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Friday, May 2, 2008

Countless style section profiles and GLBT weeklies have recently noted the slow and steady demise of the gay bar as a cultural institution of the queer community.  Of course, news “trends” can frequently amount to one person with a deadline and ten with Google skills but still, in my own experience, I’ve seen a welcome transformation in the culture of the gay bar, especially musically.  A few years ago, my boyfriend and I started booking bands at this affectionate leather dive bar, known mostly for its assless chaps and a back patio that had something a bit beyond mood lighting.  And frankly, there was a palpable level of hostility to women that I quickly dispensed with by sheer force of numbers and a few shaming asides.  Any gay man who is not a feminist is miraculously moronic. 


The nights became something of a hit, precisely because it wasn’t exclusively queer space and it definitely wasn’t gay bar music (I know plenty of gay people who never want to hear “Rhythm Is A Dancer” ever again for as long as they live).  Although gay bars and gay music have an importance in gay culture that’s difficult to underestimate, I like the evolution of identity that doesn’t mean that a particular category of oppression compels anyone to adopt a specific set of tastes. Sure enough, all over Austin there are now bars that are considered “mixed”, or at least places you could hang with your significant other and not have to miss a kiss.  At least in my experience, there’s a soft, meaningful transformation that happens when queers and straights share the same space, drink a few cheap beers in a bar with a whipping crucifix on the wall, and listen to a great local band like White Denim.  As always, I’m open to the arguments of the importance of “gay music”, but I honestly don’t know what that even would considered anymore, unless it’s those horrible circuit party CDs where “California Dreaming” is given a hi-Nrg workover by an anonymous diva.  I guess this should come as no surprise since hip hop has become owned by no one in particular even while it clearly began in one community.  Does identity music even have a place anywhere anymore?  Or are these treasures(old school gay bars) that weren’t a particularly important part of life, something to be territorially protected.


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Thursday, May 1, 2008
The parallels between those taking sides in the battle over the merit of Grand Theft Auto and the battle over the merit of blogs as journalistic devices are striking.

It’s no secret that Grand Theft Auto IV is, at this point, an utter phenomenon, not just a gaming entity but a media entity that is currently, in the few days following its release, destroying every other form of entertainment in terms of popularity, interest, and commentary.  On one hand, we have the side of 99% of the gamers who have bought it: basically, that it’s the best damn thing since San Andreas came out.  Then, there are those who are utterly and unequivocally against its release, suggesting that it should be locked behind counters or banned outright.  There is very little in-between to be found, which makes for a dearth of common ground from which intelligent discussion of the merits and flaws in the game can appear.


Buzz vs. Will, Round 1…FIGHT(Image courtesy of AOL Fanhouse)

Buzz vs. Will, Round 1…FIGHT
(Image courtesy of AOL Fanhouse)


Interestingly, this particular split is happening just as another such split is popping up and threatening to consume the media: blogs vs. the mainstream (read: print) media.  It’s a split that had been brewing for some time, but it all seems to have come to a head now that Buzz Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights himself, relentlessly browbeat Deadspin.com progenitor Will Leitch all over Bob Costas’ HBO show the other night.  The divide is framed as such: those who have spent their life cutting their teeth on print media can’t stand the brash, brazenly amateur tone favored by the majority of blogs (and have no trouble saying so via endlessly trotting out the tired “living in their moms’ basements” line), and blogs are dismissing those criticisms as baseless and completely without merit (often by indulging in exactly the sort of bottom-feeding that the “old guard” is criticizing).  Much like the split inspired by Grand Theft Auto, sanity can only be found somewhere in between those two arguments, but let’s face it: arguments that try to reconcile two sides of a very tall fence are a) difficult to present, and b) bound to be slammed to death by both sides of that fence.


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Thursday, May 1, 2008


SUMMER’S HERE!!! and for the weekend beginning 2 May, here are the films in focus:


Iron Man [rating: 9]


Iron Man is fantastic, a sure fire blockbuster that will leave audiences breathless and fanboys wanting more


It may have been the moment when Tobey Maguire went emo, a visual gag that gave longtime Spider-man fans a similar physical reaction. Or maybe it was the flailing Fantastic Four franchise, taken out of its superhero element to be forced and family friendly. The Phantom didn’t help, and Ghost Rider only staved off the inevitable. The superhero movie was hobbled, and having a hard time maintaining its cinematic relevance.


