8-bit Randy the Ram

One of the best parts of The Wrestler happens when Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke) plays a 1980s Nintendo wrestling video game, one more sad way he's stuck in the past, reliving his glory days. The video game is a small detail in a single short scene, but it goes a long way to providing a strong dose of verisimilitude.

Kotaku talks to the folks who designed that fake NES game. It actually worked.


Best and Worst Movies of 2008

1 Slumdog Millionaire – There’s a lot going on in this epic story: star-crossed love, rags to riches redemption, brutal crimes, resilient orphans. It’s Charles Dickens meets Bollywood. You can spend a lot of time slicing and dicing the film’s layered themes and symbolism or the way it so skillfully shifts gears from comedy to tragedy. The lasting impact of this film in exporting Indian culture to a wide Western audience cannot be overestimated. Memorably indelible.
Our knee-jerk review

2 Wall-E – Pixar movies are so consistently smart and sleek that superlative adjectives begin to lose all meaning. This one, however, may be the best yet, mashing together a critique of all-American consumerism, a cautionary tale of ecological ruin, and – most satisfying of all – a poignant
romance between two robots far more endearing and vivid than most glossy Hollywood romantic comedies. The first half-hour, which is almost completely without dialogue, is particularly magical. An instant classic.

3 Iron Man – Imagine Bruce Wayne without all the psychological baggage, a multi-millionaire who might actually, like, you know, enjoy fighting crime with cool gizmos. The movie’s got a dark edge to it in that it deals with the morality of arms dealing and the mortality of the main character. But mostly it’s sunny, fizzy fun thanks to Robert Downey, Jr. in a role he was born to play. This one ranks up there with Spiderman 2 and X-Men as one of the best superhero movies ever. Far more humor than you’d expect.
Our knee-jerk review

4 Cloverfield – Godzilla from the point of view of the screaming citizens. How’s that for high concept? The first 15 minutes can be tedious as the (yes, we admit it, cardboard) characters get introduced, but once the monster attacks, it’s a powerhouse roller-coaster of a movie and a special effects tour de force. Dig that leaned-over skyscraper. Extra credit for a surprisingly downbeat, somber vibe where a happy ending is not a sure thing. Vastly underrated.
Our knee-jerk review

5 Rachel Getting Married– This is what’s so great about independent filmmaking. Flawed characters get together and talk about why they’re so flawed and how they might (or might not) get better, ugly dark family secrets are pushed into the daylight, editors don’t have to conform to trendy chop-chop-chop rapid-fire cuts, perky Hollywood stars like Anne Hathway get to prove that they really can act, and established talents like Debra Winger have a chance to remind us how good they can be.
Our knee-jerk review

6 Gran Torino – A lean, gritty little movie about letting go of hateful habits and embracing the possibility of redemption. Eastwood hits the jackpot playing a surly Korean War veteran who still has some ass-whooping left in the tank. Some have rightfully pointed out that had Eastwood’s character unleashed his slurs on African-Americans rather than Asian-Americans he might not be so amusing a character. In a strange way, that’s just the sort of uncomfortable question about race that drives the whole movie.
Our knee-jerk review

7 Hancock – A lot of movies pay lip service to exploring “what it would be like if superheroes were real,” but this film really runs with the idea. A cranky superhero who’s blamed for the property damage he causes, drinks to forget the weight of responsibility on his shoulders, and ultimately hires a PR flack to help rehab his image. And that’s just the first half of the film. Midway through, the story takes a wooly left turn that Changes Everything. But you have to go with it. Seriously. Don’t fight it. Embrace the plot twist. You won’t be disappointed.
Our knee-jerk review

8-9 Forgetting Sarah Marshall/Role Models– Don’t believe for a minute that the sloppy train wreck that was Tropic Thunder was the best comedy of the year. These two are more hilarious by a factor of at least five. And far more plausible. There’s comic alchemy at work here, matching actors playing to their persona strengths (e.g. Jason Segel’s sensitive shlub, Paul Rudd’s wiseass misanthrope) with comic filmmakers at the top of their form (Nicholas Stoller and David Wain).

