7.09.2020

A Few Words About CBS All Access' "Star Trek: Picard"

As a matter of habit, we don’t binge television shows.  This frequently creates conflict in the Cheese Fry screening room (a.k.a. the sectional couch in front of a Vizio flatscreen).  Ms. Fry always wants to watch “just one more” episode, but the more appropriate viewing process, obviously, is to soak afterglow of each episode to carefully mull everything over.  Then, and only then, can one watch the next episode.  What is the root of our peculiar 20th-century preference?  It could be just a lingering preference from days of yore when folks only got a new episode once a week or it could be that we perhaps expend so much mental energy undertaking painstaking, useless analysis of story structure, acting performances, cinematography, plot holes and the like that we’re simply too exhausted after 48 minutes.

And yet... over the recent Fourth of July weekend, we binged all ten episodes of “Picard” in less than three days.  That's a big media bite for us.  We don’t subscribe to CBS All Access, but our father-in-law does.  So we had to avail ourselves of the show while we could.  It was an intense experience, but not altogether unpleasant.

Here are our disjointed musings and comments.

* “Engage.” Be honest.  How often have you said that in your car when you’re about to begin a trip?  Or maybe when the light turns green?  Just us then?
* There’s a pretty complicated backstory here about a failed species-wide Romulan evacuation linked somehow to a massive android sabotage of the Starfleet shipyards on Mars.  It all feels unique and appropriately big, but the scope grows so vast that the story sometimes felt overwhelming.  This may be an unpopular take, but not every science fiction story has to grapple with fate-of-the-universe stakes.
* “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-1994) played a big part of our high school and college years (1986-1994), both the first-run episodes that ran on weekend evenings on KTXA 21 and the reruns that played every weekday evening in the 90s.  We came of age right alongside the show, which – like us – started with some rather clumsy and awkward moments before soaring with some classic masterpieces later in its run.
* Honestly, we’d probably prefer to watch a domestic drama on CBS All Access about the Riker family living on a farm on Nepenthe raising their precocious daughter.
* Name-dropping sidebar – we once sat behind Jonathan Frakes at a Beverly Hills Sunday morning church service.
* We read somewhere a suggestion that the entire Borg subplot of “Picard” could have been completely removed without ever being missed.  As crazy as that sounds given the huge amount of screen-time spent on the machinations inside the reclaimed Borg cube, that person is absolutely correct.  It’s a cool idea that really doesn’t go anywhere.
* We never liked the “Next Generaton” Klingon or Romulan “culture episodes” where the Enterprise crew had to navigate ridiculously intricate customs and complicated alien political intrigue and subtitles and dark lighting and dozens of extras in latex face makeup.  Worse, those episodes always seemed to be two-parters.
* As expected, the best part of this show was watching Picard assemble his ragtag crew of mercenary malcontents. (Echoes of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock in which Kirk asked Starfleet for help with a mission, was turned down, but Kirk went anyway.)
* The two Romulan heroes who work on Picard’s vineyard are charming and complicated, while the two Romulan villains are complete one-dimensional duds.  Further demerits for the show by insisting that the scruffy-looking Romulan spy was somehow alluring.  Having female characters call him “hot” as a way to somehow convince the audience this was so was particularly hilarious.
* The best episode of the season was the stand-alone Freecloud (how well will that name age?) episode in which our heroes had to pull off an underworld Mission: Impossible sort of con on what seemed to be a Las Vegas planet.
* That we enjoyed that episode so much perhaps points to our overall fatigue with serialized television, where a single story is dragged out, er, told over multiple episodes.  That sort of thing certainly has its place for deep dives into complex characters and byzinatine plots.  But sometimes don't you just want a self-contained story without a contrived cliffhanger?  There's a reason "Law & Order: SVU" has been running 20 years.  We hope season 2 is more episodic.
* Although Data is an ageless android, the 71-year-old actor Brent Spiner most decidedly is not.
* Name-dropping sidebar – Ms. Fry by chance ran into Brent Spiner one evening on the Paramount lot and engaged in a lengthy verbal joust with him regarding both what she was doing there and what he was doing there.
* Honestly, this thing probably should have been six episodes.
* The four-letter cursing feels completely out of place on a “Star Trek” show.  It’s so glaring and strange, in fact, it totally took us out of the story and reminded us that this is a new, edgy, streaming-service version of “Star Trek.”
* Patrick Stewart is one of those actors that can probably find a way to make anything cool and interesting.
* Interesting stuff layered in here about the myth of Jean-Luc Picard, Starfleet hero, and how he must cope with all that baggage, whether it’s trying to not believe his own hype, subtly using it for leverage to get what he wants, or swallowing his disappointment when someone doesn’t show him the expected respect based on reputation.  We wished the show had dug a little more into that mythbusting angle.  
* We haven’t watched many episodes of “Deep Space Nine,” “Voyager,” or “Enterprise.”  We’ve missed all of the “Discovery” series.  Yet we call ourselves rabid “Star Trek” fans.  Is that right or wrong? Discuss.
* Surprising parallels to the overrated The DaVinci Code, what with the secret society protecting a crazy conspiracy theory for thousands(!) of years.  Dan Brown should get a "story by" credit.
* If you’re going to kill someone off and wring big emotion and catharsis out of that moment, then you really need to let that person stay dead.  Otherwise, the moment is cheapened and the drama totally undermined.  Better idea: just don’t kill them off.
* You can grumble about the plotting, but you certainly cannot criticize the strong work of the cast (especially Allison Pill).  
* We did sometimes have hard time getting a handle on Picard.  He didn’t always ring true.  For example, no matter how pained and lost he may have felt after leaving Starfleet, it’s hard to believe in fourteen years Picard never once checked on the last executive officer he served with.
* This is the kind of show that inspires interweb commenters to point out after Seven of Nine and Picard share a warm reunion that the two characters never had a single previous onscreen scene together.
* The show ended pretty strong, but the middle was more mushy than we would have preferred.
* Top ten “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episodes: 
1. "Yesterday's Enterprise" - the one where a time rift allows Tasha Yar to die a noble death
2. "Best of Both Worlds, Part 1" - the one with the gut-punch OMG cliffhanger where Picard is a Borg and Riker opens fire on him
3. "Lower Decks" - the one told from the point-of-view of the low-level Enterprise officers
4. "Starship Mine" - the one that's Die Hard on the Enterprise
5. "Tapestry" - the one were Q gives Picard a chance to make different choices as a young officer
6. "The Inner Light" - the one where Picard lives a whole other life via an alien probe
7. "Timescape" - the one where time is frozen just as the Enterprise is about to be destroyed
8. "Q Who?" - the one where we first meet the Borg
9. "All Good Things" - the series finale with Picard bouncing between three timelines
10. "The Measure of a Man" - the one with the trial to determine if Data is sentient

