Monday, February 8, 2016

More burning questions: Random things I'm trying to figure out today

If predictive text can guess what I'm going to type next, then why does it keep mangling the words I've already typed? If I wanted to say "around," would I type "round"…or "wombat"?

Why would someone bring a nine-month-old baby on a wine-tasting excursion? I let the tot-toting couple in my Hunter Valley tour group off the hook this past weekend, though, because they were lesbians and the baby was so damn adorable. But still, why?

Who was Michael Fassbender really playing in Steve Jobs? I loved the performance and found him/it a lot more entertaining than Leonard DiCaprio in The Revenant, but I don't recall the real Steve Jobs being so urbane and sexy…at least not according to his public persona.

Speaking of Oscar-nominated performances, what did Rachel McAdams do in Spotlight to score that best supporting actress nod? It was a solid movie that I think suffered from not having a central point of view. Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and especially Liev Schreiber were all great, but did any of them impact the film the way Sylvester Stallone did Creed, or Tom Hardy did The Revenant, or Mark Rylance did Bridge of Spies, or Jacob Tremblay did Room? Oh, right - Jacob wasn't even nominated for best supporting actor (though he's more lead in Room than Best Actress frontrunner Brie Larson). Hey, Academy, what's up with that? #OscarsSoAgeistAgainstKids?

Why are gay men so desperate for ego boosts yet so terrified/turned off when they get them?

Why do the coolest/hottest guys online always seem to live 50 kilometers or more away? Do they seem more perfect because they're less accessible? Are they only acting so dateable because they know there's safety in distance? Or are we simply always living in the wrong city?

Why do Australians get so excited when an Australian does something "newsworthy" in Australia? Doesn't that sort of thing happen every day? You'd think we were living in some foreign country where you could go months without hearing a single "Hey mate."

Why doesn't Newcastle, NSW, get more love from Aussies other than the ones who live there? And why did it remind me so much of Lima when I visited for the first time this past weekend? Did it have anything to do the city's underrated status and its coastal cliffs? Walking along Newcastle Beach, if I had tilted my head just so, I would have sworn I was in Miraflores. Am I alone here?

Newcastle

Lima

Why is it "hit and run" and not "hit and drive"?

What's with the continued Botox-shaming? Everybody does it these days, and are the results really any more inauthentic than those offered by fake tanning and coloring one's hair?

Why isn't everyone else listening to "Consideration," the opening track on Rihanna's Anti, on repeat?

What's the big deal about Beyonce's "Formation"? I mean, what's her point? Is she saying be black and be proud...if you're gorgeous and you've got "paper"? Hasn't she been singing that song for years? #Overrated

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

In defense of the BET Awards: Is celebrating women in rock anti-male?

I've had it. I'm done. Let's move it along, please.

If I read one more comment by one more disingenuously slighted white person using the BET Awards as ammunition against the #OscarsSoWhite call for diversity and inclusion in Hollywood…

Let's just say, it's time to give that particular one a rest. Trying to turn the tables is futile. When it comes to the thorny race issue, the majority generally wields the power. That's why no one has ever been able to coin an anti-white slam as brutally effective as the N word (and no, neither "honkey" nor "cracker" comes close). And to those tit-for-tatters who carp, "Well, black people use the N word, too," the danger isn't in the word itself but in the hatred it represents and the painful history it recalls when uttered by anyone of the race that coined it,

Those shouting "Reverse racism!" over the Oscars boycott and the BET Awards can continue to do so if it helps them feel less guilty about being white and privileged, but the slights they allegedly suffer at the hands of black people don't begin to approach the level of disgrace and injustice blacks in America experience every day.

Personally, I consider the Oscars boycott to be ridiculously self-serving and misguided, but that's beside the point. The Oscars are beside the point. The point is a movie industry that's too narrow in its scope to spawn diversity during awards season. The un-diverse Oscar nominations and it lack of acting nominees of color are but a symptom of a much larger problem: a Hollywood movie industry that reflects the ongoing dismissal of minorities in the U.S. and the systemic white-is-better racism that's plagued the country since its inception.

Why do we need the BET Awards, and why aren't white performers invited to the party?

That's like asking why Adele's "Hello" isn't eligible for a Latin Grammy, even if Latinos love the song. Just as the Latin Grammys were created because a specific ethnic demographic wasn't being properly represented at the regular Grammys, the BET Awards were created to recognize talent that was also being overlooked at mainstream awards shows.

How is celebrating yourself because no one else will racist against the ruling privileged majority? (A similar case can be made for Black History Month, another target of some privileged whites who have likely never heard of the Harlem Renaissance or any other aspect of black history that, unlike slavery, doesn't revolve around whites and therefore isn't taught in school.)

Should we close down all of the gay bars and clubs because they may be construed as being heterophobic? Should we cancel everything that celebrates women because they might be interpreted as being man-hating? It's already a man's man's man's man's (Western) world - one in which straight white guys have a clear advantage. Forgive me if I don't cry for them because they occasionally feel left out.

White (male) power is a fact of life that cannot be refuted by the tired reverse-racism argument that too many white people, including an out-of-touch Charlotte Rampling, are grasping at to make those pesky black folks go away…or at least shut the hell up.

But getting back to the BET Awards, Black Entertainment Television put the BET in the BET Awards. The network came to prominence during a decade in which The Cosby Show was pretty much the only mainstream representation of black culture. All of the progress blacks had made in the '70s toward something resembling diversity had fallen by the wayside.

