Sunday, June 30, 2013

Quick Hits at the Halfway Mark

As of today we are halfway through 2013, and with this post, I am halfway to my goal of posting once a week throughout 2013. Given the sentiment of my friend's post outlining the decline of the Blog Era, it may not be the most critical of goals, but it has been good for keeping my writing skills in practice. Anyway, in spite of my frequent posting, I still haven't written about a handful of significant events from the past six months. Given the tag line of this blog, that's kind of strange. So here are a few quick updates in summary:

Working on KJZZ Movie Show

Back in January, on the heels of attending my first Sundance Film Festival (an event I did blog about), I started making weekly appearances on the opening segment of the KJZZ Movie Show. It has been a lot of fun working with my old KJZZ Cafe boss Dean again, as well as getting to know my co-stars(?) Steve and Melanie. Whereas before I was screening maybe one movie a month or so, I'm now seeing at least 1-2 a week, and am starting to recognize the other critics at press screenings. Here's a lovely picture of Dean trying to buff the highly-reflective gleam off the top of my head before a recent taping:

Uncle 2.0

The family got the official word back in December, but it wasn't until spring that my sister went public with the news that I would be getting a second niece in August of this year. Uncle 1.0 has been a blast...I can only imagine that Uncle 2.0 is going to become even better. (Incidentally, a heartfelt post on the joys of being an uncle is one of those unfinished projects I mentioned a few months back. By the time I actually get it posted, my niece will probably be a college graduate.)

Signed up for Netflix

Thanks to a one-month free trial and the lure of 15 brand-new episodes of "Arrested Development," I finally caved in and picked up a subscription to Netflix. In the time since, I've also made my way through series like "Undeclared" (the short-lived follow-up to "Freaks and Geeks") and the last couple seasons of "My Name is Earl" that aired after I got distracted by the show's 3rd season missteps. (Another motivation for joining the Netflix crew? Trying to find my way out from under the thumb of Comcast's Utah monopoly.)

Return trip to Seattle

At the end of May, I made my third trip to Seattle since the summer of 2010 (and thanks to double-booking a wedding shoot for the same weekend, I almost didn't). Once again, the impetus for the journey was Cheetahman's online vendor convention. As it was our third trip, we didn't spend so much time doing touristy things, and instead tried to achieve a nice balance between resting, eating good food, and eating more good food. I took plenty of pictures, and was also able to hang out with a couple of longtime friends, including an old mission buddy I hadn't seen in more than ten years.

Paid gigs for Thunderlips

Some of the most interesting news of the past few months has been on the music scene. Back in April, the Atomic Thunderlips (the band that used to play exclusive gigs at the Legacy charter school) was recruited to participate in the Rock 'n Bowl program at Orchard Lanes in North Salt Lake. Our first gig (three 45-minute sets packed into three hours on a Friday night) went so well that the managers brought us back earlier this month. Even better, both gigs were paid, making Thunderlips my all-time most profitable band. (Next up: a kickoff set at the Relay for Life event in Salt Lake in July.)

Started dating again

I'll save the best for last. Some of you may be interested (even relieved) to know that I recently ended an extended social sabbatical and started going on real dates again. Early results suggest I still have no idea what I am doing, but I figured it was important to comment on the one aspect of my identity that is most central to the theme of this blog.

So there you go...a few random bits hastily thrown together to meet a post quota. The streak continues!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

World War Z: Second Time's the Charm

After missing the press screening earlier this week due to a schedule conflict, I wound up seeing "World War Z" twice this weekend, and I liked it a lot better the second time. Partly it is because a second viewing allows you to digest a film's nuance a little deeper, but mostly I think it was because my first screening was marred by the four teenagers on my row who insisted on talking through the entire feature.

Missing the press screening was hard, because I was more excited to see "World War Z" than any movie since "Taken 2." Seriously. "Taken 2" kind of sucked, but coming off the original, a lot of people were excited to see Liam Neeson kill pimps for another two hours. As a confessed zombie nut--I've been hosting an annual "Zombie Fest" for going on seven years now--one might understand why WWZ would tweak the same nerve.

At the same time, I approached my initial viewing with a combination of dread and hope, due to all the negative publicity that has surrounded the movie over the last several months. Concerns over the new film have fallen into two camps:

1. The movie abandons the interview format of Max Brooks's source novel, and instead opts for a traditional linear narrative using Brad Pitt as protagonist.

2. The first cut of the film was a disaster, so Pitt and co. brought in help to do an 11th hour re-write and re-shoot to salvage the project that effectively replaced the entire third act of the original movie.

