Knee-jerk review: "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"

1. It'd be interesting to see some kind of study about what impact, if any, Katniss Everdeen has had on archery lessons among tween girls.
2. This sequel is much better than the first film.  This is due in part to the bigger scope and budget.  No more cheesy special effects from the late night SyFy movie-of-the-week bargain bin, not for a multi-million dollar tent-pole franchise.
3. But there's also a stronger emotional undercurrent to the story, whether it's Katniss dealing with a kind of PTSD from her experiences in the Games in the first movie or simply watching her evolve from a disinterested figurehead to a determined rebel leader.
4. Yes, we're one of those people who's read all of the books.  We liked the last book, Mockingjay, the least.  And the filmmakers are turning that one into two movies.  We'll see how that works out.  (The first book is the best one.)
5. We've seen Battle Royale.  It's worth a look if you're into this kind of dystopian story.  Similar plots, but it's got an entirely different tone than the Hunger Games stories.
6. All of this is fairly ridiculous, but the cast sells you.  They are fully committed.  How can you go wrong with Woody Harrelson and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Geoffrey Wright and Stanley Tucci?  That's a rhetorical question, people.
7. "Tick tock."
8. We really can't get behind the Gale-vs-Peeta thing.  Why is this such a torturous decision?  Gale just seems like a meathead.  The fact that we're even talking about this shows how this movie lays bare a Twilight-style romantic triangle and betrays the story's young-adult, female-skewing roots.
9. Donald Sutherland certainly seems to be having a good time.
10. The movie is way over the top with its depiction of the gap between the haves and have-nots, but there are certain similarities between Panem of the future and America of the present.
11. Brilliant name for the Capital's violent, brutal shock troops: Peacekeepers.
12. We're going to have to find a way to work the three-fingered salute into our everyday life.
13. The ending is rather abrupt, but it's very faithful to the book and clearly sets up Katniss as a jaded, determined hero who will spend the next two movies kicking ass and taking names.
14. And, oh yeah, Jennifer Lawrence is a movie star with real acting chops.  We'll be talking about her for years to come.  How can you not like her?  She's like Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock.  But maybe with more range than them.


"Come on down, you're the next game theorist to play..."

This is the kind of OCD-driven exploration of meaningless pop culture that the Cheese Fry can get behind.  Ben Blatt at Slate.com recently created a detailed examination of how to use game theory to better contestant odds on "The Price is Right."

If you're a fan of the show, you simply have to take a look at the level of detail Blatt put into this thing.  He's not only offering broad strategies for the Big Wheel, Contestant's Row, and the Showcase Showdown, he is breaking down the rules and odds and theories for every single pricing game.  It is mind-boggling.


"Battle of the Network Stars 2013"

If it wasn't for finding proof at Wikipedia and YouTube, we might think that youthful memories of "Battle of the Network Stars" was just some sort of fever dream.  In what world would vain TV actors wear spandex bathing suits and compete in lame elementary-school P.E. sports like tug-of-war or participate in traveling circus gags like the dunk tank?  In what world would one network allow its top stars to appear on a rival network?  In what world would a collection of A-list talent draw just a small collection of spectators and fans on the rolling hills of Pepperdine University, treating this Hollywood showdown like some boring Division II volleyball game?  

It really happened, people.  

Twice a year on ABC in the late 80s and early 90s, viewers across America just like us bore witness to "Battle of the Network Stars."  It seems steeped in kitschy irony today, but at the time, this was mostly serious stuff.  Which is why it is so compelling.

Stuck in an Atlanta hotel room for a four-day conference, we recently stumbled onto a marathon of this show broadcast on some outer-fringe ESPN channel.  We couldn't look away.  Older actors like Ed Asner and William Devane inappropriately sporting Speedos; youthful actors like Melissa Gilbert and Scott Baio sporting terrycloth headbands; amazing displays of athleticism by ex-jocks like Gregory Harrison and Mark Harmon (we saw Luke Duke himself, Tom Wopat throw beautiful football spirals) side by side with humiliating displays of complete ineptitude by the likes of William Shatner (the dude could not figure out how to get into a kayak) and Charlene Tilton; actors we'd never heard of who likely popped champagne on getting their big network TV show gig only to vanish into the ether of history; and all of it covered by the one and only Howard Cosell who called these ridiculous events like he was covering some "Monday Night Football" contest with playoff implications.

It's genius.

And it got us to thinking.  

What if somehow the networks agreed to recreate this thing today?  If we stuck to the same scenarios and gimmicks of the old show, how would a 2013 edition look?  

First we'd have to assume two things.

1. That TV actors would be interested.  Back then, actors got big checks, yes, but not the kind of million-dollar contracts that are so regular now.  Financial incentives were apparently a big factor on "Battle of the Network Stars."  Ashton Kutcher today makes six figures per episode of "Two and  half Men."  And there's 22 episodes in a season.  We'll let you go do the math.  You might have to try and go the old "donations to charity" route, but that further assumes all of them have passion side projects.

2. That TV networks would allow such aggressive cross-promotion.  We live in a world where NBC's "The Today Show" does everything it can to avoid promoting an ABC show.  Back then, the networks seemed to see value in exposing their shows to a wide audience by any means necessary.  Now, outside of award shows or Jay Leno's couch, network talent just don't mingle.

But let's pretend that somehow you got the actors and networks to agree.  Then what?

