We've all been kicked in the junk by Marvel superheroes before. Watching Elektra was like two hours of nut-pummeling by a relentless, sac-hating donkey. But superhero films -- even bad ones -- gross bazillions of dollars. So it's no surprise that Marvel is cashing in with a slew of licensed videogames. Some are walloping-good fun -- X-Men Legends and Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction spring to mind. Unfortunately, the latest spandex-clad melee lives up to its name: imperfect.

On paper, Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects seems promising. The game boasts a tie-in comic book, original designs by big-name comic artists, and a slew of beefy villains created specifically for this game. But the new baddies include a walking Duracell named Johnny Ohm and -- I kid you not, true believers -- a cyborg ballerina. If "cyborg ballerina" doesn't scream "back to the drawing board," what does?

Dr. Doom and Magneto must have been vacationing in the Hamptons, because the plot centers on a mad scientist straight out of central casting. Your mission is to stop his generic plan to take over the world, playing a variety of marketable Marvel heroes, including the tenacious Wolverine, the rock-hard Thing, and the thongtastic ninja Elektra, last seen bumping uglies with Ben Affleck on the big screen.

While brawler games can be mindless fun, they get old quick, unless you're drunk, six years old, or both. This is especially true in Imperfects. The game's drab, clichéd missions include such scintillating tasks as "Beat up 15 enemies in two minutes" and "Kill this spiky guy, so we can move this damn level along." It plays like every side-scrolling arcade brawler of old: Brutalize endless hordes of baddies, until the Spider Sense in your thumbs isn't just tingling, but bleeding all over the A-button.

The difference here is supposed to be the cool superpowers, but they're as cosmetic as Clark Kent's glasses. Oddly enough, throwing taxicabs, couches, or telephone poles at enemies proves more effective than your heroes' special gifts. Throughout the game, Wolverine would do better to sheathe his indestructible, razor-sharp claws and just hurl a Barcalounger.

Three-D brawlers usually employ a helpful "targeting system" that allows you to lock onto the enemies. Not this one. When Wolverine should be serving thugs their own entrails, you waste precious time swiveling the camera to see who's thumping him off-screen. It's especially frustrating when endless flocks of aerial enemies swoop down like Alfred Hitchcock's birds to peck you to death. Daredevil should not get his ass kicked by a glorified cockatoo.

Imperfects has been misleadingly marketed as a fighting game, but it offers none of the fun of, say, Marvel vs. Capcom. Two-player mode is just more of the same clumsy game play. Sure, there are "up-up-down-right"-style moves to master, but mashing buttons (and yes, throwing couches) is a more effective strategy for beating your friends.

It doesn't help that the characters are hopelessly unbalanced. Heavyweights like the Thing can easily snap waifs like Elektra in two. Sure, she can stall by throwing mailboxes from a distance, but once she runs out of junk, it's clobberin' time.

Young gamers may enjoy Imperfects for its four-color fun. But for everyone else, this cheap cash-in will be as transparent as Spider-Man's long underwear after its hundredth wash.

"Biennial" means every two years -- so a biennial convention of dental hygienists would probably be a squeaky clean but dull replay of their last gathering, complete with the same flossing diagrams.

But the Museum of Contemporary Art's rapid-fire 2005 Film Biennial, unspooling this weekend at the Starz FilmCenter in conjunction with the MCA's 2005 Biennial BLOW OUT exhibition, taps a different energy for its every-other-year blast. That's because in art, explains museum deputy director Judy Hussie-Taylor, biennial festivals are "not like retrospectives. They're not historical. It's like what's going on now; they're like surveys of the moment. "

Ever since the Venice Bienniale kicked off the concept in 1895 with a showcase in Italy, museums worldwide have explored the idea of hosting recurring snapshots of cutting-edge endeavors. In that spirit, Film Biennia organizers sought works that are less than thirty minutes long and were created after January 2003. And while the event is an adjunct to the BLOW OUT show, which runs through September 25, it's no mere fluffer to the gallery display. "We were looking for people with a grasp of the craft of filmmaking," Hussie-Taylor says. "We also looked for innovation and risk-taking."

Some sixty submissions were carefully winnowed, leaving twelve -- ranging in length from two to 22 minutes -- that will premiere in a 137-minute screening. From the beautiful photographic and audio fusion of One and the Same, by Boulder's Wenhua Shi, to the odd linkage of Western kitsch, urban brackishness and failed social policy in Vincent Goudreau's Harry and Janet, the works will expose film-goers to a cross-pollination of experimental visual and narrative forms.

Screenings begin at 1 p.m. Saturday, July 23, and Sunday, July 24, at Starz. The top three award winners will be announced at a reception at the MCA (1275 19th Street) following Saturday's showing.

The part with the dragon is really cool.

Might as well cut to the chase, right? It's not as though you need anybody to tell you the basic premise of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; if you somehow missed the last three, this likely won't be the one to break your pattern. So you probably want to know up front how the Hungarian Horntail dragon looks on screen. And in the words of Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), it's "bloody brilliant."

Some things in the Harry Potter universe are much more fun to see than read about -- the aerial sport of Quidditch is a prime example, and the sequence in which Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has to steal a golden egg from an angry dragon is right up there.

Not only does this fourth Potter movie -- scripted once again by Steve Kloves (who also wrote the first two) and directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) -- assume prior knowledge of the other films, it even assumes you've already read the book. Secret villain Barty Crouch Jr. (David Tennant) is revealed as a traitor right at the beginning, and new professor Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson) makes an offhand joke early on that's really only funny if you already know what he keeps locked up in a trunk behind his desk.

Much has been trimmed from the lengthy novel to achieve its two-and-a-half-hour running time: Dobby the Elf and Emma Thompson's Professor Trelawney do not return to the big screen, Hagrid's scorpion-like skreets don't make it (nor do any monsters in the final maze, which is disappointing), and Gary Oldman makes only a quick cameo in digital form. Many of the trims work fine, but a maddening plot point involving the climactic confrontation between Harry and the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, sans nose) remains unspoken, and may leave viewers confused. (For their benefit, a key piece of information that would be a movie spoiler if only it had been left in: Remember that Harry and Voldemort have wands containing feathers from the same phoenix.)

Speaking of Voldemort, it's about damn time that the main villain in J.K. Rowling's world showed up. Previously seen only as the back of Ian Hart's head, or in dreams as a young schoolboy, he appears here in his true form, in scenes that feel more like a horror movie than a family film (yes, yes, that's the point; understood). Fiennes, who generally has a tendency to underplay dreadfully, has recently impressed by being over the top, first in the Wallace and Gromit movie, and now here. He even gets to breathe like Darth Vader, which has got to be quite a challenge without a nose.

Fiennes would probably be the major scene stealer if it didn't take nearly the whole movie for him to show up; instead, that honor goes to Brendan Gleeson, whose Mad-Eye Moody feels like the scariest Irish pub rat you've ever encountered, transplanted to a classroom with the care of children rather dubiously entrusted to him. Not that all of Hogwarts isn't a dubious proposition for youngsters to begin with -- when headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) says, "I've put you in terrible danger this year, Harry, I am sorry," you want to ask if he's been paying any attention at all for the previous three years, when Harry was menaced by a giant three-headed dog, a forest full of man-eating spiders, a huge serpent, a werewolf and, of course, the soul-sucking Dementors.

Much has been made of Rowling's influences from the likes of Roald Dahl, but very few have called her out on her apparent fondness for Scooby-Doo. It's not just the idea of kids who go around solving mysteries, but also the fact that every single Potter movie thus far has culminated in a scene where a key character is suddenly revealed as he really is -- though he would have gotten away with it if it weren't for those meddling kids! -- and proceeds to explain the whole plot to us. It's not as badly telegraphed here as in the other films, but it's a literary crutch one wishes Rowling would kick away.

In the grand scheme of things, Goblet of Fire is perhaps closest to the original Sorcerer's Stone. Parts two and three, for worse and better, respectively, reflected their individual directors' visions, but Newell doesn't have much of a distinctive vision, as evinced by his rather diverse body of work (Donnie Brasco, Pushing Tin and Amazing Grace and Chuck). His is a CliffsNotes version of the book, which is to be expected. But these movies are getting to be kinda like the original Star Trek films: Did it really even matter exactly what Kirk, Spock and Bones were up to? It's enough just to watch them do their thing again.

