Friday, June 20, 2008

Buffalo Point

Last day in Utah and we went out to Antelope Island nature reserve in the Great Salt Lake. At Buffalo Point we saw a buffalo. Here's me pointing at him.

Later we saw quite a few more, and closer up too. In fact, we had to wait while they crossed the road. I counted about 300 or so in the herd we saw, but there may well have been more (600 live on the island).

Bison Crossing

Buffalo Herd

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Kung Fu Panda on IMAX

If you haven't see a trailer for this latest animation from Dreamworks, it's about a Panda who dreams of becoming as a Kung Fu master, which you've got to admit is a funny premise. Add in the vocal talents of Jack Black as Po the Panda and the film sounds like it's going to be good.

In fact, it's more than good. It's brilliant. The animation is superb, and being in a place where they have an IMAX cinema, we took the opportunity to watch it on IMAX, which made the animation even better. The characters do actually have some character, partly because of the impressive acting talent bringing them to life - Dustin Hoffman particularly stands out as the rodent-type thing who trains Po (he might be a red panda, or some kind of squirrel, I'm not sure).

I'm not going to spoil the story by explaining it for you beyond what I've already said. There's a bad guy, and an interesting moral about the 'secret ingredient' of success. But really you have to go see it.

It has been noted before, by many people, that I bear a resemblance to Jack Black. (This was especially true a couple of years ago when Shallow Hal came out). Unfortunately, it would seem the resemblance includes when Jack Black is a cartoon panda, because Cathy reckons I still looked like him. Bizarrely there was a wise old turtle character who really reminded me of my Grandad, especially when he smiled and his wrinkles all bunched up.

So, if you go see it - let me know if you think I do actually look like Po. I'd appreciate your opinion.

Jongudmund's rating: 10/10

And finally, to end this review on a note to sicken British-based readers of this blog, going to see an IMAX film in America cost us less than going to see a regular film back home...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Real Salt Lake v San Jose Earthquakes - Major League Soccer match report

I didn't know Utah had a Major League Soccer Team until I picked up a fixture list in a shop. And then I found out Real Salt Lake (twinned with Real Madrid no less!) were playing tonight. Well, you have to go, don't you.

US soccer is quite different to British soccer. For one thing the atmosphere is nicer. There were several families with very small children. I was a bit worried there would be no chanting, but there was a small "ultra'' section and everyone booed the ref when necessary. And, of course, Americans know how to do sports. There was a 'pre-match carnival' on the Olympic plaza for an hour before the game. We got a free programme, and the catering was great. There were numerous concession options on the concourse - we settled on Pizza Hut - and not a dodgy meat pie in sight.

The game began with a 'team tunnel' greeting the players, composed of about 60 kids, in addition to the 22 mascots. Leo the Lion roared onto the pitch riding a quad-trike. (At half time he came on in the scoop of a digger!) We all stood to sing the national anthem. And then the game kicked off, about 5 minutes after it was due to start.

Being honest, both these teams would be eaten alive in the football league over here. Technically the game was very good. Slick passing on an astroturf pitch, good ball control, and good positional play. However, despite the good build up play, neither team seemed to have a cutting edge in the final third. Things seemed to go to pot in shooting range, which is why the game ended up 0-0.

To be fair though, Real did score a perfectly good goal, which was then disallowed. It's the first time I've ever seen a score go up on a scoreboard, then get taken off again. This prompted the crowd to heartily boo the officials and chant "You suck, ref!" A minute later Real hit the post, further adding to the sense of injustice, and they had a couple of chances when it seemed harder to miss than score, yet they managed to. San Jose were happy to hang on for a draw, having been a man down since just before half time, but for Real this was definitely 2 points dropped, rather than 1 point gained.

On the Trax back to our hotel, we got talking to two guys who were very interested in our opinion of the game, as Brits. When they found out we were from Wales, one of them said how he'd spent a year in Blackwood, and a year in Neath - I'm guessing on a Mormon mission trip. He even put on a class Valleys accent to prove it. I told him he must have done something really bad to have been sent to Blackwood...

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Back to Salt Lake via Bryce Canyon

After a long road trip yesterday to Escalante where we drove through Zion National Park, we had another mammoth trip today returning to Salt Lake City, but first we saw the sights of Bryce Canyon. And what sights they were.

Bryce is full of 'hoodoos', naturally carved red sandstone pillars and fins, in such a quantity, they become eye-boggling. We didn't have time to hike down among them, which must be amazing, so we travelled the rim trail, stopping every so often to look down on a new vista of knobbly rocks.

