Friday, May 28, 2010

Frasierquest 2.8: Adventures in Paradise, Part I

Frasier and Madeline in Bora-Bora
Frasier: You know, I haven't said this out loud, but here goes: she may very well be the woman I spend the rest of my life with.

Roz: Go. Go do that. Get married, have a couple of kids, move out to the country, buy a puppy, live happily ever after! Just don't tell me about it, I need a boyfriend!

Frasier: Dear Roz. Dear, silly Roz. Dear, silly, horny Roz.

That’s right, it’s FRASIER’s first two-parter, a little November sweeps epic that no doubt indicates the trust the network had in the show by then. Even now multi-parters are kind of rare on sitcoms, and it’s still mostly something that just the hits do. “Adventures in Paradise, Part I” is mostly distinguished by the ingenious cliffhanger at the end, but up until then it’s a sweet, fun romance wherein Frasier finds himself the recipient of some good karma, but comes close to ruining it. Because he can’t help it.

When Seattle Magazine publishes its annual look at notable citizens, Frasier has his eye taken by Madeline Marshall (JoBeth Williams), clothing designer and babe. Roz persuades him to give her a call, and surprisingly the two end up dating. Even more surprisingly, it goes really well, especially when Frasier performs an impromptu therapy session for the family who run the French restaurant where they happen to dine. Two weeks of blissful happiness later, they decide to take a vacation to Bora Bora. Frasier overcomes his initial hesitation on the advice of Martin, Niles, and Daphne (who have, through one of Marty’s pals in customs, gotten hold of some Cuban cigars and turned Frasier’s apartment into something resembling an old time gentleman’s club), but on the island, a dark force awaits. A dark force with very pale skin.

Because this is the first half of a story rather than a complete one in itself, it consists mostly of rising action. For once, things are going well for Frasier Crane; his new relationship is a rousing success, the only dilemma being how fast and how far he wants to take it. (Paradoxically, Roz enters a major dating slump at around the same time, as though romantic success is a zero sum game and someone has to suffer for his success.) Even the B-story, such as it is, is kind of uneventful- no major conflict is whipped up over the box of Havanas that Martin gets his hands on, it’s just an opportunity for Niles and Martin to bond and for Daphne to show off her skill blowing smoke rings.

It’s weird, in modern TV in general but on a 1994 program in specific, to have something like the cigar subplot. Nobody learns a valuable lesson about the dangers of smoking or gets comically leathery a la Cosmo Kramer; Frasier warns that an errant ash might set Dad’s chair on fire, but beyond that it’s basically a goofy little vignette with no moral value whatsoever. I like that, though I wonder if it generated complaints (there is an anti-smoking episode later in the show’s run.) It’s entertaining just to watch the characters having fun with a new situation even when nothing in particular goes wrong.

The main plot also handles its relative lack of drama surprisingly well. The French restaurant scene, where we see that Frasier and Madeline are indeed going to hit it off, is broad, cartoonish, and very funny, stock material elevated by how well it’s played. It lets Frasier play the wise man, and it’s satisfying when that happens. We get a feeling almost like he’s earned this- it’s a break in the suffering of past episodes, which due to the way things ended up being scheduled was pretty acute as of late. JoBeth Williams’ performance is a strong one- she’s thoroughly convincing as a smart, thoughtful career woman who likes her men to have as much substance as she does.

The revelation at episode’s end is a killer. I get the feeling that if the studio audience’s reaction was sweetened (which these things often are), it wasn’t by much- Lilith comes out of nowhere, and it’s easily the most horrible thing you could drop on the character’s lap at that moment in time. And of course, it promises another Lilith episode, and after the triumph of the first one, the next episode promises good times ahead.

There’s not a whole lot more to say about the episode in isolation, and the next installment will obviously let me look at the story as a whole, but “Adventures in Paradise, Part I” is a strong start. Making the rising action of a story work as a story in itself is not the easiest thing to do, but the writers know they have good characters and lots of room for funny bits, and this is enough to pull the viewer through to the hook at the end. I guess this is why the popular shows are the ones that get to do this- you have to be able to trust your audience to follow from the point where things are merely diverting to the point where the fireworks really start.

It’s gonna be a bumpy vacation.

