Saturday, December 31, 2011

What Will 2012 Bring: Hopes, Fears, the End of the World As We Know It?

It's New Year's Eve in Bangkok, and I can still remember the last one, in Buenos Aires, like it was yesterday. In a way, I can't believe that it wasn't. Each year seems to go by more swiftly than the one before it!

My previous New Year's Eve's celebration began with a small get-together at the apartment of my friend Cara and ended at my place with the last guy of note that I can remember meeting in Buenos Aires. I woke up on January 1 thinking that although this would not be the beginning of some sweeping romance (I was, after all, moving to Melbourne in two months), it might be a sign that a great year had just begun.

I'm still not completely sure what to make of 2011. It was an era of extreme personal growth and new experiences, which, in hindsight, a few months down the line, might actually make it an excellent year. If nothing else, this year, I learned to go with the flow, to live without a game plan.

A few years ago, I never would have allowed a one-month holiday to turn into six months of self-discovery where I didn't always know where I'd wake up the next day. I still haven't sorted out where I'm going to live when I return to Melbourne, and it's only a few days away. Six months ago, I would be panicked out of my mind, but now, I've got better things to do. Not bad for a recovering perfectionist!

But getting back to my bedroom on January 1, 2011... Unfortunately, the guy, one of my final tastes of flaky porteno man meat, turned out to be like so many others before him. There were those few perfunctory text messages before he dropped off the face of the earth completely. I was a little disappointed. Had I been planning on sticking around, I might have been crushed.

Last New Year's Day, I never would have guessed that I would be ending 2011 in Bangkok. But here I am. That's the beauty of life, how it can take you off course to strange, unexpected places, if you let it. So far I have no plans to celebrate. I was told I'd have a perfect view of the fireworks from my 14th floor apartment, if I feel like staying far from the maddening party crowd. I have no real resolutions either. I have promised myself that there will be less whiskey and less worrying about the future in 2012. Life will bring what it brings.

Already I feel a strange sense of calm and serenity that I can't recall ever having before. I still have my hopes and dreams but no expectations. Without expectations, there is less risk of disappointment.

And that is what I'm most excited about as 2011 segues into 2012: my open road. What will life bring? So much can happen in one year. Today, I can't even remember the name of that first guy I met in 2011, the one I spent a week or two focused on at the beginning of the year. His face is something of a blur, too. Who knows? Maybe by this time next year, so will all of the faces and people and things that dominate my thoughts these days, the ones I don't necessarily want to be there.

Goodbye, 2011. It's been... an experience. Welcome, 2012! I can't wait to see what comes next!

My Final List of 2011: 10 Reasons Why Juliette Binoche Will Always Be My Best Actress

1. She taught me that you can't fight the feelings. And you can't run from love either. In 1993's Three Colors: Blue, my favorite movie of all-time, after the death of her husband and young daughter in a horrific car accident, Binoche's character Julie retreats from life. Love, she decides, is a trap. The only way to survive is to not feeling anything. Try as she might -- and she does make a valiant effort -- she finds that something, or someone, keeps pulling her back to life. Ultimately, she realizes that life without love, and the risk it brings, isn't really life at all. It's a lovely sentiment, one that continues to rule my life.

2. The English Patient was bearable because of her. When, against all odds and pretty much every prognostication, she beat Lauren Bacall for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1997, the phone calls started pouring in. All of my friends wanted to congratulate me. To know me is to know that I love her.

3. She says it all when she says nothing at all. Her most powerful moments onscreen are when she's simply listening, to Jeremy Irons' amorous entreaties in Damage (a movie, which, in all fairness, Miranda Richardson stole in under five minutes -- a few of them topless!), to Ralph Fiennes' scarred soldier recounting his tragic love story in The English Patient, to Certified Copy's cold writer (and possibly her husband) recalling the mother and son he saw in Florence -- she was always walking a little too far ahead of him -- who inspired his latest book. Binoche's tears broke my heart and helped make the performance one of the year's best.

4. Death becomes her. I'll never forget her final scene in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, before the car crash. Binoche: "What are you thinking about?" Daniel Day-Lewis: "I'm thinking about how happy I am." Or something like that. I hope I get to say words to that effect sometime before I die, and hopefully, I won't die right after I say them.

5. She's no snob. She can work with some of the most highly esteemed directors on the planet, ones who are known mostly to die-hard cineastes but are usually under Oscar's radar, and still play Steve Carell's love interest in Dan in Real Life, or costar with Channing Tatum, Tracy Morgan and Katie Holmes in Son of No One.

6. She takes the high road. When fellow Gallic legend Gerard Depardieu laid into her during an interview a few years ago, labelling her "nobody" and "absolutely nothing," Binoche didn't stoop to his level. But she got the last dig: While speaking to the Guardian after the attack, and after making nice with him, she said, "Perhaps I should send him my reviews." Well played, Mademoiselle Juliette.

7. Crap can be watchable if Binoche is in it. I'm not talking about Son of No One, which I haven't seen and I have no intention of doing so. I'm referring to Chocolat, for which she received a 2000 Best Actress Oscar nod; Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, her first film with Ralph Fiennes; and Jet Lag, her sort of terrible 2002 romantic comedy with Jean Reno. Confession time again: I've seen it more than once and even bought the DVD.

8. She can wow in multiple languages. In Certified Copy, she does so in three: her native French, English and Italian. Can Marion Cotillard top that? Maybe I'm still bitter about Cotillard's sabotaging of Julie Christie's bid for a second Best Actress Oscar a few years ago, but while watching Midnight in Paris, I couldn't stop thinking how I would have liked it so much more with Binoche instead of Cotillard, who, to me, came across as the archetypal free-spirited French beauty.

9. The bright lights of Hollywood haven't blinded her. I read somewhere that she turned down Steven Spielberg's attempt to cast her in Jurassic Park in order to make Blue. Good choice, and Binoche makes a lot of them. Sure there are duds in her filmography (see No. 7), but after winning the Oscar, she could have chosen to work with any director and become an even bigger star, but she picked interesting projects, often in French, that weren't likely to make her the next Julia Roberts. God knows we have enough of those.

10. Duh! She's this blog's poster girl. For 13 years after seeing Blue at the Quad Cinema in New York City, I slept with a framed Blue movie poster over my bed. Unless I had company, Binoche was the first thing I saw in the morning and the last thing I saw at night. In the last five and a half years, waking up and falling asleep just haven't been the same without someone, my beloved Binoche, to watch over me.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Why I Can't Get 'Melancholia' Out of My Head

The mark of a truly great movie is that it stays with you long after the final credits roll. And no 2011 film that I've seen so far has had such a tight grip on me for so long after the fact as Melancholia, which I hold in even higher regard now than I did while I was watching it.

At this rate, it just might end up being my favorite movie of the year, and not just because Wagner, my favorite composer, figures so prominently on the soundtrack. In an interesting twist, The Tree of Life, which would be my pick for 2011's most overrated movie, despite a fantastic performance from Brad Pitt, featured the beginning of the world, while Melancholia climaxed with the end of it. I've always imagined that the Immolation Scene from Wagner's Gotterdammerung would be playing at the end of time.

If I ruled the world, which, hopefully, will not end in 2012, the Best Actress Oscar would be Kirsten Dunst's to lose. She should be this year's Natalie Portman, another former child actor who blossomed into a formidable adult performer, but for some reason, Hollywood seems to have a grudge against her. In the past, I haven't been particularly fond of Dunst's work, but she owns the character of Justine in Melancholia.

I've never been quite as far down in the depths as Justine goes, but I've been close enough to recognize the scenery. If I ever were to tie the knot, I probably wouldn't have sex with a stranger on the front lawn during the wedding reception, but I can so see myself doing something to sabatoge my happily ever after.

As Justine's sister Claire, for whom the film's second section, my favorite, is named, Charlotte Gainsbourg is nearly as impressive. She has a role similar to the one that Sarah Paulson played to Elizabeth Olsen's title character in Martha Marcy May Marlene: rock-solid big sibling, caretaker, and judgmental, disapproving witness to the unraveling of a family member.

