Category Archives: Pop Culture

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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‘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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‘The naked truth about Girls Gone Wild’

When video series came to town, even some women who said they wouldn’t ended up showing skin

Feb. 7, 2003, Austin American-Statesman

Lauren is not getting naked.

Somehow, the bleached blonde with a toffee tan thinks that a girl can get wild without really getting wild. That in this day and age a girl can attain most righteous wildness by spurning the fundamental step of giving the public a peek.

What gum drop world is she living in?

When the video cameras from “Girls Gone Wild” come to your town — and they came to Austin on Tuesday night — there are certain expectations, and every single one of them has to do with bare skin. The “GGW” cameras do odd things to young women. Naughty things. Namely, they inspire women to lift their tops and expose themselves, often while their tongues hang out sloppily. This is called wild.

Not, says Lauren.

“I will not be showing (anything). Absolutely not. No way. It’s called ‘Girls Gone Wild,’ not ‘Girls Gone Naked,’ ” says Lauren, who, like many in this story, withheld her last name. The 21-year-old with a leonine mane of yellow hair and jeans low enough to reveal lots of red silk thong works at a bar and is studying to get her real-estate certification.

“I don’t look down on any girls who are wild enough to do that. To each her own,” she says. “But that’s just not my style. You’ve got to leave room for the imagination, you know.”

Thirty minutes later, Lauren was taking it off.

There she was, on stage at country-dance warehouse Midnight Rodeo in South Austin, gleefully lifting her Girls Gone Wild mini-tank top for about 700 howling, whooping, screaming, yelling, barking, caterwauling young men, who were apparently seeing their first bare breasts. Writhing with professional panache and shooting a carnal glare at the boys, Lauren’s soft-spoken modesty melted, then hardened into Elizabeth Berkley in “Showgirls.”

Woooooo-yeeeaaaahhhh-owwwww! went the men.

Ha! went the dozen women on stage.

The women, ages 18 to 23, were competing in a “Girls Gone Wild” talent contest (is lap dancing a talent?), the winner of which will appear on a “GGW” pay-per-view event in March.

The direct-order video company’s Austin stop was part of a 31-city tour that’s brought camera crews to San Diego, Philadelphia, Dallas, Lubbock and, the night before, San Marcos. First prize Tuesday night was $100 cash and an all-expenses paid trip to Panama City, Fla., where the winner will take part in another “GGW” contest.

It’s a common perception that in party aka college towns, Mardi Gras has become a kind of open-air flesh bazaar. Like members of a native tribe, grunting young men proffer tacky plastic beads to greedy women, who gladly, if drunkenly, haul their tops over their chests and under their chins for impromptu peekaboos. The boys go wild.

Joe Francis, the 29-year-old multimillionaire who created “Girls Gone Wild,” decided several years ago to bring video cameras to these and similar spring breaky gatherings. Give the girls beads, make them go wild, tape it and sell it.

“GGW” boasted more than $90 million in direct-response orders last year and the brand has become shorthand for “drunken-girl antics.” “GGW” trades in “normal people” and avoids strippers, Francis says.

The company’s 83 titles include “Craziest Frat Parties,” “Ultimate Spring Break” and “Sexy Sorority Sweethearts.” MGM is making a feature film based on the video exploits, something between “Spring Break” and “American Pie.”

Francis says any young woman will lift her top for the low price of guaranteed male attention.

“You’d be surprised, man,” Francis says by phone from his L.A. office. “Every time I go out, I see a girl who I thought would never do it.”

Joe, meet Lauren.

“I know, I know,” says Lauren, holding her forehead like a kid who’s been caught breaking a promise. She’s backstage, being escorted by the “GGW” crew to the winner’s circle. Lauren won the contest.

“It was the heat of the moment,” she explains.

Sociology of a shirt lift

“I’m not drunk enough,” says Crystal Woodworth, a bespectacled blonde in a white tank top.

Tonight, she’s leaving the stripping to her peers.

“I encourage them. If you have a beautiful body, why can’t you share it with everyone else?”

Crystal’s friends have been wheedling her to do it all night.

“Why do I have to go on stage to do it? I can do it for you myself. I don’t need that extra push. I do it for my friends all the time.”

Crystal is a good friend. Continue reading

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Weak projection bulbs dim movie experience

Watts up!: A bunch of dim bulbs and projection problems are muddying movies at some Austin cinemas

Jan. 2, 2004, Austin American-Statesman  

Last summer at Cinemark Tinseltown in Pflugerville, director Tim McCanlies held a special sneak screening of his family dramedy “Secondhand Lions,” which was filmed in rural areas around Austin. Friends, family and owners of many of the movie’s key locations were there to see a heartwarming story set amid the bright, sprawling beauty of Central Texas.

