Monday, September 28, 2009

Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon (Sorry): Ginger Snaps

So I haven't seen Jennifer's Body yet.  Most likely I will--if you've ever read this blog, you know that I like Diablo Cody, haters be damned.  (And yes, I'm super excited about her involvement in the Sweet Valley High movie.  Far better it's helmed by someone who actually read the books when they were popular--and has a healthy sense of irony--than a clueless male Hollywood suit.)  Don't get me wrong: I've heard enough conflicting reviews of the film to want to form my own opinion.  I'm just waiting till it's been out for another week and I can use my discount card at a certain theatre chain and see it for $5. 

In the meantime, however, I thought I'd dedicate this week's post to another teen-girl horror comedy, a cult Canadian piece that's been recommended to me for years and whose title has resurfaced in the blogosphere amid the Jennifer's Body hype.  I'm talking of course about Ginger Snaps.

Sophomore year of college, I developed a weird fascination with Canadian accents.  Because I was an annoying theatre major, I'd even speak in one from time to time.  Probably had something to do with the Kids in the Hall reruns that aired on Comedy Central every afternoon.  That same year, I developed insomnia and discovered IMDb, leading to my bizarre talent for identifying obscure character actors.  So when I popped in Ginger Snaps, imagine my double dose of ecstasy: not only did the film contain "aboot"'s and "soh-ry"'s galore, BUT one of the two female leads is portrayed by Emily Perkins, best known to me as the surly women's clinic receptionist in Juno, who dryly informs Ellen Page of her affinity for boysenberry prophylactics.  Win-WIN!

The basic plot rundown: Brigitte (Perkins) and her sister Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) are intelligent and imaginative teenage girls with a long-running suicide pact and a fascination with acting out gory death scenarios in elaborate photo shoots.  Needless to say, their baggy clothes and goth sensibilities don't do them any favors when facing their classmates or their well-meaning but clueless mom (Mimi Rogers).  Meanwhile, a growling, toothy presence has made itself known in their small town by ravaging neighborhood dogs.  While sneaking out to play a prank, Ginger gets her period for the first time and seconds later has an unfortunate run-in with the creature whom Brigitte suspects is a lycanthrope.  And from then on, all hell breaks loose.

First impression?  I haven't seen a film this unapologetically bloody since The Descent (which I adored not only for its kickass freakiness but its 99% female cast).  If you don't even like to look at your own paper cuts, I'd suggest you avoid Ginger Snaps and its buckets of very realistic goo.  In fact, blood is almost its own character: it splatters, splashes, undulates and perhaps most terrifyingly, begins with an innocent trickle down Ginger's leg that starts the whole deliciously creepy ordeal.

My very favorite aspect of the film, though, is its unapologetic feminist intelligence.  Not only are two teenage girls front and center in the narrative, but they're far from passive and one-dimensional.  Brigitte grows gradually more horrified at the changes in her sister and former best friend, but for the majority of the film, Ginger is scared too: a burst of self-awareness that's not only rare in the horror genre but with adolescent female characters.  (Interesting, because one could argue that teenage girls have the most self-awareness of anyone.)  Also, Brigitte largely takes it upon herself to "cure" Ginger of her affliction--yes, she seeks assistance from cute drug dealer Sam, but when it comes to the final showdown, Brigitte is left on her own to make the ultimate decision of Ginger's fate.  And though Ginger commits a lot of bad, bad deeds as her transformation becomes complete, anyone who was tormented by mean girls in the past will heartily applaud when she kicks the queen bee's ass on the hockey field.

You don't have to be a bastion of literary criticism to know that Ginger's post-menstrual animorph from sullen teen to deadly werewolf is an allegory for puberty.  All it takes is a rush of blood and a doggie attack and Ginger becomes unrecognizable to Brigitte: mysterious pains, unwanted hair in unmentionable places, and scariest of all, a sexual magnetism and intense aggression.  Ginger alternately relishes and loathes these changes, but is increasingly powerless to stop them.  And the cliffhanger ending ultimately leaves Brigitte with a complex choice--to eviscerate her destructive sister but ultimately face life alone, or to join Ginger's uncontrollable, hirsute ranks and forever be regarded as a freak by society.  Not only do the cons outweigh the pros in either scenario, but viewers--particularly those with ovaries--know the truth: once your body bleeds for five days and doesn't die, there really is no going back.

