Saturday, February 28, 2015

Roxette Live!: 5 Pleasant Surprises at the Sydney Opera House

First, the bad news: One of those pleasant surprises wasn't the enduring power and glory of Marie Fredriksson's voice. Frankly, it's seen better decades. The brain tumor she suffered in 2002 has left the 56-year-old performer physically, vocally, permanently, altered.

My friend Dov, who scored our complimentary Roxette concert tickets, said she looks like Robyn's mom, and she's so Robyn's mom. That's actually a compliment to them both, and probably has more to do with the 21-year age gap between them and their shared hair color and Swedish heritage than Marie's medical history. The ripped jeans and trademark short, platinum coif are hardly mom-like, but in counterpointing the effects of time's passage, they also magnified them.

Marie, looking like she was itching to rock, spent the entire hour-plus show seated, and she sometimes struggled (and sadly, failed) to hit those stratospheric highs that she once effortlessly scaled. Usually, though, and to her credit, she didn't even try. Clearly she's mindful of her current limitations and has made her peace with it. It's not that she can no longer sing -- the vocal-and-piano-only segment was a concert highlight -- but her anthems for beautiful losers (always my favorite side of Roxette) would have to be completely stripped down in order to play to her current strengths and weaknesses.

Like, say, Marianne Faithfull, Marie's now a character singer, not the fierce wailing diva of decades past. That doesn't quite jibe with classic Roxette, which was always about pop bombast and show(wo)manship. No one would have blamed Marie had she chosen to retreat permanently offstage after the tumor, so her mere presence onstage beside her still-fit-at-56 musical partner Per Gessle is a testament to her undiminished resilience, and the crowd loved her for it.

Even seated, she remains the star of Roxette. Before the show, I was talking to someone who wasn't aware of her medical situation, and he said he couldn't wait to see her because she doesn't age. I'm glad I filled him in before he had to see her being helped onstage to the spot where she would remain perched for the entire show. I wonder how many casuals fans who hadn't kept up with Roxette since the '90s weren't expecting that.

Aging is tricky for any performer, but it can be even harder for a pop or rock star than it is for an actor/actress because those music genres, for the most part, revolve around youth. You can make it work in your 50s if, like, say, Madonna, the point is "Look how much I haven't aged," or if, like, say, Sade, your emphasis has always been on elegance, but Roxette can't make time seem irrelevant (a life-threatening illness can do that to a once age-defying star), and I can think of few '90s anthems as shamelessly and jubilantly youthful as "Joyride."

Shockingly, when the band arrived at "Joyride" near the end of the main set, it felt like 1991 all over again. I was enjoying myself too much to think, "I'm way too old for this…and so are they," which brings me to my first and perhaps biggest surprise of the night.

1. Roxette's back catalogue really holds up. Crash Boom Bang was one of my favorite pop albums of the '90s, a fact I'd nearly forgotten until the band offered the title track early in the show. In the '90s I would have paid to see them perform it front to back in concert. I probably still would.

2. Despite Marie's vocal limitations, Roxette still sounds as sharp as they once demanded we look. My last Australian concert was Soundgarden two years ago in Melbourne, and I spent much of it marveling at how well Chris Cornell had aged physically and vocally. While watching Roxette live, I marveled at how great the band still sounded. Well, I don't know how many of the the players were around for Roxette's '80s/'90s heyday, but they made me wish I'd bothered to check out Roxette live back then. It must have been one blazing show.

3. Roxette fans span multiple demographics. I was expecting to see a crowd of aging Gen Xers, but instead I got a perfect mix of gay and straight, male and female, twentysomething, thirtysomething, fortysomething and above, and at least one baby.

4. Roxette fans are ride or die. I hear there was a lot of crying up front over Marie, but from where I was sitting, the audience didn't even seem to notice that she'd changed at all...or that it wasn't 1990. They were too busy singing every lyric, something that wasn't lost on Per and Marie, who let the crowd do the heavy lifting on vocals for large chunks of fan favorites "It Must Have Been Love" and "Every Time You Leave (Fading Like a Flower)."

5. I'd be up for another spin on Roxette's joyride. Maybe it was the setting -- every pop concert in Sydney should be on the steps of the Opera House forecourt -- but if Roxette was coming back next week, I'd do it all over again.

My 3 Favorite Roxette Songs on the Sydney Set List





Wednesday, February 25, 2015

10 Great '80s Minneapolis-Sound Songs That Weren't by Prince

Nearly one year after his death, Casey Kasem continues to change my life. His January 18, 1986 American Top 40 countdown recently reminded me that Minneapolis pop-soul in the '80s wasn't just about Prince, though much of it was somehow connected to him. They didn't call him His Purple Majesty (or His Royal Badness) for nothing, you know. Here is some of the best of the rest.

"Ice Cream Castles" The Time...My love for this Prince off-shoot band actually predates the first blush of my 1999-inspired Prince appreciation. Though it bloomed with The Time's 1982 R&B hit "Cool," the title song from the group's 1984 album, an opening track that would be overshadowed by the crossover hits "Jungle Love" and "The Bird," might be, for me, the first definitive non-Prince Minneapolis-sound song.


