Friday, January 30, 2009

Hit the Road, Blags

Yesterday was a great day in Illinois. It was a day full of drama, bipartisanship, and new beginnings. For those of you who don't mainline CNN, the Illinois State Senate voted yesterday to remove Governor Rod Blagojevich from office in light of allegations that he abused his power -- holding legislation "hostage" in exchange for large campaign donations and trying to sell the US Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama. It is with great hope that this can close a chapter on this dark time in Illinois politics and that, under the leadership of our new governor, Pat Quinn, the state can begin to rebuild its repuatation and integrity.

Not that Blago didn't go down without a bit of a fight. Initially, he refused to appear at his own trial, claiming that the proceedings were already prejudiced against him and angry that he would not be able to call witnesses in his defense. Instead, Rod took to the airwaves, making appearances on at least 2 dozen different shows -- from Good Morning America to Larry King Live to The View. I'm not sure what Blago thought this would accomplish other than making himself look like more of an idiot than the people of Illinois already know him to be. He has perhaps tainted any future jury pool by turning himself into a media circus. When he did finally appear in front of the Senate yesterday, it was to deliver a roughly 45-minute speech to the Senators to "plead his case." His speech, though, did little to directly address the specific charges against him other than to say that the charges were false. It was a lovely performance, full of Blago's typical dramatic skill, but it was a performance that, like Mike Meyers's performance in The Love Guru, ultimately left his audience feeling sickened and disappointed.

In the end, the Senate unanimously voted to remove him from office and bar him from ever holding office in the state of Illinois again. Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn was immediately sworn in and begins the Herculean task of not only restoring some semblance of dignity to the office but also trying to clean up the mess that Blags leaves behind -- like the shameful nearly two billion dollar budget deficit, the crumbling infrastructure, and a Congress that has been locked in battle with the governor for nearly seven years. Quinn has a history of being a bit of an outsider, dare I even say a maverick, who has made a lot of enemies in his career, including a chilly relationship with Blags, by being a champion of cleaning up government in our state. He may be just the person Illinois needs right now -- someone who's not afraid to tackle big problems and isn't as mired in the "good old boy politics" when faced with a problem. He seems to be a man of integrity, and it's been quite some time since Illinoisians have been able to say that about our governor.

Quinn's time in office is potentially very short. Illinoisians vote for governor in 2010, and Quinn could face a battle should he choose to run for governor. The people may not have the patience it may take to let Quinn do what needs to be done in Springfield, but I hope that we at least give him a chance before we call out the hounds to run him out of town.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Good-Bye, Old Friend

You may remember this post where I bemoaned the death of the only bookstore left in my hometown. Over the past couple weeks since the announcement of Waldenbooks's closing, I've managed to find the time to visit Waldenbooks a few times in the past weeks. I will admit I felt like a bit of a vulture as I almost gleefully took advantage of the deep discounts being offered.

Tomorrow is Waldenbooks's last day. Unfortunately, I'll be in Eureka all day with my speech team. Instead, I made one final visit to Waldenbooks today. And yes, I took advantage of the discounts and walked out of the store with a bag of books -- including FINALLY buying a copy of Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. (That book must hold the record for being left behind more than any other book when I've gone to a bookstore and had to slim down the pile I inevitably accumulate as I journey amongst the shelves. Left behind no more!)

I admit I felt a little teary as I walked out the door and as I walked through the nearly deserted corridors of the mall, remembering the hours my sis and I spent wandering through the mall, the fun and adventures we would have, and I knew that the closing of Waldenbooks (the last of our old haunts) was truly the closing of that particular volume of my life.

When Adoration Turns Creepy

Danielle posted here about her frustration with the media focus on Michelle Obama's fashion choices, feeling that it negates the accomplishments of an intelligent, successful woman. While I agree with Danielle's post 100%, there's something else that troubles me even more.

It's this . Or maybe it's this .

Yes, I know it's exciting to have children in the White House, but the public frenzy over them is beginning to border on creepy. Wanting to know how tall they are? Who cares? Searching for information about them and the Jonas Brothers? Icky!!

I think the idea of them being turned into dolls upset me even more since this is less curiosity and more along the lines of theft. The Beanie Baby people have essentially stolen the images of two children with an eye towards their own profit. We're supposed to accept that two clearly African-American dolls are named Sasha and Malia by COINCIDENCE? Right! I know that all of this puts President and First Lady Obama (oh, how I love typing those words!) in a bit of a sticky situation -- their parental instinct to protect their children versus not wanting to seem like spoil sports. So perhaps it's up to us to let these little girls grow up in as much peace as their new life affords. They're already under a magnifying glass. Can we maybe make sure that the sun isn't shining too brightly on them while they're there?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Dubious Place in History of Doubt

If you haven't already read my post from earlier ("And the Nominees Are . . ."), stop and read that first. If you have, I just wanted to post a follow-up on my earlier query as to whether Doubt holds any sort of record for having the most acting nominations with no Best Picture nomination to go with it. And the answer is . . . sort of.