In music, MTV was created mainly as a vehicle for white artists, as there was an unofficial decree that videos by black artists were not to be played because even if audiences wanted to hear their music, they didn't want to actually see them. At least that was the ruling assumption. Things only changed when Michael Jackson's Thriller came along. The future self-proclaimed King of Pop, the world's biggest artist at the time, was able to reverse MTV's racist decree only because his record label threatened to pull all of its white artists from the network if it didn't play the videos by its top star.

Even after Michael Jackson became a video icon, all but the biggest crossover black artists were still largely ignored by MTV and Top 40 radio. If it hadn't been for BET's Video Soul and its host Donnie Simpson in the '80s, I might have entirely missed the incredible music being recorded by non-crossover artists like Stephanie Mills, Angela Winbush, and Miki Howard. I owe the balanced musical diet of my formative years as much to BET as to MTV's 120 Minutes and Bob Kingsley's Great American Country Countdown.


Meanwhile, as I've already mentioned, things had gone from decent to worse on TV in the '80s. Good Times, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Diff'rent Strokes, and What's Happening!! had all left the air. And even during the peak era of Norman Lear's lower-case black entertainment television sitcoms, Isabel Sanford, who played Louise "Weezy" Jefferson on The Jeffersons, was the only black performer ever to win an Emmy for best leading actress in a comedy series. To date, she remains the only black women to ever take this prize.


By the time The Cosby Show ended its run in 1992, the white status quo had a solid grip on the three major networks. If you wanted to see shows featuring blacks in prominent roles, you had to go to Fox…or BET. Black performers were largely absent from the must-see TV of the '90s and the early '00s. Friends, Seinfeld, Will and Grace, Mad About You, and Sex and the City, like Girls today, were all set in a New York City that was nearly 100 percent white.

Melrose Place, another '90s cultural phenomenon, had a token black regular for several seasons who was relegated to minor "black"-themed storylines until she was bounced completely. For black performers and people who wanted to see them in substantial roles, Fox and BET (and later UPN) were pretty much the only options.

The TV industry has come a long way since then, but in some ways, the movie industry still feels like TV in the '90s. I don't blame the Oscars for the dearth of black nominees, or nominees of color. I blame a movie industry that erroneously believes that the white majority isn't interested in black stories, or in diversity. It's actually less about racism than it is about ignorance.

Just one look at the music charts or the success of series like Empire, Black-ish, How to Get Away with Murder, and Scandal shows that audiences are a lot more sophisticated than movie executives believe them to be. To paraphrase a Field of Dreams line spoken by a highly esteemed black actor, James Earl Jones, if you create diverse entertainment, they will come.

And they have, in TV and in music. The Grammys are fairly solid as far as black-and-white diversity goes, and the Emmys are still catching up. Last year Viola Davis became the first black actress to score an Emmy for a leading role in a dramatic TV series. It was a win-win, but it took us decades to get there. Halle Berry became the first black woman to win an Oscar for a leading role 15 years ago, and we're still waiting for the second.

So despite the inroads made on TV and the progress made by the Oscars before the recent reversal, the BET Awards remain as valid and important as ever. They were created to recognize talent that would go largely unrewarded elsewhere, talent that continues to go largely unrewarded elsewhere. We need them as much now as we did 10, 20, 30 years ago.

No, whites are generally ineligible because it's Black Entertainment Television. But so what? They already get plenty of recognition everywhere else from voting bodies that present "white" awards in everything but name. Should blacks stop launching their own shows and their own movies and remain at the mercy of an industry run by white men? Should we stop creating our own opportunities as well as our own forums for recognition?

I can understand the frustration of white people who cringe whenever race comes up. It's not a pleasant topic, but ignoring it or trying to turn the tables on minorities isn't going to lead to progress.

To those who insist on closing their ears and their minds, I offer a suggestion: Rather than griping about the incessant "whining" of black people and making our experience all about yourselves, why not try to listen to us? You just might learn something. And knowledge is power…for everyone.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Radio 1990s: 30 or so of my favorite albums from the decade before the last one

Not that I need an excuse to backtrack or compile another list, but with the recent deaths of Stone Temple Pilots' Scott Weiland and Natalie Cole (who had her greatest commercial success with 1991's Unforgettable… with Love), the timing is perfect for a celebration of my second-favorite decade. Let the '90s nostalgia begin!

Automatic for the People: R.E.M. (Honorable mentions: Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi) This is an alphabetical list, but if I were counting them down like Casey Kasem in the '70s and '80s, this one would very likely still be on top. R.E.M. released many great albums in a 28-year recording career (yes, that's correct: right up to the underrated end), but none showcased the band's gift for seamlessly blending beautifully contemplative rock elegies with socially aware pronouncements and blistering political indictments quite like this one. Speaking of the latter musical specialty, I've long stopped trying to resist the urge to listen to the Reagan/Bush Sr.-bashing "Ignoreland" on repeat.


Badmotorfinger: Soundgarden The best of grunge. Sorry, Nirvana fans. Nevermind is basically pop music with messy vocals and crashing guitar. Badmotorfinger, though, is precious metal. "Outshined," "Slaves & Bulldozers," "Jesus Christ Pose," and "Mind Riot" not only actually live up to the other band's name, but I'd take them over pretty much everything Kurt Cobain and company ever did.


