Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Self Help for the Rest of Us: "The Nerdist Way"

First, an apology for the long absence. I don't want to be all "life's been crazy!" but, well, life's been crazy. I'm now writing reviews for Chicago Theater Beat as well as blogging for RedEye and I just started a new full-time job. Also I'm taking the NaNoWriMo plunge again (maybeimamazed02 on the NaNo site if you want to be writing buddies) because I'm just that much of a nerd. 

And speaking of nerds, I'm jumping back into the Unpro with a review of The Nerdist Way! This ain't your momma's self-help book, I tell you what. Read on:

I was never the biggest fan of Singled Out, mainly because of Jenny McCarthy's never-closing mouth. I always wondered how many flies she swallowed during her tenure on MTV's finest dating show. Meaning I didn't remember her co-host Chris Hardwick was until I heard he interviewed Joel McHale for his podcast, The Nerdist. As I love all things McHale, I tuned in and was hooked on Hardwick's geeky enthusiasm for movies, video games, the celebrities he was interviewing and...a lot of other things.

I recognized that obsessive need to know every detail about something you like. There's a name for us folks. That name is nerd. And in his very first book The Nerdist Way, Hardwick turns self-help on its awkwardly focused little head, outlining everything from healthier eating to positive-r thinking for everyone out there who got beat up in junior high for singing show tunes (me) or playing D&D (so many of the men in my life) or knowing just a bit more than everyone else.

Chris Hardwick's a study in reinvention. A bowling champion's offspring, a Catholic school alum (represent!) and the former roommate of Wil Wheaton, Hardwick fell into an MTV career in his early twenties. By his late twenties, however, Hardwick had hit bottom: he worked only sporadically, drank very heavily and became a borderline recluse. Since then he's turned things around. He cut back on the beer, started working out and lost a lot of weight. He's got a happening stand-up and writing career, and in 2008 launched the blog, which has since grown into a podcast and television show (cohosted by cohorts Jonah Ray and Matt Mira), and now a pretty decent self-help book that doesn't ask you anything about parachutes.

When I heard on the Nerdist podcast (oh yeah, he's also interviewed Tom Lennon and Ben Garant - download it! Tom's hilarious and Ben gets all riled up like the good ole Southern boy he is) that Hardwick was penning a tome, I used my super blogger powers (aka Google) to request a review copy. I came, I saw, I read.

I like!

Though I'm a big advocate of self-help actions (e.g. therapy, physical activity, healthy eating), I'm not a fan of the books. (Yes, I read a poem from Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul in my valedictory speech. I was seventeen. I didn't know any better.) I felt differently about The Nerdist Way. Chris Hardwick reminds me of the dudes I was friends with in high school, like my artist classmate who gave me movie trivia books, my speech team and dance partner who shared my penchant for broad humor and double pirouettes and my Star Trek-obsessed buddy who taped South Park for me when I asked nicely. He's accessible. He's funny. He not only owns his nerdiness but has turned it into a career. He hit bottom - as we all do at certain points in our lives - and turned it around all by himself. And now he instructs readers on everything from decision-making to cleaning up credit scores to bench-pressing.

Regarding the latter, I could have done without the pages and pages of detailed workout tips. Then again, I have an established fitness routine already (burlesque, yoga, walking) and I realize those pages could be extremely useful to someone else. Just like people who didn't grow up Catholic might not recognize how hard it can be to enjoy when good things happen - rather than forever waiting for the other shoe to drop. I know this feeling. God, do I know it. I just didn't realize I wasn't alone in this thought process and I appreciated not only Hardwick's empathy but his tips on how to combat it.

Also, the chapters on creative productivity are excellent. As a full-time employee and part-time arteeste, I regularly beat my schedule into submission - but it's hard not to get tempted by cat videos and Reno 911 DVDs. Or that issue of Cosmo taunting me from the other side of the library. When I read Hardwick's tips on maximizing one's free time, I felt relieved I was doing something right - and I learned the difference between "good busy" and "bad busy."

Finally, Hardwick instructs readers how to use the "evil genius" method to achieve goals. I won't spoil it for you, but let's just say having a celebrity crush can be totally helpful. Hardwick's theory revolves around channeling sexual energy into motivation. Did you hear that? I AM VALIDATED, Y'ALL! Little did I know that my dorky fixations on Garant, McHale and various other high-profile gentlemen with snarky barbs and cute butts can actually serve a purpose! Hardwick's so getting a hug for that, should I ever meet him.

So yeah, I recommend The Nerdist Way. Jocks be damned. Like evil geniuses who stop at nothing to get what they want, nerds are doing it for themselves - in a nicer way, of course.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Back in Time: 'The Wilder Life'

There's an old picture of me, my cousin and my little sister with Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I think I was seven or eight at the time. I'd share it but a) my parents moved when I was in my mid-twenties, so most childhood stuff has been relegated to basement purgatory, and b) I had a perm until I was twelve. Enough said.

Though I'd like to forget my 80's hair, I can't shake the feeling I got from reading the Little House books - nor would I want to. I mean, come on: calico dresses! Sunbonnets! Fiddle music! Making button strings and snow candy and cornhusk dolls! I was never much for the TV show - sorry Michael Landon, Pa did not have feathered hair - but my uncle gave me the set of Laura books when I was six years old and I was, to quote Ben Folds, not the same after that.

I totally made a button string. I distinctly remember opening On the Banks of Plum Creek and asking my mom what a dugout was. I tried to recreate the feeling of being in a covered wagon one winter night when my extended family was crammed in our car. My dad did not enjoy being called "Pa"and was not receptive to playing the fiddle for my amusement.

In 2009, I met author Wendy McClure at an event. I'd read her account of Weight Watchers woes, I'm Not the New Me, and loved her snarky yet wistful tone. I always like meeting an artist who's not an asshole (not that many of them are, I'm just a pessimist at heart), and Wendy proved to be sweet and funny in person, just like in her writing. She mentioned she was writing a book about Laura Ingalls Wilder. "Oh my God, I loved those books!" I enthused to her later. "But why did Pa move everyone around so much? He was like a Manic Pixie Dream Dad!" Maybe Wendy was being polite, but she seemed to know just what I meant.

Turns out, there's a legion of us Laura fans. I didn't know at the time because most of my classmates thought reading was for weirdos, but I was far from alone in my Little House fandom. I wasn't the only perm-headed little girl who enjoyed the comforts of electricity and, you know, NOT having to deal with a grasshopper plague, but yearned for a calico sunbonnet and a general store where sugar was in a barrel, not in a bag. Technically, as the older sister with blonde hair, I was more of a Mary, but I identified with Laura's occasional naughtiness and propensity to say the wrong thing. Also, I really wanted a rag doll named Charlotte.

In The Wilder Life, McClure explores Laura fandom and takes it one step further, visiting old Wilder homesteads and new tourist attractions, taking in Little House pageants and the musical stage version starring Melissa Gilbert as Ma, churning her own butter and finding out what was in those airy-fairy cakes served at the home of (that bitch) Nellie Oleson. There's a mournful quality behind much of the book - at the time she was writing it, McClure had recently lost her mother and revisited the Little House series for comfort. It makes sense she'd reach back to a simpler time, both in her life and in Laura's.

However, as McClure reveals in the book, Laura's life wasn't always so simple. Both Laura and her daughter Rose weathered a lot of hardships as adults. Even as a child, Laura's existence wasn't all sugaring-off dances and Christmas-stocking oranges. There are chunks of time missing from the books that involve bad luck and child labor. Also, grasshopper plagues. Rightfully pissed-off Native Americans. Years when Christmas was really the only happy day.

Still, through her research and travels, McClure conveys Laura's real and imagined lives with fondness and hope, and explores a book series that had a real impact on little girls in 70's and 80's, and is still widely read today. Throughout most of my childhood, I felt like I didn't fit in. Instead of playing sports, I was more at home with my Little House books (okay, and my Sweet Valley Twins books, but that's another story). And even though I'm now a relatively well-adjusted thirtysomething, the fact that I was part of a larger group of misanthropic perm-heads and didn't even know it at the time? It means something to me.

Monday, September 19, 2011

One Night Only: 'After Hours'

One of the best things about writing is the justification of all sorts of random questions and obsessions. Basically, I can ask anyone anything with the vague excuse "it's for something I'm working on!" In the past several months, I've posed these inquiries to my followers on Facebook and Twitter:

1) What were you listening to in the 90's?
2) What are your favorite movies set in New York City?

(P.S. If you haven't answered these, leave a comment!)

In response to the latter, my friend Molly suggested "After Hours," a Scorsese film from 1985. I had no idea this film existed. And I was far from disappointed.

Griffin Dunne - all soulful eyes and charmingly imperfect teeth - plays Paul, a quiet word processor who ventures into a coffee shop one night after work. He chats up the pretty but cryptic Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), and who invites him to the SoHo loft she shares with kinky artist Kiki (Linda Fiorentino). A bizarre chain of events ensues, involving overdoses, windy cab fare, papier mache, sixties-obsessed cocktail waitresses and a heavy dose of paranoia for Paul, who just wanted to hook up with the girl who shared his affinity for Henry Miller.

