Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Frasierquest: And These Our Players...

Before I get to the episode reviews, I think I should give you a handy cast of characters. It's not the biggest ensemble in the world, and all these characters will be introduced in the first episode, but they all deserve their own spotlight. One of the reasons I consider this show the apotheosis of the three-camera, studio-audience sitcom form is the care and detail lavished upon its characters, so in the episode reviews I'll be following how they develop. Consider this the base line. Or bassline. Possibly both.

FrasierDr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer)- First appearing in Boston as part of the show CHEERS, Frasier, a noted psychiatrist, showed up to help Sam Malone combat a relapse into alcoholism, triggered by tensions with on-again/off-again love Diane Chambers. At this point Frasier and Diane were dating (he having met her in a mental institution), and would become engaged, only for her to leave him at the altar for Sam. Whom she would also leave at the altar. Frasier later married Dr. Lilith Sternin, and fathered a son, Frederick. Lilith left Frasier and her son briefly, which was unbearable, and then came back, which was excruciating. Now entering middle age, Frasier is headed back to his home town, Seattle.

Niles CraneDr. Niles Crane
(David Hyde Pierce)- Frasier's younger brother, also living in Seattle with a successful private practice. The Jungian yin to Frasier's Freudian yang, Niles is married to Maris Crane, heir to a grand 'timber' fortune. They live in a stately mansion with a large staff and several dogs.

Martin Crane Martin Crane (John Mahoney)- Frasier and Niles' father, by now-deceased wife Hester Crane. Martin worked as a Seattle police officer for
decades, before being shot in the hip during a convenience store robbery. As the series starts, Martin lives in an apartment on his own. Spoilers- this doesn't last.

Daphne Moon
Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves)- A licensed physical therapist and home health care worker, Daphne hails from distant Manchester, England. She grew up in a house with eight brothers. Now out on her own, Daphne lives by her skills, her charm, and her faint psychic ability. She doesn't really sound Mancunian, but we don't particularly care.

Roz DoyleRoz Doyle (Peri Gilpin)- A producer at KACL, Seattle's all-talk radio station. (There's also KPXY, the Mighty Pixie, but they don't matter right now.) Roz hails from Wisconsin, and is a fast-rising professional in the radio scene, with aspirations of having her own show. Her primary hobby is men.

(Roz Doyle is named after a producer on WINGS, which shared FRASIER's creators. Doyle passed away from breast cancer in 1991.)

EddieEddie (Moose, later Enzo- trained by Matilda de Cagny)- Martin's dog. A currently un-neutered Jack Russell terrier (though they're apparently called Parson Russell terriers now, for some reason.)

(Enzo is Moose's son- he gradually took over as Moose got older.)

There are a number of important guest characters, who will be dealt with as they come up. Look for the episode reviews to start within a week.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why Frasierquest?

Good question. Granted, it would help if you knew what Frasierquest was, but we'll get to that. Suffice it to say, part of the answer is, I've been meaning to start this since August, it's almost October, content is sparse, and the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I've got another writing project going, but that's more a sprint. This will be an irregular project, because everything here is.

What is Frasierquest? It is, basically, my personal look at all 263 episodes of FRASIER, a solid contender for the title of greatest sitcom ever made. I goddamn love this show. I catch the reruns that air on Lifetime almost nightly, and so know way more than I should about Yaz. So I will go through each episode one by one, reviewing them in the way I tackle other works, with the exception of there being no letter grades. I love each and every episode, and I can't stand to rank them in any kind of objective scale. It'd get in the way of proper analysis.

Why Frasierquest? Because while this show was consistently popular, well-reviewed, and award winning, while it is still watched and loved today, there's definitely room for more in-depth appreciation. People write books on the philosophy of BUFFY or the cultural zeitgeist defined by FRIENDS, so why not? I'm probably not the first blogger to do this, but it seems like it'll be fun.

Who and where kind of answer themselves (look at the URL), and "How" is just obvious, so When? Well, it'll be periodic. Before this time next week I should have gotten a start. (I meant to build up to this, hence the enigmatic poster, but I ran out of ideas for other images.) There's other stuff I need to handle in the real world, but isn't there always? In the meantime, the Club will continue its regular program of new releases, home video obscurities, radio plays, Youtube clips, and the occasional book I've read. Also, Mr. Piccolini and His Trained Capybaras will be taking your drink orders, and valet service will resume as soon as Zoe Bell's license is reinstated.

Goodnight, and good mental health.