Behaviour: Pet Shop Boys I loved PSB from the moment I first heard "West End Girls" in 1986, but nothing the duo did in the '80s prepared me for the accomplished musicianship, technical precision and exacting social and personal observations (the latter most notable on "Being Boring," the perfect eulogy for the '80s AIDS generation) of this, the second masterpiece of the next decade, coming about a month and a half after George Michael's similarly left-turning Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1.


The Bends: Radiohead I still can't fathom that I kind of hated this when I first listened to the advance on my Walkman (how '90s, right?) during a morning jog through Paris in 1995. Alas, "Black Star" would go on to have a more lasting effect on me than anything I saw at Musee du Louvre that trip (Mona Lisa included)… but then, I've always been more of a Musee Rodin and Musee Picasso kind of art lover.


Chorus: Erasure Having dropped in October of 1991, two months after I moved to New York City, Chorus in inextricably linked to my early love of New York City. Naming your album after the catchiest part of a song means you'd better have some damn good ones and Chorus delivers without skimping on the gravitas that Vince Clarke and Andy Bell would toss out completely for 1992's campy UK-chart-topping Abba-esque! EP.


Coming Up: Suede (Honorable mention: Suede) While the Britpop crowd was busy arguing Oasis vs. Blur, Suede produced what I consider to be the '90s subgenre's greatest hit.


Diva: Annie Lennox (Honorable mention: Medusa) The one that guaranteed her status as an enduring musical icon and one of the decade's most appropriate uses of the overused titular phrase. I read somewhere that Clive Davis called her "very brave" - and to her face! - for taking such a musical dare. It must have been one of the few times in recorded history that the man famous for always knowing what would sell was dead wrong. (The others were when he pretty much ruined the U.S. chart careers of Lisa Stansfield and Taylor Dayne by insisting they both release Barry White covers as album-introducing singles.)


For the Cool in You: Babyface In early 1995 I went on the road with Babyface for a People magazine story, and when I requested a quote from Madonna, who had just earned her career-best hit on Billboard's Hot 100 with Babyface's "Take Bow," she came back with "I worship the ground he floats above." How's that for, like, a prayer. I imagine that his 1994 solo album is a big part of the reason why she kneeled at that altar.


Fumbling Towards Ecstasy: Sarah McLachlan In addition to how powerfully its songs spoke to me in 1994, Sarah's pre-Lilith breakthrough cemented my future use of "towards" over "toward."


Harvest Moon: Neil Young The perfect soundtrack for lying on a twin mattress on the floor of a studio apartment on a rainy evening in New York City's East Village with your first true love. And yes, I know this from experience.


Homebrew: Neneh Cherry More than two decades after Cherry's sophomore jinx, I'm still waiting for someone to explain it to  me. How does the follow-up to a debut that garners an artist a Best New Artist Grammy nomination and two Top 10 singles fail to even graze the lower reaches of the Billboard 200 album chart - especially one as universally acclaimed as this one. Clearly Cherry's trailblazing hip-hop folk (which would make solo Lauryn Hill a superstar by the end of the decade) was too ahead of its time.



Hoodoo: Alison Moyet There were no hits on par with "Don't Go" or "Invisible" (a true mystery, since "It Won't Be Long" sounds like the mainstream smash Alison never had - at least not in the U.S.), but her genius has never sounded as effortless as it does here. Song for song, the bridge between '80s Alf and her post-millennial comeback qualifies as the sturdiest stuff of her career.


Ingenue: k.d. lang It so perfectly captures the beauty and the pain of unrequited love that it makes me thankful to have experienced it for myself.


Life: Simply Red Thanks to this album playing on repeat (seriously, it's not just about "Fairground"), unpacking after moving into my 34th Street apartment in 1995 was the best relocation experience I ever had during my 15 years in New York City.


Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1: George Michael The sound of a former teen idol starting to go off the rails, which makes it George's most affecting and compelling work.


The Long Stretch of Lonesome: Patty Loveless At twentysomething, I knew a brilliant musical rumination on the middle ages when I heard one. "What makes you grow old is replacing hope with regret" from "Too Many Memories" are words to mature to.


99.9 F Degrees Suzanne Vega "If sand waves were sound waves what sound would be in the air now? What stinging tune could split this endless noon and make the sky swell with rain?" Brilliance.


Post: Bjork (Honorable mention: Debut) I once met Bjork at a listening party for The Sugarcubes' third and final album, Stick Around for Joy, and when I went over and introduced myself, she completely ignored me. Her first two solo albums are the reasons why that's not the first thing that comes to mind when I think about her.


The Red Shoes: Kate Bush At once her most accessible opus and her most confusing one. It's accessible because the song structures approach conventional, confusing because it contains so many things no one would have expected from Kate Bush. I never thought I'd hear her sing "Don't want your bullshit/ Just want your sexuality" until I heard it here, and if you had asked me to name the one singer Prince would never get his purple paws on, Kate would have topped my list. I'm so glad I was wrong because her canon would be incomplete if "Why Should I Love You" wasn't there to totally befuddle and thrill us at the same time.


Seminole Wind: John Anderson Among life's simple pleasures, few things are up there with a straight tequila night, and "Straight Tequila Night" is one of them. Essential as it is, it's one of the lowlights of one of the decade's two best country albums.


Symphony Or Damn: Terence Trent D'Arby As brilliantly eclectic as anything Prince ever did and Terence would no doubt agree.