Somewhere, this could all be happening right now," spoke the narrator in the trailer for the first Star Wars movie (thereafter known as Episode IV: A New Hope), and to those who were small children then, it rang true. For an entire generation, the Star Wars trilogy could never comprise mere movies; on a transcendent level, it presented an alternate reality populated by real people and real droids.

So it was a shock to many when, a couple of decades later, George Lucas produced Episode I: The Phantom Menace and it was indeed revealed as just a movie -- one with dubious dialogue, poor pacing and stiff acting, even by the likes of Liam Neeson. Some argued (wrongly) that the performances were no worse than Mark Hamill's, but few dared defend the toilet humor or the infamous Jar Jar Binks. Episode II: Attack of the Clones was better: Despite a cringe-worthy love story, it returned a sense of danger to the Star Wars universe, reintroduced Stormtroopers and Boba Fett, let Christopher Lee chew the scenery much as his late colleague Peter Cushing had in Episode IV, and delivered a final battle worthy of a blockbuster. For most, however, it still didn't measure up to the original three.

With Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, it seems safe to say that if you've ever loved Star Wars, you will again. Gone is the cheesy dialogue (Tom Stoppard reportedly had a hand in that); in its place we get battles galore, genuine intrigue, a bevy of familiar sights and characters, key moments fans have long wanted to see, and at least one truly great acting performance courtesy of Ian McDiarmid, whose Senator-turned-Emperor Palpatine has been the highlight of the prequel trilogy, much as he was in Return of the Jedi. If the final scenes -- and especially the very last shot -- stir nothing within you, chances are you didn't like Star Wars that much to begin with.

Palpatine is front and center here, serving as father figure to the very confused, virgin-born Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen). Secretly married and disturbed by prophetic visions of his wife Padmé (Natalie Portman) dying, Anakin seeks the power to raise the dead -- but not only can he not confide in the well-meaning Jedi Council, he also doesn't have its trust. Only Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) has faith in Anakin, but he lacks the power and connections of Palpatine, whose fatherly demeanor masks the dark secrets of the Sith -- the evil version of the noble Jedi.

Frankly, it's hard to blame Palpatine. If you were born and raised on a planet where the dominant species is a bunch of semi-retarded amphibians with bunny ears and faux-Jamaican accents, you'd probably be tempted by the Dark Side, too. Feminists, however, could have a field day with Anakin's motives. Lucas clearly believes in male bonding -- Anakin/Darth Vader will, of course, ultimately be redeemed by his son -- but his attitude toward women is a bit off, to say the least. Anakin appears doomed to fall because he cares about his mother and his wife.

What Lucas does well, though, when he puts his mind to it, is channel the man who inspired him: Joseph Campbell, the late anthropologist who was fascinated by cultural myths. Here Lucas returns to those mythical roots, invoking not only the Faustian legend of selling one's soul to the devil, but also the classic Greek-tragedy template, in which a protagonist goes to such extremes to avoid a dire prophecy that he ends up making it come true. As brothers-in-arms turned enemies, both Christensen and McGregor take things up a notch, revealing that they have more acting chops than were evident in the previous episodes. (Anyone familiar with their other work already knew this.)

Along the way, we get a pointless but fun diversion to the Wookiee planet for a taste of how Return of the Jedi could have ended had Lucas gone with his original impulse; a look at Princess Leia's home planet of Alderaan; several familiar starships; an action-hero scene for R2-D2; and a pre-Vader cyborg model named General Grievous (voice of Matthew Wood, after Gary Oldman bowed out), who appears to have tuberculosis but still manages to swing four lightsabers at once. In your face, Darth Maul!

There are always nits to pick, but no more here than in the original trilogy: How is it, for instance, that anytime someone is sent to a new planet, they are able to pinpoint the exact location of the individual they're looking for, despite having been given no coordinates or leads? And aren't there any planets with more than one homogeneous environment? Apparently not, but some long-awaited answers are provided here, including the virgin birth and that whole disappearing-after-death thing. The Battle Droids still act like petulant children, but that's probably why they aren't around anymore in the Han Solo era (though the Stormtroopers somehow lose a lot of skill in the meantime).

Bottom line: Revenge of the Sith is the biggest action movie of the year. It's also pretty hard-core: Darth Vader unmasked is freaky-looking, and women and children die, so leave the youngest kids at home. If they let you.

Monica Petty Aiello and her husband, Tyler, are well-known fixtures in Denver's contemporary art world because they run Studio Aiello, the largest commercial art gallery in the region for the time being. I say "for the time being" because come the first of the year, the Aiellos will cut back severely on the space devoted to art exhibitions, instead converting most of their gallery into artist studios.

Though less well-known as such, the Aiellos are also fine artists, as showcased in TWO WORLDS, currently on view at Space Gallery (765 Santa Fe Drive, 720-904-1088). The show's title refers to the fact that Monica is a painter while Tyler does sculpture -- two different worlds.

Monica's color-field abstractions are essentially monochromes in vibrant shades, done in acrylic, ink, fiber and gel on panel. She uses the fibers, or threads, to create the elaborate, delicate "drawn" panel designs, which are organic abstractions -- or scribbles, if had they been done in ink. The threads are then embedded into the paintings with gleaming layers of clear gel that give the piece a high gloss. These works are done in various sizes and shapes, from small squares to monumental rectangles. Perhaps because they are so simple in visual effect and color, the big ones, such as "Odyssey 19 (Pele's Fury)," shown in the background above, work better.

Tyler creates hand-forged steel sculptures, many of which have the shape of pierced spheres, such as "Sphere #7," shown in the foreground above. Using the repoussé technique, he hammers circles of steel into flattened domed shapes. The surfaces of these shapes preserve the action of his hammer with round indentations on the metal. Using tiny handmade brackets, he joins the little steel circles together to make the form of the large sphere. The metal is finished naturalistically, with some pieces being dull gray and others silvery.

TWO WORLDS is definitely worth seeing before it closes on October 1 at Space.

In June 2003, Richard Florida, author of the hot-hot-hot Rise of the Creative Class, was speaking to a group of despairing alternative-newspaper types when one asked if Florida had any hope for the political future.

Yes, he replied. In Denver, where John Hickenlooper had just been elected mayor.

Two years later, Denver's still looking good to Florida, who'll be observing the town firsthand during Culture Commerce Community, a two-day conference that's billed as both a think tank and a practicum, designed to help local leaders stimulate civic and commercial life through the arts. Not only is this city in a perfect position to do just that, but it must, says Florida, whose new book is titled The Flight of the Creative Class. Because now cities in this country are competing not only with each other, but with cities around the world.

"Denver is one of the places that's on the cusp, not quite a San Francisco or a Seattle, but it's right on the cusp," Florida says. "San Francisco is no longer the place for a young poet or writer or group of people with a garage band or garage startup. So Denver has a very, very positive future. And John is one of two or three young mayors in the country who get it -- and when I say Œget it,' it's not about building a yuppie, latte-swilling fern bar, but a creative community."

Although the Washington, D.C.-based Florida is doing a booming business in Creative consulting, he hasn't sold everyone on his theories -- including Joel Kotkin, author of The City: A Global History. The two will face off with a "keynote conversation" during a kickoff lunch in the Seawell Ballroom at 12:30 p.m. on Friday, May 20. That discussion should generate enough heat to fuel another day and a half of panels and debates. But Florida could do that all by himself.

"There's a fear of the future," Florida says, describing the "class divide" he discusses in his new book. "People who are being left behind are finding no way to attach to this creative engine. They look at Hollywood, they look at Boulder, they look at Colorado College, and they see a country moving away from them." And Colorado, with a capital city that ranks high on the creative-class index, is at the epicenter of the action.

"I'll be interested to see when I visit how far folks are willing to take it," Florida says. "It's not simply growing the innovative economy; it's extending the reach to everyone."

For most viewers, the Academy Awards mean two things: celebrity fashion and suspense over a handful of categories, like Best Actor or Best Actress. But in between the red-carpet arrivals and the announcement of the year's best big-budget blockbuster, heaps of gold-plated little men must be distributed to more obscure nominees. So during the gala next March, you can either change the channel when the Best Documentary hopefuls are announced or sit up and make your own proclamation: "I helped that film qualify for an Oscar."

