Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Nice Way to End 2009!

So I was away for a few days at Christmas.  Upon my return, I checked the comments and found that I have received an award from not one, but two readers (who are both great bloggers themselves!).

How fun!

Here are the rules that came with the award:

1) Thank the person who nominated me for this award.

2) Copy the award & place it on my blog.

3) Link to the person who nominated me for this award.

4) Tell us 7 interesting things about yourself.

5) Nominate 7 bloggers.

6) Post links to the 7 blogs I nominate.
First of all, I'd like to thank Nikki of Are you there, youth?  It's me, Nikki and Sadako of Dibbly Fresh for bestowing this honor upon a lowly almost-30 cube-dweller who likes pink way too much.  So that takes care of 1) and 3).
Now I'll tell you 7 things about myself that you may or may not find interesting:

1) My graduating class had 34 people.  That's right: THIRTY-FOUR.  And people wondered why I wanted to go to college in a major city.
2) I was named after an actress whose real name was Betty, but had a name made up for her when the movie studio deemed Betty too boring. 
3) Last night at yoga, I did a handstand by myself for the first time ever!  Granted, it was up against the wall, but still.  :)
4) When I was a kid, I tried to light a match and burned myself.  I've been scared of matches ever since.
5) The band I've seen  most often in concert is They Might Be Giants (four or five times).
6) I once hung out with Jen Lancaster, before her books got really big.
7) I've written three YA novels.  The first is one I started in 2007, have rewritten three times, and will be re-submitting to agents and publishers.  The second began as a short story for a fiction class I took early this year.  I just finished the second draft and submitted it to a YA novel contest (because of contest rules, I couldn't submit my first novel).  The third I wrote for NaNoWriMo, and will be revisiting soon.
Now I'll nominate 7 bloggers I love.  I may not be so good about posting in comments, because I think some of these guys read this blog!
1) Dibbly Fresh: all things old-school YA and new-school pop culture.  Sadako is a ton of fun, and I was a fan long before I started this blog.
2) Etiquette Bitch: my friend Mare Swallow's fun and funky blog that proves politeness never goes out of style.
3) Vinotarian: delicious recipes and wine recommendations from two funny Southern ladies.
4) Lifetime, Wow!: two hilarious snarkers take on Lifetime movies.  Freaking hysterical.
5) Are you there, youth?  It's me, Nikki: because I never tire of the fiction of my youth, AND because Nikki and I love Mike O'Malley!
6) Life, Words & Rock 'n' Roll: the blog of astoundingly talented YA author Stephanie Kuehnert (I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, Ballads of Suburbia).  Read her stuff.  Now.
7) The Coffee-Stained Writer: a Florida-based freelance writer offers writing prompts, tips, and encouragement.  Sometimes it's nice to know we're not alone in our artistic pursuits!
And finally, I want to thank all my readers.  For a long time, I hesitated to start my own blog because I thought, "who's going to care about the babbly musings of a 29-year-old office employee?"  Thank you, thank you, thank you for proving me wrong.  Keep spreading the blog love and here's to a great 2010!
Tonight, whether you're living it up or staying in, please be safe.  I want to see your comments next year!
(And if you ARE living it up, why not check out my post on New Year's Eve bar etiquette?  Goes down real smooth!)

Monday, December 28, 2009

For Ana: Emily of New Moon

So the subject of this week's post comes courtesy of Ana, who may very well be my farthest-flung (furthest-flung?) reader, and who also sent me my very first fan email!  When she suggested back in October that I take a look at Lucy Maud Montgomery's Emily series, I was happy to oblige.  Here's the Unpro take on the trilogy's first book, Emily of New Moon.

When my pal Addie (also known as my Now and Then viewing buddy) and I were in middle school, we went through a major Montgomery phase.  As bookish, creative girls ourselves, we related to Lucy Maud's bookish, creative heroines, and Prince Edward Island, Canada just sounded soooo romantic.  And there were hot, sensitive love interests who appreciated independent women (Gilbert Blythe, what what?).  We started with Anne of Green Gables and its seven sequels, then moved on to Jane of Lantern Hill and eventually, the Emily books.

Because it's my middle name (thanks, Wuthering Heights-loving Mom!), I've always had a soft spot for Emilys real and fictional.  Not to stereotype, but most Emilys I've met may seem quiet at first, but have a hell of a strong will and artistic ability in spades.  And Lucy Maud Montgomery's Emily Byrd Starr fits this to a T.  (Well, maybe not the quiet part.)

Doing a Google Image search for this post, I found that Emily of New Moon was adapted into a television series that aired in Canada from 1998-2000.  Apparently it was on in the U.S. too, on something called WAM.  Cool!  (If anyone wants to get me a Christmas present, I would lurve these DVD's!)

A basic plot summary: Emily Byrd Starr is eleven years old and living poor but happy with her single dad in backwater Canada.  She loves her dad, her two cats, and writing, in that order.  However, when her father's death leaves her alone and penniless, Emily is reluctantly taken in at New Moon Farm by her two aunts, Elizabeth and Laura Murray, the sisters of her mother Juliet, who died when Emily was tiny.  Laura is sweet and understanding of Emily's many scrapes and outbursts, Elizabeth is of the "spare the rod and spoil the child" school.  However, thanks to the encouragement of her slightly-unbalanced-but-lovable Uncle Jimmy, Emily starts to cultivate her writing talent, while speaking her mind, having adventures, and solving a mystery along the way. 

Emily kind of rocks.  When I was young I always wanted to be friends with Montgomery's characters.  Sure, Ruby Gillis was kind of a ditz, but the rest of the girls were so smart, funny and most of all loyal (not easy to find in real life preteen girls).  At a time when children were meant to be seen and not heard, Emily respected her elders but wasn't afraid to speak up when she saw injustice.  Despite the ordeal of losing her father at age eleven, Emily has a pretty strong sense of self, not to mention real confidence in her writing (even when her spelling is not so great).  She does make the mistake of trusting Rhoda, her school's chief Mean Girl, but she more than makes up for it by being a good friend to wild child Ilse (I distinctly remember that the Emily books were the first time I heard the name Ilse, and I loved it), budding painter Teddy (future hottie alert!), and earnest hired boy Perry.  Basically, no matter how many times Emily stumbles, she scrambles right back to her feet and soldiers on.

There's really only one thing that bugs me about the Emily books.  His name is Dean Priestly, and we're going to have a bit of a chat.

Hi Dean.  I'd like you to meet a friend of mine:

Take a seat, Dean.  Right over there.

Okay.  I understand that this was a different era.  That in the olden days, it wasn't seen as skin-crawl-inducing that a thirty-six-year-old man would take an interest in a barely thirteen-year-old girl.  Even if you did save her life (and of course, I'm grateful to you for that), you bug me, dude.  I'm sure sorry that you have a hunchback and you got made fun of so much that you turned to books for comfort.  And yes, Emily's Uncle Jimmy is an older man who encourages her writing. But here's the difference between you and Uncle Jimmy, Dean:

Uncle Jimmy's not CREEPY.  He doesn't send Emily big, fat letters (wrong choice of words, dude, wrong choice of words).  In later books, he doesn't pressure her to marry him as soon as she's legal.  And he doesn't almost succeed.

Dean, even in middle school you made me squeamish.  Maybe Montgomery had an older-man-with-a-savior-complex fantasy, I don't know.  Either way, I wish young Emily knew how to quit you.  Because throughout the next two books, if I recall correctly, you just don't go away.

(Incidentally, Dean is not listed as a character in the Emily TV series.  Hmmm.)

Anyway, other than Dickhead Dean (who doesn't appear until late in the book), Emily of New Moon is a sweet, fast read.  I hope girls today still read Montgomery, because anyone who encourages imagination, loyalty, and inner strength in young women is A-OK with me.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Brittany Murphy Dies. What the Hell, Hollywood?

I know we can't completely blame Hollywood for this.

But when a beautiful, funny actress shows up at premieres looking like a skeleton, denying cocaine use, and then experiences a downhill trajectory in her career, I can't help but get a little pissed.

Today, Brittany Murphy suffered full cardiac arrest and was never revived.  She was only 32 years old.

Murphy's death comes (hopefully) last in a long line of 2009 celebrity deaths.  Y'all know how I feel about Michael Jackson.  Bea Arthur was another.  Natasha Richardson never recovered from a horrible freak ski accident.

True, Murphy wasn't a pop icon like MJ.  She didn't have the dry humor and distinctive baritone of Bea.  She didn't bring an elegance and flair to stage and screen roles like Richardson.