I first fell in love with Gainsbourg in 1993, when I saw The Cement Garden at New York City's Angelika Film Center on my first date with my second boyfriend. Though Melancholia is, for the most part, The Kirsten Dunst Show, Gainsbourg and her voice of reason ground it. She is to these proceedings what Rachel Griffiths was to Hilary and Jackie, or Mare Winningham to Georgia. Griffiths' and Winningham's efforts were rewarded with well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations, and so should Gainsbourg's. (Incidentally, I'd put Bridesmaids' Rose Byrne on that shortlist, too. She was so much more essential to that film than Melissa McCarthy, but no one has said a word about her.)

It is through Claire's eyes that we experience the end of the world in Melancholia, and Gainsbourg does such a fantastic job taking us there. I've occasionally wondered how I might react if I were diagnosed with a terminal illness and only had months to live, but I've never considered what I would do if a planet called Melancholia were on a crash-collision course with Earth.

Would I reach out to the people I love who already know that I love them? Would I reach out to those who might not be so sure? Would I indulge in a last supper where calories and nutrition wouldn't count? Would I swallow a bottle of pills, as Justine's cowardly husband (Kiefer Sutherland, in a role that I would have imagined going to someone like Billy Crudup) does? Would I call the one that got away and invite him over for one last go? At it's best, sex can feel like the end of the world, which would be such a fantastic note to go out on.

One thing I know for sure is that I wouldn't build a fortress made of sticks and sit under it holding the hands of my freakishly serene, depressed sister and alarmingly calm son. No, that wouldn't do at all. But I'm glad that's what Claire chose to do. The image of the trio holding hands as Melancholia approaches is haunting and unforgettable. If that's what the end of the world will look like, I couldn't imagine a more beautiful, brutal finale.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Business or Pleasure or Escape: Why Do We Travel?

I recently had an interesting conversation with Keith, a young man from Melbourne who ran a bold idea by me: People who travel, he declared, are usually running away from something, whether they know it or not.

I carefully considered his words. They sounded so familiar. A couple of weeks ago, my friends Nicholle and Noelle were visiting me in Bangkok, and Noelle told me about a conversation the sisters had had on the flight from Koh Samui to Bangkok.

"Why does Jeremy travel so much?" Noelle asked Nicholle, who replied, "I think that maybe he's running from something."

"Are you?" Noelle asked when she was standing face to face with me. "Of course not," I said, surprised by the immediacy and resoluteness of my response. "If anything, I'm looking for something, running to something." (For the record, despite what might appear to onlookers as life lived on the road, I've spent the last three months in one place, not once venturing outside of Bangkok's city limits, for despite my occasional bouts of wanderlust, I am, by nature, a nester.)

I explained this to Keith when he floated his theory by me, well aware that he was trying to shove me into a box. I know the type, some of them are my best friends, others are Facebook "friends": expatriates, frequent fliers, travel writers, people who always seem to wake up in different places. I recently ran into a Facebook friend in Bangkok who told me that when he travels, which would be most of the time, he never spends more than two nights in the same hotel. To some, that would be a fantasy life. To me, it sounds like hell.

I won't pretend to know what motivates wanderers, drifters and wayfaring strangers. I can only speak for myself. I've been a big traveller for most of my adult life, and for the most part, it's been about pleasure. For a long time, I was happy with my life in New York, but several times a year, I had the urge to visit London, or Europe. I wasn't running away from anything because there was nothing to run away from. I was simply going on holiday, and I was lucky enough to have a job that paid me well enough that I could book trips to some of my dream destinations.

But one doesn't live on three different continents in one year, as I've done in 2011, unless it's work-related, or due to some personal crisis. Though my travels over the past year have been great for my writing, when I hit the road, I was doing it more for my psyche, hoping that I'd stumble upon a place where I can have it all -- the perfect job, the perfect apartment, the perfect love.

I've never had all three at once, but for a while, when I lived in New York City, I came close. Back then, my brother said that my life was like clockwork, and even with all of my fantastic trips, it sort of was. I always had a full-time job and a great degree of stability. In my 15 years living in New York City, I had only three apartments and spent 13 years working for the same company (a dedication to the firm that has had the prolonged positive effect of giving me the freedom to live the way I do today without worrying too much about funds).

When I moved from New York City to Buenos Aires, I wanted to try something new, and for three and a half years, my life abroad worked. Then one day, I began to wonder, "Is this all there is?" I didn't want to return to the U.S., but a change was gonna come. In March, when I left Buenos Aires and moved to Melbourne, I was beginning a journey of self-discovery. Yes, I was running away from something, a life in Buenos Aires that no longer felt exciting. But more than that, I needed a new challenge, a shot at finally landing that elusive triumvirate of perfection. I was looking for something.

Exactly, said Keith. They are the same thing. When you travel because you are looking for something, you are, in a sense, running from something, too. He made it sound so dirty, like traveling was the pastime of damaged people, swapping continents the desperate act of the emotionally scarred. "The people I know who are totally content with their lives have no desire to travel," he said.

I shuddered thinking who his friends might be, these happy people with no interest in experiencing life outside of their own little microcosm. Wanderlust isn't for everyone, but sticking to one's station is no way to evolve, and it certainly doesn't sound like happiness. Traveling can be about pleasure, or discovery of a world outside of your own, which can lead to personal evolution. Last night I was speaking to guy from Ireland who told me that visiting different countries has taught him to be more tolerant, someone who is open to so much more than what falls into the narrow confines of what he grew up knowing.

I don't know if it's made him a happier person, but I refuse to accept the notion that contentedness with one's life and a burning desire to see the world are mutually exclusive, that all of those travelers at the airport eagerly anticipating arrival at their final destinations are running away from something.

I am suspicious by nature, always searching for some ulterior motive to pretty much every action. But escaping your routine for a week or two needn't be about running away from it. The concept of "escape" can be positive, too. It can be about rejuvenation, gaining new perspective from a distance, which allows you to appreciate the life you have even more. Sometimes when you step onto that overnight flight bound to London or Rome or Istanbul, it's all about waking up in a brand new world, ready to see life from a different angle.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

6 Random Thoughts I Had While Watching 'Carnage'

1. Here we go again! Yet another movie touching on how parenting techniques might influence children to do terrible things, and how difficult it is for parents to really know their kids and what they are capable of doing. Fortunately, unlike in Beautiful Boy and We Need to Talk About Kevin, no lives are lost in Carnage, just a couple of teeth. It does, however, make me feel a little relieved to be childless and unlikely to be held responsible for anyone's actions but my own.

2. I wish Jodie Foster would work more often. I haven't seen her in anything since catching The Brave One on a Buenos Aires-to-Lima LAN Chile Airlines flight in 2007. But why do her neurotic tics in this movie remind me so much of Monica on Friends?

3. Some plays belong on the stage. The actors here are certainly talented and so is the director (Roman Polanski), but this story about four parents at odds over their warring sons doesn't feel quite right on film, and not just because of the single, claustrophobic set. The cast (particularly Foster and Kate Winslet) play the material broadly, which would make it funnier onstage, but unless the point is low-brow comedy, isn't quite appropriate for film, a medium where less is generally more. I wish I were watching the Oscar-caliber quartet (which also includes Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly) working its acting magic at the Garrick Theatre in London's West End.

4. Could I get an apartment like this in New York City without paying a fortune? Michael Longstreet (Reilly), a guy who sells decorative hardware like doorknobs and toilet-flushing devices, and his wife Penelope (Foster), who works in a bookstore and has written one book (which I presume was not a best-seller), certainly have a large, lovely home. If I ever move back to New York, I might have to get over my Manhattan snobbery and consider setting up shop in Brooklyn.

Portrait of the actor as a young man
5. Christoph Waltz is such a handsome guy (and an excellent actor, too). I wonder why nobody in the U.S. noticed him until Quentin Tarantino cast him in his Oscar-winning role in 2009's Inglourious Basterds. I'd go so far as to say he's the best in show here, and not just because the Austrian-born thespian does a fine American accent. He and Jodie Foster should do a movie together. They have a strange chemistry in Carnage, and I keep imagining them having hate sex before the final credits roll. I almost wish he had been cast as her spouse, and Reilly had been cast as Winslet's. Since he's almost 20 years older than Winslet, 36, and Reilly, 44, is only about eight older, the age combinations (Waltz is 55, Foster is 49) would have made more sense.