"Pretty Mess" Vanity...From the former "Nasty Girl" Vanity 6 frontwoman and quite possibly the nastiest thing I remember hearing in the '80s -- and I loved every filthy second of it!


"Can You Help Me" Jesse Johnson...He was the member of The Time who went on to the biggest and best things as a performer, but unfortunately, that didn't stop Jesse and his compact string of R&B hits from being more or less forgotten today.


"The Screams of Passion" The Family...After that Meg Ryan scene in When Harry Met Sally..., the biggest orgasm of the decade!



"Everybody Dance" Ta Mara and the Seen...Once completely forgotten, now permanently etched in my memory (and in heavy rotation on my iPod), thanks to its No. 24 peak position on Casey Kasem's aforementioned January 18, 1986 countdown.


"A Love Bizarre" Sheila E....Prince appeared on this track (which was perched at No. 31 for the American Top 40 week ending January 18, 1986), but it's credited solely to Sheila. Sadly, she's perhaps best known as the "one-hit wonder" singer of "A Glamorous Life," although this far superior single made it all the way to No. 11.


"Still a Thrill" Jody Watley ...As far as I know, Jody never had anything to do with Prince, but her second solo single was co-produced by Andre Cymone, who was once Prince's bassist, and David Z, whose brother Bobby was a drummer in The Revolution. It remains Jody's finest moment.


"Fake" Alexander O'Neal..."Can I get some 'Nasty'" bass?" I love the opening line's homage to Janet Jackson's "Nasty," also produced by ex-The Time members Jimmy "Jam" Harris and Terry Lewis. They produced all of the Janet's '80s hits that mattered as well as The Human League's "Human," but for me, this was their first pop-soul masterpiece.


"101" Sheena Easton..."Sugar Walls" (produced by Alexander Nevermind, aka Prince), "U Got the Look" (Sheena's Top 2 duet with Prince), and "The Arms of Orion" (their Batman soundtrack duet) were all bigger hits, but Sheena's haunting/defiant/tear-jerking vocals on this shamefully overlooked 1989 single, written by Joey Coco (aka Prince) and produced by Prince under his own name, make this their best joint effort.


"Love Song" Madonna and Prince...OK, so it wasn't not by Prince, but since it appeared on Madonna's 1989 Like a Prayer album, it's technically a Madonna song. The dual meaning of the closing line, "This is not a love song that I want to sing," still makes me green with literary envy.


3 Honourable '90s Mentions

"Martika's Kitchen" Martika..."Love...Thy Will Be Done" was their Top 10 collaboration from Martika's album No. 2, but the title track was really the ripest fruit of their joint labour.


"I Hear Your Voice" Patti LaBelle...A vast improvement over 1989's "Yo Mister," which was notable mostly because nobody ever expected to find Patti and Prince in the same room, much less on the same single. But this 1991 Burnin' track made me wish they'd record an entire album together.


"Why Can't I Love You?" Kate Bush...Released on Kate's 1993 The Red Shoes album, this cut was criticized by one reviewer for not being "Kate Bush." I saw where he was coming from, but that's precisely what made it such a great, daring musical move.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

You Must Love Sydney!

By now I've been a Sydney-sider long enough to know that whenever anyone who has lived here longer than six months asks what I think of the city, it's just a formality, a trick question. I answer at my own risk.

It's like "How are you?" -- or "How are you going?" in Aussie-speak. It's a rhetorical question. The answer is assumed before it's even asked. Of course, you must love Sydney!

With that in mind, I proceeded with caution when the American expat from Chicago asked me the expected question. It wasn't just that I knew exactly how he would react to my response. His forced confidence (he was like the hammiest actor chomping up the scenery) and smug demeanor made it feel more like a challenge than a conversation starter. He seemed almost to be daring me not to say the right thing about hallowed Sydney.

He wore his seven years here like a badge of honor, and just in case I didn't notice it dangling from the chest I half expected him to start pounding, he announced "I'm even an Australian citizen now" in a perfect Aussie accent. He looked at me as if he was expecting a standing ovation. He was, after all, a black American who had made it in Oz -- if obtaining citizenship and the ability to mimic the local dialect is your idea of "made it."

I can't say I was thoroughly unimpressed. I take note whenever any fish out water survives in new rarefied air. As an American expat for going on nine years, I respect the art of assimilation…and it is high art indeed. Kudos, I thought, as I started to answer his question…cautiously.

"You know, I understand Sydney's appeal. It's a beautiful place, but I just don't love it as much as everyone else seems to."

I winced, waiting for the whip to lash me across the face. The smack didn't come, but his response was just what I'd expected it to be, for I've been hearing it regularly since my first trip to Sydney five years ago.

"Give it time. Sydney takes a while to really appreciate, but once you do, you'll be totally in love with it."

And thus began the latest testimonial about the wonders of Sydney, how the city's appeal takes you by surprise and once it grabs you refuses to let you go.

I listened to his monologue and when he was finished, I just stared at him. I really didn't have anything to say. Obviously, there had been only one right answer to his question. There's always only one right answer to that question.

Then he asked another one.

"So what don't you like about Sydney then?"

