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Texas Was Ground Zero for America’s Mass Shootings

In August 1966, Jeff Shero was a recent graduate of the University of Texas and national vice president of Students for a Democratic Society. (A longtime fighter for progressive causes, Shero writes today under the byline Jeff Shero Nightbyrd.) In the August 11, 1966, issue of the Village Voice, he contributed a visceral and moving article about a then-relatively new phenomenon on the American landscape: the lone gunman (most often a white male) using high-powered weapons to indiscriminately gun down strangers.

Motives are meaningless amid such mayhem, as we discovered once again in Las Vegas this past Sunday. But the fact that as a nation we cannot pass laws to stem this ongoing carnage — as Australia did in 1996, passing measures that have led firearm fatalities to dramatically drop in all categories — speaks to a cynicism in our government’s failure to protect its own citizens.

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Fifty-one years ago, Americans were not yet conditioned to duck and cover at the sound of gunshots, as we are today. Shero quoted one young woman who could not process what she was seeing: “I never saw any blood even after they had lain there a long while. I guess I repressed it. It was like watching people killed on television.” Shero also pointed out: “Guns are common possessions in Texas. Students got them from their rooms, businessmen out of their stores. A student and policeman returned fire from the undergraduate library; three students shot from the Business-Economics building.” Despite this firepower, armed students remained unable, for an hour and a half, to stop the gunman who rained death down from the tower on UT’s campus, eventually killing more than a dozen people and injured more than thirty.

 In 1972 the singer/songwriter Harry Chapin wrote a deeply strange, multi-viewpoint ode to the tragic events in Texas on that hot August day in 1966.

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Sixty Reasons Why It Keeps Happening

On April 17, 2013, four months after Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, with a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle and shot to death twenty schoolchildren and six adult staff members, the U.S. Senate voted on S. 150, the Assault Weapons Ban of 2013. Forty members of the Senate voted in favor of banning the importation, possession, sale, or transfer of semiautomatic assault weapons. Sixty members voted against the ban; here are their names:

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Tom Wopat

Suave as a GQ cover whether you’re talking about manner or voice, he calls the new show “Tom Wopat Swings the Rat Pack.” Since the members of that celebrated group of Las Vegas cut-ups already did a torrid job of swinging the whatever they got their mitts on, the set should be as swinging as it gets. At the piano is Tedd Firth, the man’s personal Nelson Riddle. Also on hand are bassist David Finck, saxophonist Bob Malach and drummer Peter Grant.

Fri., July 11, 8 & 10 p.m.; Sat., July 12, 8 & 10 p.m., 2014

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Think Like a Man Too Thinks Like Too Many Other Movies

Comedies about the battle of the sexes tend to have one clear loser: the audience. Driven by an oppositional view of romance that proved outmoded and seldom funny, Think Like a Man introduced us to six men living in Los Angeles and their corresponding flames. Some of these entanglements were new, others ongoing; all of them apparently left the door open for a follow-up. Think Like a Man Too, like many a sequel, promises knee-slapping debauchery simply by virtue of taking place in Las Vegas. All together for the first time in months, the boisterous gang and their better halves descend on the desert for their respective bachelor(ette) parties and a wedding. Would you believe me if I told you that nothing goes according to plan and they’re thrown through the movie-Vegas wringer?

Kevin Hart, whose star power has risen considerably since appearing in the first film as Cedric, is given a more prominent role in this installment. He becomes Michael’s (Terrence Jenkins) de facto best man after accepting an offer that was actually directed toward Dominic (Michael Ealy, maybe the most purely charismatic performer in the whole franchise), whom he was standing directly in front of when the request was made. Of course, the enthusiasm with which he takes on the responsibility is so great that Michael can’t tell him the truth, and Dom is too much of a mensch to make a big deal out of it.

Cedric envisions Sin City as a boys-will-be-boys oasis of poolside cabanas and flowing alcohol. He endeavors to outdo all best men before him, but his plans are for naught: Massive debt that can only be regained via a heroic showing on the casino floor, male strippers (is there anything funnier in a decisively hetero comedy?), a night in jail, and obligatory celebrity cameo all await. Revealing that these scenarios give rise to an abundance of tired, recycled jokes is as much of a spoiler as saying the upcoming exorcism movie will probably feature a lot of jump scares.

