Monday, December 28, 2009

In Theaters: Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes poster and IMPAwards link
One of the many gaps in my cultural literacy is that I have not yet read any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories. I think I read one or two abridged/”guess who did it” versions as a kid, and I enjoyed the Jeremy Brett stories that aired on PBS, but my Holmesian knowledge is sadly low, and so I can’t quite comment on how the new action-heavy SHERLOCK HOLMES does and doesn’t diverge from the canon. Generally speaking, though, I like it. It’s very much Holmes as two-fisted Victorian pulp hero, and both the script and Guy Ritchie’s direction have a joyful abandon, which is wrapped around some solid old-fashioned adventure storytelling.

Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) are first encountered in the sewers beneath London, disrupting a planned cult sacrifice and apprehending the villain, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong.) Blackwood is convicted of five murders and sentenced to hang, but before going to the gallows he promises Holmes that a much greater plan is unfolding. Sure enough, after his execution Blackwood appears to burst forth from his grave and begin a series of new murders. Holmes is naturally on the case, and drags along a reluctant Watson, who was planning on leaving the whole business now that he’s engaged to the lovely and supremely patient Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly). But he was the one who pronounced Blackwood dead in the first place, and he has a reputation to look after.

The story grows to involve an ancient and powerful secret society that has purportedly guided the British Empire for some time, a mysterious figure out to manipulate Holmes, and Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a gorgeous American-born thief and dilettante who is the only woman to have outsmarted Holmes in the past. Of course, since this is a Sherlock Holmes adventure, we approach it primarily as a mystery, and on this level it’s pretty honest. Not so much a “whodunit” as “what’s he doing and why?”, the story is twisted, even convoluted at times, but the solution is rational and nothing stands out as an obvious plot hole.

The new HOLMES is as much an action-adventure film as it is a mystery, and while I’m sure some will see it as a betrayal of the character, the two elements are blended quite well. In the books, or so I’m told, Holmes was established as a master of many martial arts, and an ingenious cinematic device here has him winning fights by plotting each move in advance, calculating for both physical and psychological damage. Along with the fisticuffs, we’ve got some nice elaborate deathtraps, narrow escapes from deadly situations, and the premature launching of an unfinished boat.

What holds all this insanity together is some very strong character work. Robert Downey, Jr. is an actor who is not afraid of looking ridiculous, and this is important for Sherlock Holmes, who is far too busy uncovering clues and finding things out to care about behaving like a normal person. Jude Law’s Watson is allowed to be badass in his own way; some Watsons have been so bumbling that it’s easy to forget that the character was an Afghan war veteran and brilliant doctor. The film doesn’t shy away from the fact that Holmes and Watson kind of come across as a couple, and while Mary and Irene make compelling distractions, it’s hard not to see what the central love story is.

I love the way the film moves, as if everyone’s enjoying the prospect of liberating the characters from the staid and dignified atmosphere of “classic literature”. Doyle wrote the stories as popular entertainment, and the picture has the feel of something contemporary readers would drop a few pence for and enjoy over an evening. There’s a nice, grotty Victorian atmosphere too, colorless and dirty but somehow not really bleak.

It’s interesting to think that over twenty years ago, the makers of YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES had to more or less preemptively apologize for sullying the name of a beloved literary character for the purposes of a Spielbergian adventure romp. Now, nobody’s batting an eye, and there’s no reason to, because this film manages to do justice to the great detective while giving him a slick new look. At heart, we’re still following the adventures of a wonderfully smart man who’s also a little bit crazy, who fights villains and preserves order not so much out of moral concern but out of an interest in being right. The film wraps up with some very obvious sequel hooks, and I don’t mind because I want to see where they go with this. This is more fun than it has any right to be.

Based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Story by Lionel Wigram and Michael Robert Johnson
Screenplay by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham, and Simon Kinberg
Directed by Guy Ritchie

Grade: A-

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

In Theaters: Avatar

Avatar poster and IMPAwards link
Before any discussion of James Cameron’s AVATAR can take place, I must establish one thing. I have not seen FERN GULLY: THE LAST RAINFOREST. Statistically speaking, you probably haven’t either. This is not some well-established icon of pop culture that casts a shadow over anything similar made afterwards, so let’s shut the Hell up about it, all right?

I have not, for that matter, seen DANCES WITH WOLVES, let alone THE LAST SAMURAI. Therefore when complaints circulated about how much this film was shaping up to resemble these pictures, I was confused as to why this mattered at all. There are no original stories, and I fail to see why this film’s unoriginality is more egregious than that of any other picture this year.

Sure, it looks like something out of the 1990s, complete with colors that aren’t brown and a totally unsubtle ecological message, and this is apparently no longer acceptable. But AVATAR, like all films, needs to be judged on the quality of its execution. It’s first and foremost a spectacle, and like most all of James Cameron’s films it delivers on that level. It’s beautiful and imaginative, using some very intense technology to bring some remarkable visuals to the screen. It does follow the familiar story model more closely than it needs to, and a number of minor things keep it from being a truly great sci-fi adventure, but it’s definitely worth seeing.

The film takes place on the distant world of Pandora, where an unnamed (I think) corporation is attempting to mine for a precious mineral. It’s called unobtanium, which tells you all you need to know about that. They’ve been trying to peacefully negotiate with a group of natives- known as the Na’vi- to get them to leave the giant tree they make their home in, since that tree sits right on top of a huge unobtanium deposit. To interact with the natives more easily (Pandora’s atmosphere is poisonous and the wildlife is less-than-friendly), the scientists have created “Avatars”, vat-grown Na’vi lookalikes that are neurally linked to human beings on-base. The newest candidate for the Avatar program is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic marine who takes over his dead brother’s spot. For him, it’s a chance to walk again, and he inevitably wanders off too far on a recon mission, getting lost in the jungle, nearly eaten by scaly dog monsters, and rescued by the beautiful (in a way) Neytiri (Zoë Saldana). As he learns more about the Na’vi, he comes to realize that they won’t be moved, and the military wing of the project starts to take over. The intense Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) prepares a full-scale assault on the Na’vi, but Sully now believes he’s on the wrong side, and tries to do what he can to prevent the society’s destruction.

This is actually the first “new” film that I’ve seen in 3-D (and IMAX, but it was one of those not-real-IMAX experiences where it was just a larger screen than usual. Apparently the owners of the trademark need the money and don’t particularly care who gets it.) I was surprised to discover that while the technology to make films in 3-D has apparently improved, the actual viewing technology has not changed at all. It still relies on polarized sunglasses, requires you to keep your head level (if you tilt too much the images aren’t side-by-side), and causes just a wee bit of eyestrain. In short, I don’t think they’ve gotten it right yet, which is a shame, because the film’s 3-dimensional composition is superb. It very rarely relies on the “throw things into the audience” trick, and instead focuses more on the layering of images and planes; the film probably still looks good in 2-D, but it’s worth seeking out a 3-D showing if you’re going to see it in theaters, because the spectacle is so much of the fun.

And it is quite a spectacle. There is a certain 1990s-blockbuster quality to the film’s aesthetic, rendered in bright neon colors and focusing on impossibly lush rainforests and the like, but frankly, I’ve missed this. The creatures in particular, designed by famed sci-fi/fantasy illustrator Wayne Barlowe, are impressively diverse. There’s something vividly real about all of Pandora, even though we know that over two hundred million at least was spent on bringing it to life in computers. The “performance capture” work in this film was probably worth the expense all on its own; the Na’vi never fall into the Uncanny Valley, and the emotions and expressions they produce are as authentic as anything.

It helps that the filmmakers have done some work to make the Na’vi seem like an authentic culture. Most notable is the Na’vi language, which Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver, awesome as ever) is an expert in, and which Sully must learn if he’s to get anywhere with the tribe. They have the ability to bond with certain other animals via an organic neural linkup of their own, and use this to tame wild beasts for mounts. And while on the surface, their religion appears to be the standard animism/Earth-mother business that natives in these movies always have, Cameron twists that material into a genuinely fascinating science fiction concept.

Which is not to say the film doesn’t fall into cliché. The nub of correctness amongst the morass of silly generalizations amongst the various “FERN GULLY in space!” quips is that Cameron is not only telling the “outsider falls in with colonized people and helps save them” story that so many find objectionable even if you present it allegorically, he’s including parts of it that really aren’t necessary. There is no particular reason that Neytiri has to be the daughter of the chieftain, or that she has to be the intended betrothed of the tribe’s strongest warrior before the new kid came along. There are also a few other plot developments that are telegraphed just a bit too far in advance for the payoff to be as effective as it should be.

I’d go a bit farther to say that the film’s first two-thirds are much better than its last; Jake’s discovery and exploration of the Na’vi culture is a lot more interesting than the inevitable big action showdown, which is treated with more solemnity than it really earns. It’s definitely fun, and Cameron is one of the few action directors who still remembers how to compose this sort of thing, but it lacks that extra push over the cliff, whatever that would be. (Which is ironic, as Cameron is a filmmaker who never doesn’t turn it up to eleven.)

If it fails to be a genuine classic among sci-fi spectacles, AVATAR still succeeds at most of what it sets out to do. We’re presented with a convincing world, basic but well-acted characters (I fear it may be too late to ask Santa for Michelle Rodriguez this year), and a familiar but engaging story that eventually comes down to good against evil. If you can make it out to the theaters over the holidays, AVATAR is the kind of epic that adds the right amount of color to the winter.

