Friday, August 26, 2011

Fast Five Friday: Mind-benders

Meg and I went to see The Tree of Life this summer. That was one crazy movie. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I can appreciate a piece of art that challenges me, but The Tree of Life is a little too out there for me to fully embrace. Don't take my word for it, even Sean Penn told a French magazine he didn't get it. He thought a more conventional structure would have served the story better, and I would have to agree.

The Tree of Life is the latest example of mind-bending cinema. Mind-benders are movies that defy logic, stretch reality, embrace the absurd. Some of the best movies are mind-benders. Some don't quite hit the mark. This week's Fast Five shines the light on 5 mind-bending films.

5) Mulholland Drive: There are certainly other trippy David Lynch movies, but I'll go with the last one I saw. I enjoyed this movie, although I will admit to generally not knowing what the hell was going on.

4) Memento: This is a movie I highly recommend. Talk about nonlinear storytelling. The movie starts with the final scene and works backwards. I read recently that you can watch the movie in chronological order on the DVD. I'm gonna have to do that some time.

3) Being John Malkovich: I really enjoyed this one. A man, a puppeteer no less, walks through a door into the mind of John Malkovich. He then begins charging $200 a pop for the experience. Charlie Kaufman has written a number of mind-bending scripts, but this is my favorite.

2) Inception: This is one of my favorite movies of all time. I dig the whole dream within a dream within a dream within a dream - thing. I just let the this one come to me, and when it clicked into place, it was movie nirvana. Needless to say, I am a big Christopher Nolan fan.

1) Synecdoche, New York: Next to The Tree of Life, this may be the strangest movie I've ever seen. Charlie Kaufman not only wrote the script, this was his directorial debut. The movie is about a guy who stages his life as a play in a warehouse, blurring the line between reality and art. I hate to say it, but this was a dud for me. The best thing I can say about it, is that I'm glad we still live in a world where people thought putting up their own money for this was a good idea. Kinda how I feel about The Tree of Life. Glad it's out there, just not my cup of tea.

What are some other mind-bendng movies you loved? How about some that just left you scratching your head?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jon Stewart, Warren Buffet, and Those Damn Poor People

I don't watch The Daily Show very often, but I do like Jon Stewart a lot. Roger Ebert tweeted a link to a great bit Stewart did on the deficit last week. I couldn't find it on YouTube, so I had to go to The Daily Show's website. I'm not sure why, but they broke the segment into two parts. They're both hilarious, and spot-on. Enjoy.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Fast Five Friday: More Than a Game

I'm writing this as I watch the Packers play their second preseason game. I don't get too worked up about preseason games, but I'm missing my dad tonight. I probably would have gone over to his place to watch the game. My dad loved watching all the young guys fighting to make the team. We would have talked about the game, and so much more. I'll miss those times with my dad. When you grow up in Wisconsin, football is very much something passed from father to son, so tonight's Fast Five is a little more personal than usual (might be a few of these this year). These are five great memories of football, and my dad.

5) In 1983, the defending Super Bowl champ Washington Redskins came to Green Bay for Monday Night  Football. It was the first time MNF came to Green Bay, and my dad's excitement was palpable. It was a wild game, with the lead changing hands all night. The Packers eventually won 48-47, and I'll never forget the electricity in our house that night.

4) I've written before about Steve from New Zealand. Steve lived with us when I was in 4th grade, and in 1985 (might have been '86) he came through Green Bay as he spent a year traveling the world. The Packers were a bit of a train wreck that year, but my dad considered it his duty to take Steve to a game. I remember watching Lawrence Taylor through binoculars, and feeling awed by the man's intensity. It was the first time I felt like one of the guys, and it felt good. I've never forgotten the feeling.

3) The year after Mike Holmgren left Green Bay for Seattle, he came back to Lambeau with the Seahawks. I was living in Arizona by then, and my parents were in Nevada. My mom, who could have cared less about the game, called to talk during the game. At one point, Favre hit Corey Bradford on a long touchdown. Bradford was one of those young guys my dad cheered for, and he jumped on the phone to announce that "Bradford's too fast, they can't catch him." He sounded like a little kid.

2) Favre's last year with Green Bay, the Packers made the NFC Championship. My dad came over to watch the game. It was just the two of us. The game was a nailbiter the whole way, with the Packers losing a heartbreaker in overtime. My dad was disappointed to be sure, but he went into Dad mode, trying to cheer up his son. You're never too old for a pep talk from your dad.

