Sunday, September 30, 2012

Movie Review: "Looper"

Time travel is a tremendously intriguing concept. I'll admit I've thought about it for purely selfish reasons, if only to be able to go back and tell teenage Larry that things wouldn't be as bad as they seemed forever, and to be happy with who he is instead of fixated on what other people think. Of course, there's the whole worry about altering the course of human events by accidentally messing something up, which you know I would totally do given the fact I can barely walk through a room without bumping into something.

Time travel figures prominently in Rian Johnson's smart, cool, bizarre, and intriguing Looper. Well, sort of. In 2044, when the movie takes place, time travel won't be invented for another 30 years. However, in the future, a shady crime syndicate, led by an evil mastermind known as The Rainmaker, has found a perfect way to corner the assassination market—they ship people back in time, where Mob-employed soldiers (called loopers) are waiting with clunky, powerful guns known as blunderbusses to shoot them dead. It literally happens in a split second—the victim appears at a designated time, the looper shoots them, collects their pay (strapped to the back of the victim), and presto.

But sometimes the looper gets the simultaneously desired and unenviable assignment of killing their future self, or "closing the loop." It's desired because that ends your contract with the mob—you get a terrific payday in gold bars and can spend the next 30 years living the life you've always dreamed. But, umm, in 30 years, you're, well, dead.

Get it?

Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper. He does his job with no real pleasure or guilt, but has a special bond with Abe (Jeff Daniels), the mob boss sent from the future to oversee the loopers. He's practicing French, for when he can close his loop and retire to France for the last 30 years of his life. He spends his nights in clubs, deadening himself through drug-laced eye drops, hanging out with friends, and marveling over the gap between the haves and have-nots.

And then one day, his older self drops into 2044. Time for Joe to close his loop. But older Joe is no average shmo, he's Bruce Willis. So needless to say, Old Joe gets the jump on his younger self. Which doesn't sit well with the mob, which then has to hunt down both Joes. Young Joe is determined to close his loop, make things right with Abe and the mob, and head to France, but Old Joe has different ideas.

Joe figures out a way to get the jump on his older self, and heads to a farmhouse in Kansas occupied by Sarah (Emily Blunt), a shotgun-toting homesteader determined to protect her son, Sid, at any cost. There's some complicated psychological drama between Sarah and Sid, and Sid is a very complicated child. And when Joe figures out exactly what his older self is up to, he has to make some pretty crucial decisions—fast—while eluding the mob and trying to protect Sarah and Sid.

As you can probably tell, this is a difficult movie to review without giving stuff away, but as twisted as the plot may seem (and it is), Johnson does a fantastic job tying everything together and answering almost all of your questions. And he does this so skillfully that you're not exactly sure who to root for and who to root against.

At first thought, you'd never believe Joseph Gordon-Levitt could be a younger Bruce Willis. But a little skilled makeup work, coupled with dead-on gestures and a slightly raspier voice, makes this totally plausible. Once again, Gordon-Levitt proves he has the talent, charisma, and emotional depth to be a major star. He jumps into this role with gusto, but makes Joe a much more complicated character than he could be. Bruce Willis is at his kick-ass best, coupling his bravado with a bit of the sensitivity he demonstrated so well in Moonrise Kingdom earlier this year. Emily Blunt also does a great job, although her character isn't quite as complex as Gordon-Levitt or Willis'.

This movie couples some of the mind-bending confusion of Inception with a little of the uncertainty of Total Recall (the original, please), and some of Children of Men' bleak dystopian vision. But it gives you more character development than you'd think you'd get in a movie like this. You may sit in the theater a little bewildered, wondering what exactly is going on, but the payoff is worth it.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Movie Review: "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"

I've said before that for me, high school was simultaneously one of the most incredible and hellacious times of my life. (As it is for nearly everyone at some point in their lives, I believe.)

In high school, I had the chance to build relationships with some fantastic people, many of whom I've been able to regain contact with thanks to the wonders of social media. I had the opportunity to learn a lot about myself, to stand out onstage for the first time in my life, and partake in some terrific, funny, and memorable experiences, some as simple as walking down to the pizza place to grab a veal parmigiana hero before play rehearsal. (Ah, the good old days.)

On the flip side, high school was also the place in which I had to confront tremendous self-doubt, feelings of isolation and lack of belonging, and physical and emotional abuse, sometimes daily. While there is little doubt that those experiences, however painful they were, have made me into a better person as an adult, the pain and unworthiness I felt didn't feel much like a learning experience back then.

With all of this background, it may come as no surprise that Stephen Chbosky's superlative book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, really hit me in all the right places (not to mention all the raw ones as well). When I heard that Chbosky would be adapting his book into a movie he would be writing and directing himself, I eagerly anticipated the film. And it didn't disappoint in any way.

It's Pittsburgh in 1991. Charlie (Percy Jackson's Logan Lerman) is a high school freshman who has spent some time in the hospital suffering from mental illness. While he desperately wants to make friends, he finds it easier to simply live life on the margins, hoping no one notices him. One day he meets Patrick (We Need to Talk About Kevin's Ezra Miller, sassy and strong) and his stepsister and partner-in-crime, Sam (a luminous, post-Harry Potter Emma Watson), seniors who take Charlie under their wing and introduce them to their circle of friends. And for the first time, Charlie feels like he is a part of something, and these feelings help him override the fear and sadness he struggles with.

Of course, while it appears to Charlie that Sam and Patrick lead charmed lives, he quickly realizes that both face challenges and questions of self-worth as well. And as he becomes more enmeshed in their lives and those of their friends, including the outspoken Mary Elizabeth (Parenthood's Mae Whitman), Charlie understands that he's still been trying to steer clear of doing anything that makes people really take notice of him, and that sometimes causes more problems than it provides protection from them.

When I read the book, I remember that Chbosky's dialogue really rang true for me, and the movie was able to capture much of that authenticity. Almost everyone might be able to identify with a situation from the movie (even among the peripheral characters) or a time when they felt the way one of the characters did. I also liked the fact that the movie didn't pretend Charlie's mental illness magically went away; even though his struggles were painful and packed a real emotional wallop, they were necessary to understand him better. And although at times the film hits on some of the typical high school movie clichés, they don't undercut its power.

I was really impressed with the acting in this movie, even if Emma Watson's British accent crept into her performance from time to time. Part of what made the movie work is that most of the actors weren't far away from high school-age, so it wasn't like having to suspend your disbelief that a 30-year-old actor was a high school senior. Lerman, Miller, and Watson bring vulnerability and great depth to their performances, and I really look forward to seeing their careers progress.

Sometimes you go to a movie to completely escape what is happening around you, and sometimes you find movies that you think about even after you've left the theater. Just as with the book, I can't stop thinking about The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Maybe you can't identify with any of the characters in the movie, but you'll still be captivated by the feelings it will make you feel, the way the characters creep into your brain and your heart. And if you did struggle in high school, you'll be able to look at those struggles in a different way.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Book Review: "This Is How You Lose Her" by Junot Diaz

Junot Diaz was a well-regarded young writer of short stories when his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, exploded on the scene a few years ago, winning the Pulitzer Prize. While I had trouble getting into that book (mainly because I'm not a big fan of books with copious footnotes, to be honest), I love Diaz's voice and his ability to create truly memorable characters.

This Is How You Lose Her is a story collection about relationships—romantic ones, sexual ones, familial ones, even cultural ones. Yunior, the irrepressible character who appeared in stories in Diaz's fist story collection, Drown, and went on to narrate The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is the narrator of all but one of the stories in this collection. The stories feature Yunior at different ages and stages in his life, in and out of relationships with various women. Yunior is an unabashed charmer who loves sex and loves the attraction of different women, but isn't too enamored of having to work for relationships or staying around as they go sour.

Some stories feature Yunior as a younger boy, shaped by his fractious relationship with his father, who eventually leaves the family, and his older brother, Rafa. (Many of the female characters in the stories say that Dominican men are routinely unfaithful to their women, but Yunior's mother said that his father, brother, and him are even more so.) At times you can see why Yunior is so irresistible, and at times you see why the women in his life never want to see him again, or worse, want to hurt him (physically and emotionally).

My favorite story in the collection is the closing one, "The Cheater's Guide to Love," which follows an older Yunior through a particular rough patch in his life. (It also contains my favorite line, "The half-life of love is forever.") "Otravida, Otravez" is a story narrated by a woman who runs a hospital laundry and is consumed with thoughts of her lover's wife back home in the Dominican Republic. And in "The Pura Principle," Yunior recounts one of the last relationships his brother had before he died, a relationship that nearly tore the family apart. Many of the other stories focus on one particular woman in Yunior's life at a particular time.

Diaz's stories are funny, tender, brash, and even emotional at times. Yunior is an absolutely terrific character whom Diaz has imbued with an incredible depth. My only criticism of the book is that Diaz liberally sprinkles the stories with Spanish and Dominican idioms, phrases, and words that I didn't know, and while for the most part, I could figure out their general meaning, it was a little jarring, kind of like when you're watching a movie and suddenly characters have a conversation in another language but you have no idea what they're saying, and subtitles aren't provided.