Random Movie Report #72: Actium Maximus: War of the Alien Dinosaurs

Actium Maximus DVD cover and Amazon link
I did not rent ACTIUM MAXIMUS with any expectation that it would be any good at all, and at no point was I surprised on that front. There are already some horrible notices out there, and a few clips on Youtube. It exerted a perverse fascination for me, existing so far outside the boundaries of even low-budget filmmaking; Troma’s well known for releasing deliberately horrible films with lowbrow humor and lower-than-low production values, but this is not that kind of film. Mark Hicks, writer, director, composer, actor, and co-special-effect-er, made ACTIUM MAXIMUS as a labor of love, a pilot for a TV series that could never air anywhere. In its disregard for the basic rules of filmmaking, it takes on the surreal quality of outsider art. Unfortunately, none of this means it’s any good; terminal flaws exist on all levels, like a lasagna made with spoiled cheese, rancid olive oil, and parasite-ridden meat. If that strikes you as an unpleasant image, trust me. You have no idea.

The plot- well, I've worked this out. There’s a space colony called Actium, ruled over by a robot-like dictator known as Polpox (played by Johnathan Daniel McCuin, in some capacity), who rules with an iron- well he doesn’t have fists, or limbs, but he’s harsh. He’s got some genocidal campaign going against a race of limp jellyfish creatures, and distracts the rest of the public from an economy near collapse through the Maximus, which is sort of a gladiatorial festival involving giant alien dinosaur things who look like the scraps left behind when Muppets are made. In charge of acquiring these creatures is Jacinlun Axezun (Hicks himself), a broody attempt at a Han Solo type who is sent off to a distant world to acquire a new breed of monster. In the meantime, numerous assassination attempts are made on the emperor, who complains a lot, and the computers controlling the currency are about to crash because they don’t have enough drives or something, and everyone’s addicted to the heads of some psychic creature, and the dinosaur aliens move around and roar a lot.

Most of this is realized through a mix of puppetry and miniature work, like THE DARK CRYSTAL if it were made by people with no sense of aesthetics. The budget for this was apparently low enough that they couldn’t afford to shoot everything that was in the script, so footage is recycled ad nauseum. A narrator (Butler Yates) makes a game attempt to explain things, while the robots and aliens talk in distorted voices that are sometimes given subtitles and sometimes not, regardless of whether or not we can understand them.

There is live action footage, shot mostly on hilariously non-outer-space-like locations, such as a local zoo, a university promenade, a boiler room, and a swamp right next to a paved road. Puppets and actors are superimposed via blue screen for which the matte boxes were apparently drawn by hand for each frame, and so the outlines of the monsters change shape like they’re characters on DR. KATZ or HOME MOVIES. Titles and subtitles are not offset from the background in any way, and are often illegible. The filmmakers were unable to show the different monster puppets interacting in any way, so the fight sequences consist of shots of them roaring and occasionally chewing on vague viscera. Each puppet and stop motion figure is little more than a piece of latex foam with some paint slapped on, because there was no time in all this to create convincing skin textures or musculature.

What I’m trying to say is, the production values are horrible, ranking somewhere below DOCTOR WHO, SUPERMAN IV, MIGHTY MORPHIN’ POWER RANGERS, the films of Ed Wood, and some of your more ambitious grade school pageants. Normally I don’t pay too much attention to this; the quality of effects can be a crap shoot depending on how much money you have and to whom the work is farmed out, etc. But here, it’s clear evidence that Hicks had no idea that what he had conceived of was too ambitious to realize in any convincing manner, and persevered in the name of doing it “old school”. As much as CGI has been overused in mainstream movies, we should at least have traveling mattes down by now.

More importantly, even if the effects were technically competent, they wouldn’t solve a more fundamental problem: that this movie is ugly as sin. I don’t mean in that striking H. R. Giger sort of way, or the deliberate squalor of modern horror movies, or the texture-riffic experimentation of David Lynch. I mean that it looks like the contents at a dumpster outside a greasy spoon diner after a three month garbage strike. I was not kidding with that spoiled lasagna analogy; everything’s rendered in vomit hues, there are splashes of indistinct gore (that are repeated over and over because there was no shot in this film that was not worth using seventeen times), and a stinky-looking haze pervades every frame in a misguided attempt at atmosphere. Lucio Fulci would get queasy during this movie.

