Friday, December 31, 2010

In Theaters: Tron Legacy

Tron Legacy poster and IMPAwards link
Even though December ceased to be the chief moviegoing season well before I was born, the holidays never feel quite right without one big spectacle that isn’t for kids only. TRON LEGACY is just the right kind of otherworldly escapism for this time of year, but even with that in its favor the picture surprised me. As spectacle, there’s nothing else like it in theaters, and it also delivers on the level of an old-fashioned sci-fi romp. It’s not as satisfying as it could be, which is largely down to it telling a darker story than the original, but this also ends up giving the picture more of an emotional heft than the first. Whether it’s better or not I can’t really say, but it’s something you really need to catch on the big screen- and yes, in 3-D.

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), the programming whiz of the original, has a son Sam (Garrett Hedlund), who grew up hearing how his father developed a virtual reality Grid full of living computer programs, and his plans for the future. Then Kevin vanished into the grid, leaving his software company Encom to be taken over by corporate drones, and leaving Sam with abandonment issues that manifest in various pranks at the expense of the company he’s supposed to be running. When Kevin’s old partner Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) receives a page from the long-abandoned Flynn’s Arcade, Sam goes to investigate, and is quickly zapped by the same digitizer that nailed Kevin in ‘82, and is similarly dropped into the computer world.

The Grid, however, has become a grim place in the meantime, dominated by the tyrannical Clu (Bridges as well), a program Kevin created to help build the perfect system, who has taken perfection too far. He sends imperfect programs off for reprogramming or death in gladiatorial games, and is responsible for the deaths of the ISOs, living electronic entities who arose spontaneously from the Grid programming. In attempting to fight his creation, Kevin was trapped in the Grid and now lives a hermitlike existence on the outskirts, accompanied by the lovely and inquisitive Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who rescues Sam and enables the reunion of father and son. Sam is determined to escape with his father, but Clu is after Kevin’s identity disc, which he believes will give him not only total control over the Grid but access to our world, which he intends to remake in his own image.

My annoyance with the prevalence of blue-and-orange-only compositions in modern cinematography has reached near pathological proportions (it nearly ruined WINTER’S BONE for me until I decided to turn the color off on my TV.) But there are films in which it is actually done well, and this is one of them. The film’s 3-D vistas of neon outlined structures are not only eye-popping, they draw our attention to the shapes of this ever-shifting world. The effects are almost flawless, and especially remarkable in terms of “de-aging” Bridges as Clu; it’s an effect I’ve never seen done well before (it’s always been easier to make people look older), but it holds up here through extended close-ups and subtle changes of expression. The visuals are augmented by a truly magnificent score by electronica band Daft Punk, whose robotic visages make an appearance in a cyber-nightclub.

In films like this it’s traditional to say that the plot is terrible or not worth bothering with, but the story here holds up at least as well as the original’s. On top of the traditional good vs. evil confrontation there’s some genuinely effective and curiously moving material arising from the reunion between a father and his estranged son; Bridges plays it well (as you would expect), and there’s a superb parallel between their relationship and that between Kevin and Clu, who overthrew his creator out of a sense of duty to seek perfection. Unlike the original there’s no obvious parallel between the in-Grid action and the “real world” conflict, but some of the nods to buggy software launches and the open-source movement are amusing.

The major problem I have with this film is that it can’t help but feel a little lonely. The actual cast of characters is surprisingly small, and though I’m sure nobody wanted an annoying comedy sidekick or the like, a few more bit parts would have helped flesh out the world of the Grid. (And on that subject, where’s Bit? Sort of a one-note character but I’m surprised there was no place for him.) I understand economy of character, but epics generally have the whole “cast of thousands” thing going for them, so the relative smallness of this picture feels odd. That said, you do get Michael Sheen channeling Richard O’ Brien in a couple of scenes as a game-grid veteran turned rogue club owner, and Wilde is charming as well.

The original TRON was not a masterpiece, but it holds up well as a solid early-80s adventure movie, and TRON LEGACY not only makes a nice companion piece, it adds a little extra. With the December and January movie landscape looking to be dominated by a mixture of worthy but grim award contenders and pieces of utter patronizing garbage, it’s worth taking some time and paying a bit more cash than usual to get lost in a truly spectacular science fiction world. This film could have easily been a cynical cash-in on 80s nostalgia, but it’s made with a touching sincerity.

Based on characters created by Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird
Story by Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, Brian Klugman, and Lee Sternthal
Screenplay by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz
Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Grade: B+

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

In Theaters: True Grit (2010)

True Grit poster and IMPAwards link
A quick word in advance; I have not seen the original film version of TRUE GRIT, nor have I read the novel both films are based on. I intend to do both at some point, probably. This puts me in the rare position of being able to judge this film, the latest from the Coen Brothers, on its own merits.

One thing that needs to be said about the Coens is that they know when to use a light touch. TRUE GRIT is a film of subtle moments in between violence and vengeance, and it’s deceptively straightforward, much like the classic Westerns where the artistry of a John Ford or Howard Hawks was made to look easy. We’ve got a good story, great actors, convincing surroundings and all the basic components of a good film, without obvious flourishes of style. But the film is more than the sum of its parts, and the alchemy of it is hard to define.

TRUE GRIT is the story of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a 14-year-old girl whose father has been murdered by a shifty cowhand named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). After some negotiations she scrounges up enough money to hire the services of U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a drunken, one-eyed killer who is ruthless enough to pursue Chaney into the nearby Choctaw territories. She trusts that he has the titular grit, but not so much that she doesn’t insist on accompanying him. Also after Chaney is a Texas ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), out to collect a reward since Chaney shot a state senator over a dog. They enter a near uninhabited land, with precious few Choctaw but a number of bandits and ruthless killers, mostly led by Lucky Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper.)

As Rooster, Bridges is strangely charming; there’s little about the character that’s endearing, but he feels like an authentic veteran, used to treating life cheaply. Rooster has a magnetism, a presence that you like, and though it’s a while before we see him actually shoot anyone, we never doubt that he’s good at what he does. Steinfeld, a rodeo worker, is a remarkable find; she inhabits her character in a way rarely seen with an actress her age, ever serious, ever dedicated. Brolin, Damon, Pepper, and others round out a superb cast (and seeing DAY OF THE DEAD’s Jarlath Conroy pop up as an undertaker was a nice surprise.)

In the acting, as in other areas of the film, there’s a delicate balance. Rooster is comical at times, but never so much that we don’t believe he’s deadly. Damon as LaBoeuf comes across at first like a creep, but is allowed to grow a certain dignity. Brolin’s Chaney is pathetic but still frightening. And Steinfeld in particular keeps her performance on such an even keel that we never catch her “acting”; we are engaged by her sheer dedication, not through any flourishes.

The same attitude applies to much of the film. The visuals have been lightly desaturated and given hints of color adjustment, but not to such an extreme that it feels artificial. (A predominant hue is a nice pale green, of a kind we don’t see often enough.) The violence is swift and straightforward, the music and camerawork both dedicated but not obvious. Even as the gritty, realistic approach to the Western goes, the film doesn’t overindulge- we’re getting a story, not a portrait of frontier America.

All of the above sounds like it should result in a fairly bland, middle of the road picture. But it’s not that the movie lacks artistry; it’s that the artistry is almost deliberately hard to notice. It gets out of the way just enough for the basic narrative drive of Mattie’s quest for justice to sweep us up, and that story in turn finds ways to reveal its own hidden depths. It ends up being about more than just if one hopeless criminal gets what’s coming to him.

I might actually be in a better position to examine all the film’s merits if I were more familiar with the source, or the John Wayne picture for that matter. But it’s clear to me that a Western of this quality and character, without excessive grandeur or excessive wallowing in the muck, with a strong story and more beneath its surface, is what the genre needs. It will attract attention because it’s the latest from two very good filmmakers and because of Bridges’ incredible performance, but there are all manner of things to take from it.

Based on the novel by Charles Portis
Written and Directed by Ethan and Joel Cohen

Grade: A

Friday, December 24, 2010

Frasierquest 3.9: Frasier Grinch

Frasier with Frederick on Christmas Eve
Frasier: Oh, God... it's my childhood Christmases all over again. Only now Mom isn't here to say, "Shut up, you'll hurt his feelings."

It’s Christmas time! Though I haven’t been able to do much holiday related stuff (compared to some other bloggers, at least), I couldn’t let the time pass without at least one bit of well-timed holiday cheer. Nowhere near as dark or Capra-esque as the show’s prior Christmas episode, “Frasier Grinch” is misleadingly titled. Frasier doesn’t hate Christmas, but like many of us, he has a hard time enjoying the holiday, as both fate and singlemindedness intervene to make him take it a little more seriously than he should.

Frederick’s finally coming to Seattle, and Frasier, after escaping the KACL Christmas party despite the best efforts of Bulldog, Gil, and a stripper named Kandy Kane (sadly uncredited), is ready to host his son for the holidays. However, the educational toys he ordered got sent to the wrong address, and while Martin tries to convince him that the kid would be much happier with an Outlaw Laser Robo Geek, Frasier rushes with Niles to a mall on Christmas Eve to try to find replacements.