Beyond that, however, I found this to be a really enjoyable, engaging collection of stories which very well may convince me to revisit The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao now. I really look forward to Diaz's next book, to see if he continues to develop Yunior further.

Everywhere you look...

Proof positive I'm old as the hills: the cast of Full House just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the show's debut.

Oh. Em. Gee.

While the Olsen twins skipped the reunion (how rude!), Kimmy Gibbler (Andrea Barber) and DJ's boyfriend, Steve (Scott Weinger), did make the occasion, evidenced in the photo above. (I'm guessing the guy in the upper left was one of the producers or something?)

According to tweets from various cast members, the group jammed to New Kids on the Block, ate a cake modeled after their iconic Victorian house, and read scenes from past episodes.

Below are DJ (Candace Cameron Bure) and Stephanie (Jodie Sweetin) reunited with Michelle's stuffed pig. Given all of her issues with drug addiction, Sweetin looks good, as does Cameron Bure.

Candace Cameron Bure graciously has left her photo album of pictures open on Facebook, although who knows for how long. And to take you even further down memory lane, here's one version of the opening credits and theme song.

Ah, memories.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Movie Review: "10 Years"

Reunions are fertile grounds for film, everything from The Big Chill and Return of the Secaucus Seven, Indian Summer, even the recent American Reunion has mined the reuniting of high school, college, or camp friends for dramatic and comedy gold, with mixed results. But with this year marking the 25th(!) anniversary of my high school graduation (our reunion has been postponed until next year, he says while dieting) and my recent obsession with all things Channing Tatum (don't judge), I went to see 10 Years with no real expectations beyond it being an enjoyable film.

While the movie doesn't break any new ground, it certainly didn't disappoint in any way, and in fact, left this utter sap feeling nostalgic for old friends and the desire to relive bygone days. The story of a group of high school friends gathering for their 10-year reunion, 10 Years is funny and introspective without falling prey to the typical stereotypes of reunions. But what made the movie even more enjoyable was the fact that many of the actors have worked together in previous films, so their chemistry was genuine. (It was seriously like playing a game of "Six Degrees" when figuring out who had appeared in which films together.)

The group of friends includes Jake (Channing Tatum) and his long-time girlfriend, Jess (Jenna Dewan-Tatum); former bully Cully (Chris Pratt), who is intent on making amends to those he abused in high school, much to their chagrin, and that of his long-suffering wife, Sam (Ari Graynor); smooth-talking Andre (Anthony Mackie); best friends and rivals Marty (Justin Long) and AJ (Max Minghella), who are both jealous of the lives they believe the other leads; Garrity (Brian Geraghty), who never told his wife Olivia (Aubrey Plaza) that he used to act like he was black; musician Reeves (Oscar Isaac), who has become a famous singer, but didn't expect to run into Elise (Kate Mara), the loner on whom he had a crush; former hottie Anna (Lynn Collins), who is looking for one more blaze of high school glory; and Mary (Rosario Dawson), Jake's ex-girlfriend, who surprises everyone when she shows up with her older husband, Paul (Ron Livingston).

I love the way all of the storylines unfolded, even if I was amazed that this was the most attractive bunch of high school alumni I'd ever seen. There's a little comedy, a little drama, even a little music (once you hear Oscar Isaac's Never Had you'll want it on constant repeat), and the movie makes you think without being heavy-handed.

Channing Tatum really has a magnetic presence, and he has undeniable chemistry with Dewan-Tatum who is, of course, his real-life wife. (His chemistry with Dawson is also quite believable.) Isaac has an immensely likeable charm, and Long and Minghella play against each other quite well. Geraghty brings a shy humor to his role, and Plaza's wide-eyed skepticism is perfect for her role as a wife who discovers her husband's secret side.

Give this movie a shot. You'll definitely enjoy it.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Movie Review: "The Master"

I would love to spend time with director Paul Thomas Anderson, just some time talking to him and seeing how his mind works in regular conversation. Because from his mind, some immensely indelible—and incredibly mind-blowing—films have sprung. And his latest movie, The Master, has moments of sheer brilliance as well as moments which leave you utterly bewildered.

Under Anderson's direction, a number of actors have given searingly memorable performances, none quite as breathtaking as Daniel Day-Lewis' Oscar-winning turn as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, although Tom Cruise's Oscar-nominated performance in Magnolia still resonates for me as well. The Master, too, boasts some sensational performances I'd expect to be recognized at next year's Oscars.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, triumphantly returning from his self-imposed acting retirement) is a deeply troubled World War II veteran, prone to unprovoked violence, heavy drinking (concoctions no one should try to make at home), unbridled sexual urges, and a general sadness about the direction in which his life has gone and continues to go. He drifts from place to place, job to job, dreaming of the girl who got away, and drinking himself into a stupor.

One night he stows away on a boat on which a party is taking place. The next morning he is summoned by the person leading the voyage, the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (a brilliant Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd sees in Freddie a soul in need of saving, so he invites him to be his guest on the ship as it makes its way back to New York City.

Dodd is the leader of a movement called The Cause (many have wondered if this is a jab at scientology and L. Ron Hubbard), governed by psychological and spiritual mumbo-jumbo involving hypnosis and past life regression, among other things. He is both viewed as "The Master" by his acolytes and a sham by his critics, who have questioned Dodd's claims that The Cause can cure fatal disease, even solve world peace if given the chance. And as Dodd and his followers, including his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams, sweetness belying razor-sharp steeliness), children, and numerous others, travel the country, they find themselves at odds with those who question The Cause. Freddie, however, proves both the perfect and most flawed vessel for Dodd, as his spirit and mind are sometimes willing but his spirit, body, and psyche are almost always weak. He is fiercely devoted to The Master, and is willing to fight anyone who questions his teachings. (Fight being the operative word.)

Does Dodd really believe in what he preaches? Does Freddie believe The Master can rescue him, or is he simply viewing him as a surrogate father? Is Dodd really interested in saving Freddie? Can Freddie actually be saved? Anderson leaves you to draw your own conclusions, which as the film progresses and layers on dream sequences and flashbacks, becomes increasingly more difficult.

As with many of Anderson's previous films, The Master becomes downright trippy and phantasmagorical at times (a party scene in which Freddie hallucinates is at first jarring and then becomes uncomfortable as it continues for far too long). But the film also contains flashes of sheer acting brilliance that made me literally gasp (although not quite as loudly as during There Will Be Blood, as this movie doesn't have that film's jaw-dropping power).

I've been a fan of Hoffman's for some time, but this is definitely one of the best performances he's ever given. You are mesmerized, bewildered, frustrated, sympathetic, horrified, and amused by Dodd's behavior. And Joaquin Phoenix so fully inhabits the downtrodden, life-weary Freddie Quell that even his posture and the way he carries himself throughout the movie is incredible. While Amy Adams' role is much smaller and less flashy, she demonstrates a fierce power in many of her moments.

Many reviews have called this movie a masterpiece, while others have dubbed it overblown, indulgent, confusing, and downright horrible. I probably fall somewhere in the middle. To me, the performances alone make the movie worth seeing, even if it isn't one you'll necessarily enjoy.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Book Review: "When It Happens to You" by Molly Ringwald

The literary world is literally jam-packed with books "authored" by celebrities—actors, directors, musicians, socialites, even those famous for essentially doing nothing. Clearly, many of these celebrity so-called authors are able to sell their books to publishers because of their name only, because most of their books are poorly written. But for me, there have been some celebrity surprises over the years, including Steve Martin and Steve Earle.

After reading When It Happens to You, I can unequivocally say that Molly Ringwald belongs on the short list of extremely talented celebrity authors. While I'll admit I chose to read this book partially because of the good reviews it has been receiving and partially because I'm obsessed with the 80s, especially all things Brat Pack, Ringwald's story-telling ability was apparent to me almost immediately, and I found myself quickly drawn into the book. (I'm not in the slightest bit embarrassed to admit one of the next books I plan to read is Andrew McCarthy's new book. Don't judge.)

When It Happens to You is called "a novel in stories," and each story in the book is linked, with one character, Greta, at the epicenter. When the book begins, Greta and her husband, Phillip, are struggling with fertility issues and the effects the desire to have another baby are having on their relationship. Subsequent stories, which focus on Greta and Phillip, as well as peripheral characters whose lives interact with them, touch on the drama—and trauma—of relationships. I really felt Ringwald had a deft touch in creating her characters, and their dialogue seemed authentic, not artificial.

Each of the stories is long enough to give you a sense of what is happening, but not all of them end neatly, much like life itself. In "My Olivia," the mother of one of Greta and Phillip's daughter's classmates struggles with how much she should enable the wishes of her flamboyant, six-year-old son to be treated and dressed as a girl. "The Little One" features Greta's elderly next door neighbor, as she deals with life without her husband and her estranged relationship with her daughter, as well as the fickle, quixotic visits from Greta and Phillip's young daughter, Charlotte. In "Ursa Minor," an actor who had gained fame from appearing on a children's television show (until being hospitalized for "exhaustion") ponders his waning career as well as his twin sister's relationship with her French boyfriend. But the title story packs the strongest punch, as it focuses on how a woman processes her husband's infidelity.

