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.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Watch This Movie: Oz, The Great And Powerful

This Got Dang Epic.
It's been a while since I did a movie review but, truth is, there haven't been to many great ones. I guess there haven't been too many putridly awful ones either, since I review those as well. So now we've finally got a big budget movie coming from the House of Mouse, the first omen of the blockbuster summer season that is slowly drawing nigh upon us, like the Day of the Apocalypse.

Let's get all the obvious stuff out of the way. Oz is based off of the story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, one of fourteen Oz books he wrote, and one of thirty two! in the series. You see, Frank Baum, who wrote these stories, had other people continue it after he stopped, in an era when I guess nobody cared about copyright and profiting off of other people's work? Maybe that's too pessimistic a view, let's just say they got permission.

The visuals are predictably sublime, although they tend to the incredibly vivid, bright and cartoonsih, especially in the landscapes. In other movies this might be a hit against it, but Oz's world sort of requires that look, and it doesn't look bad. There are some amazing landscapes, like the City f Oz, the flights through the air in Bubbles, and Chynatown with its porcelain inhabitants.

As an aside, this was made for 3D, which I'm losing my taste for and so skipped on. There was obvious pandering to the camera on occasion, with creatures, people and vegetations leaping forward as close as possible to the camera's lens in order to amaze the audience. Young kids might like this. To me, they were 'meh' moments, neither adding or subtracting. I guess you can give it a pass as a children's film, although I find such tactics tacky.
This. In 3D. Sort of wish I'd done that now.

Then again, we're talking about a movie directed by Sam Raimi, who sort of specializes in kitch, cliche and tacky. And nobody holds it against him either, because when you see his movies, you know, 'this is a Sam Raimi movie'. When you see his name, you know what to expect. In fact, I predicted Raimi would use a frightening cut away where a villainous shadow would be projected against the wall while hiding the features of the villain, a la Doctor Octopus in Spider Man 2. Raimi did not dissapoint.

I suppose his touch is appropriate for this film since it is treading a line between epic fantasy and children's fairytale, a line that's difficult to balance and that critics assailed The Hobbit for. In fact I've seen similar criticism against Oz, and still am not entirely onboard with where they're coming from. Let's not forget that while the story is trying to entertain adults it's still based on a book series aimed at children. So some of the dialogue is sharp, witty annnnd surprisingly inappropriately sexual at times. This is combined against bright visuals, flying monkeys, people made out of porcelain, munchkins, a cackling Wicked Witch, and the like. I'm sure the super serious epic lovers would have enjoyed a diabolical Wicked Witch with deep seated emotional issues and complicated motivations, but that's just really not the Oz style of story. Even expanded into this type of film, there aren't going to be intricate layers of character development. You'll lose half the audience.
Yeah yeah, this is where the cheese begins.

Talking about story, while many of the characters do come off simplistically, especially the villains, Oz himself makes an interesting character progression. At the beginning he's self serving, aware that he's a simple conman and using his skills to deceive and lie his way through life. This has ramifications throughout his journey in Oz as he realizes people are coming to depend on him, and yet he has no real power to do anything. The people in this story with true, sheer power, are the witches. Whether Glenda the Good or the Wicked Witch of the West, these women are hurling out fireballs, energy streams and at one point tossing Oz around like a rag doll. In order to combat them, Oz has to mature, and realize his ability to drive these people out is through his natural gift of intelligence and illusion, putting his chicanery to good use.

There's going to be some feminist criticism of the use of women in this movie. The main villain is a witch and I thought she came off quite well. Glenda the Good, because of her inability to magically overcome the other witches, is forced to depend on Oz. The Wicked Witch emerges as a reaction of Oz's lies. So, there's going to be a lot of focus from some circles on how everything seems to circulate on Oz getting things done. Then again, he's the hero, and Glenda comes across as a noble leader who pushes her people forward even when Oz wants to run away like a coward. So really, the Wicked Witch comes across as the weakest female in the group, but they can't all be independent women.
The Witches. Oh, and the Wizard.
So why am I recommending it? It's just fun. Look, if you can't tolerate a movie that has to pander to kids at times, this one isn't for you. But as bad of an actor as I think James Franco is, his shtick works in roles like this, where you're essentially placing him in the role of a somewhat loveable loser. Rachel Weisz is great as the remaining daughter of Oz, Michelle Williams balances the awkward task of coming across as the pure and good witch with being a strong leader. Her scenes just ooze honesty. And what cane we say about Mila Kunis? Well, she did exactly as she was told by Sam Raimi, and that was to toast her acting with a lot of cheese. I've seen her do 'better', but in the roles she's asked to occupy I can see why her acting is so odd.

And hey, you've got a film full of magic, flying apes and munckin warriors combined with flying balloons, robotic strawmen and holographic projected illusions. It's the closest to steampunk I've seen in a movie in quite a while, and it's just fun. Plus, again, the writing is sharp. Franco's interactions with his companions are just funny, and he really does come across as a self aware con artist caught up in circumstances beyond his control. If you can't take the child's element, don't watch it, but I think you're missing out on a pretty good time.

Final Note: Mila Kunis is as fine as ever.
Posters and Trailers, as usual, coming up!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Review: Sugarhill Lounge

On the second day of my search for Houston Hip Hop, I found myself at Sugarhill Bar and Lounge. I was tempted by the arrival of Biz Markie, who was hosting that evening, and so came dressed as always, just enough to impress but still casual enough to dance.

 Let's run it down from top to bottom. Sugarhill has limited parking so your first and likely only option will be valet. You can try and park along the street, but that's a tricky proposition and the line can stretch pretty long when this  place gets moving. I went on a Thursday and there was no cover, but cannot speak for other days just yet, although I'm aware they're advertising free entry for Friday.

