Not Happily Ever After: Why the Disney Renaissance Ended…

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With the recent slate of Disney films being released to theaters, it could be mistaken that we’re in the 1990s again. In the past two years, Disney has released live action remakes of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Next year Mulan will follow suit. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is officially in the works now too. All of these films are based on blockbuster animated features from Disney that premiered in the 1990s.

They were part of the illustrious era of animated feature films known as the Disney Renaissance—from 1989 to 1999. And frankly, it’s easy to see why these films still seem to be relevant—chronologically and culturally: the generation that grew up with these films, mostly Millennials born between the early 1980s through the mid 1990s, have yet to reach age forty at most—and barely finished college at the least. They’re also a notoriously nostalgic group, like most Americans—but with an even more ubiquitous platform to perpetuate it—on social media and the Web.

They grew up with the Disney Renaissance and have ostensibly kept the relevance of its animated features alive—literally two decades after its official end. With at least half of the films from the era slated for reinterpretation as major live action films, their enduring grasp on popular culture is unquestionable.

As a member of this generation and a bona fide Disney buff, I cant attest that the memory of these films are indeed as vivid and fresh today as they were when I was at the target age for their appeal. They are touchstones of my childhood, imbuing me with a sense of wonder and a worldview that I still hold onto to this day.

Nonetheless, the Disney Renaissance did have a clear beginning and end. It veritably ceased to produce more new films to augment its original run, after 1999. As any Disney fan or even a casual observer will recall, subsequent animated features from Disney experienced a steep drop in popularity for nearly a decade afterwards, in spite of a continual output of releases then.

As a fan with unrelenting exposure to these animated films, I have arrived at a conclusion as to why the phenomenon of the Disney Renaissance drew to a close at the end of the last century.

My theory is rooted in the catalyst that started the Disney Renaissance and made it popular in the first place. Kick-starting the era in 1989, The Little Mermaid was the first fairy tale that the Disney studio had worked on in thirty years. This was largely why it was a resounding success, because it returned to the formula that had worked so well for Disney in the past: a fairy tale musical, centered on a princess. Disney had erroneously abandoned this formula for nearly two decades prior to this, and suffered commercially and artistically with audiences.

Per hindsight, however, I believe the rediscovery of this Disney formula during the Renaissance era would also become its own undoing. If the era had one fault, it was that literally every film adhered to the formula, stringently, with the exception of The Rescuers Down Under, an early entry to the era that proved to be a commercial misfire, tellingly. Every other animated feature between 1989 and 1999 consisted of: a beautiful or outcast protagonist—usually orphaned by one or both parents, amusing sidekicks, romantic interest, colorful villain, an epic setting, and a roster of songs that covered the requisite themes of life goals, romantic love, and villainy. This is not to dispel the considerable diversity of creative and technical achievement of the era—producing some of the most ingenious, memorable and astonishing feats of song, visual, and characters—not to mention an unprecedented level of representation for the first time from Disney (lead characters of different ethnicities: Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan).

Nonetheless it’s quite revealing to see that, when compared to previous eras of Disney animated features, no other era could be accused of the same homogeneity: the Golden Age, from 1937 to 1942, only had two films that featured romantic love, only one princess, and two clear musicals. The Silver Age had several films without romantic love or a musical format as well. These two eras are arguably the biggest rivals of the Renaissance, in popularity and artistic achievement. Both reached a demise for their own disparate reasons—economical downturn after 1942 due to World War II, and the death of Walt Disney in 1966, respectively.

The theory of redundancy during the Disney Renaissance had also possibly begun to take shape as early as the mid-way point of its run: after four stellar blockbusters from the studio, things suddenly slowed down with the release of Pocahontas in 1995. Widely viewed as the first critical let down of the era, things didn’t immediately return to form in 1996 or 1997 either, with the releases of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules. Both films failed to draw audiences back after the misstep of Pocahontas. Something was amiss.

