The musings of a feminist pop culture fanatic

Archive for June, 2012

Rock of Ages

It’s been about two hours since I left the theater after seeing Rock of Ages. I’m still trying to figure out just what the plot of it actually was. There were a number of characters, but the plot was so thin that I can’t figure out what the purpose of the movie was, beyond just showing famous people singing songs from the 80s.

Let’s try to get through this. First, you have Sherrie (Julianne Hough) and Drew (Diego Boneta). Sherrie is a small-town girl (if Tulsa and its nearly 400,000 residents count as a small town) living in a lonely world who took the midnight train to anywhere (Los Angeles, to be precise). Drew is a city boy who might have been born and raised in South Detroit, but all we really get about his back story is that his dad told him he would fail. Sherrie is an aspiring singer who comes to LA to find fame and fortune. Ditto for Drew. Along the way, they fall in love, break up after a stupid misunderstanding, and take some detours in the worlds of stripping and boy bands. Ultimately, Drew ends up writing the classic song “Don’t Stop Believing” about how much he loves Sherrie.

The club where Sherrie and Drew work is called the Bourbon Room. It’s run by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his assistant, Lonny (Russell Brand). Dennis has apparently been running the Bourbon Room for some time. It’s never really clear how long the club has been around, but we’re supposed to assume that it’s been a really long time. There were lots of albums recorded there. This is basically the information we’re given. Oh, and somewhere along the way, Dennis and Lonny fell in love. We don’t quite know whether it’s before or after they sing “Can’t Fight This Feeling” to each other, though. There’s this weird montage where they’re on a carousel and doing all sorts of couple-y stuff, but I don’t really know if that was real or imagined. I don’t know where in the timeline that fell. I didn’t understand.

The Bourbon Room is public enemy number one, at least according to Los Angeles mayoral candidate Mike Whitmore (Bryan Cranston). Well, not really him. It’s more his wife, Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), that wants the Bourbon Room to go down. We mainly only see Mike cheating on his wife and getting spanked in a church. Patricia says she wants to clean up the streets of Los Angeles in order to protect the children from the evils of rock and roll. Really, it’s all because she hooked up with Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) one night and he never called her back.

So, this brings us to the final plotline, the one concerning Stacee Jaxx. Stacee is an aging rock star who decides to start a solo career. He and his band Arsenal perform their final show together at the Bourbon Room. That show is the source of the misunderstanding between Sherrie and Drew. It’s where Stacee’s super slimy manager Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti) discovers Drew and his band Wolfgang Von Colt. It’s where Paul proceeds to rip off Dennis. It’s where Rolling Stone writer Constance (Malin Akerman) sticks her tongue in Stacee’s ear and “rocks his world.” Trust me, that scene is something I’m never going to unsee. That same article sets up the big showdown between Stacee and Paul and the big concert at the end of the film.

If those past four paragraphs feel super disconnected and like they don’t quite make sense together, then I have done this film justice. The problem with jukebox musicals like this and Mamma Mia are that they are taking completely unconnected songs and trying to find a unifying thread among them. At least with Mamma Mia, all the songs were by the same band and could be connected in that way. For this film, however, they just picked some of the biggest hits of the 80s and mashed them together.

I guess the main message of the movie was that rock and roll was still alive. Considering I thought most of the protests against rock and roll ended in the early 1960s, all the protests felt really out of place in the 1980s. Though I should have known better than to try to find a message. I just wanted so badly for those two hours of my life to be meaningful. Instead, I got one of the most poorly-written, horribly-acted films in recent memory. Rather than leaving it up to the actors to try to convey emotions, we got super heavy-handed exposition. The best example was the exchange in which Dennis and Lonny discover their feelings for each other. It went something like this:

Chico: The beer guy is here to see you, Dennis.
Dennis: (while cradling Lonny’s face) Tell him I’m busy.
Chico: Doing what?
Dennis: Falling in love.