6. I find vomiting in inappropriate places funnier than I probably should. Maybe it's because it's been a couple of decades since I've done it. But If my house guest puked all over my precious art books, I think I'd have to toss them out along with the company. I know Penelope's are out of print, but you can find a replacement for pretty much anything on eBay. Thankfully, the liquid-projectile release (beautifully and hysterically enacted by Winslet) spared the laptop!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Burning Questions: The End of 2011 Edition (Starring Kirsten Dunst, Bangkok and Shooting Sprees)

Where the hell is Garbage? It's been nearly seven years since Bleed Like Me, and music could certainly use an injection of Shirley Manson's bad-ass glamor and hard-core attitude right about now.

Now that the Black Eyed Peas are on hiatus, can we finally expect Fergie's follow-up to The Dutchess, her 2006 solo debut? Katy Perry could certainly use the Hot 100 competition right about now.

Why Michelle Williams and not Kirsten Dunst? Both costarred in well-received films with Ryan Gosling last year. Williams scored an Oscar nod (for her efforts in Blue Valentine), Dunst did not (for hers in All Good Things). This year, Williams is pretty much guaranteed a second consecutive Best Actress nod (and third overall) for My Week with Marilyn, while the never-nominated Dunst is considered a mere long shot for Melancholia, despite winning Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. Though I still don't understand why Dunst's Justine is the only one in her screen family who speaks with an American accent, Dunst delivers one of the most vivid depictions of intense depression that I've seen. This should be her moment.

Was it something they said -- or didn't say?
What was it with 2011 and movies about parents raising mass murderers? In We Need to Talk about Kevin, Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly's kid used bows and arrows. In Beautiful Boy, the title character did it the old-fashioned way, with gunfire. At least the murderous offspring of Maria Bello and Michael Sheen's characters had the guts to off himself, too.

Should parents be wary of a quiet, withdrawn child with very few friends? That's one theory that Maria Bello's character threw out there in Beautiful Boy, that maybe she and her husband should have seen that as a clue that he might turn out to be homicidal/suicidal. But aren't great artists sort of born that way, too? Yes, the boy's strange behavior on the phone the night before his shooting spree was odd, but that's how people act when they are depressed (see Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia), which doesn't always lead to acts of extreme violence. The bottom line: Some things in life are random, as impossible to explain as why non-smokers get lung cancer. "Was it something that I did?" my mother asked when I came out to her. If it had been, all of her children would be gay, not just two of them. Sometimes all the vigilance and good parenting in the world won't stop what's going to happen from happening.

Speaking of Michael Sheen, why do British (and in Sheen's case, specifically, Welsh) actors always have to lose their accents to star in American films? Are there not people with British accents in the U.S.? Or do directors fear that U.S. audiences won't be able to understand British accents. I'll admit it: Sometimes I struggle with them. I've had to turn on the subtitles while watching my Absolutely Fabulous DVDs and occasionally had to read the Spanish subtitles to understand what the actors were saying when I saw The Queen and Notes on a Scandal in the cinema in Buenos Aires!

Why does parting always bring such sweet sorrow even when we're excited about where we are going? I'm thrilled to be returning to Melbourne a few days into 2012, and I probably overstayed my welcome in Bangkok by about a month, but I'm still getting teary-eyed over my impending departure. What will DJ Station do without me?

And now for your listening and viewing pleasure (one of the best things about the 1990s)...

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sweetest Peaches: In Praise of Etta James

Happy holidays.

I don't believe in Christmas miracles, but if I did, I'd be praying for one to save Etta James. The iconic 73-year-old rhythm and blues singer is terminally ill, suffering from leukemia, Hepatitis C and dementia. The online media already erroneously reported her passing in August. Now it's only a matter of time.

I'm not sure what song I was listening to when I first fell for James. It certainly wasn't "At Last," the one for which she is perhaps best known, which, honestly, never quite did it for me. It was more likely "Tell Mama" or "I'd Rather Go Blind." Astonishingly, "Tell Mama," the 1967 single that peaked at No. 23 on Billboard's Hot 100, is as high as James ever got on that chart. Katy Perry can score five No. 1 hits from one album, and James never even made it to the Top 20!

"At Last" only managed to limp to No. 47 in 1961. One wonders what America was thinking back then. Perhaps they felt safer sticking to the considerably less gritty (read: white as the driven snow) sounds of James's contemporary Connie Francis, who racked up an incredible string of hit singles in the late '50s and early '60s. Great as "Who's Sorry Now" and "My Happiness" might be, compared to the best of Etta James, they're more fire than flame.

Eventually, James did get her due: iconic status, entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a big-screen portrayal courtesy of Beyonce in the 2008 film Cadillac Records. My favorite James song isn't one that's particularly well known: "Losers, Weepers (Part I)," a 1970 single that only made it to No. 94 on the Hot 100. Perhaps its low chart placing was due to the general lack of appreciation for James during her most active years. Or maybe it was the song's touchy subject: James snatches up her pal's ex after the friend dumps him. When her gal pal comes crawling back, looking to reunite with her ex, James resolutely stands by her new man. No way in hell!

I'd never do anything like that, but listening to James tell her BFF the facts of love and life is three minutes of riveting. That song, and so many others with which James blessed us, will live on long after she's gone.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Best Thing About 'Warrior' (Besides Tom Hardy!)

There are a lot of things that I loved about Warrior, which I popped into the DVD player last night with no small amount of trepidation. It's a film about mixed martial arts, for God's sake. I knew I was in for more than a few rounds of extreme violence.

And then there was the sports angle. As I said in my previous post, sports movies generally just don't do it for me. I have a hard time getting involved unless there is compelling human drama anchoring the sports drama.

Both The Wrestler and The Fighter had plenty of compelling human drama, and I still didn't love them as much as everyone else did. In the end, I think Warrior's perfect storm of family conflict -- son vs. father, brother vs. brother, son/father/brother vs. himself, three battles I can fully relate to, having waged them in my own life -- helped make it a true rarity: a sports-themed movie that held my attention for the entire two-hour-plus running time. I swear, when the final punch was finally thrown, I was ready to check online to see where I could find the nearest mixed martial arts tournament. One more for the bucket list!

Tom Hardy was certainly Warrior's MVP. (I know I'm using a metaphor from the wrong sport, but bear with me.) Although Joel Edgerton's Brendan, older brother to Hardy's Tommy, was the more sympathetic character, when I found myself rooting for him, it was mostly because he had the most to lose. Tommy ended up in that ring by accident; Brendan out of desperation -- he needed to keep a roof over his family's collective head.

But as much as I found myself caring about what happened to Brendan, I couldn't take my eyes off of Tommy. Hardy's performance was a marvel of physical bravado. I could spend hours just watching him flex and strut and staring down the enemy. I'd never thought much about him as an actor before, but after watching Warrior, I'm excited to see his next film, This Means War. That one's got Reese Witherspoon and Chris Pine ahead of him in the credits, but after watching Warrior, Hardy is the one I'll be going to see.

Nick Nolte, as the abusive-alcoholic-dad-turned-born-again-Christian, was equally impressive, and he's collecting deserved Oscar buzz. Has Nolte really become so old and broken down over the last decade, or was that just part of the performance? As I watched, I couldn't help but think of James Coburn's similar, Oscar-winning turn as Nolte's dad in Affliction, the 1997 film for which Nolte received his last invitation to the Academy Awards as a nominee. I don't expect Nolte to be as lucky as Coburn was, not with Drive's Albert Brooks and Beginners' Christopher Plummer in the running, but it's nice that the Best Supporting Actor race, for once, is shaping up to be nearly as interesting as Best Actor.

As impressive as Hardy and Nolte were, the song that was playing during the film's closing sequence -- "About Today" by the National, a track from the band's 2004 Cherry Tree EP -- left an equally indelible imprint. It struck the perfect elegiac counterpoint tone to the loud, violent sequences that preceded it, as brother faced brother in the mixed martial arts ring. Halfway through the climactic fight, it no longer mattered to me who won or lost (okay, I was still kind of rooting for Brendan). What mattered most was that two estranged brothers finally mend their fractured relationship while pummeling each other to near-death.

When it was all over, it wasn't Brendan nor Tommy but the National that delivered the knockout punch.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Brad Pitt Vs. Brad Pitt: Which One Should Get the Best Actor Oscar Nomination?

