The Dallas Cowboys are in real trouble, people. Serious trouble. Dogs-and-cats-living-together Ghostbusters trouble. The franchise isn't making progress. It's sliding backwards. Say what you will about the team not winning a playoff game since the 1990s, at least the last couple of seasons ended with the Cowboys, like, actually in the playoffs. Next month, the Cowboys will be watching football games on television like the rest of us. Get your popcorn ready, indeed.

Jerry Jones, he of the pompous "owner/president/general manager" title, better do something quick or he won't have much to show for his hundreds of millions of dollars, which includes his new gleaming Jerryworld stadium set to open next open. Dallas fans expect a Superbowl every year.

The humiliating 44-6 drubbing this past weekend by the Philadelphia Eagles merely confirms what many of have feared. This team is a complete disaster on just about every level. As Bill Parcells famously said, you are what your record says you are. That means the Cowboys at 9-7 are no better than fellow disappointing underachievers like the Chicago Bears, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the New York Jets.

Here's an eight-step plan to get the Cowboys back on track. It's what we'd do.

1. Fire Wade Phillips. He's done. Goodbye, God bless, and don't let your ass hit the doorknob. Savvy football fans knew back when he was hired in 2007 that he's no head coach. He's soft. He makes excuses for his team. He shrugs off criticism. He relies on a frustrating "nothing to worry about here" mantra. With the exception of Bill Parcells, Jerry Jones is an abject failure when it comes to picking head coaches not named Jimmy Johnson. Remember Chan Gailey? Dave Campo? Wade's runner-up for the job was Norv Turner for crying out loud. This season Norv ran a talented San Diego Chargers team into the ground and squeaked into the playoffs by the skin if his teeth. Until Jerry gives up control, he'll never recruit a real head coach. Note that the only real success the Cowboys have had in the recent past is under Parcells, who assumed a lot of control. Jerry may not know as much about football as he thinks he does.

2. Cut some veterans, too.
This is a team that needs to feel fear. Players should worry that their jobs aren't safe unless they produce on the field. Obviously, you can't cut stars like Romo, but if a bubble player like Bobby Carpenter makes a dumb move on game day, show him the door. The other players will get the message.

3. No more "Hard Knocks." Tell HBO to find some other franchise to jinx. Fans love to see the inner-workings of training camp, but it sends the wrong signal. It tells the players that cameras and drama are not only tolerated, but desired. To Jerry, media exposure is everything. But shouldn't the win-loss record be everything?

4. Play with urgency and precision. This is one sloppy, lazy football team. How could the most penalized team in the NFL truly hope to compete for a Superbowl? If there's not a drinking game that calls for a shot to be taken every time Flozell Adams gets a false start penalty, there ought to be. Why can't this guy figure out the snap count or just watch the ball? And if it's not stupid penalties by the offense, it's poor tackling on the defense. You get the sense that after rolling to a 3-0 start this season, the players started believing the hype, figuring they'd just have to suit up and they'd get the W by default. You have to still play the game, idiots.

5. Fix the offense. Why did Jerry Jones pay all those millions (and give up draft picks) to Roy Williams if he wasn't going to be a factor in the passing game? Williams had one touchdown catch. That's one more than the Cheese Fry had and we're not even on the damn roster. You can gripe at Terrell Owens all you want, but the guy had a point about Romo's looks in the last few games. Romo, for whatever reason, doesn't trust his receivers. When the going gets tough, he throws it to Jason Witten. That makes the Cowboys very one-dimensional in he passing game. This leads us to...

6. Be willing to let Jason Garrett go.
If the Detroit Lions want to hire the boy genius, let them take him. His play calling ain't what it was last season. Maybe those critics are right - maybe the rest of the league has figured out Garrett. He sure hasn't done a good job proving that he's figured out the rest of the league's defenses. In games where it counted against legitimate opponents, the offense rarely found a groove. For example, Garrett has a frustrating tendency to get clever in grave 3-and-short situations. When a simple running play would work, twice in two games Garrett called some kind of high-risk, weird trickery that failed to get the first down. Those decisions raise real concerns, concerns that even Romo has started to voice. If the players don't believe in the system, they won't execute. And we already know from #4 above that execution isn't their strong point.

7. Reduce the turnovers.
No good team should tolerate this many turnovers. Romo is the worst offender. He's got to take care of the ball. He makes too many mistakes still, whether it's an inexplicable (and inexcusable) miscommunication with the center, a fumble on a sack, or an ill-advised throw. This has got to be an off-season priority for him. Romo has to ratchet his game up to the next level. As we learned from the awful Brad Johnson Experiment, the Cowboys need Romo's A-game to win.

8. Get angry. The Cowboys are not a come-from-behind rally team. They can protect a lead. But when they get down, they tend to lose their confidence. They get glum. They point fingers. They pout. A good coach, however, (and good players, too) should be able to turn that emotion into rage and determination. Pissed-off teams with chips on their shoulders play smart and win ballgames. Bill Belichick has been a master at this - he managed to make his peerless mid-2000s Patriot teams feel like underdogs. The Cowboys, like the Tin Man, are in dire need of some heart. More proud athlete, less spoiled children.

The sad truth is that it may already be too late. Last season may have been the best chance for the Cowboys to go all the way. Football 101 suggests that teams flourish best the first season after a coaching philosophy change. That is, teams that move from the hard-nosed disciplinarian coach to a laid-back father figure coach (or vice versa) have their best chance at success that first season in the new regime. 2007 was that season for the Cowboys. They went an amazing 13-3 and got home-field advantage and a first-round bye. But the wheels came off, thanks in part of Wade Phillips' lackadasical approach to December. Rather than keep the foot on the gas, he let the Cowboys get complacent and lazy and sloppy, figuring they could turn it on again in January. They didn't.

And now here we are.

Food that makes life worth living

* fried shrimp with tartar sauce
* Snuffers Cheese Fries (with bacon and chives, of course)
* crisp, crunchy Red Delicious apple
* Kentucky Derby pie
* seedless grapes
* green bean casserole with the crunchy fried onions on top
* pepperoni pizza
* Jack's Burger House french fries
* prime rib
* club sandwich
* cranberry whip
* you make a sandwich out of a biscuit, scrambled egg, and a sausage patty
* DISD's fiesta salad
* Zankou Chicken's garlic paste
* cornbread/sage dressing
* Plain M&Ms
* mackerel nigiri sushi
* Chili's Bottomless Chips and Salsa
* Lays potato chips, barbecue flavored
* guacamole
* Hostess Cupcakes
* hot beef chili on a cold day
* Cracklin Oat Bran
* Father's Office sweet potato fries
* fajitas, heavy on the sour cream and grilled onions

Previously on the Cheese Fry: Beverages that make life worth living.


Knee-jerk review: "Marley & Me"

1. Way better that you think it will be. Way better than it probably should be.
2. It's quite good.
3. Be warned, though. By the closing credits, the theater will be filled with the sounds of sniffling. It's that kind of movie.
4. Which can be a very good thing.
5. A lot of movies try to explore the old adage about life being what happens to you while you're making plans. It's not an easy thing to dramatize. Life is boring. That's why we go to the movies. But this film succeeds about as well as any. There are no cops, no shootouts, no blood, no witty courtship dances. It's just a sophisticated, adult look at what happens when you're 40 years old and life hasn't followed the plan you had in mind when you were 20. It's about the simple joys and unexpected tragedies of life.
6. The PG-rating usually means simple-minded and dumb. Not here.
7. It's probably the best Owen Wilson's ever been. He's dialed down the quirky snark he typically uses as a crutch. He's playing a real character here.
8. Jennifer Aniston's good, as well. She's also a total babe. But we'll save that for another post.
9. Highlight of the movie is a very fresh, very energetic montage in which Owen Wilson's character tells us how he spends his weeks. You really don't expect this kind of bracing creativity in a big Hollywood movie.
10. Oh, yeah. And the dog is very cute.


"Saturday Night" resurgence?

We're not ready to claim that "Saturday Night Live" has returned to its glory days. Too often the show fails to hit on any cylinders whatsoever, such as the painfully lame Tim McGraw show back on November 22, an episode packed full of unfunny sketches and underdeveloped ideas. You see episodes like that and you wonder how much better "SNL" might be it weren't working under such an ambitious schedule. For example, what if it limited itself to 60 minutes every other week? Any regular viewer knows that the final half-hour of the show is a wasteland where bad sketches go to die.

But the recent presidential election showed us all how inspired and genius "SNL" can be when it really digs in, thanks mostly to the serendipitous emergence of an easy-to-mock vice presidential candidate who looked like Tina Fey. But the last couple of seasons have also seen the rise of memorably oddball performers like Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg. And Amy Poehler will be a hard cast member to replace.

But most of all, this newest "SNL" incarnation has given us the "SNL Digital Short" feature. They aren't all funny, but they're often unusual and odd in ways the rest of the show isn't. "Lazy Sunday" started it all back in 2005 and "Dick in a Box" in 2006 continued the trend.