However, she was only 32.  Maybe she had it in her.  And now we'll never know.

In her short lifespan, girl did a hell of a lot.  Reading Jezebel's lovely tribute, I remembered how many fun and cool roles she had.  Of course, we all remember Tai in Clueless, at once "way harsh" and sweet, with beautiful reddish-brown hair and the most winning smile of the three protagonists.  But I'd forgotten about her sensitive, supportive sister of a closeted gay boy in Drop Dead Gorgeous.  Her supportive friend and fellow teen mom in Riding in Cars With Boys (I remember that film made me really love the name Amelia--Murphy's character's daughter).  Her fierce ex-girlfriend with an ax to grind in Sin City--probably one of my favorite vignettes in the film.

And Luann Platter on King of the Hill.  I love King of the Hill--sure, I resisted it at first because it hit too close to my redneck past, but then I learned to embrace it for the very same reason.  I went to high school with many Luann Platters.  Trust me, Murphy's voice characterization hit it out of the park.  And as her career went through increasingly fallow periods, it's a comfort now to know that she had a steady gig.

I didn't know her.  Like every other celeb I gab on about, my theories are pure speculation.  But today, I find myself angry and sad.  No, I didn't worship her like I did MJ or even Bea.  I didn't aspire to emulate her version of "Don't Tell Mama," like I did with Richardson.  I did, however, enjoy hearing her  cute little twang when I just needed a laugh at the end of a hard day.  She always delivered.

I find myself angry and sad because once again I'm questioning what Hollywood does to young women.  Why'd she get so thin a few years ago?  HOW'D she get so thin a few years ago?  She didn't look like a poster child for healthy and responsible weight loss, that's for damn sure.  Her face was positively skeletal and her smile sad.

And I'm not saying she was an angel: she was reportedly fired by her agent and publicist before Sin City was released.  But in this past decade, Brittany Murphy has just seemed . . . lost.  Like a directionless little girl, rather than an accomplished young woman.

Granted, people lose their way every day.  Famous or no, some are susceptible to addiction, eating disorders, and less-than-desirable life choices, for reasons we still debate.  But this happens over and over in Hollywood, and has been going on for decades: Marilyn Monroe.  Karen Carpenter.  Dana Plato.  Lindsay Lohan.  Quite possibly Miley Cyrus.

Hollywood and the film industry are nasty to women in a way they never are to men.  Sure, there's pressure for men too (especially those in the closet), but you don't see them starving themselves into oblivion to fit a mold that no one can realistically aspire to.  Or pumping their chests full of silicone.  Men may go under the knife and needle too, but the results are nowhere near that extreme.

I keep thinking of one of my least favorite episodes of South Park, where the boys try to guard a headless Britney Spears from a scandal-hungry public.  I enjoy uncomfortable humor (way too much sometimes), but seeing the pop princess go around with a bloody, shot-off stump of a head--even though I knew it was just a cartoon--crossed a line for me.  Yet I agreed with the point that Stone and Parker were trying to make: Hollywood has forever made sacrificial lambs out of young girls and women.  At the end of the 2008 episode, they predicted that Miley Cyrus was next, and it's slowly but surely coming true.

I don't know what to do with my anger, either.  I love pop culture.  I have a blog about it.  I write movie reviews and cover celeb shenanigans.  I've pointed and laughed as much as the next person.  I can say I'll boycott mainstream films and renounce reality TV, but I know I won't do it.

She wasn't my friend.  But she was only two and a half years older than I, and those deaths seem to hit me harder.

I wish I could have helped her.

Monday, December 14, 2009

For Nikki: Top 5 Things I Lurve About Glee

In 2008, I got a call from my best friend Bob in L.A.  "I just got asked to audition for this amazing new show," he exalted, as I felt the excitement vibes emanating through my crappy cell phone.  "They're talking Lea Michele for the lead role, and I have to sing, and it's the guy from Nip/Tuck, and I'm totally not supposed to do this, but I'm sending you the script for the pilot."

I downloaded the PDF, read it, fell in love, and although Bob didn't get the role, we both anticipated the release date of a primetime show that, for the first time we could remember, reflected our high school existences as the non-jock performer enthusiasts who survived our tiny high schools through our dreams of being stars.

I give you: my take on Glee.  (Thanks, reader Nikki, for the suggestion!)

Don't get me wrong.  I'm the first to admit this musical dramedy isn't perfect.  First, I HATE Will's wife Terri.  Not the actress, Jessalyn Gilsig--I feel like she's doing what she can--but the whole faked pregnancy subplot was so ridic that I found myself tuning out when she was on screen.  Second, though I love Michael Hitchcock (especially since he's direct messaged me twice on Twitter!), I was largely offended by his character, partially deaf choirmaster Dalton Ross.  (Like Gilsig, it wasn't his portrayal, but the way the script was written and directed.)  Also, I almost think the show would have worked better in a half-hour format.  Remember when The Office went hourlong for a few episodes?  (I'm talking normal episodes, not Jim and Pam's wedding.)  Yeah.  Not so great.

That said, there's a lot to love about this decidedly imperfect show.  Hell, maybe the fact that it's decidedly imperfect makes it all the more endearing and relatable.  God knows I wasn't flawless as a high school choir geek.

Also, did I mention that MY COLLEGE CLASSMATE IAN BRENNAN, is one of the co-creators?  LOYOLA THEATRE MAJORS HOLLA!

Sorry.  Just had to get that out there.  Belive me, I'm sparing you the full geekout I experienced upon discovering this blessed fact.

Anyway, Glee?  These are a few of my favorite things--about you!

1.  "Dancing With Myself." 

Though Bob didn't get the role of Artie, I'm loving Kevin McHale's portrayal.  Glee's done his character right: the best disabled TV characters are the ones written to a) acknowledge the disability and work it into the plot, but at the same time b) give the character other motivations and concerns, like the human beings they are.  (Really not sure if I phrased that right.  If I was slightly un-P.C., I'm sorry.  I had good intentions.)  See also: Jason Street on Friday Night Lights, Eli on Ed.  My only complaint about Artie?  So many times he's relegated to background.  We want more Artie!

Case in point: "Wheels," to date one of the most beautiful and touching episodes of Glee, and quite frankly one of the best hours of TV I've ever seen.  For the first time all season, Artie's disability is put to the forefront, as Mr. Schu and the gang debate on whether to pay for a handicapped accessible bus, or just let Artie ride with his dad like usual.  But Artie has another pressing matter on his mind as well: his crush on shy stutterrer Tina.  Early in the episode, both of Artie's plotlines are effectively expressed in his first solo song of the series: "Dancing With Myself."  At once wistful and Frank Sinatra-snappy, the music, lyrics, and especially McHale's offhand yet pensive delivery are so contagious I immediately downloaded it from iTunes. And boy can WORK that wheelchair.

2.  Mike O'Malley.

Though my girlcrush on Lea Michele will NEVER DIE, and Matthew Morrison is just too cute for words, my one of my favorite performances by far has come from one of Glee's supporting characters: Mike O'Malley as sensitive grease monkey Burt Hummel, the father of fabulous Kurt.

If you're younger than I am, you probably remember O'Malley as the host of Nickelodeon's Guts back in the nineties.  I myself remember him fondly as misguided metalhead Lenny in the Hilary Duff vehicle The Perfect Man, aka a Bad Movie I Inexplicably Love.  Also, in yet another weird Glee/Unpro connection, my aunt knows his mom.  He's one of those "Hey, It's That Guy!" character actors, always working yet only vaguely recognizable.

Though he's appeared on only two episodes thus far, O'Malley may have increased his profile a thousand-fold thanks to a humorous and heartwarming performance.  Not all comedic actors can carry dramatic weight.  He can.  In only two episodes, Chris Colfer (as Kurt) and O'Malley have created a believable relationship between a showtunes-loving fashion aficionado boy who likes other boys, and a single dad who's not as clueless as he appears, and genuinely wants the best for his kid, no matter what and whom he loves.  Yet as accepting as he wants to be, Burt is still concerned for his small family, and knows that life will not be easy for himself and his gay son--and the more out Kurt is, the more difficult it will be.  Kudos to Glee for not writing off the "I love my gay son" plot in one Very Special Episode, as so many other shows have done--and for leaving the door open for more scenes between two generations of very skilled actors.

