1.01.2018

Knee-jerk review: "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle"

1. Far smarter and more clever than we had any reason to expect.  
2. It's the best kind of sequel: the one that's similar enough to the original to offer some level of comfort (i.e. innocuous game actually creates genuine peril to its players and creates a hostage situation - finish the game or else), yet innovative enough to offer something entirely new (i.e. rather than game elements invading the real world as they did in 1995 original, here our heroes are sucked into the fictional game world). As they say in Hollywood, it's the same but different.
3. The script crackles with humor and some nice Breakfast Club-style moments of awkward teenagers learning to connect and be better people.
4. But the movie also delivers a textbook string of big, fun action set pieces that parallels the escalating levels in a video game.
5. The cast is top-notch, with extra credit to Jack Black. He probably gets the most mileage out of his part as a vain teen girl stuck in a 40-year-old man's pudgy body.  But Kevin Hart also does his usual foul-mouthed exasperated shtick, which is a lot of fun if you like his shtick. And we do.
6. We remember well rolling our eyes when Universal Pictures foisted The Scorpion King on moviegoers way back in 2002.  We had zero interest in seeing that spin-off of the Brendan Fraser Mummy franchise or witnessing first-hand the studio's seemingly misguided attempt to turn The Rock into a movie star whether we wanted him or not.  Boy we were wrong.  The Rock, now sensibly known as Dwayne Johnson, sure seems to be the real deal.  He's often one of the best things in his movies.
7. Sly Easter egg reference to the original movie and Robin Williams' character.
8. Strong, satisfying ending. Thank you, Colin Hanks.
9. We wouldn't want to hear those distant jungle drums either.
10. As a parent accompanying two Little Fries - a five-year-old and an eight-year-old - we didn't appreciate the erection joke.  We laughed, yes.  But we didn't like it.  Yeah yeah, we know the movie was rated PG-13.
11. Way better than we thought it would be. Fun and exuberant.

Knee-jerk review: "The Greatest Showman"

1. This big, sweeping musical often plays like a spinoff of Baz Luhrmann's 2001 masterpiece Moulin Rogue in the way it blends lush period art design with a slick contemporary look and modern-sounding songs.
2. It also remakes the sleazy scoundrel PT Barnum into a heroic entrepreneur, which can get a little uncomfortable if you stop to think about it.
3. To the filmmakers' credit, they do give Barnum a pretty significant flaw: a selfish desire to gain the approval of old money society at any cost, even if it means straining his marriage, risking all of his money, or even turning his back on friends and colleagues.  So we suppose it's not a complete hagiography.
4. We do wonder why the movie got made.  Exactly whose passion project was this?  Who was determined to make a musical about Barnum? 
5. Rebecca Ferguson has our attention now.  Striking.
6. In addition to being a musical, the movie also gives a big role to Barnum's freak show "oddities." The bearded lady has a solo, people.
7. So, all in all, it's a pretty weird movie.  Not to say we didn't find it entertaining and rousing. It's just... odd.  Note also that the TV spots make no mention of the songs or the oddities.  It's like they knew better than to show the "real" movie.
8. There's no denying the considerable charisma of star Hugh Jackman.
9. But the movie's two best scenes feature song-and-dance bits with Zac Efron (a fun two-handed number with Jackman and Efron at a bar, then a grandly choreographed acrobat sequence with Efron's love interest Zendaya).
10. Poor Michele Williams is underused, here asked to do little more than glow winsomely.
11. Engaging despite the overall strangeness of the story.

