‘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.

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.