3.  Jane Lynch 

Interesting trivia: did you know that Sue Sylvester was not in the original pilot?  As it is now, who can imagine Glee without her snappy quips and signature red tracksuit?  Of course, I have no proof, but I highly suspect the role was written for one of the best character actresses EVER: Jane Lynch.

Anyone who's read this post is aware of my firm belief that Jane Lynch makes everything better.  And as the scheming but not-completely-evil cheerleading coach and Glee Club nemesis, she does not disappoint.  Whether she's making fun of Mr. Schu's hair or reading Little Red Riding Hood to her handicapped sister, Sue Sylvester's more than just a mustache-turning villain.  She's a beyotch with depth--the most interesting kind.  A lesser actress could have turned the character one-dimensional but as it is, I can't wait for next season to see what motivates the fiendish plans Sue has up her track-suited sleeve.

Lynch has rocked the house for me ever since her turn as lesbian dog handler Christy Cummings on Best in Show, and she's the only reason I watch those godawful commercials for PlayStation or whatever.  I'm thrilled she's finally getting the spotlight she deserves.  Go Cheerios!

4.  The Utter Relatability of Rachel Berry. 

Maybe it's just me, but it seems that in latter day pop culture, the nerdy girl is finally getting her day.  I'm not talking about the "ugly" chick with glasses, a ponytail, and strong opinions--all of which completely go to hell once the cute quarterback notices she's alive.  I'm talking about the type-A young lady, who's utterly driven to goals she may not be able to specifically name, to the detriment of her high school social status.  I'm talking about Samantha Baker with sky-high expectations and increased visibility that doesn't work in her favor.

Yup, that was sixteen-year-old Unpro to a freaking T.  I wanted, wanted, wanted--and my redneck jock peers just didn't get it.  I may not have ever gotten a Slurpee thrown in my face, and the teasing died down by high school, but I was not Miss Popularity by a long shot.  And it wasn't entirely undeserved.  Like Rachel, I wasn't always the nicest individual.  I could be a real bulldozer, not letting anyone stand in the way of my ambition.  Luckily, I did have friends who accepted me for who I was and let me know when I was being too much of a pain in the ass.  The hyperambitious, talented but awkward teenage girl is a fascinating character.  She's not always easy to watch and at times can be downright cringeworthy.  But she's real.  And between Rachel on Glee and Annie on Community, I couldn't be happier that she's appearing on network TV.

And fine, I still kind of dress like Rachel.  Minus the knee socks and the pantsuit.  What can I say?  It works for me.

5.  Hold On to That Feeling. 

Don't get me wrong, Glee has had its share of musical missteps.  (And no, I'm not talking about Mr. Schu's white-boy raps.  I kind of like them.)  I'm talking about the at times horrific Auto Tune that at its worst makes everyone sound like robots, and the borderline inappropriate dance moves that make my mom go "Good Lord."  And of course, everyone who's done anything musical EVER knows that knowing a song with perfect harmony and choreography a mere thirty seconds after you get the sheet music is highly unrealistic.

But my love for Glee's music far surpasses my sense of reality.

It all started in the pilot: when a downtrodden Mr. Schu, on the verge of resigning from McKinley High, happened by the school auditorium to see the original five members of New Directions groovin' to Journey's "Don't Stop Believin.'"  What brought tears to my eyes and suspended my disbelief?  How damn happy the kids looked.  Because I recognized that expression: the muscle memory in my face went "Oh yeah!  Remember that?"  The expressions of the actors are what sold me on Glee in all its flawed glory. 

Because when you think about it, most of the characters have pretty depressing lives.  Finn's preparing to play father to a baby he recently discovered isn't actually his.  Rachel won't ever fit in at McKinley--even those who should totally accept her, view her as an outcast.  Artie will face challenges his entire life, and found out the girl of his dreams lied about something important.  Mr. Schu loves Ms. Pillsbury, but they face an uncertain future.  But they have a common bright spot in their lives: music.  How happy you feel when you master a difficult note or finally get that grapevine sequence.  How good it feels when you find others who have that same haven.  It's the music that gets you through the utter crap life can be, a teeny tiny part of your life when everything, and you, are okay.

Oh, and an honorable mention goes to the piano player guy.  I love him almost as much as I love the animated Mark, accompanist to Jesus and Big Gay Al on South Park.  I kind of wonder if they're the same guy.  Wouldn't that be awesome?

Monday, December 7, 2009

For Etiquette Bitch and Singing Soulmate: Gentlemen Broncos and Pirate Radio

So I'm kicking off Reader Request Month with a glorious two-for-one.  My friend Mare Swallow of the hilarious and helpful blog of manners, Etiquette Bitch (check it out if you haven't) and my Twitter pal and loyal reader Jackie (aka Singing Soulmate) each requested a film, both of which I saw in the last couple of weeks.  Without further ado, I give you Gentlemen Broncos and Pirate Radio.

First, Gentlemen BroncosMare and I share a love for Jemaine Clement, the taller and more sardonic half of the New Zealand comedy musical duo Flight of the Conchords.  (If you haven't seen the probably-canceled-of-their-own-accord TV series, rent the DVDs nownownow.)  Jemaine's not conventionally handsome, but damn is the guy adorable, plus he's funny and can sing.  Total dream man material.

And incidentally, the only reason I didn't walk out on this piece of crap movie.

I'll give Jemaine credit: his turn as dastardly sci-fi author Ronald Chevalier was the only aspect of Gentleman Broncos that wasn't completely a) offensive, and b) a waste of talent (Jennifer Coolidge, Mike White, and Michael Angarano weren't quite so lucky on that front).  From Chevalier's enthusiasm for absurd cover art to his ruthless quest for success at all costs--even if it means stealing the manuscript of a henpecked teenage writer--Jemaine makes it work with his deadpan delivery and mopey, hooded expressions.  If someone forces you to rent the DVD, try to convince them to fast forward to his scenes and only his scenes.  The whole time, I wanted to sing the Flight of the Conchords' tribute to the Police's "Roxanne:" you don't have to be a prostitute, Jemaine/you can say no to being a man ho.  Here's hoping Jemaine finds a project better suited to his abilities and more enjoyable and high-quality on the whole

Take it from a die-hard South Park fan who does not shy away from dark humor and off-color jokes: Gentlemen Broncos is offensive to EVERYONE: women, gays, anyone who isn't a white dude.  And were I a white dude, I'd still be offended because Gentlemen Broncos doesn't make white dudes look too great either.

I'm totally cool with anachronisms: it's about giving yourself to the world of the film.  But quirks do not replace substance.  Look at Juno: beneath the hipster bait dialogue and Kimya Dawson was a heartfelt story of a teen girl who just wanted to do right by herself, her baby, and her friends, old and new.  Hell, look no further than Hess' first and best effort, Napoleon Dynamite.  The director seems to conveniently forget that what made his first film such a success and not just a mess of catchphrases, funny clothing and cows getting shot was that one thing called, oh yeah, HEART.

I've enjoyed Michael Angarano since his intelligently blabbering portrayal of young William Miller in the opening scenes of Almost Famous.  What he needs now is a Brick.  Not a slab of heavy concrete or heroin, but a Joseph Gordon Levitt style dark indie tour de force.  Angarano's got the chops to be the next JGL if he plays his cards (and projects) right.  He can start by firing his agent or manager or whomever talked him into the mess known as Gentlemen Broncos.

On to Pirate Radio! 

Just like Mare and I are both fans of Jemaine Clement, Jackie and I share an affinity for the grizzled great Philip Seymour Hoffman.  (Also, the assistants at PSH's production company are really nice ladies.)  I didn't need much encouragement to review this film: as a fan of not only Hoffman but Pirate Radio director Richard Curtis (who also helmed Love Actually, one of my all-time favorite romcoms AND holiday movies), and rockin' soundtracks.  Also, who doesn't love a movie about a group of underdog roustabouts bucking the system?

Well, in this case, me.

I didn't hate it.  But I was disappointed.

Granted, Pirate Radio did a lot of things right.  The story, based on actual events, is fluffy and fun: in the 1960's, Britain banned rock music from its airwaves.  (Sidenote: don't you love hearing about relatively tame pop culture that was SUPER DUPER SHOCKING not even fifty years ago?)  To circumvent the law and the seas at the same time, disc jockeys would broadcast from ships, attracting listeners and fans from all over the country.

