Friday, March 28, 2014

My Breakfast: The Taco Waffle

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I can probably count on one hand the times that I've been to Taco Bell, but something about the recent ad campaign for its new line of breakfast items had a Pavlovian effect on me. I love waffles. I love when meat and waffles are combined. Taco Waffles, you say? I had to have one.

So on my way home from the gym this morning I made a detour to the drive through and ordered two Taco Waffles, one each of the bacon and sausage variety for a more scientific examination (and because I'm a big, fat, fatty).

Taste

The bacon WT was a complete fail. Sloppily arranged with a dash of bacon bits resting on a bed of lukewarm eggs and cheese, its saving grace was the copious amount of maple syrup I drizzled on top. As for the sausage, it was an improvement on its counterpart with a more complimentary blend of tastes and textures, but hardly memorable. The eggs were lifeless, the cheese was what you expect from fast food. The waffle, however, did hit that sweet spot with a tender center and crisp exterior.

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The first thing I noticed about the WT is that it's quite a bit smaller than it appears on the advertisements. You'd think I'd be used to this sort of disappointment when it comes to fast food but for some reason I still expected something along the lines of a Chalupa rather than the Why Pay More Crunchy Taco. All in all, opening the clam-shell container the WTs arrive in gives way to something that is largely unappetizing.

Price

At $1.99, the WTs are adequately priced, meaning that while I doubt I'll ever buy another one I feel I basically got what I paid for. I still like the concept of a Waffle Taco, and would love to see a local food truck roll out a more substantial $7 version at some point.

Mouth Feel

I honestly don't know how to judge mouth feel, suffice it to say that there was nothing patently objectionable about the experience of chewing and swallowing the Waffle Taco.

Portability

One thing I do have to tip my hat to is the ease with which you can eat a Waffle Taco. The contents stayed well within the confines of the Waffle shell and its size allows for one-handed eating while driving. The one sticking point would be the syrup (see what I did there?) which has the potential for spillage and one would be wise to apply with caution.

Verdict

It's a $2 waffle sandwich from Taco Bell, you know what you're getting yourself into. Barring exigent circumstances and considering how easy it is to cook waffles and sausage at home, I suggest you try your hand at a DIY version.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Photo Shoot: Once Upon a Time in the West

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A while ago my friend Erin posted on Facebook that she wanted to take trip to Zion National Park for spring break. "Spring Break" isn't really an aspect of my life any more but the prospect of a camping trip in Zion immediately piqued my interest, as it did for my friend/colleague Jordan, so we hopped on board.

As it turns out, Erin is the boy who cried vacation. She immediately bailed, leaving me and Jordan to take the trip that was her idea in the first place. This wasn't a big deal, I just know she'll be reading this and I want to take advantage of every opportunity to rub her nose in it.

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With Erin out of the way – Good Riddance! amirite? – Jordan decided he wanted to take advantage of the trip to visit a few photo-ready places around Utah and northern Arizona. We started by spending our first night in Goblin Valley – most known outside of Utah for doubling as an alien planet in Galaxy Quest and inside of Utah for recently being vandalized by Boy Scout leaders in the name of "safety."

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Goblin Valley is a bizarrely beautiful place, teeming with bulbous rock formations – or 'Hoodoos' – that contrast perfectly with the clear blue sky. I remember going there as a kid on family vacations and playing tag for hours at end. Now, as a 27-year-old, a few minutes of walking around and scampering over rocks was enough to wear me out.

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But scamper we did. Jordan got out early while the sun was setting. I slept in and did what I could with the harsh lighting.

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From Goblin Valley we headed south to Monument Valley (first picture above) where Forest Gump decided he didn't really feel like running any more. I'm a sucker for bridges, especially ones that burst out of rocky cliffs. The bright yellow sign is a little jarring, you would think the engineers would anticipate that this picture would be taken.

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Monument Valley was a first for me (I think. My parents took me all over the place when I was too young to remember). Before arriving at the actual valley we went through the Moki Dugway, a series of tight switchbacks that drop 1,000 feet over 3 miles on an unpaved road.

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That's Jordan. He doesn't like having his picture taken.

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We stayed in Monument Valley on our second night, then dipped briefly into Arizona in the morning to stop at Horseshoe Bend. I went to Dead Horse Point last year and figured it would be about the same but at Horseshoe Bend, you can walk right up to the edge, which is either a great or terrible thing depending on your attitude toward heights.

From there we made our way to Zion, which is probably the best hiking in all of Utah. We got in a little late, so the first night we just took a quick stroll up the Hidden Canyon Trial by the Weeping Rock.