Ginger Snaps is unique.  Girls who want more than boys and take care of each other, symbolism as pervasive as the gobs o' goo, and plenty of dark laughs along the way.  (And Canadians!)

Definitely not your mama's horror movie.

Monday, September 21, 2009

For the Boys: Patrick Swayze and Joel McHale

I was agonizing over the subject of this week's post.  I mean, Kanye's a talented douchebag, everyone's up in arms over whether Megan Fox can actually act, and OMG, Pam on The Office is pregnant!  It's all been done, several times over, by better bloggers than I.

Then, like the dorky bespectacled boy BFF in a classic teencom, I realized what I really wanted was right in front of me all along: a recently-departed dancer-turned-actor who was not only lusted after but respected in 80's nostalgia AND cult circles, and a cable comedian coming into his own while remaining sheepishly humble about his well-earned success.

The former: Patrick Swayze.  The latter: Joel McHale.  The blog post: 5 reasons why I love them both.

1.  They won me over from a place of utter skepticism.  I didn't see Dirty Dancing when it first came out--I was in second grade, and my mom closely monitored what I watched.  Though she did concede to renting it and letting me watch the electrifying final number, she drew the line at the entire movie--and with good reason, looking back, as the abortion subplot is definitely not something I'd want my (hypothetical) seven-year-old to ask me questions about.  Then, when I was fifteen, I was at a lock-in, mourning the fact that my former best friend was hanging with his ditzy girl of the moment instead of me.  Someone popped in Dirty Dancing, and I was hooked.  Not just for the excellent daddy-daughter/good girl-bad boy drama, not just for the politically active teenage girl lead (far from a bland ingenue), not just for the sweet moves.  But Swayze.  DAMN.  Whether he was swiveling his hips, comforting his pal Penny, or yelling at Baby not to put her heel down, he made Johnny Castle pop off the screen as more than just a droolworthy rebel, but a hard-knock guy who also became a better person that fateful summer of '63.

My first reaction to Joel McHale was, "Ugh, who's this frat boy?"  Though I could appreciate Aisha Tyler and Greg Kinnear, I was first and foremost loyal to John "Skunkboy" Henson, host of The Show Formerly Known as Talk Soup.  I even attended a live taping of Talk Soup in Chicago ten years ago.  (In case you recall that historic airing: NO, that was not me making out with my boyfriend in the audience because we correctly assumed it would get us camera time.)  So I wasn't  immediately enamored of Joel's preppy appearance and dry delivery.  (It probably didn't help that TS was relaunched as The Soup when I was in law school, when I wasn't much enamored of anything.  It's an understatement to say that I wasn't the most pleasant lady to be around back then.)  Until one day when my sister was visiting and on TV, Joel introduced the Clip of the Week: a truly terrible boob-grabbing moment between Pamela Anderson and Carmen Electra on the abysmal Foxcom Stacked.  I turned to my sister, sighed and said, "And they canceled Arrested Development."  EXACTLY ONE MILLISECOND LATER, Joel looked at the camera, sighed and said, "And they canceled Arrested Development."  Color me a superfan.

2.  They stay(ed) classy.  Granted, I don't know what goes on behind closed doors.  That said, I don't ever remember hearing about Patrick Swayze getting a case of road rage, partying with 15-year-olds, or whaling on some unsuspecting fan for requesting an autograph.  (I have heard that he didn't like the line "Nobody puts Baby in a corner" and would only utter it once, but honestly, I can't really blame the guy.  Come on, it's far from the best moment in the movie but it's quoted all. the. time.)  But he just seemed . . . good.  He worked hard.  He stayed out of trouble.  He loved his dance teacher mom, and even teamed up with her for a dance video in the late eighties (which my mom ordered from the Avon catalog).  He stayed married to Lisa Niemi, a fellow dancer in his age range, his whole adult life.  I'm sure he wasn't 100% perfect, but who is? 