Written and Directed by James Cameron

Grade: B+

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Academy of the Underrated: The Wizard of Speed and Time

Wizard poster and link to Mike Jittlov's Wizworld
This is a film that gets into the Academy by virtue of sheer obscurity. It’s possible that critics and audiences would have embraced this film had it been given more than a cursory release, but instead it’s remained underground due to distribution woes, not too hard to locate on VHS in the day but unreleased on DVD. (I’ve got a bootleg made off Blockbuster’s rental copy, but it’s seen better days.) Mike Jittlov’s unique autobiopic/special effects extravaganza really deserves a wider audience. It’s a legitimately weird and heartfelt picture, and for all its indulgent and amateurish qualities (which include a truckload of really dumb jokes), it’s the finest salute to geeky creativity I can name. It’s basically our ROCKY.

Set in Hollywood, 1977 (and possibly another dimension), the film follows Jittlov as himself, a struggling freelance special effects artist and filmmaker. His demo ends up at the desk of Harvey Bookman (Richard Kaye), a sleazy producer in charge of Hollywood Studios’ “Hollywood’s Greatest Effects” television special. After making a bet with Lucky Straeker (Steve Brodie), the director, that Jittlov can’t produce anything worth using, Bookman hires the filmmaker to produce a short film for the special, and then sets about trying to ensure that it never gets done. No studio space, no actors, no payment until it’s turned in (and perhaps not even then). Mike sells most of his personal belongings to start work with his friend and producer Brian Lucas (David Conrad), and create a musical short in which he stars as the Wizard of Speed and Time, a spirit of creativity who brings an entire studio to life in vivid stop-motion. Bookman and fate still throw plenty of curve balls his way, including two inept thugs (Gary Schwartz and Frank LaLoggia), various weather mishaps, and a general lack of support from the studio. Still, he keeps his spirits up, meets Cindy, a lovely young actress (Paige Moore), and uses all the special effects at his disposal to try and make movie history.

This is all kind of sort of based on reality. In 1979 Jittlov produced the original “Wizard of Speed and Time” short as a segment for a Disney-backed TV special called MAJOR EFFECTS. The show aired frequently on the Disney Channel (for which Jittlov would create the opening on-air short, with a giant Mickey Mouse satellite beaming down the signal- this appears briefly in the film along with the prop used), and Jittlov’s Wizard was one of many who worked to restore the powers of the titular superhero, Major Effects. As in the movie, the studio used no outside footage and treated it as a showcase for its own live-action effects productions, notably the upcoming epic THE BLACK HOLE. Similarly, the DOCTOR MAGIC pilot for which Mike is rejected is likely a reference to the ultimately underwhelming DR. STRANGE TV movie from around that time.

However real the details, the actual movie is a broad, farcical romp; the characters are comedy types, the laws of physics are bent on a whim, location shooting without a permit starts a citywide manhunt, and special effects are everywhere. Jittlov never met a transition or short shot he couldn’t spruce up with something, and his colorful handmade visual effects add life and energy to the proceedings. The picture simply flows in a different way from most normal movies, bouncing along and always throwing something new at us. It helps that Jittlov is really good at his craft; there’s a lot of impressive stuff here and I’m still not entirely clear on how all of it was done.

Some of the characterizations suffer for this; the thugs Bookman hires seem like knockoffs of Cheech Marin and one of the Mackenzie Brothers, while Cindy’s roommate is the archetypal “sassy black friend”. And to be sure, your tolerance for dumb jokes will be tested, frequently. I, however, love dumb jokes so that’s fine by me. And the actors are solidly game; a number of minor parts are filled out by veterans like Angelique Pettyjohn, superfan Forrest J. Ackerman, and AIRPLANE’s Stephen Stucker (his last role), and the leads are engaging.

One of the major problems of making a movie about yourself in which you are the misunderstood outsider standing up against the corrupt system (getting the girl in the process) is that the whole thing can end up seeming like an ego trip. That the film doesn’t collapse into this is kind of remarkable. Jittlov is so authentically oddball and gentle in his personality that he’s not just likable, he makes a good “type”, someone you can see as a stand-in for everyone who makes home movies or tries to bring a weird vision to life. It’s not so much about him as about the creative spirit.

One bit that may have contributed to Jittlov’s film not getting much circulation is its rather pointed criticism of the Hollywood union system. Jittlov gets rejected for DOCTOR MAGIC because it’s a signatory production, and he would have to join dozens of unions to cover all the work that he does. In a whirlwind sequence, he goes to them all and is swamped under a sea of dues, procedures, seniority restrictions, and redirections (William Z. Ryan plays the various union reps.) As you may know, I supported the WGA strike, and I think the creative unions have done a lot of good work in supporting talent, but there’s a point to be made that the special effects side of things has been weirdly affected by unionization. Effects crews are now massive armies, with little room for the artistry of a Jittlov, a Ray Harryhausen, or a Willis O’ Brien; there are still some big names, but the company masthead tends to overshadow the individual. It’s more complex than unions alone, I don’t doubt, but it’s an interesting issue that the film raises in its offbeat way.

The trailer for this film (which ran in front of the VHS release) says, “Five years in the making! Five days in the theaters!”And then we realize that whoever was in charge of distribution maybe did not do the best job. (This is always the pitfall of independent filmmaking- just because you’ve actually finished a movie doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get to show it to anyone.) Sure enough, the film was gone from theaters before anyone knew it had even been out, and though it received a limited release on VHS and Laserdisc, it received no publicity there either, and I’m not sure if it’s ever been aired on television.

Mike Jittlov reportedly feels that he was cheated by the distributors, and has actually gone to the lengths of encouraging people to bootleg or download the picture, at one point contributing a DVD-quality rip to Bittorrent (that I cannot find at this stage.) There’s another high-quality rip out there, called the “Swordsman” torrent, but I’m having trouble getting that one due to my staggering incompetence with Bittorrent’s not-actually-difficult client software, so I’d check around. Jittlov, who went on to contribute effects to the film GHOST (actually playing the role of the “dark spirits” that drag some of the dead guys away), has remained active in fandom circles and maintains a website (linked above), and from all accounts is great with his fans. The rights to the picture may actually have reverted to him at some point- my understanding of the issue grows hazy here- but he’s understandably nervous about turning it over to anyone for wide distribution on DVD or other media.

So it’s worth keeping an eye out in the weirder corners of the Internet for this picture, though I still hold out the hope that Criterion or somesuch will offer Jittlov unlimited legal control, buckets of money, Swedish citizenship, whatever for the ability to finally give the film the deluxe edition treatment it deserves. But even if it just zips around the information superhighway, THE WIZARD OF SPEED AND TIME is a treat. It’s a great accomplishment for its filmmaker, and a wonderful gift to everyone who’s ever dreamed of making movie magic.

Written, Directed, Edited, and Effected by Mike Jittlov

Grade: B+

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Frasierquest 1.15: You Can't Tell A Crook By His Cover

Daphne leans over to take her shot; the other players are distracted.
Niles: Excuse me. Has a young woman been in here this evening approximately five foot nine and three quarters, with skin the colour of Devonshire cream and the sort of eyes that gaze directly into one's soul with neither artifice nor evasion?


We move away from embarassing relationship troubles for a bit, for a brief romp through poor character judgement and trust issues. Structurally speaking, “You Can’t Tell A Crook...” seems kind of slapdash and rickety, like the script was supposed to go one way at some point but ended up going another. Still, it’s consistently fun enough for it not to matter, and it illuminates relationships in the Crane household in an entertaining way. Memorable would be the wrong word for it, but it’s the kind of story that leaves a nice impression.

After an exchange at the station, Martin and Frasier make a bet over whether the latter can identify the ex-con in his dad’s poker group. Frasier attempts to use his psychological expertise to profile Martin’s buddies, but ends up getting the guess completely wrong. In the meantime, Daphne has ended up making a date with the felon, a prison snitch named Jimmy (Tony Abatemarco). Frasier and Martin have an argument over whether she should date him or not (pro and con, respectively), which Daphne settles by telling them to butt out. She ends up going with Jimmy to a place called the Topaz Lounge, and while Frasier is for her choice at first, he ends up tagging along with Niles to “rescue” her when he hears about the place’s shady reputation, specifically, the fact that it’s still open after multiple shootings.

It’s good to focus on Daphne for a bit (as Niles would agree), and in some ways the episode is about her relationship with the men she lives with. Though I forgot to mention it at the time, “Guess Who’s Coming For Breakfast?” ends with a scene in which Frasier and Daphne, two single people with a night free, decide to use that time to get some laundry done. A pre-emptive kibosh is put on any romantic entanglement, and so Daphne becomes more of a den mother to the Crane men. Here, Frasier and Martin temporarily put her in a daughter role by trying to decide whom she’ll date. (We learn that Daphne never took such advice even as a schoolgirl.) She quickly breaks out of that role, and the climax, in which she uses her skill with a pool cue to hold her own at the Topaz Lounge, establishes that she’s not just the show’s requisite “wacky” character, but a strong figure in certain situations. If Frasier has the book smarts and Martin provides worldy wisdom, Daphne’s more of a wild card- you never know what she’ll be good at or what story involving her childhood in Manchester will be used to justify it. (And now I am thinking of the FRASIER cast as an RPG party, and should probably stop.)

Jimmy, interestingly enough, is disposed of off-screen; a bartender (Ivory Ocean) tells Frasier and Niles that he tried to get fresh with her and she showed him the door. In some ways this is a cheat; the character who seemingly drives much of the action is really only in one scene. Indeed, the last act really isn’t about the bet that kicked off the story, or the underlying question of Frasier’s alleged God-given gift to intuit. Daphne’s unexpected control of the situation at the Topaz Lounge may be a thematic link- another example of not judging someone by appearances, to say nothing of the trust issues involved- but if there is a connection it’s underplayed.