I've said before that the mark of a good story is one in which I wonder what happened to the characters after it ended. And there were a number of stories in this book that left me wanting more. I hope this is the start of a long writing career for Molly Ringwald, because she has the talent and the creativity to succeed. Her use of language and her ability to evoke emotions through her story-telling was masterful in a number of places.

This is definitely a must read.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Celebrating one year of demolished barriers...

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the end of Don't Ask Don't Tell. It's hard to believe that a full year has passed since the barriers that disallowed openly gay and lesbian soldiers from serving their country were demolished, but it is a pretty fantastic milestone to mark.

To the surprise of very few, the Pentagon has found that the end of DADT didn't have any negative effects on our military; in fact, the openness has even promoted greater trust and camaraderie among soldiers.

Yet that hasn't stopped some conservative Republicans in Congress from trying to do everything they can to bring back the days of discrimination and inequity. During the Value Voters Summit last week, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), chair of the House Study Committee, said in an interview that he wants to reinstate the policy if the Republicans get control of both houses of Congress in November. He left open the possibility that those service-members who have already come out of the closet, like Brig. General Tammy Smith, would be discharged from the military if DADT is reinstated.

Many thanks to all those from both parties who championed openness and equality in our armed forces, and thanks to President Obama for having the courage to sign the ban into law. This is a remarkable anniversary to celebrate.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Book Review: "Taken" by Robert Crais

While it's always exciting to discover new writers and unique literary voices, there's something tremendously comforting about reading another installment of a regular series of books. Having familiarity with specific characters, their habits and motivations, and revisiting a particular setting is kind of like visiting an old friend. Obviously, you hope that each book in a series is somewhat distinctive, but some of the enjoyment and excitement comes from returning to people and places you've been.

I've read all of Robert Crais' books featuring wiseass private detective Elvis Cole and his stoic, steadfast, strong, and sensitive sidekick, Joe Pike, and I absolutely love these characters. I like the way Crais has been switching back and forth over the last few years between allowing Cole and Pike to anchor alternating books, although each features in the other's stories. The loyalty and chemistry between the two, as well as Crais' ability to create tension and terrific action, make all of his books enjoyable, quick reads.

As Taken begins, young couple Krista Morales and Jack Berman are visiting the site of an old plane crash in the desert near Rancho Mirage, CA when they disappear. When Krista's mother, Nita, a successful business owner who recently revealed to Krista that she came to the U.S. illegally as a young child, receives a phone call from Krista demanding money, she thinks that this is a scheme Krista and Jack have cooked up to run off and get married. Nita hires Cole to find Krista and bring her home—but Cole finds out the situation is far worse than anyone imagined.

Krista and Jack were swept up in a gunfight between human traffickers and "bajadores," criminals who prey on other criminals. The two are mistaken for illegal aliens and become pawns in a scheme to extort money from immigrants' family members. The scheme, which leads to the death of many immigrants from all over the world each year, is masterminded by Syrian gangster Ghazi al-Diri and involves a deadly Korean gang as well. When Cole tries to infiltrate al-Diri's operation in an effort to rescue Krista and Jack backfires, Pike and his friend, mercenary Jon Stone, must find him before it's too late. But that's not as easy as it sounds, as Jack has a powerful relative who's searching for him as well.

This book really reads more like a movie, as it switches narration between Jack and Krista, Elvis, Pike, and Jon Stone, and ratchets up the action fairly quickly. Cole is slightly less sarcastic than usual (and in fact, seems a little less of a presence in this book than he normally does), but Pike is at his loyal best. Because of the nature of the plot, Cole and Pike don't interact much, which I missed as well. But Crais' knack for telling a story that grips you quickly remains intact.

If you've never read Robert Crais' books before, I'd encourage you to give him a try. And if you're a fan, while Taken might not be one of the strongest in the Elvis Cole series, it's still great to be back amidst Elvis and Joe Pike.

SYTYCD Recap: It's your finahle, Ameriker!

The shriek of shock you heard around 9:58 p.m. ET last night came from our house, as an absolutely stunning Cat Deeley announced the (immensely surprising) winner of America's Favorite Male Dancer. For those of you who wonder whether someone as cynical as I am ever gets surprised, the answer is a resounding, "Hellz yeah!"

But before we dwell on how Season 9 ended with a bang, not my whimper, as well as Witney's proclaiming from the audience that she was going to faint, let's look back at last night's episode.

First of all, how amazing a host is Cat Deeley? Warm, funny, self-deprecating, nurturing of the nervous contestants (see how it's done, Seacrest?), and freakin' hot as hell, I really hope she wins the Emmy this weekend for Best Reality Show Host. (And when she gets her outfit, hair, and makeup right, as she did with her silver sheath dress that made Adam Shankman do his overdone eyes-popping-out-of-his-head gesture, she gets it really right.)

After a look back at the announcement of the winners from previous seasons (and the amazing dancers who finished in second place), we got to see the Top 20 doing their mini-solos! In couples! It's the soulless Alexa and Daniel! Amber and Nick ("Bubblegum and Oil") had to interact again (and Amber even acted reasonably interested)! It's Brandon and Janaya (wait, who?)!

And then my favorites started returning—Amelia and Will (yummily adorable), Matthew (overdressed) and Audrey, Dareian (of the Fred Flintstone feet) and Janelle, Cole (break, heart) and Lindsay, Witney and George, and then your top four dancers, Ameriker! (Cyrus got to go last. Again.)

The judges panel was overstuffed, and not just with egos, as the glorious Debbie Allen (child), the verbose-but-sensitive Lil C, the hammily overemotional Adam Shankman, and a smarmy Keith-Tyce (wearing what appeared to be a bow tie and a Members' Only jacket) joined Nigel and Mary for the evening.

Nigel touted a group routine with the top 20 as "the best routine to open the show we've ever seen." That description was like the hyperbole some networks use to hype television programs—"the best new comedy on Tuesdays at 8" or "the best new drama series not created by Shonda Rimes." But Nigel mentioned the routine also was choreographed in tandem by an increasingly adorable Christopher Scott and the well-dressed admin assistant who apparently has taken over Sonya Tayeh's body. (Seriously. What's with the pageboy wig and the St. Johns knit suit, Sonya? At least she kept the lip ring.)

The routine, to Nathan Lanier's Torn, was really cool. It looked like everyone was dancing in the midst of a wind tunnel, and there were lots of great acrobatics and lifts and Cyrus mostly crawled around the stage. And it was great to see Alexa front and center again. (He said, somewhat sarcastically.)

And with the group number over, that was the last we saw of most of the top 20 for the remainder of the evening, which was unfortunate. But each of the judges got to pick their favorite routine of the evening, most of which weren't particularly surprising.

Nigel picked Matthew and Audrey's contemporary dance to Unchained Melody, choreographed by Travis and inspired by the movie Titanic. It really was a fantastic routine, Audrey's leap from the chaise lounge still amazed me even as I expected it this time, and Matthew was still too dressed.

Lil C picked (inexplicably to me) Witney and tWitch's hiphop routine to My Homies Still, choreographed by Luther Brown. (You remember, the one that turned Jesse Tyler Ferguson into a sassy guest judge, and had Cat trying her "waiting for the bus" move?) Still think Witney was more sexy than street in this routine.

Debbie talked about Sonya's genius and then picked the routine she choreographed to Turning Page for Tiffany and George. I thought Sonya had better routines this season but George really is an absolutely gorgeous dancer. But he finished in the top 8 and Cyrus is in the final. Go figure.

Adam blathered on for a while about the beauty of dance, look at me, yadda yadda yadda, and then picked Cole and Lindsay's amazing paso doble, choreographed by "Jason Gilkinson" (nice, Shankman) to Unstoppable. That, Mary Murphy, is nailing the paso doble. And yet Cole, too, didn't make the final. Growl.

Keith-Tyce still seemed smarmy to me as he picked the awesome Nappy/Tabs hiphop routine featuring Will and Amelia dancing to The Lovecats. (So did Tabitha have her baby like a week ago, and she already looks fantastic? Gotta start hiphop dancing.) I loved this routine, although it wasn't as sharp this time.

If you figured one of the judges was required towas going to pick Keith-Tyce's (pretty awesome) routine for Chehon and Kathryn, set to Eli, Eli (A Walk to Caesarea), you're right. Mary picked it as her favorite and explained it was "inspired by the Hollycaust." Such emotional power packed into that routine, more so than many of Keith-Tyce's other "very special" routines.

Because we still had a lot of time to kill, and we apparently had no desire to see any of the contestants who finished out of the top 10 (except Amelia), each of the four finalists also got to choose their favorite dance. Eliana chose her pairing with Alex Freaking Wong to Stacey Tookey's routine to Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down). Ah. May. Zing. After the routine, Nigel told Eliana that after Vegas week, she was at the top of everyone's list of who should make the top 20, and apparently Desmond Richardson told Nigel that as soon as Eliana got voted off the show he was going to hire her. Sorry, Des. (As a cynical aside, Eliana has the hands-over-her-mouth shocked pose down pat by now.)

