Monday, August 30, 2010

Riot Grrrls: Katniss Everdeen and Lisbeth Salander

Disclaimer: the following post may contain spoilers of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay) and Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest).  You have been warned.

Every girl needs a heroine.

I don't want to be all "kids these days with the hippin' and the hoppin' and the bippin' and the boppin'" (though I've found myself increasingly so since I hit 30 last month), but when Miley Cyrus is twanging away like a southern-fried chipmunk, Heidi Montag's making sex tapes with a Playmate, and Lindsay Lohan's just . . . gone, I do worry a bit for today's young women and who's setting an example.

My generation had, among other pop culture staples, A League of Their Own, a female-driven sports movie that was empowering in its portrayal of women who were brave and powerful at a time when anything beyond marriage and babies was scandalous.  (It's also the movie that made eleven-year-old me a feminist, true story.)  When Whip It was released last year, I hoped its "be your own hero" message would ring in the ears of every teenage girl nationwide.  If the paltry box office figures are any indication, it didn't.

Also, I worry that kids don't read anymore.  (Granted, I remember my parents and grandparents saying the same thing,  and I was a bookworm from the word go, so maybe that concern will persist till the apocalypse.)  That's why I can't totally hate on the Twilight books.  They may be crappily written with a protag who resembles a wrung-out washcloth, but anything that gets young people excited about reading is a good thing.  One can hope they move on to better stuff, but at the same time, if they keep reading drivel, that's okay too.  Better reading than making sexy YouTube videos of themselves for their MySpace pages, ya know?  (God, I'm crotchety.)

However, two recent book series featuring young women who take charge despite less-than-stellar pasts are making waves in the publishing, and now the film, industry.  And though I find both of them imperfect and not always likable, I'm still glad they're out there.

Katniss Everdeen is the narrator and main character of the Hunger Games trilogy, the last of which, Mockingjay, was released last week.  Sixteen-year-old Katniss has come of age in a society like ours yet not, growing up poor and relying on her hunting skills to feed her mother and younger sister.  Each year, two young people from each of the society's twelve districts are randomly chosen to participate in the Hunger Games, a televised survival competition from which only one victor can emerge alive.  When Katniss' sister is chosen from their district, Katniss steps in for her--and as the books progress, finds herself in the Games twice and as the reluctant leader of a rebellion.

Lisbeth Salander of the Millenium trilogy is a little older than Katniss, in her early twenties, and shares protagonist duties with fallen journalist Mikael Blomkvist.  Like Katniss, Lisbeth's youth had many challenges; only in Lisbeth's case they involved abuse, rape and an unnecessary stay in a mental institution.  Just like Katniss with her bow and arrow, Lisbeth has an unusual but useful gift: she can hack into any technology system.  Throughout three books, Lisbeth and Blomkvist work together and apart to solve mysteries that affect their past and present, and eventually lead back to the Swedish justice system and its horrible treatment of women.

Both these young women are the anti-Bella Swan: brave, intelligent, and most of all active.  They do have love interests--for Katniss, it's her childhood friend Gale and fellow Hunger Games participant Peeta; for Lisbeth, it's artist Monique and at one point, Blomkvist himself--but romance and sex isn't the focus of their stories.  Not that there's anything wrong with love stories, but pop culture often projects that young women aren't capable of much else.

Not much is made about how gorgeous and/or thin they are, either.  When Katniss is made over by an entourage in preparation for the Games and later the rebellion propaganda, she sees it as weird and unusual, not as every girl's dream to look pretty.  Lisbeth is described as having small, doll-like features, but she dresses however the hell she wants, which often involves black leather.  And when Katniss is described as thin, it's because she's malnourished, not because it's desirable.  Both Katniss and Lisbeth are physically strong, with muscles.  Katniss is quick with weapons and strategic thinking.  Lisbeth rides a motorcycle and has a shitload of computer stuff.  Not exactly Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, and I love that.