I love the idea of a single, life-changing night, and so movies that take place within this time frame ("American Graffiti," "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist") have a special place in my heart. It's my goal to write a novel with a one-night timespan someday. Though I'd never want to have the utterly weird night Paul experiences in "After Hours," it's so fun to watch. Scorsese keeps the pace fast and the camera angles Hitchcock-esque as this meek desk jockey sinks further and further into paranoia. Dark comedy is extremely hard to pull off successfully ("Take Me Home Tonight" couldn't do it), but "After Hours" has a nightmarishly silly tone that works.

And it couldn't have taken place anywhere else. The New York City of "After Hours" is dark and gritty, with all-night diners, drafty lofts and grimy dance clubs with basement abodes. It's like a really strange moving performance art piece - yet with a realistic air. I could imagine someone actually experiencing this night, even as the circumstances rocketed further out of the ordinary. Not to mention the incredible cast: Rosanna Arquette almost but not quite annoyed me as the manic pixie dream girl, but luckily Paul tired of her just as I did. Teri Garr's turn as a beehive-sporting waitress made me forgive her for the utterly spewtastic "One From the Heart." (Do not see "One From the Heart." Ever. Even if a zombie apocalypse renders it the last film on Earth.) And for all the "Home Alone" fans out there, Kevin McAllister's mom and dad appear: Catherine O'Hara in all her oddball glory, and John Heard as a weirdly sexy bartender. Oh, and Balki from "Perfect Strangers" is in the first scene. I may or may not have spooked my cat when I screamed.

I wonder if "After Hours" could be made today. I think yes, but it would make the indie circuit and I don't know if someone with Scorsese's clout would be approached to direct. Either way, I'm glad it exists. To me, the film comes across as a love letter to the real New York City, where strange people do strange things and one single night presents endless possibilities.

Friday, September 16, 2011

I Yam Who I Yam: Blogging and Honesty

Forgive me y'all, but I'm a little shaken right now.

Over the past week, it's been revealed that one of my fellow bloggers is not who she says she is. Now, before you say "stop the presses!" hear me out. It turns out this individual, who had quite a large following in a specialized interest community that had expanded to several major stores and companies, had in fact defrauded hundreds of readers. As in, she took money from them for a service that was performed incompetently or not at all.

This behavior went on for at least two years, in part because many were hesitant to call her out. After all, she supposedly had a glowing reputation and a lot of endorsements. Some had met her in person: in other words, this wasn't some perv-dude in his mom's basement, or even somebody's sister in male drag a la JT LeRoy. And she appeared to have a lot going on in her personal life: unemployment, a sick pet, relatives in distress. Most of all, she just seemed so nice!

Only she wasn't so nice after all.

Whether or not this began innocently, she has allegedly stolen money from over 100 people (and those are just the ones coming forward). A David Mamet character once said something to the tune of, "I'm a confidence man, not because you put your confidence in me, but I put my confidence in you." This blogger put her confidence in thousands of people. And whether or not money changed hands (or however you'd put it in PayPal terms), we were all duped.

Fortunately, I never gave this person any money. But for several months I was a devoted reader of her blog. After years of dismissing the idea as "shallow," I started to care about my appearance. Her site and many like it were extremely helpful in showing me how to mix and match, how to maximize the contents of my closet, how to look for sales and dress my body type, and how to develop a personal style. As a lady on a budget in an expensive city, I deeply appreciated the assistance and encouragement. And it was lovely to find a community of like-minded intelligent women who were interested in fashion but who were anything but shallow.

Several months ago, I attended an event co-hosted by this blogger and a major store. For me this event was a short train ride away, but my sister and two of her friends drove several hours. We met this woman, chatted with her and had our pictures taken. She was extremely sweet, remembered my sister and me from a photo we'd emailed her, and seemed flattered that most of our party had road-tripped for the express purpose of meeting her in person.

Before this week, I hadn't read her blog in a while. I've fallen away from the blogosphere somewhat, as paid writing assignments now have to take priority. But learning how to dress myself, for lack of a better phrase, represented a "grown up" life change for me, one that's manifested itself in many positive ways.

Yesterday morning, my sister contacted me with the breaking news: words like "fraud" and "criminal" were being thrown around. A Google search revealed that this wasn't just a single case or two of incompetence. There were a lot of lies told, a lot of potential issues at play. And the blogger herself remained vague, before going into hiding completely.

Of course there was hate on the interwebz: that people were stupid to put their confidence in someone they'd never met, that her readers were stupid to care so much about something so trivial anyway. So much victim-blaming, with a hint of misogyny: if something's cared about by a group of women, how important can it be? These commenters ignore the larger issue: in the interest of saving a buck, individuals put their trust in someone else, only to be ripped off and violated. That goes beyond a niche interest.

And as a blogger, in the same city as this woman, I am personally offended. Incidents like this make people question everything. Bloggers in general look bad. And I hate that my beloved city is associated with this.

When I started this site in 2009, I wanted more practice writing. That's it. I highly doubted anyone outside my circle of friends would read it. Two years later, I have a little following and I love it. I have relationships with publicists, authors, readers, and I wouldn't dream of taking advantage of those. For a time I tried to monetize the blog, but I realized it was much more fun to seek outside freelance gigs and continue to make this a place where I could write about whatever I wanted, and people could read and comment, or not.

At first I tried to stay relatively anonymous. After a few months, however, I shared the blog with a coworker who praised it. And when I started getting freelance assignments and linking the sites on my page, I realized my anonymous days were pretty much over. (I do restrict my personal Facebook page, but if you'd like to become a fan of the blog click here.)

Let me assure you, those who do not know me in real life, I am who I say I am: a relatively imperfect 31-year-old who nerds out about celebrities, movies, books and other fancies. I read obsessively. I study burlesque and yoga. I write YA fiction. I wear a lot of dresses.

Like a lot of others right now, I'm disturbed by the dishonesty that pops up in the blogging community. I want to assure you that while I don't share everything with my readers (gotta keep some things private), I work hard not to deceive anyone. Because right now I'm one of many hurt and confused women throughout the world. I know how it feels.

Monday, September 12, 2011

From Memorial to Labor Day: Summer Music

Image via

First, the serious stuff: I'm not going to do a 9/11 post. I thought about it, but it seems like a cheap way to get hits. I'm also not wild about the media saturation. Don't get me wrong: grieving on the tenth anniversary is perfectly appropriate. It's just not for me. I remember where I was and what I did, it was a sad and scary time, I'm very fortunate I wasn't more directly affected (as in, I didn't know anyone in the towers or on the planes, and my relatives in New York were safe). While I think it's fine to recall and reflect, I don't feel the need to relive that day.

Moving on.

I'm already sad about summer's end. I live in Chicago, where hopefully we'll continue to have nice weather for several weeks before three days of fall and then several months of freezing our asses off. This summer, thanks to research for writing projects, a stellar public library, and the friends I rely on for new tunes, I discovered a lot of excellent listening material and revisited an old favorite. Here are my top five favorite summer musical finds:

1. The Band and Endless Highway: The Music of the Band
Last year, I got into music of the sixties and seventies as research for a novel. Along the way I discovered that Levon Helm, who played Loretta Lynn's father in one of my all-time favorite biopics, Coal Miner's Daughter, was more than an actor. Helm was part of The Band, a groundbreaking folk-rock group. Around Memorial Day weekend I gave them a listen and I wasn't disappointed. The melodies alternate between fun and soulful, with an old-school country twang and a rock 'n roll twist. Now, I'm still not a Band expert and I haven't listened to everything, but some of my faves so far include "Rag Mama Rag," "Up on Cripple Creek" and the utterly heartbreaking "Rockin' Chair." And thanks to my local library, I also found Endless Highway, a 2007 album featuring Band covers by contemporary musicians like Guster and Jack Johnson. My personal favorite is Death Cab for Cutie's wistful take on "Rockin' Chair."

2. Squirrel Nut Zippers
Research for a new fiction project has taken me from the sixties to the nineties. As a wide-eyed teenager, I was hugely into the neo-jazz group Squirrel Nut Zippers. The frontwoman and I even share a last name! Needless to say, I was over the moon when the group played at my college freshman year. After releasing several albums, the group split up in the mid-2000's, but the music's aged so well I'm aching for another swing revival. Also, I wish I could croon like Katherine. If you're an SNZ neophyte, track down "Lover's Lane," "Hell" and "Good Enough for Granddad." Don't forget to dance along.

3. A Tribe Called Quest
"Can I kick it? Yes you can!" I wasn't a fan of this powerhouse hip-hop quartet in their heyday - before I discovered alternative rock, I was mainly into showtunes. (And yet, I still wondered why I wasn't popular in junior high.) However, this summer I reviewed Michael Rapaport's documentary about the group on assignment for The Film Yap. If the stunning creativity and fascinating group dynamics weren't enough to draw me in, the intelligent lyrics and sick beats did the trick. The very next day I put The Anthology on hold at the library, and now I'm so obsessed that I compare myself and my best friend Bob to Phife Dawg (me, the five-footer) and Q-Tip (the abstract), respectively. "Can I Kick It?" is seriously groovy, and I also love "Electric Relaxation," "Luck of Lucien" and "Award Tour."