I didn't want to go there yet again. I was over spinning my own broken record with the repetitive beat, the one where I go on about how Melbourne is warmer (the people, not the climate), more welcoming, more rock& roll, how the gay men in Sydney are flaky and cliquey, how Sydney promises endless sunshine and then fails to deliver it, how life is not a beach. I just couldn't bear to hear myself singing that same old song one more time.

Furthermore, his Sydney sermon had been such a turn off. He was pontificating in a loud, forceful manner that made me feel like he wanted me to justify my position, not explain it. I had tuned him out halfway through, hoping he would eventually lose interest in me and let me enjoy my quiet time in the park in peace. I did catch his explanation that whenever he really loves a city, like his hometown of Chicago, he wants everyone to feel the same way about it, so he might go overboard in his zeal to sell the place.

His explanation made sense, but I wondered why it seems to apply to everyone in Sydney who isn't from Melbourne. Sydney-siders are constantly telling me how I should feel about Sydney or how I will feel about Sydney after a few more months here. It's not like I hate the place. There are things that I really like about Sydney. But we just don't click the way Melbourne and I do. What's the big deal?

There are always going to be different opinions of any city, and every city will have its non-fans, regardless of how much time they spend there or how many friends they make there. Why should Sydney be exempt from that? It might partly be the constant pressure to love it that keeps me from falling in love with it.

My relocation here was strictly business. I came here for work, and one can be hired in far worse places. Once or twice I've felt like I was on the brink of getting it, but those were fleeting moments. Full appreciation has remained just out of reach. Shouldn't loving a great city be easier? I know that if I stick around, I'll eventually cultivate a little community here and become part of Sydney's social fabric, but there's more to city love than assimilation.

I may have said some of this, but mostly I sat there in silence, hearing him, but after a while, not really listening anymore. Eventually he got the message and left me in peace.

As he walked away, I wondered why Sydney-siders are so precious about their turf. In all the places I've lived, I've never seen anything like it. It's more than local pride. It's almost like some kind of manifest destiny to be able to call Sydney the world's most livable city (an honor that's already gone to Melbourne, which might actually partly explain the Sydney oversell).

Why else would it always be necessary to defend its honor? A lot of people adore Sydney -- most every non-Melburnian I know who has been here does. At least three of my former bosses -- two American, one British -- have lived here, and all of them rave about it to this day. Sydney is not wanting for admirers. So what difference does it make if little old me is not part of the breathless fan club?

There's a lot that I miss about New York City, but right now, I'm really homesick for the take-it-or-leave-it New Yorker attitude. No New Yorker would ever waste their time trying to explain why anyone should love New York. Either you do or you don't, and if you don't, well the exit door is always open.

Oh, there's no place like home.

Friday, February 13, 2015

I'm Not in Love: An Anti-Valentine's Day Soundtrack

While I consider myself to be a hopeless romantic, romance has never really been my thing. There's a difference, you know. Romantic is a state of mind; romance revolves around gestures.

I'm in love with love and the closeness that it brings. (Though I always reserve the right to sleep alone, I'm a diehard spooner/cuddler.) I get swept away with the best of them. But when you start lighting candles and drawing bubble baths, I'm so out of there. I'm like Miranda Hobbes that way.

As for sweet nothings, I'm still waiting for someone to put it in a love song. Until then, email or text will do. It's been nearly eight years since I received a handwritten love note. I hope I get another one someday, once again on a plain piece of white paper. That'd be enough for me. If I never get another Valentine or Hallmark card, I won't miss either. They're clutter, and then they're trash. So are flowers. Yeah, I'm a cheap love interest. My love really don't cost a thing.

So guess how I feel about Valentine's Day and its commercialization of romance. I'm not saying I'd turn down a big red heart if one were to fall out of the sky, but I'd be perfectly fine with rain. And should it come pouring down on V Day, I'll have the perfect soundtrack.

"I'm Not in Love" Will to PowerThis version, not the 10cc original. I love them nearly equally, but when she starts singing about his picture on the wall, I just lose it. (And yes, I get the irony of the lyrics.)



"When You Get Right Down to It" Phyllis Hyman…A woman falling out of love.



"I Don't Need You" Kenny Rogers…So much more my speed than "Lady."



"Move a Mountain" Robert Cray…Is it just a coincidence that the blues are named after my favorite color?



"I Hate Myself for Loving You" Joan Jett and the Blackhearts…I love rock & roll, too, but I doubt Joan and the guys would have sneaked into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without this bitter anthem in their back catalog.



"I Love to Hate You" Erasure…I've never actually hated anyone, and I don't think I could possibly love it if I did, but I totally get what he's singing.



"Never Had No One Ever" The Smiths…Ah, Morrissey, the kind of un-wishful thinking.




"I Want a Dog" Pet Shop Boys...Sorry, but the appeal of cats has always gone right over my head.



"Sweet Dreams My L.A. Ex" Rachel Stevens...Yeah, f**k off.




"Get Mine, Get Yours" Christina Aguilera...And sometimes, it's just about the sex.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Date to End All Dates...At Least for the Next Six Months!

