Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lurlene McDaniel and Liz Wakefield Go to the Garden State: My Life Without Me

I'll say it right off: I like Sarah Polley. I was a huge Avonlea fan in fifth grade when we first got the Disney Channel, especially once I realized that Sara Stanley was also Ramona Quimby in those old videos! (Probably one of the first times I recognized an actor from something else--and this was before IMDb.) Beverly Cleary and Lucy Maud Montgomery were probably my two favorite authors in childhood, and the fact that Sarah Polley played characters from both worlds made her doubly cool in my book.

I like how proudly Canadian she is, and how she got blacklisted by Disney as a teen for wearing a peace sign while sitting at their table at some awards ceremony or another. I like only chooses roles she finds interesting, regardless of how high or low-profile (fun fact: she was the original Penny Lane in Almost Famous. I still think she would have been way better than Kate Hudson). And I'm all about more women screenwriters and directors--she does both, most recently and notably directing the critically acclaimed Away From Her.

Granted, I'm well aware that if interviews are any indication, I'd probably find her insufferable in person. Doesn't mean I respect her career any less.

So I rented My Life Without Me, a tiny 2003 film starring Polley and featuring two other actors I've always liked: Scott Speedman (whom I remember most as Ben from Felicity, though he's also in the Underworld movies) and Mark Ruffalo (when he was still fairly unknown). I was also pleased to discover that the always-stellar Alfred Molina had an uncredited cameo! Really, you can't go wrong with Alfred Molina. He's awesome.

If the end credits are to be believed, the director of this film is one "Isabelle Coixet."


Lurlene McDaniel, I know you directed this cheese-fest. So will any viewer who read your books in junior high and got pissed that the girl in Six Months to Live was never actually TOLD that she had six months to live. Your Chester Cheetah paw-prints are alllll over this schlock. Next time, just woman up and put your name on the project. Or at least pick one that isn't French because you're not fooling anybody.

And while you're at it, credit your ghostwriters Francine Pascal and Zach Braff. No one does sanctimonious skinny girls and indie paint-by-numbers, respectively, better.

Here's a brief breakdown for the uninitiated:

Lurlene McDaniel: author of trauma-porn that captivated junior-high girls long before Edward Cullen was an extra-sparkly twinkle in Stephenie Meyer's eye. Her books have titles like Don't Die, My Love and feature TONS of girls with terminal illnesses, mothers who are severely judged for stepping out of traditional roles, and hot sensitive boys (who are usually also dying). Once in a while, ol' Lurlene will step out of her comfort zone and try to tackle "issues" such as female predators, e.g. her awful, awful novel Prey. Just...no. Not even ironically. There are fantastic books about young men's sexual coming-of-age, and about inappropriate student-teacher relationships (Barry Lyga's Boy Toy for one). Prey...is not one of them. It is an abomination.

Francine Pascal: creator (NOT author, silly, that's why God invented ghostwriters) of the Sweet Valley franchise. For twenty-plus years, countless MFA's set aside their dignity to chronicle the squeaky clean adventures of twins Jessica and Elizabeth, with their golden hair, eyes the color of the Pacific Ocean, and "perfect size six" bodies. (Note: the latter description appeared in every. freaking. book. Sometimes several times.) The Wakefield twins are identical yet soooo different (Jessica is a sociopath, Elizabeth is a paragon of sanctimony) and live in the hallowed hamlet of Sweet Valley, California, where parents are never around, yet no one drinks and has sex unless they are fat, poor, or mean. (Granted, I wasn't a super badass in high school, but I at least told dirty jokes and menstruated.)

Zach Braff: actor on Scrubs (which despite not liking, I won't trash because my college friend had a recurring role last season and I'm very proud of her) and maker of films that are trite, cliche ridden and so stereotypically indie that it gives the genre a bad name. I will say one thing for the guy: he makes a hell of a mix CD. I do own and enjoy the soundtracks of The Last Kiss and Garden State. I will VERY GRUDGINGLY admit that it was indeed Garden State that introduced me to to the Shins. Still, the guy needs to stick to making high-concept mixes rather than perpetuating the stereotype of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (oh you know the archetype--she of all things cute, perky and most of all quirky that captivates our sad-sack hero, who in real life would be either mentally ill or just too annoying for this planet. Yet every dumb hipster filmmaker now insists on MPDG's. UGH).

Let's imagine a development meeting with this Terrible Trio, shall we?

Lurlene: So there's a young woman...

Francine: PERFECT SIZE SIX?????? Eyes the color of the Pacific Ocean? Golden hair?

Zach: No way, dude. Blonde girls aren't deep. She has to have long brown hair that's messy because she just doesn't care. I totally heard an Iron and Wine song about that once.

Francine: *breathes into paper bag* Fine. Brown hair. But she's really rich, right?

Lurlene: Um, no. She lives in a trailer behind her mother's house with her two little girls and her husband, who was her boyfriend in high school until he knocked her up with daughter number one.

Zach: And she's a janitor because that's UNEXPECTED for a pretty girl. But not just any janitor, man--she's a janitor at the UNIVERSITY where she was never a student, which is SYMBOLIC because life is PASSING HER BY! *lights bong*

Francine: *nervously pacing* Poor? The protagonist is poor? Shitshitshit, I did not sign up for POOR! Give me that damn bong! *takes hit* Okay, fine. She's poor, but she got knocked up when she was 17 and has a crap job, which makes sense because poor people are BAD and do STUPID THINGS like have premarital sex. So she's also an alcoholic, right?