But now we have a new champ:

Holiday knee-jerk review: "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town"

1. We remember well the snowmobile delivery man voiced by Fred Astaire...
2. ...but we don't remember much else. All in all, it's a pretty weird holiday special.
3. This was made by Rankin-Bass several years before "Year Without a Santa Claus" and the stop-motion animation is indeed much cruder and clunkier. The figures jerk and move with such little fluidity that it feels like you're having a mild seizure just watching it.
4. The special is pretty clever, however, in creating a detailed backstory to Santa Claus that explains the details of the Santa myth, much of it involving Santa's status as a fugitive wanted by the head of Sombertown (i.e. to escape detection he starts entering children's home via the chimney).
5. For some reason the Sombertown bad guys all have German accents, but "funny" ones that call to mind "Hogan's Heroes."
6. That odd German slant plus the fugitive subplot lends the story a strange World War II vibe with Santa acting as some kind of underground resistance leader to the anti-toy Nazi rule.
7. Mrs. Claus is a hot dish until she married Santa, then she really lets herself go. He must be a poor influence on healthy living.
8. If you ever face death by a Winter Warlock, just offer him a toy train.


Ingredients: "Law and Order"

"Law and Order" debuted on NBC way back in the fall of 1990. George H.W. Bush was president and the Gulf War hadn't even started yet. With so many episodes now in the can and airing around the clock on various cable outlets, certain narrative "Law and Order" tendencies have become very apparent.

Here's a quick primer in how to make an episode.

1. Honor the show's "ripped from the headline" sales pitch. Use as a jumping-off point some salacious real-world crime or criminal situation that viewers will immediately recognize (i.e. fundamentalist Mormon polygamists, a construction crane collapse, Jack Kevorkian's assisted suicides, dogfighting rings, crooked athletes, Scientology)...

2. ...but change the facts around enough to avoid any pesky real-world lawsuits. If needed, kick off the episode with one of those ominous "any connection to real-life people is coincidental" disclaimers.

3. Be sure that the aforementioned real-world crime or situation in the first-half "Law" portion has little to do with the second-half "Order" portion. Things are never what they seem in any good "Law and Order" episode. What begins as a murder investigation must lead our heroes to a bigger crime, a shocking conspiracy, or a ruthless villain.

4. The prologue must feature some mundane (yet colorful and possibly ethnic and/or blue-collar) New Yorker tableaux suddenly interrupted by the discovery of a bloody corpse.

5. The detective characters examining the corpse should offer some pithy (possibly funny) one-liner that will take us to the opening credits. In screenwriting they call this a scene's "button." Jerry Orbach always got the best ones.

6. Whoever the detective characters first consider a suspect must be a dead-end red herring. The real culprit should be someone they meet in the first 10 minutes of the show but who seems at first completely inconsequential.

7. A detective character will use "LUDs" to uncover a vital piece of evidence.

8. Another good source of evidence are video surveillance cameras, whether at an ATM or a toll booth or a subway.

9. A defense lawyer will arrive to stop any interrogation.

10. The detectives' boss will order them to check another angle or ask more questions.

11. The detective characters must talk to the coroner character, preferably over the body of the victim. Some arcane, CSI-style bit of forensics will come into play here, helping steer the detectives to the truth.

12. If at any point in the investigation, special knowledge is called for (about teen subculture, about military protocol, about international diplomacy), one of the detective characters will have it, no matter how implausible it might seem. And this knowledge should be delivered in a clunky speech that might as well have the word "exposition" flashing underneath it.

13. If anyone's going to be arrested, the arrest must happen in a public forum to make it as humiliating as possible for the suspect. In "Law and Order" no one's allowed to turn himself in and detectives exercise zero discretion.

14. Something the detective characters did (or didn't do) will be tossed out by the trial judge and ruled inadmissable. This will make things very difficult for the D.A. characters. This will typically occur shortly after...

15. ...a defense attorney serve the D.A. characters with one of those blue motion forms. It's never good news.

16. The female D.A. character will conduct her own investigation. Why this is necessary isn't always clear. Didn't the detectives spend 30 minutes on this case already?

17. The male D.A. character - who never conducts investigations - will face a big setback (because of the judge, a witness, or the accused) and devise a very creative, possibly unethical, solution to get around the setback. This new solution will be conceived either on the courthouse steps or in his wood-paneled office.

18. Include a scene in the caged witness room on Riker's Island. Hopefully this will involve a defense attorney asking the D.A. characters "What are you offering?"

19. The offer is never appealing to the defense.

20. At trial, the D.A. characters will do more arguing than questioning when there's a witness on the stand. Your lawyer friends hate this part of the show.

21. Include this dialogue: "Objection!" "Withdrawn." Also good to use: the judge growling "Watch it, counselor."

22. At trial, one of the witnesses will reveal something he/she didn't intend thanks to the cross-examination skill of the D.A. characters. When this happens, it's a good idea to show the jury box's reaction.

23. About 45 minutes into the episode, all hope will seem lost. The case falls completely apart. The accused looks like he'll get away with it.

24. But the D.A. characters go back to a part of the case (a witness or a piece of evidence) that had been previously neglected and find a new way to use it.

25. When the truth about the crime is at last going to be fully revealed, slowly, slowly fade in the volume on the violin soundtrack. Often this will occur in the D.A.'s conference room or on the witness stand.

26. End the episode with a final pithy one-liner from one of the D.A. characters that perfectly sums up how A) justice always prevails or B) the real bad guy got away.

Ars gratia artis

Neatorama.com takes a look at the origins of the Hollywood movie studio logos. Probably for shameless movie nerds only. That is, those of you who know who Alfred Newman is and why he's so important to movie logos.

"The world's biggest toy store"

Us Generation Xers all grew up with this TV spot. Images of Star Wars action figures dancing in our heads. Happy holidays!


Holiday knee-jerk review: "The Year Without a Santa Claus"

1. You know this one. It's the stop-motion 1970s Christmas special with the Heat Miser and Snow Miser.
2. They're the best part of the show, although their whole subplot is effectively moot: our heroes visit the Snow Miser and Heat Miser to try and make it snow in South Town, which will in turn free reindeer Vixen from the dogcatcher. (When we write it all out like this, it really seems ridiculous but it sorta works in the show.) But by the time they make their case to the Miser Brothers, Vixen's already free so the whole thing was pointless. Makes you wish they'd just done one more rewrite on the script.
3. Interesting how active Mrs. Claus is here in trying to save the day and go behind Santa's back.
4. Also interesting that Santa's doctor is such a crabby anti-Christmas jerk. Can't they fire that guy? How'd he get this job?
5. The melancholic "Blue Christmas" song at the end, paired with kids' crayon drawings, is cheesy stuff. But good cheese.
6. But the real showstopper is of course, the Miser Brothers' songs.
7. "I'm Mister White Christmas, I'm Mister Snow. I'm Mister Icicle, I'm Mister Ten Below. Friends call me Snow Miser, whatever I touch turns to snow in my clutch... I'm too much!"
8. "I'm Mister Green Christmas, I'm Mister Sun. I'm Mister Heat Blister, I'm Mister Hundred and One. They call me Heat Miser, whatever I touch starts to melt in my clutch... I'm too much!"
9. As sleek and beautiful as Pixar-style computer animation may be nowadays, there's still something cozy and tactile about these sorts of old-school stop-motion specials, with their moth-eaten wire-frame dolls and schmaltzy songs.
10. Or maybe it's just another example of lame Generation X nostalgia.

Progressive Flo

Is it just us, or is there is something strangely beguiling about Flo, the chatterbox spokesperson for Progressive Insurance with the "tricked out namebadge"?

Just us, then?

Just us and a reporter at WSBTV in Atlanta, apparently. They tracked down the actress who plays Flo... Stephanie Courtney.

Knee-jerk review: "Australia"

1. This is a whole lot of movie. Chock full of subplots and themes and homages and characters. Probably a few too many, truth be told. It's a little fuzzy around the edges.
2. The idea is clearly to offer the romantic sweep and thrilling historical action of Gone with the Wind. Give director Baz Luhrmann credit for ambition.
3. Nicole Kidman in the real world is becoming more plastic-looking with every passing day. And that smug little smirk she always wears doesn't do her any favors. But in the movie here she resembles an actual human being. And a likable one at that.
4. The cattle drive sequence is probably the highlight. Despite what the TV spots may suggest, this is in many ways an old-school Western.
5. Luhrmann, as usual, is very interested in filling his work with pop culture allusions. The Wizard of Oz plays a big role in the action here. It's not just discussed, but characters are shown watching it, and the tune "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" features prominently. More interesting, though, is the way Luhrmann's cinematography often calls to mind the big Technicolor epics of the 1930s.
6. Yeah, the kid who plays little Nullah is pretty good.
7. Hugh Jackman's solid as always. Why isn't he a bigger star? He only draws crowds when he's playing Wolverine, which is odd.
8. The opening few minutes is pretty weird tonally and formally, but the movie settles down soon enough.
9. A lot of it is familiar, but still fun. The freshest element is the class/race subplot involving the cruel treatment of Australian aborigines and the half-caste offspring of whites and Aborigines.


Ode to the "Real World/Road Rules Challenge"

Last month, the latest cycle of MTV's "Real World/Road Rules Challenge" concluded with its usual paroxysm of backstabbing duplicity. You see, the guys had told Paula all along that they'd be keeping her as part of their alliance but then at the last minute they flipped on her and picked Evelyn instead because she was going to... Well, you get the point.

