On the Enduring Mediocrity of the Dallas Cowboys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still no Dallas Cowboys.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Knee-jerk review: "Knives Out"

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


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

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

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

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


Knee-jerk review: "Downton Abbey"

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


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

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


17 Stations at an Elementary School "Field Day"

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

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

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


The Pop Culture Birthday Comparison

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

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

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


Knee-jerk review: "Avengers: Endgame"

1. It's just amazing the way Marvel has created this 22-film, 11-year tapestry of intersecting plots and timelines with characters mostly unknown to the general public prior to the movies.  You may not like the Marvel movies, but you certainly have to respect them.  Selling billions of dollars of tickets only works when you're clicking with audiences.
2. Contrast that to the mostly disastrous way Warner Bros. has handled the recent string of movies featuring the far more recognizable DC stable of characters.  How did Wonder Woman turn out so well?  Justice League was horrible, people.  Horrible.
3. There was definitely something stuck in our eye on more than one occasion during the movie.
4. The filmmakers go the extra mile to give the villain Thanos some real pathos.  He's not a purely evil, mustache-twirling bad guy.  You can kind of see his point of view in all of this.
5. "Avengers... assemble."
6. The most superfluous and extraneous Avenger: Don Cheadle's War Machine.
7. With two main characters dying (real deaths, not we'll-bring-them-next-movie-with-a-plot-device deaths), we guess it's called Endgame for a reason.  Both deaths pack a big punch.
8. If we had a band, we'd call it the Quantum Realm.
9. The most underrated and needlessly mocked Avenger: Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye.
10. No matter how clever, time travel movies always fall apart when you start to really examine the logic and the many ways the characters should be ruining the established timeline.  So it may be better to just grin and enjoy the ride.
11. We suspect it's probably weird that we have a thing for Nebula.
12. We can see that the filmmakers have to be very careful explaining why Captain Marvel is never around.  Like Superman, she's just so powerful that she completely undermines all of the tension.  We're calling it now: Captain Marvel 2 will follow Superman II's lead and create conflict and stakes by featuring either a temporary loss of her powers or a villain with her same exact powers.
13. It was a good idea, but the execution of that trying-too-hard iconic battlefield gathering all of the female Avenger heroes was too cheesy.
14. "I love you three thousand."  See?  Something stuck in our eye.
15. Thor running with the Guardians of the Galaxy? Yes, please.
16. Very satisfying.
17. But we'd like to call a moratorium on climaxes that feature energy beam combat.  Enough already.
18. Bonus points for the big, sweeping, curtain-call style credits for the original Avengers actors.

The Six Marvel Cinematic Universe Films We Still Haven't Seen (In the Order We'd Like to See Them)

1. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
2. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
3. Spiderman: Homecoming (2017)
4. Doctor Strange (2016)
5. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
6. Thor (2011)


The Hollywood To-Do List (circa 2015)

Two years after moving to Texas, the Cheese Fry was feeling "homesick" for Southern California. By chance, our office hired a new temp worker with dreams of moving to Los Angeles to pursue acting.  And so we got to play the role of wise industry mentor and seasoned Hollywood sage (whether the temp worker liked it or not), which culminated in us preparing for him a list of things he had to do as soon as he made the move west in late 2015.

We present the list below with the understanding while its validity may have faded in the last four years, it would serve as an essential document for any new Angelino resident in 2015.

