Snow White,” when I was six.  I loved it!  But, accord­ing to a let­ter my dad sent to my grand­par­ents, they took me to another Dis­ney movie when I was four and every day after that I asked to go back.  My par­ents both love movies, too, and they were won­der­ful about intro­duc­ing me to some of their favorites.  I loved intro­duc­ing my chil­dren to some of those same movies, too.

 
Paulz­eye:  As a critic, you’ve seen a fair share of good films and bad films. How would you define a mas­ter­ful or good film?  How would you define a bad film?

 

Nell Minow:  I eval­u­ate every movie accord­ing to its aspi­ra­tions – oth­er­wise, every review will be, “It’s not ‘Cit­i­zen Kane.’”  How well does it meet the expec­ta­tions of its intended audi­ence?  If it is a silly com­edy or a chases and explo­sions film it makes no sense to com­pare it to an Oscar con­tender.  But, at its core, every movie should be grounded in the sin­cere com­mit­ment of the peo­ple who made it to do the best they can for the audi­ence they are try­ing to reach.  The one kind of film I really hate is the kind that con­de­scends to its audience.

 
Paulz­eye:  What are five films, new or old, that should be on every family’s ‘must-see’ list and why?

 

Nell Minow:   “To Kill a Mock­ing­bird,” “The Court Jester,” “Some Like it Hot,” “The Mir­a­cle Worker,” and “The Wiz­ard of Oz” are all clas­sics that have some­thing for every age and give fam­i­lies a lot to talk about.

 
Paulz­eye:  Peo­ple tend to think that being a film critic is an easy pro­fes­sion but surely it must be dif­fi­cult to spend hours in a mul­ti­plex watch­ing sev­eral films back to back and then review­ing them. Talk to us about that process. What’s a day at the movies like for you?

 
Nell Minow:  Most days, I see only one or two movies.  The inde­pen­dent and for­eign films are most often in a lit­tle screen­ing room at the Motion Pic­ture Asso­ci­a­tion build­ing across Lafayette Square from the White House dur­ing the day and the big stu­dio films are in the evening, in movie the­atres with a cou­ple of rows reserved for crit­ics and the rest filled with peo­ple who won tick­ets on radio sta­tions or other give­aways.  I really enjoy the other local crit­ics, who have become friends and col­leagues.  They make even the worst movies fun to watch.

 
Paulz­eye:  As a critic, what do you feel more com­fort­able writ­ing about: a film that you absolutely loved or one that you absolutely loathed?

 
Nell Minow:  Both are fine because they both inspire a lot of thoughts.  The tough­est ones are the bland and mediocre movies, because it is so hard to think of any­thing to say or any vivid way to say it.

 
Paulz­eye: You’ve inter­viewed sev­eral impor­tant fig­ures (politi­cians, actors, and direc­tors) over the years. What are some of your most mem­o­rable inter­views and why?

 
Nell Minow:  I espe­cially like talk­ing to writ­ers and direc­tors, who are not inter­viewed as often as actors and who are more inter­ested in talk­ing.  Some of the most mem­o­rable include John Irv­ing, Jason Reit­man, Ran­dall Wal­lace, Mike Mills, and John Cameron Mitchell.  One of my favorite recent inter­views was with Mar­tin Sheen for “The Way.”  He is an enthralling racon­teur and I could have lis­tened to him all day.  I was also very impressed at how kind he was to the staff in the hotel, intro­duc­ing him­self to every­one and really lis­ten­ing to them.  Another actor I won’t name infu­ri­ated me by being very rude to the wait­ress and maître d’.

 
Paulz­eye:  Over the years, the Inter­net has greatly expanded and it’s not show­ing any signs of slow­ing down. Because of the exis­tence of count­less per­sonal sites and blogs, vir­tu­ally any­one today can label them­selves a film critic. That said, what sep­a­rates a good critic from a poor one?

 
Nell Minow:  A critic is, first and fore­most, a writer.  If the review is not writ­ten in a clear, lively, engag­ing man­ner, it does not mat­ter how pow­er­ful the critic’s insights are.  Then a good critic must have good under­stand­ing of film his­tory and aes­thet­ics and it helps to know about other things as well to be able to rec­og­nize ref­er­ences and sources and con­text for the movie’s story.

 
Paulz­eye: Do you feel that crit­ics today can still have an impact on how well or poorly a film does at the box office?

 
Nell Minow:  Yes, espe­cially inde­pen­dent and small-budget films that do not have a big adver­tis­ing budget.

 
Paulz­eye:  Some would argue that, because of a high demand for computer-generated spe­cial effects and 3-D over tra­di­tional aspects of the film­mak­ing process,  film is essen­tially “dead.” Do you agree with that sen­ti­ment? Why?

 

Nell Minow:  On the con­trary!  We have come full cir­cle to the heady early days of film when just about any­one can make a movie.  Films like “El Mari­achi” and “Tar­na­tion” were made on tiny bud­gets and were picked up for the­atri­cal release.  Michael Moore inspired a whole gen­er­a­tion of stun­ning doc­u­men­taries.  And web series and iTunes are trans­form­ing dis­tri­b­u­tion channels.

 

 
Paulz­eye: Film piracy con­tin­ues to pose a seri­ous threat not just to the film indus­try but to the­atres around the globe. Con­sid­er­ing the count­less sites that now offer ille­gal film down­loads, do you believe that it’s just a mat­ter of time before the­atres cease to exist?

 
Nell Minow:  It’s always bet­ter to see a movie in a the­ater.  Movies are designed to be shown on a big screen to a large audi­ence.  Even the most elab­o­rate home set-up can­not re-create the the­ater expe­ri­ence.  And the tech­nol­ogy is improv­ing to make that expe­ri­ence even bet­ter.  We have already made advances in sound and the next step is increas­ing frames-per-second for more intense and detailed visu­als.  Look for that in the next “Avatar” film.

 
Paulz­eye: What advice would you offer to the many aspir­ing films crit­ics around the world?

 
Nell Minow:  Watch as many movies as pos­si­ble – all the AFI 100 list movies for a start, and write a review of every one. There has never been a bet­ter time in his­tory to be a movie critic than right now because any­one can put reviews online and attract an audience.

 
Paulz­eye: Nell, I want to thank you for con­tin­u­ing to bless us with hon­est and insight­ful com­men­tary and, espe­cially, for agree­ing to do this inter­view today. It’s been a real plea­sure and an honour.

 

Nell Minow: My plea­sure!  These are won­der­ful ques­tions and it was an honor to be invited to answer them.