Saturday, August 25, 2012

Two Dead Armstrongs

One many believed didn't go to the moon.

Another, many know for a fact, got syringes up his moon.

I just came up with that. Maybe you've already heard it twenty times in America. Let me enjoy my witticisms here in Vietnam, I'm at a disadvantage.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Britney Spear

It's his birthday, and he's feeling it.

One who is usually placid and still, 'Hero' (we'll call him Hero), on this day, was scattered light on a disco ball.

"Mr. David! Mr. David! It's my birthday! Let's listen to some Britney Spear when we are finish!"

I have occasionally played some pop songs as listening exercises. The Carpenters, Jackson 5, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was music I could easily justify. Melodic, chaste, and easily understood lyrics are a requirement. If there's a Britney Spears song with one of those qualities, run it by me please.

"Mr. David, what does 'Radar' mean?" Hero asks simultaneously as he raises his hands.

I'm puzzled.

"It's a name of a Britney Spear song, Mr. David," his trusty neighbor and musical ally explains.

I take out my cell phone and show them the reception bars to demonstrate a radar. A good radar gets you bars, a bad one doesn't. I look at him and the class for confirmation of understanding. Hero has his finger on his chin and delicately nods in agreement. A widening smile broadens his cheeks. The meaning of man's existence, or Britney's "Radar", had now become clear.

I turn around to the chalkboard and illustrate a radar beaming out a signal for the heck of it. It's his birthday, I'll entertain him a little. I turned back around to face the class, and in Hero's hand is a shrink-wrapped Nokia, a black and shiny bar of chromed chocolate. No sooner can I say "You shouldn't bring that to school" does a shockwave of sound surge from his hands. The speakers on phones today are damn strong.

A garble of bass, synthesizer, and female vocals fill the class, bringing smiles to all. Hero has his "Say Anything" moment with the phone in the air.

"No, no, you need to put that away," I say with calm.

"It's his new birthday present!" another classmate informs me.

Before I can tell him to shut it off, his little thumb traces the proper button, and then silence.

"Take out a pencil and a piece of paper," I ask the class, once the music dies.

I hear whispering in the back, where Hero sits.

"Is a 'Womanizer' a man or woman?" asks Hero.

This is a good class, and they know how to pay attention. But never like this. All twelve students' eyes on me, twenty-four pupils the size of bowling balls are suspended in rapt silence.

"I know the word 'Womanizer' has the word woman in it, but it is actually a man. When man and woman become boyfriend and girlfriend or husband and wife, they are together." I hold my two separate fingers together. "One man.One woman. Are there ever two men and one woman married together?"

The class laughs. "No way!"

"And does one man ever get married to two women?"

"No way!"

I pause. In my left hand, I then hold up two fingers. In my right, still one.

"Okay. Is there ever one boyfriend and two girlfriends?" I ask, unsure of the pending answer.

The boys respond "Yesss.....!" The boys' giggling is a little more pronounced than the girls.

"So. If a man is not married and has more than one girlfriend, he can be called a womanizer. If he has two girlfriends, he can be called a womanizer. If he has three-million, four hundred fifty six thousand girlfriends (we just had our unit on Large Numbers), he is a womanizer. Understand?"

The class comprehends with ease. And like Hero, I can see the satisfaction in their faces, that thrill of being able to finally comprehend an adult song.

"Can you be married and a womanizer?" a different girl asks, the strongest English speaker in class.

"Of core [course]. Stupid!" says the boy in front of her. I'm shocked at this kid's rapid response. English class for him is usually spent drawing pictures of mechanical dinosaurs on his textbook cover.

"Now, take out a piece of paper and a pencil. We are going to write some sentences. You have to write five, and I want you to include your family members and write 'FACTS' about them." I diagram it out on the board for easier comprehension.

"Oh my GOD, that's so easy!"
'God' is roared with the might of a lion. Like how the Flintstones were drawn running with only their feet moving, Hero's head and body are perfectly still as he stands up, but his mouth flaps like a kite in a windstorm. "I really like Britney Spear. One! My sister really love Britney Spear. Two! My Dad does not really like Britney Spear very much, Three! My Mom..."

