365 Sketch 2015: Day 52: Adept

The Tumblr Superheroes in Full Color started up a monthly art challenge last month. This time around, in honor of Black History Month, they selected three black female superheroes for people to draw. The choices were Bumblebee, Butterfly, and Adept. Adept, the hero I chose to draw, is part of the Strikeforce Morituri team from the 80s. These were supersoldiers given an experimental treatment that granted them incredible superpowers for one year. After a year, their powers would peak and they would die. Adept developed the ability to decipher any dangerous situation and find the proper solution. Sadly, much of her last year on Earth was spent in isolation. She was tasked with decrypting enemy alien code she absorbed on a space combat mission. The results made no sense without the artifacts in hand she pulled the data from. Her team staged her kidnapping so she could sneak onboard the same ship, hold the objects, and decrypt the data in an instant. This was, sadly, when her power peaked. She spent her last moments serving humankind by reciting the secrets to countless alien techologies so we had a chance to fight on a level playing field. A beautiful and tragic end to a very unusual superhero.

365 Sketch 2015: Day 52: Adept

Marker and pastel pencil.

Cinefessions Summer Scream Challenge Wrap-Up

As of 12AM this morning, the 3rd Annual Cinnefessions Summer Scream Challenge is over. I scored a respectable 293.75 points in 30 days of viewing sci-fi and horror films and TV series. I spent a lot more time on TV this year for the score factor and it paid off. Not too well, though; two other competitors practically eclipsed my modest little efforts to vie for the top prize in the challenge. To put it in perspective, I watched 50 films and 111 episodes of television in a month. That's not counting all the non-horror and sci-fi content I was keeping up with, like indie films (Belle is amazing), the new Sailor Moon subs, and all my usual research shenanigans for panels and writing work.

Just a few highlights from the month while I'm feeling nostalgic.

I watched the entirety of the Hellraiser series for the first time. I have to say, I was surprised to find even one sequel, let alone two, past Hellbound that are actually worth watching. This is one of those series that does not have a very good reputation and that reputation is not misplaced. The two films that are only tangentially Hellraiser episodes, though, are quite good: Bloodline and Hellseeker.

I got into a lot of great anime. Btooom! is an interesting spin on the deadly game/pulled into a game concept with a whole lot more heart than you might anticipate from such a blatant Battle Royale knock-off. Ghost Hunt is now one of my favorite haunted house stories and I've seen a lot of them. Persona 4: The Animation is very good for a video game tie-in series and looks great. Psycho-Pass is even better the second time around, allowing all those clues and connections to become clear that built such great suspense on the initial screening. Serial Experiments Lain has me convinced I need to put together a cyberpunk panel so I can address how amazing that anime is.

Speaking of surprisingly good animation, Batman Beyond is now up there with Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men as one of my favorite superhero shows. The cyberpunk setting and Bruce Wayne as mentor conceits work wonders. The villains, as always, steal the show in the Batman universe, but I found myself pulling a little harder for Terry McGinnis than I ever pulled for Bruce Wayne in other iterations.

I also fell in love with Dollhouse. It's a show I was always interested in but never really devoted the time to watching. How foolish I was to wait this long. I know the show is a little obtuse at times, but I love it. It's such a refreshing approach to science fiction and long-form narrative that I'm willing to overlook a few of the missing hows and whys and just go for the ride. Plus, the acting is incredible and the cast, forgive the superficiality, is one of the most beautiful ever put together onscreen.

Any regrets for this year? None, really. I'm still a little disappointed that Room 237, the amazing documentary about the crazy fan theories on The Shining, did not count as a supernatural film for double points that week. That's petty, too. There are (foolish) people who do not even think it's a horror film in its own rights, or even think it's a bad documentary. I won't judge them (too harshly) for their unenlightened interpretation of the material.

Would I participate again next year? Absolutely. As long as someone reminds me to sign-up, I'll do it.

Best Original Song Lives! A Round-Up of the Oscar Nominees

I'm so excited to see that the music branch of the Academy Awards got their act together this year with their new rules and actually found five nominees. It really seemed like the category was going to disappear as the nominees dwindled each year and new rules were written to fix it. They've pulled out of their tailspin and found five nominees. They aren't necessarily the songs I'd pick, but I can't complain about their choices.

All five nominees below the jump.

"Almost There" written by Randy Newman for The Princess and the Frog:

This is a category that has always been good to Disney and there's normally a good reason: their animated musicals have lovely music. The Princess and the Frog is no exception. If AMPAS stick to the actual performers doing the music, this will be Anika Noni Rose's second live performance at the Oscar telecast, previously featured in the Dreamgirls nominee montage at the 2007 ceremony.

"Down in New Orleans" written by Randy Newman for The Princess and the Frog:

The opening is a nice riff on Disney magic, leading to a fun ragtime-esque tribute to New Orleans. I'm a fan. Except for how it's such an obvious Randy Newman piano riff I wouldn't be surprised if Seth MacFarlane actually wrote it. That's a personal predictability issue with Mr. Short People.

"Loin de Paname" written by Reinhardt Wagner and Frank Thomas for Paris 36:

What a lovely little waltz. To be honest, I had not heard of the film until this nomination. My understanding is its a murder mystery/romance/drama/period piece taking place in and around a music hall in 1930s Paris. If my understanding is correct, this song really captures the feel of that musical period. It'll make a wonderful moment on the telecast.

