Saturday, July 13, 2013

Review: House of Blues in Houston

The Rundown:
The City: Houston
The Place: The House of Blues Houston
The Day: Saturday
The Time: 5:00 P.M. - 6:30 P.M.

The Review:
Planning to take in my first American soccer game and enjoy some Houston Dynamos, my friends and I thought it might first be appropriate to try and find a decent place to eat, somewhere fun and without too much fuss. This led us to the House of Blues, earlier than when their music gets going and at a lull in the day. Located in downtown Houston, getting cheap parking isn't the easiest thing if the parking meters are filled up, and that provided an initial obstacle. Still, it's not the House of Blues' fault that the city doesn't know how to zone their properties. We arrived in a small party of six, and were quickly seated, given the lack of diners at this hour.
Pictured: Empty.
I understand it gets much more lively during the evening, once the music is going, but I did not mind the laid back nature of the afternoon, allowing for a quick dining experience. Let me first go on the record discussing their drinks: A Jack and Coke I ordered. Mind you, I only had one, preferring to keep the bulk of my alcoholic indulgence for beer at the Dynamo Stadium. However, my drink was not too pricey. In a city that serves these for anywhere from six to ten dollars, I felt eight dollars was fair, and though the drink was not incredibly strong, I did not feel cheated on the alcohol served in mine.
Alcohol. The source of, and solution to, all our problems.
The House of Blues is a large venue, with more than enough space for a raucous evening filled with multiple diners. A huge screen at the front allows diners a chance to catch the game if there are no bands up, and an assortment of booths, tables and bar seating allows for multiple options suited to anyone's style. The lighthearted portraits and wall paintings give the House a lighthearted feel, while the open seating arrangements allow for a real sense of openness. Paired with the perfect lighting and wide open windows that allow for the natural light of the outdoors, and you have all the makings of a wonderful dining ambience. It feels fun and lively, and I can only imagine that gets better when the House is in full swing.
Really, it makes me want to come back for dinner service.
But let's talk about that all important, critical component: The food. Those of you that follow my reviews know my standards for excellence. I love a good meal, because, truly, who doesn't? I ordered a traditional ham and cheese BLT with a side of fries, nothing too complicated but perfect for a sunny afternoon just hours before the start of a soccer game. First up? Presentation. Although serving fries in a cup borders on pretentious, House of Blues makes the tray work. The side serving of cucumbers may seem extraneous, but it helps balance out and divide the dish against the large portions that are the BLT itself.  Overall it's about as interesting a presentation as you'll see on a traditional dish, and it looked appetizing. The fries didn't look like they were strewn about in a greasy lump and, thankfully, they weren't. The fries were golden, slightly browned, with just enough crispness. The flavor was perfect, with just enough seasoning and no sense of burn from too much application. But what are the sides if the main dish isn't any good? It's difficult to mess up a BLT, so let's tackle how House of Blues composed this dish.
The bread was toasted perfectly, always a good start. No sense of running juices that would have made it go limp or soggy, and the sandwiches held together perfectly. The bacon was cooked just crispy enough, not burnt, while the layers of cheese and meats are done perfectly. There's no sense of mess, of your sandwich falling apart. The sandwich is served in two towers, so initially it's hard to see that you pull them apart to make four separate servings. Initially I was perplexed about how to actually fit the damned thing in my mouth, but using my Sherlock like intuition I figured out the meal came apart into four portions. Perfectly sized, perfectly held together, great crispness where there should be and excellent layering of cheeses and meats. My only disappointment, where House of Blues fell short in their meal, was in the chipotle sauce. The BLT is such a simple dish in so many ways that the addition of a chipotle flavoring really intrigued me and would have brought the entire meal together with the right application. Unfortunately, it was so lightly applied that I got almost no taste of it. Remember, these are rather thick servings, so you want to apply enough that the sauce enhances the flavors without overwhelming them. Sadly I almost missed the flavor of it entirely during the first half of my sandwich. It was almost as if it had been applied only to one half of the sandwich. When dealing with thick, hearty portions, it is advisable to apply sauce just slightly more liberally. If I walk away unable to taste it on half the sandwich, that definitely indicates uneven application.
Houston baseball. We know how this will go.
 Still, for overall ambiance, pleasant service, fantastic fries, a good drink and an almost great sandwich, I can certainly recommend the House of Blues. I keep going back to those fries, but they were surprisingly excellent, and the sandwich missed the mark by just inches. What a shame. Still, a very good meal in a great setting with great staff. Here's to next time, House of Blues.

The Final Call:
Facilities: 5/5
Staff: 5/5
Service: 5/5
Drinks: 3/5
Food: 4/5

Overall: 4/5

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Review: Amazon Grill on Kirby

The Rundown:
The City: Houston
The Place: The Black Walnut Cafe at Rice Village
The Day: Sunday
The Time: 2:00 P.M. - 4:00 P.M.

The Review:
Sunday once again found me out and about in the great city of Houston, looking for a meal on a warm summer day that was too hot by ten degrees. It can be easy to miss Amazon Grill when driving by, a result of a small sign and an unremarkable location in an area of town where there are many, many restaurants. I'll be up front, though. Missing out on Amazon Grill is missing out on a treat.
Honestly, it could almost be a Popeye's.
Something that stands out about Amazon Grill is the color. From its exterior to its interior, the emphasis is on bright, warm, fresh. I'm not too partial to yellow in general, but the overall vibe is vibrant, with large open windows allowing the sun in, providing a relaxing feel for patrons. A small seating and waiting area at the front sits just next to the order counter, removing any confusion as to where you need to go, and menus are in plain sight from the entry.

It's not much space, but hopefully you won't be waiting long anyway.