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The next day's hike was not so quick. Most of our itinerary was set by Jordan but I insisted that we do Angel's Landing, which sends hikers climbing to the top of a 1,488-foot rock formation. Along the way we passed a crew from BBC America who were apparently filming a woman who was going to spend the next three days climbing up the cliff face to the top of the Landing. Multiple-day rock climbing is a whole other kind of crazy.

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Angel's Landing is the kind of trail that hiking was made for. Roughly half of the trip is straight up via switchbacks, with the other half being either a paved trail cut out of the side of the rock or a chain-assisted scramble with certain death at every side.

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It ends at an area that is roughly the size of my studio apartment. The last time I did it I was probably 11 years old and having now gone back I'm fairly certain that first trip was an elaborate scheme by my parents to get away with filicide. I mean really, who would take a child up there? "He just slipped," they would say from behind forlorn expressions, "there was nothing we could do."

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From the landing, you can almost see the whole park end-to-end. We had perfect weather, hot enough for comfort but cold enough to avoid a sweat-drenched death. The view, as always, was impeccable.

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

NBC's Hannibal: Bon Appétit

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"'Innocent' isn't a verdict, Mr. Graham, but 'Not Guilty' is."

That was the statement, uttered on the latest episode of NBC's 'Hannibal' that launched the character of Will Graham's defense attorney into a monologue about how courtroom proceedings are not law, but advertising. His job, he explained, was to convince a group of people to purchase a product they did not need, in this case a favorable verdict for an accused mass murderer and intelligent psychopath.

He then proceeded to tear open the seal of a package that had just arrived, spilling its contents – a severed, human ear – onto the table in front of him.

"I think I opened your mail," he said, calmly, unfazed.

Much has been said about the graphically violent content of NBC's Hannibal, and rightly so. The show continually pushes the known boundaries of broadcast television standards review, looking ever-more like its cable-tv competition than the bright-colored offerings of its major network peers.

To wit, episode 2 of the current season began with a man waking atop a bed of human bodies. His limbs were pressed together with wax and he was stitched through the shoulder to the corpse laying beside him. Freeing himself required tearing his flesh to first separate his legs and arms and then again to pull the stitching from his shoulder, all of which was portrayed by an unflinching camera lens that neither blinked nor wavered.

But the most interesting thing about 'Hannibal' is not the horrors that transpire on screen but the horrors that exist within the human mind. Gore is cheap, but nothing on Hannibal is done cheaply. The visuals are rich, the score is haunting and the attention to detail and scene creates an experience somewhere between dream and nightmare.

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But all of that serves as backdrop to what is one of the most finely-tuned plot-driven narratives currently on television. Every episode is in service of a larger story, perpetually advancing toward a foreshadowed and inevitable end, which trades on the expectations of crime- and court-procedural television to deliver something wholly unique.

Season two began with our hero, Will Graham, in prison accused of the murders perpetrated by our villain, Hannibal Lecter. A flash-forward tells us that by the end of the season at least Laurence Fishburne's FBI agent Jack Crawford will have made the paradigm shift on Lector's guilt.

Flash-forwards typically lead to disappointing narrative ends, but in the case of 'Hannibal' the entire series is working toward a known conclusion presented in 'Red Dragon' and 'The Silence of the Lambs'. We know where we are, we know where we're going, but how we get there is a mystery to all but showrunner Bryan Fuller and in the meantime the show keeps getting better.

Most shows have the loose outlines of their narrative objections but largely fly by the seat of their pants from episode to episode and season to season. By contrast, every minute of 'Hannibal' feels like the passing chapters of a well-constructed plan.

It is methodical, it is provocative and it is darn good television.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Fuzzy Math of Family Films

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The recent gangbusters success of "Frozen" and "The Lego Movie" has given rise to a popular argument that goes something like this:

The average G- and PG-Rated movie makes more money than the average PG-13 and R-Rated movie, but every year more R and PG-13 movies are released than G and PG-Rated movies. Therefore, Hollywood should listen to the audience and make more family friendly films.

It's a perennial talking point every time a family flick breaks 9 figures at the box office. It's also completely bogus.

Now, I'm not arguing with their numbers. The average G and PG-rated movie does in fact take in a decent haul at the box office. But averages can be tricky things and as they say, there's three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.

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Supply vs Demand

Imagine you're a grocer and one of your venders offers you a deal on Stroopwafels, a product that you don't regularly carry. It's a good deal and the things are freaking delicious, so you buy 100 units.