The "Real World/Road Rules Challenge" series ("RWRRC" for short) is like a king-sized bag of Chili Cheese Fritos. There's nothing of value there, and it may even be killing brain cells, but you can't stop consuming it

The "RWRRC" series is a rip-off of "Survivor." Two teams live together at some exotic location and compete for rewards and immunity every couple of days. One person gets eliminated each week with the ultimate goal being that the final handful of contestants left standing get a chance to compete in one last huge challenge for a big pot of cash. As for us viewers, we get front-row seats for the resultant alliance-building and double-crossing, all of it peppered with four-letter words bleeped by MTV. But because mouths aren't pixilated, you learn quick how to read lips.

Why is this show so addictive? We don't know... and we're not sure we care. But in the interests of self-improvement, we tried to analyze the show's allure. Why can't we change the channel?

1. The repertory effect.
Unlike shows like "Survivor" in which each season introduces a new cast of characters, for "RWRRC" there's an awful lot of repeat appearances among a small pool of contestants. Some of these people we've watched compete in four or five "Challenge" cycles, making them as familiar as scripted show characters. Just as you know Jack McCoy's hard-nosed idiosyncracies on "Law and Order," so too do regular "RWRRC" viewers know these contestants: flirty Kenny, unstable Robin, stubborn Evelyn, honorable Derrick. There's also the catty bonus element of seeing how the contestants have changed since we last saw them. This often involves ridiculous plastic surgery for the girls.

2. Familiarity breeds contempt. This is a big one. You have to understand that "RWRRC" contestants have tangled off-screen lives that are more salacious than most soap operas. They date each other, break up with each other, cheat on each other (with each other), start lame dead-end businesses with each other. And they know everything about each other. When you join the cast of "The Real World" or "Road Rules" it's like you're becoming a part of the world's most dysfunctional family. So when contestants gather to compete for "RWRRC," they're coming into it with pre-existing relationships, friendships, and grudges. It's not like "Survivor" where total strangers must trust each other from scratch. For this reason alone, the alliances on "RWRRC" have a subtext you don't find on other shows. Every strategic decision seems all the more dramatic and emotional (e.g. players refuse to backstab a friend even if it means losing the game; players eagerly conspire to find creative ways to double-cross enemies; players find it difficult to show contrition or apologize to enemies even if it means winning the game) because of the long-term relationships the contestants have outside of the show. It's "Survivor" on crack.

3. The appeal of snobbery. The "RWRRC" contestants are all in their 20s and they do what all 20-year-olds do on MTV. They have sex, they drink, and they curse. And sometimes in the midst of all of this, especially when alcohol is involved, things get heated. Insults fly (the best being when the older contestants are jeered for being, gulp, 30), fists are sometimes thrown, and you're sitting at home gobsmocked that people actually act this way. On purpose. With a camera in their face. There's a delicious feeling of smug superiority watching "RWRRC" because these people are all completely nuts in a way that you can only vaguely comprehend. It's the theater of the rude and the lewd.

4. Envy. We're not going to lie. These are all very attractive people, in far better shape than you, getting a lot more action than you ever did. And they're getting paid, maybe even earning a living, to run on obstacle courses in the warm sand of a Central American beach every six months.

Okay, so what have we learned? We're not proud of our devotion. "RWRRC" is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. And if you ask us about it in person, we'll pretend we don't watch.

Knee-jerk review: "Twilight"

1. For the uninitiated, don't worry. It's not as bad as you might think.
2. In fact, it's pretty good for what it is.
3. Robert Pattinson could have dialed down his tortured, angst-ridden James Dean impersonation, though. You're a loner. We get it.
4. It's easy to see why the story appeals to tween girls (and the tween girl inside every adult woman): forbidden love, mysterious hunk protector, the adolescent melodramatic belief that first love is everlasting love. It's romantic, okay?
5. The movie was made cheap and it does sometimes show, but that only adds to its charm. There's a unity to the vision here, as opposed to the storytelling-by-committee vanilla pointlessness that sometimes infects big budget movies.
6. Billy Burke makes the most of his part as a small town cop. He's a lot of fun to watch.
7. Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the underrated 2003 teen drama Thirteen, shows again that she has a genuine knack for infusing teen stories, no matter how over-the-top, with a level of realism, especially with the high school student characters.
8. Kristen Stewart does a pretty goob job until that last hospital scene when she starts to "act."
9. Loved the mortar board gag.
10. The baseball game is pretty cheesy, all cornball fast-forwards and slow-motions, but the showdown that comes right after it (bad vampires meet good vampires) is the best part of the movie.
11. There's a very literary feel to the story, which is all broad strokes and big symbolism. For the most part, it works.

"Survivor Gabon": Contestant most likely to win

Sugar, 3:1
Kenny, 4:1
Mattie, 5:2
Susie, 7:1
Bob, 10:1
Corrine, 15:1
Crystal, 20:1


Ice or no ice?

The October issue of Wired magazine took a scientific approach to the age-old question of how much ice is enough ice when you're paying $5 for a soft drink at the movie theater.

Factoring in volume, temperature, and cost, the answer is that an "easy on the ice" approach is the best approach.

Click on the image below to get a closer look at the figures.

Knee-jerk review: "Role Models"

1. Forgetting Sarah Marshall remains 2008's funniest comedy, but it's practically a photo finish with this one. It's definitely funnier than Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express.
2. Paul Rudd remains extremely underrated. No one can do deadpan bitter misanthropy quite like him. This is his movie, especially the scene where he viciously insults a Starbucks-like barista.
3. "And your whispering eye."
4. In addition to the comedy going on front and center, this is also a movie full of small background moments of inspired insanity, especially the many minor characters who all seem to be fully-realized (if weirdo) characters.
5. You will laugh out loud. Guaranteed.
6. Unless you're easily offended by profane, R-rated humor. In which case we can make no guarantees.
7. You know the KISS reference will circle back around in time to contribute to the climax, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable.
8. A great reminder of how critical perfect casting is. Every role pops.

Knee-jerk review: "Quantum of Solace"

1. We weren't always exactly sure what was going on with the plot, but we got the gist.
2. Daniel Craig remains the best James Bond. Sorry, Connery loyalists. Now if only he'd lighten up just a little.
3. On one hand, yeah, it's a little annoying the way that these reboots are so brazenly mimicking the gritty chop-kick-smash action of the Bourne movies. On the other hard, if anyone gets a free pass in ripping off a spy movie, it's James Bond.
4. The opera scene is probably the best part of the movie, with the desert climax a close second.
5. Also cool is the rooftop footchase.
6. Judi Dench gets all the best lines.
7. Some of the action, however, is sliced and diced in such a way that it's impossible to follow. Rapid cuts of extreme close ups and overmodulated sound effects isn't how you put together an exciting action sequence.
8. Great allusion to Goldfinger. Poor Strawberry Fields.
9. Agreed. That's one weird title.
10. Let's not spoil it, but the ending is exceedingly kick-ass in the way it brings back a very familiar James Bond element for the first time in the reboots.
11. Maxim magazine calls Olga Kurylenko the hottest Bond girl ever. At this time the Cheese Fry cannot argue with that.
12. Then again, the movie's most engaging relationship has nothing to do with Kurylenko. The only real warmth in the movie comes from the dynamic of Bond and M.
13. James Bond has most definitely never before been this cold-blooded. He seems very eager to use deadly force.
14. Why must the Bond theme songs all be so lame? How is this possible? Honestly, you'd have to go all the way back to the 1980s to find a truly memorable theme song (For Your Eyes Only and A View to a Kill aren't musical classics, but you can hum them). If Miley Cyrus can dig up songwriters who can put together a hooky single, why can't the James Bond producers?
15. Dig that Universal Exports business card.

In January 2007, the Cheese Fry ranked all of the Eon-MGM James Bond movies.


Knee-jerk review: "Rachel Getting Married"

1. Anne Hathaway really can act. She's a revelation here, set free of her usual aw-shucks cutesy romantic comedy roles.
2. It calls to mind last year's Margot at the Wedding (upper-class wedding disrupted by family dysfunction), but this movie's way more entertaining if only because it's got some real humor in it. A closer cousin would be 2003's underrated Pieces of April.
3. Also a big plus is the way that there are no easy answers here. The family is a mess, but a completely understandable mess given the tragic shared history. You get why these people act the way they do.
4. But enough with the long indulgent sequences of singing and dancing. We get it: everyone's enjoying the wedding. Let's just keep things moving, okay? The movie could have lost 15 minutes of this stuff, easy.
5. The dishwasher contest is the best scene of the movie. From humor to tragedy in five second flat. Outstanding.
6. God bless Debra Winger, who's decided it's okay to look her age. And she looks great.
7. Mather Zickel looks just like Clive Owen. Uncanny.
8. The only real suspension of disbelief comes from buying that Rosemary DeWitt's character would fall for Tunde Adebimpe's character.
9. Most movies might focus on the events surrounding a tragic family event. Here, though, the movie's about what happens ten years later. Very interesting.
10. Top notch.

"I, Barack Obama, do solemnly swear..."

History was made this past Tuesday, but the significance of Obama's landslide victory probably won't sink in for a while. How cool is it going to be to watch Obama hold a Rose Garden press conference?

Likewise, it will probably also take a while to realize that come January 20 the world will at last be safe from further geopolitical damage inflicted by the likes of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Paul Wolfowitz. May they all swiftly fade into irrelevant obscurity.