I must admit, however: I never quite warmed to Katniss the way I did to Lisbeth.  Part of it was Collins' writing.  In the Hunger Games trilogy, for which Katniss is the first-person narrator, we get a lot of "then this happened," "then this happened," without really going into how Katniss felt about things, or why she performs a certain action.  It's hard to constantly be in someone's head if she's coming off like a machine, with human moments that are very few and far between.  I don't have to agree with the protagonist or like them 100% of the time, but I do need to feel compelled.  Katniss came off so cold at times that this could be a challenge.

Not that Larsson's prose, even in translation, wasn't without its issues.  (I hate to speak ill of the dead, but: dude, do NOT wrap up your A plot before you wrap up your B, C, D, and E plots.  Also, I don't need the exact brand names of what every character ate, wore or typed on.  It's a novel, not an Apple catalogue.)  However, third person narration was probably the best thing he could have done for Lisbeth.  It keeps her at a distance from the reader--we're in her head, but not completely.  Though it's never confirmed, it's speculated that Lisbeth has Asperger's syndrome, which also explains her erratic way of communication.  Even more motivation for her sometimes extreme actions is provided as Larsson reveals Lisbeth's horrifying past, which hasn't completely dissipated.  I didn't always like Lisbeth, but I felt that I understood her.

A sensation in its native Sweden way before the translation hit shelves Stateside, all three Millenium books have been made into films, which are gradually being released by Music Box Films (yay, Chicago!).  The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is now on DVD, and I can't recommend it highly enough (and it's okay if you haven't read the book.  I hadn't when I first saw it, and was able to put everything together).  The movie is intense but rewarding, and the piece de resistance is Noomi Rapace's nuanced, brutal interpretation of Lisbeth.  I wish Rooney Mara luck in the upcoming American remake.  She's got some big Doc Martens to fill.

As for The Hunger Games, production for the first book's film adaptation will commence next year.  I hope, hope, hope Hollywood does not screw this up and gives us a complex, interesting Katniss.  A while back my friend Nikki suggested Sarah Hyland (best known as oldest daughter Haley on Modern Family) for Katniss, which I fully support--I think she's got the chops.  I myself kept picturing Ellen Page, but she's too old now, darn it.

In some ways, the copious action of The Hunger Games may make it a better movie than book.  Either way, however, I'm glad Katniss exists in print.  Lisbeth too.  Forget chasing boys and flashing their panties--these ladies aren't afraid to kick some ass in the name of family, friends and all that is right.

Girl power!

Oh, and just because, here's some Emmy amazingness from last night, featuring my top 2 celeb crushes:

Monday, August 23, 2010

Excess Baggage: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

"We probably can't make the 10 p.m. show."

It was Thursday night, and I was hanging out with a friend.  On impulse, he suggested we see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which he had already seen twice.  In the theatre.  Paying full price.  And he wanted to go again.

Up until this point, I was hesitant: anyone who's read my reviews of Away We Go  and (500) Days of Summer know that I hate being marketed to.  I also hate excess hype.  And having only been out a week or so, Scott Pilgrim had already delivered plenty of both.  I'm not a hipster per se, but I have hipster tendencies, plus several of my friends are into comics.  Did I mention that I'm also a little sick of Michael Cera?  Dude needs to play a serial killer on CSI or something.  Yes, I love director Edgar Wright, but I wasn't sure if that was enough to justify the movie-theatre price.

However, my friend is a tough critic (in fact, he was a big influence on me when I first met him in high school.  He also introduced me to MST3K, so there's that).  I'd had a stressful week at work.  It was Thursday, so I only had one more day to get through till the weekend.  And for the first time in days, I wasn't exhausted, and was up for a little movie-going adventure.

"We can try," I told my friend.  "Let's go!"

After a cab ride that was the stuff of wackiness (for you Chicagoans out there, our driver thought we meant Maple Street on the Gold Coast, not Maple Avenue in Evanston, so the ride involved a U-ie and a huge amount of the driver mumbling to himself) and a wonky credit-card machine, we made it to the theatre at exactly 10 p.m.  Amid a crowd of people our age or younger, we settled in and I wondered if I could get over the hipness, the hype, the Cera.

