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.