1) In 2010, the Packers played the Cardinals the last game of the season. My brother and a good friend from Green Bay were in town, and we drove up to Phoenix for the game. Both teams had already clinched playoff spots, so the game was essentially meaningless. We had a blast anyway. We drank a few beers in the parking lot, settled for Arizona brats, and cheered the Pack to a victory. My dad hadn't been feeling well for quite a while before the game, but he mustered the energy to enjoy the day. It's a day I'll never forget.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

I Knew Casey Kasem, and you, Ryan Seacrest, are no Casey Kasem

My daughters have a new obsession: pop music. They picked it up from their cousins this summer. I was hoping it would fade away when we got home, but it seems to be picking up steam. They have the radio on all the time in their rooms, listening to the likes of Katy Perry, Pink, Adele, Rhianna, Bruno Mars, Usher, Taio Cruz, and The Black Eyed Peas. Apparently someone named Pitbull is a fixture on the pop charts these days.

I can appreciate a good pop song every now and then, but the pop station the girls listen to plays the same songs over and over. The repetition is mind-numbing. And don't get me started on the lyrics. When did I become the old guy who thinks the state of popular music is a sure sign the world is going to hell in a handbasket?

To prove they've gone all in, the girls have started listening to American Top 40. I didn't even know AT40 was still around. I have to admit, I did love the Top 40 for a while when I was a kid. I can hear Casey reading a long-distance request even now.

I was cool with the whole Top 40 thing until I found out Ryan Seacrest is now the host. I am not a big Ryan Seacrest fan. In fact, I wrote a post a while back about the people I love to hate, and coming in at number #1 was good ol' RS.

This will surely sound ridiculous, but I'm not sure I want to live in a world where the voice of Ryan Seacrest is seared on to the brains of unsuspecting children, especially my own. I may be able to tolerate the likes of Ke$ha coming from my girls' rooms, but Seacrest, that's gonna take some work.  

Friday, August 12, 2011

Fast Five Friday: Teachers in the Movies

It was back to work this week. Meg and I did a couple days of training on Monday and Tuesday, and then it was back to our schools on Wednesday. The kids show up on Monday, and then things get crazy.

Think of the life of a teacher like the Starship Enterprise. Peacefully drifting through space, and then, BAM, warp speed. That's how it feels on the first day of school. Everything is calm and peaceful, and then that first bell rings, BAM, warp speed.

With school right around the corner, this week's Fast Five is an homage to some of my favorite teachers from the movies.

5) Dewey Finn, School of Rock: Dewey assumes his roommates's identity and accepts a substitute teaching position to pay the rent. He has no idea what he's doing, but he uses his love of music to connect with kids. Jack Black is very funny as Dewey, and the movie is surprisingly charming.

4) Mr. Hand, Fast Times at Ridgemont High: The sound of Sean Penn saying, "Mr. Haaaand," is a soundbite that perpetually runs in my head. And for that I say, thank you Sean Penn. 

3) Economics teacher, Ferris Bueller's Day OffI mean, who will ever forget the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930? Anyone.....anyone.....anyone. OK, how about something D-O-O economics? 

2) John Keating, Dead Poets Society: Robin Williams is great as a teacher who uses poetry and literature to inspire a group of young men to follow their hearts. As an English teacher, it's hard not to love Keating.  

1) Jaime Escalante, Stand and Deliver: The #1 spot is reserved for a real teacher, a man who is an inspiration to all teachers. People thought Escalante was crazy for trying to teach calculus in East Los Angeles, but he proved them wrong. Escalante died in 2010, but his legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of the students he affected.    

Who are some of your favorite teachers from the movies? What are some of your favorite movies that deal with education in general?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Spreading the Love

I want to thank Lynn at Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You for thinking of me with an award last week. I've seen this floating around, and it's fun to be included. The Liebster is a way to spotlight blogs with under 200 followers. The rules for this one are pretty simple:

1. Thank the giver and link back to the blogger who gave it to you.

Thanks again Lynn, you are too kind.

2. Reveal your 5 picks and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog. Most of my favorite blogs have less than 200 followers, so it's hard to choose 5. For this award, I went with blogs I haven't given a shout-out to yet, or if I have, it's been a while. Check 'em out and give 'em a follow-it's always nice to see that little number go up.

The Art of Being Conflicted

Suburban Soliloquy

After Troy-Hektor Karl

Play off the Page


3. Copy and paste the award on your blog.

4. Have faith that your followers will spread the love to other bloggers.

5. And most of all - have bloggity-blog fun!

To fulfill #5, I have a little video to share. With the American economy imploding, I think it's important to remember another calamity that recently befell Americans.

One more thing before I go. The Rileys watched Soul Surfer for Family Movie Night on Sunday. I'm sure you've heard about Bethany Hamilton, the young girl whose arm was bitten off by a shark. I really enjoyed this movie. My daughters will tell you I cried, maybe even a couple of times, but really, I just had something in my eye. Great movie.  