That's because the Academy requires a nominated documentary to be shown in four cities in addition to Los Angeles and New York. To help filmmakers meet this requirement, the International Documentary Association launched DocuWeek, a quad-city showcase that concludes in Boulder this year.

"People just love the films," says DocuWeek's Colorado organizer, Sofia van Surksum, noting that without this opportunity, curious viewers probably wouldn't be exposed to any of these works except for the one winning the top award.

Between Friday, November 18, and Monday, November 21, movie lovers can choose from nine feature-length and three short documentaries screening at the Landmark Crossroads Cinema. The Academy has already selected two shorts, God Sleeps in Rwanda and Positively Naked, as finalists in the Oscar race. Van Surksum says Rwanda is "absolutely amazing," a work that follows five Rwandan women who rebuilt their lives and redefined women's roles following the genocide of the '90s. Naked deals with a different social problem: HIV and AIDS. Photographer Spencer Tunick used 85 HIV-positive people in one of his nude installations, and the film shares their stories of survival and stigma.

Other possibilities among the features include Frozen Angels, a study of society's quest for the perfect baby; The Real Dirt on Farmer Brown, which explores a Midwestern farmer's successful attempt to transform his farm in the midst of a failing economy and hostile community; and 39 Pounds of Love, which tells the saga of 34-year-old Ami, an Israeli animator with a rare form of muscular dystrophy.

Lend an eye -- and when Oscar night rolls around, you can shower your friends with your vast knowledge of the finalists. Take that, Roger Ebert.

Reverend Benjamin L. Reynolds stands at the pulpit in a rhubarb-colored dress shirt, shaking his narrow hips from side to side, ready to get down and dirty.

"In the black church," he says, eyes wide, "we sit with the saved and the unsaved. We use our hips and our buttocks to give praise -- even if you don't have any, like me."

Laughter erupts from the pine pews, where approximately fifty African-American men and women flip through Bibles. They are here at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church in Colorado Springs for Thursday-night Bible study, when things are a bit more loose and easy than they are on Sunday mornings during Reynolds's traditional Baptist service, complete with gospel hymns and testimony.

In the fourth row, a young man with a minor afro points at a large screen next to Reynolds. "What's that say?" he asks.

"It says: 'The Dirt on Sex,'" Reynolds replies. "That's the topic of our class tonight."

"Well, all right," says a young woman, clapping her hands. "You came on the right night."

Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church is tiny compared to many churches in Colorado Springs, where tens of thousands commune in the evangelical super-churches and mega-churches scattered throughout the city; the largest congregation, the New Life Church, draws 11,000 souls a week. Most Sunday mornings, Emmanuel tops off at around 600. It's a tightly knit congregation, the kind where everyone knows everyone else, and people talk.

Reynolds has given them plenty to talk about since becoming the senior pastor thirteen years ago. After he took over the pulpit in 1992, he shook the conservative congregation by allowing women to wear pants, sit with the men in church and enter the ministry.

"They thought I was going to be a madman," he says, flashing a sly grin that betrays a touch of devilishness. "But these ladies who were coming straight from work to choir practice or Bible study were sneaking into the basement to change into dresses. It was silly. It was like, ŒGive me a break with this.'

"Some of the things I did, there was some resistance," he continues. "People weren't so happy to change the thing about women pastoring; that one is still controversial. And I don't glory in that. But I figured, in following after Jesus Christ, he was always in trouble, so why shouldn't I be?'"

Even though Emmanuel now has three female pastors, women wearing pants is still an issue, so Reynolds knew there would be some trouble with his latest mission: welcoming gays and lesbians to the flock.

Over the past year, Reynolds has made sexuality -- specifically, gay sexuality -- a cornerstone of his ministry. He feels Jesus Christ has called him to open the church to homosexuals as fully as it has been to the families who have known it as their spiritual home since its founding in 1963. God does not hate gays, Reynolds contends, and he's made it his mission to make sure no one in his church does, either.

"I don't know why, or how, because I never thought I would be doing this," he says. "But I believe it is the work of the Holy Spirit; if there's anything within me that is working, this is it."

In November, Reynolds launched "The Black Church and Sexuality," a biblically based series exploring the church members' relationship to their own sexuality and the struggles faced by gays within the black culture. It's the first time that homosexuality has been openly discussed at Emmanuel, and Reynolds treats the subject with the same seriousness as he would the Book of Job -- even if the approach is a little different. He kicked off the first Thursday-night session by blasting Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" through the church hall.

"That was the first time that song was played in this church," Reynolds recalls, laughing. "I was trying to get things loose, funky. Sex in the church is an outrageous thing. But we can't make this separation that sex is the ugly thing and spirit is the good thing; they're in the same body. Sometimes when someone is very deeply affected on a spiritual level, it can be very much likened to a heightened sexual experience.

"My goal is to bring sexuality into the black church and talk about it," he continues, "and figure out how we continue to talk about it. Good, bad and ugly, let's get it out."

During an early Bible-study session, Reynolds asked the congregants to respond to a questionnaire as if they were gay, and to then share their answers with other members of the group. Tonight, as Reynolds guides the class through a recap of what they've covered, a woman recalls that exercise as a personal challenge. [page]

"I remember when we did that, and it was hard, wasn't it? Yes, it was," she says. "I felt like he asked us to be honest and talk about it, and we weren't really keeping it real."

"I think we have a hard time keeping it real on this particular subject," adds another man. "We all know that there's gays in our church, or we know someone whose daughter or son is gay or what have you, but we would still rather not bring it up."

The Bible-study group is a small sampling of the larger congregation at Emmanuel. There are young people in their twenties, older members in their eighties. In one pew, a young guy sports a hoodie and a new pair of Jordans; in another, a white-haired lady totes a black leather Bible so worn it bears her fingerprints. At times, the confluence of generations is abrupt, the generational differences as clear as the cross on the altar.

When Reynolds asks the class to come up with creative ways to talk about safe sex with young people, for example, a group of twenty-somethings suggest hosting a movie night and showing sexually overt films. An older man in spectacles scoffs.

"You don't need to be creative; just tell the truth," he says. "When I was coming up, we thought that the baby came out of a side pocket on the side of the woman's stomach, with a zipper. We figured it out soon enough."

At the end of the class, Reynolds again directs the group to a projection on the screen, to a list of goals he has for the Bible study. The last one urges "support for those who challenge sexual oppression and who work for justice within their congregations and denominations."

"I see myself as someone who challenges sexual oppression," he says to the class. "I could use your support. But if you don't agree with me and you don't want to support me, say a prayer for me."

Reverend Reynolds has been a blast of modernity for Emmanuel, which has held holy in its current location just west of downtown Colorado Springs since 1971. Next to the Bible and a big black binder that contains notes for each Sunday's sermon, a laptop is the tool that Reynolds uses most. Emmanuel's ministry now extends well beyond the main church hall -- where purple and gold flags flank the choir rows and a huge gold cross crowns the altar -- and onto the Internet. Two years ago, Reynolds launched a Web ministry so congregants can log on to the Lord 24/7.

"If God be God," reads one of his online sermons, "then surely God knows what year this is.... He is not regulated by AT&T and He is not limited to some mainline.... Jesus is not only on the mainline but is on the digital T1 line and the DSL line and the dial-up modem lines. Jesus is in the satellites and in the fiber optic networks and in the digital networks."

"When I came here, I wanted to be part of a congregation that is progressive in every way," says the 43-year-old Reynolds. "But when I arrived, we had, like, two phone lines, a secretary, a custodian and an old-fashioned mimeograph copy machine. The fumes would be coming into your nose as you cranked it. That was it. There was no such thing as e-mail or anything like that."

Reynolds was living in Dallas, his father's home town, when he was called to pastor at Emmanuel in 1992. After earning a degree in communications from the University of Denver in 1989, he had moved to Dallas to take a job as a court reporter and lead a singles' ministry in a Baptist church. He wasn't sure at first that he wanted to leave Dallas, which was urban and exciting compared to small, isolated Colorado Springs, but leading his own congregation had always been a dream. And when you're called, you're called.

"I think I really knew all along I would be back here in my home church," he says. "It was a burden/blessing kind of a thing. But when I thought about it, I realized Dallas was even less progressive than the Springs in certain ways, and I felt there was a lot of potential for Colorado Springs."

