Sunday, December 30, 2007

Some treasure should stay buried…

National Treasure: Book of Secrets
1 ½ stars out of Four

Ever wonder why all the “Rocky” sequels were so lousy compared to the original? Besides the “Rocky single-handedly defeats communism” plots?

Here’s why: the first “Rocky” was an underdog story. And in order to try to recapture the magic of the original, each sequel had to find a new way to put Rocky back in the underdog position, even if he was living in a multi-million dollar mansion, driving a Ferrari, and enjoying the side effects of anabolic steroids. Of course, these efforts became more and more absurd, until suddenly you had Rocky in a street fight with a kid twenty years his junior in “Rocky V”.

Here’s my point: “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” tries to do the same thing. In the first one, you had Nicholas Cage, a career fortune hunter trying to overcome a negative family stigma and win over the pretty blond while searching for a long-lost treasure that was hidden away deep in the earth. At the end of the movie, he found the astronomically huge fortune, and rode off into the sunset with the blond to live in the fairytale mansion. (His sidekick got the Ferrari).

Now in “National Treasure II: Pretty Much the Same Exact Movie”, the folks at Disney are trying to make Rocky the underdog again. Nicholas Cage is back trying to restore the family name (an ancestor has been accused of being part of the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln), win the blond (she kicked him out of the fairy tale house for no apparent reason), and find the buried treasure (the “Book of Secrets” leads to the legendary City of Gold, which for some reason is deep underground instead of, say, in Guatemala).

It’s the exact same thing.

Of course most people won’t notice, because this movie is supposed to be a traditional brainless action popcorn movie. I’ll admit I enjoyed the first (I though of it as “DaVinci Code” for people who didn’t read), mostly because Diane Kruger (the blond) is pretty good looking, and to a degree I enjoyed the second…until I realized it was the exact same movie (subbing Ed Harris for Sean Bean) and started feeling depressed that Nicholas Cage doesn’t do stuff like “Moonstruck” and “Raising Arizona” anymore.

Bottom line? It’s a dollar movie. (Actually a dollar-fifty. I think the price at Sugarhouse went up.)

“National Treasure: Book of Secrets” is rated PG (really!) for over-the-top action, annoying one-liners from the sidekick, the distracting blond, and the funny feeling that you’ve seen the guy that plays the President before (he plays JFK in “Thirteen Days”).

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Lone Commuter of the Apocalypse

This time around I have a legitimate excuse for my recent blog drought. Aside from all the stuff that has been going on for Christmas (more on that in a moment), my new schedule at KJZZ has rearranged my writing priorities. By which I mean I don’t feel like working on my blog when I’m getting up at 2AM to make it to the station by three.

My new gig has been going well, although it has been a challenge to reinvent my writing style. Up until now I’ve primarily written for print (as opposed to money), which allows for a lot of needless complexity, random tangents and unsolicited references to "Baywatch". But when you’re writing material that is supposed to be spoken or read aloud, you really have to present things in a different way.

As Harrison Ford famously said to George Lucas on the set of "Star Wars", "You can write this ----, but you can't SAY it."

Enough of that.

I’ve also been wrapping up my last semester of teaching for the foreseeable future. I feel pretty sure that I’ll get behind the podium again (hopefully in front of a room full of students instead of a web cam), but with everything going on right now, I think it best to stand down for a while. When I think about how my teaching style has eroded and suffered this semester, I think it might do me some good to take some time off.

It reminds me of my first missionary area in Kankakee, Illinois. After six months in the farmlands, I got a little too used to my environment, and my work suffered. My gig at KJZZ is the rough equivalent of my transfer to Freeport. Only I don’t think anyone at the station is going to try to talk me into going to Lollapalooza.

In spite of my crazy schedule—we started at 5am last week, 3am this week, and I’ll be going in at 1am once the show starts to air—I’ve still managed to enjoy some of the holiday spirit. A couple of weeks back, the roommates and I threw a sweet Bad Sweater Party, which featured the first official 10:30 Conga Line. Trent Nelson won the Bad Sweater contest, mostly because he was the only guy that had the guts to wear a women's sweater. We recorded the Conga Line on tape, but I haven’t found the time to put it together for the web yet. File that one under “coming whenever Josh gets around to it”.

Then last weekend I resurrected (ripped off) a tradition my Logan roommates had up at Utah State: The Christmas Date. A bunch of us got dates, had a festive time at Red Iguana, took a fake Temple Square tour, and had a White Elephant party back at the house. I think the best part was when all twenty of us sang along with the Red Iguana mariachi duo to “Feliz Navidad” in their back room. Good times.