The title is tricky. Frasier doesn’t share the Grinch’s abject hatred of the whole Christmas season, and even reads on his show an inspirational parable about a peasant boy and his flute that’s supposed to teach the true meaning of Christmas or somesuch. But there is a subtler humbuggery at work, where Frasier starts to let his perception and anticipation of how this Christmas needs to go turn him into a grouch. All around him, people are having fun, from the party revelers, to Martin decorating the apartment in Early American Oh My God Did A Gingerbread House Explode, to Niles fooling around with a stupid helmet at a crowded toy store. (That last one is probably my favorite part of the episode, both for the sheer unexpectedness of it and Niles’ childlike glee at having discovered the most useless and awesome thing on the planet.) Martin has to remind him that Frederick is still a kid, he’s going to want to have fun, and maybe he shouldn’t try so hard to positively shape his mind this one particular day of the year. (The traditional use of the toy fad as a plot hook is well executed here, as it’s less about materialism and more about letting loose.)

I was surprised to rediscover how Niles’s recent estrangement was worked into the story. Seeing as this happened last week, it only makes sense, and there’s a similar nod to continuity with Daphne leaving to meet Joe’s parents for Christmas. Niles’ subplot also sets the tone for how this divorce is going to go, by which I mean “unpleasantly.” Maris, in what’s either a desperation bid or sheer pettiness, freezes Niles out of access to their accounts, cutting off his credit and phone service in the process. This isn’t actually resolved onscreen, and while it’s not a major part of the next few episodes I will look to see if it’s fixed at all; it’s treated as an inconvenience, something that we don’t have to waste time on solving, so we may simply be able to assume that he has a good lawyer.

The episode marks the first FRASIER appearance of Frederick Gaylord Crane, and yes, his parents have some explaining to do. He’s played here by Luke Tarsitano, who hadn’t played him before and would not again; I don’t want to be too critical of an actor who was all of five when he had this part, but he does come off as a little stiff and doesn’t seem to have been working out. These things happen when you’re young and have not had the time to absorb the lessons of Stanislavsky. Luck Hari appears at the Cafe Nervosa again, a welcome sight.

“Frasier Grinch” isn’t an episode where the main plot is important enough to overshadow everything else; some of the fun of a Christmas episode is in seeing what these familiar characters are up to during the holidays, and while Roz and Daphne aren’t involved in the main story, the writers make sure to clue us in on what their plans are. Christmas episodes also inevitably end up making some statement on the holiday itself, be it religious or secular, and I think “Frasier Grinch” says a couple of interesting and valuable things. One, that it is really the thought that counts, and we don’t have to kill ourselves trying to make the holidays as perfect as we think they should be; two, that embracing Christmas is about embracing at least some of the kitschiness, the craziness, and the downright stupidity. Only then can we truly appreciate the magic of it all.

Guest Caller: Ray Liotta as Bob

Written by David Lloyd
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired December 19, 1995

Frasier: This is for a Franklin Crane from Kennebunkport. God, you realize what this means?

Niles: Yes. The Cranes of Maine have got your Living Brain.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Frasierquest 3.8: The Last Time I Saw Maris

Niles keeps his thoughts organized.
Niles: I'm not denying my feelings. I'm so in tune with my emotions
that I was able to move through them quickly. In fact, I've logged them all in my journal. Let's see, where are we? Here... [reading] ‘5 AM: Blissful confusion. Something's happened, but what?’ ‘5:01: Ah, yes. An overwhelming sense of emptiness and despair.’ ‘5:07...’ - this one's hard to read... oh, right! - ‘Wept uncontrollably.’ ‘6:15: All cried out. Hungry now. Ate entire box of Frosted Flakes, they're gr-r-r-reat!’

FRASIER, like most sitcoms, is not prone to big changes. There’s a comfortable status quo which shifts subtly over time, depending on what the writers see working. One of the things I like to do when writing these reviews is note the subtle shifts in character relationships and attitudes, and see how they evolve over time. But for once we’ve got ourselves a shake-up, one whose effects will be felt through the rest of the series. Niles and Maris are on the rocks, and it happens so naturally that we wonder why it didn’t happen before.

Frasier gets a phone call from a frantic Niles, who can’t find Maris anywhere. He thinks she may have been kidnapped, or worse, but some quick detective work by Martin reveals that she’s merely jetted off to New York for a shopping spree. Niles is relieved, but also upset, and after some prodding by Frasier he stomps off to confront her about her irresponsible behavior (a confrontation preceded by Niles’ primal-scream smashing of several vases.) She responds by asking for a divorce. Niles is out of the house and back into bachelor life, but though he seems cheerful enough, Frasier knows he’s not ready.

There have always been hints that Niles’ marriage was dysfunctional; Maris was a delicate, emotionally fragile creature who, as a bonus, was also self absorbed and egocentric. There have been tests before, as with “A Midwinter Night’s Dream”, but for once the characters start to acknowledge that maybe this just isn’t going to work. Maris’ dominance is unhealthy, and this one instance of inconsiderate behavior on her part is the final straw.

But is it the straw on Niles’ back, or on his brother’s? Frasier’s tendency to meddle in dangerous matters is highlighted here, and it does take his prompting for Niles to finally open up about how he feels about Maris’ thoughtless treatment of him. Up until now Frasier has made his wry jabs at Maris, but also respected his brother’s wishes. He may not like Maris very much, but he has tolerated her because his brother loves her. But this act pushes him to push Niles to finally push back at Maris, and the first time he does so it blows up to something he never expected. Little wonder, then, that he tries to engage Maris and patch things up. Ultimately the decision to leave is Niles’, but it’s interesting how he’s not the sole actor in this conflict.

I’m becoming convinced that what makes the best, or at least most memorable FRASIER episodes, is the embroidery: the things that happen that aren’t directly linked to the main plot. At half an hour the show has to be economical, and the plot itself has to work, but the little things count too, and bits like Noel Shemsky’s bizarre petition to make Roz a STAR TREK character, Daphne fake-whimpering to tease Frasier into giving Eddie some food, or Frasier’s wry jabs at Mahler stand out as memorable moments even if they’re not very important. Marta’s reappearance is also a good piece of continuity, mainly because the character is just so likable.

Despite the episode’s title, this is far from the end for Niles and Maris. There’s at least a part of him that still loves her, and a part of her that won’t let him go. The unraveling of their relationship becomes a major part of the show’s landscape, yielding many, many plots and a remarkable sense of uncertainty as to how it will end. And of course, the ramifications for Niles’ other great love are obvious, though in the episode itself we don’t even get the standard joke about his crush.

Even though this is a big step for the series, there’s also a sense that it’s overdue. Ultimately, a woman who is so emotionally unavailable that we can’t even see her is no companion for a character we like and care about. Just as Daphne deserves someone who can do more than smell her hair, Niles deserves someone who can actually be there for him. It will be a long road, but then, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Guest Caller: Paul Mazursky as Vinnie

Written by Ian Gurvitz
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired November 28, 1995

Noel: Hi, Dr. Crane. Could you sign this petition someone 'anonymously' posted in the lunchroom? It's to the talented producers of 'Star Trek,' suggesting a new character.

Frasier: [reading] 'The all-powerful space vixen... Rozalinda! Four-breasted queen of the planet Rozniak!' I'll sign that.

Roz: Frasier!

Frasier: [signing it] Well, Roz, television will never improve unless the viewers speak out!

Transcript by Michael Lee at TwizTV.com.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Frasierquest 3.7: The Adventures of Bad Boy and Dirty Girl

Kate faces further temptation.
Frasier: Daphne, how about a woman's perspective? Let's just say, for argument's sake, that you and I succumbed to a night of passion...

Daphne: What, you and me?

Frasier: Yes!

Daphne: What - bosoms heaving, shirt buttons catapulting through the air?

Frasier: [annoyed] It's a hypothetical question!

Daphne: I'll say it is!

When we last left our heroes, they’d just made a very bad move. As the title of this one implies, things get worse before they get better. Make no mistake, Frasier and Kate don’t see themselves as a couple. They realize that an office affair between manager and talent is bound to end in disaster, and so the episode is dedicated to the two trying to contain their physical urges. It’s a hard road.

So Frasier and Kate’s intense negotiations turned to sex, and though Frasier lets Niles, Martin, and Daphne figure this out, he’s able to keep a lid on things at work. At least he is until he and Kate have a quickie in his booth, don’t time the news break properly, and end up broadcasting the titular escapades to all of Seattle. Nobody recognizes Kate’s voice, but she suspends Frasier for a week, which pretty much kills the romance. The two decide that all the sexy shenanigans have to stop now, but temptation lurks in every corner, and every service elevator.

The story here is thinner than I remember, since it’s really the falling action from last episode. It’s probably for the best that this was a two-parter, since there’s not much I think either episode could lose in order to compress the story into one half-hour, but at the same time I’m wondering if this couldn’t have been faster paced. There’s a B-plot of sorts, involving Martin being pursued by a flowery romance author who is thankfully moving out of the building, but it’s mostly an excuse for the final scene.

The good news is that Grammer and Mercedes Ruehl have more than enough chemistry to carry the story. Kate is sharp and pointed where Frasier is pompous, and he’s smooth where she’s coarse. It’s fun to watch them as enemies and as lovers, so long as they never get comfortable with each other. Both sides’ treatment of their relationship as a minefield yields a lot of good material.