This is more just a series of funny events, though the plot is logical and the conclusion satisfying. What it lacks in structural elegance it makes up for in just being funny, and though I doubt anyone learns a lesson at the end, it’s still a fun climax. Daphne gets to shine again, Frasier and Niles get to look out of place, and keep an eye on that red-haired waiter who hears a bit of their conversation at Café Nervosa. He’ll be back.

No Guest Caller

Written by David Lloyd
Directed by Andy Ackerman
Aired January 27, 1994

Frasier: You know dad, he’s so judgemental.

Niles: He is, and I’ve often condemned him for it.

(Quotes via IMDB and John Masson's Twiztv.com transcript. Again, caveats about heavy advertising on the latter site apply.)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Frasierquest 1.14: Can't Buy Me Love

Frasier and Bulldog on the block
Frasier: I may surprise you, you know. I'm probably more “with it” than you think I am...

We come to another episode that I wasn’t exactly looking forward to. Vicarious embarassment is something I can be prone to, which makes you wonder why I’m blogging about a sitcom, and in the course of “Can’t Buy Me Love” Frasier probably has one of his least-good hours. It’s not entirely his fault, which perhaps makes it worse: I can enjoy a character getting just comuppance for hubris or some other personal flaw, but when a character just gets outright screwed by circumstance it’s less fun. The main trouble is, going into detail about all this requires the use of spoilers. I’m not really sure why I hold to spoilers regarding a show that’s been out of production for over 5 years now, but it’s just the style I picked up, so I’ll do the normal summary and THEN reveal the rest of the story.

Martin’s old precinct is holding a charity benefit, and he ropes Frasier and Bulldog into offering themselves up at the bachelor auction. Frasier gets snatched up for five hundred by a lovely model Kristina Harper (Claire Stansfield), while Daphne, shill-bidding near the end, accidentally purchases Bulldog for a c-note. Unfortunately, Frasier’s date is postponed when Kristina gets a last-minute modelling assignment, and leaves him looking after her 12-year-old daughter Renata (Ashley Bank), who isn’t thrilled about the situation either. Over the course of the evening, Renata tells Frasier that her mother is vain and neglectful, leaving her daughter in the car to get tattoos and constantly lying about both their ages.

The big twist to all this is that Renata is lying- Kristina spends lots of time with her daughter and at the very least doesn’t have a tattoo in any place that shows. Frasier takes the girl at her word and confronts Kristina when she comes back, which needless to say pisses her off and kills whatever relationship may have come into being. It still seems a little unbelievable to me that Frasier leaps right into his accusation without questioning what he’s just been told, even though he admits that adolescent psychology is not his strong point. (There’s the old adage that you shouldn’t use adult psychiatric evaluations on adolescents because they’ll all test as narcissistic sociopaths.) Of course, knowing this beforehand, you start to REALLY hate Renata, who sabotages a potential relationship for her mother- with a guy she finds out is not entirely uncool, no less- on the basis that she wasn’t allowed to stay home alone that night. Then again, she’s 12.

If all of this is a little wince-inducing, the episode is still more or less salvaged by the utterly brilliant scene depicting the end of Bulldog’s date, in which a sloshed Daphne manages to insult him several times and start a fight in the middle of a traffic jam. Jane Leeves owns this sequence, establishing Daphne as a hilarious, dangerous, yet still kind of adorable drunk. I love this side of her character, and when it resurfaces in a few later episodes it’s still hilarious. (Roz probably gets the episode’s second funniest moment, homing in on her own bachelor with an eye towards getting value for money.)

The denoument definitely helps take some of the sting off, as Frasier starts to dread what his own son will be like when he reaches that age. Overall it’s mostly the middle I have a problem with; Renata’s stories probably work on the viewer the first time through, but rewatchability suffers. But there’s always something to love, and if the A story is weak, it’s still worth watching to see how Daphne handles her champagne.

Guest Caller: Ken Levine as M.C.
(Note: M.C.’s actually a caller on Bulldog’s show)

Written by Chuck Ranberg & Anne Flett-Giordano
Directed by James Burrows
Aired January 20, 1994

Daphne: Oh, you are a naughty boy. Now don't go getting any ideas. Oh, look who I'm saying this to. You don't have an idea in your head!

(Quotes again are from John Masson's transcript at Twiztv.com. Careful of all the ads on that site- it's annoying, but, well, IMDB is slacking in this department.)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Frasierquest 1.13: Guess Who's Coming to Breakfast?

Frasier and Elaine share an awkward moment
Frasier: Now listen Niles, I’m having a young lady over on Friday night, I was hoping you could take Dad out for me.

Niles: Oh, I wish you’d said Saturday.

Frasier: Why, you have plans Friday?

Niles: No, I have plans Saturday.

Some episodes are harder to write about than others, and “Guess Who’s Coming to Breakfast” has been a tough one for some reason. It’s not a weak episode, per se, but I find it less memorable than the ones surrounding it. Still, after a few episodes it’s good to get back to the dynamic between Frasier and Martin, and a thin “A” plot is surrounded by lots of extraneous funny business to sustain our interest. It’s also a Hell of a lot lighter than the episodes which came before it, focusing on sex, the generation gap, English breakfasts, and other frivolities.

After Frasier persuades Martin to clear out on Friday night so he can have a date over, Martin asks that Frasier do the same on Saturday. He’s meeting with Elaine Morris (Linda Stephens) from 1412, and that date goes unexpectedly well, leading to Elaine popping up at breakfast on Sunday morning. Frasier is flustered and embarassed, but gets over his awkwardness at realizing his dad still has a sex life, and goes on to use the experience as an example to one of his callers. He names names, which infuriates Martin no end and scares off Elaine, which forces Frasier to go public again in an attempt to reunite the two.

I suppose the major problem I have when it comes to this episode is that Frasier acts even more foolishly than usual, and it’s not entirely clear why. He doesn’t have a surfeit of common sense, but he isn’t totally absent-minded either, and I think just about anyone should realize that not only discussing your father’s sex life on the radio but naming names is crossing a line, and it’s not even necessary in order for Frasier to make the point to the caller. He could simply say that his dad is dating again and this has once caused complication the next morning.

Then again, he wouldn’t be the first person to dole out too much information to people he think wouldn’t care, and of course Frasier also spent a long time before this in private practice. Sure, psychiatric patients aren’t bound by confidentiality, but it’s still unlikely that any one thing said in the office will spread too far. And he’s alone with his producer in that booth, and the idea that one of the people on the other end of that conversation may in fact be Martin or Elaine maybe just didn’t sink in.

In any case, this is one of those episodes where I can’t help but feel the embarassment the characters go through a little, and these episodes are sometimes hard to watch. That said, Frasier goes a long way towards redeeming himself with his efforts to get Elaine talking to Martin again, and the last couple of scenes are quite sweet on that level.

I’d actually forgotten that this is the episode which introduces Noel Shempsky (Patrick Kerr), KACL’s resident dweeb. Noel is a series fixture, with the show from start to finish, and he never actually changed that much from his first appearance. He’s always kind of sweet but kind of creepy, and though it’s not the most three-dimensional of characterizations, Kerr gives it a life beyond the stereotype. (The frequent jokes at the expense of his STAR TREK fixation are something of an in-joke- this is, after all, a Paramount series, and Kelsey Grammer once had a prominent guest shot on THE NEXT GENERATION as the ill-fated captain of a past Enterprise.) And as we see here, his sensors are locked on Roz, something which will not change for some time. It says something that Roz is at least willing to give him a chance, thinking it might be fun to date a guy with substance for once, but it’s just not meant to be.

The episode reaches its comic peak early with Frasier’s glorious awkwardness at breakfast with Elaine; quoting it would do no good since it’s all in the delivery. (That Daphne made bangers for breakfast does not help matters.) But the climactic scene, where Frasier has to fend off a crowd of drama-hungry tenants (and the doorman) in order to get Elaine and Martin talking, is also clever, and reminiscient of an early moment from Sam and Diane’s courtship in CHEERS. I also suspect the scene is partly a parody of how devoted fans can get to these ongoing love stories, even though this show’s most famous romantic arc is still in its infancy. (More on that as it develops.)

Again, this is a solid episode, and though Frasier seems to go out of his way to put his foot in it, it won’t be the last time. (I’m not even sure it’s the first.) In any case, one at least hopes he won’t make this specific mistake again. The moral of the story is, do not kiss and tell vicariously. At least not on city-wide radio.

Guest Callers: Piper Laurie as Marianne, Henry Mancini as Al, Elijah Wood as Ethan

Written by Molly Newman
Directed by Andy Ackerman
Aired January 6, 1994

Daphne: The way you were carrying on, I think we can be thankful I didn’t make Toad in the Hole!

(Again, captions helped by John Masson's transcript at Twiztv.com)

Monday, December 07, 2009

Save vs. Bad Movie?


More self-promotion time! I've gone and written another piece for The Agony Booth, this time recapping the legendarily dull and crappy Dungeons & Dragons movie. For some reason this ten page epic took me about a year to write and revise, so enjoy!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Frasierquest 1.12: Miracle on Third or Fourth Street

Frasier at Lou's
Frasier: Well, as we head into our second hour, I'd like to lighten things up a bit. Although, Ned, we were certainly glad to hear from you, and how you got mugged on your way home from the soup kitchen.

So, the show’s first Christmas episode, and it’s quite possibly the single bleakest thing of the entire season. It’s not entirely inappropriate; the holidays can be as much about depression and anxiety as about togetherness and joy, and this show manages to swing us wildly between both extremes. But even though FRASIER was a show with a built-in audience from CHEERS and a big push from NBC, something this dark was a risk for the first year. But it taps into a lot of the feelings that this time of year can drudge up, and maybe it works a little better than the more cheery seasonal episodes we’re used to.