* The host - You'd need someone with gravitas like Cosell.  But also someone who, like Cosell, was sort of in on the joke.  Who's our Howard Cosell?  A few years ago you might have said John Madden.  But he's long been retired, leaving us only one possibility.  Bob Costas.  (Though you just know Ryan Seacrest's agents will be pitching him for the job.)  Full of himself but articulate, somewhat brilliant, and sometimes - with that little smirk - a little aware of how goofy the whole thing is.  So we hire Bob to patrol the sidelines with a corded mike, maybe asking a sitcom actor about how he feels going into the next obstacle course sprint, how the team captain is strategizing about the next event, or maybe even uttering subtly creepy sexual innuendos as some attractive ingenue gets dunked in the tank.  In 2013, no host goes it alone so Costas probably needs some female sidekick.  We nominate "Extra's" Maria Menounos because why not.

* The location - Out of tradition, let's keep it at Pepperdine.  The green hills, the wide open spaces, the blue skies.  

* The spectators - This is going to be a whole lot different in our social-media-infused world.  No longer will the contest be witnessed by whoever seemingly happened to be driving through Malibu on the way to the beach.  No, in 2013, "Battle of the Network Stars" will be a mega-media event.  You've got to get coverage on all of those inane "Entertainment Tonight" shows, buzz on Twitter hype, multiple collector edition covers on Entertainment Weekly.  And so the bleachers at Pepperdine (and big giant ones will have to be constructed just for this show) will be filled not by random passersby but by ticket holders who paid top dollar for the privilege.  And just think of all the paparazzi swarming outside, feeding candid and embarrassing shots (sample cover headline: "Guess Who Almost Drowned?") to "Us Weekly" and "In Touch" and those rags.  We're not sure if there should be a red carpet, but our gut tells us there probably should be.

* The fourth network - We can't stick to the old three-network field.  It's probably possible to ignore the CW, but we can't keep out Fox.  So rather than a tug-of-war final pitting the top two networks (networks earn points at each competition) for a final, it may be better to do some kind of bye for the top team and let the second-place and third-place networks duke it out somehow to advance to the finals.  This may need some further review in the competition committee.

* The grizzled captain.  The pattern seems to be that some older male dramatic actor serves as a fatherly captain for his network team.  Think William Shatner, Willian Devane, Daniel J. Travanti, Gabe Kaplan, Robert Urich.  Today, that would be "SVU's" Dann Florek or "Dancing with the Stars's" Tom Bergeron or "CSI's" Ted Danson or, best of all, "Modern Family's" Ed O'Neil.  And if you include the network football shows, there's always Fox's Terry Bradshaw or CBS's Dan Marino.  You could also go full circle and bring in "NCIS's" Mark Harmon, who was just a youngster back when the original "Battle of the Network Stars" ran.  He's our legacy player!

* The hot young ingenue.  There's also a clear preference to get attractive young actresses on the show, mostly - it seems - to get them wet in their one-piece bathing suit when they get dunked in the dunk tank.  Full disclosure: we love seeing the actresses of our youth (Heather Thomas, Randi Oakes, Erin Gray) in this situation even as we hate ourselves for loving it.  In 2013, you'd have to consider "The Big Bang Theory's" Kaley Cuoco, "Two Broke Girls's" Kat Dennings, "Nashville's" Hayden Panetierre, "Revolution's" Tracy Spiridakos, "Modern Family's" Sarah Hyland, and maybe maybe "New Girl's" Zooey Deschanel.  We don't think even in this alternate universe the producers could ever get "The Voice's" Christina Aguilera, but how hilarious would that be?

* The ex-jock.  There's a lot of awkward displays of athleticism among most of the actors.  These aren't people gifted with speed or balance or stamina.  These are people who look good, can cry on cue, and  can remember lots of words at a time.  But each team at least one young buck actor, the strapping hunk who played ball in college.  And you can tell.  They are into this.  This is no joke.  For people like Mark Harmon, Greg Evigan, Tom Selleck, and Douglas Barr, this a return to the glory days.  Who do we have nowadays to fill that role?  Who are the 30-somethings with something to prove?  We can see "The Good Wife's" Josh Charles, "Bones's" David Boreanaz, "Person of Interest's" Jim Caveziel, "Revolution's" Billy Burke, "Survivor's" Jeff Probst, and most definitely "Hawaii Five-O's" preening Alex O'Loughlin.  A few years ago, this would be a slam dunk for "Two and Half Men's" Charlie Sheen.  If Maria's busy maybe Charlie could be the color man for Costas.

* The speedster youths.  We also noticed a trend of the really young actors displaying blazing speed, especially on the obstacle course.  There was apparently a whole slew of shows in which Kristy McNichol broke her own record again and again.  She could not be stopped.  There's a lot of potential for this kind of ringer in 2013.  The casts of "Parenthood" and "Modern Family" and "Glee" are filled with teenagers who are probably a lot more agile and spry than their older peers.

* The contests.  There's really no need to mess with perfection.  For students of this show, you know what we're talking about.  In the new edition, we'd want to keep the dunk tank, the flag football scrimmage, the kayaking, the tug of war, and - of course - the obstacle course with it's little pool swing and blue and red tires.  That's the show's signature, iconic event.  You may even want to somehow make the obstacle course as the final.  We'd suggest cutting the swimming and cycling because they're so ordinary and without the possibility of real humiliation.  Maybe add in a basketball event since the NBA is so huge and because lots of white guys mistakenly think they can ball which can be funny.  Maybe "horse" or 21.  Another possibility is some kind of wacky "Survivor" style puzzle gag or an endurance thing where everyone tries to hang onto a telephone pole or maybe even a gross-eating contest.  These could be a nice tip of the hat to the reality TV boom.  And please please... no "Simon Says" bit.  It's cute but it's more gag than game.