4. Foster the People
My pals Bob and Stan always know what's up with indie music and more importantly, what their friend Unpro will enjoy. Stan got me into Fun. and The Format, and for that I am forever grateful. And a few weeks ago, Bob was astounded I hadn't yet discovered Foster the People, immediately burning me their CD, Torches. The combination of peppy danceable rhythms and fairly dark lyrics (which Fun. also does very well) are incredibly appealing. If you're a radio listener, you've probably heard "Pumped Up Kicks" (the lyrics are disturbing like whoa when you really listen), but I encourage you to give the whole album a try. I adore "Don't Stop (Color on the Walls)."

5. Muppets: The Green Album
Just . . . yes. This album needed to happen. Jim Henson's ability to create truly human characters out of brightly colored puppets, and to inspire emotion in children and the adults they become, is something the world had never seen before and may never see again. It's important to preserve this legacy, and The Green Album goes a long way to achieve this goal. Bands such as OK Go and Weezer may offer their own spin on classics like "The Muppet Show Theme" and "Rainbow Connection," but the melodies and lyrics remain unchanged and phenomenal. Who didn't enjoy Kermit and Rowlf's duet "I Hope That Something Better Comes Along" as a kid? I sure did. Then I listened to Matt Nathanson's cover and realized how flipping ADULT those lyrics are. Not inappropriate for kids or anything, but wow. There's some real heartbreak going on. On a lighter note, I dare you not to giggle at Sondre Lerche's exuberant "Mr. Bassman." And I triple dog dare you not to cry at Rachael Yamagata's astoundingly wistful "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday." Mr. Henson, as I've done many times in my life, I tip my funky hat to you.

(Click here to read about what happened when I revisited The Muppets Take Manhattan.)

Did you discover any cool music over the summer? Leave a comment!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Totally 80's: 'Take Me Home Tonight'

Maybe it's because I'm now in my thirties, but in the past couple of years I've really gotten into nostalgia. Last year for a writing project, I started listening to music of the 1960's and '70's and I've never fully recovered. (Because seriously, that stuff is good.) As you've probably guessed from this summer's posts, I'm trying to re-establish the feel of the 1990's for another writing project (check out a fun guest blog I wrote about 90's TV BFF's).

And when it comes to totally tubular nostalgia, there's nothing like revisiting the 80's. Neon, mousse, perms, actual video stores: what's not to love? So when my pal Bob and I sprawled on his couch for a movie night, frozen spinach pizza in the oven and jasmine tea flowing (and we'd just been to yoga, because apparently we're yuppies now), the Amazon rental choice was simple: "Take Me Home Tonight."

The verdict? Decidedly: "Hm."

According to a Doug Loves Movies podcast with the "Parks and Recreation" cast, the movie did very poorly at the box office and was in fact shelved for almost four years due to a subplot involving cocaine. That said, you know what did well at the box office? "Transformers 3." And cocaine subplots? Psh. No, neither of those problems were the chief big issue of "Take Me Home Tonight." Quite frankly, the movie couldn't decided what it wanted to be.

Topher Grace plays Matt, a recent MIT grad who's spent the summer of 1988 working at Suncoast Video and living at home in the Valley area of L.A. Matt's not sure who and what he's supposed to be. He is sure he wants the attention of Tori (Teresa Palmer, who looks so much like Kristen Stewart in a blonde wig, it effed with my mind for the whole damn movie), his high school dream crush who of course didn't know he existed way back when. Meanwhile, Matt's best friend Barry (Dan Fogler) has just quit his car salesman job and Matt's twin Wendy (Anna Faris) is facing a major life decision of her own. And tonight's the big Labor Day bash thrown by Wendy's rich boyfriend Kyle (Chris Pratt, who isn't as adorable without the beard), where in true 80's movie style, everything will change and all will be revealed.

Sounds fun, right? I've always loved movies and books that take place in one spectacular night.("American Graffiti" is in my all-time top 10, and a poster for the movie is visible early in "Take Me Home Tonight.") And it takes place in the 80's, so there's fun music to listen to and wacky clothes to giggle at. All this should add up into one adorable romp, yeah?

Kind of.

It starts out that way for sure. There's a whole getting-ready-for-the-party montage involving mousse and shoulder pads. And all the great 80's movie staples are there: pretty youth with problems, fast cars and trampoline hijinks, and of course, an awesome soundtrack. Lucy Punch and Demetri Martin have small but hilarious roles as an overenthusiastic party guest and a bitter wheelchair-bound trader, respectively.

And then, "Take Me Home Tonight" takes a pretty dark turn.

I'm not against substance in 80's movies (the plot kind, not the narcotics kind). A family favorite is "Sixteen Candles," which boasts over-the-top silliness but also genuine heart (the scene between Sam and her father is really lovely). In fact, the best 80's movies were a ton of fun, but also took their characters seriously, knowing that pining after an unattainable boy/girl can mean everything to the pine-r. I think this mix of goof and sentiment is what "Take Me Home Tonight" was going for.

It didn't quite get there, though. Bob and I were chortling away at the opening scenes, but grew somber when the characters were revealed for the sad and desperate people they really were. And granted, sad and desperate can be darkly humorous, but here it was just dark. It's hard to giggle or go "aww" when a character is brutalized by his own father. All the nostalgia goes away, replaced by emotional disturbance. Not exactly fun Friday night viewing.

Say what you want about Adam Sandler - and believe me, I have - but I always thought "The Wedding Singer" did 80's nostalgia right. The movie combined a cute story with a love letter to the decade, with references to junk bonds and newfangled CD players sprinkled throughout. "Take Me Home Tonight" wasn't as successful: it hit us over the head with references, and then forgot about them as it segued into dramedy. And really, why weren't Bob Odenkirk and Michael Ian Black allowed to be funny?

As the credits rolled, I turned to Bob and asked, "what did you think?" "Um..." he trailed off. "I liked the soundtrack?"

I sighed. "Yeah, me too. Me too."

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Meh-Fest: 'The Power of Six'

This review was originally published on The Film Yap.

I didn't see "I Am Number Four." I was vaguely intrigued by Dianna Agron as the love interest, as she is quite possibly one of the prettiest women on Earth. However, the movie looked like every other young-adult sci-fi wannabe out there.
 I also didn't read the New York Times-bestselling novel on which "I Am Number Four" was based. That said, I'm a sucker for young-adult fiction. When the Yap was sent a review copy of "The Power of Six," the sequel to "I Am Number Four," I decided to take a crack at it.

 The verdict? I wasn't exactly depressed, but I was far from impressed.

"The Power of Six" continues the story of John Smith, who is part of an alien race of nine young people sent to Earth when their home planet is overtaken by evil forces, living in hiding throughout the world with assigned adult guardians. When the first three were hunted and killed by the evil forces, John (Number Four) had to make some difficult decisions and eventually go on the run with the female Number Six and his best friend Sam, whose father was a human ally to the race and mysteriously disappeared.

The book has two parallel stories: John, Six and Sam's cross-country travels and combat training in the States, and Marina (aka Number Seven), undercover in a Spanish convent school and discovering her own unique abilities (called Legacies, which develop when the individual needs them most).

Though "The Power of Six" is a sequel, catching up on important plot points isn't an issue: Everything a new reader needs to know is scattered throughout the book. Action pops off nearly every page, and the relationships — Marina's struggle with her now-reluctant adult guardian; John's conflicting feelings for Six and for Sarah, the girl he left behind; John and Sam's mourning for their lost father figures — are never boring. Technically, Pittacus Lore (a pen name that figures into the book prominently) does everything right.

And yet, I was never completely drawn into this fictional world. Though I kept turning pages, I couldn't bring myself to care about the characters. Like standout series such as "The Hunger Games" and "Harry Potter," "The Power of Six" seeks to create a parallel universe with oddly named characteristics but grounded-in-reality issues. Unlike these other series, "The Power of Six" has drier prose and slower pacing, which contributes to a sense of distance from its characters and conflicts. Yes, it's cool that John can illuminate things with his hands and Marina can breathe underwater, but why should I root for them?

Clearly, the author wants "The Power of Six" to transition to the silver screen. The novel has a cinematic quality: long on action and dialogue, short on description. I don't know if "I Am Number Four" did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel. I do know I wouldn't pay $12 to see it.

"The Power of Six" is now available in print and ebook.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

You Just Can't Get Enough...Of My Writing! (Right?)

Miss me? You know you do!

So I have a guest post over at the nostalgia-rific Children of the 90s, about my favorite TV best friends. This blog is super-fun and you should totally follow it if you're not already.

Just as a friendly reminder, I write/blog about movies, TV and whatever else is on my mind over at The Film Yap and RedEye, under my real name, Lauren Whalen.

If you're not following me on Facebook and Twitter, I swear you won't regret it! I post random pop culture snark, plus all of my writing for easy access. I think some of my "friends" (aka people I went to grade school with and wasn't fond of even then) have hidden me, but that's okay, because I don't want to look at 835 pictures of their babies anyway.

Happy Humpday! (P.S. Humpday is a great little film and you should watch it.)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Forever You and I: 'Chain Reaction'

If you've read this blog, well, ever, you know my reading propensities: I like angsty teenagers. I adore romance. I dig forbidden love. I read YA well after I was in the target age range and well before Rowling and Meyer made it acceptable for adults to publicly peruse, and I've never apologized for it.

