Ode to the "Real World/Road Rules Challenge"

Last month, the latest cycle of MTV's "Real World/Road Rules Challenge" concluded with its usual paroxysm of backstabbing duplicity. You see, the guys had told Paula all along that they'd be keeping her as part of their alliance but then at the last minute they flipped on her and picked Evelyn instead because she was going to... Well, you get the point.

The "Real World/Road Rules Challenge" series ("RWRRC" for short) is like a king-sized bag of Chili Cheese Fritos. There's nothing of value there, and it may even be killing brain cells, but you can't stop consuming it

The "RWRRC" series is a rip-off of "Survivor." Two teams live together at some exotic location and compete for rewards and immunity every couple of days. One person gets eliminated each week with the ultimate goal being that the final handful of contestants left standing get a chance to compete in one last huge challenge for a big pot of cash. As for us viewers, we get front-row seats for the resultant alliance-building and double-crossing, all of it peppered with four-letter words bleeped by MTV. But because mouths aren't pixilated, you learn quick how to read lips.

Why is this show so addictive? We don't know... and we're not sure we care. But in the interests of self-improvement, we tried to analyze the show's allure. Why can't we change the channel?

1. The repertory effect.
Unlike shows like "Survivor" in which each season introduces a new cast of characters, for "RWRRC" there's an awful lot of repeat appearances among a small pool of contestants. Some of these people we've watched compete in four or five "Challenge" cycles, making them as familiar as scripted show characters. Just as you know Jack McCoy's hard-nosed idiosyncracies on "Law and Order," so too do regular "RWRRC" viewers know these contestants: flirty Kenny, unstable Robin, stubborn Evelyn, honorable Derrick. There's also the catty bonus element of seeing how the contestants have changed since we last saw them. This often involves ridiculous plastic surgery for the girls.

2. Familiarity breeds contempt. This is a big one. You have to understand that "RWRRC" contestants have tangled off-screen lives that are more salacious than most soap operas. They date each other, break up with each other, cheat on each other (with each other), start lame dead-end businesses with each other. And they know everything about each other. When you join the cast of "The Real World" or "Road Rules" it's like you're becoming a part of the world's most dysfunctional family. So when contestants gather to compete for "RWRRC," they're coming into it with pre-existing relationships, friendships, and grudges. It's not like "Survivor" where total strangers must trust each other from scratch. For this reason alone, the alliances on "RWRRC" have a subtext you don't find on other shows. Every strategic decision seems all the more dramatic and emotional (e.g. players refuse to backstab a friend even if it means losing the game; players eagerly conspire to find creative ways to double-cross enemies; players find it difficult to show contrition or apologize to enemies even if it means winning the game) because of the long-term relationships the contestants have outside of the show. It's "Survivor" on crack.

3. The appeal of snobbery. The "RWRRC" contestants are all in their 20s and they do what all 20-year-olds do on MTV. They have sex, they drink, and they curse. And sometimes in the midst of all of this, especially when alcohol is involved, things get heated. Insults fly (the best being when the older contestants are jeered for being, gulp, 30), fists are sometimes thrown, and you're sitting at home gobsmocked that people actually act this way. On purpose. With a camera in their face. There's a delicious feeling of smug superiority watching "RWRRC" because these people are all completely nuts in a way that you can only vaguely comprehend. It's the theater of the rude and the lewd.

4. Envy. We're not going to lie. These are all very attractive people, in far better shape than you, getting a lot more action than you ever did. And they're getting paid, maybe even earning a living, to run on obstacle courses in the warm sand of a Central American beach every six months.

Okay, so what have we learned? We're not proud of our devotion. "RWRRC" is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. And if you ask us about it in person, we'll pretend we don't watch.

Knee-jerk review: "Twilight"

1. For the uninitiated, don't worry. It's not as bad as you might think.
2. In fact, it's pretty good for what it is.
3. Robert Pattinson could have dialed down his tortured, angst-ridden James Dean impersonation, though. You're a loner. We get it.
4. It's easy to see why the story appeals to tween girls (and the tween girl inside every adult woman): forbidden love, mysterious hunk protector, the adolescent melodramatic belief that first love is everlasting love. It's romantic, okay?
5. The movie was made cheap and it does sometimes show, but that only adds to its charm. There's a unity to the vision here, as opposed to the storytelling-by-committee vanilla pointlessness that sometimes infects big budget movies.
6. Billy Burke makes the most of his part as a small town cop. He's a lot of fun to watch.
7. Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the underrated 2003 teen drama Thirteen, shows again that she has a genuine knack for infusing teen stories, no matter how over-the-top, with a level of realism, especially with the high school student characters.
8. Kristen Stewart does a pretty goob job until that last hospital scene when she starts to "act."
9. Loved the mortar board gag.
10. The baseball game is pretty cheesy, all cornball fast-forwards and slow-motions, but the showdown that comes right after it (bad vampires meet good vampires) is the best part of the movie.
11. There's a very literary feel to the story, which is all broad strokes and big symbolism. For the most part, it works.