Regarding Mr. McHale, he eats stupid celebrities for breakfast, lunch and dinner on The Soup, and we adore him for saying what we're all thinking in funny, well-chosen words.  But he also knows that famous people are humans too, and there are occasions where skewering just isn't appropriate.  Like many others my age and otherwise, I was devastated by the sudden death of Heath Ledger, a genuine talent whose personal darkness got the best of him much too early.  A few days later, it was Friday and I wondered what, if anything, Joel would say to mark the occasion (especially since the tabloids were rearing their monstrous heads, threatening to release a video of Heath in an altered state and badgering poor Michelle Williams).  The episode passed without any mention, until the very end, when Joel's smirky countenance turned serious and a little angry.  He said something to this effect: "And one last thing.  Heath Ledger passed away this week, and in all the years we've been doing this show, we've never had cause to mention him.  So stop digging for dirt, weasels.  A talented, decent guy is gone, and our thoughts go to those who knew him."  He then smiled and said, "See you next week," amid cheers from the crew.  Now that's a good guy.

3.  Masculinity redefined. Don't get me wrong: I love the Seth Rogens and Jason Segels of the world.  Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall are two of my favorite films of the past few years, skillfully combining gross-out humor, heart, and coming of age as the doofy slacker learns to be a man with the help of a cute, together chick.  The thing about Swayze and McHale, though?   When it comes to being a man, they're already there.  In a culture where pot-smoking job-shunning manboys are revered, it's reassuring to switch on the TV or pop in a DVD and watch a guy who needs no guidance from a pouty-lipped stunner who's way hotter than he deserves. 

No one could say dancing is sissy after watching the Swayze.  Watch one scene of Dirty Dancing and you can see the guy's life-long ballet training emanating from each beautiful muscle.  That choreography is much more than grinding, y'all--I mean, during the final dance, Swayze executes a friggin' double tour (two turns in midair) and in tight pants to boot.  Scrappy, graceful, and clearly adored the women in his life--that's a real man.  And Joel elevates snark to a place that's swift, quick and clever.  I'm not just talking about The Soup, but Community--how many half-hour sitcoms discuss moral relativism in the pilot?  I know he didn't write it, but the guy knows his shit when it comes to choosing scripts.  No Transformers for him, thank you very much!  Okay, he had a small part as a loan officer in Spider-Man 2, but everyone has to start somewhere.  (Besides, you know who else was in Spider-Man 2?  Alfred Molina.  And y'all KNOW how I love me some Molina.)

4.  Genuinely good at their jobs.  Neither Swayze or McHale have ever fallen victim to the one-trick pony-ism that infiltrates Hollywood these days.  From a young age, Swayze trained as a dancer under his single mother Patsy, and like another fave actor/lust object of mine, Rainn Wilson, Joel boasts an M.F.A. in Acting.  I'm perpetually in awe of beautifully trained dancers and actors, but neither dude stopped there.  Even though his career choices weren't always Oscar-caliber (yes, I know some people love Point Break; I, however, am not one of those people), you cannot deny that Patrick Swayze had some acting chops.  Johnny Castle wasn't just a kickass hoofer and bad boy Baby deflower-er--he was a street-smart survivor, a loyal friend, and an open admirer of Baby's courage and willingness to go the distance for the underdog.  A lesser actor couldn't have brought all those nuances to the screen in less than two hours.  Speaking of nuance, Patrick brought on the smarm fifteen years later as a sleazy motivational speaker in Donnie Darko--his character was delightfully despicable throughout the film, and yet I couldn't fight the lump in my throat when a single shot of Swayze blubbering as "Mad World" played in the background surfaced at the end of the film.  Plus, in a culture where straight dudes often BALK at going gay on screen, Patrick took it one step further and was utterly fabulous as Miss Vida Boheme in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.  You go, girl (boy).

On The Soup, Joel is a master of cadence and gesture.  He doesn't just spout witty remarks, he dissects them as only a true actor can.  With a quirked eyebrow, a dry tone, or a gleeful yelp, he voices the absurd zeitgeist that is reality TV--and he's right there with the bemused public.  He doesn't stand above us, smug and removed like Craig Kilborn in the pre-Jon Stewart Daily Show days.  No, Joel's right there with us in the D-list trenches--he watches this crap too!  And like the rest of us, he sort of hates himself for it, but realizes that the best thing to do is laugh at the ridiculosity.  And for that, I lurve him.