Before I dig into these points, let me summarize: "World War Z" follows the events of a worldwide zombie epidemic through the eyes of an ex-UN operative named Gerry, played by Brad Pitt. Once he manages to get his family to safety in the chaos of the initial outbreak, he returns to his old employer to track the globe in the middle of the carnage, desperately searching for a solution to an outbreak of rabies that is turning everyday folks into raging, violent madmen. Effectively, WWZ could be seen as the lost footage shoehorned between the opening outbreak in "28 Days Later" and the scene where Jim wakes up in his hospital bed.

So the film follows a pretty simple, linear plot, which leads me to address that first point. If you're the kind of dedicated purist who feels obligated to hate any film that doesn't fall lock-step in line with whatever book, TV series or foreign film original that provided the source material, you'll probably hate WWZ. It's not quite as ridiculous a re-interpretation as Will Smith's "I, Robot" from a few years ago, but it's still a drastic departure.

That being said, I'm not sure a departure was a bad thing. I enjoyed the original novel, but have to admit it got a bit exhaustive at points. Translating such a serial novel directly to the screen would yield an exhaustive and tedious result. Some have suggested a TV miniseries would have been a better idea, and I'm inclined to agree.

What WWZ does instead is offer zombie fans a relatively unique perspective on the genre. In the vast majority of zombie movies, the narrative lands in the aftermath of the apocalypse, focusing on a small group of survivors trying to stay alive in a suddenly treacherous landscape. If we get to see the outbreak itself, it's usually through a quick intro or flashback, or limited to the perspective of one of those same small groups (like in the original "Night of the Living Dead"). WWZ gives us a worldwide view of the apocalypse as it is happening, in many shots using excellent CGI to give us a birds-eye view on the scope of the carnage, and frankly, providing a much more realistic and plausible perspective of how an army of the undead could overwhelm modern military resistance.

As far as the third-act issue, I'm a little split. On my first screening, I wasn't crazy about the new "fixed" finale, but I think that was because I spent most of what was meant to be a quiet and suspenseful sequence debating whether to climb two seats over and go post-apocalyptic on the 17-year-old jerk who couldn't keep his mouth shut. Seeing it again on Saturday, I liked it a lot better, even though it is still a slightly anti-climactic finish considering the scope of some of the film's earlier sequences. I don't know that it's likely, but I'm personally hoping that the DVD release includes that discarded ending, because I'm curious to see if it was really that bad.

It's very clear that the filmmakers wanted to keep WWZ in PG-13 territory. Contrary to the philosophy of most zombie films, WWZ keeps a lot of the violence just out of the shot, going for terror instead of a traditional gore-fest. So if you're the kind of zombie fan that feels like no intestines = no good, you'll be very disappointed.

But if you're not a blood and guts hound, or are just looking for a nice entry to the zombie genre, "World War Z" could be your gateway to a brave new world, and maybe even a ticket to Zombie Fest 7 this fall...just as long as you don't talk through the movies.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Car Guys

My dad and I have done a lot of stuff together. We've eaten deep-dish pizza in Chicago, seen Simon & Garfunkel in concert, and watched the Jazz battle Michael Jordan a few times, too. But when I think of signature activities for my dad and I, more often than not I think of driving cars. My dad loves cars, and so do I.

Over the years, one of our favorite father-son activities has been to go on test drives. It's actually one of the first things I remember doing with my dad. My mom and sister were out in Cleveland visiting my aunt one year, and while they were away I talked my dad into test-driving a Pontiac Trans Am. I was way too young to drive myself, but I do remember being underwhelmed by the experience. I guess I've always been more of a handling guy over a straight power guy.

I don't think the Trans Am was really his style, either. My dad has always been a bit more forward-thinking than the rest of the car buying public. He was one of the first people in Utah to have a BMW (long before driving a BMW was any kind of status symbol). When I was really little, we had a blue Saab, and later, were one of the first families to get a Honda Accord. There was also that stint with the Chevy Citation, but no one's perfect, I guess.

In the years since that first drive, we've taken out everything from a 1958 VW Bug to a '91 Lotus Elan. He was with me the first time I ever drove a BMW (a red '88 325 convertible), and when I finally drove a '93 Mazda RX-7 after lusting over them for six years ("Free Bird" was even playing on the radio when I took it on the freeway). He was with me when I stalled a Miata a half-dozen times in front of a bunch of amused car salesmen, and he was with me when I zipped a Honda S-2000 in and out of traffic on I-15 at 90mph a couple summers back.