Lurlene: No! She finds out that she has a rare form of ovarian cancer...

Francine: Because she's poor...

Lurlene: Um, yeah, whatever. Oh right, and her dad's in jail and she and her mom hate each other for no real reason at all. ANYWAY, she pukes one morning, thinks she's preggers again, goes to the hospital--

Francine: But poor people are too POOR to go to the hospital!

Zach: Bitch, we're in Canada. Universal health care.

Francine: Poor people don't DESERVE health care! *rocks back and forth*

Lurlene: Zach, take the bong away from Francine, she's getting paranoid. Anyway, she waits for hours only to find out from a really ugly doctor that she has a rare form of ovarian cancer and because she's so young her body won't bounce back, and she has THREE WEEKS TO LIVE.

Francine: Really? 'Cause I read your book Six Months to Live and that girl was still kickin' three sequels later.

Lurlene: I mean it this time.

Zach: I'm bored. *puts on the Shins* You guys have to listen to this band, they will change your life, I swear.

Lurlene and Francine: Shut up, Zach.

Zach: *whining* But I have feeeeeelings! Why won't you liiiiiisten? *perks up* So the girl goes home and tells her family, right?

Lurlene: WRONG! She goes to a cafe, writes up a bucket list--part of which are totally filmable things like "smoke and drink" and "go on a picnic with my family" that we will NEVER actually see her do--and makes the decision not to tell anyone.

Francine: Ooooh yes! Because now that she's dying, SHE KNOWS WHAT IS BEST FOR EVERYBODY! Never mind that her husband and mother will be denied their right to start preparing financially, psychologically and emotionally for her death! Never mind that her four- and six-year-old girls will need years of therapy when Mommy DROPS DEAD without warning! Never mind that any real form of cancer probably has much worse symptoms than conveniently mild nausea! Dying twenty-three-year-olds know all, as long as they stay pretty. She doesn't lose her lustrous hair or get gray skin, right?

Lurlene: Oh hell no. Haven't you read my books? Death involving young attractive women is always pretty. Always.

Zach: Ummmm, why am I here again? Because there's a Postal Service concert I really need to get to.

Lurlene: No! We need you for the sappy soundtrack, and--because she takes an EMO LOVER.

Zach: (claps his hands like a little kid hopped up on Pixie Stix) Ooh ooh ooh! I know this one!

Francine: Oh right, her husband's HORRIBLE because he's POOR! Is he a drinker? Because in Sweet Valley utopia, the poor people are also addicts.

Lurlene: No, actually her husband's hot, an involved dad, and overall a pretty great guy other than the fact that he's a little doofy.

Francine: Whatever. It's not cheating if she still loves him.

Zach: Huh? That makes no sense. If she sleeps with another guy, that's cheating.

Lurlene and Francine: Shut up, Zach.

Lurlene: Or I'll take away your Death Cab CD. Anyway, she got knocked up at 17 by the only man she'd ever even kissed, so she married him, and now she wants to screw around with other men just to see what it's like. Though she never sleeps with other men besides the Emo Lover. Zach, the reason I've brought you here is because you and only YOU can help us define the Emo Lover. I'll put on some Dido aaaaaand....GO!

Zach: Okay. He reads Middlemarch, so he's DEEP!

Lurlene: Good start! Keep going...

Zach: He wears a long coat! He has scruff! He doesn't have any furniture in his house, only books that he reads out loud! He's a surveyor, which is symbolic because he sees EVERYTHING! (starts panting) Oh, my God...I never thought this would happen, but I'm...running...out...of...cliches!

Francine: Nooooooo! Here's a picture of Natalie Portman in a stupid helmet, Zach! You can do it!


Francine: Good boy! You get a cookie if you give us the soundtrack!

Zach: *squinches eyes shut* I'm thinking....old-school jazz and big band on mix tapes his sister sends him!

Lurlene: Yes...yes...yes! You did it, Zach! You are the Indie Boy Wonder! Bon Iver tickets for everyone!

Zach, Lurlene and Francine: YAY!


In other words, don't waste your time.  Track down Avonlea on DVD.  Is it on DVD?  It should be.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Like a Golden Globe, but BETTER!

Whaddaya know, I won another award! I feel so loved, y'all. Thanks for reading!

*cue Dave Chappelle with Exit Music machine*

Ah, but there's a catch! A FUN catch.

So, award-er Sadako says that I must name seven of my favorite things, then nominate seven other blogs. I'll be honest--I don't read a ton of blogs. That said, I'm happy to spread the love.

To quote the glorious Julie Andrews/Maria von Trapp, these are a few of my favorite things:

1. My extralong lavender yoga mat. Now if only the douche at the studio would stop using it (that's what communal mats are for, sir/ma'am. Namaste).
2. Steamed broccoli (really!)
3. Sitting in a dark theatre and watching a movie. Never fails to calm me.
4. Friday afternoons!
5. My right-hand ring I bought at Venice Beach for $25. It looks a little like Blair Waldorf's ring.
6. Getting new library books which I will subsequently tear through.
7. Starbucks. My corporate coffee o' love.