One big lesson the Cheese Fry learned over the last couple of weeks was how news organizations are so motivated more by advertising than by journalism. Yes, we can be very idealistic. If you read newspapers or watched pundits on TV, you might have been expecting a close election due to pre-election poll analyses. Looking back in hindsight, Obama's rout of the hapless McCain was probably a done deal by the middle of October. But that sort of thing doesn't draw audiences. A far more interesting story - one that begs repeat viewing, drives up ratings, and raises ad dollars - is one that talks about how the race is tightening up and that McCain could still win it. Whatever, people.

So why did McCain lose? A very unscientific think tank study commissioned by the Cheese Fry points to five keys to the Obama mandate.

1. Sarah Palin. Do you know anyone who truly and honestly liked or respected her? We don't. McCain's first presidential-level decision and this was how he responded. Aside from being hopelessly inexperienced, Palin was George W.-like in her smug confidence and phony down-home charm. She surely cost McCain votes.

2. Appearance. People often vote instinctually, choosing the more presidential-looking candidate. And that means the more polished, the taller, and the more charming candidate carries the day. Reagan over Carter. Reagan over Mondale. Bush over Dukakis. Clinton over Bush and Perot. Clinton over Dole. Bush over Kerry (you know it's true). And now Obama over McCain. Did you see the debates? McCain looked okay in the second one, a town hall forum requiring the candidates walk around a stage and perch on stools. A lot of long shots and medium shots. But in the third debate where both candidates were sitting at a table, it was all close-ups and McCain looked absolutely terrible. This was the Kennedy-Nixon debate all over again. Only in high-definition digital.

3. The economy. Had the Iraq war stayed on the front burner and allowed McCain to flex his foreign policy muscles more, things might have been a lot different for this election.

4. George W. If anyone deserves credit for Obama's win, it's not David Plouffe, it's President Bush. Voters may have confidence in Obama, but what happened Tuesday was also partially a show of zero confidence in Bush. It would have been hard for any Republican to win the White House in 2008.

5. Money. Obama's financial resources dwarfed McCain's and in a country where campaigns live and die by TV spots, McCain was at a severe disadvantage. It almost wasn't even fair. Obama had so much money he didn't know what to do with that he ended up creating a million-dollar prime-time infomercial.


Knee-jerk review: "Changeling"

1. "Unpleasant" is the word that comes to mind.
2. If you enjoy watching stock villains full of sexist superiority (e.g. the condescending cop, the cruel doctor) humiliate, insult, and berate trembly Angelina Jolie, then this may be the movie for you.
3. Mostly, though, it's a Lifetime woman-in-peril cable movie with a big Hollywood budget.
4. Yes, terrible things happened in 1920s mental hospitals. But that doesn't make it entertaining to watch. Especially when the filmmakers are so manipulative in making the patients as helpless and hopeless as possible and the doctors and nurses as evil and unredeeming as possible.
5. There is an electroshock scene. It's that kind of movie.
6. And don't forget about the child axe murders. It's also that kind of movie.
7. Is there anything to recommend? Well, three performances pop off the screen. Jolie's is not one of them, if only because she spends most of the movie crying and suffering. Reactive, passive roles like this are what Oscar-winning actresses have to take sometimes. No, the performances that pop are Michael Kelly's decent cop, Geoffrey Pierson's bad-ass lawyer, and Jason Butler Harner's creepy killer.
8. The production design is sumptuous. This is surely how 1920s Los Angeles looked and felt, all sunshine, fancy hats, and public transportation.
9. The movie's probably 30 minutes too long.
10. Director Clint Eastwood gets a mulligan on this one. His next film, Gran Tarino, will be in theaters soon. It looks fun. Eastwood's cranking out almost two films a year these days, acting like a contract director at MGM in 1941.
11. Jolie is way too skinny here. Sickly, in fact.


The Cheese Fry Hot 7 (Manhattan D.A.'s office version)

1. Serena Southerlyn
2. Kim Greylek
3. Connie Rubirosa
4. Abbie Carmichael
5. Casey Novak
6. Claire Kincaid
7. Alexandra Borgia

The Cheese Fry Endorses...

Esquire magazine recently devoted an issue to endorsements, offering its stamp of approval on select people, places, and things to help its readers make more informed decisions.

Now it's the Cheese Fry's turn.

We proudly offer our endorsement to...

* Newcastle Pale Ale
* green left turn arrows
* Cambria, California
* Wired magazine
* avocados
* CBS' Monday night comedies "How I Met Your Mother" and "The Big Bang Theory"
* Sugarland
* Sirius Satellite Radio
* Galveston, Texas
* the Arclight Hollywood theater
* the end of the George W. Bush presidency
* The Onion
* Chili's "Bottomless Chips and Salsa"
* Amy Poehler
* Dazed and Confused (the movie, not the song)
* Tennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher
* Tivo
* "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"
* Ikea
* The Stand by Stephen King
* Barack Obama
* Apple
* the slant pass
* Jack and Coke
* Madonna's "Into the Groove"
* Han Solo
* central air conditioning
* Wikipedia

Knee-jerk review: "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist"

1. It's really more cute and sweet that laugh-out-loud funny.
2. You've already seen the funniest bit in the movie: "It's not a cab, my friend. I promise you."
3. The chewing gum bit is disgusting, but funny. Especially the toilet part.
4. Michael Cera's soft-spoken stammering persona may get old eventually, but not yet. The guy is gold.
5. Although no way do we buy him as a bass guitar player. Sorry, dude.
6. Do New York City high schoolers really walk around Manhattan all night like this?
7. The Cheese Fry has always been unimpressed by the whole underground indie music scene, especially that air of smug superiority you see in those who love to follow no-name bands no one's heard of. The kind of person who, once a band gets big, suddenly brands that band an uncool sell-out. Do you like the band or do you like impressing people by saying you like the band?
8. Does anyone really still make mix CDs?
9. Another reviewer made a good point: how could Michael Cera's vanilla shlub ever have developed a relationship with Alexis Dziena's trendy bitch? The answer: he couldn't.
10. The Supercuts joke is a good one.
11. It's trying hard to be a cool, hip teen romance. May be trying too hard.
12. It's fun and breezy, yes, but also fairly forgettable.


Knee-jerk review: "W."

1. Well made, of course. But what was the point exactly? Why make it?
2. There's a number of interesting moments in W's early years, especially the turbulent relationship with his father and the tension surrounding George H.W.'s favoring of W's brother Jeb. That all works fairly well. It's practically Shakespearean.
3. But the movie also spends a good chunk of time dramatizing events of W's presidency in the run-up to the Iraq war. We all know how that turned out. We also know how wrong W and his merry band of cabinet members turned out to be on Iraq. Those scenes can't shake a lazy "been there, done that" vibe.
4. Josh Brolin is uncanny in his portrayal of W. It's not an impression, but it's very close. He's far better than the material he's been given. In many ways, Brolin's W seems more human and charming than the real W.
5. The one person who comes out looking awful is Condoleeza Rice. The way Thandie Newton plays her, Rice seems like a empty-headed piece of furniture, eagerly nodding and cooing her assent whenever needed.
6. Bruce McGill is always fun to watch, huh?
7. Can Dick Cheney really be this transparently reptilian? One can't help but wonder if things might have been different if Cheney didn't have the ear of W.
8. Conversely, could Colin Powell really have been this wise and prescient on the problems with invading Iraq? Hopelessly trying to be a voice of reason in a room full of short-sighted fools, all he needs is a halo.
9. Oliver Stone could have probably done a much better job if he'd just waited until 2010 to make this movie. Distance would have likely added more definition to the characters and events. Everything feels half-baked here. It's too immediate, too close.
10. And of course, there is no ending. Real life isn't so neat and tidy. The movie doesn't know when (or how) to stop. Might have been better to just end with W's 2001 inauguration. We all know the rest of the story (see #3 above).
11. It's the more poetic, more cinematic moments that pop, like Bush leading his cabinet on a hike in Crawford and getting them all lost. Or an aide offering his resignation for being so wrong on WMDs in Irag while surrounded by equally guilty cabinet members who refuse to join him.
12. More a novelty than anything.

Mayday, mayday. This team is going down.

The Dallas Cowboys, a Superbowl favorite as of late August, will now be lucky to drag themselves across the finish line with a playboff berth.

People, this is what they call a Texas-sized train wreck.

A cohesive, selfless team maybe could perhaps stand losing its quarterback for a month, suffering the embarrassment of off-field fistfights and indefinite player suspensions, grappling with a Swiss-cheese secondary lacking veterans, squinting in the glare of HBO cameras, or the dubious high-profile signing of another boderline malcontent receiver.

But this is not such a team.

The Dallas Cowboys have lost all of their swagger and confidence. They play with sloppy inefficiency and an abject lack of discipline. Turnovers, penalties, false starts, blown coverage, sideline tantrums, and - worst of all - denial that they're mediocre at best. Someone forgot to tell these guys that you have to actually win games to make it into the Superbowl. Showing up isn't enough to earn a W. The teams you're playing? They want to beat you. That means you have to kind of, like, try to beat them.

There's blame to go around, but the Cheese Fry would like to single out head coach Wade Phillips. When he was hired two years ago, anyone who knew anything about the Cowboys' awful history with nice-guy coaches should have seen this coming. Phillips is not a disciplinarian. He's one of those stupid-ass "player's coaches." Players need iron leadership, not soft-focus grinning companionship. This guy doesn't even wear a headset on the sidelines and by now he seems incapable of getting the Cowboys ready to play on Sundays. Whatever he's been doing, one wonder if maybe they should doing the exact opposite. The last time the Cowboys had this kind of coach was a horrific streak of three 5-11 seasons under the guidance of grandfatherly teddy bear by the name of Dave Campo.