Cat got to pick her own favorite routine of the evening: Tiffany and Brandon's death-defying Doriana Sanchez disco routine (11 lifts!) to You Make Me Feel. Honestly one of the best of the season.

Chehon picked his Argentine tango with Anya, choreographed by Leonardo and Miriam to Breathing Below Surface, as his favorite dance. I had forgotten how impressive some of the footwork was, and forgot the lifts they did in the routine. And I was disappointed that Chehon's parents couldn't make it to the finale, but I guess it was expensive to come from Switzerland for at least a few weeks.

After a montage of the numerous hiphop routines performed this season (and not all of them by Cyrus, remarkably), Cyrus, tWitch, Comfort, and Christopher Scott teamed up for an awesome routine to Messinian's Holy Ghost, which Christopher also choreographed. It was so great to see Christopher dance alongside of (and hold his own with) some great hiphop artists. The routine started out with the four playing poker (in traditional card shark-type outfits) and really was terrific.

Tiffany chose to reprise her Mandy Moore-choreographed routine with Ade to Power of Love. She has so much power and finesse in her dancing, and I agree with Nigel's frequent comment that for someone so small, she dances with a much larger presence. The lifts were even stronger this time. Tiffany was really emotional during the show, and this is where Cat proved what a nurturer she is, giving her a tight hug. (I thought Tiffany's face looked strange all night, and it looks like she had a monstrous bump on her head. Hope it didn't happen during rehearsals of the disco number!)

Cyrus' roommates in Dragon House performed a routine to Cryosleep by Cyberoptics, which featured one of Cyrus' other roommates, Bryan Gaynor, who auditioned for Season 7. I was surprised Cyrus didn't show up in the routine. It was actually great.

After a performance from Carly Rae Jepsen (sadly, it didn't feature the cute guy from her Call Me Maybe video), to the surprise of no one, Cyrus picked to reprise his routine with tWitch from last week, to Like a Criminal. While Nigel acknowledged that he got a lot of flak from his comments last week about not voting for Cyrus, he never apologized for them. He told Cyrus he should be the face of some product, and toldhim he "stole the season" with his inspiring performances and energy.

I agree, Nigel, but not in the positive way you meant. Luckily the end result didn't utterly torpedo the show.

The top 10 and the all-stars teamed up for a Nappy/Tabs routine to Circle of Life (the District 78 remix) from The Lion King. It was pretty awesome, lots of fierce jungle drums, acrobatics, hiphop moves (Witney proved she's not all pouty sexy hair shaking when she dances hiphop) and an amazing leap over three dancers by someone I couldn't identify. Awe. Some.

Then it was time for Ameriker's results. Eliana got to do her whole hands-over-her-mouth thing again as she was named America's Favorite Female Dancer. Well-deserved, although I would have been happy with a Tiffany victory as well.

And then the shocker. Cat revealed that Chehon was chosen America's Favorite Male Dancer. He was stunned. Witney was going to faint. Alex Freaking Wong rushed the stage to congratulate Chehon and Eliana first. And Will hugged Cat and lifted her off the ground. (He does love cats, you know...)

I'm so glad that the better dancers won out in the end. As we've seen from the all-stars, the best dancers don't necessarily win, but they're successful anyway, and I'd imagine Tiffany and Cyrus will both be successful in their own right. And Eliana and Chehon get arguably the worst prize package for reality show winners ever—the winners of Star Search back in Ed McMahon's days also received $100,000 each. But that was in like 1983!!

Thanks for accompanying me on this journey of dance. I'll feel a little empty for a while without a show to recap but I don't know that I want to sacrifice my soul to another reality show (although I admit I'm toying with watching the all-star version of Dancing with the Stars despite Bristol Palin).

Go Cat! Win an Emmy! Lord have Murphy...

Monday, September 17, 2012

So I'm guessing the Kool-Aid man won't be welcome either?

I felt like I had to weigh in (no pun intended) on NYC Mayor Bloomberg's ban on sales of sugary soft drinks in restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums, and arenas to no more than 16 ounces in a cup. The city's Board of Health (all of whose members, as it turns out, were appointed by Bloomberg) rejected arguments from Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and a coalition of restaurant companies opposed to the ban. The ban does not include convenience stores (such as 7-11) and grocery stores which don't primarily act as purveyors of prepared foods.

I completely understand that Bloomberg initiated this ban in an effort to curb obesity. I understand the effect that obesity-related health problems have on society and the health care system—and the cost that these problems represent. And this will probably have some impact simply because of the inconvenience factor (although people could buy two 16-ounce drinks if they wanted).

What's next? A crackdown on candy sales? Banning bagels? Shuttering bakeries? What makes the sugary drink market the appropriate first target?

Many fast food establishments, in New York and elsewhere, have begun displaying calorie counts on their menus. That certainly has an effect, at least on me. Although I don't routinely eat at McDonald's, I do get my Diet Coke from there, and looking at all of the calorie counts certainly discourages me from grabbing just a little snack on the way out!

But the more I think about the ban, I keep focusing on the issue of personal responsibility. Our society today is filled with people who blame someone or something else for their problems. Countless lawsuits are filed on a daily basis, with people alleging that some situation caused their problems.

Shouldn't we focus more on educating people about the choices they make, and perhaps make the choices less confusing (many juices and so-called vitamin waters are actually higher in calories and sugar than soda)? Shouldn't we spend more time encouraging people to adopt healthier habits, like exercise, rather than trying to control them?

Isn't education a better bet than enabling them by limiting their options? Can't we force adults to act like adults, and perhaps guide them how to better to teach their children?

All I know is, nobody better lay a hand on my Diet Coke...

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Party like it's 5773...

Wishing all those who celebrate a happy, healthy, and sweet New Year! Interestingly enough, this is one of the few Jewish holidays which isn't built on the premise of, "They tried to kill us, we prevailed, let's eat," although plenty of food is ingested on Rosh Hashanah!

No matter how you choose to celebrate, may this holiday be the start of a fantastic year for all!

Book Review: "In Between Days" by Andrew Porter

There's nothing like dysfunction to affect family dynamics. Family issues have tremendous impact on the lives of all members, and at times, leave scars more lasting—and sometimes even more painful—than those left by physical injury. And of course, family dysfunction is an unending source of inspiration for the creative process—writers, poets, songwriters, playwrights, artists, etc.

The Harding family is deep in the midst of a crisis. Elson, once a tremendously promising architect who let ennui, anxiety, and the appeal of alcohol derail his achievement, is recently divorced from Cadence, his wife of 30 years, who vacillates between anger, betrayal, and the desire to move on. Their son, Richard, dreams of being a writer but is far too afraid of failing to actually attempt to pursue his dreams, so he consoles himself with a job waiting tables, and fills his nights with drugs and alcohol.

But the Hardings' lives hit the brink when their college-aged daughter, Chloe, is asked to take a leave of absence from college following her involvement in a mysterious incident which severely injured a fellow student, and she returns home. While no one is actually sure what happened, and what Chloe's role was, they understand it involved her boyfriend, Raja, and has resulted in law enforcement officers swarming the family's Houston home. When Chloe and Raja disappear, Cadence, Elson, and Richard each react in different ways, trying to determine how best to understand what the ramifications are of Chloe's actions and how to save her.

Andrew Porter's first novel, after his exceptionally fantastic story collection, The Theory of Light and Matter (which was one of the best books I read in 2010), is a complex and multi-layered look at a family deep in crisis. Switching narration among the four Hardings, the book examines all types of relationships—between husband and wife, parent and child, siblings, and the insatiable need of young love—and how lack of communication and doing and saying the wrong things can create so much damage.

The story unfolds slowly but you feel drawn into the Hardings' drama, despite the fact that none of them are particularly likable or sympathetic. At times, I wondered why any of the characters cared about each other when each was acting so ridiculously, but then I realized how true-to-life this actually was. Porter has an insightful way of creating realistically vivid dialogue and dilemmas for his characters. Each of them is faced with a critical decision at one point in the story which only leads to more chaos.

I love the way Porter writes, the way he uses language and evokes emotions. My problem with the book was I just didn't understand the motivations of some of the characters, which frustrated me. I also wished there was some tighter resolution to the whole story; I felt the conclusion seemed more like an afterthought than anything else. But of course, my criticisms once again emphasized how realistic this book was in depicting family dynamics and dysfunction. It never ends neatly, does it?

If you can handle experiencing the pain other families or fictional characters endure, this is a book definitely worth your time.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Maybe not what Dr. Seuss intended...

Saw this on a friend's Facebook profile and couldn't resist sharing. This is probably not what Dr. Seuss intended for our dear friend Horton, but hopefully he enjoyed listening to all of the CSI theme songs!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Another movie to look forward to...

Chills. Again.

Back in May I shared the first preview for the film version of Les Miserables, due out this Christmas.

While I absolutely cannot wait for that movie to come out, I just saw a trailer for another winter release that I am eagerly anticipating: Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and others.

As if simply seeing this movie poster with Day-Lewis as the spitting image of Lincoln, check out the trailer. You'd never know he wasn't born of the South.

Cannot wait.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

SYTYCD Recap: Holy reverse manipulation, Batman!

