7.31.2010

Thoughts on "The Good Wife"

The Cheese Fry has recently been trying to work through its backlogged DVR list. It can be a real chore. You'd rather watch a schlocky rerun of "Cops," but then you remember those seven recorded episodes of "30 Rock" and feel guilty about not burning through some of those. The DVR starts to feel like homework. Make dinner, clean the kitchen, fast-forward through a three-month-old "Saturday Night Live." Repeat tomorrow.

But there are benefits to the DVR, such as discovering a new favorite. We'd watched CBS' "The Good Wife" a few times early last fall, but it stopped being appointment viewing around the holidays. But the Cheese Fry kept it on the DVR list, so the episodes kept stacking up. Part of our reluctance stemmed from the fact that "The Good Wife" is so clearly an older-skewing show like other CBS dramas "The Mentalist" and the "NCIS" franchise. It's a slow-moving drama cast mostly with people over the age of 40. Nothing blows up. No one strips to their underwear. And the big twists that end episodes are fairly small, more clever than shocking. In short, this is a show our parents watch. Not us. We're still hip, right? We like the "Real World-Road Rules Challenge" and "So You Think You Can Dance." Even so, we must sadly come to grips with the simple fact that we're way past that coveted 18-34 advertising demographic.

So we might as well embrace "The Good Wife" and list its charms:

* Julianna Margulies is not what you expect from a TV star. She's not exactly charismatic. She rarely offers any sort of expression. Her voice is evenly modulated. Her acting style is placid sometimes to the point of android catatonia. And it's not just an actorly take on the button-down character of spurned-politician-wife-turned-lawyer Alicia Florrick. This is pretty much how she played Carol Hathaway on "ER" all those years ago. Her silent brooding sets the tone for entire series, which is filled with civil conversations, cold emotion, and hushed discussions.

* It may be the quietest show on television. The music cues are soft, the characters all powerful and upper-class in that way that keeps them from ever raising their voice, and the editing very traditional and methodical. It's the antidote to the overblown, finger-wagging theatrics of "Law & Order" or the slick and glossy hyperactive aesthetic of "CSI."

* The serialized storyline offers a complex look at backroom political dealings. Along with the standalone legal plots of the episodes, which always features Alicia finding a way to Save the Day, each episode also advances the story of Alicia's disgraced husband Peter. Peter was the state attorney general, but he was charged with bribery (we think) and is now locked in a complicated legal conflict with his successor (played by the always weasely Titus Welliver). There's a fascinating level of dirty murk in this storyline because we've never exactly sure what's going on or who's doing what to who. Both sides have allies, some clearer than others; both sides suffer setbacks and win small victories; and a lot of people caught in the middle get used as pawns (including Alicia) in the bigger fight. It's compelling because it all seems so plausible. This isn't a quick showdown where someone breaks down on the stand and the winner is decided, this is a marathon legal struggle involving some very bright and very determined people. We never watched "The Wire," but we suspect this is the poor man's version of that show - a look at how politics and justice and influence and wealth tie together in messy ways that aren't entirely legal but also may not be exactly illegal.

* Even the rich have money problems. There's no doubt that Alicia and her co-workers are upper class. They work in expansive offices with city views and live in plush condos. It's well-executed wish fulfillment for middle America who craves that kind of fancy uptown lifestyle. But even so, the show mines a lot of drama out of financial problems of the sort that middle America is surely quite familiar. Alicia worries about losing her job, the firm agonizes over layoffs, everyone feels the pressure to perform or else. The rich and powerful... they're just like us!

* Not everything is flawless. The firm's investigator, a mysterious woman named Kalinda, is sometimes a little too good to be true. Kalinda isn't just well connected, she seems to have a Deep Throat source on every street corner. She's always able to dig up some secret clue or deduce some connection in the nick of time to help Alicia. She so invaluable that we wonder why she's not a partner at the firm, although one episode did suggest that Kalinda's services are quite well-compensated. Even so, it'd be nice to see her fail at least once. Right now, Kalinda is more a plot tool than a three-dimensional character.

We like this show. And we're not ashamed to say it.