One such ship is led by The Count (Hoffman, Extra Grizzly) and an almost exclusively male gang including DJ's Nick Frost (Simon Pegg's pudgy counterpart in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) and (drumroll, please) Rhys Darby, aka MURRAY FROM FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS!  OH YEAH!  (As you can tell, I was unnaturally happy when he popped up on screen).  After getting booted from boarding school, teenage Carl (moppy-haired Tom Sturridge) is sent by his mother to live on the ship under the tutelage of his godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy, who like J.K. Simmons and Jane Lynch makes every movie better).  Sex, cigarettes, paternity, and plenty of rock and roll are celebrated on the ship, but the good times might soon come to an end if stodgy Parliament member Sir Alastair (Kenneth Branagh, whom I heart) has anything to do with it.

So yeah, the story's cool.  The cast rocks (did I mention that Mad Men's January Jones and the perpetually wonderful Emma Thompson make cameos?).  The soundtrack features The Kinks, The Turtles, and various other one-hit wonders that helped lay the groundwork for rock n roll and music as we know it today.

With all this in mind, why did I not totally adore Pirate Radio?

For one thing, the characters are woefully underdeveloped.  I'd argue that there were too many of them, but then I think back to Love Actually's knack for rendering even the day-iest day player with respectful and compelling detail.  And besides the fact that they're played by some of Britain and America's finest performers, the characters are incredibly likable and when given a chance to speak, funny.  I'm going to have to blame this on the shallow script and lack of direction.  There was a definite sense of just letting everyone run wild, and while that can work okay for an improv piece, it's not great for a cohesive film.

Also, the story felt very scattershot: never settling on one specific plot point for any character, it was much like its freewheeling protagonist, not wanting to commit to anything concrete.  Finally, I who have no problem with dude flicks, found the film kind of insulting to women.  I know it was the '60's, but two of the female characters are downright sleazy, and the others aren't given much to do.  Including women at all felt very condescending and "this one's for the ladies."  Come on.

Again, did I hate Pirate Radio?  Not at all.  I didn't even dislike it.  It was very . . . meh.  There was a great movie with this same stellar cast about a pivotal point in music history, to be made by Richard Curtis.  This lazy, indulgent piece wasn't it.

Though I really, really want the soundtrack.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Reader Request Month and My Very First Giveaway!

Hey everyone,

So I'm still recovering from NaNoWriMo (finished 3 days early and 2,000 words over, YAAAAY!), plus I've been traveling this past week for Thanksgiving, so after work today I may very well go straight home and lose consciousness.  Thanks in advance for understanding.  :)

Buuuuuut...I've decided to make December my Reader Request Month.  Think of it as a holiday gift without the awkward "thank you" and search for the gift receipt.  If you have anything you'd like me to review/snark on, email me, write on my Facebook wall (are you a fan yet? You should be!), or leave a comment.  I've already had a couple of requests, but I'm totally open to more. 

Also, IF you contact me in any way with a request, even if I don't end up reviewing it (depends on how many I get), your name will be entered in a drawing to win a FABULOUS PRIZE!  I don't know what it is yet, but it will kick ass for sure.  So get in on that!

As always, thanks for reading and supporting the Unpro.  Thanks to y'all, my confidence in my own writing has grown 300% in the past six months.  Keep on spreadin' the love.

Gossip Unpro

P.S.  If anyone wants to get me a Christmas present, they can start with Blair Waldorf's awesome coat, pictured above.  Kthanxbai.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Things TV Taught Us, by Unpro and Sister Unpro

My sister and I came of age in the late '80's and early '90's, when sitcoms were in their heyday.  On Friday nights (and later, Tuesdays), you could not pry us away from our heavy-ass basement television with the beige plastic cable box when Full House was on.  We would then tape it and re-watch it until our mom yelled at us to a) go outside or b) read a book.  (We did plenty of both of those things, don't worry.)  In short, we were obsessed with the misadventures of that crazy Tanner/Katsopolis/Gladstone clan. 

Oh hell, we still are.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, Sister Unpro and I had way too much fun whiling away our day on Twitter.  Inspired by a writer friend of hers, we picked up the hashtag #thingsTVtaughtme and went to town.  Whether it's love and sex, school, family, home, or anything in between, we gleaned a wealth of knowledge from our sitcom-saturated childhoods.  Even today, with the onslaught of CW melodrama and reality programming, the lessons just keep on comin'!

So without further ado, Unpro and Sister Unpro present Things TV Taught Me.  TA-DAAAAA!

Love American Style

Hot young women LOVE fat manchildren who whine a lot.

The bad boy has a heart of gold. Unless he's a special guest star: in that case he'll a) die, or b) teach you a lesson. Or teach you a lesson while dying.

Sex with coworkers = more fun than dying patients.

Following amazing sex, all couples sleep in the spoon position.

There will ALWAYS be a hot, unattached sensitive coworker for you to chastely flirt with and eventually marry.

Weddings always begin with "Speak now or forever hold your peace."

Weddings: always big, always wacky. Someone WILL get arrested, shave their head, or have an inappropriate hookup.

That process of giving people roses and eliminating them one by one? IT'S TOTES GOING TO WORK THIS TIME.

School's Out

School is for dances, hookups, parties, and the occasional class with the teacher who breaks all the rules.

There is always a totally cool, non-alcoholic, all-ages hangout nearby.

You and your friends will land all of the lead roles in the school play.

Once you join your high school choir, you will magically gain the ability to burst into prerecorded pop songs.

You and your friends WILL go to the same college, located conveniently in your hometown. At least 1 teacher will come with.

A Family Affair

You are NOT the father.

Your little sister may go upstairs one day and never be heard from again. Don't worry about it.

Your family and friends may look like COMPLETELY DIFFERENT PEOPLE from year to year. Just go with it.

Your baby will emerge from your invisible uterus as a smiling three-month-old with no blood or goo in sight.

And your baby weight? Competely GONE in the span of a week!

Children between the ages of 1-4 do not exist. If you have a baby, it will be five years old within three months.

Be irresponsible with fertility drugs, give your family corporate sponsors, and all your problems will be solved!

In the House

Celebrities randomly show up at your door.

No need to say "goodbye" at the end of a phone conversation. Just hang up.

That annoying stalker-y neighbor? NEVER GOES AWAY. And will probably marry your daughter.

You will never go to the bathroom, unless it is completely disgusting, hilarious, or involves a little kid saying "potty."

The couch is never set up against a wall.

Your house has infinite space available to convert to bedrooms for adult losers who never leave.

No punishments, just a minute-long talking-to set to soft piano and a hug.

Looks Can Kill

When you are 16, you will look 24. No exceptions.

Also, when you are a 40-year-old parent of a 16-year-old, you will look 24. No exceptions.

Your hair always looks amazing, even if you don't have a mom to do your hair.

Everyone has an endless supply of the latest fashions.

Ladies: even midsleep, your hair and makeup will still be intact.

Glasses and a ponytail make you ugly.

Miscellaneous Schtick

The world used to be in black and white.

No one tears open a present. They come in a pre-wrapped box and you lift off the lid.

Just in a fiery car crash/plane crash/massive explosion? No biggie, just a scratch on your forehead.

Struggling writers, fear not: in less than a year, you'll have a bestselling book AND you'll get to direct the movie!

It is possible to have a yearlong dream.


What has TV taught YOU?  Leave a comment!

Oh, and happy Thanksgiving!  I'll be spending the morning watching the Macy's parade, applauding the Broadway performances, and ignoring the "you are insane for clapping at the television, and can I watch football now?" looks from my dad.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Break on Through to the Other Side: Precious

In the hours following my viewing of the much-hyped film Precious, part three of the Teen Girl Trifecta, I asked myself just why I love YA lit.  Why have I gravitated toward the young adult section in bookstores and libraries since college, way after I was in the target demographic and way before Stephenie Meyer called mainstream attention to the genre (quite possibly the only good thing to come out of the whole Twilight craze)?  And it goes beyond books: why am I, a professional woman with a graduate degree, so drawn to films centering around teenage girls and their self-discoveries?

Is it because I want to recapture that time in my life?  Doubtful: my high school experience was far from horrific, but there's no way in hell I'd go back.  Besides, I'm not one of those people who feels old at almost thirty.  If anything, I feel like there's a world of stuff I still don't know, adventures I still need to embark upon.

Maybe that's my answer.

Several months ago, I read an interview with a YA author.  One quote, in response to the question "why do you write for young adults?", really stuck with me.  The author said something to the effect of: "adult books have a tone of 'look at what I have learned.'  Young adult books, on the other hand, say 'learn with me.'"

And in Precious, that's exactly what the viewer does.