The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion: The Black Crowes The kind of kick-ass album where your favorite song changes every time you listen to it. Mine generally falls somewhere between tracks five to nine: "Sometimes Salvation," "Hotel Illness," "Black Moon Creeping," "No Speak No Slave," and "My Morning Song," with "No Speak No Slave" usually coming out on top.


To Bring You My Love: PJ Harvey PJ flirts with rock & roll convention. Of course, when an album's "hit" is a moaning rocker delivered from the point of view of a woman who's drowned her daughter, rock & roll convention is perfectly relative.


Turbulent Indigo: Joni Mitchell My desert-island Joni album, and anyone who's ever heard me go on and on about Blue, knows that's saying a lot.


Vauxhall and I: Morrissey (Honorable mention: Your Arsenal) A coming-out album on par with (and possibly even surpassing his 1988 solo debut Viva Hate). From the moment he opens the album opener, "Now My Heart Is Full," by singing, "There's gonna be some trouble/ A whole house will need rebuilding/ And everyone I love in the house will recline on an analyst's couch quite soon," you just know he isn't fucking around.


Welcome to Wherever You Are: INXS They probably could have coasted, releasing a few more inferior sequels to Kick (which is pretty much was X was), but instead they opted to break out the test tubes. The result: The best INXS album that isn't Kick or The Swing.


What Silence Knows: Shara Nelson (Honorable mention: Friendly Fire) The reason why she won't forever be known merely as the voice of Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy." Well, maybe she will be…but not by anyone who's actually heard her two solo albums.


When the Pawn…: Fiona Apple So brilliant I once spent an entire Sunday evening raving about it to Leonard Cohen's son. How often does that happen?


You Gotta Sin to Get Saved: Maria McKee Without it, I might still be sleeping on the genius of Van Morrison, whom the former Lone Justice singer covered to perfection twice here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Happy 70th, Dolly Parton: 7 of my favorite songs by the birthday girl

If David Bowie was my best interview ever, Dolly Parton may have been my most embarrassing. It happened years ago, and it was over the phone. To break the ice, I pulled an old trick that always seemed to fly: I let her know that I was more than just another journalist. My appreciation of her work went beyond the obvious hits.

I told her three of my favorite Dolly Parton songs, ones that would be relatively obscure to all but true country-music fans, expecting a gold star. Her response: "Oh, you just happened to pick three that I didn't write!"

Oops!

She was just joking, of course, but as a singer-songwriter, she had to be a little slighted by my oversight. Well, I figured that she'd made enough money for writing "I Will Always Love You" (thank you, Whitney). Did it matter that neither that nor "9 to 5" nor "Jolene" (the latter two also self-penned) didn't get an honorable mention during our interview?

Here are the three that did and four more: my seven favorite Dolly Parton singles in honor of her 70th birthday today (January 19), one for each decade.

"Heartbreaker" (written by Carole Bayer Sager and David Wolfert) The beginning of my Dolly Parton appreciation era (1978 to 1982), this marked the first time I heard a Parton song on the radio and knew exactly who was singing it.


"Starting Over Again" (written by Donna Summer and Bruce Sudano) I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that this 1980 country No. 1 was recorded in December of 1979, at the end of the year of Summer's disco peak. It's the first of the three songs that made Parton mock mad at me.


"Old Flames Can't Hold a Candle to You" (written by Patricia Rose Sebert and Hugh Moffatt) Sebert is also known as the mother of pop singer Ke$ha. Does Sebert's little girl still use the $? This is the second of the songs I name-dropped during my Parton interview.


"But You Know I Love You" (written by Mike Settle) Fun fact: This was originally a Top 20 pop single by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. Rogers, of course, would later duet with Parton on one of her biggest hits, "Islands in the Stream." This was the final song I mentioned to her during our interview.


"The House of the Rising Sun" (traditional) I know this is probably sacrilege, but I much prefer Parton's overhaul of the roots classic to the version that The Animals took to No. 1 in 1964. I'm clearly in the minority: It was one of Parton's few heyday singles that didn't make the country Top 10, conking out at No. 14.


"Single Women" (written by Michael O'Donoghue) I remember being scandalized by the line "Oh, what's the matter, are you gay?" as it was climbing to No. 8 on Billboard's country singles chart. Years later, a Katy Perry lookalike in Bangkok would ask me pretty much the same thing.


"Do I Ever Cross Your Mind" (written by Dolly Parton) Probably my all-time favorite Parton song, written by the woman herself. It's a precursor to The Grass Is Blue, her 1999 bluegrass album and her creative zenith. I don't know why I didn't mention it during our interview. Sorry, Dolly...and happy birthday!


Friday, January 15, 2016

10 random musings on the Oscar nominations

1. Did the Academy figure there are so many black actors and actresses kicking ass on TV right now that they could afford to ignore them all again this year? Or is it that there was no major "black" film that ticked the make-guilty-white-liberals-feel-better-about-themselves-for-watching box? Or is it the fact that Hollywood still thinks storylines like the ones in Room, The Big Short, or The Martian are only believable if they involve characters played by white actors? Newsflash, Academy: There is more to being black than suffering.

2. Two of the Best Actress nominees - Brie Larson and Jennifer Lawrence - are nominated for Joy. Not the film (that honor has been bestowed solely upon J-Law) but the character. Like the role that earned 25-year-old Lawrence her fourth nomination, 26-year-old Larson's Room character is named Joy. Oh, um, joy.