The other day I remembered why I rarely go on dates anymore. He was a loud, voluble and robust reminder: 6'4", with salt and pepper hair and an annoying way of blurring the line between an insult and a compliment.

The first thing he said to me: "I can't believe you're American. But you use English so well. Are you sure you're not from London?"

When I pointed out that Australians mangle the Queen's English more badly than people in any English-speaking country, he was obliged to agree. Ah, a glimmer of hope. But it didn't flicker for long.

His next anti-Yankee crack arrived when I mentioned that the AC in my apartment has been out of order since I moved in three weeks ago. I was happy to be out enjoying the cool Saturday evening breeze.

"Oh, you Americans and your AC!"

It wasn't long before I found myself wondering why I hadn't followed my gut instinct, which had told me to cancel on him for the second time. But I didn't want to be that Sydney-sider I've grown to semi-hate. I couldn't even remember the last time I went on a decent date, though. It was a wonder I was still willing to occasionally go on them.

Who needs to spend a couple of hours sitting across from a guy who has too much to prove? (Gay men and their insecurity masquerading as arrogance…ugh.) I would have preferred to have been home watching an Oscar-nominated movie on my laptop (the obnoxious music instructor in Whiplash was less of a blowhard than this guy), but I knew I'd have to get off the couch if I was going to meet people and make friends in Sydney.

Is it worth it? No disrespect to Pat Benatar, but dating is the battlefield. I love a good game of chess once every few decades only, but the last thing I needed after a challenging work week was a meet-and-greet that felt like a sword fight.

During this particular match, I could have sworn I heard a voice whispering "en garde" in my ear before every sentence my opponent/date uttered. It was the only whisper I'd hear all night. My opponent/date had another annoying habit of keeping his volume between 8 and 10. Oh, and about blurring the line between insult and compliment... He was certain I had to be a Londoner, yet he couldn't understand why I would want to live in such a shitty place.

Frankly, I've never really understood people's reaction to my reaction to London. Years ago when I was more actively dying to live there, people would often say things along the lines of "The grass is always greener" whenever I broached the possibility of moving to London. So, I figured, I wasn't allowed to like London, and I certainly wasn't allowed to want to live there either.

Huh? But it's a world-class city, and it wouldn't be one if someone didn't love living there. But who even cares whether anyone else loves it? I don't care for Paris or Rio, and I'm not as big a fan of Sydney as most people who aren't from Melbourne, but I can understand their appeal. I'd never challenge anyone for loving any of them, or hating a place that I love. What difference does it make to me anyway? It's simply a matter of personal taste. Why rain on someone's parade when it comes to a city they love? London is moist enough as it is!

Oh, but well-traveled people can be so insufferable, especially when they've parked themselves on several continents for more than one year. Some of them seem to think that having lived in numerous places not only gives them special insight into how everyone should feel about those places, but it also somehow gives them the edge in every conversation because most people aren't particularly well traveled. Oh, dear God in heaven, please don't let people think I'm one of those obnoxious world travelers!

Too late for my opponent/date. He was a well-traveled fortysomething know-it-all from Melbourne who has lived in New York City, London and Hong Kong and has visited Buenos Aires. In other words, he knew everything. He seemed to have very little interest in anything I had to say about anywhere I've lived because, well, he'd seen it all before.

He was the kind of person whose gestures are like semaphores. He talked too loudly, announcing instead of stating, pronouncing rather than offering opinions. Some would accuse me of sometimes doing the same thing, but I pick my battles. Every topic isn't fodder for debate. So you hate London? Why?... Oh, really? That's too bad. Pass the wine, please.

This guy seemed to be listening to me only long enough to figure out what he wanted to say next. After two hours spent conversing/clashing with him in a cute little bar off Crown Street, I decided to hang up my sword. I won't be going on another date for a while. At this point, I only go on a handful a year. This one should carry me through September.

My opponent/date's three most absurd comments/reactions:

The idea of a New Yorker never having lived above 34th Street is unfathomable. I thought he was going to have a seizure right there on the sidewalk when I dropped the bombshell that I'd never lived in midtown or higher. Actually, I didn't even realize it was much of a bombshell when the words were coming out of my mouth. I know plenty of downtown types who have never lived above 14 th Street. And considering that I lived in three apartments over the course of my 15 years in NYC, spending three years in Alphabet City, three near Penn Station and five in Union Square, I'd say I got around just fine.

Somehow I brought all of my travel misadventures -- positive and negative -- on myself. So, I had to ask, how exactly did I bring about having my apartment burglarized by three men and being attacked by them on a sunny Sunday afternoon six months after moving to Buenos Aires? Was it my fault for having the nerve to come home after lunch and walking out of the elevator on my floor mid-burglary? Should I have never dared to buy an apartment in a building that was under-construction, leaving it vulnerable to inside-job break-ins after I moved in?

If you don't have anything intelligent to say, keep the cheap psychobabble to yourself. That's always been my rule. Oh, but my date/opponent couldn't possibly do that. He was the kind of person who so loved to hear himself talk that he had some declaration to offer about every sentence I uttered, whether it be an unsolicited opinion, a generalization, or a sort-of-matching story. (Guess what: He was robbed once, too...on the street...in New York City...by one guy...Not the same thing!)