12.18.2017

Knee-jerk review: "Star Wars: The Last Jedi"

1. It's hard to objectively evaluate a new entry in a 40-year-old movie franchise that brings with it so much Generation X nostalgia and, courtesy the horrible prequels, disappointment.
2. Rey is a bad ass.
3. It's too long by 20 minutes, but these days you can say that about just about every tent-pole franchise studio movie. We're not sure what the motivation is for the trend of stringing together multiple endings and climaxes, each one bigger than the last, other than a general desire to give the audience as much bang for their buck as is possible. So, we suppose... thank you, Hollywood?
4. It's quite surprising to see the level of vitriol and anger in the comments sections of fan sites.  The last sequel - The Force Awakens - was pilloried as a remake of A New Hope and offering nothing new, but now the new sequel - The Last Jedi - is making everyone mad for being so different.  There really is no way to please some of these weirdos.  And it's not just that they didn't like it, but this sense that somehow the movie has personally insulted them or caused mental harm.
5. We think the filmmakers are way more impressed and infatuated with the Captain Phasma character than they have any right to be.
6. Some of the humor is cheesy, we know, but at least there's laughs.  Remember how the prequels were so incredibly dour and pretentious?
7. It's hard these days to really surprise us. We've seen too many movies, read too many scripts.  It's all variations on the same formulas.  And yet this films surprised us more than once.  Even better, once a movie convinces the viewer that there's no way to predict which way things are going to go, then it really creates genuine suspense and tension.  That's where magic can happen.
8. There's a certain ragtag "Battlestar Galactica" vibe in the exhausted hopelessness of the Resistance facing a relentless, impervious enemy.  We mean that as a compliment.  This group is way more hard-scrabble than the original trilogy's Rebellion ever seemed.
9. Benico Del Toro's character needed more screen time.
10. Writer-director Rian Johnson is a filmmaker in ways that the vastly overrated JJ Abrams (who directed The Force Awakens and is sadly set to direct the next sequel) just isn't.  Plenty of beautiful cinematic moments and shots.
11. We appreciate the way the film subverts expectations and undercuts the heroes.  Here, character choices that other movies would celebrate are instead questions and criticized.  One of the themes, in fact, is that true enlightenment can only come from failure.  Wow.  That said, it's a real problem when an entire subplot is rendered completely meaningless.
12. Learning what happened between Luke Skywalker and Ben Solo was pretty satisfying.  There are two sides to every story.
13. Adam Driver gives these new sequels a real energy and edge.  Kylo Ren is powerful yet conflicted and immature.  It's a great character.  And he shares a real chemistry with Daisy Ridley's Rey.  Their scenes together are the best in the movie.
14. We predict a Poe/Rey romance in the next movie.  You read it here first.
15. Laura Dern's character makes a huge decision that creates one of the more indelible, breathtaking visuals in the whole franchise.  We've never seen anything like it.
16. It's just impossible for big Hollywood movies to get away from explosions, isn't it?  Every ending has to be packed full of things on fire or about to be on fire.  Tiresome.
17. We're completely okay with the reveal of Rey's parents.  It works nicely.  We hope the next movie doesn't double-back and change it.
18. May the Force be with you.
19. The opening sequence has a very World War II vibe to it, what with the bombers and all.
20. Few moments in a movie theater can deliver the chills quite like that first trumpet blast as the yellow Star Wars logo appears on the starfield.  Just as effective as it was in 1977.
21. They split the lightsaber in two, people.  Get it?  Equally matched adversaries.
22. Yes, we liked it very much.  Is it perfect?  No.  Is it entertaining and exciting?  Absolutely.

Here's our updated power rankings of Star Wars films for those who are into that sort of thing:
1. The Empire Strikes Back, obviously
2. Star Wars
3. The strangely underrated Rogue One
4. The Last Jedi
5. Return of the Jedi
6. The Force Awakens
7. Revenge of the Sith
8. Attack of the Clones
9. The Phantom Menace, obviously


11.02.2017

Halloween candy haul, 2017

Collected on Tuesday evening, October 31, 2017 in a orange plastic jack-o-lantern bucket by the character Mal (from Disney's The Descendants)

