Tag Archives: Coming-of-Age

Christopher Rice’s debut coming-of-age of a bullied youth novel

A Density of Souls by Christopher Rice


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(3.8/5)

Pros: narrative drive

Cons: Bell Tower is literally “over the top”, one-dimensional villains (with guilty secret)

The Bottom Line: Overly melodramatic ending to a chronicle of a queerbaited/-bashed youth in New Orleans of the 1990s

I was absorbed in Christopher Rice’s first novel Density of Souls, which was first published in 2000, when the author was 21 years old. The Gothic romance aspect of the book and the sinister and stifling New Orleans atmosphere (especially that of Lafayette Cemetery with its above-groud burials) bring his mother (that would be Anne Rice) to mind. The queerbaited protagonist, Stephen Conlin, is the son of a poet who committed suicide before Stephen was born (too fine for this world in the view of his touch lowborn Irish wife). I hope that Christopher’s elite high school (Cannon) experiences of ostracism by his former friends (stereotypically nasty homophobic jocks Greg Darby and Brandon Charbonnet) were not similar to Stephen’s during the 1990s. Christopher definitely came from an intact family, but the gay son of a poet who killed himself cannot avoid qualms about oedipal dramas in the Rice family in which mother is the success, father the vastly less-read and less-famous poet (Stan)! (In an interview, Christopher stated “I’ve never gone overboard because I have such a strong family life.”)
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In addition to chronicling many sadistic rituals of adolescents and lots of “casual” cruelties, Rice whips up a hyper-melodramatic climax, set against a major hurricane. The pre-Katrina imaginings of evacuation and destruction has additional interest now. Although CR did not foresee the incompetence of government response, he did mention the dissatisfactions of those who took shelter in the Dome.


There are a lot of haunted characters, including the former grade-school friends who diverged radically in high school (the two football players savagely turning on Stephen, the bulimic young alcoholic Meredith also betraying their childhood friendship. She and a hard-to-believe compensatory character come through for him and not one but two star quarterbacks from Cannon fall in love with him.
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Monica, Stephen’s mother, cannot protect him at high school, but seeks to be protective of her hypersensitive son. He does not use her to procure studs for himself, unlike Sebastian’s mother in a more melodramatic Garden District opus, Tennessee Williams’s “Suddenly, Last Summer.” There is less hysteria here, though in addition to the suicide in the background of the sensitive man, there is murder, hate crimes, alcoholism, bulimia, class bitchery, and even a touch of incest (though their shared bloodline is unknown to the pair).

Riace menThough sometimes feeling the prose was overripe (in the Southern Gothc tradition) I was carried along as I was once upon a time by Interview with a Vampire (and by Dreamboy).Though the narrative is very discontinuous in revealing various sins of the past, I did not think that the writing itself was “jerky” as some complained. (There are no vampires or witches, btw, though a questioning/gay teenager has a more difficult time than some of his mother’s aberrant creations have had.)

 

“You’re Too Busy Teenybopping All Over The Place…” THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN

THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN


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(3.5/5)

Pros: Good-natured, raunchy fun, with a lot of nudity and a memorable ending


Cons: Script and acting issues; overbearing pop soundtrack

Perhaps one of the more unduly overlooked ‘80s teen comedies, 1982’s The Last American Virgin plays out in much the same manner as the same year’s classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High – this despite the fact that Virgin is a remake of a 1978 Israeli film (Eskimo Limon, a.k.a. Lemon Popsicle). As might be expected, LAV follows the exploits of a group of hornball high schoolers in Hollywood who, in between classes and menial jobs, are looking to score with any number of available females. The main character here is the awkward and sensitive Gary, who’s fallen for Karen, the new girl at school. Karen barely seems to notice Gary – she has her sights set on Gary’s more suave buddy Rick – until she’s left high and dry after Rick knocks her up. Could this be the chance that hard-luck Gary needs to win over the love of his life?