In media news, I have been squeezing in some DVD's where I can. I don’t think I’m going to write an official review, because I’m starting to feel dumb writing reviews of out-of-date material, but I’ve been watching the first season of “30 Rock” whenever I can get an episode in. I’ve been a fan of Tina Fey ever since “Mean Girls”, and she’s even better here. It’s also the best thing I’ve seen Alec Baldwin do in a long time.

(Speaking of which, has anybody else noticed that Baldwin’s career seems to be divided into two distinct phases? I got to know him during his “Hunt For Red October”/”Beetlejuice” phase, when he was really young, kind of innocent, and had an almost Tim Robbins kind of appeal. Then somewhere in the 90’s he turned into the Modern Baldwin: a stocky, icy Kim Basinger’s husband and political activist Alec, who doesn’t seem very approachable at all. Anyway, I love his “30 Rock” character. It’s the perfect use of his cold, husky dude voice persona.)

I do actually get a lot of ideas for new blog columns, but I’ve been a little slow on the follow-through. I may just start posting short random spots like a lot of people do on their blogs--I think that actually might be the more "true and living" use of the blog--but I'm probably too long-winded for that. At any rate, I still exist, so Merry Christmas, if I don’t post again before the big day.

If by chance you have trouble sleeping this week, and you lay awake around 2:30am, worrying about bills and relationships and local politics, think of me. I'm the guy out on I-80, quietly driving through the night toward a lonely TV station that rests aside a road named for an aviator who was lost over the Pacific Ocean.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Real life should be so good...

Dan in Real Life
Three stars out of Four

During the year I spent as movie critic for the school paper at USU, I learned one thing: it’s a lot harder to write a review of a good movie than a bad one. Luckily I had plenty of bad movies to review that year, and in those cases the challenge was to reign in the bitter disdain I felt after watching them. But when movies like “Big Fish”, “Intolerable Cruelty” and “Master and Commander” came along, I just didn’t have much to say.

“Dan in Real Life” was a great movie. I loved everything from the actors to the setting to the soundtrack to the story itself. I loved the running gags and the attention to detail that can make a funny movie into a classic movie. I loved Steve Carell’s portrayal of an everyman you can genuinely feel for, and totally forgive for his faults because you know he doesn’t have a vindictive bone in his body. I loved the fact that the film was about good people trying to do the right thing in spite of themselves.

Very simply, “Dan in Real Life” is about a widower columnist (Carell) who leaves the city with his three daughters to spend a weekend with his extended family. Along the way he meets an amazing woman (Juliette Binoche), who just happens to be his brother’s girlfriend.

I have no idea how to deal with the women I know who are my own age, yet Carell’s character has to raise two teenage daughters and a fourth grader who is wise beyond her years, all by himself. None of them see eye to eye, and these strained relationships only exacerbate the insanity he feels from having to hear the rest of his family go on and on about how great his brother’s girlfriend is. It’s a circumstance that provides a legion of genuine laughs, most of which are painful at the same time.

Through the film, I found myself placing Carell in the same category with Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler; namely that I quickly tire of their unbridled zany humor and enjoy them much more when their wit comes through the behavior of more grounded characters. Think “Man on the Moon” and “Spanglish”. I’m sure many will disagree, but that’s the point, right?

My gripes with the film are few. Even though the family is portrayed to be very blue-collar and down to earth, somehow the family patriarch and his wife maintain a mega-cabin on the Eastern seaboard, and even after thirty years in Utah, I have still never encountered a family that cycles through so many “activities” in such a short time.

Actually, my biggest gripe comes towards the end of the film when Dan breaks down and asks his daughters to forgive him for being such a lousy dad. It’s a gripe because he has nothing to apologize for. Dan may be far from perfect—after all, where else is the humor going to come from—but most kids would be lucky to have a parent that cared as much as he does.

When I walked into the theater last night, I cringed to fork over $8.25 to see this movie. When I left, I figured I’ll gladly hand over $15 in six months to buy it on DVD.

“Dan in Real Life” is rated PG-13 for some language, some vulgar/racy bits and this really unbelievable scene where the whole family does an aerobic workout in the front yard to Earth, Wind and Fire.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Sound of Silence (mostly)

I don't know if any of you actually read all of the "Professor Digs" lists and other stuff on this blog, but tonight I tried to capture one of my favorite items on the list: silent late-night snowfalls.

After a full day at my new KJZZ gig (I'm surviving), somehow I managed to force myself to grade five of the final English 1010 portfolios. When I was done I decided to run out and grab a couple of videos to reward myself, and discovered that today's early rain had become this evening's snowfall. Once I got back, I grabbed my camcorder and tried to capture the moment.