Doubt is actually tied for that honor with three other films. The record was set (and still stands with company) in 1937 by My Man Godfrey which saw acting nominations for William Powell, Carole Lombard, Mischa Auer, and Alice Brady. 1937 was the first year that the Academy included the category of Best Supporting Actor and Actress, which explains the inclusion of Auer and Brady. Godfrey also holds the "honor" of sweeping the nominations in all four acting categories AND being nominated for Best Director (Gregory La Cava) without a Best Pic nod.

The record for acting nominations was tied in 1949 by I Remember Mama which features the same configuration as Doubt -- Best Actress nomination for Irene Dunne, Best Supporting Actor for Oskar Homolka, and Best Supporting Actress for both Barbara Bel Geddes and Ellen Corby (both of whom would go on to play beloved 70s matriarchs Miss Ellie Ewing and Grandma Walton respectively).

The last time this feat was acheived was in 1966 when Othello garnered acting nominations for Laurence Olivier, Frank Finlay, Joyce Redman, and Maggie Smith without also picking up a Best Pic nod at the same time.

In recent years, They Shoot Horses Don't They?, Only When I Laugh, Victor/Victoria, and Adaptation have all picked up three acting nods without a Best Pic. But four is definitely the record.

And, for the record, none of the nominees listed above brought home a trophy for their work, so Doubt could still earn a place in history come February 22 if Streep, Hoffman, Adams, or Davis takes a trip to the podium.
(For those who are curious, according to my research, the record for most acting nominations WITH a Best Picture nomination appears to be five -- a record shared by Bonnie and Clyde, Tom Jones, Peyton Place, On the Waterfront, From Here to Eternity, and All About Eve.)

And the Nominees Are . . .

Well, the Oscar nominations were announced this morning at about 7:30 Central Time. How thoughtful of the Academy to schedule the announcement at a time when I can watch them live on CNN rather than furtively sneaking online to see the list when I should be inspiring students to love Shakespeare and Steinbeck and the like.

Today's nominations had a couple shockers (Kate Winslet failing to snag a Supporting nomination, some indie films getting some big acting nods, the big shocker in Best Pic), but they did seem to fall in line with much of the conventional wisdom.

For those of you who missed the announcement, here's the list along with how they stacked up against my predictions and some comments. I've starred the ones the match my picks and parenthetically mentioned who snuck in in lieu of my predicted nominee. (The nominees are presented in the order they were announced.)


Amy Adams, Doubt (Missed this one -- I pegged Kate Winslet here)
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona*
Viola Davis, Doubt*
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button*
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler*

Amy Adams was the surprise here. Well, not really that big of a surprise in that she was nominated for several early awards. I still think the race is wide open here, especially now that Winslet is out. I kinda figured she was the frontrunner, and now she isn't even in the race. Cruz may have regained her status as the frontrunner, but I wouldn't discount any of the others here. This may be the "office pool" buster!


Josh Brolin, Milk*
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder*
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt*
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight*
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road (I'd gambled on Kevin Bacon. I was wrong.)

I knew Bacon was a gamble, and I kind of knew I was in for a disappointment. I just didn't expect Michael Shannon to be the one to sneak in there. Until this morning, I kind of thought maybe Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel would be the one to sneak in here. I've not seen Revolutionary Road yet, but I did just finish reading the book this weekend, and Shannon's part is definitely built for Oscar. He plays a mental patient with the offputting habit of telling the truth, no matter how hard it may be to hear. I'm impressed by the Academy putting this relative unknown in with these heavyweights. Obviously, this award probably still belongs to Ledger, but this is also a category where shockers happen. (Think of Alan Arkin beating Eddie Murphy two years ago.)


Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married*
Angelina Jolie, The Changeling*
Melissa Leo, Frozen River (beating out my pick of Sally Hawkins)
Meryl Streep, Doubt*
Kate Winslet, The Reader* (Sort of. I had pegged her getting this nomination for Revolutionary Road, but apparently the Academy ignored the film's campaign -- which was pushing Winslet for Best Supporting -- and put her here.)

Melissa Leo was a nice shock. Frozen River is a tiny little indie film that probably not very many people have seen, although I hear that Leo's performance is amazing. Chances are likely that her nomination is as far as it will go (although I wouldn't count out her chances for a Spirit Award) as I think that this race is probably between Hathaway and Winslet.