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

and the City

Yesterday was a national holiday in Vietnam, so the students had a three day weekend. Upon being asked if they enjoyed their break, the majority said nothing special happened, that it was boring, or just declined to say anything. Seems awful early for teenage apathy. Unwilling to accept this jaded attitude, I pressed.

"Not a movie, not anything? The park, ice cream, out playing with your dog?"

A couple of students raised their hand.

"I went to Vincom to watch the...."
"The Rolex."
"It's The Lorax."
"Yeah, The Lorax."

"Oh, any good?"

"She lie! She go to watch Sex and the City!" one of the more loudmouth boys interjected.

The class breaks into laughter, the first sign of life.

I stare at the heckler. He looks back at me, undaunted: "Do you like Sex and the City Mr. David?"

I shook my head. "I've never seen it. You shouldn't, either."

The Rolex viewer, who sits the closest to me, sensed that I abstained from viewing the film for puritanical reasons.

"Mr. David. It's okay. There is no seck in Seck and the City. Only woman's fashions."

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Purple Plaid

David's shirt is unruffled at the waist.  The front looks about as it would on any other day and on any other man, yet the back reveals the rounded bottom which usually remains hidden. It had been cold enough in the past few months to force one to remain tucked in throughout the day, but the temperatures had been eventually creeping towards spring. And spring turns to summer in no time, a season in Hanoi as unforgiving as any found in Asia (ask John McCain). David's forehead was getting sticky, and he had to roll up the sleeves on his purple plaid, revealing more sweat on the little black hairs his forearms.

He'd been developing a nice little coffee addiction during the frigid winter, so his walk to the classroom was with adequate pep, and the stale heat of the hallway made him want to rush quicker into his classroom.
The painted metal class door with sporadic scratches from children's fingernails has a small square window. The students were already waiting inside, the bell not having rung yet. He made it a habit everyday to watch them through the little square window just before stepping in the classroom. More than half the kids were still groggy from their mandatory post-lunch nap.

David pushes open the door. The sleepier kids remain sleepy, but the more alert ones turn around to say hello. One homunculus with waist-length pigtails and wiry granny glasses  roams the center hall of the class, holding a pack of trading cards featuring English Premiere League footballers. Hands full, she points at her entering teacher.

"Mr. David! What?" she says with a booming voice which belies her size, age, and gender. She's looking squarely at his shirt from about three meters away.

David, holding a stack of books and some papers, looks down at his chest. He looks back at MM (we'll call her Mighty Mouse). Her stare could melt marbles, and it forces him to look back down at his chest again to see if he missed something the first time.

"That shirt! It makes you look Vietnamese!" Mighty Mouse wrinkles her forehead and sticks out her tongue, as if she had just bitten into a cockroach hiding inside her grapefruit.

David looks down at his shirt and tugs on it with this left index finger and thumb. It looks a little different than it did in his mirror this morning.

"Today's shirt was a really bad choice," Mighty Mouse says as she walks by David, giving his right sleeve a tug as she crosses. Half the class is still in another world, but a few of the other students hear Mighty Mouse's critique. They turn to examine his outfit from top to bottom.  A couple of them suppress frowns, and one stuck out his hand, spread his fingers, shook it and did the universal gesture for "Eh, you know, so so."

His girlfriend had left the shirt for him as a gift in absentia, a little present in lieu of her presence. David wore the shirt because he liked it. He could take comfort in the fact that their silence in his one hundred or so previous classes meant tacit approval of his wardrobe choices, yet the rejection of his and Zoe's joint fashion statement had him searching the class for looks of approval.

He never heard "Vietnamese" used as a synonym for 'poor fashion choice' before. He had never been aware that his 10-year old students were assessing his wardrobe on a daily basis.

