Friday, August 31, 2012

10 FAVORITES (63): Back to School

It is that time of year again! Yes, it is time for that ever-anticipated Back to School season (at least in the United States).  For most schools, the last two weeks in August and/or the first week of September serve as the beginning of a new year for teachers, faculty, students and parents.  So as we are steep in the middle of this (often) chaotic time, I wanted to do something that would celebrate it.  And what better way to celebrate it than to devote an entire 10 FAVORITES to films about school?!?!  When I was putting my list together (with the help of my Father, who is an Elementary school principal and an avid film buff!), I decided that I would limit the films that I chose.  First of all, I felt College films shouldn't count (I mean, I don't need a list to share with everyone any appreciation I have for Good Will Hunting and Animal House!).  Second, I wanted the films to mainly feature the school in a primary way (not just as a setting, but as a plot point or even a character within the film!).  And lastly, and probably most importantly, I wanted the films to be good. Now I realize that when you put a qualification like that on any movie or TV show, it is completely subjective.  But it's my list so get over it.  However, that does not necessarily mean that a film that doesn't make the list is bad or horrible, it is just a distinct possibility.  With that said, on with the list.


Grease (1979)
I'm not a huge fan of this film.  I don't hate it, but I don't necessarily love it.  Why is it here then?  I just cannot deny the popularity of this musical phenomenon.  Wherever you go, people have seen Grease and they have strong feelings about it (be they positive or negative).  It is performed everywhere from High school to College to Broadway (the musical has endured two hit revivals and constantly tours!).  It is a freakin' juggernaut that cannot be ignored.

Mr. Holland's Opus AND Dangerous Minds (both 1995)
I put these two movies together because they came out in the same year and they had both had a similar premise.  Yes, Dangerous Minds is about Michelle Pfeiffer inspiring her students in an inner-city school through poetry and literature, while Mr. Holland's Opus is about Richard Dreyfuss inspiring his students (each different in their own way) through music and art.  But the major point is that both films were about the effect a teacher can have on their students, especially if they care in the way both Pfeiffer and Dreyfuss' characters do.  Both films were received well and Dreyfuss even netted an Oscar nomination for his work.  And Pfeiffer featured prominently in Coolio's hit music video for the film, "Gangsta's Paradise."

Doubt (2008)
John Patrick Shanley adapted is riveting Pulitzer Prize-winning play into a sublimely acted film that keeps the audiences talking.  Screen icon Meryl Streep takes on the polarizing role of principal Sister Aloysius Bouvier as she tries to discover the truth about the new priest at the parish, dynamically played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman.  The film also features brilliant performances from Amy Adams (as the innocent schoolteacher Sister James who is placed in the middle of Streep and Hoffman's battle) and Viola Davis (as the mother of a boy who has problems but may have a "protector" in Hoffman's character).  Shanley's smartly written dialogue is played to full effect by this enigmatic cast.

Mean Girls (2004)
Yes, it may very well have been the last "good" film Lindsay Lohan ever made.  And when you have Tina Fey as a co-star and writer, you really can't go wrong.  What this film has, besides a delicious performance from Rachel McAdams, is a sharp-tongued look at the way girls (in particular, High school girls) behave towards each other.  This film is so popular and well-liked that the whole "Mean Girls" idea has become its own thing.  I mean, go to any school and you can spot the group of "Mean Girls" right off! You don't even need a school to find the "Mean Girls" in life.  They're everywhere!

The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)
In a sequel to a film I've already spoken about, Bing Crosby dons the collar again as Father O'Malley and this time he plays off of a great performance from the amazing Ingrid Bergman as a strict yet extremely understanding nun who serves as principal of St. Mary's School.  The two give equally good performances and their scenes with the children make the movie funny and extremely poignant.

Election (1999)
Like Mean Girls above, this film has a following that at times surprises me.  Not only does this movie cleverly satirize school politics, High school stereotypes and popularity, but it also serves as a kind of cautionary tale.  Reese Witherspoon's over-ambitious and hyperactive Tracy Flick is a character we've seen before and since (look at Glee's Rachel Berry!), but she's also a Type-A personality we see in many of the people in Pop Culture (and dare I say Politics!).  That being said, I did get a kick out of this film when I first saw it and I knew that this role would make Reese Witherspoon a star.

Fame (1980)
Growing up in the 80s, I knew several kids who wanted to go to the school featured in Fame.  They wanted to be one of those kids dancing on taxi cabs or playing synthesizers.  The film represents what kids do best and that is dream.  And the kids featured in this movie have big dreams.