Audiences were being drawn elsewhere too: computer animation. This is perhaps the most commonly held theory of why the Disney Renaissance came to an end: towards the end of the 1990s, a new medium was dawning—usurping traditional, hand-drawn (2-D) animation that Disney was known for. With the release of Toy Story in 1995, a resounding success not just for being the first major computer-animated feature but a true triumph of story, audiences found a new outlet for family-friendly films that appealed to all ages. A slew of computer-animated (or CGI) films followed in gradual succession for the rest of the decade and beyond, none of which followed the renowned Disney formula—and often to critical and commercial success, surpassing even Disney. If the Disney Renaissance proved that animated features could appeal to all ages, CGI animated films proved that they didn’t have to be based on classic, existing literature—opening the doors for innovations in story that just happened to be married to a very innovative technology, now coming to its own at the end of the twentieth century.

Although I agree that CGI certainly disrupted Disney’s momentum in the latter half of the 1990s—particularly since CGI animated features have ostensibly remained more popular with audiences and critics alike, and 2-D animation has never come back into vogue since—I still stand by my theory that it was more of content than just medium. Also, the onslaught of CGI feature-length films actually occurred rather slowly, and did not immediately crowd the market that 2-D Disney animated features dominated: after Toy Story was first released in 1995, the next CGI films were Antz and A Bug’s Life, both premiering in 1998. That left three full years in between, which subsequently saw the release of three Disney animated features to vigorously fill the void to maintain their stronghold on audiences—yet they didn’t. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Mulan were released by Disney during this period and though not critical or commercial failures, were far less renowned than their predecessors from the Disney Renaissance. Again, a malaise seemed to have settled with audiences, which could be read as a reflection of the medium’s output. Audiences surely weren’t just holding off for the next great CGI film, after only having witnessed the medium’s sole initial output in 1995. The average moviegoer had no idea how the CGI medium would eventually fare, though it was clearly a technological advancement. (It wasn’t until 2001, that the medium exploded with simultaneous releases of multiple CGI animated films, cementing it as a mainstay in cinema).

It was apparent that audiences had simply grown tired of the Disney formula, and so the business changed after 1999, just as it did after the Silver Age in 1967—when the studio entered a prior era of commercial and critical malaise, following the death of Walt Disney.

With that, it’s also helpful to understand what followed the Disney Renaissance: from 2000 to 2008, the Post Renaissance era indeed echoed the era that followed the Silver Age—the Bronze Age of 1970-1988, when the studio struggled to redefine its identity to audiences then too. The resulting films in the new millennium would reflect these efforts, striking into new territories such as Science Fiction, original stories not based on classic tales, even the CGI medium as well—which would be a portent of the studio’s eventual direction. Most of the films from this era didn’t quite resonate enough with audiences to turn them into classics.

The Revival era followed in 2009, with yet another rediscovery of the formula—with Tangled cementing Disney’s return to the zeitgeist, followed by Frozen. Both were clearly fairy-tale musicals centered on a princess, but married to the new CGI medium now, which Disney has converted to indefinitely to fit with the times. Aside from the new look, these films are quite similar to the Renaissance formula. Audiences responded and propelled these films into the public conscience as they did in the Renaissance era, hence the new namesake.

But if these new films from the Revival are following the same virtual formula as the Renaissance, why did the Renaissance cease in the first place? Shouldn’t it have endured, unabated, by sheer demand?

Again: we just needed a break. As a lifelong Disney fan, with the benefit of hindsight, I couldn’t fathom a Disney Renaissance-style film being released by the studio every year for the next two decades after Tarzan, the last of that era, in 1999. On some level, I would enjoy it purely as a diehard fan, but it would almost become campy—a parody of itself if you will. As much as audiences loved the Disney Renaissance, we can also sense artistic malaise. The formula had gotten monotonous and stale—again, already by the midway point of its era—and audiences clearly reacted with their wallets.