David makes his way up to the front of the class. The bell rings. He lays the stack of books and papers on the desk. The students, as is routine, take out their necessary materials, and as they do so, David tucks in the back of his shirt. He also redoes the front. Running his hands through his hair, he notices a few more beads of sweat on his forehead than before. He then pats his hands down the front of the shirt, as if it would actually straighten out the slight wrinkles he had just noticed.

At their desks, the students look up at him with unguarded smiles. David smiles back.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Ryan Gosling

Why Ryan Gosling?

Because I saw "Drive" and "The Notebook" recently. Those are two of the past three films I've seen, and being that I've probably averaged two movie viewings a month the past year,  that common denominator seems worth noting. I haven't written in this thing in almost a year, and I love Chi Thu's movie reviews, so I wanted to join in the ring.

I am not in the American pop-cultural loop anymore, but I have a feeling that him being in 66% of the films I've seen recently isn't too shocking. He seems to be everywhere. He would have been in 75% of the films I've seen this month had it not been for Douglas's suggestion to skip "The Ides of March". He certainly is everywhere. He has his own actor section at Victory CD/ DVD on Hang Bac street here in town. It's fitting, his ubiquity. He's got the face of the American-everyman; or everyboy. He looks like that slightly racist kid down the street who was always talking about how much Hamburger Helper he ate and whom you hoped didn't come down your end of the block, asking to join your football game. 

"Half-Nelson" was the first Ryan Gosling film I've seen. He was fantastic in it, and yet, he couldn't shake off his Hamburger Helper-ness. I have this policy where I do not give any actor or actress credit for their chops if the role they made their big splash in was that of a drug addict. It's not hard to act the drug addict, because 
1) they might actually be drug addicts during the time of filming 
2) I act like a drug addict every single morning of my life for the first hour after the alarm wakes me up. 
"The Notebook" was popular, but I don't think he actually achieved special notoriety for his performance, so I think it's fair to say "Half-Nelson" was his coming-out party. Some would say it was "The Believer", but playing a Nazi or a neo-Nazi is commensurate to the drug addict, so my point remains the same - young man, can you really act? Is the emperor actually naked if there's not dollops of heroin or a swastika adorning his 
robe?*** Boy, I said, can you act? Boy?!

***I'm fully aware this analogy/reference makes no sense, but in a slightly inaccurate and lazy way, yes, it does.


I know this film got very positive reviews upon its release, yet I don't know the details of what the critical body as a whole found appealing. Here's what I thought. 

a. It's a director's film. What Nicolas Winding Refn (what a name) saw in the screenplay I will never know, but give a TV-movie director this script and you'll get a TV-movie. Two seconds of watching Refn's interpretation, and we know it's not a TV-movie. I've seen about 40 minutes of his previous film "Bronson" and other than Tom Hardy's performance, the film didn't make too much of an impression on Refn's behalf. However, "Drive" is 100% his movie. The acting is good, yet you get the impression that they too had been cast under the directorial spell of Refn. Not a single element of this film felt left up to chance. I don't normally gravitate towards films with that brand of strict control, but "Drive" worked.

b. I expected more driving than actually appeared in the film.

c. It's a black comedy, right?

d. I know for a fact that Refn will one day soon make a film that will feel unbearably over-directed. "Drive" is just about unbearably over-directed, but I think it needed to be. It would be far too simple were it not. And it also gave the film that oddball slant, which somehow lends itself to apparent universal appeal. Examples:

I. I want to know WHY he chose that font for the opening credits. Hipster irony? An homage to...what exactly? Pure anachronism for the sake of anachronism (which is hipster irony, actually)? Pink? Maybe it's a connection to the.....


II. ...... jarring pop songs peppering the film that feel utterly strange. Yet worked. I told Zoe if a viewer had told me that the songs Refn chose flat out ruined the film for them, could you really argue with that person? It clashes rather violently with a typical film of this bent.  As with many other directorial flourishes in the film, I honestly do believe that Refn is being completely sincere with his song choices. That these songs were the only ones he could ever consider to have in the film when the pieces were falling to place in pre-production. I don't find the film strange in a self-conscious way. It's sincerely goofy; oddball; miscreant.