Frasier starts off thinking his Christmas is going to be good; he plans to see his son for the first time in a long while, and spend the holiday at a cabin with Martin, Niles, and Maris. (Daphne is spending Christmas with her transvestite uncle Jackie in San Francisco- sadly we never actually got to meet this character. Would’ve been a natural fit for Jim Broadbent.) However, at the last minute, Lilith calls to say that she’s planned something much better for Frederick (see below), and Frasier’s anger with that, plus further tension with dad, causes him to decide to fill in for Bulldog on December 25th. The result is the psychiatric call-in show of the damned, with depressing story after depressing story delivered to an ultra-casual Frasier and an increasingly sad Roz, until Frasier lets his producer go and winds up wrapping up the holiday disaster himself, before limping into the one eatery that isn’t closed or booked up. Needless to say, it’s not the most cheery place either.

We get yet another angle on Frasier’s job here, which is that there is something inherently taxing about listening to other people’s misery. Depression is contagious, and while it can help to unshoulder our burdens on someone else, that person takes it up on a diminished level, ends up feeling a little sadder. Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t offer to listen, but Frasier’s in a bad state going into the show, despite an attempt at cheer and hope that he can give someone, somewhere a merry Christmas. This patina of chirpiness crumbles under stories that border on the outright macabre- I thought about quoting the worst one, but it really is that awful. Of course, the couple of upbeat stories Frasier hears in his four-hour slog don’t really perk him up either.

This worst-Christmas-ever is also a good opportunity for Roz to get a little more spotlight time. Her initial hostility to the man who inadvertently ruined her Christmas is broken down, and we see her in a rare vulnerable moment when Frasier sends her off. It’s a nice picture of the rapport these two are developing; they’ve been working together for a while, but they’re more surely becoming friends.

Basically, the episode is Frasier making concession after concession to the holidays, a grudging generosity being the only thing he has. The climax of all this is very subdued and low-key, which was probably a very good idea. The gist of it all is that Frasier ends up eating at a greasy spoon diner frequented by a few of Seattle’s homeless, who mistake him for one of their own because of how bad he looks. As it happens, he’s lost his wallet, and over his objections Bill (Hawthorne James) takes up a collection to pay his tab. His act of generosity and his explanation (“Christmas belongs to guys like us”) could potentially push the whole thing into sentimental claptrap territory, but the subtlety and continued good humor of the final scene make it something that really sticks with the viewer.

Looking at odds and ends, I also really like the joke in an early scene where Frasier agrees to give the lovely-yet-imposing Bonnie Weems (Kathryn Danielle) a drive home from the office Christmas party, which amuses everyone else to no end. I don’t even know why, but it’s a nice callback to having heard the character mentioned back in “Oops”. The family cabin also does get shown a few times eventually, though I’m not immediately sure it’s the same one each time. (I’ll have to watch out for this.)

The show would go on to have more cheery and comical Christmas shows, and those are no less good for being easy on the viewer. But there’s something cathartic about being shown the misery we can sometimes go through trying to make something of the season when circumstances are poor. Halfway through season one, FRASIER is doing some rather ambitious things, still trusting the audience to go along with it.

Guest Callers: Mel Brooks as Tom, Rosemary Clooney as Gladys, Dominick Dunne as Jeff, Ben Stiller as Barry, Eric Stoltz as Don

Written by Christopher Lloyd (again, not the Doc Brown guy)
Directed by James Burrows
Aired December 16, 1993

Frasier: Well, Merry Christmas, everybody! Lilith isn't sending Frederick!

Martin: What? Why not?

Frasier: Well, apparently he has this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an incredible Christmas. A friend of hers has rented a home in Austria.

Martin: What's the matter with the good old U.S.A.?

Frasier: Well, apparently it's the same house that they filmed “The Sound Of Music” in, and that happens to be Freddie's favorite movie. Well, Julie Andrews is singing with the Salzburg Choral, they're having dinner with her afterwards, and some nonsense about a horse-driven sleigh ride through the snow, and a toboggan, and a balloon trip through the Alps, and apparently on their way back they're gonna spend an entire day at Euro-Disneyland!

Niles: ...Well, up at the cabin, there's an old stump that the local children seem to enjoy kicking.

(Quotes assisted by John Masson’s transcript at twiztv.com)

Saturday, December 05, 2009

In Theaters: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox poster and IMPAwards link
The problem with calling your movie FANTASTIC MR. FOX is two fold. If it’s bad, or even mediocre, or even just kind of good, the critic’s temptation is to harp on just how un-fantastic it is. And if it is fantastic, then, well, I can’t go and use the word fantastic without seeming cheesy or uninspired, can I? Sure, I could work in it via a rhetorical device like this one, but that’s not really much better, is it?

Ah, well, they got the title from a book, anyway.

Ahem. So. Wes Anderson is one of my favorite directors, and I’ve enjoyed everything he’s put out so far. He’s got a real visual style and an empathy for his characters, and both of these turn out to be positives when it comes to venturing into the realm of children’s animation. Anderson, with co-writer Noah Baumbach and a host of animators who apparently didn’t approve of his artistic direction, has turned Roald Dahl’s beloved tale of survival into a charming and inviting story about aspiration and responsibility, and how these two get in each other’s way.

We first meet Mr. Fox (George Clooney) when he and his wife (Meryl Streep) are doing what foxes normally do, i.e. stealing chickens from farmers. But Mrs. Fox is pregnant, and so in a cut-away past twelve fox years, Mr. Fox is now a newspaper columnist living safe at home and helping raise his... eccentric son Ash (Jason Schwartzmann). Sick of living in the ground, he buys a home in a large tree overlooking the property of three surly farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (Robin Hurlstone, Hugo Guiness, and Michael Gambon, respectively). Ultimately, the chicken hutches, goose smokehouses, and cider storehouses of the farmers prove too great a temptation, and Mr. Fox goes on midnight raids with his possum pal Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky). This raises the ire both of the farmers and of Mrs. Fox when she finds out. And Ash is getting no easier to live with now that the overachieving cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) has moved in while his father recovers from double pneumonia. So Fox has a lot to deal with.

Before release, there was a lot of apprehension about the extra-crude brand of stop motion used in this film (complete with cottonball smoke effects and what technicians apparently call “boiling fur”), and even the effects people apparently had a dim view of Anderson’s insistence on doing things his way. But from the first scene, not only did I become accustomed to the film’s style, I began to see what he was doing. While most 3-D animation focuses on form, the film’s style places equal emphasis on texture, from fur to fabric to plasticy fruit. The effect is that we’re reminded of every object’s physical existence, and the frequent straight-on camera angles give the visuals a picture window quality, as though we’re looking at a series of dioramas. Stop motion has always had that hand-crafted spark of vitality, and FANTASTIC MR. FOX goes a step further to make it seem like we could reach into the picture. (This actually would have been a good 3-D film.)

The film has a lovely autumnal shade to it, everything in pale oranges and fiery reds. The soundtrack also leans heavily on unpolished guitars and folksy vocals, including an original song by Jarvis Cocker. It’s relaxing, a kind of mellow experience for the filmgoer, with nothing to get too hung up about.

The writing is really sharp, and the cast is so good with the material that even minor exchanges sparkle. Whether it’s Owen Wilson as a coach explaining the rules of Whackbat (which is basically cricket from the perspective of everyone who’s tried to understand cricket), Gambon as the sardonic brains of the farmer trio, or Willem Dafoe as one of Fox’s former partners-in-crime, everyone is just on form. Obviously George Clooney does the most, and pulls it off with his usual quirky suaveness, and there’s Bill Murray as a Badger lawyer, but seriously if I start listing everyone who’s awesome I will never stop.

There’s not a whole lot of what one would call suspense to this picture, at least not until late in the game. But there’s a nice, subtle conflict going on under the main story, and that’s the one between Fox and his own ambitions. He always wants to push forward, to have more than he does, not out of greed but out of a sense of underachievement. There’s a message here about appreciating what you have, but also one of coming to terms with what you are, and with Fox it’s his animal nature; no matter how much he civilizes himself, he’s always going to want to steal chickens and cider, and he has to find a way that he can be himself and not put his family in danger.

In the meantime, though, there are farmers to outwit and chickens to eat, and good times to be had. In a year of fabulous children’s movies, this may actually be the best yet. Sure, it doesn’t have the tearjerker value of UP or WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, but it’s not aspiring to that, and what it does deliver is a just plain pleasurable experience, one worth watching and sharing. See this film. It’s... really very very good.

Based on the book by Roald Dahl
Screenplay by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach
Directed by Wes Anderson

Grade: A

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Frasierquest 1.11: Death Becomes Him

Frasier at Dr. Newman's wakeAunt Bobbie: We always cover mirrors at a Shiva, so those grieving don't have to be concerned with their own appearances.

Frasier: Ah. Oh well, you look very nice.

Aunt Bobbie: Oh, thank you. It's been driving me crazy!

The next couple of episodes here go in a grim direction. Relatively speaking, of course, but darker than you’d expect a sitcom to go, especially one in its freshman year. As one might expect from the title, “Death Becomes Him” is about mortality, and Frasier’s increasing awareness of it. But in between the short bursts of serious business is some very sharp comedy writing, and the episode manages to be funny without being glib.

