Monday, December 31, 2012

Stranger in the Village: Thoughts on Racism Abroad

The sentence above is my favorite one in James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, and I could barely contain my excitement and surprise when I found an illustration of it online. Had it actually moved someone else as much as it did me? It's from the chapter/essay "Stranger in the Village," in which Baldwin contrasted the way Americans of the time (the 1950s) regarded black people with the way he, as a black man, was viewed by the locals in the tiny Swiss village of Leukerbad, where black people were rare and regarded with a sort of innocent curiosity.

The citizens of that tiny Swiss community -- into which no black man had probably previously wandered -- reacted to Baldwin as though he were a "living wonder." Having now spent nearly six and a half years being a living wonder on continents where black people are scarce, I understand Baldwin's experience in Leukerbad a lot better than I did when I first read about them. "American white men," Baldwin wrote just a few sentences before the one that so affected me, "still nourish the illusion that there is some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state in which black men do not exist."

My friend Rodrigo is no James Baldwin (and really, who is?), but that didn't stop him from offering his own pearl of non-race-related wisdom in an email to me last night: At the end of the day what we lack the most in this world is honesty. I mean, especially when what you're saying is something nice, we should have troubles to say things like "HEY I HATE YOU DUDE" but not to say beautiful things like I STILL LIKE YOU or I JUST LIKE YOU A LOT.

As I read what Rodrigo wrote, I thought, What a nice sentiment on which to end 2012! Years ago, my friend Dave offered a similar idea aimed at people who receive such compliments: Never make someone feel bad for liking you -- or something to that effect.

How, then, should one handle rejection? The best examples I can come up with of how not to do it are from two guys I met in Buenos Aires: Marcelo, who grabbed my drink, threw it on the floor of KM Zero and called me a nigger after I refused to kiss him, and Alvaro, whose rejection by me inspired him to wax poetic and also utter the dreaded, dreadful N word.

"sos un negro de mierda que se cree que eres muy importante para hacerte el dificil, tendrias que estar recolectando algodon en Alabama, imbecil! Go home fucking yanke nigger!"

Even if you don't understand Spanish, that well-placed "nigger" should tell you all you need to know. But those brutal expressions of lust and racism aren't the complete story when it comes to Argentines and black people.

For all of the historical and deeply entrenched racism in Argentina (and I'll spare you the history lesson, but look it up, if you don't believe me), in some ways, as a black man, I had it better there than my ex-boyfriend Leandro, an Argentine whose light-brown skin tone created for him its own set of social conditions. (And let me state here that although I write in broad general terms, from this point on, my conclusions are based on my own personal experiences and opinions and not on any perceived universal laws or rules without exceptions.) The paucity of black people in Argentina meant there was no need to organize any unofficial movement against them. There weren't enough of us to bother. And whatever Argentines considered to be my social status, on a sexual level, I'd never been more desirable. Black men were seen as exotic and erotic, a must-do before you die.

When Argentines basked in their own superiority, hoisting themselves up on a self-constructed pedestal, they usually seemed to be looking down on their darker fellow countrymen and on the more ethnic-looking citizens of other South American countries like Bolivia and Peru. As the South American country with the largest European-descended populace, Argentina had a significant number of natural blondes and people with blue and green eyes. A visiting friend once commented that if she were walking down the street in Buenos Aires and had no idea where she was, she easily could make the mistake of thinking she was somewhere in Europe, or even the U.S.

The more European-looking Argentines used their whiteness to their advantage, creating a sort of caste system based on skin tone, much like the one instituted on U.S. plantations during the slavery era and still in place within the U.S. black community. This hyper-awareness of skin tone was even built into their language, with negro (Spanish for "black") being used interchangeably with morocho, as an adjective and a verb, to refer to both black people like me and dark-skinned Argentines.

Leandro, though good-looking and highly desirable by any standards outside of Argentina, was a morocho who'd spent most of his childhood in his pale big brother's white shadow. Family, friends and strangers saw to it that he entered adulthood with a solid inferiority complex for being a few shades too dark. The same people who treated him like a lesser person because he was off-white treated me like a black superstar, though for reasons that were mostly sexual.

Light vs. dark has been a recurring theme on every continent I've called home since leaving the U.S. in 2006. In Australia, it took the more familiar (from a lifetime spent living in the U.S.) form of white vs. black, with the lighter ruling class saving most of its discrimination for its own "black" people, indigenous Australian Aborigines, as well as Asians, people from the Middle East and Westerners with swarthy skin.

I was shocked every time I read another front-page news story about some white Australian footy star making a racial slur against a fellow player, not because of what was said, but because the epithets always seemed to be leveled at someone whom most Americans might call "white." As an American black man, I didn't have to worry about being called names or being the butt of racist jokes. I was an exotic stud, superior, in a sense, to white Americans, whom many Australians I've encountered consider to have no redeeming qualities. At least I must be good in bed!

The light vs. dark hang-ups of Thais are similar to those of the porteños in Buenos Aires, with darker skin seen by many as being inferior to lighter. I see women on the streets of Bangkok dolled up in Kabuki-style cosmetic masks, and in Boots pharmacies and local supermarkets and beauty stores, you can buy whitening creams and face cleansers because if you're Asian, the products seemed to say, you can never be too light-skinned. The locals in Southeast Asia often have complimented me on the color of my skin, but for many, black is beautiful doesn't seem to apply to their own kind. The more European (i.e., white) your skin tone, the better.

The majority of overt racism I've encountered in Asia, from locals as well as Western tourists, has been anti-Asian, not anti-black. Gay Thai men as well as Asian and Western tourists are surprisingly comfortable specifying "No Asians" in their Grindr and Manhunt profiles. "Whites only" is tantamount to "No Asians," judging from the number of guys with "Whites only" in their profiles who have come on to me, online and in real life.

In my 16 months in Southeast Asia (and in all my time living outside of the U.S.), I never came across one guy with the guts to put "No blacks" or "Not into black guys" in his dating profile. I'm not sure if this is because there are too few of us to bother doing so, or if it is because the U.S. is the only place where gay white men are comfortable being so casually and publicly racist against gay black men.

I'm sure Thai people harbor their share of racist attitudes against black people, but as in Argentina, it is neither systematic nor organized, and its sexual undercurrents are much stronger than the social ones. I've never gotten the sense that Thai people think of me as being inferior because I'm black. Aside from the novelty factor, I've never gotten the sense that Thai people think about me much at all. Though darker than everyone around me, I am, for the most part, merely the size of my penis here, and to some, preferable among black men because I'm American and not African.

Yes, it's complicated, but the subtler forms of white-on-black (as in African-descended) racism I've noticed abroad have resulted in my feeling more comfortable in my own skin tone than I ever did in the U.S., where people are far more likely to wear bigotry on their sleeves. It's also the reason why I found Alvaro's outburst so shocking. I thanked him for his honesty, for revealing his true colors, for perking up what had been, up to that point, a pretty uneventful day, and I meant it. In his rejection-fueled racist rage, he'd given me writing material for years to come.