Think Like a Man Too is as bland and anonymous in practice as it is on paper. Returning director Tim Story lays out the narrative wares with all the subtlety of a neon sign on the Strip, not that the screenplay from Keith Merryman and David A. Newman (who also co-wrote the first one) gives him much to work with. Still, some mercy has been shown: Unlike its predecessor, Too isn’t directly based on a book of relationship advice by Steve Harvey. For one reason or another, every character in the original based their approach to dating on the tome that gave the film its title, the main effect of which was to make them temporarily miserable before they contrived to resolve their differences and live happily ever after.

Branching out beyond Harvey’s book doesn’t stop the filmmakers from framing the sequel’s simultaneous bachelor/bachelorette parties as a contest to see who can get the most outrageous (at least that’s what we’re told they’re doing in narration by Hart’s character, who uses basketball metaphors to describe every major event; the characters themselves don’t actually seem to care about one-upping each other).

To its credit, little of the cruelty endemic to something like the Hangover movies is on display here, and by and large these characters are well-intentioned people whose fraternal and romantic bonds are rooted in genuine care and affection. That doesn’t make it any less disappointing that Taraji P. Henson is given about one-tenth as much to do as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button showed she’s more than capable of, however, and Hart has yet to break the tradition of funny comedians making unfunny movies.

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Last Vegas Is Like a Reverse Mentos Commercial Starring Old Guys

It’s a dumbfounding irony that the fiction of the “entitled, selfish millennial” was invented by Baby Boomers. The generation that created Saturday Night Live and National Lampoon grew up to be weirdly deaf to irony, and probably won’t even get what a damning metaphor Last Vegas accidentally turns out to be. More on that below.

A new iteration of the dude-bro Dionysian comedy, the film is a reverse Mentos commercial in which the clever old people have to outwit the entitled, selfish young people in order to get into the nightclub or yank a casino’s penthouse suite away from a formerly respectable hip-hop artist now slumming in lazy, mid-budget comedies.

Presumably, the cast’s enthusiasm to work together was greater than their enthusiasm for the script, a sitcom-level tissue of broad jokes, flat gags, and lazy coincidences. But what the film has in spades is charm, its four co-stars leveraging obvious mutual admiration and roughly 160 man-years of comic experience for some genuine onscreen chemistry. Anyone would want to hang out with these guys.

It’s a get-the-band-back-together plot featuring a cast that never actually teamed up in their prime. When 70-year-old bachelor Billy (Michael Douglas) proposes to his much-younger girlfriend — at a funeral, while delivering the eulogy — his three childhood friends insist on throwing him the same Las Vegas bachelor party he’d thrown in their honor decades before.

Sam (Kevin Kline), who hasn’t boned his wife in a decade, gets her tacit permission to cheat during the long weekend. Paddy (Robert De Niro) is in extended mourning for his deceased wife. And Archie (Morgan Freeman, who is the greatest), a twice-divorced stroke survivor in fear of recurrence, has consigned himself to a hermetic life in his overprotective son’s home. The film’s hidden asset is the luminous Mary Steenburgen, funny and gorgeous as an empty-nest mom turned lounge chanteuse who beguiles the dudes with age-appropriate flirting and arch humor.

The stair-lift of a script safely transports the men past an array of inconsequential obstacles scattered by screenwriter Dan Fogelman in lieu of, oh, basic goddamn storytelling. The characters are totally passive — money, drinks, women, and unexpected acclaim shower down on these elder-bros like Werther’s Originals from God’s own cardigan pocket, completely unearned by the characters or the screenplay.

It’s an uncomfortable, accidental metaphor for the whole Baby Boom generation, squirted frictionless through life into Modern Maturity with a wealth of hair-replacement techniques and the last pensions ever offered by the economy they stripped for parts, everything easy-peasy-prostate-squeezy.

But, look: Last Vegas, cuddly and forgettable, doesn’t have a mean bone in its body. Of course Sam declines to cheat on his wife with a beautiful, unhappy millennial. And of course Billy reconsiders marrying his age-inappropriate fiancee. Irony-deaf members of the Big Chill cohort, despite dismantling the social safety net, inventing credit-default swaps and unpaid internships, and consigning even their own college-educated children to service-sector survival, still prefer to think of themselves as way too responsible ever to fuck younger generations.

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Zoe Strauss, the People’s Photographer

A sense of humor about the macabre, as well as a love for the underbelly of American society pervades “Zoe Strauss: 10 Years,” a survey of Strauss’s work currently open at the International Center of Photography. Divided into three different categories—portraits, urban landscapes, and documentation of graffiti and signage—Strauss’s shots of derelict spaces and people down on their luck could also easily be used as the opening credits for a television show like The Wire.

