Live review: KISS at the Erwin Center, Austin, Texas

December 5, 2009

Gene Simmons prowled the giant stage, scanning the front rows for female fans to harass and thrill. Fingers fondling his bass, Simmons made hard eye contact with his victims, then subjected them to slow, grinding pelvis gyrations — his metallic cod-piece glittering in the lights — and that interminable, wet, wagging tongue. The women gasped and giggled. Simmons, a self-aware pro, laughed back.


This was high comedy during KISS’ spectacularly silly and moderately fun rock extravaganza Friday night at a crowded Erwin Center, a cavernous venue that could barely contain the show’s endless eruptions of theatrical bombast and pyro-porn that finally, during the orgiastic three-song encore, struck a comical level of hedonistic overkill. (Fire! Fire! Fire!)

KISS is lowbrow performance art — children, like so many in the audience, devour this stuff — accompanied by a tinny but extremely loud soundtrack of mindless rock ditties. For 35 years, their concerts have been a savvy blend of bluster and balderdash, with a cloying infusion of Jerry Bruckheimer. (If they began today, KISS would be a CGI creation.)

They do it very well, and the four band members worked hard Friday to keep the audience involved with flattering between song banter, constant eye-contact, call-and-response games, and by anointing the masses with flurries of guitar picks.

Simmons, Paul Stanley and relative newcomers Eric Singer on drums and Tommy Thayer on guitar (who does a fine imperson-Ace-tion) never took the crowd for granted, constantly checking in, begging our approval and throwing it right back, like an enormous, flame-strewn self-esteem seminar.

They opened with old-timers “Deuce” and “Strutter” — great songs, though not the most muscular ones out of the gate — with Stanley promising a night of “classic vintage KISS.” For more than two hours, the band stomped through, and sometimes tiresomely dragged out, a hit-list of songs about sex, partying, sex, drinking, rocking and sex.

At least two songs, “Modern Day Delilah” and “Say Yeah,” from their new album “Sonic Boom” (“Get your butts down to Wal-Mart and get yourself a copy!” Stanley hollered) were beer-break tunes, but the crowd thrilled and sang along to “Hotter Than Hell,” “Cold Gin” and “Black Diamond.”

The show hit its stride with faster, hookier songs (“Calling Dr. Love,” “Parasite”) and foot-stomping anthems (“Rock and Roll All Nite”) that matched the volcanic production values.

Amid a backdrop of JumboTrons, swirling sirens, rising platforms, confetti and flaming mushroom clouds, Simmons spewed blood and fire, Thayer shot rockets from his guitar and Stanley wiggled his rear-end at fans before smashing his guitar. Singer’s drum platform spun around.

It’s no secret that Simmons, lascivious demon-beast, with that long-legged skulk and spiked armor, is the show’s cynosure. In a literal high moment, he was lifted by cables to the arena rafters, where he mounted a platform and gazed down upon his worshipful kingdom.

There he bellowed 1982’s “I Love it Loud,” his lips and chin stained with fake blood. The song ended and the lights went out. It was only in the safety of the dark that the winged batman could do something so ordinary and un-KISS-like as what came next: He descended back to earth.


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Movie review: ‘Miami Vice’

Awash in the blacks and blues of a fresh bruise, Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice” plays hard and mean to thrilling, often harrowing effect. Mann, who was an executive producer of the influential 1980s television series on which the movie is ever-so-loosely based, obliterates the glib sunshine and pastel glamour of the show to forge a dark, frighteningly real universe of undercover law enforcement and globalized crime. It delivers what no other movie this summer has or likely will: the pure pleasure of watching an intricate, perfectly calibrated machine kick, shoot and crank with dazzling power and efficiency.