Friday, December 28, 2012

10 of My Favorite Things About 2012

Another year (don't they seem to go by faster with each one that flies by?), another best-of list. I wasn't crazy about 2012 overall, but I can't say I was not amused. Here are 10 things that kept me entertained during occasionally trying times over the last 12 months.

1. Nashville There's so much to love about my favorite television show of the moment, from its two female leads -- Connie Britton and Hayden Panetierre deserve all the superlatives being thrown at them as well as a pair of matching Golden Globes next month -- to the political and musical intrigue, to the original songs, which almost tempted me, for the first time ever, to buy a TV soundtrack. Alas, I resisted that particular urge. I prefer to hear Nashville's songs while re-watching the episodes.

2. Fiona Apple She wrote the songs that made me think the most this year, and her interview soundbites -- confusing though they were at times -- accomplished pretty much the same thing.


3. Gallic men They've been practically inescapable this year, both off-screen (so many of them running around Bangkok on any given weekend night) and on. First, The Artist's Jean Dujardin rightfully snatched Oscar from George Clooney's and Brad Pitt's Hollywood grips. Then along came Jean-Louis Tritignant in Amour and Matthias Schoenaerts in Rust and Bone. Everybody's talkin' about their female leads -- Emmanuelle Riva and Marion Cotillard, respectively -- much like in 2001, when everyone was all about In the Bedroom's Sissy Spacek, at the expense of Tom Wilkinson, who more or less carried that film. Hopefully, Wilkinson's fate (a much-deserved Best Actor nomination) awaits Tritignant and/or Schoenaerts on January 10 when the Oscar nominations are announced.

4. Songs of the Year: The Lumineers "Ho Hey" and Frank Ocean's "Thinkin Bout You" In a 2012 dominated by dreadful dance-pop (musically speaking, the worst of 2012), I was relieved that quality non-cookie cutter songs could still qualify for commercial success and Grammy consideration.


5. Great women in films For the second time in two decades, my favorite performance of the year came from a movie with my favorite color in its title. The first time was Juliette Binoche in 1993's Trois Couleurs: Bleu. This year's best and best: Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea, which I'm still flashing back to in my mind weeks after watching it. Honorable mention: Sarah Silverman and Feist in Take This Waltz -- the former for delivering my favorite movie line of 2012 (not in the clip below, but read it here), and the latter for 2012's best soundtrack moment, a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Closing Time" that you can't buy on iTunes (or anywhere) but remains in heavy rotation in my head.



6. Soundgarden in Melbourne Considering how much I've always adored Chris Cornell, it's a testament to his vocal power that when I saw him with his reunited band at Melbourne's Sidney Meyer Bowl in February, I was far more impressed by how great he sounded than by how hot he still looked -- at 47!

7. Upstart Brits I can't believe that not one of them -- neither Alex Clare nor Emeli Sandé nor Paloma Faith nor Ellie Goulding nor Jessie Ware nor Song of the Year nominee Ed Sheeran -- managed to grab the attention of the people responsible for coming up with Grammy's Best New Artist line-up.

8. Rihanna's Unapologetic I don't understand what the hell she's doing with Chris Brown, but as long as she keeps releasing albums as sturdy as this one, I promise to continue not to care. 


9. Love -- and suspension of disbelief -- in the afternoon Or more accurately, in the morning, since that's when I indulge on YouTube. With One Life to Live's former executive producer and head writer guiding the once-sinking ship, General Hospital was the only must-see daytime soap left. It offered a year's worth of dramatic intrigue, entertaining implausibilities (how many people can come back from the dead in one small upstate New York town?), nostalgia value (thanks to all the returning vets, not all of them from the dead) and a little bit of the cancelled One Life to Live (courtesy of three Llanview transplants who were integrated into the Port Charles canvas with varying degrees of success). There were also three performances (Jason Thompson as Patrick Drake, Finola Hughes as Anna Devane and the great Jane Elliot as Tracy Quartermaine) that rivaled anything I saw after dark, in prime time. (Pay attention from 10:17 to 10:59 below to watch Elliot at the height of her acting powers.)


10. Perfect Places Just when I thought I might be kind of over Southeast Asia, along came two holiday experiences -- Krabi in Southern Thailand and Ubud on Bali -- to pull me in again. I'll be back.

Another Thing I'll Miss Most About Bangkok When I'm Gone: My 12K Running Route (PHOTO ESSAY)

"Early to bed, early to rise. More successful people wake up early studies have shown," wrote a Facebook friend a few hours ago in response to my most recent status update (something about how I haven't been able to stay awake past 10pm all week).

I hope those studies are right, and in 2013, all those mornings of waking up at 5.30am to go running around Bangkok's Lumpini Park and that peaceful lake several kilometers away -- the one I can run to with my eyes half-closed but can't seem to locate on map to find out its name -- finally pay off. But if I still owe a few more months of up-at-the-crack-of-dawn dues, one week from now when I'm back in Melbourne, four hours ahead of Bangkok time, may I still be able to rise and shine before the sun does without the benefit of an alarm. And if I choose to go jogging, at least I'll be guaranteed equally stunning scenery.

  
...and the finish line!



Thursday, December 27, 2012

Some Late-Breaking Thoughts on "Lincoln"

I love Daniel Day-Lewis. Love him -- Method madness and all. He deserved all of his four Oscar nominations so far, at least one of his two wins so far (for 1989's My Left Foot) and probably should have been nominated at least four other times (for My Beautiful Laundrette, A Room with a View, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Age of Innocence).

For his latest Oscar bid, Day-Lewis resurrects the troubled, contemplative soul that was the 16th U.S. President, while also bringing forth the light, mischievous side we don't read about in textbooks or see on the penny or $5 bill. Is it fourth-Oscar worthy? Throughout the movie, I kept thinking of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, which won Peck his only Oscar, so I guess the answer would be yes. Still, while watching Lincoln the movie, I kept wishing Lincoln the man would spend more time with his family (as I'm sure Mary Todd Lincoln and their youngest son Tad did) and less at work with members of his cabinet and his professional inner circle.

Maybe it's just that as a life-long student of U.S. Presidential history, and because I've recently watched two long documentaries on the Civil War era -- one on Lincoln's assassination, another on Reconstruction -- I didn't find the off-the-battlefield fight to get the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ratified to be as engrossing as it probably should have been. I already knew most of the story, and everybody knows how it ultimately turned out.

Or perhaps I'm just that much of a sucker for family dynamics and watching them explode onscreen. Abraham Lincoln's family life was as interesting, though in a different sort of way, as his professional one. He had a complicated relationship with his complex wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field, making me wonder why she doesn't get more big-screen leading roles these days), and I was transfixed during their scenes together, especially a bedroom blowout over their sons and their marital power struggle. It left me wishing the film had begun three years earlier than it did, with the death of their 11-year-old son William. (Then director Steven Spielberg could have worked in the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address.)

