Movie Review: Tepid ‘Water’


The Shape of Water reads like an episode of The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits—and not even a good one at that. It’s amusing, slight, but certainly no opus. From the promotional art and trailers, one can already get a clear sense of the inevitable plot: outcast human falls for outrageous human-like animal. It’s bound to be unconventional and exciting, but thoroughly predictable.

When Sally Hawkins’ mute heroine opines that her shocking new lover “doesn’t judge her”, it’s utterly expected. The fact that she’s mute suddenly proves nothing more than a plot convenience for an otherwise typical odds-against-them love story.

Granted, the film shouldn’t be punished solely for lack of originality—what film can truly achieve such a feat in a world where storytelling stretches back millennia? The problem is that it also rests on clichés in execution as well: Elisa, the heroine, lives in an unnamed metropolis above a quaint movie theater and works in a drab factory as a janitor in the mid-twentieth century. The sets for these two locations and the urban landscape in between is utterly a twenty-first century take on such a place.

There is no genuine sense of remove. Again, this film could almost fit snugly on the small screen, within any season of a sci-fi drama series. For a film that aims to be unorthodox and novel in concept—it plays it safe. It could have gone full noir—texturizing the edges of the urban landscape, heightening the grimmer aspects of its story—visually and tonally. But it never does. It’s entirely paint by numbers, counting on audiences to relish the singular anomaly of interspecies love—like a single wilting rose, when it could have been a bucketful.

In an age of increasingly fanciful storytelling and visuals (mostly found on the more risk-prone modern television medium), this film feels hopelessly quaint for all the wrong reasons: it’s not provocative or unusual, but pretends to be.


Movie Review: ‘Beach Rats’ is relevant, compellingly told


In an era where gay issues have been at the forefront of social change and a visible part of mainstream culture with no signs of turning back—regardless of the new presidency in the U.S.—a film like Beach Rats stands out simply for not being politically correct.

How many films in the second decade of the new millennium center solely on a young man living in a premiere urban mecca in the U.S. yet refuses to come to terms with his clear proclivities for other men?

Frankie is a nineteen-year-old, born and raised in Brooklyn along its fabled beachfront that invites the lifestyle for which the movie is named for: his routine involves getting high on the beach with a pack of similar-looking bro’s, often topless or decked in wife beaters during the swampy summer months. It would be idyllic if it weren’t for his covert internal struggle.

Unbeknownst to his virile buddies, Frankie also engages in meaningless sex with older men, whom he meets on a very contemporary platform: a hookup website. From the very first such exchange that he attempts in the film, it is clear that Frankie is hesitant and discreet with this pastime.

And although it’s already been a couple of years since the Supreme Court overturned gay-marriage bans in the U.S., it’s clear why someone like Frankie would still be stuck in the past no matter how fast the rest of the world is moving: entrenched in ostensibly lifelong friendships with typically meathead bro’s, with no prospects of his own—educationally or professionally, not to mention his dying father and somber home life—it’s no wonder Frankie doesn’t want to make waves.

It’s easy to forget that this world—including supposedly progressive countries like the U.S.—is still full of stories like this. They could be in your own backyard, even if you live in a major metropolitan city.

Frankie’s narrative propels further into deeper waters when he encounters a young woman on the boardwalk who openly pursues him. He instinctively goes along with the courtship because she is the right age, beauty, and temperament.

Naturally, tensions and conflicts escalate as Frankie continues to lead concurrent lives that are at odds with one another.

What makes this film rise above whatever connotations that may haunt it—the themes of shame, deception, and meaningless lascivious activities for gay or bisexual men—is its lack of judgment. This isn’t a film about the triumphs of being gay, and it’s not supposed to be. Sure, there have been more than enough films like this since time immemorial, but it’s still part of the gay experience, progress be damned.