That might sound oddly heady for a movie called “Miami Vice,” a title that instantly evokes Reagan-era gilt and South Beach deco. Don Johnson in a white linen blazer/pink T-shirt ensemble and an equally suave Philip Michael Thomas amid a backdrop of neon, glass bricks and palm trees — those soft-rock memories should be dispensed with. Instead, brace for an unflinching contemporary crime drama that makes no concessions to pop nostalgia or mocking remakes such as the no-brow “Starsky and Hutch.”

People forget that TV’s “Miami Vice” was more than its stylish, trend-making veneer, but a crack cop drama presenting sophisticated criminal situations through intelligent, movie-worthy writing that delved deep into character and emotion. Mann takes that as his springboard for a surprisingly emotional character-driven thriller that takes itself so seriously, there’s hardly a smile in the two-hour-plus epic.

While the plot is as rudimentary as a “Miami Vice” TV episode — vice cops Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) go undercover for the FBI to unravel a multi-tentacled, international drug ring — Mann laces it with the themes and macho philosophy he’s so obsessively explored in similarly expert crime pictures “Manhunter,” “Thief,” “Heat” and “Collateral.” His heroes are really antiheroes who dwell in the shadows of film noir, be it James Caan’s riven criminal in “Thief,” Tom Cruise’s solitary hitman in “Collateral” or a superb Farrell as an undercover agent who drifts dangerously over the line.

The complicated loner wavering between the right and wrong — the blurring of human duality — fascinates Mann and has always been his subject. These men (Mann’s is a fiercely male-centric universe) are vessels for ideas and themes about choosing a way of life and pursuing it with as much iron-willed integrity the world will allow.

This is the loner’s existential struggle, which he carries out with a heavy heart and pensive mind. Working in either crime or law, he’s acutely aware of his mortality and life’s cruel vagaries. “Time is luck,” Farrell tells the woman (Gong Li) he falls in love with, as her life skids out. The same line is said in “Manhunter” — “Time is luck. I know the value of our days” — as well as “Heat,” when Robert De Niro’s career thief muses, “I know life is short, whatever time you get is luck.” (Sharp-eared Mann fans might also notice the reuse in “Vice” of the nicknames “sport,” from “Manhunter,” and “slick,” from “Heat.”)

Helicopters slash the skyline and power boats knife the ocean. High-tech surveillance gadgets crackle and heavy artillery blasts. Within the dizzying action and disorienting nation-hopping, a whip-fast Foxx and a brooding Farrell, who smolders with long, Johnsonesque hair and unchecked stubble, stand sturdy. The actors’ chemistry is sufficient and both men cut intense, sympathetic figures, whether they are taking down scum — the movie crawls with furry creeps and bald thugs — or making passionate love to their women. Mann’s lingering depictions of sex are the epitome of adult intimacy rarely seen in a Hollywood film.

There’s not a dud in the superlative cast, including Li’s flinty dragon lady, Naomie Harris as Foxx’s cop girlfriend, John Ortiz as the drug middleman and Luis Tosar as the drug kingpin. Mann’s dialogue, funny and profane, has a hard, urban pop, and the soundtrack is filled with interesting choices, from spare electric guitar and moody synthesizers to songs by Moby and Audioslave.

How “Miami Vice” is put together is as compelling as the story and characters. A notorious perfectionist, Mann demands technical verisimilitude, nailing the intricacies of how criminals and cops think and operate, down to their clothes, words and twitches.

He and cinematographer Dion Beebe return to the handheld high-definition video they used in “Collateral,” bringing a grainy, documentary vibe to the action that’s unnerving. It’s non-style taken to high style, soaked in ocean blues and inky nocturnal blacks. There’s not a wasted shot.

Since 1995’s “Heat,” Mann has been our greatest living action-crime director, edging ahead of past giants Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin and John Frankenheimer. The technical bravura and artistic depth Mann brings to his films has few rivals. He respects his craft and his audience. “I ain’t playin’!” blurts a character in “Vice.” Neither is Mann.

