Monday, February 28, 2011

Revisiting My Girl (And Young Unpro)

This post was originally published on The Film Yap.

When you're 11 years old, all you want is to be understood.

No matter how loved and cherished you are, it's not enough. You want someone to get you. Forget about adults: They have their own lives, which you're starting to realize seem largely mundane and petty. That leaves your peers, but if you're in any way unusual or unique, they tend to ridicule rather than accept.

One friend's all you need.

In one of "My Girl's" opening scenes, preteen Vada Sultenfuss (Chicagoan Anna Chlumsky, more recently seen in "In the Loop" and on TV's "30 Rock") holds court on the steps of her home, which doubles as a funeral parlor. When she offers to show a group of neighborhood boys a dead body, one of them opts out and is called out as a wuss. Before he heads home, the boy and Vada exchange a look.  That's all it takes to establish Thomas J. Sennett (Macaulay Culkin at his floppy-haired cutest) as Vada's best — and only — pal.

Vada's not only shunned for her funeral-home family, headed by her distant father Harry (a portly Dan Aykroyd). She likes climbing trees and doesn't wear dresses. Vada's convinced she killed her mother — who died in childbirth — and that she herself is dying as well. Her grandmother, with whom Vada had been very close, is now largely uncommunicative. It's enough to make any kid feel weird. And when free-spirited makeup artist Shelly DeVoto (Jamie Lee Curtis, sporting an enviable collection of mini-dresses) takes a job at the funeral home and falls for Harry, Vada's life gets even weirder.

But she's taking a writing class, taught by her crush, Mr. Bixler (Griffin Dunne). So what if it's for adults and she paid for it by stealing money from Shelly? And there's always Thomas J., who may be allergic to everything but is always up for an adventure. Vada doesn't make it easy for him, once calling him a "pacifist" and "bedwetter" in one breath. But compare her easy meanness to Thomas J. with her behavior around her father, which vacillates between desperate good girl and crying out for attention by declaring she has prostate cancer at the dinner table. Vada can insult Thomas J. because she's comfortable around him. She knows he won't leave her.

Until one day he does.

When "My Girl" was released in 1991, I was 11, the same age as Vada and Thomas J. I had a mad crush on Macaulay Culkin and couldn't believe — gasp! — he was going to die in the movie. I was mildly intrigued as well that the protagonist of the film was not only exactly my age, but a girl. Outside of the Disney Channel, this was practically unheard of. Oh, and there was a kiss. Sold.

I remember seeing the movie with my dad and talking about it afterward. He said to me, "I like that movie. It's about things you can't change, and even though they happen, they are not your fault." First, my dad and I rarely did things one-on-one; there were two other kids in the family. And as I was still reeling from Thomas J.'s untimely fate in the moments after the movie, this simple explanation offered me a whole new outlook.

When I was 16 and a week away from going on my first real date, I rewatched "My Girl" at my cousin's house. What stuck out to me that time wasn't my childhood crush's character's death, but Shelly's quote to Harry: "You can be in a room with a hundred men and not like any of them. But you can be in a room with one man, and he's exactly the one you want." "Wow!" I thought. "That went right over my head when I was 11, but now I totally get it!"

I'm now 30.  Just a couple of weeks ago, a fellow critic and I were discussing "My Girl." He remembered Macaulay Culkin's whimper before he met his untimely fate. I remembered how the movie took the young girl's problems seriously and how I could identify with them. I then wondered if "My Girl" would hold up; as we all know, not every childhood pop-culture favorite stands the test of time.

"My Girl" does.

Sure, there are a couple of moments where the kids' interactions seem forced or the score borders on treacly. But as a nostalgia piece, it works well — like 1995's "Now and Then," "My Girl" employs a groovy '70's soundtrack and sun-dappled shots of bike rides to evoke a simpler pre-video game era. And as a believable coming-of-age story, it works even better. Aykroyd journeys from gruff to openhearted, Curtis is fun and flamboyant without resorting to a manic pixie dream girl stereotype. Culkin wasn't always great as a child actor, but here he brings a subtle sweetness to Thomas J.  And Chlumsky is excellent — adorable without the pageant-esque shine common to so many young stars today and able to hold her own with her more experienced costars.