The style of the film also beckons for a more sympathetic ear to such a subject. The laconic, natural pace is almost voyeuristic—heavy on visual and mood, over unnecessary plot developments. Frankie is not just a cipher, although it’s easy to label him one due to his reticence and ambiguity as a character. Although none of the other characters are effervescent either, they’re also not mouthpieces for exposition or pedantic moralizing. They feel like real people you meet in passing, even if you don’t get a full chance to know them entirely.

Beach Rats is obviously an old story—closeted homosexuality—but it manages to breathe new life into it through an unlikely setting and character by default, and an uncompromising vision of the subject. Taken on its own merit, outside of our cultural context—it’s simply well done.

City of Broken Dreams


I volunteer at the local gay center occasionally. It’s located in the heart of Hollywood—on Santa Monica Boulevard, just off of Highland. If you go a bit further north on Highland, you’ll hit Hollywood Boulevard next to the Kodak Theater where they used to hold the Academy Awards.

I don’t live too far away, geographically, but as with everything in L.A. it’s cultural disparity that separates us, not distance. Driving up from my nondescript, low-key neighborhood of West L.A. adjacent to Beverlywood, I’m essentially wading into the gritty, smoggy, unfamiliar waters of Hollywood when I venture there. More discerning people would have ardent reservations even going there, barring an absolute emergency or valid necessity. Geographic prejudice is just one of the many charming traits of Angelenos you’ll discover here. I’m certain many of them take gleeful pride in it, much as they would a fine set of hair or an official job title.

One Monday morning, I gamely made the commute to do some filing for an upcoming event at the Gay Center. It was pleasant—getting out of my routine to help out with a good cause, while brushing shoulders with people I otherwise would never encounter on my own. The free pizza and cookies were just a bonus.

Halfway into my shift, I had to move my car to avoid parking regulations. Walking amidst the nearby adjacent residential neighborhood, I got into my vehicle and circled around onto Highland Avenue and parked, then trekked back to the Center. This unremarkable act evoked volumes to the intensity of this city and its continuing unfamiliarity to me.

Within such close proximity to the Gay Center, several of its constituents were milling about in surplus: an African American transgender woman strutted down Highland Avenue, bemoaning the heat under her breath. A pair of young gay men, stylishly dressed, sauntered northward on the street. A lone gay man in his late thirties to early forties, glanced at me curiously as I reached the crosswalk.

The street glowed under the unseasonable heat for late October—all concrete, metal, and glass—cars and casually dressed denizens moving forward with purpose. Businesses held shelter like virtue.

Back at the Center, a middle-aged man and woman danced and frolicked to music from a boombox while a small, hairy dog looked onward at their side. Their diligence seemed to equate with rehearsing for an imminent performance in the future. They paid me no mind, and I didn’t with them.

It was at that moment that I tied everything together. I realized that I no longer possessed a sense of wonder that is synonymous with youth. Not too long ago, I would have been tickled with simple amusement at the sight of this quirky couple and their canine cohort. I would have mused over their arbitrary efforts and location—the myriad possibilities of their intentions and origins.

I would have felt joy at watching the nearby city streets emitting their own special music, new to my ears as a visitor. The pedestrians and storefronts would have told stories that I knew would continue on without my witness—the mystery of it all intriguing me.

I would’ve felt this like a child on a Saturday morning: plain reverence at the beauty of life and all it had to offer on one special day. Now? I’d woken up on a new day, and didn’t recognize what I saw in the mirror anymore. Or I did—I looked just like the hardened cynics who had scoffed at me whenever I expressed unmitigated wonder in this city.

I realized: there was no sense of wonder for me anymore, because there was nothing new for me to see in this city. I knew the end of each story now, or rather: I knew where I belonged in the context of each one. I knew what to expect. I’d been trying in vain to make a connection in this fractured city, to no avail. What did that tell me?

Without ambiguity, there is no need to be curious anymore. This is why people settle down and stop exploring. It isn’t necessarily a choice. It’s an acceptance of who you are and how you are received in this world. I was just holding out on it for much longer than most.