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From left, Gary, Rick, and David – out to get laid and loaded.

Even if writer-director Boaz Davidson (who also was at the helm for the original Israeli version) isn’t really venturing into unknown territory with his basic story, The Last American Virgin certainly offers up the sort of raunchy content one would expect from this type of film. Rick, Gary, and their friend David get themselves into all sorts of goofy predicaments while partying as much as possible and trying to get laid. An encounter between the trio of teens and a sex-crazed Spanish woman, for instance, turns ugly when the woman’s not-so-friendly sailor boyfriend decides to show up at about the worst possible moment, and the trio is forced to take extreme measures to get rid of crabs contracted from an especially trashy prostitute. Par for the course in these types of movies, there’s also an isolated batch of scenes taking place in school, including a wager to see who has the biggest “tool” in the boys’ locker room.


Karen – played by Diane Franklin.


Just when one thinks this film is all about the lowbrow content, however, things get real in its final third, when Karen winds up pregnant after being dumped by Rick. Honestly, the whole Rick-Gary-Karen situation in Last American Virgin is remarkably similar to the material relating to Mark Ratner, Mike Damone, and Stacy Hamilton in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It’s interesting then to note that Davidson’s film actually beat Fast Times… to theaters by a few weeks and was based on a story that, in 1982, was already four years old.

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OK, so the movie’s a little raunchy, but that’s to be expected from an ’80s teen sex comedy.

That said, in my opinion, Fast Times… seems a more authentic representation of teenage life in the early 1980s. By comparison, Last American Virgin seems exaggerated and not nearly as poignant. At least part of that is due to the caliber of acting in the film: Fast Times showcased an impressive array of up-and-coming actors and actresses in the roles that would put them on the map, and although I could tolerate the performances of Steve Antin (as Rick, who increasingly seems like a total scumbag as the film progresses), Joe Rubbo (as the “fat kid” David), and the stunning Diane Franklin (as Karen), Lawrence Monoson, who plays perennial underdog Gary and easily has the most screen time in the picture, doesn’t quite seem credible – especially during some key moments. I certainly could relate to Gary’s frustrations when watching his would-be girlfriend go for the sleazy womanizer instead of the genuine “nice guy” (i.e. him), but Monoson’s idea of putting some genuine feeling into his performance involves talking quietly in a wavering voice while putting on an “abandoned puppy face” – and just doesn’t work. Thus, right when the film should be tugging at a viewer’s heartstrings, things fall apart.

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Better get used to that quivering lip expression from Lawrence Monoson – it’s seen quite often throughout the film.

Above and beyond the acting, Davidson’s handling of the picture has other problems, namely the fact that instead of seeming like a coherent, evolving story, his film plays like a series of mostly disjointed vignettes, few of which seem to have any serious ramifications for the characters. After the carefree opening half, things eventually do gel late in the going when the major dramatic element of the film becomes apparent, but the shift in tone is so abrupt that it’s somewhat difficult to buy into the legitimate consequences that arise. Furthermore, The Last American Virgin quite often seems like a glorified music video since the prominent soundtrack (which includes some fabulous tunes from the likes of U2, The Police, Devo, The Cars, Oingo Boingo and others) is carefully matched up to the onscreen action. Unfortunately, this only further accentuates the sense of fragmentation present in the script; sure, the music is cool to jam out to, but it winds up being distracting and ridiculously overbearing since there’s nary a moment here when one popular song or another isn’t blaring. I’ve also got to say that the repeated renditions of Journey’s “Open Arms” used to punctuate the love story between Gary and Karen become very corny, very quickly.