Chances are if you're a non-Londoner who moves to London you'll hate it because, well, everyone is addicted to sunshine. I really should know better than to bring up London, especially to people who have already gotten on my bad side. But I did anyway, and when I dared to call it the one city I've never lived that I would love to live in, my date/opponent looked at me as if I'd just chopped off one of his arms.

He suggested I'd hate London after the first winter because five hours of sunlight a day would simply be too little to bear. I asked him what led him to this conclusion about someone he barely knew. What if I'm a fan of dreary weather? Maybe I don't suffer from seasonal affective disorder. I could be a night person…or a rainy day kind of guy. After spending an hour mostly talking at me, did he really know enough about me to lump me into the category of "most people" when it came to London?

When I dared to suggest that he didn't, he got frustrated. How dare I challenge his all-knowingness, or be contrarian? That was his thing. At that moment, I knew the date was unsalvageable. Thirty minutes later, it was mercifully over.

Thank God. My opponent/date and I parted with a hug, and as he walked away, I deleted his number from my phone. Yes, I was laying down my arms. Let someone else fight the good sword fight. From now on (for now), dateless is the new black.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

10 Dating Cliches That Are Supposed to Make You Feel Better But Never Do

1. "It's better to have loved and lost..."

2. "It's their loss."

3. "You're better off without them."

4. "They weren't good enough for you anyway."

5. "You deserve/can do better."

6. "They don't know what they're missing."

7. "There are more fish in the sea."

8. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

9. "Good things come to those who wait."

10. "I will survive."

11. "It's not you. It's them."

I had a boy incident recently. It came at the end of a month in which at least four players from my past -- including two who made it all the way into my book! -- re-entered my orbit for brief, unexpected cameos. One even proposed marriage...jokingly, I hope. I was truly ready for something, someone new, so the boy incident had excellent timing. It went a little something like this:

Boy meets boy.

Boy pursues boy.

Boy gets boy where he wants him.

Boy throws himself on boy -- literally.

Boy friends boy on Facebook. (Warning: Any guy who gets on your computer, friends himself from your Facebook account, unbeknownst to you, and then accepts from his will probably turn out to be a bit of a douche.)

Boy texts boy.

Boy comes over for round two.

Boy leaves with a huge smile on his face.

Boy gets text from boy.

Boy doesn't respond.

Boy gets second text from boy.

Boy is never heard from again.

Another week, another Sydney flake. This city is practically snowing with them. Sometimes I feel like I'm back in Buenos Aires (aka, the other most annoying dating city in the world), where guys will pursue you ardently -- con gusto! -- until you agree to go out with them. Then it's "Caio, bonito!"

I confided in a colleague who skipped most of the cliches above and went straight to No. 11. For once, it was exactly what I needed to hear. She confirmed what I've suspected for months: Yep, dating in Sydney sucks, especially if you're a gay man or female.

She said she's been there, and so have many of her friends. One (a gay man) even fled the country because he couldn't handle it anymore, which is a shame, because it's definitely not an Aussie thing. Melburnian boys are practically a different species, charming in a way I've rarely encountered in Sydney, and when I have, it's usually been in someone from another town.

The way she sees it, when you're in a big city with so many transient tourists who are only looking for one thing, so many insanely hot guys of a certain size (extra tall) and so many expats trying to fit in (When in Rome, er, Sydney…), boys can't help but be assholes.

I loved her for not trying to sugarcoat my disappointment, and her candor actually made me feel a lot better. I was beginning to wonder if maybe there's something wrong with me, but now I know: It really isn't me. It's them.

Monday, February 2, 2015

We Don't Need Another Hero: My Problem with "American Sniper"

I love a good awards-season controversy as much as the next Oscar buff. It can perk up a dull January/February, and create the illusion that movies or actors or living legends or whatever/whoever is central to the controversy are more interesting than they are.

That said, controversy is most effective when it's warranted, and frankly, I don't get all the bickering over American Sniper. Sure, parts of it could almost double as propaganda for the right to bear arms, but as far as the Iraq War that is central to the story is concerned, Sniper's political stance concerning West vs. the Middle East is less obvious than, says, Argo's was two years ago. So there's that.

And this: I don't see Sniper as being pro- or anti-Muslim, nor necessarily pro-war or anti-war. If I had to go with one side, though, I'd say it leans closer to being against military bloodshed. The movie easily could have been subtitled War Is Hell on the Homefront, Too, which certainly would not have been a celebration of it.

But getting back to Sniper's depiction of Muslims, is it inherently anti-Muslim because its story is told from an American's point of view? The movie is, after all, called American Sniper, so I went in expecting a Western focus. While I'll cheerfully concede that Eastwood could have painted the Iraqis with less broad strokes, I see that more as a result of his shallow directorial style than as a political statement or a personal agenda.

Perhaps someday someone will make a movie about the Iraq War from the other side's point of view. What a fascinating movie that would be. In the meantime, we have this one. Being that it was based on the title character's memoir, I'd say Eastwood told the story he was supposed to tell.