The seating provides a nice variety for all manner of customers. The interior is filled with booths and tables, as per any normal restaurant. There is an enclosed patio area outside, as well as a fully open area patio, which given the heat was being avoided by the patrons on this day. What's good about Amazon's approach is that they've provided something for everyone, a comfortable seat for every tye of customer. Ordering was simple enough, the counter clerks courteous and friendly, explaining the small details of the restaurant, and food delivery was incredibly speedy. There could be some slight more care at the front of house, and I never saw anyone that remotely looked like a greeter or a manager, which are all trifling issues unless you actually feel lost or in need to talk to someone in charge.

Have any seat in the house.
Let's get down to the food though, shall we? Provide as pleasant an experience as you want, it all collapses if the food is no good. First, house chips provided at the front sit under a warming light. This is one of my minor quibbles with the restaurant. After all, if you're paying for food, you'd rather not feel as if your chips or stale, having been warming on a platter for hours. From what I tasted, though, they were crisp, and the hot sauce provided was warm enough to tingle the tongue without burning.
Suspicious at a glance, but the taste was satisfactory.
My order today was a classic dish of southern flare, a three beef taco order with a side of blackbeans. Too often, puffy tacos are served soggy, bloated by grease and oil, dripping, the taco shell barely containing its contents. Not at Amazon Grill, my friends. This dish was a beauty.

Oh Happy Day.
The side dish, a take on simple black beans, is served over rice with a garnish of peppers and corn, with a morsel of plantains. Taken as a whole side, it is wonderful. The flavor from the beans and various sides blend together quite well. Salt, which I am obsessed with, was hardly needed. However, they nailed not only the flavor, but the presentation. When you think of black beans, you think dark, unappealing. However, served on a tray with many other colorful sides, the overall blend created a delightful image to accompany the delightful flavor.

A smashing start.
And as for the tacos? My tongue, be still. A side of garnish, sour cream and guacamole accompany the meal to the side, allowing you to choose what you would like to add to the tacos. The meat itself has a wonderful season to it, really enhancing the flavor of the beef. And the taco shell? Good gods, what a delight. Breaking crisply in one's mouth, flavored, not greasy, not crunchy like a chip, it broke apart with just the right give. Rather than spill its contents all onto the plate, the shell held just firm enough while crisply breaking, and with the mix of garnishes on top of the seasoned meat, provided an explosion of flavor. I was praising its wonders at the table.

What a wonder.
There are some slight issues on presentation in which the tacos nearly seemed to be overwhelmed by the sides, but that's a nitpick best reserved for other occasions. What matters today is this: Great tasting food, good presentation, speedy service, lovely atmosphere. That's the best you can ask for from a restaurant. One of my other minor quibbles would be on the delay between the time our party finished lunch and service came by to pick up the dishes, but again, really? If you avoid Amazon Grill because they took long to pick up your plates, you're avoiding it for the wrong reason.

This location receives one of my highest recommendations, easily.

The Final Call:
Facilities: 5/5
Staff: 4/5
Service: 4/5
Drinks: N/A
Food: 4.5/5

Overall: 4/5

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: Black Walnut Cafe at Rice Village

The Rundown:
The City: Houston
The Place: The Black Walnut Cafe at Rice Village
The Day: Sunday
The Time: 1:00 - 2:00 P.M.

The Review:
Once again on my blogging adventures, and again on the often times Quixotic adventure of trying to find a good church to attend, I recently found myself being invited by a local church group to The Black Walnut Cafe in the Rice Village area. Rice Village, one of the nicer, charming areas of the city, is home to a number of restaurants, bars and stores. Of course any store catering to the British is immediately an area of town I'll be visiting.

The Black Walnut itself doesn't sit on Rice Boulevard but is instead just a street back, where yet another impressive array of stores, bars and restaurants all sit cozied up to one another. I'm not sure I can level this as a criticism at the restaurant, but the parking situation in Rice is atrocious. Despite all it has to offer, it's difficult to find a place to saddle your car so that you can actually enjoy the area. Then again, this is Houston, and the lawmakers of this city don't seem to actually care whether anyone shops around here.

To get this out of the way, The Black Walnut is, undoubtedly, a pleasant place to gather and sit. Though slightly crowded on this Sunday afternoon, the owners have done a wonderful job of making sure the area is well lit with natural light instead of fuzzy interior lights. Windows empty out on the streets and fill the restaurant with just enough sun. A long stretch of seating lines the back wall while bar stools and tables sit along the main dining area, and tables can be brought together quite easily for larger parties. The Black Walnut has a good problem in this respect. So many people want to eat there, that they struggle slightly to accommodate the numbers given a simple problem of size. The rich wood, so beautiful, and the slightly antique styled chairs provide a quirk and charm to the restaurant that makes it a lovely gathering place on a sunny afternoon.

From the point of entry there's nobody to greet you but the front of store is easily located directly ahead of the entry, with a number of menus just off to the side and some popular dishes and drinks chalked on the boards above the order area.

There are a delicious number of pastries presented up front as well, there to delight the eyes and tempt the tongue. However the first point of confusion emerged at this point, since it becomes confusing to order if you've never been to the Black Walnut. There are two signs that say "Order Here". However, you're actually only supposed to order at the first, while the second is for pick up. This had to be explained as my companion and I struggled to find a place to actually get a lunch requested. Not a massive stumble, but at least a hiccup.

A rather minor one of course, but then, we haven't actually discussed the food. I ordered what it labeled on the menu as the "Thirteen Coins". Oh dear, what could that possibly mean? A quick examination quickly presented it as a sandwhich, almost a club, though with a greater variety of meets and an interesting bread to top it off. To quote, from their online menu, it is a composition of "Cajun Turkey, honey ham, hard salami, provolone, red onions, tomatoes, lettuce, pesto La-chac-la bread, tomato savory dressing, served warm".