What’s interesting is that there’s really no “forward” development to the relationship in this episode; rather, Frasier and Kate spend the entire time trying to end the affair, and eventually seem to succeed. There’s no real debate over whether or not it can go any further, at least not in this episode- they don’t have any conscious difficulty doing the right thing for their working relationship, but their conscious minds are unfortunately not doing all of the decision making.

Most of the episode’s humor comes from two big setpieces. The first is Frasier and Kate’s unintentional on-air romp, which, while brief, causes at least one traffic accident. (It’s weird that nobody at the station recognizes Kate’s voice, but I don’t remember if she said that much.) We get an episode title from it, and the inexplicable pleasure of Kate growling out flirts like some sort of cat person. (This is foreshadowing.) Then there’s the climactic elevator scene, a cavalcade of inappropriate imagery that makes the pair wonder if life isn’t too short to worry about workplace propriety.

Taken together, “Sleeping With The Enemy” and “The Adventures of Bad Boy and Dirty Girl” make for a satisfying piece of “event” television. We get a story that spans Frasier’s professional and private life- not unprecedented but uncommon- and which makes us think that, despite the apparent resolution, there’s still more to come. It feels like that with each episode Kate’s in, the stakes get higher. At first she just represents a threat to Frasier’s autonomy, then she’s a woman he can work with but doesn’t want to cross, now they’re violating several articles of the workplace sexual harassment policy. We clearly haven’t gotten to the capper yet, and though Kate’s story is frontloaded at the start of the season, it ends up being suitably big.

Guest Caller: Cyd Charisse as Polly

Written by Joe Keenan
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired November 21, 1995

Niles: [to Frasier] I listened to your program as I was driving home last night. Here's a bill to replace the front grille of my Mercedes and another to repair the back bumper of some wretched little domestic car.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Random Movie Report #83: Buck Rogers (1939)

DVD cover and Amazon link
One of the very first science fiction heroes, Buck Rogers has fallen from the spotlight lately, and we can’t have that. Possessed of old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity and a can-do attitude, Buck has been shoved into a variety of dark futures only to lead the crusade for freedom. The 1939 Buck Rogers serial was inspired by the success of the two existing Flash Gordon chapter plays, and is a little bit overshadowed by them. To be sure, it lacks FLASH GORDON’s and its sequel’s imaginative opulence and high fantasy craziness, and feels less inspired, but it delivers the basic thrills and spills you expect from the genre, and has a few neat ideas of its own. I have a nostalgic fondness for this one, having first seen it over 15 years ago, and I expect it’ll always be something of a favorite.

Buster Crabbe, who played Flash, takes on the role of Col. William “Buck” Rogers, here a dirigible pilot who, with his teen sidekick Buddy Wade (Jackie Moran), crashes somewhere in the Himalayas during a test flight. An emergency supply of Nirvano Gas puts the pair into suspended animation, which is good because the scientists who sent the dirigible can’t quite figure out where it was lost in order to send a search party. Five hundred years later, Buck and Buddy are revived by the people of the Hidden City, a secret rebel organization living inside a mountain, opposing the rule of the future’s “super-racketeers”, led by Killer Kane (Anthony Warde), who turns rebels, dissidents, and people he just doesn’t like into mindless robots through the use of electronic amnesia helmets. The Hidden City people, led by Professor Huer (C. Montague Shaw), feel their only hope is to contact the men of the distant world of Saturn, and so Buck, Buddy, and the lovely but tough Lt. Wilma Deering (Constance Moore) take a rocket past Kane’s patrol ships to meet the Saturnians. What follows is a series of plots and counter plots as Killer Kane’s men in turn seek to convince or force the Saturnians to join with them, with the Saturnian Prince Tallen (Philson Ahn) a pawn in their game.

You’re probably wondering about the racketeers. When Buck first debuted in Amazing Stories and later in a newspaper comic, he was fighting the technologically advanced Han Empire, an unfortunate bit of Yellow Peril baiting which, to his credit, creator Philip Nolan himself abandoned quickly to have Buck and company tangle with Atlanteans, sky pirates, and the Tiger Men of Mars. All subsequent iterations of the property have basically made up their own enemies, and because gangs and gangbusters were big in the news, the makers of this serial decided to posit a future where the lawless became stronger than the law. Unfortunately the ramifications of this aren’t explored much; Killer Kane’s men don’t wear pinstripes and fedoras or talk like wiseguys, they don’t run hooch to Neptune, and they don’t have tommy guns.

More interesting is the idea of turning men into robots; while we generally think of a robot as a machine doing the work of a man, this serial taps into the still quite scary idea of men being made into machines, and while the helmets are clumsy things which rest delicately on actors’ heads, the concept gives the villains some bite. Still, the conceptual landscape of the serial is a little bit slapdash; the grouping of Hidden City rebels against super-gangster Kane isn’t quite as evocative as it could be, and the plotting is uninspired (Buck instantly leaps into the fight with a strategy that he should have no way of knowing, but the Hidden City people should probably have tried at some point.)

Despite some script weaknesses, the serial does succeed in creating an effective world of the future. Kane’s city is represented largely by footage from the 1930 sci-fi comedy JUST IMAGINE, and a has nice art deco feel, and the art direction in general is quite good. The effects are unconvincing (for years cheap sci-fi movies seemed content to have clouds in space in an attempt to cover the strings holding rocketships in the air), but they look good in terms of design; the spaceships are distinctive and the rayguns have a nice shifting-light effect. As with the Flash Gordon serials, most of the music is from THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, rearranged to taste, and it’s weird how effective a horror film score ended up being for space opera. The atmosphere is borrowed but it works.

Another key to the serial’s success is the casting of Crabbe, one of the best serial leads. He’s affable, charming, approachable, and always seems thoroughly convinced of the strangeness of his surroundings. Buddy Wade is a bit of a nonentity, but not nearly as annoying as child sidekicks tend to be. Though Constance Moore’s Wilma Deering probably didn’t inspire as many pre-adolescent fantasies as Erin Gray’s did, she deserves credit as a really strong female lead for the time; as in the comics, Deering isn’t a fainting damsel in distress but a capable soldier, and though she gets unfortunately sidelined at points, especially near the end, she’s never less than convincing. Warde’s Killer Kane doesn’t make a great impression, but this may be down to the writing; he simply isn’t given a lot to do himself, and doesn’t get to forge the distinct personality that Ming the Merciless had.

Despite some plot troubles and an anticlimactic ending, BUCK ROGERS holds up well enough that it’s disappointing more wasn’t done with the set-up. There really isn’t a dull moment, as the plot turns so often that there’s always momentum in one direction or another, and the atmosphere is stronger than one really expects. It’s a fun thing to tune in for a chapter or two at a time, and so stands as an example of why the old serials had the appeal they did.

Based on the comic strip by Phil Nowlan and Dick Calkins (in turn based on Nolan’s short story)
Screenplay by Norman S. Hall and Ray Trampe
Directed by Ford Beebe and Saul A. Goodkind

Grade: B+

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Frasierquest 3.6: Sleeping With the Enemy

Frasier and Kate reach a compromise.
Daphne: I'm no stranger to that feeling meself. It can strike without warning. And you don't know who it will be! Why, you could be standing next to a person month after month, and then the next thing you know, you're tearing each other's clothes off! There's a word for it...

Niles: Hope.

Love is springing up everywhere in Seattle, it seems. Or at least sheer animal lust; this key episode in the Kate Costas arc brings the tension between her and Frasier to a point which, while familiar to anyone who’s seen almost every romantic comedy from the beginning of time, is still pretty effective. This is basically the first half of a two parter, though it’s not billed as such, and while the initial conflict is resolved by half-hour’s end, it’s only so it can be replaced by something entirely different.

The staff at KACL learn that they’re not getting the 5% raise they were promised at this time of the year, which sends Frasier into an outrage until he learns that the on-air talent aren’t affected. Still, he takes up the cause of Roz and the other staff, eventually pulling the on-air people into a potential sympathy strike (albeit with some help from Martin.) When the staff nominate Noel Shemsky as their negotiator, based on his ability to faint at will, Frasier steps in to no opposition. He talks tough with Kate, who informs him that the on-air personalities already ate up the money that was supposed to go to the staff, and negotiations become intense, leading to a passionate kiss. Frasier has no idea what just happened, and suspects Kate of manipulating him. So he goes back to confront her again, and, well, things repeat themselves.

This is almost the logical conclusion to their antics thusfar, at least by the conventions of the genre. The scene where their argument becomes a kiss specifically brings to mind the famous Sam and Diane moment in CHEERS when they first locked lips at the end of a chain of insults. They, however, were a long-teased “Will they or won’t they?” item, while Frasier and Kate’s arguments up until now haven’t had much in the way of sexual tension. We may have seen it coming simply because Kate’s a woman and Frasier’s a man, but it wasn’t exactly telegraphed. Part of the drama of the episode is the sheer surprise involved; Frasier doesn’t know why, specifically, it happened, and as it happens neither does Kate.

The main plot (at least up until the kiss) is, like their earlier engagements, one in which neither side is entirely wrong. The workers deserve their raises, but Kate convincingly argues that the money simply isn’t there at all, and it’s the fault of guys like Frasier and Bulldog. Of course she comes through with a compromise anyway, but both she and Frasier aren’t in their right minds when that happens so maybe it wasn’t the wisest business decision. A good thing about this subplot is that it’s an excuse to involve Bulldog, Gil, and Noel, as well as a number of others from the station, and visiting with all these characters provides an entertaining diversion before we’re hit with the real story. On the home front not much changes, though we learn that Niles hasn’t entirely buried his dreams of Daphne. And who can blame him?