As usual, Brad Pitt is in an enviable position.

This time, it has nothing to do with being one of the richest movie stars on the planet, one of the sexiest men alive, or having to choose between Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie. He's in the enviable position of starring in two movies in one year which are both ending up on pretty much every best-of-2011 list: The Tree of Life and Moneyball. When the dust settles, he'll probably be in that, yes, enviable, and rare position of headlining two Best Picture Oscar nominees as well as being a Best Actor contender.

Here is the part where I reveal that I was disappointed by both movies. I think my problem with Moneyball might have had as much to do with the subject matter as the film itself. I'm not a big sports fan, and I can't imagine ever being truly moved by a sports film unless there is some great emotional off-the-field story arc at the center. (I'm about to watch Warrior, and I'm hoping for the best.) Friday Night Lights was a TV series based around football, but it was the detailed character study and the small-town drama that made it one of my favorite TV shows of the past decade.

I'm definitely more into baseball than football, but Moneyball was too much about love of the game. That said, there's no denying Brad Pitt's performance in it. Ridiculously charismatic and a bit of an asshole, he reminded me a lot of Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, a movie I enjoyed partly because there was so much more going on in it than football. I would have loved to have seen more than two Moneyball scenes with Robin Wright, who appeared once in the flesh and once via telephone, and more father-daughter bonding might have pulled me deeper into Moneyball.

Pitt got lots of family time in The Tree of Life. And although I liked that film even less than I did Moneyball, I was more moved by Pitt's performance in it. He's getting all of his precursor awards and nominations for Moneyball, but this is the film that should win him that long-elusive Oscar in February (just as Revolutionary Road, not The Reader, was the 2008 film for which Kate Winslet should have snagged her Best Actress honors -- and for those who say Pitt was supporting in Life, so was Winslet in The Reader). My gripes with The Tree of Life are numerous, and I won't delve too deeply into them here.

As a whole, I found it to be both pretentious and boring, which is a deadly combination. The existential question at the center -- grace vs. nature -- is a creaky one, and the film didn't pose it in a way that I found to be fresh, compelling or fully coherent. The Creation scenes were my favorites of the movie, and I sort of wish they had taken up the entire two hours and 15 minutes running time. (I could spend hours watching dueling computer-generated dinosaurs!)

As for the family drama, it was elevated by Pitt's performance, so contained but always seemingly on the brink of boiling over in the most explosive way. He's probably about a decade too old to be playing Jessica Chastain's husband, but then, he hardly looks like he's less than two years shy of 50. When his character, Mr. O'Brien, went to the other side of the world to hawk his inventions, I missed him a lot more than his boys did!

I think the family drama would have been more effective overall had director Terrence Malick focused on it solely (leaving The Creation for another movie) and filmed it as a straight narrative without all of the existentialist bells and whistles and taken more time to flesh out the characters and the family dynamic. And beyond the fact the Chastain looks too young to be receiving news of her son's death via telegraph (was he at sleep-away camp?), I think the movie focused on the wrong kid.

I realize that they had to justify Sean Penn's presence in the bookending scenes, but the middle son was the more interesting character. Maybe it was his artistic leaning -- more representative of the spiritual angle that the film kept awkwardly working in -- or perhaps the young actor's sad, expressive eyes. He broke my heart every time he was on screen.

So did Brad Pitt. Mr. O'Brien wasn't particularly likable, but thanks to Pitt, I understood him and to a degree, even sympathized with him. I'm convinced that on Oscar night, Natalie Portman will be saying his name when she opens the envelope and presents the Best Actor prize. "Brad Pitt for Moneyball"! I can see it now: round of applause, maybe a standing ovation, many close-ups of a beaming Angelina Jolie.

And I'll be folding my arms, flashing back to 2009. Totally deserving actor, totally wrong movie.

Manhunt Etiquette: 10 Online Dating Don'ts

Single black male in search of a non-gay cliche
Ah, the joys of love and lust in the 21st century! You don't even have to leave the house anymore to find the perfect man of your (wet) dreams. Thanks to Grindr, Manhunt, Gaydar, PlanetRomeo and assorted other online boy-meets-boys websites, Mr. Right might be only a mouse click away.

Well, more than likely, he'll be Mr. Right Tonight, because everybody knows that you never go online looking for a long and lasting love. But here's a newsflash: Those who do sometimes find it. I have a number of friends who've met the loves of their lives while browsing the Internet. One just told me that he's making Christmas plans with a Grindr find and his folks six weeks into their romance. Happy holidays indeed!

As for me, I stopped holding my breath ages ago. When I indulge in online dating, I do it mostly for the stories, and boy have I had quite a few to tell, many of them on this very blog.

But if you're tired of boozing it up every weekend to a soundtrack of frothy pop (gay man cannot live on Katy Perry, Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Beyonce alone), and if you're thinking of looking for more than "fun" online (speaking of euphemisms for "sex" that should be banned from hook-up sites -- we're all {hopefully} adults here and can call it what it is), here's some friendly advice.

1. No ass close-ups -- and keep those other private parts private. Baring all online is like walking up to someone in a bar and pulling out your dick. Who would end up taking that guy home? I once had someone grab my hand and put it on his exposed penis in a crowded bar five minutes after meeting me offline for the first time. A first fondle should never come before a first kiss and neither should a sneak peek at what's going on in those nether regions.

2. No smoking! Even if the person you are trying to win over isn't allergic to cigarette smoke and smokers (as I am), unless you're Barbara Stanwyck in a 1940s film noir, no one looks good posing with a cancer stick.

3. Don't eat or drink in front of the camera. Holding a cocktail or two might give the wrong impression that you're a falling-down drunk when the camera isn't rolling. As for pigging-out photos, I hate them on Facebook and loathe them on dating websites. I'd rather not see you eating until our second or third date.

4. Keep your fantasies to yourself -- for now! I've never met a black guy who found the following flattering: "It's always been my dream to be with a black guy." As I recently responded to someone who wrote something along those lines to me, "I'm not really interested in being anyone's test-drive negro." Really, I'm not.

5. Be creative with your opening line. Would you sidle up to the hottie at the bar and ask, "Top or bottom?" or "How big is your cock?" or "What are you looking for?"? "Hello, how are you?" is a classic that always works. I understand if small talk isn't your thing, and if you're too horny to bother with pleasantries, but suck it up. Patience is a virtue, and if you use the right words, it can be rewarded.

6. Don't give away your stalker tendencies. "Didn't I see you at [insert bar name here] last night?" not only has a vague stalker ring, it begs the question: Why didn't you just approach me and say hi then? And while we're on the subject of voyeuristic tendencies, revealing personal details about someone's life before you've even met him (and when he has no idea what you even look like) is simply creepy. "Did you have a nice work out?" someone with a hyphenated first name (come on!) asked me a week or so ago. Apparently, he lives in an apartment building that gives him a perfect view of my hotel gym. Later that evening, he asked, "So you watched two movies tonight?" For a moment, I thought he'd been using a periscope to spy on me at home. He'd actually been checking out my Facebook status updates, and we aren't even "friends." Isn't "I have no life" the kind of thing that one doesn't want the stalkee to know?

7. Honor you own requirements. Don't say things like "No face pic = No reply" if you've got five cock shots in your profile and not a single photo of your face, and if you're going to bother to write "no winks," then by God, don't wink at me.

8. If you're looking for a masculine guy, say so. "Straight acting" means doing what straight guys do. It's not the opposite of "camp" or "queeny" -- that would be "masculine." Pardon my coarse language, but if you are a guy who gets off on sucking other guys' cocks, you are so not straight acting. I don't know any straight guys who act like that. Let it go.

9. Show us what's above your neck. I've heard a lot of excuses for people not posting photos of their faces -- from I don't have any on my computer to I'm in the closet and don't want anyone to know I'm gay to the dog ate my homework. None of them are acceptable. If you have a job where people can't know that you are gay, chances are I won't be interested in you. But consider this: If any of your colleagues finds your profile on Manhunt, you immediately have as much on them as they have on you. And on a more personal note, If you know what I look like, it's only fair that I know whom I'm talking to as well. Yeah, I'm talking to you, guy with the hyphenated first name!

