Room Eight – Short Fiction

Jeff tried opening the door but the little piece of plastic couldn’t get the light to come on. He pulled the card out and inserted it back in. No light. He flipped the card over and tried inserting again. When that didn’t work he flipped the card over again and wiggled it inside the slit. He sighed.

As Jeff tried over and over to dismantle the door, he heard footsteps coming from the other side of the hallway. Jeff turned his head. A man wearing a leather jacket and trucker cap was walking in his direction. Jeff looked back down at the impenetrable door handle, feeling a slight embarrassment. The man in the leather jacket eventually passed him and entered one of the other doors. Jeff tried wiggling his plastic key card a little bit more.

Somehow, the door opened. Jeff looked into his room with a mixture of surprise and relief, but that all faded away when he entered and dropped his suitcase on his bed. The room wasn’t dirty. There weren’t thick, mysterious, brown stains slowly conquering the corners nor a dense, pungent air. But there was a print hanging above the bed depicting a sailboat rocking on a sea that was just a shade darker than the blue sky. The boat wasn’t a speck on the ocean but rather took up most of the painting. Like the rest of the room it elicited nothing within Jeff.

Jeff debated whether to put the contents of his suitcase into the drawers, in fear of nefarious little life forms tainting the remainder of his possessions. He sat on the bed and flipped through the channels. For a while, the TV remained on kids’ television station featuring a cartoon fish and his nautical pals. Jeff remembered having to sit through the cartoon fish and his fishy antics every night before their bedtime. Jeff flipped the channel.

Summer of Sam (1999) – Movie Review

Finally, after experiencing a never-ending slew of bad films I’ve managed to watch something that was actually…quite mediocre. Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam ain’t a bad film, and even has some good scenes, but at nearly two and a half hours it goes on for too long. There are also a number of characters that come off as stereotypes (this is a “Spike Lee Joint” after all) and there are some scenes that could have easily been excised, mainly the scenes with the “Son of Sam” killer going cuckoo in his apartment. Here’s the obligatory plot summary:

The movie follows a group of Italian-Americans living in the Bronx in 1977, the year most notable in New York history for terrible heat, a major blackout (and the rioting and looting that ensues,) and of course, the “Son of Sam” killings. Vinny (John Leguizamo) is a hair dresser married to Dionna (Mira Sorvino) whom he’s cheating on. The movie opens the “Son of Sam” killer offing a couple of his victims. Vinny walks into the crime scene and sees the two bodies and is affected by the sight (I don’t know why police allowed him to get so close to the victims’ car in the first place other than plot-convenience.) Later on, Vinny is met with the return of long-time friend, Ritchie (Adrien Brody) who has transformed into a punk-rocker complete with the uniform of pins and spiky hair. His appearance shocks most but attracts Vinny’s half-sister, Ruby (Jennifer Esposito).

While the movie is entertaining, in parts, it’s also frustrating. For one thing, the movie is predictable. Early on I already knew that Vinny’s pals are going to go after Ritchie, believing that he is the “Son of Sam”. As a result, when that particular scene finally came, both its build up and the confrontation have barely any impact. There is also some of Spike Lee’s soap-boxing that is sprinkled throughout the movie. Spike Lee himself plays a reporter and in one scene interviews some black people and their views on the “Son of Sam” killings. One of the interviewees, an older woman, goes on about how things would have been a lot different if the “Son of Sam” was black and going after whites. While this might be true it has no reason to actually be in the film and seems more like an excuse for Spike Lee to insert some of his banal, race-baiting commentary that lacks insight into the mix. The scene might have worked but it just seemed blatant that Spike Lee just needed to preach despite it being unnecessary for the film.

Visually the movie is great. There are a couple of montages that are well-wrought and engaging to watch. But the editing is also bad in that, as mentioned before, a good thirty minutes could have been trimmed from the final product. What could have helped was removing the “Son of Sam” scenes as they are too goofy and weird, not to mention that they are cliche as well. There are also some gratuitous sex scenes that are uninteresting and reveal little about the characters. One scene takes place at the infamous “Plato’s Retreat” where Vinny and Dionna participate in an orgy. When Vinny’s character is having sex with two other women he watches his wife having sex with two other women. Her face obviously show that she’s very uncomfortable, but Vinny watches in disdain at his wife that she would have sex with people other than him, highlighting his hypocrisy. But even then this scene is ham-fisted.