Knee-jerk review: "The Kids Are All Right"

1. It's been a while since we've seen an independent movie in a theater. When they're good, they're very, very good.
2. This one falls squarely into the Silver Lake/Westside subgenre of indie dramas, the ones that feature upper middle-class Los Angeles characters (there's also a subgenre featuring affluent, navel-gazing East Coasters) who live in amazing houses, discuss trendy topics like locavore foods, own their own hip little restaurants, and spend a lot of time agonizing over problems that are only problems for those who don't have to worry about paying the bills.
3. Bonus points for one character's rant against that very same hollow, smug, save-the-world vibe that makes liberals feel so good about themselves.
4. It's essentially a five-person drama. And each of the five characters get some very strong moments - funny lines, emotional breakdowns, etc. This is what they mean when they say you need to create a part that will attract an actor. Who wouldn't want to play all five of these parts?
5. We're proud of Annette Bening for allowing herself to look her age without resorting to botox or surgery. You go, girl.
6. You don't often see movies that examine this closely the mundane everyday joys, tensions, and grudges of a marriage. We can't even think of the last one we saw. The closest thing is probably the Taylors on NBC's "Friday Night Lights." Usually marriage is a backdrop for a string of jokes and one-liners (usually about how horrible marriage is) or a device used to increase the stakes and give the hero (usually a man) Something to Lose.
7. We knew something bad was going to happen when Nic decided to use the bathroom. We just didn't know how it was going to play out.
8. "No lines."
9. We don't think Julianne Moore has ever been this cute.
10. There are no easy answers here regarding how a sperm donor might or might not get involved in his the lives of his biological "children." Yes, he helps change these two kids for the better . But he also causes a lot of problems. And as well-intentioned as he might be, you agree with Annette Bening when she tells him off towards the end of the movie.
11. Most refreshing of all, that the parents here are a lesbian couple is barely a factor.
12. It'll surely be in 2010's top ten lists come December.

7.25.2010

"You can get with this or you can get with that"

Another memorable commercial that was in heavy rotation during the NBA playoffs. The Cheese Fry is likely far outside the 20-something demo for the Kia Soul, but that doesn't mean we didn't like the spot.

We're not sure what's more disturbing - the hamsters driving a washing machine or the hamsters trying and failing to drive a cardboard box. What were these ad guys smoking? And where can we get some?

7.18.2010

Knee-jerk review: "Inception"

1. The Cheese Fry hasn't seen a movie since December, and this is the one we pick?
2. The way Warner Bros. - and most critics, who are collectively in love with filmmaker Christopher Nolan - has been positioning the movie, only smart and sophisticated audiences will appreciate it. Which seems to us a rather ingenious way to defuse any negative reaction. If you don't like, you must be dumb.
3. I guess we're dumb. Because we didn't like it.
4. We were growing restless and dissatisfied towards the end (those repeated shots of the van falling were starting to get unintentionally funny to us) when it inexplicably became a James Bond movie. Random and pointless, existing solely, it seems, to be able to blow stuff up.
5. But then that final ambiguous shot was the last straw. You'll know the one. We suffer through all of this confusion, double-talk, and mind-games for more than two hours and you can't even give us a simple resolution? Screw you, too, Nolan.
6. We loved Memento and The Prestige, but Nolan undeniably became a cinematic "genius" darling based on The Dark Knight, a cleverly plotted and visually striking movie but also too long, too jammed full of needless plot, and suffering from a clunky ending. You'll find the same problems here. (The Dark Knight was also a movie that people loved to love, imagining that appreciating the film made them sophisticated and discerning.)
7. We don't get Ellen Page. Sorry. (And why is she pitch-person for Cisco. There has to be a good reason, right?)
8. There's a lot to be explained here about the "rules" of the dream thieving. And this movie does about as well it can in setting everything up in the first 30 minutes. Exposition is never easy, but it goes down fairly smooth here.
9. You know who we do get? Tom Hardy. He plays a fairly minor character but steals every scene he's in. This guy needs more parts, immediately.
10. We hear DiCaprio's the one who insisted on more of backstory for his character. And we have to admit, certain elements of this worked quite well for us. Wanting to see your kids' faces again? We can understand that.
11. Begrudging bonus points for the twist involving DiCaprio's previous experience with "inception." We liked that.
12. What's with not putting up a title card until after the movie's over? We recall first seeing that with Danny DeVito's terrible, unwatchable Hoffa back in the 1990s. Here you get the Warner Bros. sheild, the Legendary Pictures logo, then the movie just starts... and after the final fade out (see #5 above), then we finally get "INCEPTION." What's that all about? LIke so much of this movie, it feels arrogant.
13. Really, what is the point aside from playing with the audience?
14. We're told going into limbo will scramble your brain, but several people emerge from limbo with brains intact. That kind of nagging plot confusion bugs us.
15. The whole thing just feels smug and condescending. It didn't at first. It starts strong and we thought we were going to like it. But then... it just gets so tedious.
16. The hallway fight you see on the TV spots where everyone crawling on the walls - that is pretty cool.
17. We're still not sure if we get Joseph Gordon-Levitt. But we did love 500 Days of Summer.
18. It'll make a lot of money. And only encourage Nolan.