That last bit is good for a chuckle in retrospect. Here's what my meal looked like as it was served.

Keep a close eye on that bread. As far as sides go, the fries were well seasoned, though perhaps slightly overly so. When I eat a fry, the aftertaste of the seasoning shouldn't be so strong that I need to take a drink of water to cool my throat. However, better a well seasoned fry than a bland one, and even despite the over-seasoning it wasn't offensively done so. The crime on those fries, though, had nothing to do with the seasoning and everything to do with the taste. Slightly cold, not mushy but not crisp, almost limp. It felt as if they'd been sitting on the plate for a few minutes before the sandwhich was brought to the window for plating. Unfortunate.

Still, not extraordinarily bad, just not as good as I was expecting. Here's the real kicker. Remember that bread? This is what it quickly became:

What a soggy mess. Kudos to the restaurant deciding to use so many different ingredients, but the choice of bread creates a disaster as the diner tries to actually eat the damned thing. At times I wondered if I shouldn't grab a fork and go at it like a salad. The chefs at Black Walnut Cafe need to decide to go with either a different bread for this sandwich, or a different method of presentation is less bulky portions, because this simply won't do. Mind you, La-chac-la is merely their fancy way of saying flatbread. I noticed my neighbors sandwich in normal toasted bread was staying together quite nicely.

So my review of Black Walnut Cafe? Mixed, honestly. I understand they were busy on a Sunday afternoon, and the price at 12 dollars is reasonable, but you're still asking for some basics from your meal. Warm fries. Not oily and limp. And bread that doesn't fall apart because it's too tin and soggy. It's a damned shame considering the appeal of the restaurant, and in the end the food defines what you are as a restaurant. Much like the crowded interior of the cafe, the food is just sort of a confused mess.

The Final Call:
Facilities: 4/5
Staff: 5/5
Service: 4/5
Drinks: N/A
Food: 2/5

Overall: 3/5

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad
Location:Houston, TX

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Watch This Movie: Man of Steel

The Brave and the Bold.
It's been a while since I blogged, due to the nature of grad school. I've been waiting for a good topic before I made a return, and I thought, upon doing so, I would make it about something that truly moved me.

Man of Steel is that something.

This is going to be a long review. A short one wouldn't do the film justice, and I'm going to tackle this in several segments. I don't think I can do the film any justice if I don't pay it the attention I believe it deserves. So please, grab a drink, and try and enjoy my review of Man of Steel.
Here he comes!

Man of Steel tries to do multiple things at once. Aware of the fact that the Superman origin story has been told and retold, most recently in Superman Returns and the ten years of Smallville, Man of Steel shifts the origin story away from an extended stint in Kansas. In fact, it jumps tens of thousands of years prior to Kal-El's arrival on Earth, and focuses on the circumstances that developed on Krypton, leading to his departure into the stars.

Kal-El, now known as Clark, is seen wandering the world in search of his purpose, while also seen trying to hide his origins from any prying eyes. Always trying to do the right thing while keeping his powers secret, his life is, relatively speaking, nearly meaningless. He hasn't come out as the Blue Crusader, in fact he has no costume yet. He works odd jobs as he tries to get by in life, wherever he can pick them up.

It isn't until the story intersects with Krypton, as Clark begins to learn of his origins, that the story really begins to pick up pace again. The movie falls into a breathing period, considering the introductory Krypton sections are farely intense, and allows us to see Clark's childhood and development in flashbacks. Rather than focus a whole half of the movie to him growing up, the film moves back to critical periods in his lifetime, mostly focused around him as his father (played spectacularly by Kevin Costner). During this time he's also making his first, meaningful human connection outside his family, as he is trailed by the persistent Lois Lane (done with charm and grace by Amy Adams).

At this juncture in the film, General Zod (an amazingly intense Michael Shannon plays the role) also becomes a figure in Clark's life, meaning he is introduced to both the best and worst of Krypton at the same time. This is almost getting into spoiler territory, so I'm afraid to type much more. However, to at least glaze over the issue, Clark is forced to make decisions between his Kryptonian and Earthling heritage from this point out. For the first time he is interacting with the general world, which eyes him suspiciously, even as he works for their good. For the first time he is experiencing a human connection outside of his mother and father. Yet at the same time he's coming face to face with Kryptonian society and having to decide what defines him.

I mean they really don't trust him.
Man of Steel is done mostly with hand cam, so there's a shaky vibe throughout many of the scenes. Someone complained that this was painful to watch in 3D... to which I respond, why would you watch a film not intended for 3D in 3D? The actual effect of using this style camera is intense. It's never as stuttering as, say, Cloverfield. However there are times it almost seems like a documentary. At one point, in Alaska, I mused I might be watching an episode of Deadliest Catch.

As far as CGI, the world of Krypton is brought to life in a way never before realized on film. Those of us old enough to remember the Donner films think back on a crystalline ice world. However, the comics have made clear over the decades that Krypton was technologically, highly advanced and that it was an incredibly harsh environment. In Man of Steel we finally get a sense for the technology of the Kryptonians, their grand spaceships, their rising living towers, their incredible weapons, their mastery of space travel and their grasp of advanced genetic manipulations. Explosive, volcanic terrain is paired against flying lizards and swooping star vessels. Then, when the action moves to Earth, towers are obliterated, cars tossed about, jets leaped upon, and fights waged in the depths of space. This is great stuff, completely unimaginable as a fight just a little over a decade ago. Superman is not afraid to go hard toward science fiction, a genre far more welcome with modern audiences than it has been in decades. It never comes across cheesy, but it is awe inspiring at times to see the technology that is being wielded.