Reynolds grew up in Emmanuel church. His family lived next door to its pastor, who mentored the young Benjamin and encouraged his early interest in churchly things. When Reynolds's two sisters and four brothers were playing sports, he was often inside preaching to his G.I. Joes. Reynolds got his first shot ministering to the Emmanuel congregation when he was eight years old. At fourteen, he was given his own office in the church basement. [page]

"I always loved being in church," he says. "I loved the spiritual leaders. I remember one day taking a ride in the pastor's car, and I just felt so excited to be there. From a very young age, the work of the church was my passion."

In the Emmanuel basement, Reynolds would study and memorize stories from the Bible that he especially liked. He was particularly drawn to the tale about Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors. Joseph was an outsider who found value in himself even when others criticized him for being different, and Reynolds could relate to that: He was small, effeminate and interested in books. Other kids called him Wimpy Benjamin, Sissy Benjamin.

"I was odd. I was the strange person. All of my brothers were very athletic. Some people thought I was a punk," he says. "And it stuck with me, them calling me those names. I remember when I went to college, I was criticizing other people, especially gay people. I realized what had been done to me, I was now doing to others. I don't know why, exactly, but I just stopped."

Today there is very little trace of Wimpy Benjamin in the powerful physical presence of Reverend Reynolds. Tall and thin, with a gleaming, shaved head, Reynolds favors finely cut pin-striped suits and shiny dress shirts. He's a polished, proud man of God. He speaks deliberately, penetratingly, when discussing the work of the church, carefully articulating every word as if it were gospel. But he's funny, too: On Sunday mornings, when Emmanuel fills with men in bow ties and ladies in large, feathery hats, he peppers his sermons with jokes that make the church boom even louder than the choir. From the pulpit, he's as likely to quote Chris Rock as he is Corinthians.

"The pastor is an entertainer in addition to a lot of other things," he says. "And I've always thought you should use pop culture, use music, use hip-hop, use whatever to help us figure out how to take what we do in here and take it out there in the world. Truth is truth, wherever it's found."

Reynolds spends much of his time on the phone in his big office, a mirror-laden room crammed with books, African art and his credentials from DU and from the Iliff School of Theology, where he completed seminary last August and will earn his master's in Divinity this spring.

"I am the spiritual guide for this church, but people need guidance on a lot of things," he says. "I've given people advice on buying a car. I go to court with people. I visit the sick. I give relationship advice. This phone never really stops ringing."

But Reynolds's relationship with his flock has been tested recently. His passion for gay equality has put Emmanuel in the uncomfortable position of embracing topics that it has long preferred to ignore. "What happens so oftentimes within the African-American community," he says, "is that those who are oppressed or have been oppressed, instead of reaching back, the attitude is, 'Now that we're in the power seat, don't help out. Don't reach back.' But I did not see how we could stand to be oppressive on this issue anymore."

After all, he tells them, when read a certain way, the Bible allows for all kinds of crimes against humanity, including slavery and the abuse of women and children. Slave owners interpreted Scripture to suggest that slavery was part of God's master plan, and that slaves should fear and serve their masters as if they were God. During the early days of the civil-rights movement, segregationists -- including many prominent members of the all-white Southern Baptist Convention -- quoted the New Testament to defend Jim Crow laws. When people use the Bible to bash gays -- usually, armed with a passage from Leviticus that refers to "man lying with mankind" as "an abomination" -- it's the same kind of bigotry at work, Reynolds says.

"Even I was not always sure, but now I am: Christ never addresses [homosexuality]. And it's not for me to decide if it's wrong," he says. "People look to Leviticus and say otherwise, but as I read and study these verses in their context, they have nothing to do with sexual orientation, but everything to do with abandoning God for other gods.

"The question is: How do we view Jesus?" he asks. "How do we apply the Bible to truly live in his image? He was the one who set the captives free. He unloosens the chains of those who are bound. Christ just says, 'Let us love each other.' That's what I'm trying to do." [page]

Reynolds prefers John 3:16 as a blueprint for his concept of the all-inclusive, accepting "whosoever church": For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.

The roots of the whosoever church and Reynolds's sexuality series began at Emmanuel in 1993, when Reynolds formed an AIDS ministry that offered HIV testing and counseling to the African-American community in Colorado Springs. He'd been moved by the lonely experience of a young woman at Emmanuel who'd contracted HIV and had been all but abandoned when she showed up at church, sick with full-blown AIDS.

"She needed love, compassion. She wanted people to be very much aware [of HIV], for us to do prevention, education and outreach," Reynolds says. "Most people were coming of age at that point, as far as awareness of HIV went. They didn't connect that she was ill in that way. They wanted to go run and wash their hands after they were around her."

Reynolds's work with the AIDS ministry wasn't enough to stop the disease from infiltrating his own family. In 2000, his brother, Bart, was diagnosed as HIV-positive. But at home, just like at Emmanuel, it wasn't talked about.

"After Bart told me that he was sick, there were three or four times that I drove over to my parents' house, ready to tell them, but instead I turned around and drove home," Reynolds says. When he finally broke the news, his father said, "If we had talked about his sexuality, we wouldn't be planning his funeral."

Bart had once been the minister of music at Emmanuel; he was well known, and loved, within the church. It wasn't until after his death, in 2002, that the congregation openly discussed the fact that he was gay. "It was kind of like, 'Now we have a male, whose sexuality is in question, with HIV.' That put a face on it," Reynolds says. "When he died, they were able to say, 'Well, he probably did die of AIDS. He lived free and he died free.' In hindsight, they were able to say, 'That was him.'"

Reynolds realized that the silence, and stigma, of sexuality had killed his brother and would kill other brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers, too. Communication was the only remedy to the homophobia that lay beneath the silence, so he opened the discussion at Emmanuel. For now, the sexuality talk is confined to the Bible studies, though Reynolds plans to gradually fold some of its themes and topics into his Sunday sermons. By the end of the year, he hopes to have an articulated position on sexual equality worked into Emmanuel's covenant. But he knows that significant change could be a long time coming.

"I'm planting seeds right now," he says. "We don't want to go too fast, but we want to get somewhere. People are scared but excited about this. I've never seen the level of excitement, and that's both positive and negative.

"Even I still come to every one of these classes with fear in my heart, trembling," he says. "And at the end of every class, after everyone leaves, I sit in that chair and wonder, 'What now?'"

Verna Williams has attended Emmanuel for six years, including every one of Reynolds's Bible studies. In her view, homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of God. It's not a huge sin -- like, say, murder -- but a sin, nonetheless. As far as Verna is concerned, the Bible is pretty clear about that. It's right there in Leviticus 20:13: If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.

But Verna says that homosexuality is nothing that a little, or a lot, of prayer can't fix.

"I don't think it's any higher or lower than lyin', cheatin', stealin' and fornication, and I don't believe that we should take the Scripture and beat homosexuals over the head with it," she says. "But I do believe that when Jesus loved people, he transformed them. I think if you're a homosexual in the church, you should at least try to let God change you."

So a couple of years ago, when Reynolds invited a lesbian preacher to address the congregation on a Sunday morning, Williams, like a lot of parishioners, started to wonder just what kind of church she was sitting in.

When Reynolds asked DaVita McAllister -- a pastor at a church in Atlanta and a friend he had met at an HIV conference in the mid-'90s -- to give a sermon at Emmanuel (as he occasionally does with ministers from Baptist churches all over the country), he struggled with the question of whether to withhold a line from the Sunday worship guide identifying her as a lesbian. But he believed she'd be so potent from the pulpit that no one would care. He prayed about it, and ultimately kept it in. [page]

"She had us swinging from the rafters. Her sermon was very powerful, and people loved it," Reynolds says. "It wasn't until Monday morning, after people had a chance to read over the program guide, that the crap hit the fan."

For a week afterward, Reynolds was deluged by calls from members of the congregation. They felt betrayed, emotional. Some were angry. Others were more confused about the direction Emmanuel was heading. Was it to become a gay church? they wanted to know. Didn't Reynolds know that what he was doing was an affront to God?

"I talked to a senior member of the congregation, he had four children, and I said, 'What would you do if your child's life was touched by homosexuality?'" recalls Reynolds, who himself is the divorced father of an eighteen-year-old daughter. "He said he would disinherit that child. He left the church. After that, I sat here and bawled like a child."

