Saturday, December 24, 2011

Someone Got It Right

Three Saturdays ago at Six Flags Magic Mountain, I tried the pumpkin pie I had been thinking about all day, at a table outside the Cyber Cafe in the central plaza with the glut of souvenir shops. It was the best one I had had in all the eight years I'd lived in the Santa Clarita Valley, though I don't think I'd been into pumpkin pie when we moved here. I remember many lemon meringue pies, some chocolate pies, an apple pie or two. I think I'd tried pumpkin pie when this valley began to get to me in the last four years. It's the one pie that's solid in nature, reliable, able to pull you through anything, a great comfort when you need it and even when you don't.

This particular slice had the perfect balance of pumpkin, spices and sugar. No one flavor dominated another and whoever made it knew just how much spice to put in. I vowed to e-mail Six Flags Magic Mountain and ask who had made the pie. I wanted to buy more.

I got a call this past Monday from a woman who works at Magic Mountain, possibly overseeing the food they sell there. I didn't ask. I was shocked because I didn't remember e-mailing Magic Mountain about the pie. Did I e-mail them that night, after I'd gotten home from the park? Did I e-mail them after getting home from Burbank after a day of IKEA, the Burbank Town Center Mall (and a few games of Simpsons pinball, Galaga, and a game of air hockey), and Barnes & Noble? After I thanked the woman for the information and hung up, I tried to figure it out. I honestly don't remember. I must have been really tired whenever I e-mailed them, yet I still was able to form whole words.

The woman told me that the pumpkin pie had come from Sysco. Sysco! The food distributor! Meridith was surprised when I told her where the pumpkin pie had come from, and told me she had heard something about them having test kitchens somewhere. Maybe that's true, to make sure that the products they push are of the quality they need them to be, but this pumpkin pie could not have come from a committee. This had to have come from the mind and heart of someone who had grown up with pumpkin pie, who had seen relatives make it, who saw how much nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger to put in, who had made their own as they got older and learned how they liked it and what worked best.

I doubt I'll be able to find that one person, if it even was one person who had come up with the recipe, but I've got to search. I've got to know. Even three weeks after, I still remember the taste of that pumpkin pie, and before I embark on my quest to find other great pumpkin pies in Las Vegas, along with chili-cheese and other covered fries, marinara sauce (Not the crappy, liquidy marinara sauces I've had here), and quesadillas, I want to get on the trail of this particular pumpkin pie, just to know.

Once businesses get back up and running after the start of 2012, and I'm deep into my book research again, I'll use the pumpkin pie search as an occasional break from it. There's a Los Angeles branch of Sysco with an "800" number, and I'll start there. I know it's a corporation, so it's very likely that they won't be as easily forthcoming as the woman from Six Flags was, but I've got to try. And even if nothing comes of it, that taste will be a good start for my pumpkin pie search in Las Vegas, to find one just as good or better than that one. I don't see how it's possible, but it can be there.

Day 4 of a Four-Week Pleasure Cruise

I think the last time I went to Edwards Canyon Country 10 to see a movie was in late July of 2008 for The X-Files: I Want to Believe. I'd seen many episodes (but not the entire series), and knew enough about the alien mythology and other stories featured on the show to hope for another feature film that could be as interesting and complex as what I had seen.

I didn't get that. I got a half-baked story that maybe was created just to put something on the screen, to keep people aware of the franchise, to say, "Hey, X-Philes! You say you'll do anything for the show you love so much? Pay to see this! That'll test your loyalty!" Since its theatrical release, which flopped, there have been occasional rumblings that in 2012, we'd get the alien X-Files movie we hoped for, to match the whole 2012-being-the-end-of-the-world thing. If Chris Carter is indeed working on that screenplay, I hope he's taken more time to figure it out than he did for this one, which could have been just another episode of the series. That's not why I sometimes go to the movies.

Mom, Dad and Meridith got the much better deal that day. They were seeing Mamma Mia!, and so was I when I walked into their auditorium after feeling down and disappointed from what I had just seen, a waste of Mulder and Scully. That didn't last for even two minutes. I was so thoroughly charmed by sheer playfulness that at times wasn't afraid to be silly (I don't remember which part was playing when I walked in, but Mamma Mia! is just that kind of movie where you can come in anywhere and you're immediately sucked in), that after it was over and we were outside the theater, I suggested that we buy tickets for the next showing and get right back in line. We didn't, but we did go back the next day and I bought the tickets for all of us.

We've never needed to go to Edwards Canyon Country 10 since then because any movies we'd seen were always playing at Edwards Valencia 12. It was always convenience because we were closer to that one from Saugus.

But I didn't need to pay $18.50 to see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol in IMAX at the Valencia location. And Mom wanted to see We Bought a Zoo. Valencia had these showtimes: 11 a.m. for We Bought a Zoo and 1:05 p.m. for Mission: Impossible. Canyon Country had them five minutes apart, with We Bought a Zoo starting at 12:55 p.m.

So to Canyon Country we would go, and while Mom and I were at the movies, Dad and Meridith would do whatever they wanted to do.

Once at the ticket window at the Canyon Country theater, I bought both tickets. $9.50 is far less painful than $18.50 and I had a $20 in my wallet. Both tickets came out to $19. Why have Mom pay separately?