My seven fave websites/blogs:

Happy Friday, everyone! Watch for a new post on Monday--I combine YA, indie cliche, and trauma lit and it will BLOW YOUR MIND.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Secret of My Success: Commencement

Most college freshmen don't declare a major right away. I was not one of those freshmen. In fact, after orientation I declared two: communications and theatre. (Insert "useless and useless" jokes here, believe me, I've heard them all.) The former occurred because of a deal I struck with my parents: study something where it'll be possible for you to get a job. (Insert Dr. Hibbert "you'll find a job using your major in--communications? Oh, LORD!" joke here.)

The latter occurred because, well, I was obsessed with theatre. I wanted to be the next Christine Ebersole (who actually went to college next door to my high school. Not when I was IN said high school, but you get the picture). Besides having classes and rehearsals as a legitimate part of my schedule (rather than something I squeezed in between AP English and pre-calc), I salivated over hanging out with a host of fellow theatre geeks. I wanted to immerse myself hard-core and never come up for air.

This played out . . . to an extent. I did get a dual degree in theatre and communications, with a minor in Women's Studies. (I also got a full-time job after college, haters be damned.) I took directing, dramatic literature and dialects for credit, acted in some kickass shows (Three Sisters and West Side Story were two particular favorites), and met many wonderful people who shared my passion.

I also formed lasting relationships with a psych/communications major and a bio major. The former was my freshman roommate (we connected at orientation because everyone else in our group was annoying), the latter a girl who lived down the hall that we met on our way to dinner our first full night at school. The three of us lived together sophomore year. We've seen each other through boyfriends, bad jobs, and now, babies (well, one baby, but still). When I moved back to Chicago three years ago, I lived on one of their couches for a month--and she still missed me when I found my own place. We don't see each other constantly, but we make it a point to get together every few months for cheesecake (just like The Golden Girls marathons we watched together) and/or pizza (because we are Chicago chicks at heart, even though one of us now lives in the burbs).

And yet--other than a love for junk food and South Park, the three of us don't have much in common. We've taken wildly different paths, career and otherwise. Even junior and senior year in college, we didn't see nearly as much of each other as we did the first two years. So why has our little triumvirate stuck together not only through university, but through 99% of our twenties?

Which brings me to Commencement, an intelligent look at the postcollege lives of four buddies from Smith College. I didn't know this until I started reading, but the characters graduated from college the same year as my friends and I (ever since I was 11 and found out Macaulay Culkin was exactly my age, sharing the same birth year with celebrities and fictional characters makes me weirdly excited). Is Commencement the Great American Novel? Of course not. But if you are female, enjoyed Prep, and remember the wonderful complexities of the postcollege decade, it's pretty darn close.

Let's face it: even in our supposedly progressive age, there are very few intelligent novels concerning twentysomething women. For the most part, it's men and shoes, men and shoes, men and shoes, with a few tragic stories thrown in for good measure. Don't get me wrong, strong chick lit rocks: for example, the Shopaholic series is good, fluffy fun with a winning heroine. But what about the rest of us: smart, passionate twentysomething women who may have had a fulfilling college education, complete with developed ideals and true-blue pals, but still wonder what to be when we grow up? How come no one's writing about us? Finally, someone is.

And before anyone says, "oooh, problems of privileged white ladies, blah blah blah," let me quote a very wise friend: "just because others have worse problems, that doesn't make yours any less valid." And indeed, even within the hallowed halls of the all-female Smith, issues with family, sexuality and identity run rampant.

Short summary: it's the fall of 1998, and four first-years (Smith says NO to the term "freshmen") form an insta-bond as neighbors in what used to be the servants' quarters of their dorm. Celia is an Irish Catholic wannabe writer from Boston, Bree is a southern belle Smith legacy who's already engaged to her high school honey, Sally is sweet as pie even as she grieves the very recent and sudden death of her mother, and April is an alternagal from Chicago who balances a variety of protests and rallies with two part-time jobs to make ends meet. During their four years at Smith, they remain neighbors and best friends, while having college experiences that are typical--snacking on Oreos and vodka, sexual experimentation, streaking across the quad--and unique to their all-female institution, such as the first-week ritual where each dorm faces off in their underwear. (It's fun, not oppressive.) Four years after graduation (in what Bree calls their "senior year of life"), Sally is getting married on Smith's campus, and the far-flung foursome reunite with mixed results. Several months later, no one is speaking, and Sally's unexpected pregnancy sets off a chain of events both happy and tragic.

I. Loved. This. Book.

I've already talked about how educated young women have stories that stretch far beyond men and shoes, but hardly anyone's telling them. I also love how this book addresses the quarterlife crisis with grace, wit, and one phrase that pretty much sums it all up: these days, there are almost too many options. Not that I want to return to the old days, where I could be a nurse or teacher--before I quit to get married and have kids. That said, we live in a world (and economy) where a college graduate can do anything from fund a multi-million dollar enterprise while still living in the dorms, to wait tables while waiting for your big break, and everything in between. Very overwhelming. Also, even if you know exactly what you want to do and how to get there, it's not our parents' world, where a college degree automatically leads to a full-time job with a high salary. On the contrary: the majority of our generation have at least an undergraduate degree. In short, if you don't have connections or higher-ed credentials, you can be SOL in the postcollege world. Commencement does an excellent job with this inner struggle: when who you thought you would be at eighteen is so far from who you are at twenty-five, when to accept that, and when to make some changes and press on.