10. No sex shots. Okay, I'm aware that I'm in the minority when it comes to not caring for porn. But seriously, how can you expect to be taken seriously if you post photos of yourself having sex with other guys? It screams, "I'M A HUGE SLUT, AND CHANCES ARE, IF YOU HOOK UP WITH ME, I'LL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO REMEMBER ME BY!" I think I'll pass.

Monday, December 19, 2011

An Oscar-Season Miracle: 'Martha Marcy May Marlene,' a Film That Deserves Its Hype (Finally!)

I never thought I'd love a movie starring an Olsen sister. But then, until this year, I thought Mary-Kate and Ashley were the only ones. Neither of them appears in Martha Marcy May Marlene, last January's Sundance favorite for which the younger Olsen sister, Elizabeth, 22, has deservedly collected Oscar buzz over the course of the last 12 months.

I wouldn't be surprised if the film, which is Olsen's debut, ends up being one of my five favorite movies of 2011. I must admit, when I put the screener into the DVD player, I wasn't expecting much more than a sort of redux of Winter's Bone, last year's Sundance favorite featuring another young ingenue (Jennifer Lawrence, who actually impressed me more in a small scene in Like Crazy -- the one where Anton Yelchin's character dumps her the first time -- than she did in her entire Oscar-nominated Winter's Bone performance) and a stunning supporting performance by John Hawkes, who deserves a second consecutive Academy nod.

But the movie is so much more than that. Hawkes and ingenue star aside, Martha Marcy May Marlene is actually nothing like Winter's Bone, thank God. Even the title, which I've loathed for the better part of the year, grew on me over the course of an hour and 45 minutes. In fact, it now makes total sense. It stands for the various monikers used by Olsen's character, whose birth name is Martha, during the film, and reflects the different sides of the character, who's as layered as the movie.

The most impressive thing about Martha Marcy May Marlene, besides the acting in it, is that it works on so many levels -- as a psychological thriller, as a cautionary tale about the dangers of cults, and as a straight-up family drama. I'm still trying to figure out which level effected me most. On one hand, the psychological thriller is one of my favorite genres. I love a gothic horror in which the threat is implied and the violence is (mostly) in your head. That's why Gaslight had such a profound effect on me.

As for the cult aspect, I've always found them to be fascinating. Cults exist on so many levels -- organized religion being one of them -- and they prey on the side of us that craves acceptance and the need to belong. John Hawkes is such a great actor because he can be threatening and sexy at the same time. I can understand why a young person -- particularly a female -- might fall under his spell. You're not sure whether you want to run to him or run from him.

Then there's the family drama. I'm a sucker for family angst onscreen because I've had so much of my own. In that regard, Martha Marcy May Marlene may be no Interiors or Ordinary People, but it skillfully navigates the rocky terrain of the sibling dynamic (much like Rachel Getting Married did a few years ago). Martha and her sister Lucy (played by Sarah Paulson, who has come so far since Jack & Jill) are disapproving of each other, though for completely different reasons.

Lucy would seem to be the one with the enviable life, and I must admit, looking at her beautiful home, her handsome successful husband Ted (Hugh Dancy, whose interesting take on the character makes his coming on to Martha always seem like a distinct possibility) and her orderly lifestyle, I kept thinking to myself, "I'll have what she's having."

Lucy and Ted represent the American dream, but despite everything they own, their lives seem kind of empty. They're people who measure success and happiness in terms of lifestyle. You're not really living unless you have -- or are striving for -- a nice home (or in their case, homes) and a good income. I'm still cringing at the dinner table scene. Every great family drama needs at least one uncomfortable sequence involving the breaking of bed and the raising of voices.

"If she's happy I'm happy," Ted says when Martha asks if he wants to have the baby that the couple is trying to conceive. "So you're unhappy," Martha responds, totally deadpan and totally nailing him. It's a double-sided response: One one hand, Martha recognizes that Ted's easygoing martyrdom (I'll take one for the team because I love her so much) is masking his ambivalence about the baby issue -- and his marriage, in general. On the other, she sees her sister for what she is: quietly miserable and lacking any real purpose other than being a wife and mother.

In what I consider to be the film's most telling scene (right before that tragic dinner), Martha asks Lucy a question, possibly ready to finally reveal what happened to her in that Catskills cult, and not so much Lucy's response as the way she delivers it, reveals the hollowness of her character. "Do you ever have that feeling where you can't tell if something is a memory or if it's something you dreamed?" (As a matter of fact, I have.)

'WTH?!" Lucy seems to be saying with her eyes, if not her mouth, which responds, "Not really." She entirely misses Martha's point, the most crucial one of the entire film. I have a feeling that, like Martha Marcy May Marlene, it will be haunting me for days to come.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Don't Touch Me There! (Part IV): Why Don't You Make It Hurt So Good?

No pain, no gain here in Bangkok!
Never again.

That's what I promised myself the last time, when I had that Thai massage that went too far.

Never. Again.

But last night wasn't just any night. After one week on Koh Samui, Nicholle, my best friend from high school and college, and her sister Noelle were in Bangkok for a 14-hour layover before flying home to the United States. I hadn't seen Nicholle since we celebrated our 40th birthdays -- which were two days apart -- two and a half years ago in Buenos Aires. And I hadn't laid eyes on Noelle live and in the flesh in more than 20 years.

We'd have to make their one night in Bangkok count, and few things scream "Bangkok!" like drinks in Lebua's rooftop Sky Bar, where scenes from The Hangover 2 were filmed (that's us above, taking in the view from 63 stories up) and an hour of body therapy in one of the myriad massage parlors dotting Silom Road. If nothing else, a massage would be the perfect intermission between dinner at Noodle and more drinks at DJ Station.

So inside we went. Noelle headed upstairs for her traditional Thai massage, and Nicholle and I settled into side-by-side recliners and waited for our foot-reflexology sessions to begin. I warned my guy about the ugly bunion on my left foot -- as if he wouldn't have noticed it -- and begged him to be gentle. He nodded, but I wasn't sure if he'd understood a word I'd said.

After a short soak and rub down in warm water -- which would have been fine by me had it lasted the entire hour -- I realized that he hadn't. He tore into my feet with wild abandon and gusto. I wasn't sure if he was trying to pleasure me or punish me. No part of my foot -- bunion included -- was safe from his aggressive rubbing, kneading, pulling and cracking. I wanted to scream out in pain. I looked around me. All of us reflexology customers were in the same boat, and nobody but me seemed to mind what felt a little like torture. I glanced over at Nicholle, hoping for some commiseration. She was fast asleep!

I resolved to toughen up and deal with it. There was a tall cute guy two recliners down. If he happened to glance over at me, I didn't want him to see me flinching and grimacing. I'd have to pretend that I like it rough.

Come on, make it hurt so good!

Forty-five minutes later, it was over. And I must admit, I did feel a lot better than I had when I walked in. I suppose that's the goal, but isn't the journey supposed to be half the fun? For Nicholle, it was. Having her feet torn into had been so soothing, she said, that she had immediately dozed off. Noelle, who by now had come downstairs from her torture session, was elated and relaxed. The more pain, she insisted, the better.

I still don't know about that, but I had to admit that my hour of pain had left me feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, which is probably the happiest ending 250 baht can buy.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

How Would You React If You Were Told You Had a 50/50 Chance of Surviving to the Closing Credits?

Last night while I was watching the movie 50/50, I got to thinking about a lot of things. Surprisingly, for a hypochondriac like me, my imagined impending death wasn't one of them. But thank God, that intense lower back pain that hit me like a ton of bricks a couple of months ago is long gone -- and that it wasn't accompanied by night sweats!

In the film, 27-year-old radio station employee, teetotaler, certified health nut and all-around swell guy Adam Lerner (played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, whose name should be popping up in every Oscar discussion, and probably would be, if this movie had been directed by David Fincher, Alexander Payne, or the Coen Brothers) finds out that he has a rare form of spinal cancer. After doing a bit of Internet research (unrecommended for sufferers of rare illnesses), he discovers that he has a 50/50 chance of surviving. But that isn't the point of the movie.

Well, it is the point, sort of. But the movie, and my thoughts, were more focused on how Adam and his loved ones dealt with his diagnosis. After all, 50/50 is billed as a comedy (you don't cast Seth Rogen as the best friend without the express intention of eliciting solid laughs), so there was never any doubt in my mind how things would turn out for him.