But the screen never quite glowed; skies were dull and blotchy, the golden hues tarnished.

“The projection was so incredibly dim, people came up to me afterwards saying, ‘I had no idea the whole film was shot at dawn and dusk!,’ which of course it wasn’t,” recalls Paul Alvarado-Dykstra, McCanlies’ assistant on the film.

Inadequate movie projection in Austin theaters — a genuine plague — also made tough work of finding Nemo, let alone any other fish, during the incandescently vivid “Finding Nemo.”

“I knew something was wrong,” says avid Austin moviegoer Kirby McDaniel, who caught “Nemo” at Cinemark Barton Creek. “There was no way the film was supposed to look that dark, especially in a Pixar animated feature for kids. They are supposed to be candy colors!”

Alvarado-Dykstra had the same problem with the same movie at the same theater. “I was horrified by projection so dim it was like watching the movie through sunglasses. Literally. Here’s one of the most visually striking movies of the year, and it was being grossly misrepresented to the audience,” he says.

Cinemark Barton Creek is not the only theater showing movies in a gauze of murk, fuzz, goop. For at least 10 years, I have ground my teeth at dreadful projection quality at chain theaters from California to Texas. In the Bay Area, I walked out of many movies with a refund because the picture was so cloudy.

A recent showing of “Lost in Translation” at the Regal Metropolitan in South Austin was marred by a gray haze over the images, making a perfectly sunny day appear overcast. And I would be hard-pressed to see anything at the Regal Westgate in South Austin after a spate of subpar experiences in projection vibrance. Even the Regal Gateway in North Austin, generally regarded to have the best presentation — sound and picture — in the city, let me down during a mucky screening of “Paycheck” last week.

Not the brightest bulbs

Most say the culprit of these foggy, depressed images is insufficient wattage of projector bulbs, often compounded by the ineptitude of inexperienced employees at chain theaters. Professional projectionists say screen size dictates proper bulb wattage, so the smaller the screen, the less bulb power is required to provide an adequately lit picture.

Problem is, most of the chain theaters — those operated by Regal, Cinemark and AMC in Austin — use extremely large screens in their multiplexes, possibly without proper bulb size or bulb output. Generally, larger multiplex screens demand at least a 3,000-watt bulb but should have a 4,000-watt bulb for an optimal picture.

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Harrison Ford interview

A ONE-MODEL FORD: Serious. Stodgy. Still fighting bad guys. If you’re hoping Harrison Ford shifts gears in his new movie, keep dreaming. His career is parked in the action genre — and that’s fine with him

Feb. 10, 2006, Austin American-Statesman

In the new thriller “Firewall,” Harrison Ford plays Harrison Ford doing that Harrison Ford thing as only Harrison Ford can do. You need only watch the movie’s trailer — Ford going full Fordian, glaring and gritting and pledging righteous punishment on world villainy — to be reminded of a host of titles in which Ford plays the humor-impaired action-everyman: “Air Force One,” “The Devil’s Own,” “Clear and Present Danger,” “The Fugitive,” “Presumed Innocent,” “Frantic,” “Witness.”

Many actors repeat the type of role that fits them best. Ford is doing it as John Wayne did it, with a monochrome resolve to stay within the minuscule confines of public expectation. (The Wayne analogy fits: Ford tied Wayne for third place in a recent poll of America’s favorite movie stars. Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp — Depp being the risk-taking antithesis of Ford — are one and two, respectively.)

The rote “Firewall” has Ford playing Jack Stanfield, a computer security specialist at a Seattle bank. Tech-savvy crooks hold Stanfield’s wife and two children hostage, demanding that Stanfield bust the security code so they can siphon millions from the bank’s stash. His craggy face grooved with stiff-jawed moxie, Ford evinces sweaty solicitude for his family (he’s the sensitive American male) and, when pushed, a grisly expertise with a pickax (the bare-knuckled American hero). Smart-alecky Han Solo has never seemed more far away.

When he talked to us last month by phone, Ford, who has acknowledged a reputation for grumpiness, was serious, firm and never quite expansive. He sounded like he would be happier doing yard work. We discussed his typecasting, which will get a reprieve in part four of the Indiana Jones series, in which Ford, 63, will play a slightly creakier version of the iconic swashbuckler.

“We’re closer than we’ve ever been,” Ford says of the long-awaited installment. “We’ve got a script we are pretty much committed to.”

Our conversation went like this:

Austin American-Statesman: It’s frequently said that you only reluctantly promote your movies.
Harrison Ford: That’s rubbish. I recognize that this is an important opportunity to take advantage of. It’s free attention.