Frasier and Kate’s next move is uncertain by show’s end, though it’s probably horizontal. Again, this is an episode that’s there to move into next week’s, though by next week the “contract” plotline is over and done with. So it’s a little hard to judge this on its own, but there’s something to be said for delivering a story development well enough that it comes as a bit of a shock even if we were expecting it. Next week, well, things get dirtier.

Guest Caller: Laura Dern as June

Written by Linda Morris & Vic Rauseo
Directed by Jeffrey Melman
Aired November 14, 1995

Frasier: Alright. I was standing in front of her desk like so. [walks up to the coffee table in front of Niles] She was facing me... Niles, you be Kate.

Niles: I will not.

Frasier: Look, just stand up!

Niles: I'm always the girl! In every prep school play I was the girl! Guinevere, Marian the Librarian, Ado Annie. Well, no more, I'm through with it! When do I get to be Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo'?!

Quotes from the Transcript by Simon Aw at TwizTV.com.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Frasierquest 3.5: Kisses Sweeter Than Wine

Daphne helps Niles get rid of a stain on his conscience

Frasier: Look, I don't know what kind of twisted fantasy you've concocted about Daphne. I suppose it involves a comet hitting the earth and you and she having to rebuild the species!

It’s been a while since we visited the Niles and Daphne story, and not a lot has changed. He’s still smitten, bordering on outright head-over-heels, but he’s also still married which limits what he can do without becoming an outright creep. The knowledge that he really can’t pursue her was probably one of the driving forces behind “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”, an episode which seems designed to put a brake on things. If the critical deconstruction of romantic comedies has taught us anything it’s that the overzealous pursuit of unrequited love is more pathetic than funny and can cross the line into outright scary, and though this episode predates much of the backlash to this particular trope, you can tell that the writers were thinking about this issue. If Niles’ fussing about Daphne getting the wrong, not-him sort of boyfriend in “The Matchmaker” was comical, for him to be sympathetic he has to realize that Daphne’s deserving of an actual relationship with someone who can do more than smell her hair. This is explored in a bittersweet story with some light touches to offset the potency.

It all starts innocently enough. Frasier is having the wine club (of course he’s in a wine club) over for a tasting. He attempts to move dad’s chair out of the living room for this event- it does not react well to such an imposition and scuffs the floor in retribution. Niles knows a contractor, Joe DeCarlo (Tony Carrerio), who comes over to help fix the scuff. He meets Daphne, who is instantly taken with him, which perturbs Niles. As contractors often do, Joe discovers that Frasier has bigger problems than just a scuffed floor, so with the clock ticking down to Seattle’s most respected men and women (including a Senator) arriving at the door, his apartment is a mess of workmen repairing faulty wiring and cracked gas pipes. Amidst all this, Daphne asks Niles if he knows if Joe is dating anyone, and he tells a little fib. Convinced that Joe sleeps around a lot, Daphne rejects him when he asks her out. But Niles’ ethics, when breached, have a tendency to give him nosebleeds, and when Frasier discovers a trail of blood leading to his bathroom, he learns the messy story, and demands Niles put things right, while at the same time hoping somehow to salvage his evening.

Niles’ behavior in this episode is a good example of the things a fictional character can potentially get away with if we like them enough. Niles’ actions are indefensible, even if he tries to rationalize them as thinking that Joe just isn’t worthy of Daphne. She deserves someone like a doctor, or a lawyer, or- well, like him, but he can’t say it openly. We let him do this because Niles has our sympathy in general- he’s a small, vulnerable, innocent-faced man with a romantic streak, and when his conscience catches up to him in the form of a violent nosebleed (a nice echo of “Call Me Irresponsible”), we’re not surprised. He’s easy to forgive, and that’s probably why the writers have him do something like this to start with, though it helps that he saves himself with a big selfless romantic gesture at the episode’s cliamx.

Daphne, meanwhile, gets a new boyfriend out of the deal, and this one’s staying for a while. Joe isn’t on the show that often from now on, but he pops up just enough to establish that Daphne’s in a relationship, a change from prior seasons. It’s a minor shift in the status quo that introduces a few new story hooks, and Tony Carrerio is engaging enough as her beau; he’s a plain nice guy, even if there’s a subtext that he and his fellow contractors may be chiseling Frasier just a tad. (I’m not really clear whether that’s meant to be the joke, or whether it’s more the Murphy’s Law principle of a simple job turning into something insanely complicated.) Daphne’s sweeter than usual when she’s in love, so I can’t complain.

Giving Daphne a boyfriend also complicates the Niles/Daphne dynamic further, and though I’m not very good at divining authorial intent, the idea may have been to make sure that whatever this was stayed subdued for a while- it wasn’t exactly heating up before, but by this point audiences wanted development. At this early stage I’m not sure the writers thought they would ever be actually getting the two together for real, so the best thing would be to put in more reasons why the status quo remains- now they’re both taken and Niles is far too ethical to cross both borders. But they don’t want to kill the angle either, and so at the end we get a little “spark” between the two that true shippers can grab as proof that this isn’t over.

So the status quo evolves and is preserved at the same time, and we get further proof of Niles’ ethics and how he can temporarily forget them. In the meantime, Frasier learns just how horribly out of control a simple scuff repair job can become, but also how fast it can go if you have a few hundred dollars in cash handy. It’s a game of contrast, and these kinds of tensions seem to go to the roots of what engages our attention. At heart, bumpy rides are the ones we enjoy.

Guest Caller: Brooke Adams as Marilyn

Written by Anne Flett-Giordano
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired November 7, 1995

Niles: If you had ever smelled her hair, you would know she is worth at least one more try. She is an angel. She is a goddess. And she is waiting for you in the bathroom.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Frasierquest 3.4: Leapin' Lizards

Trouble brewing.
Kate Costas: Are all these callers waiting to tell Bulldog how much they liked the joke he played on Frasier?

Pete: All except the guy on nine, he thinks Bulldog sucks.

Kate Costas: Because of what he did to Frasier?

Pete: No, just in general.

It’s back to KACL again, as Mercedes Ruehl returns for another round as Frasier’s boss. “Leapin’ Lizards” is a bit of an odd duck because it’s basically doing two slightly different plots at once: it’s mostly about Frasier being pranked on-air by Bulldog and wanting to retaliate, but it’s also about Frasier’s relationship with Kate, and the latter trying to tell him what to do, which he resists despite it being her job. The combination isn’t entirely successful, at least near the end where the story fizzles out a little, but there’s great banter and some character development to compensate.

Bulldog first gets one over on Frasier by posing as a caller, which irritates Frasier but really is more a burn on Roz’s call-screening abilities. Frasier really gets frustrated, though, when Bulldog calls him at home on The Gonzo Sports Show, posing as “Dr. Julius Irving” and getting Dr. Crane to sing the Mikado. (Kelsey Grammer characters tend to know a lot of Gilbert & Sullivan. It’s almost a running gag.) Kate not only tolerates this, but encourages it; it’s getting the lines to light up like a Christmas tree, and she thinks Frasier should strike back, maybe creating a Jack Benny/Fred Allen-style feud. After a bad day and being told by Martin that he’s not one for jokes, Frasier decides to go for it. Having heard that Bulldog is afraid of lizards, he puts one in a box used for an on-air contest draw, hoping for shenanigans. Kate shows up in time for the winning entry to be drawn, and things go a little worse than anticipated.

In some ways it’s surprising it took this long for Bulldog to start going after Frasier. The two haven’t really been rivals before this, so it’s possible Bulldog just ignored the guy before him in the booth before finally getting the idea to pull a joke on him. Teasing works best if the subject responds, and since Frasier does not react well to pranks, jibes, or japes (and I am reasonably sure there’s a difference), he’s ideal. It’s a good conflict, and I think the audience is intended to receive it in the same way Kate does- Bulldog’s not doing anything really malicious, and it would be fun to see Frasier toss a few back at his competitor.

That’s why it’s disappointing to me that this angle is cut short by the end of the episode. Frasier attempts one gag and it backfires badly enough that he quickly decides the game’s not for him, and the remainder of the episode (to be fair, only a few minutes) isn’t about the prank war at all but having to apologize to Kate, who had the tip of her finger bitten off by the lizard in the box. It’s a funny scene in and of itself, but it feels like an anticlimax.

On the other hand, the episode is also about Frasier chafing under Kate’s directives, so the focus on her isn’t unwarranted. Again we have an issue where Kate isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s a change from what Frasier normally does. Fortunately we get a twist on the structure in that Frasier doesn’t resist too much, instead deciding that he may as well give it a try. It backfires not so much on him but on Kate, albeit through pure bad luck. Frankly I’m not entirely sure why Frasier chose a lizard that could eat people’s fingers (let alone where he got the damn thing), but he’s not a herpetologist and neither am I. (I can’t actually work out what the lizard is- it was probably unspecified in the script and is visible for a few seconds scurrying away.)