I wonder if "My Girl" could be made today. It's neither icky-sweet nor forcibly gritty. It isn't slow, but moves at its own pace, stretching out leisurely like childhood summer. It's a low-key dramedy that wasn't going for millions of box office dollars or scads of critical acclaim. It just is. Watching it as an adult, I recalled that time in my life when, like Vada, all I wanted was to be understood — and as I grew up, I found people who got me.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

An Open Dear John Letter to Glee

Dear Glee,

I won't beat around the bush: we're breaking up.

I was so excited for you in the beginning.  I first met you in spring of 2008, I read a script of the pilot courtesy of my friend Bob.  Believe it or not, Sue Sylvester wasn't even a character in it!  Even when Bob didn't get the role, we were still awaiting you with bated breath.  "This show is going to be huge," I said.

And you were.  Despite some decidedly silly plotlines which shall remain nameless (*cough* fakepregnancy *cough*), to paraphrase Damn Yankees, you had heart.  Miles and miles and miles o' heart.  And some things you were hitting on the mark.  A nerdy, insecure girl who wasn't nerdy and insecure because she had glasses and liked math (like every other nerd cliche), but an obsession with musical theatre and a whole lot of other issues.  Two friends of the same sex who admitted they experimented sexually with one another, as many real teens do.  A gay kid struggling with coming out, but not with his rough-around-the-edges father, who loved and accepted him all along.  I'm STILL getting tears in  my eyes thinking about it!

Also, the talent!  Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison, two performers I'd enjoyed for years thanks to OBC's (Original Broadway Cast recordings for the cooler-than-I) and YouTube, finally getting their due in exposure and paychecks way better than the stage could provide.  Dianna Agron, able to handle a difficult pregnancy storyline while always looking gorgeous.  Heather Morris, funny with one-liners and fierce with choreography.  And Mike O'Malley, who'd been languishing in dumb sitcoms, in a dramatic and emotional turn that always, always felt real.

And then season 2 happened.

True to my prediction, you DID become huge, Glee.  Huger than I ever expected, blowing up iTunes, selling DVD's like hotcakes, and going on a tour that was attended by people of every age.  And I think it went to your head.

Granted, there have been some fun episodes this season.  I loved "Duets," and "Sectionals" had a season 1 feel about it, in that it actually cared about the consistency of the characters--plus it showcased players who don't get to sing quite as much.  I also appreciated the additions of Sam and Blaine, in more ways than one.  Dayum.

But the inconsistency!  Oh, the inconsistency!

Just as I had to eventually let go of my ex because I couldn't take the emotional ups-and-downs, I can't invest my time and energy with a show so incredibly frustrating.  To wit: why does Terri only pop up once every seven episodes?  Why is Mr. Schu now just a douche on the sidelines 93% of the time?  Am I really supposed to believe Kurt will go back to McKinley, when I've never known a bullied kid to return to the scene of the bullying once he/she has escaped?  And just when did Rachel change from a relatable chick who, while sometimes annoying, just wanted to be understood to a shrill harpy who sent her rival to a crackhouse?

(Because I still care for you, Glee, we will not begin to discuss the abominable Britney Spears butt-licking, the Rocky Horror that was only rocky-horrifying in that a GIRL played Frank N. Furter, and the terrible, terrible, one-dimensional-even-for-you, looks-like-a-40-year-old-porn-star Santana.  I hate Santana.  Please kill her.  Not the actress, who I'm sure is very nice, but the character.  Ditto Emma Pillsbury and her rage-inducing baby voice.  Though I do like her wardrobe.)