You know what I also love? Free books!

So you can imagine my dorky squeal of happiness when I received a review copy of Chain Reaction by New York Times-bestselling author and fellow Chicagoan Simone Elkeles, whom I interviewed last year. (As I have all my packages sent to work to prevent theft, our mail dudes know to ignore me when I jump up and down.)

First, a disclaimer: I don't gush about something just because it's free. Hell, I don't read something just because it's free, as my TBR pile is too big to begin with.

That said, I loved the everloving crap out of Chain Reaction.

Chain Reaction is the third in a trilogy about the Fuentes brothers (as I've learned over the past year and a half, it's a common romance novel trope to follow a family, usually a set of siblings, over several books. I really like this, as it's fun to have characters in the same universe, and a good family dynamic makes for compelling reading). After Alex (Perfect Chemistry) and Carlos (Rules of Attraction), Luis is the youngest brother and quite possibly the most intelligent. He's been mostly kept away from the gang life that almost consumed his oldest brother, but he's still an adrenaline junkie and a girl magnet. When Luis is reluctantly relocated from Boulder back to the Chicago suburbs, he falls hard for straitlaced Nikki, whom clashed with at Alex's wedding a few years back. But when Luis' family is threatened by Alex's former gang, and Nikki holds back some secrets of her own, both their love and their lives are put in grave danger.

In other words, Chain Reaction has everything I like in a YA and in a romance. A believable family who don't always get along but who truly care for one another. An interesting hero and heroine, neither of whom are TSTL (Too Stupid to Live. Thank you, Smart Bitches Trashy Books). Complicated problems that can't be solved in one chapter, and intimate scenes that bring back the fumbling adrenaline of first love. (And I know I've said this many times before, but physical intimacy - especially between teenagers - is really, really hard to write. Try it sometime.)

Also, I hate to judge a book by its cover, but how hot is that cover? Seriously.

The one small thing that bothered me was some of the Fuentes brothers' dialogue. Apparently they don't pronounce their "ing"'s, so everythin' was spelled as such. I get that Elkeles was trying to be realistic with speaking patterns, but I found it rather annoyin'.

Overall, however, the author hit it out of the park with Chain Reaction, and with the Fuentes family trilogy as a whole. As Elkeles will tell you, she had to fight for the trilogy's first book, Perfect Chemistry, even switching agents in the process. It's inspiring to see what can come out of never giving up on a good story.

Chain Reaction is out in bookstores and ebook tomorrow.

Monday, August 1, 2011

I Learn a Lesson: Writing Movies for Fun and Profit

Apologies for the absence: last weekend I was dreaming up ideas for my brilliant (ha) fiction at a phenomenal Little Writers Retreat on the Prairie. Now I have returned to wrap up State Month (or technically, State Five Weeks) with a review of Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant's latest opus! And no, it's not Taxi 2.

Some families bond by playing board games. Mine goes to movies. One May in 2009, my siblings and I were all visiting my parents. Not much in the theatres looked interesting, so we decided on Night at the Museum 2, even though we were way out of the demographic (my youngest sib was 19 at the time). It was cute: clearly for younger kids but still fairly enjoyable. I never pass up a chance to see Hank Azaria semi-shirtless.

Anyway, about three quarters into the movie, which took place at the Smithsonian, there was a cameo by Orville and Wilbur Wright. Ever the trivia dork (thank you, discovery of IMDb during a bout with insomnia sophomore year of college!), I elbowed my mom and whispered, "Those are the guys who wrote the movie." The "guys" were Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, scribes of both Night at the Museum movies, which did very well at the box office; Taxi, which did not; and Herbie Fully Loaded, which was a disaster of Titanic-epic proportions (and which I sort of want to watch while drunk).

Say what you want about these State and Reno 911! alums (Lt. Jim Dangle and Travis Junior, if you don't recognize them by their real names) and the quality of their work: they're out there, they're writing, and they're making a pretty nice living while still doing their own stuff and being funny. Recently, they co-authored Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, where they hold forth on everything from pitch meetings to stage directions to parking in L.A. to why In-N-Out burgers are the yummiest ever (they are).

Even if I weren't a State devotee interested in writing, I'd still have enjoyed the hell out of Writing Movies for Fun and Profit. When it comes to working the Hollywood system, Lennon and Garant know their shit. No two ways about it. Granted, they write like, well, screenwriters (there are a LOT of CAPITAL LETTERS and underlined phrases....and ellipses) and they talk about boobs a lot (sometimes I sighed and said out loud, "Good heavens, boys, I hope you are being satirical!").

But weirdly enough, in between laughing at their bossy-yet-silly collective voice and occasionally saying, "hm, that applies to all types of writing, thanks guys!," I learned some LIFE LESSONS (and how to use Caps Lock, apparently). So here they are, The Top 5 Life Lessons I Learned from Writing Movies for Fun and Profit (Besides the Fact That I Want to Do Naughty Things With Ben Garant, Which I Already Knew):

1. Jump In.
What I found most interesting about Writing Movies for Fun and Profit was its structure: Lennon and Garant tell the reader how to SELL a screenplay, THEN how to write one. Business first. To sell, you need to know the ins and outs. You need to live in Los Angeles and be on speaking terms with words like "arbitration." And most of all, you need to "ALWAYS BE WRITING."

I hate driving, so I could never call L.A. my home, so I will probably never be a screenwriter. But I like the idea of jumping in. As I've gotten older, I've grown more cautious, and it's good to be reminded that sometimes risk-taking and throwing oneself into what others might call a shitty pipe dream could really pay off in the end. Or not. Which brings me to Life Lesson No. 2:

2. Sometimes Things Go to Crap. Deal With It.
One of Lennon and Garant's first films was Taxi. Remember Taxi? Jimmy Fallon and Queen Latifah in a cab having adventures? The total box-office bomb that Adam Carolla has dubbed "the worst movie of all time"? Yeah. They wrote that. They own that most of the writing in that film was, in fact, theirs. And then came Herbie, Fully Loaded. Lennon and Garant wrote this as a fun family movie, like the  ones they used to watch at the drive-in as children. It was greenlighted ON THE FIRST DRAFT, which almost never happens. And then...yeah.

And they dealt. They kept working. They own their failures every bit as much as their successes. While working on Taxi, they got to hang out at Luc Besson's estate in France, and Gisele Bundchen hugged them. They tell the reader, "Even the poop clouds that bring shit storms sometimes have a silver lining." Who the hell can't learn something from that quote?

3. Always Be Nice and Easy to Work With.
Apparently "the industry" is made up of the same seventy-five people who just rotate jobs. Today's intern can be tomorrow's vice president. So you better not be an ass to any of them. Now, Lennon is a native Midwesterner (from the suburbs of Chicago, in fact!) and Garant hails from the South (and has the adorable drawl to prove it), so it makes sense they'd be big on politeness and manners. But really, it's not just Hollywood: it's a teeny tiny world wherever you go. So be cool. Don't be a pushover, but establish a good reputation and maintain it. And people will remember.

Even if Billy Crystal is really mean and makes fun of your Southern accent (I learned that on the Internet. All Lennon and Garant say in their book is that Crystal's a dick).

4. Love What You Do.
Early in the book, Lennon and Garant outline one of the very basic tenets of writing for the studios: "ALWAYS BE WRITING . . . You should feel COMPELLED to write every day. Always. It's that simple. If you don't feel the desire to write every day--skip it. And let everyone else in the world get rich writing screenplays."

Again, I'm not an aspiring screenwriter. And you, my superawesome reader, might not want to write for a living. But I like this advice. Even if it's not your day job, if you have a passion and want to get ahead, you need to be disciplined. (Especially if your passion and your day job are not one and the same.) This advice is so important that these two even restate it in interviews promoting the book. Garant once said something like, "I'd write all the time even if I weren't getting paid. If you feel that way too, you know it's the right thing for you to be doing." I have no doubt horribly mangled that quote, but you get the sentiment, right?

5. Don't Be a Dick.
"Hey Unpro, you covered this in #3!" you might be saying right now. Maybe, but it bears repeating. "Don't be a dick" is also the life philosophy of the forever-cool Wil Wheaton. It seems so simple and clear, but it's astounding how many people in this world don't follow this rule. Whether you're negotiating with the studios to put your name in the credits of Starsky and Hutch or trying not to whap someone with your purse as you hurry to work, just don't. Be. A. Dick. Not only could this help your career, whatever that may be, it's good karma besides.

Oh, and Ben? Please call me if your impending marriage doesn't work out. You sexy Southern nerd, you.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Ingenious: Stella

As with many things in a twentysomething's life, my introduction to Stella began with a hangover.

You know those nights when you and your friend decide to get drunk because he's fighting with his boyfriend and you're not speaking to your friend-with-benefits? Those nights when you start out at a bar on Halsted Street, end up at your pal's apartment doing shots of Sambuca and then decide to break out the keyboard and sing the entire score of The Last Five Years? Those nights when you both stagger to Jewel in your pajamas for brownies and margarita mix you will not consume, before passing out on the hide-a-bed to a VHS of Saturday Night Live: The Best of Adam Sandler?