When Martin misses a doctor’s appointment, Frasier takes it upon himself to drag him to a physical at an office in Niles’ building. However, after a long wait, they find that the doctor- a man of Frasier’s age (41), in good health- died suddenly of a heart attack. Frasier is troubled by the thought that the same might happen to him, and goes about setting his affairs in order, but even that doesn’t put his mind at ease.

I don’t recall if CHEERS ever gave Frasier’s age, but now we know he’s just about ripe for various midlife crises, and this is one he’d have to face up to sooner or later. To his credit, he handles his fear in an at-first sensible manner, making sure his relatives could access all his personal information, bank accounts, etc. in the event of his death. But then he brings out the stickers to try and pre-distribute his worldly belongings, and we realize that he’s taking rationality to irrational extremes.

I guess that’s why this episode is as funny as it is- the humor is drawn not from death itself, but from the panic response it evokes. Frasier goes into defensive mode because of the death of someone he never even knew, to the extent that he ends up attending the man’s wake and trying to pretend he has some legitimate reason to be there.

The other regulars, unaffected by what’s happened, give us some great light moments in between Frasier’s broodings. Niles is really starting to consciously try to impress Daphne, who, while apparently not understanding why he’s trying to open jars and talking about pumping iron, still humors him with a smile. (Part of the fun of rewatching FRASIER is looking at the reaction shots, and seeing how the actors subtly convey their characters’ attitudes towards each other.) Roz, in her one scene, firmly gets established as a woman with a very active sex life, and she is apparently very good at what she does.

The final lesson that Frasier has to learn here is no surprise: life is fleeting, and we have to learn to treasure it rather than focus on its inevitable end. But even when we know that consciously, we can still be thrown for a loop by the instinctive realization of, and fear of, our own mortality. But since we can’t actually do anything in response but draw up some documents and maybe talk to an insurance representative, our fear can be pretty damn funny.

No Guest Caller

Written by Leslie Eberhard
Directed by Andy Ackerman
Aired December 2, 1993

Martin: Look son, let me tell you something. There was this time, a while back, seven or eight of us were on this drug bust. We get the order to go through the front door, and the first guy took one. He was dead before he hit the ground. When you're a cop, you've got to be able to handle things like that, but I... I just couldn't get over it. Every time I had to go in a blind alley, or in a dark building, I just froze. And I knew if I kept being afraid to die, I'd never be able to do my job.

Frasier: So what did you do?

Martin: I just forced myself to forget about it.

Frasier: Just like that?

Martin: Just like that. Next time I came across one of those doors, I went right through it... The fact that I got shot in the hip was purely coincidental.

Frasier: You were this close to helping me there, Dad.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Today! Today! Today!

Today's the day "You Have Five Minutes...", a radio theatre anthology containing one short play by yours truly, airs on KUNM in Albuquerque. For locals, that's 89.9 on your dial.

Everyone else, click HERE to listen to their online stream. The show starts at 6:05 Mountain Time, and will be archived for about two weeks.

Please, give it a listen if you have the time.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Frasierquest 1.10: Oops

Bulldog at his Bulldoggiest
Marin: I tuned into the Gonzo Sports Show like I do every afternoon, and they had Father Mike filling in. I hate that! All it was, was “Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Notre Dame...”

And we go right to another episode focused on the radio station. I think this is a sign that the show is continuing to expand beyond the family dynamic; if you knew nothing about FRASIER and happened to catch this one installment, you might even think this was a workplace sitcom. Sure, all the regulars get some face time and Frasier himself still drives the action, so it’s not that dramatic a shift, but mostly the episode serves to flesh out Frasier’s work environment a little more, and put a welcome spotlight on Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe in the process.

When meeting with Roz and others from the station, Frasier overhears the rumor that KACL is over budget and needs to let some of its high-priced talent go. The word is that Bulldog, the highest rated, but also highest paid and shortest tempered of the on-air talent, will be the one to get the axe. Later, when Father Mike (George Deloy) is worried that he might be getting fired, Frasier lets him in on the above rumor, which Bulldog overhears, compelling him to charge into the office of station manager Ned Miller (John Glover) and chew him out. As it turned out, the rumor was false, but now Bulldog has quit in the most un-repealable way possible. When he shows up on Frasier’s doorstep, Frasier’s guilt compels him to try and persuade Miller to take Bulldog back, which is no mean feat- the manager is a nasty, unforgiving, ill-tempered man himself, and he cheats on his wife (if Daphne’s readings are correct.)

One of the most common devices in farce is the overheard (and often misheard) conversation, and though FRASIER has yet to really embrace that genre, it’s definitely starting a little more in that direction. (The way I see it, proper farce requires at least two or three misunderstandings to start compounding on each other until nobody has any idea what is going on at all.) In this case, at least, Frasier isn’t misheard- he simply has the wrong information from the start. Again he faces an ethical dilemma when it comes to dealing with the consequences of his (well-intentioned) actions, but as much as the episode is driven by what he does, he’s not entirely the focus.

Instead, this is Bulldog’s first time getting some significant plot attention, and it’s good to see. Dan Butler, who already had a solid reputation as comedian and character actor, jumped into this role with enthusiasm early, and this episode helps to demonstrate why he became such a fixture on the show. A number of other KACL personalities get introduced, either on screen or in passing, including Father Mike, Chopper Dave, and Bonnie Weems.

One personality who won’t be staying around is Ned Miller himself, and though Glover is such a good actor that you hate to see him go, Miller is such a hateful presence that it’s probably for the best. This isn’t a show that does nasty very much; the most negative person on it is someone we never see or hear. Just about everyone else has some redeeming factor. Glover gets one scene, but it’s a frighteningly memorable performance, and though the episode’s resolution is, on paper, kind of contrived, he and Grammer sell it.

On the subject of negative people, there’s something wonderfully fitting about the business with Niles bringing over a plant that Maris has killed through- well, whatever she considers love- in the hopes that Daphne can restore it. Remember, by this point the writers still were treating Niles’ crush as a gag, so the foreshadowing and Jungian symbolism is entirely unintentional. (The scene also keeps Daphne connected to a spiritual, “Earth Mother” image, which is a rich vein of symbolism all its own.) In the same scene we figure out that Martin has worked out that Niles is kind of smitten, but doesn’t seem to see any harm in it.

So domestic developments continue, and really the only change from prior episodes is how much time gets spent there vs. the station. But this is still a sign that the show’s pushing at its own boundaries, making space for future shenanigans and letting the irregulars start to come into their own. Nearly all shows that live past their first season do this, but there’s something fascinating about the process. As for the episode itself, it’s hard to criticize an episode which brings in two great guest comedians, then puts Daphne in a unitard for no particular reason.

Guest Caller: Jay Leno as Don

Written by Denise Moss & Sy Dukane
Directed by James Burrows
Aired 18 November, 1993

Niles: I really have to go. I’m conducting a seminar on multiple personality disorders, and it takes me forever to fill out the nametags.

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's time for Blatant Self Promotion!

Despite this blog being mostly reviews, I still do creative writing, and a good deal of my recent work has been writing radio scripts. This past June, a very short work of mine was actually performed and recorded as part of a larger performance at the Filling Station in Albuquerque, NM, entitled "You Have Five Minutes", under the direction of Lance Roger Axt (friend of the blog) and Linda Lopez McAlister.

On Sunday, November 29, at 6:05 Mountain Time, KUNM in Albuquerque will broadcast the final edited show. The full schedule will feature plays by myself, Algernon D' Ammassa, Lance Roger Axt, Frederick Greenhalgh, and Butch D' Ambrosio. I'm still working on finding full program information, but my play is entitled "On the Outskirts."

Now, I know what you're thinking. "I don't live in Albuquerque! And neither do you!" Well, KUNM streams all its material live. Simply click Here at the appropriate time (I'll put a new thing up on the day in question, but still) and you can listen to their stream.

What is the appropriate time, you may ask? Well, you can probably figure it out, but just to be clear, it's 6:05 MT, which means 5:05 for those on the East Coast, 7:05 for us Midwesterners, and 8:05 for all you Eastern Timezoners. (Also 1:05 AM for the UK, 4:05 AM for Madagascar, and 9:05 AM for Irkutsk.)

This will actually be the first time I've heard this, so it'll be fun for everyone. It says they have shows up for 2 weeks after but I'll check and see if that includes us, and I've heard nothing about any permanent MP3 or whatever access but I'll keep you posted. (I'm still trying to find a way to get a copy of that comedy sketch I was in during the NATF 2007 show.)

But anyway, I hope you listen and enjoy. Back to business as usual.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Frasierquest 1.9: Selling Out

Bebe Glaser introduces herself to Frasier
Frasier: What would you think if I did a commercial and publicly endorsed a product?

Daphne: Oh, you mean like Cher does?

Frasier: Thank you, Daphne, one against. Dad?

This is another episode I’ve been looking forward to covering, as it brings in one of the series’ best recurring guest stars. Bebe Glaser, as played by Harriet Sansom Harris, is not just a great comic personality, but has an extremely good track record for being in great episodes. As good as the show’s core ensemble is, some of these irregular characters really help bring out their best. Another story that deals with Frasier’s career as a radio shrink, “Selling Out” has a lot of fun moments, and deals with one of the basic conflicts of his job.

KACL is having its radio personalities do on-air advertising, and Frasier initially balks at the offer to plug the Hunan Palace (leaving the ad to Bulldog, who proceeds to personally offend every Seattleite of even vaguely Asian descent.) He reconsiders, goes to the restaurant (offscreen), likes it, and so agrees to the deal. This puts him in touch with Bebe, Bulldog’s agent, who offers to represent him and help him on a few more endorsement deals, unsubtly hinting that this could help get him the money to send Frederick to Harvard when the time comes. But Frasier does hit a wall when he gets an offer for Emery’s Nuts- he’s not a nut person, but it does mean a television deal, but that does mean appearing inside a giant peanut...

