Monday, June 29, 2009

Unpro Goes Retro: 10 Things I Hate About You

Normally I won't be reaching into my child- and teen-hood for material: my friends at The Dairi Burger, Dibbly Fresh and other young adult lit blogs are amazing with the snark. That said, a few weeks ago I was enjoying the senseless crapfest that is Grease 2 on ABC Family (don't judge my choice of networks, yo: have you seen Greek? It's hilarious) when a "sneak preview" promo came on. Turns out, ABC Family has remade the late-nineties teen romcom 10 Things I Hate About a series.





If this makes sense to you, I IMPLORE you to leave a comment explaining why. I'll listen, I promise. I'll probably argue back, but I will at least hear you out.

Hey, I'm not knocking all movies-turned-TV-shows. It was a little before my time, but M*A*S*H supposedly improved on the original Robert Altman film...and ran for like ten years. I never got into Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but if my pals are to be believed, the series excellently revamped a crappy B-movie that I remember watching at a seventh-grade sleepover (and even then, 12-year-old Unpro was not impressed).

Perhaps my favorite example is Friday Night Lights, which even the original film director Peter Berg admits works much better as a series because characters can be more fully developed and themes fleshed out and explored, such as racism, class difference, and the pressure to constantly WIN WIN WIN from a small town that doesn't have much else going for it. (Can you tell that I LOVE Friday Night Lights? I'm also the furthest thing from a football fan you can imagine. Give Season 1 a try, it's wonderful and you can get the DVD box set really cheap.)

But for every film with potential for growth and general awesomeness as a series, such as Friday Night Lights, there's at least five cases of what were the development executives snorting when they green-lighted this? I give you: 1) Uncle Buck, 2) A League of Their Own, 3) My Big Fat Greek Life, 4) Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and 5) Manchester Prep. (To be fair, the last one--based on Cruel Intentions--was never picked up. Maybe someone went to rehab. Instead, the three filmed episodes were edited together and released straight to video as Cruel Intentions 2. You know who starred in this piece of celluloid brilliance? Amy Adams. So happy that she still got to have a career after that.)

Granted, I was probably a little older than the target audience when 10 Things came out. I can still remember seeing it: I was eighteen, home from my first year at college, and had just eaten Mexican food with two of my high school pals. I was a fan of Julia Stiles--she felt like someone I could be friends with. I was familiar with Larisa Oleynik--my sister had been a fan of The Secret World of Alex Mack--and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who'd been in the Angels in the Outfield remake and appeared to be growing up very nicely. And then there was this Australian newcomer named Heath Ledger who had very bad hair. Seriously--that 'do was AWFUL. Like a stringy dead animal on his head. I mean, I know he was supposed to be a bad boy who didn't care about his hair, but ew.

Brief plot rundown: it's a modern-day, late-nineties version of The Taming of the Shrew set in Seattle. Cameron, the new kid at Padua High School (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) falls for cutie-pie sophomore Bianca Stratford (Larisa Oleynik) at first sight. However, Bianca is not only pining for pretty-boy tool Joey (Andrew Keegan) but she also isn't allowed to date. Bianca's obstetrician single dad is paranoid that his daughters will get pregnant, but finally makes a compromise: Bianca can date, when her older sister Kat does. The catch? Kat (Julia Stiles) is strong-willed, opinionated and does things like run her car into Joey's when he insults her. Not so popular in high school. But Cameron and his pal Michael (the hilarious David Krumholz) have a plan: manipulate Joey into paying the personality-challenged Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) to go out with Kat, so Cameron is free to woo Bianca. (Among the rumors circulating about Patrick: he sold his own liver, knows Marilyn Manson, and spent last year in San Quentin prison.) Naturally, since this is a teen movie, hilarious misunderstandings ensue and romance triumphs over all.
I remember liking it. Not loving it. It was fine, but I liked She's All That better.

I watched it a couple of times in college--same reaction. Then on a random Sunday afternoon when I was in law school, I was at my parents' house and that magic thing happened: when you're flipping channels and you catch a movie right when it starts. I had recently seen Brick and was gaga for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, plus I had a new respect for Heath Ledger after seeing him in Brokeback Mountain and Casanova--two entirely different but equally fantastic performances. I convinced my dad to eschew the NASCAR coverage, and having seen Larry Miller (who plays the dad, Walter) in Christopher Guest movies, he was easily convinced. My mom sat down with us too.

We laughed our asses off.

Granted, my family can recite Sixteen Candles word-for-word. (Even my college-football, trucker dad. ESPECIALLY my college-football trucker dad.) We tend to watch our favorite comedies and Saturday Night Live sketches and proceed to quote them at each other. All the time. We're weird like that.

Weirdness aside, I was pleasantly surprised how well the movie held up (in fact, once I returned to law school, I went out and bought the DVD). 10 Things I Hate About You, here are five things I like about you:

  • The age-appropriate cast. I thought everyone was solid individually, but know what really struck me about these guys as a whole? THEY ACTUALLY LOOKED LIKE HIGH SCHOOLERS. Even the notable exception, Heath Ledger's Patrick, got an explanation of why he looked older than his classmates--because he was older, having been out of school for some time. Probably the trick was to cast actors barely out of high school themselves--Julia Stiles and I are the same age, meaning she was about 18 when she played Kat. Interestingly enough, Joseph Gordon-Levitt could still play a convincing high schooler in 2005's Brick, filmed a good six years after 10 Things. (Granted, it was an entirely different kind of movie, but he didn't look out of place at a locker.) (Yes, I love him. Why do you ask?)