Richard Jenkins, The Visitor (He took Eastwood's spot!)
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon*
Sean Penn, Milk*
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button*
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler*

Again, a nice shock to see Jenkins's work in a small, indie film get the nod here. Langella won the Tony for this same role, but I think this still boils down to a race between Penn and Rourke.


David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button*
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon*
Gus VanSant, Milk*
Stephen Daltry, The Reader*
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire*

I wasn't overly concerned when Daltry's name was read here since it's not unusual for a director to sneak in here whose film wasn't deemed worthy enough for the big dog. (2006 was the last time that the best director list matched the best picture list.) Here, I think it depends on which way the Academy decides to go -- is it going to be a Slumdog night or a Button night? Button leads in nominations (13), but Slumdog seems to be riding the swell a little more successfully so far. We'll see what the next month holds, but I'm thinking either Boyle or Fincher will join his film in claiming glory.


Frozen River (The Wrestler)
Happy-Go-Lucky (Rachel Getting Married)
In Bruges (Vicky Cristina Barcelona)

I told you I suck at screenplay nominations.


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button*
The Reader (Revolutionary Road)
Slumdog Millionaire*

A little better here. I just picked the wrong Kate Winslet movie. :)


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

So no Dark Knight. I guess I'm not overly shocked at that, although The Reader's presence here is a little more surprising. What is more more surprising is for a film like Doubt to get four acting nominations and no Best Picture nomination. The most recent example is 2003's Adaptation which picked up acting nominations for its three principals -- Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, and Chris Cooper (who actually won) -- but no Best Pic nomination. Then there's also the classic example of 1996 where both Dead Man Walking and Leaving Las Vegas picked up acting nominations for the principals (Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon for Dead Man and Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue for Las Vegas -- with Sarandon and Cage taking home the trophies) as well as Best Director nominations for Tim Robbins and Mike Figgis respectively but weren't deemed "worthy" enough for Best Picture nominations. The point is that Doubt is a bit of a rarity and just may hold the record of having the most acting nominations without a Best Pic nod to go along with it (I'm still researching that assertion.) Again, though, I think this is a Slumdog vs. Button race. Slumdog is the little indie film that everyone loves while Button is the sort of big studio film that used to be a lock for something like this. The winner here could actually really signal a shift in the direction of the Oscars -- whether it's sticking with the indie route and embracing a "foreign" voice or returning to form with the studio epics. Time will tell.

NOTE: I made some corrections. My initial belief was that Kate Winslet had been nominated for Revolutionary Road, but her nomination actually came for The Reader, negating an earlier comment I made about The Reader picking up no acting nods. Oops!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hope Has Entered the Building

I'm a bit at a loss for words after watching today's inauguration address by PRESIDENT OBAMA. (God, it feels good to type that . . . let me do it again . . . PRESIDENT OBAMA!!!) It was a truly inspiring moment to witness history, to feel that lifting of despair and the emergence of hope. Now, I'm not one of those people that thinks, "Bam! Bad times are over!" I know that it's going to take some time to pull this country out of the muck in which it finds itself mired so desperately, but at least I have faith that the person behind the wheel has an idea of how to get us out. It's just a question of the rest of us having the patience and trust to let him do the job.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Where the Extreme Cold Turns Mel into a Total Slacker for Six Days

Illinois was hit last week with an extreme cold snap accompanied by multiple inches of snow. With temps dipping down to -32 with the wind chill, school was canceled for three days in a row. One snow day is a pleasant surprise. Two is kind of a guilty pleasure. Three just gets downright excessive. I've spent the past six days (three snow days, a weekend, and then a Monday off to honor MLK) doing, well, not much of anything. Yes, I took my speech team to a meet on Saturday. I had a meeting yesterday. And that's about the extent of it. I spent about 90% of the time off sitting in my living room wrapped up in my sleeveless snuggie (aka blanket) watching tv and movies, reading, hanging out on facebook, and feeling vaguely guilty that I am not being more active.

The good part of this slackerdom, though, is that I finally got around to watching Persepolis, the brilliant animated film about a young girl growing up in Iran as the Shah is overthrown and the Islamic regime takes over. If you've not seen it, please go do so. (It's available for instant viewing for Netflix members!) I'm normally not a big fan of animation (I appreciate the art form, but for me, something's missing usually), but I was intrigued by the story, which is autobiographical, and by the style. Persepolis is almost entirely animated in black and white which lends this sleek, beautiful artistic style to the film. It's funny, touching, inspiring, and so much more. It was nominated last year for Best Animated Feature, losing out to Ratatouille, which is a darn shame. While I thought Ratatouille was charming in its way, Persepolis had something to say and said it in a daring way. Wouldn't it be nice for a grown up movie to win Best Animated Feature? One of the reasons why I tend to shy away from animated films is that they are almost always aimed at kids. As someone who gets closer and closer to 40, I often feel silly watching these films with their headache-inducing brightness and manic energy that's designed to keep children engaged. Plus, in all honesty, I have a hard time rooting for dogs or rats or robots or cars or whatever Pixar and their associates are pimping this year. I like actors. Persepolis is paced for adults. I honestly found myself forgetting that it was animated; that's how engaged I was in the story and the characters.