So when it was announced that Marvel would take control of its own brand and make its own movies from its catalog, some were skeptical. Hollywood knows about film, not a comic book company. Well, all doubts now need to be cast aside. Iron Man proves that, by going to the source, the genre has finally found someone who understands it implicitly. 
read full review…
 


Snow Angels [rating: 6]


For all its noble intentions and universal truths, Snow Angels is not a great movie. It’s not a grand movie. It’s barely a very good movie.


Is there really any surprise left in the story of a small town racked by tragedy? Would something like Blue Velvet, or David Gordon Green’s George Washington really resonate today? The last movie to try was Todd Field’s fantastic Little Children. While poised to be an awards season hit, it was ignored by critics and barely made a box office dent. While marketing and studio support can easily be blamed, audiences clearly didn’t want to take another trip down sad suburban lanes. Now Green has returned with yet another look at how the problems of people spiral into events of Earth shattering consequence. And up until the final ten minutes, Snow Angels is some very powerful stuff. read full review…


Other Releases—In Brief


The Visitor [rating: 6]


The United States, post-9/11 is a confluence of contradictions that would make even the most skilled sociologist wince with professional pain. On the one hand, we want to extend an olive branch to the rest of the world, convincing them that our time in Iraq is not a matter of hubris or revenge. But back at home, we want the borders closed, the airlines safe, and the slightest ethnic suspicion investigated fully. Into this new world sleepwalks Ivory Tower widower Walter Vale. Forced to leave his New England home for a conference, he returns to his unused New York apartment only to discover illegal squatters Tarek, an Arab, and Zainab, an African, living there. Agreeing to let them stay, they develop a nice liberal-lite living arrangement, and everything seems fine…until Tarek is arrested on a minor infraction. Before Walter knows it, his new found friend becomes part of America’s homeland security bureaucracy. All of this allows The Station Agent‘s Thomas McCarthy an opportunity to work out all his fixations and frustrations on our current cultural isolationism. His capable cast never lets him down, while the story occasionally strands the characters in the inviolable victim mode. Not a bad film so much as an underwhelming one.


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Thursday, May 1, 2008


Is there really any surprise left in the story of a small town racked by tragedy? Would something like Blue Velvet, or David Gordon Green’s George Washington really resonate today? The last movie to try was Todd Field’s fantastic Little Children. While poised to be an awards season hit, it was ignored by critics and barely made a box office dent. While marketing and studio support can easily be blamed, audiences clearly didn’t want to take another trip down sad suburban lanes. Now Green has returned with yet another look at how the problems of people spiral into events of Earth shattering consequence. And up until the final ten minutes, Snow Angels is some very powerful stuff.


One winter’s afternoon, in a small Pennsylvanian burg, the sound of gunshots fills the air. It halts band practice, where high school kid Arthur Parkinson is playing the trombone. It resonates across the football field, where his new girlfriend Lila is standing by, taking photos. It travels across town, where Arthur’s separated parents continue their blame game, as do waitress Barb and her wandering husband, Nate.


As the last echo careens off a distance source, all thoughts turn to recent events. Little Tara Marchand went missing a few weeks before, and angry parents Glenn and Annie took it very hard. Now, some suspect the tragedy has escalated beyond a tiny child and a horrible accident. Glenn was never that stable to begin with, and Annie’s done nothing by spurn and sour his feelings. The terrifying sound might just be their issues - adultery, attempted suicide, alcoholism, abandonment - coming to a head. It might be something much worse.


It’s really a shame that Snow Angels stumbles when it does. It’s not like we can’t see it coming, however. Green, who tends to underplay everything with a deliberateness that borders on the unbelievable, shows a striking lack of restraint through most of the movie. Whenever Sam Rockwell’s failure in flux character Glenn first appears onscreen, we hope his newfound religious fundamentalism will be his only obvious quirk. By the time the actor grabs a gun and starts looking for Kate Beckinsale, we’re pining for the previous piousness.


It’s not that Rockwell is bad in the role, or too mannered in what he’s trying to accomplish. It’s just that Green has pitched the rest of his narrative so down on the dour temperament key that larger than life plays like out of this world. We hold little compassion for Glenn, never understand his numerous tantrums, traumas, or transformations, and simply wait for the mechanical movie making beats to take over and get us to the foreshadowed finale (the open sequence ends with a punctuation of gunfire after all).