Clothes Don’t Make This Man


Please do not judge me by what I wear. Clothes are merely functional to me. Yes, I do believe people should at least wear something decent and flattering to their physique. I’m aware of the other extreme and even I am critical of it: I’ve met people who don the sloppiest of attire and it is truly unbecoming of them. I’m aware that there is a valid argument for each person’s responsibility for presentation. But, and I’m aware that I’m proposing my own biased mindset here: we shouldn’t expect more than that minimum, from everyone.

I’m not knocking fashion. Like all creative mediums, it’s an art form in its own right. If you are passionate about it and truly embrace this medium as a form of self-expression: more power to you. But like all art forms—not everybody is interested to the same degree. There are cinephiles who don’t read. Bibliophiles who loathe movies. Foodies who don’t watch films. Fashionistas who don’t care for film. You catch my drift. To hold everyone to the same standard is an imperfect mindset, because like all arts, it’s subjective—and like I said: not everyone is interested to the same degree.

I would wear a potato sack if I could. I’m too busy devoting my time to books, movies, and music—aha, see—I do have aesthetic sense. It just doesn’t extend itself into what I wear. The fact that I love moody alternative rock music does not translate into “moody, alternative” clothing—unless The Gap is considered edgy now. My predilection for obscure, artsy foreign drama’s is hardly conveyed in my completely clean canvas of skin—free of tattoos, piercings and adornments as the day I was born. If you took one look at me and did me a solid by guessing my taste in culture based on my wardrobe, you’d swear I was a Maroon 5 and “Paul Blart” movie fan. (Hint: those are not good things.).

There you go. Sure, there could be some validity in addressing my (lack of) style sense. The decision to not indulge in expressing myself through clothing is a revelation in of itself. If I had to guess, it would mean: I’m reserved, private about my passions and interests, and maybe just maybe—I’ll give this much to my most vicious critics—a tad conservative, but only when it comes to appearance. I don’t worry too much about the latter, because my dark sense of humor and world view is anything but.

See? Even the way I express myself does not translate into what I wear. My closest friends would attest that I’m quite unusual in my beliefs and interests. I’m the one who wants to try new things, go for the unconventional, is inherently bored by the ordinary. And yet: I probably wear the most ordinary clothes out of everyone.

It’s fair to say that we do start out with no fashion sense as children. But as we grow and discover our identity and sensibilities, it’s natural for us to start determining how we present ourselves on the outside. Some of us invest more time and effort into this than others. Somewhere along the way, I didn’t quite make this leap. Sure, I do have some taste in clothing for sure—I know what I’m comfortable wearing and not wearing. But I never went further than the minimum. I never incorporated notable depth into the armor that one wears on the outside, in this world.

I feel like I’m starting to go in circles while waving my own flag here, so I’ll leave it on this: people can express themselves in many forms, so don’t just start and end with their appearance. For some, that is the last place where they would convey any of their expression. Sounds crazy, but it’s true. Dig deeper. Look in other places. Listen and engage, before you judge a person’s character. That cliché “don’t judge a book by its cover” was supposed to be used in real life, you know.




Do the Oscars Matter Anymore?


It’s that time of year again: when people come together to talk about what some famous actresses wore—who wore it best—oh, and which film won Best Picture. Probably something artsy and serious. Sometimes it’s deserved—a film of true excellence and craftsmanship in writing, acting, and directing. But usually it’s just a film that you may or may not have seen. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve decided all serious dramas will be relegated to DVD viewing—‘cause, you know: why do I need to see talking faces on a big screen?) Also, movie prices are astronomical, so—okay, I see it: I’m part of the cycle and why Hollywood is nickel and diming every potential film that passes through their gates in the hopes of production. No wonder they’re settling for the bottom line so often—a “sure” thing (read: sequel, prequel, or remake of something that did legitimate business once). But I digress.

Anyway, it’s the Oscars again. And of second most importance, it is 2017. I make a point of the year because frankly, I don’t believe the Oscars are nor have been the same for a long time now.