"Take it All" written by Maury Yeston for Nine:

This is the scene that convinced me Marion Cotillard would be guaranteed a slot on my Best Actress list. It's such a powerful addition to Ninethat I wish there was a way to retrofit it into the stage show; there isn't. The stage musical already has tons of better songs that cover all the necessary emotional notes as this. Still, for a mediocre film adaptation of a polarizing stage show, this was a smart decision. It's also a nice way to ensure Marion Cotillard goes to the ceremony and prove she can sing after winning in a lip-syncing performance for La vie en Rose.

"The Weary Kind" written by Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett for Crazy Heart:

Another lovely song nominated for Best Original Song. I'm very excited that my ears shall not be attacked by aggressive give-me-an-awardisms and melisma at the ceremony. It's good to see at least one awards group that realizes there's more to songwriting than fireworks. My understanding is that this is the favorite to win the award and it wouldn't upset me.

For me, I still wish there was a way to fit "All is Love" from Where the Wild Things Are as a nominee, though I knew it wouldn't happen. Still, I'll just pretend it won and fake surprise in a few years when I'm corrected. So much so that I'm embedding the song for the billionth time on this site.

Yeah. That's the stuff.

Or, fat chance, they could have nominated Coraline here to give it a second nomination, even if the sum of the score is greater than the "Other Father Song":

Adorable. But sadly, too short.

Midnight Rec: God Told Me To (1976)

Director/Writer Larry Cohen has helped create some very strange films in his lifetime. While there is much to love and much to hate in his filmography, as far as I'm concerned, 1976 cult classic God Told Me To stands above the rest.

A random wave of mass murders has hit New York City. The only connective thread is the killer claiming "God told me to" before committing suicide. A Catholic NYPD detective is running the case, and all logical thoughts are pushed to the wayside as he begins to see signs of a Christ figure possibly influencing the erratic behavior of the killers. The result is a twisted journey into the power of faith and the danger of obsession.

I know I have my own interpretation of the final scenes of God Told Me To. I know others have a conflicting interpretation of those very scenes. The only thing certain about this film is its ability to leave the viewer with a strong sense of something, even if that sense is confusion or hatred. To call it a polarizing weird film would be a great disservice. Cohen crafted something special here. He allowed nothing to get in the way of memorable scenes, such as a cop (played by Andy Kaufman) losing it at the St. Patrick's Day Parade, actually shot at the NYC St. Patrick's Day Parade without a permit.

God Told Me To is a public domain film. It is available for streaming on Netflix. If you want to hunt around for a copy to download or stream through a free web service, please try to find a good looking copy of the film. The subtlety of colors is beautifully handled and the detail is lost all too often in these quick uploads of the film.

The trailer is posted after the bump. Point of warning: the voice over makes it seem like the film is very cut and dry in its interpretation, but that's a gross oversimplification.

5 Reasons to Love Project Runway Again

It was so easy to become disillusioned with Project Runway last season. For one thing, the show's release was delayed so long the final three designers didn't even get to step foot on the runway of Bryant Park to address the crowd; any shot you saw like that was manipulated in editing to create the public appearance without spoilers. For another, Lifetime seemed to be so afraid of making the show all about the drama that the characters were never defined and the cast felt boring. Perhaps most unsettling was the constant absence of Nina and Michael.

These issues seem to be long gone. Yes, it is now safe to love Project Runway again. Here's why:

  1. We're back in NYC. Maybe it's my bias showing, but Project Runway is not Project Runway without Mood Fabrics, Parsons School of Design, and the gorgeous cityscape of the Big Apple. Seeing the designers wander into Central Park for the standard "grab everything you can and design" challenge was like a homecoming. Even Heidi and Tim made a big deal of the return to NYC in their introductory rooftop toast to the designers. It's good to be back.
  2. A full judging panel. If you follow the press about the show at all, you would know that Heidi, Michael, and Nina will be present for every judging this season. Frankly, I don't mind when Michael is out and, say, Zoe Glasner or a previous winner fills in for a challenge. That's not a problem. But when weeks go by without Michael or Nina gracing us with their snarky presence and classic one-liners, the show becomes inconsistent at best and unwatchable at worst. All of the judges were in top form last night. They focused on the designs and still managed to throw out some fun commentary.
  3. More Tim. I believe Lifetime listened to the complaints that there was not enough Tim Gunn last season. The result: wall to wall Tim in the first episode. Watching him talk Ping through the rules of the twist in the challenge made me sigh with relief: the show really is back to where it should be. 
  4. Creative designers. Last season, after we had the one-two knockout of Ari and Malvyn, we were left with talented, but boring, designers. This season, we're overflowing with designers that never met a pleat they didn't like or an architectural element that didn't look stunning jutting off of an appendage. A few designers played it safe in the first challenge with simple, but clean, work that still showed more innovation than most of last season.
  5. Ping Wu. It's good to see, for the first time ever, the judges embrace a totally off the wall designer in the first episode. Ping Wu is a physical therapist by day, clothing designer by night. She lets her occupation influence her design by making everything about the movement of the body within the fabric. She makes as few cuts as possible to maintain the integrity of the fabric and ensure free motion. It's completely removed from anything we have ever had on the show before. Undoubtedly, she will not be making it to Bryant Park because she will be hit with a challenge that does not lend itself to such an innovative style and be sent home, but at least we'll have been introduced to a true artistic talent on Project Runway.