Does that mean that the Revival era is doomed to repeat history? Surprisingly, it may be averting this fate because: although it certainly has resuscitated the Disney formula, there’s one telling factor that separates it from the Disney Renaissance—it’s not following the formula for every new film. To their credit and maybe by calculation, they’re not just doing princess stories or fairy tales exclusively. Maybe that’s part of its success: Big Hero 6 and Zootopia are some of the titles that are as divergent from fairy tales and princesses as you can get. Both met with clear commercial and critical acclaim—unlike the misfires of previous eras that also strayed from the formula.

Whether they realize it or not, perhaps this is what audiences need. We will always love and adore princesses and fairy tales, but there needs to be variety. There’s nothing wrong with having a studio trademark (family-friendly films, music, artistic visuals), but the trademark can be broad and expand. Art is about change, pushing boundaries, and expanding possibilities. Sure, we do like some degree of familiarity—all art has a core familiarity: a movie has a beginning, middle and end; music has notes and instruments, verses and choruses. But along with familiarity we need variety.

Perhaps Disney has a new, unprecedented confidence and competency that is allowing them to achieve something they weren’t quite able to do in the past: successfully tell classic stories and original new stories, concurrently. Disney may have failed at pursuing either one at various times in the past, not because either one was theoretically bad—but because they just weren’t truly creating something exceptional. As mentioned, they were going through the motions after a certain point during the Disney Renaissance, settling into a creative ennui—or alternately, striking into new territory with dubious artistic vision, during the Post Renaissance for example. But if a story is truly told well, it can potentially succeed. Audiences will respond to something special even if it defies current trends, as they did when The Little Mermaid reignited this medium that had virtually gone defunct for nearly two decades, kick-starting the Disney Renaissance in 1989.

Will Disney get it right this time? We can only wait and see.

Any long-running institution is going to experience inevitable peaks and valleys in relevance and vitality—hence the different eras of Disney feature animation that exist in the first place. I am resigned to the eventual fate of the storied Disney Renaissance of my youth, because to borrow a platitude: good things can’t last forever. Sitcoms come to an end. Book and film franchises end—and can even be revived again after a certain period of absence (sound familiar?). The much-beloved Disney Renaissance is all the more revered because it wasn’t permanent and was limited in duration. It lends it a rarity that further incites gratitude and veneration. It was beautifully fleeting, as all life is.

It’s almost as if the beginning and ending of each era was inevitable—because like all art, Disney feature animation is an evolving medium. The studio is learning their craft in real time, and we get to watch it unfold onscreen.

 

‘Mind’ Games Keep You Guessing

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The Year I Lost My Mind certainly avoids current gay indie-film tropes, if not most cinematic tropes altogether, with its bizarre collection of idiosyncrasies.

On the surface, it’s a thriller about a troubled young man who dabbles in petty illegal activities, but its his particular tics and habits that amount to a tantalizing viewing experience, if for no other reason than to find out just what the hell is going on?

Tom is a pale, offbeat, lonely gay man in his early 20s, living at home with his mother and sister in Berlin. Our first introduction to him sets the tone: he dons a large horse mask, compelling his resigned mother to ask “Why do you enjoy having people be afraid of you?”

Her inquiry is apt. Things only get stranger from there as her moon-faced, taciturn son walks into stranger scenarios, often wearing a variety of more masks from his bountiful collection.

Tom soon breaks into a stranger’s apartment where the handsome tenant sleeps peacefully, unaware of the passive crime that hovers over him. Tom simply observes the unsuspecting young man, then leaves—making mental notes for some later transgression perhaps.

This leads to a low-grade stalking scenario, spread out over the course of the strange protagonist’s idle days, spying on his subject’s routine around town from a distance.

Through his increasingly disturbing habits, interests, and behavior, one gets the sense that Tom has not only been marginalized by mainstream society but by the gay subculture too, with his unconventional looks that preclude reciprocation when he’s witnessed making advances on other men.