"Survivor Gabon": Contestant most likely to win

Sugar, 3:1
Kenny, 4:1
Mattie, 5:2
Susie, 7:1
Bob, 10:1
Corrine, 15:1
Crystal, 20:1


Ice or no ice?

The October issue of Wired magazine took a scientific approach to the age-old question of how much ice is enough ice when you're paying $5 for a soft drink at the movie theater.

Factoring in volume, temperature, and cost, the answer is that an "easy on the ice" approach is the best approach.

Click on the image below to get a closer look at the figures.

Knee-jerk review: "Role Models"

1. Forgetting Sarah Marshall remains 2008's funniest comedy, but it's practically a photo finish with this one. It's definitely funnier than Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express.
2. Paul Rudd remains extremely underrated. No one can do deadpan bitter misanthropy quite like him. This is his movie, especially the scene where he viciously insults a Starbucks-like barista.
3. "And your whispering eye."
4. In addition to the comedy going on front and center, this is also a movie full of small background moments of inspired insanity, especially the many minor characters who all seem to be fully-realized (if weirdo) characters.
5. You will laugh out loud. Guaranteed.
6. Unless you're easily offended by profane, R-rated humor. In which case we can make no guarantees.
7. You know the KISS reference will circle back around in time to contribute to the climax, but that doesn't make it any less enjoyable.
8. A great reminder of how critical perfect casting is. Every role pops.

Knee-jerk review: "Quantum of Solace"

1. We weren't always exactly sure what was going on with the plot, but we got the gist.
2. Daniel Craig remains the best James Bond. Sorry, Connery loyalists. Now if only he'd lighten up just a little.
3. On one hand, yeah, it's a little annoying the way that these reboots are so brazenly mimicking the gritty chop-kick-smash action of the Bourne movies. On the other hard, if anyone gets a free pass in ripping off a spy movie, it's James Bond.
4. The opera scene is probably the best part of the movie, with the desert climax a close second.
5. Also cool is the rooftop footchase.
6. Judi Dench gets all the best lines.
7. Some of the action, however, is sliced and diced in such a way that it's impossible to follow. Rapid cuts of extreme close ups and overmodulated sound effects isn't how you put together an exciting action sequence.
8. Great allusion to Goldfinger. Poor Strawberry Fields.
9. Agreed. That's one weird title.
10. Let's not spoil it, but the ending is exceedingly kick-ass in the way it brings back a very familiar James Bond element for the first time in the reboots.
11. Maxim magazine calls Olga Kurylenko the hottest Bond girl ever. At this time the Cheese Fry cannot argue with that.
12. Then again, the movie's most engaging relationship has nothing to do with Kurylenko. The only real warmth in the movie comes from the dynamic of Bond and M.
13. James Bond has most definitely never before been this cold-blooded. He seems very eager to use deadly force.
14. Why must the Bond theme songs all be so lame? How is this possible? Honestly, you'd have to go all the way back to the 1980s to find a truly memorable theme song (For Your Eyes Only and A View to a Kill aren't musical classics, but you can hum them). If Miley Cyrus can dig up songwriters who can put together a hooky single, why can't the James Bond producers?
15. Dig that Universal Exports business card.

In January 2007, the Cheese Fry ranked all of the Eon-MGM James Bond movies.


Knee-jerk review: "Rachel Getting Married"

1. Anne Hathaway really can act. She's a revelation here, set free of her usual aw-shucks cutesy romantic comedy roles.
2. It calls to mind last year's Margot at the Wedding (upper-class wedding disrupted by family dysfunction), but this movie's way more entertaining if only because it's got some real humor in it. A closer cousin would be 2003's underrated Pieces of April.
3. Also a big plus is the way that there are no easy answers here. The family is a mess, but a completely understandable mess given the tragic shared history. You get why these people act the way they do.
4. But enough with the long indulgent sequences of singing and dancing. We get it: everyone's enjoying the wedding. Let's just keep things moving, okay? The movie could have lost 15 minutes of this stuff, easy.
5. The dishwasher contest is the best scene of the movie. From humor to tragedy in five second flat. Outstanding.
6. God bless Debra Winger, who's decided it's okay to look her age. And she looks great.
7. Mather Zickel looks just like Clive Owen. Uncanny.
8. The only real suspension of disbelief comes from buying that Rosemary DeWitt's character would fall for Tunde Adebimpe's character.
9. Most movies might focus on the events surrounding a tragic family event. Here, though, the movie's about what happens ten years later. Very interesting.
10. Top notch.