3. Kate Winslet scored her seventh nomination (Best Supporting Actress for Jobs) on the same day that Alan Rickman, her romantic interest in the film for which she earned her first one (1995's Sense and Sensibility), died. Also nominated: the guy who played her romantic interest in the film for which she won nod No. 2 (her Titanic co-star Leonardo DiCaprio - of course - who is a fifth-time nominee for The Revenant).

4. Speaking of The Revenant, the movie's Best Supporting Actor nominee, Tom Hardy, appeared in one other Best Picture nominee, Mad Max: Fury Road.

5. With his Best Supporting Actor nomination for Creed, Sylvester Stallone has now been cited twice for playing the character of Rocky Balboa. He was previously a Best Actor contender for playing Balboa in 1976's Best Picture winner Rocky.

6. Three of the Best Actress nominees - Lawrence, Larson, and Brooklyn's Saoirse Ronan, 21 - are in their twenties. That's three times as many twentysomething nominees as there are in all the other acting categories combined.

7. Is third-time Best Supporting Actor nominee Mark Ruffalo (for Spotlight) en route to becoming Oscar's male Thelma Ritter, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress six times without ever winning? With Stallone and Bridge of Spies' Mark Rylance in the running, he sort of doesn't stand a chance.

8. Every Best Actress contender is nominated for a film with only one word in the title. Meanwhile, both Lawrence and Carol's Cate Blanchett are nominated for playing the titular character, as are two of the Best Actor candidates (Trumbo's Bryan Cranston and Jobs' Michael Fassbender), whose films are both titled after their real-life characters' surnames.

9. At this point, I'd say Best Actor is the only slam dunk. It's DiCaprio's to lose. Best Actress will likely go to Larson, though Ronan and Blanchett remain strong contenders. My gut tells me Stallone will get his lifetime achievement award, but if I were Sly, I wouldn't count out Rylance or Hardy. Best Supporting Actress will probably end up being Mara's, but The Danish Girl's Alicia Vikander is some powerful competition. And Picture and Director are two-horse races, featuring The Revenant vs. Mad Max and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu vs. George Miller. I suspect the Academy will choose a The Revenant/Miller combo.

10. If Carol's Rooney Mara wins Best Supporting Actress (and I'd say the odds are in her favor, unless Winslet edges her out or Vikander pulls an upset), will she finally smile?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Random thoughts on Room

What a strange little movie Room turned out to be. While I was watching it last night, I kept thinking: This is pretty good, but it's not quite the masterpiece that the breathlessly gushing critics had led me to believe it would be. Frankly, as much as I admired the artistry of Room, I had a much more enjoyable experience watching Brooklyn the night before.

Then something unexpected happened. I went to bed and spent most of my sleeping hours dreaming about Room. Clearly the movie affected me more deeply than I had realized. If it managed to penetrate my subconscious to such a degree that it dominated my unconsciousness (if only for one night), did that make it a masterpiece?

I'm not sure, but it certainly gave me a lot to think about. Among my still-evolving thoughts on Room:

1) I've seen similar storylines play out in documentaries on the Crime & Investigation Network: Crazy guy keeps young woman locked up in a dungeon for years. But C&I always seems to tell those stories from the cat-and-mouse point of view of law enforcement vs. the criminal, leaving it up to your imagination to re-create the experience of the kidnapping victim.

Room tells the story from the other side, and it's a harrowing tale, less because of the squalor of the physical prison and the lunatic warden than the mental torture they impose. What thoughts must crawl through the mind of someone stuck staring at the same four walls (and tiny skylight) for years on end. Room nails the psychological drama of such an unimaginable predicament, but no, it's not an enjoyable watch.

2) Brie Larson is solid as Joy. (Yes, her character shares a name with the titular character of Jennifer Lawrence's latest Oscar hopeful, the significance of which will become apparent in the next paragraph.) I can't argue with her Golden Globe win this week. Is it an Oscar-caliber performance? I'm not so sure. It's not as if she defines the role in such a way that I can't picture anyone else pulling it off.

In fact, throughout I kept thinking about Jennifer Lawrence. She and Brie are around the same age, and they resemble each other slightly. But my thoughts of Jennifer went beyond the similarities between the two mid-twentysomething ingenues. Room is the kind of dark, edgy fare that Winter's Bone made me believe would become Jennifer's specialty. Then she got sidetracked by The Hunger Games and those self-conscious David O. Russell dramedies. Too bad. Had she been cast in Brie's Room role, her name would be as good as engraved on that Best Actress Oscar for playing a completely different Joy than the one she played in Joy.

3) Solid as Bree is, it's all about the boy who plays Joy's five-year-old son Jack. Jacob Tremblay is a true find. Although he's nine now, he makes a perfect precocious five-year-old, the kind you want to bundle up and cradle. But he's more than just an adorable new face. He pretty much carries the movie on his tiny shoulders. Room is really Jack's story, played mostly from his point of view. I started the film in Joy's head, but I spent most of it in Jack's.

4) In some ways, Room is turning out to be this year's Boyhood: Young actor carries the weight of the movie, and the actress playing his mother gets most of the credit. Sure, Brie's leading role is much larger than the supporting one that won Patricia Arquette an Oscar for Boyhood, but while I wonder what J-Law would have done with this Joy, I'm not sure if Room would have resonated with me had anyone but Jacob been cast as Jack.