The Cowboys have now lost 3 of their last 4 games. You'd think with each loss that they'd have some kind of epiphany, that these embarrassing defeats would serve as a textbook "wake up call" to get it together. So far that hasn't happened.

We're not sure it will.

May 8, 2009

The Cheese Fry is so there.

Previously, we discussed the best episodes of "Next Generation" and memorable dialogue from The Wrath of Khan.


"I need a CBC and chem-7, stat!"

It's been a long 14 years since NBC premiered a gritty little hospital drama called ER in September of 1994. Over three hundred episodes later, it's difficult to remember what couch potato life was like before the show became a Thursday night staple. While a smash success in its time, winning Emmys and big Neilsen numbers alike, the show has not aged well. Mercifully the proverbial plug will be pulled next spring amid much fanfare from the NBC promo people.

If you've caught ER in the last few seasons you'll see that it's very much stuck in the 1990s. You haven't missed much.

It's not the show's fault. There are only so many stories you can tell in Cook County General's emergency room (especially when you're juggling at least four subplots in every episode for 15 seasons) and this show has told them all.

Several times.

* Co-workers sleeping together and then breaking up, then getting back together.

* Doctors under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, which leads to Difficult Questions for coworkers regarding whether or not to blow the whistle.

* Ugly bureaucratic politics as unpopular doctors get promoted while the truly skilled doctors get the finger.

* Movie stars making a guest appearance to play a patient dying of a terminal illness. The hope for an Emmy nomination is painfully obvious.

* A very dire situation involving a lack of resources, whether it's beds, blood, or staff.

* Shootouts, explosions, virus outbreaks... in the hospital lobby where no security guard has ever proved useful.

* Train crashes, plane crashes, car crashes, all of them bringing in mass casualties and the frantic shout "We have to shut the ER down to triage!"

* Extreme weather that Makes Things Even Worse, from blizzards to heavy rains to heat waves.

* Messy domestic situations for the main characters, particularly those involving dying, crazy, addicted, or pushy parents. Immature siblings and bratty children also count.

* The tragic, unexpected (and ideally quite gory) death of a major character, typically in sweeps weeks. This is an emergency that has surely been marked with a gypsy curse.

* The miraculous recovery of a hopeless cause, reminding us that You Have to Have Faith...

* ...and the sudden demise of a seemingly simple case, reminding us that You Just Never Know.

* Patients in adjoining rooms that Share a Dramatic Connection (rival gangbagers, drunk drivers and victims, parent and child, husband and wife). Hopefully, one is worse off than the other so the one who's still conscious can look over through the glass doors and see the frantic, hopeless work being done on the other.

* Difficult personal choices involving mutually exclusive dichotomies (work-vs.-personal-life, following-hospital-rules vs. saving-the-patient).

* Dangerous procedures that have to be performed immediately (there's no time to get the patient to the OR) by a doctor who's Never Done This Before.

* An underage girl who's pregnant and can't tell her parents, the boyfriend, or both.

* The administering of a central line. Or the bungled administering of a central line.

* A strange object impaled somewhere strange.

* The arrival of a new doctor, who immediately rubs everyone the wrong way because of his/her A) incompetence or B) arrogance. Even better, this new doctor will be someone's new boss, thus adding to the friction.

It all sounds so familiar, huh?

Even the more shocking elements of the past have been recycled recently out of necessity. The 2002 twist in which Dr. Romano lost one arm in a freak accident thus becomes the 2007 "twist" in which poor Dr. Barnett's loses both legs. (I see your arm and raise you two legs.)

It's impossible to pick the best episodes, not out of a list of 300. But we can think back and remember the more memorable episodes, those that still stick out.

"Love's Labor Lost" (1995) - The one where Mark really screws up a baby delivery and the mother's dies. Still the best episode of the series.

"Hell and High Water" (1995) - The one where Dr. Ross finds some redemption for his self-destructive ways by saving a kid who's drowning in a culvert pipe during a flash flood.

"The Healers" (1996) - The one where Shep's paramedic partner suffers fatal burns.

"Ambush" (1997) - The gimmicky one that was shown live and had Dr. Ross watching a baseball game on TV in real time.

"Fathers and Sons" (1997) - The one where Mark Greene and Doug Ross go on a road trip together and deal with their strained relationships with their fathers.

"Night Shift" (1997) - The one where Dr. Gant dies and the only way they know he's dead is that they page him for help and the beeper sounds on the mangled patient on their gurney.

"All in the Family" (2000) - The one where perky little Lucy Knight dies on the operating table of her stab wounds moments after Dr. Romano actually shows some real emotion and promises her she'll be fine.

"Such Sweet Sorrow" (2000) - The one where Carol reunites with Doug and viewers get to see a special surprise return by George Clooney in the last shot.

"Damage is Done" (2002) - The one where Abby tries to help a battered neighbor and gets herself beat up by the abusive husband... which leads Luca to beat the hell out of him in a pool hall.

"On the Beach" (2002) - The one where Mark Greene dies of a brain tumor while sleeping in a bed in Hawaii.

Notice that none of these moments occurred after 2002. The death of Mark Greene is without a doubt ER's jump-the-shark moment. It's been all downhill from there. Just look at the character of Dr. Morris, the kind of goofy knucklehead that Ross and Benton would have taken out back and beat to hell had he dared to show his face in 1999.

That's not say the show was perfect pre-2002. With so big and sweeping a show, there were always imperfections. Case in point is the irritating surly character of Dr. Benton, who never met a patient or fellow doctor he didn't loathe. Special mention goes to the interminably tedious storyline involving his dying mother and his romance with nurse Jeanie Boulet.

And so the Cheese Fry bids a fond goodbye to ER. When it was good, it was great.

Now if you'll excuse us, we have a CT and C-spine to order.


You'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

This may be the funniest clip ever from Adult Swim's "Robot Chicken," but only for those raised on Star Wars. If you're from Generation X and not watching it, you're doing yourself a disservice.

via videosift.com


Knee-jerk review: "The House Bunny"

1. Very cute.
2. But some might argue that the cuteness factor for the Cheese Fry is affected somewhat by the presence of many attractive actresses. Those people could have a point.
3. Even so, the Cheese Fry has always been fond of college comedies.
4. Anna Farris is way funnier than you'd expect.
5. Hugh Hefner, playing himself, however, is way worse than you'd expect. But give the old guy credit for being such a good sport.
6. But it's really Emma Stone who steals the movie, gawky and sexy at the same time in a way that seems very fresh and very genuine.
7. Cool soundtrack.
8. Where did the girls get the money needed for their extensive makeovers and that incredible Aztec party?
9. "The eyes are the nipples of the face."
10. Biggest laugh-out-loud moment comes when we learn how Farris' character remembers people's names. It's ridiculous, but completely believable.
11. Yeah, it's better than Tropic Thunder, but that movie swung for a home run instead of settling for the nice little double that is The House Bunny.
12. The movie goes a long way in suggesting that girls can only be popular and happy if they ramp up the sex appeal and act dumb... only to finally at the last minute pull out of its sexist dive-bomb to insist that its actually far better to Be Yourself. (Though a little eyeliner and a low-cut blouse can't hurt since you'll have a boyfriend.) There's a women's studies thesis paper in there somewhere.

Knee-jerk review: "Tropic Thunder"

1. Yeah, it's pretty funny in places. But it's also kind of a narrative mess, ping-ponging all over the place. For every broad, silly joke there's a more subtle and clever jab and that makes for a very uneven experience.
2. Why is Jack Black even in this movie? He's completely wasted and rather annoying at that. You cut him out and you wouldn't even miss him.
3. The same goes for the rapper-turned-actor character Alpa Chino. A sort of clever idea that never really pans out. The whole thing feels undercooked.
4. Robert Downey, Jr., however, is the man. You can't stop marveling that someone as good as him is in something as crazy as this.
5. "You m-m-m-m-make me happy." Hilarious. And anyone you tells you it's offensive needs to get over it. The trend of actors seeking awards by playing a handicapped character is what's offensive (see Sean Penn in I Am Sam, Juliette Lewis in The Other Sister, Rosie O'Donnell in Riding the Bus with My Sister, or really, even Tom Hanks in the ridiculously overrated Forrest Gump - all of them doing the kind of mentally handicapped voice that we all mastered in the third grade), not a comedy that mocks that kind of narcissistic pandering.
6. Matthew McConaughey needs to just go away. Don't we all have those secret lists of celebrities whom we'd like to give a one-way ticket to a deserted island? Put him at the top of our list. He no longer even tries to play a character. He's just being Matthew McConaughey, oily and half-stoned.
7. It could be argued that the fake trailers that open the movie are more clever than the movie itself.
8. Danny McBride is a genius.
9. Best sight gag involves a dead panda. Too funny.
10. We should also perhaps discuss Tom Cruise's "cameo" as a fat, balding, profane studio head. Get it? He's, like, totally playing against type! How clever! We can, like, totally forget about how creepy he really is in the real world! If it wasn't so smugly self-congratulatory, so transparent in its attempt to make Cruise seem hip and relevant, it might be halfway amusing. But it's not. Cruise's performance is way over the top and his scenes throw the whole movie out of whack.