* See a movie in the Arclight Hollywood Cinerama Dome.
* Look for celebrities at the Grove outdoor mall on Fairfax (especially inside the Barnes and Noble bookstore).
* Take the Warner Bros. VIP studio tour (it's pricey, though - wait for family to come visit - but you see everything on the lot).
* Eat at Fatburger (make sure you find one that can charbroil - some just have the griddle), Zankou Chicken (the garlic paste is amazing - comes with the chicken but ask for extra), El Coyote and El Cholo (great Mexian at both places), Astroburger on Santa Monica in West Hollywood, Islands (get the mushroom burger), and Jerry's Famous Deli (the biggest menu we've ever seen).  For seafood, there's the high-end Gladstones (great view where the PCH meets Sunset) and the low-end Reel Inn (on PCH north of Gladstones).
* Use TVTickets.com to go see a talk show or sitcom taping (tickets are free so they go fast).
* Walk on the Santa Monica Pier at dusk.
* Drive the Sunset Strip at night.
* Visit the Samuel French bookstore on Sunset Blvd. - packed full of acting/directing books and plays.
* See a game at old-school Dodger Stadium (just don't wear any team gear but Dodgers team gear), not the new-money Angels Stadium.
* Watch a Dodger game on TV called by Vin Scully before he dies.
* Take in the view of L.A. basin (on a clear day - if you can find one) from the Griffith Observatory.
* Watch an old movie at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood.
* Spend a day or weekend in Big Bear up in the mountains east of L.A.
* Experience the hippie weirdness of the Venice Boardwalk.
* Get a drink at the Cat and Fiddle Pub on Sunset, the Pig n Whistle on Hollywood, or the retro (dark wood, red leather booths, no windows) Musso and Frank on Hollywood.
* Prepare to pay to park no matter where you are - valet, meters, garages, none of it's cheap.  Give yourself extra time to decipher the parking signs.
* See a concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
* Use the word "the" when referring to the freeways (Texans say "635," but in L.A. it's "the 10" and "the 405").
* Avoid the freeways whenever possible (you can always break the ice with someone by asking how traffic was or how they got somewhere - people are proud of their shortcuts).  Use side streets and get creative.
* See the handprints and footprints at Grauman's Chinese Theater.
* Read Deadline.com and either Variety.com or THR.com as often as you can to know what's happening in town.
* Make sure your apartment has working air conditioning that blows cold and hard.
* Stay off the city buses, but the Metro subway can be a fun way to do special-occasion trips (there's a station right next to the Chinese Theater on Hollywood).
* Remember that Hollywood is a very small factory town - everyone may not know everyone, but everyone knows someone who knows someone.
* Work the room and be extroverted.
* Get a part in a major motion picture.


Thirteen Things We Learned on a Trip to Manhattan

The Cheese Fry spent 17 years in Los Angeles (we lived in Pasadena for a few years, then hit for the Hollywood cycle - West Hollywood 1999-2004, Hollywood 2004-2009, North Hollywood 2009-2012), but only last month did we find ourselves visiting the Other Coast when a work conference landed us in the Marriott Marquis right in the heart of Times Square in New York City.

Below are a few things we learned.

1. The Empire State Building seems impossibly tall.  We were doing the tourist thing at Rockefeller Center and noticed the Empire State Building towering just south of us.  It seemed so close, we figured we'd just do a quick walk down there for a few pictures.  Turns out it looked close because it's a hundred stories tall.  After 20 minutes of walking, we finally got to the front of it.  Craning our neck up, we couldn't even see the spire on top.  Somehow, maybe because it's stone and brick, it seems more intimidating and impressive than the taller glass and steel of One World Trade Center.

2. New York pizza is pretty good, but we probably would still give the nod to Chicago deep dish.  When you take your first bite into a pizza in Chicago, it's unlike any pizza you've ever had before.  It's akin to a religious experience.  The New York pizza we tried in a little pizzeria on Seventh Avenue was good but hardly transcendent.  The toppings were top notch, agreed, but the crust was rather ordinary.  Bonus points, though, for what we can only assume is a genuine New York customer service treatment: grumpy and surly counter workers who seemed barely interested in our business  The three employees maybe said four words to us combined.

3. Times Square is like Hollywood and Highland in Los Angeles, magnified by a factor of ten.  The intersection of Hollywood and Highland is a garish, neon-lit tourist trap of high-end stores and restaurants packed side-by-side with cheap junk stores and street food vendors, all of it goosed by the presence of the historic Chinese Theater (the one with the sidewalk footprints), the famous Dolby Theater (where the Oscars are handed out), and the Masonic Temple where ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" tapes every afternoon. It always packed with tourists of all ages, sizes, and nationalities and the streets are filled with tour buses (both the charter sort and the double-decker guided tour sort).  That's the vibe of Times Square, only bigger, louder, and with brighter lights.  When we walked out onto Times Square at 11pm on a Saturday night, it was elbow-to-elbow with people and lit up like high noon.  The giant, three-story video boards running advertising loops (our favorites were for Coca-Cola and McDonald's) were right out of the flying car scenes in Blade Runner.