5.08.2020

What We've Been Watching (in 50 Words or Less)

In the grip of COVID-19 lockdown, days run together, bored children drive you to drink evening cocktails, weeks are measured solely by the Wednesday mornings when the lawnmower man visits, you find the elementary school online learning platform more confusing to operate than the recording timer on a 1985 VCR, and the kitchen table becomes the place where you eat and also the place where you work.  

The Cheese Fry has recently ramped up television consumption and we've been musing about how long the list might be if we looked back at the shows we've been regularly watching (or fully binged) since the fall season started back in 2019, all of them full of people touching and hugging and standing very close to each other.

Here's a rundown.  Each title gets only fifty words.

American Housewife (ABC) is a funny family comedy about classism in spite of the grating lead character - the titular "American housewife" - played by Katy Mixon.  We can't tell if she's insufferable because of the way she's written or the way Mixon plays her.  She's the worst part of the show.

Black-ish (ABC) is very much a descendant of the great Norman Lear sitcoms of the 1970s. So determined to use humor to explore complex issues of race, the show can be preachy, but there's a fun absurdist bent that leavens any heavy hand. Essential viewing.

The Conners (ABC) finds black humor amid financial hardship. It's shocking to see this kind of gritty realism on network television when most shows feature ruggedly perfect hero cops, paramedics, and doctors.  But more people in America are like the Conners than the folks on the endless Chicago shows. 

Ellen's Game of Games (NBC) is a good one for the kids, a series of elaborate games that treat the contestants - most hysterically, inexplicably in love with host Ellen DeGeneres - pretty badly, dunking them in goo or yanking them up into the rafters or dropping them through trap doors.

Emergence (ABC) is one we almost gave up on. We worried it was making it up as it went along and we're still recovering from the trauma of mistakenly believing Lost knew what it was doing. This show ended strong. Bonus points for quirky lead Allison Tolman.

Evil (CBS) is a 21st century spin on The X-Files, pitting a believer (theology student Mike Holter) and a skeptic (psychologist Katja Herbers) together to investigate mysteries for the Catholic Church. Like the producers' previous show, The Good Wife, this ingenious series is too good for CBS.

Jack Ryan (Amazon) is like an eight-hour Jason Bourne movie, all exotic locations,  sweaty foot chases, and shocking shoot-outs. We can't stop thinking about the production budget.  It may seem impossible to think of The Office's schlub Jim Halpert as a spy, but John Krasinski pulls it off.

Lego Masters (Fox) is awesome, a reality show contest that pits Lego builder teams against each other in increasingly complex "builds." The show is nudged along by the strangest TV co-hosts we've ever seen: two geeky Lego masters who are hilariously self-serious and often seem impossible to please.

Lost in Space (Netflix) may share flavors of the dystopian Battlestar: Galactica reboot, but it's most definitely a family show: it regularly showcases the power of teamwork and resourcefulness to solve any problem. Is it just us or is Parker Posey's villainess Dr. Smith just a little too much?