Cannonball Read 2: Book 8: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson

I know I just said in my The Awakening review that I tend to avoid American literature. The only consistent exception to that is the slave narrative and slave-narrative inspired novels. I can't explain why. It's just another quirk like my love of horror musicals or appreciation of a fine trashy reality show on VH1.

For those who do not know, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson is not, in fact, an autobiography. Though the movements of the unnamed narrator mirrors many of Johnson's own experiences, the book is a work of fiction. And what a work of fiction it is.

This is a novel that deals with personal identification of race and culture. The narrator is raised by his white single mother to believe that he is a white child, only to discover that his father is black. This sends his life into a tailspin of disappointments broken by minor triumphs. If the narrator is not [identity], he is nothing. If he isn't rolling cigars in Florida, he is a meaningless drifter perfectly capable of moving to New York City and breaking into the gambling racket. If he isn't a perfect white child playing piano to everyone's endless amusement, he can drift around from style to style until he latches onto something else he likes. The narrator is only capable of success when he clearly identifies with some form of established racial or cultural norm.

The plot of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is not as important as the growth of the character. In the crests and troughs of his journey to a sustainable identity, the narrator casts light on greater issues surrounding the role of mixed-race persons in America. Writers influenced by the work of James Weldon Johnson, like Jean Toomer, still cast mixed-race characters as the other, something removed from society, fearful, or shameful. Here, because the narrator is light enough to pass as white, Johnson produces a character than can explore various roles in society. This exploration is full of struggle caused by the cultural role of a mixed-race person. If he pretends he is white, he believes he is hiding part of his identity and will be found out and punished; if he accepts his black heritage, he feels obligated to better his race through a brand new form of artistic exploration; and if he tries to straddle the line between the two, he doesn't really exist in his society.

Johnson combines the American myth of rags to riches with the slave narrative to produce a unique exploration of an ignored aspect of American society. Every time you expect a kindly gentleman or long lost relative to step forward and save the struggling narrator, the narrator is forced to undergo even harder circumstances than his initial problem provided. His achievements, like learning to read and write and moving away from home to be an independent person, are the new stepping stones he uses in a faltering attempt at respectability. No one is going to save him but himself.

The prose is a treat to read. Johnson has a strong narrative voice that really does feel like a pompous young man detailing his exploits as if he is the greatest man to ever live. The combination of Johnson's life experience coloring the text and the integration of established literary forms make the work feel authentic. It's no surprise that the work was presumed to be a genuine autobiography. Johnson intentionally produced a fictional narrative reflective of real life to open a greater dialogue in America than any novel ever could.

Cannonball Read 2: Book 7: The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Technically, the next few Cannonball Read 2 posts are way overdue. These are the books I read for classes in November and just never ever posted about. I actually took pleasure in most of them, so the omission is baffling to me. Catch-up, away!

I have a thing for Modernism. It's true. I can't get enough of this literary period. I'm particularly fond of the European inter-war avant garde, to the point that I consider my research and reading into this period to be the end all, be all of Modernism.

The problem is, I have a very bad habit of avoiding American literature. I blame one too many middle school teachers telling me I couldn't write a report on Dickens/Woolf/Joyce and instead shoving some Steinbeck or Hemingway my way. With the exception of Faulkner (be still, my heart, I promise you ample Faulkner soon), I hate this grouping of writers with a passion and let that (plus a painful Twain experience for another post) push me away from my own country's literature for nearly 10 years.

So what does this have to do with a controversial proto-feminist American novel from 1899? In my mind? Everything.

Kate Chopin's The Awakening brought to mind a less wordy Virginia Woolf. Shoot, they even share a common metaphor/framing device: waves for intellectual growth, personal exploration, and the life cycle (Virginia Woolf's The Waves). The focus isn't on narrative, but technique and character exploration. There is a distinct cultural criticism going on through outrageous actions, like a woman staying outside the house all night in defiance of her husband who won't leave her side. Technically, Chopin's novel is not a Modernist text under stricter definitions (namely being a good decade removed from the canon of Modernism), but I play it fast and loose with literature. Give me a ghost and I'll call it a horror story for better or worse.

The Awakening is the story of one Edna Pontellier, a well-off wife and mother who feels detached from her life. While all the other good "wife-mothers" seem pleased as punch to chase after their children and tend the home, Edna is lifeless, depressed, and distraught. She would rather spend her days on the beach with a young man not learning how to swim than wait in the house to greet her husband's business clients. Throughout the novel, Edna tries to figure out what she wants out of life by eliminating what she doesn't. She doesn't want to follow the traditional role of a woman in upper class society; she doesn't want to be faithful to her husband; she doesn't want to raise her children; she doesn't want to even live in the same house as her family.

What can be viewed as frustrating is Edna's refusal to admit what she wants. Freedom? That's clear. She's trying to cast off the constraints society placed upon her without her choice. She's still young and can still make a big change in her life if she wants to. But what change does she want? That, I believe, is the point of the novel.