I also had yet to read a novel that so smoothly and thoroughly addressed the complexities of feminism. Nothing pisses me off more when pop culture stereotypes feminists as bull-dyke bitches with no sense of humor. Come on, it's 2009. Women shouldn't be afraid to call themselves feminists because of all the prejudicial baggage that comes with the word. I'm far from saying that ANYTHING a woman does is a feminist act, but the great thing about feminism is that it IS all-encompassing. The way I see it is this: do you want a world where both genders are equal in terms of pay, treatment, and opportunity? Congratulations, you're a feminist! In Commencement, the four women do encounter various incarnations of feminism at Smith and beyond, and struggle with their own personal ideologies. Is it anti-feminist to marry at 25? To put off medical school for a relationship? What about when a seemingly-nice guy insults you for your pride in your all-women alma mater? Look, I was once told to leave my Women's Studies TA experience OFF of my resume, so as not to alienate potential employers. (Didn't take the advice.) I identified with the protagonists' dilemmas.

Sexuality also plays a large role in Commencement. Two of the four main characters have undergone traumatic experiences by the time they reach twenty-five. Sadly, that goes right along with statistics. One character seeks solace in an ill-advised affair, and is still dealing with the ramifications years later. Another goes beyond same-sex experimentation, but wonders about the relationship's staying power outside the Smith bubble. Even with the most casual of intentions, sex is never just sex, and mistakes are made. Women's experiences with sex and relationships go WAY beyond your typical chick flick or Lifetime trauma porn of the week. Plus? Every woman has other things going on. Relationships and sex--the good, the bad, the ugly, and the just plain confusing--are a part of you, but not all you. Thank you, Ms. Sullivan, for illustrating that.

I read Commencement in about 30 hours. Granted, I'm a fast reader, but that's speedy even for me. Throughout, I laughed. I cried. I identified. I don't know if I want to call J. Courtney Sullivan the next Curtis Sittenfeld--I don't like calling anyone the next "anything," because it's too simplistic and reduces individuals to categories. However, as a writer, she's definitely worthy of your time, attention and support. Ladies (and gentlemen), more voices like hers need to be out there.

Let's make it happen.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

When Angst Meets Analysis: A Conversation About Spring Awakening

In December 2006, I was working a night job at Borders for extra cash. I actually kind of enjoyed it: the clientele was fairly pleasant, and I got paid to see what everyone was buying for Christmas gifts, while also ogling my punk drummer coworker. One night, I rang up a CD soundtrack, taking a second look when I saw the cool old-timey-ish cover art and the name of the guy who did "Barely Breathing" when I was in high school. "What's this?" I asked the (cute) dude purchasing the CD. "You have to get it," he extolled. "It's like the next Rent."

Turns out, it was Spring Awakening, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater's re-imagining of the nineteenth-century German play of the same name. The original text was not performed until 100 years after it was written, due to the controversial subject matter: suicide, homosexuality, abuse, and lots and lots of sex talk, all involving teenagers. In Sheik and Sater's version, the basic story remains the same (with a couple of major changes), but with a modern-rock soundtrack that amplifies the young characters' subconscious thoughts and desires. I may be a HUGE theatre geek (okay, I AM a huge theatre geek), but other than the "classical text with modern music," I don't see a striking resemblance to Rent. But whatever.

For the past two and a half years, I've been addicted to the soundtrack. In 2007, I seriously considered jetting to New York for the sole purpose of seeing it on Broadway (that, and Grey Gardens). Didn't happen for various reasons; however, the national tour is currently in my home city of Chicago. Last Thursday night, I sat on the edge of my nosebleed seat, fingers clutching the program as I awaited the fulfillment of a two-and-a-half-year wish.

Did Spring Awakening live up to my classical-yet-rockin' hopes? For the most part...yes. In fact, the entire production--performances, music, technical elements, and script--spurred an interesting dialogue between me and my lawyer/actor pal Dennis, who was also in the audience. I also gabbed on about it the morning after with my friend Gil of the hilarious theatre blog Broadway Abridged. Just for funsies, and to paraphrase the Old 97's, here's what we talked about.

WARNING: This is not a straight up review of the usual Unpro variety. It's more of an analysis. Familiarity with Spring Awakening is pretty much required, and there are MAJOR spoilers ahead. If you are a fan of musical theatre, I would strongly encourage you to check out the Spring Awakening soundtrack--it has its share of missteps, but the majority of the tunes are alternately heartwrenching and toe-tapping. The book of the musical is available, and if you're a huge dork like me, you can also find the original play and compare the two. For the latter, I highly recommend Jonathan Franzen's translation. If you want to cheat, here's a plot summary.

However, if you've got some familiarity with the show, or you really don't mind spoilers, read on! My comments are in bold.

Dennis: Excellent performances with need for some of the minor characters to further define themselves individually. Use of set and lighting integrated well with story—sense of what was outside world and what was “internal monologue” worked well. At times the hand mike conceit/concert format got a little sloppy or indistinct in its definition compared to when they were not used and when the merger of internal and external occurred. But this is minor intellectualizing.

Lauren: The hand mike device does get sloppy toward the end. I had been warned of this by a friend who saw it on Broadway, but I was hoping they improved upon it for the tour. I think an issue with this show is that it’s got a strong following, though probably not QUITE as fanatical as Rent in its heyday, so they probably have to be careful about what they change. Loved the set design and lighting—the juxtaposition of neon and Germanic worked nicely for the most part.