Is this why he is acting out, morally and legally? And to what extent will it manifest?

A subplot unfolds, where Tom encounters a fellow masked man—larger, stranger, and more foreboding them him, at one of his haunts around town: the nearby woods where men cruise each other.

This stirs another question: is his doppelganger’s existence real or merely a figment of Tom’s demented imagination?

Tom revisits his previous subject’s apartment regularly, affirming his lascivious motives in the absent man’s empty bed. He skirts the calamity of being caught more than once, escaping through the glass doors of the patio. His subject begins to notice missing cookies, misplaced books—but he also has a cat, so the picture is hazy.

The inevitable occurs one night when Tom boldly admires the handsome man sleeping in the middle of the night, but he manages to retreat through the front door, buffered by the shock he’s cast over his newly lucid victim.

It’s through another chance that the victim puts two and two together, and he resolves the situation through his own hands—with unexpected results that are intentionally shocking by the filmmaker. Although compelling, it doesn’t feel quite believable enough to be effective.

With a fairly adroit buildup to this climax, it feels a bit of a cheat to only tumble into improbability. The subplot involving Tom’s frightening double is resolved in a more subdued manner, alleviating some of the discord. Nonetheless, the film is effective enough for everything that occurred before its finale—an interesting study in anomaly: its images, moods, and actions are sure to linger long after the screen fades to black.

‘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.

The View vs. The Talk

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I love watching women gab. As sexist as it sounds, I’ll just say it: they’re good at it. I imagine it’s the equivalent of people tuning in to watch physically fit men play sports. Also, if I really want to fully commit to being politically incorrect: maybe it’s part of my DNA as a gay man to enjoy hearing women yak about everything from the profound to the frivolous. I can relate, and it’s fun.

Since the beginning of this decade, we’ve had two major choices to see the biggest and brightest women in pop culture do just this, on daytime T.V. in the U.S.

Venerated journalist Barbara Walters set the precedent in 1997 with a show called “The View”—featuring ‘different women with different points of views’ sitting around a table and discussing the day’s biggest headlines. They ruled the roost as the lone standard for such a concept, until 2010 when former child actress Sara Gilbert had the sterling idea to do an offshoot of the format (with the angle that it’d consist of a panel of “moms”—although its predecessor never played down the maternal status that most of its panelists could claim too). As a viewer though, I wasn’t discerning—it made sense because: in a nation as large and diverse as ours, one of the benefits is how we can expand on commodities… like talk shows. After all, there have been multiple late night talk shows for decades now, competing directly with one another and thriving in their own right regardless of the saturated market. When a new daytime talk show featuring a panel of half a dozen women talking about topics in the news with their “different points of views” popped up, we took it in stride.

Both “The View” and “The Talk” have succeeded with viewers and been nominated for the same daytime Emmy awards throughout the years, solidifying their place in the pop culture lexicon.

But is there a difference or a clearly superior one?

“The View” has the advantage of experience on its side: thirteen more years over its rival. With that plethora of time, it’s seen and done many things it can learn from. Infamously, placing two panelists who are diametrically at odds with one another in perspective is ratings gold: when outspoken liberal Rosie O’Donnell was recruited as the show’s mediator in 2006 during the contentious Bush/Iraq War years, fate was written on the wall—she would ultimately come to blows with then-outspoken conservative panelist Elisabeth Hasselback the following year. It was the best daytime drama that needed no script.

The show also has the undeniable class factor that only a highly respected figure in the journalism field like Barbara Walters can provide. Although “The View”’s reputation has ebbed and flowed as any long-running entity is prone to, its pedigree is still rooted in solid stock.