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Profile: Mark Cuban

The self-made maverick: In his latest venture, Dallas NBA team’s owner just might be revolutionizing movie distribution

May 21, 2006, Austin American-Statesman

Subtlety has left the building. It wasn’t excused, but expelled, chased by the echo of a yell.

Mark Cuban, the self-made billionaire from Dallas, has gotten raucous, again. Jolted from his seat, he’s courtside at Game 1 of the playoffs between the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks, the basketball team he owns, and he’s roiled. Wearing a blue Mavericks jersey, the hulky Cuban hollers, chest thrusting, fists punching the air, his face a welter of outrage.

In the six years he has owned the Mavericks, Cuban’s game-time spectacles of brute enthusiasm have gone from obnoxious to legendary, chafing fans and officials, who’ve rewarded the tantrumy proprietor with fines that would render destitute the average basketball fan.

During this May 7 game in San Antonio, Cuban hit the court to rebuke the referees, a considerable no-no. A few days later, the National Basketball Association fined Cuban $200,000, half for the incident and half for comments he posted on his blog, in which he called the playoff officials unqualified.

Cuban has been fined eight times for more than $1 million and suspended from three games.

But what’s a million or so to a billionaire? Like a jaywalking ticket to the rest of us?

“No, it’s still a lot of money,” Cuban says. “I know the value of money. I could be doing a whole lot of other things with it.”

What he’s been doing lately is revamping the way movies are produced and distributed, including releasing DVDs of films the same day they open in theaters.

His co-ownership, with Todd Wagner, of 2929 Entertainment, which holds production and distribution companies and an arthouse movie chain, has made Cuban a muscular player in the independent film world.

As if we would forget him, Cuban’s innovations in movie distribution and the heady accomplishments of the Mavericks have vaulted the boyish Texas billionaire back into high relief. Here talking art films, there chest-bumping sweaty athletes, his profile is as visible as ever.

Yet he remains best known for money and moxie. With a net worth of $1.8 billion, made during the Internet boom, he is the 428th-richest person in the world, tied with 22 other individuals, according to Forbes. Not as rich as Bill Gates (No. 1 with $50 billion), though a speck wealthier than Queen Oprah, who sits at No. 562 with $1.4 billion.

The basketball team (price: $285 million) and a Gulfstream jet ($41 million, bought online) are Cuban’s largest material purchases. Another major acquisition was his 24,000-square-foot Dallas mansion, where he lives with wife Tiffany, daughter Alexis, 2 1/2, and her cat Meshugana, whose name is Yiddish for a crazy person.

This is the good life. A healthy middle-aged billionaire who wears faded jeans and sneakers, more akin to a grown-up fraternity brother, boasting popular tastes (“I’m a Bud Lite guy’’) and a love of rugby and rap, and sporting a functional school-kid haircut. Continue reading

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Profile: Actress Susan Tyrrell

A life of blows and disappointments can’t bow Susan Tyrrell: The nomadic, Oscar-nominated actress and painter has relocated to Austin, for now

May 22, 2010, Austin American-Statesman

Susan Tyrrell isn’t there when a journalist shows up to meet her. This is not a surprise. The journalist is expecting a no-show, a late show, a show-off — a show of some kind, preferably grand and spangled. Prickly and difficult will do, too. It is the type of interview you enter with a built-in flinch, light armor steeling you for things you’ve only heard about, weird stuff, wonderful stuff. Adventures, happy and horrifying, that you are sure will put you in a vulnerable state of unforeseen reaction — mouth gapes and head shakes — that grant your subject the upper hand. She’s feeding you, and sometimes the legend tastes fishy. Tyrrell seems like a feeder, shoveling forkfuls of braised auto-mythology.

Ah, here she comes.

Tyrrell is tiny. She is in a wheelchair. She has no legs below the knees.

She rolls up to the table, where I have been waiting with her close friend Yvonne Lambert of Austin band the Octopus Project. Lambert introduces us. I shake Tyrrell’s hand, which is wrapped in a scratchy wheelchair glove, and click on the tape recorder.