Kate Chopin brilliantly crafts a subtle, lyrical examination of a woman at a crossroads in her life. There is no right or wrong choice for Edna because according to society, there is no choice. Everything she does is a blindfolded step on a tightrope. Eventually, she will lose her balance and have to save herself. Chopin isn't condoning Edna's negligent parenting or infidelity: she's proposing that women should have a choice beyond the home life.

For late nineteenth century America, this was as radical as radical could get shy of attempting to shoot the president. Copies of The Awakening were burned and critics savaged the novel. Chopin couldn't get anything else published after the release of The Awakening. Fortunately, history has looked kindly upon The Awakening. Well, contextually history has looked kindly on the novel. It's considered an important feminist text, though the content overshadows the lovely form. I believe the true triumph of the novel is an artful representation of an underlying cultural tension between tradition and progress; this goes beyond traditional feminist readings. Chopin's achievement is producing a great American novel that happens to have strong critical resonance; this means the skill of the writer cannot be overlooked just to claim the text for one camp.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin can be a fast read, but is best savored like the beautiful summer days Edna relies on in the novel: slow, alone, and without distraction. Let the words wash over you as you wade into the deep end of uniquely American text.

Cannonball Read 2: Book 6: The Best Horror of the Year Volume One edited by Ellen Datlow

Horror anthologies are a decidedly mixed bag. For one thing, with the dwindling horror/dark fiction markets in the United States and the declining ability of horror publishers to invest in new talents, there is a small pool to pull from. Each magazine has it's own style of horror with a single common thread: they will drop an unknown author like a hot potato so they can cram in another Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, or Peter Straub story. That provides a small pool for domestic horror anthologies. Often, the best horror anthologies come from across the pond. Stephen Jones has been editing my favorite, The Year's Best Horror, for quite a while now. Sure, the usual suspects (King, Campbell, Straub, Lansdale) always get in, but Jones always sprinkles in a fine mix of new, emerging, and forgotten talent for a brutal and relentless horror anthology.

Ellen Datlow, long standing editor of The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, has thrown her editing hat into the ring with the first in a new series of horror anthologies: The Best Horror of the Year Volume One. Though she doesn't specify an attempt to look past the more common names for fresh talent, it's quite clear that was her intention. Unfortunately, as any ardent horror fan can tell you, there's a reason the common names are so common: horror is hard to do right, and - formulaic or not - some authors have figured out how to make it consistently work.

Datlow's collection would be better referred to as an anthology of dark, not horror, fiction. However, since it's marketed as a horror collection, introduced as a horror collection, and designed like a horror collection, it has to be judged as a horror collection.

The anthology falls flat. The placement of stories is nice, the layout clean and clear, the introduction and yearly round-up done very well, but the collection is limp, weak, and underwhelming when taken as a whole.

Is it because the writing isn't any good? No. These are very talented writers at various stages in their careers. Is it the editing? Nope. Datlow's a vet and she knows what she's doing. These stories all have merit and offer a nice cross-section of darker fiction in 2008 (2008 because she is willing to admit that best-of anthologies often reward a year behind, so a 2009 release is really 2008 stories). So what went wrong?

The stories aren't scary. Datlow usually works in fantasy and many of these stories are dark fantasies, not horror. The line is often blurred here and elsewhere, but the stories in this collection almost uniformly keep both feet planted in fantasy.

Take, for example, E. Michael Lewis's "Cargo." This is a beautifully written story about an airforce delivery of a large stack of caskets containing dead children from a mass cult suicide. The doctor/recruit on board is traveling with the guidance of a nurse because he snapped from the pressure and believes he hears the children playing in the boxes. Pretty soon, everyone hears them. Instead of some big payoff or a consistent gothic atmosphere, Lewis opts for a somber wartime fantasy about the loss of innocence that reads more like the narrator accepting the existence of fairies in the garden instead of restless child spirits who don't know what happened to them.

Some of the stories are nightmarish in design, but still fall prey to the trappings of fantasy. Miranda Siemienowicz's "Dress Circle" could be horrifying if the emphasis wasn't on magical dresses that trap women in servitude. It reads like a variation of Snow White where she is put in the overly tightened bodice by her evil stepmother, only not nearly as dark.

There are three brilliant horror stories that might even be worth reading the whole collection for. First is Laird Barron's "The Lagerstatte," about a woman who lost her husband and son in a plane crash and goes off the deep end, or so you think. Even at the end, it's not clear whether or not the narrator is sane, and that's what makes it horror. It's a modern gothic cozy in the style of Edgar Allan Poe, where you have no reason to trust the narrator but follow her every word.

Second is "Girl in Pieces" by Graham Edwards. Imagine a multidimensional detective working in a small city populated by every creature ever mentioned in the history of horror. Now imagine a gigantic, kindhearted golem shows up to his office with a garbage pail full of a woman's body parts and zombie police officers demanding everyone comes out with their hands up. Now imagine the only way to solve the case is to bend through space and make a deal with a woman, now a monster, banished to another dimension. It's thrilling, funny, and rather scary. I would read a series of these stories if Graham Edwards wanted to pursue it further.