I've always felt that Abe and Molly's personal story was shortchanged in the annals of Lincoln because it's always been overshadowed by the extraordinary events of the time. One day I hope they get the biopic as portrait of a marriage that they deserve.

But you can't get everything in one movie, and as is, Lincoln is elegantly staged, well-acted (the main players aside, I particularly enjoyed Lee Pace as racist Democratic Congressman Fernando Wood), and surprisingly funny at times. It also gives valuable insight into the little-known (by most) story behind what is perhaps the most pivotal Constitutional amendment -- there are interesting arguments made for and against the immediate abolition of slavery and so many shades of gray between them.

Even Lincoln is presented here as being a little shady, the consummate politician, always weighing his options, careful not to swing too far left, as is the case in one telling scene in which he's questioned by his wife's assistant, a former slave (played by former ER star Gloria Reuben with quiet excellence), about whether he would like to see blacks integrated into white society. People forget that being anti-slavery didn't necessarily mean you considered black and white to be equal or wanted the two to mix.

People also forget that despite Lincoln's reputation as the savior of slaves, he was well right of fervent abolitionists like John Brown and Thaddeus Stevens. The movie sidesteps the recent dissenting historical opinion that deems him a racist, while carefully distancing him from Radical Republicanism and U.S. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, hogging the attention of critics, and likely Oscar, when he should be sharing it with David Strathairn, who plays Secretary of State William H. Seward, also known as the man who brought Alaska -- aka "Seward's Icebox" -- to the U.S.). Lincoln presents Stevens in a somewhat unflattering light (ill-fitting wig and all) before his equality-in-the-eyes-of-the-law speech before the House that might have made the film more controversial if more people knew anything about the real-life Stevens and his tireless support of the black cause.

Oh yeah, the black cause. For a movie with the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln at its center, there's not a very significant black presence in Lincoln, which is interesting, since slavery -- not states' rights, as the whitewashing would have us believe -- was the crux of North vs. South during the Civil War.

But I guess we've got Django Unchained for that.

Beautiful White People Fighting for Their Lives in Paradise? That's "The Impossible"

I promised myself I wouldn't spend Boxing Day 2012 watching a movie about a deadly real-life disaster that happened on Boxing Day eight years ago, set in Thailand, the country I've called home for much of 2011 and 2012. But it was either The Impossible or The Hobbit, and as anyone who knows me also knows, I don't do Renaissance faire/Dungeons & Dragons adventure fantasies, or whatever you want to call The Lord of the Rings and all of its current and future offshoots (none of which I've ever seen or plan to ever see).

So The Impossible it was. I'd heard great things about it, and the few gripes -- mostly about the fact that it's a movie about a tragedy in Southeast Asia that focuses on the Western perspective -- didn't turn me of. How quickly and unexpectedly a dream vacation can turn into a holiday from hell is a theme that most everyone can relate to, even if we haven't had a hellish holiday that involved a killer tsunami. And there's also that common denominator among all humans: fear, whether it be of turbulence, losing our families, or simply being a stranger in a strange land where almost everyone speaks a different language -- all of which are touched upon in The Impossible.

There's certainly a great movie story waiting to be told about the scores of locals who battle cranky Mother Nature in Southeast Asia each year. Take, for example, the 2011 floods that devastated parts of Thailand and neighboring countries. I lived through it at a safe distance of 14 stories above, overlooking a dry central Bangkok, but I've never forgotten those who lost their lives in waterlogged parts of the country seldom frequented by tourists. If a visionary film director decides to tell their story, I will have some loud objections if he or she does it through the eyes of an Australian family headed by Hugh Jackman. But if People magazine and Oprah Winfrey can tell Petra Němcová's and Nate Berkus's stories about surviving the Boxing Day tsunami, why can't director Juan Antonio Bayona tell the Bennetts'?

As for the happy ending, I love a depressing denouement as much as the next art-house-film freak, but there's nothing wrong with wearing a smiley face after The End. Take Hotel Rwanda, one of my favorite movies of 2004. Despite the millions who were killed in the real-life mass genocide, I felt like the Rusesabagina family simply had to survive. I spent most of the film fearing the worst for Paul's wife (Sophie Okonedo, rightfully Oscar-nominated), who seemed destined not to make it to the final credits alive. (Before seeing it, I didn't read up on the real-life family on whom the movie was based.)

I don't know if my high estimation for Hotel Rwanda would have been the same had she not emerged from it physically unscathed. I probably still would have thought Don Cheadle, not Ray's Jamie Foxx, should have gotten the Best Actor Oscar that year, but I'm not sure if my overall impression of the movie would have been as positive. Sometimes after two hours of near-unrelenting bleak, a pot of gold -- or, at the very least, a rainbow -- is a must.

Focusing on a single family -- Spanish in reality, but turned white and British so that recognizable and English-speaking stars Naomi Watts and Ewen McGregor could be cast as mom and dad -- especially one with such an incredible screen-worthy story is really no worse than making a movie about the Iran hostage crisis and barely including anything about the actual hostages. And Argo is still a Best Picture frontrunner.

I mention Argo also because it's one of two movies that I'm thinking about after watching The Impossible. The other is Life of Pi, which might have been on my mind anyway because I just saw it two days ago. In both Life of Pi and The Impossible (oh, and Beasts of the Southern Wild, another film with an underage lead), Mother Nature and water kick off the primary conflict, forcing the main characters (in Pi, a boy and a tiger, in The Impossible, a party of five), to survive against all odds. The scene in the tree where Maria Bennett (Watts) makes a physical connection with Daniel, the little boy who has been saved by her and her oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland, unbelievably good -- and in his film debut!), recalls a similar bonding moment between Pi and the Bengal tiger on that boat, and when Lucas later spots Daniel at the hospital, the tyke's reaction -- cheerful recognition and not much more -- reminded me of the scene where the tiger disappears into the jungle without so much as a backwards glance at Pi.

The shades of Argo perhaps are colored by the fact that I watched Argo a month ago on a flight to Bali, a Southeast Asian island hit hard by the tsunami, but there are more tangible parallels. First, planes figure significantly in several scenes of both films, and both are set mainly in Asian countries. Like Argo, The Impossible is based on a true story, which leaves no question as to whether the main characters survive, but the mystery is how, and there's a lot of dramatic potential there.

And great acting, too. I wouldn't dream of thinking that Naomi Watts for 21 Grams, and not Charlize Theron for Monster, should have won the 2003 Best Actress Oscar, but I distinctly remember not minding the idea of Watts or Diane Keaton for Something's Gotta Give pulling an upset. This year the frontrunners of the moment are Silver Linings Playbook's Jennifer Lawrence and Zero Dark Thirty's Jessica Chastain (the category's only likely nominees I still haven't seen - but will soon since both movies open in Bangkok on 27 December), with Watts bringing up the rear.