So tomorrow it's back to work to begin the long process of getting the kids back on track after such an unexpected break. I leave a couple movies still to watch in my DVR (as well as Kevin Kline's Cyrano from Great Performances a couple weeks ago), but there are always Sundays to play catch up again.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

And the Nominees Will Be . . . .

As part of my ongoing celebration of Oscar season, I'd like to kick things off today with my predictions of what names will be called next week when nominations are announced. Those of you playing at home can keep track and see just how accurate I am. Trust me. It's fun!


* The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
* The Dark Knight
* Frost/Nixon
* Milk
* Slumdog Millionaire

The Dark Knight is my "dark horse" pick. It's a risky film to nominate -- a superhero flick? But it's a well-made, complex film and being a huge box office success is a nice way for Hollywood to pat itself on the back as if to say, "See, we can still make good films AND make a shitload of money!" Remember that such blockbusters as Star Wars and E.T. were also Best Pic nominees. The film may also get swept up in the Heath Ledger adoration. Of the "also rans" here (Doubt, Revolutionary Road, The Reader, Gran Torino), it seems as if those films will receive a lot of acting recognition, but none of them seem to have the Best Picture mojo in that they haven't made a lot of the critic's lists or received many big awards up to now. Revolutionary Road and The Reader were shockers when they were nominated for Golden Globes, meaning no one quite thought they had it in them to be up for the big dog. Obviously, I think this race will ultimately be a showdown between Benjamin Button and Slumdog -- the lavish studio flick versus the little indie engine that could. Slumdog has been sweeping the critics' awards lately and won the Golden Globe Sunday night. Let's see how the next month or so pans out for it and if any backlash starts to develop.


* Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
* Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
* Sean Penn, Milk
* Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
* Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

This is a tough category this year. A completely different list could emerge next week with a lot of different names, but these five seem to have the momentum going into nominations. A lot of fine performances, though, will be left out because this has been such a competitive year for leading men-- Leonardo DiCaprio for Revolutionary Road, Dustin Hoffman for Last Chance Harvey, Javier Bardem for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Michael Sheen for Frost/Nixon, and more. Sean Penn's chances may be dimming as Mickey Rourke continues to gobble up the early awards. Don't count out, either, another sentimental choice in Clint Eastwood who could finally take him his first Oscar for acting in what he claims will be his last acting performance. (Gran Torino's big box office may help a little with voters as well.)


* Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
* Meryl Streep, Doubt
* Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road
* Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
* Angelina Jolie, The Changeling

Not a particularly great year for actresses (AGAIN!), but the great roles that were out there were pretty great. Kate Winslet's chances of winning here perhaps improved with her Golden Globe win, but then so did Sally Hawkins's. I still suspect that Anne Hathaway is the favorite here, even if the race is tightening. The question is whether voters will go with the subtlety of Winslet or Hathaway, the charm of Hawkins, or the scenery chomping of Streep and Jolie.


* Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
* Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
* Josh Brolin, Milk
* Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
* Kevin Bacon, Frost/Nixon

Bacon is my dark horse. I wouldn't be surprised to see Ralph Fiennes for The Reader or maybe someone else from Milk. Fiennes is one of those actors who pretty consistently turns in fine work with little appreciation (I still think he was robbed in 1994 when he didn't win for Schindler's List) Hollywood loves a "redemption tale", and really no one has had quite the same tale of redemption as Downey this year. In a weaker year, he could be a contender for Best Actor for Iron Man. Kevin Bacon is one of the most underappreciated actors out there. (Can you believe he's NEVER been nominated??) Maybe he'll finally get some love. This seems like a relatively weak year in this category, and this probably ends up as a showdown (again) between Ledger and Hoffman. Obviously, Ledger is the sentimental favorite.


* Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
* Viola Davis, Doubt
* Taraji Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
* Kate Winslet, The Reader
* Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

Again, Winslet may have improved her chances Sunday night with her double win, particuarly since there doesn't seem to be a clear favorite here yet. Davis's part is pretty small in Doubt (but it's a helluva part). Henson could be the road the Academy takes to honor Button if it opts for the Slumdog path for the other big prizes. Cruz seemed to be gaining momentum, but her loss Sunday may be an indication that her support is slipping. And then there's poor Marisa Tomei who has spent the past decade delivering lovely performances in indie films as if in penance for her shocking win 15 years ago for My Cousin Vinny. (Go back and watch that movie, if only for her scenes. As "silly" as the film is, Tomei's performance is totally charming and well worth the win, particularly since Oscar rarely rewards comedic work.) This could end up being the category that makes or breaks you on all those Oscar pools.