Third is Adam Golaski's "The Man from the Peak." It's a bit confusing, even at the end, but the story works. The narrator arrives at the going away party for his best friend and his new girlfriend - the narrator's ex - at their shared home on the top of a mountain. He witnesses a man walk down from the peak of the mountain and infiltrate the party. Strange things start happening with the man that only the narrator can see. It's suspenseful and feels real, like the best episodes of the Twilight Zone.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is a feature that Ellen Datlow included in The Best Horror of the Year: a list of honorable mentions. Why is this disappointing? Because I've read quite a few of those stories before and any one of them could have switched places with any of the stories selected for the anthology and produced a stronger finished product. Some of the best work by writers like Sarah Langan, Jeff VanderMeer, and Richard Harland were overlooked to make way for dark fantasy in a horror anthology. Of course, I respect that tastes are subjective and willingly admit that for what was put together (horror or not), this is a well orchestrated anthology.

I know that Ellen Datlow is a talented editor. I have no doubt that she will only improve on future volumes of the anthology. As it stands right now, I would recommend anyone interested browse through it at your local bookstore first before committing to a purchase. I was terribly disappointed in the lack of genuine horror stories, a problem I've never had with Stephen Jones's anthologies. The writing in The Best Horror of the Year is great; it's just not horror writing.

Dissecting Lady Gaga's "Teeth"

I'm going to try and remember to put up music posts on Tuesday. It makes sense simply because new albums are released on Tuesdays like new non-blockbuster films are released on Fridays.

I thought nothing of Lady Gaga's song "Teeth" off of her The Fame Monster EP until I heard it through headphones. "Teeth" is best described in my mind is how Cher would record "Half Breed" in 2009. 

Feel free to play along with the embedded video as you continue reading after the bump.

First, the beat is evocative of Native American drum and chant. There is a steady downbeat on a large drum, probably a bass drum, mixed with a large jingle stick at twice the speed. There is also a synthesized whine, almost a battle cry, to complete the rhythm. At the bridge, the drum doubles its speed and takes center stage, as if there should be a furious burst of impassioned dance kicking in. It's utterly fascinating and I wish I had the skills to do a mash-up of "Teeth" and "Half Breed," since the tempo and rhythm are almost identical. Lady Gaga takes the literal interpretation in Cher's song and makes it figurative. In fact, the placement of drum and jingle stick are the exact opposite - "Half Breed" has the drum twice as fast as the jingle stick. It's intentional, and I love it.

Lady Gaga is singing about sex again. That's a good guess on any Lady Gaga song. "Teeth" sets her as a woman on the prowl, about to tackle her prey if he won't tackle her first. She is wandering with "no direction" trying to do whatever's "alright." She places this as a primitive instinct, pre-cultural, with "no religion...no salvation." She is the hunter, the wanderer, the only person capable of fulfilling all her own needs by tracking what she needs and capturing it.

The lyrics are inane removed from the aesthetics of the song. It's that rhythm section that really sells "Teeth" as a standout track on The Fame Monster

The Chopping Block

I have a problem. My collection of DVDs, books, and CDs has gotten out of control.

Every week, I will be reviewing a DVD, book, or CD I never opened, read/heard/watched, or cared for properly. If I don't like it, it's Up For Grabs. That means you, the reader, can claim it for your own collection. Just send me an e-mail with the name of the item and your shipping info and I'll mail it out to you. I would appreciate it if you would write a quick review of the DVD/book/CD that I didn't like for another viewpoint on the site, but it's not required.

If I'm not thrilled with the media object but feel like I might like to write more about it, it's on The Waiting List. That means I have six months to get whatever I need out of the DVD/book/CD before I have to put it Up for Grabs.

If I like the DVD/book/CD and want to keep it, it has been Reprieved and gets to stay in my collection. I'll be updating this page with the media objects included in The Chopping Block.

12 Days of Sketchies: Day 8: Outstanding Achievement In Reality Programming

Is awarding Reality TV as outstanding an oxymoron? Some would say so. Me? I'm hooked on it like a drug. Let's get to it.

Our first honoree: Cat Deeley, host of So You Think You Can Dance? Cat Deeley is the bang-up host of SYTYCD? that for some odd reason can't get any love from the Emmys in a category designed to award the best reality hosts. She's engaging and charming, down to earth and glamorous, and not afraid of pushing buttons for her own amusement. If you can look past her obsession with shiny metallic clothes (picked by her, since she's her own stylist), she's probably the best part of the show. Here she is reacting to krumper Russel dancing while dressed as Santa Clause. Hilarious. This is how she always is: a delight.

I doubt Seacrest could have handled this with such likability. You can almost get past the arguably racist reaction of the entire judging panel because of how charming Cat is.

Our next honoree: The Judging Panel of RuPaul's Drag Race. Can I just tell you how amazing RuPaul, Merle, Santino, plus a rotating guest judge were at hitting all of the Top Model cliches while actually managing funny comments and constructive criticism. This should be the gold standard of Reality TV judging. If only everyone could be basked in a soft pink glow and seen through a heavily filtered lens, the world would be a lovelier place.

 

Two reality vets (well, Merle did Launch My Line after season 1) and a genuine supermodel. What could be better? We'll catch up with RuPaul and the gang later on.