10 The Dark Knight – Make no mistake: this is one extremely overrated movie. There’s too much story, the film straining at the seams to contain all of the subplots and characters and themes. Smaller would have been better. But we must begrudgingly admit that few “popcorn” summer movies would ever dare to tackle such epic ideas about justice and obsession. And there’s nothing overrated at all about Heath Ledger’s blistering performance as the Joker. He makes you forget all about Jack Nicholson’s take on the character. Ledger’s creative fire will be sorely missed.
Our knee-jerk review

11 The Visitor – The quietest, simplest, and most human film on the list. What would you do if you found a Muslim couple squatting in your apartment? It’s a look at how small choices can have big consequences, how the middle-aged can always start over, and, on a bigger scale, how American immigration policy can be aggressively (and perhaps needlessly) impersonal and heartless. The lead role was written specifically for Richard Jenkins and it shows. He’s pitch perfect.

12 The Reader – There’s indeed something tired about Holocaust movies, which often seem to have been designed to wow critics and win awards. And a lot of what happens in this movie is fairly familiar. It’s the tragic characters that make the story pop, locked as they are into self-destructive choices fueled by shameful secrets. The final 20 minutes pack a real punch. Stephen Daltry’s only directed three movies – all three have been nominated for Best Picture. That’s quite a track record.

Honorable Mention: Baby Mama, Frost/Nixon, The House Bunny, In Bruges, Kung Fu Panda, Marley and Me, Man on Wire, Milk, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Quantum of Solace, The Ruins, and Wanted.

The Worst of 2008 (in alphabetical order)

Changeling – If the Angelina Jolie character were played by Valerie Bertinelli, this would be right at home on Lifetime. You wouldn’t have to change a word. It was the best of times, it was the worst of time, huh, Clint? (See #6 above.)
Our knee-jerk review

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – This is one of those stuffy, stiff movies that tries so very hard to be Important that it fails miserably to be engaging on any level other than the lush production design. We couldn’t wait for it to be over.
Our knee-jerk review

The Happening – It’s safe to say the bloom is off the M. Night Shyamalan rose. What was once a strong brand name is now a joke. A terribly silly movie with a ridiculous ending. Avoid it like the plague. You have been warned.
Our knee-jerk review

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls – We liked it at first, too. But upon further review, we cannot endorse this disappointing, lazy exercise in George Lucas ego stroking. He wanted aliens and by God, he got aliens over the objections of just about everyone involved. Thanks, George. Way to ruin one of our childhood icons. Aliens. Seriously?

Tropic Thunder – Robert Downey, Jr. is amazing, no doubt. And the “Simple Jack” bits are hilarious. This slapdash mess is never as funny as it thinks it is. It certainly could have been a great comedy, but that would have required more rewrites and a clearer, sharper vision than director Ben Stiller can bring to bear. The people making the movie seem to be having a lot more fun that you will be watching it.
Our knee-jerk review

Vantage Point – If you saw the kickass trailer, you probably wanted to see this movie. Sadly, the movie they sold is not the movie that they made. It’s something that happens a lot in Hollywood, but the transgression is never this insulting. It’s cheap, implausible trash that thinks it’s Three Days of the Condor.
Our knee-jerk review

X Files I Want to Believe – This is how you kill a movie franchise. It’s not even up to the level of a mediocre episode of the series.

The Cheese Fry wishes the above list were more exhaustive and comprehensive, but time and budget realities meant that we simply didn’t get a chance to see everything. Films we heard very good things about but have yet to find out first-hand: Doubt, Frozen River, Happy Go Lucky, I’ve Loved You So Long, Nothing But the Truth, and Vicky Christina Barcelona.