So what do you think?  Would you watch this kind of show?  We think it'd be a smash success, especially if you only ran it once a year.  Time it to coincide with the new fall season, drum up interest in the old returning shows and the new shows.  

And since TV loves franchises, spin this off into a "Battle of the Cable Stars" and include the cast of "Mad Men" and "The Walking Dead" and "Game of Thrones."

We are genius.  Hollywood, you're welcome.


"Good morning. Florrick/Agos. How may I direct your call?"

If you're not watching CBS' genius legal/political drama "The Good Wife," shame on you.  Now is the perfect time to dive in - a few weeks ago the show reorganized itself with a radical upheaval that's just this side of a complete reboot.  When two lead characters defected from the cozy confines of the show's plush law firm to strike out on their own, old coworkers became new adversaries and whole new avenues of conflict were opened up.  

It's the kind of creative jolt most shows never dare attempt.  When the name of the game is maintaining loyal viewers to sell to advertisers like Ford and Apple and Paramount Pictures, you don't rock the boat.  Networks spend years looking for a hit show.  When they land one, they milk it for all its worth.  That's how you get ten years of derivative "CSI" episodes, each one just like the next, the interchangeable detectives solving case after case after case where the only thing different is the gory details.  Most TV watchers don't really want to be challenged.  They want comfort food.

We have no doubt that if "The Good Wife" threw in some obscenity and nudity or if it aired on a trendier cable network like AMC or HBO, it would be raining Emmys.  It's far, far sharper and more layered than just about any show on network TV.  It really is "Game of Thrones" good.  The cast is uniformly outstanding, the characters all richly contradictory and well-rounded, the legal twists and turns always as surprising as they are plausible.  These are smart characters showing off how smart they are.  But it's 2013 and network TV is considered lame and uncool, so "The Good Wife" gets mostly shut out of the big awards.

More and more, the show's starting to make technology its narrative brand.  This doesn't mean just using tech to solve cases (though it does do that).  "The Good Wife" also builds a lot of its plots out of the ethical and legal problems surrounding technology, whether it's privacy concerns, cyberbullying, search engine algorithms, NSA spying.  The list goes on and on.  (In the fictional world of the show, all-powerful Google is something called Chumhum.)  Just as technology and the web have influenced every corner of our collective existence, so too does it impact all areas of the show.  "The Good Wife" has become so skilled in this area that it's drawn the attention of both Wired and Slate.  If you're a fan of the show, these articles are worth a look.

Now go set your DVRs.


A few words about "Gravity"

We saw this almost two months ago, far past the self-imposed expiration date of our usual "Knee-Jerk" review.  But it's stuck with us and if you haven't seen it, what are you waiting for?  

It's a masterpiece, plain and simple, a stirring example of the narrative and visceral power of cinema.  Was that pretentious enough for you?  Get off the couch and go, people.

Technically, the movie is nothing sort of awesome, using watershed visual effects to show you things you've never seen before.  Think about that a moment.  Filmmakers face an incredibly sophisticated audience that, like some kind of CGI junkie, needs bigger and bigger spectacles to get that kick of excitement to justify $8 tickets and $10 soft drinks.  (We suspect that the protracted, eye-popping finale of The Avengers is one reason that movie was such a ridiculous success, but we digress.)  But writer-director Alfonso Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki find multiple ways here to push the envelope.  Disintegrating spacecraft coming apart in the soundless vacuum of space, glorious sunrises and sunsets from orbit, beautiful-yet-deadly microgravity flames, out-of-control astronauts spinning in and out of sunlight, Sandra Bullock floating in a space station.  Read a little about the movie's years-in-the-making backstory and you'll see what we mean.  The filmmakers invented entire new camera rigs and production processes.  You may have heard comparisons to the iconic, groundbreaking outer space visuals of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It's no hyperbole.  This movie is that good.  (Just make sure you see it in 3D and/or in IMAX for the full effect.)

As for the story, it's a cousin of Cast Away, putting a smart-but-inexperienced character into an impossible situation where survival depends on resourcefulness, luck, and a need to toughen up real quick.  Stories of survival are our most primal; everyone can relate to a desire to cheat death.  So there's a simplicity to the story.  We know what Sandra Bullock and George Clooney's characters must do, so it becomes a question of watching them succeed or fail by overcoming obstacles the plot throws in the way.  And there are a lot of obstacles.  This is one of those "Murphy's Law" movies we love so much - everything that can go wrong will go... and at the worst possible moment.  Even better, unlike so many recent would-be blockbusters, Gravity doesn't feel the need to drag everything out over 120+ minutes and cram in multiple loud climaxes and arbitrary, exhausting plot twists.  This movie's barely an hour and a half long.  That gives the action a lean, sparse quality.  There is no fat. It's got, like, momentum.