Niles only has one scene here, at the Nervosa, but he provides a key perspective. As far as he’s concerned, Frasier’s already sold out just by doing a radio call-in show instead of proper psychiatric practice, and this is just one step further down the line. (He does so through a rather oblique analogy to Sharon Stone in BASIC INSTINCT- I’m embarrassed to admit it took me a while to figure out he was referring to that, and not Marilyn Monroe in THE SEVEN-YEAR ITCH). Frasier obviously doesn’t agree, and doesn’t even consider himself a radio personality as such, but he has to watch out. It’s another ethical dilemma, and it’s interesting just how often these are coming up.

Bebe tends to play the role of temptress when she shows up; her Satanic enthusiasm in this episode is, compared to later appearances, subdued, but she’s still buttering up a new client. Harris is quite capable of subtle acting- she has small but very memorable roles in both MEMENTO and NURSE BETTY that show the more subdued portion of her range- but for Bebe, it’s mostly about the grand gestures, tempered on occasion with the tiniest bit of underplaying.

Even by the standards the show has set so far, this is a well-written episode; every scene is lively, bursting with so many good exchanges that I had a really hard time picking which quotes to use for the write-up. (I’m especially fond of Daphne’s sudden revelation that she used to star in a TV series in England- something that’s never mentioned again, obviously.) It’s broader than usual, but it’s good for the show to go this route once in a while.

It’s interesting to think of Frasier as a local celebrity, because we’ve all got those. He has a sort of lowercase-f fame, but it’s enough for him to have to watch out and make sure he doesn’t completely sell out. He finds a sort of balance at the end, but this isn’t the last time the issue comes up. And Bebe will always be around to tempt him.

Guest Caller: Carl Reiner as Roger

Written by Lloyd Garver
Directed by Andy Ackerman
Aired November 11, 1993

Frasier: Roger, at Cornell University, they have an incredible piece of scientific equipment known as the Tunneling Electron Microscope. Now this microscope is so powerful that by firing electrons you can actually see images of the atom, the infinitesimally minute building block of our universe. Roger, if I were using that microscope right now, I still wouldn’t be able to locate my interest in your problem.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

In Theaters: The Men Who Stare At Goats

Men Who Stare At Goats poster and IMPAwards link
The disclaimer for THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS reads “More of this is true than you would believe”, or something to that effect. It’s based on a nonfiction book, has had a fictional storyline imposed on it, but the core concept is real; for many, many years, the U.S. military devoted resources to developing a corps of psychic superpowered soldiers, or, as they were frequently called, “Jedi warriors.” (One of the benefits of being a classified operation is that you presumably don’t have to worry about trademark issues.) The natural reaction to learning this sort of thing is a combination of disbelief, amusement, and frustration at the waste of tax dollars, but this film takes a cooler-headed approach. Skeptics need not worry, as the film doesn’t really try to convince us that any or all of the mystic mumbo-jumbo being taught to the soldiers is at all valid, but it doesn’t condemn the idea altogether. The overall attitude is that it’s a funny old world, and the result is a pleasant groove of a picture, not quite living up to the premise’s full potential, but still throwing some surprises at us.

Bob Wilton (Ewan MacGregor) is a journalist at the end of his rope, recently separated from his wife and trying to change things around by heading to Iraq in the early stages of the second Gulf War. He can’t actually get in the country until he runs into Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), a former member of the “New Earth Army” project, which, under the supervision of Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), taught, or attempted to teach, various psychic and supernatural abilities to its select group of volunteers through a combination of drugs, dubious training exercises, and a decidedly non-Army-esque peace and love attitude. The New Earth Army was an almost utopian concept, meant to produce warriors who could convert enemies and spread peace, but it never quite worked out that way, and Cassady is a burnout, driven into the Iraqi desert by a mission that gets him and Wilton into some serious trouble.

The film is not as much of an outright comedy as the advertising has made it seem, though it rarely gets very serious. Instead the overall tone is of a funky, slightly mad adventure, one that may be based on pure New Age hokum but still worth following. The film doesn’t really commit to skepticism or credulity when it comes to the New Earth Army program- we only see the powers “working” either in ways that could just be normal human ability dressed up with the supernatural, or with the occasional special effect that may be pure fantasy on a character’s part. Like all pseudoscience, Lyn’s powers are unreliable and indistinguishable from luck, but the film never outright says that he’s lying or delusional.

It’s hard to believe the story Lyn has, but at the same time one wants to believe it. Django’s vision is born of a belief in the essential goodness of human nature; he apparently first stumbled on it when he noticed how rarely soldiers in a battle shoot to kill, and became convinced that a solider could become an agent of something better than war. But of course, at the same time, they still learn advanced knife combat and assorted ways of killing people. Bullshit or not, there’s still something corrupt in it, something that has to go wrong.

Clooney and MacGregor make a nice team- the former possessing a loopy certainty, while the latter seems desperate to believe in something. Of course, the fact that MacGregor played Obi-Wan Kenobi provides the opportunity for a number of riffs on the “Jedi Warrior” bit, which goes beyond in-joking and starts pushing at the fourth wall. (Similarly, Bridges’ character has a touch of the Dude to him, though in fairness that’s probably most of the parts he gets offered.)

The film takes a dismaying turn for the conventional in its third act; it feels like something contrived to try and give the story a climax, and a sort of traditional feel-good one at that. It’s not actually boring or bad, but it has a certain Donald-Kaufman-esque feel- it all gets tied up too neatly, when the rest of the film’s appeal is in how funky it is.

Still, it’s a hard movie not to like. It doesn’t lean too heavily on any interpretation of the events it portrays, and has an empathy for its characters that suggests that, even if all the “New Earth” business is a fraud, it’s a useful fraud, perhaps discarded too quickly. Maybe we need the belief that we can become better humans, and the film suggests that a certain New Age idealism may be a necessary tonic for our times.

Plus, it makes extensive use of Boston’s “More Than A Feeling”, which is worth a few points right there.

Based on the book by Jon Ronson
Screenplay by Peter Straughan
DIrected by Grant Heslov

Grade: B

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Frasierquest 1.8: Beloved Infidel

Frasier and Niles hit the books
Frasier: “How am I doing?” How are you doing, Niles? Doesn’t it bother you that your father cheated on my mother?

I remembered this episode as being darker than it actually is. It’s about a dark subject, to be sure, but handles it with grace. “Beloved Infidel” returns us to a focus on the Crane family dynamic, and on Frasier and Martin’s relationship in specific. It’s a bit slow, but the ultimate payoff is worth it, as the two find common ground over an unpleasant reality.

Out for dinner, Frasier and Niles spot Martin in the company of Marion Lawlor (Pat Crowley), who seems upset. The Lawlors were old family friends of the Cranes, who weren’t seen much after a falling out during a vacation at a cabin by the lake. Delving back into photo albums and diaries, Niles and Frasier begin to suspect that their dad may have actually had an affair with Marion. When Daphne forces a confrontation on the issue (and is excused from the room for her troubles), Martin owns up to it and asks that they don’t speak of it again. Frasier is deeply troubled by the discovery, but a chance encounter with Marion reveals the actual truth; it was his mother who cheated on Martin with Marion’s husband.

As I noted back in “Dinner at Eight”, Hester Crane is often invoked as a saintly figure, with the reverence that we give the departed, so it’s interesting that as early as the first year they gave nuance to an offscreen character by showing she was far from perfect. (Of course, CHEERS viewers had a different picture of Frasier’s mother, but there’s an inevitable discontinuity between the two shows.) The unpleasantness of the subject is offset by the revelation that this was far in the past and that Martin and Hester were able to work past it and have a long, happy marriage.

Niles is happy to move on when his father “confesses”, accepting that this is past, and the fact that he’s satisfied and Frasier isn’t is a contrast I hadn’t noticed before. What really troubles Frasier isn’t so much what they did, but the realization that his parents aren’t morally flawless. In the end it’s probably for the best that he knows this, and much of the satisfication in the episode is in its climax, wherein Frasier finally reveals to Martin that he was once cuckolded as well. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes and everyone gets hurt. Equally powerful is Martin’s assurance that Frasier shouldn’t think less of his mother for what happened.

A few side developments are worth noting; Roz has a date and Frasier starts to genuinely question her taste in men, and Daphne tells a few stories about her many brothers back in Manchester, including Billy, the ballroom dancer. Frasier attempts to get to the bottom of things by calling Aunt Vivian, “keeper of the Crane family secrets”, and I’m not sure this character is ever mentioned again. Eddie gets a nice gag too, and there’s some good timing on Moose and trainer Matilde de Cagny’s part.

A variety of diversions- Roz’s love life, Daphne’s stories, Niles’ “Healing With Humor Support Group”- help keep the shadow of parental infidelity from making this an excessively grim episode, but at heart, the fact that they’re willing to examine this subject at all demonstrates the trust the show has for its audience. (Granted, it has the benefit of the guilty party being dead and the incident far in the past.) This episode, like a lot of the first season ones, has a certain “basic” feel to it, with a straightforward plot line and not many frills, and I confess I’m almost impatient to get to the crazier stuff. Still, not many shows would attempt a story like this in their first year, and fewer would pull it off as well.

Guest Caller: JoBeth Williams as Danielle

Written by Leslie Eberhard
Directed by Andy Ackerman
Aired November 4, 1993

Frasier: So, who is this guy? Not another one of those trendy young kids who’s got three earrings and a ponytail, wearing a T-shirt under his sportscoat?