I can't do it, Glee.  Just like I can no longer wait for my ex's infrequent texts, I can't wait by the TV in hopes that you'll go back to the show you used to be.

In the halcyon days of your first season, I wrote a blog post doubling as a love letter to a show encapsulating what I wish high school would have been like for me--not the pregnancy stuff, but the breaking into perfectly choreographed numbers--while also capturing what it WAS like for me, as the ambitious wannabe star who sometimes went too far but got far more crap from her peers than she deserved.

Glee, I can't promise we can be what we once were, but in the interest of your own self-improvement, you might want to reread that postletter.

I wish you well.  But right now, I have to Slushie you.


Monday, February 14, 2011

A Cynic's Defense of Romance Novels

I am not a romantic.

Even at sixteen, when a girl is supposed to be all starry-eyed and love-drunk, I was more of the cynic/realist of my relationships.  On our first date, my then-boyfriend and I went to a park with a gazebo.  "Stars are cool," he remarked.  "That was really corny!" I chirped.  He kissed me anyway.

I'm not sure why I'm this way.  My parents may argue a lot, but they've been happily wed for over thirty years, so it's not like I came of age among marital discord and strife.  Maybe it links to why I've cursed like a sailor since I was twelve: in a baggy shirt without eyeliner I look like a virginal milkmaid.  In a tight shirt with eyeliner, I look like a virginal milkmaid trying to be slutty.  What can I say?  I've always been about contrasts.

So it was the weirdest damn thing when last year, I found myself getting into romance novels.

Like the most hush-hush of sex acts, it started out innocently enough: my friend Bryn Donovan sent  me an advance copy of her novel An Experienced Mistress so I could review it for the blog.  After a stressful workday, I sat down at Borders--my punk rocker crush in plain sight--and perused the PDF.  At first, the Catholic schoolgirl in me blushed and giggled.

Then, the Catholic schoolgirl in me realized just what it was I was reading--a story of an interesting woman who had a lot of steamy, well-written sex--and got very, very turned on.

Shit!  I realized.  I think I like romance novels!

It didn't stop there.  Two days later I found myself, as I usually do, in Barnes & Noble on my lunch break.  Except this time I was visiting a different section.  I timidly poked my head into where it said "Romance"--with the side-eye I was giving to make sure no one I knew saw and judged me, I may as well have been buying crack.  Instead of a familiar face, however, I saw a tall, attractive woman, also in work clothes, perusing titles.  We smiled at each other conspiratorially.

I bought Lessons in French by Laura Kinsale.  You never forget your first time.

That was almost a year ago, and since then, thanks to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, my local library, and a generous friend who gave me a whole tote bag full of her old paperbacks, I'm an official convert.

Let's address the arguments right away.  Yes, some romance novels are crap.  Terribly written tripe with rapey heroes, stupid heroines, and an HEA (Happily Ever After) I wouldn't believe in a million years.  You know what most romance novels are, though?  Well-written.  With flawed but funny heroes, smart and interesting heroines, and a HEA I see coming (because it's romance and you have to have the HEA) but can totally believe.  Let's just say that Jennifer Crusie, Laura Kinsale, Eloisa James, Lauren Dane, and the Godmother of them all, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, kick Dan Brown's vanilla-prosed, conspiracy-spouting ASS.

Because you know where else there's bad writing?  In memoir.  In sci-fi.  In crime, both true and fiction.  In New York Times-bestsellers.  If I have to read about yet another repressed housewife whiiiiining about her husband's affair, I may blow up a suburb my friends don't inhabit.  And yet none of these genres get the hate that romance does.

Do men like romance heroes exist in real life?  Some may argue no.  Some of my happily-married and -coupled friends may beg to differ.  But does it matter?  A big part of romance is escapism.  Fantasy.  But readers can still learn from this.  I'm not saying any of us should hold out for the perfect man, but we shouldn't settle, either.  And really, most romance heroes aren't perfect (really, I have no patience for the ones who are).  Just like the heroines, though, they learn.