A Native American legend related to Bryce Canyon has it that the spirit god Coyote turned the inhabitants to stone on account of their wickedness. The white discoverer, Bryce, a Mormon pioneer farmer described it as "a hell of a place to lose a cow". I'm happy to believe both of those stories, having seen the place.

We didn't see any coyotes, but we were chuffed to see a Utah Prairie Dog on the rim trail. He stopped and posed for photos for us, which was cool, as apparently they're quite rare. However the privileged feelings didn't last long. An hour or so later, we were eating our dinner in a tourist trap restaurant and there was one running around inside the restaurant eating fallen bits of food. There's nothing like finding out endangered animals are considered rodent pests to take the shine off seeing them in the wild.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Vegas is vaguely cool (but it's hot)

We're staying at the Stratosphere which has a 1,000 foot tower with views right down the Strip. We took a ride on the Big Shot at the top of the tower, which hurls you upwards at a rate of 4 gs. It was scary. We could have gone on rides which dangle you over the edge, but just looking down was enough for me.

The casinos here are like giant versions of seaside arcades, with zillions of slot machines. When we played them with the 'free' money the hotel gave us ($15 each!), we made some of it back, but not much. There are almost no happy people here. Everyone sits at the slots in a trance, pushing buttons.

There's more life around the craps tables, roulette and in the poker rooms, but generally this is a very sad place.

We skipped out the casino to breakfast at I-HOP, then drove into the suburbs to find a Christian bookstore and Souper Salad for lunch. The bookshop had Bible action figures in two different sizes, 'Bibleman' action figures and various other toys. I resisted the urge to buy something for me, but I did buy something for my brother. I can't say what it is though because he reads this and I don't want to ruin the surprise.

Tea was at the Earl of Sandwich, a new franchise sandwich shop in a mall on the Strip, which if it takes off will kick Subway to the kerb. I was a bad vegetarian again and had a bacon and grilled cheese sandwich.

On our way home we watched the fountain display at The Bellagio. It was like watching fireworks created from jets of water - probably the best thing we saw in the whole of Vegas. With so much tack and sleaze around, it helped me regain a bit of faith in human creativity, to produce something so beautiful from just water.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"Ah, 'tis Grand, to be sure"

2 highlights from our trip to Grand Canyon...

1) Seeing wild Californian Condors riding the thermals - from above. They're the largest birds in America with a wingspan of 9 and a half feet. From the ground they look like hang-gliders!

2) Walking behind a family of tourists from the Emerald Isle talking in a broad Irish brogue. I wanted to go up to them and get them on tape saying the canyon was "Grand" but I thought better of it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Monument Valley to Grand Canyon

Remember that scene in Back to the Future III when Marty McFly ends up in the old west? We went there today. Or, more accurately, the place where they shot the exterior scenes, and just about every John Wayne Western ever made.

So what's Monument Valley like? Towering red mesas erupt from scrubland without warning. Every few miles a small shack peopled by members of the Navajo Nation try to sell you jewellery or other trinkets. It's hot, it's awe-inspiring, it's hot, it's amazing, it's hot.

And if you know where to have lunch you can try Navajo Frybread. Imagine a yorkshire pudding crossed with a doughnut and you'll have a good idea what it tastes like.

Then we reached the Grand Canyon, which is, indeed, "grand". But the problem is it's so vast you can't really gauge the scale of the cliffs, mountains, ridges etc. You can stand there and gawp, but that's about all you can do. At Arches you could interact with the landscape - go and stand under an arch, walk round a mesa. Here all you can do is stand and say 'Yes, it's very grand...'

Monday, June 09, 2008

Petroglyphs on Potash Road

This morning we left Moab and travelled down the Potash Road to look at the seven hundred year old rock art carved into the dark coating on the cliffs. Of course, several modern day artists have carved stuff next to it too. But the original figures are still compelling and curious. One set, carved like a set of people cut out from paper made me smile.

On the way back to our car we saw a family of skunks crossing the road - a mum and three babies. We followed her at a distance and watched her safely esconce her family in the a tiny cave behind a tree.

From Moab we headed out to Natural Bridges National Park, before taking an off-road trip to Muley Point where we could look out over Monument Valley - the real wild west of mesas and scrub. After traversing a switchback road down a cliff we took another off-road diversion - this time a 20 mile trip through the Valley of the Gods.