  • Granted, we as a public are not fooled by teen shows and movies: since American Graffiti kick-started the genre, we're fully aware that most of the characters are played by legal adults. And we're totally okay with that--in some cases, it's preferable because we can lust after the dudes without feeling pervy. Still, it's refreshing to see young actors whom we could actually picture ourselves roaming the halls with.
  • The super-quotable dialogue and kickass delivery. When I was a theatre major, I was once told that an actor is only as good as his or her script. While I don't agree one hundred percent--I've seen films where I thought an actor's stellar interpretation far transcended the horrid text--I do know that it helps performers hit it out of the park. Besides, I'm a sucker for solid dialogue that I can later quote with my parents. Some of my favorite lines (thanks, IMDb!) include:
  • Walter Stratford: Hello, Katarina. Make anyone cry today? Kat Stratford: Sadly, no. But it's only 4:30.
  • Patrick: What is it with this chick? She have beer-flavored nipples?
  • Walter Stratford: This morning, I delivered a set of twins to a fifteen-year-old girl, do you know what she said to me? Bianca: "I'm a crack-whore who should have made my skeazy boyfriend wear a condom"? Walter Stratford: Close, but no. She said, "I should have listened to my father". Bianca: She did not. Walter Stratford: Well, that's what she would have said if she wasn't so doped up!
  • Bianca: Can we for two seconds ignore the fact that you're severely unhinged and discuss my need for a night of teenage normalcy? Walter Stratford: What's normal? Those damn Dawson's River kids, sleeping in each other's beds and whatnot?

  • Stereotypes, but with heart! Sure, Kat's perpetually angry, Patrick's a personality-challenged slacker, Cameron's a lovesick puppy, and Bianca can only be whelmed in Europe. Plus you have the token best friends--one's a Shakespeare groupie, one is a dork who gets a dick drawn on his face--and the neurotic overprotective dad. Yet, it all works--thanks in large part to a strong screenplay and a charismatic cast. The film respects its viewers enough to explain why the protagonists are how they are: Kat and Bianca's mom walked out when they were younger, and both reacted in different ways. Kat's more outward with her anger, but Bianca's holding onto some residual emotion as well--watch the scene involving their mother's pearls. Patrick may be the bad-boy-with-the-heart-of-gold, but he's got a goofy side which is very appealing (who didn't want to be serenaded on the soccer field after watching him croon "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You"?). Kat and Bianca's dad is an obstetrician who's super-paranoid about his daughters getting knocked up--he's also afraid to let go of the little girls he's had to raise on his own. The best teen movies are the ones who don't talk down to their target audience: they realize that it's a complex world out there for everyone once you're not a kid anymore. Therefore, the best teen movies can be enjoyed when viewers are far out of the 13-19 demographic. 10 Things I Hate About You, at least for me, is among the best teen movies. (And trust me, I've watched a LOT of them.)

  • Chemistry, chemistry, chemistry. Yes, Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles are two crazy smartass kids who make it work. However, I want to concentrate on Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Larisa Oleynik, whose Cameron and Bianca create the sweet kind of romance you always wanted in high school. He learned French for her, by God! And Bianca isn't as dumb as she looks--Cameron sees that and calls her on it with a scathing, "You know, just because you're beautiful doesn't mean you can treat people like they don't matter." Well said, man. And in the midst of him chewing her out for blowing him off--and being exactly right--she kisses him. Yes, the girl kisses the boy! Even in our supposedly progressive times, you still don't see that in movies very often. Not only that--Bianca later punches out Joey for roughing up Cameron. At prom. Right in front of everyone. Rep be damned, the girl's in love. And it's completely adorable and believable.

  • C'mon, it's Shakespeare. There will be controversy until the end of time as to exactly how original some of Will's plays were. Guess what? I don't care. 100% original or not, the guy took some of the best stories in the world and made them palatable and enjoyable for everyone, from Queen Elizabeth II to the grungiest food-throwing peasant. Yes, like any card-carrying feminist, I have issues with The Taming of the Shrew. I also realize it was written in a completely different time, and the ending doesn't translate quite as well today, which is why it's not as timeless as say, Romeo and Juliet (because teenagers will always, always, always fall in love with people they're not supposed to). That said, come on: the premise rocks. Douchebag dude takes a bribe to "make over" an angry chick so that good-hearted guy can bag angry chick's ditsy lil sis. Of course, everyone falls in lurve. Y'all, that's a good story. 10 Things I Hate About You takes that story and modernizes it very well: yes, Kat stops spewing verbal venom, but she also sets out to form a band, thanks to Patrick's encouragement. Bianca figures out all on her own that her awesome dream guy is in fact not the jerk male model, but the bumbling boy who just wants to take her sailing. The dad sees both his daughters off to prom and learns to let go a little. Even the best friends (Michael and Mandella, the latter of whom is played by '90s teen movie staple Susan May Pratt) find nerd-love in period garb, thanks to a really sweet subplot.

  • For my part, I've never understood why some of the hardcore Shakespeare fans loathe re-interpretations. No, they don't always work: I once saw a production of Romeo and Juliet set in some sort of Victorian/Wild West hybrid. Ugh. Several years later, I saw another production of Romeo and Juliet set in a trailer-trash small town. And it was terrific. Shakespeare was all about experimenting and breaking rules--that's one of the reasons why he's so revered and celebrated today. To paraphrase, "Well-behaved playwrights rarely make history." I didn't know the guy, plus he's dead, so I can't say whether he'd put his stamp of approval on modernizations--but I'd like to think he'd be cool. Because you know what a good re-interpretation of a classical text does? It gets people excited. Some of them will be inspired to seek out more of the author's work. Others may go a step further and create their own interpretations. That's what makes art so fabulous: it is in a constant state of evolution. And what's more, the story is kept alive for yet another generation to dissect, obsess over, and love. If you don't believe me, listen to the soundtrack of the musical hit Spring Awakening, which ran on Broadway for two years, won the Best New Musical Tony in 2007, and is currently touring the country thanks to a rabid fan following. Spring Awakening is, in fact, based on a nineteenth-century German play. Yup.
I had a revelation while writing this last bullet point: with all my faith in re-interpretations, I guess I should give the TV series a chance. Groan. Okay, I was probably going to watch it anyway. The pilot, at least--I can't promise any more than that. I really do hope, however, that the powers-at-be at ABC Family have taken care with casting, writing, and thinking about how a story with a firm ending will best translate into a thirteen (or more) episode series. Because otherwise, I'm popping in my DVD. Again.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

You Won't Find Nobody Else Like Me

I hope there's dancing at his funeral.

When I pulled up the news on my computer, I gasped. No one should die at only 50 years old.

Then I thought to myself, This is the day the music died.