Knee-jerk review: 81st Annual Academy Awards

1. We think next year's hosts should be Tina Fey and Steve Martin.
2. For a second there, we thought we were watching the Tonys. What was the point of all of that nonsense with Beyonce?
3. Ben Stiller is quickly becoming very annoying. If we were a cinematographer about to get an Oscar, we wouldn't be at all pleased with Stiller schticking it up on stage as the nominees were being announced. Not everyone gets six figure paydays. For some of those DPs, this may be the highlight of their career. Jackass.
4. Sean Penn, huh? Interesting.
5. Poor Meryl Streep. No way does she win again until she's in her 70s or something, if she wins again at all. Folks just don't win three Oscars. She probably won her two too soon in her career. This is also why Tom Hanks may not get another one.
6. The "In Memoriam" bit is always creepily fascinating. But this year not only do we have to hear Queen Latifah singing, but we can't even get a good look at the dead filmmakers what with the theater camera swooping and spinning. How about just cutting to a direct feed of the video?
7. Zac Efron at the Oscars. Really?
8. There was something appealingly intimate about the acting awards, with past winners directly addressing the nominees. Then again, there was also something irritating about it as well, more egotistical self-congratulation between actors, the neediest, most messed-up people in show business. It would have been cool to have seen the same format for the directors and writers, but no one knows what they look like, huh?
9. The show still feels bloated with a lot of junk we don't need to see.
10. The right film won Best Picture.


"Let's get outta here!"

Some sort of official cinematic study once said that "Let's get outta here" was the most common, most used line of movie dialogue ever. What movie doesn't use that line?

KevinLehane.com offers a long list of even more overused cliched dialogue.


Something called DanMeth.com offers an interesting graphic examining the quality of popular movie trilogies. The Cheese Fry would, of course, rate Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan much higher.


Knee-jerk review: "He's Just Not That Into You"

1. It's cuter that we expected.
2. It's all very familiar. We've seen most of this before. But that doesn't mean it's a bad movie.
3. Sorry, Justin Long. No way did we believe you for a second as some kind of horndog expert on women. You look like the goofy kid brother of a real horndog expert on women.
4. It was fun to see how these many characters and subplot interlocked and overlapped. That's often the charm of these kinds of ensemble movies.
5. The filmmakers worked a little too hard to try and make Jennifer Connelly's character appear unlikable so that Bradley Cooper would appear somewhat sympathetic in his actions. We didn't fall for it.
6. The Actress Hotness Factor is way off the charts here. Jennifer Connelly, Jennifer Aniston, Scarlett Johansson, and Ginnifer Goodwin.
7. How cool would it be to own and manage a hip bar like The Supper Club?
8. "You're my exception."
9. In typical glossy Hollywood romantic-comedy tradition, the characters all have exotic professions (see #7 above; three of the characters work in sales/marketing for a trendy spice company, for crying out loud) and live in ridiculously sleek and expensive lofts, townhomes, and/or yachts that would cost millions in the real world. This isn't how most American moviegoers live.
10. Drew Barrymore looks weird.
11. You can tell the movie's dated by all of the MySpace mentions and not a peep about Facebook.
12. The guy on the dock, the one giving his "testimonial" to the camera? Dude looks like he's reading cue cards. What the hell?
13. It's way more enjoyable than the vaguely mean-spirited and designer-labeled Sex in the City movie.

Knee-jerk review: "The Wrestler"

1. Mickey Rourke is pretty convincing here. Believe the hype.
2. But, man, is this one grim and depressing story.
3. That last shot surely means what we think it means, but it'd be nice if somehow it didn't.
4. Barbed wire? Seriously?
5. If you think back on the real-world 1980s wrestlers, they really have all disappeared into the pop culture murk with the exception of Hulk Hogan. If Randy the Ram had a halfway decent agent or manager, surely he could have gotten himself a VH1 reality show.
6. But how is it that the movie's Ayatollah character transitioned into middle-class affluence while Randy the Ram spiraled down into blue-collar misery so tragically?
7. Marisa Tomei indeed does get topless (often) and does indeed look good for a 45-year-old. Believe the hype.
8. Looking at Randy the Ram's broken body and lonely soul craving the spotlight and you think: this is surely where most of the mid-level professional athletes eventually end up. Especially those who never made the multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts.
9. "What'll it be, spring chicken?" The deli counter scenes are great.
10. The wrestling scenes, by contrast, are tough to watch. These guys are bloodied and beaten for an adoring crowd whose cheers grow louder the more violent and outrageous the spectacle. God bless America.


She sees dead people

NBC's "Medium" is back, one of those off-the-radar bubble shows that quietly earns ratings and repeatedly (and rather surprisingly) squeaks by with a network renewal. It's an odd show. Especially stuck as it is in a marketplace packed full of homogeneous product that's often either A) dour police/forensic procedurals or B) snarky reality competitions.