I also want to stress that, for the first time, we get an idea for just how powerful the Kryptonian species is. In Superman Returns, we all remember the infamous bullet-to-the-eye scene in which a bullet struck Superman's eye, only to flatten. There's plenty of that here. In fact, tons of hero movies have these. Iron Man, Thor, and now Superman all have scenes in which they have shrugged off weapon fire. Man of Steel goes above and beyond, though, to show the audience that Kryptonians aren't just like every other super powered being, though. In battles against the humans, Kryptonians move so fast on screen that they go between a half dozen soldiers within seconds. They barely struggle when brutally tossed through exploding fuel tankers, entire buildings, or hammered with missiles. I'll go so far as to say that this is the single greatest demonstration of what it means to be superhuman ever realized on film. It's not just the strength, it's the speed, the endurance. They seem almost limitless in their ability to deal out destruction, absorb it, not to mention move with a quickness never so accurately portrayed on screen. Not to mention that just two of them did as much damage as all the invading armies and defending heroes combined in Marvel's Avengers.

Finally, music wise, Hans Zimmer has put together a score that is going to remain with you for a lifetime. Borrowing a hint from Dark Knight and the entire recent Batman franchise, a few simple notes define Superman and recur throughout the films. This leitmotif takes on darker, more sinister tones, and seems to encompass Kryptonians as a whole. However, specific to Superman, it is often accompanied by soft choral voices, taking it away from its dark edges and into a glorious apotheosis. It's stirring notes, which I'm listening to even now as I let the soundtrack play, take on heavenly resonance at crucial moments in the movie when Superman demonstrates his willingness to give everything he has for the good of mankind.

The Battle for Krypton.

 "You're not even my real father".
These words, uttered by a young Clark Kent, are ones he'll come to regret in the course of the film. As an adopted son, they were words I also, regrettably, uttered to my own parents. This is one of the many issues Superman touches upon.

More than ever before, I am convinced that Superman is the most human of all superheroes. It's a notion echoed at least once by Batman, when he said of Superman, "In many ways, Clark is the most human of us all." This is realized on several levels throughout the movie.

Superman is a perpetual outsider for the majority of his life. The gain of his powers in his youth led to many distressing moments that labeled him as a freak. In refusing to use them, he became the victim of bullies that did not understand them. In young adulthood, he fled, itinerant, uncommitted, and alone. Loneliness, the feeling of being an outsider, unwelcomed, and unloved are feelings we all feel at one point or another. The second half of that Batman quote goes, "Then... he shoots fire from the skies and it is difficult not to think of him as a god. And how fortunate we all are that it does not occur to him." Clark is presented with a unique problem that only the guidance of a caring father help him overcome. Though he feels like an outsider, his ability to retaliate far outstrip any of our own. Yet it is never something he truly considers, and owes much to Pa Kent's willingness to impart the value of life to his child.

Specific to Superman is the notion of adoption, which not all of us face, but I won't doubt that there aren't several adopted children out there who, like me, resonated with particular conundrums. Curiosity at one's parents, why they gave you up, where you came from, and the willingness to use that frustration as a way to hurt one's adoptive parents are all present. It even extends to Clark's decisions on to what degree he should embrace his Kryptonian past, much like a child having to decide between parents. 

Family is incredibly important, and as the primary shaper of a person's identity, it's that much more important when considering how it shapes a person with the power of a god. Two moments stand out quite prominently in my mind. One, as the Kent residence is being raided by Kryptonian soldiers and Ma Kent is being threatened directly, Superman swoops in and begins a beatdown of epic proportions while screaming out "What makes you think you can attack my mother?" There's a passion there, a reason for him being so enraged. These are the only people that have ever fully known him, a truth that, in reality, remains for many of us. There are few people that will ever know us, flaws and all, more deeply than our parents.

The second moment comes in the final flashback of the film. You've seen clips of it in the trailers, of a young Clark, a red cape wrapped around his neck, playing with the family dog. His father's working on the truck, his mother descending the stairway. It's the family we could all hope to have, if not with our parents, then maybe when we start families of our own.

Some of the grander themes obviously reside in the notion of a savior. Superman has, quite obviously, been compared to Christ or a general messiah figure many times throughout the years. The film not so subtly references this, but it's important for long time viewers of Superman to remember that these obvious themes aren't always as obvious to younger fans (just look at Twitter reactions to see there are many younger audience members only now making the connection).

This leads to two of the most prominent themes in the movie, and some of the grandest, although they can be made quite trite when abused. The willingness to put everything on the line for the sake of others, even those he reject you, is a highly Christian notion among others. The idea to love those even though they hate you is one Christ spoke of, perhaps one of the enduring reasons why even people who reject organized religion can find admirable things in the religion's founder. Turning the other cheek, taking an extra burden upon yourself even when it means helping those who don't deserve it, these are actions of love. Superman thoroughly loves humanity, with all its flaws, despite its suspicions of him. The messiah comparison isn't simply one born out of his willingness to die for others, but out of his willingness to restrain himself when he could dominate, to help when he could ignore, to be selfish instead of selfless.

Which leads to the final, grandest, and among all these others, most complicated notions of the Superman legacy. It's the hardest to get right, and can be subtle enough to be boring. It was aimed for in Superman Returns, and it's shot for here. For all that's discussed in the previous theme, and given an extraordinary number of discussions from both Pa Kent and Jor-El, Superman's primary function is to serve as a light, an example. His primary function isn't to punch down huge spaceships or fight flying enemies, but to inspire mankind to treat others with respect and dignity, to help one another, regardless of whether we think they deserve such treatment or not. Even in the most action intense sequences of the film, the director finds time to switch back to Superman's human counterparts and see how they're conducting themselves in the face of an invading menace. Soldiers put their lives on the line against overwhelming odds, against forces they can't possibly prevail against, but do so with the knowledge that they might help save others. However, this theme of inspiration is not limited to just soldiers. Everyday people, Mary Sue and John Doe, are on the ground helping each other in all odds. Many, many times it's shown that Superman inspires others, but that his character to do so was in turn forged by others that did the same. Superman's respect for life and willingness to try and do what's right in respect of life and dignity extend even to his enemies. There is no way I can give the ultimate example of this, since it occurs in an agonizingly painful climax that truly encompasses Superman's identity and love of life, but the final battle scene seals the deal on how much love he has for preserving life. That is something he inspires in others. 