This is not really the kind of movie that generally nets actors and actresses Oscar nominations, much less the grand prize, so the fact that Watts is even in the running -- she's been nominated by all the major precursors -- says a lot about her chances and how due people seem to think she is. If she takes the gold -- and Reese Witherspoon and I might be the only ones predicting she will -- I'll be the first one on my feet. She's that good. Always one of our actresses most capable of inspiring great empathy, she makes us feel every bit of Maria Bennett's physical and emotional pain. When she winced, I did, too.

(Fun fact: If Watts gets nominated, both she and BFF Nicole Kidman will have scored Best Actress nods for starring opposite McGregor, and they might even end up facing each other next time around for playing beautiful women who married into royalty, became icons and died too young -- Kidman in Grace of Monaco, Watts in Diana.)

It's almost a foregone conclusion that never-nominated McGregor (Henry Bennett), overlooked last year for Beginners, which won costar Christopher Plummer a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, will get snubbed yet again. I don't know what he'll have to do to get Oscar's attention. He has a lot of great scenes that would make excellent Oscar clips, but my favorite one was his resigned reaction when the patriarch of the impatient, unscathed tourists -- Americans, of course -- refused to let him use his cell phone to call his family back home in England.

If I have any complaints about the film, it's a minor quibble. The missed opportunities bit before the members of the family are finally reunited at the hospital, is a little Three's Company. But I was so relieved that the aftermath, and not the visually stunning but hard-to-sit-through tsunami, is the primary focus, that I didn't mind too much. And for anyone who's ever been lost and then found -- in a shopping mall, in a city, in the middle of a natural-disaster area -- the ultimate payoff, that pot of gold, is more than worth it.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

10 Random Thoughts I Had After Watching Boy Vs. Ocean, the Elements and Tiger in "Life of Pi"

1. Despite Life of Pi's mid-level Oscar buzz, decent reviews and healthy box office, I completely ignored it for nearly the first month of its release. Only in the last week or so did I even realize that it wasn't a biopic about some little-known mathematician. I'm glad I finally got myself informed: I'm a sucker for a film about a boy and an animal -- Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows were two of my favorite movies as a kid -- and even if I ended up being bored by the adventures of Pi and the Bengal tiger while they're lost at sea after escaping from a sinking ship, there would be the 3D aspect to entertain me.

2. Going to the cinema in Bangkok is a far cheaper experience than it is in the United States and Australia (160 baht, or roughly $5, for the equivalent of a business-class seat, plus 100 baht -- or about $3 -- for the 3D glasses). You can get cheaper snacks at 7-11, but not in the food courts at Suvarnabhumi International Airport or Don Mueang International Airport. And as added insurance for boring movies, "business" seat C1 was comfortable enough to fall asleep in.

3. The only downsides to the movie-going experience at SP Cinema City in Bangkok's Terminal 21 mall (which, true to its name, is designed like an airport): The credits in the trailers were all in Thai script, so I couldn't tell which actors got top billing in any of the movies, and I wasn't thrilled about having to stand for several minutes during what I assumed was the Thai national anthem being played while footage of Thailand's king and his family was shown onscreen. National pride is one thing, but after all my months in Thailand, I'm still at a loss to explain the blind reverence Thai people have for their monarch. (Unbeknownst to me at the time, blind reverence -- disguised as faith -- would be a major theme of the movie.)

4. I love that Hollywood is embracing Indian actors and Indian culture more these days. It's only been a few years since Slumdog Millionaire won the Best Picture Oscar, and 2012 already has already given us The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In recent years, we've had key characters/actors/personalities of Indian descent on 90210, Revenge, Smash, HawthoRNe, One Life to Live and Top Chef. If only Outsourced had been a little funnier.

5. The book is usually better than the movie, and it's safer to be faithful to the source material than sorry for straying too far from it. No arguments here. But I wish Pi director Ang Lee had taken more liberties when adapting Yann Martel's 2001 novel. The first thing he should have done was dump the framing device in which a grown-up Pi tells a writer his story. Not only did these scenes get the movie off to a wobbly start and detract from the flow of the main story, but the actors weren't particularly good in them. Clint Eastwood used the same tactic to better effect in last year's dreadful J Edgar. In Pi, the actors came across like amateurs in a religious infomercial.

6. Speaking of religion, Pi could have used less of it. The narrative was strong enough -- Cast Away entirely at sea, a buddy road movie in which one buddy is also the villain -- to stand on its own without forcing Deep Meaning onto it. The dinner table scenes in which the Patel family discussed religion and philosophy were my favorite ones on dry land, and I appreciated the movie's shades of Noah's Ark. But during the framing sequences, the film's religious overtones were too heavy handed, with grown-up Pi -- and Lee -- practically clobbering us over the head with his faith.

It's one thing to show Pi begging the Lord to save him from the stormy seas. It gave the film dramatic heft. But even if God was responsible for Pi's survival, isn't sparing a boy's life after taking his entire family's and leaving him lost at sea for more than 200 days, a lot like stuffing a lump of coal into his Christmas stocking? I file that one under "Covering His Own Tracks," right next to sending His only begotten son to save us from a law of nature -- human sacrifice as atonement for our sins -- that He enacted and enforced. Regardless of how I feel about Him -- and for the record, I don't believe He's as actively involved in our everyday lives as Christianity would have us believe -- I think full credit should go to Pi's survival instincts and to the guy who found him washed up on that Mexican shore. Were both the work of God? Moviegoers should get to figure that one out for themselves. We don't need grown-up Pi trying to guide us to the "right" answer.

7. The scenes on the boat were almost perfect. The realistic qualities of the CG animals was boosted by the 3D effect. Several times I literally jumped out of my cushy seat because I thought those fish were flying right at me!

8. I so enjoyed Pi's interaction with his family that I found myself missing them nearly as much as he did and wishing that they, miraculously, got off the sinking ship and made it safely from India to Canada. I especially loved Tabu, the beautiful actress who played his mother. I hope I see more of her in the future.

9. In fact, aside from the the actors in the present-day scenes, Ang Lee did a fine job with the casting. Suraj Sharma, the 19-year-old actor who plays 16-year-old Pi lost at sea, is a real find. He offered the right balance of charm, humor, innocence and dread, making us pray as hard for his survival as he does. According to Wikipedia, Lee didn't want big stars to detract from the story, so plans to cast Tobey Maguire as the writer were scrapped (big mistake). What then was Gerard Depardieu doing in the movie as the ship's nasty cook who refused to make vegetarian meals for Pi, his mother and brother? I understand that the scene was meant to underscore Pi's vegetarianism so to later further separate him from the carnivore tiger, but I kept asking myself, Why is Gerard Depardieu being such a prick again (after those nasty comments he made a few years ago about Juliette Binoche!)?