“Good luck with that bitch you’re interviewing,” Tyrrell says in the third person.

Now, there we go.

Tyrrell is a movie star, though she’d be the first to tell you that that star is all but extinguished, wisps of smoke curling off the ash pile of flops. Show business burned her early and she bears the scars with a rancor that’s lightly camouflaged by a beaming, charge-ahead optimism. She has a dry, wry, dirty sense of humor that deflects misfortune, curdles cynicism.

Tyrrell has acted in 75 films and television shows and earned a best supporting actress Oscar nomination as a blowsy barfly in John Huston’s 1971 boxing drama “Fat City.” She won a Saturn Award in 1978 from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films for best supporting actress in “Andy Warhol’s Bad.”

“It weighs a ton,” Tyrrell says. “I use it for a doorstop.”

She played a whore in “Islands of the Stream” (1977), a rowdy biker grandma in the John Waters comedy “Cry-Baby” (1990) and a three-inch-tall woman in “Big Top Pee-Wee” (1988). She’s appeared on “Baretta,” “Starsky and Hutch” and “Kojak.” She watched her roles increasingly consigned to misfits, hags, nutjobs.

Tyrrell speaks shakily but bitingly. Hers has not been an easy life, and you can hear it in her scratchy voice and punctuating groans.

Mother issues (they haven’t talked in 40 years). Hanging out with the outré Warhol gang in New York, where she had a nervous breakdown. A traumatic sexual incident with John Huston that forever damaged her. Wild soirées. A beautiful two-year love affair with Hervé Villechaize, the little man who played Tattoo on “Fantasy Island.” And, of course, the legs, which were amputated in 2000 due to a rare blood disease called essential thrombocythemia. She doesn’t give a damn about the legs.

At a glowing 65, Tyrrell has short-term memory lapses that fray her long, ropy anecdotes. Often she loses her train of thought. “Where are we now?” she asks again and again. Oh, yes …

Tyrrell on this busy night at hipster magnet the Highball wears a tight black T-shirt, straw cowboy hat, blue bandanna snug around her neck and black pants that are not filled by her prosthetic legs. Her lipstick is a kittenish red. She sports dark glasses, like a blind woman.

“Sorry about my sunglasses,” she says. “I have hideous allergies that eat my eyeballs out. It’s like cutting an onion in half and rubbing it in your face.”

Tyrrell was born Susan Cremer (pronounced Kramer and changed for showbiz reasons), but for years people have called her simply SuSu.

“They do. If they can stomach it,” she says. She named her rescue dog — “a gorgeous pedigree gray-silver poodle” — ZuZu. (“I love dogs,” she says. She agrees that the fur-covered purse in her lap looks like a small dog.)

Speaking of pups, a Salty Dog cocktail — a greyhound in a salt-rimmed glass — arrives. Tyrrell takes a sip and puckers. “Yowza!” The drink is strong. She likes it.

*** Continue reading


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Movie review: ‘The Wrestler’

Masterful struggle: From its star to its surroundings, ‘Wrestler’ keeps it raw and real

Jan. 9, 2009, Austin American-Statesman

Mickey Rourke, bless his heart, looks like a big basted bird in “The Wrestler,” a wincing character study of a macho man whose life’s passion has skidded to its expiration date. Rourke’s professional wrestler — a tights-and-tattoos brand of brawler — isn’t going down easily, though, and it’s this internal battle, not the cringingly theatrical ones in the smack-thud ring, that Darren Aronofsky’s brutal yet remarkably sensitive character study is about.

Rourke gleams with blood and sweat through much of the movie, and he radiates a bizarre, battered physicality that almost seems fabricated from old rubber. He’s Randy “the Ram” Robinson, a wrestling icon coming off the high of his glory years in the 1980s, when he was a superstar bone-cruncher, vanquishing the likes of the Ayatollah and other garishly named combatants. Bronzed and bulging on steroids, with a puffy, engorged face, Rourke’s Ram looks chiseled from red clay, like the less sunburned brother of Hellboy.