What? I've never had those nights. This is hypothetical, y'all.

Um, if the above had happened, when I was 25 and my friend 21, let's pretend we woke up with the mother of all hangovers. Let's pretend we went for iced coffee and later Baci's pizza, before once again collapsing on the hide-a-bed with still-pounding heads. I had my arm over my eyes when my friend reached for a DVD. "Did you see Stella when it was on Comedy Central?" I muttered something and shook my head. "It's those guys you like from Wet Hot American Summer, basically doing long-form improv. You'll love it."

Even before I started blogging, my tastes were always pretty obvious, and despite his hangover my friend was spot-on.

It's tough to describe Stella, which is probably why I warmed up with a drinking story. "Long form improv on crack" is an apt phrase, as is "wacky theatre crossed with the low production value of student film, with random celebrity guests." The Stella trio consists of State alums Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter and David Wain (the latter is surprisingly adorable with glasses), who have been performing together as a group since 1998. The moniker comes from a pregnant club owner who informed the guys of the name she planned on giving her unborn daughter.

Basically, the boys live in a parallel universe where they run around in suits and do things like have mustache-growing contests, crash yoga classes, and travel back hundreds of years via cardboard time machine. Nothing's unrealistic, untouchable, or sacred. The Comedy Central series is slightly cleaner, but the shorts made between 1998 and 2002 are absolutely filthy (at least 75% of them contain a very realistic-looking dildo). And not to sound like a hipster, but Stella resembles Kids in the Hall in terms of humor: either you're really into it, or you're really not.

I'm the former, obviously.

There are a few things I really love about Stella.

One: it appeals to my IMDb-memorizing nerdiness. Like I said, random celebs show up in the early shorts and later on the series, and I love dorkily figuring out how they know the Stella guys. For example, "omigod, it's Bradley Cooper, who played Michael Ian Black's lover in Wet Hot American Summer, which also starred Michael Showalter and was directed by David Wain!," "Oh look, it's Julie Bowen, now on Modern Family, but this is when she was co-starring on the NBC dramedy Ed with Michael Ian Black!," and "I swear to God, Santa Claus is played by Zack Galifinakis, because I'd know that voice anywhere!" (Told you: I'm a DORK.)
Second: the always-and-forever theatre geek in me revels in the trio's balls-to-the-wall openness. Stella isn't pure improv, but you can tell the boys are well-versed in the form's golden rule: "yes, and..." "Yes, and..." boils down to taking your improv partner's idea and running with it (sometimes it's a good life philosophy as well). Though The State was more tightly scripted, you can see "yes, and..." in many of their sketches, for example the "copy shop" in an early season. (Also, one of my favorite State sketches ever clearly began with the idea: "what if someone went a house?" I like to think after someone brought it up, the group was "yes, and"-ing all over the place.)

Third: remember how in your twenties, you knew a lot of people who did really bad improv and really bad short films? Picture what would happen if they were, well, really good. That's Stella in a nutshell.

For your viewing pleasure, here's one of my favorite shorts, "Pizza" (caution: it's pretty dirty):

And a bonus video: The State's impromptu sing-along at an MTV Christmas party, in the days before they had their own show. It's like a comedic Muppet Babies--if you'll notice, the future members of Stella are standing together--plus...Ben Garant at the halfway point. As my friend tinypants wood Tweeted, "Oh my hotness."

Monday, July 11, 2011

Idiocy: Top 5 Best Moments of Reno 911!

Continuing State Month on the blog, here's a little something about Reno 911! 

If you revisit The State--and I can't be the only one doing so, right?--you'll see alliances form within the group as the show progresses. For example, David Wain, Michael Showalter, Michael Ian Black and Ken Marino are often together in sketches. Ditto Tom Lennon, Ben Garant and Kerri Kenney. ("The Inbred Brothers" sketch is not only pants-pissing funny, but also an example of how two minutes of tight comedy is way better than seven minutes of beating a dead horse. Saturday Night Live, are you listening?) Lennon, Garant and Kenney went on to create and star in the best largely-improvised cop show parody ever, and one of my favorite shows, period. If you haven't seen Reno 911!, get thee to Netflix. You can skip the final season, where two of the cast members were replaced and thus, the chemistry wasn't quite the same. However, if you need some help to get started--or you want to remember an old fave--here are my top 5 favorite episodes of Reno 911!

1. "And the Installation is Free" (s3 e7)
The title of this episode comes from the High Sierra Carpeting radio jingle that golden-voiced Deputy Jones (Cedric Yarbrough) is paid $200 to warble, with residuals (or so he thinks). Naturally the hypothetical money and adulation go to his head, and he sings this very line throughout the episode, much to the chagrin of his partner Deputy Garcia (Carlos Alazraqui, aka the voice of the Taco Bell dog). Hubris reigns supreme and because the Reno Sheriffs' Department is always down on its luck, comes back to haunt Jones--after he fails to pay a bar tab, of course. The B plot, which involves Lt. Dangle (Tom Lennon) and Deputies Travis Junior and Trudy Wiegel (Robert Ben Garant and Kerri Kenney-Silver, respectively) trying to solve a drug-related murder, has the most hilarious Arby's product placement this side of Fargo.

2. "Execution Tickets" (s1 e3)
What's a sheriffs' department to do when everyone wants to attend an execution, but only two tickets are available? "What we always do," proclaims the hot pants-sporting Lt. Dangle. "Scavenger hunt!" And so it goes, as the officers track down such specific perps as a crackhead with a wig ("easy!"), and someone with a tattoo (bonus points if they are also Jewish). It's a cutthroat fight to the finish, because as redneck Deputy Junior enthuses, "Getting two tickets to an execution is like getting two tickets to NASCAR, except you know Jeff Gordon's gonna die!"

3. "Whose Birthday Is It?" (Reno 911! Miami)
I saw Reno 911! Miami in theatres before I started watching the show, so I wasn't 100% into it at first. Even so, the movie's brilliantly dumb sequences started me on the path of conversion. Clemmie's boob tattoo! The dead beached whale! The self-pleasure-at-the-nasty-hotel montage! However, the absolute best scene has Dangle and Junior responding to a noise complaint at Suge Knight's birthday party. They have no idea who Suge Knight is. When Dangle fires his gun and ends up with a plethora of weapons pointed at him, courtesy of Knight's guests, Dangle and Junior improvise a striptease...well, Junior's improvising. You get the feeling Dangle's done those moves many times before, in front of his mirror. When I first saw Reno 911! Miami, I hadn't seen The State in years...and then I remembered why my 14-year-old self always got excited when Ben Garant went shirtless. Dayum.

4. "Mayor Hernandez" (s5 e4)
I've always been neutral about George Lopez. I wasn't into sitcoms when his was on the air, and I'm not that into stand-up comedy. So I was pleasantly surprised when his guest turn on Reno 911!, as the city's mayor who gets more paranoid and whacked out with each morning briefing he crashes, made me laugh out loud. Also, this episode features one of Reno 911's best recurring perps, Terry the roller-skating prostitute (Nick Swardson). I don't care how much of a dick Swardson reportedly is in real life, Terry's lisping interactions with the Reno S.D.--which usually involve badly-worded denials of his illegal activities--are always a highlight.

5. "Dangle's Wedding" (s4 e14)
Despite knowing very well it was a product of The State alums, I wasn't always into Reno 911! My ex-boyfriend and I had always bonded over The State (and later, Wet Hot American Summer) and I was afraid Reno 911! would bring back too many memories. (What can I say? The brokenhearted are not always rational.) Even after I saw the movie, I didn't immediately dive in. However, several months later, my new roommate was watching a rerun of "Dangle's Wedding" before the new season started. I vaguely remembered the characters, plus I was too tired to get my ass off the couch. Let's just say the combo platter of 1) male cops in kilts, 2) a gay wedding proposal in front of an audience of bored middle schoolers, 3) an awkward, naked pregnant Wiegel going into labor after popping out of a cake--and subsequently getting wheeled to the hospital in said cake by said male cops in kilts--and 4) Dave Holmes shrieking "until the last dance IN HEAVEN!" made me say, "My ex was a jackass, but The State has never let me down! Hey roommate, can we TiVo Season Pass this show?"

Are you a fan of the Reno S.D.? Any favorite episodes I missed? Leave a comment!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Irreverence: The Ten

One of the best things about having my own blog is getting to write about whatever I want. If I'm obsessed with certain clip-show hosts turned NBC stars, I can pen three or four posts and those who don't want to read them, don't have to. The other day, a friend on Facebook said she hoped her writing didn't sound too fangirl. "Dude," I responded, "I started writing because I'm a fangirl."

With that in mind, I hereby declare July to be State Month here on the ol' Unpro. For the next few weeks, I will explore the subsequent work of my eleven favorite Tisch alums (well, Michael Ian Black dropped out and Michael Showalter ended up graduating from Brown...yeah, I'm the nerd who knows this). First up, David Wain's 2007 Biblical satire, The Ten.

Though he was hysterical as a performer on The State, David Wain also did a lot off camera. Who can forget the episode when he re-edited the opening credits? Not I.

