Monday, November 30, 2009

Reader Request Month and My Very First Giveaway!

Hey everyone,

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

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

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

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

Gossip Unpro

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

Monday, November 23, 2009

Things TV Taught Us, by Unpro and Sister Unpro

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

Oh hell, we still are.

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

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

Love American Style

Hot young women LOVE fat manchildren who whine a lot.

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

Sex with coworkers = more fun than dying patients.

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

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

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

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

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

School's Out

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

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

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

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

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

A Family Affair

You are NOT the father.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the House

Celebrities randomly show up at your door.

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

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

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

The couch is never set up against a wall.

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

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

Looks Can Kill

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

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

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

Everyone has an endless supply of the latest fashions.

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

Glasses and a ponytail make you ugly.

Miscellaneous Schtick

The world used to be in black and white.

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

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

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

It is possible to have a yearlong dream.


What has TV taught YOU?  Leave a comment!

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

Break on Through to the Other Side: Precious

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

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

Maybe that's my answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

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

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

Intrigued?  Read on!

Plug One: the Undead Crimefighting League

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Most Human Color: Blue Car

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow!  Meg's FACE!  How 'bout that?

Much better.

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

Monday, November 2, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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