I'd heard about the deaths of John Lennon, Elvis Presley, and the Buddy Holly/Ritchie Valens/Big Bopper triple whammy (the latter being the subject of McLean's song "American Pie"), and the effect they'd had on the young people who'd grown up on their music. I've been to Strawberry Fields in Central Park. The day George Harrison passed away, I sat in a dive bar with my boyfriend and his roommate, and we drank a beer toast while listening to Beatles songs on the jukebox. It was unfortunate, sure, but I'd been introduced to the Beatles secondhand. John Lennon died when I was six months old. I'd never known a world with the full Beatles, alive and well and making girls scream.

Today I felt the real effect.

Of course, music never really dies. I don't think McLean meant that literally. His entire song is one long symbol-filled allegory of the 1960's, and America's loss of innocence. Basically, Buddy Holly died and the world kind of went crazy.

Not too dissimilar to now. Things are awful in Iran. People are up in arms about health care and gay marriage. Yesterday in my very own city, a nine-year-old girl was shot while feeding her dog. And I told myself I wouldn't write about this, but the Jon and Kate Gosselin divorce, while not exactly unexpected, is oddly upsetting. America watched a family fall apart on television. I feel a little dirty about that.

And now Michael Jackson is dead.

Before I go any further, I'll say this: I know he was no saint. The fact that he is no longer with us does not excuse anything inappropriate he allegedly did. I strongly believe (and always have) that he suffered from mental illness, although that was never proved one way or the other. And since nobody does satire better than Matt Stone and Trey Parker, I laughed harder than anyone at the brilliant South Park episode "The Jeffersons," in which a mysterious child-loving man who likes Peter Pan costumes moves to South Park with his son Blanket in tow.

When someone dies, their transgressions shouldn't be wiped off the collective memory.

That said, I hope people remember Michael Jackson as a legend. Because he was. And there will never be anyone else like him.

If you took dance at any time during the 1980's, you wanted to BE this guy. He could whip and turn faster than the speed of light, and practically float off the ground in those black shoes. He had a perpetually pissed off look on his face, and he was FIERCE. The guy could kick your ass through dance (even if your name was Wesley Snipes), in the most rockin', non-cheesy way imaginable. Hell, he took a red leather jacket and white sequined glove and not only made them work, but made everybody want to wear them too, in hopes that a little of his magic would rub off.

Justin Timberlake has cited MJ as an inspiration. As has the phenomenal choreographer Wade Robson, who even danced with MJ when he (Wade) was six years old. Ask any dancer of our generation, and most if not all will talk about watching him on MTV (the first African American to have a video on the network, back when they were all videos all the time) and wanting to be one of those cool zombies in "Thriller" or make the stage light up with their every step like in "Billie Jean."

I'm not Justin Timberlake or Wade Robson. I'm not in a company or competing on So You Think You Dance. But I've been dancing since I was four years old. And since then, Michael Jackson has been a constant artistic presence in my life.

When I was four, my mom was the age that I am now. MTV had just premiered, and we both loved it. Especially the videos for "Thriller" and "Beat It." Before I was even a thought, my mom had received a Jackson 5 album from my dad--the first present he ever gave her. I was just starting peewee dance classes, and we would watch Michael Jackson on TV, transfixed at how gravity just didn't seem to exist for him. Even though "Thriller" was so creepy--especially when the nice boy turned into a yellow-eyed monster--the dancing made me uncover my eyes and go, "Wooow."

When I was thirteen, I was desperately trying to fit in at school by joining the cheerleading squad, and we had a summer garage sale to raise money for new uniforms. I'd undergone some pretty intense bullying in the previous year, and was glad for summer--except for the fact that there were no dance classes. Dance was safe--unlike sports, I was actually pretty good, and more importantly, no one made fun of me. At the garage sale, I ended up buying the tape of "Thriller," ten years old by that time, for a quarter. All summer, I listened to "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'", "P.Y.T" and of course, "Thriller," making up dances in my head and getting more comfortable with my creative side--the part of me that was different from my classmates, but special too. As I played the tape to death, I slowly learned that not fitting in was maybe a good thing.

When I was twenty, I saw the movie Center Stage with my sister. I held my breath in awe during "The Way You Make Me Feel" re-imagined by the brilliant ballet dancer Ethan Steifel, and for the first time I really got the song. I'd only been seven or eight when it came out, and I remember Mom teaching me the refrain as the tape played in the car, but of course the meaning hadn't sunk in. Sure, it was happy and fun, but it was about wanting. It was raw and real, with shrieks of intense joy thrown in for good measure. The next year, two and a half months after September 11th, I went to a dance concert and witnessed a fantastic interpretation of "We Are the World"--athletic contemporary juxtaposed with lyrical--and was moved to tears. For a few minutes, I felt safe and secure--we were the world, and we were all in this together.

Even now, at twenty-eight, I have "Beat It" on my iPod and can never listen to it without picturing the West Side Story homage in the video, not to mention the tap dance I saw set to it once. Last year on the reality show Step It Up and Dance, the finalists performed a lovely contemporary routine to "Man in the Mirror," a profound later work that reflected MJ's increasing melancholy and desire for change. Walking to work the other day, I found myself randomly humming "I'll Be There," and reflecting how simple and beautiful it was, and how unique young Michael's voice was--innocent, sure, but much fuller and more powerful than that of other child singers.

Not to mention that I can never hear "I Want You Back" without wanting to leap around disco-style while crooning along like the ladies on The L Word last season.

The point is, I'm sad today. The world is in a weird place and I've had a long week at work. Music and dance have always been integral to my life, wormholes of happiness I could crawl into when the outside world just got to be too much. Today, one of those wormholes is closed. The memories live on in my iPod and on YouTube, but it's not the same.

Good-bye, MJ. I hope wherever you are now is a lot less confusing for you. And I sure as hell hope you're moonwalking your ass off.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing, Mama: Away We Go

There is nothing more annoying than knowing you're being marketed to.

I can picture the pitch in L.A.: it's a love story, but the couple is QUIRKY! They're not married, BUT she's pregnant! The guy is WACKY! He pretends to be Casey Kasem, but he SELLS INSURANCE so it's IRONIC! Let's throw in some BLACK-FRAMED GLASSES, ALTERNATIVE MUSIC, and ROAD-TRIP HIJINKS and we'll have MOVIES WHITE PEOPLE LIKE! The hipsters will EAT THIS SHIT UP!