10. The movie was finished by 7.15pm, and The Impossible was playing at 8.20. For a moment, I considered making it a double-bill night, but I may have had my fill of man vs. nature for one day. Maybe I'll save the tsunami for after Santa has come and gone -- but definitely not on Boxing Day.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Female Nudity and Me: Am I Sexist, Am I a Total Prude, Or Is It Just a Gay Thing?

The question in the title is the one that's been playing over and over in my head ever since this morning, when I wrote the last post about my experience at the ping pong show. Hot Male wasn't exactly my thing either -- either time! -- but it wasn't so hard for me to sit through, not even during the most graphic parts when the one on the bottom was screaming in agony and ecstasy.

But why did I have such a strong negative reaction to everything I saw on Friday night between Hot Male and DJ Station, before and after those ping pong balls started shooting out? It's not as if Hot Male or DJ Station are bastions of respectability. Was I reacting out of a sexual distaste for female nudity -- or women, in general? Maybe I holding women to a different standard of conduct than men. Or perhaps it's just that ping pong shows simply weren't created for gay men?

The latter might certainly be the case, but I've never had a problem with female nudity. Despite my sexual preference, I've always been in awe of the beauty of the female form, and some of my best experiences with nudity have involved women. There was Marisa Tomei in The Wrestler. And there was the time in college when some of my friends and I drove from Gainesville to Miami to celebrate the 21st birthday of the second-youngest in our group. (I had nearly two months to go, so I used my brother Jeff's driver's license as my fake i.d.) His dad took us all out for dinner and a lap dance. At the strip club, I fell for a naked Stacey Q lookalike who, in turn, almost fell into my lap.

"I think we've confirmed tonight that no one here is gay," the birthday boy announced at the end of our adventure with naked women. I wasn't sure if that was aimed at me, or if it was just an innocent observation in a not-so-innocent setting. Whichever one it was, my enthusiasm while watching all of those naked women flaunt their stuff in front of me was no act.

But nudity isn't necessarily sexual, and sex can be anything but sexy. The gay sex shows and the ping pong shows couldn't be less of either. They're emblematic of one of my biggest problems with the Thai sex trade, which, unfortunately, flows over into the general population. When the emphasis is always on sex, especially in such a brutally forthright way, it begins to lose its appeal.

Someone once told me a story about how she quit smoking by spending an entire weekend sucking on one cancer stick after the other. By Sunday evening, she never wanted to puff another one again. I guess the experiment could have gone one of two ways: the way it went, or it could have intensified her addiction. It must be the same way with sex. Because it's so often being shoved in front of my face, my sex drive has never been lower than it has been in Bangkok.

Perhaps it's also the influence of growing up in such a relatively prudish country (the U.S.). Even in my wildest moments, I've always had a bit of a straight-laced side, and living in a city where I can walk down a crowded street in the broad daylight and have spa workers propositioning me and guys trying to sell me gay and straight porn, where I can go into a spa for what I assume will be an innocent hour-long massage and end up being molested by a middle-aged woman, brings out my inner prude.

If we'd been on a date, that would have been one thing. I'm not above using a massage to get my way with someone, but if he's made it as far as my couch, chances are he won't mind. There's no money exchange, though, no undercurrent of violence and pain, all key components of the entertainment at Hot Male and ping pong shows as well as the professional Thai massage. For me, the latter, already such a rough experience, is so less enjoyable with the threat -- yes, threat -- of sex hanging over it.

I once went out with a guy who'd spent a year and half living in Bangkok, and he was celibate the entire time. "How is that even possible?" I asked him. Now I get it.

So why was the ping pong show so much more distasteful than Hot Male? I think part of it was the nature of the show. One (Hot Male) celebrated sex and sexuality, while, in a sense, making fun of them both, and the other was pure onanistic drama. Not only were those women treating their private parts like toys, but they were using them like torture chambers, especially during the bit with the razor blades. It bordered on sadomasochism, which might be one of my least favorite things to watch.

And on a purely aesthetic level, the ping pong show was just such an eyesore. It was dark, drab and joyless. The women weren't smiling, and neither were any of the six customers (including us) in the place. Naked women and their private parts deserve so much better.

The Best Song by a Woman About Nudity: Britney Spears "Get Naked (I Got a Plan)"


My Best Recent Experience with Male Nudity (Thank you, Michael Fassbender -- Again!)

That Girl's Got Balls!: Scenes from a Ping Pong Show

There are certain things in this world that I look at and wonder, Why did anyone think of that? Like, who invented smoking? Who came up with checkers? Whose bright idea was chess? Who devised the ritual of watching sports (which might very well be one of the most pointless pursuits known to man, after smoking)? And what genius thought it would actually be cool to get women to use their vaginas as receptacles and dispensers for found objects? That's entertainment?

Not for me it isn't -- or so I'd always figured (not realizing how right I was). But life is about trying new things, and last Friday night I did something I'd promised myself I'd never do. After a total of 16 months based in Bangkok, and less than two weeks before returning to Melbourne (the Singapore deal fell through, much to my disappointment and relief), at the request of my American girlfriend who is visiting Bangkok from Germany, I took the final plunge that I'd been avoiding since I first heard about it from a female German tourist I was hanging out with on my fourth night in Bangkok last year: I agreed to go to a "ping pong" show.

We had no idea which one to go to, so we were forced to depend on the kindness of a stranger -- a man wearing a very bad wig who approached us one road back from Silom -- to lead us to the best one. If the place he guided us to was the top of the line among ping pong shows, I'd hate to see what things look like at the bottom. I wished we'd stayed at Hot Male, where several cute guys (workers, not customers) had been making eyes at me. But you only live once (twice, if you're a James Bond fan who believes what Nancy Sinatra sang). Right?

And you really can't say you've lived until you've had the pleasure of paying 400 baht apiece to sit in a dark nearly empty bar while an amazingly well preserved 53-year-old woman (the proprietor -- or madame -- whose grown son pours drinks behind the bar) hits on you (Don't the words "I'm gay" mean anything anymore?) and a procession of bored-looking women disrobe onstage.

The one with the most, um, skills -- the apparent veteran of the bunch, she looked like she should have been reading bedtime stories to her grandchildren somewhere -- did a stunt where she pulled a string with razor blades attached to them from her vagina, using one to engage in an arts and crafts project which she then presented to my friend and me, hoping for a drink in return. Note to sex-trade employees: If you have to beg customers for drinks and tips, you just haven't earned it yet, baby.

Another attached a Coke bottle filled with water and then one filled with Coke to her vagina, occasionally positioning herself so that the liquid trickled inside of her. I was terrified that she was going to pour the remaining contents of those bottles on us.