Blackboard Jungle (1955)
This film certainly was the most controversial in its debut.  Its subject matter and its use of Rock N Roll music certainly put several people up in arms over it.  But the film is a classic and it is pointed to as the beginning of a change in the way films were presented and the way youth are portrayed in films.  It also came out the same year as the James Dean classic Rebel Without a Cause and the two films combined caused a stir that is still felt in Hollywood to this day.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Some of the best movies are about a year in the life of a group of people.  And when you're dealing with school as your primary setting, you have a plethora of characters to showcase.  This film features some of the most memorable characters and it has one of the most interesting ensembles in film history.  The (mostly young) cast features Sean Penn (as the iconic Spiccoli), Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Ray Walston, Forrest Whitaker, Phoebe Cates and (in smaller roles) Eric Stoltz and Nicolas Cage.  That's a pretty impressive list when you compare it to the likes of Dazed and Confused (which really only has Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck in small roles!).

Stand and Deliver (1988)
When it comes to films about inspiring teachers, this film was a must in my house.  Edward James Olmos dynamically plays Math teacher Jaime Escalante as he readies his East L.A. students for an important Calculus exam.  He is met with obstacles at every turn, including the reluctance of his students (which include a powerful performance from Lou Diamond Phillips as a rebellious teen).  Olmos' Oscar-nominated performance drives this film to its inspiring end and makes you want to go out and try something new.  Which is exactly what teachers are supposed to do.

The Breakfast Club (1985)
This film is a great favorite in my family.  It features great performances from (at the time) young talent.  It has some great 80s music.  But its story and characters are entirely relatable.  The school not only serves as a setting, but it serves as another character in the plot.  The way the kids interact is because of the school.  The effect that each of the students' roles has on themselves and on each other plays an integral role in the plot.  In a way, it basically IS the plot.  The late John Hughes certainly captured a generation with this film and for those of us who grew up with this generation, it makes for great entertainment.

Friday, August 24, 2012

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS: It's In Every One of Us


Last night, the world lost another of the original Muppet Performers.  Jerry Nelson passed away at the age of 78.  Though he had semi-retired in recent years due to health concerns, he still was an integral part of the Muppet team.  And that is one thing that has been a constant since he started working with Jim Henson back in 1965.  Nelson was first hired as a replacement for Frank Oz when Oz was called in for the draft.  When Oz returned, Nelson was able to keep his position as the third performer in their small band of Muppeteers.  Soon, Nelson proved himself indispensable by performing key characters in Muppet specials like The Great Santa Claus Switch, Hey Cinderella! and The Frog Prince, the latter one was where Kermit the Frog's nephew Robin was introduced (performed by Nelson).  It was also during this time that Henson helped create the seminal children's series Sesame Street, yet another Muppet production in which Nelson played an important role.  Nelson performed several characters on the show, but the ones that really struck a chord with audiences included the big blue Herry Monster, the Doyle-esque Sherlock Hemlock and (more famously) the iconic Count Von Count who simply loved to count.  As an original member of the Muppet team, he of course was brought along when Henson and Oz developed the musical-variety series The Muppet Show.  There, he continued his character Robin the Frog and added new characters to his repertoire including the zany fish-throwing Lew Zealand, the creepy Uncle Deadly, the curmudgeonly stage doorman Pops, the explosively dynamic Crazy Harry and (again more famously) Sgt. Floyd Pepper, the hip bassist for the rockin' Electric Mayhem band.  As he continued his characters in the Muppet movies and on Sesame Street, the Henson company was expanding their brand and exploring new worlds and new creatures.  And with Fraggle Rock, Nelson performed the prime role of Fraggle leader Gobo.  Each of his characters continued to be just as iconic, especially when the Muppet world was rocked to its core by the deaths of creator Jim Henson (in 1990) and fellow Muppeteer Richard Hunt (in 1992).  As I said earlier, he had semi-retired in recent years; though he did have a small role in the Muppets recent big screen adventure, last year's hit The Muppets.  His importance within the Muppet family cannot be overstated.  To honor him (as well as Henson and Hunt), below Nelson alongside Hunt, Frank Oz, Kevin Clash (you know Elmo!), Steve Whitmire (who currently performs Kermit) and Dave Goelz (otherwise known as Gonzo!) sing some of Jim Henson's favorite songs at the Memorial Service just after Henson's death.

And for those who feel like a little shopping will ease the grief, here are some links to some Muppet DVDs featuring Nelson in some of his best roles.

