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

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


Knee-jerk review: "The Dark Knight"

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

Let's 86 number 4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Submitted for your consideration:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Fists with your toes..."

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

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


Pixar Animation vs. Dreamworks Animation

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

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

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

Let's look at the tale of the tape.


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

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

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

Advantage: Dreamworks.


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

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

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

Advantage: Pixar.


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

Advantage: Draw.


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

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

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


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

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

Advantage: Pixar.

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


Knee-jerk review: "Hancock"

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


Knee-jerk review: "Wanted"

1. You have to see it, if only to hear Morgan Freeman say a certain 12-letter curse word in that amazing sonorous voice of his.
2. The middle gets mushy with all the ridiculous training and expositional mumbo-jumbo, but the beginning and the ending are... like, wow.
3. Note to self: don't ever stand on an X someone else has put there.
4. The Cheese Fry didn't see the great act two twist coming. We should have, but we didn't. Nicely done.
5. Angelina Jolie is attractive, no doubt. But there's a coldness there, too. She's not warm at all.
6. The Loom of Destiny. That's pretty kick-ass. You have to admit, you've never heard of (or even thought of) anything quite like it.
7. The train scene is pretty frakking amazing.
8. We get that a high metabolism/heartrate could create faster-than-normal, superhuman reflexes. But how would a high metabolism/heartrate help you curve a bullet? Or fly through the air? Here's the answer: it wouldn't.
9. We had high hopes for the movie and wound up slightly disappointed. If only it were 20 minutes shorter.

A brief political interruption

The Cheese Fry isn't a political blog, but William Broyles just wrote a great essay on the Iraq mess for Texas Monthly that's worth a look. Broyles argues for an immediate withdrawal and he's no arugula-loving, draft-dodging liberal. He's a Marine and a Vietnam veteran (Broyles co-created the underrated 1980s Vietname drama series "China Beach"). Plus his son recently did several tours in Iraq. He's the kind of guy whose opinion on war we should all value.

Non-knee-jerk review: "Swingtown"

1. The summer series currently running on CBS isn't an amazing show. But it's a perfectly good show. And one that stands out amid the usual derivative programming that fills the airwaves. It's not a disturbing, bloody police procedural. It's not a loud reality show with preening contestants. It's not even a situation comedy in which everyone's witty and knows just what to say and how to say it. Which of course means "Swingtown" likely won't last long. It's too different. The ratings have declined each and every week for the show, so it's probably only a matter of time before CBS pulls the plug.
2. Yes, ostensibly it's about some couples in suburban 1976 Chicago who swap wives. But it's not nearly as racy as you might imagine.
3. Although it certainly often seems too racy for CBS. One just just imagine the sweaty palms of certain CBS executives watching the rough cuts. Drug use, implied nudity, pornography, promiscuity. In short, this is a show that probably would have thrived on HBO, TNT, or even AMC, places where smaller niche shows can thrive without the demand of big network ratings and audiences.
4. You really don't often seen shows that take so close a look at that awkward situation we've all found ourselves in when we change locations or social positions and have to balance the cool new friends with the slightly uncool old friends. It all feels very fresh.
5. Then again, the show also gives us the very unfresh subplot of a brainy high school girl and her blooming inappropriate romance with a young teacher. Been there, done that. And frankly, it was pretty boring then, too.
6. The three female leads - Molly Parker (our heroine), Lana Parrilla (the cool new friend), and Miriam Show (the uncool old friend) - are outstanding.
7. Clever idea for CBS to make available for downloading the show's 70s-infused soundtrack each week.
8. But all those disco-era songs are also an annoyance. The writing is often so strong that the show's frequent reliance on period songs seems somehow lazy. Does the episode about Molly Parker feeling the stirrings of the women's lib movement really have to end with Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman"? That's the kind of obvious, heavy-handed thing a junior film student would do. The show's better than that.
9. If you want to check it out, tune in before it's too late.

Knee-jerk review: "Get Smart"

1. Missed it by that much. It's enjoyable and often quite funny, but it's not as good as it should be. Not even close. Then again, the trouble the producers had with the adaptation shows how genius the TV show was. It was a satire, but also a action show, but also a situation comedy. It was like genre alchemy, turning lead into gold. The movie tries without luck to blend those elements, balancing big-budget action with broad, goofy comedy. It's painful to watch sometimes.
2. Steve Carrell is the perfect Maxwell Smart, of course.
3. And Alan Arkin is the man. The Cheese Fry would see him do anything anywhere. Here he gets some very funny lines, especially one involving a swordfish. Anyone else it's maybe amusing. With Arkin's wry stone face, it's hilarious.
4. But the whole thing is kind of a mess, especially a random act three twist involving Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
5. The filmmakers also make the bizarre decision to force some clumsy backstories onto Smart and Agent 99 to make their bonding all the more "plausible." He was fat, she just had her face changed. Weird. And even so, we're sad to report that there's just not a lot of chemistry between Carell and Anne Hathaway. Cutesy bickering doesn't equal romance, people.
6. The bathroom lavatory steel-dart scene is pretty good, though.
7. Nice use of the shoe phone.
8. The L.A. Dime called it: Anne Hathaway transcends the "hot" label. She, in fact, deserves the label "beautiful." It's ridiculous how good she looks.

"We're back and we're bad, you're black and I'm mad!"

Top six lines from "Lethal Weapon 2"
6. "My dear officer, you could not even give me a parking ticket." - Crooked South African diplomat Arjen Rudd making it clear to Detectives Riggs and Murtaugh the ironclad extent of his diplomatic immunity. Made all the more scary in that exotic South African accent.
5. "After I shoot you through the door you can examine the bullet, now open up." - Riggs talking through the door to accountant-turned-government-witness Leo Getz (who just asked "Who do I know it's the police?"), which is the best role of Joe Pesci's strange career.
4. "Nailed 'em both." - Murtaugh's obligatory one-liner after he dispatches an assassin with an industrial nail-gun. You see, kids, back in the 1980s all movie heroes had to say pithy one-liners after killing their attackers.
3. "Have your brains ever seen the light of day?" - A chilling question from killer Pieter Vorstedt as he's screwing a silencer into the barrel of his gun.
2. "I'm not a cop tonight, Rog. This is personal." - It's a cliche now, of course, but it wasn't perhaps quite so stale a sentiment back in 1989. And few people can do steely, martryed determination like Mel "William Wallace" Gibson, so when he says this line in act three, we know he's about to get medieval.
1. "It's just been revoked." - The money line, the one that made audiences cheer. It's delivered by raspy-voiced Danny Glover moments after he puts a bullet through the forehead of Arjen Rudd. Rudd, you'll recall, just had the gall to shoot up A-list star Mel Gibson and then cry out "Diplomatic immunity!" to Murtaugh in the hopes of getting away with it.