Monday, October 18, 2010

Comfort Watching: Life As We Know It

Sometimes you just need to look at Josh Duhamel in his underwear, chasing a baby.

I've been thinking a lot about comfort.  This past week, a close friend unexpectedly lost a parent.  This is a first for me--in some ways, it's kind of a miracle I've made thirty years without witnessing it yet.  I don't want to make this all about me, but it's affected me.  A lot.

It's never easy to watch a loved one grieve.  To know that they're dealing with such a devastating life change.  To realize that you most likely will bury your parents, and that day may come sooner rather than later.  That your friends, too, won't be around forever.

Life as you know it, is fleeting.

Though I'm about to enter the most intense workweek of the year, I decided on Friday to visit my parents.  It would involve several hours of travel in the span of about forty-eight hours, but . . . I just needed to see them.  

On the train home, I tried not to think about work.  I didn't stress.  I took a nap, wrote some notes for my NaNo project, listened to a mix I made for Bob, revisited a really good book, thought about the amazing ballet performance I'd seen the night before.  I tried my damndest to surround myself with the little things that make life comforting.

And then I went to a Katherine Heigl movie.

Let me explain.  I don't have the vitriol for ole KH the way some bloggers do.  Yes, I think she shouldn't bite the hand that feeds her quite so much, and if she's so concerned about making female-empowerment films, why the hell did she back and star in The Ugly Truth?  However, I don't actively seek out her movies that don't involve Judd Apatow or making fun of bridesmaid dresses.  

But the movie selection in my parents' town is considerably more limited than Chicago.  Mom had already agreed to see a movie with a coworker.  And quite frankly, even if I'd been in my home city last night, I didn't feel like watching anything dark and depressing, no matter how cool it would make me sound on Monday.

This is how I ended up at LIfe As We Know It.
Sure, the plot's predictable: schubby dude meets woman with stick up her ass.  They hate each other on sight, but are forced to get along when their recently departed friends' will stipulates that they not only raise departed friends' baby, but live in departed friends' house (all of this done without departed friends discussing this with schubby dude and stick-up-her-ass lady before their untimely death).  "Life as we know it" changes forever, montages ensue, wacky neighbors come out of the woodwork, and arguments become kisses become airport runs (just when I think screenwriters have finally discarded the airport run, here we go again).

And yet . . . I enjoyed it.  

Not just because I coveted Christina Hendricks' purple ruffled cardigan.  (And her hair.  And her lips.  And just . . . can I look like her in my next life?  I promise not to flip off crazy drivers anymore).  

Because it was comforting.

Because sometimes you just need to sit in the dark, passing the popcorn bag in between your parents, and listen to your sister tell you that Josh Duhamel was upset that the poster features a shot of him in tighty-whities, even though there are FULL FRONTAL pictures from his modeling days that you can find online.  (My family: always good for the odd movie tidbit or obscure John Hughes quote.)  Because babies are cute and the pop music score is fun to listen to.  Because Katherine Heigl wears pretty outfits.  

Because as much as I lament the decline of the movie industry and the fact that yet another remake of an 80's series has been greenlighted when a movie about Allen Ginsburg only came out in like five cities, sometimes I just need to dive headfirst into a predictable romcom.

Life As We Know It will never make it into my top ten.  Katherine Heigl can be annoying.  Apparently, Josh Duhamel is a pantsless hypocrite.  And I don't want babies, inherited or otherwise.

But on a Saturday night after a rough, sad week, it was exactly what I needed.

And speaking of fluffly treacle, here's my favorite duet from last week's Glee:

Monday, October 11, 2010

Best Kept Secrets: Friday Night Lights

Here's what you need to know: I grew up hating football.

Hey, nothing wrong with organized sports.  They're good for kids, breed team spirit, help people bond, blah blah blah.  And the entertainment industry spawns just as many assholes.  However, you couldn't convince teenage Unpro.  See, I came of age in a teeny tiny farm town where sportliness was next to Godliness.  And I was a reader/dancer/aspiring actress.  When I chose to attend college in Chicago, going the furthest away of anyone in my graduating class (of 34), exactly no one was surprised.

Though I do have a weakness for certain sports movies--A League of Their Own is what made me a feminist, and The Mighty Ducks had cuuuute hockey boys, plus Gordon Bombay is just really, really fun to say--I'm more a fan of uplifting montages with music cues so I can understand who's hitting what into where.  I guess I like the idea of sports, but not sports themselves.  So when NBC premiered a TV series based on the film Friday Night Lights (a good 'un, but not in my top five fave sports flicks), I was less than interested.

Fast forward almost one year: end of summer 2007.  Bob was on the verge of moving to L.A., but in between packing (him) and preparing to relocate seven blocks (me), he made a trip to Best Buy and blind purchased season 1 of Friday Night Lights.  Over cheeseburgers and coffee that night, we plopped down on the living room floor, fired up the DVD player, and waited to be entertained.