The least enthusiastic showgirl of the bunch spent her entire time onstage just swaying to the beat like she didn't have a care -- or a spectator -- in the world, apparently too shy to remove the bikini top and bottom she was wearing. I'll never listen to Maroon 5's "One More Night" in quite the same way again.

"What the hell is this?" I asked my friend as we watched the badly choreographed proceedings. In a city where hot females outnumber hot males by a significant margin, I couldn't believe that the owners of this particular ping pong joint couldn't find one woman who could hold a candle (which, thankfully, wasn't one of the props) to any of the guys we'd just seen parading about onstage at Hot Male.

It had been my second time in Hot Male, and I don't believe I'll ever get used to a show that involves several groups of two having unsimulated sex onstage. This time a few of them even took the act into the crowd for a little bit of audience participation. God must not have been listening to my prayer because one twosome stopped right in front of us so that the "bottom" could rest his head on my lap while the "top" stroked my chest. "How do they keep it in when they're walking around like that?" my friend asked as they returned to the stage. I didn't have an answer for her.

I was at a loss to explain the vagina Olympics, too. Just as my friend and I declared that we'd had enough and were preparing to exit, the moment we didn't realize we'd been waiting for arrived. One of the women started to emit ping pongs from her vagina, while a customer seated in a chair in front of the stage tried to hit them with a ping pong racket.

Ping pong. Ping pong. Ping pong. "Please don't let one of them hit me," I prayed to God, who, this time, answered. I've always hated ping pong (speaking of things nobody ever should have thought to invent), but if I ever get the urge to play with balls after midnight, at least I'll know where not to go. And I don't mean Hot Male.


Friday, December 21, 2012

7 Reasons Why Death Breathes Life Into "Amour"

1. La puissance de l'amour "A lot of rubbish is talked about love. You know what real love is? It's wiping someone's arse or changing the sheets when they've wet themselves and letting them keep their dignity so you could both go on." So says Mrs. Elton (Ann Mitchell) to Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) near the end of another movie, The Deep Blue Sea. I kept thinking about that as I watched Amour. The word, in any tongue, certainly would apply to the driving force behind the French-language film's elderly male protagonist Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who must become caretaker to his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) after she suffers a series of strokes. Here are a few others: dedication, devotion, loyalty, persistence, determination -- all by-products of love's power.

2. Emmanuelle Riva She's highly regarded in her native France and has been for more than five decades, but the only other time I can recall seeing her onscreen was when she played Juliette Binoche's Alzheimer's-stricken mother in Trois Couleurs: Bleu. As Anne, Riva has the difficult task of embodying a character whose body is slowly giving out, to the point where the only sounds she can make are primal, guttural yelps. That description may sound over the top, but Riva actually offers a quiet detailed performance, saving the histrionics for when they really count.

3. Jean-Louis Trintignant It's a shame that Trintignant, the French veteran who, like Riva, appeared in Krzysztof Kieślowski's Trois Couleurs trilogy (as the retired judge in Trois Couleurs: Rouge), has been mostly overlooked by all the critics groups and Oscar prognosticators. As wonderful as Riva is, Amour would never do without Trintignant, who is in nearly every scene, strong and solid for Anne, like a lovers rock, but slowly crumbling, inside and out. Though I've never been anyone's caretaker, Trintignant made it easy to empathize with Georges' emotional response to his situation, that complex mix of fear, anger, shame, uncertainty and true-blue amour.

And kudos to Trintignant for not playing him like some kind of selfless angel. At one point, looking back on their many years together, Anne describes him as a monster who was also a nice man, and indeed, Georges' demeanor vacillates between warm and tender and cranky and brusque. But even at his most brutal, the deep love he has for his wife is always apparent.

4. Isabelle Huppert Another one of my Gallic goddesses, Huppert, who collaborated with Amour director Michael Haneke in 2001's La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher), makes so much out of a small role. Watching her, I found myself hoping that Haneke's next film picks up where this one ends and gives us a fuller portrait of Eva and her seemingly unhappy marriage to Englishman Geoff. L'opposé d'amour? 

5. Its complicated familial relationships Amour focuses on the present without explicitly giving us any back story, but it does help us fill in some of the blanks. It's obvious that Anne and Georges' marriage hasn't been all sunshine and happiness, and their relationship with Eva appears to be strained. The family dynamic reminded me of the one in About Schmidt, only much darker. During the initial scene with Eva and Georges, Eva at first seems so detached from her mother's condition -- I assumed she was just a casual family friend. It's not until late in the conversation that Georges' words reveal the actual family connection. Eva later shows her love, but always with a hint emotional detachment, which is echoed in the way Anne reacts to her. It might be her medical condition, but I suspect it goes much deeper than that.

6. The sound of silence For a film featuring two protagonists who are piano teachers, there's surprisingly little music in Amour, which actually works in its favor. Some of the most effective scenes are the still, quiet ones with long-view shots in which the camera holds an image for an uncomfortably extended period of time as absolutely nothing plays in the background.

7. The beauty of parallelism and symbolism The scenes with the birds didn't make complete sense to me until the end when Georges is writing a letter describing how he finally caught the pigeon and let him go. The pigeon represents Anne. It's trapped in the house, the way Anne is trapped in her no-longer-functioning body. What Georges does with the blanket to the bird is pretty much what he does with a pillow, setting both scene partners free.

Also Georges' final scene, an imaginary sequence in which he follows Anne out of the house, at first without his jacket on, turning out the light but not closing the door, was like a happy ending to a sad one. It's a symbolic conclusion to a life, to a love, that in reality was messy and sometimes painful but still beautiful.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Wishful Thinking Is Hazardous to Your Happiness

"Be careful what you wish for."

That's what my sister used to say (long before it was the title of Texas's 2003 album), and as usual when she waxed philosophical, she was right. It's a smart twist on "The grass is always greener," something my friends in the UK used to always tell me whenever I expressed my burning desire to move from New York City to London. They meant it in an up-with-NYC kind of way, but I hated it because it sounded so dismissive and trite. I live most of my life in big cities, surrounded by buildings and concrete, I thought to myself every time I heard those dreaded words. What grass?

But I do get it. For the most part, I've enjoyed my last six years of freedom. It's been time well spent outside of the traditional 9-to-5 professional scheme. I feel lucky that I've been able to have this life experience. At the same time, sometimes in the morning when I'm coming home from jogging around Lumpini Park, and I see all the suited-up guys on their way to work, I feel a twinge of jealousy.

It's the same feeling I used to get when I went to London on vacation, and I made the mistake of waking up too early -- or still being up from the night before around the time when everyone was rushing to the office. They all had places they needed to be, places where they were needed. During those moments of weakness, my self-confidence started to flag. It was like the whole process could go on without me -- and back home, it was. It's the same thought that still occasionally runs through my mind when I'm jogging home.