Since The State ended, Wain's concentrated on directing. Between Wet Hot American Summer (read my friend Robin's hysterical love letter to the film here) and Role Models, there was The Ten.

I first saw The Ten when it was released in 2007. I believe it was supposed to coincide with the release of The State on DVD. However, the latter was put off for another two years because of yet another battle over music rights. I remember liking, not loving, the movie. Some scenes worked much better than others. It was decidedly okay.

Once I revisited it, I gained a new appreciation. Though some scenes still work way better than others.

It goes like this: each of the Ten Commandments is presented as a vignette. Some are slapstick, some dark, some just plain bizarre (in other words, vintage State). Hosting the vignettes, and starring in "Thou shalt not commit adultery" is Paul Rudd in his nicest of nice-guy modes. Except not really, because he's cheating on his wife (Famke Janssen) with a younger woman (Jessica Alba). Some characters appear in multiple vignettes, such as Ken Marino (who co-wrote the film with Wain) as a doctor who kills a patient "as a goof" and ends up the object of two rapists' affection in prison. And it's really, really funny.

Again, The Ten has its weak points. First, I know every comedy needs a straight man, but Rudd is just so much funnier when he gets to be goofy, which doesn't happen nearly often enough thanks to his conventional good looks. The commandment "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor" is almost entirely animated and it comes across like Wain is trying and failing to ape Monty Python. And I can't decide whether Winona Ryder's ventriloquist dummy-loving character is humorous or just whiny. Then again, I always was on the fence about Ryder when she wasn't playing Lydia Dietz or Jo March.

That said, The Ten is worth a rental, for the following awesome vignettes:
  • "Thou shalt have no other gods before me:" A regular Joe (Adam Brody) gets stuck in an awkward position following a skydiving accident, and experiences the ups and downs of sudden fame and the hubris that accompanies it. This represents the one and only time I have liked Adam Brody.
  • "Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain:" On a Mexican getaway, a shy librarian (Gretchen Mol, who really should have a better career) has a love affair with a carpenter named Jesus (Justin Theroux, who needs to break up with Jennifer Aniston and marry me instead. No offense, Jen, but I'd be a better writing partner).
  • "Thou shalt not kill" and "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife:" The aforementioned vignettes featuring Marino's murderous doctor, who gets what's coming to him (ha) in prison. Rob Corddry is hysterical as a fellow prisoner with his eye on Marino, and his scenes are oddly romantic.
  • "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods:" Liev Schreiber takes a break from his uber-serious typecasting as a suburban dude competing with his neighbor (Joe Lo Truglio) over...CAT scan machines.
  • And finally, "Honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy:" A husband and father (A.D. Miles) finds a fulfilling alternative to church...involving a lot of nudity. And it ends with a musical number.
However, what may be the absolute best best best thing about The Ten: all of The State appears. Some have leading roles in the vignettes, others pop up in Rudd's segments (really, does anyone drop the F bomb better than Tom Lennon?), a few are blink-and-you'll-miss-it (though I never miss naked Ben Garant), and one shows up in a photograph (Michael Patrick Jann, who had a scheduling conflict the day he was supposed to film). For fangirls like me, it was so much fun to pick out everybody--and to marvel, "Oh cool!  They still get along!" in my little fangirl reptile brain.

So declareth The Unprofessional Critic:

Thou shalt Netflix The Ten.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Flashback: The State and Teen Idolatry

Yesterday, I finished reading Allison Pearson's fun yet poignant novel I Think I Love You, about a 14-year-old David Cassidy groupie, then and now. And I got to thinking about teen idols. Some burn out eventually, others extend their fame and flourish. Either way, they're a life-changing influence on kids on the verge of discovering who they really are and what they want from the world.

I asked myself: who did I idolize at age 14? And not one, but eleven people came to mind. Recently, I've been rewatching their short-lived MTV sketch show as research for a possible writing project. Not only is 90% of it still extremely funny, but I realize how much this group influenced me: I developed a taste for witty dudes who wore flannel, learned the theatre/film geeks could also be the cool kids, and realized there was a place outside my small farm town where being different and proud of it was a positive trait that could take you far. Because with teen idols, it's not what they become or even who they are in real life, but the influence they have on their groupies.

With that, here's a post I wrote in 2009 when I was still finding my writing voice and I had about 2 readers. Please to enjoy: an ode to the guys and gal I idolized then and now. The State, I may never meet you, but I salute you.

I'm gonna go Sophia Petrillo on your asses for a second: Picture it, small Midwestern town that shall remain nameless, 1994. My cousin and ninth-grade classmate Erin asked me if I'd watched The State on MTV. The answer was a resounding no. I didn't like grunge music, and I was afraid it was one of those weird Alternative Nation-type shows.

One night I was over at Erin's, and since she had her own TV I had no choice. After Beavis and Butt-head, she kept the channel on MTV. "You'll like it," she promised. And I was transfixed.

Suffice it to say I was not a cool kid. (Scrape your jaw off the floor.) At least not in my high school. I was number one in a class where it was so socially unacceptable to be smart that the alpha-jock deliberately got average grades. I loathed sports with a passion, preferring busting my ass at dance class with my best friend. Who was a BOY. I assistant directed children's plays and read library books instead of going to football games and trying to convince liberal parents to buy me beer. (Okay, I still went to football games, but I had no idea what the hell was going on.) The clean-cut dudes in blue oxford shirts who populated my tiny Catholic high school did absolutely nothing for me. Neither, for that matter, did my boy best friend. I was fourteen years old and had lived in the same 30-mile radius my entire life. I had the nagging feeling there was something wrong with me.

Then I saw The State, and I started to change my mind.

Sure, the eleven sketch-comedy rogues were technically adults, but they were in the twentysomething realm that was more accessible than parent-age. They possessed the unselfconsciousness of preadolescents, but were old enough to have creative freedom and control. They were almost all male, except for one girl, Kerri of the ever-changing hair and black leather jackets, who more than held her own with the boys. You could tell they didn't mess with her. I remember watching in the basement of my house, inches away from the TV just in case I had to change it quick lest my mom come down and deem it inappropriate. In at least half the sketches, someone had a cigarette dangling out of their mouth. In one sketch, Kerri was actually sitting there SMOKING like it was no big deal. My eyes widened at the sight--she was baaaaaad. And though I thought smoking was gross, I wanted to be that bad too. I wanted to spend my days with fun, cool guys who considered me an equal and didn't ogle my boobs.

Because The State gang was baaaaad--but not in a petty-crime, teenage-sex type way that terrified me (Catholic school will do that if you buy into the hype). They were bad in a fun way. Their sketches were dirty but quotable, irreverent but really freaking smart. I didn't know you could be both. I didn't know that intelligent could be regarded as hilarious too. I know, I know, Saturday Night Live--but you have to remember that at this point, SNL was pretty awful. Mike Myers and Dana Carvey had left, David Spade's schtick was getting so old, and I didn't yet know that Michael McKean was way more awesome than those hack writers were making him out to be. Plus, duh, SNL was my parents' thing. The State, on the other hand, was mine.

The group was tight, you could tell. Later, I found out that most of them had met at NYU's Tisch School for the Arts. (I would also find out that Tom Lennon hails from the suburbs of Chicago--one of my coworkers did community theatre with him.) During the bits where they talked to the camera, they'd be draped all over each other, totally comfortable. During the opening credit sequence, they clustered together in one quirky, very expressive united front. They bantered, collaborated and had fun together. At this point in my life, I had a few very close friends--even now, I'm a girl who takes quality over quantity when it comes to buddies. But at fourteen, I was lonely and craved a group dynamic (even in dance classes, it was often me and my BFF against a gaggle of public school cheerleaders). I longed for the familiarity and shared passion that these eleven had.

And oh, the guys.

Granted, I didn't understand this well enough at hormone-addled fourteen to articulate it. But looking back, there was something about the male cast members. None were conventionally "handsome" (in the way that I'd been brought up to believe was the only way), but several . . . intrigued me. Not just the obviously adorable Ken Marino and Michael Ian Black. But (Robert) Ben Garant's and Joe Lo Truglio's intense eyes. (By the way, Garant has not aged a DAY. Seriously. Watch Reno 911.) Thomas Lennon's sweet, round face and Michael Showalter's cool floppy hair. I thought Michael Patrick Jann's Jesus Christ Superstar Goes Homeless look was dirty, but I blushed whenever his shirt was off. (Which was a lot, if you recall.) What increased the cute factor was this: these guys made me laugh. I wouldn't have admitted it to anyone, but I wanted to hang out with them--then make out with them.

And they liked musicals! The "Porcupine Racetrack" sketch was a thing of beauty: before it aired, Thomas Lennon explained onscreen that MTV had expressly asked them not to do the sketch. But they were going to do it anyway because it was just too funny. (They even rebelled against their own network. I was in AWE.) Then the sketch--homages to Guys and Dolls, My Fair Lady, and Les Miserables, with decent choreography and singable lyrics. Clearly no one (except MTV) was giving these clearly straight (well, except for Kevin Allison) guys crap for singing and dancing. Sure, "Porcupine Racetrack" was a parody, but you can't effectively make fun of a medium you don't know really, really well. These guys were theatre GEEKS. And they were proud of it. (I was totally turned on.)