Despite all this, Summer of Sam is not a “shit-film” though there are moments where hackiness spurs. Vinny and pals are often seen hanging out, drinking and doing drugs by a sign reading “dead-end”. There are also stereotypes, like Vinny’s pals who are the typical, masculine dolts that seem to serve more as symbols than actual characters. There is one bad scene where, when they couldn’t find Ritchie at CBGB’s, they come across a drunk that calls one of them a “guido.” They say they would let the drunk go if they say what his favorite baseball team is, but since it turns out it’s not the Mets they promptly beat his ass, partly to “shoot their load” after failing to get Ritchie. There’s also another character, Bobby Del Fiore (Brian Tarantina) who is the stereotypical, flamboyant gay. While this movie isn’t bad, what keeps it from being good is largely because it lacks maturity and settles for depicting stereotypes, which only bore the audience.

The technical aspects are fine, though some of the musical choices seem obvious (I think I heard Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” playing at one point, albeit in the background and not in your face with its obviousness.) The acting is okay, with the two female leads, Mira Sorvino and Jennifer Esposito, being the most consistent. Adrien Brody is good in some scenes but hammy and others, and while John Leguizamo is decent as Vinny when I was watching I kept wondering if they should have gotten someone better.

So yeah, this movie is alright or whatever. It’s better than CBGB at capturing late-70’s New York, but not by much. If I were to rate it Summer of Sam would lie somewhere in the five to six range, out of ten. I guess you can say Summer of Sam failed to…kill. What? You don’t like a good pun? Admittedly, that one wasn’t good. How about this: Summer of Sam? More like, BUMMER of Sam! HahaHAAAAAH! I’m so sorry.

The Dream of the Diver

The mob of eyes watch
from the stands the shivering thing
preparing its plummet.

But the thing’s eyes behold
the clouds swelling
with blackness, a storm
somehow trapped
within the gym, bouncing
the springboard
with merciless air.

It was once a lauded machine,
piercing through the water
like a diamond. But, now I see
some pale creature, its little head
watching waves in the pool
distorted by the storm’s will.

Boos and jeers mingle
with the storm’s howling.
I want the diver to dive,
to defy every force,
to sustain an elegance
before the destructive
everything. But it just stands
there, contemplating.
And now my voice joins
the disgruntled chorus.

Finally, the diver goes
slowly down the ladder.
The wave of boos overpowers
the storm’s wailing.
I look around, and next to me
is a child staring into his phone,
I grab it and launch it
into the air, but the phone
misses the diver and plops
into the water. I watch
the diver descend as the child
scolds me for my faulty throw.

CBGB (2013) – Movie Review

CBGB is the story of Alan Rickman who after making thousands of dollars from the Twilight series decides to grow an afro and travel back in time to open-up a bar called The Mudd Club in order to see how long he can go without paying the bills or sanitizing the toilets. The Dead Kennedys help out by playing some songs in exchange for glue. The movie was an instant success; Roger Ebert lauded the film for its realism and sensitivity toward minorities and the public loved Ron Weasley’s portrayal as a flasher. It’s a stunning film, directed by Francis Ford de Palma, and wrought with awe-inspiring visual effects. I give CBGB a very hardcore C+.

*stops reviewing the trailer and realizes that there is actually a film called CBGB and watches that*

CBGB is the story of Harry Kristal, not to be confused with popular comedian Billy Cringle, who after a couple of failed attempts to run a business decides to become an owner of a bar which he christens CBGB’s originally attended to feature bands playing country, blue-grass and blues music; however, things don’t go as planned when his foul crap-den of a bar attracts all sorts of alienated kids, druggies and weirdos whom inevitably start the punk-rock movement of New York in the mid- to late seventies. Strangely enough, his failure of a bar-owner is what ends up making him successful, except for the part where he can’t pay the bills because he’s serving too many drinks for free.

The problem with the movie is that it focuses too much on Harry Kristal, whose story about barely managing his nightclub isn’t all that interesting. Maybe it could have been, but the screenplay is by-the-numbers. It also doesn’t help that Alan Rickman is being his usual Alan Rickman self, barely sustaining an American accent as well as playing his usual persona rather than an actual character; we never get a deep understanding of the kind of person Kristal was though this might be more of a fault with the script than Rickman’s portrayal.

Another reason why honing in too much on Kristal without doing anything substantial with his character is that it leaves less time draw the types of characters that were frequent occupants at CBGB’s. Instead, we get brief comedic vignettes and performances by look-a-likes portraying the likes of The Talking Heads, Blondie, The Ramones, Iggy Pop (though I don’t think he ever played at the titular venue,) Patti Smith, Television, Lou Reed, etc. And none of the depictions are all that interesting. I guess it kind of works for the viewer gets a sense as to the type of place CBGB’s was and what the time was like back then, especially surrounding the music scene, but there’s still a desire for something a bit more significant when watching; the movie, simply, is too lightweight.