And Beckinsdale is no prize either. Playing white trash and trampy may be a stretch for this striking UK beauty, but again, it’s not the performance that throws us. Instead, we are constantly taken by how selfish, manipulative, and just plain unlikable Annie is. She’s like the character played by Amy Ryan in Ben Affleck’s brilliant Gone Baby Gone, except without the drug problem or the pathos.


In Snow Angels, most of Annie’s actions are inexcusable. Her affair with a coworker’s wise-ass male nurse husband feels forced, the plot point predicament like something out of a dime store detective novel. When she needs our empathy, we could honestly care less, and there is never a mea culpa where she confesses to being a stone cold, conniving witch. Instead, Rockwell’s unclear history is supposed to excuse her actions. It doesn’t work.


Luckily, the rest of Snow Angels does. The material with Michael Angarano plays out perfectly, his flirtation with Annie never pushed, his eventual hook up with Lila, a girl more in line with his age and ideals, has a breezy, offbeat grace. The boy’s backstory, including a pair of feuding parents (Griffin Dunne and Jeanneta Arnette) has little weight, but it’s really not necessary. Angarano carries everything he needs with him, and the results give the arc a real sense of purpose.


There are also some sensational supporting elements that keep us engaged. Comedian Amy Sedaris may be the last person you’d picture playing a wounded, whiny small town waitress, but her turn as Barb is beautifully realized. Similarly, little Grace Hudson is the perfect child star antidote as Glenn and Annie’s daughter Tara. While one imagines that most of her scenes were the result of extended improvisation, she never comes across as Dakota Fanning phony or, God forbid, Quinn Cummings cloying. 


Maybe it’s the fact that Green is going with someone else’s ideas here. Snow Angels is based on Stewart O’Nan’s novel, and the feeling of something written, not organic, is everywhere. Much of what happens here would probably come across better on the page. We recognize how minor moments can evolve into unfathomable horrors - human or otherwise - but we miss most of the internal monologues that fiction uses to flesh out these situations. Green hopes his camera and contemplative cinematography will carry us across these plot pot holes. Sadly, we struggle to see the significance.


For all its noble intentions and universal truths, Snow Angels is not a great movie. It’s not a grand movie. It’s barely a very good movie. But if taken at face value and allowed to be its earnest, overplayed self, the sense of cinematic satisfaction is fairly forceful - that is, until the shameless showboating at the end. It really does dampen an otherwise intriguing drama.



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Thursday, May 1, 2008


It may have been the moment when Tobey Maguire went emo, a visual gag that gave longtime Spider-man fans a similar physical reaction. Or maybe it was the flailing Fantastic Four franchise, taken out of its superhero element to be forced and family friendly. The Phantom didn’t help, and Ghost Rider only staved off the inevitable. The superhero movie was hobbled, and having a hard time maintaining its cinematic relevance.


So when it was announced that Marvel would take control of its own brand and make its own movies from its catalog, some were skeptical. Hollywood knows about film, not a comic book company. Well, all doubts now need to be cast aside. Iron Man proves that, by going to the source, the genre has finally found someone who understands it implicitly. 


Tony Stark is a wunderkind, a wealthy weapons manufacturer and all around entrepreneur known as much for his mind as his misdeeds. More comfortable in the headlines than the boardroom, he uses a mission to the Middle East with defense contractor pal Jim Rhodes to introduce The Jericho, an unfathomably destructive missile. A roadside ambush soon finds our cocky CEO in enemy hands, and they have a simple demand. Build them a similar system.


Instead Stark, with the help of a fellow prisoner, constructs a massive metal suit, a human shield capable of indescribable defenses and offensive destruction. Realizing what his company has wrought, the former hostage demands that it change course. This makes his secretary Pepper Potts happy, and his chief advisor and company head Obadiah Stane wary. In the meantime, Stark modifies his suit, turning it into a sleek, super-powered Iron Man. With it, he hopes to right the wrongs his corporate callousness created. 


Iron Man is fantastic, a sure fire blockbuster that will leave audiences breathless and fanboys wanting more. And if all that sounds like unhealthy hyperbole, this is the rare film that actually earns it. In an era where summer films tend to aim for opening weekend supremacy (and little else), this is an epic for the ages. Director Jon Favreau fills in the last missing element in his resume by creating a certified crowd pleaser, a F/X driven spectacle that mandates character count as much as CGI.