The Mandalorian (Disney+) has the zip and zing that The Rise of Skywalker could never truly muster.  Characters you care about, high stakes, smart plotting, and a phenomenal score.  Best of all, it leans way into the Western outlaw vibe that partially inspired George Lucas in the first place.

Modern Family (ABC) stopped being genuinely funny years ago; now it's just coasting on reputation. Expect a couple of smiles each episode, but they've exaggerated the characters now to the degree that they're no longer real people. This was their last season.  It was time.

The Outsider (HBO) is adapted from a recent Stephen King novel.  We stopped reading King 20 years ago, but this is all very familiar to us: small town besieged by a supernatural evil that commits unspeakable violence. The great cast and the stylish cinematography elevate everything.

Stumptown (ABC) is fun mostly because of rough charms of stars Cobie Smulders, Jake Johnson, and Michael Ealy. The seedy world of private eyes, ex cons, dive bars, and blue-collar cops recalls the work of our favorite novelist Elmore Leonard, which is sometimes all you need.

Superstore (NBC) has been accurately described as The Office at Walmart what with the oddball characters and the workplace setting. But there's more meat to this show in the way it explores the struggling working class.  It's not as funny as it used to be, but it feels kind of important.

Survivor (CBS) maintains a special place in our heart.  Since debuting in 2000, we have only missed a single cycle. This season features past winners and the show has changed so drastically over the years that there is a noticeable difference in game play between "old school" and "new school."

The Unicorn (CBS) feels genuine, filled with real people who happen to be funny rather than zany "characters." It's strange to see the usually villainous Walton Goggins - playing a widower dad - as a comedic family man, but his dramatic chops add edge. We hereby confess our crush on Michaela Watkins.

Watchmen (HBO) is a masterpiece of television. We were skeptical of the producers' intent to extend the mythology of the landmark 1986 graphic novel, but they delivered. A layered, rich tapestry of characters grappling with race and power, boosted by genius plotting and slick style. Not a single misstep.

Will and Grace (NBC) is a throwback sitcom driven more by sharp one-liners than characters that resemble real people, especially when it comes to the absurdity of Jack and Karen. They almost seem to belong in another, totally nuts show.  Even so, we find it hilarious.

Young Sheldon (CBS) is far more nuanced than The Big Bang Theory, the overrated set-up/joke, set-up/joke show that spawned it.  It would work if it didn't feature the Sheldon character, though it probably wouldn't be as popular. Bonus points: Annie Potts and Wallace Shawn.

We sampled 911: Lone Star, All Rise, Carol's Second Act, The Masked Singer, and Single Parents. One episode was enough.

12.30.2019

On the Enduring Mediocrity of the Dallas Cowboys

On January 28, 1996, your Dallas Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-17 in Super Bowl XXX.  Since that day, this so-called "America's Team" of missed opportunities, lost seasons, and unearned hype has never advanced past the Divisional round of the NFL playoffs.  Not once.

There are 31 other teams in the NFL, many of whom since January 1996 have experienced considerable (and consistent) post-season success while all the while the Cowboys shuffled along on reputation alone, often entering seasons with high Super Bowl expectations - often pushed by the snake-oil salesmanship of Jerry Jones, the only General Manager in the NFL who will never be fired by his Owner boss no matter how crappy his team performs - that fans foolishly fell for time and time again. We're like Charlie Brown goaded by Jerry-as-Lucy into kicking that ball just one more time, hearing assurances that this time it's going to be different, only to have it yanked away yet again.  The Dallas Cowboys have languished under a variety of head coach misfires: no-name, clueless folks like Chan Gailey and Dave Campo; supposed geniuses who consistently showed a lack of necessary fire and grit like Jason Garrett and Wade Phillips; and one Hall of Fame coach in Bill Parcells who did the best with what he had but (understandably) finally just gave up.  Some of those seasons were disasters, a few were surprisingly successful, but all ended with playoff flameouts and ultimately squandered the talents of Pro Bowl players like Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, and Demarcus Ware.

On the eve of what we hope will be the unceremonious ejection of Jason Garrett, who should have been fired years ago, let's look at the other teams that have found ways since 1996 to string together wins and devise game plans good enough to beat other good teams consistently enough to advance in the playoffs and contend for Super Bowl titles.

Let's first remember the teams who have won the Super Bowl and hoisted the shiny Lombardi Trophy. Since January 1996...

The Baltimore Ravens have won two Super Bowls*
The Denver Broncos have won three (and lost one) Super Bowls
The Green Bay Packers have won two Super Bowls*
The Indianapolis Colts have won one (and lost one) Super Bowl
The Los Angeles Rams have won one (and lost two) Super Bowls
The New Orleans Saints have won one Super Bowl*
The New England Patriots - as we all know - have won six (and lost three) Super Bowls*
The New York Giants have won two (and lost one) Super Bowls
The Philadelphia Eagles have won one (and lost one) Super Bowls*
The Pittsburgh Steelers have won two (and lost one) Super Bowls
The Seattle Seahawks have won one (and lost two) Super Bowls*
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have won one Super Bowl

Wow.  That's a long list (parity!) with zero mention of Dallas.  These twelve teams out of 32 represents 38% of all NFL teams.