The crazy thing is, ever since that ride in the Trans Am, I've always been the one behind the wheel. Type 1 Diabetes left my dad legally blind back in the mid-'80s, and he hasn't driven since. One afternoon after a dangerous close call, he came home, tossed my mom the keys to his brand-new Honda CRX, and told her he was done.

Ever since, I've tried to capitalize on the opportunities he lost. Never was this more apparent than when I bought a '64 1/2 Mustang while I was still in college. We'd been out looking at VW Bugs, and came across an intriguing ad from a guy up near campus. After taking it out and mulling it over, I decided to pull the trigger, and I think my dad was more excited than I was.

The Mustang was a deep maroon color, a hardtop with an early model 260 V8. To be honest, it didn't have a lot of power, but it sounded great (especially in parking garages). I bought it early in the summer, and spent the next few months cruising around Davis County with the windows down while I listened to one of the two AM radio stations that worked on the stereo.

One night late the next January, my dad and I took the Mustang into downtown Salt Lake to see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young perform at the Delta Center*. The aging hippies put on a three-hour show that pulled out all the stops, especially Neil Young, who hopped around on stage with his black Gibson slung like an assault rifle. This stood out to me because Neil is roughly the same age as my dad.  But while a Les Paul and a Marshall stack might be the best way to make Neil feel young, nothing has ever quite brought back that youthful gleam in the eye for my dad like a quick run through a manual transmission.

The night turned out to be the last triumphant ride of the Mustang, since two nights later I totaled it when I hit a patch of black ice on the freeway and hit the center median at 70mph. In the aftermath of the crash, I felt like I had let down a whole community of classic car enthusiasts, but I never got that vibe from my dad. He and I have always shared a healthy appreciation for material things, but he always taught me that material is all they were.

I keep telling myself that one of these times I'm just going to drive him out onto the salt flats, hand him the car keys, and tell him to go crazy. I almost did it one time, but when we pulled off the main road, the flats were too muddy and we almost got stuck. Maybe some other time, though. I know it would make for a better Father's Day gift than that tie I picked up this year.

Happy Father's Day, Dad...


*Lifelong regret #217: Deciding not to buy the $4 "Teach Your Children" condom from the souvenir booth at the CSN&Y concert.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

The Power of an Icebreaker

In the years since my debacle of a first date at Viewmont High School's annual Christmas Dance, I have been on hundreds of dates with hundreds of girls, but every time I feel like I have something figured out (always open your date's door, never use the word "groin" in mixed company), my next excursion nullifies it. Sometimes dating feels like flunking the same college class year after year, only your professor never actually tells you why you haven't passed.

And yet, there are a few dating tips I feel assured of. One is that you should always cheat when you play pool.

Years ago, before he was married, The Cheetahman and I went on a double date. My date was a Hungarian girl named Alex, who I'd met at my singles ward. Cheetahman's date was a girl named Wanda*, also from our singles ward, who was an avid beach volleyball player. Wanda** also liked ribs. She demonstrated this early in the evening at Tony Roma's by finishing an entire rack of baby backs less than five minutes after they hit our table.

I'm sure there are hordes of men who'd go weak at the knees when confronted by such an awesome display of rib-conquering appetite, but The Cheetahman wasn't one of them...especially when he was footing the bill. Truth is, his presence that evening was more an exercise in accommodation than romantic courtship.

At any rate, by the time the rest of us finished our meal and drove up to the University of Utah campus to shoot a few games of pool at the student union, an odd tone had been established.

Vulgar Display of Rib-Consuming Power + First Date Awkwardness = Odd Tone.

I think that's why about halfway through our second game of two-on-two, I got bored and started cheating. Whenever the girls weren't paying attention, I started pulling out the balls they'd already knocked in and placing them back on the table. Since Cheetahman and I were shooting like crap anyway, our new advantage didn't become immediately obvious. In fact, once he caught on to my plan, we both carried on the exercise for a full ten minutes before our dates realized what we were doing.

When they did finally catch us, something incredible happened. We laughed, our dates pretended to be offended, then they laughed too. The awkward date tension was broken. Everyone relaxed, and the rest of the evening was a lot of fun. On the way home, Wanda*** confessed her love to Cheetahman, and he rejected it and married Alex instead. (About six months later...not that same night).

Vulgar Display of Rib-Consuming Power + First Date Awkwardness + Cheating at Pool = Marriage.

As easy as it is to apply the value of a tension-breaker to dating, I'm going to suggest that the lesson applies elsewhere in life. And I'm not just thinking about board meetings or sports teams, either.

(prepare for profound philosophical/spiritual transition...)

