‘Mid90s’, middle ground: lacking inspiration.

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Mid90s proves that standard movie tropes are always familiar no matter how you dress them up. And first-time director Jonah Hill has certainly earned kudos for dressing his new film up to fit its epochal title: one only has to glimpse a few grainy frames (purposely shot on 16mm film for added effect), to be transported back into the last days before the millennium: compact discs, baggy clothes, big hair and of course a nostalgic soundtrack by a seminal voice of the era, Trent Reznor.

Although the title references an entire cultural zeitgeist, the film is far from being all-encompassing in scope or subject. Instead, it’s an insular story built on specificity, resting under a rather prosaic and vague title for lack of keener inspiration, which is its biggest flaw.

The story begins in Los Angeles during its titular time period, with a young preadolescent boy named Stevie. Hounded by his boorish older brother from the opposite end of the adolescent spectrum and given free rein by a lais·sez-faire mother suffering from arrested development, Stevie is primed for one of cinema’s biggest clichés: a summer he’ll never forget.

This leads into another hallmark of the period: the skateboarding underworld, when Stevie sets his sights on befriending a group of older boys at the local board shop.

As soon as he unremarkably worms his way into the affections of the boisterous but nonthreatening slackers, his story ticks off the requisite milestones of coming-of-age and its subgenre of films: exhilarating new experiences, wise mentors, chafing against his family, high jinks that just skirt the line of true danger and serious trouble.

Since the plot is standard framework, the question is if the parts make up for the sum. Stevie is competent enough as a protagonist: he fits the bill in looks and temperament, without hitting any false notes. The home life he shares with his threadbare family never truly generates a sense of urgency, which curbs any added weight to his arc. Stevie’s older brother and young mother aren’t guilty of anything beyond typical dysfunctional fare: physical taunts from the former and distractions by the latter. As for Stevie’s newfound entourage: they border on caricatures, with raunchy nicknames and slight characterizations that are as nuanced as a junior high yearbook.

 The film suddenly hits a climax that can only be described as inorganic and again, contrived—but this is in keeping with its steadily innocuous tone. Mid90s doesn’t seek to innovate or make a statement. It’s a light tale that never truly triumphs or fails abysmally either—inhabiting a safe middle ground of familiarity, evident all the more by its usage of epidemic-level nostalgia for a past era that’s bound to pique audience interest. It’s the only true star of the movie; without it, it would lose half of its distinction.

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Nobody Walks in L.A.

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L.A. has the worst pedestrians in the world—because we’re not used to them. It’s bad enough that it takes forever to drive a relatively short distance in this town due to traffic, but when you need to drive through an intersection and a person dares to walk across it first? It’s enough to make you curse the existence of humanity.

Sometimes it’s truly a test: on more than one occasion, I’ve been delayed by the truly physically impaired. Of course I empathize and wait patiently on those occasions, but those moments feel tailored to test the utmost limits of my character. It’s like halting an epic sneeze or cutting off a bowel movement midstream: the absolute urge to purge and the terror of following through with such a deplorable act calls for your every last nerve to reverse the impossible.

On one such occasion, I had to make a left turn from a moderately busy lane; a slew of cars rolled through in the opposite direction, deterring me. My receptors were already piqued because this traffic was a tad unusual for this area given it was an early Saturday evening. I scanned my target intersection, and saw two young men idling by on skateboards. They cleared before the train of cars did. Impatient, I began to eyeball the nearest traffic light up ahead that could clip this parade to my left. Then I saw it:

A disheveled, middle-aged man ambled arduously forward towards my designated cross street—on crutches. What’s more—in my periphery, I caught an aberration on one of his legs—yes, his right leg was amputated around the knee. Immediately, my mind jumped to do the math: at his laborious pace and with the yellow light imminent up ahead, he would reach the intersection just as the cars on my left cleared.

I wasn’t in a rush. I wasn’t even angry at him. I was just resolutely amused that this was happening. It felt so indicative of this city. Here I was, driving a car that still functioned well past its purported expectancy, with takeout on my passenger seat—no plans for the night, half a mile from home—and normally I would’ve flipped out at this pedestrian who dared to cross a public street in direct tandem to me turning into it, except that in this scenario the perpetrator was possibly a transient with clear physical limitations and little to no means by the looks of his tattered appearance.