4. The Statue of Liberty is way far away from Manhattan island.  Watching movies, you get this sense that Liberty Island is a quick hop from New York City, all alone in the harbor, bravely facing the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and all those huddles masses yearning to be free.  The truth is not quite so romantic.  The Status of Liberty is essentially landlocked on all sides by dreary, industrial skylines.  Who knows where the actual entrance to the ocean is?  More disappointing, we walked all the way to the southern tip of Manhattan to see the statue.  It was so far away and so tiny we could barely even tell what it was.

5. You know that saying about "there's never a cop when you need one"?  That doesn't really apply with the NYPD.  Admittedly, we mostly visited the popular tourist attractions.  But everywhere we turned, there were groups of police officers gathered together talking, walking on patrol, or sitting in their parked cars.  Some even had assault rifles slung across their shoulders.  When Wikipedia reports there are 38,000 officers, we believe it.

6. The New York subway is just as old and quirky and crowded and you might imagine.  Here are some specifics:
* At one point, we walked down at least three stories to get to our platform.  These subway tunnels run deep.
* We saw a guy in a tuxedo playing the cello for money.
* A local confirmed that you can indeed see rats if you look down off the platform and onto the tracks.
* We witnessed one surprisingly clean-cut, well-dressed guy making a dramatic speech to the entire car about how he needed money to buy food.  He was ignored.
* We noticed a guy sitting across the aisle that seemed unable to stop staring at us in a most unnerving manner.
* On our trip down to the World Trade Center, the subway was mostly empty and quiet.  The trip back was another story.  Our car seemed already pretty full when we got to Penn Station.  But the word "full" takes on a whole other meaning when another 20 or so people shoved their way through the doors and filled every possible nook and cranny.  Lesser tourists than us surely would have experienced a claustrophobic panic attack.  Luckily, our stop was the next stop and we were close enough to the doors to surf the wave of shuffle-step disembarkation out to the platform.
* We saw no graffiti.
* Do your homework in advance so you know which subway going in which direction you want to get so you at least look like you know what you're doing.
* We giddily got to perform the stereotypical New York City subway move whereby you dart through the doors at the last possible instant, just moments before they blast closed.
* We saw people with grocery bags, clearly using the subway for doing to their personal shopping and errand running the way normal people use cars.

7. You step off the curb against the light at your own risk.  We didn't want to look like a rube tourist.  We saw everyone else walking when the light shined a red "Don't Walk."  Those people all looked local, bundled up with briefcases and earbuds, headed to work or home.  We wanted to follow their lead and fit in.  That's all well and good... just be sure to look both ways.  New York taxi cabs will not stop if they have the right of way.  And in our case, they don't even honk.  We walked against the light one afternoon and happened to glance to the left in time to see the front grill of a cab charging right us.  We stepped out of the way of the driver's side fender without a moment to spare like some kind of Manhattan toreador.  We like to think that he knew he'd miss us and that he would have hit the brakes if needed.  Right?

8. Broadway theaters aren't the kind of venues we expected.  We saw Wicked in Los Angeles at a huge, sprawling theater.  That's the usual Broadway regional touring venue.  But the New York City theaters are older and much, much smaller.   We saw Chicago at the Ambassador Theater, built in the 1920s and holding just 1000 people.  It's old and it looks old.  Cramped seating, worn walls, out-dated decor.  And concessionaires were right there in aisles selling soda, water, and candy out of big boxes on shoulder straps like they do at a baseball game.  The guy in front of us actually bought a giant Kit-Kat bar.  Whatever happened to the dignity of live theater, people?  (The New York City definition of a "Broadway theater," by the way, has nothing to do with location; it must seat more than 500.  The more you know.)

9. Careful framing by countless cameras over the years has given the wrong impression about the size of the Rockefeller Center ice rink.  It's tiny.  Standing there we realized how easy it is for camera operators to just, like, not show the front end of the rink when you're facing that gold statue, those flags, and the brick facade of Rockefeller Center.  If you don't show the front of the rink, then TV and movie audiences are likely to assume the rink just goes on forever.  The public rink at your local mall is probably way bigger.  Weird.