This leads me to my next point, specifically that, through the smog and miasma and indistinct blood, this is one hard movie to follow. The plot is disjointed and throws out a number of ideas that are not developed in any way, shape or form. The jellyfish rebels have a mysterious leader who lives in the ruins of... some place that was here before, and he is never seen. The currency of Actium appears to be large silkscreened portraits of Polpox, or possibly T-shirts. There’s some business about a shortage of Aculipus heads, the space hunter finds an ancient spacecraft, goes inside for a bit, but then goes back searching for the dinosaur monster, and the whole thing ends on a cliffhanger because it’s always good to assume you’ll be able to make a sequel. On some basic level, the filmmakers seem not to understand how scenes and shots work- the repetition of shots has no rhythm, rhyme, or reason, serving only to extend sequences and pad the film. The story itself is full of repetition; at least 70% of it is the Emperor loudly burbling about how his enemies are out to get him and how his currency cannot fail and various combinations of standard “paranoid dictator” business. Even if you figure out what’s going on, it has terrible pacing and no idea of how to build suspense or tension.

Which brings us to the rotten core of this artichoke (yes, I said it was a lasagna before, quiet). If you penetrate the horrible production values, the ugly visual style, and the schizoid storytelling, the concept has one fatal flaw; there is nobody to sympathize with. Polpox is a brutal dictator with no redeeming side, and his rantings and ravings become tiresome in short order. His advisors are toadies. Jacinlun isn’t really actively evil, but he doesn’t do anything to win us over. He travels through space, he complains about things, he theoretically fights monsters. The jellyfish creatures are persecuted minorities, but they are given no personalities. It’s one thing to have morally ambiguous or compellingly scummy characters, it’s another to have No One to Like. The society of Actium is about to go kerplodey and there’s no reason to care.

Do I have anything positive to say about this? Well, the music’s okay, and there’s the barest nub of a good idea buried in all this burbling nonsense. If Mark Hicks had taken on, say, a production designer, an editor (interesting fact- I can find no credit for an editor), a cinematographer, etc... well, it’d still be a story with no likable characters and no structure. The point is, you can’t leap before you can crawl, and you can’t create an ambitious space opera without an understanding of the basics of storytelling, or the understanding that people do not like looking at vomit. ACTIUM MAXIMUS is so astoundingly clueless that it stands as a landmark in bad moviemaking.

That said, I think I like it more than DOWN TO YOU.

Written and Directed by Mark Hicks

Grade: F

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

In Theaters: 9

9 Poster from
9 has all the earmarks of being the kind of quirky, offbeat, and original sci-fi picture that we want to see more of. It has a great premise, a unique aesthetic, and an undeniable charm. Which is why it’s so disappointing that it’s merely good, and rather conventional. Directed by Shane Acker, who expanded a short student film into a feature, this animated postapocalyptic saga just about holds together, but seems strangely unambitious.

The title character, voiced by Elijah Wood is a creature of cloth and metal, given life by a dying scientist (Alan Oppenheimer) near the end of a war between man and machine. He wanders a wasteland, and meets another sack-cloth creature like him, named 2 (Martin Landau), before 2 is snatched away by a terrifying metallic beast. 9 falls in with a handful of creatures like him, all numbered, living in an old church under the direction of the cantankerous 1 (Christopher Plummer). 9 and 5 (John C. Reilly) set out to rescue 2 from the factory where he has been taken, but things go awry and our hero ends up reviving the vicious master machine that started the war against all life to begin with. To really set things right, 9 and his companions must discover more about where they came from, and about the device that brought him to life to begin with.

The film makes a severe misstep early on in having 9 accidentally bring the machine god back to life, through an act so careless it makes us lose sympathy for our protagonist for being so dumb. It’s not something that can be explained by the character’s personality- say, an unquenchable curiosity or some drive he can’t control- because he hasn’t yet fully developed one, and the entire sequence comes off as the film writing itself into a corner and having to cheat to get back out. It took a long time for the picture to start worming its way back into my good graces after that.

Now, it helps that it looks as good as it does. 9’s aesthetic may have Hot Topic written all over it, but the characters are inherently appealing, almost childlike in their wide-eyed wonder. The landscapes are bleak but striking, evoking imagery of both World Wars, and though the main machine god is something of a generic mass of metal spikes, his various creations are perversely brilliant.