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Banking on a happy ending? You might wanna think again…


Considering all of the potential problems, I was genuinely surprised when I enjoyed this picture much more than I ever thought I would. Frankly, it’s refreshing every once in a while to see a genuine, decidedly R-Rated sex comedy from this (pre-AIDS) era, since these sorts of films were made in a much different manner than they would be today. The level of mischief present never quite clashes with the film’s generally good-natured vibe, and it definitely provides a window into a time and place far different from the one that viewers are faced with in their everyday life. While Fast Times at Ridgemont High is famous for the (mouth-watering) scene in which Phoebe Cates strips off her bikini top, Last American Virgin delivers a few “cha-ching!” moments of its own: there’s quite a bit of female nudity here, including a substantial amount from gorgeous leading actress Franklin. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the cynical ending, one which is likely to polarize viewers. I happen to like a lot: after playing like any number of other rowdy sex comedies for 85 minutes, LAV kicks a viewer in the balls in the last five – as real and shocking a conclusion as could ever be imagined in a film of this nature. Even if it deserves some amount of criticism for being told from a very male-centric point of view, considering what the typical viewer going into this film would want, The Last American Virgin delivers in a big way – even if it’s more a situational comedy than laugh-out-loud funny. I’d recommended it.

HA!


Released in several multi-movie packs and as a with 1983’s Losin It. MGM’s is a dual-format wide and full-screen disc with no extras.


1/10 : Some thematic material related to serious issues, including abortion


5/10 : Isolated instances of profanity and sexual references

YES!
8/10 : An assortment of nudity from some very nice-looking women; plentiful sexual content


7/10 : Strange that while Porky’s and Fast Times… went on to achieve legendary status, this surprisingly decent flick has been all but forgotten – it’s certainly worth rediscovering.


“Crabs – at your age! Young people – they ain’t what they used to be…”

Music dominates this trailer (and the film itself):

A Polished, Hugely Enjoyable Recreation of the High School Experience: BULLY for the Playstation 2

BULLY for the PS2

(4.5/5)

Pros: Outstanding music; compelling script full of memorable characters; lots to do, see and experience; extremely fun to play

Cons: Limited by the technology of the time

Though Bully, developed by Rockstar Games for release on the Playstation 2 in 2006 (subsequently released for the X-Box and Nintendo Wii two years later), may pale in comparison to the scope of the company’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, for my money this tighter and more polished game is easily one of the best Rockstar games of its generation and perhaps one of my favorite games ever. The story here follows troubled fifteen-year-old Jimmy Hopkins who, after being kicked out of numerous schools due to disruptive and disrespectful behavior, has been placed in Bullworth Academy, a rather strict private school which prides itself on sending wayward young people on the right path, by his freewheeling (and fed-up) mother. Throughout the course of the game, Jimmy attempts to fit in at Bullworth and win over the various cliques at the Academy – stereotypical groups of jocks, nerds, preppies, greasers, and bullies, mainly by asserting himself (mainly through pugilism) as sort of “alpha male.” Initially, Jimmy meets up with a fellow student named Gary who more or less takes Jimmy under his wing, teaching him about the ins and outs of Bullworth Academy and starting him on his path to “take over” the school. The Academy’s principal, Dr. Crabblesnitch, is the main “villain” character through the first part of the game, but it eventually becomes clear that it’s actually Gary (described by various people as being a sociopath with a superiority complex) that’s the ultimate bad guy of the story.

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Jimmy Hopkins and his trusty slingshot.

Much like the Grand Theft Auto series, Bully is a sandbox-type, open world game taking place in a fairly typical American town with a rather large and intricate world map that slowly is revealed and becomes available as a player progresses through the game. This map includes among other things upscale housing projects, industrial parks, slums, a downtown area, various stores, and even a traveling carnival. Since the game can more or less be completed at the player’s leisure, one of the most fun aspects of the game is exploring and discovering the game’s many locations and like other Rockstar games, there’s a lot to do in Bully aside from doing the story missions.