Monday, August 13, 2012

10 FAVORITES (62): London Twenty-Twelve!

Well, it has been a long two weeks away from this blog and I am rested and refreshed thanks to a little Olympics vacation.  No I didn't actually attend the XXX Olympiad in London; but with all the coverage all over the media (Online and on NBC's many channels), I felt like I was there (whether I wanted to be or not!).  And with the Closing Ceremonies done and the Games officially over, out come all the criticisms and lamentations over the happenings of the past two weeks of events.  Some criticize the athletes' performances, especially the ones who had to "settle for silver" (but the athletes are probably tougher on themselves than anyone else could be!).  Some lament the goings-on at the Games, especially in the Olympic Village (it seems every Olympics, we hear about some raunchy sex party happening in the athletes' residences!).  Some even lament the attitudes of some of the athletes.  I know I personally am lamenting the US Swim Team's choice to make a YouTube video of Carly Ray Jespensen's "Call Me Maybe" (I mean, seriously, enough with that song; I didn't enjoy it when Sesame Street parodied it and I usually enjoy a good SS parody!).

But the biggest criticisms seem (usually) to be lobbied at the Peacock Network and their (at varying times) inept and belabored coverage of the Games.  To be fair to them, half of the problems were not of their own making.  I mean, think about it.  When you're dealing with covering a major world event, time differences are going to be a factor.  Add to that the usual staunch lack of co-operation from the International Olympics Committee (more commonly referred to as the IOC!) and their (seemingly arbitrary) scheduling of events.  And on top of that, throw in advertisers who demand that their products be advertised in a certain time period (namely Primetime) and during certain events (say Swimming or Track), NBC's life is not made easier.  It also is not made easier by the 24/7 Twitter-paced media we live in today where everyone in the U.S. knew results well before NBC ever aired a thing during Primetime.

However, all the criticisms aside, there was much to celebrate during the XXX Summer Olympics.  And most among them were the many athletes who swam, ran, tumbled, dove, spiked, dribbled and jumped their way into our lives.  There were so many athletes that did exactly what they came to London to do.  They competed.  Some of them broke records.  Some even changed the way we look at the Games as a whole.  What better way to celebrate the top stories of the London Summer Olympics than to devote a whole 10 FAVORITES to it.  This week, let's look at:

2012 LONDON 

SPECIAL NOTE: Due to NBC's privacy restrictions on videos from the Games, we'll have to make do with using photographs of the athletes.  Yet another reason to lobby criticism the Peacock Network's way!

David Boudia
The US diver shocked the world when he and teammate Nick McRory won the Bronze medal in 10M Platform Synchronized Diving Event.  A week later, Boudia added shock to shock when he eked his way into the Semifinals of the solo event (ranking 18th after the Preliminaries!) and yet managed to perform great dive after great dive all the way into the Finals where he won the Gold Medal over China's World Champion Qiu Bo.

Misty May-Treanor & Kerri Walsh-Jennings
The veteran Volleyball players who won Gold in both Athens and Beijing made the decision to return to try for an unprecedented third straight Gold medal.  Both were a little older and both had undergone personal changes in their lives that made fans question whether a third Gold was possible.  After a tough start and some really close games (against the likes of China, Brazil, Italy and the United States' other Volleyball duo), the pair did the unimaginable and won a third straight Gold medal in Women's Beach Volleyball.

Kirani James
The small island nation of Grenada (just north of the coast of Venezuela) has had Olympic dreams for a long time.  And until this year, a medal in any event seemed impossible for them.  That was until Kirani James.  The sprinter was quite the favorite heading into the 400M heats.  After winning his heat and his semifinal, James' story (along with Grenada's) seemed to resonate with the crowd.  In the final, James crossed the finish line first to the thunderous applause in London's Olympic Stadium because everyone knew that this was what the Olympics was about.  And the party in Grenada celebrating their first Gold medal is still ongoing!

The USA Women Runners
Redemption thy name is woman.  Track stars Allyson Felix (200M) and Sanya Richards-Ross (400M) came to London with the drive to attain Gold after their disappointing Silver medals in Beijing (Felix also won Silver in Athens in her event).  Both women managed to capture Golds in their respective events and then they added to their haul.  Felix, along with new Track superstar Carmelita Jeter (who had already attained a Silver and Bronze at the Games), broke a World Record in the 4 by 100M relay. Then Felix, along with Richards-Ross, grabbed Gold in the 4 by 400M relay holding off rivals from Jamaica and Ukraine.  Flo-Jo would be quite proud! (Pictured below: the three women at the U.S. Olympic Trials earlier this year)

Missy Franklin
She was the "smiliest" person at the London Olympics.  And she had plenty of reason to smile.  The Colorado teenager (who by now is beginning her Senior year of High School!) swam in 7 Final races of the Olympic Swimming events and managed to walk away with 4 Gold Medals and 1 Bronze Medal (and she even placed 4th and 5th in the 2 races where she didn't make it to the podium!).  While the smiles flowed and the tweets from Justin Bieber congratulating her made teen girls swoon, Franklin took everything in stride and thoroughly enjoyed her Olympics debut.  We can look forward to her being a force to reckon with in Rio De Janeiro!