It was as clunky as I just wrote it. Every time Alec Baldwin was singing or dancing, I just cringed because it was like when your dad starts dancing and you just want him to stop. Boneta and Hough had absolutely zero chemistry. Zeta-Jones’ entire existence in the film was basically unnecessary. Cruise was so awkward and was the source of so many images that I will never be able to get out of my head ever again. Brand and Giamatti weren’t atrocious, which is high praise for the film as a whole.

There was only one reason that I actually stayed until the end of the film. Her name is Tawni Edwards and she is my cousin. In the scenes where they sing “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” she is one of the featured dancers. During the protest outside the Bourbon Room, she is the one with short, curly red hair standing right next to Catherine Zeta-Jones.  My mom and I went to the theater to have the chance to see Tawni on the big screen and that was awesome. The three to five minutes that she was on screen were hands down the highlight of the film. It’s just the other two hours of my life that I want back.

Bunheads

The worst thing about summer for television addicts like myself is that we are forced to lower our standards. Unless you’re a fan of reality television (in which case I will try not to judge you too harshly), it is incredibly hard to find quality shows to watch. Yes, there are the rare gems out there. I adore Weeds and have very high hopes for The Newsroom (what’s not to love about Aaron Sorkin?). True Blood is always great fun. But to go from having 30 television shows I follow on a weekly basis to only three or four in first-run episodes is a bit of a shock to my system. Which is why I was so thrilled when I heard about Bunheads on ABC Family.

Every now and then, a truly great television writer comes along with a brilliant series. Aaron Sorkin with The West Wing, Rob Thomas with Veronica Mars, and Jason Katims with Friday Night Lights are my top three of all time. The real test of a writer, though, is when they can create more than one quality series. Sorkin had Sports Night and Studio 60, Thomas had Party Down, and Katims still has Parenthood. So many writers, though, turn out to be one-hit wonders.

Another one of my favorite series of the past ten years was Gilmore Girls, written by the brilliant Amy Sherman-Palladino. Since she ended her affiliation with the show in 2006, she hasn’t really had a whole lot of new stuff going on. She had The Return of Jezebel James in 2008, but that lasted roughly seven episodes. That doesn’t necessarily mean a show is bad, though. I never watched it because it didn’t intrigue me all that much. When I heard that Sherman-Palladino was coming back again, though, I got so excited for a chance to get another glimpse into her mind.

Gilmore Girls was known for being a really heartwarming dramedy about a mother-daughter relationship, but also having quick-witted, comedic exchanges between the characters. People always commented on fast the characters talked. The writing had tons of pop culture references that alternated between really obvious and incredibly obscure. It was such intelligent writing. Lauren Graham was an absolute rock star as Lorelai Gilmore. It had five really great seasons and two sub-par ones. So, any chance to get a brilliant writer back on television is fantastic.

Bunheads is about Michelle (Sutton Foster), a Vegas showgirl who moves to Paradise after a quickie marriage to Hubbel (Alan Ruck). Paradise is full of wacky characters and Michelle clashes with Hubbel’s mother, Fanny (Kelly Bishop), who runs a ballet studio in town. At the end of the first episode, tragedy hits and Michelle and Fanny are forced to try to work together. There are four teenage girls who attend classes at Fanny’s studio and seem to want to become professional ballerinas (or “bunheads,” as per the series title). In the first two episodes (which are all that have aired), the ballet part of the story is really subordinate to the relationship between Michelle and Fanny.

It’s not that this series is bad. It is witty and the characters are likable enough. It’s just that it is almost an exact replica of Gilmore Girls. During both episodes that have aired, I find myself going through this intense sense of deja vu. In the pilot, Michelle has no other clothes in Paradise and has to spend the day wearing a T-shirt, jean shorts, and high-tops, which nearly everyone who meets her points out. In the second episode of the first season of Gilmore Girls, all of Lorelai’s professional clothes are at the dry cleaners and she is forced to take Rory to her first day at Chilton wearing a bright pink T-shirt, jean shorts, and cowboy boots. While the outfits weren’t identical, the way they were used was.

In Gilmore Girls, Kelly Bishop plays Emily Gilmore, a Connecticut socialite who is all about her image and how she appears to society. Although Fanny is very much a free spirit, she has so many Emily-like tendencies, which is probably just because both roles are played by Bishop. It’s going to take a while before I can separate the two roles in my mind.