Roz is the third major player in this story; she doesn’t care a whole lot about what Bulldog does to Frasier, but she’ll be on her boss’ side in this because Frasier is a friend and Bulldog is a pig. She’s mostly pretty level-headed during the whole thing, and wants Frasier to have some perspective, but that’s not happening. I also like Michael Whaley as Pete, Bulldog’s producer, who has some very good lines.

“Leapin’ Lizards” doesn’t fully explore the premise it sets up, and for once it was good to see the basic concept repeated several years down the line. Still, it has a lot of great moments, and does work as a look at how Frasier naturally overdramatizes the events of his life. He just doesn’t have the stomach for a prank war, which as it turns out can be a very gory business.

Guest Callers: Billy Crystal as Jack, Ed Harris as Rob

Written by Chuck Ranberg and Anne Flett-Giordano
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired October 31, 1995 (spooky!)

Martin: You know, we played jokes like this all the time when I was on the force. The day they replaced my bullet proof vest with a big lacey bra, I knew I was one of the guys.

Dr. Frasier Crane: Thank you, Dad. That also clears up a nagging question for me concerning the night you were shot.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

For Your Ears Only: Starstruck

Cover and link to Starstruck on Amazon MP3
I have some connection with the people behind Audio Comics, which makes its debut as an audio theatre company with STARSTRUCK, but I’m not terribly familiar with the source material. Elaine Lee wrote this based on a stage play dating back to the eighties (written by herself, Susan Norfleet, and Dale Place) which later became a comic series, and I do want to say, if there’s a stage play out there featuring the wild and ribald adventures of four female space rangers, why is this not performed as often as THE SOUND OF MUSIC? This is just what you need to get people going to the theatre again.

In any case, STARSTRUCK’s translation to the aural medium is superbly done. It’s a lush and charming sci-fi comedy which has a lot on its plate but somehow manages to avoid a spill into incoherence, which is probably a sign that it’s tighter than it seems. I don’t want to seem too effusive in my praise simply because I do know some of the people involved and have a little bias, but I genuinely enjoyed this and think it’ll be worth a listen for most people.

STARSTRUCK follows the crew of the Harpy, four female freedom fighters who are on a mission for the galactic federation when they get come across a curious object on radar. They’ve found another ship, a living ship apparently made from the remains of Galactic Girl Guides. Captain Galatia 9 (Tavia Gilbert) is outraged and decides to investigate, ultimately finding that the ship is owned by none other than her arch-nemesis, space pirate Verloona Ti (Denise Poirier) and her motley crew of pirates and ne’er-do-wells. They’ve got big plans for the multiverse, and it’s up to Galatia, liberated love droid Erotica Ann (Kristina Balbo), Brucilla the Muscle (Jennywren Sanders), and psychic Bronwyn of the Veil (Genevieve Casagrande) to stop whatever it is they’re trying to do, and complete their original mission to keep order on a planet with a kidnapped ruler.

With space opera we almost automatically expect a certain grandeur, opulence, and most importantly clutter. An audio play can’t have visual clutter and can’t risk too much audio clutter, so instead it has to throw wild and weird concepts and story twists at us to fully convey a vibrant sci-fi universe. As the summary hopefully indicates, STARSTRUCK has plenty to offer in this department. There are several story threads thrown up by the Harpy’s chance encounter with evil, and while I thought I was a bit lost at times, in the end everything is actually accounted for.

It really helps that this this is a traditional trashy space adventure in outre trappings; if you know enough of the conventions and clich├ęs you’ll be able to get the general gist of what’s happening, as we move through discoveries, betrayals, revelations of diabolical plans, and so on and so forth up until the big showdown between space ranger and space pirate. What’s different are the trappings, drawing on various reaches of high and low culture, mixing retro sci-fi and fantasy with wry comedy, bohemian craziness, and a subtle dash of third-wave feminism.

Strong production values add to the atmosphere, with various sound effects and atmospheres setting the mood but getting out of the way when they need to. There’s some narration by Simon Vance which helps bridge transitions and give character backstory, but as sparse as it is it doesn’t feel out of place. The cast all do a good job, staying at a high level of energy from start to finish; they keep the momentum up by speaking fast and loud, and allowing themselves to go over the top without becoming shrill.

STARSTRUCK is being rolled out in a variety of audio formats and platforms; the link above is to the album on Amazon MP3, but the company site also offers it on CD and it’s being made available through other MP3 sellers as well (iTunes may be in the offing but no concrete word yet). At a little over two hours, it lasts long enough to scratch the space opera lover’s itch, and it should appeal to lovers of the offbeat in all genres. It’s a really strong debut for the company; a slick and professional production of an original and appealing work, that may well find the audience it deserves.

Stage play written by Elaine Lee, Susan Norfleet, and Dale Pace
Adapted for audio by Elaine Lee
Directed by William Dufris

Grade: A-

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Frasierquest 3.3: Martin Does It His Way

Frasier Crane, choir director
Niles: I don't mean to quibble, but it seems like your heart is always going either hidy-heydy, ringy-dingy, or scooby-dooby.

Martin: Look, I don't need another critic.

Niles: Right. Perhaps a cardiologist.

I try to avoid spoilers, but sometimes they’re unavoidable. Sometimes what makes an episode stand out is what happens at the very end, and that’s the case with “Martin Does It His Way”. It’s a nice change of pace, focusing on the elder Crane for once, and has a good parallel plot structure, but it’s the finale that makes it all come together. In the meantime, the set-up has it tackling two entirely separate themes; one of pursuing our dreams and not letting them fester, and one of finding nice things to say about people who are better off dead.

Frasier’s aunt Louise has died, which is not as sad as it sounds because nobody really liked her (nor she anybody.) It may not be sad but it is annoying, because Louise requested that Frasier deliver the eulogy at her funeral, and asked Niles- with whom she was never satisfied or impressed- to find a suitable site at which to dispose of her ashes. A conversation about all the things Louise said she was going to do but never did leads to the family discovering Martin’s hidden ambition- he wants to write a song for Frank Sinatra. He wrote down quite a few in his spare time, and as Frasier and Niles mull over their own dilemmas, they convince him to pull out the best one, work up a tune, and send it off to Frank’s people. That ends up not quite working out, but Martin figures he at least tried, and Frasier surprises him at Aunt Louise’s funeral by turning Martin’s “Lady of Mine” into a choral tribute to the deceased.

Martin’s songwriting passion is an interesting character detail which, while it doesn’t radically transform our perception of him, does add a layer. Everyone’s gotta have a hobby, and to know that he has a creative side rounds out the character while not really going against the grain of what we know about him already. He doesn’t quite think of himself as a writer, but he loves Sinatra and thinks he knows what the Chairman likes. From what we hear, he’s pretty decent; I don’t know from standards, but “Lady of Mine” ends up being a pretty catchy tune.

The reason I have to spoil the ending on this one is because I think it’s what ties a bow on the whole story. While Martin’s song doesn’t get sung by Ol’ Blue Eyes, it does a lot more good in the context it does get performed in, turning a miserable remembrance of the life of a miserable woman into a genuinely positive experience by having everyone pretend, just for a couple of minutes, that she was indeed a groovy lady. It’s a nod to the power of art, and a perfect up-note on top of twenty minutes of entertaining grumpiness.

Niles adds a good B-story to the mix, even if it’s not developed very much. While Frasier’s struggle with the eulogy is basically a matter of not wanting to lie that horribly, Niles is motivated by a desire to finally do something right for her. He didn’t like her any more than anyone else did, but her constant dissatisfaction with everything he did makes him determined to prove her wrong. It’s an interesting spin on his typical perfectionism, which is usually an end in itself.

It’s all charming stuff, an especially life-affirming installment despite being all about death. It has the nice theme that our dreams, even if not realized in full, can still make our lives better, and enhance others’ as well. Rather than state this explicitly, the show makes the point with a song and leaves us all with a smile. It’s not a classic, but it kind of sticks with you anyway.

Guest Caller: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Eileen

Written by David Lloyd
“Lady of Mine” written by Paul A. Kreiling and David Lloyd
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired October 10, 1995

Daphne: Besides, in my family, when there was a funeral everybody went. I remember when Grammy Moon passed on. My brothers had been off on a three-day bender. They couldn't even stand on their own - pissed as newts! But they crawled to that chapel on their hands and knees.

Frasier: Very commendable.

Daphne: Yeah, well, they had an obligation. They were the pallbearers.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

On the Duality of Glee (Sort of)

Brittany and friend
GLEE is a show that’s fun to watch, sometimes frustrating to follow, and hair-pullingly maddening to try and talk about on occasion. It’s a volatile show, often wildly inconsistent, and I don’t necessarily think that’s the worst thing. I admire that it’s a little out of control, that it’s big and brash and sometimes kind of smart and sometimes kind of dumb. It’s idealistic and joyful, but with enough dark comedy to keep it from sliding into HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL territory. (And yes, I know I gave that a good review. I am large, I contain multitudes.) It can be incredibly self-indulgent, as in the various theme episodes where plot takes a backseat to exploring the repertoire of a popular artist, but dammit, the indulgence can be fun. And while the show doesn’t really need defending, what with a massive explosion in popularity midway during the first season, I think it may be worth taking a look at what makes it such a rollercoaster ride.