You stock the Stroopwafels on your shelves and they sell out within a couple of days. Intrigued, you order 1,000 units on your next product cycle but are dismayed when only 100 units sell and the remaining 9,900 units have to be hawked at a loss at checkout.

The mistake you made was assuming that with increased supply would come increased demand, when in fact your store just happened to have 100 regular shoppers that enjoy Stroopwafels.

It's a simplistic, and somewhat hyperbolic, metaphor, but it illustrates the root flaw of the Make More Cartoons argument.

It's no coincidence that The Lego Movie was released a month and a half after Frozen. Studios learned a long time ago that they could maximize profits by having a single family friendly film in theaters at any given time.

If you suddenly flooded the market with G- and PG-rated films, there would not suddenly be more movie-going families in America. Instead, you would only force those films to compete with each other for the same audience rather than serving as counter-programming to the mass audience Marquee titles that carry a more adult rating.

A deluge of family friendly films would bifurcate the audience in a manner much similar to what we're currently seeing on TV. Ten years ago, Friends drew an average of 22.8 million weekly viewers in its ninth season. Today, with original programming on the broadcast networks, cable, and streaming outlets like Amazon and Netflix, the ninth season of How I Met Your Mother draws an average 9 million viewers, which is the envy of literally everything on NBC (except The Voice).

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Box Office Does Not Equal Profit

In June of 2013, The Purge debuted with an opening weekend box office of $34 million before going on to a domestic gross of $64 million. It was heralded as a runaway success and the greenlight was immediately given for a sequel, which will be released later this year.

One month later, Pacific Rim launched to an opening weekend of $37 million on its way to a domestic tally of just over $100 million. It was lambasted as an embarrassing failure before decent worldwide sales ($411 million all told) changed the conversation to one of muted indifference.

The difference is obvious, but under the context it bears repeating. The Purge cost a measly $3 million dollars to make and paid for itself twenty-fold. I repeat twenty-fold.

Pacific Rim cost $190 million and, were it not for the growing Asian movie market, would have forced a write-down on its distributor.

Film fans know this. It's Box Office 101. But what people sometimes forget is that family friendly movies don't come cheap. The production budget on The Lego Movie was reportedly $60 million. Frozen was even higher, with a reported budget of $150 million.

Also, as a general rule of them, the cost of marketing a film is roughly half of its production budget, meaning that just to turn a profit Frozen would have to break $200 million at the box office. It's done that, with room to spare, but it illustrates why basing your argument on average box office receipts never tells the whole story.

Simply put, the most profitable genre in Hollywood is not family friendly films. It's horror films. That's why there's 7 Saw films and 5 (so far) Paranormal Activities. You can make them for a song and they turn a profit within hours of their release.

So to anyone who argues that Hollywood should "listen to the audience," be careful what you wish for. It ain't gonna be Toy Story 4 that gets the green light.

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Box Office Does Not Equal Quality

This third part of my rebuttal is more emotion-based than logic-based, but it's also why I get so irritated. I understad that parents want to take their kids to the movies (heaven knows why, but that's their prerogative) and I understand they may feel there's not a lot of options. But the implicit nature of their "Make more family friendly movies" rhetoric is one that suggests a value judgement based on a film's rating.

That line of reasoning completely disregards the artistic nature of film as a medium that educates, challenges and inspires. I love an explosion-heavy popcorn flick as much as the next late-20s bachelor, but what keeps me coming back to the movies are the stories that show me the world in a way I've never seen it before. Movies like 12 Years A Slave, or Gravity.

Do we really want a world with less Lincoln and more Croods? Fewer Before Midnights at the expense of Cars 3? No Schindler's List but another Oogieloves movie? (It should be noted, the G-rated Oogieloves movie had one of the worst opening weekends in box office history).

I suppose there are some that want to live in that world. A Tarantino- and Scorcese-less landscape peppered with Shrek derivatives. That world is my nightmare.

It's also no coincidence that all 9 of this year's Best Picture nominees are rated PG-13 and R, or that the glowing critical reception for The Lego Movie is the exception and not the rule. For the most part, family friendly content comes at the expense of story, and at the expense of quality.

I'm not a parent. I have no idea if I ever will be or what the movie-viewing rules will be in my household. But when I think about sitting down in front of the television with my son, I'd rather it be Slumdog Millionaire on the screen and not Megamind.

Oh, and if I see one more cover of "Let it Go" on my Facebook feed I'm going to start hurting people.