I often wonder what my younger doppelganger today would think of this Hollywood pastime now. What do young, budding (okay, and gay!) dreamers like me today think of this rapidly declining tradition of awarding the “Best” in Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences?

Cut to: me in the early 1990s. Maybe because things often look better in retrospect or I just didn’t know any better because I was a kid, but: the Oscars felt like they meant something back then. The five, count ‘em, just five nominated films for Best Picture (more on the topic of that category being expanded to ten nominations later) really felt like they earned that coveted spot. Each film that was nominated felt special, and it was usually a tight race that was more or less about merit and not just politicking by studios and adhering to social trends of the day.

Culturally, budding gay—I mean, budding dreamers of all stripes only had a few outlets to view their favorite stars back then: People magazine, and “Entertainment Tonight”. Which meant we were primed and hungry to see all these stars convene on one epic night—a smorgasbord of glamour, glitz, and at least to an idealistic kid like me back then: talent!

The Oscars have been cheekily dubbed “The Superbowl for Women”—in terms of annual cultural impact and significance. But unlike the actual Superbowl, the Oscars have been morphing and changing notably, and gradually eclipsed by other smaller Superbowls in the past two decades.

In the age of Twitter, TMZ, and the E! Channel, we can literally follow our favorite stars online 24/7 to see what they ate for breakfast or what color their kids’ poop is; spy on them as they exit an airport terminal via shaky video footage, or consume their daily lives in a craftily executed weekly reality TV show.

With these enlightening options that we’ve been blessed with through technical progress, the mystery of what it means to be rich and famous and talented has become rote and accessible in ways never before imaginable.

I have a feeling my teenage doppelganger today would view the Oscars the same way I viewed silent films or drive-in movie theaters when I was a teen in the 1990s.

Perhaps in response to this changing culture (read: poorer ratings for the telecast—undoubtedly due to the Academy’s penchant for nominating “serious” films that don’t do much business at the box office)—the category for Best Picture was expanded to include up to ten nominees, in 2009. The Academy claimed this was a throwback to the early years in the 1930s and ‘40s, where there were up to ten nominees per year—but many cynical observers assumed it was a blatant attempt to nab more viewers for the annual show. The quip “Are there even ten films worthy of being nominated every year?” hit the web quicker than you could say ‘Action!’. Incidentally, the Oscars suffered its lowest TV ratings ever the previous year, so read into the subsequent change however way you want.

As I alluded to earlier, I could relate to the criticism on the merit of today’s films—let alone their worthiness of being nominated for such an honor. In our current cinematic climate, I think the cap of five nominees is/should’ve been more relevant than ever—an elite prestige worth striving for, artistically.

Nearly a decade later, the expansion of nominees hasn’t made a mark on me as an Oscar viewer or a movie fan. If anything, it makes it harder for me to remember what films were nominated each year—but that could be more of a reflection on my waning interest for the show altogether.

In 2016, the Academy was confronted with yet another issue—this time one of moral. The lack of diverse nominees that year spurred a boycott by many African-American artists and viewers, who claimed a racial bias against them. Although I understood the greater issue of diversity, as a minority myself even I had reservations about the campaign. Was the Academy biased, or were there simply no quality films that year that starred African-Americans (or other ethnic groups)? If it was the latter, for instance—the issue wasn’t the Academy, but the movie industry itself.

Nonetheless, in true form, the Academy reacted swiftly with their image in mind—claiming they would add a significant amount of women and people of color to their voting bloc. The validity of this gesture aside, the consequence of this detrimental publicity also left a viewer like me wondering how sincere future nominations would be. As well intentioned as the campaign was to shed light on the Oscars’ lack of diversity, the fallout could be that they might overcompensate and recognize films (not people, mind you) of lesser merit to meet political correctness.

This shifting of objectives and influences only aided the rapidly declining relevance of the Oscars in my eyes. It was not about simply awarding the best films anymore—but a commercial and social experiment gone awry.

But this was nothing new overall: the Oscars have always been about more than just the merit of moviemaking, of course.