Now let's look at the teams that made it to the Super Bowl (which means they won their conference) since 1996 but didn't win...

The Arizona Cardinals lost one Super Bowl
The Atlanta Falcons lost two Super Bowls
The Carolina Panthers lost two Super Bowls
The Chicago Bears lost one Super Bowl
The Oakland Raiders lost one Super Bowl
The San Francisco 49ers lost one Super Bowl*
The Tennessee Titans lost one Super Bowl*

Now if you add the 12 winners with these 7 losers, you end up with 19 NFL teams that got all the way through the playoffs to appear in a Super Bowl.  Nineteen teams that each had a chance at football glory.  Now we're up to 60% of all of the 32 teams.  

Still no Dallas Cowboys.

Okay, so let's look at the teams that - since 1996 - got to their conference title game but lost.  These are the franchises that were just one win away (or, even worse, one play away) from the Super Bowl.

The Jacksonville Jaguars lost the 2017 AFC title game
The Kansas City Chiefs lost the 2018 AFC title game*
The Minnesota Vikings lost the 2017 NFC title game*
The New York Jets lost the 2010 AFC title game

At this point we are up to 23 NFL teams that - since 1996 - have all advanced to at least their conference title game, if not the Super Bowl.  That's 72% of the NFL.  Still no Cowboys.  At this point, the law of averages should give the Cowboys help, but chance has nothing on poor decision-making of the Cowboy front office.

In fact, at this point in this study all we're left with is a collection of consistently going-nowhere NFL franchises that since 1996 either lost in the Wild Card round or in the Divisional round.  These teams never got close to the conference title games, much less the Super Bowl.  It is amid these dead-end teams that we finally find the supposedly proud, legendary, fierce Dallas Cowboys.

Below is a rundown of when these teams most recently made a playoff appearances.

The Buffalo Bills lost a Wild Card game in 2017*
The Cincinnati Bengals lost a Wild Card game in 2015
The Cleveland Browns lost a Wild Card game in 2002
The Dallas Cowboys lost a Divisional game in 2018
The Detroit Lions lost a Wild Card game in 2016
The Houston Texans lost a Wild Card game in 2018*
The Los Angeles Chargers lost a Divisional game in 2018
The Miami Dolphins lost a Wild Card game in 2016
The Washington Redskins lost a Wild Card game in 2015

What unwelcome company.  But this is where Cowboys fans find themselves.

Do we think a new coach will help change the fortunes of the Dallas Cowboys?  We hope so, but we doubt it.  It's more than just the curious game day intransigence of Garrett - it's the culture of the organization, which means it's the culture of Jones and the way he makes decisions based on PR rather than Xs and Os (he pushed hard to draft Johnny Manziel in the first round!), the way he undermines his coaches at every turn (always with the postgame interviews! why?) thereby spoiling discipline, the way he spends more time on big picture NFL and Cowboy strategies that he can't possibly focus on the day-to-day needs of the club, the way he so hypes and spins the Cowboys that players can't help but develop big egos and baseless entitlement, the way he stubbornly clings to bad ideas and decisions at the risk of admitting his own errors.  Anyone who tunes into Dallas sports radio can see the problems.  Until Jerry is gone, the Cowboys will not succeed.

* These teams - unlike the Dallas Cowboys - made the 2019-20 playoffs so their place in this list could change.

12.29.2019

Knee-jerk review: "Knives Out"

1. Really, really good.
2. If you want to know what it looks like when an actor truly relishes a role and can't hide how much fun he's having, take a look at Daniel Craig here playing Southern-fried Detective Benoit Blanc.  (What a name!)
3. Memorable characters, clever pretzel plotting, hilarious moments.  Writer-director Rian Johnson, so unfairly attacked for The Last Jedi, proves without a doubt that he has chops.  (If you haven't seen it, take a look also at his time travel thriller Looper.)
4. We don't claim to be Agatha Christie experts, but this movie is steeped in Christie-an tropes (wealthy patriarch - played by Christopher Plummer - dies unexpectedly; all of his upper-crust relatives have a motive; the suspects all gathered for questioning in a drawing room by a quirky detective; a death that isn't nearly as simple as it first seems).
5. But Johnson wisely turns some of those Agatha Christie expectations on their head, such as suggesting Blanc maybe isn't as brilliant as his New Yorker profile makes it look or by delivering a death that is inexplicably equal parts premeditated murder and tragic mistake.
6. "What is this, CSI KFC?"
7. It's a standout cast, but Toni Collette is particularly entertaining as Plummer's greedy daughter-in-law, a passive-aggressive lifestyle influencer.  We think she's doing a Gwyneth Paltrow impression.
8. The central location - Plummer's sprawling Gothic mansion - is practically a character unto itself.  As a bestselling Christie-like author, Plummer's character has filled his house with all kinds of strange knick-knacks, not the least of which is a giant wall decoration of knives in all shapes and sizes.
9. Captain America himself, Chris Evans, does a fun heel turn.
10. It's a donut inside a donut, you see.  Hilarious.
11. Ana de Armas carries the movie as the kind nurse to Plummer's patriarch, but we had a hard time zeroing in how this whole experience was affecting her.  Typically, the events of the movie somehow change the hero, teach a lesson, and correct some character flaw.  There is a nice moment early on when Ana's meek Marta seems to steel herself to embrace the fight ahead, but that's pretty subtle.  This may just be one of those movies that's more about plot than some big transformation of character; the good characters prove they're incorruptible, the evil characters prove they're irredeemable.
12. Don't miss it.