Let me say first that although I was excited to see the film, having read countless articles about its message and about its young breakout star, I was also leery of the hype.  I was worried I'd be Slumdog Millionaire'd all over again.  Yes, I thought last year's Best Picture Oscar winner certainly had merit and contained some amazing performances (particularly from the child and teen actors), but that film left me feeling. . . manipulated.  I thought it was way hokey and overrated.  Because Precious has a realistic, take-no-prisoners storyline, and centers on a young woman's struggle for a better life, I was hoping it would not Slumdog Millionaire me.

And sure, the fantasy sequences bordered on over-the-top, and the shaky camera angles bordered on overkill. 

But overall . . . I learned with Precious.  And so will you.

Plot: overweight, borderline illiterate teenager Claireece "Precious" Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) is pregnant with her second child and living with her monstrous mother (Mo'Nique) in Harlem.  When Precious is thrown out of school for her pregnancy, her principal, noticing Precious' aptitude for math, suggests an alternative school.  Encouraged by her even-keeled instructor (Paula Patton) and a concerned welfare officer (a stripped-down Mariah Carey), Precious begins to come to terms with her damaged upbringing and the possibilities that lie beyond it.  But for every step forward, there are two steps back.

Sounds like a Lifetime Original Movie, no?  Here's what sets Precious apart from those crappy Sunday afternoon B-dramas:

1.  The acting.  Stellar on all fronts.  What each performer does right in Precious is keep it simple.  Base.  Raw.  From Sidibe's blank yet haunted protagonist to Lenny Kravitz's no-nonsense nurse, every movement, facial expression and line delivery is straight from the gut, deeply felt, and real.  Yes, I'm including Mariah Carey in this praise.  Props to Mo'Nique for applying a deft touch to an utterly irredeemable character, without being cartoonish.  Not an easy feat by any means, and she pulled it off with the utmost skill.

2.  The brutality.  Precious has a terrible, terrible life, much of which the viewer is privy to.  She may go to a dream world as a survival mechanism, but not before we see the graphic abuse that necessitates such a world.  Beware: several scenes in Precious had me gasping and sobbing, and I didn't cover my eyes during Inglourious Basterds.  I have to give the filmmakers credit, however, for putting out there what most of us like to pretend isn't happening in our own backyard.

3.  The reality.  Without giving anything away, I will say that Precious doesn't tie up all its ends in an empowered, you-go-girl bow.  Precious' existence will continue to be difficult, and complications will increase.  As she is a mother, she has to consider the fate of her children as well.  Even the best support system can't completely eradicate her struggles, or the temptation to avoid them as her mother has, by living off welfare and eating in front of the television in an apartment building frequented by crackheads.  Long after the end credits roll, you will worry for Precious, and hope that she has the strength to move forward on her own.  You will pray that she remembers the advice of her teacher (and one of my favorite quotes): the longest journey begins with a single step.

Throw your support behind this flick, y'all.  It doesn't have the feel-good fantastical elements of Slumdog, but it's a story that needs to be told.  It's flawed, but honest: one of the best examples I've ever witnessed of art imitating life.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Plug One and Plug Two: Cool Things You Should Know About

This week's bonus post is brought to you by the Undead Crimefighters and To Write Love On Her Arms.

Intrigued?  Read on!

Plug One: the Undead Crimefighting League

This not only represents MY VERY FIRST ARC (Advanced Review Copy), but is also tied to a very groundbreaking new literary magazine.  I have to say, I don't submit my fiction to literary mags.  Why? a) I don't often write short stories, and b) the short stories I do write are about smart-assed teenage girls, and literary magazines generally don't want to read those.  I also don't really read lit mags, because I'm just not that into short stories.  ANYWAY, I stumbled upon the website for a brand new literary magazine, the YA Literature Review, which will launch its first issue soon.  Stories for kids and teens, some written by kids and teens.  Gotta love that. 

The Undead Crimefighting League is a short story series, produced independently via the YA Literature Review.  The series follows a group of boarding-school kids (who doesn't love a good boarding school story?) who band together to save their vulnerable human friends from evil (and who doesn't love a good saving the world story?). 

I received an ARC of the first story, "Sophie and the Wolf," where newly minted vampire Sophie joins forces with the rest of the UCL--a muse, two zombies, a ghost and a djinni--to save the school from a fierce werewolf, while dealing with her hopeless crush on a classmate.  I must say, sci-fi/fantasty fiction isn't normally my style, but I enjoyed "Sophie and the Wolf."  It had the feel of a graphic novel, minus the pictures, but plus more witty words.  Also, the mix of fantasy challenges and real-life issues brought to mind the first Spider-Man film.  Definitely worth checking out.

The audio version of "Sophie and the Wolf" will be available to order on the YA Lit Review site or at  Audio copies are $1.50 each, and for an extra .50 the story can be emailed to you in PDF format.  So, c'mon, let's band together and support YA fiction not written by Stephenie Meyer, shall we?

Plug Two: To Write Love on Her Arms Day (Friday, November 13)
I stumbled upon this through the Wild West of randomness known as Facebook.  Noticing that a few of my friends across the country were attending something called "To Write Love on Her Arms Day," I asked myself in typical Unpro fashion, "What the hell is that?"  I clicked on the event . . . and discovered a very worthwhile cause.

Founded by Jamie Tworkowski in 2006, To Write Love on Her Arms is a nonprofit organization which aims to provide both hope and help for those struggling with issues such as depression, drug addiction, self injury and thoughts of suicide.  The organization's name came from a quote from its founder, offering moral support to a young woman in the days before she entered a drug treatment facility: "We become her hospital . . . her church, to meet her needs, to write love on her arms."

One mid-November day per year, people all over the country will write "love" someplace on their arms to show support for those fighting their own personal demons.  Last year, over 500,000 people did this, and they're aiming for 1 million in 2009.  As a supporter of nonprofit organizations (I work for one!), and knowing that many of these issues plague young adults, I'm in like Flynn.  Let's help call attention to those who are crying out for compassion.

How 'bout you?  Wanna write love on your arms?

To learn more about TWLOHA, click here.  To become a fan on Facebook, click here.

Regular posting (and the Teen Girl Trifecta) will resume on Monday, and I have something special planned for December, so stay tuned!

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Most Human Color: Blue Car

As we all know, real life ain't always fun to watch.

Humans are a messy bunch: we let each other down, scream, yell, bite our fingernails and don't comb our hair.  We let ourselves believe what isn't true so we can survive day to day.  When betrayed, we bite our lips and soldier on--until we hit a breaking point. 

None of this is smooth or easy.  All of this and more is portrayed in the 2002 indie Blue Car, a movie that had me cringing and chewing my knuckle.  Not because it was bad, but because it was achingly real.

One of the small details Blue Car does so very well is the main character Meg's fingernails.  Bitten to the quick and partially covered with nail polish so chipped it's hard to determine the color, they serve as a window into Meg's understandably damaged psyche.  Sure, she's beautiful and artistically gifted, but she also has a whole lot of baggage that will manifest over and over throughout the film, threatening to thwart the simple goals in her already scattershot life.

In a nutshell: Meg's (Agnes Bruckner) dad left several years ago (in the blue car of the title), and rarely sees his two daughters.  Meg's mom struggles through night school and a factory job to make ends meet, while Meg's younger sister Lily has issues with self-injury, anorexia and delusion.  Meg has exactly two things going for her: her talent for poetry, and her borderline inappropriate relationship with her AP English teacher (David Strathairn) who encourages her to submit her writing to a contest.  And it's (mostly) all downhill from there.

When I think about Blue Car, the word that comes to mind is painful.  Also, uncomfortable.  Bleak, even. Unlike An Education, Blue Car doesn't have the benefit of funny parent characters or mod pastel colors. Everything and everyone is washed-out and desperate.  I will give the filmmaker props for keeping the film at a short 88 minutes, because at times I wasn't sure how much more I could take of watching everyone's life get worse and worse.  A simple act of no-strings-attached kindness toward Meg late in the film was enough to move me to tears.

Yet I had to appreciate how Blue Car did not fall into the easy trap of Lifetime Original Movie territory.  First, Meg wasn't a straight-up victim.  Even in the mindset of her sad existence, she made decisions that
were impetuous at best and dangerous at worst.

Second, I didn't hate her teacher, and I'd like to think it's not just because I adore David Strathairn.  (A League of Their Own.  A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Good Night and Good Luck.  I could go on and on--the man is a character actor GOD.)  Does he misuse and abuse his authority and power?  Absomalutely. Still, he has his own demons to deal with.  It doesn't make his actions right or even understandable, but I didn't want to murder him when the movie was done.  Truth be told, if there was any authority figure I really disliked, it was Meg's mother, who may have been struggling, but showed no real compassion for either of her daughters until it was too late.  At least Meg's teacher genuinely believed in her writing talent.