5.  *wolf whistle*  Oh, whatever.  I'm a red-blooded female, and I like my menz attractive.  Even in his fifties, Patrick brought the hotness--what is it about dancers that makes them age so damn well?  I can't really think of any exceptions.  I mean, have you seen Barishnikov?  Hell, even George Balanchine wasn't terrible looking till his very last days.  It's interesting--dancers strain their bodies to utter breaking points and many are known to flirt with toxic chemicals (nicotine, steroids, silicone).  Yet each and every one of them carries a youthful maturity into their twilight years.

Joel may not possess the Swayze features that transcended multiple bad hairdos, but his wide smile, pointy nose, and spiky hair, combined with sharp wit, translates to an adorable package.  Not to mention that he can wear the heck out of a sport coat and jeans.  Yum yum.

So Patrick, I wish you an eternity of boogie-ing in that Big Dance Hall in the Sky.  Save a turn for me, eh?  And Joel, may your snappy star continue to rise.  A bazillion pop culture vultures and TV junkies are pulling for you.

Monday, September 14, 2009

I'm a Juvenile Product of the Working Class: Post Grad

Labor Day weekend, I visited my parents and viewed a movie a day with my mom, who not only shares my love of movies, but also my love of going to the same film multiple times.  We subscribe to the theory that if it's good, it's going to keep compelling you.  Day 3 of our jaunt involved the Alexis Bledel vehicle Post Grad, in which a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed college graduate loses out on her dream job and is forced to move back in with her wacky family, while growing frustrated with the lack of opportunities and remaining completely clueless to her hot but platonic best friend's advances.  (Um, where ARE these hot, sensitive dudes who will rub your feet, feed you Eskimo pies and write you songs?  Oh right, THEY DON'T EXIST.  Teenage girls, don't believe the hype.)  Naturally, hijinks and hilarity ensue.

In short, there's a terrific film to be made about the postcollege crisis, when the majority of successful and idealistic kids who have rocked life thus far, get their hopes crushed over and over and over again while learning a little something about themselves in the process.  Post Grad is not this film.

In the spirit of the film, I shall now take on the role of a career counselor and advise its participants:

Alexis Bledel, let's start with you.  I think (deep breath) you need to go back to TV.  Don't get me wrong, I love your pretty blue eyes and gurgly delivery.  I'm old enough to remember your pre-Gilmore Girls career as a teen model.  And of course, your Rory Gilmore possessed an intellectual sweetness that couldn't be denied, especially paired with Lauren Graham's Lorelai--one of the best mother-daughter relationships ever portrayed on screen (big and small).  (With that in mind, don't rule out a reunion.)  This is where your strengths lie, honey--a well-written, cerebral television drama.  Maaaaaybe a sitcom.  No one's faulting you for trying out a movie lead, and before you say Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, I thought you were a lovely Lena.  That said, the Sisterhood films were ensemble pieces.  You don't have the charisma to carry an entire movie, even one that is better written than Post Grad.  You are a TV actress, and TV is so kickass these days, that's not necessarily a bad thing. 

Oh, and one more thing.  Your skin?  Looks terrible.  You have lines in places where twentysomething women should not.  If you smoke, quit.  If you have eating problems, seek help and gain a little weight.  I don't mean to body snark, but you're prematurely aging and it doesn't look good.

Zach Gilford: Zach, I've liked you ever since the pilot episode of Friday Night Lights, when your shy, stuttering QB2 who lives with his dementia-afflicted grandma, stepped it up after the QB1 was unexpectedly paralyzed midgame.  In an ensemble of characters who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, your Matt Saracen was tested the most, and your performance over three seasons has a sympathetic grace.  Can you successfully make the transition to movies?  The verdict is still out.  Your Post Grad role is so wooden and one-dimensional that I want to see you test your acting chops in another film.  A better one.  Call your agent, buddy.