But it’s not the job you signed up for.
It’s a different job than what I signed up for. But I’ve always done it, always understood it. And I’m lucky enough to be a profit participant. I’m supporting the efforts of a lot of people who’ve invested time, energy and money. I’m sort of the sacrificial lamb.

What kind of guy is Jack Stanfield in “Firewall”? He seems like so many of your previous characters.
Yeah, well. I’d say he’s an upper-middle-class working man who goes to work in a suit and tie and has a family. That’s the starting point of the story.

Is it time for you to stretch a bit? Haven’t we seen this character before?

Apparently, if you’re asking that kind of question.

Even the publicity material for “Firewall” quotes a producer saying Harrison Ford has become a “genre unto himself.”
Oh, do they say that (coolly irritated)? I’d like to be of use in a variety of genres. I think there’s a considerable amount of difference between the Russian captain I played in “K-19: The Widowmaker” and Jack Stanfield. There are a lot of examples in the films I’ve done of different types and genres. But if this role seems standard it’s because it’s a leading-man role. Continue reading

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Tarantino’s all-night movie marathon

Slipping out on QT rates director’s cut

Feb. 26, 1999, Austin American-Statesman

Austin movie aficionado Harry Knowles plopped on the sidewalk at the Alamo Drafthouse.

Slumped in a mangled lotus position, he looked ever the sage Buddha. A Buddha of B-movies. A Buddha with hair like the kid’s in “Mask.”

Buddha yawned.

“Tired, Harry?” asked a guy in line.

“Sleep,” replied our backyard Buddha, “is for mortals.”

A hush fell over the small crowd. A car alarm tweedled in the night.

It was Sunday, around 7 p.m. Knowles and many of the young men in line at the Alamo had only just left the theater at 9 that morning. They had stuck out an all-night stretch of movies: Quentin Tarantino’s Exploitation Marathon, a lurid six-flick endurance test that ran from 8 p.m. Saturday till breakfast time Sunday. (Or, for QT fans: from dusk till dawn).

It was the first of two all-night blowouts during “QTIII,” Tarantino’s annual, only-in-Austin film festival, which began last Friday. It continues tonight with gangster movies and finishes Saturday with a kiddie matinee at 1 p.m. and the all-nighter, “Men, Women and Chainsaws,” at 8 p.m.

The all-nighters pose an Olympian challenge for film hipsters. Not only are they dared to withstand six obscure cult films of wildly diverse entertainment value, they must do it in the presence of the film demigod himself, who not only handpicked the bill, but owns each movie, loves each movie and sincerely wants us to love each movie. (“My enthusiasm might accidentally oversell a film,” he said not inaccurately Sunday.) Talk about pressure.

I dropped out Saturday after the second feature, “Alligator,” a surprisingly deft “Jaws” forgery, whose script Tarantino declared “one of John Sayles’ best.” (See the “oversell” line.)

Escaping was tricky. Tarantino was sitting directly in front of me and I thought I might slip out unnoticed. Here’s what he said to me at Sunday’s ’70s double feature: “You didn’t make it very far last night.” Nailed.

I shrugged, thinking, “Hey, man, I’m not 20 anymore. Doing 12 hours in a movie seat watching 40-foot-tall Chinese gorillas at 6 a.m. is not an option.”

Knowles and the other bloodshot stalwarts who made it through the night were working off more than willed stamina. Alamo owner Tim League reports the venue served 15 to 20 pounds of coffee Saturday.

Here’s the thing: It probably was worth staying for all six movies. Each night, with humor and expletive-spiked erudition, Tarantino strikes a spirited mood and invites fans to chat up the movies with him. (Though he deflects autograph-seekers. “This is like a party, all right?”)

Egos are shed, and Tarantino cuts an approachable figure, with a great laugh, a boyish mien and one of those tiny, bottom-lip tufts of hair that could be mistaken for cappuccino foam.

When he takes the stage, he paces with his sentences and gesticulates for punctuation. It’s the delivery of a rapper. An edgy energy fuels his crackling preambles, which draw from a stunning fund of knowledge, revealing the promiscuous appetites of a true cineaste. Introducing one film, he tossed out allusions to Buster Keaton, Hong Kong flicks and “Alexander Nevsky.”

Cool, yes, but not too cool to gush during a kiddie matinee, “I’m so tickled to see all these kids!” The kids were tickled to see him.

And then Quentin Tarantino sat down and gobbled an ice cream float.

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After 30 years, the great debate rocks on: Kiss, or kiss-off?

Gene, Paul, Ace and Peter: Whether you think they’re great or they grate, the painted purveyors of rockin’ and rollin’ all night have staying power

August, 2005, Austin American-Statesman

In the stinky-bad television movie “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park,” a mad scientist — lab coat, underground lair, sinister cackle, the works — sets out to destroy the world using the rock band Kiss as his unwitting agents.