* David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
* Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
* Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
* Sam Mendes, Revolutionary Road
* Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino

Again, a lot of great directors left out. Again, I wouldn't be surprised to see other names here -- Gus VanSant, Christopher Nolan, Woody Allen, Daren Aronofsky. I think at least one of the best picture "also rans" will get some recognition here, if only as a way to recognize a director's work with fine actors, which is why I've included Mendes here. But who knows? With the high quality of the Best Picture nominees, all five of those directors could end up here. My gut tells me Nolan may be the one in the most danger of not securing a nomination for himself, but my guy has been wrong before. (Friends may remember my total certainty that films like Big Fish, Cold Mountain, and Dreamgirls would collect Best Picture nominations. I was wrong.)


* Rachel Getting Married
* Vicky Cristina Barcelona
* Wall-E
* Milk
* The Wrestler


* Frost/Nixon
* The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
* Doubt
* Revolutionary Road
* Slumdog Millionaire

I always find screenplay the hardest category to predict. There's always the question of which ones are adapted and which ones are original. Often, it becomes a chance for little indie films to get some recognition when they're about to be shut out of the big dog awards like Best Pic (think Pulp Fiction, Lost in Translation, Juno). My success rate here could be pretty low, although I'm feeling a bit more confident as I look over the list again. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

If you've slogged through this whole thing, congratulations. And I'll check in again next week with my reaction to the actual nominees. (Of course, I'll probably post sooner than that, but . . .)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Golden (Globe) Moments

Last night, a tragedy nearly occurred Chez Mel -- I ALMOST forgot to watch the Golden Globes! Granted, I had set the DVR to record them for me, but the Globes are something that need to be watched live, not days later when the list of winners is all over the internet. Luckily, my brain kicked in in time for me to catch the last 20 minutes or so of the red carpet before tucking in to enjoy the ceremony.

I love the Golden Globes. While they are virtually meaningless at some level and are often mocked as such, they do provide a faint hint of what the Oscars might hold. On top of that, they are filled with surprises whether it's courtesy of unexpected wins or drunken ramblings. The Globes just seem more chill (although not as chill as the Spirit Awards where nominees frequently show up in jeans and hang out in a tent) and like a fun party rather than the pomp and circumstance of the Oscars.

Overall, I thought the Globes were relatively entertaining and had enough surprises to keep me engaged. Kate Winslet's double win was a pleasant surprise. I think I've mentioned before how much I love Kate Winslet, and if I haven't . . . I love Kate Winslet. I think she is absolutely brilliant in everything she does. Her double win last night was a vindication of that. I cannot wait to see The Reader and Revolutionary Road, and 99% of my excitement to see them has to do with her. Her genuine shock (and almost embarrassment the second time) over winning was charming and real and made me love her all the more.

As much as The Wrestler intrigues me, I have to confess I'm reluctant to see it if only because the sight of Mickey Rourke makes me sad and uncomfortable. Remember how hot he was in Diner? Now . . . scary, sad, and unsettling.

If Slumdog Millionaire doesn't show up in my multiplex, I am going to be mad. I will NOT let that movie break my streak!

Renee Zellweger gets grosser and grosser every time I see her. I have officially decided I can't stand her.

I loved how the Steven Spielberg retrospective conveniently skipped over his flops/lousy movies -- like 1941, Always, The Terminal, or Hook. If that retrospective is to be believed, Spielberg has never created a suckfest, but we all know better.

I loved how Emma Thompson was there to give an encouraging pat to winners as they took the stage. Somehow, I imagine her presence would be comforting. And I loved how gracious Meryl Streep seemed to be as well.

I'm not buying the cold story, Colin Farrell.

I would hate to have Demi Moore for a mother. Of course, my mother would probably tell me not to slouch on television, too.

Tom Cruise -- class act for leading the standing ovation for Heath Ledger.

30 Rock . . . rocks! And how much fun must the 30 Rock table be with Tina, Alec, Will Arnett, and Amy Poehler? Their sides must have been aching from constant laughter. (Confession: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler often remind me of me and my best friend in that I imagine that the times they spend together are more fun than any times ever spent by anyone.)

When will someone finally give Neil Patrick Harris some awards loving?

I guess I should get around to watching Mad Men and tracking down that John Adams mini-series, huh?

My Oscar nomination predictions are coming soon, so stay tuned!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Tales of a Bad Ass

I am changing the name of this blog. Gone are the days of the wimpy Ginger Files. Oh, no no no. Today, I became a Bad Ass, and the title of this blog need to reflect that.