III. The casting choices fall in the same vein as the music and opening credits. Many, many actors could play these roles, but to see Albert Brooks, Ron Perleman, Carey Mulligan, and Christina Hendricks in a small, inane, and fundamentally silly crime film straightened my posture a little bit more than if they weren't in it. Offbeat casting choices are nothing new in stylized crime movies, but the apparent lack of irony in the performances, again, gave the film a more sincere quality that it sorely needed for gravitas.

e. The scene where Gosling confronts Cranston after Gosling smashes the hitman's face in (if you haven't seen the film, I didn't ruin anything. People will die, graphically) sounded just like the scene I liked in "The Notebook". As in, Gosling's character in "Drive" sounded just like Gosling's character in "The Notebook". 

f.  I was eating chicken fajitas during "Drive". Somewhat fitting, as the film was set in California and Mulligan's husband and son were Mexican. It gave the film a more authentic feel.

g. The violence - ultimately, it detracts from the film. It got to a point of childishness. The intensity/thrill/shock/excitement/ of the initial thunderbolts of violence were powerful, yes. It then got to a point where it was expected. Subsequently, it then felt as if the director was relying on the violence as a crutch, and not other more subtle ways he had already exhibited skill at executing. It's like the child who tells you a joke you find unexpectedly funny. Then the kid tells it to you eight other times in the span of an hour and you want the kid to just scram.

h. Case in point - the scene where Ron Perleman dies is something to behold. It's a triumph that didn't need the violent effects. Alternately hilarious, dark, beautiful, unique, troubling, sublime, emotional, and detached. Can it be all of that? Those were the first words that came out of my mouth and I'm not changing it.

i. How is Gosling in it? He's good. Maybe not great, but I cannot see any actor being great in this film. It's Refn's film. It's a great career decision for him, to take on a role like this. The scene after he hammer's the bald guy's hand and pins him down in the strip club is an achievement for the cinematographer, the director, the set designer, and Gosling. He does this withering, psychotic, but all-the-time very downplayed thing as he gives mortal warning to the man being pinned. Gosling actually becomes something to be feared. That's good acting.

j. Mulligan is miscast, but you can't have dimples like that and be expected to turn down the thousands of roles surely being hurled at you daily. You're allowed to be off now and then.

I found the film genuinely strange and beautiful. It does justice to that side of Los Angeles.

Of course, his skull tasted like my onions and beans.

"The Notebook"

Zoe left me a copy of "The Notebook" on DVD for the week of Valentine's Day. She left me a gift  bag with a surprise inside for each and every week in which we would be apart from each other (if that gesture doesn't make your heart melt, your heart is stone. But I digress). I watched "The Notebook" last Saturday night while eating some muesli. I can still taste the whole grains, the cranberry raisins, and the lightly sugared soy milk imbued with the salt of my tears. I don't remember when I cried, but I did. It's a good film. Actually, I think it's a great film. I cannot say the name 'Nicholas Sparks' aloud in public without the mortal fear of somebody laughing at me, so I don't know really know what this film did right. I'll try to sort it out here:

a. The two leads are great actors. I think Rachel McAdams is easily one of the most versatile actresses going, and she was good in this (Gosling seems to have a nose for choosing good female costars). But I actually thought Gosling was better. I think the movie is more his character's (Noah?) than her's. Is that the general concensus? Maybe it's because I'm a boy, but I'm feeling his pain, man! Who among us has not wanted to outrun his limited familial finances by building a mansion, from scratch, with nothing but his own two hands in order to one day finish it in time to have the local newspaper write a feature on it that will inevitably coincide with the wedding announcement of his long lost love in order to effectively plant that seed in his desired one's head that maybe, maybe my wealthy fiance now, though equally kind-hearted, even more handsome, and coming from old-money, though we are a near perfect match, maybe that boy I had in the past, who can seemingly conjure up this mansion with nothing but the power of his nostalgia for having almost de-virginized me in the foyer-maybe this boy is better suited for me? Men can be swept away by this type of melodrama, too. And it works because Gosling has this particular strength about him that defies the inherent hokiness of such a scenario.