Top seven quotes: "Hell's Kitchen"

1. "Yes, chef." - The ubiquitous, reflex reply to any and all statements, questions, insults, accusations, recriminations, and attacks directed to the exhausted contestants by Chef Ramsay. We say this all the time in the Cheese Fry's kitchen - it makes us feel like the few lame dishes we make are actually something special. If you were going to turn this show into a drinking game, "yes, chef" would be the phrase to use to do a shot. You'd be buzzed before the first commercial.

2. "It's raw!" - Usually preceded by Chef Ramsay asking one of the contestants to examine the raw meat in question up close ("C'mon, touch it!") and followed by the hurling of the raw meat in question into the nearest trash can, plate and all. One of the more curious aspects of "Hell's Kitchen" is the way seemingly experienced, competent, confident cooks can shrivel so utterly and completely during the infamous "dinner service" segment of each show. This particularly odd since it seems that only a cursory examination of the meat would tell the cook it needs more time on the stove. The Cheese Fry has long been interested in finding out exactly what make the show's "dinner service" so seemingly impossible. Is it that the diners all sit down at once en masse? Is it that the kitchens are understaffed? Is it that the menus are complicated? Is it that it's hard to have total strangers work together as a team? Are real kitchens this chaotic and stressed-out?

3. "You donkey!" - Chef Ramsay certainly isn't afraid of letting loose a horrific insult right to a contestant's face. "You cow!" would be a close second, always reserved for the women contestants. Calling someone a "donkey" ranks among his more memorable choices. It seems on one hand so quaint and harmless (it's one of the few words Fox doesn't have to bleep), yet on the other hand so unusual and specific. We've been called many things... but never a donkey.

4. "And now the continuation of 'Hell's Kitchen'" - So says the announcer at the top of each show. We love the way each episode picks up exactly where the last one left off (Chef Ramsay dismissing the remaining contestants moments after kicking one of off the show), giving the show a distinctive vibe. These are all just seamless chapters in one long book.

5. "Oh dear." - When you're dealing with a volcanic personality and expect shouts and screams, sometimes it's all the more chilling when instead you get a muted, muttered statement. That's what the quiet "oh dear" is for Chef Ramsay. Part disappointment, part bewilderment, part disgust, he usually utters this moments after receiving a poorly prepared entree from a confident contestant who's sure it's perfect.

6. "Why should you stay in 'Hell's Kitchen'?" - The question Chef Ramsay asks each contestant up for elimination, which invariably leads to pathetic begging and shameless pleading that rarely offers anything more useful that "I want this" or "I know I can do better."

7. "Gimme your jacket." - This show's version of "The tribe has spoken." Goodbye and so long.

8. "It's cooked perfectly." - This Ramsay fake-out happens in every show, so it can be something of a sport to try and predict when it will happen and to whom. Here's how it works: Ramsay will receive an entree, look it over, then shout out in apparent anger the contestant's name. The contestant snaps their head around, "Yes, chef?" (see #1 above). Expecting to hear news of nuclear armageddon or the murder of a litter of puppies. Ramsay instead says, "These scallops... are cooked perfectly!" The contestant smiles and we see a quick confessional cutaway that shows the contestant puffing up in pride at, well, doing his/her job the way it was intended.