For years one of my favorite things has been to hang around outside during a late-night snowfall. I love how quiet it is, and how peaceful it can be. I used to catch those moments coming home to my parent's place and just pause in the carport, looking at the streetlamp at the end of our driveway for a while before going inside. I love going to sleep when it's raining because of the sound it makes on the roof; I love watching the snow fall in front of the streetlights because it doesn't make any sound at all.

The first time I specifically remember one of these moments was one night after my evening History of Rock and Roll class at the U. I always parked clear across campus, and so as soon as class would get out I would hustle as fast as I could, because after a long day of class and work, all I wanted to do was get home as fast as possible.

But on this night I came out, started hustling, then felt the impression to slow down. I looked around, and saw that I was pretty much the only one on campus, in the middle of this beautiful snowfall. The whole campus--the buildings, the hills, the sidewalks, the little statues--everything was covered in this peaceful layer of white, and the snowflakes fell and reflected the light from the lamps in this amazing serene way. So I paused there for a moment and took it all in, then started back on my way, a lot more slowly than before.

I'm a lot better at writing comedy than expressing sentimentality, but that walk across campus back to my car was one of the few bright spots on a pretty miserable school year. My classes were killing me, I'd had a falling out with one of my best friends, and only a month earlier I'd totaled my '64 Mustang and nearly killed another human being. But for ten minutes, I got to enjoy a little peace.

I didn't bother to edit any of this footage; I just posted it as is, because I want to catch the feel I'm trying to describe as much as possible. I don't know if it worked or not--you can kind of hear the camera noise, so it's not totally quiet. (You can also see where I almost fall off my porch).

Anyhow, enjoy. Looks like Christmas is almost here.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Salt Lake State of Mind

The majority of my musical education came through the speakers of my family’s maroon 1983 Honda Accord. Most of the time the tape deck played an assortment of early 60’s Motown or Simon and Garfunkel, with the occasional saunter into Jim Croce territory.

One of my favorite tapes was this album my mom picked up for my dad one year, a copy of Billy Joel’s “The Stranger”. Since the album was less than a decade old, it qualified as one of the few contemporary selections on the family menu (the others being Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” or the Pointer Sister’s “Break Out”). Some of my favorite childhood moments were sitting in the back of the family car in the middle of late night drives with the dashboard lit up in green as “Movin’ Out” or “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” played out from behind my seat.

Last week the whole family got to catch Billy down at Energy Solutions Arena, letting me cross another name off my list of “Musicians I want to see in concert before they die/get deported/get abducted by aliens”. In the last several years, I’ve crossed Simon and Garfunkel, James Brown, and Ray Charles off that list (among others), but I never thought I’d get to scratch Joel since he’d supposedly retired from touring two years ago.

Then again, maybe he did retire. When Long Island’s favorite son took the stage Thursday night, he opened with a few obligatory self-depreciating remarks about his aging, balding frame.

“I’m actually Billy’s dad”, he laughed.

If so, Billy’s dad still has some mad chops on the keyboard. Once he transitioned from an impromptu “Jingle Bells” into “My Way”, I knew it was going to be a good night. I had heard he’d been using the tour to play some of his older, more obscure tracks, but he still gave the crowd plenty of favorites. For most of the night he mined his early catalog, which worked out great for me, since he wound up playing over half of the “Stranger” album, including the “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” encore. He also played “Movin’ Out”, “She’s Always a Woman”, and “Only the Good Die Young”. Best of all, he whipped out the underrated classic “Vienna”, which sounds like it was written for me personally if you listen to the lyrics.

But as much fun as it was to finally see The Piano Man in action live, the highlight of the evening may have come from one of his roadies. About halfway through the set Billy announced that his next song would feature a member of the road crew, a longtime roadie named “Chainsaw”. With that, the band kicked back into gear, and for the next five minutes a short heavy-set guy in shorts, a T-shirt and military boots stalked back and forth across the stage while sneering at the audience and screaming the lyrics to AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”.

More of the good old hits followed, like “New York State of Mind”, “You May Be Right” and “Don’t Ask Me Why”, as well as his newer hits like “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “River of Dreams”. I was happy to have him play “It’s Only Rock and Roll To Me” as well. Most of all it was just great to have the whole family there to see it. As much as they influenced my love of music all these years, they have only been along to see a few of the acts in the flesh.

After a full night of great hits and little Christmas carol ditties, Billy capped things off with “Piano Man”, and even let the crowd sing the chorus on their own before waving goodbye and finishing with a bit of trademark New York advice: “Don’t take any s--- from anybody.”

Billy sure didn’t that night. And he didn’t give any either.