20 Hershey's chocolate bars - the big winner
14 assorted lollipops
13 Snickers - seems disproportionately over-represented
10 Kit Kat packets (two Kit Kats per packet) - "break us off a piece of that Kit Kat bar"
12 Reese's peanut butter cups - classic
9 Laffy Taffy
7 generic gumballs 
6 Starburst packets (multiple candies per packet)
6 Tootsie Fruit Rolls
4 assorted Jolly Rancher products
4 Nerd boxes - huge when we were in middle school
4 Tootsie Rolls - way overrated as a candy
4 Twix packets (two Twix per packet)
4 Whoppers - somewhat underrated as a candy
3 M & M packets (multiple candies per packet) - the flipside of the Snickers; seems disproportionately under-represented
3 Milk Dud boxes
3 Sweet Tarts - so gross
3 Three Musketeers - a rather strange name for a candy bar, don't you think?
3 Twizzler packet (two Twizzler per packet) - really not even candy, more like flavored rubber
2 Bottle Caps 
2 Milky Ways
2 Reese's Pieces
2 Skittles packets (multiple candies per packet) - "taste the rainbow"
1 Crunch Bar - really, just one?
1 Heath Bar - ditto; we suspect grown-up candy embezzlement
1 Mike and Ike
1 Now and Later candy (not a pack, just the one wrapped candy piece) - the saddest of the entire collection
1 Sugar Baby packet (multiple candies per packet) - old school
1 Trolli packet

10.14.2017

"Love Those Lincolns, Man."

We wish it weren't so, but the recent Lincoln car campaign featuring Matthew McConaughey has completely transfixed us.  One commercial in particular offers that perfect blend of slick imagery, decadent mood, and dreamy music (by Amon Tobin).  When it pops up as we do a DVR-fast-forward we always stop and soak it in.

It's called "The Feeling: Night Out" (directed by none other than indie film legend Gus Van Sant) and shows McConaughey going through his evening ritual getting ready for a night on the town.  We understand what agency Hudson Rouge is doing here.  McConaughey's surrounded by plush affluence - the camel hair shaving brush, the walk-in closet full of pressed suits and shirts and neatly folded towels, the expensive watch - and also owns a Lincoln, ergo the Lincoln is the car of the wealthy and influential.

Knowing that doesn't make it any less effective.  Rarely do guilty pleasures extend to a 30-second spot.  It's a fully-realized fantasy world... one we want to be a part of.

Bonus points to that moment in the car when McConaughey reaches to push the ignition button, then gives that one brief hesitation, savoring the quiet before he revs his engine, gives that sly self-satisfied McConaughey smirk, and takes off on some grand Malibu adventure surely featuring champagne and caviar.

Plus the car shines the logo onto the pavement!

Does the Future Use Helvetica?

Author Dave Addey may just well be a genius.  His fascinating blog "Typeset of the Future" dives deep into the fonts and graphics used by science fiction films.  The level of obsessive analysis and attention to detail are nothing short of amazing.

So far, he's examined Moon, Alien, Blade Runner, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.  His blog reports that next year he'll be publishing a book with even more analyses.

As but one example of his OCD focus on the minutiae of film, Addey created a video to try and understand the resolution and enlargement numbers in the famous sequence in Blade Runner in which Harrison Ford uses a machine in his apartment to zoom in on a photograph to look for clues.


10.09.2017

Mrs. Fry's Perspective on "Blade Runner"

Mrs. Cheese Fry decided to screen the 1982 classic Blade Runner in anticipation of watching the new sequel.  It was the first time she'd seen it.  Mrs. Fry delivered the expected dose of skeptical shrugs and eye rolls.

Here are some samples of her commentary.

"I don't know if I can take another hour of this narration" regarding Harrison Ford's noir-inspired voiceover.  We explained in detail the infamous history of the narration and she did a great job pretending to be interested.

"Why is it so dark?" asking about the purposefully bleak cinematography - all but one scene takes place at night - suggesting an ecological disaster.

"We're not going to see him naked even though we saw that other woman show everything" stating in a nutshell Hollywood's longtime aversion to male nudity. For the record, Harrison Ford did take his shirt all the way off moments after this criticism was leveled.  But he definitely didn't have the sort of nudity rider in his contract that costar Joanna Cassidy had in hers.

"What's with all of the old TV sets?" noticing that the filmmakers in 1981 failed to properly foresee and include flatscreen displays in their production design, opting instead for clunky, boxy CRT displays that were dated as of 1991.