10. Good luck hailing a cab when you're lost.  We thought we knew where to find a subway station to catch a ride back from looking at the Statue of Liberty.  But we could not find it anywhere.  It should be right... here.  But nothing.  Our feet were tired, it was getting dark, our iPhone battery was down to 8%, and the lonely deserted side streets we were walking didn't have that same hubbub of tourist traffic.  If only we could hail and cab and just pay our way back to the hotel.  No cabs in sight.  Long story short, we made it back.

11. It's hard to understand the size and scale of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers.  Then you're in the plaza looking at the reflecting pools that fill the giant square footprints of the absent Towers.  Those building things were massive.

12. NBC's "The Today Show" covers their anchor desks with quilts between broadcasts.  We know because we peered in through those famous Studio 1-A windows at around 11am on a weekday.  The giant cameras are all there, slumped over asleep, but the desks are covered up.

13. The bronze bull statue on Wall Street is actually a tourist destination.  To us, that statue would be considered a rather obscure Manhattan landmark, likely not even cracking the top 30 on a list of New York City icons.  But there the people were, lined up probably 40 deep in front of the bull, patiently waiting a turn to pose for photos in front of the statue.


Knee-jerk review: "Captain Marvel"

1. Yeah, we know the TV spots showed Captain Marvel blasting into space with all a-glowing eyes.  But we still feel like the Disney marketing campaign completely underplayed the fact that this is, like, a very sci-fi movie.  A good third of it takes places on spaceships and other planets.  Not a criticism necessarily.  Just a surprise for us sitting there with our popcorn.
2. We are a jaded, hard-to-impress moviegoer.  We've seen it all.  So a tip of the cap to an unexpected twist midway through the movie that flipped some of the good guy/bad guy allegiances.  We know, we know - we should have seen it coming.
3. Hard to believe this is the 21st Marvel movie.  For a while there we were doing pretty good seeing them as they were coming out, but we got sidetracked with, you know, kids.  Still haven't seen Civil War, much less Infinity War.  Our favorites remain Iron Man 3, Ant-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy.
5. Annette Bening continues to age very, very well.  How does she do that?
6. The technology that de-ages actors has made huge strides since 2010 and the creepy, wax-figure effect they used on Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy.  To our eye, this 1990s version of Sam Jackson in Captain Marvel looks just like the 1993 Jurassic Park edition.
7. Is your house cat secretly a Flerken?
8. The first 20 minutes or so are something of a mess, what with the space planet setting and all the alien races and the flashbacks and fractured memories.  Things finally settle into a groove once Captain Marvel crashes through the ceiling of a 1990s era Blockbuster store.  
9. Our brains can't comprehend the motivation of the trolls that tried to undermine the movie before it opened by doing things like flooding Rotten Tomatoes' website with negative comments.  Are there really men out there that deeply offended and enraged by the idea of a female superhero movie (or by clumsy if well-intentioned comments about women and minority film critics by star Brie Larson)?
10. At this point we just have to accept that comic book superhero movies must end with blinding explosions and noisy energy beams.  Typically, these climaxes - to which surely 25% of the film's entire CGI visual effects budget must go - are not only way over the top, but usually go on twice as long as they should.  That we feel this way makes us feel very old and out of touch.  Now shut up and get off my lawn.
11. The reptilian Skrulls scared our seven-year-old, for what it's worth.  Though Ben Mendelsohn's Talos may be the movie's funniest character.
12. When these Marvel movies come out, we get a fleeting sense via internet comment boards that there's an immense amount work that the filmmakers must do to boil down years and years of comic book storylines (and hero iterations - with Marvel, there always seems to be more than one version of every superhero) into a single two-hour movie.
13. The obligatory credits tag scene may be the best part of the movie when Captain Marvel shows up to meet our Avengers.  More, please.
14. Cheesy as it may be, there is something thrilling about the moment when Captain Marvel, so full of uncertainty and doubt about her talents and ability, always getting told she's not yet ready and needs to follow the rules, cuts loose and embraces her full, insane power.  (She's more powerful than Superman, right?)  How is that sort of "you can do it if you believe it" message not fantastic for all of the girls in the audience?
15. We liked it.  Are we getting soft?  We think we are.