It's also got something else: narrative ambiguities.  This is the sort of extra layer that can transform good movies into great art.  We don't want to spoil the movie, but there's more than one way - as you may have heard - to read the movie's last act.  There is no right answer.  We viewed it one way, then started wondering if maybe we had it wrong.  (And it's not one of those annoying European-style open endings where you have no idea what you just saw or where the film just ends abruptly before a resolution like "The Sopranos."  This is more of a... fuzzy ending.)  Cuaron seems to want his audience to, you know, think.  He's designed it that way.  Even better, the story's plot is ingeniously linked directly to Bullock's own personal crisis of faith.  Screenwriting professors talk a lot about how a character's external struggle should mirror his/her internal struggle.  This is a textbook example of how it's done.  Admittedly, we didn't catch on to some of these poetic parallels until much later (i.e. Bullock may be sort-of, kind-of suicidal, which is echoed in her situation in the movie, stuck between the earth and the heavens).  But that's why the movie is so brilliant, people.  It begs repeat viewing to look for more meaning, more connections, more metaphors.

As for the acting, Clooney does what Clooney does best: exude swagger and charm.  Bullock has the harder task since she's alone for a good chunk of the movie.  The part isn't as showy as Tom Hanks' part in Cast Away if only because this movie has more of an action vibe.  It's a lot of  "Argh!" and "Oh no!" and "Eeeek!"  But she does get a couple of powerful monologues and a showy emotional breakdown moment.  An Oscar nomination is a sure thing.  Will she win?  Not sure.  But it's a far more subtle, emotional performance than the showy, rather shrill "look-at-me" one from The Blind Side that got her Best Actress a few years ago.



Even zombies need mobile phones

You waited three months for this?  After this long, cold Cheese Fry period of dormancy, yes, this is the post we use for a relaunch.

We love zombies ("The Walking Dead" this season is killing it, as TJ Lavin might say) and this Sprint spot always makes us laugh.


Knee-jerk review: "World War Z"

1. Let the record reflect that we are huge fans of Max Brooks' novel, upon which this movie is based.  It's a cleverly constructed book that pretends to be an exhaustive, non-fiction oral history of the "zombie wars." The format adds fresh spin to predictable genre tropes.  If you like zombies, go read it.
2. And Hollywood so loved the book that it ultimately decided to invent a new plot and avoid the Ken Burns vibe that made the novel so memorable and beloved.  That's showbiz.
3. That said, it's still a pretty good movie even if it has absolutely no business sharing the name of the Brooks book.  
4. It's not really a zombie film like 28 Days Later or Dawn of the Dead with those long sequences of screaming and running and gonzo, humans-versus-undead, gory fighting.  There's a little of that, true, but it's also rather tame and sanitized.  Which is in keeping with the film's cute little PG-13 rating.
5. Brad Pitt.  Yeah, he's a movie star.
6. In some ways, it's like a James Bond movie, with the hero globe-hopping (which does sort of jibe with the global sweep of Brooks' novel, we'll begrudgingly admit) to try and piece together an international mystery.  Brad Pitt even gets an attractive female bad-ass sidekick like Bond always seems to collect along the way.  It sort of worked for us.
7. But it was also a little hard to buy how the movie suggested that there's no one else in the entire world who's going to the trouble to do what Brad Pitt's character is doing.
8. Much has been made - well, we suppose it depends on what occupies your spare-time reading list as to whether you might agree with how much has been made - of the film's big production problems.  The filmmakers shot a huge ending in Russia, decided they hated it, hired a bunch of expensive writers to rethink the ending from scratch, then spent more money to shoot a new ending.
9. And damned if it doesn't work.  The third act involves a quiet, creepy mission deep into a medical lab that happens to be overrun with zombies.  It's the sort of slow-burn set piece you might see on one of the better episodes of "The Walking Dead" and it's a great contrast here to all of the huge, over the top action we'd been seeing for 80 minutes.  It may just save the whole thing.
10. Daniella Kertesz.  Yep.
11. At first we marveled at how skillfully the filmmakers shade Pitt as a resourceful, skilled hero.  He knows what to do and when to do it.  But then we started to notice he didn't make many mistakes, either.  Typically, audiences want flawed heroes.  That way, their adventure can transform them and make them into better people.  That transformation is where a lot of a movie's cathartic emotion comes from.  But we saw none of that here.  What does Pitt learn exactly?  If we squint and tilt our head just right, maybe you could argue that he's learning to see how the world is interconnected and how we're all a part of Mother Nature's brutal experiment.  Maybe.  Part of his final realization about the zombies connects back to an early talk he had with a doomed doctor.  But it's a stretch and we know it.  For the most part, he seems like the same selfless family man bad-ass all the way through.  Which diminishes the film's ultimate impact.
12. Is it just us, or did it seem like it was the Muslim celebration that caused such big problems for Jerusalem?  Discuss amongst yourselves the political and cultural significance of that filmmaker choice.
13. Can we please have a moratorium on using asthmatic kids and lost emergency inhalers as a plot point?
14. The opening 15 minutes or so feel pretty real.  To us, this is how American society would break down: quickly, with little media explanation and a lot of guns.
15. Poor Mireille Enos, a critically-beloved actress stuck for all of the movie pining away for her husband on a cramped Navy ship, waiting for him to call her.  If that weren't annoying enough to women everywhere, the story then has Enos make a selfish, bone-headed move that leads to the deaths of several people.  Women.  They're so silly!
16. The plane crash is nuts, just as you'd expect in a movie like this.  Of course it's just our two heroes who survive.  Of course the plane goes down close enough to their final destination that they're able to walk the rest of the way.  And of course Pitt's injury is just serious enough to allow him to lay some bloody, actorly grimaces on us, but not so serious that we ever fear for his life or so serious that he's sidelined from the action of the climax.
17. The US military ruthlessly disposing of all "non-essential personnel"?  Yeah, we buy that.  It's not personal, Sonny.  It's strictly business.
18. Check it out.