The 100 or so color images within are derived from a project begun in 2001, in which Strauss staged yearly exhibitions of her work on concrete columns beneath an I-95 overpass in Philadelphia. Afterward, she sold the color-based Xerox prints for $5 each in a worthy attempt to democratize her art. Strauss did so not as some do-gooder from an elite nonprofit, but rather as a member of the community itself. She is not exploiting the unfamiliar—she is elevating her own kind. Born in Philadelphia in 1970, she was the first member of her family to graduate from high school. When she picked up her first camera in 2000, at the age of 30, she was a babysitter on welfare. She turned out to be such a virtuoso that, in 2006, her work was included in the Whitney Biennial. The critical praise rained down, along with apt comparisons to photographers such as Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, and Nan Goldin.

Although Strauss primarily photographs strangers, her portraits are not voyeuristic. Rather, there’s a sense that she’s been invited to participate in her subject’s lives. Ken and Don, Las Vegas (2007) depicts two men lying on a bed. One sits up, and the other, who is missing his right arm below his shoulder, lies on his lap while getting his face scratched like a good dog. The gesture has a tenderness most people only share with those closest to them—the intimacy is the source of comparisons between Strauss and Goldin, whose best photographs featured her friends and lovers.

Strauss’s ability to make her subjects comfortable is used to hilarious effects in Man Nude on Bed, Las Vegas (2005), which depicts a middle-aged fellow with a handlebar moustache in a shithole of a room staring with bleary eyes at the camera. In a world where the female body is usually the one on display, it’s refreshing to see a naked male reclining like the Venus of Urbino.

Far more disturbing is the nudity in Alzheimer’s, Philadelphia (2002), in which a frail old lady holding a dog regards the camera wildly. A close look reveals that underneath her flannel jacket, she is naked and showing her vagina. In this small detail, Strauss seems to capture some unraveling of the woman’s mind.

Beyond her genius with portraiture, Strauss also has a unique ability to transform the quotidian or even ugly into something extraordinary. Red Carpet Stairs, Las Vegas (2007) inexplicably recalls the terraced rice fields in Vietnam’s breathtaking Sapa Valley, while Venetian Blinds Blown Out, Gulfport, Mississippi (2005) suggests the fronds of some sort of tropical plant on a vacation island. The beauty, of course, heightens the devastation—the image from Gulfport was taken in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.

In Monique Showing Black Eye, Philadelphia (2004), a seated, child-like prostitute holds back her hair to expose a broken jaw and a face swollen beyond recognition. (The same girl also appears in another image in the show, Daddy Tattoo (2004), looking like Amy Winehouse.) The image evokes disbelief that such brutality still exists out in the open in 21st-century America—in a land of elevated feminist ideals, men still beat the crap out of women. Strauss exposes the invisible class of untouchables to which Monique belongs, and in doing so, demands our attention.

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Paradise Is a Troubled Yet Deeply Heartfelt Debut

What do you call a narrative whose imperfections—OK, more like “distracting flaws”—line up one-to-one with those of its central character? There’s probably a German word for it, some octo-syllabic monster better spat than spoken, deployed only when grad students kibitz about the particular strangeness of a story like Paradise, the wised-up yet deeply heartfelt directorial debut of screenwriter Diablo Cody. The movie fits around its heroine the way a shell fits its turtle—it’s like she secreted it. Like Lamb Mannerheim (Julianne Hough), a moneyed, home-schooled beauty chucking her God and her purity for one night in Las Vegas, the film is sprightly then mopey, alive then miserable, striding purposefully forward yet not going anywhere, really. Lamb’s plan, hatched after a plane crash leaves her arms, legs, and torso forever scarred, is simple yet vague: She’ll corrupt herself in Sin City, party with the hedonists and homosexuals her small-town church has long warned her against, and then—well, her mission’s third act is as hazy as the story’s.

At a half-dead bar, Lamb makes a couple of new best friends who take to her immediately for reasons the movie never makes clear; their common ground seems only to be that the same writer thought them all up. Since the crew comprises Octavia Spencer, who aces Cody’s wry and allusional dialogue, and Russell Brand, who is never better than in supporting roles like this one, they’re welcome, even when their long night grinds on and they all get mad at each other for reasons as uncertain as their hooking up in the first place.