Yes, yes, and dammit Cera,  you totally won me over.  Again.

So Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is based on a comic book series, about a boy in a band who falls in love with a girl with a past.  Specifically, Ramona Flowers has seven evil exes that Scott must defeat before their relationship can progress any further.  But Scott's got a bit of a past himself, including an underage girlfriend, a bandmate he dumped in high school, and various other issues.  Will the right asses get kicked, or are Scott and Ramona doomed from the start?

First, the filmmaking rocks.  Even though I watch a bazillion movies, for me the actual camera work and effects are like the orchestra in a musical--I only notice if it's really, really good or really, really bad.  Scott Pilgrim keeps things fun without going too ADHD, with old-school style visuals (think bang!, riiiing!, hearts, and bright colors), nods to '80's video games that even I (for whom Nintendo was banned as a child) could recognize, and one particularly genius scene that's structured like an episode of Seinfeld.  Sure, there can be such a thing as too much pop culture, and Scott Pilgrim walks a fine line at times, but Wright knows just when to pull back.

Second, the characterization and performances are surprisingly strong.  Comic-book movies work best when the actors can, you know, act (think the Spider-Man films), and Wright's casting here was 99% spot on.  And yes, I'm including the Cera.  The boy was BORN to play Scott Pilgrim.  The insecurity, the mumbling, the dorky wit and the googly-eyed crushing are all vintage Cera, and it works so very, very well.  Possibly my favorite performance in the whole film, however, was Kieran Culkin as Scott's roommate Wallace.  Even in 2010, it's so rare to see a realistic portrayal of a gay guy--you know, one who isn't a mincing, swishy stereotype, and one who is actually seen with a boyfriend.

If you're a fan of Arrested Development, you're in luck: Mae Whitman (George Michael's girlfriend Ann, aka Her?) and Thomas Jane (Homeless Dad, who just wants his kids back) pop up in two unexpected and highly entertaining cameos.  And I know his tenure as The Next Big Thing didn't work out, but between this film and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Brandon Routh needs to do more comedy. Plus, Mary Elizabeth Winstead strikes the right balance between dry and heartfelt as Ramona Flowers, and she's believable as a funky chick (as opposed to some Hollywood fake-tanned babe they "grunged down").  I really wish I could dye my hair those colors, and I totally want her cute pink thigh-highs with the black lace trim.

Overall, the ensemble's strong, with only two weak links:
1) Mark Webber who plays the lead singer in Scott's band, Sex Bob-omb, is quite whiny and doesn't bring much to the table.
2) Aubrey Plaza.  *sigh*  I realize I'm going to get raked over the coals for this, but: I am SICK of Aubrey Plaza.  Yes, she's fine in three-minute doses on Parks and Recreation, and the April/Andy storyline of last season was charming.  That said, I really don't understand why she's suddenly everywhere.  Wait, yes I do: all the hipster guys want to bang her.  Because seriously?  I too can roll my eyes and talk in a monotone, yet I don't have a recurring role on NBC and a host of talk-show appearances.  And Ms. Plaza?  Every single actress in this film (including Winstead, Anna Kendrick, and Alison Pill) did your deadpan schtick BETTER THAN YOU.  Because they know the wonders of nuance and depth.  You've got a ways to go, sweetie. /endrant

QUIRKY!  (Ugh.)

With any movie, usually creative camera work and a strong ensemble cast sells me right then and there.  But Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the cinematic gift that keeps on giving.  Why?

Two words: it's relatable.

Now, I've never had to beat up anyone's exes.  When my cell phone rings, there's not a neat animated visual.  And I sure as hell don't have a laugh track following me around.

But I do have baggage.  I'm not going to give you the details because a) it's not that kind of blog, and b) it even bores me, and I lived it.  However, more often than not I feel like damaged goods, relationship-wise.  I've made my share of mistakes, so who the hell would want to take me on as a ladyfriend?  In my head, I know I'm not so special and everyone's got their issues.  In my heart, it's not so obvious.