At one point, Jor-El says, "one day they will join you in the sun." In the original Donner films, Jor-El also said "They can be a great people, Kal-El, if they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son." Kal-El, Superman, Clark's ultimate mission is to inspire others to good. The perfect world will no longer need a Superman.

Still, until that day, it's good to be able to go back to the red, yellow and blue.

Many thanks to the creators of this film. I cried through about three fourths of it, even in the middle of some action sequences, that's how moving I found it to be. To give it the ultimate credit, I saw this at 11:30 P.M. on a Friday. As I left at two in the morning, I wished there was another showing so I could watch it again.


Sunday, March 31, 2013

Happy Easter!

I was having a discussion with a Jewish sister of mine who was celebrating Passover during this same time frame. It's always so interesting discussing where two different faiths are coming from. Understanding the Judaic roots of Christianity, and understanding that Christ was also celebrating Passover 2,00 years ago, I then proceeded to think about where I would be attending church on Sunday, being a new transplant to Houston. 
Resurrection, the idea of renewal, of a new start, of something fresh, is a powerful concept. I'd say it's been a difficult month for me, personally. I've been knocked around quite a bit, been depressed, upset, angry. Frustrated with life, and wanting little more than a chance to get the month over with and restart. Who doesn't want a redo once in a while?

So I find it great, in a way, that my reset is starting in April, on the occasion of Easter. Once upon a time I also attended Jewish services on Fridays, so the idea of Passover and Easter interact dynamically for me. On the one hand, from the Biblical origin, you have the reminder that you were "once a bondsman", or slave. I think we all experience times in our life where we feel we're victimized and made slave to something else, circumstances that really push us down and beat us up, where we feel as if our lives are not under control. But we're able to celebrate the fact that those times pass on, that our lives go on, that the better times are here, that we've endured the trial and have come out changed, but hopefully better, and no longer victim to forces beyond our control.

And in Easter we have the continuation of that idea. Not only have we emerged, but we have been reborn. When Christ died and rose, he defeated death and sin. The consequences for what we do always have lingering effects, and the circumstances we endure always leave scars (Jesus still had the wounds in his hands after he rose), but we are renewed. Every trying time and circumstance is not only a time to be spared, but in the aftermath to be reborn, to emerge from our mistakes, from our trial, a new person.

So beyond the deep and intimate spiritual relationship I value in Christ, the concepts of entering trying times, being spared and emerging a renewed individual are all concepts I'm treasuring today. While on display most powerfully now, at Easter, they're also ideas I can carry with me day to day, month to month and year to year, throughout my entire life.

I'm attending an African American church called Wheeler Baptist today. I like their worship services, they get down. Whether you're a faithful follower celebrating Easter or an atheist just enjoying your day, be well, take care, and keep fighting for the positive and humane treatment of all people in this world. We all should fight for a place where we can live in peace and happiness not only for ourselves, but everyone else as well.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Meeting Ben Hall, Mayoral Candidate for Houston

Except not for us small timers.
So obviously I'm into politics, and I love the city of Houston. We're America's most ethnically diverse city, we're wrestling between liberal and conservative at the moment, we've got a long history, we're actually building light rail (IN TEXAS), and the University of Houston has a great research program. As an active member of the community, a member of the history department as well as the owner of a small catering company, I'm interested in learning about politicians and what they bring to the office, if they get elected.
So when I was incited by the owner of a local establishment to come to a meet and greet for Ben Hall, from 6 to 8 on the 28th, I thought it'd be a great chance to as a few questions about his policies. I mean, two hours is a good piece of time to have to talk with someone. Even an hour would have been nice.
But then the flyer went out that it would be from 5 to 7, so I said, okay, I may have to miss a bit of work but I'm willing to do it, especially since I was personally invited by the owner to come, support and maybe get some talk in. Certainly even a few minutes would have been nice. Members of the National Black MBA Association were there. Although the total crowd was small, there were at least a dozen people there specifically see Hall.

And what does Ben Hall do? He doesn't show up from 5 to 7. Instead he gets there at 7:30, his staff having arrived an hour ahead of time. When he drops in, he shakes hands down the line at the bar, does the Wobble with some women on the floor, and vanishes ten minutes later. No time to talk, no time to ask about policy, no time to show that he cared. To be honest, it was rather insulting.
So listen up Houston. As of right now, Ben Hall doesn't really seem like he has the time to discuss policy with members of the community. I suppose we weren't just high enough on his list for him to pay more than lip service to. What's insulting is that I was not the only one that took time out of their day to arrive. At least two other men complained to his staff that they'd arrived at five to see Hall, and were now having to leave before the man even arrived, because Ben Hall didn't have time in his day to have even a ten minute discussion about how he'd help the Third Ward or anyone in Houston, really.

Politics is partly a personality game, a publicity game. Hall didn't do himself any favors by acting as if we weren't worth his time.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Fear is a Poison of the Mind

100702-N-5148B-012.SAN DIEGO (July 2, 2010) Service members salute the U.S. flag aboard the USS Midway Museum during a military naturalization ceremony. Service members from all branches of the military from more than 50 countries became U.S. citizens. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sarah E. Bitter/Released).
So when I think about the Republican Party and its brand, a few people come to mind. Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and a number of others. By and large I believe these men sit in relatively safe Republican zones, are pressured by Republican goals but are not outright in the Tea Party Crazy camp at all times, at least not like an Allen West or Michelle Bachmann. 