Rewind: the Beijing Olympics

Ten things we learned this summer:
1. Michael Phelps is indeed a freak of nature, which was dutifully explained to viewers by NBC via some very cool "Six Million Dollar Man"-style graphics that zoomed in on his freakishly disproportionate arms, legs, and feet. (His oversize ears were not discussed.)
2. Nastia Liukin may be the best U.S. gymnast, but Alicia Sacramone is the hottest.
3. Badminton isn't for kids. It's a high-speed game that requires the sort of agility and fast reflexes anyone reading this probably doesn't have.
4. "I Got Soul but I'm Not a Soldier" is one groovy song that backed up the best Olympic-themed advertisement.
5. There's something elegantly compelling and simple about the footraces. At the Olympics you can't get much more basic than "which of you can run the fastest?"
6. Cheaters can win. Anyone with the vaguest sense of human adolescence could easily see that some of China's gymnasts were no more than 12, way under the age required by the rules. But China put them into competition anyway and the team won gold. Everyone complained, but the Olympics seemed reluctant to "embarrass" the host country with something so rude as an accusation of cheating. Even though the complaints grew to the point that officials finally had to admit that they were looking into it, the Olympics are now long over and whatever sanctions that come down to punish China won't really matter, will they?
7. We don't care at all about millionaire NBA players trying to win a medal in basketball. Whatever.
8. Mary Carillo's cutesy little Beijing human interest stories were cloying and took us away from the games. We tuned in for the athletes, not Mary's husky man voice or her forced interactions with Bob Costas in the NBC studios. This is supposed to be the Olympics, not "The Today Show."
9. High divers go straight to the showers after a dive because the shower water is warm and helps with their muscles.
10. The opening ceremonies were nothing short of amazing. When was the last time something as cheesy as an Olympic opening ceremony got you talking at the water cooler? Yes, there was something vaguely Leni Riefenstahl about the whole thing - the thousands of Chinese performers dancing and marching in perfect "don't mess with us, we have more people than you" unison. And there was also the requisite controversy about the little girl singer who was deemed ugly and replaced by a prettier child who would lip sync the song. But did you see the glowing red drumsticks or the last torchbearer running around the inside of the stadium's upper deck? Brilliant.

Another reason to hate advertising

Earlier this summer the Made to Stick dudes, Dan and Chip Heath, wrote a column in Fast Company about the way advertisers manufacture social stigmas to sell products:

A classic TV commercial for Wisk detergent opens with a housewife closing a suitcase she has packed for her husband. Suddenly, the suitcase springs open, and we hear, seemingly from within the suitcase as if it's possessed, a chorus of devil children shrieking, "Ring around the collar! Ring around the collar!"

Another Wisk ad of that time shows a man on a cruise. He is approached enthusiastically by the female cruise director, who tugs playfully at his collar -- you know, in the way cruise directors are always playfully tugging at your collar. But then she spots his Ring Around the Collar. She recoils, disgusted. Ad Age ranked the Wisk campaign No. 62 in the 100 top advertising campaigns of the 20th century. It's also despicable.

People are incredibly sensitive to social stigmas. The most serious forms -- aimed at a particular race, ethnicity, class, or sexual orientation -- are pernicious and destructive. Others, less serious but more plentiful, govern our day-to-day behavior. Think of the way you quickly judge a person who sneezes on a crowded bus without covering up. The Ring Around the Collar message creates an everyday stigma of this kind.

Marketers deliberately construct stigmas for the sake of selling you a solution to the ensuing embarrassment and disgust. They smack you on the head so they can sell you an aspirin for the headache. Why do we put up with this?

If Ring Around the Collar seems laughably old school, a relic of a more naive time, then consider one of the 2008 variations. A commercial in Visa's Check Card campaign shows a deli where people move through the line with elaborate, precise choreography, like a Broadway production number. Customers complete their transactions by swiping the check card, and they all seem delighted to be part of the capitalistic clockwork. That is, until the moment when one misguided schlub pulls out some cash. Then everything comes to a crashing halt. No more dancing, no more delight. The cashier looks disgusted.

Yes, Visa and its ad agency, TBWA\Chiat\Day, are trying to make you feel embarrassed for paying for your lunch with cash.

Folks, that takes gall, since for most of the past 30 years, it has been the cash people who have waited patiently for the credit-card people. Remember the guy in front of you a few years back who was trying to buy a 79-cent Fanta Orange with his Visa, and the clerk used the card-imprint machine to grind the raised digits onto the carbon, but the machine didn't work right, so he pulled out a Bic and began microscribing the 16-digit credit-card number into those tiny preprinted boxes? And then he had to call for an approval code. Sheesh.

Sadly, Visa isn't alone in making shame one of our leading exports. Get a load of this astonishing statement in a Strategy + Business article that advised companies how to grow faster in China: "Too often, companies focus on understanding only the current demand of the consumer," wrote Edward Tse, a VP with the consultant Booz Allen Hamilton. "A better course is to anticipate or even create demand. Through smart marketing, Procter & Gamble, for example, created the perception that dandruff -- traditionally a nonissue for the Chinese -- is a social stigma and offered a product (Head & Shoulders antidandruff shampoo) to 'solve' the problem."

Well played, P&G! And, quick, let's get a team from Gillette to solve the Arm Hair Problem in Ecuador! Other marketers should take notes on how to demonize the ordinary. Here's a suggestion for Coca-Cola: "Because who knows where your water has been." For Hallmark: "So he wrote you a love poem. Guess he couldn't afford a card, huh?"

You may be asking, What's the harm? A thoughtful paper from two Columbia University professors on this topic addresses that question. In "Conceptualizing Stigma," Bruce Link and Jo Phelan point out that while stigmatizing certain groups can lead to direct discrimination -- for example, against people regarded as "mentally ill" -- it can also have subtler effects. A depressed woman, for instance, who is aware of the negative perceptions of the mentally ill, may begin to act more cautiously for fear of the way others may respond to her. Stigmas breed self-censorship.

This is precisely the response that the sleazy Visa campaign wants to elicit. Picture yourself in a crowded checkout line. You reach for the cash in your wallet. At that moment, the folks at Visa and TBWA\Chiat\Day hope you'll feel a whisper of shame. The people behind you are cursing under their breath.

That's icky. Stigma should be reserved for people who violate community standards, like people who willfully park in handicap spots. It shouldn't be used as a too-cute-by-half way to peddle some dumb new product.

This is why we need one more stigma: a Ring Around the Collar for badly behaved marketers. Then the vast majority of people responsible for selling products wouldn't use tactics like these. It's time for the marketing community itself to be the first to turn up its nose at people who shamelessly use these techniques to sell creams and detergents and credit cards.


The Sarah Palin situation

Although reports today suggest John McCain's gamble on Sarah Palin may be working for now, last week L.A. Weekly's Marc Cooper looked at what the Palin nomination says about the GOP's predicament and what it might mean for the Republican ticket:

It might have beenthe waterlogged and vengeful ghost of Katrina, materialized in the form of Gustav, that came wisping into St. Paul, effectively shutting down the first night of the GOP's quadrennial multimillion-dollar propaganda show. But it's an uncontrollable Hurricane Sarah that threatens to blow the McCain campaign right into the deep, dark sea.

A rather shameless media swoon set in immediately after Sarah Palin's surprise appointment to the Republican VP spot last Friday. Reporters and anchors jostled each other aside in a race to celebrate the perky Governor What's-Her-Name's predilection for caribou stew, moose pie and children with screwball names. But the honeymoon was short-lived.

What began as a few breezy rumors on the Web soon congealed into a raging Category 5 storm of controversy. Sarah Palin was — within hours — revealed as a perfectly affable but totally laughable and supremely unqualified religious zealot from a three-stoplight town.

By day one of the truncated Republican National Convention, we learned that the governor had recently been a member of a fringe party seeking secession from the U.S.; that her God-fearing, fundamentalist 17-year-old unmarried daughter was carrying a baby; that far from being a Mrs. Smith–type reformer, she vigorously supported an earmark system she now supposedly opposes; that she supported the so-called Bridge to Nowhere before she opposed it; that she has lawyered up to rebuff a state investigation into her ethics; that she served as a top official for a political action committee of Senator Ted Stevens, who was indicted on myriad ethics charges; that with the exception of one political visit to Kuwait, she may never have traveled abroad, and that John McCain had met with her just once or maybe twice before giving her the nod.

By day two, as news broke that McCain's vetting party had arrived in Alaska only a day or so before the choice was made, we learned that in the political futures markets, the odds were quickly rising that Governor Palin would soon be purged, packed off to political Siberia and replaced on the ticket.

The Republican Party — especially its ideologically sodden "base" gathered in red-white-and-blue sequined vests and elephant-ears hats in the St. Paul convention hall — was reacting to this catastrophe the same way the old Communist Party USA reacted to the twists and turns of the Hitler-Stalin pact. History aficionados and graying red-diaper babies will recall that back then, the CPUSA obediently parroted whatever the Kremlin line of the day was — no matter how much it zigged or zagged. One day, it was to oppose the Nazi takeover of Germany. Then it was to support Hitler as an ally against British Imperialism. Then it was to ally with the former Imperialists to crush the Nazi invaders. All you had to do was pick up the morning edition of The Daily Worker to find out what to think. Or believe.