I turned eighteen when the world entered a new millennium in 2000, and the year “American Beauty” won against a highly publicized award campaign for its chief rival nominee that year, “The Cider House Rules”. Maybe because I’d technically became an adult and therefore achieved full enlightenment at last, but the fact that a movie studio launched a publicity campaign to swarm voters to choose their film was not lost on me. Apparently, voters don’t just go into hibernation and pick winners, then emerge back into the real world alive and rejuvenated by the purity of their choices.

The validity of their choices has often been debated for other reasons as well: awarding an actor or director for their current, less stellar work simply to acknowledge their greater body of work is another common longstanding ploy.

That being said, it’s safe to say that the curtain has finally gone down on my love affair with the Oscars. Honestly, the last few years I’ve been less and less drawn to the extravaganza. As late as 2013, I still recall having a few vestiges of excitement that I’d had in my youth—feeling like I was witnessing something greater than myself. But the past two years and on the eve of this year, it’s dawned on me now that the heyday of the show has long joined the past. It doesn’t detract from the merit of truly good movies, but that’s the thing: good movies and the Oscars are not the same thing, and they haven’t been for a long time.

So it’s that time of year again—when people come together to talk about what some famous actresses wore—and who wore it best. Oh, and which film won Best Picture. Exactly. That’s all it is.



La La Land: The Story of Us (Review)


They say there are no new stories to tell, and nothing new under the sun—that phrase itself is a cliché, see. Yet we still need these tales, for ineffable and primal reasons. Why? Well, it’s ineffable—so sometimes it’s beyond words.

“La La Land” is one of the most familiar stories in the modern canon: girl has a dream of stardom and pursues it in spite of demoralizing setbacks. On top of that, it’s a love story between a girl and a boy—and the boy also has the same dream, essentially. This sandwich of familiarity is enough to send any quasi-cynic running for shade—and I don’t mean for cover. But oddly, many of us are still on board with this setup; so much so, that this film has become the breakout hit of the year: Oscar bait and pop cultural force. And for good reason: for many, it’s simply our story.

The film opens with an inventive musical nod to one of the hallmarks of the city of stars: L.A. traffic. In a gridlock on a steep highway overpass, passengers do the most natural thing in a musical: break into song and dance—jumping on top of their vehicles, courting each other out of their cars, and dancing on the concrete lane with unmitigated reverie, proclaiming in the song’s title how it’s “Another Day of Sun”. For a person who’s lived in Los Angeles longer than I care to divulge, this scene blew straight passed my jaded antennae and bowled me over with its unabashed whimsy. Instead of scoffing at the absurdity of it all, I wanted to join in.

At the song’s end, we meet Mia, played by pixie-ish but quirky Emma Stone. Mia is an aspiring thespian who heeded her childhood calling to tinsel town to realize her dreams of becoming a star—but mostly to tell stories through her craft, like every bleeding-heart artist on Earth. Although Mia is certainly likable, the film is less about character than plot and ideals. Stone is competent as always, but you guessed it: does not add a new wrinkle to this careworn archetype. She does add another notch to her increasingly impressive repertoire, proving that Hollywood may not be so shallow after all: in one scene, after a humiliating audition, Mia zips through a hall of Stone-lookalikes that are also vying for the part. In the elevator, flanked by two of these clones, she is clearly the least statuesque and nubile.

This doesn’t stop her from catching the eye of another aspiring artist, Sebastian—a somewhat aging (by Hollywood standards—read: thirties) jazz pianist played by the still smoldering and chiseled Ryan Gosling. He has the slightly more original dream of the two by default: to simply open up a jazz club, which is a feat because it’s a jazz club and this is the twenty-first century.

In a subdued, if not entirely original setup, Mia is drawn into a nondescript nightclub by the chords of a pensive tune that she hears Sebastian playing inside. This melody becomes a smartly recurring musical motif throughout the film. It’s there that she spies Sebastian, but thankfully it’s not love at first sight for either party. They meet again shortly after through serendipity (he’s a keyboardist at a Hollywood party that she attends), and the inevitable develops between these two passionate artists—cue: excoriating debates on the merits of their crafts and the plausibility of their dreams to secure them, and—romantic love. They inspire each other and cheer each other on, unsurprisingly.