It's not just his expressive eyes but the way he handles the dialogue and physical sequences that has me seriously wondering what else he can do. It's the best child performance I've seen since Quvenzhan√© Wallis' Best Actress-nominated one in Beasts of the Southern Wild. She deserved better than an Annie remake as a high-profile follow-up. Let's hope little Jacob gets it.

5) It's so nice to see Joan Allen back onscreen. I wish the movie paid a bit more attention to the mother-daughter relationship between Joan's and Brie's characters. There's a pivotal scene that hints at a rich backstory. None of that past plays out on screen, but what Joan does with the little she's given - her uncomfortable restraint, the way she tiptoes around her daughter, around everyone - made me want to know so much more about her.

6) From a narrative standpoint, my favorite thing about the movie is that the characters don't turn out to be what you expect at all. The build-up to the second half left me expecting one thing, but what plays out onscreen is entirely different. Is it their individual relationships with their mothers or innate characteristics that lead Joy and Jack down divergent paths in this movie about maternal love? Maybe I'll figure that one out tonight in my dreams.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

#GOALS: 16 things I want to do in 2016

Since I prefer not to make promises to myself that I can't keep, there'll be no New Year's resolutions again this year. Instead, I'd rather focus on things I can actually accomplish. And if these 16 goals for 2016 don't come true, well, there's always the year after next year.

1. Figure out the secret to getting eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. I'd like to finally know what it feels like to be well-rested in 2016.

2. Drive on the left side of the road. First stop: The Hunter Valley. Alas, it's not coming to me. Therefore, I must conquer my fear of turning into the wrong lane and drive like the wind.

3. Continue to explore Australia. Topping my to-go-to list: Hobart, The Gold Coast, Uluru

4. Finish my second book, a collection of essays I wrote during my year in South Africa

5. Meet a reason to give up gay hook-up apps. If he happens to be from Asia or Eastern Europe, paydirt!

6. Get published in The New York Times

7. Cross at least one of these places off my travel bucket list: Seoul, Reykjavik or the Great Wall of China

8. Dive into my better-late-than-never must-still-see-TV list: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, House of Cards

9.. Return to the scene of the crime for the first time in six years. Yes, I'm talking about New York City.

10. Stop feeling guilty about relationships that have fallen by the wayside. It takes two to make or break a friendship/kinship or keep one going.

11. Skydive. Seriously. And I have Bridge of Spies on Qantas's in-flight entertainment menu to thank for the most unexpected urge of 2015. Watching a CIA guy eject himself from a crashing plane only to land in hostile Russian territory during the 1950s Cold War actually sort of made me want to jump out of a plane myself… preferably one that's not on fire.

12. Stop thinking about him… As James Taylor once sang, I've got to stop thinking about that.


13. Become a dad... or adopt a dog… or get a guinea pig.

14. On-the-job goal: Find a way to keep up with the Kardashians without making the messengers seem as mindless as what they're covering.

15. Allow myself to be more vulnerable. I'm romantic, idealistic, and I feel more deeply than the average person, but only those in my innermost circle would ever know that there are so many layers underneath the steely facade. In the last few months, I've had two very good friends tell me it's time to start dismantling the fortress around my heart... and I agree.

16. Succumb to my most superficial impulses and do a nude photo shoot (something a lot less low-budget than the one my first boyfriend Derek did on the roof of his apartment building in Hell's Kitchen in 1993). I may look better now than I did at 24, but let's face it: Gravity is only going to hold out for so much longer.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

11 insanely popular things in entertainment right now that I'm just not loving

I stand corrected on costume parties, drinking white wine at home alone, and "The Boys Are Back in Town," the joys of which I've discovered in the past 12 months after years of indifference. But when it comes to populist entertainment, there's still plenty that I'm not feeling.

Star Wars I watched the original of the series on HBO several years after its 1977 debut, and it bored me. I saw The Return of the Jedi in the cinema in 1983, and while I didn't hate it, I wasn't exactly dying for more. But "The Force" keeps coming back against my will. Aside from the coverage in which I was forced to immerse myself at work last week, I haven't given the series another minute of my time in 32 years. Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher look pretty good, though.

Sequels to sequels I enjoyed Rambo, Rocky, Indiana Jones and Star Trek as much as the next kid in the '80s, but somewhere around adulthood, I outgrew "To be continued…and continued…" on the big screen. To date, I haven't seen a single entry in any of the big blockbuster series of this millennium -- Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger GamesTwilight -- and I don't feel like I've missed a thing.

Superhero movies that don't star Michael Keaton ...which is weird because I love a man in tights who can save the day. Maybe it's the sequel thing that turns me off.

Animated movies I was never really into Saturday-morning cartoons, and I just don't "get" The Simpsons. But I do love Disney's classics and the Peanuts gang, and I could spend all day watching marathons of The Flintstones, The Jetsons and Family Guy. Back in the '90s when we got one new Disney animated feature a year and the occasional Toy Story, I had a passing interest in them. But now that they're commonplace enough to be interchangeable, I'll always rather watch something else.

Taylor Swift I object to her phoniness, her string of celebrity boyfriends, her collecting celebrity BFFs, and her fake-shock posing, but mostly I object to her songs. I remember music in 1989, and it was a lot better than Tay-Tay would have us believe.

The Kardashians I may be forced to keep up with them for work, but you'll never get me to watch an episode of any of their shows, including I Am Cait.