These missions offer up an astonishing amount of variety and are universally enjoyable to play through, but aside from the main story arc, the player can also do such things as attend classes (which are set up as mini-games), run errands for various people, do side jobs for spending money, participate in bike and go-kart races, and search for several different types of collectibles. The script for Bully is very immersive, fun and also very sharp, providing a sort of knowing satire of the coming of age process even as it replicates that period in a young person’s life remarkably well. It also provides a ton of nostalgia for the player, especially those who like myself, haven’t actually been in high school for years and years. I suspect that many players would find themselves reminded of their own high school experience in the intricacies of this game and the sort of hijinks Jimmy Hopkins gets himself into – the game sort of works like a modern Stand by Me-like tale.

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The in-game authority figures are all-too ready to bust Jimmy if he causes too much trouble…

Bully was quite controversial when it was announced which mainly stemmed from the fact that the game was published by the makers of Grand Theft Auto. Before anyone had even played the game, Bully was declared a “Columbine simulator” and even outright banned in some countries – prior to anyone having any idea how the mechanics of the game worked. The final version of the game makes all this hoopla seem positively ridiculous: this game is less outright violent and more gleefully mischievous, having a similar feel to movies like Revenge of the Nerds or maybe even a light, PG-13 rated Animal House.

Missions here involve (among other things) stealing panties from the girls’ dorm, performing a big prank on Halloween night, assisting a teacher in conflict with a colleague, going on noticeably innocent dates with various girls, and helping a fellow student escape incarceration at the local mental facility. Most everything in the game is pretty harmless and good-natured – at no point in this game is anyone killed or even severely harmed – beating someone up in a fistfight results in the victim being “knocked out.” Though such things as baseball bats (which break apart rather quickly so that there’s never anything close to a Rodney King level assault) can be used a melee weapons, a player is more likely to find himself using an assortment of more comical rather than dangerous objects during the course of the game: firecrackers, itching powder, a spud gun, bottle rockets, marbles, and a trusty slingshot can be used to assist in missions or to throw off pursuers.

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Every non-playable character in the game has a unique look and personality – one of the best aspects of the game is interacting with them.

It’s interesting to note that, while it was fairly easy to get away with serious crimes in the GTA games, Bully imposes harsh punishments for serious offenses: fighting prompts a immediate response from various school chaperones and teachers, and more serious infractions (such as beating up girls, teachers, or little kids) lead to instantaneous punishment if Jimmy is caught. A player trying to get through the game quickly learns that it simply doesn’t pay to cause serious trouble all the time: doing so will result in the player having to perform many iterations of the purposely tedious and irritating detentions. For my money, the designers have done a nice job of ensuring that a player isn’t able to really “run wild” and cause massive destruction and violence. This isn’t at all a “Columbine simulator,” and the game actually has delivers a message against bullying or harassment of other students.

Gameplay here is generally excellent, though I did have some issues with the use of the right analog control that is supposed to control the camera angle. A few times, it got a little wonky as I attempted to maneuver Jimmy with the left analog and fidget with the right analog camera controls to see what the hell I was even doing since the default camera angle didn’t quite cut it. All in all though, it’s pretty clear that Rockstar had come close to perfecting the third-person perspective seen here in their earlier Grand Theft Auto titles.


Playful hijinks abound in the game.

Bully for me plays like a more perfect and compact GTA-like game for the PS2 – everything about the game’s controls have been tweaked for maximum effectiveness and I think the game overall is more focused and enveloping. Shawn Lee’s rock-oriented instrumental music cues are not only very catchy and appropriate for the tone of the game, but they also evolve in real time as different circumstances happen in the game. Get a teacher, police officer, or fellow student angrily chasing after you at any point and a “chase theme” instantly is heard on the soundtrack. Personally, I think this is one of the best, most underrated original game soundtracks ever made: it would rival the soundtracks of most feature films.