The first thing I got to thinking about was why Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn't on Oscar's Best Actor radar. I know he's only 30, and Oscar generally likes his Best Actor candidates slightly older, but if he were Ryan Gosling, he'd be a shoo-in. The Golden Globe nomination is a nice touch, but the scene where Adam and his mom (Angelica Huston, looking and acting as divine as usual) embrace just before he's taken into surgery broke my heart. It's as good an Oscar clip as anything in Moneyball.

Oh, yes. That brings me to Angelica Huston. Where has she been all my life -- or at least for the last decade or so? She's an Oscar winner, dammit, and she deserves better than a guest-starring arc on Medium. Is there some law in Hollywood that says the only actresses over 60 who can regularly be cast in leading film roles are Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren? No, I didn't think so. I want to see a movie where Huston gets more than a few scenes, and 50/50, good as it is, would have benefited immensely from more Angelica Huston.

But the thing that really got to me while watching the movie was how Gordon-Levitt's character handled -- or rather, didn't handle -- his illness. He slipped into a state of denial that lasted for practically the entire movie.

I wondered how I would react if a disinterested and uninterested doctor gave me the same news (without once touching my back to check for lumps). I think I know myself well enough to know that I'd probably fall apart and look for sympathy wherever I can find it. But then again, confronting your own mortality has a way of bringing out sides of you that you didn't even know existed.

Before I was attacked and robbed in my home nearly five years ago, I never dreamt that I would have fought back against someone who broke into my home and threatened my life. But there I was, rolling around on the bathroom floor, fighting off three guys who didn't know that three against one just isn't fair.

And speaking of things that aren't fair, it took a long time, nearly the entire film, for Adam to finally react the way I imagine we all would to the hand that life had unjustly dealt him -- full of fire and fear. It's the kind of detailed characterization that should have him on every Oscar prognosticator's short list. But then, we all know how that naked golden boy thinks.

"Have you ever seen Terms of Endearment?" Adam asked his mom just before revealing his diagnosis to her, in the film's most darkly humorous scene, and it drove home a crucial point: Death becomes Academy Award nominees. Oscar likes his young sick characters female and dead by time the final credits roll.

Which is probably a good thing for a hypochondriac like me. I can watch a movie like Terms of Endearment or Love Story or Steel Magnolias a hundred times and never once put myself in the dying heroine's shoes. But give me a guy with survival odds far worse than 50/50, and there's no telling where my mind would go.

Friday, December 16, 2011

What Did Amy Winehouse Do to My Song?

It's been out for more than a week, but I still haven't gotten around to listening to Amy Winehouse's Lioness: Hidden Treasures, which debuted this week on Billboard's Top 200 album chart at No. 5, with 144,000 copies sold in its first week.

Why the delayed reaction to "new" music from such a great singer? It's just hard for me to get into posthumous albums. I've never listened to one that impressed me much. I prefer to remember my icons the way they were, not via outtakes cobbled together for one final cash-in, or as many as can be milked from the musical vaults.

Winehouse's Lioness is certainly no Michael Jackson's Micheal in that it was put together by the late singer's two regular collaborators, producers Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi, who received the blessing of Winehouse's family. But I suppose it's the lack of actual new material -- it's mostly remakes and alternate takes of previously released tunes -- that has kept it from being immediate required listening. I never considered Winehouse to be a particularly gifted interpreter of other people's songs -- her arch, slurred delivery works best when it's employed on her own material -- and I don't need "Best Friends, Right?" when "Best Friends" from Back to Black works just fine.

And if the one album track that I have listened to, a cover of Leon Russell's "A Song for You" that closes the set, is the quality caliber that I can expect from the rest, perhaps I will stick to Back to Black and Frank for a little while longer.

For the second time in a couple of years, a great singer and her producer have failed one of my all-time favorite songs. First Whitney Houston made it a dance floor stomper on her 2009 comeback album, I Look to You, and now Salaam Remi has mired Winehouse's vocal, which is strong but undermined by poor enunciation, in over-production.

Like Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" -- which was turned into a bombastic anthem on The Bodyguard soundtrack by Houston, who similarly overdid Russell's classic in a 1991 live performance (watch it here) -- "A Song For You" was written as an intimate declaration of love from one person to another and should be delivered that way. I first heard Donny Hathaway's version, which is perhaps the best known one, when an ex-boyfriend gave me a Hathaway compilation for my birthday a few weeks after we broke up. I spent at least an hour crying, not so much over the song as over the break up.

After my tears dried on their own, I pulled out Ray Charles' 1993 My World CD, on which he recorded what is my favorite version of "A Song for You" (and the first one I ever heard) and played it over and over. There's something about Charles voice, his special phrasing, that chills me to the bone. I still tear up when I hear him completely taking over "We Are the World" at the end of the song!

And listening to him tear up "A Song for You" alone in my room on that Sunday afternoon... Here come those tears again. This time, I wasn't even thinking about my ex.

'We Need to Talk About Kevin' & Nature Vs. Nurture: Are Some People Natural Born Killers?

I'm a firm believer in the supremacy of nature. Not just rivers and trees, blue skies and waterfalls, but people's natures, too.

Although the circumstances of one's life might lead to certain actions, one's nature generally determines how he or she will react to those circumstances, therefore largely influencing what those certain actions will be. One kid might respond to bullying by shutting down and withdrawing from social life, another by fighting back, another by suicide and yet another by blowing away his or her fellow classmates -- with a gun or with bows and arrows.

One of the bravest aspects of the film We Need to Talk About Kevin is that Kevin Khatchadourian (played at various ages, and with the right level of inscrutability, by Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller) isn't given a back story that explains why he ended up doing what he did with those bows and arrows. He grew up in a stable home with two parents who loved each other. Aside from one unfortunate diaper incident, there was no evidence of abuse, and there were no scenes in which he was mistreated by classmates or peers.

He was simply one bad apple who was rotten to the core. This is a kid who was trouble before he even began to talk, with most of his ire inexplicably directed toward his mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton, in a performance that I predict will finally get the Supporting Actress Oscar winner a long-deserved nod in the leading actress category).

I felt particularly bad for her when the community ostracized her in the aftermath of the actions of her son that provide the film's climax. Is this what the parents of serial killers and mass murderers deal with in real life? Were they punishing her for giving birth to a killer, raising a killer, or standing by a killer? Hadn't stoic Eva suffered enough?

Unlike the angry mothers in the film who responded to Eva by slapping her, breaking her eggs in the supermarket and throwing red paint on her house and car, I don't subscribe to the notion that parents should be blamed for all of the actions of their kids. I don't believe parents raise mass murderers and serial killers unless they do so on purpose. That said, parents can make it easier for natural born killers to carry out their future misdeeds.

Why didn't Eva insist on therapy for her son, who was so obviously damaged? Where was the discipline and accountability when he acted up? I know John C. Reilly (as Eva's husband Franklin) has made a career out of playing the clueless spouse (in The Good Girl, in Chicago, in The Hours), but are successful businessmen really so completely oblivious to what goes on in their own homes?

And what father in his right mind buys a troubled teen a bow-and-arrow set for Christmas, or what parents' warning bells don't go off when a package of bike locks arrives at the house for their son? The look on Swinton's face when Kevin unwrapped his bow-and-arrow set spoke volumes (she's expert at communicating so much with just a facial expression) and was excellent foreshadowing. She knew this wasn't going to end well, but I wish she had been more assertive with her husband and her son.

Eva and Frank didn't create a monster any more than music and movies do, but more vigilance, more aggressive parenting (I'm not talking corporal punishment but being proactive rather than reactive) and a less clueless father/husband (who paid dearly for his lack of awareness) might have prevented Kevin from carrying out his deadly plan.

But these are oversights that so many parents make. Fortunately, most of them aren't raising evil incarnate. I'm not saying that a person is evil just because he or she does something heinous. I believe that if pushed to the limit, we all have the capacity to commit horrible acts, whether we want to admit it or not. It doesn't make us all bad people. But it takes an especially evil person to carefully plot and execute a mass murder for no apparent reason, one who very well may just have been born that way.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Jennifer's Body: Is 40 Really the New 20?