Just deep enough to avoid superficiality, so ‘whiz bang wow’ that there’s no chance of boredom, two decades of motion picture allegiance to the Marvel/DC universes is rewarded with an epic that wears it’s intentions proudly. Favreau and crew are looking to forge myth out of the post-modern jingoism, and they succeed beyond any Spider-manipulative psychobabble.


The genius move among many here is the treatment of Tony Stark both internally and externally. On the outside, much will be written about Robert Downey Jr.‘s turn here, and all the praise is warranted. Playing cocksure success and smarts with just enough self spoofing humor to keep from being unbearable, the accomplished actor with the very troubled (and public) past reestablishes his star power with what is, in essence, a collection of everything that contemporary society values.


Stark is attractive, excessively rich, a solid savant, and when push comes to power struggle, capable of tossing aside his blasé business model to fight for what is right. Sure, he also drinks, carouses, and more or less mucks up his personal life, but we love our heroes flawed. From the ancient Greeks to the online pages of TMZ, someone like Tony Stark is our own social reflection.


Internally, the first hour of the film establishes the character’s humanity equally well. Stark is given a physical representation of his personal problems - an electromagnetic implant that keeps tiny, needle-sized pieces of shrapnel suspended in his blood stream and away from his heart. From a clunky battery powered device to a smaller and more refined self-contained unit, this visual representation of the conflict going on inside our lead lends the film a great sense of balance. On the one hand, it powers the various alter ego suits. On the other, it also represents the future of his non defense contract corporate approach. It’s his Achilles Heal and his newfound conscious, a way of representing both the problems he faces and the realizations he’s come to.


By balancing these two elements together, along with some obvious nods to old school effects and new fangled filmmaking, Favreau sets the benchmark for all future comic book efforts. Some have complained that Iron Man is nothing more than an origin story, as if there is something wrong with seeing how an off kilter character like this (a guy dressed up in a high tech flying suit???) got it’s inspiration.


The Arab conflict opening is just ambiguous enough to avoid any outright stereotyping (the villains all speak various international languages, including Hungarian) and Stark’s solution to the dilemma seems like the sort of outsized mechanical master plan he would come up with. In fact, Iron Man is consistently logical and pragmatic. It doesn’t pull out the unbelievable big guns until the mandatory ‘good vs. evil’ finale.


Along with Downey, Jr. this film has assembled a crackerjack cast. Terrence Howard continues to amaze as an intriguing presence at the sidelines of the main action. His Jim Rhodes is primed to play a much bigger role come franchise time. Also impressive is Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s gal Friday, Pepper Potts. Intelligent without being imposing, concerned without overplaying that emotion, we get a wonderful byplay between her character and Stark.


Of course, every hero needs a bad guy to bounce off of, and Jeff Bridges is chrome-domed diabolical as Obadiah Stane. He just looks like trouble the moment we see his smug bearded mug, and our suspicions are rewarded. The closing confront may seem like standard cinematic operating procedure, but it sure does deliver.


Indeed, the main element that Iron Man offers that few of its predecessors could provide is solid storytelling matched with excellent entertainment value. Favreau’s filmmaking is compact, controlled, and never outside his capacity. As he proved with overlooked family fantasy Zathura, he’s not about extremes. Instead, he’s one of the few directors who establish an enjoyable equilibrium between the needs of the narrative vs. the mandates of the marketers. From the moment the movie opens to the final close-up, he does nothing but deliver. Anyone who still views him as an actor turned director needs to reconfigure their perspective. In fact, Favreau may be more accomplished behind the lens than in front.


Don’t be surprised when the backlash comes, however. Remember how the hype took Tim Burton’s Batman down a few unnecessary notches before the film itself reestablished its classicism. Those who’ve been chiseling away at the genre’s tombstone need to take a break - Iron Man reminds us of why the pen and ink paradigm was viewed as profitable in the first place.


Sure, this movie will make scads of cash, but what Favreau accomplishes here is something more timeless. Like Guillermo Del Toro’s sensational Hellboy, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and Raimi’s reverent view of Peter Parker, the story of Tony Stark becomes one of the best translations from comic to cinema ever. It’s also a firm reminder of why we go to the movies in the first place. 



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