Michael Keaton: Daaaaamn, you've aged nicely.  (fluffs hair and reapplies lip gloss)  So, your Walter Malby degenerates over 90 minutes from lovable doofy dad to borderline retarded subhuman.  Yikes.  But wow, do you chew up the scenery every second you're on screen.  And it's so fun to see you up there again.  Can you re-team with Tim Burton?  I know he's all Team Depp, but I bet there's room for you too.  In the meantime, do a play.  Preferably in Chicago, so we can meet for drinks afterwards.  Granted, I was seven when you made Beetlejuice, but I've been told I'm very mature for my age.

Jane Lynch and J.K. Simmons: Anyone who's seen either of you in, well, anything will not question why you both work so much.  In fact, you both were in two of the three movies I saw that weekend (Post Grad, plus Extract and Julie & Julia).  So can either or both of you just be in every movie and TV show ever from now on?  You have the rare ability to transcend horrendous writing and make the audience smile and yelp, "Hey, it's that guy/gal!"  And J.K., I'm not just saying this because I made eye contact with you at the Crunch in Santa Monica last February.  You were on the treadmill, and I was the dork in pigtails en route to power yoga.

Okay, Rodrigo Santoro?  You will always be Karl in Love Actually to me, and that role was far less creepy, because you were hitting on a woman (Laura Linney) in your age range.  Macking on Alexis Bledel?  Ewwwww.  Dude, you've already established a Hottie Legacy, no need to parlay that into anything other than modeling underwear and doing more Chanel ads.  Preferably while wearing glasses.  Raaar.

Carol Burnett: You comedy legend, you.  I only have one thing to say, and it does not concerned your unparalleled hilarity.  Here goes: FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, STOP PUMPING YOUR FACE FULL OF RESTALYNE.  It stings to look at you.

Hollywood: I've never written a screenplay before.  I could have done a better job with this.  Take that as a challenge and call me.  I'm also available for script doctoring, and I won't even make a stink a la the brains behind Damon and Affleck.  Just pay me.

You, the reader: Don't spend money on this movie.  Wait till it's in the element it was tailor-made for: on a rainy Saturday afternoon on TBS.  That's where it's going, guaran-damn-teed.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

When She is Good, She is Very, Very Good: Wasteland

This week's post is partially a response to my friend Sadako, who recently wrote a hilarious send-up of Nymph, a laughably ridic collection of erotica penned by Francesca Lia Block. 

As someone who's read FLB since I was sixteen and discovered Baby Be-Bop (recently banned by a truly ignorant public library, because it is about a GAY BOY, oh no!!!!!!), I fully acknowledge that Ms. Block has penned her share of clunkers.  To be fair, I was never fully in love with Weetzie Bat, probably her best-known work.  Her writing itself has a definite style--chock full of poetic run-on sentences, not to mention faerie girls, hipster boys, punk music and flowers galore--that you will either adore or abhor.  You might feel the need to read Bret Easton Ellis when you are done, just to wash the spun-sugar taste out of your mouth.

But here's why I will defend Francesca Lia Block to my dying day: under all the tripe and treacle, she knows what's important.  Her writing exudes and encourages kindness, tolerance, friendship and love.  She celebrates the fabulousness and explores the challenges of femininity.  She views music and literature as religion.  She reveres beauty, especially what's hidden in the urban environments of New York and L.A.

And one thing about FLB that you must acknowledge, whether you like her stuff or not:

She doesn't shy away from darkness.

Which brings me to my very favorite--and the most controversial--in the Block oeuvre: Wasteland.  As I go on with this review, I ask that you stay with me and keep an open mind.

Because I'll say it right out: I never thought I'd love a book about incest.

Yup, that's right, incest.  The king of ICK.  The depths of fucked up-edness usually associated with trailer trash, alcoholism and Jeff Foxworthy jokes.  Not to mention the saying, "if you can't keep it in the pants, keep it in the family."  Decried as disgusting, wrong and just plain unnatural, because how in the HELL could you fall in love with your own relative?

If you're Lex and Marina, the bro-and-sis protagonists, the answer is: very, very easily.