"Just remember, you're still younger than Jennifer Aniston."

And with those words, my friend Mara comforts me every year on my birthday, citing Aniston because she looks so great, and she's three months older than I am.

I've always had a bit of a love-hate thing with her, and not just as in I love her and I hate her because she's beautiful. I loved her on Friends, but I hated how, as she made the transition from the small screen to the big one, she never seemed to get Rachel Green out of her system. I've seen more of her movies than I'm comfortable admitting, and although I don't think they were all so terrible, she always does that thing that "former" sitcom stars always do: She bends over backward and forward and backward again to get us to like her.

As a result, her performances are mostly slight variations on a theme. If you took Aniston's character from The Switch and, um, switched her with the one from The Break-Up, would the movies really change much? Wasn't her adulterer in The Good Girl basically Rachel Green in low-budget clothing? (And why do so many of her films begin with the same article?)

Then there is her oversexed bitch-on-heels dentist in Horrible Bosses, which I finally watched on DVD the other day. Even more surprising than how much I enjoyed the movie was how much I loved Aniston as a brunette. I'm not sure if the darker hue was supposed to make the character less likable, or if it was supposed to inspire the actress to commit to Dr. Julia Harris's evil ways. Whichever was the case, it worked.

She wasn't exactly cast against type -- despite all of Dr. Harris's sexual scheming, Aniston was still playing bad for laughs, unlike, say, Charlize Theron in Monster -- but she was no less un-threatening than Colin Farrell with a paunch and a comb-over. (Kevin Spacey, the third horrible boss, was much scarier, but then he's a two-time Oscar winner who played a serial killer in Se7en.) I loved to hate Dr. Harris, but I also sort of wanted her as much as Jason Sudeikis's character did.

Was that a twinge of jealousy I felt when he hooked up with her? I know, it's just a movie, and I probably wouldn't have slept with her if I had the chance, but as Dr. Harris tried seducing her assistant (Charlie Day) with her coat open to reveal the entire middle-third of Aniston's torso, I gasped. That's what 42 looks like? Is she aging backwards like her ex did in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? Did she look that good when she was married to Brad Pitt? Why did he even give Angelina Jolie a second glance then? (Oh yeah, men are pigs -- but that's another post!)

Maybe I was distracted by her perfectly toned body (as shallow as it sounds -- and like all males, gay and straight, I have my moments), but it was the first time I've seen an Aniston movie and not heard the Friends theme in my head. That's a miracle and a blessing rolled into one, sort of like Jennifer's body.

Monday, December 12, 2011

My Most Embarrassing Moment: The Day I Accosted Woody Harrelson in a Public Toilet

It probably wasn't my smartest move ever.

The year was 1990, and I was having lunch with a group of friends at Cafe Garden across the street from the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. It was one of those lazy Saturday afternoons when your expectations are low. But isn't that always when the unexpected happens? After we ordered, who should walk through the door but Woody Harrelson, then best known as the Emmy-winning star of the popular sitcom Cheers.

I was a UF senior, and less than a year away from moving to New York City, where I would begin my professional journalism career at People magazine, interviewing famous musicians and other assorted celebrities. "Guys, look," I said, pointing at the door. "Woody Harrelson just walked in!"

After a few minutes of gaping and gawking, we watched him head into the men's room. Now, I thought, is my chance. After a few minutes of debate -- Should I stay or should I go... to the bathroom? -- I decided to follow him. When I opened the door, he was washing his hands. He looked up at me and smiled.

"Hey, Woody," I said breezily, as if we were old friends. It's a technique that would serve me well in the future, when meeting people like Reba McEntire, Faith Hill and Marie Osmond, who thought I must have been an old friend whose name she couldn't quite place when I ran up to her and exclaimed, "Hey, Marie!" backstage at the American Music Awards. She hugged me and promptly introduced me to her dad and her sons.

Harrelson was just as cordial, though there was no family for me to meet. I asked what he was doing in Gainesville, Florida, of all places. He explained that he was shooting a movie called Doc Hollywood nearby, with Michael J. Fox. Now I was really starstruck, and not just because of the company he was keeping. He was as cute in person as he was on TV, and his piercing blue eyes made it hard for me to stop staring into them.

It was an awkward moment for sure, but I had to keep the conversation going.

"So what's it like to work with Kirstie Alley? I love her."

It was one of the dumbest questions I'd ever ask a famous person, but Harrelson pulled his weight, keeping up his side of the exchange. If he thought it was weird that I was asking about his Cheers costar instead of him, he never let on. After a few more awkward minutes, I let him go.

I thought back on our brief encounter last night while I was watching Rampart, Harrelson's new film, for which he's receiving well-deserved Oscar buzz. Charming and talented as he was 21 years ago, who would have thought that he would go on to have such a successful screen career (minus that 1999-to-2003 drought) that includes two Oscar nominations so far?

The funny thing is, had I had my first Woody Harrelson encounter after watching his performance in Rampart, I would have been too terrified to do what I did that Saturday morning back in 1990. The film's poster describes his character as "the most corrupt cop you've ever seen on screen," and that description isn't too far off. Since I'm not a big fan of movie violence, I was hesitant to stick it into the DVD player after sitting through the gore-free The Ides of March (which, despite some glaring flaws, I loved, especially the Ryan Gosling vs. George Clooney staredown near the end).

But with such an interesting cast -- which included Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Robin Wright and Sigourney Weaver, all actress I adore but never would have expected to see in the same film -- I couldn't resist. I enjoyed the movie, but what made me more uncomfortable than the occasional violence was how appealing Harrelson and his character were to me. He was a dirty murderous cop, but I found myself rooting for him anyway. I wanted him to clean up his act and earn redemption. I wanted him to mend his ways and his relationship with his daughters and ex-wives (sisters, played by Heche and Nixon, in a bit of casting genius).

It was like reading The Talented Mr. Ripley all over again. That was the first time I fell for a killer. None of the film adaptations -- Purple Noon, nor the 1999 film version starring Matt Damon as Tom Ripley -- had the same effect on me. But there's something about Harrelson's crooked smile and piercing blue eyes that are just as alluring now as they were 21 years ago in that Gainesville bathroom. No wonder he was able to get Wright, Nixon, Heche and the fantastic, uncredited Audra McDonald into bed!

If it were 1997 or thereabout, the Best Actor Oscar would be his to lose.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

10 Comebacks I'd Pay Money to See

Sometimes, when I'm wide awake in dreamland (to quote the title of one of Pat Benatar's '80s albums, her final one to go gold), I fantasize about a world where Benatar is a chart superstar again.

But that's one dream that won't likely be coming true. I once had a conversation with a publicist for EMI Records, an affiliate of Benatar's then-label, Chrysalis Records (a publicist who, incidentally, later married Curt Smith from Tears for Fears, speaking of comebacks that would be most welcome) right around the time that Benatar's 1993 Gravity's Rainbow album flopped. I asked if she thought Benatar would ever return to her '80s chart glory. She shook her head, sadly. Nope. It's over.

I thought to myself, "We'll show her," but we never did. Now, with Chrissie Hynde, Stevie Nicks and Benatar out of regular circulation, it's been decades since female rockers regularly ruled the charts. Pink called herself a "rock star" on "So What," and the other day I heard Sheryl Crow calling herself one on The Marriage Ref, but then, Shaun Cassidy once had a Top 3 hit with an Eric Carmen song called "That's Rock 'n' Roll," which was as rock 'n' roll as "Hey Deanie," another late-'70s hit sung by Cassidy and written by Carmen. Pink and Crow are pop singers who accessorize with rock & roll swagger. Not that there's anything wrong with that!

But as usual, I digress. Here are nine other comebacks I'd like to find under the Christmas tree this year, or next.

Cyndi Lauper Back when it was all about Madonna vs. Cyndi Lauper in 1984, who would have guessed that the less-talented singer would be the one still charting high this century? If Lauper's 2008 album, Bring Ya to the Brink, one of the best of the '00s, couldn't resurrect her chart career, I'm afraid that ship that sailed circa 1989 isn't returning to port.