Last night was the penultimate (love that word) episode of SYTYCD's ninth season, which was part hiphop extravaganza, part premature crowning of this year's winners.

Or was it? Was Uncle Nigel's last minute change of heart in which he told the oft-pimped Cyrus he wasn't voting for him (wait, Nigel's allowed to vote?) recognition that he and the other judges gave Cyrus a free pass the entire season at the expense of more talented dancers, or was it a tricky sleight of hand, in which he tried to acknowledge critics who have questioned the show's treatment of Cyrus, but actually rallied Cyrus' ridiculously rabid fans to get out the vote? (Knowing the depths to which this man is capable, I'd go with the latter.)

Whatever the motivation, it was an odd capper to a show so jam-packed with performances—some stellar, some good, some bad (Keith-Tyce's group number, cough cough)—that even I was out of breath after the two hours were up. But luckily we had giggly, excited Cat to prop us up, bedecked in a marvelous red frock and super-red lips. (Seriously, this woman is hot. Why can't she take over the universe instead of Ryan Seacrest?)

Academy Award-nominated director and choreographer Rob Marshall returned to the judges' panel, no doubt happy he wouldn't have to share air time with Lady GaGa and her monstrous projectile boots this year.

The show opened with Eliana and Cyrus' paso doble, choreographed by Jason Gilkison to Daft Punk's The Game Has Changed. Jason changed up the traditional paso by having Eliana be the matador and Cyrus be the cape. (Or, in other words, having Eliana do the dancing and Cyrus just gets to fling himself around.) Sadly, I found it one of Jason's weaker routines on the show. While I thought Eliana was magnificent and she threw herself into the routine amazingly, flapping dress and all, Cyrus' footwork wasn't particularly sharp and he just didn't do much. (And that sums up many of his performances the entire season.)

Nigel praised Eliana's magical combination of performance and technique, and teased Cyrus' outfit ("Did you ever think you'd be on national television wearing a big black dress?"), but cautioned him about lowering his shoulders and straightening his legs. Mary doesn't care about technique where Cyrus is concerned, saying that Cyrus might have thought that "conquering the paso doble was as difficult as skinny dippin' with snappin' turtles" (suddenly she's Southern?), but he nailed it. (Umm, Mary? This is nailing the paso doble. Or this. Cyrus did not nail it, even if he had a hammer. Or a nail gun.) Rob praised Eliana's ability to throw technique away (in a good way) and tell the story. Oh, and Cyrus has exciting passion.

A weepily grateful Tiffany joined Season 4's Will for a Sonya-choreographed contemporary routine that showed how far Tiffany has come this season. Danced to The Time Has Come by Moloko, Tiffany threw herself into the routine with passion and reckless abandon, and there was a lot of spectacular partnering with Will, although he struggled a bit with one of the lifts. It was a combination of soaring and vintage Sonya choreography.

Mary called Tiffany a fabulous dancer and said she was a star. Rob praised her extension and her fearlessness, and said that the song The Time Has Come was particularly appropriate for a show airing on 9/11. Nigel told Tiffany that she may be short in stature but he didn't notice, because her extension and presence make her seem so big, and she's a fabulous dancer.

Just moments after I was complaining that while Cyrus got to dance hiphop countless times during the season but Chehon didn't get to dance ballet, Chehon and Eliana paired up for a ballet routine choreographed by former Kirov principal dancer Marat Daukayev to the pas de deux from the Nutcracker Suite. Well, I say teamed up, although it was certainly much more Eliana's performance, because the routine (and the original dance) had only one real move for Chehon. But his partnering was absolutely magnificent, his lifts were incredible, and don't get me started on the way his legs looked in ballet tights. Holy muscles. (C'mon, I'm a gay guy recapping a dance show. What else am I looking at? Don't hate.)

The judges gave the routine a standing ovation. Rob praised Eliana's versatility and her breathtaking extension, and told Chehon that people don't realize how difficult the male role in ballet really is. Nigel said he never dreamed he'd see two ballet dancers in the finale, and praised Eliana's performance, particularly her quad into an arabesque. He also mentioned what wonderful support Chehon provided in the routine. And Mary got emotional for reasons I didn't understand. (Again, for a woman supposedly so committed to dance and technique, she's really thrown it all away in her praise of Cyrus this season.)

Cyrus and Tiffany took on a Tessandra Chavez-choreographed lyrical hiphop routine. (Wow, another hiphop routine for Cyrus. Yeah, that's fair.) The routine was about a young couple in love, but Cyrus broke Tiffany's heart and although she's moved on, he feels bad about it. Dancing to Best Thing I Never Had by Beyonce, I thought it was enjoyable, but Tiffany really outdanced her partner. Even in hiphop. (Shocking, I know.) She really threw everything into her performances.

Nigel reminded us again (it may be like the 17th time) that neither Cyrus nor Tiffany has been in the bottom two, and that both are so good at emotional routines. Then both he and Mary went into this whole song and dance about how Cyrus is so amazing because he can memorize so much choreography when he's never had to before. (This is what judging Cyrus has devolved into, praising him for what every other contestant has to do on the show.) Rob praised that both had abandon, and called the routine his favorite of the night so far. (Wasn't hard to pick a favorite yet.)

The four contestants joined forces for an absolutely ludicrous Keith-Tyce group number to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. It may have been one of the worst things he's ever choreographed, and there have been some doozies. It felt utterly amateurish, with the contestants each playing around in their respective styles (so Cyrus got to do animation again). What was interesting is the routine had Chehon dressed in a tuxedo jacket with tails and Cyrus dressed in a tuxedo tshirt with running pants on. If that's not an apt comparison between the two, I don't know what is.

Eliana shared thoughts and tears on her journey to the finale, and then danced a solo to Johann Johannson's Passacaglia, which suffered in comparison to her earlier ballet routine.

Chehon paired with Season 2's Allison for a Stacey Tookey contemporary number to Leave from the musical Once. The routine was about a couple faced with Allison's getting an opportunity to leave and pursue her dreams, and Chehon is willing to let her. It was emotional, beautiful, powerful, and sensationally danced. Chehon did an amazing one-handed lift at one point, and in another Allison grabbed hold of his leg and he simply kicked her away. I didn't watch the show in Season 2, but was Allison this good, or has she grown into this talent? Stacey Tookey is becoming my favorite choreographer, and I love how excited she gets about the dancers and their performances.

The judges gave the routine a well-deserved standing ovation. Mary mentioned that Stacey was a three-time "nommy-Eminated" choreographer (Emmy-nominated, for those not well-versed in Mary-speak) and that this was her year. She praised Chehon's performance as free, elastic, and loose. Nigel continued his praise of Allison over her partners, but then told Chehon that he came alive in the routine, and that while in the past he has had some difficulty showing emotion, he was fantastic in this performance. Agreed.

The girls teamed up for a Broadway number choreographed by Ray Leeper (why do I think peeping tom every time I hear his name?) to When You're Good to Mama from Chicago. (Sucking up to Rob a little bit, Ray?) The burlesque-like number featured a pole (but nary a mention of Eliana's pole dancing performances prior to being on the show) and it was a tremendously athletic, fun, sexy routine. But I definitely feel it was steered to favor Eliana, because she was given an incredible opportunity to rotate atop the pole.

The judges gave the routine a standing ovation. Rob joked he was trying to imagine Queen Latifah doing that routine. Mary called it extraordinary, fun, and sassy, and a panting Nigel (gross) made some comment about a pole dancer and Randy Jackson and I threw up in my mouth a little.

In his third hiphop performance of the evening, Cyrus did his solo to Messinian's Holy Ghost. As I've said before, he's amazing to watch, but after a while, these performances start to blend into one for me. Mary and Rob gave his solo a standing ovation.

Tiffany talked about her journey to the finale, and that she didn't get much screen time during the auditions or Vegas shows, and she even blended in on her first few performance shows, so she hopes people realize what a fighter she is. So sweet. I loved her solo to Fantasia's I Believe. So passionate and heartfelt.

The guys paired up with Sonya for a routine designed to commemorate their struggle to get to the finale. Dancing to Fangs by Little Red Lung (the District 78 remix), the routine threw in elements of each dancer's individual style with a lot of lifts and tumbles. Side by side, Chehon clearly outdanced Cyrus, although Cyrus' footwork has improved.

Nigel mentioned that Cyrus has improved as a dancer, he's an inspiration, makes the birds sing and the flowers bloom, blah blah blah, and then called Cyrus his favorite person on the show. He praised Chehon's growth as a person, because he didn't have to grow as a dancer since he's so fantastic, and he called Chehon his favorite male dancer. (My eyebrows raised.) Nigel also threw in a random reference to Jennifer Beals (who was sitting in the audience) and how she inspired a generation of dancers. (Wait, didn't she get sued by someone claiming to be her dancing double? Or was that the person who sued Paula Abdul, claiming she sang and Paula lip-synced?) Mary blathered on about the dancers' journeys and Rob said how the routine was all about camaraderie and lifting each other up, which is what dancers do. (Except in every movie about dance ever made.)