12.25.2019

Knee-jerk review: "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker"

1. As hard as we tried to go in with zero preconceptions, we did see a few early reviews.  Most of them were negative, so we bought our ticket with pretty low expectations.  It's easy to Google any number of "Why The Rise of Skywalker sucks" articles.
2. Let the record reflect that we were pleasantly surprised.
3. The first half is indeed a jumble, packed too full of plot and fun-but-needless set pieces.  The final hour, however, is mostly satisfying so long as you can swallow some of the movie's bigger twists without getting too hung up on plausibility.
4. The biggest one involves this giant secret fleet of enemy ships hidden in some extra-hidden pocket of the universe, all of them led by the return of the Emperor - last seen plummeting to his apparent death down an energy shaft on the second Death Star at the end of the Return of the Jedi.
5. On one hand, with this big of a turn, it would have been nice (as many have pointed out online) if the last two movies - The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi - had planted the seeds of the Emperor's return so it wasn't such a completely random, out-of-left-field twist.  This new trilogy famously - or infamously - didn't develop a master story plan upfront so they were sort of making it up as they went.
6. That said, let us remind you that George Lucas was also sort of making it up as he went along back in the 1970s.  As Obi-Wan told Luke in his Tatooine hut, Darth Vader was unambiguously not the same person as Luke's dead hero father in A New Hope and that Hoth Base kiss demonstrated that Luke and Leia were clearly not envisioned as secret siblings in The Empire Strikes Back.  Like it or not, this is a thing for Star Wars movies: offering up twists-for-twists' sakes that come of nowhere.
7. The fan backlash to the subversive The Last Jedi was equal parts pathetic and amusing, especially given how everyone complained (rightfully so) that The Force Awakens offered nothing new.
8. J.J. Abrams is not on our short list of great directors, but he usually delivers a few great moments (like that kick-ass lightsaber fight among the crashing waves) and this may be his most satisfying movie overall.  He still can't help his obsession with puzzles (a "Sith Wayfinder" gizmo? seriously?) but at least he mostly sticks the landing.
9. The final scene - as you may have heard - is a strong one. They always say end with a big moment that audiences will walk out of the theater talking about.
10.  This whole bit where the Emperor insists that if you kill him, he wins always seemed like an impossible scenario.  How are the heroes supposed to defeat the villain if righteous, vengeful murder won't work and only somehow gives him more power?  The solution here worked for us.
11. A great surprise guest appearance. We had something dusty in our eye.
12. The chemistry between Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver remains a central reason this new trilogy works as well as it does.
13. While we don't necessarily agree that this movie wholly rejects and undoes the events of The Last Jedi to appease those vocal fans who hated that movie so much, we also can't help but notice this movie doesn't exactly build on The Last Jedi either.

UPDATE: Upon further review, we foolishly overlooked the central tenet of The Last Jedi - that anyone can wield the Force, not just a few special families, which is why the kid with the broom at the end of The Last Jedi was so unusual.  The reveal about Rey's family in The Rise of Skywalker completely undermines that notion - it's a fun twist and it works well for her character, but it ignores the whole point of the kid with the broom.  Also, The Last Jedi worked hard to suggest that the myth of Luke Skywalker could be more powerful than Luke himself in inspiring hope and sparking a larger rebellion across the galaxy.  Cut to The Rise of Skywalker and the realization that our ragtag Resistance is still just as ragtag as when we last saw them.  Seems like the myth of Luke didn't really pan out the way The Last Jedi suggested - no one's stepped up to join the fight.  The more we think about it, the more irritating these choices are.  Did Abrams and Disney really bend to the demands of the vocal minority that whined and pouted about The Last Jedi?  Pathetic.

