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 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 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

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

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.