The funny thing is that if I were to strike up a conversation with any of those worker bees during the hour each afternoon that they're sprung from their employment cell and tell them what I'm doing with my life, they'd probably tell me how lucky I am. I know I'll eventually be back walking in their uncomfortable shoes. I've just got to learn how to fully enjoy -- without guilt, without envy -- whatever time I have left.

It's a similar situation with romance, which is what my sister was usually referring to whenever she warned me about wishful thinking. I think I want it, and then when I get it, I spend so much time either trying to extricate myself from it (best-case scenario), or wondering, worrying: Is he going to call? What did he mean by that? Does he like me? It's probably the side of me that I like least.

When I'm single, as I am now, there's no more of that. Now I can focus on the important stuff, like, "What's that strange tingling in my right foot, and what possibly fatal disease should I Wikipedia next?" As much as I obsess over my health and my past loves (I'm a writer and a hypochondriac -- what else am I going to do?), it's actually nice not to have to deal with current romantic angst. I couldn't care less if the phone rings, and that's probably the way God intended it to be.

Yes, my sister was right. The last time I carelessly wished for something -- that a certain someone would get in touch with me to wish me a happy birthday -- my wish came true, though belatedly. I got the call I longed for, though it was to wish me well, not happy birthday. Sometimes I find myself wishing (yet again, because old habits die so hard) that I'd wished for something else because the grass on this side could really use some more fertilizer.

6 Great Songs About Wishful Thinking

"I Want the One I Can't Have" The Smiths


"If Wishes Came True" Sweet Sensation


"Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)" A Flock of Seagulls


"Four Leaf Clover" Abra Moore


"Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star" Merle Haggard


"Wishes" Nathan Morris

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Electric Youth: "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" and Why Young Hollywood Has the Future of Film's Back

Something interesting occurred to me last night while I was watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower. If the world -- particularly the United States, with its gun-wielding citizenry -- can get it together and protect its younger generation, one of the biggest beneficiaries might be cinema. In fact, we could even end up on the cusp of another golden age of film.

Think about all the great talent showcased in movies this year that was born after the 1980s, which, incidentally, is around the time in which Perks is set. I can't think of another year in recent memory, if ever, when there's been so much standout and breakthrough 22-and-under talent in so many films.

Jennifer Lawrence is only 22, and the soon-to-be two-time Oscar nominee is a frontrunner for Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook. And that may have been the lesser of her 2012 triumphs. She also headlined The Hunger Games, a blockbuster franchise-to-be that guarantees we'll be seeing her onscreen for years to come, right alongside her costar Josh Hutcherson, 20, who I knew was on the verge ever since he convinced me that he actually could be Mark Ruffalo's son in The Kids Are All Right.

The kids in Moonrise Kingdom are more than alright. Jared Gilman, 13, and Kara Hayward, 14, carry the film and retain its spotlight, even with such legendary screen vets as Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton threatening to steal it.

Armand Verdure, the 5-year-old son in Rust and Bone, doesn't have many lines, and they're all in French, but his sad eyes say so much. So do Quvenzhané Wallis's. If the now-9-year-old actress had just narrated Beasts of the Southern Wild and appeared in it without saying a word, her performance would be just as impressive. I haven't yet seen The Impossible (for which I predict Naomi Watts will be Oscar's surprise Best Actress spoiler), but 16-year-old Tom Holland has accomplished the seemingly impossible by garnering more Oscar buzz than the film's other male lead, Ewan McGregor. And Best Picture contender Life of Pi is headlined by 19-year-old Suraj Sharma and a Bengal tiger.

Which brings us to the stars of Perks. Daniel Radcliffe has already proven to be a formidable talent both onstage and onscreen, and now Emma Watson, 22, seems dead set on ensuring that the Harry Potter franchise produces at least two young stars with career longevity. She was unfortunately underused in last year's My Week with Marilyn, so it's nice to see her getting something substantial to do here.

Few actresses can pack so many distinct, and at times, contradictory, characteristics -- awkward, poised, pretentious, nurturing, virginal and nubile -- into a supporting character. Her American accent is occasionally shaky, but the hard fall that Sam (Logan Lerman) takes for her is believable as much for of the way Watson plays Sam as for the way Lerman plays smitten.

Meanwhile, Ezra Miller, 20, delivers on the promise of last year's We Need to Talk About Kevin. His gay character Patrick is comfortable with his sexuality yet terrified of it, too. He's this intriguing mix of extreme confidence and equally extreme insecurity, a gay teen who's out and proud without waving a rainbow flag from the rooftop. It's a multi-dimensional version of gay youth that we don't often see in TV or in film and one of the most honest, realistic depictions of what it feels like for a gay boy that I've ever had the pleasure of enjoying.

Good as Watson and Miller are, the film's true standout is Logan Lerman, 20, who anchors a boy-girl-boy threesome that's far more interesting than the one in On the Road, whose lead, like Sam, is also a writer. Though he's nominated for a Broadcast Film Critics Association Award in the Best Young Actor/Actress category (alongside Wallis, Holland, Hayward, Sharma, and Ginger & Rosa's Elle Fanning, 14), if Lerman hasn't gotten as much attention as Watson and Miller, it's probably because as the top-billed lead, he has to compete with leading men in that particular running who are two and three times his age. Historically, Hollywood -- and by extension, Oscar -- has been more generous when bestowing praise on female leads who still haven't reached driving age than with their male counterparts.

Even if you were never a misfit or never went through your young life carrying a deep dark secret, you might still relate to Lerman's Charlie. His is a delicate yet tough performance that never falls into the typical stereotypes of the outcast high schooler who has to fend for himself. He makes Charlie universal, representative of youthful uncertainty, not being sure where you fit in and what your short past means for the long future ahead of you. He has several big emotional scenes, but it's the ones where he just watches, quietly observing, that are most affecting.

Perks offers a portrait of lost desolate youth that not only made me remember my own in painfully vivid detail, but in some strange subversive way, made me long for it, too. Instead of wishing it away, I should have documented it, the way Charlie does. But more than anything, I regret not negotiating it with the awkward grace that Lerman gives to Charlie. It's not just a performance to impress grown ups, but one we can learn from, too.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

5 Reasons Why Matt LeBlanc Deserves a Second Golden Globe -- and Even More Post-"Friends" Street Cred -- for "Episodes"

When the cast of Friends disbanded in the spring of 2004, Matt LeBlanc hardly qualified as the one most likely to succeed as a solo act, not even with the spin-off Joey set to debut that fall. When Joey was cancelled after only two seasons, one could have reasonably expected LeBlanc to quietly fade away -- and for a while, he did. But the odd Lisa Kudrow performance, including her under-praised supporting turn in Easy A, aside, LeBlanc has actually ended up becoming the most watchable ex-Friend, thanks to the Showtime sitcom Episodes, a British-American production (co-created by Friends co-creator David Crane) that will air its third season sometime in 2013.