20 years of radio in the summertime

Entertainment Weekly recently published a chart looking at the enduring relevance of the last 20 "summer songs."  That magazine loves lists.  Which is why we love that magazine.

Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)" - There is surely no one who still likes this novelty song.  Even at the height of its infamous run, didn't people listen to it ironically?  We, in fact, dispute this as a summer song.  Billboard tells us the biggest hit of that summer was actually UB40's "Can't Help Falling in Love."  We hate that song, too, but at the least the punctuation isn't so ridiculous.

All 4 One's "I Swear"
Ugh.  Seriously?  The last gasp of the early-90s Motown-styled boy bands.  The far more memorable song for us from summer is Lisa Loeb's "Stay," which immediately transports us back to the grungy days of college and Generation X's collectively snarky coming of age.  We'd argue that two movies define us and our peers: The Breakfast Club and Reality Bites.  ("Stay" was on the Reality Bites soundtrack.)

TLC's "Waterfalls"
If it came on the radio tomorrow, we wouldn't turn it off.  And isn't that the ultimate compliment for a radio hit?  For the record, we'd also listen to the entirety of "Creep" and "Unpretty."

Los del Rio's "Macarena"
Aren't we all a little embarrassed by this one?  How did we, as a culture, let this happen?

Hanson's "Mmm-Bop"
Ditto this one.  Yeah yeah, the brothers are actually talented.  But let's leave the record deals to people who've been on the road, crafting their sound and paying their dues, not jamming in the carpeted basement playroom in suburban Arkansas or wherever they're from.  Billboard's charts for the summer tell us that two far more interesting songs bracketed Hanson's number one hit: Notorious B.I.G.'s "Hypnotize" and Puffy Daddy's "I'll Be Missing You."  But surely Entertainment Weekly is thinking that a summer hit needs to be frothy and fun, not dark and poignant.

Brandy and Monica's "The Boy Is Mine"
We remember this song sort of, but couldn't tell you what it sounds like.  At first we were going to wonder whatever happened to these two until we realized we really didn't care.

Smash Mouth's "All Star"
Not a number one hit, so says Billboard.  We find that hard to believe.  As we recall, this was one of those genuinely catchy, innocuous little songs that Corporate Radio decided to completely ruin by playing it on super-duper heavy rotation.  We can't listen to it anymore.

NSync's "It's Gonna Be Me"
Remember when Justin Timberlake was in a band?  Neither do we.  The better song, to us, from that summer was Vertical Horizon's crunchy "Everything You Want."

Destiny's Child's "Bootylicious"
There are a couple of good songs ("Say My Name," "Independent Woman Part I") out there from Destiny's Child.  This isn't one of them.  And not to be prudish, but that title is icky.

Nelly's "Hot in Herre"
We loved this song then, we love it now.  Not sure where Nelly learned how to spell, though.

Beyonce's "Crazy in Love"
Probably the strongest song on this entire list.  Still catchy all these years later and completely undated.  Who doesn't like this song?  When you hear that brass intro, who doesn't want to twist and bump and crank up the volume?  Uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, oh-no-no.  It's amazing how Beyonce's career shot into the stratosphere once she left Destiny's Child, which is a testament to her own ambition and talent, as well as the importance of attracting the industry's best producers and songwriters.  It can be a self-perpetuating cycle at a certain point: the best songs and producer go to the most popular artists, thereby insuring their continued success.

Usher's "Yeah!"
We know we like it.  It's in our iTunes library.  But we must admit: we get it confused with Usher's "Burn," another hip-hop meets dance-pop number.  That's probably because we're so white.

Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl"
Honestly, this one's a little overrated.  We were all so happy for Gwen to do a solo album, weren't we? Not really as solid as the stuff she'd been doing with No Doubt (though "Cool" is a silky favorite of ours) but decent.  The better 2005 summer song to us actually comes from that spring: the plodding, rather sinister "Candy Shop" by 50 Cent.

Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy"
Everyone loved this song, especially critics.  It's funky and distinctive, so we get why Entertainment Weekly would pick it.  And it was one of those odd songs that sort of came out of nowhere by some strangely-named group.  Everyone likes to be surprised.  But the song leaves us cold.  To us, Rihanna's "SOS" sounds more like summer.

Rihanna's "Umbrella"
A close runner-up to "Crazy in Love."  We had a love-hate relationship with this song.  When it first hit the radio, we really liked it.  Then they kept playing it and playing it.  There's no doubt this was the song of that summer.  You couldn't escape it.  We ultimately rejected it and formed a one-person backlash.  But eventually the song wore us down.  Even with that weird "ella ella" thing it's just too catchy, too poppy, too perfectly constructed.  We cannot deny its earworm appeal.  You win, Rihanna.  You win.

Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl"
Look at that: the ubiquitous Katy Perry has only been with us only five years.  This was her breakout hit.  We remember well the scandalous sensation this naughty little song caused, which probably accounted for about 50% of its popularity.  The funny thing is, looking back, it's not even one of her best songs.

Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling"
At this point, it's a little hard to be objective.  This was only a few years ago.  Who knows what song will best stand the test of time?  Lest you forget, 2009 was the year of the Peas.  For eleven weeks, their "Boom Boom Pow" was number one, then around July 4, it dropped out of the top spot only to be replaced by "I Gotta Feeling."  That song reigned supreme (we're totally channeling Casey Kasem right now) for another 14 weeks.  The Peas are usually fun, but they also seem completely disposable and unimportant.  Like cotton candy.  Sweet but evaporates.