It was a typical day in the halls of my school. We're coasting into the end of a semester next week, so my students are working on final projects, book reports, stuff like that. Pretty low impact teaching, to be quite honest about it, but that's okay because I'm using that not-in-front-of-the-room-teaching time to get ready for auditions for the school musical next week as well as sketching out a preliminary set design. (Have I mentioned before that it's a one-woman department at my school? Yeah . . . .I know)

So after "enjoying" a lunch of yogurt and an orange, I was standing outside of my classroom to greet students to my fifth hour class. Suddenly, I heard a noise down the hall and turned in time to see two girls hit the floor in a blaze of flying fists and hair.

Girl fight -- the most dreaded of all high school discipline challenges.

The students immediately were circling, meaning I had to fight my way through the crowd to break the fight up. As I got closer to the eye of the storm, I suddenly realized that I was wading into this thing alone. I turned and saw one of my speech team kids and said, "Go find me help!" Almost immediately, another teacher was at my side. We reached the "ring" to find one girl on the floor with the other on top, fingers ensnared in each other's hair, fists flying. Another teacher was there already beginning the process of pulling one of the girls away. The other teacher and I headed to the other girl. While the other teacher hit the floor and started pulling, the fists continued to fly. As if in slow motion, I saw one of the girls rearing back to throw the fist. As it began its trajectory towards the face of her opponent, my hand came out and grabbed her around the wrist and began pulling it away. Of course, the entire time, the voice inside my head was saying, "WHAT THE FREAK ARE YOU DOING?!?!?!?" But then another voice was saying, "GO BAD ASS GO! STOP THAT FIST!!!" As the other two teachers held the two girls apart, I began the process of wading through the crowd to find administrators to deal with all this. When I returned, I noticed the blood on the floor -- emanating from the nose of one of the combatants. Yeah, this was serious stuff.

So I learned today that I can be a bad ass and stop a fight.

I also learned something else. I would make a bad witness in a trial. After it was all over, both the principal and assistant principal came to me since I was the first teacher to see the fight begin (although I didn't see the very beginning of it) and was one of the first people on the scene to break it up. I was of absolutely no help! I didn't know who the girls were (I've never had them in class); I couldn't even remember which girl's fist I had grabbed. I told my speech kids after school that the lesson of THAT was that they could commit a crime in front of me and I wouldn't be able to testify against them because I would probably describe them as 50-year-old black men instead of 16-year-old white girls.

A bad ass would have a good eye for detail and make a good witness, right? So I guess maybe changing the name of my blog isn't such a keen idea.

Well, at least I was a bad ass for a few shining moments anyway.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

It Was 20 Years Ago Today (or this year anyway)

Today, I got to work, ready to tackle another day's worth of teaching -- tests and journals to grade, lessons to plan, a musical to plan auditions for next week (EEK!). Before getting down to business, I took a sip of my coffee from the new travel mug my sis gave me for Christmas and opened up my trusty e-mail -- and nearly spit a mouthful of Maxwell House all over the monitor. Along with the spam I can't seem to avoid offering me a credit card or a bigger penis (now THAT'S a miracle drug!) was an e-mail from a classmate of mine from high school with information about our reunion this summer. Our 20th reunion.

Holy crap. I am freakin' old!

It's hard to believe it's been 20 years since I walked across that stage and grabbed that diploma. Sometimes, it seems like it was just yesterday that I was staying late to edit the school newspaper (The Budget) or spending Thursday nights with my girlies at Alfano's pizzeria listening to Edie Brickell on the jukebox, toasting the death of Roy Orbison, and using the same coupon for MONTHS after it had expired. I look in the mirror and outside of the smaller framed glasses and longer, non-Flock of Seagulls hair, I still see that same girl.

Or do I? Because on the other hand, it seems like forever since I was in high school. I've lost touch with just about all of my high school friends -- or had until Facebook came along. The path my life has taken isn't quite the path I thought I was hopping on with that diploma. Not that I'm complaining although I often wonder what that 17 year old would think if I were to go back and say, "Okay, kid, here's the thing. Law school is going to suck, so that's not going to work out but you are going to LOVE teaching. Unfortunately, that means no BMW. Sorry. But Chrysler Sebrings are cool, too. No marriage, no kids, but you know what? You're pretty darn happy." Would she be okay with that? Who knows?

So now the big question is am I going to go to this thing or not? There are some people that it would be fun to see outside of Facebook. There are some people it would be interesting to see how they turned out. And hey -- it'll give me something to blog about, right? :)

Monday, January 5, 2009

Just a Quick One

If you're looking for a laugh, I've embedded a new video clip below. Enjoy!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Buttoned Up

I took my first official steps into the Oscar hunt this afternoon, joining a friend at our local multiplex to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. This film has arrived in theaters accompanied by the big buzz that it's a top contender for Best Picture, and I can see why.