Entire families, some with members who had attended Emmanuel for decades, left the church after McAllister's visit. Reynolds looked out on the congregation in the weeks that followed and noticed holes where high-ranking members of the community had formerly sat every week.

"The message was very clear," Reynolds says. "Some left for a while and came back. Some left and I never saw them again. But I knew that God adds by dividing. I love my congregation, and I was saddened about their leaving. But there were others who said, 'Pastor, thank you for allowing me to be here in this safe space.' That made it worth it."

For people who are both black and gay, safe spaces can be hard to come by. Leah Lynn, who was raised Catholic, never felt comfortable in the Baptist and Methodist African-American churches she attended in Denver. But she didn't want to go to any of the handful of white gay-friendly churches in the city: Church is family, and Lynn's family is African-American. Then a friend introduced her to Emmanuel.

"It used to be I'd try out a new church and sit there and wait for the gay-bashing to begin," says Lynn. "In every other church I've been in, it starts out great. Then eventually they get around to it. They start clapping and hollering and condemning my lifestyle. Sometimes it'd be like, 'We're going to pray it out of you.' I'd feel personally attacked, and then I'd leave."

Lynn is still at Emmanuel, she says, because the gay-bashing never started. For the past two years, she's driven from Denver to the Springs twice a week: On Sundays for worship, and on Thursdays for Bible study.

"It wasn't until I came to this Bible study that I realized I was okay," Lynn says. "I really believed all these things I'd been told about homosexuality. I'd allowed myself to be abused by men; I got into drinking and drugs and tried to kill myself. This place gave me a new energy.

"I pray for him all the time," she says of Reynolds. "I think about what he must be going through, trying to bring this to people. I can see the pain in his eyes."

Reynolds's eyes are big, brown and expressive, and they do, often, reflect the challenges inherent in his current campaign. During Bible study, his face is a fluid canvas of emotions: He brightens when the class seems to get it ("Look at how critically you are reading this! Look at how much you've learned!" he exalts to one woman who questions a literal interpretation of a Bible verse) and deflates when they don't. Doing the right thing is often lonely, all- consuming work. To get away, Reynolds goes to the movies, rides his bike around the Springs and takes the occasional trip to Denver for a nice meal at Maggiano's. But mostly, his mind and body are in the church.

"Emmanuel has been instrumental in the shaping of who I am; I never really leave," he says. "[It's] always on my mind. I am constantly thinking of ministry ideas and contemplating ministry opportunities. I enjoy every moment of it. It's my path."

Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church, like many traditional African-American Christian congregations, is having a tough time figuring out where it stands on homosexuality. [page]

"In the black church, we just assume that everyone feels that homosexuality is wrong," Reynolds says. "That's the traditional way. But we have gay people in our church already. They're already among us. But it's like you could be anything -- a drug dealer, in jail, anything -- but not that. It's still the worst taboo."

Reynolds, a prominent leader of the black community in Colorado Springs, faces that taboo daily. He's the city's president of the NAACP and the guy the local newspapers call when they need a quote about the African-American population. But leaders of other black churches don't call as much as they used to. He's felt shunned by the leadership of the National Baptist Convention USA and American Baptist USA, two umbrella organizations that Emmanuel belongs to. Even within Emmanuel, there is lingering concern over how far he's going to take things.

"I don't know what his intentions are. I don't know that he knows," says Gerald McMillian, a minister at Emmanuel. "But he is the pastor, and as long as I'm there, I'm on the train. If the train doesn't go where I want it to, I'm always free to get off.

"I believe that Pastor Reynolds believes that God has mandated him to do something," he adds. "He's being obedient. And I'm not going to not come because I don't agree with him. I want to show him that I'm willing to listen to him. I trust God to not let his people down."

Last year's presidential election forced the issue to the surface not only at Emmanuel, but at churches across the country -- particularly at black churches, which have been traditionally fundamentalist when it comes to sex. When the first black Baptist churches formed in the post-Civil War era as sanctuaries from unbridled racism, most congregations held a belief that every word contained in the Bible was God's honest truth, to be feared and lived by. That literalist interpretation of the Bible has lingered, so for many communities of faith, the Bible says homosexuality is a sin, and that's that.

As a result, some strange bonds were formed last year, as conservative Christians and right-wing politicians sought, and found, allies in black leaders who historically side with the left on social issues that involve individual rights. Last February, the day after President Bush voiced support for the Federal Marriage Amendment, which had just been introduced by Colorado Springs representative Marilyn Musgrave, large groups of prominent black clergy staged rallies of support in Washington, Boston and New York City. The following month, Bernice King, niece of Martin Luther King, led a candlelight vigil to her uncle's grave in support of the amendment. Perhaps the most inflammatory anti-gay statement to follow the birth of the FMA came from a church pulpit in Chicago, where Reverend Gregory Daniels, a black minister, proclaimed, "If the KKK opposes gay marriage, I would ride with them."

According to a poll taken by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life last November, blacks were more likely than whites to think sexual orientation "can be changed" (58 percent versus 39) and to think gay sex should be illegal (64 versus 48 percent, as tabulated in a New York Times poll taken last December). In 1996, 65 percent of black Protestants said gay people should enjoy equal rights; last November, that percentage had slipped to forty. Suddenly, religious communities that hadn't much considered the issue were facing a strange question: Should the black church accept homosexuality and the idea of same-sex marriage?

"The religious right is playing a game with African-American churches," says Gilbert Caldwell, former pastor of Park Hill United Methodist Church in Denver. "They've played the black community; they've got folks voting against their own economic issues in favor of issues [such as] same-sex marriage and abortion. They tossed it out there, and a lot of preachers took the bait.

"Homophobia is the last accepted prejudice," he acknowledges. "And black people have a particular responsibility to be conscious of the fact, especially within the church, so that we don't lose the moral high ground to the Dobsons and the Falwells."

Caldwell grew up in the segregated South and worked with Martin Luther King during the civil-rights movement. He now applies his activist bent to gay rights. In 2000, as a member of United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church, he was arrested twice during the United Methodists' General Conference in Cleveland for staging protests that called for sexual equality in the church. To Caldwell, there's no difference between a ban on interracial marriage and a ban on same-sex marriage. Before he retired his ministry, Caldwell took that message to his congregation at Park Hill, a primarily white congregation. [page]

"It's like Martin King used to say," he recalls. "ŒToo often the church is the taillight and not the headlight.'"

There are, increasingly, bright lights advocating a gay-equality position from within the black clergy. Peter Gomes, chaplain of Harvard University, is gay, out and active. Pastors in New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia have, like Reynolds, woven the message into their ministry. In Stone Mountain, Georgia, the Reverend Kenneth Samuel has pursued an actively pro-gay program in his traditional Baptist church over the past year -- and lost more than 2,000 members as a result.

Freedom to Marry, a New York-based advocacy group, has led a focused outreach to black faith communities over the past two years, and recently met with leaders of National Baptist USA -- which represents more than eight million people -- to work toward articulating a position on the marriage issue. "It's a tough political climate for African-American ministers and religious leaders," says Freedom's Samiya Bashir. "They've been targeted by a lot of political groups as a hot ticket. But now a number of black leaders and faith ministers are standing up and saying, ŒWell, wait, what we need to do is look at our people in our congregation and ask, What are their needs? What are the issues they're asking us about? A lot of them are trying to clean house and come to their own conclusions without the media, the activists, the politicians watching. But the fact that they're even talking about it is just huge."

In Colorado, the black church has been established since 1865, when Zion Baptist Church was built in Five Points. Reynolds is currently the only African-American clergyman to make sexual equality a pillar of his ministry. There are no active black pastors in the membership of the Colorado Clergy for Equality in Marriage, a consortium of one hundred Christian and Jewish leaders from across the Front Range. The Greater Denver Ministerial Alliance, an aggregate of 65 black pastors, has yet to express a collective view on homosexuality.

That leaves Reynolds going it alone -- from perhaps the most unlikely place in the United States to launch an equality campaign.