That’s odd. We thought Kiss was doing a pretty good job of that all by themselves. Apparently the scientist hasn’t heard Gene Simmons’ solo album or seen Ace Frehley without makeup.

Kiss rules. Kiss reeks. You’re either on this side or that side. Being on the fence means you’ve checked out. It means you listen to Enya.

After 32 years festooned in grease paint, chains, platform boots and yards of what might very well be tin foil, Kiss remains a great pop-culture polarizer, an easy critical bull’s-eye and delicious guilty pleasure, the worst rock band ever and the greatest rock band ever. The Michael Bay and P.T. Barnum of rock ‘n’ roll showmanship — kabloom, suckers — Kiss is just a typo for kitsch. Kiss-up. Kiss-off.

A pair of upcoming shows spans this good/bad divide that Kiss has gleefully carved. The good is “Gene Simmons’ Rock School,” a droll and gimmicky reality show premiering tonight on VH1. The bad (wretched, ghastly, kill me) are multi-weekend screenings of “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park,” starting Aug. 26 at the Alamo Downtown. The professional hecklers of The Sinus Show are presenting the movie, lambasting it until it cries. Expect nothing less than a massacre.

“Gene Simmons’ Rock School” is more proof Kiss will not die. Simmons — Kiss bassist, blood-spitter, boffo music mogul — crashes a classical music class of 13-year-olds at an English boarding school. Blustering and snarling with practiced disdain, a makeup-free Simmons arrives to tutor the rather stuffy kids in the ways of heavy-metal stardom. “To create little rock gods,” he says.

Simmons, who is 55, roars, folds his arms and appraises the children through unbudging sunglasses. His scowly grimace suggests he has taken a whiff of the famous codpiece he dons on stage. “I wear more makeup and higher heels than your mommy does,” he taunts the crisply composed class.

The pupils at first recoil. “I think he’s really scary, because he’s really in your face and stuff,” says a girl. (Some of the children’s accents are so thick that subtitles appear.) Declares another: “I don’t like him at all.”

But of course they soon will. As in the Jack Black comedy “School of Rock” and the recent documentary “Rock School,” the show is about coming together for a collective purpose — in this case to open for metal band Motorhead — while learning how to cut loose and be yourself. Simmons even lets the kids in on a little secret: You can be a lousy musician and still rock hard and get preposterously rich.

He should know. Except for lead guitarist Frehley, a bona fide whiz, the players in Kiss are flaccid musicians, lazy tunesmiths and appalling lyricists. Some Kiss poetry: “If you wanna be a singer, or play guitar/ Man, you gotta sweat or you won’t get far.” Sounds like a pop quiz out of Gene’s “Rock School.”

With “Kiss Meets the Phantom,” Kiss nearly met the Kiss of death. Premiering on NBC in October 1978, the band’s first and last movie casts its members — Simmons, Frehley, Paul Stanley and Peter Criss — as rock stars with murky supernatural powers. The bandmates are sort of like superheroes, but the movie is so badly conceived you can’t tell what they’re supposed to be. You have to be acquainted with the special edition Marvel comic books that star Kiss to make any sense of it.

In the comics and the movie, band members become literal incarnations of their stage personas, going by the snickerable names Star Child (Stanley, who has a star over one eye), Demon (Simmons — lizard tongue, bat wings), Cat Man (Criss — painted whiskers) and Space Ace (Frehley — more silver sequins than a Broadway musical).

The evil scientist (Anthony Zerbe, who was in “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Matrix Reloaded” and probably wishes this article would go away) kidnaps Kiss, builds robot replicas of the band and sends the imposters on stage to change the chorus of the Kiss song “Hotter Than Hell” to “Rip, rip/Rip and destroy,” which is supposed to incite fans to riot and ruin everything. That could be the lamest plan ever in the annals of mad scientists.

So disastrous is “Kiss Meets the Phantom” that even the bandmates, who are not known to criticize their splendiferous empire, disowned the movie. Fans reconsidered their allegiance. Critics drove in on bulldozers. And a camp masterwork was born.

When the movie aired, Kiss was at the peak of their popularity, knocking out hit records like “Destroyer,” “Love Gun” and “Alive II” and peddling mountains of Kiss paraphernalia, from trading cards and dolls to belt buckles and bed sheets. (Today you can even get yourself the $5,000 Kiss Kasket. Right, a coffin.)

The band has always targeted young boys, exploiting their fascination with science fiction and horror movies, comic books and fire. Forget childhood sports. Some of us were mesmerized by books and movies, the wide-open realm of the imagination, which happily accommodated the dual fantasy force of Kiss and “Star Wars.” It’s a few paces from a fire-breathing Demon to a growling Wookiee.

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