14. Sidelining the Rose character and leaving her completely out of the action seems particularly cruel.  Especially since she was set up as a possible romantic interest for Finn and in The Last Jedi and now in this movie Finn gets another, new girlfriend.
15. Funny how in this universe data transfer requires big bulky cables.  Apparently there is no wireless networking in a galaxy far, far away.
16. It's good to see Billy Dee Williams, of course, but Lando is completely superfluous.  That he's hanging out on some random planet our heroes happen to visit is pretty silly.  Also weird that the movie suggests Lando is the long-lost father to some random new character.
17. Also completely contrived and forced: the identity of the rebel mole inside the First Order.  This may be the one moment where we rolled our eyes.  We didn't buy it. 
18. Loved the twist with the forbidden Sith language and C3P0, but the cheesy inscribed Sith dagger business belongs in an Indiana Jones movie.  It's a ripoff of the Staff of Ra.
19. We've read online that a good number of plot points and backstory for this movie can only be found in comic books and other supplemental material.  If that's true, then we call foul.  Movies need to stand on their own without audiences needing to go to other media to fill in narrative gaps.
20. Dig Rey's new yellow lightsaber.
21. Is there anyone who sees this movie that might not know about the tragic death of Carrie Fisher?  The Leia scenes work as well as they can, we suppose, but we completely agree with the online comment we saw that said her scenes feel like the Steve Martin movie Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid where Martin was spliced into old movies and his dialogue awkwardly written to work with whatever old footage they were using. It looks like a conversation between him and the older footage, but it never feels exactly natural.
22. Weird that we never get to hear the broadcast that the Emperor sends out to the galaxy announcing his return. UPDATE: we have since learned the message was available to hear on Fortnite. Pardon us while we puke.
23. We mostly didn't mind the frequent last-minute rescues and reversals.  Remember, this is all based in part on those cheesy old Flash Gordon serials of Lucas' youth where the hero was snatched from the jaws of certain death by some pretty cheesy plot contrivances.
24. If you're looking to nitpick and watch the movie with your arms crossed, you're not going to like it.  This is a movie made by committee to maximize box office dollars, rather than the product of a singular creative vision in search of a truly meaningful narrative.
25. Even so, if you go in with an open mind, you'll have a good time.

10.10.2019

Knee-jerk review: "Downton Abbey"

1. As expected for a feature film adaptation of a hit PBS television show, us forty-somethings were definitely on the younger end of the audience age range. 
2. Ms. Cheese Fry would never admit it, but she's a closet Anglophile. If there's a TV show or a book or a movie about a British king or queen, she's in. So while she devoured all 52 episodes of "Downton Abbey" the TV show, we only watched the last season. Which was more than enough for us to get the gist.
3. At its heart, it's an old-fashioned soap opera like the kind you used to see every weekday morning on the big three broadcast networks.  Which is surely why it proved to be so popular.
4. The plot-lines are all about securing inheritances and hiding secret pregnancies and enduring star-crossed love and suffering through unexpected tragedies and protecting reputations amid scandal (or threatened scandal) and planning big snobby social events, all of it dressed up in fancy clothes, opulent sets, and wicked, oh-so-dry British one-liners.  It looks like "Masterpiece Theater" but it's really a new spin on "The Young and the Restless." 
5. Bonus points to whoever had the idea of starting the movie with a fairly lengthy and detailed reminder rundown of who's who in the sprawling cast of characters.
6. We're seriously considering removing our electric front door bell and replacing it with a mechanical system that will pull a string and ring a silver bell on our kitchen wall.
7. The cast, obviously, is top notch.  The filmmakers have done a good job making sure just about everyone gets a moment or two to shine.
8. But there's also a quaint smallness to the action. While we do get some big (if fleeting) drama involving an assassination attempt and a gay speakeasy raid, most of the movie's tension involves some very low stakes. Who's stealing household knick-knacks from the Crawley family? Will the Downton staff find a way to avenge their honor that's been besmirched by the condescending staff from Buckingham Palace? What will happen when Andy sees Daisy flirt with the handsome plumber?  Who's going to unload a truck full of the party chairs that arrived late at night in the pouring rain?
9. Put another way, there's a bigger movie budget here which allows for bigger parties and horse parades and new characters, but it mostly feels like three TV episodes stitched together.
10. In a world where class is everything, notice how even in the world of working class servants there is a pecking order, with the Buckingham Palace staff looking down their nose at the Downton staff.  Fascinating.
11. We're still not sure what Henry Talbot sees in Lady Mary, to be honest.
12. Pro tip: don't reveal you're an anti-monarchist to a perfect stranger.
13. Wouldn't it be weird if you had to be formal with your co-workers and always call them "Mr. Jones" or "Miss Smith"?
14. There is something undeniably appealing about period films like this that immerse you in a world of affluence.  All those plush sets you'll never live in and stylish costumes you'll never wear.  This is an alien world where folks dress in formal wear to attend a four-course meal served by a staff of footmen (not butlers, we learned) and no one who lives "upstairs" really seems to have much of a job aside from sipping cocktails and wringing their hands over having to tour Africa with the royals or wait for custom-made ballgowns to arrive in time for a party.
15. If you're into this sort of thing, you'll be into it.

