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.

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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.

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.

 

 

Why do people love the 80s?!?! (Try the 90s!)

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America’s unnatural love of all things 1980s is like society’s reverence towards pregnant women: you can’t really counter it without sounding like a complete monster. But since I’m already an inherent outcast twice removed, I guess I’ll be the brave soul to take a stab at it (the ‘80s).

They say trends come in twenty-year cycles. I was born in the 80s, and I remember as a preteen, being glad when all the saccharine gaudiness of the decade vanished by the early 1990’s. Little did I know that it would all come skipping back in an even more mannered, pretentious form—ten years later when I was in my TWENTIES, in the ‘00s.

By 2003, you couldn’t surf the web without coming across an article that proclaimed: “Check out your favorite redheaded ‘80s celebrities HERE!” or hear a song that didn’t sample a classic ‘80s synth-pop ballad, or have a conversation with an adult girl who didn’t squeal: “Ohhh, I LOVE the ‘80s!” Basically, it was like crack in the ‘80s: integral to the social scene.

If you can’t guess by now, I have highly objective reasons why I don’t like the ‘80s. I came of age in the decade that succeeded it: the ‘90s. When I say “come of age”, I mean the (first) era of maturing in one’s life—your teen years.

Nothing is as great (or bad) as when you are a teenager. If I came of age during the 1890s, no doubt I would be sitting here clamoring about how great churning butter was, and how kids these days are missing out on savoring fermented cow milk you procured with your own two hands. So I’m aware that I suffer from a little bias.

For me, I feel sorry that kids today didn’t grow up with angry, forlorn, edgy alternative-rock singers who managed to somehow be both dangerous and mainstream in this perfect window of time known as the 1990s. It was a truly magical time. I mean, MTV not only PLAYED music videos for significant chunks of time, they actually focused on music from earnest, serious artists. Music hadn’t been this socially aware and provocative since the ‘60s!

TV and movies vastly improved in my eyes too. Gone were the days where a movie focused solely on a nuclear family going on vacation, or a kid taking a day off from school. Movies with higher concepts were in vogue now: the term “indie” exploded, with all its subversive and innovative connotations. Disney rode a triumphant wave of Renaissance for the first half of the decade. Summer blockbusters pushed their art to new, exhilarating heights with movies like “Jurassic Park” and “Forrest Gump” setting records.

TV shows delved into darker and more progressive parts of the cultural psyche, with shows like “The Simpsons”, “Seinfeld”, “The X-Files” and “Roseanne” (although some of them debuted in the late ‘80s, they came into their prime in the ‘90s). Shows didn’t have to pander to the ideal family unit anymore. They could push the boundaries of what we found funny or intriguing, and succeed.

Look, I get the objective reasons why people love the penultimate decade of the twentieth century: it was simple. Sweet. Goofy. Over-the-top. Everything my fellow gay men love, which is why all gay men have some voluminous playlist somewhere that is nothing but ‘80s, ‘80s, ‘80s—as well as the perfect ‘80s getup outfit, should they have the divine fortune of crossing paths with an ‘80s-themed party. The ‘80s is like your kooky, fun, and slightly frivolous aunt. Whereas the ‘90s is your cooler but more sedate and socially conscious uncle. It’s kind of obvious who you’d rather party with.

But this is why I don’t like the ‘80s: I don’t like things that are simple, sweet, and over-the-top. It’s not my style. I’m the jerk that likes things to be ironic, dark, and brooding, hence: I will always identify with the Gen-X-dominated ‘90s. And hence: why most gay men have a convenient blind spot for this decade altogether. Seriously—can you imagine a gay man squealing about the ‘90s? ….? Only if they were forced to go to a ‘90s-themed party; they’d be squealing about their “other obligations that night”’—to get out of it. No gay man wants to be reminded of a classic Tarantino movie. It’s way too heavy, and our lives are already heavy enough. The same can be said for society at large, truly.

But the ‘90s are innocent as well, compared to the subsequent decade(s) that follow it. For one: during that decade, “social media” only went so far as logging into AOL via your phone cord, selecting a terrible login name, and signing into a god-awful chat room with other strangers. We had virtually no digital footprint, and honestly: many minds and lives were saved because of it. Terrorism was not truly a household word until the tragic events that ignited it on a fateful day in New York City, the following decade. We didn’t have such a politically divisive country due to a polarizing president yet. And a recession, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the 1930s, hadn’t yet imploded.

So if you want something innocent, fun, but with a little more edge and a smidgen of self-important angst, why not make a pit stop in the decade before the ‘80s (if you’re going backwards in time)? You can geek out to Ace of Base, camp it up to the Spice Girls—but you can also show your gritty, “street cred” side by wearing baggy gangsta pants or grungy thrift-store plaid. The ‘90s had its perks too, ya’ know.

Thankfully, it is the 2010’s now—well over twenty years since my favorite decade started its rotation under the sun. It’s finally getting more of the “respect” I always knew it deserved. Too bad it takes twenty years for some people to arrive to the party—but better late than never.