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.

12.28.2016

A few words about the 2016-17 TV season

"American Housewife" (ABC) makes us laugh.  It's "sitcom-my" in that it feels assembled and engineered to crank out punchlines whether the situations all feel completely plausible or not.  But when it's done this well - anchored by a manic, sideways-glancing performance by Katy Mixon - it works.

"The Big Bang Theory" (CBS) offers a textbook example of "habit-viewing" - we watch it because we've always watched it.  The completist in us needs to see it through to the end.  It's mostly enjoyable, often amusing, but rarely hilarious.  [We can say the same thing about ABC's "Modern Family" - a show that does still sometimes hit a home run, but mostly at this point coasts on past success.]

"Black-ish" (ABC) may seem at first like a 21st-century spin on "The Cosby Show."  Upper-class African-American parents try to raise their oddball kids.  But this is a show with satirical bite, an affection for the surreal, and big ambition for social change. Sharp and smart.

"Blindspot" (NBC) remains completely wack in its second season, packed full of twists and double-agents and ridiculous plot leaps and a computer tech who can literally do anything with a keyboard and a mouse and those dumb tattoos.  It's implausible in so many ways.  But we keep watching it.  [For the record, the two-twists-per-episode screeching melodrama of "Empire" (Fox) and "How to Get Away with Murder" (ABC) are equally insane but we gave up on those shows after the first season.  It was just too much.]

"Code Black" (NBC) offers a spiritual reboot of "ER."  That either excites you or it doesn't.  We didn't realize how much we missed that "ER" mix of strange medical jargon, workplace politics, guest stars looking for Emmys, and shocking medical tragedy packed as densely as possible into 50 minutes.  Plus, Luis Guzman as a worldly nurse.

"Designated Survivor" (ABC) provides a fictional president that some Americans may be desperately craving: humble, measured, thoughtful President Kirkman (Keifer Sutherland) isn't the type to blast people on Twitter at 3:00am.  The show is very well made and very compelling... but thanks to the efforts of a tireless FBI agent, who's all alone (of course) figuring out who blew up the Capitol, the audience is way way ahead of poor Kirkman and his staff.  This is creating some serious narrative frustration.  This is a show that needs to get things out in the open and kick it up a notch.

"The Good Place" (NBC) may not be the funniest show on the air, but it is without question the most creative and inventive show one the air, taking place as it does in heaven and involving a clerical error that sends there an undeserving person.  Genius all the way around.

"Superstore" (NBC) is quickly evolving into a worthy blue-collar retail companion to NBC's brilliant "The Office."  Quirky characters, workplace setting, snappy dialogue, plus those curious little B-roll vignettes.  It's fantastic.

"Survivor" (CBS) continues to deliver the goods, exploring fascinating social dynamics - you're voting people out who will ultimately decide if you deserve the prize - amid ever-changing gameplay and strategy.  The season that just wrapped was particularly strong.  Yeah, we can't believe it either.

"This Is Us" (NBC) delivers manipulative, contrived schmaltz about the everyday dramas of an extended family.  But it benefits greatly from a clever, time-shifting premise and a surprisingly strong cast.  We hate ourselves for liking it as much as we do. 

8.16.2016

Knee-jerk review: "Star Trek Beyond"

1. Okay, now this is more like it.
2. We mostly appreciated the 2009 Star Trek reboot, though looking back we may have been grading on a generous curve.  We barely tolerated 2013's trainwreck Star Trek Into Darkness.
3. Amazing what can happen when you get J.J. Abrams out of the director's chair.  Did we say that out loud?  JJ has said in interviews he grew up a Star Wars fan and it shows: The Force Awakens strikes the right Star Wars mood and shines as a labor of love, while his two Star Trek movies mistake giant spectacle to the small character work and big questions that makes Star Trek special.
4. But what is the deal with the ongoing obsession with destroying the Enterprise on film?  The Enterprise name is by now practically cursed.
5. Suggesting that the famous five-year mission might grow boring felt very fresh. Why wouldn't it be boring?  You can't run into Klingons, Tribbles, or green-skinned Orion girls on every shift.
6. We're not sure what to make of Karl Urban, the only actor who's doing a mimic job.  Yeah, his Dr. McCoy sounds just like DeForest Kelley, which is amusing... but shouldn't he sort of try to make it his own?  It feels too much like a bit.
7. As with any good ensemble caper story, all of the characters here get to contribute to the solution and take action to save each other.  No one's left behind, sitting around, opening hailing frequencies or scanning for delta particles.  It's a fun, fun movie mostly because of this element.
8. But we really do need more of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy working together.  These movies still find ways to keep them apart.  They tell everyone how close they are, sure, but we'd like to see that for ourselves.
9. We were mostly unimpressed with the villain Krall (shades of Star Trek's limp, inscrutable Nero) until the final twist.  In fact, we were surprised by a couple of story turns.
10. Bonus points for Kirk tearing his shirt.  
11. Ditto the retro alien planet that looked like the California desert with some spray-painted rocks.
12. The "Sabotage" scene is a real crowd-pleaser.  Goose bumps.
13. But our favorite was the sequence inside (and outside) the crashed ship.  The 11-year-old version of ourself would have loved that.
14. How much do you think it cost to build that Yorktown space station?  And how long did it take?  These are the things we ask ourselves.  An amazing visual, but it was like seven Manhattan islands all strung together... in space.
15. Looking forward to the next one.