We got our tickets, went inside, and looked at the prices for popcorn and soda and candy. Ridiculous. Theaters strive to turn a profit on the concession stand since the movie studios take most of the ticket price, but if the managers of these theaters wonder why people aren't buying popcorn and soda, this is why. $6 and $7 for different sizes of soda is not worth it, not even for the Icee-like kind they had.

I went into Mom's auditorium to make sure she was settled and had the seat she wanted, and then I went into my auditorium, full of expectations. I had been so dazzled by the trailer I saw many times online, and thought that the James Bond producers had better up their game.

My expectations were met. The gadgets used in Ghost Protocol were shown as part of the missions, never shown off. The virtual reality screen that simulated a hallway inside the Kremlin was just there, just part of the work. The black computerized adhesive gloves that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise, of course) uses to scale the world's tallest building in Dubai work for a time and then one of them craps out. Skyfall, the next Bond movie, will have a new, young Q played by Ben Whishaw, and I hope the Bond producers keep to what they did in Casino Royale in any gadgets simply being part of the job.

The biggest asset to Ghost Protocol is director Brad Bird, who started his career with the animated The Iron Giant, and then wrote and directed The Incredibles and Ratatouille at Pixar. He knows how to tell a story. He knows how to move around characters, how to give just enough to an audience to let them work it out on their own and remain engaged with what's going on. He believes an audience is intelligent enough to piece together what's happening, and I wish the rest of Hollywood would have more faith in us moviegoers like that. We're given just enough about the entire, disavowed IMF team (including Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg and Paula Patton) to get a sense of who they are, but not to be overwhelmed by their presence. They're not bigger than the screen. Tom Cruise, in fact, is far more serious than charismatic in this installment, and when he's bantering briefly with his team, it's as part of the team, not him above the team. He's done well here.

Bird and the screenwriters also know that a villain is more threatening when they aren't seen that often, yet their motives are known and worrisome. In this case, a man named Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), who believes nuclear war to have a pleasant, cleansing effect on the world in order for it to start fresh. He has Russian nuclear codes, and access to a device. The IMF team, after the Kremlin has blown up (though not by their hand, obviously), have to work alone with no backup, no further gadgets or weaponry, to stop Hendricks. Hendricks is seen a few times before the obvious climax between him and Ethan, but is mostly shadowy. That won't work for Skyfall, since Javier Bardem, one of the greatest actors in the world, is playing the villain, but I hope the Bond producers allow him to be shadowy at times, but with his motives eventually looming large.

The commercials for Ghost Protocol have been hyping the stunts on the Dubai building, and the hype is justified. There's been nothing like this in years, perhaps in a decade. It's genuinely suspenseful, starting when Ethan has to lose one of the adhesive gloves while climbing up one side of the Dubai building. It's not unusual to call out "Oh shit!" or "Holy crap!" when Ethan tries to get into the computer server room in another tower, and then has to get back out, back to where his team is.

I hope this is the movie that gives Paula Patton more roles. I liked her a lot in Swing Vote as the reporter who tries to get Bud's (Kevin Costner) full story, trying to get it through his daughter (Madeline Carroll) at one point. Her range is rapidly growing, since there's no trace of her character from that movie, and I know she's been in other movies as well besides these two, most that I haven't seen, and one (Just Wright) that I couldn't sit through because it was awful at the start. And for a career that's had 12 roles so far, co-starring with Kevin Costner and Tom Cruise is quite a major batting average.

Pixar is a potential incubator for great live-action filmmaking talent. Brad Bird has proven himself (and I hope he makes more live-action movies), but the real test will be when Andrew Stanton's John Carter is released next year, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' tale. Hollywood's still not understanding that it needs to treat audiences more intelligently, because we are. Give us entertainment that makes us glad to spend two hours at the movies, to feel that we've spent our time well. Ghost Protocol is a good start for a return of sorts to that. And something else I got out of it was seeing how Jeremy Renner was, being that he's the lead in The Bourne Legacy, which I'm excited about, even with Matt Damon not there. It'll be fascinating to see this particular universe expand through another agent that was also part of the Treadstone program. Renner's got the skills in this one, not just in action, but also in his acting. He may very well make the impact that Damon did in The Bourne Identity.

Adding to my fourth day of this four-week pleasure cruise, Mom and I met Dad and Meridith at Wienerschnitzel nearby, where I had my usual pastrami sandwich and ultimate chili cheese fries, and a cookie dough Freezee, which tastes more real than a McDonald's McFlurry. And you get more candy, or cookie dough, from it.

By the time we finished at Wienerschnitzel, it was nearing 5 p.m., so there was nothing else to do but head home, finding out that Dad had bought a turkey for us for Christmas Day (we're Jewish, but it'll be a nice change from the Chinese food cliche), which he showed us in the trunk, and finding at home that the mailman had delivered Red Dwarf: The Complete Collection and the 2005 Bleak House miniseries starring Gillian Anderson. Both went into my second DVD binder.

Tomorrow is the fifth and final day of my four-week pleasure cruise, with the first game of the NBA season at 9 a.m. here, New York Knicks (my favorite team) versus Boston Celtics (Doc Rivers, my favorite coach). I hope I'll get up early enough, preferably before the start of the game.