A little more than a decade ago, Colorado Springs was the epicenter of the debate over Colorado's anti-gay Amendment 2. Now, Reynolds's home town is at the epicenter of the national debate over same-sex marriage, a discussion that has spread concentrically outward since November 2003, when the Supreme Court of Massachusetts upheld same-sex couples' right to legally wed. In February 2004, U.S. Representative Musgrave introduced her Federal Marriage Amendment, which would amend the U.S. Constitution -- for only the 28th time in the country's history -- to ban gay marriage. Senator Wayne Allard brought a similar bill in the Senate. Both died during fairly early stages of their journey through Congress, but Musgrave and Allard have each suggested that they plan to revive their bills this year, newly fortified with provisions that would strip same-sex couples of most of the benefits of civil unions.

To some extent, though, Musgrave and Allard are merely reflecting the values of their constituents in Colorado Springs, where five FM Christian stations blare at all hours from the radio dial and a subscription to The Gazette newspaper comes with a free Bible. The religious and the political have intertwined along a continuum of conservatism in Colorado Springs since the 1970s, when city leaders began recruiting right-wing groups as a way to prop up a sagging agricultural economy. The city is now home to 100 evangelical Christian organizations, including Focus on the Family, the most famous, and powerful, conservative-Christian empire in the country.

Earlier this year, Focus announced it had launched its own campaign for a referendum that would place the issue of a gay-marriage ban before Colorado voters next November. (Colorado already has a Defense of Marriage statute, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.) The organization, whose representatives did not respond to interview requests for this story, is also working to pass similar measures in fifteen other states.

But there have been defiant, pro-gay-equality acts of late in the most conservative pocket of Colorado, a state that's recently made moves to shake off echoes of its former hate-state status. In January, the Senate advanced a bill that would add sexual orientation to Colorado's anti-discrimination law (the state is currently one of 36 without such a measure); the bill is currently being reviewed by the Senate Appropriations Committee. And in February, the Senate defeated Springs senator Doug Lamborn's proposal that Colorado not recognize civil unions from other states. Last year, Sara Tomas, a young woman from the Springs, sued Palmer High School in federal court after school administrators refused to allow notices about the Gay/Straight Alliance, a student group Tomas founded, to be broadcast over the school P.A. In February, two lesbian couples sued the city over a 2003 law that revoked the benefits they had previously received as city employees. And after the defeat of the FMA, fifty gay and lesbian couples participated in a symbolic wedding at Pikes Peak Metropolitan Community Church, which was attended by the city's vice-mayor. [page]

"This is a really conservative community, but the reality on the streets here is that you'll find wonderful surprises like Benjamin Reynolds -- a lot of people who go about their work without a lot of fanfare. And that's very encouraging," says former Springs mayor Mary Lou Makepeace, who is now executive director of the Gill Foundation's Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado.

"It's still not an easy place," she continues. "We don't really have any forums at the moment for expression of opposing or different ideas. But there are a lot of people in the Springs who are saying to themselves 'We can't stand by and let this stuff go on.' I am modestly optimistic that there will be other voices heard."

There are fewer people in the pews at Emmanuel tonight than there were last week. The crowds have gotten progressively smaller since "The Black Church and Sexuality" series began. Some stayed away; some came to try to get a handle on what Reynolds is getting at with all this homosexuality stuff. Verna Williams, for one, had to see how things played out.

"I'm still not real comfortable with what sexuality has to do with worship," she says. "Sex has to do with the flesh, and worship is the spirit, and you cannot combine the two. And I'm still not real comfortable with everything that's said about homosexuals and gays and lesbians and whatever you want to call it.

"I do think that some of my attitudes about it have changed a little from being in this class," Williams adds. "But I'm ready to move on to other things. I don't want this to become the all-gay church."

Tonight is the second-to-last session in the series, and there's a feeling of nervous anticipation in the room. Even Reynolds, who sits in the first pew, looks uncharacteristically anxious. Tonight is a test of how far the class has come, how much they are willing to listen to, and how much they'll take.

"I knew that there will be some voices of opposition to what's going to happen here, and I didn't want to invite the same controversy that we had last time," Reynolds says. "But I prayed about it, and I realized that even if there are naysayers, the fact that we're even having this class shows that there's been a lot of growth."

Reynolds has invited Herndon Davis, an author and activist from Los Angeles, to lead tonight's class. Last year, Davis wrote a book called Black, Gay and Christian, an inspirational tome for gay African-American people of faith. The son of a Baptist minister, Davis travels the country speaking to church and community groups. Reynolds brought him to Emmanuel to let his congregation see, and listen to, a living, breathing, homosexual Christian brother.

When the class begins, Davis assumes Reynolds's usual place at the pulpit to address the forty or so students who sit in clusters around the church. He begins with a story about a church service he attended in his home town in Arkansas, when the minister got the congregation so riled up with anti-gay fervor, they sounded like rabid fans at a football game.

"I was afraid to move, because I felt like I'd be lynched," Davis tells the Bible-study students, many of whom shake their heads and interject affirmative "hmmmphs" and clucks of empathy.

But then Davis cranks things up. He picks a Bible up off of the pulpit, throws it on the ground and jumps up and down on it, turning his foot to squash the book as if it were a bug. There is a collective, audible gasp.

"I understand the point you are trying to make -- I think -- but I really wish you wouldn't do that," says Savannah Jackson, sitting in the second pew behind Reynolds, wearing a purple sweatshirt adorned with quotes from Maya Angelou. Jackson is also wearing pants and sitting next to a man who isn't her husband, something she couldn't have done before Reynolds came to Emmanuel.

"I know, I know," Davis says, brushing the book off and returning it to the lectern. "And I'm not going to tear the pages out. Though if it was my Bible, I would." [page]

Davis's point is that the Bible is a tool, not a literal guide, that it's been manipulated by men -- white men, specifically -- to justify oppression. As a gay man, he says, he's felt the negative impact and alienation of those who use the book to justify hate -- Davis calls them "baby Christians" -- and praises his own years of schooling spent cross-referencing biblical texts to arrive at the conclusion that Jesus didn't condemn gays.

"What is the Bible to you?" Davis asks a middle-aged man seated with his wife in the fourth pew.

"The Bible is the living and true word of God," the man answers, without hesitation.

"No, no it isn't," Davis says. "The Bible is a book. The Bible isn't God. If the Bible was God, then I couldn't do -- "

The book makes a loud thud as it drops.

" -- this."

An older man lets out a loud sigh. Heads shake all over the room. A young woman in the third pew passes a note to her friend: This is gonna be World War III, it says.

"I am here to tell you that I am unapologetic and unashamed to be gay, black and Christian," Davis says. "There was a time that I let a twice-divorced, remarried minister tell me I was immoral. I was challenged, depressed. But I wasn't immoral. To treat me that way was immoral."

Near the end of Davis's presentation, he asks the audience to raise their hands if they believe that homosexuality is a sin. All but a few hands go up.

"To me, yes, it is a sin," says Pastor McMillian. "But it's no more a sin than a lot of other things, like alcoholism or adultery. I think we do have to ask ourselves: What sin are we gonna accept, and what sin are we not gonna accept?"

"I think I want to be less concerned with whether homosexuality is a sin than with whether homophobia is a sin," counters Jackson.

Reynolds takes it in, his face revealing both confusion and understanding. Everyone agrees on the concept of the whosoever church -- it's the howsoever part that's tricky. There's a sense that, even at the conclusion of the Bible study, the conversation at Emmanuel is just getting started.

Reynolds calls the congregation together in a prayer circle.

"Well, we have been challenged tonight," he says, clapping his hands together and smiling plaintively. "I would like us all to remember what Brother Herndon said about feeling that he was going to be lynched in a church. You say lynched -- that's a word that's going to mean something to black people. He's telling us that we have gotten to the point where we are oppressing people -- in church."

After the prayer, people come up to shake Davis's hand, but none linger too long. There's a sense that no one's mind has been changed about anything. Leah Lynn looks shaken as she heads out the front door for the long ride home.

After the class, Reynolds goes back to his office to do what he does after most Bible studies: He puts his head in his hands and prays.

I'm not going to order lobster anymore.

Or perhaps I'll just limit myself to lobster once a year. Twice, tops.

One of the quirks of this very strange job is that every food-related luxury, every delicacy, every rare and wonderful thing is now available to me pretty much all the time. I sometimes worry that this overwhelming access to everything good and delicious in the world is ruining me -- or at the very least, blunting the edge of my enjoyment of certain foods for which rarity constitutes most of their charm. And it's not just the proliferation of black truffles or o-toro or lobster, or my wanton, sluttish (and requisite) overindulgence in them that concerns me, but the frequency with which such dainties are used badly by kitchens as awash in high-end ingredients as I am.