Fourth quarter of ninth grade, Erin and I had a study hall. It was second period, and we were good girls who did our homework the night before, so we really had nothing to do. So while our compadres struggled through Business Math worksheets, Erin and I traded long scribbled notes quoting The State. "Um, I don't like you so much, ah, for one, you stinky and for two, you don't smell so nice!", "I'm gonna dip my BALLS in it!", and "I'm outta heeeeeere!" all made the rounds. We also speculated whether Kevin Allison was really gay--after all, in "The Jew, the Italian, and the Red Head Gay," David Wain was actually Jewish and Ken Marino was actually Italian. Yes, it seems weird to me now that there was a time when I wasn't surrounded by menfolk who prefer other menfolk. And yeah, I'd been doing theatre since I was nine, but at this time I still wasn't sure if I knew any gay men. I didn't think so. It would be totally obvious, right?

This note-passing was our nerdy rebellion. Our way of asserting ourselves in an environment where conformity was praised (and I'm not dissing my high school here; high school in general is this way). Later when we graduated, Erin's mom (my aunt) said that we'd had senioritis as freshmen. We weren't hugely precocious or mature, but we had the presence of mind to know that there was a world beyond our 150-person high school. A world where the smart kids not only ruled, but got their very own TV show where they joked about being on speed but still used big words knowing you would understand them. A world where handsome wasn't paint by number looks and came with a sense of humor and wit. A world where a guy could croon a ballad dressed in a gigantic porcupine costume--and misanthropic teens everywhere considered him a hero.

That same year, I started to branch out. I took part in my high school's very first musical. I made friends with very charismatic twin boys in the sophomore class, who not only had rockin' singing voices, but adored The State. (I still remember one of them going, "Michael Ian Black" and shaking his head in reverence.) A year later, I was cast in a show at a large outdoor theatre in the city twenty miles away, and met a darling boy with floppy hair like Michael Showalter. At a cast party, he and I were sitting on one side of the room, eating Doritos and talking about TV.

"You know what was the best?" I enthused, my mouth full of Doritos. "Did you ever watch The State on MTV?"

He looked at me, mouth dropping open. "Oh, my God." I waited--would he think I was weird? "That was my favorite!"

It was settled: he was the one I had been waiting for.

The State was canceled in 1995, mainly because MTV was stupid. (A trend that continues to this day.) But its members have continued to kick ass and take names in Hollywood. In fact, they work the studio system to their full advantage. Tom Lennon, Robert Ben Garant and Michael Patrick Jann have been responsible for writing and/or directing such high-concept big-budget fare as Herbie, Fully Loaded (the unfortunate Lohan remake) and the Night at the Museum franchise. They rake in the bucks and fund their own projects, such as the hilarious cop farce Reno 911! (most of The State gang is visible in the 2007 film), which also features Kerri Kenney-Silver and Joe Lo Truglio. Michael Ian Black's ubiquitous, showing up everywhere from VH1 to Sierra Mist ads to another brilliant-but-canceled show, Ed, and collaborating with David Wain and Michael Showalter on such brilliant fare as Stella (long-form acting exercises on crack). The 2001 camp comedy Wet Hot American Summer was a class reunion of sorts, if your class reunion was chock-full of awesome one-liners and montages set to eighties music. (I'd have totally gone to my class reunion if that had been the case.

Have The State taken over the free world? No. But they're still a huge presence, seen and unseen, in the entertainment industry. Proving that smart really does sell, that one can be successful on his or her own terms, and that every dork, if patient, will have her day. Inspiring a generation of outcasts who sat inches away from their basement television to laugh loud, talk back, and never be ashamed of their idiosyncracies. Because being different was what got The State their own TV show, successful careers, and each other. There was no telling where being different could take you.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Musical Life: Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

I work in a very small office. Despite this--or maybe because of it, as we all wear multiple hats--it was several years before I got to know people I'd been in close proximity to for most of my waking hours. Turns out I work with a lot of talented artists, writers and musicians. Who knew?

A couple of weeks ago I was having a discussion with one of these coworkers--also a writer, also a former high school theatre geek--about what life would be like as a musical. As in, anyone could burst into song about his/her feelings at any given moment. I had one word for this: "awesome." His counterargument was a bit more articulate: "But loud. Really loud. There would be one person singing over here, another one singing over there." He had a point. Still, I'd love to sing and dance out my emotions for just one day a year. It's what I miss most about performing: not being the center of attention, but taking whatever shit you had going on that week, pulling a Stanislavski and "using it."

A few days ago, in the midst of a particularly stressful morning, this same coworker appeared at my cubicle and presented me with a DVD. "You will love this," he said. And he was right.

I give you Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.

Remember how Once was technically a "musical," but didn't seem like it? There were no giant production numbers, no overdubbed vocals, no obvious lip-synching. The story was simple, the characters naturalistic, the songs organic. Granted, the protagonists were musicians, but their lyrics reflected their situations and relationships better than spoken words ever could. They weren't always happy with their lives, but they were surrounded by music, and that made day-to-day struggles a bit more bearable.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is a lot like Once, only there's also tap dancing. And it takes some talented filmmaking to make tap dancing seem off-the-cuff.

At first glance, the film's plot isn't a complicated one: Guy plays jazz trumpet and Madeline is a grad student. They're together, until they're not. Guy gets another girlfriend, Madeline looks to change her environment entirely. But is it really over between them?

Pretty straightforward, right? Except not really. Because as anyone who's ever dated anyone else knows, there are often lingering feelings. Regret. Memories good and bad. Wondering if you did the right thing by leaving or being left without a fight. And what better way to work all this out than trumpeting and tapping?

Oh, and the entire movie is shot in black and white with a handheld camera. Before you roll your eyes at the pretension, let me reassure you: it works. The black and white brings to mind MGM musicals of old, and the handheld adds an earthy quality. The musical numbers aren't slick and polished. They project happiness, but also nostalgia, gloom, desperation. And lastly, optimism.

My coworker is right: the world would be a louder place if we lived in a musical. However, I wouldn't mind living inside Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Everyone looks better in black and white, sounds better warbling about the time they kissed a boy in the park. Even from the depths of heartbreak sound lovelier in song.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is now available on DVD. Probably not at your local Redbox, but it's worth the hunt.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Girl Walks Into a Bar: My Experience with The Moth

In my past life (meaning, up until my early twenties), I was a performer. I lived and breathed theatre, music and dance and dreamed of the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) way before Tracy Jordan made it a thing, Liz Lemon. Even when I put aside my artsy-fartsy dreams for the more realistic path of law school, I took dance classes to keep myself sane and even directed a production of The Vagina Monologues, one performance of which was in a parking lot, which is another story for another day.

Performing took a backseat in my mid- to late twenties, as I was doing the whole figuring-out-my-life deal. I came back slowly: in 2008, I started taking dance again. In 2010, I was in two flash mobs. Also last year, I branched out into burlesque and took part in a group performance, which was one of the most terrifying and electrifying experiences of my life thus far.

This past Tuesday, in the very same bar where I'd bared my bod, I bared my soul.

I did it. I told a story for The Moth.

I was first introduced to The Moth by my coworker Megan, who attended a StorySlam event with one of her friends. "It's so cool and you'd love it," she gushed to me the next day. "You put your name into a hat and if you get chosen, you have to tell a five-minute story in front of everyone, with no notes. In front of a sold-out room of people."

"My God, that's scary," I said, and promptly forgot about it.

Late last year, however, I was fighting a bout of depression and for some reason, listening to podcasts helped, so I asked my friends for recommendations. That's when I learned more about The Moth: like Megan said, it consists of true stories, told live, without notes. The mainstage events are in New York City and often feature published authors, musicians and other celebrities. However, there are StorySlams in Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit, where regular folks like me can take part. Each event has a theme and your story has to fit into that. If you put your name in and are chosen to go up, you have a 45-second warning, so you better be ready.

The podcasts mainly consist of the famous people, though StorySlams sneak in every now and then. And the stories, famous or not, are phenomenal. Joyce Maynard, one of my favorite authors, did one about being a mother that brought tears to my eyes as I walked along Clark Street. A recent favorite explored her relationship to two religions: evangelical Christianity and Mary Kay cosmetics. And one of the best, in my opinion, involves a middle-school drama teacher with an attitude problem.

When I found out about the latest StorySlam here in Chicago (theme of the night: Confusion), I invited Megan. Unfortunately, she had to bail at the last minute, but I decided to go anyway. The morning of the slam, I was walking to work listening to the latest podcast.

And I had an idea.

Up until then, I'd thought I had no stories in me. Nothing true, anyway. My life hasn't been all that interesting. And five minutes with no notes, my own experience in my own words? No way. I can make up stories or follow a script with the best of 'em, but I'd never be ready for The Moth.

But something happened several months ago. Nothing horribly traumatic. Nothing terribly unique. However, maybe that was the point. And if I told it, to a room full of strangers, maybe someone could relate. And maybe I'd feel better.

On my lunch break, I wrote out the story. I got to the bar early and couldn't find a seat, so I propped my notebook up against the wall and muttered the important stuff. Oh, and I put my name in the hat.