Four episodes and several Kleenex later, we were hooked.

See, Friday Night Lights is all about football, and it isn't.  In the fictional town of Dillon, Texas (based on the real-life town of Odessa, as chronicled in the book Friday Night Lights, written by H.G. Bissenger, cousin of Peter Berg, who directed the film and adapted the book for TV), high school football is essentially the cherry on top of a shit sundae.  The Dillon Panthers are the town's great hope--and for some players, it's the peak of their lives.  Many will escape the tiny town--often with the help of football scholarships, making the stakes even higher--but most will not, proudly sporting their championship rings into gray and paunchy adulthood as they work at car dealerships and/or live vicariously through their athletic offspring and younger siblings.  At the helm of the program is new coach Eric Taylor, who gets For Sale signs on his lawn when the Panthers lose and plays surrogate father to several kids who've had less-than-ideal upbringings.  And when a star player suffers a life-changing injury during the season opener, well, it's a whole new ball game.

Yeah, I know.  Pretty standard sports-movie stuff: coach as father figure, second stringer turned reluctant rising star, fans who at first glance just need to get a life and stop obsessively following teenagers.

So how the hell did Friday Night Lights wrestle laughter, tears, and "touchdown, goddammit!"s from two urban theatrephiles who successfully escaped their athlete-centered farm towns?

Again, it's about football.  But it isn't.

It's about families: balancing a career that both fulfills and pays the bills, with spending time with those you're supporting in the first place.  It's about relationships: falling for someone whose values are the exact opposite of yours, and maintaining love and respect for the ones who've stood by you for years.  It's about a community: zeroing in on the stifling aspects that have some yearning to leave, as well as the comfort that keeps many around.  It's about playing a sport because everyone else does; finding yourself challenged, revered and suspected all at once; caring for a grandparent afflicted with Alzheimer's; having a parent in Iraq and hoping he's safe but knowing life is easier when he's not around; wanting nothing more than to please Coach while also finding his daughter really cute.

And that last sentence?  Is just ONE CHARACTER.

Thanks to the stellar writing and acting of Friday Night Lights, even the most minor characters are everything and nothing they appear to be.  Just as you the viewer root for someone or write them off, one word or gesture changes your whole opinion.  The biggest stereotype evolves into the most complex.  And it's not all gloom and doom.  Every episode is a jewel: funny, intense, nuanced.  Kind of like life.

Seriously.  Even if Remember the Titans and Major League make you want to retch your cornflakes, give Friday Night Lights a whirl.  Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, whatever you need to do, track this show down.  Dive in, watch it, love it.

And for now, enjoy the exquisite opening credits music (four seasons in, and I still don't fast forward past it).

Monday, October 4, 2010

Nightstand Watch: What Unpro's Reading

*blows virtual dust off blog*

*slams head against desk for subjecting readers to such a bad joke*

In short, y'all, I'm sorry for the lack of posting lately.  Life has been, well, happening.  I also haven't been reading and commenting on my fave blogs as much (Sadako and Nikki, I still love you!).  Hopefully I'm well on the way to getting my groove back, and bloggy absence will be no more.

Anyway, I HAVE had a little time to read lately--in fact, I've made it a point to at least skim a few pages daily.  My library books have been piling up, to the point where I've started putting them on my floor rather than my nightstand, to avoid them toppling onto my cat.   And speaking of nightstands, one of my favorite features on Entertainment Weekly's Popwatch blog is "Nightstand Watch," where the blogger, then the commenters, share what they're currently reading.  This week, I come to you with a little Nightstand Watch of my own.  Here are four books I've read recently, and the one I'm currently reading, in no particular order:

1.  Good Enough to Eat (Stacey Ballis)
I met fellow Chicagoan Stacey Ballis on the same night I met Jen Lancaster, at a reading/signing for Stacey's book The Spinster Sisters.  I've really enjoyed all four of Ms. Ballis' previous novels: her female characters are empowered by their imperfections, extremely intelligent, and have a great sense of fun.  Plus, her love for the Windy City shines through in every word, and there's just something about authors and auteurs who get Chicago locations exactly right, as opposed to just throwing in "Sears Tower" and "Marshall Fields" (or, ahem, "Willis Tower" and "Macy's," BOO) every other sentence.