"I, Barack Obama, do solemnly swear..."

History was made this past Tuesday, but the significance of Obama's landslide victory probably won't sink in for a while. How cool is it going to be to watch Obama hold a Rose Garden press conference?

Likewise, it will probably also take a while to realize that come January 20 the world will at last be safe from further geopolitical damage inflicted by the likes of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and Paul Wolfowitz. May they all swiftly fade into irrelevant obscurity.

One big lesson the Cheese Fry learned over the last couple of weeks was how news organizations are so motivated more by advertising than by journalism. Yes, we can be very idealistic. If you read newspapers or watched pundits on TV, you might have been expecting a close election due to pre-election poll analyses. Looking back in hindsight, Obama's rout of the hapless McCain was probably a done deal by the middle of October. But that sort of thing doesn't draw audiences. A far more interesting story - one that begs repeat viewing, drives up ratings, and raises ad dollars - is one that talks about how the race is tightening up and that McCain could still win it. Whatever, people.

So why did McCain lose? A very unscientific think tank study commissioned by the Cheese Fry points to five keys to the Obama mandate.

1. Sarah Palin. Do you know anyone who truly and honestly liked or respected her? We don't. McCain's first presidential-level decision and this was how he responded. Aside from being hopelessly inexperienced, Palin was George W.-like in her smug confidence and phony down-home charm. She surely cost McCain votes.

2. Appearance. People often vote instinctually, choosing the more presidential-looking candidate. And that means the more polished, the taller, and the more charming candidate carries the day. Reagan over Carter. Reagan over Mondale. Bush over Dukakis. Clinton over Bush and Perot. Clinton over Dole. Bush over Kerry (you know it's true). And now Obama over McCain. Did you see the debates? McCain looked okay in the second one, a town hall forum requiring the candidates walk around a stage and perch on stools. A lot of long shots and medium shots. But in the third debate where both candidates were sitting at a table, it was all close-ups and McCain looked absolutely terrible. This was the Kennedy-Nixon debate all over again. Only in high-definition digital.

3. The economy. Had the Iraq war stayed on the front burner and allowed McCain to flex his foreign policy muscles more, things might have been a lot different for this election.

4. George W. If anyone deserves credit for Obama's win, it's not David Plouffe, it's President Bush. Voters may have confidence in Obama, but what happened Tuesday was also partially a show of zero confidence in Bush. It would have been hard for any Republican to win the White House in 2008.

5. Money. Obama's financial resources dwarfed McCain's and in a country where campaigns live and die by TV spots, McCain was at a severe disadvantage. It almost wasn't even fair. Obama had so much money he didn't know what to do with that he ended up creating a million-dollar prime-time infomercial.


Knee-jerk review: "Changeling"

1. "Unpleasant" is the word that comes to mind.
2. If you enjoy watching stock villains full of sexist superiority (e.g. the condescending cop, the cruel doctor) humiliate, insult, and berate trembly Angelina Jolie, then this may be the movie for you.
3. Mostly, though, it's a Lifetime woman-in-peril cable movie with a big Hollywood budget.
4. Yes, terrible things happened in 1920s mental hospitals. But that doesn't make it entertaining to watch. Especially when the filmmakers are so manipulative in making the patients as helpless and hopeless as possible and the doctors and nurses as evil and unredeeming as possible.
5. There is an electroshock scene. It's that kind of movie.
6. And don't forget about the child axe murders. It's also that kind of movie.
7. Is there anything to recommend? Well, three performances pop off the screen. Jolie's is not one of them, if only because she spends most of the movie crying and suffering. Reactive, passive roles like this are what Oscar-winning actresses have to take sometimes. No, the performances that pop are Michael Kelly's decent cop, Geoffrey Pierson's bad-ass lawyer, and Jason Butler Harner's creepy killer.
8. The production design is sumptuous. This is surely how 1920s Los Angeles looked and felt, all sunshine, fancy hats, and public transportation.
9. The movie's probably 30 minutes too long.
10. Director Clint Eastwood gets a mulligan on this one. His next film, Gran Tarino, will be in theaters soon. It looks fun. Eastwood's cranking out almost two films a year these days, acting like a contract director at MGM in 1941.
11. Jolie is way too skinny here. Sickly, in fact.