It’s not without its trials. The show has “jumped the shark” as much as a talk show can do, in the sense of creative/production malaise. Since the 2010s, there has been a highly visible turnaround in the show’s panelists—it’s hard to even keep up with who’s officially on the roster these days, like watching your favorite sitcom characters getting replaced by new actors or new characters that you just don’t care for. Many of the new recruits were blatantly regrettable as well (Candice Cameron Bure and Raven Simone dragged down the credibility of the show, imho! Thankfully, their tenures were scant). The show has even rehired previously retired or exited co-hosts such as longtime favorite Joy Behar, Sherri Shepherd and even Rosie O’Donnell herself (who ultimately only stayed for one season again in 2014, mirroring her infamously clipped first round).

“The Talk” also tinkered with its lineup initially after its debut season, which is to be expected of a fledgling show though. It found its footing with a consistent lineup afterwards, and has only had one panelist replacement since.

Another difference with “The Talk” is its less emphasis on formality. The show humors its audience and viewers by directly asking them questions after bringing up a headline—from a serious news story to celebrity gossip, mediator Julie Chen will offer a concluding missive to encourage monosyllabic responses, boos, hisses, or laughter from the live audience reminiscent of, well, a daytime talk show (a 1990s version moreso, though).

Since the show is filmed in Los Angeles, another distinction from its New York City predecessor, it also has a daily celebrity-themed guest correspondent who contributes a pop culture headline (adding to the inevitable pop culture news that permeate the show anyway), in a segment loosely dubbed “Today’s Top Talker”.

As one can guess, “The View” and its reputation skews more towards a serious, politically-themed show. Although its current longtime mediator Whoopi Goldberg is a veteran Hollywood actress, she is outspokenly political and even good-naturedly mocks the more frivolous pop culture news she’s required to broach regularly (read: reality show fodder).

Other panelists, regardless of how short their tenures have been in recent years, have frequently been renowned political pundits as well, something “The Talk” has steered from completely. Currently, Senator John McCain’s daughter Meghan McCain is the resident conservative Republican on “The View”.

“The View” has also expanded its most well-known segment, the roundtable discussion deemed “Hot Topics” from just a third of the show’s running time to half or more now, betting on the attention-grabbing headlines and the often heated exchanges between the ladies on the panel to sustain viewers.

Both shows have the requisite celebrity guest interview in the latter half of the show. Again, “The View”, naturally more political, regularly invites political figures such as former president Barack Obama and several political commentators. “The Talk” relies entirely on celebrity guests, occasionally some that are not even major draws. This is moot, since I only tune in to each show to watch the ladies yak amongst themselves in their roundtable segments.

Judging each show based on my proclivities, I do have a clear conclusion of which one succeeds most. “The View” tides me over, for the aforementioned reasons above—it has more legitimacy but is still able to delve into melodrama, camp, and frivolity. Although its high turnover rate is unnerving and dispiriting, it has enough mainstay power players to anchor it. As a child of the 1980s and 1990s, I have a bias for Whoopi Goldberg as a pop culture fixture. Comedian Joy Behar’s sassy Italian schtick hasn’t gotten old—or perhaps, twenty-one years later on the show, I’ve also grown attached to her presence. As for the rest of the current panelists, I feel neither strongly for or against them. Sara is the bright blonde who keeps things light or at least centered; Sunny adds more diversity and a touch of primness. Meghan obviously serves as an antidote to the clear liberal slant from the two veterans of the show, and for the most part I enjoy her dynamic. Not to paint her as an archetype, but I love a good “nemesis”, and Meghan is one by default, constantly having to defend her political party whenever President Trump drags it through the mud, which is often.

“The Talk” is sufficient enough, but my taste doesn’t quite extend to audience participation and an overabundance of pop culture fluff. And although they currently have the steadiest panel lineup longevity, I’m not especially fond of any of the panelists: mediator Julie Chen is too proper; Sara Gilbert is insightful but staid as well; Sharon is the venerable one who’s been around the block—but is a bit too mannered and biased in her outspokenness; newcomer Eve hasn’t proven her worth yet beyond tugging the median age of the group down more; and Sheryl Underwood plays up the sassy black woman trope a bit too much.