The dancers got a much-deserved short break when French b-boy Jean Sok, who has only one leg, gave an absolutely fantastic performance to Expression by Helen Jane Long. I'm guessing we're only a season away from a dancer with a disability appearing on the show, considering we've seen two performances in a row from dancers with disabilities. (Sorry if that comes across as more cynical than it's meant to be. I'm just not naive enough to believe anything is done on reality shows like this without some calculation.)

Chehon's solo to DeVotchKa's How It Ends (also known as the song from Kent and Neil's fantastic performance from Season 7) was amazing. I didn't like him as much early on as I do now, although I've always marveled at his dancing.

Eliana had a second chance to pair with Alex Freaking Wong (after their amazing routine a few weeks ago), this time to a Travis Wall-choreographed routine to Harry Nilsson's Without You. (I must say, I love that he chose the original version of this song and not Mariah Carey's bombastic version.) The two dancers are terrific together, and imbued this performance with a tremendous amount of passion, athleticism, and beauty.

Rob called the performance "poetry," and said there's nothing Eliana can't do. Nigel told Eliana not only was she his favorite girl dancer of the season, but she is his favorite dancer of all-time on the show. I think she may be in the top five (although I've only seen four seasons of the show), but I wonder about the best of all-time label. But what do I know?

Tiffany and Chehon paired up for a rumba choreographed by Dmitry Chaplin to a cover of Elvis' Love Me Tender by Adam Levy and Norah Jones. I thought it was sexy, dreamy performance; the stage even had gauzy white curtains to set the scene.

Mary said that while Chehon has had problems with Latin dances this season, the rumba suits him, and she called Tiffany a fabulous little Latin dancer, although she didn't believe the chemistry between the two. (But she believed the chemistry between Tiffany and Cyrus? Me says no.) Rob disagreed, saying the routine was sexy and the pair had beautiful connection without overselling. He called Chehon "smooth and elegant," and said he loved watching the pair's abandon. Nigel said the routine was much sexier than the pole dancing performance.

For the final routine of the evening (surprise), Cyrus and tWitch paired up on the season's first animation routine. (For those of you keeping score, that's three hiphop performances for Cyrus, plus the group routine, in which he also got to perform in his own style.) Christopher Scott choreographed the routine, about genetic specimens who break out of a secret lab, to Like a Criminal by District 78. (Someone must be paying District 78 serious royalties this season.) This was a fun, enjoyable number, but it wasn't nearly as mind-blowing as I expected it would be, and I found myself watching tWitch more than Cyrus.

To the surprise of no one, the judges gave the routine a standing ovation. Mary exclaimed how good it was to see Cyrus on his home turf, and said the pair stole the show. And this is when it got interesting. Nigel praised tWitch for the hard work he put into the routine. He then told Cyrus how amazing he was, how inspirational (yet again; it's like the guy is a walking Chicken Soup for the Animator's Soul or something) and Nigel said "I love your bones." However, Nigel explained he wouldn't be voting for Cyrus, because he respects dance, and feels like Cyrus has so much more to learn. So although he's tremendously proud of Cyrus, he needs to vote for Chehon.

Okay, dismissing the fact that I don't imagine Nigel is actually allowed to vote, WTF? I've seen numerous people commenting on Facebook and various other sites that they felt Nigel's comments were disrespectful of Cyrus, and some even said they'd vote with a vengeance for Cyrus even though they didn't think he deserved it, just to prove Nigel wrong.

Was this Nigel finally owning up to the fact that Cyrus is only in the finale because he's likeable and the judges (and, to some extent, the choreographers) have given him a pass all season, but they've torn other dancers to shreds? Was this an acknowledgment that Cyrus has outlasted Cole, Will, Matthew, George, Dareian (even with bad feet), and heck, even Daniel? Do personality and an inspirational story really trump all of that talent? It's not like every one of those aforementioned contestants were unlikeable robots.

That's when you start to wonder whether Nigel knows the audience and the voters of this show all too well, and figured he'd fire up people to vote for Cyrus, but Nigel could get a pass, because he said publicly he supported Chehon. I mean, if you remember Season 8 of American Idol, the judges all but told Kris Allen "Thank you for coming" during the finale against Adam Lambert, but Kris won. Decisively.

Ugh. Why do reality shows force me to have conspiracy theories? Oh, wait. Because most of them are true.

So here's what I think:

Who should win: Chehon and Eliana Who will win: Are you kidding?

I'd like to believe true dancing will prevail, but c'mon. If true dancing won out, it would have been a much different finahle, at least on the guys' side.

So, until then, those of you in California make sure you order your Arts license plates!!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Always remember...

It was a day on which everything changed. And for those outside of the intelligence community, there wasn't even a sign of trouble on September 11, 2001. It was an absolutely beautiful, late summer/early fall day.

I've written before about my memories of 9/11, where I was when I heard the news, how it affected me, how much I admire those whose bravery saved countless more lives, and those whose bravery led to their own losses.

Today means different things to different people. But what it means to me, on this day more than any other, is giving thanks to those who put their life on the line every day to protect others. Those who do not back down in the face of disaster, those willing to lend a hand, an ear, a heart to those in need.

And more than that, today serves as a powerful reminder of life's fragility. We never know when we'll run out of chances to tell our family, our friends, those we love, those we admire, those who make us laugh and think, how much they mean to us.

Always remember that. It's tragedy that often teaches us the hardest lessons, but it's also tragedy that strengthens our hearts and our memories and our minds.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Book Review: "Year Zero" by Rob Reid

Sometimes you read a book and marvel at the author's storytelling ability, their use of language, or the way they were able to transport you to a specific place or time. And sometimes you read a book that's just so mind-blowingly creative that you wonder how in the world the author was able to not only come up with the idea for the book, but carry it through to execution.

Rob Reid's Year Zero definitely falls into the latter category for me. This book is funny, thought-provoking, and tremendously unique, and so many times I found myself shaking my head, amazed with the creative world he created.

Nick Carter (not the Backstreet Boy) is a low-level entertainment lawyer, who one day gets a visit from a redheaded mullah and a sexy nun, who claim to be aliens named Frampton and Carly—and famous aliens at that. They explain to Nick that the entire universe has been hooked on humanity's music since "Year Zero"—1977—when a first-run episode of Welcome Back, Kotter made its way into the galaxy, and inhabitants on every planet heard the mesmerizing theme song.

Since then, the cosmos has gotten its hand on every song every written, and shared them with every citizen on every planet, everywhere. Essentially, they've committed the biggest copyright violation in history. The resulting fines and penalties could bankrupt the whole universe. And the aliens will stop at nothing to keep from paying their debts, even if it means violating galaxy rules and "inadvertently" destroying Earth.

Nick may be a bumbling lawyer who is on the verge of getting fired, but he does know copyright law. He gets his wits about him to enlist help, from some people smarter than he is, and others who are more powerful, including a famous senator with musical aspirations. But he has to be sharp—not only are Carly and Frampton as bumbling as they are good intentioned, but he needs to outsmart a parrot that talks like Vinnie Barbarino and a vacuum cleaner who could help hasten the world's destruction. And that's just for starters.

Year Zero is jam-packed with musical and pop culture inside jokes, implausible situations that almost could possibly be real, diverse creatures from planets far and wide, and a lot of zany humor. The galaxy's obsession with our music—and the resultant legal hurdles that come with downloading and copying music—is a fascinating subject on which to build a book. There were times when I laughed at loud at something in the book, and many times I shook my head, amazed that Reid thought of yet another creative twist.

Overall, however, I felt the book was almost too jam-packed. There were so many planets, so many creatures, so many characters to try and keep track of. And I felt like there were characters and situations I expected to play a real role in the story because they seemed to keep popping up, that never materialized. That being said, it's still a richly creative, funny book, and I'd imagine science fiction fans would really enjoy this.

Friday, September 7, 2012

You're only free to talk about what I want you to talk about...

This is Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. He is an outspoken advocate for marriage equality, appearing in videos for the Human Rights Campaign and Marylanders for Marriage Equality.

While Ayanbadejo is one of several courageous NFL players who have expressed their support loudly and proudly for marriage equality, apparently his stance doesn't sit well with Maryland House of Delegates member Emmett Burns,Jr. So much so, in fact, that Burns sent a letter to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti asking him to stop Ayanbadejo from speaking about marriage equality.

Said Burns:
"I find it inconceivable that one of your players, Mr. Brendon Ayanbadejo would publicly endorse Same-Sex marriage, specifically as a Raven Football player. Many of my constituents and your football supporters are appalled and aghast that a member of the Ravens Football Team would step into this controversial divide and try to sway public opinion one way or the other.

"Many of your fans are opposed to such a view and feel it has no place in a sport that is strictly for pride, entertainment and excitement.," Burns wrote. "I believe Mr. Ayanbadejo should concentrate on football and steer clear of dividing the fan base.

"I am requesting that you take the necessary action, as a National Football League Owner, to inhibit such expressions from your employees and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions. I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing."
I cannot believe the audacity of a lawmaker, writing to a business owner to stop one of his employees from expressing his opinions publicly. What country do we live in?

Isn't it interesting how some people who talk about how important it is to protect freedom of speech only want to uphold that freedom if people are expressing viewpoints they agree with?