And despite it all, I did. Stupid movie wouldn't LET me hate it.

Short summary: John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph play Burt and Verona, an insurance salesman and a freelance illustrator who live and love in a Colorado shack (not much of an exaggeration). She's preggers, he's over the moon about it. There's only one problem: his parents (the always-wonderful Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara), basically the reason they moved from Chicago to Colorado, will be moving to Europe shortly before the baby is due. So Burt and Verona make a decision: they'll trek around the continental U.S. for a place they can call home.

From Phoenix to Tucson to Milwaukee to Montreal, Burt and Verona encounter old work buddies with absolutely no filters (Alison Janney, whose hysterical performance made me really start enjoying the film), annoying trustafarians (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton), and their settled college friends (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey), whose boisterous, diverse family is not without its darkness. Burt and Verona also confront their own family issues: Verona's parents died when she was in college, and her sister doesn't think she has properly grieved. Burt, meanwhile, must unexpectedly take Verona to Miami when his brother is suddenly left a single parent--bursting Burt's delighted dad-to-be bubble and frightening him with the infinite potential of familial disaster.

In a lesser movie--perhaps one not co-written by Dave Eggers (people love or hate the guy--I fall into the former category)--Burt and Verona would be the passive characters, letting all these characters happen to them. They'd be overshadowed by the sheer nuttiness of the common misconception that Verona is nine months along (she's six), parents who are for dual breastfeeding and against strollers, and eleven-year-old girls loudly referred to as "baby dykes" by their own mothers. For a while--especially after the brilliant Allison Janney showed up and I nearly peed myself with laughter--I thought this was exactly what would happen.

I was wrong. Burt and Verona are a lovely, balanced couple who are perpetually bemused by the weirdness of the outside world. Their complementing personalities serve them well: he's perpetually excited, a Manic Pixie Dream Boy without the mental illness. She's quieter, more watchful, at times resigned. As Alexi Murdoch (reminiscent of the late great Nick Drake) croons on the soundtrack, it's the two of them against the world--and they're okay with that. They're aware of their own weirdness: the fact that they don't need anyone but each other to get by. It's not their relationship that's the issue, ever: it's the question of where they, and their unborn little girl, will best live out each precious day.

Yeah, I know, it sounds wildly barfy. But stay with me here. Two words: Maya. Rudolph. Sure, she always made me laugh on Saturday Night Live, and she gave a sweet, subtle performance in A Prairie Home Companion. (Then again, so did Lindsay Lohan. Oh, Lohan. But that's another post.) Watching her in this film, I was reminded of how Tom Hanks, he of two Academy Awards and all things grave and intense, started out as a comedian. A sitcom actor whom no one took seriously--he did Bosom Buddies, for God's sake. Until the early nineties, when the lighthearted funnyman blew everyone away with just how tear-jerkingly astonishing he could be.

Maya Rudolph is 2009's Tom Hanks.

Her Verona is tentative, sardonic, and luminous all at once. While Burt insists he wants their child to cobble (he really means whittle), and falls over outdoor hotel structures, Verona is there to gently guide him back into the real world. He'd be at loose ends without her, and he knows it (smart guy). But Verona never takes Burt for granted, either--his genuine goofiness often eases her troubled mind and keeps her from being too pissed off when yet another clueless individual mistakes her for nine months pregnant. And if her beautiful bedtime lullaby to Burt's young niece is any indication, she will be a wonderful mother.

(In case you're wondering about John Krasinski, he too does a nice job. I could swear there's at least one moment where he is straining to not look into the camera Jim Halpert-style, but that could just be my Office fan paranoia. John Krasinski is like Michael Cera: he plays himself, and he does it well. As long as he chooses the right roles, that is just fine by me. Not every actor has to be Marlon Brando.)
For standing out in a phenomenal supporting cast, the Give This Actor a Movie Now! Award goes to Chris Messina, who you may remember as Random Dude Friend of Patrick Dempsey #3 in Made of Honor or more notably as Ted, Claire's kind lawyer boyfriend, on Six Feet Under. Messina only appears in a few scenes, but makes every line count in his skillful portrayal of a happy, yet haunted, husband and father. Have your Kleenex handy for his late-night diner speech about what truly makes a home, enacted with some very unique props--quite possibly the most moving moment in the film.

In short, did Away We Go annoy me? Sometimes. Was it perfect? Nope. Were there scenes where it tried way too hard? Yup. Did I feel as if I were being marketed to? Absomalutely.

Am I still pondering it a week later, and frantically searching my schedule to fit in a second viewing?

Yes. Yes, I am.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Maybe Not Coming to a Theatre Near You: Five Must-See Indies

Let's face it: movie-wise, there's a lot of crap out there. For every kickass popcorn blockbuster blasting into mall cineplexes, there's a cool, quirky indie that could be just as appealing to the masses if given a chance. To be fair, blockbusters have become more intelligent in recent years--I'm thinking of the Spider-Man franchise, at least the first two; and the new Star Trek is getting rave reviews for being both thought-provoking AND fun to watch--but there's still a lot of really good stuff that either gets ignored completely or is banished to direct-to-DVD purgatory. (FYI, Slumdog Millionaire almost suffered the latter fate. Yes, THAT Slumdog Millionaire.) Or it comes out only in big cities, in tiny art-house theatres, for a week. Sad.

Want to have your mind blown by a film that's NOT at the top of the box office (or trying to be), but don't know where to start? Below are five of my favorite "small" films (by small, I mean low-budget, independent, and/or specialty). Watch 'em and weep (in a good way).

1. Brick: High school sucked for a lot of us. Even for the favored few, navigating clique hierarchy while trying to stay out of trouble with the administration--and figuring out where and with whom to eat lunch--was far from easy. Now imagine juggling all of the above, while solving your ex-girlfriend's murder. Teenager Brendan Frye doesn't have many friends, and lost his girlfriend Emily for being too possessive. Three days after he received a cryptic phone call from her, Emily turns up dead. With the help of his confidante Brain, Brendan encounters druggie jocks, back-alley burnouts, lascivious drama queens, and a femme fatale with questionable motives as he doggedly pursues the truth. Did I mention that everyone talks like 1940's gangsters? Shot at a real California high school (director Rian Johnson's alma mater) and featuring the smokin' Joseph Gordon-Levitt (of Angels in the Outfield and 10 Things I Hate About You fame) in a deliciously intense performance, Brick is well worth your watching while. The dialogue takes some getting used to, but soon you'll find yourself absorbed in a world that's both extremely unique and surprisingly relatable.