Guest Caller: Art Garfunkel as Chester

Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
Directed by James Burrows
Aired November 15, 1994

Niles: If you ask me, Frasier, your trepidation is well-founded. It is possible to move a relationship along too fast, and ultimately marry too hastily. You could find, a few years down the line, that the person isn't really right for you, and then what happens if you meet the right person, someone who really excites you and makes you feel alive, but you can't act upon it because you're trapped in a stale, albeit comfortable Maris! ...marriage.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Academy of the Underrated: Matinee (1993)

Matinee Poster and Amazon link

Joe Dante is a director we haven’t heard from too much lately, and more’s the pity. Though he’s never ranked with the great auteurs, Dante is a wonderfully energetic filmmaker whose offbeat showmanship and love for the medium has enlivened many a project. After the wonderfully cartoon-like GREMLINS 2 failed at the box office for some strange reason, Dante went and made the best movie of his career, and a genuine overlooked classic of the 90s. MATINEE, recently back in print on DVD, is a tribute to a bygone era of low-budget moviemaking, but goes beyond nostalgia to reflect on why we like to be scared and why it’s a necessary preparation for life in a dangerous world. It’s also just charming as all get out, a slice-of-life taken at the weirdest possible time, when the years-long contrast between Cold War fears and B-movie atomic terrors reached the boiling point.

It’s October in 1962, and Gene Loomis (Simon Fenton), a military brat living (for the moment) in Key West, Florida, sees a trailer for a brand new monster movie from shock impresario Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman.) MANT!, the thrilling true-to-life story of a half-man-half-ant monster, will not only have a special preview in Key West, with Woolsey debuting the new “Atomo-Vision” theatrical process, but Woolsey himself will appear. It’s a monster fan’s dream- but on the day he learns this, President Kennedy appears on television to announce that the Russians are building missile bases on Cuba and that the navy- Gene’s dad included- are being sent to blockade the island.

The show must go on. Woolsey, heading to town with his girlfriend/star Ruth Corday (Cathy Moriarty) is determined to make his monster picture the main event, and the kids are no less enthusiastic. Gene and his little brother Dennis (Jesse Lee) try to put their father’s absence out of their mind (he’s been gone before), and at school Gene finds himself drawn to the outspoken, beatnik-raised Sandra (Lisa Jakub), while his friend Stan (Omri Katz) manages to score a date with local beauty Sherry (Kellie Martin.) Unfortunately, Sherry’s ex-boyfriend, no-good greaser and terrible poet Harvey Starkweather (James Villemaire) is out of juvie and does his best to scare Stan away, while Gene- recognizing a local censor as a ringer for Woolsey to stir up controversy (and how could he not, since it’s Dick Miller)- worms his way behind the scenes of a premiere that’s as much stage show as movie. Everything builds up to one crazy Saturday afternoon, where MANT! premieres to a rambunctious crowd and panic is in the air.

There’s some debate over who deserves the most credit for this picture. Jerico Stone, the original scenarist, sued for screenplay credit, but was denied by the WGA. The guild’s arbitration process can be arcane and complex, and without access to the actual scripts I can’t really say how much of his work remains in the finished product. He did go on a bit of a letter writing campaign to just about any magazine that mentioned the film, saying Joe Dante was getting too much credit, which is possible. Far be it from me to ignore the plight of the oft-forgotten screenwriter.

Still, it’s hard not to see how, even if Dante didn’t conceive the film’s story, he was drawn to many of its elements. Woolsey is a riff on shock producer William Castle, who in the late fifties and early sixties experimented with all sorts of theatrical gimmicks, from floating skeleton puppets in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL to buzzing theater seats in THE TINGLER. GREMLINS 2’s “film break” sequence was a direct homage to Castle, which Dante had to fight the studio to include (his original plan included prop gremlins to be dangled in front of the projector, so audiences looking back would see the monsters in the theater.) I think it’s fair to hypothesize that Dante and Charlie Haas added at least some personal touch to Jerico’s original work. (It doesn’t help the writer’s case that he came off a little unhinged in his missives, apparently trying to ape Harlan Ellison.)

Whoever’s responsible, the narrative does elegantly keep a lot of balls in the air; the action is kind of slow up until the third act, but it’s the buildup of a farce, and the payoff works remarkably well considering all the separate elements in play. It helps that, as anecdotal as the action seems, there’s a clear thematic thread to all of it, all based around the idea of fear. In the film’s first ten minutes we go from the harmless fear of monster films and urban legends, to a game show on TV making light of a woman’s stereotypical fear of rats, to the very real threat of nuclear war. The boys at school are intimidated by the whole “talking to girls” problem, and no sooner does Stan overcome this than he is confronted by the much larger fear of Harvey beating him to a pulp. Harvey, then, tries to lift the wrong wallet and a threat of violence turns into a job offer. There’s a marked contrast between the threats that are real and the ones that are illusions, meant to soften us up a little.