I mean, the movie is okay if you want a fun romp, except that the movie isn’t all that fun. Most of the scenes that are meant to be funny tend to fall flat. There’s a running gag with Crystal’s dog, the joke being is that it shits everywhere. And there’s also Harry Crystal’s buddy whose into all sorts of drugs named Idaho (played by Freddie Rodriguez) who I guess is supposed to be the comic-relief.

I guess some of the scenes where the actors lip-synch to the songs are alright, though their use of using the highly-polished, studio versions that you’ve heard on the radio numerous times before took me out of the movie a couple of times. Like, when the Talking Heads are auditioning to play a night at CBGB’s, they play the song Psycho Killer, but the studio version that came out in 1977, but the version they were playing in 1975 (the year I’m assuming this particular scene is supposed to take place even though dates are never given) sounded a bit different. It’s hard to believe that it’s supposed to be live and by an up-and-coming rock group when the version of the song they’re lip-synching is so polished. Though I guess the fact that Jared Carter (the guy mimicking David Byrne) looks so much like Byrne sort of makes-up for it. But there’s also the fact that, when Blondie is shown performing a couple of songs, one of them is Denis. I’m not sure if they’ve ever played that song anytime earlier than 1978. Also, when Blondie was starting-out they had Gary Valentine on bass (or some other guy before him) but who ever was playing the bass player was bouncing up and down like Nigel Harrison, who wasn’t in the band until 1977 or 1978. When watching I assumed it was depicting the bands just starting out. By 1978 I’m not even sure Blondie were still doing shows at CBGB’s. I don’t know, maybe they were… Patti Smith (Mickey Sumner) later on plays Because the Night and that song came out later as well, a song she also wrote with Bruce Springsteen so she when she released that song she wasn’t just “staring-out.” This might seem like nit-picking (and it is) but the filmmakers had an opportunity to play songs that weren’t the ones that saturate radio stations, but I guess it’s easier to be lazy or something. I think they also wanted to make sure that the audience recognized who was who. Meh.

Since the movie lacks depth and insight and everything else, director Randall Miller decided to slather every other frame with word balloons and stuff to make certain scenes seem like they’ve been culled from a comic book, the problem with this is that it is blatant compensation and never rises above mere gimmickry. The visual style just comes off as annoying as a result, as well as desperate instead of capturing the 70’s underground movement.

There are also some cliched narrative tropes that were annoying. Like when Kristal is at his lowest point after trying to act as manager for the band The Dead Boys he retreats to, you guessed it, the house he grew-up in in order to clear his head. But the biggest problem with the film is how it chooses to superficially capture its subject, instead fixating on the quirkiness as well as some of the pretentious narrative of the underground movement constructed by Punk magazine founder and editor John Holmstrom (Josh Zuckerman). There are some opportunities of satire as well as insight that could have been taken, but were missed instead.

The acting isn’t all great-shakes either. One performance I was confused by was Evan Alex Cone’s portrayal of Television’s original bassist Richard Hell who is constantly mugging and making faces; I’m not sure if that’s just bad acting or if Cone was trying to show how dedicated Hell was to posturing. If it’s the latter, then kudos. Other than that, you won’t find any good performances but mostly mimicry. Joel David Moore is at least slightly humorous as Joey Ramone.

The best I can say about this movie is that it could possibly work as a good primer for those unfamiliar with 1970’s rock music or the punk scene that included bands like Television or the Dead Boys. CBGB could have made for a decent comedy or even commentary on New York in the 70’s. There are some instances of where the movie tried to show what was happening, either to explain why the punk movement occurred or why the movement was of any import to begin with, with some heavy-handedness like when they happen to be watching Richard Nixon on TV or reading a headline that shows New York City was in the shitter. Unfortunately, it all falls flat.

Maybe it’s just difficult to make a good movie about punk music for it may involve too critical an eye on the various music scenes. Filmmakers want to poke fun, but not too much lest they alienate their demographic or realize themselves that their subject might not have been too worthy of their admiration in the first place for I imagine the people who are involved in these films are acting like fans first, and artists second. And I’m not saying that the only way to make a film like this is to be nasty with your subject matter, but when you’re covering punk music there’s a lot of things that are ripe for mockery. Other than that there’s also opportunity to explore other issues that are associated with alienation and rebellion, maybe address the underlying universality of punk rock, but I guess it’s just easier to take the easy way out and hire Professor Snape to mutter to himself while The Ramones play in the background. CBGB doesn’t add a whole lot and is rather mediocre, as a comedy, a music film and as anything else for that matter.