The Grammys I've become the middle-aged guy I said I'd never be, the one who stopped listening to most new music years ago.

'80s nostalgia I'd say it's because I'm stuck in the '70s, but I'm totally down with '90s nostalgia. So maybe it's this: I didn't much enjoy living in the '80s in the '80s, so why would I want to keep going back there?

Kanye West I love to see him smile and listen to him ramble, but the minute he starts to rap, I tune out.

"White trash"/"Bogan"/"Fame whore" reality TV Let's face it: Putting aside the talent-based shows and the ones with celebrities (which I generally hate), how many accomplished, sophisticated people are clamoring to be the biggest loser... or get married at first sight? If I want to spend my downtime watching common people in action, I'd spend more time outside

Five billion channels and Netflix and Stan and… I love options, but who has time for all of the choices that TV currently offers? Sometimes I miss the days of three networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- when they could actually put together a once-a-TV-season event like Battle of the Network Stars (a precursor to celebrity reality competitions, by the way). Something's got to give, and it won't be the hours I spend doing things other than watching TV.

And five crazy popular things that I love too

Jennifer Lawrence Whether she's faking it or not, I love her when she falls down, too.

"Hello" by Adele It had me at, well, "Hello."

The new wave of hit shows led by black actors: Empire, black-ish, and How to Get Away with Murder As must-see TV for me now as those gleaming-white classics Sex and the City and Melrose Place were back then.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep Totally deserving of all the Emmy love -- though I wouldn't mind her sharing a little of it with black-ish's painfully underrated Tracee Ellis Ross.

Cate Blanchett in anything But especially in The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Gift, Notes on a Scandal, Blue Jasmine and Carol.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Welcome back, romance: Thoughts on Carol


First, the obvious…at least to anyone who's seen The Social Network, Side Effects, Her, or anything in which Cate Blanchett has ever appeared: She and Rooney Mara are as brilliant as expected in Carol.

The two actresses are deserving of every accolade that's already been bestowed upon them and those that are yet to come. Blanchett is a near-lock for a Best Actress Oscar nomination, and the gold for Best Supporting Actress is as good as Mara's, though she's technically a lead as the movie unfolds predominantly from her character's point of view. (Clearly we're meant to identify mostly with her throughout).

The real standout in Carol, though, is romance. Remember her? In a galaxy long ago and far away, before the age of swiping left/right and rampant NSA, she ruled the hearts of men and women. Romance makes a comeback in Carol, and it's a breathtaking one.

Fairly faithfully based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, Carol is a love story set mostly in 1950s New York. That means it takes place in a time when you generally first laid eyes on a potential love match not via a phone app but from across a crowded room. Connecting meant closing the space between the two of you, both figuratively and literally. Given that Carol and Therese, the romantic heroines of the film, are both women living in a decade that wasn't particularly hospitable to LGBT, that space is just hurdle number one.

One of the most remarkable things about Carol is how it nails the dynamic of May-September romance without ever lapsing into cliche. Yes, Carol, who is fortyish and unhappily married with a young daughter, and Therese, a twentysomething-ish aspiring photographer paying the bills with a gig working behind the counter at a department store, assume familiar roles.

Sure, the early stages have a familiar ring -- the older and wiser one leads the way. But these aren't tired, predictable archetypes. Carol and Therese may not be peers, but they're equals in the romance. When the hunter gets captured by the game, the reverse happens, too. They're both the trophy and the victor, with so much to gain and to lose. That heightens the romantic stakes and thickens what there is of a plot.

But Carol is not about action. It's more of a character study. As the woman who gives the movie its title, Blanchett balances so many traits it's a wonder that she manages to maintain her poise and composure. She's brittle and haughty, yet fragile and insecure, chilly and remote but warm and tender. There are even hints of girlishness. Blanchett puts her sensuality on full display here (the love scene is as graphic as anything you'll find in a heterosexual romantic drama), and it's clear why Therese falls for her.

It's hard not to think of Katharine Hepburn while watching Blanchett in action. Carol is the kind of role Hepburn would have relished in the 1950s if directors had been making lesbian love stories back then. Director Todd Haynes has so painstakingly re-created the '50s that at times one almost forgets it's a period piece and not an actual film from 60 or so years ago.

Mara has the more difficult role because it's less physical and more internal. She spends a lot of the movie reacting and not appearing to react. So much of her character is revealed through loaded silences. Mara gives a rich, detailed performance that merges the uncertainty of youth with the weariness of being an old soul.

If the movie has one flaw, it's that it's less apparent what Carol sees in Therese other than her beauty. One might presume that part of it is despite her general ride-or-die reaction to Carol, Therese still presents a challenge. In one of the most telling moments in the entire film, Carol makes a throwaway comment about how she's always asking Therese what she's thinking. In that one scene (watch it above), she reveals so much about her character and why she's fallen for Therese.

Carol and Therese don't exist in a vacuum, though that likely still would have made for riveting viewing. While it revolves around the two main characters and their romance, the supporting players aren't merely window dressing.

Kyle Chandler and Sarah Paulson, who play Carol's estranged husband and best friend, respectively, are best known from their TV roles, but both deserve to be more prominent presences in film. Paulson continues to astound with her versatility, and Friday Night Lights Emmy winner Chandler give brutish Harge Aird more layers than the screenplay does. Their characters' interactions with Carol as well as with each other in one tense scene offer hints to a juicy backstory that's probably worthy of a movie of its own.