Scott Pilgrim points out that hey, we all have baggage!  We're all kind of messed up when it comes to relationships, whether they're casual or serious or uber-lovey.  But if we can work through all the muck, we'll be okay playing with others.

My head and my heart were very reassured.

For a neato double feature on young love, rock 'n roll, and the Cera, see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World in theatres, then go rent Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (the latter is based on a fantastic YA novel!).  You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll hum along, you'll remember that you and everyone else are only human.  We all mess up, but we're all one another's saving grace.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Outside the Lines: Imagine Me & You

I recently found out that a coworker went to school with Piper Perabo.  Which is kind of random and funny.  In the spirit of this discovery, I decided to rent a film that had been on my "to see" list since its 2005 release, but one I'd never quite gotten around to: Imagine Me & You.

Perabo, doing a really nice British accent, plays Rachel, a sweet London lady who is about to marry her equally sweet fiance Hector (uberhottie Matthew Goode--my God, that man made Leap Year worth watching and that's NOT an easy feat).  As she is literally walking down the aisle, Rachel locks eyes with wedding florist Luce (Lena Headey) and afterward, nothing is the same.  Only problem is, she's married now and genuinely loves Hector, though not in the way she previously thought.

Even with the lesbian twist, this is a chick flick through and through.  No adorable stone is left unturned, from the enviable wardrobes of both leading ladies to the dude's horny best friend to the precocious moppet of a lil sibling, to the constant images and dialogue about flowers.  Oh, and if you never wanted to live in London, you sure as hell will after seeing this movie.  Scenery porn all the way.

I do appreciate the filmmakers' tackling issues of love and sexuality in a fairly lightweight, enjoyable manner without downplaying their importance.  I liked how Hector wasn't a jerk, but a wonderful person who just wants to do right by his increasingly distant bride.  (Reminded me of season one of The L Word, before it descended into a trashily awesome soap, when you felt empathy for both Jenny and Tim.)  I liked how Headey, even by Hollywood standards, was believable as a lesbian (not that lesbians look, talk or act a certain way, but sometimes it's PAINFULLY obvious that an actress is straight and trying way too hard to be "controversial."  Heady just was, and it worked.)  So often, relationships involve the best of people, but are messy because of timing and trial and error and those quirky things called emotions, and I thought the film captured this very well.

And yet . . . it still felt shallow, even lazy, at times.  Was the cute little sister really necessary?  Ditto for the pervy best friend.  In fact, all of the "friend" characters in the film might as well have worn signs saying, "Hello, I'm a plot device for a main character and have no real, un-cliche qualities of my own."  Hate that.  The subplot with Hector's job felt tacked on and rushed.  Finally, Rachel's father, who I think was supposed to be endearingly absentminded, just came across as mentally ill to me.

Overall, I liked the movie: it's hard for me to find fault with something so pretty, and most of it felt genuine.  However, I can't shake the sitcom-y aura that pervaded some of the scenes.  That, combined with the above faults, made me wonder if this movie would have ever been greenlit without the girl-meets-girl storyline.  Interestingly enough, I read on IMDb that the script was originally written as a heterosexual love story.  Yeah, that doesn't surprise me at all.

Don't get me wrong: love stories of all types are important and should be well-represented in pop culture.   And I'll never know whether Imagine Me & You really was written with Luce as a guy, or whether that's just another untrue Internet factoid.  But I will say this: don't do a lesbian love story just to be "different."  Even if it's a lighthearted flick, that's no excuse not to really dive in.  (Pun intended.)

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Notorious B.E.T.T.I.E. (Page)

Unlike Bethenny Frankel, I am not a Skinnygirl.  Never have been, never will be.  I'm a dance and yoga enthusiast, and I heart steamed broccoli (really), but when it comes to body type, I take after my dad's side of the family.  Essentially, I'm built like a football player with tits.