Once inside there's a bar directly ahead, couch seating along the right wall, a dance floor to the left and an exit onto the patio. By 11:30 the inside was moving with the bar packed up and all the seating, which was already reserved, filled. A few tables round out the interior, where people were snacking on food and having drinks. I made a straight line for the patio, which is where I like to start my night and get adjusted to my surroundings.

 There's a stocked bar outside along with some seating, though again it's limited. A few space heaters helped warm the exterior, and a BBQ truck was posted near the edge of the patio. This is a good thing, as many people will go outside to get some food to along with their beer, have a cigar and enjoy the more relaxed environment. The outside is definitely for chatting and chilling.
 A return to the inside brings on the crowd that's gathered to dance. It gets cramped as the night rolls on, and I'm hoping one day the place can expand. The music is definitely a great mix of hip hop from the old school and new school, and the DJs know how to mix it up. Drink prices are fairly standard for Houston, four dollars for a beer. At nine dollars for a Jack and Coke that's slightly toward the high side for the city, which I've felt has averaged 7-8.

Although that's in keeping with the overall vibe. While you'll see casual men in plaid shirts and pressed jeans, you won't see the baseball cap and tank top crowd, so you're getting a different mix. Sugarhill doesn't aim to be ultra upscale, but it does ask that you dress nicely for the evening, with a heavier emphasis on the weekend to look nice. The crowd is primarily African American, black, urban. As I said in my review for Gertner's, if that makes you uncomfortable, this is the wrong city for you to live in. 

It's also on the edge of the Third War, which has a mixed reputation. As someone that lives in the area, let me say you're missing out if you skip on Sugarhill. Situated alongside a Subway in a strip mall area, it doesn't easily stand out. Even my taxi driver missed it. However, those who know about it, who go there, love it. It might seem easy to miss, but it gets packed, and the crowd is friendly. Once again I had a great time meeting new people, making business contacts and talking to some lovely women. One guy even bought me a drink just to be friendly.

So what makes Sugarhill stand out? The music is great. The drinks are about what you'd expect. The bartenders were nothing but darlings, very nice women who really went out of their way. Despite the crowd they were patient. At the end of the night, they even tried to help me get a taxi when mine didn't show. And, when that taxi never showed, I still got a ride home. What better service can I ask for than that?

So much love for Sugarhill. I'm returning tonight to see what their Friday is like, and plan on having a great time once again.

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

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Review: Scott Gertner's Sports Bar

Having lived in Houston for a few months and visited a few of its bars and clubs, I'd felt something was lacking. Plenty of clubs were playing hip hop, mixing it with some rock, playing some techno-ish dance music. They were all good, but where could I go if I wanted to listen to just hip hop? And not just the stuff you might hear on the radio.

Scott Gertner's Sports Bar is where. They've got the old school rappers like Big Poppa and Tupac getting play. Then they've got the new school, people like LIl Wayne, Drake and others. What really stands out in the music the tracks getting play I'd never heard, the sort of music that makes you want to move your head or get out of your seat. So, I've got nothing but good to say about the DJs out at Gertner's.

You want bang for your buck of course, and just know that Gertner's has only been open on Wednesdays and Sunday. I've heard they've started opening Thursdays but I haven't been by on a Thursday yet. I didn't get charged a cover on Sunday, when there were less people. Wednesday, though, things get crazy. Tons of people, and they start charging a cover at 7. Early in the day the cover is 5 dollars, later on it's 10, and during packed events like the All Star Game it goes as high as 20. So just know what you're going to be paying up front on certain days and events.

Beer is four dollars, Jack and Coke is eight, and the food ranges in the ten to twenty dollar range. Fairly average for places in Houston, and the Jack and Cokes are strong.

The chicken wings have been, to me, delicious. They are usually the right balance of moist on the inside with just the right amount of crisped skin, and the sauces are delicious. Fifty cent wing nights are on Wednesdays but the prices go up later on in the evening. The cheese fries they serve are nothing spectacular, and last time actually had too much cheese, so much so that the fries were swimming and limp. Not a good thing. The fried pickles are delicious, with the crispy batter spiced with something to balance the sour taste of the pickles. It's bar food, but it's good for bar food, and the drink prices are average.

What's going to bother people is the cover charge, as well as the service. Gertner's gets busy, and let's be clear, do not yell at the girls. They make their way one by one down the line. They'll get to you. But they're not going to break their rotation just because you forced your way to the bar. I've never had a problem getting service, but you have to wait your turn, and that turn is going to take a while on a really packed night. The girls aren't ignoring you, they're just not trying to ignore everyone else that's been waiting.

Those two things aside, will you like Gertner's? I do. This place isn't ghetto, though ghetto people do go there. The crowd is black, African American, urban. If that bothers you then you might want to find another city that's more to your ethnic and cultural taste. I've met great people at Gertner's, though. The girls are fantastic and friendly, they recognize you if you're repeat business, and you can start up a conversation with just about anyone sitting along the bar or the outside patio deck. I think I've had more friendly interactions with people at Gertner's than with people at more pretentious bars and clubs, where it's too dark to see inside.

So just know, it gets busy, it's hip hop all night, it's a mostly African American crowd (I may have been one of five pigment challenged persons in the building last night), but it's mostly friendly. The charge to get in escalates as the night goes on and service slows as the bar gets absolutely, insanely packed. Busiest nights they'll have five girls working the bar though, so just be patient.

But would I go back? I already have, so that should say enough. Try to stop by on a game day, because there are big screens everywhere in this place.

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