Clocking in at just under three hours, the film is a cinematic bildungsroman with a decidedly different (and heartbreaking twist). Our hero, Benjamin, is born the same night that World War I ends, and we follow Benjamin from that night through a life made remarkable by the "affliction" with which Benjamin is born. Benjamin is aging backwards. He is born a seemingly shrunken, ancient man, and as the years progress, he "ages" into a better and better looking Brad Pitt. We follow Benjamin through his childhood in a retirement home, his journeys on a tug boat, and his relationships with two equally remarkable woman, Daisy and Elizabeth. It is a stunning story, beautifully shot and tenderly told. It's a lovely three hours, and while you do feel the fact that the film is long (something that, to me, is always compounded when the film in queston follows the span of a lifetime), there was a never a moment where I was checking my watch or fidgeting for the end to come. In fact, when the end came, I have to confess a slight feeling of disappointment, wanting even more time with these characters I had grown to love.

The movie hits so many of the "right" notes. There's the beautiful cinematography, the art design with a lovely eye for detail, the amazing visual effects that turn Brad Pitt into an ancient child who wanders down the streets of New Orleans with crutches as his body shakes off the arthritis and physical afflictions which make him unable to walk, a moving score. Director David Fincher (yeah, that David Fincher ) uses a gentle touch and lets the magic unfold at a lovely pace. How fun to see a director stretch his wings in such an interesting way as he journeys outside of his usual box. I've long admired his work, and my admiration grows even more to see that he's capable of something this epic yet intimate.

Of course, the most beautiful film would be worth little if the acting did not reach the same heights as the artists involved behind the scenes, and Fincher here has assembled a worthy, "pedigreed" cast led by Pitt who turns in perhaps one of if not the finest performance of his career. He gives a subtle, honest performance. I loved how he managed to exude youthful exuberance under the weight of the age makeup in Benjamin's early years. He never lets Benjamin go over-the-top and there's rarely a false note. (Okay, if I did have to quibble with anything, his accent at times does become a little "much" as his New Orleans drawl occasionally dribbles into more stereotype than genuine. But that's a small quibble)

Taraji P. Henson won my heart instantly as the woman who finds the abandoned Benjamin and adopts him, refusing to give up on the child that most label "doomed." She creates a warm, spirited, sassy woman whose faith nurtures Benjamin and gives her the strength to face such a monumental challenge in raising a child such as this one. She has a lot of Oscar buzz circling her, and it's well deserved.

Someone not generating much buzz and yet so worthy of it is Cate Blanchett as Benjamin's beloved Daisy. I'm not sure why she's received so little critical attention other than her work is so subtle and real that it isn't drawing attention to itself and the part of Daisy is a rather thankless role. She doesn't get the "big" moments, perhaps, that, say, Kate Winslet is getting this year. Or maybe it's that she's playing those "big" moments with such a gentle, subtle touch that critics are forgetting her. That's unfortunate. Blanchett is one of the finest actors in film right now (I'd put her with Winslet, Laura Linney, Frances McDormand, and few others), and this film is yet another fine, honest performance.

Tilda Swinton's time onscreen is significantly less than Blanchett's, but she creates a wonderful, memorable character as Elizabeth. Like Blanchett, Swinton hasn't been getting much buzz, perhaps because she just won for Michael Clayton last year (beating out Blanchett's Bob Dylan in I'm Not There among others). Or perhaps it's because, like Blanchett, Swinton isn't chewing scenery and making a "scene." Or perhaps it's just because Henson's "Queenie" is stealing all that buzz for herself.

Button is worthy of the buzz it is getting, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it be the leader when nominations are announced later this month. If you find yourself with three hours to kill, check it out and see if you are as charmed by the film as I was.

Friday, January 2, 2009

In Memoriam -- A Cherished Friend of My Youth

I went to the website of my local paper this afternoon and gasped aloud when I saw the headline. The Waldenbooks at my local mall is closing at the end of this month. This leaves my town with no real bookstore outside of the ones located at the two local colleges (where the non-textbook inventory is relatively small) and the Christian bookstore that I think is still open. Now, people in my town will either have to be satisfied with the meager offerings at Wal-Mart, Target, or K-Mart (although I will say the selection at Target isn't horrific as long as you're looking for relatively mainstream bestseller type stuff) or cruising online. Don't get me wrong; I love as much as the next bookworm, but to me there's something almost religious about walking into a book store, inhaling that scent of paper, wondering at the countless possibilities contained on the shelves, and excited to dig in and find a new treasure. My sis often comments on the fact that when I walk into a bookstore, my hands start to itch from the excitement of being surrounded by so many books and eagerness to tackle the stacks. I love the feel of books. I love browsing the shelves, reading jacket covers, flipping through the book. It's heaven.