b. I thought the sex scene in that foyer was great. I liked the honesty. When McAdams (Allie? Alley?) asks "What are you thinking now?". It's a very wise scene. A film like this needs that kind of levity to make it work. Again, it's not so much the writing that carries it; it's the acting. (Was it actually a sex-scene or almost a sex-scene? As much as I like the film, I probably won't be watching it again any time soon. Did they have sex or not?)

c. I like how they talk in this film. The scene towards the end when Gosling is yelling at McAdams for being on the fence between him and Cyclops, from what I remember, Gosling repeats a few of his words. This is a pivotal scene, but directorially, it wasn't treated overtly in that way. When I am angry, I repeat things when I talk. I cannot think straight. Gosling was angry, and the wording felt very unpolished and fitting for that scene. The rest of the film did not feel like that one scene, as it shouldn't. The film is a big sweeping baroque romance with a WWII sequence (zzzz) for heaven's sake. But that one scene stood out by letting the raw emotions play out. It stood out for its understatement. I didn't expect that from a film like this.

d. If you look at the major dynamics of the film, I don't know how anyone could really even call this a girl movie. The guys are the ones in pain, not the girl. McAdams' predicament isn't really one that most women are likely to relate to. Sure, they might be torn between two men, but not from circumstances like the one in the film. She's got two near perfect relationships to grapple with, and the only reason she had the luxury/misery of having to sort out such a mess  is because McAdams was too lazy to go to the mailbox just one day out of those 365 days. In the age of email or text messaging, Joan Allen would have zero power on the first romance. This film came out in 2004, so women of today, you have no good reason to relate to any of McAdams' woes. 

The men in the film, on the other hand, have a much more relatable brand of pain. They simply long for better communication with the woman. Today, yes, Gosling's emails would reach McAdams, but I prefer not to take those undeliverable letters so literally and just see it as the eventual hurdle Gosling would have to encounter anyway. Likely, McAdams would meet Cyclops. That tug of war would be played out in some way shape or form regardless. McAdams would be confronted with her same set of questions. Gosling would be confronted with his fiscal limits. Cyclops would still be left in that painful no-man's land of asking his girlfriend on the telephone 'if everything is okay', knowing it's not, but still having her say 'sure sure, it's all fine.' I thought that was a great scene for that character and the movie. The men's pain feels genuine to me. Certainly, it's a pain women can feel as well, yet it is worth noting that it is viewed through the lens of the man rather than the woman.

Currently being played.

e. as further proof that McAdams's performance was stellar, as I have highlighted in point 'd', she could easily be that irritating woman-who-can't-decide-shit character, yet she never lapses into that.

f. that rowboat scene with the ducks is beautiful. 

Flip those ducks upside down and you'll find batteries.

g. I really can't say I cared much for the James Garner/Gena Rowlands scenes. They certainly don't detract from the film, but the deathbed scene at the end felt anticlimactic . They may have been talking throughout the film, but they already felt dead. When they actually died, it looked like a nap.
I think it's nice that the present day scenes lend more of a fairy-tale feel to their younger scenes, which I think is important in the film's credibility. However, there's this certain staleness to the present day geriatric scenes that feel momentum killing. It does make the film feel less 'slick', which the film needs. Still, I found the scenes awkward and clumsy. 

h. Why did I write point 'g'? This was supposed to be concerning why the film was good. Which it was. Good for you, Gosling, good for you. Muesli hasn't tasted the same since.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

I'm Not the Man You Think I Am

Hi everybody. 

I'm sorry if I've let you down. I know you've come to expect more from me, and to be perfectly honest, I expected more of myself. Fidelity and loyalty I consider two of my bigger strengths. I can no longer say I possess these qualities because of my recent actions. 

For the past three weeks, which is 21 days, I've eaten at a certain Bun Bo Hue restaurant about 18 of those days. Pho, I've probably eaten on 7 days. Bun Bo Hue is the winner. It is the best. It kills pho now. I am not the man I was.