Katy Perry's "California Girls"
We had a fondness for this song until we had a daughter of our own and started reconsidering the lyrics about Daisy Duke shorts and bikini tops.  These California girls are surely up to no good.  Shouldn't they cover up and stay indoors?  And what's all this about popsicle sticks?  It that what we think it is?  Even so, anything with "California" in the title is almost by default a summer song.

LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem"
A strangely catchy song that got completely overplayed.  The words are all about party rocking, but the song itself feels very tame and manufactured to us.  The sort of things parents might approve of, which makes it uncool by default.  For 2011, we'd choose Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night" or Pitbull's "Give Me Everything."  (As an aside, "Give Me Everything" is perhaps one of the greatest pop-dance songs ever composed - if you study it like we have, the structure is genius in the way the song shifts tempo and mood several times; it's like three songs in one, each one better than the last.  Radio perfection.)

Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe"
We get this one.  A fun, fizzy song from a newcomer (and a Canadian to boot; you how they're all so very nice and polite up there) that caught everyone by surprise.  Plus it has that nostalgic sort of vibe of summer parties where you flirt with the opposite sex, but not in a dirty way, more of a chaste Disney Channel, rated-PG sort of way.  Our three-year-old liked to sing it, in other words.''

What summer songs do you like?


Knee-jerk review: CBS' "Under the Dome"

1. The Stephen King novel was about 1000 pages.  We read the hardback.  It was like propping a cinder block on your chest.
2. Typical King novel: crackerjack premise, a sprinkling of pop culture references, lots of italicized internal monologues, small Maine town under strange external threat, the brooding antihero against the megalomaniacal villain (get it? we're more dangerous than any monster) plus a completely insane sidebar character who adds another level of conflict, and then a ending that sort of, kind of fizzles because there's no way to satisfactorily resolve these sci-fi premises.
3. It's fun to see an adaptation of a book we read.  But it's also a little tedious because we feel so far ahead of the plot.  Even if the show changes the details, the broad strokes are there, the main characters are there.
4. Jeff Fahey.  Awesome, though that beard is icky.
5. Our favorite thing: giving the abusive, crazy Junior part to a baby-faced actor Alexander Koch, who seems so charming and easy-going at first glance.
6. Cow getting cut in half.  Yeah, that was pretty cool.  So was the semi crash.
7. But better was the more low-tech gimmick of showing how neither side of the dome could hear the other.
8. CBS has been touting writer Brian K. Vaughan's resume.  Honestly, though, we would tread lightly at invoking "Lost," a similar people-trapped show that was exciting and cool until suddenly it became a source of unending frustration, drawing you in mostly because of the time you'd already invested and leading you to hope against hope that you would eventually get a unified, cathartic ending.  (Spoiler alert: there was none.  Purgatory?  Really?)
9. It worries us that this isn't a limited-run miniseries, but more of an open-ended series.  All the more incentive to stretch things out... and out... and out.
10. Hollywood should remove from its  bag of tricks the bit about the kid with the disease who has to have medicine or else he/she will die.  So very tired.  It feels like something that was maybe fresh on a 1970s episode of  "Dragnet."
11. There's something sort of cheap and cheesy about the whole thing, another reminder that the big television budgets now go to pay cable.
12. It's in our DVR season pass list, so we guess we'll keep watching.  Not a very ringing endorsement,  huh?


Driving through the 80s

Before the Cheese Fry's corporate relocation to Texas, we embarked on an important mission to visit the Southern California private homes that were used as exterior locations in three of our favorite iconic 1980s movies.

The farthest trip took us all the way out into hot, dry Simi Valley.  That's where the Freeling family lived in sleepy Cuesta Verde in 1982's Poltergeist.

Here's the picture we took:

And now a still from the movie when the subdivision didn't have so many white camper pick-up trucks ruining scenes.  And we thought the house imploded ("You moved the headstones but you didn't move the bodies!") at the movie's conclusion.  Hollywood, you fooled us again.

Our next trip took us to the outer reaches of Burbank, which filled in for Hill Valley in 1985's Back to the Future.  It's the power lines that give this one away, don't you think? Here's our shot taken on a slow drive-by.  This seemed to be a slightly sketchy neighborhood.

Very hard to find a good still off the internet for some reason even though this is where Doc Brown uttered the line "Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads."  All we could find was this dusky shot from one of the sequels.

Tujunga, California, shoved up against the mountains, is almost as far out as Simi Valley.  This place doubled for Elliot's suburban house in 1982's E.T.  Here's our shot, taken while standing brazenly at the foot of the driveway.

And then here's a shot from the movie, when the neighborhood was so new there were no trees or grass.  Right or wrong, this movie imprinted in us what a happy family's neighborhood ought to look like: rolling hills, clean white pavement, identical cookie cutter houses lining the blocks.  We love suburbia.

Phone home, people.


Six thoughts on "Rock of Ages"

We don't typically review movies we see on cable, but this one deserves some sort of response.  