8.06.2019

Knee-jerk review: "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"

1. Writer-director Quentin Tarantino, at this point, is at the top of his game.  He's a filmmaking virtuoso in complete command of mood, pacing, tension, and characterization.
2. Which goes a long way towards making the first half of this movie completely watchable despite a lack of traditional storytelling structure.  One critic called it a "hang out" movie and that's completely appropriate.  We spend about 70 minutes more or less just walking the earth in 1969 Los Angeles with Leonardo DiCaprio (actor) and Brad Pitt (actor's gopher) as they do what they do. We can't believe that part of the movie works as well as it does.  
3. Things don't really click into gear until Pitt's character crosses paths with the Manson family commune in a memorably creepy sequence.
4. It's essentially Inglourious Basterds for the Manson murders, if you catch our drift.
5. This may be Tarantino's most "meta" movie yet - a movie about movies. More specifically, a movie about the kinds of movies Tarantino grew up watching. It's chock full of loving - and surprisingly lengthy - recreations of 1960s Hollywood, both the logistics of backlot production (makeup trailers, scene rehearsals, camera flubs) and the specifics of audience marketing (TV spots, radio announcers, and the endless parade of theater marquees).  Particularly impressive is the painstaking degree to which DiCaprio's Rick Dalton actor's completely fictional career is fleshed out with clips, magazine covers, and movie posters.
6. We don't know much about the real Sharon Tate but Margot Robbie's wide-eyed performance gives her a carefree exuberance about life (and acting) that we should all hope to emulate.
7. There is a novelistic, impressionistic vibe at work what with all of the rambling digressions and narrative detours that seem to serve no clear purpose aside from some fun moments that surely amused Tarantino. Then again, we get the sense that there's a lot more going on here thematically than meets the eye. A second viewing may be needed.  For example, while it was a little on the nose, we appreciated the parallels between Dalton's blooming midlife crisis and the hero in his dime-store Western novel.
8. Brad Pitt is the coolest. It's no contest. We're not even sure he's trying.  The cool just... happens.
9. In case you didn't know, Wolf's Tooth canned dog food comes in "raccoon flavor."
10. Amid all of the movie gimmicks and flourishes and Brad Pitt doing his awesome "I'm cool" bit, DiCaprio creates real empathy for an actor terrified that his best days are behind him. That's something most adults of certain age can surely understand, even if few of us are as whiny and spoiled as DiCaprio's character seems to be.
11. Tarantino always delivers at least one blackly comic moment. We couldn't help but laugh out loud (and feel horribly guilty for doing so) at one big moment in the climax.
12. We're not sure what to make of the movie's angry stance towards the hippie youth movement.  Yes, the Manson family were hippies, but it's strange for a 2019 film to treat progressive, rebellious youth as a whole with such unironic contempt.  Is the idea that the movie is pretending it was actually made in 1969?  We get that DiCaprio and Pitt might look down on hippies, but the movie seems to agree with their take.
13. Dakota Fanning has just one villain scene, but she knocks it out of the park.
14. Stay for the end credits and watch Rick Dalton's Red Apple cigarette ad.  They don't burn your throat, you see.  Hilarious.
15. We squirmed in our seat when Pitt's character beat a woman to death. Justified or not, it felt over the top and cruel... in classic Tarantino fashion.
16. Without question, one of the stars of the film is the production design, so exacting in recreating the locations and wardrobe of 1969 Los Angeles. We couldn't help but wonder how the producers got some of the shots where even the billboards far in the distance were period specific. Nothing short of amazing.  People, the production completely redressed an entire block of Hollywood Boulevard.
17. We don't want to spoil the ending, but it definitely creates a strong sense of poignancy as you consider how fickle fate can be when dealing out tragic endings. One turn here or there and horrible outcomes can be completely avoided.
18. For the record, Pulp Fiction (of course) remains our favorite Tarantino movie, followed for now by Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill Vol 1, and Reservoir Dogs.  This one might eventually slide up to number 3 ahead of Kill Bill.  We haven't yet seen The Hateful Eight.

5.27.2019

17 Stations at an Elementary School "Field Day"

As one might imagine, the current "Field Day" experience for Generation Z is a far cry from the one of our youth that typically involved little more than foot races and maybe using the playground equipment (all blistering hot steel and cracked dirt, of course, no plastic surfaces or wood chips to be found) as a makeshift obstacle course.  

The format in 2019 - at least for the two Li'l Frys at their elementary school past week - is this: each classroom of 20 or so kids rotates through all 17(!) stations, getting about fifteen minutes per station.  There's a morning group (8:10am-11:00am) and then an afternoon group (11:30am-2:30pm).  The logistics behind this sort of progression involves hundreds of teachers, volunteers, and hyperactive kids is military-like in its complexity and implementation.  Special commendation to the staff member who had to blast the air horn "rotate!" signal every 15 minutes all day.