So what, then, if Supreme Leader McCain has changed his mind about the whole "experience" thing? For the last six months, we were supposed to be scared witless by the very thought of a dopey Senator Obama picking up the phone at 3 a.m., a pre-convention Clinton argument that McCain happily picked up on. Now, we're supposed to feel secure when Governor Gidget answers the call, puts on her glasses and wakes her hubby to ask if he knows where this Pakee-stan place is that everyone's so worked up about?

No problem, Comrade. Just as there's no problem with this whole teenage-daughter baby thing. All these family-values types, who want to stigmatize and punish errant sinners, are now all lined up to give a beneficent pass to Bristol Palin, who at age 17 couldn't keep her pants on tight enough. Governor Mom says she's "proud" of her kid's decision to keep the baby and marry the father. As if the daughter had a choice. Her fundamentalist family doesn't believe in choice. Indeed, Governor Palin has publicly advocated the criminalization of abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. In short, the same people who scold us not to politicize young Miss Palin's pregnancy, the same people who tell us it is none of our business, are the very same people who want to make it their business, and that of the state and of the criminal justice system, if — God forbid — someone else's kid gets knocked up and wants to abort.

There's nearly a one in five chance that any sitting U.S. president will die in office. McCain, if somehow elected, will be the oldest candidate ever to serve in the White House. He's also had four bouts of cancer. McCain's choice of Palin, then, demonstrates not only a ragged recklessness but is an affront to the entire electorate. Mister Serious, as McCain likes to portray himself, turns out to be a clownish and incompetent fool who thinks the American people are stupid enough to buy the gimmick he's come up with.

I seriously doubt it. Indeed, I think it's time to buy right into that futures betting market, because I can't imagine Palin surviving into and through the scheduled October 2 debate with Joe Biden.

As for the GOP, they'd best take a few hours off from their partying to bone up on the history of the CPUSA. Blind obedience to ideology and unswerving loyalty to leaders turned the CP into little less than a holding tank for geriatrics and Stalinists. And then it quietly, completely unnoticed, disappeared into the darkest recesses of forgotten history.

The hiatus is over!

In television, a "hiatus" refers to a short pause in a show's broadcast schedule when a network temporarily takes an under-performing show off the air for a few weeks. In reality, "hiatus" is code for "cancellation," a kind way of quietly removing a show from the schedule without the humiliation of announcing its been cancelled. It's only after audiences have forgotten about it does the bad news come out.

The good news is that the Cheese Fry has not been cancelled. It really was on an August hiatus.

But now we're back, leaner and meaner than ever. For those handful of people who expressed sadness at our lack of postings... thanks! We didn't know anyone was actually out there.


Knee-jerk review: "The X-Files: I Want to Believe"

1. Strange subtitle, isn't it?
2. But a way cool poster.
3. It's a fairly low-key movie, more a character drama than a creepy supernatural thriller. No special effects really.
4. Then again, that's a good thing compared to the over-the-top, convoluted conspiracy mess that was the first feature film back in 1998.
5. There's not much humor, something at which the TV show excelled. The quirky episodes were always the best.
6. Nice surprise appearance of a fan favorite character at the end. Didn't see that coming.
7. Plenty of frustrating plot holes and logic lapses here. Coincidental moments where two characters cross paths at just the right time to advance the plot. But upon further review, those kinds of story contrivances were a big part of the TV show. Then more you think about it, the more this movie feels like an extended episode of the show. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing depends on your expectations.
8. Gillian Anderson has aged very nicely. Wow. She looks better now than she did in 1994.
9. Some really great little moments here (especially when Mulder and Scully get into one of their great back-and-forths about the evidence and what it could mean), but also some very forced, rushed moments. Feels like sometimes the filmmakers are hurrying things along to keep things as brief as possible.
10. The big bad-guy secret isn't as shocking as it probably could have been. Also some disappointing parallels to things like Hostel and Silence of the Lambs.
11. For fans of the show, it'll certainly be enjoyable. But did it really need to be made? What could have been an enduring feature franchise may have paid the price for waiting too long to ramp up again (thanks in part to a nasty legal fight between Fox and creator Chris Carter).
12. There's also a considerable "ick" factor that involves pedophiles and deviant homosexuals.


Knee-jerk review: "The Dark Knight"

1. Sometimes too much of a good thing is a bad thing. This movie's about 30 minutes too long. Sorry.
2. Everything you've heard about Heath Ledger's Joker is true. That performance is a force of nature. Funny, feral, unpredictable.
3. Maggie Gyllenhaal is about a 300% upgrade over Katie Holmes, who was so hopelessly in over her heard in Batman Begins playing the same character. Gyllenhaal's a woman, whereas Holmes is a little girl.
4. The raspy voice Christian Bale uses when he's Batman works great when he's saying something bad-ass like "Drop the gun." But when he has to deliver long impassioned speeches that affected voice is just silly.
5. They flipped an 18-wheeler truck end over end. Wow. It's hard these days to see a stunt you haven't seen before.
6. Why would anyone want to work as a Gotham City cop? It looks like you never have a day off.
7. We didn't get the Harvey Two-Face character when Tommy Lee Jones played him in Batman Forever. But with Aaron Eckhart, we get it.
8. The problem with the movie is that there's too much of it. If you're looking at your watch and wondering if the movie will ever end, then someone somewhere has made a miscalculaton. Here, there's at least one action set piece too many and the final climax is so convoluted and over-the-top that it's hard to sometimes follow the action, much less care what happens. Part of the problem is a strange bit where Joker suddenly concocts an elaborate hostage situation (this is a movie full of hostage situations) straight out of a Saw movie.
9. You can only watch (and hear in Dolby Digital) so many explosions before it all starts to lose impact and you get numb.
10. Even so, this is probably the best superhero movie to so explicitly explore the fine line between vigilante and criminal, justice and vengeance, law and lawlessness. Thematically, the film is very sophisticated. How far can you push a just man before he snaps and becomes unjust? How much (or how little) would it take Batman to become the Joker?
11. It's fun to see Gary Oldman playing a bookish, mild-mannered hero.
12. "You complete me."
13. It must be nice to be a billionaire.

Let's 86 number 4.

If you look at it honestly and objectively, the enduring appeal of Brett Favre really boils down to three rather cliched observations about him.

1. He's loves playing football. This is invariably uttered by sportscasters over video of Brett grinning after a play or horsing around with his teammates. Of course, there are also many infamous moments - too may to count, actually - when Favre would make stupid decisions on the field, heaving a ball into the air or forcing it into double coverage, that would result in an interception. And there would be Favre jogging to the sidelines, shrugging with a little smirk. We'll get them next time, coach. There's confidence and there's recklessness. Yeah, he's not always the most level-headed, consistent player... but he loves to play, by golly. It might have worked out better for the Packers overall if they'd had a guy who maybe hates to play a little, but does so with a smarter attitude.

2. He's a good guy. This stems mostly from his aw-shucks, Southern-fried personality, all laid-back charm and stubbled machismo. He's the kind of guy you'd want to buy a beer for, a perfect complement to the blue-collar town of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Of course, none of us really know Favre, so we'll have to just take at face value the many ESPN interview packages that help reinforce this notion that Favre's a guy's guy who chops wood and drinks Pabst. Albeit a guy's guy who makes millions and millions of dollars. Maybe he should buy the beer.

3. He's one of the most durable players in the NFL.
Favre certainly earns this one, having made 253 consecutive starts at quarterback. In a league where every game is the equivalent of a multi-car accident, that is an amazing feat. Then again, consecutive starts don't necessarily equal wins. Why is this such a big deal again?

It's not fun, we know. It's practically an American requirement to love Favre. But look yourself in the mirror. Favre is a great story, but he's always been a very streaky player.

In fact, the time may be drawing nigh when we all have to re-evaluate Number 7. Because the escalating retirement/unretirement soap opera between Favre and the Packers front office is not only exhausting, it's threatening to completely undermine the Favre Myth. He's now seeming so petulant and whiny that you'd think he was an NBA player.

Submitted for your consideration:

* A recent network sports show interviewed a number of NFL quarterbacks, all of whom said something along the lines of "He's Brett Favre - he should do what he wants." So if you're a celebrated athlete, there's no reason to be bound by a contract, much less any sort of common courtesy? Okay, just checking.

* Favre recently claimed that the Packers "forced" him out. You can maybe force out the second-string safety you drafted out of Eastern Nevada State. No way do you force out one of the best-known QB brands in the NFL. The fact that Favre expects anyone to believe that line of crap is beyond belief. In fact, it's insulting.

* The Packers contend that they had arrangements with Favre to un-retire back in March, but he changed his mind. Read that sentence again. They were ready to take him back when he said never mind. And so now he's changing his mind back. Again. This unending vacillation is selfish in the extreme, as if Favre has some sort of twisted psychological need to be the center of attention. You'll surely recall that this kind of farce has played out the last two off-seasons as Favre cruelly left the Packers and its fans wondering for months if the Great Favre would come down form the mountaintop and deign to grace them with his 17 touchdowns and 32 interceptions. It's arrogant behavior that does not match the fuzzy PR image of Favre as the good guy who loves to play football. In fact, if this guy is so unsure what he wants to do, if you're in the huddle with him you have to be wondering if he'll suddenly retire again in the middle of the season.