1. We loved the candy-colored 1980s Sunset Strip vibe, especially a loving recreation of Tower Records circa 1987 (remember those walls of cassette tapes?).  But having spent many years commuting on Sunset Blvd, something felt off here.  The landmarks looked right, but the geography was all wrong.  Among other things, it looked like the movie was suggesting Sunset ran north and south instead of the proper east and west.  And stores separated by blocks looked here like they were sitting side by side.  So we did some research and found out... the filmmakers "recreated" Sunset Blvd... on a rundown intersection in Miami.  Fail.
2. This is a movie that needed to be 95 minutes, tops.  You get in, you get out.  No one gets hurt.  No way does this fluff deserve 2 hours and 10 minutes of your life. 
3. Alec Baldwin is horribly miscast.  Wow.
4. We're not sure why the whole Catherine Zeta-Jones subplot even existed.  You cut it out, what do you miss?  Maybe one nice gag at the end.
5. Why not play it more straight and dramatic?  The filmmakers layer on this goofy, half-winking campiness to everything (we think that's one reason why Paul Giamatti is so awful), probably cultivated by director Adam Shankman.  But it doesn't work.  It feels like no one had faith in the story and so decided to treat it like a lark.
6. The reason to see it is for the 1980s hair band songs, especially some clever "Glee"-style mashups.  We grew up with most of these songs, so it a lot of it was fun.  But while we might give a pass to including Quarterflash's bluesy "Harden My Heart," we have to draw the line at Starship's "We Built This City," a song that we think Blender magazine once called the worst song ever written.  It's a song about not selling out.  The irony runs thick.

Our five biggest posts ever

Among the many interesting-but-useless tools that our kind host service Blogger offers is a measurement of post hits.  Behold, below, the five most popular posts in our history.

1. September 2012, Knee-jerk review: CBS' Surivor: Philippines - We were thrilled to see 1100 hits for this topic and started looking for Mark Burnett's number.  And then we saw the poorly composed string of comments that suggest a nefarious spambot infiltration of some kind.  So... never mind.

2. May 2013, Knee-jerk review: Star Trek Into Darkness.  The 96 hits for this one seem more in line with the small, loyal Cheese Fry following.  We're vocal, some might say pathological, Star Trek fans and could imagine how our opinions on the matter might appeal to some and encourage aggressive link-forwarding.  Thank you.

3. May 2013, 176,248 miles.  The somber eulogy to our dearly departed Subaru hatchback attracted 69 hits.  We think it's a universal story of frustration ("I'm still driving this thing?!") and admiration ("this thing is still running?!"), something that appeals to all of us who drove a first car right into the ground.

4. February 2011, Live blogging the 83rd Annual Academy Awards.  This drew 66 hits, a number likely inflated by the Cheese Fry's attempt to goose audience size by creating an Oscar pool contest and announcing it over Facebook.  People may have checked it out, but only six brave souls entered the contest.  It was our first and last contest to date.

5. July 2011, Green Grinch should be a Crayola color.  This post pulled in just 39 hits, a pathetic number that somehow still earns this post a top five spot.  What's sadder, that fact or the realization that this post contains little actual content?  We just posted a cool graphic we found somewhere else.  Tomorrow, we'll be posting a picture of whatever we first find on Google.

And here's a fun little chart graphing our sawtooth traffic ebbs and flows since 2007. 

Gumfight at the OK Corral

Here's an obscure blast from our 1970s childhood past.  Who remembers these commercials for Hubba Bubba?


Knee-jerk review: "Star Trek Into Darkness"

1. Thanks, Paramount, for releasing it on our birthday.  Much appreciated.
2. In hindsight, we probably liked 2009's Star Trek reboot more out of nostalgia and an excitement that the franchise was finally getting another shot than out of a genuine affection for the movie.  Frankly, it was kind of a mess what with all of that time-travel nonsense and one extremely lame villain.  (We're a little forgiving only because it was an origin story and had to spend so much time getting everyone into place on the Enterprise.)
3. But this one delivers the goods.  Lots of action, some clever twists and turns, funny moments.
4. Dr. McCoy probably gets the short end of the stick here.  There's more to him than the crowd-pleasing wisecracks.  It even gets on Kirk's nerves.
5. Spoiler alert: never trust Peter Weller.  That is all.
6. Sure does seem like a lot of wasted space in that ship.  Look at the huge, roomy compartments and hallways.
7. Welcome to the rebooted universe, Klingons.
8. We obviously liked the many Wrath of Khan homages.  Fun, but not distracting.  The filmmakers spin the old mythology (and that 1982 movie's signature bits) in new and interesting ways.
9. We never have been a Zachary Quinto fan.  He seems a little smug and lazy to us somehow.  But it's hard not to like his Spock here, dealing with an angry girlfriend, fist-fighting a bad guy, engineering a classic Kirkian double-cross.
10. It seems like the strategy to restart a warp core is the 23rd century equivalent of us banging our faulty remote control on the tabletop. Seriously?
11. Speaking of which, warp cores seem pretty unreliable, don't you think?  They're always failing or almost failing.
12. Bruce Greenwood never fails to utterly mesmerize us.  Killer actor.
13. Hollywood, enough with the let's-destroy-an-entire-city-and-call-it-entertainment plot point.  Your villain doesn't have to kill thousands of innocent people for us to root against him.
14. We're guessing more captains break the Prime Directive than actually follow it.
15. Not sure if it's the writing or the performance, but Zoe Saldana's Uhura is one of the movie's strongest elements.
16. We're growing weary of the villain who anticipates the heroes' next three or four moves (and, in fact, seems to form strategy based on those next three or four moves) in a way that seems completely impossible.  These chains of cause and effect simply seem too shaky and unpredictable.
17. For a second there we thought they were going to go the ship-self-destruct route.  Please don't.  In fact, we forbid the filmmakers from ever considering that turn for any future sequel ever.
18. After all of the coy denials and fake secrecy about bad guy John Harrison, we were genuinely shocked by his real identity during the movie, then realized just now that the truth about his character has been sitting there on the IMDB cast list for who knows how long.
19. Some have complained that this feels more like a plot-heavy, action-first Star Wars movie than a character-heavy, drama-first Star Trek movie.  Maybe so (though we would point to 1991's The Undiscovered Country and 1996's First Contact, both non-stop thrillers with a similar vibe as Into Darkness).  But that probably bodes well for the next Star Wars sequel, which J.J. Abrams is directing.
20. Cable cars are still running in San Francisco several hundred years from now?
21. So the next sequel takes us onto the famous five-year mission.  Very exciting.
21. Definitely worth a look, people.