Now, there’s a popular theory that the show’s apparent lurches from restrained comedy to glitzy craziness stems mainly from a split between the show’s three creators/head writers: Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, and Brad Falchuk. There’s some truth to this, at least if the episodes they’re credited with are representative- Murphy’s done all the “theme” episodes, for one, Falchuk has some of the more dramatic ones, Brennan is sort of in the middle, etc. Of course, though this is subject to individual opinion, each has some of the best and worst of the show to their credit: Falchuk has the superb “Dream On” and the less effective “Throwdown”, Brennan wrote the forgettable “Hairography” but the amazing “The Rhodes Not Taken”, and Murphy, of course, is responsible for highly criticized installments like “Wheels” and “The Rocky Horror Glee Show” but also the pretty amazing “Mattress” (and I have a certain fondness for “The Power of Madonna.”) I think the Three Writers approach explains some of the show’s shiftiness, but not all, especially since American TV writing is almost inherently collaborative and I’m sure everyone has worked on everyone else’s credited scripts.

Instead, I’ve constructed a little thesis of my own. GLEE is basically a game of duality- highs and lows, comedy and tragedy, sophisticated satire and big dumb spectacle. I think this is mostly by design. There’s a basic contrast from the start of the series, between the ideals of togetherness and joy through art that Will Shuster envisions his Glee club as representing, and the messier dark parts of reality, like the fact that he hooked its lead male singer by threatening to frame him for pot possession. I think it’s this tension which serves as the show’s key dramatic engine; while the external conflict may be Sue trying to destroy the club or a new competitor or random personal drama for the students, it usually comes down to whether the ideal or the cynical reality carries the day, and sometimes it’s one, sometimes the other, and just as often a mix of both.

Let’s take one of my favorite episodes, “The Rhodes Not Taken”, as an example. This was the first episode I saw and the one that got me hooked; a lot of that had to do with the utterly astounding duet between guest star Kristin Chenoweth as April and Lea Michele as Rachel, both singing “Maybe This Time” from CABARET. The latter did good, the former pretty much blew the roof off. Anyway, the plot revolves around Rachel ditching the club to play the lead in the school’s production of the aforementioned musical, leaving New Directions without someone to handle the big diva numbers. Will Shuster (Matthew Morrison) gets in touch with April Rhodes, who was a major glee club diva back when he was in high school- and upon finding out that she leads the life of an alcholic squatter, offers her a position at the school and on the club. It’s a heartfelt gesture and a second chance, but April soon starts getting her fellow clubbers drunk (and teaching them how to shoplift), and it’s obvious that this just isn’t going to work out. She’s broken and Will can’t fix her, as much as he wants to. Rachel, in turn, finds that her dream of leaping straight to stage stardom isn’t going to work, mainly because the director is a creepy, ego-destroying douchebag. There’s reconciliation at the end- Rachel rejoins the gang, and April accepts that she can’t go on like this and decides to strike towards Branson. A couple of dreams get dashed, but hope springs eternal.

This constant give and take extends to the characters as well, which gets us to the heart of much of the criticism the show has had, namely that ostensibly identifiable and sympathetic characters like Will, Rachel, and Kurt (Chris Colfer) often do very unsympathetic things, often enough that we start to wonder whether we should root for them at all. I don’t doubt that the shades of gray we’re given with each character are deliberate; it works both ways, as the ultra-villainous Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) has shown her soft side on occasion, and even Will’s much hated ex-wife, who faked a pregnancy to try and keep him with her, has been allowed a moment of grace or two. In general, the characters each have a light and dark side. Rachel and Kurt are very vulnerable in the overall school hierarchy, one being a dowdy do-gooder, the other the only openly gay student thusfar, but they can both be manipulative and cruel when grasping for their respective desires.

Will is a more complex little pirate; in trying to court the lovely and neurotic Emma (Jayma Mays) or teach his kids, he just doesn’t seem to know where the line is, and while this has had him move into some very ugly territory as of late, I can’t drop my sympathies completely because I realize how messed up he is. He went right from school to marriage; this is the first time he’s been on his own in years, and I think his short sighted and self-serving behavior stems from not being experienced in really dealing with other people. He wants to be kind and generous and often is, but he doesn’t understand when his actions can cause harm.

As far as I’m concerned this is interesting characterization, if not always perfectly modulated; the show seems mostly story-driven, and to serve the needs of a given week’s plot the characters sometimes have to swing from one extreme to another quickly. This is something that the show does have to work on, to make the shifts less jarring and maybe make their bad moments easier to understand, and therefore forgive.

Now, if there’s a part of the show I will class as an outright guilty pleasure, it’s the gimmick episodes. When the show first started, music rights were hard to secure, but as it became popular, artists and publishers have been very forthcoming with their catalogues, which has resulted in the show itself growing more music heavy. The gimmick episodes- “The Power of Madonna”, the Gaga-themed “Theatricality”, “Britney/Brittany”, and “The Rocky Horror Glee Show”- have almost all had fairly thin and often self-contained storylines, and while I’m not sure most of them are objectively good television, I more or less enjoyed them all. It comes down to the music- the cast are, by and large, quite good performers, and while neither the songs nor arrangements are original, there’s an enthusiasm and reckless goofiness that I just can’t reject. There’s an extent to which a musical is carried by its songs, and while the show shouldn’t indulge itself too often, it’s an indulgence I like to share in.

I may be wandering off point, but I think on the whole, what makes the show so maddeningly inconsistent is also what makes it so damn compelling. If it’s not entirely in control of itself, it may be because it’s doing something no other show right now is really trying. It’s trying to mix cheery music and dark comedy, flawed characters with big ideals, and really obvious thematic statements with the occasional moment of nuance. It may yet mature into something a bit more stable, but I have to say I’m enjoying the volatility. Its worst episodes still usually have some moments of cuteness, humor, or just plain awesome music to recommend them, and at its best, it reaches heights of joy and depths of despair that I’m just not seeing anywhere else.

I’d recommend it, but the show doesn’t really need my thumbs-up now, does it? Still, I think fans and non-fans can all agree on one thing: Heather Morris is some kind of a ninja.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Frasierquest 3.2: Shrink Rap

Frasier and Niles get help
Martin: The restaurant you bought together, that was a bad idea! The book you tried to write together, that was a bad idea! But this.... [thinks] No, that restaurant was still the stupidest one.

It seems like not too long ago I was detailing Frasier and Niles’ last failed attempt to work together. It was the penultimate episode of Season 2, and so there’s an unintended symmetry here. But while “The Innkeepers” was a sprawling disaster epic, “Shrink Rap” is much more focused on the fundamentals of Frasier and Niles’ sibling rivalry. It works primarily as an excuse to have the two at each other’s throats for almost the entire show, and also lets Frasier act as a more traditional psychiatrist for a change. All that plus a flashback-driven story makes this a worthy bout in a series-long grudge match.

The episode starts with the two brothers in therapy, as couples specialist Dr. Schacter (Milo O’ Shea) helps the two recount their latest conflict. Frasier was getting bored at the station, and decided to do some private practice work on the side; Niles wanted an excuse to kick out a primal scream therapy group disrupting his building, and so we see the two happily embark on a joint group therapy venture. We’re just a little into Day One when Niles starts condescending to Frasier, Frasier starts interrupting his brother’s diagnoses with his own thoughts, and neither can agree where the potted plant should go. The two brothers start engaging in their own primal scream therapy, and that’s when Dr. Schacter offers to help.

Despite the flashback structure of the story, there isn’t a lot of Rashomon-esque manipulation of events; there are a few times when the brothers try to puff up their own egos or score points off each other, and Niles’ flashback provides us with a particularly entertaining monologue from Daphne, but the conflict between their versions of events isn’t central to the episode. I expect this framing device was more a way to start the story off in an unusual place, beginning with everything having failed and then showing us how.

The how of it is no big surprise; Frasier and Niles are innately competitive, and in this case Niles sees Frasier as intruding on his territory, even though he invited him in. Daphne gets to the heart of it when she observes that Niles gave Frasier a smaller name on the door; he probably expected to somehow be in charge, not just because Frasier would be working part-time, but because he doesn’t see Frasier as a genuine psychiatrist. He’s a celebrity and needs to be reminded of how real therapy works, preferably with a lot of books (though Frasier’s memory may be exaggerating just how much reading material Niles gave him.)

It’s not like Frasier makes much of an effort to get along either. He tries to dominate the group discussion and give every individual advice, since that’s what he’s used to and it’s his personality. He makes no concessions when his brother calls him out, and gives no ground in the argument that results. When the Crane boys fight, they go big; they don’t concede points and are loath to compromise. Dr. Schacter inevitably pronounces them a helpless case, since it’s almost a rule that sitcom character dysfunction be irreparable. It’s the same reason Jack Benny’s violin teacher never held out any hope of him improving.* But Frasier and Niles quickly find an excuse to ignore his advice, and though the cooperative practice never resurfaces, it is an experience from which they refuse to learn.

*(I am well aware that Jack Benny could actually play the violin quite well.)

If I have one complaint about this episode it’s that it really only has the central story, and nobody else has much to do, but I’m not even sure that’s an actual flaw. “Shrink Rap” sets out to do one thing and does it very, very well, with some of the best quipping in Frasier and Niles’ storied history, and O’ Shea makes a great counterpoint. It’s quick and to the point, that point being polished to a razor sheen.