Holy Motors (2012) – Movie Review

French filmmaker Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is an interesting film, but it’s not the art-house masterpiece that its defenders claim nor is it complete Eurotrash. The movie is about Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) whose profession involves completing “appointments” which consist of him playing different characters in the real world. We follow him over the course of a single day where he embodies the roles of everything from an old woman to a kidnapping lunatic. He is also assisted by his chauffeur, Celine (Edith Scob), who drives him to each appointment in a white limousine. The problem with Holy Motors is that, while having an unique premise, it can get very boring. The movie also suffers from pretentiousness, as it seems to be trying to present its ideas as if they are of great import despite the movie being quite shallow. Critics are wrong in saying that the movie is about nothing, but at the same time they are correct in pointing out the movie’s pretentiousness.

Basically, Mr. Oscar is supposed to be the representation of the modern individual; he is forced by an organization called The Agency to carry-on various facades. We never learn why The Agency wants Mr. Oscar to perform for them, but we are told that they have cameras everywhere, watching Mr. Oscar. This detail has been used to argue the idea that the movie is a commentary on acting. I can definitely see this interpretation, but I also think that it’s a shallow reading, and perhaps doesn’t do justice to the film. In any case, we see that when Oscar is in the limo, whether applying make-up for his next job or waiting, he is tired and almost seems like a cipher. One could argue that the movie is about identity, but the conflict resides in Oscar’s hopelessness and fatigue caused by constantly creating a facade. The movie is mostly about Oscar’s wanting of something genuine. There is one appointment where Oscar dresses-up as an old banker on his death-bed. A young woman is also there, weeping by his side. They exchange cliches and then Oscar dies. But then he wakes up and gets out of bed. We then see that the woman is also an actor of sorts, like Oscar, and they show a brief moment of something real in contrast to the act that they just presented. This short moment is one of the few times where Oscar seems somewhat happy, or at least content.

In a later scene, Oscar meets up with Jean, a woman he hasn’t seen in twenty years (played by Kylie Minogue). It seems like they were close at one time, either as friends or lovers, and that their commitment to The Agency is the reason for their separation. They talk for a while and then Jean breaks into song. After this they depart once again only to find out that moments later Jean had killed herself by jumping from the rooftop where they were confiding in each other. This scene shows both Oscar’s and Jean’s solemness and lack of hope within their existences. However, the reason why this scene is one of the best ones in the movie, is that it could be interpreted as just another performance. The seeming artifice is there, from Jean’s suddenly going into song, her suicide and Oscar’s over-dramatic and bizarre scream at seeing her body. This shows that the viewer can not even reliably tell what is genuine and what isn’t, creating a greater sense of frustration.

The problem with all this, if my interpretation is correct anyway, is that it’s not a very deep indictment or commentary on modern society. While the movie does present its ideas in a distinctive way, the ideas themselves still remain not very compelling. Perhaps it would have been better if the movie were shorter, something closer to an hour. Around the halfway mark, the movie starts to look very drab as we follow Oscar being driven around during the night and the stories the characters he plays occupy also become less interesting as the film focuses more on Oscar himself and the movie’s themes about the frustrations of modern society.

Another issue also comes in the form of the movie’s heavy-handed symbolism. At the end, after his day is done, Oscar puts on another wig and is dropped-off at his “home” by Celine. In a single, long-shot, we see Oscar go inside his house to be greeted by his child and wife, who are played by apes (did I mention this movie is surreal?) The only thing interesting about this scene is that the audience never goes inside the house with Oscar but watches everything from outside the windows. More bad symbolism comes later when Celine parks her limo at “Holy Motors” limo service. However, before she gets out she puts on a white mask, a very blunt way of showing that she hardly exists outside her job.

There are also some scenes that show potential, like when Oscar and Celine try to have a good laugh before midnight, when they’re going to have to deal with the drudgery of life over again soon enough. The scene doesn’t work that well because we don’t really know much about the two characters. Maybe that’s the point, but it doesn’t exactly make for an engaging viewing experience when we know very little about the characters other than what they’re supposed to represent thematically.

I originally thought this movie was created by an up-and-comer who, while having potential, is still sophomoric in his approach. So I was surprised to find out that this was Carax’s sixth feature-length film in a career spanning three decades. According to an interview Carax says that he made the movie because he was frustrated by his small output of films. It seems like he might have just pulled this movie out of his brain, without much cogitation, as a result. This might explain why the movie is rather pretentious as it tries to throw in near-random symbolism as well as containing weird and ridiculous vignettes involving Oscar as various weirdos–Carax could have been trying to compensate for his film’s lack of depth.

While I can’t say that the movie is “outrageous” or a “grandiose achievement” it is a movie that is interesting and worth-watching, if only because it manages to offer something different from the typical Hollywood fare. The performance(s) by Denis Lavant are very good and shows how versatile he is. The movie also has some enjoyable moments, as well as some stupid ones like when Oscar is playing a crazy who steals a supermodel played by Eva Mendes. Overall, the movie is okay, it’s just unfortunate that I can only appreciate what it was trying to do, rather than what is actually achieved.