One of the toughest challenges in life, particularly as a Mormon, is understanding the balance of responsibility between yourself and the Lord. We're all required to take initiative, whether it has to do with dating, career, buying leather pants, or most any major life decision, but all the initiative in the world still takes a backseat to the Lord's Timing. This frequently results in an uncomfortable tension and anxiety that leaves a person wondering whether their failure to find a job/spouse/etc. is the result of them doing something wrong, or merely The Lord's Will.

At times like those, I really appreciate those little icebreakers.


*Not her real name.
**Again, not her real name. But a name you could associate with a woman who was really into ribs.
***Jamie Lee Curtis once played a woman named Wanda.****
****Jamie Lee Curtis was not Cheetahman's date.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Five Closed Restaurants...Five Gaping Holes in My Life

Last week I spent a few days in Seattle with The Cheetahman eating great food, taking some pictures, and catching up with a few old friends. Along the way one afternoon, while deliberating the location of our evening meal, a little burger joint back in Bountiful named Carmack's came up, because there's really no way to have a conversation about food without thinking of some of the great food that has been lost to history.

In an attempt to respect that history, I have produced the following list of favorite restaurants I have lost over the years. In an attempt to be constructive instead of merely complaining, I have also included suggestions for the restaurants that have filled these gaping culinary holes in my heart.

1. Bob's Deli, North Salt Lake

The first time I ever had beef jerky I was twenty minutes removed from a youth soccer game when I was six years old. My friend Steve and I were getting a ride home from his dad, and on the way we swung by Bob Kellersburger's warehouse so he could pick up some steaks. Steve's dad got us some jerky for our trouble. Years later I became such a fan that my mother sent me bi-monthly shipments of Bob's X-Spice jerky for the entirety of my LDS mission to Chicago. Then Bob retired, and Kellersburger's is now an Atlantis Burger.

The Replacement: I've never found a spot-on substitute for Bob's X-Spice, but a friend referred me to Thompsons' Smokehouse outside of Tooele for some good homemade jerky. It's definitely in the ballpark, and hey, any excuse to drive to Tooele, right?

2. Carmack's, Bountiful

Longtime Bountiful residents almost universally hold up Carmack's as the Greatest of the Local Burger Joints, and universally mourn the day the original spot went up in flames back in the 1990s. My only regret is that I didn't enjoy it more when it was around, as I spent most of my youth fixated on generic McDonald's hamburgers instead of appreciating the classic burgers that sprang from Carmack's ancient equipment. A few years after the original burned down, the owners attempted to open a new restaurant off of 5th South, but it wasn't the same, and died a pretty quick death.

The Replacement: Maddox Drive-In, Brigham City (Admittedly a stretch, since Maddox is no one's second banana).

3. R&B's, West Yellowstone, Montana

As a kid, R&B's was noted as the best burger joint in West Yellowstone (at least to my family), and was a traditional stop whenever we'd make our yearly pilgrimage to my grandparents' place in Island Park. Sometime in my teens the place went out of business, and now the building is entirely vacant.

The Replacement: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. There is not a single place I look forward to eating at when I go to Island Park in the summer. If anyone out there in the interwebs has any suggestions, I am EAGER to be proven wrong.

4. Eat-a-Burger, Bountiful/Salt Lake City

As a teenager, Eat-a-Burger had great hamburgers and even better spicy fries. Its locations were shaped like old '50s-style diners, complete with barstools and chrome-lined booths. Over the years they went out of business one at a time...first my go-to spot in Bountiful off 5th South, then eventually the last spot I knew of in Holladay off Highland Drive just a few years ago. I don't know how many times I ate at one of their locations, but the time I remember best was meeting up at the Bountiful spot with my friend Noel shortly after I thought I had been stood up for a date.*

The Replacement: I still miss Eat-a-Burger's hamburgers, and the old juke box that my buddy Brian and I used to play "House of the Rising Sun" on, but the cajun fries at Five Guys are a dead ringer for the spicy fries. And the burgers at Salt City Burger are fantastic. Still feels like swapping a dollar for four quarters, though.

5. Manuel's, Salt Lake City

The photo banner at the top of this blog includes an image of my dad holding a proud infant in a sombrero. That's me. We were at a small Mexican restaurant in Salt Lake called Manuel's that was one of my family's favorite lunch spots for years until it closed its doors well into my twenties. I won't kid around: it was about as authentic as a late '70s Bee Gees drumbeat, but I am as fond of Manuel's as I am of any of the ghosts on this list.

The Replacement: The Red Iguana, obviously.


*A story that may deserve its own post.