With this in mind, I really wanted to like her latest, Good Enough to Eat.  I even bought it as opposed to borrowing, because I like to support my fave writers who aren't New York Times-bestsellers (yet).  And the concept had so much potential: an overweight lawyer goes to cooking school, opens her own organic food business, loses half her body weight, and THEN loses her husband to a woman twice her new size.  I love anything to do with food (which is why I'm still watching Top Chef Just Desserts even though I HATE Seth and his whiny mommy fixation), and exploring a woman's complex relationship with it sounded even better.  And yet . . . I was disappointed.  The writing felt a little lazy, the characters were cliches (hi, sassy yet supportive gay friend!  howyadoin, wise African American soul food chef!  what's happenin', flaky Manic Pixie Dream Girl with pink hair?), and I thought the straight men (MPDG's boyfriend in particular) got away with so much shit without consequence.  While I did enjoy the narrator's voice, the food descriptions, and the cool low-fat and full-fat recipes, most of Good Enough to Eat left me hungry.  Try Ms. Ballis' first four books, particularly Inappropriate Men and The Spinster Sisters, before you pick up this one.

2.  A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love and Faith in Stages (Kristin Chenoweth)
So I used to haaaaaate Kristin Chenoweth.  To the point where when her name was mentioned, I'd go to the bathroom and fake vomiting sounds, attempt to asphyxiate myself with a pink pillow, or just yell, "ARRRGH I WANNA KICK PUPPIES."  I mean, she's just so tiny!  And adorable!  And squeaky!  And uber-Christian!

And genuinely talented and (if her book is to be believed) hardworking.


Therefore, recommending Chenoweth's autobiography is the bloggy equivalent of me eating crow.  Big, fat, juicy, feathery crow.  What can I say?  She's totally got the wrong voice for the lead female in the Promises, Promises revival, but pulls it off anyway.  She won me over on Glee by singing a seductive cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Fire" with hottie patottie Matthew Morrison while twirling around a skating rink.  Most of all, the lady seems to be a genuine Christian, in that she's actually nice to people.  The fact that she regrets her 700 Club appearance and spoke up loudly on Sean Hayes' behalf (he plays a straight dude in Promises, Promises), well, I kinda dig that a lot.  So sing on, Ms. Chenoweth.  I've put out my white flag, then replaced it with a pink glittery one that would make Glinda proud.

3.  Hard and Fast (Erin McCarthy)
Yup, I'm still into romance novels.  After the most stressful of days, there's nothing quite like some sexy escapism in 350 pages or less.  Just like I thought I'd never be in to romance novels, I REALLY thought I'd never be into romance novels featuring race car drivers.  I mean, I poke fun at my dad's NASCAR-viewing habit on a daily basis, and Talladega Nights on TBS never fails to crack me up ("I am a NASCAR wife, Ricky!  I do not work!").  But thanks to the ladies at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, I was introduced to Erin McCarthy's series where Sundays are king, cars are life and sex is really, really hot.  Also, the good ole boys who drive find themselves attracted to women who are talented, smart and have really great dialogue.  In Hard and Fast, dyslexic driver Ty falls for grad student Imogen and Shakespearean sparks fly.  Yes, there is Shakespeare and race car driving in the same book.  And it totally works.  Who knew?

4.  The Kid (Dan Savage)
Despite idly reading his explicitly frank advice column for years, and enjoying the hell out of The Commitment, his book on relationships, I consider myself a recent Dan Savage convert.  The dude is a dirty, fetish-y god, and I would totally stalk him in Seattle if he were into vaginas.  Don't believe me?  Check out his inspirational It Gets Better project on YouTube, or subscribe to his fantastic Savage Love podcast, where he doles out wisdom on everything from boobs to bondage with the vocal acumen of Wolfman Jack.  Or read The Kid, his 1999 memoir about adopting a child with his boyfriend Terry.  I have no desire whatsoever for spawn, but I was alternately cracking up and choking up the whole time.  Dan, on the .00001% chance you're reading this, I heart you from the depths of my Catholic-girl soul, and can't wait to hear you speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival next month.  Can I have a hug?

5.  Last Night at Chateau Marmont (Lauren Weisberger)
I've always thought Lauren Weisberger got a bad rap.  Granted, she's probably laughing all the way to the bank, after her first book The Devil Wears Prada was adapted into a fairly successful and pretty funny movie, but critics seem to haaaate her.  Look, not everything can be War and Peace.  And you know what?  Her characters may come off shallow and entitled at times, but the woman worked for Anna fucking Wintour, for God's sake.  She probably STILL has scars and eating issues!  When it comes to protagonists, however, I think nutritionist Brooke of Last Night at Chateau Marmont is my favorite.  Brooke is sweet, hardworking, and believably struggling to adjust to the fact that her husband, whose musical dreams she has financially and emotionally supported for years, is now an overnight sensation.  Brooke doesn't feel entitled to anything, just respect and equal support from her rock-star spouse.  This is a fun, fast read (I'm almost at the end and I just started yesterday), probably not worth the hardcover price, but definitely worth a good ol' fashioned borrow.

Because I STILL feel guilty about not posting lately, here's a fun video for thy pains:

What are YOU reading right now?  Any recommendations/stay-the-hell-away-from-this-book(s)? On a sorta-related thought, anyone doing NaNoWriMo this year?  Anyone out there?  Leave a comment!