There was a time when people -- even serious foodies -- only got to taste truffles maybe once in their lives, and doubtless at the hands of a master who knew exactly what he was doing with them. And even today, most normal people eat lobster maybe once a year, and then only on special occasions. On not-so-special occasions over the past month, I've had lobster spring rolls, lobster corndogs and puff pastry topped with a fall of cool lobster meat -- all at restaurants that don't specialize in seafood. Last week alone, I had lobster twice -- three times, if you count (and I don't) the shrimp-and-lobster sauce from the cheap Chinese takeout place down the street from my house.

But in the future, I will eat lobster only at a place where I know the kitchen will treat it with a little respect and prepare it with some skill. Not that a lot is required, mind you. Some quick knife work, a pot of boiling water, the ability to quarter a lemon without lopping off your own fingers. The only reason cooking a lobster is tricky is that it doesn't suffer fools or inattention very well. As with an expensive steak, a slip of foie gras or a soufflé, there's only one brief moment when a lobster is perfect -- blushing a burnished ruby red and steaming, tender inside its armor. Miss that moment by just a little on either side, and the resulting mess isn't just bad, tasteless, ugly and wrong, it's an insult. It's the waste of a thing that might have been divine, which is bad enough. Worse is the fact that some diner ordered the lobster, paid serious money for it, and waited in excited anticipation of its arrival -- only to be rewarded with bitter disappointment.

That diner will eat it, of course, because it's lobster, and lobster is supposed to be special -- but that hurts. I know, because my meals at Del Mar Crab House still sting. I could have forgiven one ruined plate, maybe even one botched dinner. But never a wasted lobster.

I'd come with a gang -- five of us, feigning special-occasion jocularity and slipping unnoticed among the tourists stumbling in off Larimer Square woozy from the altitude and now getting cheap-drunk on bad house wine. The dining room was half empty, which allowed easy viewing of the stereotypical model-sailboat-and-happy-crap-trap decor and dirty walls. After five years in this spot (owner/operator Michael Rios opened his restaurant in the old home of the Mexicali Cafe in 2000, when Larimer Square was far from the serious restaurant destination it is today), Del Mar is looking a little tired. But it still has legions of fans, both out of state and here at home -- people who seem to think that eating fish in a basement in Colorado is a good idea.

We'd come looking for nothing more than a good time, which we were having when I spotted the lobster tail, mounted proudly and regally on the surf-and-turf platter, making its way across the dining room toward our table. One woman in our group had never had lobster. She wanted to taste it, did, and said that it was all she'd ever imagined it would be. Which just means that she's either a liar or she has a very bad imagination, because the lobster was overdone, leathery, dry and desiccated from its boil and broil, and final death under the heat lamp while it sat on the pass rail. I've had krab-with-a-k that had more flavor, eaten leftovers with more life.

The chef who let this calamity out of his kitchen should be flogged, the cook who prepared it sent off to abuse the fucking clam strips at a HoJo's. Better yet, the hack should go sell used Volvos and never be allowed to see the inside of a kitchen again. Not just for the lobster -- although that was certainly bad enough -- but for everything else that came after. [page]

We'd also ordered Alaskan king crab legs -- two of them for fifteen bucks, which strikes me as one hell of a markup even after watching that Discovery Channel special about the crab fishermen who are killed or crippled every year fishing for these monsters. But considering the amount of trouble people go to in order to catch them, package them up and ship them all the way to Colorado, you'd think that Del Mar's kitchen crew might take a little more care -- might keep an eye on the steamer between bong hits or brainstorming new ways to ruin potatoes -- and pull the crab legs out before the meat becomes so limp and waterlogged that it tastes like crab Jell-O.

You'd think that, but you'd be wrong.

At an earlier lunch, I'd asked for a side of crab legs to go along with my shrimp po' boy. The waitress told me she wasn't sure whether the kitchen could do a side at lunch, went to check, found out that the galley was willing, then brought me two legs pulled off the Methuselah of king crabs, a crab so old that all the other crabs in Alaska were probably glad when he was finally caught so they wouldn't have to listen to any more of his stories about how much better life as a crab was back in the old days and how all these young crabs don't know how good they have it, with their rap music and their shells hanging halfway down their asses. The meat on this great-grandfather of a crab was shriveled, yellow and chewy. It tasted like an old boot dressed in aquarium water.

I know it's difficult to tell the age of a crab when all you have are its legs, and no cook can know the quality of the meat while it's still in the shell, but I'm pretty sure any cook who's spent more than, say, fifteen minutes on the line can differentiate between a good stalk of asparagus and a bad one. So why was it that on my surf-and-turf platter, I got three nice green stalks of asparagus -- along with one a little gray around the head, one that was emaciated and wrinkled, and one that was black and so far gone that the tip had already decayed to a rotten string? I can only conclude that Del Mar's galley has so little concern for the people they're cooking for that they think it's fine to serve rotten vegetables.

Smart move, fellas. Way to keep those food costs down.

The haricots verts were another waste, all skinny and withered and boiled to death. The creamed spinach tasted like a spinach smoothie, a godawful concoction like one you'd find at some old-school health-food restaurant where the cooks still believe that diners must suffer through their meals in order to gain any benefits from the vegetables being sacrificed. The garlic mashed potatoes had been turned to wallpaper paste in the steam table. And the romano potato "gratin" was really just the same garlic mashers browned on the flat grill and served tasting inexplicably of Swiss cheese.

I don't know what island Del Mar's "Island Style Mahi Mahi" was supposed to be from, but it's obviously one where the only cooking style is to crust something in macadamia nuts and then give it a good blast with a flamethrower. True, mahi mahi is a fairly resilient fish and will take a lot of mistreatment before it becomes inedible, and this piece had stood up to its defilement like a champ. But it still wasn't a dish I'd eat again unless I was being paid to.

And no one could pay me enough to eat another bite of Del Mar's key lime pie. I pray this slice was from a pre-packaged pie that someone on staff had picked up at some secret, back-alley discount pie warehouse down by the railroad tracks on his way in to work that night, because if someone in the kitchen actually made this, I can barely imagine what sort of terrible degradations he must have committed to make it this bad. Maybe if someone were to take a plastic bag full of limes, beat them with a pitching wedge, soak the resultant mess (bag included) in an ascorbic-acid solution for a week or so, then whip it up together with sour lemon yogurt, pour it into a damp pie crust and chill it in the fish cooler for a few more days -- that would come close. But it still wouldn't explain why the whole thing had the texture of the skin that forms on top of old pudding. Or why the whipped cream was chunky. That kind of awful takes real magic. [page]

And speaking of magic, in the midst of all these terrible, lazy atrocities, every now and then the kitchen would put out something fairly good. Not great, but decent enough to imply that, if they wanted to, if they cared just a little, then Del Mar's crew might do all right. The crab-stuffed halibut -- although served with those nasty haricots verts and a stingy, loose béarnaise -- was tender, juicy and cooked just right, with the slightly greasy halibut meat acting as a nice complement to the fresh crab stuffing. While the fries that came with my shrimp po' boy were cold, limp and had obviously made at least two trips through the fryer before landing on my plate, the po' boy filling -- a creamy mix of fresh shrimp and sweet-sour pepper sauce set off with a spicy rémoulade -- was excellent, even if it did immediately soak through the bread and come tumbling out all over the table.

The wasabi mashed potatoes that came with a loin of seared ahi dressed in a restrained ginger miso were some of the best wasabi mashed potatoes I've had during my years of being forced to eat them every time a non-Asian restaurant wants to imbue a plate with a fusiony Tokyo kick. And there was also a bowl of well-handled steamed Manila clams swimming in a simple white wine and garlic broth, served with lots of lemon by a waitress who seemed bent on making sure my table had a good dinner experience despite the fact that plates kept going back half full. But she wasn't enough to stem the rising tide of horror. Nothing short of a time machine and reservations elsewhere could have done that.

So from now on, I think I'll just lay off the lobster. I've been disappointed too often, left wanting and feeling flat-out screwed by too many kitchens that have forgotten there was a time when a lobster was something special, something rare, something to be respected by a cook and savored by a diner.