1. Nine Square (indoors) - Requiring a do-it-yourself PVC pipe cage, nine players each have a square space from which to pass a ball back and forth ("no double taps!") over the top rails of the PVC cage bars.  A kind of three-dimensional variation of the old Four Square game.  If the ball hits the floor inside your square or if you pass the ball outside the cage's boundaries, you're out.  Then everyone shuffles forward to take your spot in the nine spaces a new player enters in the first space.
2. Basketball Knockout (indoors) - This one confused us.  Something about two players shooting but the first shooter has to make it before the second one makes it.  That shooter is safe, so the other is out, but then sometimes the other one can keep shooting.  Huh?  Whatever happened to "Horse" or "Around the World"?
3. Agility Course (indoors) - What you get when you make kids run across taped down circles, hop over small hurdles, and weave through plastic cones. Low tech, but the kids seem to kind of like it.
4. Snack and Class Photo (indoors) - Every kid got a fruit punch popsicle. Hardly seems to us like a proper station.
5. Toss - Throwing tennis balls into holes in a canvas target like a midway carnival game.
6. Bounce House - Why not turn a birthday party gimmick into a "Field Day" station?  Jumping and tackling your friends in mid-air can be exercise.
7. Inflatable Obstacle Course - Self explanatory.
8. Wrecking Ball - Yet another inflatable.  Climb inside and stand on one of four platforms, then swing a giant vinyl ball at each other.  Last one standing wins.  Reminds us of the late, great ABC show "Wipeout!"
9. Playground - This seems kind of lazy, turning the playground these kids use every day into a "station."  And what's up with schools now putting those giant canvas tents over playgrounds to make shade?  Why didn't someone come up with that 40 years ago to better protect us from future skin cancers?  Thanks for nothing, Baby Boomers.
10. Sack Race and Three-Legged Race - Now we're talking.  This is old school "Field Day."  We can't remember for sure that these kind of races were featured at our F.P. Caillet "Field Days" of the late 70s/early 80s, but we're guessing they were.
11. Hamster Balls - Easily the most impressive station.  Kids climb inside huge clear inflatable spheres, then run on the inside surface like a hamster wheel (get it?) to move forward and backward along a "track."  We managed this station for 90 minutes in the blazing afternoon sun.  Big mistake.  They look like harmless, puffy-looking toys but they are formidable beasts of hot vinyl that are hard to maneuver and unwieldy to wrangle, especially for the younger kids who either don't know how or aren't strong enough to run on the inside surface of the ball and create momentum.  Which means we're stuck pushing them while they flop around inside like a tube sock in the dryer.  Then there's the issue of trying to rotate the ball to get the one doorway level with the ground.  If a kid comes back with the ball and the door's facing straight up in the air, get ready for screaming muscle pain and muttered curses.  It's a miracle we didn't get heat stroke out there.  Next year we're going to pick an indoor station.
12. Gaga Pit - A Thunderdome sort of thing where you step inside a plywood octagon and play a game with a ball.  We've heard about it but never seen it in action.
13. Tug of War - Pretty exciting for the first couple of minutes.  But then you have another 12 minutes to kill before the stations rotate.  How many times can you do this without the kids losing interest?  Maybe three.
14. Soccer Kick - Two players are the goalie, two players attack and try to score a goal.  Rotate and repeat.
15. Water Ball - Fill garbage cans with water from a hose, add soakable hacky sack balls, then wage war.  It's really just a delivery system for getting the kids wet.  (No overhead throwing allowed, wink wink.)
16. Water Race - Relay race where two teams take turns transporting water into an empty bucket by filling up cups and holding them over their head as they run.  First team to fill the empty bucket wins.  The "get extremely wet" requirement comes from the holes poked in the bottom of the cups.  As expected, the handoff relay element quickly vanishes and the kids just start running one after the other.
17. Inflatable Slide - The sort of thing we would have loved as a kid.  The slide is 20 feet tall easy.

5.17.2019

The Pop Culture Birthday Comparison

The Cheese Fry turns 47 today, which is pretty old no matter how you slice it.  We wanted to rub salt in the wound and look at some performances from our youth and calculate the age of the actor when he appeared in that role.  These characters all feel very grown-up and adult and manly, but in truth most of them were far younger then than we are now. Ouch.

33 - Bruce Willis' age in Die Hard (1988)
33 - Mel Gibson's age in Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
34 - Sean Connery's age in Goldfinger (1964)
34 - Bill Murray's age in Ghostbusters (1984)
37 - George Clooney's age in Out of Sight (1998)
37 - Robert Redford's age in The Sting (1973)
37 - Arnold Schwarzenegger's age in The Terminator (1987)
38 - Harrison Ford's age in The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
38 - Michael Keaton's age in Batman (1989)
38 - Craig T. Nelson's age in Poltergeist (1982)
40 - Chevy Chase's age in National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)
40 - John Travolta's age in Pulp Fiction (1994)
41 - Clint Eastwood's age in Dirty Harry (1971)
42 - Tom Hanks' age in Saving Private Ryan (1998)
43 - Roy Scheider's age in Jaws (1975)
45 - Dustin Hoffman's age in Tootsie (1982)
46 - Jimmy Stewart's age in Rear Window (1954)
46 - Paul Gleason's age in The Breakfast Club (1984)
46 - Sam Neill's age in Jurassic Park (1993)
46 - Tom Skeritt's age in Alien (1979)

For this bit, a tip of the hat to the great Lex G.