‘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.

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‘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.

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.

Do the Oscars Matter Anymore?

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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)

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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.