At Del Mar, those days are long gone.

The last time I was at Sabor Latino, I heard a recorded pan-flute rendition of the Titanic love theme so sappy that it silenced an entire dining room -- except for the laughter. An order of arepa fell just as flat: The white-corn pancake was so nasty, thick, heavy and funked up with some indefinably awful something that it made my entire mouth taste like I'd been sucking on a wet goat.

Actually, Laura tasted the arepa first, made a face like someone had just clocked her in the back of the head with a sock full of nickels, then said, "This is terrible. You try it."

And, like an idiot, I did. Then I tried it again, to make sure it was as bad as I thought it was (and it was). But rather than raise a stink over the dish -- rather than get all puffed-up, indignant and hissy about the ruination of ethnic cuisines, as I so often do -- I calmly spit the offending morsel into my napkin and shrugged. It was bad, sure. Really, truly foul. But the arepa's baseline badness didn't come close to overwhelming the very good vibe I get every time I sit down for dinner at Sabor Latino. I wasn't going to let it ruin our night or my appetite or the plate of Colombian bandeja paisa in front of us: massive piles of my favorite black beans, rice topped with a fried egg, fat rounds of honey-sweet fried plantain, tender shreds of beef and chicharrones that weren't chicharrones at all, but one entire pork rib chicharrón-ified into a dry, crackly, floury, greasy, porkerific wonder for which the cooks here (or the people of Colombia, who probably invented it) deserve some sort of medal.

I shouldn't like Sabor Latino as much as I do. But for some irrational reason, I'm able -- compelled, even -- to shrug off any wrong this restaurant does and go on to enjoy every meal here despite the occasional musical horror or goat-flavored pancake. Sabor Latino's feel-good ambience makes it easy. The dining room is comfortably rustic, with exposed brick walls, simple tables, battered menus and wooden chairs. Tiny alcoves are set with wine bottles and plastic grapes. The booths along the walls are cozy and deep, and the atmosphere hangs somewhere in that inviting, tender middle ground between aging white-tablecloth class and neighborhood eclecticism. I step in on a Monday night, a Wednesday afternoon, late on a Friday, and the staff always seems happy to see me. They must have the memory of fruit flies, though, because no matter how recently I've dined with them, they always ask me if this is my first time. And no matter whether I say yes or no, I'm invariably treated like a guest, not a customer. If I order too much, they'll tell me. They don't flight plates, but bring them out according to their own understanding of when I might want a new taste.

By the end of the night, there's never enough room left on the table for me to put my elbows down.

History could have something to do with why I feel so comfortable here. Colombian husband-and-wife team Raoul and Maria Mirandi opened the original Sabor Latino decades ago in a tiny space on 32nd Avenue in northwest Denver, in the kind of room that could maybe seat forty people if some of them didn't mind sitting on someone else's lap. Robert Luevano and Dan and Marie Jimenez (Robert and Marie are siblings) took it over in 1991 and moved Sabor Latino into its current storefront location several blocks away in 1998. This building once held Quinn's Pharmacy and, more recently, Luigi's Tavern, a barbershop and a secondhand store. It's still broken up into three spaces -- a bar/waiting area and two dining rooms.

From what I understand, Frank Quinn's pharmacy was a well-known and well-loved neighborhood institution, and maybe the good spirits of the place are still around. After all, if a location can be cursed by repeated restaurant failures -- the ghosts of poor concepts and empty tables living for years in the floorboards and hood ducts, long after the names of all the eatery tenants have been forgotten -- then memories of a good business should be able to charm a space just as easily, hanging over the tortillas, plantains and pots of black beans in the kitchen, warming the air with happy memories and making an unfortunate arepa seem like a very small thing in the grand scheme.

But maybe it's not the building. Maybe it's the history that Robert and Marie brought to the place. They come from a longtime north Denver restaurant family, their folks having owned and operated La Nueva Poblana for almost three decades before retiring to a farm somewhere. After growing up in the business, Robert swore he was never going to get into it himself. Of course, he did -- and he and Marie soon found that they'd inherited their parents' talents. The menu, which is about one half Mexican standards and one half greatest-hits collection of Central and South American cuisines, has come together over time -- some of it inherited from the original Sabor Latino, the rest picked up piecemeal over the years. And most of it is very, very good. [page]

The restaurant does a brisk trade in baked empanadas filled with pino (a Chilean mix of chopped meat, fried onions, raisins and deep, earthy spices), in workaday fajitas, in Mexican moles and great chips served with a thin, dark salsa that tastes like tomato water and black-bean purée. The tamales are big and subtly sweet, filled with seasoned pork and steamed, wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks. The kitchen makes a caldillo de novia Chilena -- Chilean bride's soup -- that comes in a huge bowl filled with fish and shrimp and baby clams, because that's just what a new bride wants on her wedding night: clam breath. But it's a great soup, regardless, and a meal on its own.

There's Peruvian lomo saltado with french fries on the board, as well as bistec a lo pobre -- poor man's steak -- that's a diner benchmark across the Americas sur de la frontera, draping an eight-ounce rib-eye over rice and french fries, topping it with grilled onions, then topping that with a fried egg. Sabor Latino's chefs know that when someone's truly hungry, nothing takes the edge off faster than beans and rice glopped up with an egg or two. Throw a steak on top, and I am one happy boy.

The Caribbean plate isn't as authentic as what you'd find at actual Caribbean restaurants, but what it lacks in that certain punch of harsh, raw spices, it makes up for in generosity: stir-fried sirloin, bell peppers, onions, bacon, black beans, rice and plantains overflowing the edges of the plate, with a side of tortillas that turn everything into fat Caribbean burritos. More geographically confused are the crepas de pollo -- crepes filled with stewed chicken and corn, a concept apparently brought to the New World by a Frenchman with one seriously flawed sense of direction. While the basic idea sounds all right, the crepes were terrible -- swimming in a viscous, thick and crushingly heavy cheese sauce speckled with limp carrots and a couple of broccoli florets that had been steamed to death and beyond, served hot as a plateful of white lava. Taken all together, it came off like a bad chicken-and-vegetable porridge smothered in gooey cheese product. I had a few bites, pushed the plate to the side and went on to the next dish.

Sabor Latino's ceviche is among the best I've tasted since coming out west and eating Americanized ceviche anywhere it's offered. I've had it done well and I've had it done poorly; I've had it off a bar menu in a place where I was the only guy eating anything besides potato skins and jalapeño poppers. (God only knows how long that fish had been kicking around the bottom of some ill-lit lowboy cooler; I had the ambulance service on speed dial all night.) But even that ceviche didn't kill me; it simply set the low end of the spectrum of which Sabor Latino's ceviche is now at the top. This version contains no shrimp, no scallops, no octopus tentacles -- just fish, which is what ceviche is supposed to be made of. It's acid-cooked in lime juice, along with a few tomatoes and wisp-thin shavings of red onion, spiked with a little chile, some cilantro, and that's it. The kitchen wisely stops short of adding cayenne or lemongrass or adobo or anything else that would fuck up the elemental simplicity of this perfect dish. That would be like putting bell peppers in meatloaf or wrapping a confit in cotton candy -- just wrong, wrong, wrong.

And unlike most places, Sabor Latino doesn't serve its ceviche ice-cold, a practice that may make people feel better about eating kinda-raw fish, but kills the delicate flavors and makes it taste like you're consuming fish ice cubes dipped in Lemon Pledge. Here it's served cool but not frigid -- an intentional move by the kitchen, which understands that minimalism and restraint can make for a wonderful mess of fish bits and onions.

I shouldn't like Sabor Latino as much as I do, but I do. Despite every stumble and misstep, I keep coming back and just liking it more. I brought my parents here when they were in town, and we got goofy on white-rum caipherinas and deadly, sugary mojitos that kicked like a mint-flavored mule. I recommend it to friends, and they always thank me. And I'll continue to ignore the occasional pan-flute torch song and culinary train wreck, because so much here is so much better than I ever expect. No matter how often I come into Sabor Latino, the staff always treats me like a lost cousin returned after a long absence. The kitchen always surprises me. Dinner always makes me happy. [page]

And while I'm never under any illusion that I'm going to get a perfect meal here, on its best nights, Sabor Latino isn't far off.

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