Our next honoree: Gordana Gehlhausen's Getty Center Dress on Project Runway. The transition from Bravo to Lifetime has been hard on Project Runway. A lot of the spark and magic was missing, partly from the constantly rotating panel of judges that resulted in lots of inconsistencies and bizarre decisions. For me, the true gem of the season was the horribly misunderstood Gordana Gehlhausen. It's rare for a reality contestant to be so focused on their own aesthetic that they do not let constant hijinks and negative feedback destroy them on national television. What the judges assumed (and by judges, I mean Heidi, who hated Gordana for no discernible reason) was weakness and an inability to defend an outfit was genuine humility and a focused style from a mentally stable designer. This dress is arguably the single greatest garment to walk the runway of the LA Project Runway studio and she was sent home for it. Ridiculous decision considering how well she captured the ethereal beauty of a wonderful painting of a cathedral:

Gordanapr
Stunning. She manipulated the fabric by hand to create the brush stroke effect and wound up with the perfect color match from her inspiration. Her goal on the show was to inspire young people to consider pursuing their goals, especially in fashion. I have no doubt that she was successful. Brava, Gordana. 

Our next honorees: Vogue Evolution and We Are Heroes on America's Best Dance Crew. We finally got an all female crew to win ABDC and it only took the judges throwing the all gay crew under the bus to get there. Let's start with Vogue Evolution: the crew did not once sacrifice their ball aesthetic once throughout the contest to be the most personable and consistently entertaining crew. They were brow-beaten after losing a close friend and MTV chose that would to manipulate the audience into not voting for the crew anymore. They landed in the bottom two once and were promptly eliminated. At least we'll always have week 1, no? And their fantastic audition.

 
We Are Heroes brought my favorite style of popping and locking to the ABDC stage: animation. They were clean and engaging. They worked hard and managed to keep it all together despite Reality TV drama-inducing manipulations. Week 1 and Final Routine are the highlights:
 

Our winner for Outstanding Achievement in Reality TV is RuPaul's Drag Race. Not since Survivor has a Reality show jumped out of the gates with such a consistent, high level of quality. The show does not take itself too seriously but does not demean what these contestants are doing. They are not treated as freaks (like a certain modeling show or a certain singing show) but real people, with a level of sensitivity unprecedented on competitive reality shows. The show is fun and endlessly watchable.  believe it makes drag accessible to a wide audience. You do not need to be a drag performer, drag fan, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered person to enjoy it. I'm straight and find myself catching the marathons of the entire first season whenever they're on TV. Ok, maybe you need some tolerance for camp. You can watch the entire first season on Logo's website. It's worth it. Don't forget all the bonus features. And now I'll get a song stuck in your head for the rest of your life: "Cover Girl (Put The Bass In Your Walk)." You're welcome.

RuPaul's new album is great, by the way. Perfect party music if you like dance.

The Twelve Days of Sketchies: Day One: Outstanding Achievement in Confusing Media

What are the Sketchies? Why my annual Internet awards ceremony, of course. If everyone else is already trotting out their best-of -09 lists, why can't I?

I have fun with my lists, too.

Today's category is Outstanding Achievement in Confusing Media. This prestigious honor goes to the media-based moments of 2009 that made people collectively scratch their heads, slacken their jaws, and stare blankly at an artifact that made no sense in any reasonable context.

Our first honoree is a little Emmy-nominated show called Family Guy. Love it or hate it, Seth MacFarlane's zombiefied sitcom about a middle class family in Rhode Island is full of inexplicable moments. The show may have reached its apex with an episode dedicated to jumping between universes with one scene: the Disney universe. Here, Brian and Stewie are utterly enchanted by a universe designed entirely by Walt Disney, complete with singing animals, beautiful princesses, and charming eccentrics. They sing a lovely little working song about pie.

See how there's that sudden shift to the long-standing rumor that Walt Disney was an anti-Semite? That's a perfect example of Confusing Media. There is no reason to take the joke there, and the only value is shock. People remember the twist and not the loveliness before it, making it a perfect honoree in this category.

Our next honoree has already been banned from the Internet by MTV. From the show Jersey Shore, there was the short lived viral sensation of one female cast mate being punched in the face by a drunk man at a bar. Why MTV ever thought a clip of violence against a woman was a smart marketing decision, we will never know. The important thing to note is that this moment has been worsened by the decision of many to pass the clip on as viral media. Countless Gifs and videos were created just showing the girl being punched in the face out of context. Many have complied with MTVs wishes and removed the clip from circulation. The Huffington Post has a clear write up of this truly Outstanding Achievement in Confusing Media. 

Our next honoree is already a favorite accidental contributor to E's The Soup. Wendy Williams went national with her talk show after a six week try out in the NY market over a year ago. She is willing to let loose, have fun, and roll with whatever mistakes she makes on her show. It's refreshing, but frequently confusing. I'm upset that I cannot find the actual clip of her literally setting a Slim Jim on fire with a lighter as a snack. Instead, here she is calling her own show a mess and acting like a drag queen.