Six remarks from a four-year-old concerning an old episode of "Star Trek"

1. "Hey, daddy, those look like your little people!"  Meaning our action figures.  Don't pretend that you don't wish you had some of your own.
2. "Is that a good robot or a bad robot?" He's bad.
3. "Daddy, what's wrong with his... (gesturing to her eyebrows)?  Why do they do that?"  He's an alien named Spock.
4. "What happened to the red men? Where'd they go?" They were vaporized, as must eventually happen to all Starfleet security members in red shirts.
5. "So the alien is good and the robot is bad?"  Correct.
6. "That robot hurt the boy [Scotty] and the girl [Uhura], right?" Right.


Knee-jerk review: HBO's "Game of Thrones" (season one)

1. We can nitpick most shows and find flaws with the plotting or the pacing or the character development or something.  But it's sure hard to find any fault here.  It may not be our favorite show, but it surely ranks among the most well-made shows we've ever seen.  A peerless production from top to bottom.
2. We don't do pay-cable, but a friend insisted we watch the first season on DVD.  He called it "The Godfather with swords."  A clever description, but The Godfather and it's story of the Five Families was never this dense and complicated and layered.
3. At first we didn't think we'd like it.  This is a dank, seedy world where good is not rewarded.  But then it started to grow on us.  And we realized you can take comfort in what little moment of cathartic comeuppance the show does choose to allow.  Like the "golden crown."  If you've seen it, you know what we're talking about.  A completely deserved punishment.
4. Peter Dinklage knows what a great role Tyrion is and pretty much knocks it out of the park every time.  No wonder he won an Emmy.
5. It's shows like this that seem to keep European actors employed.
6. Female nudity is nothing new for an HBO original show, of course.  But there's quite a few shots here of the very rare full frontal male, plus a couple of rather extended, graphic, and noisy sex scenes.  If this show were released in theaters, in other words, it would probably be too hard for an R.
7. We knew going in what was going to happen to Ned Stark.  Even so, it was still pretty devastating.  Remember: he didn't even want to go to King's Landing.
8. "Winter is coming."
9. King Joffrey.  What a evil little snot.  We found ourselves often imagining gruesome ways to kill him off.  Even his horrible mother at times seems disgusted by him.
10. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau definitely has a sort of Han Solo swagger to him.  As villainous as he is, we find it hard not to like him, to try and find a reason to like him.
11. The casting of Sean Bean makes explicit certain genre parallels to the Lord of the Rings books and movies.  But the Tolkein stories feel mythic, removed from reality.  Those are fairy tales about a magical land.  The "Game of Thrones" stories, however, even with dragons and magic, feel much more urgent, more much connected to contemporary problems of politics and power and family.
12. We read a rather insightful appraisal about the "heroes" of the story, especially given the unexpected way Ned's character is handled.  While at first glance it would seem to be Ned's story - he's the one character truly working hard to be honest and honorable and just - the story is really about Ned's children.  All of the children, really.  How will this new generation handle the bloody conflicts their parents created?
13. That is one bad-ass throne. No doubt about it.
14. With death lurking around every corner, it's pretty safe to say that if you're still alive at the age of 30 or so, you're a pretty dangerous character with a finely-honed sense of survival.
15. Those swords look really heavy.  What kind of upper body strength do you need to swing those things?  This is the sort of thing we think about when we're watching the show.
16. Does this mean we have to start reading the novels?  They seem really, really long.
17. The most compelling character arcs for us would have to be two female characters.  There's Daenerys, the victim who evolves into a confident queen figure.  And there's poor Sansa who comes of age quickly and learns the folly of making husband-hunting one's only priority.
18. Indeed, while the show does have a sexist vibe to it what with all of the nudity and sexual assaults and prostitution, one could argue there's a point to it all.  In that world, women were either mothers or whores.  Trying to push outside those labels, as so many of the female characters are doing, isn't easy.
19. "Targaryen" is fun to say.  Mark Addy probably does it best.
20. What pops for us is all of the back-room politicking and scheming.  This part of the show seems so very universal.  What will people do to grab power and then keep it?
21. Who wouldn't want a direwolf available to run in from the shadows and bite the fingers off an enemy?
22. The only time you can sense the show's limited budget is when you start to realize all of the big battle scenes are happening off-screen somewhere else.
23. We have our money on the scary, hulking, scarred Hound having a heart of gold.
24. The season's biggest twists emerge from a variation of some tawdry supermarket tabloid expose about adultery and paternity tests.  It's those Maury Povich-like efforts to uncover who the king fathered or didn't father that spin the country into civil war.  It doesn't get any more contemporary than that.
25. "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.  There is no middle ground."
26. So yeah, we're going to watch season 2.  It's a pretty amazing show.
27. If you're curious how they did that genius main title sequence, here's how.