The film opens in a blast of hard-rock nostalgia, with vintage posters of the Ram’s classic bouts streaming by to the throb of Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health (Bang Your Head).” Then it goes dark and the screen portentously reads: “Twenty years later.”

Before it lights up again, you hear a wheezy, phlegm-larded cough, the requiem for a beaten and lonely man. The camera pans in on Rourke, sitting sweaty, head down, in an empty locker room. He’s just finished a bout, which has taken all he has. He’s the pugilist at rest, a self-styled warrior who has endured a life of blows and bloodletting in the name of gladiatorial entertainment.

The shot shimmers with melancholy beauty, bathed in fluorescent lights and cementing right there the movie’s soul-stripping concerns.

So much of Rourke’s resigned and furrowed performance, heralded as the actor’s unlikely comeback, emanates from his flamboyant appearance. His look reveals volumes about the character: the paid-for tan and spangly spandex pants; the steroidal heft and the peroxided, Portuguese man-of-war hair cascading down his back. These are the trappings of showbiz, choreographed wrestling included, and the traps of maintaining high-voltage vanity. (The Ram even drives an old Dodge Ram van. He clings to that kind of chintzy pride.)

But vanity’s a dicey addiction for a guy in his mid-50s who uses his body as a weapon. He’s dented, perforated and creaky. His ticker is on the blink. He wears a chunky yellow hearing aid, an exquisite touch by the filmmakers that telegraphs a violent past and a compromised present. Continue reading

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‘The strange allure of the Progressive Insurance girl’

Oct. 20, 2008, Austin American-Statesman

She’s bubbly and beaming, high-volume, with a flip of dark hair and a face like a lollipop. She irks as she endears, bemuses as she bewitches. She’s a bundle of energetic contradictions, bursting here, retracting there. Her expressions blink and change like a neon sign. Her eyes are popping globes. And she just sold you a bunch of car insurance.

Flo is her name. She’s the spokeswoman for Progressive Auto Insurance, lighting up televisions in a series of commercials in which her perky cashier pitches the money-saving merits of Progressive to customers. She works in a sterile, all-white big-box store, and her florid makeup stands out like paint spilled in snow.

First she caught our eye; now she’s snatched our heart. Viewers are smitten. They’re crushin’. They want to know: Who’s that girl?

From a recent blog at, with the headline “The Cult of the Progressive Car Insurance Chick”:

“Am I the only one completely and totally enamored of the woman in the television ads for Progressive car insurance? You know, the ones starring that babelicious brunette named Flo with her ‘tricked-out name tag’ and her ’60s style eye makeup and her kissable red, red lips?”

No, sir, you are not. There’s more where that mash-note came from, out there in the blogosphere’s infinite confessional space: “She’s hot.” “She’s weird but, God, she’s fine!”

Others have naughtier ideas that they’re perfectly comfortable sharing with the world, even if we can’t do so here.

“It’s so weird,” says Stephanie Courtney, the actress who plays Flo. Continue reading

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Werner Herzog goes 3-D

April 8, 2011, The Wall Street Journal

Werner Herzog admits he’s a “skeptic” of 3-D movies, but he made a concession with his new film, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” a 3-D documentary that takes a wide-eyed tour inside the Chauvet Cave in France, whose vast limestone walls are emblazoned with animal paintings more than 30,000 years old—the oldest ever discovered.

Because the cave is accessible only to scientists, Mr. Herzog had to acquire special permission from the French government to film inside and had to adjust to extreme time and technical limitations, using a crew of only four.

What the veteran filmmaker, 70, discovered inside was a world of subterranean splendor, namely cave paintings in pristine condition—Ice Age menageries of rhinos, lions, mammoths, bison and cave bears, amid glistening lunar-like surfaces.