Wanna know why I think romance gets a bad rap?  Fair warning: I'm about to step up on a feminist soapbox, but if you read me regularly that shouldn't be much of a shock.  Romance is a genre largely written by women, for women.  Never mind that it's basically keeping the publishing industry afloat: it's for GIRLS, ewwwwww!  Because women can't possibly know what they want, physically, emotionally, and sexually.  Because there's no way writing and editing a romance novel isn't damn difficult.  Because (and this is a literary argument as old as time), the female experience can't be universal.

*Unpro steps off soapbox*

Look, if romance ain't your bag, it's cool.  I'm not trying to make anyone read a romance, though I certainly won't stop you.  But don't make the mistake that Jezebel's Morning Gloria did a week ago, when she denigrated all romance as rape-promoting garbage, using one or two blogs as expert sources.  It's like anything else: don't trash it if you don't know what you're talking about.  (Thanks to Jezebel's Sadie Stein for her excellent rebuttal.)

I admit, I used to trash romance too.  Because it was easy.  Easier to giggle at Fabio (who's supposed to be pretty cool in real life) and lump a literary phenomenon into a National Enquirer-esque category of fluff.  Easier to judge a book by its (sometimes admittedly silly) cover.

A year later, it's Friday night and I'm heading to Borders, thinking "I could really use some Jennifer Crusie right now."

Without any shame whatsoever.

Monday, February 7, 2011

List-a-mania: Top 5 Things I'm Obsessed With This Week

Well Unpro-ites, if you're in certain parts of the country, it's been a hell of a week.  Personally, I'm so over this snowpocalypse and all the other corny names it's been given by Weather Channel reporters who have nothing better to do than sensationalize natural occurrences.

The one good thing about all this freezy precipitation?  It's given me an excuse to hunker down with some awesome TV, books and music.  Behold, the top 5 bits of pop culture goodness that have captivated my brain, heart, and some other parts of my anatomy of late:

1.  Community: "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons"
Each episode of this keeps-getting-better comedy bears the name of a fictional class that ties to the themes of the wacky study group's current adventure.  With that in mind, last Thursday's ep could easily have been called "How to Save a Life."  The basic plot is this: when Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) becomes afraid for his depressed pal "Fat" Neil (played with downtrodden dignity by Charley Koontz), Jeff organizes the study group in Neil's favorite role-playing fantasy game.  But what happens when wily old man Pierce (Chevy Chase) threatens to take over?

Initially I was suspicious of this episode: I've never played D&D in my life, and I was afraid this would be another "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" and sacrifice genuine laughs for the sake of being clever.  But that scamp Dan Harmon, once again, made me a believer.  From the Cate Blanchett in Lord of the Rings narration, to the too-good-for-TV musical score, to a hilarious mute imaginary sex scene, to the insightful look at complex group dynamics and insecurity between friends, "Advanced Dungeons and Dragons" was a winner.  It's vintage Community: where you're laughing so hard and smirking so much, then at the very last minute, realize your heart is smiling and hurting at the same time.

2.  Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses (Claire Dederer)

I adore yoga and have practiced for almost three years now, but I still don't go a bundle on yoga books.  I'm not talking about the instructional stuff, which was very helpful when I was starting out.  I'm talking about the Eat, Pray, Love type crap where everyone's all hippy-dippy and faux-spiritual and say things like "journey" and "energy."  It's that type of talk that scared me away from yoga for so long.

But Poser is different.  I was intrigued by the title and blurb at Barnes & Noble, and in a rare moment for me, bought the hardcover at full price.  (In my defense, one does funny things when a blizzard is a-comin'.)  Claire Dederer, a Seattle freelance writer who began practicing yoga after the birth of her first child, isn't a long-haired tight-bodied 20-year-old telling you how to live your life.  She's imperfect.  She's funny.  She loves some poses and is skeptical of others.  And almost unintentionally, over ten years of practicing yoga she DOES indeed learn to live better.