This is different from the Republican Media, which consists of individuals such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Tucker Carlson, Michelle Malkin. These are individuals not so much concerned with policy as they are with courting numbers, which required pandering to Tea Party Crazy at all times because it's an easy target for revenue.

They're two different things and, while it's easy to laugh at how they're currently working against each other, it's causing real problems in politics for anyone with a remotely progressive view toward anything.

Because in reality, I sort of think both Boehner and McConnell would like to make at least a few deals work with Obama. They're politicians whose rhetoric, while still stupid, does not flirt with the extremism demonstrated by a number of others that have to court the Tea Party in order to maintain their office. These are men who can afford to compromise at least to a limited degree without having to worry if they'll have jobs next year. We hear stories about Boehner arguing behind closed doors against the crazier elements of his camp, which I believe, because I do think he wants a positive brand on the Republicans, while the Tea Party Crazy just wants extremist purity. I'm not saying I agree with them on everything, or even most things, but just feel that if not for the current political environment they'd be more open to working with Democrats.

That political climate, though, is being generated by the Republican Media, which has very different objectives from the Republican Party. Members of the party, primarily, want to be reelected as well as increase their elected numbers, including the taking of the presidency. The Republican Media, on the other hand, could care less about whether or not they get officials elected. Sure, it's nice, and they'll always be able to count on a Republican presence in office, but the current times presents a prime media opportunity for Republican celebrities. They get to feed off of fear and paranoia, increase their revenues, and maybe a few Republicans get along the way. That third point, though, is actually inconsequential.

The Republican Media, after all, wants profits more than elections. It's why they're represented by fear mongering and paranoia at all levels of its media, from its online presence, twitter, blogs and websites, to its personal mouthpiece in Fox News. What would life be like for a Republican media member who didn't use hyperbole and fear inducing rhetoric to generate numbers for themselves? Why, look no further than Tucker Carlson. Salon has a great piece on his downward momentum, falling from an at least somewhat thoughtful writer, to an arguing loudmouth on Crossfire, to an online media leader for Republicans. It's that last part that's interesting, though. The Daily Caller, according to Salon, at least initially attempted fair coverage of its topics. His traffic was dismal, so his response? Do just like everyone else was doing and spread fear, paranoia and tell Republican footsoldiers how scary the world was. As Salon points out, any attempts at integrity was abandoned for numbers by, essentially, lying.

Let's not act as if this is something new. Fox News does it. Michelle Malkin does it. Hannity does it. And Bill O'Reilly is famous for screaming down anyone he disagrees with, or misrepresenting their position. And what's the end game for these media members? It's not more Republicans in office. In fact, too many would probably be bad for the Republican media. It would send a signal that the world is actually conservative enough that people don't have to be so afraid, and fear is the primary means by which they generate traffic. I'm convinced that, if they did control Congress, the Republica media would immediately begin spinning even scarier stories of how terrorists, Iran, Russia, China and Korea were all gunning for the U.S. The more frightened the population, the more views on Republican websites and views on Republican television.

That's not the situation at the moment, though. At the moment, there's plenty for conservatives to be fearful of, from a Kenyan immigrant in the White House, to the plot to bring a hundred million Muslims into America. Because there's so much to fear, it means that the U.S. has to constantly be on guard, and the Democrats are too weak to defend it. In turn this means more Republicans need to be in office, and not just any Republican, but pure Republicans willing to stand up for whatever it is conservatives believe America truly is.

That's all well and good, and maybe even worth a laugh when you consider it's tearing the Republican Party apart. Electable members of the Republican party are being tossed aside for its 'purest' and actually, craziest elements, leading to defeats such as what we saw with Allen West, Todd Akin and almost Michelle Bachmann.

However, as we witness the atrophying of the Republican party, the immediate, negative consequence is that we have to wait as the logjam in Congress continues to pile up. The Republican Party is getting what its media wants, purity members that won't compromise with weak Democrats, and in turn leading to a Congress that can accomplish nothing. The root of that inability to get anything done is fear, illogical, unconfrontable fear generated in the minds of people who seek Republican media in order to confirm what a terrible world we live in, and who seek defenders that won't compromise. An inability to compromise, to assess a situation and change course, isn't fear, however. It's intelligence. It's the knowledge that situations change. Compromise is not always a bad thing, especially when it generates a positive way forward. We've criticized Democrats of doing that too much, and I agree, but it's a consequence of wanting to do something at the very least. As it stands, Republicans want to do nothing, which is a symbol among them of their strength. Unfortunately, it leads to the withering of the Republican in the meantime, even as their numbers dwindle.

Am I encouraged by the silliness engaged by conservatives at the moment? In the long run, maybe. Continual demonstrations of craziness threaten their party and brand, a goal their media doesn't mind because it keeps lining their pockets. For now, in this moment, though, it means we bear witness to ongoing suffering as people receive little to no help from the government, which is stuck in a do-nothing position.

As a young man, I read a book, as I'm sure many Democrats and Republicans have, called 1984. I took away a few lessons from that I think are always good to keep in mind. There may, or may not be, external threats. There are definitely forces at work in the world that work against the interests of this country. However, unmitigated fear among a country's population is the worst poison to progress. It makes us suspicious and hateful of our own. It focuses the attention of a people outward, to external places, instead of focusing on what can be fixed within. That's not even just a public policy lesson, that's an individual lesson. Inside each of us we must address our fears and prejudices in hope of contributing to a national dialogue. We have to look here, within our country, accepting that the world isn't entirely safe, but also believing in our ability to come together and solve the problems that are plaguing one another.