I may not have known anyone, but the audience members around me were incredibly supportive when they found out I might be going up. One had me tell him the story, which assuaged my nerves considerably. Another said, "I walked over here when you were telling it and I thought, 'I want to hear more.' So if you're up there and you get nervous, just look over here, because I want to hear more.'"

Ten people would be called up that night.

I was number five.

It was nerve-wracking. Again, these were my own words, my own experiences. There are real people involved--even though no names are revealed, and none of them were there that night, that's still a big deal. I'm not exactly the anti-heroine in the story, but I come off very, um, human. Very imperfect.

According to the emcee for the evening, I "hit it out of the park."

I had a beer bought for me. People came from across the bar to tell me I was good. One set of judges (that's the other thing, people volunteer to be judges and score you) gave me a low score and THE WHOLE BAR BOOED THEM.

More importantly, I understood why people, well-known and not, choose to reveal their histories, their flaws, and their heartbreaks to a waiting crowd.

Forgive me for sounding corny, but it's damn therapeutic.

And that's how I found myself standing in front of a sold-out bar, taking a deep breath, and saying my opening line into the microphone:

"I spent my whole life trying to avoid cliches, only to end up in the supermarket parking lot three days after the blizzard."

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Celebrity Almost-Encounters: Amy Poehler

Greetings, Unpro-ites!  Hope your Memorial Day weekend was everything you hoped it would be.  So far, I have gone to IKEA with my parents.  And it was really funny seeing my truck driving ex-football player dad get all excited over a little table.

Also, I scored a paid blogging gig with RedEye, a supplement of the Chicago Tribune.  I'm blogging about movies in my neighborhood of Lakeview.  Check it out here!

So this week's post is all about celebrity crushes.  No, this is not another Joel McHale post.  As I am an equal opportunity crusher, I want to talk about my almost encounter of yore, with a woman I am in serious lady-love with: the divine Ms. Amy Poehler.

In college, I was all about TV sketch shows.  Kids in the Hall rocked my world.  I was still mourning the loss of The State (this was before most of the gang resurfaced in Wet Hot American Summer and Reno 911!).

And then there was the Upright Citizens Brigade.  Three hilarious dudes and one tiny, crazy, spazzy chick.  They'd originated in my very own city, Chicago, and my sophomore year of college, came back for a show at ImprovFest.  I took my then-boyfriend as a birthday surprise.

When the show started, Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh came in from the back of the theatre.  Ian Roberts ducked down right beside me and my boyfriend, looked directly at us, and made the "shhh" sign.  A very cool moment.

I have to admit, I don't remember much about the show.  I know it was a mix of the long-form improv UCB made famous, plus a few of the sketches from their Comedy Central show.  Of course they were all incredible, but Amy was transcendent.  I once heard an interview with a comedian who said, "Amy Poehler is, without a doubt, one of the best improvisers in the world."  I wholeheartedly agree.

After the show, there was a buzz in the audience: the UCB just might be at ImprovOlympic (now re-christened iO because the actual Olympics got mad.  I'm not kidding).  My boyfriend and I eagerly got our asses in gear.  We were standing in line outside iO when...there she was.

Standing in the doorway, just ten feet away from me, animatedly chatting with another woman.  I was an openmouthed groupie in a stretchy pink dress, nudging my boyfriend and muttering "Look!  Look!"  Because even then, before Saturday Night Live, before Parks and Recreation, before UCB became two theatres and a training program all its own, even just standing there talking . . . Amy gave off this energy.  She was cute and blonde and chirpy, but she was also funny and intelligent and clearly gave two whole shits about what anyone else thought.  She was a miniature powerhouse, and you could follow or get the hell out of the way.

In other words, she was everything I wanted to be, then and now.

I've talked about this before, but it bears repeating: it's not easy being a short yellow-haired female.  I started swearing at twelve for a reason: it gave me an edge and was unexpected from someone who looked like me.  (Hey, at least I don't have a perm anymore.)  I've been called loud, aggressive, pushy and intense, and if I were a guy?  I'd just be called confident.

In my late teens and early twenties when I was still like this but way less secure, I had found a role model.

A year later, I was at a friend's apartment watching the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, which had been delayed for weeks because of 9/11.  In the opening credits was none other than the lady who had recently rocked my world as a summer camp drama coach (which had been my job that summer a swell).  I think I gasped, "Omigod, it's Amy Poehler from UCB!  I looove her!"

And as Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation, she shows a whole new side.  Leslie's silly but capable and professional.  She likes candy and Gossip Girl AND earns respect from her colleagues.  She's a feminist who's not a bitch.  And whether she's hilariously stalking a high school vandal or sadly choosing between her relationship and her hometown loyalty, Leslie is always, always genuine.  Just like Poehler.

That same boyfriend who accompanied me to the UCB show said this to me once: "You're always genuine.  You never act like someone you're not.  And most people can't say that for themselves."  I'm a Leslie Knope.  I'm proud of it.

And maybe someday, I will be an Amy Poehler.

Do you have any celeb role models?  Any funny celebrity encounters?  Leave a comment!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Not Another Superhero Movie: Bridesmaids

In 2007, my friend and I stood up in the wedding the woman who'd been the third of our college Three Musketeers.  We'd been asked nearly two years prior.  Having not been in a wedding since I was eleven years old, I had little to no idea of what I was getting into.

Ah, bridesmaid-ism.  You never forget your first time.

I was fortunate, in that the bride was absolutely wonderful (and I'm not just saying this because she reads my blog).  She was conscious of everyone's body types and budgets, both of which varied greatly from woman to woman.  She let us wear our own shoes (mine were $12 numbers from Payless) and enlisted me to help pick out her wedding shoes (which, unlike throwing bachelorette parties or showers, was something I was comfortable with).  She also gave each bridesmaid a really nice gift, which I still use four years later.  Bride win!

Still, I became intrigued by bridesmaid culture, fascinated by those who had way worse (and more expensive) experiences than my own.  As my broke-ass roommate and I somehow got the We channel, I avidly watched Bridezillas (oh, the screeching!  oh, the judgmental rhyming narrator!  oh, the old-school theme where the bride breathed fire!).  I was fascinated, not just by the harpy brides, but their equally crazy attendants.  What is it about a wedding where spending exorbitant amounts of money and treating your nearest and dearest like dog poo suddenly becomes not only acceptable, but expected?

I have never seen a movie that captures the insanity--not to mention the class warfare, friendship dynamics, and life uncertainty--as skillfully and hilariously as Bridesmaids.

Annie (the phenomenal Kristen Wiig, who also co-wrote the film) is in a slump.  Her bakery business collapsed due to the economy, and now she's stuck in a dead-end job at a jewelry store while sharing a crappy apartment (genuinely crappy, not movie crappy aka still nicer than my apartment) with two odd roommates.  Oh, and her friend-with-benefits Ted (Jon Hamm: yes ladies, he's naked) doesn't like it when she spends the night.  When Annie's best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph, who really should have a better career) announces her engagement and asks Annie to be her maid of honor, Annie's confronted with financial concerns, life questioning, and the other bridesmaids, who range from Disneyphile newlywed (Ellie Kemper) to desperate housewife (Wendi McLendon-Covey) to just plain weird (Melissa McCarthy) to "I'm a more awesome friend than you" one-upper (Rose Byrne).

Can I just say how all the articles expressing surprise that Bridesmaids is doing so well at the box office just kiiiill me.  Everyone is SO surprised that women who aren't named Tina Fey can actually be funny.  That Yet Another Silly Wedding Movie is raking in almost as much buckage as the latest dumb superhero popcorn flick.  (Don't get me wrong, I love a good superhero movie.  What I don't love is when every other damn new release is about superheroes.)  That--gasp!--both women AND men are turning out in droves and really enjoying themselves.

Well, Hollywood, this is what happens when you greenlight a movie that's actually good.

Because all hilarity and hijinks aside, Bridesmaids is a solid film.  Everything from the Milwaukee setting to the actual wrinkles (!) on the thirtysomething actors to the re-enacting of 90's pop songs (I don't know about you, but I have some sort of dorky dance inside joke with most of my friends) feels genuine and straight out of real life.  Sure, some sequences of defiling expensive gowns and bad reactions to prescription drugs on airplanes are over-the-top, but they're balanced out by scenes dealing with class warfare, dreams deferred, and jealousy of new friends.  There's an early scene, largely improvised by Wiig and Rudolph, where Annie and Lillian are having brunch, which so accurately captures close friends catching up that I felt like I was watching a re-enactment of brunch with any one of my pals.

Just...see this movie.  If you've ever been in a wedding, see this movie.  If you've ever played the comparison game (money, relationships, what have you) with others in your peer group, see this movie.  If you've ever dealt with how a friendship has changed over time, see this movie.  If you want to see the funny overweight lady stereotype turned on its ear, see this movie.  If you like to watch really darling Irishmen be really darling (Chris O'Dowd, I loved you on The IT Crowd and I love you now--I'm single!), see this movie.  If you want to laugh and laugh and laugh while also wanting to cry a little, see this movie.

If you're like me and you're sick of bad comic-book adaptations and silly rom-coms with Katherine Heigl, see this movie.

Just see this movie.