I loved Dederer's sharp, witty voice and her descriptions of various teachers and studios in Seattle and in Boulder, CO.  More importantly, her journey (yup, I use that word now) reflected my own.  After years of skepticism, I started yoga as a way of regaining flexibility I'd lost, and in the wake of a huge tragedy just outside my city, to understand why the world was the way it was.  And it worked: not only did I feel healthier, I started to realize a recovering Catholic could find spirituality in movement.  Whether it's through dance, yoga, or just walking around Chicago, I discovered that being put squarely in one's own body is a religious experience in itself.

3.  Nicki Minaj
About a month ago, Bob persuaded me to download Kanye West's "Monster" because Bob had become obsessed with it.  I did as I was told and got hooked, in particular on the verse rapped by a sassy Sri Lankan chick named Nicki Minaj.  Normally I'm not so into hip hop, but sometimes when I'm angry at the world or I just want to get my groove on, there's nothing like sharp words and strong beats.  Also, because it's not my favorite genre, I rarely find a female rapper I can get into.

Minaj rocks my socks: very tough and very feminine at the same time.  Plus, she loves pink and y'all know I'm all over that shit.  I'm loving her single "Blazin'" (featuring Kanye), and am also getting into her new album Pink Friday.  But I keep going back to "Monster."  Because, really, when you're pissed there's nothing like mouthing the words, "First things first, I'll eat your brains/then I'mma start rockin' gold teeth and fangs."  Aw yeah.

4.  Smut, Vol. 1 (Edited by

In the past year, thanks to my author friend Bryn Donovan, I've discovered romance novels are just damn good.  As is erotica, romance's kinkier cousin.   I'm way more turned on by well-chosen dirty words than dirty pictures (no matter how gorgeous the latter are, the Catholic schoolgirl in me still wants to giggle and go "ewwww").

I picked up Smut, Vol. 1 off the clearance rack at Borders, and damn if it wasn't the best $1.99 I've ever spent.  Written by authors such as Steve Almond, Jay McInerney and Alice Sebold, these stories of all kinds of love and sex are both intelligent reads and totally, completely hot.  Let me put it to you this way: I have no desire to procreate.  Ever.  And yet Paula Bomer's "Fucking His Wife, Four Months Pregnant With Their Third Child" made me want to get married and knocked up.  It's that fantastic.  (Really glad my mom doesn't read this blog.  Watch this be the week she does.)

5.  RuPaul's Drag Race

You guys, words cannot express how much I adore RuPaul's Drag Race.  It is, quite simply, the best reality show EVER.  Ever.  Forever and ever, amen.  Nothing is more hilarious, touching and glittery than watching a handful of drag queens compete for a cash prize, free makeup for life, and a chance to headline a tour.  And in the midst of it all is Miss Thang herself, RuPaul, alternately jumping around like a bald pogo stick in men's suits, and fabulously decked out in glam gowns enhanced by magical boob cutlets.  In between silly challenges like dragging up Barbie dolls and turning thrift-store finds into tinsel-rific holiday outfits, there are the queens themselves: men who love dresses, makeup and performing, who often didn't feel they fit into the world until they put on some heels and threw a hearty "fuck you" at anyone who didn't accept them for who they were.  No manufactured drama here: the guys/girls bring their own and then some.  As RuPaul says: "Gentlemen, start your engines, and may the best WOMAN win!"

RuPaul's Drag Race runs Monday nights on the Logo network, and for free on Logo's website.  Also, if you like recaps, you should read mine every week at (hey, I'm all about the shameless self promotion).