It's a delightful mess of a talk show that's everything other big personality talk shows (Tyra, Sharon Osbourne, Tony Danza) wish they could have been. It's truly a 5-Days-A-Week Outstanding Achievement in Confusing Media. Fortunately for everyone, Fox has already renewed the show through 2012. How you doin', indeed.

And now we have our grand champion, the ultimate Outstanding Achievement in Confusing Media for 2009. This comes courtesy of So You Think You Can Dance?, and it's truly special. One of the long standing character arcs on the competitive dance reality show was that of Bianca Revels, a talented free/modern style tapper who always came up just short of making the Top 20. The misguided fall season was her chance, but her tenure on the show was short lived. She was eliminated at the Top 18 after giving perhaps the crowning artistic achievement in the history of the show. Bianca tapped dance her final tap dance to the classic hit song "Tootsee Roll," complete with the original booty bouncing choreography. Bianca starts 33 seconds in, though it's fun to compare what she did to an utterly typical "Dance for Your Life" solo from competitor Noelle who starts the video.

What you miss at the end of this is host Cat Deeley expressing her shock over not expecting to hear that song for a tapper (or ever) on this show. It was a risky move to stand out as a fun contestant and it did not pay off. Bianca was sadly eliminated for what will always be the classiest solo in the history of the show.

That is why Bianca Revels' Elimination Solo is clearly the Most Outstanding Achievement in Confusing Media of 2009.

Well Played, American Dad

American Dad's history with Fox is shaky. It seems the only reason the show has been on the air as long as it has is Fox's fear that the fans demand the show be re-aired ala Family Guy via DVD sales. It routinely has lower ratings than the rest of the animated line-up and is prone to lengthy diversions - like a golden turd (don't ask) - that have much of the viewership scratch their heads and change the channel.

In the spring, a new show is taking the American Dad slot (allegedly). That means American Dad may be cancelled (again) or go on random timeslots ala King of the Hill.

Brilliantly, the show has completely changed the game with their latest episode. This is either the greatest security-based series finale ever or the American Dad crew really does like to screw with the audience at Christmas.

My goodness, they killed off the entire cast and brought them back after the apocalypse via Stan's personal heaven. And a big, warm, Happy Holidays to you, too.

Once I get through tomorrow, I'll be putting up some extra posts to make-up for last week. The Sketchys are starting soon, and I still need to finish handicapping the Grammys. It'll be a fun rest of December.

Cannonball Read 2: Book 4: Just After Sunset by Stephen King

When I first tried to read Just After Sunset by Stephen King, his latest collection of short stories, last year upon release, I almost brought the book back to the store. The introduction seemed promising in that a man who tends to over-think his stories to the point of over-complication and grotesque bloating of paper-thin plots was going back to a simpler, more visceral style. Write the story, edit the story, be done with the story. Which is why the confusing mess of the first two-thirds of opening story "Willa" led me to believe King shot out another catastrophe ala Blaze. Wisely, I put the book aside and began reading it again two weeks ago.

What a difference a year makes. While not as accomplished as 2002's Everything's Eventual (what horror collection is nowadays?), Just After Sunset is ultimately a worthy to King's uneven cannon. The prevailing theme that links all of the stories is death. More correctly: how do we perceive our own deaths and will we even know when we die?

"Willa" is sloppy for the first two-thirds. Then the story opens up to a touching vision of the afterlife far removed from anything else in the collection. This afterlife offers hope and joy if the characters realize they have passed on; those that don't are stuck waiting for the train that will never arrive. The concept is there, but like a few other stories in the collection, King is more than willing to admit the story didn't turn out great. Maybe he'll revisit it someday and produce something more polished. The emotional resonance without quirky layers (funny sayings on bathroom walls, psychotic waiters, school shootings, etc.) is refreshing from King who sometimes substitutes a gimmick for a plot.

"The Gingerbread Girl" and "Stationary Bike" may make you reconsider the necessity of your fitness regime. In one, a woman who lost a baby becomes obsessed with running, leading her right into the clutches of a dangerous man in an abandoned resort town. In the other, a man creates an exercise oasis wherein his body is manifested by a construction crew who grow to dislike his new healthy lifestyle. The stories are great novel concepts with interesting characters and high levels of tension. I'm normally leary of King's almost-novella length stories, yet these two work well.

The same cannot be said for "The Things They Left Behind" or "A Very Tight Place." I respect King for having the courage to write "The Things They Left Behind." Not many writers are willing to address the events of 9/11 for fear of upsetting people, but King admits to writing this story specifically to deal with his own feelings about the terrorist attacks that day. It's a mess of a story based on a gimmick of forgotten office items speaking to a survivor and probably could have been half as long without really losing anything. "A Very Tight Place" is the infamous port-a-potty story and actually delivers the goods when the man is locked inside. Too bad most of the story is over by the time the plot is actually set into motion. The villain is a flat foil of homophobia manifested through insanity and detracts from what could have been an interesting, albeit disgusting, escape story.

Stephen King tackles H.P. Lovecraft in "N." without ever admitting he pulled inspiration from Lovecraft. It's quite clear when the unseen monster is named "Cthun" and is a manifestation of man's insecurities, capable of manipulating physical matter and driving a man insane, that the reference is Cthulhu. Instead of admitting as much in the "Author's Notes", King babbles on about tackling OCD like any good writer should. Maybe he assumes the reference is so clear no one will mistake him. Whatever the case, "N." is an engaging story more akin to the unreliable narrators of Poe than a modern psychological exploration or Lovecraftian piece of weird fiction.