Mr. Herzog, whose career straddles both features and documentaries, narrates “Forgotten Dreams” with his signature blend of philosophical, humorous and grandiloquent commentary, adding a layer of curious depth to the images.

The film, opening April 29 in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, then other cities, isn’t just for art house audiences. Children can appreciate its riches, said Mr. Herzog from his Los Angeles home: “You do not need to be an intellectual to be in complete awe at what you are seeing.”

The Wall Street Journal: What was so special about this subject that you decided to shoot in 3-D?

Mr. Herzog: As normal, thinking people we assume that paintings on the wall are fairly flat. But when I was checking out the cave for the first time without any cameras it was immediately clear that it would be imperative to shoot in 3-D, because it’s all limestone in the cave, a drama of formations, bulges and niches and protrusions and pendants. And all of this was utilized by the artists 32,000 years ago. A bulge would be the neck of a bison charging at you. A niche would serve as a place where a shy horse would look out. So it was really, really clear that it had to be 3-D.

What drew you to the cave in the first place?

In a way, cave paintings are where my own intellect and fascinations began. When I was 12 or 13 I saw a book about cave paintings in the display window of a bookstore. And it was just staggering, so striking to see this. There was a horse and it said “Paleolithic paintings,” and I really wanted to have this book, but I couldn’t buy it. I worked for months as a ball boy on tennis courts. Each week I would sneak by the store and see if the book was still there. I was afraid somebody else would buy it. Finally I bought it in this kind of awe. Looking at these paintings in that book is still in me. I actually explained this to the French minister of culture. That was one of my arguments why I had to make the movie and not a French director.

Was there any contest of what was most beautiful to you in the cave? There’s so much there—the crystal formations, the stalagmites, the ancient animal bones on the floor and the paintings themselves.

It’s interesting that you’re mentioning it, because when you enter the cave the first thing that’s most unexpected is the beauty of the cave: the crystal cathedrals, the stalactites and stalagmites, the bones—exactly the sequence in which you describe it. It’s stunning. Four thousand skulls of extinct cave bears, rib cages, vertebrae. And then you have the almost fresh footprints of the cave bears, though you know they went extinct 20,000 years ago. The freshness is so stunning, so fresh that you think that somebody is looking at you from the dark. But for me, it would be the lions that are most beautiful. A whole group of lions is stalking something. We do not know what exactly. Their eyes are exactly aligned. Every single lion is crouching and sneaking and stalking something. The intensity of this panel is incredible.

How does this movie fit into your body of work thematically?

I thought about this because right now I am finishing this film “Death Row” with death-row inmates, which will be a 90-minute or two-hour film. But I have material of such intensity that I will also make what I call in quotes a “mini-series” of films based on singular cases. And I thought about what the title might be of the mini-series. It dawned on me that it would be something that would also fit the cave film: “Gazing Into the Abyss.” The cave film is really looking deep into the origins of the modern human soul, looking into the dark recesses of time, where time becomes unfathomable. There is an abyss of time, an abyss of the human soul. And in “Death Row,” wherever you look, you look into an abyss, an abyss of the human condition. It’s a theme you can see in many of my films, such as “Aguirre.” It doesn’t mean it has to be a dark gaze into it. Sometimes you look into the wonderful, joyful side like in “Bad Lieutenant,” where you have the bliss of evil.

You’re an extremely fast filmmaker, a lot like Woody Allen.

Woody Allen is like a snail. He makes a film a year. I make two to three films a year.

How do you do it?

I make fast decisions. I know what I want to do. Projects are pushing me so hard that you can’t even believe it. I have to wrangle them, like home invasion. How do you get the burglars out of your home, how do you get them on the screen? I edit digitally and you can edit almost as fast as you are thinking. Many of my colleagues lose themselves in the possibilities. They create 22 parallel versions and can’t decide which one is the best. I just do one and do it straightaway with all the urgency of the material.

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