Something seems to have gone wrong with the writing process in this picture. Apart from the early misstep already mentioned, the pacing of the film is just odd. Animated films tend to be short because the backers are literally paying by the minute, and this is no exception, but the unfortunate decision has been made to devote most of the picture’s 79 minutes to extremely elaborate action and chase sequences. These scenes are often quite clever in their use of props and setpieces, as the cloth-creatures and the beasts hunting them improvise weaponry from whatever can be scrounged up, but they leave precious little time for character development or exploration of the various themes the story raises. The film needs more moments like that when the hulking 8 relaxes by scrambling his electric brain with a magnet, or when the gang amuse themselves with a record player. But instead it runs from action scene to action scene; when 1 yells “To the bridge!”, one gets the feeling that he’s only suggesting they go that way so that there can be a scene on a collapsing bridge.

In the third act, the picture starts to develop its concepts a little more and give us some fascinating hints as to the underlying mystery. However, the climax this sets up is disappointingly conventional, not living up to what it hints at. I kept tripping over my own expectations; the imagery and the odd beauty of the film suggest a thoughtful and daring sci-fi picture, but the plot keeps getting dragged back towards conventional action blockbuster beats.

Now, in spite of all this, I enjoyed myself. It’s not a bad picture for what it is; the disappointment is simply that it underachieves. As such, 9 has the feel of an early draft; the bones are there, but there’s not nearly enough meat on them. It’s a gorgeous picture, and that counts for something, and it’s a world I find fascinating. More should have been done with this, but I can appreciate what is there.

Story by Shane Acker
Screenplay by Pamela Pettler
Directed by Shane Acker

Grade: B-

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Random Movie Report #71: Battle in Outer Space

Poster and link to the Toho Collection DVD
And my inexplicably prolonged look at the 3-disc Toho Collection concludes with BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, a surprisingly little-known epic that takes the Fifties space race to its logical conclusion of astronauts firing heat rays at flying saucers on the moon. It delivers what so many films of this era promised but welched on: genuine spectacle, wonder, and action, without any apparent compromise. It’s light on the “plot and character” side, to say the least, but those elements hold together just enough for the visuals to work their magic. It’s pretty much just pure Amazing Stories cover art porn, and if that’s not a legitimate use of the cinematic medium, then why the Hell do people make such a big deal over 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY?

The film starts with the destruction of satellite orbiting Earth by a fleet of flying saucers. The saucers go on to cause havoc on the planet, lifting bridges and boats into the air with destructive results. Earth’s scientists somehow figure out that the invaders, from a planet called Natal (nothing to do with Microsoft, I think), are using the moon as a base of operations from which to conquer humanity. To stop the invaders, the scientists develop heat rays and send two rockets to the moon, there to destroy the alien base. But one of their number has, as it happens, been placed under hypnotic mind control by the Natalians, and is determined to sabotage the mission.

It may not be the best sign when you can give a one-paragraph summary of a film without naming any of the characters. This is definitely the sort of picture where the human story is flattened under the epic spectacle, but not in a bad way. A few characters get some embellishment- the main young scientist and his secretary/lover have a nice romantic scene in a park looking at the stars, the aliens’ spy gets abducted when he heads into town for one last night of carousing before the mission, etc. The characters are never asked to carry more of the picture than they can; bits and pieces of characterization are sprinkled in various places, popping up briefly but not outstaying their welcome. Yes, strictly speaking, we want movies to feature well-rounded characters with rich personalities, but in some cases it is possible to get by without such things.

And let’s face it, spectacular visuals do make a difference, as often as we pretend they don’t. The imagery of the early space age was never realized quite as fully in live action as it is here; we have a space station with functioning lasers, two massive and not-at-all-Freudian rockets (called SPIPs), smaller rocket fighters, armed and hover-capable lunar rovers, flying saucers, a mothership, a glowing, colorful alien base, and mobs of spacesuited aliens. It actually takes a while for us to get into space, but once we do the film never lets up; the action is sharp and the effects are up to Eiji Tsubaraya’s usual meticulous standards. We don’t have any rubber-suited monsters this time, but the hardware more than makes up for it.

On paper, this all looks downright cynical- yet another case of a studio substituting special effects for substance and exploiting the public’s desire for pure eye candy. And yet the film, as it plays out, has not a cynical bone in its body. Its mood is relentlessly chipper, brightly embracing the vision of outer space as an exciting frontier to be conquered by science and human advancement. There are moments in this context that are outright beautiful, evoking the awe of outer space and the optimism that we can claim it.

For a film that’s rather poorly known, BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE apparently was quite influential. A number of shots anticipate STAR WARS, it’s allegedly directly referenced in INDEPENDENCE DAY (and the climactic scene definitely has a few echoes), and even though I’m not sure Michael Bay has seen a film made before 1977, scenes of alien torpedoes raining down on New York and San Francisco come off like lower-tech versions of similar destruction shots in the briefly-tolerable ARMAGEDDON.