That doesn't mean he justifies the killing of 160 to 255 Iraqis. To say that telling the story through Kyle's eyes is an indictment of Muslims and tantamount to racism and xenophobia is like saying that if any screenwriter is ever brave enough to write a movie about slavery from a slave owner's point of view, that movie would automatically be racist.

Calm down, people. The Talented Mr. Ripley, one of my favorite books, had a killer as its protagonist and practically dared you to identify with him. That didn't mean its author, Patricia Highsmith, condoned murder. She was simply telling a story -- one that made for such a disturbing read because it so effectively got inside its main character's head and helped you understand his motivation and, dare I say, identify with it to a certain extent.

That is precisely what doesn't happen with American Sniper, and for me, that's its greatest flaw. It's not that Chris Kyle killed 160 to 255 people. That's a documented fact. There's no way to get around that while making a movie about him. What I never got from the movie was why. Was it his unwavering patriotism? Was he just protecting his fellow Navy SEALS and Marine comrades? Was he a racist and xenophobe who simply hated Iraqis? (His reaction to the little boy who picked up the gun and then put it back down suggests that it wasn't so simple.) Was he just doing his job?

After two hours and 13 minutes, I felt like I knew Kyle's story, but I still didn't really know the man. The movie fails to go deep into his head. We have scenes of his wife telling him how he feels, scenes of him staring off into space, a scene of him attacking a dog in a PTSD fit, but once it was all over, I didn't feel as if I knew anything about Chris Kyle other than what he did.

Why did he seem to love his work so much until he didn't? Why was he such an excellent marksman? Why did killing seem to come so easily to him? Clint Eastwood is the king of wrapping up plot points in neat little bows, but I'm going to need more than a scene with Kyle's father warning him to be neither the wolf nor the sheep but rather the protector to understand what shaped him.

While I enjoyed this biopic more than I did The Theory of Everything, I had a similar problem with both movies. Their depictions of complex, complicated men are too simplistic and borderline hagiographic, which, in Sniper's case, is particularly confusing because Bradley Cooper specializes in playing flawed, complicated men. He does the material he's given justice, but it's far from an "Oh, wow!" performance.

Just in case we don't get that Chris Kyle is considered a hero by pretty much everyone he encounters when they stop just short of bowing down to him, we have that scene with Jonathan Groff, sounding a lot like Patrick, the character he plays on Looking, telling Kyle's son that his dad is an icon. By vaguely announcing, just before the end credits roll, that Kyle was killed shortly after the final scene by a veteran he was trying to help, the movie paints a halo over his epitaph.
.
As I watched the scene with Groff, I almost wanted Kyle to recognize him as Groff's gay TV character and pull his little boy away. It would have been the most homophobic move ever, but at least I would have felt like I was looking at a real person and not just a variation on the strong, silent Dirty Harry archetype that Clint Eastwood has spent so much of his career glorifying.

The big difference: Dirty Harry never actually existed. Chris Kyle did.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Gay Playground: Welcome Back to the Dollhouse

Remember the playground?

It's a key symbol of our youth, the childhood version of the after-work bar, where happy hour typically lasts anywhere from 15 minutes to the duration of gym class (which, for me, was an hour that was anything but happy). That's nothing compared to those long, seemingly endless school days, but it's enough time for a lifetime's worth of mental damage to be done.

If your childhood was anything like mine, it wasn't all fun and games on the playground. In hindsight, it was a place better left forgotten, the site of recurring nightmares, some of which were real, some of which unfolded entirely in my head.

In class I could be the perfect student and hide behind my knowledge (I was the sort of bookworm who read biographies and encyclopedias for fun), secure knowing that my schoolmates admired me too much to ridicule me in class. After all, I had all the answers…or most of them. I could also recite all of the U.S. Presidents, from first to thirty-ninth, in second grade. Who else could do that?

Unfortunately, that didn't matter on the playground. My gift of memorization, all the trivia I'd collected and crammed into my little head, didn't detract from how awkward I was in my own skin. I never felt more like a lonesome loser than I did on the playground. I didn't throw right. I didn't catch right. I couldn't run right. I couldn't walk right. I couldn't talk right. I could never get over that damn wall on the obstacle course, and my fear of heights made me terrified of climbing to the top of the monkey bars.

It wasn't until years later that I'd realize it wasn't so much the way I moved as much as what I was. I was a gay boy living in a straight world, and I never felt more off than I did on the playground. It was the first place where I ever felt out of place (and, incidentally, the first place where I ever heard the N word, coming, ironically, out of the mouth of a black kid in my kindergarten class who told me it meant "a tall person"), and I carried that misfit feeling with me through my childhood and teens.

I didn't want in. Fitting in has never been an option. I was (and am) a square peg, and I knew I'd never be able to squeeze into a round hole. I was after acceptance for who I was -- a black boy with a strange accent who was turned on by other boys. That's still the thing I want most from other people

It gets better, they say, and they would be right. Moving to a place like New York City helps. Yet, even in a gay mecca like the Big Apple (or Buenos Aires, or Bangkok, or Cape Town, or Sydney), it's easier to be straight. And for that, I blame us as much as I blame anyone.