* Favre recently also had the audacity to suggest he's upset with the Packers because they haven't been very welcoming or warm to him. Unbelievable. Why should they be? Can you imagine what might happen if any of us quit our job and then wandered back in three months later demanding it back... and then complaining about a lack of warmth when the red carpet wasn't rolled out? This isn't the real world, people. It's the Coddled-Star-Athlete-World. It's just sad that we're learning Favre is among its inhabitants, no different than crybabies like Terrell Owens or Chad Johnson or Randy Moss.

* Now comes word that the real reason Favre suddenly wants to un-retire might be the Minnesota Vikings, a Packer division rival, want to sign him. Favre surely figured he'd snap his fingers and get the Packers to release him to play wherever he wanted. I mean, come on. He's a good guy who loves to play football.

This sordid mess will have no happy ending, not for Favre, not for the Packers.

One thing is certain: if Favre plays again in the 2008 season, the Cheese Fry will now vigorously root against Brett Favre. You should, too.

UPDATE: An unofficial ombudsman of the Cheese Fry, Taco Salad, correctly pointed out that the original title of this post "Let's 86 number 7" made no sense as Favre's number is, in fact, number 4. The Cheese Fry regrets the error.

"Fists with your toes..."

Last week was the 20th anniversary of the theatrical release of Die Hard. The Cheese Fry remembers well his first encounter with that action classic: an employees-only, after-hours screening at the now-defunct United Artists Walnut Hill 6 movie theater. Suffice it to say, none of us had ever seen anything like it. So many movies over the years have ripped off, er, paid homage to Die Hard, it's easy to forget how revolutionary the film was back in 1988.

To celebrate the anniversary, Martians Attacking Indianapolis offers an exhaustive and insightful analysis of Die Hard.


Pixar Animation vs. Dreamworks Animation

Let's agree for the purposes of this discussion that the undisputed bronze medalist these days when it comes to feature film animation is 20th Century Fox. We'll stipulate that Robots was something of a charming mess and Ice Age was fun.

But the heavyweights - the George Foreman and the Muhammad Ali of CGI animation - are Pixar and Dreamworks.

So which one's Ali (the flashy, charismatic pretty boy) and which one's Foreman (the dependable, low-key workhorse)?

Let's look at the tale of the tape.


Pixar Animation
Wall-E (2008, $171 million in grosses worldwide to date)
Ratatouille (2007, $621m)
Cars (2006, $461m)
The Incredibles (2005, $631m)
Finding Nemo (2003, $864m)
Monsters, Inc. (2001, $525m)
Toy Story 2 (1999, $485m)
A Bug's Life (1998, $363m)
Toy Story (1995, $361m)
* Nine releases, $4.48b - an average of $498m per release

Dreamworks Animation
Kung Fu Panda (2008, $357m to date)
Shrek the Third (2007, $798)
Flushed Away (2006, $177)
Over the Hedge (2006, $336m)
Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005, $192m)
Madagascar (2005, $532m)
Shark Tale (2004, $367m)
Shrek 2 (2004, $919m)
Shrek (2001, $484m)
* Nine releases, $4.33b - an average of $482m per release

At first glance, it seems close though Kung Fu Panda has about a three-week head start on Wall-E. Who knows how that head-to-head race will end up? Even so, one cannot overlook the muscle that is the Shrek franchise. A fourth one's on the way, of course. But what ultimately tips the balance in Dreamworks' favor is the mulligan that was its ill-fated venture with Aardman Animations. If you rightfully discount the Flushed Away and Curse of the Were-Rabbit flops (which forced Dreamworks to embrace Aardman's cutesy claymation look and dry British humor), then Dreamworks' seven releases average out to $567m per release. That's almost $100 million more per release than Pixar.

Advantage: Dreamworks.


Pixar Animation
Wall-E (2008) - nomination practically a foregone conclusion
Ratatouille (2007) - nomination
Cars (2006) - nomination
The Incredibles (2005) - winner
Finding Nemo (2003) - winner
Monsters, Inc. (2001) - nomination
* two wins, three nominations

Dreamworks Animation
Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005) - winner
Shark Tale (2004) - nomination
Shrek 2 (2004) - nomination
Shrek (2001) - winner
* two wins, two nominations

Dreamworks can lay claim to the first ever Oscar for animated feature with Shrek, but every one of Pixar's releases since the category was created in 2001 has been nominated or won. That's an impressive streak.

Advantage: Pixar.


Here's where things start to get subjective. It's tempting to look down your nose at Dreamworks Animation, especially in light of the painterly beauty of Pixar films like Ratatouille or Wall-E. But don't forget the detailed whimsy of Shrek or the kinetic energy of Kung Fu Panda. Every release, including those from the show horse 20th Century Fox, pushes the envelope and finds new ways to play with the CG toolbox. But, you say, what about how Pixar practically invented the whole medium with Toy Story? Good point, but don't forget the way Dreamworks' Shrek single-handedly created a subgenre - right or wrong - of animation with nudge-nudge self-awareness, droll irony, and winking pop-culture jokes.

Advantage: Draw.


Dreamworks Animation, it seems, works like old Hollywood. CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg is the boss and everyone else jumps through hoops to keep him satisfied and curry his favor. The scripts and storyboards are written and rewritten again and again, endlessly tweaked by a parade of interchangeable directors and writers. The important element in this system is the gag, the sequence, the payoff.

Pixar, on the other hand, seems to work more like a Wall Street firm. There are no freelancers at Pixar coming and going like Dreamworks' hired guns. There's a continuity there, a family atmosphere. The same artists and technicians and writers and directors work together for years at a time on several projects. The important element for Pixar seems more holistic as a result: it's all about the big picture, the story.

Advantage: Draw. It's hard to argue with the results of either system.


This is the big one. Dreamworks makes no effort to hide the fact that its animated films are conceived with an eye towards sequels. The name of the game is launching franchises - a long chain of DVDs, toys, TV shows, theme park rides, and breafast cereals. The studio found a goldmine with Shrek and will milk it for as long as it can. Dreamworks' only other big hit is Madagascar - and guess what? A sequel is coming to a theater near you very soon. Though all companies exist to make a profit, there is something dispiriting about the way Dreamworks seems so solely interested in big tentpole franchises. It seems like they make Shrek movies and little else. And even the movies that aren't Shrek feel like Shrek: overblown characters, snarky gags and one-liners, broad humor and slapstick. It's a formula.

Pixar has its Toy Story franchise, true, but it mostly seems curiously determined to not go back to the same well twice. Every movie is different. They may, like any story geared at least in part to kids, explore the same morals of Be Yourself, but they all have their own feel. Paris of Ratatouille feels wholly unlike the flat desert of Cars or the future world of Wall-E. This interest in exploring different looks and genres and characters give Pixar films an artistry. With few exceptions, Pixar films are masterpieces. Dreamworks films are, well, they're entertaining movies.

Advantage: Pixar.

It's close one, but for now, it's Pixar taking Dreamworks the distance, winning by a TKO in the final round, using finesse and footwork (a love of the game) to counter Dreamworks' powerful-but-limited combinations. But that's okay - Dreamworks didn't really want to win. It just wanted the big purse.


Knee-jerk review: "Hancock"

1. Outstanding.
2. "I been drinking, bitch."
3. Ironman might be the better traditional popcorn kind of big summer action movie, but Hancock is far richer. It feels more important, more substantive. There are a lot of unexpected narrative and thematic layers here, the sorts of things that stay with you long after the lights come up.
4. Inexplicably, many critics are giving the movie bad reviews. Some think it's a sort of backlash against Will Smith, the suggestion being that it's time for him to have a flop. Luckily, moviegoers don't seem to be buying into that nonsense. The film made over $100 million in its first five days and will surely benefit from strong word of mouth.
5. A lot of critics are focusing on a whopper of a second act twist. If you're expecting Ironman or Batman or any of those other superhero "mans" then, yes, the twist can be hard to swallow. It changes everything. But it also kicks the movie into a higher gear that raises complicated questions about heroism, love, fate, and self-sacrifice. It's that twist that makes it so special. Without it, it's just a clever little superhero riff.
6. When it comes to movie stars, nowadays there's Tom Hanks and Will Smith and then there's everybody else.
7. It is a little hard to believe how Los Angeles' crooks think they have can actually tangle with Smith's Hancock (who can fly, has superhuman strength, and can't be hurt with bullets) and win. That inexplicable attitude may be the movie's weakest element...
8. ...As is the head-up-the-ass thing, which is funny but utterly impossible.
9. As a sidenote, Charlize Theron has never been sexier.
10. A lot of superhero movies seem studiously interested in portraying "how superheroes would really work in our society." But the way Hancock handles that puts those others movies to shame. It's very easy to imagine a superhero being threatened with lawsuits and arrests or relentlessly second-guessed and attacked in our selfish, coddled society. You saved my life, but you wrecked my car! It's also easy to see how that sort of reaction might make for one very miserable, misanthropic superhero.
11. Director Peter Berg is becoming the next Steven Soderbergh, willing and able to take on any and all genres. Berg's films are always interesting and far better than you might expect: the black comedy Very Bad Things, the action comedy The Rundown, the gritty drama Friday Night Lights, and now Hancock.
12. Nice career resurgence for Jason Bateman. He's solid as always.
13. Go see it.