Well, Ayanbadejo isn't cowed by Burns' cowardly, ignorant tactics. In fact, he's happy that Burns is calling more public attention to marriage equality. But he was surprised by Burns' actions, saying:
"For somebody to try to take that away from me I was pretty surprised, from a politician especially. People get fired for saying the things that the delegate said. People lose their jobs for discrimination...I think that whoever voted for him has their right to vote for who they believe represents their values. And if he represents their values, he's the best person for the job. If Obama represents the best values for the country, he deserves the job."
And even better, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, another advocate for marriage equality (he's been very outspoken about the battle for marriage quality in Minnesota), wrote a very colorful letter to Burns, which said, in part:
"I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won't come into your house and steal your children. They won't magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster. They won't even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population—rights like Social Security benefits, child care tax credits, Family and Medical Leave to take care of loved ones, and COBRA healthcare for spouses and children. You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that entails. Do the civil-rights struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you?

"In closing, I would like to say that I hope this letter, in some small way, causes you to reflect upon the magnitude of the colossal foot in mouth clusterf*ck you so brazenly unleashed on a man whose only crime was speaking out for something he believed in. Best of luck in the next election; I'm fairly certain you might need it."

Chris Kluwe

"P.S. I've also been vocal as hell about the issue of gay marriage so you can take your 'I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing' and shove it in your close-minded, totally lacking in empathy piehole and choke on it. A**hole."
I'm sure Burns will take the typical conservative tactic of saying his gesture was misinterpreted, but it clearly wasn't. I hope his constituents see his bigotry and ignorance for what it is, as well as his unabashed effort to curb someone's free speech, and bounce this schmuck out of office.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

SYTYCD Recap: Can You Dance the Phone Book?

Next week (on Tuesday night—set your DVR appropriately) is the performance finahle, and the season that started with so much promise and excitement is fairly certain to end with one of the most preordained results since Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina duked it out in the Season 10 finale of American Idol. (Wait, Nigel Lythgoe has his hands in that show, too! Go figure!)

But more on my ranting later, because trust me, I have some ranting to do!!

The show opened with an ultra-cool group routine choreographed by Sonya to Kelis' Scream. This was part ballet, part hiphop, and all awesome. The girls had masks over one eye and wore cool dresses, the guys had one eye painted and there was a lot of leaping and lifting and I just really enjoyed it. Once again, Eliana was the star of the routine. (And don't judge me, but I've finally realized after years of marveling at how quickly the dancers change costumes from the group routines to the mini-solos, that the group routine is filmed earlier. I'm quick like that.)

In the mini-solos, Cole did the robot. Cyrus kind of stood there. You know, like he has most of the season. (But did you feel his energy and his personality?)

Cat's frock was really interesting this week, kind of beige-ish with color block boxes of fall colors in rusts and silver. (I shop at Old Navy, what do you want from me?) She told us that the contestants would be performing "not once, not twice, but three times, like a lady" (a little Commodores humor goes far with me)—once with an all-star, once with another contestant, and a solo.

Christina Applegate was back on the judges' panel again. (I'm hoping they're saving Lil' C and Debbie Allen for next week.) She's a good judge, but I felt this week she was trying far, far too hard to get in good with all of the choreographers and the all-stars, and there was also a little too much "Look at me, I know dance vocabulary" going on. (I know dance words, too, but you don't see me throwing in port de bras and grand jeté everywhere, do you?)

The routines began with Tiffany teaming up with Season 2 winner Benji for a jive routine choreographed by super-hyper Jean-Marc Genereux to Lillix's cover of The Romantics' What I Like about You. (Hey!) Benji played a cool guy in a diner, and Tiffany was supposed to be hot for him. Holy wow. This routine was amazing. Benji is a frigging incredible dancer and this routine was lightning quick and jam-packed full of tricks and leaps and movements, and yet Tiffany was utterly captivating. The pair did cartwheels while interlocked, so little Tiffany was, in essence, lifting Benji, and the whole thing was fantastic. I honestly wouldn't mind seeing more ballroom dance and less contemporary (or Broadway?), especially if it could be like this.

The judges gave their first standing ovation of the night. Nigel talked about how much the pair's energy lifted the audience, called Benji "the best swing dancer ever," and said Tiffany more than kept up, pronouncing her flip kicks "fantastic" and her whole performance absolutely tremendous. He also said that despite what Adam Shankman said, he's never danced in heels, but he'd imagine it is very difficult. Mary said "there's no jive talking in this number, just jive kicking," and told Tiffany she could enter a swing championship with Benji right now and win. And Christina went on for far too long about how she takes dance classes with Benji, and how incredible he is, but then she said the routine was perfectly beautiful and a perfect jive, patting herself on the back for also noticing how fabulous the flip kicks were.

Witney was in full paso doble mode for her solo, to Malagueña by The Brian Setzer '68 Comeback Special. She danced around as if she had a bullfighter's cape. Dramatic but a little sloppy.

Cole was paired with last year's champion, Melanie, for a Sonya-choreographed jazz routine designed to show a softer side of Cole, since most of the characters he has embodied this season have been creepy and psychotic. In this routine, to the brilliant Too Close by Alex Clare, Cole desires freedom from his relationship with Melanie as it's holding him back, but she's too selfish to let him go. This also was a terrific routine (I'm sure Melanie was thrilled to dance with someone like Cole after last week's debacle with Cyrus) that actually had Melanie lifting Cole more than Cole lifting Melanie. Beautiful.

Mary said the routine was gorgeous, saying that while last week she couldn't help but be drawn to Melanie (although she insisted she couldn't take her eyes of Cyrus last week), this week, even with Melanie lifting him, Cole drew her in and commanded her attention on stage. Christina prattled on about Melanie's dancing giving her hope (do you feel my eyes rolling?) but then told Cole he was masterful and powerful. She said the routine had an "androgynous oneness," that she "didn't know where one sex ended and the other began." She said that Cole embodies every character he has played so fully. Oh, yeah, and his foot in his pirouette was sloppy, but she doesn't give a s--t because he's so good. (But remember, the dancing needs to be perfect for everyone except Cyrus.) Nigel praised Cole's vulnerability in this routine and said he adapted really well to this style. He said Cole has done extremely well in this competition because he's such a unique dancer. (Hmm, foreshadowing much?) And Cat proclaimed that "Cole isn't scary at all."

I got a little verklempt with Chehon's mother's praise of him in the intro to his solo, and was totally blown away by the twist he put on his solo itself. Dressed in a goth-like costume, dancing to District 78's Way Back Home, it was both powerful and cool. He is a brilliant dancer.

tWitch was back for another week, this time joining Eliana for a Christopher Scott hiphop routine that Christopher called his "most true-to-life routine ever." It was about an extremely hot ballet dancer who has a crush on a super studly postman, so she writes him a letter, but she won't give it to him until he dances with her. The routine, to The Marvelettes' Please Mr. Postman (albeit the District 78 remix), was cute, but seemed much more Broadway than hiphop. (And Spencer Liff Broadway at that.)

Christina didn't seem overly impressed, saying, "Would Jay-Z hire you to be next to him in a video? No," but explained that Eliana is such an amazing dancer, and she tried to find the dance equivalent of the old "you could sing the phone book" chestnut made every so popular by the Dawg on American Idol. (She came up with "I could watch you do YMCA for hours.") Nigel once again demonstrated his utter impartiality (giggle), telling Eliana once again she is his favorite girl dancer, but that this routine relied more on comedy and character than actual dancing. He called the routine "a cheap burger; there wasn't enough meat." (Cat said something about an In-and-Out Burger that I didn't catch.) Mary called Eliana a chameleon and said she was memorable every week.

Ok, kids, save up your money and submit your leave slips for the three-day SYTYCD experience in Las Vegas! Dance like your favorite contestants (unless your favorite contestant is Cyrus, and then you can just have lots of personality), meet Keith-Tyce, Nappy/Tabs, Christopher Scott, and more!

Tiffany's solo to Carmen Reece's cover of Bruno Mars' Just the Way You Are was blah.

The next routine paired Chehon with movie star Kathryn for a Keith-Tyce contemporary routine which (to be cynical for a moment) was clearly his bid for an Emmy nomination this year. It addressed what people do in the face of a catastrophic tragedy, how they live their life with all of their possessions in just one suitcase. The routine, to Sophie Millman's Eli, Eli (A Walk to Caesarea), was performed in an almost gray light, and Chehon and Kathryn looked like they had been through a tornado, with wind-blown hair and dust-streaked faces, as they passed the suitcase between the two of them. At one point Kathryn literally stood on Chehon's bent back. It was a beautiful, emotionally powerful routine, without trying too hard, as I feel some of the "very special" routines on this show can be.

The judges deservedly gave the number a standing ovation, and Keith-Tyce was crying. Nigel put in his bid for Fox renewing the show, as he thanked Fox for allowing them to spotlight routines like this one, which combined a terrific technical side with a terrific emotional one. Mary called it one of the most amazing numbers this season, a "magical moment." She told Chehon he was "so moved by your own movement," and that the routine oozed with power and passion. Christina called Keith-Tyce "a master of contemporary, so profound" (she also called him "dude"), and told Chehon that while technically he's a master, and one of the most brilliant dancers she's ever seen, it has been great watching him grow emotionally.