Guest Caller: Blair Brown as Jill

Written by Christopher Lloyd
Directed by David Lee
Aired September 26, 1995

Frasier: I am so tired of your exaggeration, you always make things fifteen thousand times worse than they are!

Transcript by Nicholas Hartley at TWIZTV.com

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Monsterthon: The Bookshelf: Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula and his ladies- plus an Amazon link

I’ve made two unsuccessful attempts at reading DRACULA before. Both times I seem to recall enjoying it, but some other assignment or event compelled me to put it aside for long enough that I figured I probably ought to start all over again. This Halloween season I resolved that I would finally make it all the way through this classic of horror literature, and so I can complete Monsterthon by paying tribute to one of monsterdom’s elder statesmen.

The story, told entirely in correspondence and diary entries, begins with Johnathan Harker, a London real estate clerk, heading to Transylvania to finalize some sale documents with the mysterious Count Dracula, who is planning to buy the Carfax estate in England. As days pass, Johnathan works out that the Count is keeping him a prisoner, and that he is more than just an elderly aristocrat. He manages to escape, but in the time it takes him to get back to England, Dracula has already arrived on a ship whose crew were wiped out under mysterious circumstances. The Count sets his sights on Lucy Westenra, a friend of Johnathan’s fiancee Mina, and begins luring her out sleepwalking and feeding on her blood. Lucy’s betrothed Lord Arthur Goldamring, as well as asylum director Dr. Seward and Mina herself, notice a change in Lucy’s condition, and Seward summons his friend Professor Van Helsing, an elderly gentleman with some knowledge of things beyond the realm of known science. Van Helsing is too late to save Lucy from dying, but helps her friends to release her from the curse of vampirism that follows; afterwards, knowing Count Dracula’s intentions, they must protect Mina from becoming another of his brides.

An interesting thing about this book is that Dracula himself is barely in it. He gets a lot of “page time” during the early scenes in Transylvania, but in England he becomes mostly an external force, working through visions and animal guises, as well as through his slave Renfield, a fly-eating madman. Part of the reason for this is that the heroes are careful to avoid directly confronting the Count, who at night is basically too powerful for mortals to face and live. He is powerless during the day (though not actually burned by sunlight as would become the standard), but makes sure to appear rarely during such times. Though Bram Stoker famously based the character in part on Vlad Tepes (aka Vlad the Impaler), the references are more direct in the book than in any adaptation I’ve seen, with the possible exception of Francis Ford Coppola’s film- Van Helsing hypothesizes that Dracula was once a great leader who for whatever reason made a pact with dark magical forces and was turned into a prince of the undead. The physical description of the Count is very much like that of Vlad, and the explicity aristocratic background blurs and offsets some of the anti-Semitic origins of much vampire lore. The Count’s air of nobility makes him a fascinating character even though we rarely see him.

Perhaps the other thing that stood out to me when reading this book was how nice everyone is to each other; the heroes at times seem like embodiments of Christian virtue, ever patient in times of stress, ever faithful in the face of Satanic evil, and always seeking to treat each other well. This fits the style of much contemporary literature, and of course these are mostly affluent-or-better people raised to conduct themselves in a certain way, but as we’re reading their own thoughts in diary form, they come across as just plain decent folk. It can feel, at times, a little too cosy or twee; in particular Van Helsing’s broken English and folksy manner can be a little much over 300+ pages. That said, it does come off as sincere, and it creates a strong contrast between the elemental conflict of good and evil that is the book’s story. I don’t doubt this is what helped it resonate with audiences at the time and beyond; we’re not just scared of the monster but genuinely engaged with the protagonists, and this adds power later on when the story goes into a truly epic climactic pursuit.

Even though I was going through it the third time around, there’s definitely a wonderful touching sadness to Lucy’s fate, and while I’m not sure whether readers at the time were expecting her to live or die, most of us have been spoiled by film adaptations in the meantime. She’s as sympathetic a character as Mina, and doesn’t really deserve her fate- despite the much-talked-about undertones of Victorian sexuality in the book, there’s no sense that she’s being punished for any particular sin, just an innocent who wandered out onto the wrong moor.

There’s a lot of preparation and anticipation in the book, which makes it move slowly at times. This is primarily an artifact of the Victorian style of literature, though if H.G. Wells was largely able to cut through the crap Stoker doesn’t have much of an excuse. But there is tension, and emotion, and some genuine eeriness in the best passages. It’s easy to see how the book made the impact it did, and crystallized our perception of the vampire in popular culture. Not quite a masterpiece, but still a great page-turner.

Grade: A-

P.S. If anyone knows who the above image is by, I'll be sure to credit it. I can't quite read the signature at this resolution.

Happy Halloween!

Monsterthon: Random Who Report: The Curse of Fenric (1989)

Curse of Fenric DVD cover and Amazon link
Picking a “monster-centric” installment of DOCTOR WHO seems kind of difficult, since monsters are a major part of the show on any given week. But some stories are more horrific than others, and “Curse of Fenric” is arguably the most Halloweeny of them all. It aired during the final season of the show’s original run, when few people were watching despite a really admirable creative recovery. After the show’s hiatus and a jumbled creative period during Colin Baker’s last season and Sylvester McCoy’s first, script editor Andrew Cartmel and producer John Nathan-Turner came up with a unique “master plan” to return some mystery to the character of the Doctor by making him more than another Time Lord, and darkening the tone of the show a bit. McCoy’s Doctor, originally just a broad clown type, became more of a grand manipulator, with a friendly and humorous exterior hiding some deep and almost callous calculation. “The Curse of Fenric” takes this approach to a rather grim extreme in a dark and scary story of soldiers, vikings, and mutant vampires from the future.

The TARDIS lands on a British naval base during World War II, the Doctor (McCoy) wanting to meet with a Dr. Judson (Dinsdale Linden), a wheelchair-bound cryptographic expert working on the British Ultima Machine, a massive codecracking computer. The base and town itself have been built on top of old Viking settlements, and in the basement of the local church Judson and others are investigating ancient runes and a legend of a treasure the Vikings stole from somewhere in the east, a treasure bearing a terrible curse. A group of Russian soldiers have shown up hoping to steal the device (or at least the relatively small central component of it), while the curse starts to awaken due to the efforts of Judson and others, include companion Ace (Sophie Aldred), who gives him the idea to run the latest set of runes through the Ultima Machine. The program triggered awakens legions of the dead and drowned from the ocean, now turned into mutant bloodthirsty Haemovores, and in time releases Fenric himself, a bodiless ancient evil force from the dawn of time, who lost a contest with the Doctor centuries ago and is itching for a rematch.

The Doctor is playing a long game from the start, never telling Ace- or, for that matter, us- why he’s here until he absolutely has to. A sense of mystery and uncertainty runs through the story, as we’re not sure what all these plot threads have to do with each other for the first couple of episodes. It’s engaging enough not to be frustrating, but it shows how the manipulative nature of the Doctor was changing how the standard formula worked; instead of exploring and seeking out new evils to combat, the Doctor is driven places by what he’s done before and what he has to do now to bring his plans together. For once he’s opposed by an equally manipulative enemy; Fenric turns out to have engineered not only many of the events in this story, but events in episodes from seasons past (including ones that didn’t really make sense at the time.)

The effect of all this on Ace is particularly interesting; though she doesn’t strictly have a lot of agency in the plot, the story is in some ways about her faith in the Doctor and how it’s tested by these events. She develops emotional attachments to people who end up being expendable pawns in the larger game, whether they’re killed by Haemovores, soldiers, or Fenric himself. In an interesting expansion of this theme, faith turns out to be the one thing to which the Haemovores are vulnerable- instead of being repelled by crucifixes and communion wafers, the Haemovores are driven back by the psychic power of human belief, whatever it happens to be in. The Soviet Commander Sorin (Tomek Bork) repels them through his faith in the revolution, at one point wielding his Red Star pin like a cross; the kindly and thoughtful Rev. Wainwright (Nicholas Parsons), on the other hand, has trouble, because the horrors of war have strained his belief in the goodness of mankind. And while in retrospect it’s a fairly obvious liberal-humanist-whatever subversion that a Soviet (and so presumably atheist) soldier has more faith than a clergyman, the story doesn’t really bludgeon us with this and we’re left with the sense that Wainwright is a decent person.

The story is bleak stuff, just about as bleak as DOCTOR WHO can or really should get; lots of innocent people die in a very unpleasant way, and the atmosphere is that of a horror film throughout. For a show that, especially near the end, was contending with low production values and short schedules, “Curse of Fenric” looks gorgeous, with lovely location work, lashings of rain and fog, and impressive battle scenes. The incidental score by Mark Ayres is particularly lovely. The Haemovores themselves are strikingly ugly- a little rubbery in close-up, perhaps, but the visual is nice. The Ancient One (Raymond Trickitt), a beast from humanity’s chemical-poisoned future brought back in time by Fenric to sire the other Haemovores, is a particularly interesting creation.

An epic story like this can’t always go right, and despite writer Ian Brigg’s admirable attempts to pull everything together there are some less effective parts. The arc of Jean (Joann Kenny) and Phyllis (Joanne Bell), two bawdy London evacuees watched over by a shrill caretaker (Janet Henfrey), has a weirdly puritanical slasher-movie element to it that rings a little false, and I’m not sure they were the best people to deliver some of the more melodramatic dialogue. It’s a bit unclear why there’s no concerted attempt to get at least some people off-base when the Haemovores attack, and at some points the characters run around not being too inconvenienced by the danger. There’s also a scene where Ace attempts to distract a prison guard that, due to the limitations of family television, just turns out weird. On the other hand, Aldred is pretty good throughout, especially in her interaction with Kathleen (Cory Pulman), a radio operator who’s raising an adorable baby whom Ace falls totally in love with. She looks good in forties get-up, too.