There’s pleasure in the misadventures, especially that rococo Cody chatter, here less stylized than in her hit Juno and less consistently acute than in Young Adult. The receptionist at Lamb’s hotel eyeballs her churchy look—full denim skirt, Nelson-brother hair—and asks, “You going to ’80s night?” Spencer’s lounge-singer character performs Radiohead’s “No Surprises,” assails Hollywood’s Magical Negro cliché, and dismisses the Strip as a “baby-boomer magic-mushroom shitshow.” Spencer, as a defensive near-geek rebelling against expectations of what an African-American woman should be, is the movie’s great treat.

And here’s Lamb’s reaction when she gets a whiff of the toiletries in her suite’s shower: “In my house we make our own soap. This stuff smells like a whore. I like it.” Behind the camera, Cody smartly times her more successful jokes.

Lamb is angry, but still really nice, and sometimes too eager to say godawful things. The movie shares these traits rather than examining them. “My arms look like turkey bacon!” she cries, a line Cody gives us like it’s something a human might laugh at. Later, Hough is genuinely moving as Lamb talks through what her life is actually like: “Everything I was saving for my future husband is ruined.” There’s such pain in that speech and in Hough’s well-directed performance that it’s hard not to wish the movie had been about the night Lamb actually faced the loss of her faith rather than the time she went to Vegas, met some pretty nice people, and learned lessons never quite shown to the audience.

Still, there’s something to be said for fiction that, in its form, dares to resemble life as it’s lived. Our minor failings and chemical imbalances certainly shape our stories. This troubled yet promising debut gets that much right.

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Evidence Isn’t as Smart as It Thinks It Is

When a team of investigators stumble on a scene of unspeakable carnage in a remote locale outside Las Vegas, they must piece together what happened from a recovered digital camera and a few camera phones. The former was being operated by a wannabe documentarian capturing the professional and personal life of a fledgling starlet; the camera phones belonged to her fellow victims of the killer who stalked and tortured the bus passengers after their Vegas-bound vehicle broke down in a ruined community. Most of the film is told via the recorded footage the investigators stitch together for clues, but long before the cops realize something’s fishy with the evidence, viewers will likely ask how people fighting for their lives had the presence of mind to keep the cameras rolling, and at such artsy angles. Directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi from a screenplay by John Swetnam, the film isn’t as smart as it thinks it is, and its characters are painfully generic. Stephen Moyer’s grizzled cop—haunted by his past, of course—is the genius, while the impetuous unit leader is played by Radha Mitchell with clenched jaws and lots of machisma. While men and women are slaughtered by the killer, the women—in a classic horror film trope—suffer especially gruesome deaths, and the twist at the end is more groan-inducing than clever.

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Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine

It’s recommended that you temporarily raise your capacity for irony when you’re going to see Richard Cheese—the alter ego of comedian Mark Davis specializes in profane and alcohol-fueled Las Vegas lounge lizard versions of popular songs by the likes of Snoop Dogg, Slayer, and Britney Spears, all without spilling a sip of his martini. Cheese has had numerous albums over the years, earning a fan base devoted enough to pay $60 for advance tickets to this show at the Bowery ballroom. Consider him the the Weird Al Yankovic of big band jazz.

Wed., July 3, 9 p.m., 2013

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Now You See Me Gets Tricky in the CGI Era

Something’s misguided about a film built around magic in the digital era. When Georges Méliès transferred illusions to cinema his trickery was stunning, but with every DVD-extras documentary about CGI they see, contemporary audiences become increasingly difficult to impress. Such considerations might have benefitted Now You See Me, Louis Leterrier’s manic magic-heist film following the bank-robbing travails of a four-magician team (anchored by charming Jesse Eisenberg, whose talents extend beyond portraying the neuroses-riddled). Various magic tricks are demonstrated excitingly, if not convincingly—again, all those CGI wizards—as the group teleports Euros from Paris to Las Vegas, makes safe-filled rooms appear empty, and instantaneously changes bank account balances. The bargain struck with Leterrier is a loan on credit—the viewer will suspend disbelief if its clear the filmmakers will pay them back with a satisfying explanation. Here, problems arise. Whereas the purpose of a magic trick is its own entertainment, a film that raises crucial narrative questions is expected to answer them. When functioning like a magic trick, this breathlessly entertaining picture delights in its showmanship, but the more entertaining the trickery, the tougher the explanation, and when the truth is revealed the answer can’t help but fail to satisfy. And like a magic trick, many of its visuals are captivating—but the structure of a magic trick is ill-suited to cinema.