I loved Cole's solo, to Nox Arcana's Night of the Wolf. He started wearing a hood, and as he took it off he appeared to transform into a wolf. He was wearing a very interesting type of martial arts gi, I'd guess. Really awesome and unique.

Witney and last season's Marko (with a shaved head) paired up on a Ray Leeper lyrical jazz routine about a pair of young lovers on their wedding day who hit a snag when the bride has second thoughts at the altar. ("Just because I'm 18 doesn't mean I want to get married," Witney said, and then warned Marco, "My dad is waiting with a shotgun in the back.") I thought the routine, to No Nothing by Curtis and Reinhard featuring Blaire, was very lyrical and sweet. I've missed Marko.

Mary said that "Witney is still a star to me," that she had many moments of attack and control, and the pair danced beautifully together. Christina said that everyone knows Witney isn't just a ballroom dancer, but she's so capable of so many different styles. She did call Witney out for a lot of "hairography" in the routine (and then, of course, patted herself on the back again for "inventing" the word), saying she missed being able to see her face. Nigel mentioned that in the process of saving contestants from elimination this season, they've been able to talk to the choreographers, and all of them say Witney's a star. And while her character may not have been committed to the marriage in this routine, Witney has been committed to every step in every routine.

Good solo from Eliana, to Death Cab for Cutie's I Will Follow You into the Dark.

So, who do you think got the season's first dubstep number? Yep, Cyrus. Hasn't had a ballroom dance other than the jive the entire season. In this routine, he got to team up with Season 4's amazing Comfort for a Christopher Scott routine to Cinema by Benny Benassi featuring Gary Go. It was really cool, although the whole thing just made me angry. I just don't understand why the show has decided to throw all of their energy behind a dancer who is only strong in one style. I'd totally get it if he showed one iota of improvement or facility in other styles, but he hasn't.

The judges gave the routine a standing ovation. Christina wasn't particularly effusive, stating the obvious "We liked it a lot," followed by the "This was carved out for you, pal." Nigel called Christopher Scott a mathematical genius for the calculations he had to do in order to choreograph with such precision, and told Cyrus, "we know how good you are." And he again reminded us that Cyrus has never been in the bottom two. Mary said that "we're getting all the Twitters" about how much people love Cyrus (eye roll) because "you connect with us." And she remarked how he was "in his Comfort zone." (Get it?)

Witney and Chehon teamed up again for a cha-cha, choreographed by Jean-Marc to Rihanna's Where Have You Been, ironically, the song to which she danced her solo last week. (Yes, my mind keeps hold of stuff like this. What do you want from me?) It wasn't all that good, really. Witney was certainly in her element, but Chehon struggled, and the lifts were awkward.

Mary called the routine a big improvement over Chehon's performance in the samba, but said that Latin dance really doesn't sit well for him. (Has Cyrus had any Latin dance? No, of course not. But he's had two hiphop routines. How many ballet routines has Chehon had?) She called Witney "Lindsay," and said the routine didn't even show her off, and her "hips mean business." Christina sucked up and said, "I didn't notice anything after the deep plie at the beginning of the routine." Nigel joked that the celebrity judges don't like to give criticism (you know, like the real judges do of nearly every other contestant on the show other than Cyrus), but called the routine generally disappointing.

Cyrus did his solo to Sarah Brightman's Harem. Didn't look much different from what he did in his routine with Comfort.

Mia choreographed a contemporary routine for Cole and Eliana about hatred, which Mia said was inspired by rams and how they fight. (Not the St. Louis Rams, who haven't fought since Kurt Warner left, but actual rams.) The routine, to Adagio for Strings by the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra, was magnificent, powerful, athletic, and just amazing.

The judges gave the routine a standing ovation, and Nigel joked that the routine wasn't inspired by how rams fight, it was inspired by his relationship with Mia. He told Eliana, "this is why I want you dancing," and told Cole he was brilliant. Mary called the routine absolutely mesmerizing, and praised its power and strength. Christina sucked up to Mia for a while, saying there were no words to describe her ("I have a few," joked Nigel), and then told Eliana that it seems like she almost has a light coming from her feet, and that she's the perfect dancer.

The final routine of the evening was a Spencer Liff Broadway routine for Cyrus and Tiffany, which Spencer called, "like an episode of your favorite 1950s sitcom that never aired," because it portrayed a young high school couple left alone, who get up to some mischief. The routine, to Debbie Gravitte's Treat Me Rough (Girl Crazy), was cute but messy. Cyrus couldn't get his jacket off for a while, which complicated things, and again, he just didn't do much, a few half-hearted leaps here and there, a lift, but no real chemistry. The audience clapped weakly, and even Spencer seemed underwhelmed. (But super cute.)

The judges stuck to their script. Christina called the routine sassy, and said that "Cyrus keeps up with the best of them, and Tiffany is the best of them." Nigel called Tiffany a combination of the girl next door and sexy, and, of course, said Cyrus was inspirational. (Yes, you, too, can one day unfairly win a competition show in which you did not excel, because the judges like you.) Mary called the number "the cutest ever!" (hearts and flowers all around) and said Tiffany was a superstar in both her routines.

The amazing Access Dance Company did a really cool routine that paired a dancer with one in a wheelchair. Some pretty amazing acrobatics although the constant tipping of the chair turned me into a nervous parent. I kept wanting to look away.

And then it was results time. To the surprise of no one, Witney and Cole were eliminated. (I had forgotten that Witney had braces when she auditioned.) It seems a foregone conclusion that Cyrus will win, and I'm guessing Eliana will, too, although Tiffany could surprise.

I am so frustrated that Cole was eliminated. Why did every single other dancer on the show get criticized for mistakes or weaknesses in technique but Cyrus was told, "well, this wasn't perfect, but who cares?" How many times did the judges beat up Dareian for his feet, Will for not being serious enough, Matthew for not connecting, or others for lack of emotion or chemistry? But all Cyrus has is personality and talent in his own genre. That is it. There hasn't been one non-hiphop dance he's shown any facility in, no matter what the judges told the audience.

I understand that this show is looking for "America's Favorite Dancer," not the best dancer. But if personality and mastery of one genre is all that is needed, why all the fuss about technique for everyone else? Why send all of the other b-boys and hiphop dancers and belly dancers to choreography during the auditions? Why all the melodramatic eliminations of dancers in Vegas for failure to master Broadway or hiphop or ballroom or contemporary (none of which Cyrus mastered in Vegas) when you're touting as the winner a dancer who cannot do any of this? The only thing Cyrus did well in Vegas was his solo, but he made it into the top 20 over a stronger dancer. And that has happened over and over and over again this season.

Of course, I'll watch the finahle next week, and I certainly know Cyrus won't get a ballroom dance, but he'll get to do another solo. Maybe he'll even be last for like the third show in a row. I guess I'm just glad they expanded to have a male and a female winner this season, otherwise no female dancer would get the recognition they deserve.

Hmm. Maybe I shouldn't let a television show rile me up, huh?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Farewell, Andy...

Andy Roddick's announcement—on his 30th birthday—that he planned to retire at the end of this year's U.S. Open might have been surprising only because of its timing. Despite a career in which he won 32 titles, including the 2003 U.S. Open, and holding the world #1 ranking, Roddick had struggled in the last several years, and his ranking plummeted to #22.

This afternoon, after losing in four sets to 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro, an emotional Roddick called it a career. "For the first time in my career, I’m not sure what to say," he told the crowd. "My gosh. Where do I start? Since I was a kid I’ve been coming to this tournament and I felt lucky just to sit where all of you are sitting today, to watch this game, to see the champions that have come and gone. I’ve loved every minute of it."

While Roddick's career was marked as much by his successes as some stunning disappointments, including a devastating five-set loss to Roger Federer in the 2009 Wimbledon final (he lost 16-14 in the fifth set), and sometimes he failed to achieve more than expectations demanded, he is still to be commended for carrying himself as a true champion and serving as a role model for young American tennis players. And it's hard not to forget the brash, spiky-haired, visor-wearing 18-year-old who took the tennis world by storm.

Beyond his achievements on the courts, Roddick has followed the model of fellow champion Andre Agassi in his immense generosity. In 2004 he won the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award for his charitable efforts, and founded the Andy Roddick Foundation, which has as its goal to improve the quality of life and enhance educational and economic opportunities for all children based on the principles of respect for family, education, and morality. To date. the Foundation has raised over $10 million.

While the tennis world will miss seeing Roddick on the courts (and some may particularly miss the shirtless practices, but it is what it is), there is little doubt he won't be gone for long. With his quick wit and disarming personality, it wouldn't be surprising to hear him doing commentary on matches sometime soon. And certainly, for a person with a heart and a giving spirit as big as his, the world will continue to benefit from his contributions.

Thank you, Andy, for an excellent career, for demonstrating how exhilarating the ups can be and showing how you can still achieve despite the downs. And thank you for being a role model on and off the courts. Well played.