Roz: Is he here?

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Frasierquest 1.7: Call Me Irresponsible

Frasier and Catherine discuss things over M&M's
Frasier: How I envy you, Eddie. The biggest questions in your life are, "Who's going to walk me? Who's going to feed me?" I won't know that kind of joy for another forty years.

It’s hard to believe that it’s taken this long to get to the show’s first example of the “Frasier in love” episode. This is really one of FRASIER’s standbys, a tradition of the hero falling for a gorgeous, intelligent, near-perfect woman, but reliably finding a way to ruin everything. In “Call Me Irresponsible” it’s not entirely his fault, and the episode also highlights one of the character’s major complicating factors- his strong sense of ethics. Frasier can stray into cad territory, but he’s not comfortable there, and his gut always keeps him in check. Sometimes in the most direct way possible.

When a caller to the show implies that he’s afraid to commit to his current girlfriend, and is holding out for someone better, Frasier advises him to break up with her rather than string her along. The woman, Catherine (Amanda Donohoe), later shows up at the station upset, but Frasier gets her to understand the situation, and both having recently separated from loved ones, they strike up a relationship. It’s all running smoothly until two things happen; Niles says Frasier can’t possibly get involved with someone who was involved with a patient (though Marco wasn’t a patient so much as a caller), and Marco calls back, having second thoughts about having dumped Catherine. Frasier realizes he’s in a difficult ethical position, and when his ethics are in danger of compromise, his stomach starts to revolt- on the very night that Catherine decides to take the relationship to the next level, no less.

Daphne and Martin step back here, absent but for a hilarious early scene where they rope Frasier into taking the family Christmas photo on October 23. Roz and Niles also have limited roles, leaving the focus on Frasier and his new girlfriend. Obviously it’s not unusual for FRASIER to be about Frasier, but the relationship benefits from this kind of attention. Catherine is in many ways the kind of woman Frasier gets drawn to time and again- sharp, reasonably intelligent, gorgeous, and with a strong personality. Donohoe is sexy in a natural, understated way, and her American accent is astoundingly convincing. The two have a nice rapport, and you get a sense that they could really make it work for a while, which makes what must happen a shame.

It’s interesting to see a little more light shed on Frasier’s character here, specifically to find out that he has such a strong code of ethics that he literally gets queasy if he thinks he’s violating it. I’m not entirely sure how consistently this particular quirk was invoked- I’ll have to watch for it- but Frasier is definitely governed by a strong sense of right and wrong, even beyond the rules he has to follow as a psychiatrist. (I’m not actually sure what the APA would make of this situation- Marco’s already waived confidentiality by calling into a radio show, so it’s possible that this simply isn’t a doctor-patient relationship.)

A lot of sitcom characters, maybe even most, are portrayed as fundamentally good folks so as to keep the sympathy of the audience, but with Frasier- and Niles, who we find out has a similar problem with nosebleeds- we have someone with a very strong conscience, who constantly wonders about what the right thing to do is. He’s constantly introspective, and apart from making the character more sympathetic, this also helps drive stories- the man can rarely run from his problems. Watching this episode again, I noticed that Frasier denying himself Catherine hurts her as well as him, since obviously this would be her second dumping in a short period, and at the hands of the man who caused the first one. That’s the problem with ethics; even if you disregard your own happiness to follow them, you can’t be sure you won’t trod on someone else’s as well.

Again I seem to be taking this all too seriously, when the show itself plays out in its usual light and fluffy manner. It’s hard to convey the humor of a show that doles it out in character beats and banter instead of one-liners and wacky concepts. But there’s a way in which all Frasier’s failed relationships are gloriously funny tragedies, and here it’s rendered a bit more poignant by the fact that it’s not really his fault. Truly, the Marcos of the world do more damage than they know.

Guest Callers: Edward Van Halen as Hank, Bruno Kirby as Marco

Written by Chuck Ranberg & Anne Flett
Directed by James Burrows
Aired October 28, 1993

Frasier: Niles, please don’t try to be hip. You remind me of Bob Hope when he dresses up as the Fonz.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Frasierquest 1.6: The Crucible

Frasier is embarrassed at a party. Film at Eleven.
Philip: Dr. Crane, if you ever find justice in this world, let me know, will you?

Even though I’ve seen every episode of this show more than once, it took me a little while to remember which one “The Crucible” was. The title’s fairly obtuse; on the face of it, it looks like an Arthur Miller reference, but since this is a story about Frasier buying a forged painting and not being able to get a refund, that doesn’t quite fit. Rather, I think they’re going with the definition “a severe test” (thanks Mirriam-Webster), because in this situation Frasier finds his ethics heated to a breaking point. Sounds like serious business, but thankfully it isn’t, much.

It starts when Frasier lets it slip on air that he’s bought a painting by Seattle artist Martha Paxton. Paxton (Rachel Rosenthal) gives him a call and agrees to appear at a soiree at his apartment, only to drop the bombshell that the painting’s not even hers. Frasier takes the phony art back to the gallery where he bought it, but the owner, Philip (John Rubinstein), refuses to take it back, let alone give a refund. A call to the police yields no results when it turns out they don’t have a “Fine Arts Forgery Department”, and Frasier is tempted to take the law into his own hands.

Taking this series far too seriously is what we do around here, and “The Crucible” introduces a number of themes and ideas that would pop up now and again. The conflict is basically Frasier vs. the world, and when this happens the world tends to win. Frasier is at heart an idealist, and he tends to take violations of principle very seriously indeed, which is why he can’t let it go, even though the painting is as good a piece after the forgery is revealed as it was before. In this case, the wrong also encroaches on Frasier’s love of art and culture, which he expounds on to a caller at the episode’s opening.

It falls to Martin to play the realist and make Frasier understand that sometimes life is just going to suck, and this will happen again, but the way Niles steps in at the end of the episode is particularly clever. Again, as with “I Hate Frasier Crane”, the conflict parallels the troubles the Crane boys had as youths, though perhaps we could do without hearing how Niles earned the nickname “Peachfuzz”.

I imagine you’re sick of firsts by now, but it still must be noted that this is the very first instance of Frasier throwing a classy dinner party. He will do this often, and in accordance with the laws of comedy, we know it will never work. But here we get some fun character bits- Martin drags out his crime scene photos, Frasier notices that Roz has a neck, and Niles gets a whiff of Daphne’s hair while Maris sleeps under the guests’ coats. It’s fun to see everyone get thrown into a scene like this, and that it’s starting to happen more frequently is a sign that the show’s settled into a groove.

Guest Caller: Robert Klein as Gary

Written by Sy Dukane and Denise Moss
Directed by James Burrows
Aired 21 October, 1993

Niles: Remember what you said? “If you act like a barbarian, you will become a barbarian.”

Frasier: I said that?

Niles: Yes. Well, actually you were more verbose at the time. I had to listen, you were sitting on my chest.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Club Parnassus Halloween Shindig

I love Halloween, and each year I try to do something nice and Halloween-y here at the club. Honestly, I got caught unprepared this year, so what you'll be seeing now is the result of some random scrambling for material. Hope you enjoy it.

To start things off, let's have another entry in opening credits sequence theater, with the simple but powerful start to John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN. This one's mostly about the music; the swift pace of the theme song sets up a momentum that carries through the film's first scenes.



And for those in our audience who are planning to complete major Jewish rites of passage on this day, a word on what you can expect, from Tracy Jordan and an intrepid Sims 2 player:



A good scary story is always appropriate, and Kevin Church and Paul Horn are offering us a particularly spooky webcomic for the holiday, known as Copy Protection.

For something text-only, pretty much all of the works of H.P. Lovecraft have been made available for free online. One of his best stories is Dreams in the Witch House, at least in my opinion, and you can go from there to everywhere on HPLovecraft.com, and wade through all his material, losing sanity as you go.

And finally, for audiophiles wanting to take a listen to probably the most famous radio drama ever, Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre production of The War of the Worlds is frequently revived by local public radio stations, and if you want to listen to it now, head on over to the Internet Archive for a free and legal download.

Hope this is all enough to make your Halloween a teeny bit more awesome. Have fun out there!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Stage Review: Maul of the Dead

Still from Maul of the Dead and link to the Coterie websiteA spiritual sequel of sorts to the Coterie’s previous productions of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (which I saw, but one day before it ended so I figured a review was pointless), Mitch Brian’s MAUL OF THE DEAD is an original-for-copyright-reasons spoof inspired by Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, showing at the Crown Center mall and so feeling strangely immersive. It’s definitely an improvement over NIGHT, which suffered a little from the inevitable conflict between the campy presentation and the utter bleakness of the story. Here, the source material is a bit humorous to start with, and turning it into an out-and-out spoof makes for a very entertaining experience.

The action starts in the lobby, with two SWAT team members- Frank (Tosin Morohunfola) and Lewis (Matt Weiss)- helping an usherette (Keely Siefers) escort the audience into the theater and escape the zombie hordes outside. Locking themselves up inside JC Penney’s, they meet a flighty perfume girl (Ashleigh Murray) who doesn’t last too long, but other survivors- Orange Julius punk salesgirl Donna (Meredith Wolfe), TV weather reporter Wendy (Kimberly Queen), and her boyfriend John (Greg Krumins)- hole up with them. As the group tries to get supplies and fully secure themselves within the mall, an odd family dynamic develops, among other tensions.

One of the benefits MAUL OF THE DEAD gets from being a spoof rather than an adaptation is that it can (and to a certain extent has to) steer away from the original plot. The characters aren’t quite the same as the ones from DAWN OF THE DEAD, and the story mixes familiar beats with new twists. As broad as the characters are, the relationships that develop between them are amusing.