Looking back, it seems that Toho in the late Fifties and Sixties had a golden age that is unappreciated by many film historians. Year after year, they had Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsubaraya and a number of other regulars turn out one imaginative, colorful, keenly polished genre entertainment after another. BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE, for a few bloated scenes here and there, is a fine example of this tradition. The release of the Toho Collection should hopefully bring some more attention to this legacy.

Story by Jojiro Okami
Screenplay by Shinichi Sekizawa
Directed by Ishiro Honda

Grade: A-

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Random Movie Report #70: The H-Man

H-Man poster and Amazon link
I’m not sure why it took me so long to get to the second feature in the Toho Collection set, but here we are. This particular feature is an interesting change of pace, as we go from kaiju-scale to street level; THE H-MAN, known in Japan by the rather lyrical title BEAUTY AND THE LIQUID PEOPLE, is a blend of sci-fi thriller and crime drama with a touch of romantic nightlife thrown in, as well as some more-pointed-than-usual anti-nuke commentary. It’s the sort of weird film I’d hear about long before ever having the opportunity to actually see it, and it’s a hard one to pin down afterwards; a fun little obscurity which serves as a nice counterpoint to THE BLOB from the same year.

The story begins with the strange disappearance of a mobster who is hit by a car, in an accident which leaves his clothes but no body. The cops are baffled, and start tailing his main squeeze, a nightclub singer named Chikako (Yumi Shirakawa). Chikako, it seems, has also been in touch with a scientist named Masada (Kenji Sahara), who is also interested in her boyfriend’s case; he’s been working on a theory that a person could actually dissolve from exposure to radiation. Sure, our missing gangster Misaki hasn’t been to Bikini Atoll recently, but Masada has heard of a group of sailors who found a seemingly abandoned ship that had been bathed in fallout from a nuclear test; the ship’s crew melted and turned into a living slime creature, and some of the sailors from the smaller vessel are dissolved and absorbed before the survivors escaped. He thinks that the ship may have drifted to Tokyo (perhaps guided by the victims’ memories), and that the entity- an “H-Man”, born from the H-bomb- is now at large in the city.

The police, needless to say, are skeptical. At least, until the H-Man- which appears sometimes as a moving puddle of green ooze, sometimes in a slimy humanoid shape, and sometimes as several human forms- attacks the nightclub where Chikako works, eating a few people before sliding out the window. Misaki is obviously part of the collective now, and the strangest manhunt in history begins, complicated by there still being some angry gangsters at large.

THE H-MAN benefits from a really strong premise, one I could imagine being translated to a modern horror film without much trouble. There’s something fundamentally horrible about the idea; the monster isn’t just a blob that attacks people, but the victims of fallout merged into a horrific faceless gestalt that grows with each person it absorbs. Inoshiro Honda gives us some really striking images here, particularly an eerie shot of the slime beings standing on the deck of the ruined craft like ghosts. The dissolving effects are also unsettlingly convincing, bordering on quite gory for late-Fifties Japan. And of course, we can’t overlook the nuclear angle being stronger than ever; the deaths of the crew on the fishing boat are, as in GOJIRA, a parallel to the Lucky Dragon incident where several Japanese sailors were exposed to fallout and suffered horrific lingering deaths as a result. Of the various Toho sci-fi and fantasy films from this era that I’ve seen, this is the closest to pure horror, and it creates a strong atmosphere from the start.

Of course, this is all blended with good old fashioned cops and robbers business, and it’s an odd mix. We get a few nightclub cabaret scenes featuring Chikako (who sings in English but is still subtitled) and some lovely dancing girls, and the jazzy score is by Masuro Sato (who also composed the weirdly Sousa-esque theme that plays under the opening credits.) At times the two major plots don’t mesh that well; it’s hard to keep track of the various principals involved in the mob business, especially as it becomes increasingly irrelevant in the face of a killer slime rampage. It’s diverting enough, and does add some interesting wrinkles to the plot.

Though not Honda and Toho’s best from this period- apart from the plot sometimes being messy, the climax drags on a bit- THE H-MAN is a surprisingly effective chiller, which retains a lot of its original creepiness. Dark and colorful and quirky, it’s another grand oddity from a studio that was getting really good at such things.

Story by Hideo Unagami
Screenplay by Takeshi Kimura
Directed by Inoshiro Honda

Grade: B+