Speaking of the "Author's Notes", they're terrible. I look forward to reading King's writings on King because he normally provides an insightful look into his creative process and what drives him as an author. Instead, it seems like these were tacked on to his quickly written stories because of expectations. I would rather have had no notes than be left with these uninspired comments.

When Stephen King is stuck writing about the evils of text-messaging, crazy cars, and giant Simpsonian domes, it's nice to see the author capable of creating fright and emotional resonance without resorting to completely outrageous gimmicks. There are ghosts, there are unlucky cats, there are demons, and there are internal terrors. What more could a horror fan want?

Sketchy Recs: What to Do This Weekend: 20-22 November 2009: See Precious

In Theaters: Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire: Yes, I know I recommended seeing it last weekend. Those who didn't should remedy the situation this weekend. The traditional Oscar season is truly upon us when difficult but wonderful films like Precious can not only crack the top ten, but land up in the top five of the box office charts. It's hard to watch, but filled with delightful moments of pure fantasy, humor, and filmed in an attentive, not exploitative way. I'm struggling with my review (this weekend, I promise) but don't find a comparison to the fantasy moments of Amelie out of question. Whenever the narrative is going to be too dark, there is a fun, bright moment of fantasy as we see what Precious dreams of. One might be brought on by a horrible act of abuse, but the fantasy actually strengthens the deeply emotional and realistic approach to the narrative, never trivializing something that could easily have been an Alger-esque tale. So what are you waiting for? Nine doesn't come out until December and I doubt this readership lined up last night for New Moon.

That's it. Have a great weekend. I might even take my own advice and see Precious again. Yes, it's that good.

And yes, I really will have the review up this weekend. Promise.

It's Back: RuPaul's Drag Race Season 2 Teaser Ads

What do you mean I swore I'd never discuss this show again on this blog? That doesn't sound like me. Why would I discourage discussion of one of the better competitive reality shows to come out in years? Oh that's right: it's a drag queen reality show on Logo and I'm straight. I'm not supposed to like it.

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Sorry, blacked out there from rolling my eyes too much.

The show is still very much on the horizon, but perhaps we can see land after floating in a less than fabulous, Cameroooooonless ocean for too long.

RuPaul posted a teaser poster for the new season. It's adorable:

SURPRISE! A true drag fairy tale from RuPaul... Click link for a mystery surprise from Season 2...!

And today another poster.

So we're going to see the progression from child to man to woman for all of the contestants. Except for the one with no baby pictures: we see that contestant grow from smiley face to man to woman.

Sorry for the cheap short post. It would have been a review of Precious if the furnace repair guy hadn't shown up an hour and a half late beyond a two hour window. First call of the day my keister.

Cannonball Read 2: Book 3: Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy

Note: This review refers to 1995 Bedford Books edition, edited and with large introductory essay by Daniel H. Borus. This edition totals 202 pages of critical and fictional content.

Imagine, if you will, a writer popular enough to earn a living off of writing in the late 19th Century, yet not popular enough to leave a large mark on his contemporary society. This writer wrote about everything wrong with contemporary society in pleasantly written novels with steady pacing and predictable conclusions. Then one day, this writer decided to envision what his ideal America would be and became a national sensation.

This writer is Edward Bellamy. His novel, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, has its rightful share of criticism related to the story itself. Almost any article you can find on the novel will comment on how preposterous it is that no effort is made to scientifically explain how a man can be put in a trance in 1887 and wake up in 2000 with no aging, no medical issues, and no possible repercussions other than confusion to answer to. There's a really predictable romantic arc, almost a love at first sight situation, that distracts from the forward thinking narrative thrust. Perhaps worst of all, Bellamy predicted his utopian society would not be fully realized in 2000, but only 50 years into the future.

The impact of Looking Backward was a political one at the time. Bellamy's version of Nationalism sparked political parties and activists, from Populists to feminists to socialists. He envisioned an America in which everyone would be on equal footing. We would all work for the same number of years at whatever job we wanted and receive the same pay. Differences in difficult would be accounted for with work hours: manual labor, such as coal miners, would work the least, while less stressful occupations would work the most. Men and women would be equal. All races would be equal. The government would run all industry to ensure this equality. Retired citizens would be the artists and creators, ensuring new artistic works could be created for all time without worry of how the artist would survive.

For me, I think the prose itself is lovely. Bellamy's descriptions are long and luxe, explaining why society changed and what it changed to, but intentionally never explaining how. It's a natural progression, one that's matched by a light touch of Realism to ground the narrative in something more traditional. The main character faces significant psychological torment upon waking up in a utopia nothing like his previous life and repeatedly has to be talked off the cliff by the family watching over him.

What the story lacks in a straightforward narrative it makes up for with interesting ideas. It is a novel of ideas and one of the more tangibly influential political novels in history. The parties Bellamy influenced would successfully lobby for many of the welfare reforms he called for in the novel.

Looking Backward: 2000-1887 is an interesting read to see just how much America has changed in the past 100-plus years.