8.06.2016

3 rules of karaoke etiquette

We have been known to partake in the dark art of karaoke, living out secret dreams of music stardom, revealing pop culture song savvy, wondering if we sound as good on a microphone as we do with the shower water running or our car idling at a stop light.  For a while there in our late 20s and early 30s, every few months or so featured some house party involving the rental of a 1000-song karaoke hard drive from a mom-and-pop party outfit east of downtown Los Angeles.  Our return to Texas has sent us to a Little Korea bar with private karaoke rooms.  Five visits so far and counting.

But there are rules, people.

1. If you can't sing it, don't request it.  Before you punch in the song number, think it over.  Sing the song in your head.  Can you do it?  Really do it?  Plenty of memorable choruses also feature impossibly obscure verses (Exhibit A: Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life").  Avoid the "gong" - that sad moment when the group collectively overrides your choice and moves onto the next song.  Yeah, it's all in good fun but a little part of you will die a slow death inside.  Bottom line: develop a group of "go to" songs that you can nail.

2. Choose only popular songs everyone can enjoy.  Karaoke isn't the time to display your affinity for Garth Brooks B-sides or British heavy metal (exception: Def Leppard).  No one cares about those songs because no one's heard of those songs.  (That these karaoke catalogs have those ridiculous choices available, but don't have half of the top-40 hits you're seeking, remains an enduring unsolved mystery.) Karaoke should be a communal experience of inclusion.  If more than half of the room isn't singing along with you, you chose poorly.

3. Give everyone a turn.  This doesn't just mean refrain from hogging the song book, which you should never ever do.  It also means not turning into guy who stacks the queue with a string of songs.  This isn't a classic rock station and you're not Johnny Fever.  Pick your song, plug it in, then wait until you perform that song before selecting the next one.  Like the crowded on-ramp merge, everyone gets a turn.

Knee-jerk review: "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates"

1. Someone we know who works in Hollywood as a studio marketing executive often reminds us that if the trailer (or TV spot) for a comedy isn't funny, be wary.  The producers should be putting the funny stuff - assuming they have funny stuff and not every comedy does - in the advertising.  We found the trailer for Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates to be utterly hilarious.  So we cashed in a  grandparent babysitting chit to go see it.
2. We laughed a lot.  Some funny bits, for sure.  Like the ATV accident, the "happy ending"massage , the sauna.
3. But was it a good movie?  Maybe not so much.  It's in the R-rated raunchy vein of Wedding Crashers or Superbad or Neighbors.  But it's not nearly as clever or memorable as those movies.  Although we must give it some credit for trying to make the female characters act just as crude and horrible as the male characters.
4. Good performances, yes.  Adam Devine is always funny.  And Audrey Plaza predictably does that quirky snarky thing she does.  But we were surprised how good Anna Kendrick was playing a dimwit.
5. That said, we get the feeling everyone involved thought everything was a little more hilarious than it actually turned out to be.

6. Pretty unimaginative title, too.
7. Selling liquor to hip bars in New York City.  Another of those phony, only-in-movies jobs that 20somethings often have.  And you should see the groovy, giant apartment Mike and Dave share.  We all could use a Hollywood production designer to decorate our homes.
8. We understand now why the set-up (two screwballs are forced by their family to bring dates to a Hawaii family wedding so they won't ruin everything; their hunt for dates goes viral; two screwball girls decide to play "nice girls" to get a free vacation) is so forced and strained - it's supposedly based on a true story.  Seems like there would be an easier way to get the two couples together since that's where the story really takes off.
9. A perfectly placed f-bomb can be hilarious.  But less is more.  This is one of those movies where every other word is the f-bomb.  It's too much.  You become so numb that the word loses all meaning.  Or is that the point?  (And does it make us sound old and cranky to make this complaint in the first place?  Probably.)