Team Brittania
With the Olympics on their home turf, Great Britain pulled out all the stops in their campaign and built up the legends of their superstar athletes.  Whether it was Heptathlon star Jessica Ennis or Tennis champ Andy Murray, the pressure was on this bunch to deliver.  Even Diving superstar Tom Daley had to retake his final dive because the flash bulbs from the media attention and the over-zealous audience distracted him.  It even helped that royalty was in the audience at some of the major events.  It seemed like everywhere you turned Prince William or Princess Kate or Prince Harry were seen cheering on Swimmer Rebecca Adlington, Long Jumper Greg Rutherford, Long-Distance Runner Mo Farah or the Men's Gymnastics Team.  Ennis, Murray, Rutherford and Farah triumphed in their respective events and brought Gold medals to the home team.  Adlington, Daley and the Men's Gymnasts were pleased with making the podium in their highlighted events by gaining Bronze medals.  Overall, Great Britain was fourth in the final Medal tally but came in third (over Russia!) with total Gold medals.  I think those across the pond would call that a win!

Oscar Pistorius
The only one mentioned on this list who did not medal is probably the most inspiring story of the London Olympics.  The notable South African sprinter was born with a congenital absence of the fibula (a very important leg bone!) and at 11 months, both of his legs were amputated.  But thanks to a strong and supportive family, no legs did not stop Pistorius' Olympic dreams.  With prosthetic blades attached to his knees, Pistorius quickly became a superstar at the Paralympic Games.  His times were becoming so good that he wondered if he could ever compete at the able-bodied level.  After much deliberation of the IOC and disappointingly not qualifying for the South African team back in 2008, Pistorius finally did qualify this year to compete in the Men's 400M race and the Men's 4 by 400M relay.  Though he did not make it to the Final in the former and his team ranked 8th in the latter, his presence and story was certainly felt by the audience around the world.  He is truly an athlete who has changed the face of the Games and we shall look forward to what he can do in the Paralympic Games in London before the end of the month.

The Fabulous Five
These young girls grew up hearing how "The Magnificent Seven" triumphed in Atlanta back in 1996 and trained themselves rigorously to achieve that same goal.  When the Women's Gymnastics Team competition started, these five girls seemed unstoppable.  Jordyn Wieber, Kyla Ross, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raissman and Gabby Douglass all performed their routines with verve and pure talent.  They went on to win the Gold medal in the team event, but these girls weren't done.  Douglass would fly her way to the top of the podium in the coveted All-Around Final (being the 4th U.S. Woman, the 3rd U.S. Woman in a row and the first African-American Woman to win the All-Around competition).  Raissman (who also competed in the All-Around competition, as most of us know!)  would win the Bronze medal in the individual Balance Beam competition and the Gold medal in Floor Exercise competition.  Maroney, who seemed to be a lock for a Gold in the Vault competition, ended up with the Silver medal (and started an Internet wave that even she and her teammates have had fun with!).

Usain Bolt
The Jamaican sprinter who broke records and won 3 Gold medals back in Beijing was back and back with a vengeance.  Many thought his time was over when his teammate Yohan Blake outran him at the Jamaican trials.  But Bolt, who wants the world to be as much in love with him as he is, was not to be counted out.  The Fastest Man in the World retained his title when he defended all 3 Gold medals he had won four years ago in the 100M, 200M and 4 by 100M relay races.  In his own words, he is truly a legend.

Michael Phelps
It is four years later and still Swimmer Michael Phelps is the top story.  Going into the London Games, it seemed that U.S. Swimmer Ryan Lochte was poised to eclipse Phelps in notoriety.  And when the Swimming started, Phelps was not at his Beijing best.  He eked into the Final of the Men's 400M Individual Medley (where he was up against Lochte!) and had to watch from 4th place as Lochte claimed Gold in that event.  But after that notorious Saturday, Phelps seemed to be reinvigorated.  In the rest of his 6 Finals (which he had cut down after the 400M!), Phelps medaled in every single one.  He won Silver in 4 by 100 relay and was out-touched by South Africa's Chad LeClos in the 200M Butterfly.  But in his next 4 Finals, Phelps' Golden touch was back.  With all of his medals combined, Phelps surpassed Soviet Gymnast Larissa Latynina as the most decorated Olympic athlete of All-Time.  And now after 4 Olympics (having burst onto the scene at the age of 14 back in Sydney's 2000 Games), Phelps' talk of retirement have the fans squealing for more.  But really how much more can this Golden guy (who may just be the Greatest Olympian of All-Time!) do?!?!