Maybe that explains my recent interest in pinup culture.  I hope this doesn't make me a bad feminist.  I know, objectification and blah blah blah.  But damn, those ladies were sexy and they totally flaunted it.  They weren't physically big by any stretch of the imagination, but they had curves and rocked them.  Plus, the bathing suits were really cute.

So this weekend I rented The Notorious Bettie Page.  Living in a fairly hipster neighborhood, I was vaguely familiar with this individual (I mean, you can't escape the iconic haircut), and I remembered Gretchen Mol from the late nineties when she was supposedly the "it girl" and then her career never really went anywhere.  (Granted, she annoyed me at the time, but I felt kinda bad for her when all the hype petered out.)  Less shallowly, I was curious to see what made this lady such an icon, as she was hardly the first pinup.

Disclaimer: most of what I know about Bettie Page was gleaned from this film and from Wikipedia.

So Ms. Page was rather interesting, to say the least.  She was a Christian girl from Nashville with a college education (the latter was not super-common among women in the 1940's and '50's).  She wasn't racist: the first man who took her photo was African American.  (One of my favorite parts of the film, in fact, was Bettie's reaction to gawkers at her first Coney Island photo session.  "They're prejudiced!" she realized out loud.  Then she reprimanded the onlookers: "I used to be prejudiced too, but I learned!")  She was also a survivor of incest, marital abuse, and gang rape, all before she hit 30.

Bettie rarely drank or cursed, but she willingly doffed her bathing suit top and bottom when a photographer asked her to ("it's just a piece of cloth!").  She worked for a brother-and-sister photography team, who had her pose in what would now be called dominatrix gear, with ropes, whips, chains, you name it.  (Granted, she wasn't nude in these shots, and there was no sexual content.)  And she had fun posing for these pictures--but how much she was aware of what the photos meant remains unclear.

See what I mean by interesting?  Wow.  You have a woman who survived all sorts of horror at the hands of men she should have been able to trust: her father, her husband, a seemingly nice guy who approached her on the sidewalk.  Despite all this, she loved Jesus and had a sort of childlike joy in her work.  And again, I don't know the whole story, but it didn't seem like she was exploited by her employers.  They were kind to her.  They made the work fun.  By all accounts she was paid fairly and not forced into anything.

Oh, and then the government got involved.  Because these photos and movies were poisoning the collective American mind (and I must say, it's funny to see what was considered "dirty" a scant 50 or 60 years ago.  Compared to the stuff you can find on the Internet now, these pictures were tame, tame, tame).  Never mind that many of the most horrifying things that can happen to a woman take place behind closed doors, and still aren't 100% reported in 2010.  Never mind that, as one photographer points out, Taming of the Shrew contains a lot of violence, but because it's Shakespeare it's considered "classic."  Never mind that Page herself waited patiently for a full day outside the courtroom in D.C., but was never called to testify about her experiences as the It Fetish Model of her time.  Because who cares what the stupid woman thinks?

The Notorious Bettie Page wasn't a perfect movie: as much as I liked seeing all of the drama unfold, I wanted to hear more of what Bettie herself thought and felt, how much she was aware of the sexual nature of her work.  (Granted, Page herself eventually became a hard-core Bible-thumper, spent time in a mental institution, and was stingy with interviews as she aged, so it's possible the filmmakers didn't want to make too many assumptions.)  But what I did enjoy was the exploration of issues: as long as it's not hurting anyone, what's so bad about fetishes?  Or pictures/movies taken in what looks to be a pleasant work environment?  Is fetish/pinup modeling a feminist act, or the very opposite?  I couldn't fully answer any of these questions after finishing the movie, but I was pondering away.

At any rate, The Notorious Bettie Page is a thoroughly thought-provoking film I highly recommend, and judging by her performance,  Mol should have a way better career.  Also, True Blood and Mad Men geeks will nearly pee their pants, as I did, to see Sheriff Andy Bellefleur and Lane Pryce in the same scene.  (Geeky girl squee!)  Perhaps my favorite part, however, was hearing Lili Taylor's businesswoman character (yes, Lili Taylor--the casting in this movie is awesome) describe why she and her brother do what they do: there are respectable people who are under a lot of pressure in their day-to-day lives.  Certain things make them feel good.  Even if we don't quite understand, what they like doesn't make them bad people.