When we arrived in our destination for the night, Bluff, there were very few places open. We ended up in a barbecue steakhouse and I sacrificed my vegetarian ethics so I could actually eat something - authentic deep south barbecue chicken. It was delicious.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


1st day proper of 'the trip' and we made it to Arches National Park just in time for sunset. We hiked to a couple of arches that have been formed naturally through erosion, saw wild jack-rabbits in among the scrub bushes between the mesas and arrived safely in Moab just after dark.

My favourite arch was 'Double Arch' which runs three ways to form a triangle of arches. Standing underneath it and looking up gave me a funny sense of vertigo. It was like looking up the tower of a cathedral or another high-ceilinged building. I'd post a picture but pictures don't really do it justice.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Irony in Minnesota

Sitting in the transit airport in Minneapolis-St.Paul, I started reading The Great Gatsby, which I've borrowed from Bryan at book group. Reading the intro I found out that F Scott Fitzgerald came from St.Paul. It was an odd coincidence.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

I bagged a bargain Boba

We went out to the out-of-town TK Maxx last night and I found a Boba Fett 12" action figure from the Original Trilogy Collection range released a couple of years ago. It comes in a box containing both the figure and reproduction packaging.

This particular figure retails on Amazon at $70 and on eBay for £20 at least. TK Maxx's price: £3.99. Yes, that's right - £3.99!

What I think probably happened was someone was pricing up the toys, asked how much the Star Wars figures were and was told 'Oh, they're all £3.99', so they priced the one 12" one at £3.99 along with all the regular size figures. I couldn't believe my luck and now it's sitting nicely, still in it's box, in my Boba collection. (It's Boba number 17 if you must know!)

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Recently viewed DVDs reviewed

Alien - the Director’s Cut
I love Alien. Not quite as much as I love Aliens, but still enough to watch the film again. But why add in a very odd scene which adds nothing to the film?

The scene in question is very near the end, when Ripley finds Dallas and Brett semi-fossilised by the alien, who presumably is saving them as a snack for later. It kind of detracts from the way Dallas disappears earlier on, and illustrates how sometimes the most haunting aspect of a horror film is leaving the audience not knowing what’s going on. An inferred sticky end is much stickier if left to the imagination.

But having said that, what exactly happens to Lambert and Parker. They’re both screaming, but you don’t really see the alien kill them. The camera focuses in on the aliens hook-claw-tail thing but we don’t see it being used; just lots of shouting.

One thing you notice is how cinema story-telling has changed. It takes 45 minutes for the crew to reach the chest-burster scene. If Alien was being filmed today, it would take about ten minutes to get there. But the beauty of Alien is the slow build. That’s where the suspense lies.

Clerks II
Ten years after the cult classic Clerks, Kevin Smith resurrects the characters who are now wasting their life in a burger bar. It’s not great cinema, although it does have its funny moments. I was put off by the over-long “inter-species erotica” scene involving a donkey, which I can’t help but feel was included just to see how far a film could push the boundaries of acceptable taste.

The sad thing is the donkey sex overshadows possibly the finest scene in modern cinema, which explores the real meaning of friendship. When Randal finally admits he is afraid of being left alone when Dante moves away, there’s an emotional rawness to it which is quite moving.

There’s also a useful dissection of contemporary culture. The Lord of the Rings movies come in for a slating, as do the Star Wars prequels. The absurdly wooden acting of Hayden Christiansen is brilliantly summed up by calling him Mannequin Skywalker. I don’t know if that’s an original Kevin Smith-ism (I suspect it’s not), but it is very funny.

Weeds Series 1 & 2
I enjoyed this up to a point, but then the scriptwriters got carried away with seeing how much ludicrous stuff they could add in. The original premise is silly enough: Mary-Louise Parker is widowed suddenly and becomes a drug dealer in order to maintain her lifestyle. Later on, she enters a marriage of convenience with a DEA agent, who she slept with before finding out he was ‘the enemy’. Like you do.

The final straw for me was about halfway through the second series when Andy finally got to bed the sexy (female) head of the Rabbinic School, who promptly strapped on a big black prosthetic penis and took him from the rear. I stopped watching after that. If I’m going to watch ridiculous nonsense, there’s other stuff I’d prefer to watch.

Word of the Week: Vanillacide

And now a new feature on From Pantperthog to Knockando - Word of the Week.


- The process by which an innovative and creative piece of work is gradually reduced to something bland and trivial.

See also: death by committee, neophobia, morons

Monday, June 02, 2008

Stay Safe: Stay Mediocre

Kev Kennedy has used some of the material from the still-unpublished Minimum Wage Hell & How to Survive It. This time he explains why you should be aiming for mediocrity.