Third, the ending was not clear-cut.  The audience is left to draw their own conclusions about Meg's future. In some films that can be frustrating, but here I appreciated the filmmaker's respect for the audience's intelligence.  I didn't feel manipulated, as I do increasingly these days, even in indie movies.  (Three words: Little Miss Sunshine.  You can argue with me in the comments.)

I Wikipedia'd Agnes Bruckner: since Blue Car, the actress hasn't done much of note.  A few years ago, I did attempt her werewolf movie (based on a YA novel) Blood and Chocolate and found it unwatchable. Not sure if she just hasn't gotten another break a la Erika Christensen, or if this was a very well-directed performance. Either way, I liked her here.

While Google imaging this film, I found the DVD cover.  I hadn't seen it previously, as the place I rent from looks up the titles for you, then gives you the disc.  I must say, it bugs the crap out of me.

Really, DVD marketing powers-that-be?  REALLY?  It might as well be called Blue Boobs.

First, Meg never dresses this provocatively in the film.  With the exception of her bathing suit in later scenes, her clothes are baggy, reflecting her uncertainty and self-consciousness.  She's also never seen holding a flower near her crotch in the world's most obvious metaphor for virginity.  Gah.

Second, I HATE photos where the chick has no head.  You don't see many headless dudes, but headless girls and women are everywhere in advertising.  We're more than just bodies, people!

Is Blue Car a perfect movie?  Hell no.  It is at times heavy-handed and melodramatic, and I still can't tell whether or not Agnes Bruckner can really act.  However, this tacky, exploitative DVD cover insults the film's thoughtful, emotional portrayal of the ultimate little girl lost.  Meg is solemn, troubled, most of all complicated.  Sure, I got exasperated with her many times, but most of all I wanted her to be okay, to do something with her writing, to find real, pure love.  I didn't always agree with her actions, but I valued her as a multifaceted, interesting young woman.  This DVD cover does not.

Let's look at the original movie poster, shall we?

Wow!  Meg's FACE!  How 'bout that?

Much better.

(Thanks to my reader Heather Taylor for recommending this film!)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Make Me Your Matey, and I'll Give You My Independence: An Education

Blogger's note: Since the Teen Girl Trifecta feature (where I reviewed Whip It!, Ginger Snaps, and Now and Then in the span of three weeks) was so well-received by all y'all, I'm going to resurrect it with three new reviews.  See, I DO listen!  We begin with the new Brit film An Education, so throw your mittens around your kittens and awaaaaay we go!

For a while, I wasn't sure what to think about An Education.  I mean, the shallow part of me was all, "Oooh!  1960's!  England!  Fashion!  Peter Sarsgaard with an accent!  Dreamy Dominic Cooper!"  In other words, the squealy sixteen-year-old that never quite found her way out of my subconscious was jumping up and down in her belly shirt and hip hugger jeans.  Then the almost-thirty, educated feminist in a skirt and tights took over with a wallop of guilt: by viewing a film about a teenage schoolgirl seduced by a much older and wealthier man, am I condoning pedophilia?  Am I saying it's okay because it's only a movie and both actors are really attractive?  For the love of God, what would the commenters on Jezebel say?

Then I got over myself and went to the movie theatre.

In a nutshell: Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is preparing to apply for Oxford, with the help of her loving but overbearing mum and dad (Cara Seymour and the forever brilliant Alfred Molina).  She's obsessed with Paris, loves to read, and is so bad at Latin that she requires a private tutor her parents really can't afford.  One rainy day after orchestra rehearsal, Jenny is soaking wet and lugging her cello--when a handsome stranger offers her a lift, expressing concern for her instrument.  And Jenny's life is never the same.

Let's get this out of the way right now: the premise is inherently creepy.  I mean, a middle-aged (albeit very good-looking) guy with shady career pursuits seduces an underage girl whose eyes are as big and uninformed as her future plans...and her parents are okay with it?  Today, Chris Hansen would no doubt be inviting Peter Sarsgaard's character, David, to take a seat.  Right over there.

Except An Education doesn't take place today.  It takes place in 1961.  Granted, I wasn't alive during that era, but I watch Mad Men, which my mom assures me is terrifyingly accurate.  Women were earning more life options, sure, but not without fighting every step of the way--and this progress didn't always immediately reach the lower middle class that Jenny's family belongs to.  Even further back than the 1960's, an old dude and an underage chick were not only socially acceptable, but encouraged, particularly if the girl came from less than affluent means.  David snows them without much difficulty: all he has to do is name-drop C.S. Lewis and open a bottle of wine, and suddenly he's squiring Jenny to Oxford and Paris with their blessing. 

No matter that Jenny's English teacher (Olivia Williams) and headmistress (Emma Thompson, how I love thee) are vehemently against the relationship.  Jenny sees them as dull and lifeless, no comparison to the flashy lifestyle of David and his Ken-and-Barbie cohorts (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike).  Because Jenny is young, she only sees the efforts of her teacher and headmistress to gain and keep their careers--not the less-tangible rewards.  So what if her new friends can barely recognize a book?  They're pretty and fancy and far more exciting than Latin homework.

Where I think An Education succeeds the most is really showing us the world through Jenny's eyes.  This is largely in part due to the screenwriting prowess of one of my favorite authors, Nick Hornby.  Years ago, I hated Hornby's How to Be Good because I didn't think he accurately captured the voice of a woman.  If An Education and his new novel Juliet, Naked are to be believed, ol' Nicky has really stepped up to the plate.

I was really with Jenny throughout the film, and not because I'm a YA junkie.  She's so articulate and sweet that I would have loved to be her pal, and quite frankly, who wouldn't be dazzled by a dashing older man who promises you the world and for a while at least, delivers on his promises?  Because homework is boring and parents are lame, but jewelry sparkles! 

Because I'm no longer a sixteen-year-old girl, I knew where the plot was going.  It wouldn't be called An Education if the youthful protagonist didn't learn.  That said, the point of view was so heartbreakingly accurate that I forgot about Jenny's inevitable shattered illusions.  I was sad with her.  I hoped that she would be able to pull herself up and move on.  Thanks to the skillful writing, direction and acting, I was able to put my cynicism aside and really immerse myself in the story.

Speaking of acting, the principal cast is strong.  Both Molina and Thompson could act out out the alphabet and I'd be in the front row.  Sarsgaard once again showcases his versatility by tossing out charm like Halloween candy, in a very believable dialect.  Cooper is dashing with a glimmer of conscience, and Pike is wonderfully comic as a contentedly shallow trophy.  But the real star here is Carey Mulligan: her Jenny is equal parts silly and serious, frothy and fraught.  She was so convincing that even though I know about labor laws, age of consent, etc etc, I was blown away to learn that she's not actually sixteen.

In the spirit of the early '60's, I'll channel Don Draper here and say that An Education is the equivalent of a perfect cocktail.  Deliciously sweet, with a definite bite, and stays with you the next day.  You won't get a hangover, though.  Promise.

Monday, October 26, 2009

We Both Go Down Together: The Savior Complex in YA Lit

Disclaimer: I have absolutely no background in psychology or analysis. This week, I am calling it as I see it from personal experience and from a teeny bit of reading on the subject.  Here goes:

We've all met someone with a savior complex.  You may also know it as a "Jesus complex" or a "hero complex."

In case you don't call it that, here's the standard SC profile (from my untrained, pedestrian perspective): at first glance, they come off as the nicest people alive.  Congenial, well-liked, polite to a fault.  The go-to guy/gal to escort you home from a party, give your sputtered-out car a jump, lend you a book/sweatshirt/iPod.  For a while, you may be fooled into thinking they are your best friend, that you can count on them for anything.

Well, if you are an independent, secure person, you cannot.

It's not that SC's are sociopathic serial killers.  Quite the opposite: they are generous of heart and eager to please.  Almost too eager.  They may or may not have their own personal demons which they have yet to overcome.  They are ALWAYS attracted to those on the fringes: individuals who wear their dysfunction on their tattered sleeves and require recovery by way of a professional.  People who many times realize that they themselves are trouble.  SC's, however, don't understand that.  They think that with enough love, understanding and tolerance, they can make anyone better.

And it always, always, always comes back to bite them you-know-where.