2. Bottle Shock: Ever wonder where Chardonnay comes from? Me neither--I'm too busy drinking it. Still, this fun film inspired by true events is up there with Sideways when it comes to well-acted wino education. In the 1970's, Napa, California, is a sleepy farm town whose stellar vineyards are a well-kept secret. Enter a Paris wine snob (the always-amazing Alan Rickman) determined to drum up business in his own shop by hosting a competition between American and French wines. Upon traveling to Napa, he encounters Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), a former lawyer whose little vineyard-that-could is verging on collapse, and Jim's scrappy son Bo (a pre-Star Trek Chris Pine, whose baby blues shine under a mop of tangled hippie hair). Meanwhile, another wannabe vintner (Freddy Rodriguez) is working for the Barretts by day, but concocting his own red by night. When the Barretts stumble upon what could be a perfect Chardonnay, do they stand a chance against the Frenchies? I really wish this little gem had gotten more recognition, so give it some love: it's a classic underdog story with a fantastic cast, beautiful scenery, and a charming plot.

3. Every Little Step: Picture going into the office and having to interview for your job and prove your mettle every single day. (Before the recession.) Also, unless you can branch out and gain more skills in your field or elsewhere, you'll be rendered useless once you hit your thirties (if you even last that long). Oh, and if you get injured, stick a fork in yourself--you're DONE. You live in a state of constant unemployment, and even when you do find work, you better enjoy it, because this job might be your last. This is what it's like to be a Broadway dancer. For that reason, the musical A Chorus Line--which began when dancer/choreographer Michael Bennett asked a group of his friends to talk about their lives while plying them with terrible red wine, and taped the whole eight-hour session--has been beloved since its inception in the late 1970's and was once the longest-running show on Broadway. (NOTE: do NOT, I repeat NOT, see the horrendous 1980's film version. No no no. You will thank me.) This documentary was filmed in 2005, when an open call was held in New York City for the Broadway revival, and over 3,000 dancers showed up for under 20 spots in the cast. All sweating, singing, emoting, and putting themselves out there for a job that they have a very small shot at landing. So why do they do it? Why does anyone take an artistic risk knowing it will most likely never pay off? (Figuratively and literally: dancers don't make much money, ever.) Even if you're not a dance freak like me, Every Little Step is compelling, rich and rewarding--for both the viewer and the passionate individuals on screen. You really will laugh and cry, I promise.

4. Surfwise: Jon and Kate Gosselin were far from the first to raise a large family in a nontraditional manner. In the 1970's, surfer Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz abandoned his successful medical practice and hit the road with his wife and nine children in tow. The Paskowitz kids grew up in a 24-foot camper, never tasting junk food or even going to school (as one points out, you can't be missed in a system you were never part of in the first place), and cutting their teeth on the wild ocean waves. Let's face it, many of us entertain the odd fantasy of saying "screw you" to society and striking out on our own, but what happens when you actually DO it? And how do your own decisions affect the lives of your children, who had no say in the matter? Interviews with the now-grown Paskowitz kids, as well as Doc himself (now a kickin' octogenarian), combined with archival footage of the family in their road-tripping heyday, reveal the various benefits--and detriments--of a play-by-your-own-rules existence. What's most fascinating is how not one of the Paskowitzes have the same reactions and insights to their unusual childhoods: they may have been viewed as a unit in the surfing community, but behind the Paskowitz name are nine wildly different individuals, all of whom bear the smiles and scars resulting from a truly unique upbringing.

5. Nothing Like the Holidays: Freddy Rodriguez is awesome. Whether he's kicking alien ass (Grindhouse: Planet Terror), toiling in a mortuary (Six Feet Under), or making midnight wine (the aforementioned Bottle Shock), the guy always brings it. Plus, he earns a special place in my heart for being a proud Chicago native. Which brings us to his cruelly overlooked pet project, Nothing Like the Holidays. Originally titled Humboldt Park, the film takes place in the week before Christmas, as a Puerto Rican family reconvenes in their native Chicago neighborhood. On everyone's first night back home, matriarch Ana Rodriguez announces that she is leaving her husband Edy--who just sits there, mute and defenseless. The three adult kids all have their own baggage: Mauricio is an eager-to-please New York attorney, whose Jewish wife has never really fit in with the family; Jesse has just returned from Iraq and is now expected to take over the family bodega; and Roxana's L.A. acting career isn't going quite as well as she'd hoped. What I love about this film is how nuanced and complex ALL the characters are--it's a true ensemble piece, and every character is written and portrayed with the utmost care. Also, the family's cultural traditions are shown in a respectful manner, far from the usual look-at-the-ethnics-in-their-natural-habitat crap you tend to see in mainstream movies. The cast is chock full of recognizable actors (Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo, Melonie Diaz, as well as Mr. Rodriguez) giving it their all and making us all wonder, Why aren't they getting more work? I was especially impressed by an actress I don't usually like: Debra Messing of Will & Grace fame. She delivers a thoughtful, skilled performance as Sarah, Mauricio's Jewish wife, who is still struggling to please his family while staying true to her career-loving baby-ambiguous self. Overall, this portrayal of a perfectly imperfect family makes for a memorable viewing experience with those who matter most.

Want me to watch/review something? Leave a comment!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Next to Nerdy: My Tony Awards Twitter Feed

The Tony Awards are my Superbowl. On that magical Sunday in June, I park my butt on the couch and stay there for three hours, only breaking to yell at the screen, dance, throw things, or dance while yelling at the screen and throwing things. This year, my Super Sunday coincided with my discovery of the 140-characterplay that is Twitter. Hence, my Tony Awards Twitter Feed.

Note: this is not a typical blog post, just a fun one. Get ready to have your mind blown with just how geeky I can be.