Ciara She never had the greatest voice, and she always had a bit of an image problem (as in, not really having one), but over the course of four albums, Ciara has released some of the most consistently solid R&B of the last decade. Alas, with rap and Eurodance-inflected R&B currently hogging the crossover field, it's been way downhill saleswise for Ciara since Goodies, her 2004 triple-platinum debut. "Work," her brilliant 2009 collaboration with Missy Elliott (4:13 was one of the best musical moments of that year -- thank you, Danja), couldn't even touch Billboard's Hot 100. Hopefully, she can get back to where she started without having to slum with David Guetta.

George Michael His recent brush with pneumonia -- and death -- made me realize how much we need to value our musical treasures. Michael has released far too little music in the last two decades, and he had to cancel his recent tour featuring symphonic versions of his previous work (how Sting of him) due to his illness. I say he scrap it for good, offer full refunds and get back into the recording studio as soon as his health allows. As sublime as I'm sure it would be to hear Michael performing his past work with new orchestral arrangements, now that he has so much real-life fodder to draw from creatively, why revisit past glories when he can be recording new ones and (hopefully) topping the charts all over again?

Christina Aguilera She's had a glimpse of what it's like to be back on top as a featured artist on Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger," so it only seems fitting that Aguilera get there on her own now. And let's face it: on the charts, Katy Perry vs. Lady Gaga vs. Rihanna will never be half as exciting as Britney Spears vs. Christina Aguilera was at the turn of the century.

Soundgarden I'm hoping that my favorite grunge act's upcoming reunion album will be one of the few that succeeds commercially, and that just as grunge led to a revival of old-time rock & roll on the charts in the early '90s, it will do so once again in 2012. After an extremely lackluster post-Audioslave solo run, Chris Cornell, owner of one of the best voices in hard rock, deserves it.

Duffy Was the sophomore jinx that befell 2010's Endlessly the beginning of the end for my favorite Welsh performer since Catherine Zeta-Jones? May she return from her current hiatus inspired, rejuvenated and ready to create music as magical and undeniable as Rockferry once again.

Donna Summer If they're never going to induct her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, can we at least get one surprise late-career hit a la Cher's "Believe" for the woman who helped make Madonna and Lady Gaga possible?

Dionne Warwick A legend as classy and classic as Warwick deserves to be best remembered by the 20-to-40 crowd for something other than Psychic Friends Network and Celebrity Apprentice. Maybe Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach could write her an entire album similar in musical spirit to their 1998 collaboration Painted from Memory, leading to a late-in-life revival Tony Bennett-style.

Amy Winehouse If only she were alive to enjoy it. 

And five I just want to come back!

1. Fiona Apple

2. David Bowie

3. Shania Twain

4. Everything But the Girl

5. Shara Nelson

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Great Meals, Bad Company: Is It Rude to Send and Receive Text Messages at the Dinner Table?

Last night I had possibly the most delicious non-Thai-food meal I've had in Bangkok (cream of corn and crab meat soup, and penne with Italian sausage, basil and juicy cherry tomatoes!). To borrow from 13th U.S. President Millard Filmore's final words, the nourishment was more than palatable.

The company? Not so much.

It's not that he wasn't chatty. Au contraire, we touched on a variety of topics, from diabolical exes to cartoon characters we're sure are gay (my picks: Yogi and Boo-Boo, Tweety, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck; his: Tom and Jerry). And he picked up his half of the tab: 500 baht, or about $17, making it the most expensive meal I've had since I arrived in Southeast Asia.

So what made me wish I'd been able to enjoy this fantastic Italian meal in the company of no one? My dinner companion's buzzing cell phone. For the first 30 minutes after we sat down, he kept picking it up, reading and typing. I excused myself to use the restroom, and when I returned, there he was, typing away. I made a mental note to myself -- How obnoxious! -- but I held my tongue. Then a beautiful couple sat down at the table next to us. The woman didn't look at the menu, or her date. She was too busy staring at her cell phone.

I couldn't keep quiet any longer. "That's so rude," I said. "She's having dinner with her gorgeous boyfriend, and she can't stop looking at her stupid phone." It was a passive-aggressive move on my part, but I'd made my point. My dinner companion knew I was talking about him, too.

"Well, how do you know they are boyfriend and girlfriend," he said, obviously trying to change the subject.

"Well, they're clearly not just platonic friends."

"Maybe they're married."

I decided I wasn't going to let him off the hook anymore. "Regardless, it's extremely rude to fiddle with your cell phone, or iPhone, or whatever, at the dinner table. If someone you love isn't being rushed to the hospital, there's no emergency that can't wait until 9 o'clock." (It was 8.11pm.)

There, I said it. He explained that the reason he had been on his earlier was because his friend had sent him a text asking if he was going to join him and some other people for dinner, and he didn't want to leave him/them hanging. He had already blown them off in order to accept my last-minute invitation.

I was flattered, but it was a flimsy excuse -- and it didn't explain 30 minutes of back and forth. Why hadn't he sent his friend a text message before dinner telling him that he'd made other plans? In order to avoid being rude to his friend, to whom he had already been extremely rude, he was being rude to me. None of it made any sense, but by then I'd lost interest in him and his excuses. I was more interested in the question of general cell-phone etiquette, at the dinner table and elsewhere.

Have we become so plugged in that we're constantly distracted, never truly living in the moment, enjoying -- and respecting -- the people who are right in front of us? I go out to bars, and I see guys standing around texting -- maybe sexting -- or trying to score on Grindr, and I go out to dinner and see whomever is sitting across from me doing the same.

Sometimes I miss the good old days when we focused our attention on our present company, unless someone hotter happened to pass by. We'd scold a dinner date for paying more attention to someone at another table than to us, or someone hitting on us in a bar while constantly looking over our shoulder, so what makes lavishing so much attention on a cell phone any different? There's nothing wrong with turning it off for an hour when you're having dinner with someone, or putting it away when you're ordering at the bar, or dancing shirtless on the stage.

Answering your cell phone during dinner, particularly in the middle of an intense conversation, may not be as bad as excusing yourself to go outside and have a smoke, leaving your dinner companion alone at the table (yes, I've been there, too), but it comes pretty close. Years ago, I went on a first date with a guy who interrupted our discussion to answer his cell phone during dinner and proceeded to talk to whomever was on the other line for a good five minutes. It was July 4th, and as we watched the fireworks later on, I decided that I wouldn't be seeing him again.

And then there was Paolo, an Italian I met in New York City in 1999. It was love at first sight. A few months later, I went to visit him in Milan. We had a lovely time together, in-between his cell-phone conversations. I appreciated that he usually kept them short and sweet (and I was charmed by how he answered it: "Pronto!"), but we could barely make it through a sentence without the damn thing ringing, and he always had to answer it. I saw him a few years ago in Buenos Aires, and I was shocked -- and thrilled -- that not once during dinner were we interrupted by his cell phone. Maybe over the course of 10 years, he'd learned that there's a time and place for everything.

My dinner date last night apparently doesn't believe in such boundaries. He accused me of not living in the 21st century. If he has the means to be in constant contact with his friends, why not take advantage of it? It's not that I'm old-fashioned, but technology doesn't absolve us of the responsibility to exercise good table manners. Just as you shouldn't take a week, or more, to respond to text messages and emails, there's no need to read and respond to every single one as it comes in. Has the Facebook/iPhone age created a civilization of uncivilized people who have such sophisticated means of communicating but no longer know how to communicate?

A few weeks ago I lost my Thai cell phone, and one of the reasons why I haven't replaced it is because I wanted to see if I could get through a few hours -- or a workout -- without being reachable. (Surprise! I can.) I remember once, about a year before I left New York City, I texted a guy on whom I had an unrequited crush while I was working out. It was 8am on a Saturday morning.

"Where are you at this early hour?" he responded a few minutes later.

"I'm at the gym."

"Good for you. But shouldn't you be paying attention to the weights and not sending texts?"

He had a point. I put the phone away and returned to my workout. My dinner date last night wasn't going to go down without a fight, though. He made some truly ridiculous arguments, like this one: Since he's known his friend longer than he's known me, politeness to his friend takes precedence. So how would he explain blowing off his friend, to whom he owes a greater degree of courtesy, to dine with me?

Dinner was over, and so was the conversation.

"Check, please."

As I went off into the night -- alone -- I made a mental note that I'd definitely be returning to that restaurant -- alone.