Each show brings something to the table, and it’s merely a matter of taste. To me, I primarily blur the edges that separate the shows. They’re like two sitcoms that have an overlap of similarities and differences, and I like them both for different and similar reasons.

Album Review: Radiohead’s ‘Moon Shaped Pool’ is One-of-a-Kind Art Rock

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The album cover art for Radiohead’s new album A Moon Shaped Pool is a fitting metaphor for the music within: a corrosive, abstract form that defies definition. It is the venerable band’s most oblique and sonically dense record, from their catalog that has consistently defied musical categorization.

It’s easy to get lost in the theorizing of the mystique and motives of such an artistically lauded band instead of focusing on the work that propelled them into such a position in the first place. Their new album stands on its own as a musical work of art, and an admirable extension to their ambitions and abilities as musicians, writers, and artists that have been in the public domain for a quarter of a century now.

The first response I had to the album was not immediate devotion as a fan, but a caveat: it was not outwardly accessible, even for a band that never aimed for such a feat. For a fan, it threw me.

Listened to on a cursory level, the eleven-song cycle could be condensed to obtuse whispers, hushed strings, and formless melodies—all wind and sail, with no immediate soul or beat to anchor one’s mind to. Or so I thought.

Like some records we’ve doubtless encountered, I had to be in the right headspace to receive it. And like the muse behind art, there is no formula for discovering the beauty behind art. It simply arrives on its own.

When it occurred, I found myself intoxicated with ineffable fascination at the album’s sonic landscape. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood was the prime force behind the songs’ use of haunting choruses and emotive strings, imbuing the album with a strange and indescribable beauty that singled it out from any other albums I’ve ever listened to in the rock genre.

Whether it was merely artifice or thematic ingenuity, I found myself quietly stunned and enraptured, like a zealot hearing his gospel at church. If music stirs you instinctually or cerebrally or both, it’s done its job.

The opening track and first single, “Burn the Witch” is the most conventionally structured song in the album. Buoyed by a fast, frightening string section straight out of an arty horror film, it’s a tense and urgent tune that gives way to a far more oblong musical journey afterwards.

“Daydreaming” follows—a languid, sleepy meditation that lead singer Thom Yorke has essentially been writing since OK Computer in 1997. It’s a summation of all the fears, dreads, and wonders the band persistently chases throughout their discography, providing new insights each time with each new phase they enter.

“Decks Dark” perhaps best encapsulates the album’s musical identity: an anomalous hybrid of harrowing archaic choir, weaving strings, Yorke’s croon, and ebullient keyboards. Even if the voice and lyrics aren’t articulate, the emotion is there—it’s all in the sound.

Another track, “The Numbers”, is a heightened version of this combination, propelling the sensation of strings and conventional rock instrumentations into new levels of hysteria and transcendence.

Elsewhere, there are more familiar sounds that Radiohead fans will recognize: “Ful Stop” seeps in quietly, building on a searing guitar loop that crescendos periodically through the cacophony of Yorke’s falsetto wails and shimmering noises.

“Present Tense” is a rollicking, acoustic guitar-driven track that is reminiscent of the band’s prolific first decade of the new millennium. It is no less riveting for being familiar: a plaintive, yearning ode that hooks you throughout its tense course.

Lastly, the album closes with a tune that has batted around the Radiohead canon for two decades now, as a fan favorite at concerts—only officially appearing on the band’s Live EP I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordingsin 2001. Now, “True Love Waits” is punctuated with muted piano chords and lilting keyboard effects. For a fan of the poignant, acoustic guitar-centered live version, it was initially unnerving. But in the context of this searing album, it is fitting. The somber, sedate take feels earned: wary yet hopeful, shattered but enthralled by the wonders of feeling, it’s a serene close to an otherworldly journey.

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: ‘Beach Rats’ is relevant, compellingly told

beachrats

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.