I think this summed up a lot of fetishes and sexual preferences.  Don't get me wrong, I am NOT advocating child pornography or any sort of exploitation or rape.  But if a fetish is consensual and gives someone their jollies, well, why not?

It takes all sorts to make a world, y'all.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Band You Should Know: Fun.

My roommate is a music master. Seriously, this guy knows all, making him particularly adept at mix CD's. Only thing is, he doesn't give you a track list until AFTER you've listened. It can be a pain, but it can also yield many cool surprises. Such as last December, when I heard these lyrics:

Until their lips start to move, and your friends talk music
I say I've never heard the tune
But I have, I just hate the band 'cause they remind me of you.

You know the movie High Fidelity?  I've pretty much lived it.  Not just the weirdly recurring ex, but the indie friends.  The coworkers fixated on the obscure.  The city of Chicago, not from the perspective of a tourist or a rich Gold Coaster, but an obsessive nerd in dirty jeans making ends meet and trying to figure out life and love through the lens of pop culture.

And most of all, associating song lyrics, bands, movies, books, plays with former crushes, boytoys and lovers?  Oh yeah.  Oh yeah.

Didn't hurt that said lyrics were crooned in a Freddie Mercury-like belt primed for screaming.  That's like catnip for the Queen freak in me.

The song?  "All the Pretty Girls."  The band?  Fun.  I had to know more.

Turns out, this "American indie pop band" (what on Earth did we do before Wikipedia?) was formed by three guys who had three bands of their own: Nate Ruess of The Format, Andrew Dost of Anathallo, and Jack Antonoff of Steel Train.  As I'm not a music critic (this is where the "unprofessional" part comes in), I myself am not sure how exactly to describe their style.  I guess "American indie pop" would be one way to phrase it--and I'm not one of those people who derides the word "pop," because a good song is a good song--but I'm not sure if those are the words that immediately come to my mind.

I'd maybe go with "dramatic," but not in a wannabe freshman theatre major type of way.  I'm talking about recognizing the big moments that lie in the small.  Comparing someone you love to a sandwich.  Reminding yourself to stay calm.  Realizing that pickup lines just aren't your thing.

In short, I'm going to go the route of Mia Michaels from So You Think You Can Dance when it comes to describing Fun.'s album, Aim and Ignite: it's a blue wind.  It's a hurricane and a purple rainstorm.  It's everything.

Because in a way, this brief 10-song album IS everything.  The songs run the emotional and experiential gamut: falling in love, acknowledging an imperfect relationship, outgrowing your old group of friends, breaking up, making up, coming home, being okay with the weird and flawed person that is you.  And none of this is emo and mopey and navel-gazing.  Quite the contrary: even the saddest songs make you want to dance, not necessarily pogo stick around the room, but move.

I apologize if this sounds la-la-la ambiguous.  I can analyze the shit out of celebs, movies and books.  I've been trained to pick apart plays.  But for me, music has always been a bit more difficult to pinpoint.  Even if I knew how to properly critique it, I'm not sure I could.  Because there's something about the way a lyric, a chord, a voice will just hit me.  Something primal.  I get it, I understand it, and I have a yen to listen to it again and again.  And I can't quite explain why, so I'll let the band speak for themselves:

In short, that's how Fun. makes me feel.  And if you give them a shot, maybe you will feel it too.

Just as I started this post with a roommate story, I'll end with one: last month, we both turned 30. He had been hinting forever that I was going to LOVE my present, only telling me that no, he hadn't arranged for Joel McHale and Anthony Bourdain to visit our apartment and have a threesome with me. The actual gift, though, was better: a Fun. poster, not only signed by the band, but personalized to Unpro on her 30th birthday. They even drew a little cake.