"Medium" shares the basic premise of Jennifer Love Hewitt's "Ghost Whisperer," (cute psychic solves mysteries) but without the cheese and overwrought melodrama. In fact, strange as it sounds, what makes "Medium" so compelling is that so much of it seems so ordinary.

Yes, the show presents each week a grisly crime that would fit right in on "CSI," committed by the most diabolical and shameless characters the world has to offer, although all of them commit their misdeeds in the confines of sunny Phoenix, Arizona. And yes, there is a tired formula to the crime-solving thread of the show: psychic protagonist has dreams about the crime, misunderstands the dreams and begins to think she's Got It All Wrong, but in the end at the last minute realizes her dreams were right and uses them to help catch the bad guy. And her batting average is so high that it often feels very phony to witness her time and again face doubt and resistance among her police colleagues. Then again, it's also pretty phony to see how an ostensible jury consultant to the D.A.'s office is frequenty allowed to help question suspects.

But right alongside all that detective work and criminal mayhem is the suburban, middle-class existence of psychic mom (Patricia Arquette), mortal dad (Jake Weber), and their three blonde psychic daughters. But it's not a high-concept family out of Marvel Comics. This is a family struggling with bills, constantly making meals and washing the dishes, driving around in a beat-up Volvo, coping with the father's layoff, and - oh yeah - facing the inevitable fallout and stress caused by psychic mom's visions. And all of it with the charming crackle of writing you'd expect from Glenn Gordon Caron, the showrunner who also brought you the late, great 80s dramedy "Moonlighting." The casual, sexy chemistry between Arquette and Weber is particularly appealing, the most realistic and loving married couple on television now, second only perhaps to the Taylors on "Friday Night Lights." This is the kind of thing you just don't get on network television, where flirty coworkers is about as serious a relationship as viewers are typically allowed.

There's also a sense that because the show isn't a trendy, supersized hit the producers can take certain creative risks. They throw a lot at the wall to see what sticks. Many of the psychic visions are chilling and visual in striking ways, oftentimes with a genuine sense of poetry.

It's good stuff.

The two most recent episodes can be found at Hulu. The ending of "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead" is especially satisfying.

Top five days of the week

1. Saturday - For obvious reasons.
2. Thursday - Sometimes getting there is half the fun.
3. Friday - The possibilities are endless, aren't they?
4. Wednesday - Some call it hump day.
5. Sunday - But only the morning and early afternoon.


Knee-jerk review: "Taken"

1. It's pretty frakkin' awesome.
2. There's a lot of Hollywood actors we think could make for a good action hero. But Liam Neeson isn't one of them.
3. Until now.
4. The Cheese Fry wishes he could thrash anyone with just a few quick moves like Neeson's character. How much fun would that be?
5. Enough with the rapid, jittery chop-chop-chop editing and zooms and pans in action sequences. We get it. Things are all, like, crazy and kinetic when the adrenaline's flowing and asses are being kicked and cars are getting crashed. Woo hoo! Just remember that audiences sometimes, every so often, like to see what's happening on screen.
6. Famke Jannsen is 44 and still smoking hot.
7. Love the dropping-the-bullets-onto-the-table bit. Wow.
8. Would you let your 17-year-old daughter go unaccompanied to Paris? Neither would we.
9. A lot of folks get killed in this movie, but there's a surprising lack of blood. Credit the PG-13 rating.
10. The class warfare element of the story, in which the very rich prove to be very evil, will surely strike a chord in today's culture.
11. The script can be cheesy and simplistic, but it's also very efficient, especially in the first 20 minutes when we meet the characters and understand their situations.
12. It's a lot like the Mel Gibson movie Payback, but with more likable characters and less over-the-top violence.
13. Neeson has a number of great "don't mess with me" moments with scum and villainy that will make you want to clap your hands. It's that kind of movie.
14. It's also the kind of movie that works best if you disengage the logic portion of your brain. Neeson's success depends on a number of lucky happenstances and coincidences that fequently happen to dashing A-list actors. (Okay, maybe Neeson is B-list. You're so picky.)
15. Go see it.