The story had to have some of it edited out for time when it was first broadcast, though the VHS release restored those moments and the DVD offers them as part of an expanded feature presentation with some CGI-enhanced effects. The additional scenes aren’t essential but they do expand on a few things, and they point to just how much background the story really has. “Curse of Fenric” is a triumph of style, but has a lot of substance to it as well; it really shows how unfortunate it was that the show was cut off just as it was finding its legs again. It’s not my favorite DOCTOR WHO story or even my favorite story from the McCoy years, but it’s one of the show’s classics and a scary good time nonetheless.

Written by Ian Briggs
Directed by Nicholas Mallett
Produced by John Nathan-Turner
Aired October 25-November 15, 1989

Grade: A

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Monsterthon: Random Movie Report #82: The Dunwich Horror

Dunwich Horror poster and DVD link
When I put up DIE, MONSTER, DIE! I couldn’t help but notice that it’s sold as a double feature with THE DUNWICH HORROR, another surreal early H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. I’d actually seen it about a year previously, and it struck me as just odd and goofy enough to go through again. It’s sort of a monster story, and also an occult film, and also just plain shit that be freaky. As far as I can tell, AIP started producing versions of Lovecraft’s work because they ran out of Edgar Allan Poe stories, and this was before the received wisdom that the author’s work was unadaptable. This film may well be where the recieved wisdom got going, because as unusual as it is, it’s not really a successful horror picture by any measure. It is entertaining and a cultural artifact of sorts, which means it’s still worth writing about. And well, some of you might wanna see it.

Dean Stockwell is Wilbur Whateley, last son of a strange clan of folk on the outskirts of Dunwich, Massachusetts. For generations they’ve worshipped weird gods from outside our dimension, and Wilbur shows up at Miskatonic University in Arkham (now located back in the states) in hopes of looking over their copy of the Necronomicon, a book which deals with the Outer Gods and associated madness. He gets just a brief look at the book, but manages to charm the heck out of comely undergrad Nancy (Sandra Dee) and lure her back to his family’s crumbling estate. It seems he’s got her in mind for a kind of ritual to invoke the god Yog-Sothoth and open the gates between our world and that of the Outer Gods. Wilbur’s father (Sam Jaffe) tried this ritual some time ago, and it resulted in Wilbur’s birth, and also... something else getting through. Something in the attic. After Nancy’s been gone a while, Dr. Henry Armitage (Ed Begley the elder) and an assistant (Donna Baccala) show up looking for her, and have to put the pieces together in time to prevent the ritual.

In updating Lovecraft’s story to the modern day, the filmmakers took an interesting approach, incorporating imagery from the then-current pagan and occult revival. The fusion of Wiccan and New Age lore with Lovecraft’s unique brand of cosmic nihilism creates an unusual atmosphere, heightened by some trippy dream/hallucination sequences an a memorable score composed by Les Baxter. (Firesign Theater fans will recognize the theme from its use in the “Mark Time” sketch.) On the one hand this dates the picture, on the other it makes for a ncie time capsule.

The decision to shift the focus of the story onto Wilbur also has some unusual effects; in the story, Wilbur dies fairly early in an attempt to steal the Necronomicon, which is what tips off the main characters that something is very wrong at Dunwich. Instead he’s made into a kind of antihero, with Nancy mostly being a passive target of his creepy advances while Armitage rumbles around Massachusetts trying to work out what’s going on. The character is almost made sympathetic at times, shown to be a target of religious prosecution within the community; the fact that he actually is trying to call down destructive monsters from beyond time and space kind of undercuts this, though, and it feels like a weird attempt to invoke counterculture sympathy without really thinking through all the ramifications. Still, this focus does allow Dean Stockwell to dominate the picture, and his presence is kind of hypnotic- you can see how Wilbur is both charismatic and off-putting. Nancy herself, as well as the whole love story/mating ritual subplot, is a late addition, but I have to say the new elements are better integrated into the original story than one would think.

The film’s major problem is one of pacing; there are a number of slack parts, several scenes in Dunwich where it seems that Nancy and her would-be rescuers are missing each other by pure coincidence, and the third act just kind of collapses due to all the padding. Of course, it doesn’t help that the final confrontation is one of the goofiest you could put on film, and with Armitage being such a minor presence it’s hard to really work out what the heck he’s doing or how he knows to do it.

Ultimately these issues do drag the film down, but it retains some historical value if nothing else. It’s a picture that really couldn’t have been made at any other time, and the inherent weirdness of the original story shines through enough to make this a unique viewing experience. I would recommend it for the curious, as well as people who like Lovecraft’s work but aren’t purists about it. I like the crazy pictures, even when they’re not really all that good.

Based on the story by H. P. Lovecraft
Screenplay by Curtis Hanson, Henry Rosenbaum, and Ronald Silkosky
Directed by Daniel Haller

Grade: C+

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Monsterthon: The Comics Page #26: Essential Godzilla

Essential Godzilla cover and Amazon linkI promised you monster comics and I will deliver. Godzilla has been in a number of comics over the years, and his first American appearances were with Marvel starting in 1977. Marvel not only bought the license from Toho for a couple of years, but actually brought Godzilla into the Marvel universe for that time, having him face S.H.I.E.L.D., Hercules, the Fantastic Four, even the amazing Spider-Man at one point. Four years ago the Essentials collection of this series was released, but the cost of licensing meant that it had only one print run, meaning it’s probably a little hard to find, but if you’re a Godzilla fan and can tolerate some off-model art, it’s pretty fun.

The story of the comic, such as it is, is that Godzilla, at some point after his initial rampage, ended up trapped in an ice floe just off the coast of Alaska. A warm winter and warmer spring end up setting him free, and the international spy group S.H.I.E.L.D. is the one organization with the manpower and artillery required to combat the great beast as he rampages across America for the first time. The group’s #1 hero Nick Fury is elsewhere for most of the comic’s run, so it falls to the bowler-hatted, cigar-chomping Dum Dum Dugan to lead a multiethnic crew (including an elderly scientist who survived Godzilla’s first rampage, and his grandson who thinks Godzilla’s not that bad) and a small army against the king of the monsters. Godzilla also runs up against the mutant hordes of the monster breeder Dr. Demonicus, a group of super-monsters from space, a giant robot named Red Ronin, and even some cowboys.

Old school Godzilla fans will probably be taken aback by some of the liberties taken with the monster’s design; it’s nothing as radical as in that one film that I and only I like, but it’s still distinctly different from anything we saw in the movies. Herb Trimpe, who pencilled most of the series, came up with an interesting, slightly dinosaur-like variant on the classic look, with a much larger head than normal and gem-like eyes. He’s bright green and the fire he breathes is orange instead of the traditional blue, but both of those don’t really matter in an Essentials volume for obvious reasons. Overall the art is pretty solid- it closely follows the Marvel house style of the period, with some nice splash page work and even a little aping of Kirby when Godzilla meets Devil Dinosaur (long story.)

You won’t be seeing any of Godzilla’s Toho buddies like Rodan or Mothra in the series; Toho treated all these characters as separate licenses (a practice continued for the Dark Horse comics, though apparently not any of the video games), and so the big scaly hero has to fight a host of original creations. Some are more memorable than others, though the giant ape-like Yetrigan and the aforementioned Red Ronin are nice additions. The writers do put Godzilla in some very interesting situations, most notably in a multi-issue arc where he’s hit by Dr. Hank Pym’s reducing gas, initially shrinking him down to rat size as he explores Manhattan from the ground up, then slowly returning him to normal size. The occasional story like this, that would only really work in comics given the limitations of late 70s special effects, helps break up the more traditional monster action. There are also some nice, though characteristically overwrought, human vignettes, such as one about the plight of a compulsive gambler on the one day Godzilla decides to visit Las Vegas.

The main attraction is really Godzilla mingling with the big names of the Marvelverse. The hotheaded Col. Duggan is a great foil for him, always frustrated when his plans fail, and an early battle with B-list supergroup The Champions (which includes two former X-Men) at the Golden Gate Bridge is a highlight. Technically, Godzilla’s adventures in the Marvelverse are still canon, although licensing issues prevent his resurfacing (a later story implied that Doctor Demonicus successfully mutated him into a non-infringing beast that was easily dispatched, but we all know Godzilla’s toughter than that.) As I’ve said before there’s a nice comraderie and distinctive atmosphere to Marvel’s stuff in the 70s, and adding a celebrity monster was a nice touch.

Godzilla’s time with Marvel was brief, but it was a really solid run; goofy, strange, but never failing to deliver the requisite destruction and mindless violence you can always count on the character to deliver. The art is quirky, the stories creative if ridiculous, the prose borderline Claremontian- it’s the Bronze Age in all its gaudy glory. The people who will love this should know who they are.

Written by Doug Moench
Pencils by Herb Trimpe and Tom Sutton
Inks by Way Too Many People To Name

Grade: B+