Have already cried twice at the Tonys. West Side Story was breathtakingly beautiful. I want to marry Cody Green and make dancing babies. from web

Rock of Ages. Hm. That's all I have to say.8:09 PM Jun 7th from web

My boyfriend Joseph Gordon-Levitt produced what looks like a really cool Broadway "special event"? Sweetheart, why was I not informed?8:13 PM Jun 7th from web

O no microphones. Guys and Dolls handled it well, though.8:18 PM Jun 7th from web

Gil, you were right. I freaking hate the background. WTF?8:19 PM Jun 7th from web

Sit Down... is normally my fave number in the show. This one was very low-energy, didn't flow well, and I didn't like Nicely Nicely.8:21 PM Jun 7th from web

I'm geeking out watching this "Working in the Theatre" thing. How do I get seats???8:29 PM Jun 7th from web

OMG, Billy Elliot actor brought his wife up on stage with him. Too cute.8:31 PM Jun 7th from web

"And home's what Vanessa's running away from"...congrats to Karen Olivo!8:34 PM Jun 7th from web

Never thought I'd hear a showtune about depression--but Next to Normal made it work. Heartbreaking and true.8:41 PM Jun 7th from web

Geoffrey Rush so tried to get tongue from Jessica Lange. She wasn't having it, though. Ionesco FTW!8:46 PM Jun 7th from web

Hey cameramen! During the dead people montage, you should really focus on people's names and pictures. Just a thought.8:53 PM Jun 7th from web

Haha, Marcia Gay Harden totally called out the idiot cameramen!9:02 PM Jun 7th from web

Note to self: read Reasons to Be Pretty. That snippet was so cute.9:05 PM Jun 7th from web

Thank you Billy Elliott and Elton John for reminding us that tap is FIERCE!9:10 PM Jun 7th from web

I friggin love you, Harvey. And God in heaven, I wish I could see God of Carnage.9:21 PM Jun 7th from web

I HATE MAME. HATE HATE HATE. Love Angela, Bea, Jerry, and Hello Dolly, though.9:29 PM Jun 7th from web

Um, Tony people? Cutting off Jerry freaking Herman? NOT. OKAY.9:34 PM Jun 7th from web

Why do I get the feeling Hair is going to take Best Revival? Still hate when performers go in audience. Poor Anne Hathaway.9:36 PM Jun 7th from web

Yeah, Hair? I'm not that impressed. Yes, you're awesome and energetic. West Side Story was way better. Suck on that.9:38 PM Jun 7th from web

I knew it. It only fits that I totally hate Kristin Chenowith.9:40 PM Jun 7th from web

Just like the Oscars, "troubled" always wins! Next to Normal looks really good, though.9:48 PM Jun 7th from web

I agree with Best Actress lady's "musical theatre is a fine art" speech. Still wanted to punch her.9:51 PM Jun 7th from web

Billy Elliot kids! Just stand there and be cute at me! I love how one of them got out of his chair when they were announced as NOMINEES.9:53 PM Jun 7th from web

@heymissmegs Hey, was Broadway Frankie Valli the one we saw? I think it was!!!!!!9:56 PM Jun 7th from web in reply to heymissmegs

Love the 5 Frankie Vallis. Jersey Boys is awesome, and "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You"--one of the best pop songs ever.9:58 PM Jun 7th from web

Best part of Best Musical announcement? LIZA. She is legen(wait for it) dary. Also kinda glad the "troubled" musical didn't take it. Sry10:02 PM Jun 7th from web
Sir Elton? Not a perfect individual. Guess what--I don't care. He is gifted and inspiring. A true original.10:03 PM Jun 7th from web

I love Neil Patrick Harris. I need to watch How I Met Your Mother.10:13 PM Jun 7th from web

@heymissmegs By far the best Frankie Valli up there. I think he's better than John Lloyd Young. We were so lucky to see him!10:58 PM Jun 7th from web in reply to heymissmegs

@ihatewheat Pls. keep following me. I usually don't Tweet this much--but as you can see, I'm a geek for the Tonys. :)10:59 PM Jun 7th from web in reply to ihatewheat

Monday, June 1, 2009

No Air: My Thoughts on the Gosselin Clan

It was just a regular Friday night.

Fresh out of yoga and recovering from a long week at work, I was chilling in front of my favorite reality-TV rundown, The Soup. Amid the usual Survivor smackdowns and Hills bland-fests, there was a clip of a little boy. He announced to the camera, "I have to go potty. I have a weiner. Daddies have weiners!" in a very matter of fact sort of way. I laughed so hard I nearly pottied my own pants.

Thus began my rocky-road relationship with Jon & Kate Plus 8.

A few weeks later, I was at my parents' for the weekend and TLC was showing a marathon of the big-family phenomenon. Much as I like kids, I've never been the maternal type and have no desire for my own. However, I was enthralled by the adventures of this super-cute clan. I loved little Alexis' obsession with "alder-gators" and found big sister Mady very precocious, despite her moodiness. And Aaden. Oh, Aaden. There is nothing more precious than a toddler wearing glasses. I used to baby-sit for one (he was a multiple too, actually) who once gravely informed me, "I don't see so good." Excuse me while I melt into a puddle of goo.

I liked the parents too. Yes, Jon was perpetually beleaguered and overwhelmed, but hello: HE HAD EIGHT KIDS BEFORE HE TURNED THIRTY. Yeah. I'd be overwhelmed too. And speaking of which, Kate did a good job most of the time. Sure, she was fussy about keeping them clean and feeding them healthy foods, but again: EIGHT KIDS. Eight teeny rugrats who pick their noses and hit each other when they can't find the right words. No rules, and you'd be in a zoo. Sure, they bickered, but so do my parents, and they've been together for thirty years. And I liked how Kate had a personality--she was far from a housewife drone, and unlike Michelle Duggar, who may be sweet, but just seems drugged to me. (Plus, EIGHTEEN KIDS? I'm crossing my legs right now. Just no.)

Yeah, I was less than thrilled when they started going on megatrips, including that ridiculous vow renewal in Hawaii. (Come on. You had a wedding less than ten years ago.) But I said to myself, "Whatever. Freebies for this family are a good thing. No way could they afford this crap on their own, and if it helps them save for the kids' future, that's fine."