"Of course she'll do what he wants - she's a robot" referring to the now-controversial moment when Harrison Ford refuses to let Sean Young leave his apartment and throws her against the wall for a forced kiss.  Replicants still have free will, we explained, which is one of the reasons why Blade Runners have jobs.

"So... where'd they get all of that blood?" asking about the bloody deaths of Replicants, not yet getting that Replicants aren't mechanical, but altered biological lifeforms.  Again, she feigned interest but mostly got annoyed that we kept pausing the movie for a geeked-out discussion of the minutiae of Replicants and Blade Runners and director Ridley Scott's rainy, neon-soaked vision of 2019 Los Angeles.

"Where the heck's that Gaff guy during all of this?" referencing the climactic fight between Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer and wondering why Ford didn't have backup.  Gaff's the Edward James Olmos character - a Blade Runner rival - who appears in three short scenes total.  It's not like they're Glover and Gibson in the Lethal Weapon movies, you know?

But did she like the movie?  "I could have not seen it."

10.04.2017

Knee-jerk catch-up: "Split" and "Logan" and "Captain Underpants" and "Wonder Woman" and "War for the Planet of the Apes"

Once upon a time, the Cheese Fry meticulously posted "Knee Jerk" reviews to each and every film we saw in a theater.  As the Fry family grew and extra-curriculum responsibilities expanded, that level of commitment became harder and harder to maintain.

We want to turn over a new leaf.  Whether that's actually possible remains to be seen.  But we would like to at least play catch-up on the movies we saw in 2017 that lacked a "Knee Jerk" review.

Split is far more entertaining and satisfying than it has any right to be. We've all seen this sort of thing before: the sociopath kidnaps pretty girls and locks them up, forcing them to dig deep and plot their escape, yadda yadda.  But the villain has multiple personalities, only a few of which are the "real" kidnappers. This is surely not medically accurate, but it gives the female victims a chance to work the other personalities to get out.  More importantly, writer-director M Night Shyamalan gets us out of the basement with a whole other subplot that shows the kidnapper out in the real world interacting with his kindly, if slow-to-catch-on, therapist.  A home run movie, even before the clever tag that links it to Shyamalan's 2000 film Unbreakable.

Logan stands out in a marketplace completely crowded with loud, noisy, cookie-cutter superhero movies. We used to loved superheroes, but Hollywood has just about worn us out. The Wolverine character - and Hugh Jackman's clenched-teeth, bad-boy-with-maybe-a-heart-of-gold performance - was always one of the best things about the X-Men movies. This sequel - looking ahead to Wolverine's last days in a bleak, dead-end future - can only be described as feral. It's a gritty, ferocious R-rated cry of pain (and splattering of blood) as Wolverine begrudgingly decides to be a hero one last time. For those who always wanted to know how deadly those claws could be.

Captain Underpants is no Pixar classic, which one might surmise from the title. The film's got a fun and distinctive cartoon style, sure, but it's a mostly manic and silly story about a mean vice principal who thinks he's a superhero. Or something like that. The movie lurches and careens forward with a palpable desperation to be exciting! and fun! and hilarious! Without question, the unending string of bathroom gags means it's squarely aimed at young boys. We actually dozed off halfway through it.  Probably not a pull quote the studio would want to use.

Wonder Woman is a joy. Many of the familiar superhero origin tropes are there, but there's no way to shake the feeling that this is a movie directed by a woman. It just feels... different somehow. The World War I setting certainly helps in the way casual chauvinism of that era underscores how far women still have to go in 2017, as does the matter-of-fact way Wonder Woman is presented. She's attractive but the camera doesn't leer and linger. She's more a symbol of strength and goodness (if only the Superman of 2013's uneven Man of Steel had taken that approach) than sex appeal.  The winning, charismatic performance by Gal Gadot is how a movie star is born. Yes, the ending is way over the top and goes on way too long. But of the movies on this list, it's our favorite by far.