One of the the things I love most about contemporary YA lit is that it doesn't back away from the gray matter.  As in, protagonists you want to cheer for and scream at, sometimes within the same page.  Real teens with real faults that are relatable to adult readers as well.  In the past few months, I've read two fantastic YA novels by seasoned authors who don't get nearly the love they should, both involving compelling, complicated teenagers with one thing in common: the savior complex.  I give you: After the Moment, by Garret Freymann-Weyr, and Rage: a Love Story by Julie-Anne Peters.  (Don't worry, no spoilers ahead.)

If you've never experienced Garret Freymann-Weyr, get thee to Amazon or your local library post-haste.  Her protagonists may be youthful, but they are inherently old souls on the verge of a life-changing moment.  Don't mistake her extremely articulate writing and sophisticated urban settings for pretension: you'll miss out.  Freymann-Weyr's environments are the anti-Gossip Girl: the characters are semi-privileged, yes, but with an awareness of the considerable effort to maintain the lifestyle that is not without its share of guilt, and the constant reminders that no amount of money guarantees an immunity to disaster.

Seven years ago, one of my closest friends came out to me.  In an effort to understand what he was going through as best as a straight woman could, I did the first thing that came to mind: I hit the books.  At that point I discovered a host of phenomenal YA books with LGBTQ storylines.  Lesbian author Julie-Anne Peters is an absolute treasure in this regard: she takes us on the journeys of gay or questioning young people without ever once dipping into Lifetime Original Movie territory.  Her 2003 novel Keeping You a Secret is probably the best coming-out coming-of-age story written in the past twenty years.

In their most recent works, while tackling the savior complex, both Freymann-Weyr and Peters are also taking risks in their own writing.  In the case of After the Moment, Freymann-Weyr writes entirely from a male perspective for the first time.  And with Rage: a Love Story, Peters tackles an abusive relationship: where both the parties are girls.  Let's take a deeper look, shall we?

The SC's:
Leigh (After the Moment): your standard good guy.  Leigh is so good that he takes up running on the advice of his soccer coach, even though he hates it.  He's so good that his type-A girlfriend Astra handpicked him to be the recipient of her virginity. He's so good that when his little stepsister Millie asks him to relocate from New York to suburban DC for his senior year, to provide emotional support after the death of Millie's father, he says yes without a second thought.  That's when he meets Millie's girl-crush Maia Morland.  And the trouble begins.

Johanna (Rage: a Love Story): Like Leigh, Johanna has a family in a constant state of flux.  Her father passed away when she was twelve, her mother a couple of years later.  Johanna's older sister Tessa, who was in college at the time of the deaths, has only recently moved home with her husband.  Until that happened, Johanna was living on her own while serving as sole caretaker for her dying mother.  Now she frequents the hospice where her mom spent her last days.  Oh yeah, and Johanna's gay.  Her sister basically ignored Johanna's coming-out letter, and her mom didn't survive to hear the big announcement.  When the book begins, Johanna is asked to tutor the school Neanderthal--who happens to be the brother of Johanna's crush, Reeve.  And the trouble begins.

The survivors:
Maia (After the Moment): I really liked Maia--she's neither flighty manic pixie dream girl nor whiny victim. She's very upfront and matter-of-fact about her many issues: a beloved stepfather doing time for insider trading, bouts with anorexia and self-injury, and what looks to be OCD.  The self-professed "train wreck" eats dinner with Leigh and Millie's family every night and brings Millie high-quality bedding (for physical comfort) and romance novels (for emotional) after the sudden death of Millie's father.  She sports baggy clothes and always wears socks.  And bam, Leigh is sucked in.

Reeve (Rage: a Love Story): Reeve is the product of a dysfunctional, often-abusive upbringing, and it shows. She's beautiful, highly sexual and is often seen with an entourage of LBD's (Les Beaux Dykes).  Many times, Reeve is the only one who can get through to her brother, who's been described as a highly-functioning autistic.  Reeve also hits--girlfriends, stepdads, and anyone who tries to help her.  From page 1, the readers knows that Johanna is screwed.

The relationships:
Leigh/Maia (After the Moment): It starts with Leigh walking Maia home.  (Because he is a good guy, as you recall.)  Then he starts doing nice things for her--distracting her while she eats, so she doesn't get nervous; driving her to the prison to visit her stepfather.  Eventually, however, something awful happens. Something jaw-droppingly awful that leads to criminal negligence charges and a ton of blood (this is foreshadowed on page 2, so I'm not spoiling anything).  Something so awful and disturbing that when the book begins four years after the incident and Leigh encounters Maia at a dinner party, he's at a loss as to what to do.

Johanna/Reeve (Rage: a Love Story): From the beginning, Johanna is head over heels in lovelust for Reeve, whom she's spotted around school wearing skimpy outfits and a rainbow of eye makeup reflecting her current mood.  And once Johanna discovers how damaged Reeve is, it only gets deeper.  Trust me, you will be screaming at Johanna to stay away--it's like the scantily-clad heroine in a horror movie who decides she's going to go down to the basement.  Reeve is that basement.  Not inherently evil by any means, but definitely not a place where an innocent young woman should wander alone.

What makes both of these novels so strong is that there's no inherent "bad guy" (other than, of course, the awful people who inflict abuse and havoc on Maia and Reeve).  Yet, you're never completely in love with the protagonists' actions--in fact, they're downright exasperating at times.  With Johanna, you already know about my "don't go in the basement!" reaction.  With Leigh, I would roll my eyes, like, "dude, do you really think that talking to her so she can eat cake in public is going to compensate for the years of therapy that she herself admits she needs?"

Because that's the thing about the savior complex: at the heart of it is a selfishness that the individual him/herself often doesn't realize until they are called on it.  Again, they are not bad people and they genuinely want to help; however, there's also a factor of "I can and will rescue this person single-handedly because I am awesome" at work in every situation.  And God help those in the SC's life who may worry about their tendencies or who really need love and guidance.  (I won't say anything more than this: you'll feel terrible for Astra in After the Moment and Tessa in Rage: a Love Story).  Because once the SC has deemed someone a victim, they WILL help them--at all costs.  Even when the victim themselves admit that they are beyond help.

Don't get me wrong: I think kindness is a wonderful thing, and a quality I constantly try to improve in myself. It's essential for individuals to reach out to one another--everyone's got their shit, no man is an island, etc.  That said, there are those who require assistance from someone who has been trained to do so.  The savior complex is alive and well in society, and brava to Freymann-Weyr and Peters for spotlighting it so skillfully in their novels.

Oh, and one other thing: Ms. Freymann-Weyr?  If you are reading this, can you please give Millie her own book?  So many little sister characters are one-dimensional brats, but she is intelligent and delightful in a way that only a 13-year-old girl can be.  *bows down to your Buddha-like nature*

Monday, October 19, 2009

This One's For the Girls

OK, y'all, I've finally decided what I want to be when I grow up.  Are you ready?

*drumroll please*

When I grow up I want to be . . .

(deep breath)

Kathy Griffin.

Because I'm pretty sure when Kathy Griffin grows up she will be . . .

Betty White.

Here's why:

Like 95% of the stuff I eventually laud on this blog, Kathy Griffin had to win me over.  She's at times bewildered me and left me indifferent.  I was always glad that she was a female comedian who talked about more than dating and her menstrual cycle--and she was shrill, but in a way that didn't seem put upon--but at times I didn't...get her.  Kind of like Chelsea Handler.  I'd heard the sales pitch, I just wasn't quite ready to shell out for the product.

Then one night, my buddy Bob and I may or may not have gotten inebriated (hi, Mom!) and may or may not have returned to his apartment after stumbling to Jewel in our pajamas because we NEEDED margarita mix and brownies to celebrate the fact that our Last Five Years singalong had not caused his neighbors to file a noise complaint.  (We also may or may not have needed the entire next day to kick our hangovers.)  Bob popped in a DVD of Kathy's stand-up special, and I nearly peed my pink plaid pajama bottoms at her bit about what a bitch Gwyneth Paltrow is.  I'd always found Shakespeare in Love overrated (Saving Private Ryan was robbed), so I pointed at the TV and slurred, "Right on, sista!"

On and off, I've caught My Life on the D-List.  I never understood the whole Woz thing, but I did love how Kathy made a point to tour Iraq in between doing kooky things like introducing her niece to Laguna Beach heartthrob Talan.  And her parents, particularly her box wine-swilling mom, were just too cute.