Then Jon Gosselin had an affair. Let me rephrase that: the public found out that Jon Gosselin had an affair. My theory is that Kate's known for a very long time, possibly since it started. And I wouldn't be surprised if there were others who didn't have sleazy brothers willing to sell them out.

Not surprisingly, Kate didn't take this lying down: she soon made the cover of People, which in recent years has become way more tabloid-y than it used to be. Speaking of tabloids, Mom and Dad Gosselin were featured in so many, with every kind of story imaginable--Kate's sleeping with her bodyguard! Jon lives above the garage! Jon doesn't live at the house at all!--accompanied by heartbreaking photos of very sad kids. We the public don't know what's true anymore. And maybe we never did.

Even though this is my space (not MySpace), I hesitated at first to blog about this. I doubt the Gosselin camp will ever read it (especially if it's true that all negative press is kept from Kate); still, I feel guilty. These are eight kids--right now, their mental health and happiness is at stake. It feels wrong, somehow, to interfere, when so many people are doing that right now. Also, Kate's gotten a ton of hate since, well, day one of the show. And it's only intensified since then. Sure, Jon's gotten his fair share of blame, but I feel people have directed the majority of their anger at her. Which I don't feel is necessarily warranted.

That said, I want to say my piece. After all, I used to really like the show. While they've both made bad decisions, I don't think either Jon or Kate are terrible people. I think they are fairly uneducated individuals who had kids way earlier than they should have, got in over their heads with TLC/freebies/money/new stuff, and have let life as public personas get in the way of their parenting. Let's compartmentalize, shall we? (You can take the girl out of law school, but...)
  • Jon: Daddies may have weiners, but keep yours in your pants, buddy. I don't care what kind of arrangement you had (still not sure if I believe the girlfriend contract allegation). I don't care if Kate knew about it (as I've said, I think she did). You do NOT, I repeat NOT, cheat on your spouse. It is all kinds of wrong. You took vows (twice, in fact) to love and respect one another. And you are most likely confusing the hell out of your kids, all of whom are now in school and may be hearing things from their peers. Until the divorce is final, no more ladyfriends for you.
  • Speaking of divorce, I don't blame you for not filing or pursuing that right now. Most likely, some contract or another has you in a bind and you're afraid you'll lose everything. Maybe someone's also told you that since the kids are still very young, a court may very well rule in Kate's favor (tender years doctrine). And if you don't work with Kate on this, she could quite possibly make your life hell and make sure you never see your children again. If the editing of the season premiere is any indication, she's got TLC on her side.
  • For now, sit tight and be the best SAHD that you can. (And for the record, I never cared whether or not you had a nanny. Even Danny Tanner had Uncle Jesse and Joey. Besides, again, EIGHT KIDS.)
  • Kate: I can totally respect your need for a life outside your house. Say it with me: EIGHT KIDS. Especially now that they're in school and don't need your care 24/7. And I have no problem with your wanting to be a pretty momma (although please, PLEASE get rid of that awful haircut. It does NOT look good on you, nor would it on anyone. For the love of God, either grow it long or cut it all short. You could pull off either).
  • That said, stop making your children your vocation. Go back to nursing, get another job, take college classes, write a book that's not about your babies. Get the cameras out of your house. Tell TLC that you only want once- or twice-a-year specials, not 40 episodes. Reconcile with Aunt Jodi, who seemed to truly treasure your kids. Work it out with Jon, WITHOUT the cameras. If that means a divorce, that's okay and it might be better for everyone--but give him liberal custody. He's made his mistakes, but he really seems to care for them.
  • And be nice to your fans. Don't say you hate them or act rude--they are the ones who enable your lifestyle. And they WILL catch on eventually. Remember that most authors and other celebrities make it a point to interact with their fans--it's just good business, as well as a nice thing to do. If you don't like them, well, hide it better.
  • Both of you: Get a good financial advisor. Put away a ton of money and invest some wisely, so that your children can have a good education. And for the last time, WORK THIS OUT. If I could lock you both in a room like on a bad sitcom, I would. (Oh, and if statistics are correct, at least one of your children will be gay. My money's on Joel. Whoever it is, be supportive.)
Confession time: I watched the season premiere. I really tried to resist--I know that TLC couldn't be happier about all this controversy, because it brings in ratings. Sure enough, that show was the highest-ever rated for the series. I feel bad that I contributed to that. (Note: I haven't watched since. And apparently 50% of the season premiere audience hasn't either.)

I ask myself why I--and so many others--continue to follow this heartbreaking story, why we feed the fire by watching a family disintegrate. I may be cynical by nature, but I'd really like to think that not all of us are that hungry for drama. The best I can come up with was this: as long as the Gosselin kids are on our screen, we know they're okay. We don't know what's going on behind closed doors with them, but we've grown to care about their little faces in the past few years. We know it's wrong, and they're basically being made to work for money that is in large part being spent foolishly. Still, we want them to be okay. And maybe if we watch hard enough, they will be.

I didn't say it made sense.

Here's hoping Jon and Kate do what's best for the eight they brought into the world. And Mady, Cara, Alexis, Leah, Hannah, Aaden, Collin and Joel? If you ever visit Chicago, I'll have a tub of ice cream with your names on it.

Selfless, Cold and Composed: The Girlfriend Experience

Back in high school, my boyfriend and I went to see a movie. I think it was The Big Lebowski. Anyway, there was a preview for some Belle de Jour wannabe, where the main character had to class herself up (read books and such) to be what amounted to a high-class hooker. A courtesan, she called it. My boyfriend found this hilarious, and proceeded to narrate his own version of the trailer in a high-pitched English accent. (Remember, we were 17 and 18 at the time--this passed for humor. Hell, it's still kinda funny.) I just thought the whole idea was stupid. A prostitute is a prostitute, right? (Cue Chef from South Park and his hilarious ditty about ladies of the night.) You have sex, you get paid. Doesn't matter how educated or well-dressed or awesome you are. Or does it?

The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh's new experimental drama, explores that issue in a surprisingly non-graphic, strangely timely and semi-meta way. Was it a flawless piece of awesomeness, worthy of every indie award in the book? No. Was it haunting, disturbing, and really, really interesting? Definitely.