These scenes are padded by more musical numbers—less grandiose in overall production, but still charming and catchy—particularly the lovely, haunting theme of the film, “City of Stars”. These numbers also continue to pay winning tribute to more L.A. trademarks and locales like the Griffith Observatory, beach piers and the Watts Towers. The film does lose its musical momentum in the second half of its story, which will not go unnoticed by musical connoisseurs. For novices like me, it’s the best of both worlds: I enjoyed the songs far more than I’d expected from a traditional film musical, but I was just as happy to be saddled with plain plot and character in the interim, however uneven.

I won’t disclose too much of the remaining plot, because it’s no trouble guessing for a proverbial tale as this anyway: the story reaches its emotional apex when Mia can’t bear another humiliating failure, and hits the sore spot many viewers who bought into this story for personal reasons, fear most—pondering that she may not be destined for greatness after all.

Nonetheless, the ensuing conclusion is probably what you’d expect for both aspiring artists in a film like this. And with that, this is the reason why these familiar stories still work: we need to be reminded that things are possible. It’s not cliché; it’s human—which one came first? (Well, frankly the human—but one thing informs the other). Notably, the movie does handle the love story between Mia and Sebastian with less hackneyed results, and I will leave that utterly out of this review for the viewer to discover on their own.

“La La Land” is nothing new, but it’s a tale we’ll never grow tired of because (many of us) will always care about the things it cares about.

Pop Culture and Me: a Forbidden Love Affair


No one expects me to like pop culture. I believe two key factors play into this: my race, and my lack of style. I’m not going to change either one. Or the unyielding fact that I’ve always been quite enamored by pop culture.

Okay, my race I can’t change. But could I change my style so that it translates into a media-savvy hipster? Or at the very least, someone who looks like they watch TV?

How does that work? Should I wear “Walking Dead” t-shirts? Get a “Breaking Bad” Tattoo? Wear everything I see from Forever 21 to prove that I’m just like everyone else?

The funny thing about being misunderstood is that although we loathe it, we secretly enjoy it too—because it proves that there’s more to us than meets the eye.

I suppose there are some people out there who are happy being simple and straightforward—easily “read”, or as the kids call it these days: basic. See, I am hip enough to know that.

For the rest of us, we instinctively feel that that translates to being shallow, which is generally seen as a pejorative term unless you’re a reality star. Check. I know what constitutes a reality show star.

The truth is, I do play a role in my own conundrum too. It’s my lack of desire to assimilate on some levels that distances me from my peers, which fosters animosity and misunderstanding. But if I’m not interested in jumping on the latest bandwagon, that’s my right too. And being an individual does not preclude an awareness of what’s current in popular culture.

It’s not all bad either, to be fair. When I mentioned something about the Golden Globes one year (yes, I’m even an awards show junkie), a friend innocently remarked: “Wow, I thought you’d be—too cool to watch something like that.” Aww, ain’t that sweet? So maybe there is a contingent out there that isn’t attacking my character when assuming things about me. They’re simply deeming me to be more enlightened than I actually am, which is flattering—and less insulting.

But alas, I can succumb to frivolity as much as the next person. Who doesn’t enjoy the latest celebrity news? It’s like a large order of McDonald’s French fries: not good for you, but you’re not interested in being a saint. You’re allowed an indulgence once in a while. How utterly boring would it be if we only did things that were ethically “good” and enriching for us? If that were the case, there’d be no decent TV shows, movies, or music. We’d all be wearing white robes and chanting scriptures and talking about nothing more provocative than the weather.

So there you have it. The unremarkable reason why a person like me can enjoy the latest Adele album or the Oscars is just that: it’s human nature. Sometimes the simplest answer is the hardest one for people to see or accept. Apparently.