He's already won a Golden Globe, an Emmy nomination and a second Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of a fictionalized version of himself headlining a terrible sitcom called Pucks. I hope he wins another Globe come January 13, though with The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons back in the running this year, and one-time Friends guest star Alec Baldwin up for the final season of 30 Rock, it's highly unlikely. In fact, I wouldn't mind seeing LeBlanc end up becoming the Julia Louis-Dreyfus of the ex-Friends. I always loved "Joey Tribbiani," and now I love "Matt LeBlanc," too. Here's why?

1. He chooses his friends wisely. While I'm pretty certain that LeBlanc didn't have any say in the casting of Episodes, he certainly lucked out again. He's surrounded by a cast of British actors, many of them (at least six in season two) convincingly faking American accents (including Sam Palladio, currently doing the same thing, though with more lines, on Nashville), and a couple of very funny Americans (John Pankow, the guy who played Cousin Ira on Mad About You, and the awesome Kathleen Rose Perkins as a network executive who is having an affair with Pankow's character, the network head who is married to a blind woman). Yet, somehow the star of the film version of Lost in Space manages to avoid getting lost in all the talent that surrounds him. (P.S. The fight scene in the season two finale is funnier than any showdown I've seen since the one with Jack Lemmon and that ridiculously tall guy in Irma la Douce, which I watched on Saturday.)

2. He plays to his strengths, but he still gives the character some distinguishing features. At first glance, "Matt LeBlanc" could almost pass for the character LeBlanc played on Joey, eight years later. After all, he's an actor, too, with the same sweet charm. But there's a certain arrogant swagger to "Matt LeBlanc," and he's a little darker, too. The way he responds to his lover -- his boss's blind wife -- after the powers that be at the network demand that he loses weight is something I couldn't imagine Joey doing. And Joey definitely wouldn't nearly break up a marriage just for a one-night stand with a smart-over-obviously sexy writer like Beverly Lincoln (a UK-to-Hollywood transplant played by British stage actress Tamsin Greig, a Laurence Olivier Award winner who first impressed me three years ago when I saw her on the London stage in The Little Dog Laughed). Meanwhile, I buy his odd-couple friendship with Beverly's husband Sean just as much as I believed that a guy like Joey would ever be friends with someone like Ross.

3. He's aging gracefully (in other words, naturally). There's one season-two scene in which LeBlanc, depressed over all the griping about his weight, sits in the dark and watches a TV clip of himself as a younger actor. As I watched along with him, I was reminded of the first time I saw LeBlanc, in those '80s TV commercials. Sure he's let his hair go gray, and he probably couldn't pull off "How you doin'?" now without sounding kind of creepy, but at 45, he still looks great, and most importantly, like a grown-up guy who isn't trying to pull off twentysomething, or even thirtysomething.


4. He's still friends with Gunther. I was never particularly fond of Gunther or his unrequited crush on Rachel throughout Friends' run, but James Michael Tyler's cameo in the second season of Episodes as the one former castmate who is still there for LeBlanc, if only somewhat reluctantly, is actually funnier than anything he ever did on Friends.

5. He's self-deprecating. At various points, Episodes pokes fun of LeBlanc's talent, his weight, his middle age and his stalkers, and LeBlanc plays it all in stride and for laughs. Jennifer Aniston would so never do that!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

"Rust and Bone" Isn't All About Marion Cotillard!

If you're a film director aiming for critical acclaim, there are better ways to earn it than by prominently featuring Katy Perry in your movie. Yet there she is, screeching her No. 1 hit "Firework" on the soundtrack during several key scenes in French director Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os), including one that features Marion Cotillard doing some killer whale trainer moves that look cooler than anything Perry did in the "Firework" video. And still Rust and Bone is collecting Oscar buzz, which is all the more impressive since it's in French, with subtitles.

While I continue to ponder Perry's inclusion in a French film with subtitles, I'm wondering why the Oscar buzz is all for Marion Cotillard, who has scored Best Actress Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Broadcast Film Critics Association nominations, and is likely on her way to her first Oscar citation since winning in 2008 for La Vie en Rose. I'm not saying that Cotillard doesn't deserve the praise because, as usual, she does. She works for it, and she works it. She gives Stephanie more shadings than she probably had on paper: Blink and you might miss the character's subtle thawing after a freak on-the-job accident leaves her without legs, and Cotillard confidently maneuvers the physical demands of playing a woman with stumps where her legs should be.

Stephanie ends up being the opposite of what one might have expected -- bitter wheelchair-bound beauty spends the rest of the movie in her dingy flat, shutting herself off from the world -- and Cotillard plays her perfectly. I wanted more of her, more of her story, but ultimately, Stephanie is a glorified supportive girlfriend, and Cotillard probably belongs in the Best Supporting Actress running alongside Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Sally Field (Lincoln), Helen Hunt (The Sessions) and likely fourth-time (in that category) nominee Amy Adams (The Master), who received her third Oscar nomination for playing the supportive girlfriend of the title character in the 2010 film The Fighter.

More than anything or anyone else, Rust and Bone is about another fighter, Ali, played by the Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who is an appealing mix of primal he-man and brawny softie. Watching Schoenaerts in action I felt like I was watching Tom Hardy's mixed martial artist from last year's Warrior in a slightly inferior film. If Schoenaerts were George Clooney, he'd probably be giving Lincoln's Daniel Day-Lewis a run for his third Best Actor Oscar.

My biggest problem with Rust and Bone (besides Katy Perry) is that its central relationships -- Ali and Stephanie, Ali and his son Sam, Ali and his sister, Ali and himself -- are so sketchily drawn that the upbeat ending doesn't resonate as it should. It doesn't feel particularly hard-won. We know Ali resents his son, that his sister resents him, and that he and Stephanie are bound to fall for each other, but those threads are all so underdeveloped that we're never really sure why. When Ali makes his heartfelt declaration during the movie's emotional climax -- a phone conversation that, curiously, is shown entirely from Ali's point of view, with Cotillard heard but not seen -- it seems to come out of nowhere because all the beats of the relationship haven't played out onscreen.


Still, the film is uplifted by the performances of Schoenaerts and Cotillard, and, despite the presence of Perry, the soundtrack, a combo of alternative rock, electronic dance-pop and Alexandre Desplat's score. The musical highlight -- which, like Perry's hit, doesn't appear on the soundtrack being sold by digital retailers -- is the Trentemøller Mix of Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper," a song from his 1982 Nebraska album that was once beautifully covered by Cowboy Junkies (on the band's 1986 debut, Whites off the Earth Now!) and plays here during a sequence that begins with Stephanie buying a new car.

Though these scenes are supposed to belong to Cotillard, she loses complete ownership of them as soon as the music kicks in. But her partial loss are those two minutes' gain. And if someone is going to steal scenes right out from under you, it might as well be The Boss.


Cowboy Junkies "State Trooper"