Here's the non-spoiler-rific plot: Chelsea/Christine (she is called both in the course of the movie) is young, gorgeous and smart. She shares a to-die-for NYC apartment with her devoted, enterprising boyfriend, wears beautiful clothes, and brunches and drinks with the best of 'em. The catch? Chelsea is a prostitute. But not just any prostitute: she caters to high society dudes, e.g. Gotham moguls, L.A. screenwriters, Jewish business owners. In other words, suits. Many of them are married, some of them have kids, at least one of them has a wife who not only knows about Chelsea, but has become, um, intimately acquainted with her. She rides around in an elegant black car with an unseen driver to dark bars, bright restaurants and high-class hotels, and narrates her exploits in terms of what she wore (down to the designer undies), what they talked about (her clients often recommend where Chelsea should invest her money and what Presidential candidate she should vote for), and what they did (she basically serves as a talk therapist for one particularly neurotic gentleman).

According to the trivia page on IMDb, an escort who promises a "girlfriend experience" goes beyond the normal services. She's essentially a companion--if we're to use period-film language, more of a courtesan than a whore. She will also do things such as deep kissing and other intimacies that lower-rent red-light district regulars won't provide.

Chelsea's been with her live-in boyfriend about a year and a half, and he understands what she does--at the end of the day, she comes home to him. She has a good friend in the same line of work who knows where she's coming from. Recently, a journalist has become interested in her experiences and is interviewing her for an article. Overall, she's cool and detached--until two complications arise.

One, the economy is in the crapper. (The entire 80-something minute film takes place over a period of five days in late October 2008--so it's timely now but destined to be a dated period piece.) Chelsea keeps business records and has a website, but doesn't exactly charge JT LeRoy truck-stop rates. In other words, she's pretty expensive, in a time when recreational budgets are falling by the wayside. And there are always new chicks on the scene who are younger, thinner and probably cheaper than she.

Two, Chelsea gets a call from a potential client, and they connect on a personal level. Chelsea likes most of her clients. However, she likes this guy. And what's more--based on an analysis of his birth date and stats that she calls "personology," Chelsea thinks the relationship could progress beyond a simple transaction. When he asks her to go away for a weekend (completely against her policy), should she risk her steady relationship with a man who blew off a boys-only weekend in Vegas because she was uncomfortable with it? Or should she throw caution to the wind, possibly leaving the "girlfriend" life behind?

Told in snippets going forward and backward in time, The Girlfriend Experience can be a little hard to follow. With her deadpan voice and large, blank eyes, Chelsea is essentially a white screen on which her clients can project whatever they want. She's not spunky or sarcastic, at times she's not very likable. Her customers aren't hot--they're neurotic and hairy. And her boyfriend may be tolerant, but he has his limits--and I had to ask myself what kind of person would be okay with a significant other who sells sex for a living.

So why did I like this movie? Essentially, it is fair. I don't mean so-so, I mean just. Face it, the sex industry is fascinating--read Candy Girl or The Vagina Monologues. Not every woman goes into it with daddy issues and a drug problem: many are college-educated, enterprising, and conscious of the decisions they are about to make. Morality aside, it's a business, with its own ups and downs--and it, too, is affected by a bad economy.

Chelsea is who she is. We're never told how she got into this line of work, and we know she aspires to own a fashion boutique, but that's pretty much it. She eats brunch, she buys clothes. When her personal feelings start interfering with work, she gets into trouble. Just like most of us at some point or another.

Soderbergh doesn't glamorize the sex industry, nor does he exploit it. There's no nudity, and we only see underwear a few times. Yeah, the dialogue is pretty frank, as you'd expect--but there are no sex scenes. There's one hug, and one kiss, the latter between Chelsea and her boyfriend, that the viewer sees. The rest? Behind closed doors, and left to the imagination. It's incredibly effective, like Hitchcock with lace panties. (There's a mental image.)

In an inspired bit of casting, Sasha Grey plays Chelsea. I had no idea who Sasha Grey was until this movie came out. Turns out, Sasha Grey is a 21-year-old who has made some interesting career decisions of her own: not only is she a prominent porn actress, but she has made her reputation doing things that are very hardcore. She represents herself, has her own agency in L.A., has been featured on Tyra, and is working on a documentary about being a young porn star (she started at age 18). Like Chelsea, she's a self-made woman who saw a niche and sought to fill it (no pun intended). Unlike, say, someone like Gwyneth Paltrow or Vanessa Hudgens, Sasha Grey is familiar with the industry of the character she's portraying. Very intimately so.

Do I recommend this movie? Yes. It's not for the faint of heart, but it's a fresh and profound glimpse into the world's oldest profession. In a word, The Girlfriend Experience is stimulating. Intellectually, people. Intellectually.


So I'm joining the ranks of the blogosphere.

Here's the skinny: I like to write (YA fiction mostly--cross your fingers I get published someday), and I live in Chicago. When I'm not at work, I go to things: weird movies, plays, concerts, you name it. I'm fortunate enough to have some industry connections, which is great because I'm poor (hello, student loans for advanced degree and overpriced rental). I also read constantly and watch a lot of TV (reality and otherwise).

Much like Rob Gordon in High Fidelity (one of my all-time Top 5 favorite books AND movies), I analyze everything. I'd attribute this to my undergrad major (theatre), where I was taught to tear apart plays, and/or my law degree, which I earned by tearing apart case studies and constitutions, and/or my ex-boyfriend, who was a filmmaker and tore apart movies.

Truth is, I've been critiquing stuff since I was in fourth grade and discovered the weekly movie reviews in the TV supplement of the local paper. I'd read them at my grandma's house when I got bored and BOOM, an obsession was born.

Basically, I'll be posting my thoughts about what I read and watch. I can be very sarcastic, but I like to think I'm less bitter than I used to be. Occasionally, I'll make recommendations, which you can take or leave. If you like something, don't hesitate to email me or leave a comment. If you don't, ditto. Oh, and I swear, use CAPS (and parentheses) constantly, and have a huge crush on Rainn Wilson. (And yes, I like pink and Barbie--why do you ask?)

First review should be going up soon, though this is a busy week for me.

That's that for now. Stay classy.