The enthusiasm of the performers certainly helps; there’s a consistent high energy and good spirit to the piece, and even in the quiet moments the actors keep up the momentum. I liked Wolfe’s faux-punk character more than I expected to at first, since it seemed too obvious an attempt to shove in a “Seventies” cultural reference. (Interestingly, they manage to play more authentic contemporary hits on the soundtrack than Romero could ever afford.) Morohunfola and Weiss do some impressive tumbling, and the script adds an interesting layer to their relationship (though this is arguably overplayed.) There aren’t really any bad performances, though, and it’s hard to pick out highlights. The zombies are played by two alternating teams, and are very dedicated to their craft.

If MAUL OF THE DEAD has a major flaw, it’s that the humor is uneven; sometimes they try to play up the camp melodrama, but this doesn’t quite work because it’s hard to get truly over the top in a zombie apocalypse. The 70s cultural nods sometimes work, sometimes don’t, though I like how thorough they are with the fashion. It’s at its best when it focuses on the character relationships, in particular the family setup that appears early in what would be the second act if this weren’t a one-act play.

Overall, the show’s a little lumpy and could use some fine-tuning in time for future Halloweens, but I definitely enjoyed myself and would recommend the show to people in the KC area. There are a few performances left through October 31st, despite my lateness in finishing this review, so give it a look.

Written by Mitch Brian
Directed by Ron McGee

Grade: B+

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Frasierquest 1.5: Here's Looking At You

Frasier, Daphne, and Martin search the Seattle skyline
Frasier: There are a million stories in the naked city... now if we could just find a naked one.

One of the nicer things about FRASIER is that it can be heartwarming without being saccharine; it honestly respects its characters, so we can follow them through romantic or even sometimes dramatic situations without feeling like it’s a betrayal of the premise. I’ve often thought of the show as being similar to a romantic comedy, and this is the first episode to explore the idea. Ironically, it does so not by focusing on Frasier, but on his dad.

Frasier thinks Martin needs a hobby to keep him occupied during retirement, and decides to buy him a telescope. After some entirely innocent surveying of the Seattle skyline, they catch sight of a woman doing some surveying of her own. Martin and the woman, Irene, start exchanging notes. Frasier and Daphne are delighted, but Martin is nervous about jumping into the dating scene again. His nervousness is not helped when Niles tries to fix her up with Maris’ “lovable” aunt Patrice (Kathleen Noone).

By necessity this episode moves pretty quickly- in fact this is probably the most fast-paced installment since the pilot. We go right from Frasier discussing getting Martin a hobby with Roz to the telescope set up in his apartment, the obvious REAR WINDOW possibilities are dismissed in a couple of lines, to Martin meeting Irene, to the two using up a small forest telling each other their family histories. Each scene has its own rhythm and is entertaining in its own way, from how quickly Martin and Daphne get engrossed in the details of Irene’s life to the outright traumatic visit by Patrice. You could take some of these vignettes and make them into entire episodes, but the short treatment is no less satisfying.

There are a few firsts and interesting character revelations to be had. For one thing, this is the first time Martin even considers dating and moving on after his wife’s death; in the coming years, he’d be courting often enough that it’s easy to forget he was ever reluctant. We never actually see Irene, either here or in other episodes, but she’s the necessary push to get him out of the door. We also learn that Roz’s mother is the Attorney General of Wisconsin, which doesn’t come into play that often but is still good to know. (In fact, I think this is the first time we learn that Roz hails from the Dairy State.) And Patrice, in her high-strung chirpiness, does reflect a little on our image of what Maris must be like.

Kathleen Noone, the first non-voice-only guest star, almost steals the entire episode, as a matter of fact. Her one-scene appearance is brilliant, capped off by her masterful use of “G-speak”; I can only imagine that Noone, a daytime drama vet, had demonstrated some mastery of tongue-twisting dialogue before, or else writer Brad Hall (of SNL fame) decided to torture whatever poor actress got the part. But I think it’s Jane Leeves who gets the best material this time around; Daphne has several just plain adorable moments, and actually gets to be the one to solve the problem of Martin’s hesitance.

It’s a good sign that a show has settled in when it can do an episode that isn’t even about the protagonist. Frasier has his part in “Here’s Looking At You”, but we get to focus on Martin a little bit, and the change is smooth enough that it’s hard to notice. It’s an important step in establishing FRASIER as an ensemble program, not on the same scale as CHEERS but still giving everyone their due.

Guest Caller: Jeff Daniels as Doug

Written by Brad Hall
Directed by Andy Ackerman
Aired October 14, 1993

Daphne: I found some pizza rolls in the freezer, but the expiration date was yesterday. Are we game?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

In Theaters: Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are poster and IMPAwards link
A lot of the buzz about WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is focused not on whether or not it’s a good film, but whether it’s a good film for children. The adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s legendary picture book is much darker and less glossy than anyone expects a children’s film to be, and it’s debatable whether it’s a kids’ movie at all. It’s scary in places, sad in others, and has a rough handmade look that allegedly speaks more to hipsters than anyone else. It’s been asked whether this isn’t really a film for people in their late 20s with fond memories of a book from their childhoods, and arguably by belonging to that group, I myself am biased.

I don’t care. This film is a treasure. It is dark, at times anyway, and sad at times, and more introspective than one would be led to expect, but these are not flaws. They’re not virtues either. They’re qualities, they’re what the film is, and in presenting those qualities in the context of a fully-formed story, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is a triumph. It’s a powerful, imaginative, sweet, beautifully made story of a child’s imagination and the amazing places he goes in it, and what he learns from it. Director Spike Jonze flaunts just about every convention established in the past decade or so of children’s fantasy filmmaking to deliver a work that is earthy, raw, and as real as the monsters we always knew existed.

Max (Max Records, and yes, that is the actor’s actual name) is a wild kid. He likes to put on a wolf suit, chase the dog around, throw snowballs at his older sister’s friends, and generally get into trouble. He lives with his mother (Catherine Keener), who is divorced and dating, and though the two clearly love each other, sometimes Max is just too much to handle. One night, when she’s trying to entertain a boyfriend, he throws a tantrum and runs away from home, and into a boat, and he takes the boat across the sea until he reaches the land of the Wild Things.

He finds the strange beasts in disarray, with Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), the sometimes leader, in a destructive tantrum. Convincing the Things that he’s a mighty king who can make everything great and keep them from being sad, Max is crowned the ruler of the land, and lets the Wild Rumpus start. He meets the ornery Alexander (Paul Dano), reliable Douglas (Chris Cooper), sweet KW (Lauren Ambrose), the hole-digging Ira (Forrest Whitaker), downer Judith (Catherine O’ Hara), and the silent Bull. Carol shows Max a project he wants to do, a giant fort for them all to live in, and Max convinces the Wild Things to get started on the ultimate treehouse/fort/castle/city, hewn together from sticks and rocks. Tensions arise between the Things, however, when it’s clear that not even their king can make everything perfect.

The unstated implication is that the Wild Things represent much of what’s going on in Max’s head, and that their conflicts reflect his own disturbances. But to sum up the whole thing as a psychological metaphor doesn’t quite do justice to the messy reality of the Wild Things; they seem like real beings with a life all their own, that just happens to mirror what Max is going through.

There’s a tendency for children’s films to look a certain way and feel a certain way; they have to be bright and colorful and have a kind of sheen to them. Jonze renders THINGS almost entirely in earth tones, and while I normally view this kind of subdued monochromaticism as a visual cliché, in this genre it’s an outright novelty. The warm colors, the plainly real locations, and the close-up camera work seem designed to confound our idea of how effects-heavy fantasies are supposed to look, and it makes the illusion almost imperceptible.

This also extends to the Things, who are a triumph of suit acting, CGI facial animation, and voice acting, with some puppetry to assist. The Jim Henson Creature Shop was heavily involved in turning Sendak’s drawings into three dimensional beings, and that outfit’s trademark attention to personality and physicality shines through. It’s hard to say where “special effects” stop and acting and direction begin; the entire work is all of a piece.

And we cannot but love the creatures. As mentioned above, they may stand in for shards of Max’s personality, but they’re no less three-dimensional for it. Gandolfini’s Carol is both a father figure and a lost child, alternately a gentle soul and the most dangerous of the beasts; whatever he is, he’s almost instantly lovable, and thinking about some of the more wrenching moments makes my eyes just a little misty. Yes, there’s a bit more angst than we’re used to, and we may think of that sort of thing outside a child’s conception, but Max isn’t every child, and the conflicts the beasts have seem natural.

The entire film feels organic, just like the tree-branch structures they build; there’s a certain structural logic underneath all the rough bits, but the roughness has the reality of the stories kids themselves dream up (as Max does in an early scene.) Every scene is the most important one at that particular time, and we don’t have the reassurance of knowing that things will work according to a screenwriter’s schematic.

Inevitably it would take a lot of invention and elaboration to turn Sendak’s simple picture book into a full-length feature, and it’s not quite the same story. But independent of fidelity to the source, or whatever the proper demographic is, or whether it’s just self-indulgence, this is an astonishing film. It is a work of visual and visceral art, and in the end, as someone who loves film, that’s the important thing. Sad, cathartic, a powerful howl to clear the air, WHERE THE WILD THINGS is unforgettable.

(P.S. I must apologize for being unable to credit the suit performers, who are not listed on the film’s IMDB page despite having their names in the end cast roll. They are as important as the voice actors when it comes to bringing the Wild Things to life.)

Based on the book by Maurice Sendak
Screenplay by Spike Jonze & Dave Eggers
Directed by Spike Jonze

Grade: A