What are YOU obsessed with right now?  Any recommendations?  Leave a comment!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hey Girl, Let's Talk About Ryan Gosling (Part 2)

The following is a continuation of yesterday's post, in which I raved about the incomparable (and incomparably sexy) Ryan Gosling.  Today, I will review his two most recent films:

All Good Things
I'm very surprised All Good Things didn't merit a wider release.  Sure, it's dark and depressing, but it's a fascinating true crime story--made more fascinating by the skillful maneuvers executed by director Andrew Jarecki, who's previously directed only documentaries, to avoid being sued by the individuals in question.  All Good Things is based on the life of Robert Durst, the heir to a New York City real estate scion.  In 1982, Durst's young wife disappeared and has since been declared legally dead.  In 2000, Durst's female best friend was found murdered in Los Angeles.  In 2001, Durst's neighbor in Galveston, Texas was dismembered.  Durst has never been charged with any of their murders.

As a fan of Unsolved Mysteries and Dateline, I was all over this shit.

As a young adoring bride turned ambitious medical student, Kirsten Dunst does a fine job portraying half of a marriage that slowly grows more oppressive and horrifying.  Frank Langella turns in a predictably awesome performance as the anti-hero's father, whose secrets and lies were meant to protect and instead destroyed.  Also, Nick Offerman (who was screwed out of an Emmy for Parks and Recreation) and Kristen Wiig (love her on Saturday Night Live) take four-scene roles and turn them into memorable characters.

But it's Gosling who's incredible here.  His David Marks, the fictional version of Robert Durst, is equal parts shyly charismatic, socially awkward, and flat-out scary.  You get the feeling Gosling took the role not because he really, really wants an Oscar (can I say right now how much that annoys me?  Mark Wahlberg, I'm looking at you), but because he found it interesting.  And the saddest thing for me, is how few people will see this bravura performance.

Blue Valentine
I was so excited for Blue Valentine.  The trailer was charming yet hinted at darkness.  Michelle Williams was always my favorite actress on Dawson's Creek and her movie career has been formidable.  And Gosling.  Playing a ukulele.  Having sex.  Aw yeah.

And I like movies about troubled, complicated relationships.  Closer inspired me to cut my hair short.  Plus, these films make me feel good about being single.

After viewing Blue Valentine, I left the theatre a shivering husk of a woman with my face set on perma-cringe, vowing to stay single forever and ever, amen.  (I also felt really sorry for the poor misguided couples in the audience who thought it'd be a great date movie.  I hoped none of them broke up immediately after exiting the cinema.)

It's not that Blue Valentine isn't good.  Quite the contrary.  It's fantastic.  Williams and Gosling give stunning, raw interpretations to characters both likable and loathsome.  The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, the music cues spare and non-manipulative.  And little Faith Wladyka is so sweet and natural, one of the best cinematic portrayals of a tiny child I've ever seen (despite the fact that she doesn't really look like either of her parents, which bothered me.  Come on, how many kids are there in Hollywood?  You can find one that looks genetically similar, casting directors.  Do your job).

However, and this is coming from someone who loves sad movies about relationships gone awry:

Blue Valentine is depressing.

Really, really depressing.  Slit your wrists depressing.  Sex scenes that range from uncomfortable to downright painful to watch depressing.  Oh-my-God-how-much-worse-can-it-get-oh-wait-there's-my-answer depressing.

When it comes to movies about troubled couples, 2008's Revolutionary Road had a bit of Of Mice and Men-style optimism, plus it took place in the 1950's which explained a lot.  Last December's Rabbit Hole cut sadness with dark humor, and ended on a hopeful note for the protagonists' marriage.  Blue Valentine does have a couple of happy moments (and maybe one very sexy scene), but as the movie progresses it's clear the main characters have no hope or happiness left.  And it's a beautiful tragedy, but a tragedy nonetheless.

Basically, Blue Valentine is worth watching, but a) it's like putting your heart through a meat tenderizer, and b) it is mandatory to have your DVD's of South Park/What Not to Wear/fluffy show of your choice at the ready immediately afterward, to cleanse what will be your extremely morose palate.

Yet after all this, I still want to marry Ryan Gosling.

Hey girl, what can I say?  He's hot.