This closing, though, is even more bittersweet beside the closing of the town's only bookstore and the fact that it's yet another store to close in my economically drowning hometown. This store and I go way back. This store was one of the original tenants of the local mall when it opened in the mid-70's. My relationship with this store is longer than the one I have with my sis (who was born 2 years after the mall opened). When I was growing up, I spent many hours at this tiny little bookstore -- graduating from the picture book section to the young adult section to the front where all the grown-up books are. In my teens and even into my early 20's, I was a certified mallrat. Just about every Saturday of my youth was spent roaming the mall, and my journeys at the mall almost always began with a stop at Waldenbooks to check out the new releases, browse the magazines, and generally see what was out there. I almost always walked out with at least one book purchased.
Waldens is the last of my old mallrat haunts to abandon the local mall, which is on serious life support as more and more stores close due to the failing economy and a general lack of customers. (It's a vicious cycle here: people don't go to the mall because there are no stores left and there are no stores left because people don't go to the mall.) Gone are the McDonalds where I ate more Saturday lunches than I would care to admit, the Musicland where I built the music collection that defined my teens and 20's, the Spencer's where I bought cool stuff like my ceramic Beatles box, the Deb where my best friends from high school and I would spend hours trying on clothes, the movie theatre where I saw many of the films that defined my youth, and more.
And I admit my own guilt in all of this. As I grew older (and particularly when I returned to my hometown from my year spent living in Chicago), I realized how limited inventory was at Waldens, but the place held a soft spot in my heart. As more and more stores closed at the local mall, I found myself going to Waldenbooks less and less and purchasing more and more online since I was unable to find what I was looking for so many times when I did go to Waldens. But I always knew it was there if I needed it and now . . . . I guess it's true that you don't know what you have until it's gone. So long, my friend, and thank you for helping create the pretentious bookworm snob that I am.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Let the Games Begin

I have a sort of thing -- I don't know what to call it -- Compulsion? Addiction? Quirk? I don't know. Anyway, the thing is that I have a sort of obsession with the Oscars. I study the Oscars the way some people study baseball or Star Trek or science. Yeah, I recognize and embrace my nerdiness where this is concerned. I embrace the fact that I can recite Best Picture winners going back at least 20 years. Seriously. On top of that, going back at least 20 years, I have seen every Best Picture winner PRIOR to it winning Best Picture. I'm on a streak. Sometimes I gamble and just make sure I see the "sure bet," which is why I sat through the third Lord of the Rings movie despite the fact that I really hate those sorts of fantasy films. Sometimes, I get freakin' lucky, like when I watched Crash on DVD literally an hour before the ceremony started, a night when I was sure my streak was about to end because I had NOT seen Brokeback Mountain during the two weeks it was here in town.

The problem is that it's getting harder and harder for me to make sure that my streak stays alive, a fact of which I was reminded in reading this article in the New York Times. The article talks about the seemingly snail-like pace that the major contenders are taking in getting out into theatres. I live in a very small market, so the chances of me actually getting to see something like The Wrestler or Slumdog Millionaire before nominations come out are pretty much zero. Heck, the chances of me seeing them even after nominations come out aren't much better. It's been four years since I've "run the board" of Best Picture nominees -- seeing all five prior to the ceremony. Of course, it's gotten a little more challenging for me since my Januarys are often consumed with speech and finding the two or three hours to hide out in a theatre and enjoy a good film is pretty tough. And my task is made harder by the studios' refusal to share the goods with the rest of America.

Now, I'm not one of those anti-urban whiners who rails against urban elitism. I love cities. If I could find a job just like the one I have right now, I'd move to a city in a heartbeat if only to enjoy the cultural opportunities those cities provide. What I have a problem with, though, is this attitude that culture ONLY exists in cities. Cities like New York, Chicago, LA, Boston, and such may gave more cultural opportunities, but that doesn't mean that smaller towns don't crave such opportunities. In smaller towns, films are often the only real culture available or are a more affordable culture. I'm fortunate in that my town offers quite a bit of culture considering the size -- a symphony, theatre, art gallery, et cetera. When I go to see these "city" films, the theater is often quite full of people like myself who want an intelligent couple of hours of film rather than explosions, slapstick, and talking dogs. Many people I know will often drive an hour to Peoria or the Quad Cities to track down quality films -- something I rarely have time to do particularly considering that the weather can often make such trips a challenge this time of year as well. The fact remains that there are people who want these movies, who crave these movies, who will spend money to go see these movies. It's time for the studios to recognize the market that exists in the rest of the country and start giving us our damn movies!