Did I mention that I'm friends with a TON of gay men?  The gays love Kathy and Kathy loves the gays, so we have that in common too.  What I'm trying to say in my usual rambling manner, is that Kathy Griffin has wormed her proudly single, Irish Catholic, celeb-stalking way into my proudly single, Irish Catholic, celeb-obsessing heart.  (I still hold no hope for Chelsea Handler, though.)

I just finished reading Official Book Club Selection, Kathy's autobiography.  IMMEDIATELY, you guys.  Read it IMMEDIATELY.  Granted, I'm not sure how well all the pop culture references are going to hold up in even one year (of course, I could say the same thing about this blog!)  That said: what a cool, cool woman.  She puts all her shit out there and does it in style.  She's frank about her eating issues and plastic surgery, what she regrets and what she doesn't, and how body image is still something she wrestles with every single day.  (And you know what?  Unlike most famous ladies, I actually believe her.)  She goes into family secrets, mainly a disturbed older brother.  She expands on what went wrong in her now-defunct marriage.

But here's what I really took away from the book: damn, Kathy Griffin is tenacious.  At a time when reality TV makes people famous for being famous, you've gotta love someone who has worked her ass off since she was eighteen, not stopping for breath even after her friends (Janeane Garofalo, Lisa Kudrow, Andy Dick, and Margaret Cho) were getting TV and movie deals left and right while Kathy was struggling with glorified extra parts and sets at tiny comedy clubs.  You've gotta love someone who weaseled backstage passes to every single set she ever worked on--for her mom and dad, who charmed the bejeezus out of the likes of George Clooney.  You've gotta love someone who is at once snarky of celebrity culture and ravenous to be a part of it.

Here's a woman who saw what she wanted when she was a teenager.  Didn't stop till she got it, and still hustles her butt off.  Say what you want about her schtick, the truth is this: Kathy Griffin RAWKS.

And she needs to call me so we can get all our gays together for fruity cocktails and showtunes.

Oh, and Betty White?  To crib a 1920's bon mot, she's the bee's knees.  I know I don't need to convince you of that.  With all due respect to the late Bea Arthur, no other Golden Girl could deliver a honey-tinged insult quite like White's Rose Nyland.  And she's still kickin'--witness her hilariously profane turn as Ryan Reynolds' hot-to-trot grandma in the pleasant surprise of a romantic comedy The Proposal.  It's not just her lines, either.  When meeting Sandra Bullock's character for the first time, White rolls her eyes in a way that had me choking on my popcorn in delight.

Who's up for a Golden Girls marathon?  Memememe!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Remember the Time: Now and Then

This week, I conclude my Teen Girl Trifecta with a coming of age story rooted in nostalgia but quietly resonant nonetheless.

I can remember seeing Now and Then in the theatres with so much clarity it's a little scary.  I was probably wearing my favorite plaid shirt, to camouflage the boobs that I despised (like Christina Ricci's Roberta).  My mom drove us because we were a year away from our own licenses.  It was a Friday night and we had to wait in line, because our town was tiny and what else was there to do?  And most of all, I remember who I was with: my best friend Addie.  We were so excited for a girl-centric friendship movie, because we considered ourselves the only feminists in our Catholic high school.  And naturally, we adored Now and Then: for the rest of the year when things got rough, we'd remind each other, "It's normal for things to be shitty."

For a film that, as I recall, received very little marketing, there were a lot of interesting women involved.  Real '90's power players, young and old.  Not only does the pre-fembot Demi Moore show up onscreen as adult Samantha (her sultry voice carrying a lovely weight in the film's narration), she also executive produced the film with her oft-partner Suzanne Todd.  The director, Leslie Linka Glatter, has helmed several episodes of excellent television series such as Six Feet Under and most recently Mad Men.  And the 99% female cast is fantastic: Moore, Melanie Griffith (before she got all pufferfish scary), Rosie O'Donnell (before she got all militant), and Rita Wilson as the adult versions of their equally strong younger counterparts: Gaby Hoffmann, Thora Birch (recovered from the Macaulay Culkin mushmouth she had as a tot in All I Want for Christmas), Christina Ricci, and an unknown Canadian named Ashleigh Aston Moore (who died of respiratory failure in late 2007).  Plus, Janeane Garofalo, Bonnie Hunt and Cloris Leachman pop up in fun cameo roles (not to mention Demi Moore's own daughter, Rumer Willis).

Like I said, the film wasn't marketed much.  I remember previews and ads MAYBE a week before the release date.  It was one of those movies which the studio clearly had no idea what to do with.  (This is starting to become true for Whip It as well.)  Probably all the estrogen.  Scaaaaaaaary!  A film with that many cool girls and women couldn't POSSIBLY have anything to say to the public.  Right?


Among the many inequities in pop culture is this glaring annoyance: a film such as Stand By Me is lauded and praised for its sepia-toned illusion-shattering but lesson-learning portrayal of the child-teen brink.  Now and Then, on the other hand, while plenty loved by many women I know, gets written off as a "chick flick."  Don't get me wrong, I love Stand By Me.  However, Now and Then not only has many similar elements--sexual confusion, broken families, and a supernatural element, related largely in flashback form--but is just as well-acted and affecting without being manipulative.  Only it's about chicks, so it's not seen as universal.  Bull. Shit.

The plot is simple and straightforward: four far-flung childhood pals reunite in their old Indiana suburb and recall an eventful summer of their youth.  Samantha (Moore/Hoffmann), now a hardboiled sci-fi writer, remembers her parents' divorce, a neighborhood first.  Roberta (O'Donnell/Ricci), a sardonic doctor, was then a tough tomboy who taped down her tits while secretly mourning her mother's death.  Teeny (Griffith/Birch), now a sexpot actress, stuffed her chest with pudding-filled balloons and watched drive-in movies from her rooftop.  And Chrissy (Wilson/Aston Moore), an expectant mom, was intolerant of naughty words and obsessed with gardening, thanks to a metaphor-heavy sex talk from her well-meaning but misguided mother.  In the summer of 1970, they are twelve years old and have two goals: raise money for a fantastic treehouse (essentially a room of their own), and solve the mystery of a long-ago local death involving a boy their age known only as Dear Johnny.  All set to a background of pastels and love beads, and a groovy 70's soundtrack featuring not one but two Jackson 5 songs (yay!).

Most people use the term "tearjerker" to describe an emotional film.  I prefer "noseprickler."  As in, my nose gets all prickly the way it does before I get all choked up.  Now and Then has plenty of noseprickling moments.  After all, Roberta and Samantha are dealing with absent parents, carefully choosing what they do and don't reveal to their friends.  All four girls encounter lost souls such as a Purple Heart winner-turned-drifter (Brendan Fraser) and a lonely old man who's not as creepy as he seems, both of which alter their worldviews in ways that aren't always welcome.  Samantha in particular learns that "things happen beyond our control, but that's no reason to shut out the world"--revealing as an adult that it's taken her decades to fully process that advice.  And at the conclusion of the summer, the girls have met both their summer goals, but with very different results than they planned: mainly, the inevitability of their growing apart.

Don't get me wrong, there is as much hilarity.  Not only do the four younger actresses present believable relationship dynamics, but they really bring the funny.  The girls may squabble, tease and form alliances within their quartet, but they band together with a vengeance against the common enemy: boys, especially the Wormer brothers (adult Samantha dryly notes, "everyone in the neighborhood felt sorry for their mother").  Also, a sexist softball-game spectator who orders Roberta to "go home and play with your dolls" earns a well-deserved physical and verbal beatdown.

Less than a year after we watched Now and Then, like the girls in the film, Addie and I gained independence from each other.  We definitely stayed close and had more sleepovers.  However, we started seriously pursuing our passions: music for her and theatre for me.  She started dating the next semester; that summer, I fell in love.  Thanks to Facebook, we've very recently reconnected.  She's moved back to our old stomping grounds and has a husband and child, I'm a single gal in the city.  But like lovers always have Paris, Addie and I always have Now and Then.

Sadly, I have to wonder if a film like Now and Then could even be made today.  The story, while important and universal, isn't the sort of box-office and/or Oscar bait that studios crave these days.  On the other side of the coin, it's not quirky enough to be an indie.  Plus, the fact that there are boys' naked butts automatically disqualifies it from Disney.  However, I'm really not sure that today's young actresses could carry almost an entire film as subtly and skillfully as Ricci, Hoffmann, Birch and Aston Moore.  So maybe, even though it never got the mainstream attention it deserved, Now and Then was in fact, in the right place at the right time.