Ilse’s hair confused me a bit. I know this play is not super-concerned with historical accuracy, and that’s fine, and I know that Ilse is a rebel and a runaway. That said, I didn’t quite buy the short haircut with bangs. If nothing else, that’s a haircut that requires a lot of upkeep, and I’m not sure she’d have the energy/patience for that in her lifestyle. I know that in this tour, Ilse is played by a Canadian pop star, and I almost want to Google Image her to see if that is her signature look (like, maybe it’s in her contract that she has this haircut). In the original Broadway production, Ilse had very long, wild hair and I think that works better. If this chick had had long hair, she would have had kind of a Goth/Morticia Addams look, and I think that would have worked well for the character.

Wendla’s confusion on where babies come from was so well done and compelling and so repudiated any notion of abstinence-only and the repudiation of science in setting policy in favor of Bush Administration use of morality based philosophy.

I hadn’t thought it in terms of the Bush Administration, but that’s a good point. I personally related it to Catholic school sex ed—during my senior year, two girls at my high school were pregnant. When you are in a school of 150 students total, that’s a lot. I thought it served as an excellent cautionary tale: if you don’t tell your hormone-addled teen how it all works, they’re going to figure it out one way or the other. Besides pregnancy, there are other terrible consequences to misinformation as well, such as rape. Ignorance, particularly about sex, is quite dangerous.

Moritz’s suicide is obviously emblematic of the modern pressure put on kids to succeed getting the right high school/college/etc. etc. However, the modern approach is not necessarily as Germanic. The father’s breakdown at the grave is excellent in that in a quick moment it recognizes that parents, too, are often trying to play a role for others. This is hinted at throughout when the parents are talking about what will the neighbors think (Moritz) and what is the best thing to do (Melchior) and their own failed educations (Wendla’s Mother).

I thought it was interesting how Melchior basically blamed the father for Moritz’s suicide. Granted, the dad had a role in all of it, but someone’s reasons for killing themselves aren’t always so clear-cut. Moritz was a tormented guy, and that was shown from the beginning. He was dealing with a lot, but not all of it was outside pressure—it was the sexual awakening too, where he wanted something but couldn’t quite name it, and then got freaked out by the information overload. Add into the mix that he is hormone-addled and spontaneous, and there you have it. I was kind of mad that Melchior was blaming the father entirely, but then I remembered that the song was from Melchior’s perspective. Because he’s a teenager and Moritz’s best friend, of course he’s going to see it that way.

Now, my three critiques: Melchior, while his performance was just fine, physically was incongruent w/ the rest of the cast. He looked like the football quarterback. He was too tall and too mature looking compared to the other “kids”. For some reason that bothered me. While Melchior does need to be a stand out, he also needs to be one of the group, too.

I disagree here: I thought he was the strongest of the three principals. I didn’t have a problem with his physical appearance, because a) he is presented as a little more mature than his peers (due in large part to his intellect and liberal parents) and b) he’s sort of the “golden boy”—the teachers like him (up until they find the sex essay), the girls adore him, etc. Handsomeness and looking more mature than his gawky dude peers goes along with that. He struck me as the perfect person we all know, who you want to hate but you can’t because they’re just so damn nice.
I don’t disagree with you analysis of what Melchior’s character should be; I just didn’t think this guy pulled it off as well cuz his physicality was too much. If he had been just a little smaller and a little younger looking, I would have bought into him better. The “spanking” scene is a good example. With his size, he would have done more damage to her; someone more in my vision would have made the scene more believable, I think.

The actor playing Moritz, for me, did his best when the character was pissed off. I got a little annoyed when he was the bumbling, confused teen—I felt that he overacted and if he had gone a little more subtle, we still would have gotten the message.

I thought Wendla was fine, if a little vanilla. Then I thought about it: in my experience, fourteen-year-old girls are often one extreme or the other in the way they present themselves to the world (how they are inside is another story). They’re either the good girl who wants to please everyone (Wendla) or the sullen, pissed-off rebel. So I’m not sure if there was much more the actress could do with the material she had. In summary, I would have liked to see her a little more fiery at times, but I’m not sure if the character is really written that way.

I didn’t like the way Melchior discovered Wendla’s death. Simply tripping over the grave stone in the cemetery of a fresh dug grave is too simplistic and coincidental. First, gravestones are rarely ready and placed when the grave is still freshly dug. Second, the staging of that on the bare stage was just too minimalist/simplistic—especially since the spirits appear shortly thereafter to prevent the suicide.

Kind of random, I agree.

Further, I can’t believe none of the girls would have gone to meet him. I expected the girl being abused would have been the girl to meet him w/ the news. Then, she, combined w/ the spirits convinces him not to kill himself. He gives her the razor to defend herself. She goes on then he goes on w/ the spirits. Because I felt the staging of the ending was weak w/ just a black out and them walking off in the black out. I would have liked something else, though I’m not sure what, but as long as they had the dry ice, something simple rock concert-like or theatrical might have been cool.

You should read the original play. There is a big difference in the ending: Melchior still survives, but there’s a whole other character. It would NOT have translated well to musical theatre, but it’s an interesting ending nonetheless. That’s all I will say for now. Jonathan Franzen’s translation was one I really liked.
My biggest critique? The spanking scene. I thought it was terrible.

I really like the idea of the scene: teenagers want so much, but they often can’t articulate what they want. They’re a mess of hormones and curious as hell. And even if they are well-informed and okay with what happens when they’re alone (Melchior), it’s a whole new ballgame when you’re with another person. Particularly if the request involves violence, and then you kind of enjoy it and at the same time you’re hating yourself for it. And in the end, you’re completely freaked out by the whole ordeal.