Both shows feature small towns with wacky names (Stars Hollow, Paradise). Both shows have “townies,” who are the wacky characters that populate the town. Since there is very little to do in either town, both shows feature lots of town gatherings (the constant festivals on Gilmore Girls, the “welcome party” and memorial service on Bunheads). Both shows have free-spirited, older women running a dance studio that is at the center of town. The soundtracks are similar, particularly in the pilot episode of Bunheads. Both shows feature main characters who have some sort of characteristic that is looked down upon by mainstream society (Lorelai was a teen mother, Michelle is a Vegas showgirl). Both shows feature a mixture of political and pop culture references. These are just comparisons from the first two episodes.

Over the rest of the season, Bunheads really has to try to separate itself from Gilmore Girls. That’s not going to be easy with so many GG actors making appearances on the show. The next few episodes are going to be the real test for ASP. If all she can do is quirky, small-town dramedies, then I might as well skip Bunheads and just watch my GG DVDs. She needs to step up and try to find an identity for Bunheads. It has potential, if only ASP would stop falling back on things that worked on Gilmore Girls. It’s time to figure out what works for Bunheads.

Summer Book Roundup: Month One

Four weeks ago today, I was walking across the stage in Mizzou Arena, receiving my social work diploma (or at least a really fancy holder for it). The next day was the official completion of my sociology degree. Since then, I’ve been attempting to adjust to life without school. For years, I’ve longed for days where I can do absolutely whatever I like, which mainly translates to finally getting to read books for fun, instead of a reading list for school. I still like setting random goals and challenges for myself, so when my friend Megan posted about her summer reading challenge, I decided it sounded like fun. For more information about the full challenge, check out her blog: http://megancstroup.blogspot.com/p/semi-charmed-book-challenge.html

So far, I have completed three of the categories.

1. Read a pair of books that have antonyms in the titles.

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson
Total number of pages: 734 (paperback edition)
Goodreads Summary: Mikael Blomkvist, crusading journalist and publisher of the magazine Millennium, has decided to run a story that will expose an extensive sex trafficking operation between Eastern Europe and Sweden, implicating well-known and highly placed members of Swedish society, business, and government. But he has no idea just how explosive the story will be until, on the eve of publication, the two investigating reporters are murdered. And even more shocking for Blomkvist: the fingerprints found on the murder weapon belong to Lisbeth Salander — the troubled, wise-beyond-her-years genius hacker who came to his aid in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and who now becomes the focus and fierce heart of The Girl Who Played With Fire. As Blomkvist, alone in his belief in Salander’s innocence, plunges into an investigation of the slayers, Salander herself is drawn into a murderous hunt in which she is the prey, and which compels her to revisit her dark past in an effort to settle with it once and for all.
What the summary leaves out: The first 150 pages of the book are essentially filler. Maybe I will feel differently once I read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, but 50-75 pages of Lisbeth chilling on the beach just did not feel necessary. I kept putting the book down and walking away from it, but once I made it to around page 200, I could not put down the book. The next 500 pages were a whirlwind adventure of trying to prove Lisbeth’s innocence while trying to figure out who killed the three victims. The actual translation of the first book’s title (Men Who Hate Women) is still extremely applicable to this book. Even though the book is essentially about a bunch of misogynist assholes who enjoy torturing women, I at least found comfort in the fact that nothing about their actions was glorified. Lisbeth is a total badass who, while still definitely a sociopath, could be a hero to women everywhere who long for a female heroine who can stick up for herself. The book comes to a bit of an abrupt end and leaves many things unanswered for the third novel in the series. The first book was certainly more tightly written, but the second one is definitely an excellent follow-up for fans of Dragon Tattoo.