Don't get me wrong, there are books about incest out there.  Usually, there's violence involved, or at the very least it's not consensual.  Substance abuse and/or a lack of education or exposure to the outside world often plays a part.  Sometimes it stretches into pedophilia, adding on another layer of perversion.  It's always horrible and traumatizing.  And of course, unnatural.

Not (really) the case in Wasteland.  Sure, it's set in the area of SoCal known as the Valley--not perceived as a desirable place to hang one's hat.  However, Lex and Marina come from a fairly well-to-do background, as their mom is a successful realtor.  They're both very intelligent, particularly Lex who is a gifted writer.  They experiment with alcohol and pot, but not to the point of excess.  They like to go to the beach and punk shows, and their friends Michelle and West seem kind and grounded.  Granted, their mom is pretty self-involved and their dad isn't in the picture at all.  They've had to be each other's parents, caregivers and friends as well as siblings.  Each understands the other better than anyone else.

And together, they are a ticking time bomb.

Believe me, I'm not spoiling anything.  Through flashbacks and multiple points of view, the reader figures out pretty quickly that a) something eventually goes down (sorry for the pun), and b) an incredible tragedy ensues.  Even so, Block does an excellent job of building suspense with thriller-like precision.  And even more skillfully, she illustrates the inevitability of the whole incident.  As they become teenagers, Lex and Marina are aware that they're attracted to one another.  Hell, their friend West thought they were a couple when he first met them.  Lex, the older sibling, attempts to distract himself with punk rock and other girls.  Marina, too, knows it's all very, very wrong.  Yet they can't stay away from one another.  (Also, when you live in the same house, and your hormones are raging, it's pretty damn difficult.)

And the weird part is, you kind of root for them.

I'm not all "yay, incest!," believe me.  Which is why I think the book is successful: the only time I really disliked Lex was when he was mean to Marina, which he feels is a necessity to drive her away.  The rest of the time: they're two good kids in the most awkward situation imaginable.  They've also got very little adult guidance--there's Lex's kind English teacher, but you can't exactly blame the guy for not saying, "Hey, um, I'm in love with my sister, what do I do about that?" 

When only one sibling is left to pick up the pieces, I wanted to weep, not only for a young life lost, but for the botched connection in its wake.  It's awful to lose a sibling.  It's awful to lose a lover.  It's awful to lose someone when both of you are extremely young.  Imagine that triple whammy, in the same person.  Yet the book ends on a lovely note of hope, in the form of a message from beyond and the certainty that the survivor will in fact be all right.

And another thing about the ending: it's, um, interesting.  I do wonder if Block had another ending written, but her publisher, concerned about an already-taboo topic being marketed to the young adult genre, made her change it.  I could be paranoid, but I found it just slightly contrived and out of place.  Still works okay, though.  (If you want to comment on the ending, just make sure to indicate that there will be spoilers, thanks!)

Whatever the author's intent, to read Wasteland is to watch a trainwreck going very, very slowly.  But what a tasteful, gorgeously written trainwreck it is.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Greatest Hits, Vol. 1

Hey lovely readers,

So it's a busy week at work, plus I'm writing like a madwoman to complete the rough draft of my novel so my critique partner can read it on his way to Australia. 

Therefore, I thought I'd put up links to a few of my favorite blog entries that you may have missed.  Feel free to comment, 'cause I love comments.  Also, you can always, ALWAYS leave a comment or email me to suggest stuff you'd like me to review for the blog.  I love suggestions!

Regular posting will resume after Labor Day.  (Hint: initials FLB!)

In the meantime, happy reading and enjoy what's left of summer!

P.S.  I got some love from Northern Illinois University's Women's Studies Program.  Click here and scroll down to "Summer Accomplishments--Alumni."  Thanks, ladies!

My Top 5 Favorite Posts:
1.  (500) Days of Summer Review (referred to as "spectacular" by YA author and nice human being Susane Colasanti, boo-ya!)
2.  McDaniel, Pascal, and Braff present My Life Without Me
3.  I say goodbye to Michael Jackson
4.  All I ever really needed to know, I learned from Unsolved Mysteries
5.  From a feminist perspective, a film about a hooker that is NOT called Pretty Woman