By now most people know that John Goodman is a really good actor, but his performance as Woolsey is possibly his best work. He’s theatrical and showy, but somehow unpretentious- always about to give a knowing wink when he knows it’s safe to do so. It takes both charm and finesse to pull off a character like this, to justify the love and admiration Gene has for this schlock showman, even if his movies aren’t so good.

Speaking of which, the film’s second major triumph apart from Goodman’s performance is MANT! itself, an absolutely glorious parody of the 50s giant bug genre. (The filmmakers are cheating a bit in having a film like this come out in 1962, when the genre was well on the wane, but whatever.) The performances are wooden but sincere (Cathy Moriarty, a fine actress, does a great job being bad), much of the dialogue is lifted outright from actual giant bug epics, and the whole thing has the stiff-lipped sincerity that made the old B pictures look almost classy. (I particularly like the old scientist who, whenever he delivers an even slightly technical term like “accelerated”, stops to provide a grade-school-level synonym.) Interestingly, it doesn’t fall back on the easy laugh of an obviously fake monster- the Mant effects are kind of good, actually. They’re what the kids who saw the film would remember. Unfortunately, the DVD doesn’t include the complete MANT! footage which made its way onto laserdisc, but a quick search of tube-esque sites should bring that up. (There’s also a nicely vicious parody of dopey live-action kiddie movies of the era, featuring Naomi Watts and Archie Hahn in THE SHOOK-UP SHOPPING CART.)

The film is loaded with topical references, with the occasional easy laugh from kids in school being taught to get three servings of red meat a day and the like. This blends with Dante’s fondness for inside jokes, including more than a few references to FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND- a young Dante once had an article published in the horror fanzine of note. Of course, it’s hard to tell the in-jokes from the material that’s actually genuinely important to the story, and this perhaps explains part of why this film is such a success. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how good the kids are- it’s hard to find young actors and actresses that can hold their own with the likes of Goodman, Moriarty, Robert Picardo, et. al. Jerry Goldsmith’s score, orchestrated by Alexander Courage, adding unexpected gravitas to what is, after all, a low-budget comedy.

I’m still debating in my head whether this qualifies for Academy of the Underrated or not. The vast majority of critics liked it a lot, but the film quickly disappeared for lack of support by Universal, another project by Dante that went without an audience for no good reason whatsoever. (Ironically, mere months after this paean to the monster movie ran its course, JURASSIC PARK revitalized the genre and broke box office records. It was a good time to be a monster fan.) The film’s intermittent availability on home video and DVD hasn’t helped any, and I’m tempted, on the balance, to put it in this august category simply because it deserves the attention. It’s a bit of a cheat- normally this category is for movies that people genuinely didn’t like- but I’m willing to do it.

MATINEE is a movie lover’s movie, and it expresses the magic of the cinema and its effect on American culture in a wonderfully irreverent and unpretentious way. It offers the hope that our rituals of fright and cinematic armageddon can, perhaps, equip us to better deal with the real thing. In a few days in October, Gene Loomis undergoes a rite of passage, and discovers that the adult world is as ramshackle and uncertain as his own. It may not be CINEMA PARADISO, but it is far and away Joe Dante’s finest film, and a warm and humane work that is well worth discovering. Or rediscovering- it may be nostalgia on my part, but the film has aged beautifully.

Story by Jerico and Charlie Haas
Screenplay by Charlie Haas
(bear in mind the above caveats about disputed screen credits)
Directed by Joe Dante

Grade: A

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Random Movie Report #76: Godzilla Raids Again (a.k.a. Gigantis the FIre Monster)

DVD cover and Amazon link

I’ve been meaning to dive back into the Godzilla films for a while, and maybe this time I’ll stick to a semblance of chronological order. Having already reviewed the very first movie (twice!), I now have the privilege to review the very first sequel. GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN, which was sometimes known as GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER in America for reasons I’ll get into, was rushed into production after the first film was a hit, and released the following year. It has the feel of an old-school cash in; while the original was an epic and solemn science fiction film with a really aggressive anti-nuclear message, RAIDS AGAIN is a cheaper, more straightforward monster movie which doesn’t bother dwelling on allegory.