Gay life can such a playground, another nightmare where we are constantly being told we're not good enough, where many of us once again get to feel like we're on the outside looking in. The twist: On the adult playground, it's not just the other team making us feel like we're not good enough; it's also our own teammates. Look at how we're constantly tearing each other down and making each other feel inadequate. Grindr and online dating didn't invent this curious and unfortunate dynamic; they only put it into words.

Be masculine.

Be straight-acting.

Be white.

Be black.

Be Asian.

Be fit.

Be blond, be brunette, be ginger.

Be tall, be thin, be muscular, be lean.

Be hung, be top, be bottom.

Be active, be this, be that.

Every time I read another gay checklist, I'm transported to sixth grade. I'm back on the playground hoping that just once, I won't be the last one picked to be on one of the teams.

How quickly we forget where we came from when we're making our lists and checking them twice. So the rules of attraction are bound to be more strict than the ones that govern friendship. Fair enough. But when they're so explicitly stated and used as a blockade to prohibit the unwanted from crossing the line into our orbit, they only feed into the insecurities of those who don't measure up literally and figuratively.

We leave one hell of impossible expectations when we're in the closet only to enter into another one when we come out.

Some retreat. Others turn themselves into clones to be more desirable, to fit in.

Get muscles.

Get fashionable.

Get pierced.

Get tattooed.

Get the right hairstyle.

Get the right soundtrack.

Get right.

Being gay, particularly in the big cities so many of us flocked to in order to be among more of our own kind, has become demanding and difficult in a way that has nothing to do with straight people and their brand of homophobia. Is this the subculture we want to create, one that fosters the same insecurity and feelings of inferiority that we used to feel on the playgrounds of our youth?

Are we challenging homophobes for the title of our own worst enemy?

Why is it never "Be smart, be funny, be kind"? The mind is a terrible thing to waste, but it so often seems to come a far second to superficial qualities. Some might say it's not a gay thing but a guy thing. Men are visual. For us, attraction is ruled by appearance. Does that mean we must hold each other to the same impossible standards of beauty that women spend their lives aspiring to? Are we all fucked because we're pretty much programmed to be assholes?

Gay hook-up and dating apps didn't create the problem, but they've exacerbated it. In the good old days, when more gay men went out, we were exposed to an assortment of our peers, including the ones we wouldn't necessarily sleep with. Now that more gay men are increasingly building their social and sex lives almost entirely online, we've become strident in our quest for physical perfection, picky in a way that we weren't when it was still possible for someone who wasn't quite our ideal "type" to win us over during the course of face-to-face conversation by the bar.

Narrowing our playing field to such specific physical attributes can lead to a sort of isolation and segregation that hinders acceptance and tolerance in our own community. If you no longer "go out" and you're creating a mental blockade against certain types and groups when you go online, you're being exposed to only a small fraction of what's out there. Hooking up might become more expedient for those who want to handily weed out the undesirables, but how does that help the gay community progress?

If getting what you want supersedes all other concerns, how about trying this: Keep your checklist to yourself. You may have to weed through more undesirables, but if young gay men don't keep reading everything they need to be, or shouldn't be, maybe more of them will be happier being who they already are.

Monday, January 26, 2015

"Birdman," Batman and Oscar by the Numbers

3 The number of Birdman stars who have appeared in superhero films. Michael Keaton was Batman twice; Edward Norton was The Incredible Hulk once; and Emma Stone appears in the current The Amazing Spider-Man series.

2 The number of actors who have gone from Batman to Oscar winner. If Michael Keaton nabs Best Actor, he will become the third former Batman to win an acting Oscar, following George Clooney and Christian Bale. The next Batman, Ben Affleck, already got his Oscar win (for co-writing Good Will Hunting and producing Argo) out of the way. Incidentally, Clooney also won an Oscar for producing Argo.

4 The number of other Batman-franchise headliners -- Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Nicole Kidman and Anne Hathaway -- who have gone on to win Oscars for non-Batman related roles. Tommy Lee Jones won his two years before Batman Forever.

1 The number of actors who have been nominated for a Batman role. That would also make Heath Ledger, Oscar's Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight, the lone Batman player to actually win for a Batman movie.

8 The number of actors to be nominated for films directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. They are 21 Grams' Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro, Babel's Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikcuchi, Biutiful's Javier Bardem, and Birdman's Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone.

3 The number of Iñárritu stars who have won Oscars after appearing in one of his films. They are Babel's Cate Blanchett (Best Actress for Blue Jasmine) and Brad Pitt (Best Picture for 12 Years a Slave), and 21 Grams' Melissa Leo (Best Supporting Actress for The Fighter).

4 The number of Iñárritu stars who won Oscars before appearing in one of his films. They are Javier Bardem (Best Supporting Actor for No Country for Old Men) and Benicio Del Toro (Best Supporting Actor for Traffic).

16 The number of years between Edward Norton's third Oscar nomination (Best Actor for American History X) and his third one (Best Supporting Actor for Birdman). Looks like Michael Keaton's isn't the only comeback here.

2 The number of 2015 Best Picture nominees in which Norton appears. He is also in the principal cast of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which is tied with Birdman for most nominations (9).

1 The number of other actors who appear in more than one Best Picture nominee. Tom Wilkinson appears in both The Grand Budapest Hotel and Selma.