As long as we continually are ruled by fear, of our own insecurities, of one another, of people abroad, we can't make intelligent choices. Fear forces us to withdraw, to look out only for ourselves, to our own security, to wish ourselves the best while not looking out for anyone else. We have to be bolder, more courageous. We have to have the courage to say we will support one another, to vote for programs that support the least, even when it comes at a small cost to ourselves. These principles, these notions of self sacrifice, of charity, these are the inspiring things that move man beyond his base fears. It's a damned shame that there's an entire brand of media that's perpetuated by generating fear among a large segment of the population, and one so selfish it doesn't care that it halts the progress of society as it does so.

I can only end with the words of Dean Koontz, who most immediately sums up my position:
“Fear is a poison produced by the mind, and courage is the antidote stored always ready in the soul.”

Monday, March 25, 2013

Don't Watch This Movie: Evil Dead

I'll Eat Your Money!
I would like to quote you some big name sites trying to get you to throw away your cash next week when the Evil Dead remake comes out.

Bloody Disgusting gave it 4 out of 5 stars.
Horror Talk said it was "the most unrelenting and bloody horror film to come out of a major studio in a very long time".
IGN gave it 9 out of 10 stars and said it was "terrifying, exhilarating and relentlessly entertaining new chapter in the Evil Dead story".

So apparently nobody has seen the SAW franchise recently.
First of all, in the last decade, SAW and a few other films and franchises have defined how to make people uncomfortable in their seats. This movie, this iteration of Evil Dead, does nothing new in that regard. Gruesome dismemberment, loss of fingers, scarring of faces, we've seen it all before. Which is fine, as Solomon said 4,00 years ago, there's nothing new under the sun (Quote: The Bible).
I wish I was Bruce Campbell.
It's how you do something that matters, and whatever Evil Dead that was fresh almost forty years ago is now business as usual in the horror business. Not only are the gruesome scenes never anything new, especially considering the course of the horror genre over the last few years, but it fails to be truly scary. Now, if you're a gore fiend, I'm sure you'll find plenty to enjoy about the film. There's undoubtedly plenty there for people who like seeing human beings ripped to shreds.

I have a term, a "torture box". It's a movie scene explicitly set up in which a horror movie can do unspeakable things to an individual in order to invoke the maximum pain upon the individual in the scene, in order to produce the maximum discomfort among those in the audience. SAW almost defined this, since people were literally set in rooms where these events would occur. Many horror movies do this, and Evil Dead makes it explicit, by actually locking the doors of the protagonists when they step inside a room. They enter the torture box, gruesome pain is inflicted, audience is grossed out.
My reaction to having to rate this film.

Fairly predictable set up. So, how do you distance your film from its peers? How do you make a predictable setup intriguing, or at least worth investing in? For one, good writing would be a start. Evil Dead falls apart at every corner. Some will say it's just trying to follow in the cheesy source film it's based on, but there's a reason that doesn't work, and I'll get to that. Just follow me on this point for a second. The writing is just bad. Characters recite rhymes or poems invoking the coming mayhem and death. It's foreshadowing, but foreshadowing should have some subtlety. In Evil Dead, there is none. It's just laid out, as if to say hey, we're all going to die.

The writing extends to the characters. I'm not sure what era this movie is supposed to be taking place in, but the high school teacher is written and portrayed almost as a hippy. Having once been a high school teacher, I know none that act like this one does. Not that they don't exist, but the writers went for the cheesiest portrayal of a nerdish teacher they could have. Worse than the characterization, the characters all die from stupidty. As people are being scalded alive, carving their faces off, driving needles into one another and carving off their arms, the main protagonist argues this may all be a virus.
Hi! I'm a shambling stereotype.

Nobody in real life would act like these people do in circumstances like this.

So look, you've got a good setup for continual terror boxes. A cabin in the woods, secluded from the world, partially by an unexplainable flood, but whatever. You can induce your terror boxes in each individual at this point. However, from the outset, the audience knows the protagonist is too stupid to make smart choices. The audience knows every is going to die because of his stupidity. There's no suspense, no surprise, only the gruesome moment when the terror box is activated and somebody is mangled.

Speaking of that high school teacher, it's sad that he's the closest to a real character that we ever actually get in the film. While everyone else is busy being one dimensional, people acted upon rather than acting, the high school teacher actually has diverse sets of loyalties. First he has loyalty to his friend, the girl possessed in the film. He has ongoing tension with the protagonist, who he resents for leaving their circle years before. In the end, his love for said protagonist drives him to do things that aren't in his best interest, despite the repeated stupidity of the protagonist that constantly endangers their lives. Yet in the end, the writers are content to leave these threads dangling, or at best only touch upon them for the briefest instance. That's understandable considering the screenwriters for this film are terrible with dialogue and anything remotely approaching subtlety.
Let's Play "Can You Guess What's Happening Here?"
So before I really get into why this film doesn't work as an over-the-top descendent of its predecessor, let's recap. Stupid writing, leading to unnecessary death. Cliched characterization. Obvious setups with no sense of surprise or real tension. That there is no suspense building, sense of surprise or tension owes entirely to the lack of setup. The writers never bother challenging your expectations of what's about to happen, or allowing a scene to unfold in a way that's scary and genuinely disturbing. Just throw as much piss, blood and vomit onto the screen as possible and hope to gross people out.

Okay, so why doesn't it just work out as an over-the-top horror film? Because there's nobody you can like in the movie. The final survivor? Barely a player until the end. The majority of the cast? One note stereotypes that are acted upon by outside forces and that never act. While the whole film is busy going over the top, you never have one guy that really does the same and pulls it altogether. This is where the movie could have used a Bruce Campbell, because they fail to find anyone to remotely root for or enjoy. Without someone to pull the film together, to cheer on, it's just a subpar retreading of the source material, except without any of the shock factor given what we've seen in the last decade, and without any real attempt to build tension or suspense. It's sad, really.
Included because it's the greatest poster of all time.