In the original play, Melchior rapes Wendla—the sex is very much NOT consensual. So the beating serves as a foreshadowing that this otherwise gentle, sweet guy has a violent side. My friend and I agreed that this wouldn’t work for a contemporary audience: the mass appeal and marketability of Spring Awakening would have gone WAY down if Melchior were a rapist. I also like the change because Wendla is less of a victim (in this respect, anyway).

However, without the rape, the beating scene is in a weird place—it comes out of nowhere and goes right back there. What would work in this case is to have an earlier scene or a couple of lines which foreshadow Melchior’s darker side. Not a horrific, rapist side, just…darker. (Again, not unusual for a teenager!)

I blamed the director more than the actors. It seemed that the director was shying away from the magnitude of the scene—strange, considering the play covers suicide, abortion, and child abuse. As a result, it was exaggerated to the point of being comical. People around me actually laughed, and it wasn’t uncomfortable laughter.

Also, even from my nosebleed seat, I didn’t believe for a second that he was actually hitting her. There are ways to convincingly fake that. It’s called stage combat, director: look into it.

According to my friend who saw it on Broadway, this scene didn’t work there either. Maybe someday, someone will get it right.

I didn’t have the problem understanding that scene and didn’t find it out of context. I knew about the original script and the rape and am glad they changed it, too, as it would not have worked for the musical even though the scene as it was came close to rape since Wendla had no idea was she was doing. That ambiguity was the cornerstone of the play—he knew and she didn’t; which makes you whole, which makes you feel—innocence or knowledge? Melchior’s mother’s line about how he did that to her and knew what he was doing and therefore the reform school is justified is the other textual extreme—my God, we gave Eve the apple and look what she did with it.

(FYI: the picture is not of the touring cast, though they're a very attractive bunch. It's of Alexandra Socha and Hunter Parrish, playing two of the leads on Broadway. I have no idea why I find Hunter Parrish so yummy, as pretty boys are usually not my type and I don't like Weeds, but there ya go.)

Monday, August 10, 2009

High School Floozical: An Open Letter to Vanessa Hudgens

Dear Vanessa,

Oh, honey. Not again.

Two years after your nudie-pic scandal nearly cost you the lead in High School Musical 3: did you learn nothing?

Here's the thing. I know you don't want to be Gabriella Montez forever. I mean, who would? Sure, your dresses were supercute and your hair extensions enviable. You had some adorable duets with Zac Efron/Troy Bolton, from the karaoke surprise "Start of Something New" (okay, it was Drew Seeley's voice, but still) to the surprisingly genuine sweetness of "You Are the Music in Me" to the fun, nostalgic "I Just Wanna Be With You" (he smeared paint on you!). And you got to execute some kickass choreography, courtesy of Kenny Ortega. I wish my senior prom had been so chock-full of dancy goodness.

However, Gabriella had her share of gagworthy moments: come on, was the treehouse love song "Right Here, Right Now" necessary? I think not. Even twelve-year-olds know that two teenagers even semi-alone after the big game would be making out, not singing about how their heart loves the view. And believe me, we know you weren't presented with the biggest of acting challenges, even for a Disney movie. As my mom said after being introduced to the HSM franchise, "All she does is moon over Troy." After the first movie, we never got to see Gabriella the mathlete, which disappointed me because smart girls are cool. Let's face it: Sharpay with her braggadoccio overshadowing her self-esteem issues was more interesting. And she got way better songs.

Look, Jessica Biel went through this same thing in her 7th Heaven heyday. Her photos weren't leaked, but she posed for some gross dude-mag with her ta-tas hanging out after getting pissed that she lost the lead in American Beauty to Thora Birch. (Conveniently forgetting that Thora Birch could ACT.) I like you way better than Jessica Biel, Van. You don't have to stoop to that level.

And up until now, you were doing stuff right. The public had all but forgotten about photos leaked in 2007, which in pop culture years translates to an eon ago. I didn't tell anyone because I get enough crap for liking HSM, but your single "Sneakernight" has a proud place on my iPod. Your new movie Bandslam looks cute and fun, and you're branching out by playing an alternagirl (we know she's alterna because in the preview she's carrying The Perks of Being a Wallflower!). Granted, most alternagirls don't look like you, but it's mainstream Hollywood, so whatevs.

Dude, I made excuses for you back then. Teens do stupid stuff. I know I did. Plus, it's not like you were racking up DUI's, therefore running the risk of hurting innocent people. You weren't snorting coke off a hooker's unmentionables. Hell, you didn't even have a sex tape. You had a couple of pictures for your boyfriend that allegedly fell into the wrong hands. Sure, it was embarrassing and hopefully none of your little-girl fans saw them, but stuff happens. (I'm not going to get into the issue of you as a role model. First off, I don't have kids. Second, I survived Pee Wee Herman getting arrested for being a perv-o. What I'm concerned about is your career.)

Now you are two years older and one would hope you got wiser. As far as the public knows, you're no longer under contract for HSM and I don't think you're officially with Disney anymore, though I could be wrong. You are free as a bird to play a drug addicted prostitute in a gritty indie drama (and speaking of gritty indie dramas, you did a nice job with your blink-and-you'll-miss-it role as Evan Rachel Wood's nerdy pal in Thirteen) or try your hand at directing. I'll be honest with ya, sweetheart: you don't have the charisma of Zac Efron or even Ashley Tisdale. But you're cute and can play good-natured. You could do okay.