Perhaps the best aspect of the game is the fact that the assortment of non-playable characters (namely, other students, teachers, and townspeople) Jimmy encounters in the all have their own distinct personalities. Every character here is fairly recognizable, and they respond to Jimmy in varying ways depending on how their respective clique views him at a given point in time (performing certain missions causes some factions to like Jimmy more, while others will view him with hostility). The voice acting used to portray these characters is outstanding, and quite a few of the lines of dialogue present in this game are laugh out loud funny. Though it’s somewhat unfortunate that the capability of this generation of game systems didn’t allow for the sheer volume of individual people seen in Grand Theft Auto 5 or Red Dead Redemption (non-playable characters onscreen in Bully will repeat fairly regularly, even if their appearance in these different areas at virtually the same point in time is completely illogical and impossible), it’s hard to knock a game that has presented so memorable a group of characters.

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Chemistry class becomes a synchronized button-pushing mini-game and English class features a sort of word mashup – most of the classes a player can attend are actually rather clever in their set-up.

This game is one that I find myself returning to every now and then simply due to the fact that it is so enjoyable to play. Though I was a little distraught during my last play-through of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas since the graphics in that game don’t really hold up anymore, I found during my recent completion of Bully that this title is still very pretty to look at, without many noticeable imperfections in the imagery. Since there is so much to do in the game, I find myself really getting into this game whenever I do play it and I think it has a good length: it probably would take around 30-40 hours to complete all there is to do. The depth of the game (especially considering the time period in which this game came out) really is the aspect of the game that sets it apart from vaguely similar games of its day (there are many, many aspects of the game that it would simply be impossible to cover in this review), but in all honesty, Bully is absolutely unique in its main scenario and the way the script plays out. As such, I would give this game my highest recommendation. It is definitely one of my favorite games of the Playstation 2 era and probably in my top five video games of all time. In my opinion, this is a title that any gamer should check out.


Despite some light sexual – and bisexual – content, this game would be appropriate for teenaged gamers and above. It’s generally good-natured and comical.

Bully is rated T for Teen, and I feel as though that rating is appropriate. The game has a fair amount of violence (mostly fist fighting), but no blood to speak of and I think the rating level could mostly be due to the “comic mischief” that includes vandalism, mostly playful prankish behavior and bullying. Language is probably of the PG-rated variety (a few exclamations of “bitch” is about as worse as it gets), and though there is some crude humor and relatively minor sexual content (including the much discussed ability for the apparently bisexual Jimmy to acquire health by kissing boys!), this game would be appropriate for mid-to-older teens and up.

Game Trailer:

A fast-paced pseudo-autobiography

The Boogie Trapp by Kerry Copeland Smith

(4/5)

Pros:  fast pace, engaging and credible characters, setting described well

Cons:  quite a bit of profanity, some editing issues

The Boogie Trapp ****

Kerry Copeland Smith, often nicknamed Boogieman or just Boogie, and his best friend, Charles Edward Trapp, nicknamed Trapper, grew up in a small coal mining town in Alabama in the 1940s. The town and most of its inhabitants were quite poor. However, the children of the town did find some ways to have fun and, at the start of the story, Boogie and Trapper have just turned thirteen and are busy testing the limits of rules and discovering the world of dating.

One day, as they were on the way from their homes to visit a friend, a car drives by and the driver asks the two boys if they want to help him get his truck out of the mud, in exchange for five dollars. The driver is someone they have seen before in town, but not for quite a while, and he has somewhat of a shady reputation. They make the mistake of accepting the offer. What follows is quite an ordeal for both boys and the end result of the decision to accept the offer includes many very ugly things.

The story actually starts many, many years later, with Boogie receiving notification that Trapper has passed away, and Boogie knows he needs to write a book about what happened that fateful day many years before. The result is supposedly this book called The Boogie Trapp. The author, Harold W. Brewer, claims this book is fictional but it is written as if it were an autobiography.

Mr. Brewer, a.k.a. Mr. Smith, is a natural storyteller and the pace is fairly rapid. The characters are engaging and credible, and the setting is described very well, to the point where I could easily picture it in my mind. The story was hard to put down.

There were several things I would change if I were editing this book. I think the profanity was a little excessive and there were problems with handling quotation marks, especially when a quote was embedded in another quote.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.