War for the Planet of the Apes is the first Apes movie that we paid to see in theaters.  The first two we watched at home.  We picked poorly.  The first two are vastly underrated films, surprisingly effective thrillers that offer layered and thoughtful commentary on freedom and prejudice and warfare. And while this sequel is certainly a technical masterpiece - it's simply amazing to imagine that these creatures live only inside a computer server - it's ultimately a big disappointment  What begins as a fun sort of primate take on a traditional Western (small group of apes travel rocky plains looking for revenge) soon turns into a dour POW movie as the apes suffer under the heel of warden Woody Harrelson (always love him). If that's not bad enough, the apes' climactic escape involves a most unsatisfying deus ex machina rescue.  Sigh.

Seven overused phrases from "Big Brother"

We came late to the "Big Brother" guilty-pleasure party.  Our first season was Season 15 (summer of 2013) when the ultimate do-nothing floater Andy Herren won.  But even in this short amount of time, we've grown quite weary of the in-game lingo that the houseguests lean on so often. We suspect they just want to give the whole ridiculous thing a more serious, strategic vibe.

1. "My game" (e.g. "I need to do what's good for my game")
2. (tie) "Flip the house"
2. (tie) "The other side of the house"
4. "Blood on my hands"
5. "My ride or die"
6. "Comp" (short for "competition" which is just obnoxious - what, you don't want to say those other three syllables?)
7. "Showmance"

Honorable mention goes to host Julie Chen's ubiquitous "but first" phrases used during every live episode.

We've also started noticing a new one.  It's not yet ready to crack the list, but we have our eye on it. "Jury management."

8.21.2017

Knee-jerk review: "Dunkirk"

1. There is a certain sort of moviegoer who loves writer-director Christopher Nolan and believes every one of his films is a classic and that he can do no wrong.  We are not one of those moviergoers.
2. Nolan has a grand sense of scale and an undeniable flair, but his movies too often feel overcooked. The plotting is usually a little too clever for its own good. Consider 2008's near-classic The Dark Knight which crammed two movies into one or 2010's ridiculously labyrinthian Inception with its nesting storylines and "look at me, I'm an auteur!" spinning-top ambiguous ending.
3. His best movie remains the strange indie drama Memento (2000). If you haven't seen it, go now. The backwards plot is self-consciously arty, but the film is small enough to make it work.
4. Kenneth Branagh is in the movie doing that regal-but-shrewd Kenneth Branagh thing. 
5. We admire the decision in Dunkirk to mostly avoid providing backstories and arcs to the characters. There's definitely an urgent "you are there" vibe to the action.
6. But there's a reason 100+ years of cinema perfected a dramatic model in which plots hang on three-dimensional characters that inspire empathy and face conflicts that lead to personal growth: it's satisfying to the audience.
7. We wish the filmmakers had focused more on the RAF Spitfire airplane portion of the story.  The dogfight sequences are thrilling and, unlike the familiar infantry-under-fire plot or the tired business with the sinking ships and flooding compartments, feel completely fresh.  We haven't seen that before.  Exciting and dynamic.
8. For those who care about that sort of thing, One Direction singer Harry Styles indeed does have a fairly large part.  He does a decent job.
9. Some have inexplicably called this one of the greatest war films every made.  Pump the brakes, people.  
10. Looks good, but not filling.

2.01.2017

Knee-jerk review: "La La Land"