Friday, August 5, 2011

Fast Five Friday: Music That Tells a Story

The Rileys are back in Tucson after another great July in the Midwest. Meg and the girls flew home, but I drove with my father-in-law and the dog. On the last leg of the trip, I put on one of my favorite records (is this word outdated in our digital times?), Hollywood Town Hall by The Jayhawks. Memories drifted in and out, mostly the Minneapolis days and other road trips, and all felt right with the world. There's something about listening to great music on the road. It clears out all the clutter and frees my mind to wander. Even though it was only a couple days ago now, this latest communion with The Jayhawks already has a nostalgic feel to it.

A great record is like a book. Each song is a chapter, building on the one before it, all of them coming together to tell a story. Hollywood Town Hall is a Minnesota story for me, and I love every song. You can't say that about many records, and it got me thinking about other records that create a story for me.

In the order I discovered them, here are 5 records with great songs from top to bottom, great individual songs working together to create a story.

5) Born in the USA, Bruce: Springsteen is a master storyteller, and this is his best story. It's the story of looking back and finding the meaning in your life. I didn't really understand that when I was young, but when I listen now, I hear a story of reflection with an eye to the future.

4) Joshua Tree, U2: This record spawned a number of hits, but the songs that weren't radio hits are just as good. When I listen to Joshua Tree, I hear the story of my transition from high school to college, a time in my life when this record was perpetually playing in my head.

3) Nevermind, Nirvana: In a lot of ways, Nevermind tells the same story as Joshua Tree. I graduated from college in '91, and this record feels like a chronicle of that time, another time of great transition. Nevermind was a snarling record, a call to make the transition to adulthood on your own terms, regardless of what others might say. 

2) Hollywood Town Hall, The Jayhawks: My first night in Minneapolis, I walked up to the Uptown Bar and Grill to listen to some music. I'd never heard of The Jayhawks, but I fell in love straightaway, and this record is the story of my years in Minneapolis, a time when I became a teacher, met my wife, bought a home.

1) Day and Age, the killers: Hailing from Las Vegas, the killers know a thing or two about the desert. The desert is an unforgiving place, but it is also a place of unrivaled beauty. Day and Age is a story about seeing beauty all around me, the beauty of creating a family in a troubled world.

I hope I'm not the only one who hears stories in his favorite music. What are some other records that tell great stories?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Leonard Smalls & Anton Chigurh Redux

I'm going to be on the road for the next few days, but I'm trying to stick to a Tuesday/Friday blogging schedule. It's hard to come up with something original at the La Quinta in North Platte, Nebraska, so I'm going to the recycling bin.

Today's post ran last August. I didn't have a lot of readers last summer, so I'm thinking this will be new for most people. According to Blogger stats, this post has more page views than any post in life of riles history. Only two people left comments, so apparently there are a lot of people out there searching for images of either Leonard Smalls or Anton Chigurh. Who knew. Please feel free to weigh in on my amateur film analysis. 

I'm a huge Coen brothers fan. The Big Lebowski is my all-time favorite movie, but that's not what I want to write about. I recently watched Raising Arizona again, and I couldn't help noticing some striking similarities to another Coen film: No Country for Old Men.

If you've seen both of these films, the comparison may seem like a stretch, but I've been thinking about this a lot the past couple weeks (just ask my wife), and not only do I think the films are eerily similar, I think a case can be made that they are essentially the same movie. For the record, I don't consider that a bad thing. In fact, I think it's genius.

Both films have the same basic premise.  The protagonist takes something that doesn't belong to him, and then is relentlessly pursued by a demonic antagonist.  The Coens deftly use both Leonard Smalls and Anton Chigurh as symbols.

You don't have to be a film expert to realize these two characters represent pure evil.  On a deeper level, the Coens use the bounty hunter and the hitman to symbolize the evil of the times, which happens to be the 80s in both films, catching up with America.  Or something like that.  The Coens do love their symbolism.  I'm certainly open to other interpretations.

There are other, smaller similarities as well.  Both movies are set in the desert Southwest.  Both films have friendly police officers, and finally, both movies feature lengthy scenes with dogs chasing the protagonist.  There are more, but you get the point.

Now, having tried to make the case that Raising Arizona and No Country for Old Men are basically the same movie, I want to give the Coens their due.  These cats are auteurs, so I'm pretty sure they did it on purpose.  Even though the films are quite similar, the tone is completely different.  Raising Arizona was made pre 9/11, and the movie is essentially a comedy.  NCFOM was made post 9/11, and it is most definitely not a comedy, unless you tend to the very dark.  I have a feeling the Coens made the same movie to illustrate how different our world has become.

Of course, this could all be complete nonsense.  I can't help myself.  I watched a lot of Siskel and Ebert growing up.