Evil Dead is a film trapped in the past, trying to be over-the-top when we've already seen all this before. Even the "rape tree" has been imitated, except by barbed-wire things, in the original Silent Hill film. It gives us an uninteresting cast with nobody to root for, a series of expected murders, and little else. It's gruesome, not scary, so take that as you will. If you enjoy true fear, this isn't your film. If you like gore, you might enjoy it. Just know this genre of horror has been beaten to death over the last few years and Evil Dead does nothing new in that regard.

Rating: Don't Watch It!

An utter lie!

You'll scream about this movie, but not for the reasons it intended.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Riding a Bus is Good for more than just the Environment

So often in the discussion of mass transportation, we, quite logically, examine the environmental impact and benefits of using mass transit versus individual vehicles. I'm not going to say I'm a heavy bus user. I like my car, and I want an electric one soon, to ease the burden on the planet and our use of fossil fuels. However, I've been trying to ride the bus on a more frequent basis, especially to congested areas like Downtown or the Theater District here in Houston, places with great locations to hang out and have fun, a drink or take in some culture. However, parking is a chore, and it just occurred to me I should try the bus more often. It's a bit more environmentally responsible and Houston is constructing an ever growing lightrail system to get people around from the University of Houston, to the Medical Center, Downtown, Theater District... everywhere major, really, in addition to their bus routes. Regardless of which vehicle you're taking though, I've come to realize, everyone should ride in mass transit on at least a semi regular reason, and for reasons that go beyond environmental concerns. 
Ethnically speaking, I've seen Asian Americans, African Americans, Anglo Americans, Mexican Americans, and more. Economically there's been lower wage workers on certain routes and at certain times, and groups that skew in the middle class and slightly higher on different routes at different times. I've seen couples arguing, one man having a sexual conversation with his girlfriend in the back of the bus, a few men debating how little money they're making at their job. One was assisting his wheelbound mother, another pair of friends were taking their young daughters to the Rodeo. One young man jammed out on headphones whose volume was too high and one girl was carrying so many shopping bags I wondered how she'd get them all out of the bus.

They've looked shabby and nice, worn second hand clothes and suits, had different attitudes, agendas, and destinations. What's intriguing though, is the slice of life you get when you are simply around others. I find it hard to think you could be unsympathetic with the poor if you had to bus with a few low wage earners every day of your life. I think you'd find it difficult to continue hating gay people if you got to overhear loving conversations or just normal, day to day talk, instead of always perceiving them as caricatures communicated to you by talking heads. I don't think you could continue being racist, or at least you could find your prejudices softened, if you had to interact with other people of different ethnicities each day of your life.

This sort of gets back to the concept of "The Bubble". We often use it to refer to the echo chamber that's developed in Republican circles, especially with the closed loop of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Breitbart and the Daily Caller, among others. But as creatures of habit, everyone is subject to creating their own bubbles at times. We get used to our usual, our particular group that is economically and ethnically like us, even if we intellectually and even emotionally sympathize with people of differing backgrounds.

And this isn't a call to always be challenging yourself at every single moment to spend time with people different from yourself. There's nothing wrong with the norm, your usual, as long as you get exposed to something else once in a while. The bus is symbolic in that sense, of a limited means of seeing people similar and dissimilar from yourself, and at least getting a glimpse of life outside your norm. And sure, once in a while, try something really different. Mix it up, see what others are doing. It's difficult to imagine sympathizing with people you don't associate with whatsoever, after all. If you're associations are always in a closed circle, The Bubble can become strong, and it's a tricky thing.

Yes, this means a willingness to talk with Republicans too. I always find it strange when I hear about people wanting Republicans off of tv shows and cutting them off as friends. There is occasion for that, sure. If you find out someone you know is a virulent racist that is absolutely impossible to talk to sensibly, might be a good idea to rethink that association. Others, though, are Republican for various reasons. Some are fiscally conservative, and have little use for social conservative ideas that would cut off different groups from the American Dream. I've got a few Libertarian friends that, while I absolutely disagree with their hands off view of government, and who I find to be naive about the consequences of a government that is uninvolved, I still associate with positively on a number of social issues. Finally, there is just plain crazy, the sort of people that think Obama is a Marxist Kenyan who's planning to turn the country over to the U.N., and who spout nonsense like that one guy at CPAC who said he'd still be okay if slavery was going on. That's a little nuts.

Usually, though, people aren't caricatures. They're complicated and have complex backgrounds and approaches, and discussion with them helps understand where they're coming from. This is just good advice for everyone. Get to know people unlike you. Because I still have concerns about my city.
Houston is often touted as diverse, and I'll give you that it is, but it's diverse in a way that's still segregated. Take the nightlife. There are places where black people go, and places where white people go. Hispanics tend to fluctuate between the two types of places depending. I can go one place and be the only white person in view. Nothing wrong with that, but you can categorize these places as 1.) Hardcore hip hop playing locations with 2.) Almost entirely African American attendants. Go to another place and I'm one more grain in the white rice. There's a mix of 1.) Soft, dancey hip hop with dance and rock mixed with 2.) Almost entirely white attendants, with maybe two or three African Americans in the mix. Then you have places where all the Asians go, or they go there on particular nights, like Tuesdays and Saturdays, while the African Americans go on Fridays.

So we've still got work to do integrating diversity. It's a step by step approach, but one day I hope to be able to go to some of my favorite places and not have to worry that someone's going to come up to me and say "What are you doing here, cracker?" Because please guys, I'm just here for the music.