So what's with the new nudies? What exactly are you trying to prove? Do some homework: you need not go further than your home base of Los Angeles. I hate to keep bringing up Lindsay Lohan, but she's the poster child for growing pains gone horribly, horribly wrong. Miley Cyrus is slowly but surely catching up. Granted, I don't know your family situation, and I'm a strong believer that a child actor needs at least one grounded adult to flourish beyond their youth, career- or otherwise. That said, you're a grown-up now, so it's time to stop blaming your stage parents if that's the case. Do you really want to end up on an E! reality show? I mean, I inexplicably like Kim Kardashian, but unlike her, you have actual talent. Don't squander it. Also, two words: Labor Pains. Just . . . no. You're better than that.

And another thing: if this is a PR move, you need to fire your publicist IMMEDIATELY because he/she is terrible. If you want any career longevity whatsoever, do not go the fame-whore route. Meryl Streep didn't, and neither should you. (I'm not saying you're Meryl Streep, but you could surprise all of us.)

If you don't want a career anymore, that's cool. But make a graceful exit: fade away, don't crash and burn. If you're smart, you can probably live off your HSM dough and not have to do another thing for the rest of your life. If Zac's the one for you, hold on to him; if he's not (for whatever reason, and I think you know what I'm talking about), set him free. Whatever you choices from here on out, keep it classy. Don't court any further embarrassment or danger.

Again, I'm not going to touch the role model issue. But like it or not, you ARE a public figure. By doing your job (acting) well enough to become famous, you lost some of your privacy rights. Maybe it's not fair, but that's the way it works. And because you are a product of the Disney machine, people are going to be interested in you. And they will not hesitate to make you a sacrificial lamb due to one or two poor decisions.
Prove them wrong.



P.S. If you think I'm creepy, fear not. I'm a 29-year-old female musical theatre nerd. I'm the least of your worries.
P.P.S. I'd totally be your publicist, though.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Just the Tip, Baby, Just the Tip

I have a guest post this week on the excellent blog Screenwriting Tips...You Hack. Check it out here.

FYI, if you write anything whatsoever that involves stories--screenplays, novels, epic journal entries--definitely read the whole blog. It's penned by a Hollywood scriptwriter, but 99% of the tips apply to any and every kind of narrative writing. Good stuff.

Happy Friday, y'all! Stay tuned for Monday's post, which I think is kinda fun. Of course, you could find it totally weird, but you won't know till you read it, will you?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Everybody's Free to Feel Good: Julie & Julia

I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes a good movie. Of course, "good" is not only a vague term but a subjective one. And in an era where anyone can post any thought about anything online, the gray area of "good" has never been . . . well, grayer.

For a long time, in college and through most of my twenties, I was all about the indie. I was sooo suspicious of any major studio by-product, and I yelled at the screen during the Oscars. (Fine, I still do.) In the past couple of years, however, I've started to come around and appreciate the fact that if a movie makes me happy, sad, thoughtful, angry (in an agit-prop way, not in an "oh my God, what a horribly-made piece of crap" way), or inspired, no matter where it originated, it is a good movie.

Because let's face it: small movies can suck. Conversely, big-budget movies with name actors and directors can be lovely, uplifting, and, to reclaim an expression often used as an insult by critics, "feel good."

Which brings us to Julie & Julia, a delightful film that puts the "good" in "feel-good." I was able to see it a full two and a half weeks before it was released to the public, and upon exiting the theatre, I could already HEAR the critics' jabs. "Twee." "Too cute." "Light and fluffy."

To which I blow a big ole raspberry. (Or a Bronx cheer for my New York readers.)

Guess what, cynics? Not every good movie has war, dying, and depression. One of my biggest issues with the Academy Awards is that they only seem to reward darker flicks. (Before you yell "Slumdog Millionaire!", remember: child exploitation, torture, more child exploitation.) Don't get me wrong, I was overjoyed that Milk got so much love last year, and I actually thought Saving Private Ryan should have beat out Shakespeare in Love for Best Picture in 1999. (I can still remember the fit I threw in my dorm room when I found out the news.) I adored Revolutionary Road and Munich, and still believe neither got the praise the deserved. What is wonderful about movies, and art in general, is that the good stuff can hit us at our very core, bringing emotions and thoughts we didn't know we had to the surface, and forcing us to explore deeper parts of ourselves.

However, "dark" does not always equal "good." That goes for performances too. I'm the first to admit that I don't always like Renee Zellweger. That said, as Bridget Jones she was brilliant: not only did she nail the British accent, but she was such a sweet, believable Everywoman that I both laughed at her exploits and really cared for her. Ditto Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde, her finest work after Election.

And if we're talking about the two starring actresses in Julie & Julia, Amy Adams was just as stellar in Enchanted as she was in Doubt. Meryl Streep's turn as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada more than rivaled her Sister Aloysius in Doubt. Just because an actress and character makes you laugh as well as/instead of cry, doesn't lessen her impact. And especially in these times of war and bad economies and controversial health care, we need to take the "feel-good" wherever we can find it.