About a Boy by Nick Hornby
Total number of pages: 307
Goodreads Summary: Will is thirty-six, comfortable, and child-free. And he’s discovered a brilliant new way of meeting women — through single-parent groups. Marcus is twelve and a little bit nerdish: he’s got the kind of mother who made him listen to Joni Mitchell rather than Nirvana. Perhaps they can help each other out a little bit, and both can start to act their age.
What the summary leaves out: The book was written in 1998 and set in 1994, before many children were diagnosed with autism. Where Marcus is described as nerdish, he really comes across more as autistic. He doesn’t pick up on social cues and has lots of trouble interacting with people. Will is pretty much the textbook manchild. He has no idea who he is and is pretty much just a selfish prick. Marcus’s mother is suicidal and clearly suffers from major depression. I really just wanted to have a DSM on hand and diagnose every character in the book with some sort of psychological disorder. I have a really hard time reading books about people who are unlikable. Will has some good things about him (he is at least somewhat caring toward Marcus), but I mainly just hated him. When I hate the main character, it makes it really difficult to get invested in the book. After I finished reading it, I did not feel any strong emotion one way or the other. I just moved on. Overall, it was fairly forgettable and I will likely never think about it again.

2. Read a book set in a place you’ve always wanted to go.

For this category, I decided to read Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult. I had tried to read it during the school year, but got overwhelmed with assignments and had to return it to the library before I finished it. Since I have always wanted to visit New England (or really anywhere on the East Coast), I decided this book was suitable for the category.
Total number of pages: 466
Goodreads summary: One miscarriage too many spelled the end of Max and Zoe Baxter’s marriage. Though the former couple went quite separate ways, their fates remained entangled: After veering into alcoholism, Max is saved in multiple senses by his fundamentalist conversion; Zoe, for her part, finds healing relief in music therapy and the friendship, then romantic love with Vanessa, her counselor. After Zoe and Vanessa, now married, decide to have a baby, they realize they must join battle with Max, who objects on both religious and financial grounds. Like her House Rules and several other previous Jodi Picoult novels, Sing You Home grapples with hot button issues.
What the summary leaves out: The summary on Goodreads actually gets a couple of things wrong. First of all, Vanessa is not Zoe’s counselor. Vanessa is a counselor at a local high school that has occasionally worked with Zoe when students have needed music therapy. Their relationship starts out as strictly professional and then eventually becomes personal. Vanessa also introduces Zoe to Lucy, a suicidal teenager who could benefit from music therapy and ends up playing a crucial role in the battle between Max and Zoe. Also, Max does not necessarily object on financial grounds. While Max and Zoe were married, they tried in vitro fertilization and had several embryos stored to try and impregnate Zoe later. When settling the divorce, the two completely forgot about the embryos. Later, Zoe wants them so she and Vanessa can try to have a baby, while Max wants to give them to his brother Reid and sister-in-law Liddy, so the potential child could be raised in a “good Christian home.” As is typical of Picoult’s other novels, each chapter is written from a different character’s point of view. In this book, Picoult switches between Zoe, Vanessa, and Max, so the reader really gets to see all sides of the story. The main issues at hand in the novel are whether embryos should be considered people or property and if homosexual couples are fit parents for children. The fundamentalist Christian church that Max joins is essentially shown as the clear villain in the story. They bring about the idea for the lawsuit and provide the most repugnant attorney possible. Normally, Picoult’s books feature chapters written from the lawyers’ points of view, which was something I missed in this story. Regardless, the book presents multiple sides of a really complicated issue and makes the reader consider new viewpoints. While not her strongest book ever, it is certainly worth the time to read.