1. They had us when the Cinemascope logo faded in and the image stretched sideways into a glorious wide aspect ratio.
2. Emma Stone may look like the bored barista at your corner Starbucks, but she's got the goods.  In some close-ups, you can practically see what she's thinking just by the way she works her eyes.
3. What you've heard is true - La La Land is a meticulously crafted love letter to the big Hollywood musicals of yore.  A lush, romantic, poignant musical the likes of which we haven't seen since 2001's Moulin Rogue.
4. We can't think of a movie that seemed to speak more directly to our unique history.  For those who move hundreds of miles to Los Angeles to pursue a crazy impossible dream to somehow forge a career in the cut-throat entertainment industry, this film is for you.  Lots of moments packed a real punch for us.  We've known lots of struggling actors, producers, directors, musicians, and writers working miserable day jobs and hoping for that big break.
5. On one hand we can't believe that actor auditions can be that awful or humiliating.  But on the other hand, we completely believe it.
6. We've never seen Rebel Without a Cause.  Shame.
7. Slambang opening - "Another Day of Sun" - with drivers stuck on a freeway overpass in a nasty hot L.A. traffic jam hopping out of their cars for a song and dance number.  Exuberant.  It's hard to top.  Bonus points that while they're dancing you can see traffic moving down below.
8. You really can increase your car key fob's range by holding it against your chin and turning your head into an antenna.
9. We wasted a good deal of brain power during the movie trying to figure out where in L.A. each shot was filmed.
10. There's always something a little aloof about Ryan Gosling, right? Or is that just us?
11. The dusk dance number "A Lovely Night" and Gosling's "City of Stars" are delightful, of course, but our favorite number by far was Stone's plaintive third act solo "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)."  
12. Never make critical comments on your way out of a theater in Los Angeles, people.  You never know who's listening.
13. Like all great movies, this one ends very strong. We don't want to spoil it here, but the last ten minutes are genuinely bittersweet, thrilling, and moving all at once.
13. It's not the best film we've ever seen.  But we can't stop thinking about it, which is a special sort of praise all its own.

12.30.2016

Knee-jerk review: "Rogue One"

1. Best Star Wars movie since 1980's The Empire Strikes Back.
2. Much of the geekdom is up in arms about the CGI recreation of the late actor Peter Cushing, resurrected here to again play Grand Moff Tarkin.  Film nerds (who do love to complain, thereby showing off their own brilliance, you see) are complaining about how horrible the animation is.  We expected some kind of horrible Polar Express-level phoniness.  But to us, the CGI looked pretty flawless.  Ms. Fry had no idea the Tarkin character wasn't played by a living actor.  A lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.
3. It's about as satisfying and big a climax as you'd want in a movie.  We love it when the heroes' plans go wrong in as many ways as possible, forcing them to frantically improvise.  James Cameron's movies (e.g. Aliens, Terminator 2, The Abyss) are the gold standard.  Rogue One aspires to that high bar.  Nothing is easy for our rebels.
4. Add tropical paradise planet Scarif to the list of awesome Star Wars planets-with-memorable-weather (see also: desert plant Tattooine, ice planet Hoth, swamp planet Degobah, volcano planet Mustafar, rainforest planet Endor).
5. A pretty genius premise, don't you think?  The whole franchise begins with the "Help us, Obi Wan" hologram from Princess Leia and the stolen Death Star plans.  Why not rewind to see how those plans got stolen?
6. Also bonus points for offering a completely logical explanation for the Death Star's exhaust port weakness.  It only took 40 years to get one.
7. Star Wars may appear to be simple black and white, good versus evil allegories, but there are always political complexities baked in (the prequel trilogy was essentially a treatise on how dictatorships arise).  One man's freedom-fighting rebellion, after all, is another man's terrorist insurgency.  It's all relative.  Fascinating here that the Rebel Alliance looks down on "extremists" like Forest Whitaker's Saw Gerrera, whose followers like to throw bombs into crowds.
8. Captain Cassian Andor.  If that's not a classic Star Wars name, we don't know what is.  We're sure by now you've seen the Star Wars Name Generator.
9. It always comes down to disabling a forcefield, doesn't it?
10. What happens to two Star Destroyers may be one of the coolest things we've ever seen.
11. If we had to find a flaw, it may be the characters.  Compared to the exuberant charisma of the characters introduced last year in The Force Awakens (Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron - another perfect Star Wars name, Kylo Ren), the new characters here are a little limp.  On one hand, it's nice that Diego Luna and Felicity Jones' characters are platonic no-nonense colleagues, but a little chemistry between them might have added another layer to their interactions.
12. Also a little vague on what turns Jones from reluctant participant to a rah-rah leader.
13. Overall, though, it's pretty fantastic, but it's also quite dark.  It's a war film.  Lots of good guys die.  Lots of innocent people die.
14. You'll love the way this movie clearly ends moments before the opening shot of 1977's Star Wars.
15. It's the Star Wars movie you've been looking for.  Move along.