Which doesn’t mean it’s bad. The film drags a little, but it’s buoyed by good character work, good effects, and the distinction of featuring Godzilla’s first ever battle with another monster. It’s a slight entry of the series, but worth seeing. And then there’s the US version, a fairly elaborate re-edit of the original which makes some downright weird choices. Classic Media have, true to form, released both versions on DVD (on a single disc), with some very nice extras, so Godzilla’s first scrap is being well treated.

The film centers around the lives of two pilots, Tsukioka (Hiroshi Koizumi) and Kobayashi (Minoru Chiaki), who work as spotters for fishing boats for a company in Osaka. Engine trouble forces Kobayashi to land on a remote, barren island, and Tsukioka goes to rescue him. There, the two witness a battle between a pair of gigantic prehistoric beasts. One is Godzilla- not the one disintegrated in Tokyo Bay in the first film, but pretty much the same down to the cool fins and radioactive breath. The second, Anguirus, is like a giant toothy ankylosaur. While fighting, the two tumble into the ocean, and as the military track the two beasts, it becomes clear that they’re both Osaka bound, intent on dueling to the death.

Battles with other monsters were really the next logical step in Godzilla’s career. One of the things that attracts kids to dinosaurs is that, according to dubiously researched but well-illustrated books on the subject, dinosaurs fought constantly. This was reinforced by films like the original LOST WORLD and KING KONG, where battles between dinosaurs and the occasional giant ape were the highlight. For the fights in this film, Godzilla was slimmed down, and instead of slow motion, some of the action is actually undercranked- the effect is sometimes a little silly, but it’s not overused.

After the first film’s focus on scientists and government officials, it’s interesting to see the common man taking center stage for once. Tsukioka and Kobayashi are likable characters, as is Tsukioka’s girlfriend Hidemi (Setsuko Wakayama), and we do get some nice additional drama from the threat that the monster attacks pose to the business they have depended on all their lives. Some good wrinkles appear in the third act, up in snowy Hokkaido (not to spoil too much, but Osaka gets pretty damn wrecked).

Still, it’s impossible to avoid a sense of padding in this modestly-budgeted followup. The effects sequences deliver, but there’s a lot in between, from a recap of the original film, to a cameo by Takashi Shimura pointing out that the whole “Oxygen Destroyer” option is off the table, to a very protracted sequence involving escaped prisoners that ends up being necessary to the story in a roundabout way. Even individual scenes seem a bit overlong, as though the filmmakers were worried about the picture being too short.

This one had a weird journey to the states. For a while, the film was going to be reworked as “The Volcano Monsters”, from a script by Ib Melchior. The American-cast film would be about two monsters discovered in suspended animation brought to San Francisco, where they would do battle in the city’s Chinatown district (which looks almost but not quite entirely like Osaka.) New suits for the “Tyrannosaurus” and “Ankylosaurus” were made, but the project was shelved when the production company collapsed. Instead, Warner Bros. released the film, but they made changes of their own.

Apparently not interested in marketing this as a sequel to GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (which they hadn’t released), Warner dubbed the picture GIGANTIS, THE FIRE MONSTER. The story is effectively identical, but Godzilla is called “Gigantis”, and a relationship between the two monsters is drawn via a montage of really cheap special effects showing the evolution of primordial “fire monsters.” The footage of Godzilla’s first attack is still shown, but he’s never referred to by name- rather he’s just a previous Gigantis monster. Anguirus is sometimes confusingly referred to as “the Gigantis monster of the Anguirus family”, and at several points Godzilla is overdubbed with Anguirus’ roar, presumably to emphasize the connection. (His original roar is still there too, which just confuses things.)

The human actors sadly come off worse. Since Kobayashi is pudgy and slightly comic in the original, the dub gives him a weird Lou Costello voice. Sukioka narrates, in an absurdly over descriptive manner, layering the film over with a track that describes all the action past, present, and future, and all the relationships between what is happening now and what we have seen before. I really hope the voice actor got paid handsomely for this, because he must have been in the studio for weeks. Pointless stock footage serves to pad the picture (even though the overall cut is shorter), and this includes World War II propaganda footage and scenes of a Buddhist ceremony which are optically censored to block out swastikas. It’s less effective as a movie, but at times it can be funny in its own unintended way.

GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN is a minor picture. It doesn’t have the apocalyptic drama of the first or the eye-popping imagination of later entries, and definitely betrays its rushed origins. (The film’s Japanese release was a mere six months after GOJIRA opened.) But it does have some solid characters, good action, and a touching climax, adding up to a worthwhile experience. Godzilla would lay dormant for 7 years after this, but when he came back, it was big.