If I had flipped the switch into full selfish pig mode at that very moment, even just privately in the confines of my car—I knew it still would’ve been a sin, in the eyes of my conscience and whatever god may exist. I could see an audience of my fellow human beings at that very moment as well, sneering and groaning at me if I were to recall the story on stage or if they were privy to it via a hidden surveillance camera—satisfied in their smugness that I was more terrible than they were, convinced that they would’ve felt nothing but angelic compassion in my position.

I drove home and lamented it all: the feckless logistics of this town, the cruel irony of fate, the snide hypocrisy of humans and my own presumptions about them—and my inability to resist being affected by all of this.

Movie Review: ‘It’ doesn’t deliver

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Unless you’re from the tail end of Generation Z, you at least know what Stephen King’s It is about already. The question is if the new film is a worthy take on the classic novel, which had only been filmed once as a well-known 1990 TV mini-series. Spoiler alert: I did give in to nostalgic curiosity and re-watched the original version before viewing this new one. Don’t worry: although I’d long revered it as a fearful preteen back then, I was shocked to find now that it was rather underwhelming—a mild, moody drama with some decent scares thrown in.

So I was primed and as objective as possible to the prospective terrors of an ambitious new take from the best that Hollywood has to offer today. From the opening scenes in the film that lead to the introduction of Pennywise the clown, otherwise known as the title namesake It, the movie looked promising.

Unfortunately, it didn’t exceed expectations from there. First off, Pennywise the clown is the centerpiece of the entire story, hence the title. Without his terrifying image or concept of menacing evil, the story isn’t effective. Not to sound like a purist, but for lack of a better example: the original Pennywise played by Tim Curry in the mini-series was far more sinister. Although his looks were barely a step away from a typical birthday clown, that’s what made him frightening: he was plausible. Here was a clown that could exist in your neighbor’s backyard, surrounded by innocent children—yet there was a studied vitriol to his gaze and a barely controllable sneer to his painted red lips. When he opened his mouth to lunge at last—that spray of razor sharp teeth only solidified our very fears. The new Pennywise, played by Bill Skarsgard, is so stylized he’s as flat as a joker from a playing card. And as engaging. His appearances are not particularly memorable and are often upstaged by the other manifestations of “fears” that he lobs towards his victims, in the forms of an abusive father, a distorted painting of a woman, and a headless child from a history book.

What about the rest of the characters? The story centers around a gang of “losers” in the late 1980s: seven misfits from the local junior high in Derry, Maine, who congregate as a means of survival from the social hierarchy of their peers—and eventually, from the deadly curse that Pennywise has inflicted on the town for nearly a century. The child actors that portray them are all competent, but only three of the characters are given any distinct personalities that leave an impression: Bill, the stuttering de factor leader and protagonist who wants to resolve the death of his little brother from the opening of the film, is appealing and bright. The group’s lone female member, Beverly, stands out not just for being a girl—but because she gets the most screen time to develop her troubled back story that includes an abusive, preying father. Richie, the loudmouth comic relief of the group, is memorable by default because he’s the most vocal and biting. The rest of the kids aren’t fleshed out particularly well—they end up being ciphers who just provide physical power and exposition to the story.

As for the story itself, it lags in places and could have benefited from more urgent pacing—given this is a horror story, where timing is of the essence. Although the film is inevitably going to lapse into some preteen requisites, which is fine for the sake of character and plot development: crushes, friendships, betrayal, etc.—the overall story suffers as a result. Although the original novel was sprawling, it somehow seemed too unnecessarily long onscreen.

It’s fitting that this movie takes place in the 1980s because the special effects for the film seem to be right out of that era, almost. Although visual effects should never be relied on to propel a horror film—they are surprisingly disappointing and innocuous in this movie, given today’s technological advances. Since the movie suffered from middling pacing as well, that left for very little to keep me at the edge of my seat. By the time the movie hit its climactic standoff between Pennywise and the brave, bereaved kids, I gave up my search for something truly terrifying to materialize.

Overall, I don’t think this film will join the pantheon of truly classic horror films in my eyes. The hype clearly overshadowed the actual execution of the story onscreen. It ended up just being another underwhelming horror flick.

Movie Review: Tepid ‘Water’

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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

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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

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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

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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.