The plot: based on Julia Child's autobiography and Julie Powell's blog-turned-memoir, Julie & Julia follows two women (Streep as Child, and Adams as Powell) with similar names and a shared love of all things delicious. Both have rockin' spouses (Stanley Tucci and Chris Messina) who not only respect and admire their wives, but happily eat their cooking. However, both feel that something is missing: Julia is living in France with her husband Paul, whom she met working for the OSS, and has yet to find a wifely hobby that resonates. Julie is living in Queens with hubby Eric and feeling inadequate at her desk job, especially as her friends grow more wealthy and successful. Each makes a life-altering decision: Julia, to attend the Cordon Bleu cooking school; Julie, to cook her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, vol. 1 in one year, and write a blog about her experiences (this was 2002, before everyone and their dog had a blog). Each, of course, encounters obstacles along the way: Julia is the only woman in her class, the cooking school director thinks she has no talent, and constant challenges ensue when she co-writes a cookbook. Julie doesn't often start cooking until late at night (remember, she has a full-time day job), tends to be self-centered at the expense of her friendships and marriage, and struggles with obscure, expensive ingredients, a tiny kitchen, and boiling live crustaceans.

Unless you're living under a rock, you know how the film ends: Julia Child eventually did publish many cookbooks, hosted a successful TV show, and herded in the trend of chefs becoming respected and revered. Julie Powell got a book deal, and then a movie deal. Doesn't make their journeys any less important or riveting.

This is a film about women. We don't get many of those. And don't get me wrong, I LOVE a good romantic comedy. I even like some of the bad ones. But romcoms are not about women. They are about getting a man. In mainstream comedies (and most indie ones, too), the woman is typically the girlfriend or the harpy. In dramas, she's one of those and she's usually really, really repressed or a victim of some kind. This is changing, yes. Very, very slowly. Too slowly.

Julia and Julie don't worry about men. In fact, they know how to pick 'em. Their husbands are AWESOME. Julia may have come with Paul to Paris for his job, but he would follow her to the moon. He listens, praises, and and treats Julia as his equal in every way. (Keep in mind that this is the 1950's. So not the norm for a husband, even in Europe.) Eric is referred to by Julie as a "saint." He also calls her out when she is being incredibly whiny and selfish. Because the best friends and partners not only hug us when we cry and catch us when we fall--they remind us when we're not acting as we should.

What I loved: although the husbands are an integral part of the story, they are not THE story. Julia and Julie's strong relationships with Paul and Eric are established from the beginning. And yet these women want more. They are happy to have wonderful life partners, but they want to be fulfilled individually as well. THIS is where a lot of women-centered movies fall down: they view landing a good man as the end-all be-all. Nope. Not only do good relationships require constant maintenance, but a woman must be independent and secure in herself too. Julie & Julia gets that.

Now, let's talk about the food.

In the summer of 2004, I studied in southern France as part of a law school program. I often say that these six blissful weeks made the three years of hell that is law school completely and totally worth it. Before France, I did not enjoy red wine, stinky cheese, coffee, or fish (particularly salmon). I had never heard of creme fraiche. And let's just say that first year of law school doesn't leave you a lot of time to savor your food.

For those six weeks, I ate better than I've ever eaten in my life. I swear, the French could make wet garbage yummy if they used the right sauce. Five years and endless life changes later, I can still remember three- or four-course meals in mouthwatering detail. From the omelette during my first night in Agen, to whole fish with eyes peering up at me (the eyes have protein!), to the last wedge of Brie I bought before flying out, I have never uttered "mmmm" so much since.

In Julie & Julia, "mmmm" is a constant refrain. This is hard-core food porn at its finest. Glistening meats, fat dollops of chocolate icing, and butter, butter, butter. Day-um. My personal favorite food scene, however, occurs early in the film, when Julia is new to France. She and Paul visit a restaurant and upon taking the first bite of her fish entree, she gets excited in the way that most female characters get worked up about shoes or sex. "Paul! Paul! Paul!" Paul grins. "I know." And I knew too: my first night in Agen, the waiter brought me a fromage omelette. It melted with the touch of my fork. One bite in, I looked at my classmate Jennifer and said, "This is, hands down, the best omelette I've ever had EVER." The absolute perfect balance of eggs and cheese, not too runny or dry, it was the biggest miracle ever to shoot out a chicken's nether regions. I could have sat at L'Imprevu, eating that omelette for the rest of my life, and I would have died a happy woman.

In the wake of an obesity epidemic, it's easy to demonize food, analyzing fat grams and portions and counting points. It's easy to forget that a well-made meal can serve (pun intended) as the ultimate comfort and happiness. And what often comes with the food we remember are the circumstances, whether it's sitting down with your family for barbecue or gossiping over cheesecake with your girlfriends and pretending you're the Golden Girls. Many times, food=love. Of course it's not a replacement for flesh-and-blood relationships, it can be a wonderful supplement, like a vitamin but tastier.

Speaking of which, the women in this film eat. A LOT. When was the last time you saw a film where women not only ate but really appreciated their food? Doesn't happen a lot outside of holiday-themed movies, I can tell you that much.

I hope Julie & Julia does well at the box office. Not that money is always an indicator of quality films (hi, Transformers and the entire Michael Bay oeuvre!), but when Hollywood talks about what to greenlight next, they look at dollar signs and trends. (In their defense, they must do this to a certain degree--it's a business.) If this wonderful film makes a lot of money, perhaps it will push the industry to get behind more well-acted, empowering stories that DON'T have "Oscar bait" written all over them.

So if you think Julie & Julia looks good, GO. I know these are tough times, but vote with your dollars. Hollywood's ear is out for what we want. Give them a reason to listen.