3. Read a book in one calendar day.

I spent Thursday driving from Columbia to Kansas City in order to fly to Milwaukee. All that travel meant I had a ton of time to read. Fortunately, my wonderful fiance John was nice enough to drive us to KC, so that I could spend the morning reading. Not only did I have a ton of free time to read, I was reading Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants, which was impossible to put down.
Total number of pages: 277
Goodreads summary: Before Liz Lemon, before “Weekend Update,” before “Sarah Palin,” Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through an airport by her middle-school gym teacher. She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV. She has seen both these dreams come true. At last, Tina Fey’s story can be told. From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live; from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon — from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence. Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we’ve all suspected: you’re no one until someone calls you bossy.
What the summary leaves out: There are parts where you will nearly pee your pants from laughing so hard, which makes for really awkward situations when you’re sitting next to a stranger on a plane, shaking from trying to keep in laughter. This isn’t so much a traditional memoir. Although there is a somewhat linear path throughout Fey’s life, she mainly highlights specific funny instances and how they impacted her in various ways. She writes about first feeling like a woman and what getting her first period was like. She writes about her time working at summer drama camps and her first experiences with gays and lesbians. Most fascinating for me, though, were her chapters on trying to make it as a female comedian. There is a lot of debate over whether women are funny. Some say that women can’t be funny. Others say those people are idiots. Fey explains her experiences with the institutionalized sexism of the comedy industry, but does not do it in a way that comes off as whiny or angry. I especially enjoyed the chapter about the birth of 30 Rock and had completely forgotten that Donald Glover started out as a writer on the show. I also did not realize that Fey was a writer on SNL for three years before appearing as a performer. Overall, Fey further proves that she is one of the greatest comedy writers of her time and provides a solidly entertaining piece of literature.

Starkid Presents The Apocalyptour (Or A Love Letter to Fandom)

So, here’s the thing: I fricking love Starkid. For those of you who actually know me, this is as obvious as saying the sky is blue or the Pope’s hat looks funny. If you have no idea what Starkid is, you’re not alone. About half the people I tell about them have never heard of them, which makes me sad because they’re just so fantastic. In a nutshell, they’re a musical theater company. They’re also Internet sensations, ridiculously talented, and the most adorable group of friends ever. Although Darren Criss is undeniably the most well-known of the Starkids, the names Joey Richter, Dylan Saunders, Lauren Lopez, Jaime Lyn Beatty, Brian Rosenthal, Jim Povolo, Brian Holden, Meredith Stepien, and Joe Walker will one day be just as well known. There are a number of other Starkids who are just as talented and will be just as famous, but I’m too lazy to list out every single one of them and went with just those who were on the tour.

Starkid has a sometimes terrifyingly devoted fanbase. For instance, this is the second time I’ve seen them in concert and both times, my best friend Caity and I spent the night before slaving away making cookies for them (this time, with Dani’s help as well, yay!) and figuring out exactly what the perfect gift bag would be for them. This time, we also brought them some barbecue sauce (since they probably didn’t get a chance to explore much of KC), a six-pack of Boulevard Wheat Beer (which was totally fine because everyone involved in the exchange is over the age of 21, except Dani, who never even touched the beer), and some coloring books and Mad Libs for the long bus rides. Some people (my parents, coworkers, friends, fiance, etc.) think we’re crazy and oddly attached to these people that we don’t really know at all. That may be true, but to most Starkid fans, we feel like we know them. They don’t know us, but we certainly know them (which isn’t as creepy as that sounds).

For me, Starkid is the key part of my self-care. When I can’t deal with the world and the shit that goes on in it, I turn on a Starkid show or listen to an album and am instantly cheered up. Their shows (A Very Potter Musical, Me and My Dick, A Very Potter Sequel, Starship, and Holy Musical B@man) have these beautiful messages of friendship, love, and acceptance. Yes, a musical about a boy’s relationship with his penis is actually incredibly touching when Starkid does it. Pretty much all of them put themselves out on Twitter and are gracious enough to allow the fans glimpses into their lives. When everything else might be going wrong, Starkid is always there to remind me that there is something right in the world.

So, all this being said brings us up to the day of the concert. Caity, Dani, and I prepared our gift bag to bring to them. Caity and I made matching T-shirts (the front side read “Somebody’s Buddy,” and the back said “Flying in the Friendship Ship KC Apocalyptour 2012”). We spent the whole day counting down the number of hours to the concert, while I kept texting Caity at work to remind her how close it was. Finally, we hopped in the car and drove downtown. After stopping at Quik Trip to try to remedy an unfortunate carbonated water explosion and screaming at my GPS as it seemed to take me all over the sketchy parts of KC, we finally made it there.