That said, Carol doesn't really need a sequel or a prequel. It's perfect as is, at 118 minutes. By the time the credits roll, it's done what every great movie is supposed to do. It's left you wanting so much more.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

I'm a little bit country and a little bit rock & roll…so what?

My boss made an interesting observation about me the other week during morning conference. It had absolutely nothing to do with my job performance…unless I missed his point completely.

We were talking about the company Christmas costume party that evening, and he was trying to get everybody into the party mood at 8am.

Now for those who have never lived in Australia, let me explain something about Aussies. They love their themed costume parties, and they take dressing up for them very seriously.

As I confirmed while putting together my latest party get-up, it's easier to find a costume shop in Sydney that will help you transform yourself into pretty much anything from the ankles up than it is to find a shoe store that sells gladiator sandals for men. Go figure.

Costume parties are particularly big here around the holidays. That means the December beach weather that I still can't get accustomed to after eight winter, er, summer seasons in the Southern Hemisphere isn't the only thing that has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas in New York.

I may not be able to adjust to the holiday climate in the South, but I've surprised myself by becoming the guy who always dresses up for a costume party. Back in my New York City days, that guy was never me…and he generally used to get on my last nerve.

I used to insist on going to everything as myself, and all the dress-up people only made me feel more out of place than usual. Maybe that's why I never really got into Halloween. Last October 31, though, I started the day wearing a truly frightening pirate mask, and by the end of the night, the power of make-up had transformed me into a black male Siouxsie Sioux circa "Hong Kong Garden" from the neck up.

The good thing about the costume obsession here is that you can walk through the streets of Sydney dressed as Captain America, or Julius Caesar, and not a single soul will give you the side-eye. They know exactly where you're going. You can also pick up a guy who has no idea what you actually look like until he tracks you down on Facebook the next day.

But getting back to morning conference, for some reason, my boss directed his attention toward me.

"Jeremy, you're coming, right?"

His phrasing suggested that there might be some doubt. Plus he looked slightly concerned, as if he was thinking I was thinking dress-up holiday parties were beneath me.

"Excuse me. Don't you remember last year's Christmas party?" I was overdoing the incredulousness for maximum comic effect.

"I wouldn't miss it. I already have my costume all picked out."

I could tell that Thursday night in mid-December 2014 was starting to come back to him: the dancing, the drinking, the unforgiving Captain America outfit. Of course, I was going to be there…with bells on…possibly literally.

My boss was clearly amused by the memory of me as the Yankee superhero, and he was confused, too.

"You know, Jeremy, you're an interesting set of contradictions. You're kind of shy, but at the same time you're this exhibitionist. There are all of these hidden sides."

Behind my poker face, I was pretty shocked. He was dead-right, but I didn't realize he had even been paying attention over the past 13 months and one week.

The more I think about his spot-on description of me, though, the more I'm not so sure about the "contradictions" part. While I know he wasn't being critical, the word itself has such a negative connotation. It suggests not only inconsistency but perhaps disingenuousness, too. It implies that one oscillates too wildly, never staying still long enough to actually stand for anything.

To be fair, it's a word I've often used to describe myself because it always seemed to fit. I'm uncomfortable in crowds and in social situations that aren't one-on-one, but I can work a room with the best of them. I'm the classic loner, yet to see me working that room, one might assume I'm a social butterfly.

I'm meticulous in the way I present myself (last week, during another offsite event, a colleague commented that I can even making bowling shoes look stylish), yet I've never been particularly crazy about a sharp-dressed man.

I'm driven by wanderlust (they don't call me "the world traveler" for nothing), but in my mind, there's no place like home…on the couch. I shy away from commitment, but I've often been a paragon of stability and longevity (so much so that I remained at my first job out of college for eight years). I have no problem being half-undressed in my gay-app profile pics, but I'm uncomfortable sleeping in the nude.

My music taste is all over the place, but when it's time to eat, I rarely venture outside of a handful of options. My friends can usually guess what I'm going to order off any given menu, but most of them would have a hell of tough time picking out a gift for me that I wouldn't have to pretend to love. I'm predictable and unpredictable like that.

My brother once described me as a "recovering introvert," and I don't think anyone has ever nailed my two-sidedness quite as accurately. He reads me better than anyone I know and has occasionally pointed out things about me that are barely perceptible to the naked eye.

After he read my book, he described it as "sometimes prudish yet sexually manic," perfectly encapsulating both the book and its author.

While I might seem maddeningly contradictory to some, I'm less about contradiction than duality. I like to think of myself as being the embodiment of yin and yang. Why do I have to be just one thing? Why can't I be a little bit country and little bit rock & roll...or New York wine and Tennessee 'shine?


I don't see the various sides of my personality opposing each other, or even contradicting each other, so much as complementing each other. Yes, I'm shy, but I never threaten to fade into the background, and for that I can thank my exhibitionist side. And yes, I appreciate attention, but I'm too timid to really work for it.

My shyness keeps my exhibitionism in check, while my exhibitionism stops my shyness from turning me into wallpaper.

And thank God for that. It was the emergence of my modest streak that kept me from going to this year's Christmas bash as a commando Julius Caesar. The evening was blustery enough that one unexpected gust of wind might have led to the worst wardrobe malfunction ever.

And that's one side of me that the entire world doesn't need to see. My inner exhibitionist might have kind of loved it, but my shy side never would have lived that one down.