"So say we all."

The acclaimed SciFi Channel series "Battlestar Galactica" is at last back on the air for its final handful of episodes. For the geeks who've been following the show, its return is cause for nerd celebration. If you've missed it thus far, you may find yourself hopelessly lost if you try to dive in now. Better to start from the beginning on DVD. The show is densely layered and serialized like few shows are.

"Battlestar Galactica" surely ranks among the very best that TV has to offer right now, but (like ABC's "Lost") it's often too inconsistent and frustrating to hit the home run. But when the show is clicking, as it was in last week's riveting mutiny episode "The Oath," no other show can touch it. The dialogue crackles, the plotting often surprises, and the acting is strong. Face it: if the show were running on HBO or NBC, it would have already won a clutch of Emmys.

This is what science fiction is all about - using a futuristic, otherworldly setting to explore problems in contemporary culture. For the last few years, "Battlestar" has raised sticky questions about terrorism, war crimes, martial law, and freedom. This season there's been an unexpected turn into racism and Nazi-style extermination. Without question, this is the grimmest, darkest show to have ever aired. There's often not much levity or charm to be found. Even "The Sopranos" often threw in black comedy. And bubbling in the background to all of this are deep questions about humanity. What does it mean to be human? Are humans defined purely by blood and flesh? If you've lived your whole life engaged in a friendship with someone you find out is a machine, does that make them any less human?

The show often loses its footing when it starts to dig into the convoluted religion of the characters. There's some pretty hoary double-talk dialogue to sort through, lines that sound cool but often don't really make sense. Even so, give the show credit for even trying to tackle those kinds of spiritual issues about God and fate.

Clearly, we're a long way from Dirk Benedict gambling on that Las Vegas spaceship back in 1978.

Come April, "Battlestar" will be off the air. And it will be missed.

This month, Los Angeles magazine's Steve Erickson offers a comprehensive look at the show's appeal.


Playboy vs. reality

The fine folks at Wired magazine offer another clever graph analysis of pop culture. This one tracks the differences between Playboy centerfold body types and "civilian" body types. In the 1960s, the centerfolds were a fair approximation of the typical American woman. No more.

Open Letter to 28B

To the self-centered, dickhead passenger sitting across the aisle from us on Flight 2055:

You, sir, are a jackass of the first order.

Whereas you continued to conduct your lengthy cell phone call far after the announcement was made to turn off all electronic devices, a call that included such vital pieces of business as discussing Superbowl party plans, giving detailed driving directions to your children who presumably had never heard of Mapquest, and urging those same surely insufferable children to let you know what they decide to do about the Superbowl party.

Whereas you began the phone call with the pushy and irritating "Who's this?" when the person you were calling said "Hello?"

Whereas your likewise annoying wife also had to make similarly lengthy, pre-departure cell phone calls

Whereas anytime you spoke, you chose to do so as loudly as possible, not considering that perhaps those around you might not be so eager to hear anything you had to say

Whereas you asked the flight attendant serving beverages to please mix together two different kind of juices (but not tomato) so that your sophisticated and pampered palate might find the proper quenching, thinking perhaps you were at some snotty country club rather than crammed into coach like those of us who were okay with Diet Coke

Whereas you kept politely quiet until your pre-mixed beverage was delivered, but then decided to ask for the flight attendant's life story, thereby tying her up in your droning, uninteresting conversation and preventing anyone else from getting their beverage

Whereas you decided to intercept another passenger innocently passing by on his way to the bathroom to engage him in another of your now-patented pointless and asinine chit-chats about whatever came into your pea brain, again conducting this conversation in a loud speaking voice just inches from other passengers trying to sleep or read quietly

Whereas this loud conversation lasted 30 minutes and including fascinating details about your stupid jobs, your stupid colleges, and your stupid friends and family

Whereas this loud conversation also clogged the aisle and forced other passengers to squeeze past you and your new best friend forever

Whereas the "please fasten your seat belts" sign didn't apply to you

Together, these make you an expert in the fine art of jackassery. As a reward, we spent most of the flight wishing great harm to befall you. May a beating with a stick be in your future.