Caity and I were fortunate enough to have Golden Idol tickets (meaning we got to go in early and have a meet and greet with the Starkids), thanks to a graduation present from my parents. I wish I could remember the exact words we actually said to them, but it all went so fast and I was so flustered by trying to keep my cool that I didn’t really get a chance to take it all in. Brian Holden was nice enough to also sign Caity’s little sister’s Superman shirt and I know I talked to Charlene Kaye for a quick minute about how much I love her new album and how I listen to it nearly every day on my way to work.

Then we headed into the theater. For those of you who have never been to the Uptown Theater, it has a very interesting decor inside. There are all these weird, half-naked statues up where the balconies are. There’s faux candlelight and a really huge disco ball. As Meredith apparently described it, it has a very Hogwarts feel to it.

The concert started with Charlene Kaye, who while not necessarily a member of Team Starkid (in that she doesn’t act in their productions), is a close friend of theirs and often does concerts with them. I first heard Charlene when she recorded a duet with Darren called “Dress and Tie.” From there, I started listening to her other music and I completely fell in love with it. Her newly-released “Animal Love” is one of the best albums I’ve heard in a long time. During her set, Charlene primarily played music from that album, although she also brought out Dylan to sing “Dress and Tie” with her and sang Magnolia Wine from her album “Things I Will Need in the Past.” The highlight of the set, though, was undeniably “A Million Years.” Charlene asked for silence while she sang it and the crowd complied. Once the song got started, it was so beautiful that I hardly even breathed during the song. The crew turned on a disco ball (which Charlene described as the “biggest disco ball [she] had ever seen”) and the room was bathed in the soft lighting from it. The song, which is all about finding your soulmate, nearly brought me to tears (and definitely made Caity cry a little bit). I found a video of a performance of it from another stop on the tour, where the audience also stayed quiet to allow her to sing. The video does allow you to hear the song, but hearing it live was even more hauntingly beautiful.

After a short break, Starkid finally came out to the deafening screams of all the fangirls (as well as the fanboys). The basic premise of the show was that the Mayan Apocalypse was coming and Starkid could only save the world by putting on an amazing show to please the Mayan deities. If the Mayan deities weren’t pleased, then at least the crowd in Kansas City was having the time of their lives. They performed songs from all of their shows. As much as I love the Potter musicals, it was really nice to hear some of their other music. The greatest part of the show, though, was the interesting mash-ups they did. They would combine songs from several different shows and it worked so well together.

For me, the best was the mash-up of “Dark, Sad, Lonely Knight” from “Holy Musical B@man” and “Not Alone” from “A Very Potter Musical.” Caity and I keep singing to each other the part of “Dark, Sad, Lonely Knight” where it goes “I wanna be somebody’s buddy, somebody who can be my buddy back” and that was the inspiration for our shirts. So, we grabbed each other’s hand during that song and sang it to each other. Then when they launched into “Not Alone” right after that, I just about started crying. “Not Alone” was my bridge into the Starkid fandom. Even though I knew who they were, I didn’t really become a fan of theirs until after I got hooked on Darren’s character on “Glee.” Around then, I was having a really hard time and Starkid became my source of light and hope. “Not Alone” is my most played song on iTunes and I don’t even know how many times I listened to it when I was first getting hooked on Starkid. There was one night in particular that I think I listened to it on repeat for two or three hours while I just sat in my room and cried. That song became my anthem and to hear it right after this other song that I’ve come to associate so much with my best friend just about moved me to tears.

I don’t want to spoil the other mash-ups because they still have several stops left on the tour and I know I enjoyed the concert even more because I didn’t know what was coming. After the concert, Charlene was nice enough to draw something on my tote bag of hers that I bought. So now, about 24 hours after the concert, I am still insanely sore from standing up and dancing for so long. I got my voice fully back after screaming so much. I’m drained of energy from the emotions of the concert and the whirlwind trip to KC and back to Columbia. And I have a kickass tote with an awesome picture of a giraffe, as well as an autographed picture of all the Starkids on the tour. Basically, it was one of the best nights of my life and the best concert I have ever seen. Now, I just anxiously wait for my next opportunity to see them, whenever that might be.