0 The number of black actors in the principal cast of Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (The only black person I can recall even seeing in Birdman was the theater worker who tried to stop Riggin Thomson from entering the lobby in his underwear.) What? Did you not expect me to keep score?

5 The number of previous nominations for actors who appeared in Birdman. Edward Norton and Naomi Watts were nominated twice before, and Amy Ryan is a one-time nominee. In comparison, the cast of The Grand Budapest Hotel has 17 acting nods among them and three winners (F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody and Tilda Swinton).

19 The number of years between Edward Norton and Emma Stone, who share a steamy kissing scene in Birdman.

15 Number of years between Michael Keaton and Amy Ryan, who plays his ex-wife in Birdman.

30 Number of years between Keaton and Andrea Riseborough, who plays his girlfriend in Birdman.

2 Number of foreign actors who play Americans in Birdman. They are Australia's Naomi Watts and England's Riseborough.

7 The number of Oscar nominees who will appear in the forthcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. They are Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Jesse Eisenberg, Laurence Fishburne, Holly Hunter, Jeremy Irons and Diane Lane. So much for superhero franchises not being respectable. Now with a film about the former star of one becoming a serious Best Picture contender, we may all live to see them become Oscar bait, too.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

11 Things I Loved About "Birdman"

Thank you, Birdman -- the movie, not the superhero. Frankly, he's kind of an annoying guy who, hopefully, will never see the light of opening day at the center of a summer-blockbuster franchise. (I'm still trying to wrap my head around the upcoming Ant-Man.) It's been a long time since a movie made me want to stand on my balcony and cheer. Yes, I finally have a balcony again, and no, unlike a certain movie character, I didn't leap from it.

I loved Birdman for a lot of the same reasons I loved Sideways, Before Sunset, Being Julia and The Artist. I'm a sucker for an engaging cinematic contemplation on second acts, getting older and legacy. Riggan Thomson, Michael Keaton's character, might have a couple of decades and 79,500 Twitter followers on me, and people actually know who he is when they pass him on the street, but I understand his dilemma perfectly. And having fallen in love with Raymond Carver's work after reading Where I'm Calling From in the '90s, his artistic inspiration makes sense, too.

My favorite things about Birdman:

1. Michael Keaton: He deserves all of the acclaim he's received for a performance that will hopefully launch a lengthier comeback than Mickey Rourke's after The Wrestler several years ago. There are hints of the funny cut-up I was raised on (the Michael Keaton of Night Shift and Mr. Mom) with a gravitas rarely seen when he wasn't wearing his Batman suit (the Michael Keaton of Clean and Sober and Pacific Heights). If Eddie Redmayne gets the Best Actor Oscar for impersonating Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, someone's going to choke on that stupid little naked gold man.

2. Edward Norton: This was something of a major comeback year for the talented Mr. Norton, who appeared in 2014's two most Oscar-nominated films, this and The Grand Budapest Hotel, a movie whose humor was too self-conscious to be funny and its characters too cartoonish to make me care. Was it me or was Edward channeling a little Adam Levine into Mike Shiner? Brilliance.

3. Emma Stone: She's finally delivered on the promise of her breakthrough in Easy A. That Best Supporting Actress nomination doesn't have even a whiff of coattails-riding Amy Adams. Totally deserved.

4. The one-take tactic: I thought this and the meta angle (a washed-up actor playing one, a difficult actor playing one) might be an overload of wink-wink and technique, but they weren't. In fact, unlike Boyhood, another B A-movie with an attention-grabbing hook that probably wouldn't be a contender without it, Birdman would still be laudable even without its attention-grabbing hooks. I was worried that a lack of cutting would make the movie as claustrophobic as a play set in a closet, but director Alejandro González Iñárritu managed the time- and place-shifting as cleverly as he did the multiple arcs in 21 Grams.

5. The jazz score: A nice touch, underscoring the improvisational, slightly Dadaist feel of the movie.

6. The setting: God, I miss New York City!

7-11. The screenplay: The story was compelling (from Bullets Over Broadway to Shakespeare in Love to Being Julia to Smash, how to launch a stage production never gets old) and so was the banter, which accounted for at least five memorable lines.

"The blood coming out of his ear was the most honest thing he's done so far." -- Riggan Thomson (Keaton) after one of his actors gets nailed in a head by a projectile light fixture.

"Do it again." -- Lesley (Naomi Watts), shifting from tentative to ravenous after Laura (Andrea Riseborough) kisses her

"I'd be afraid I couldn't get it up." -- Mike Shiner (Norton) to Sam Thomson (Stone) when she asks why he doesn't want to fool around with her

"I'd pull your eyes out of your head. I'd put them in my own skill and look around so that I could see the street the way I used to when I was your age." -- Mike Shiner to Sam Thomson when she asks what he'd do to her if he wasn't afraid to fool around with her.

"Sixty is the new thirty." -- Zach Galifianakis, in the Jonah Hill sidekick role and, for the first time ever, making me want to see more of him

Does that mean I'm still in my teens? Thank you, Birdman, for that, too. You reminded me that I'm getting ancient (as if I could actually forget) and made me feel young again at the same time.