From the novel “Gojira” by Shigeru Kayama
Screenplay by Shigeaki Hidaka and Takeo Murata
Directed by Motoyoshi Oda

Grade: B-

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Comics Rambling: The Ryan Choi Incident

Ryan Choi as the Atom
This is another rant, and if you’re following comics fandom online chances are you’ve read plenty about this already. I felt compelled to weigh in, but don’t worry, I’ve got a Godzilla review in the pipeline too.

You may be wondering what’s up with the “Chris Sims Was Right” label. Now, Chris Sims has been right about a lot of things- SPEED RACER, FINAL CRISIS, Jeff Dunham sucking, etc. Unfortunately, this is a more solemn vindication for the Invincible Super-Blogger. Recently Sims published a rare serious piece for Comics Alliance called “The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling.” It basically highlights a problem DC’s having with many of its returning Silver Age heroes displacing their modern replacements, who were more diverse, resulting in an unintended but notable “whitewashing” of the DC Universe, all the more notable because most of the characters getting replaced have been around for less than a decade.

This past Wednesday, as if to illustrate his point, DC published “Titans: Villains For Hire Special #1”, a one-shot meant to lead into a new series about a gang of, well, villains for hire led by super assassin Deathstroke. In this special, the new gang prove themselves by carrying out a contract on the All-New Atom, Ryan Choi, brutally murdering him and presenting him to their client in a matchbox coffin.

So yeah.

My reaction to this is biased by the fact that I really, really liked Ryan Choi. Gail Simone’s run on ALL-NEW ATOM was one of my favorite comics of the past decade- one of the few superhero books, along with the new BLUE BEETLE and INCREDIBLE HERCULES, to really “get it”. It was imaginative, original, and fun, full of wild ideas and likable characters. (We will for the moment overlook the series’ final arc, written by Rick Remender, which screwed things up spectacularly.) Its failure to succeed in the market kind of broke my heart, and I’ve been a bit more cynical about mainstream comics ever since.

This doesn’t help. But here’s the thing. I’ve disliked character deaths and retcons and other developments before. I still think Ted Kord got a raw deal, Maxwell Lord got it even worse, and so on. But on some basic level I can understand that those were creative decisions that I disagree with. My tastes are a minority in the comic market, for whatever reason, and I’ve accepted that DC and Marvel have to appeal to the wider audience. I didn’t like INFINITE CRISIS and was unwowed by BLACKEST NIGHT, but many people clearly loved them.

This time, however, I genuinely do not get what DC is doing. And I’m not sure they do either. Sure, whenever a comics company says, “We have a plan,” your best response is to nod politely and ignore them, but this decision seems utterly tone-deaf. Did they not get how this might come off? Did they really think it was that important to get cheap heat for an “amoral mercenaries” book when the very good SECRET SIX is still being published? Did they think we would be terribly interested in reading about the exploits of the people who just killed a charming, memorable minority character?

I’m not one to claim that artists need to be responsible and take care to send positive messages in their work, and sure, nobody’s ever going to have a perfect record on racial sensitivity. But having strong minority superhero characters in a shared comic book universe is a good thing. Superheroes are powerful identification figures for audiences, and if we can get a variety of them, in ethnicity as in other areas, so much the better. Ryan may have been a Chinese super-genius, but he transcended stereotype from the get-go, coming off as a well-rounded, believable guy with an enthusiasm for Science!, an easygoing and open-minded attitude, and a strong sense of humor. His ethnicity and bi-nationality affected who he was, but not in obvious ways- it was just his heritage. He was not a big seller, but he was making impressions in BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD and in the Johnny DC comics as well- logically, it would make sense to leave him be until someone could think of a good use for him.

And this is not the only decision DC’s made as of late which seems a little off. There’s the entirety of CRY FOR JUSTICE, in which beloved Silver Age characters- including Ray Palmer- turn all dark and gritty and Jack Bauer-esque while children get killed and the word “Justice!” is repeated approximately 100,000 times, and this is supposed to kick off a new era for the Justice League of America. There’s the Asian Cassandra Cain being kicked out of the Batgirl role in favor of plucky blonde Stephanie Brown, because they were going to put Barbara Gordon back in the role but decided against it at the last minute. There’s Wonder Woman being made a member of the Star Sapphire Corps, a group of scantily clad spacewomen who channel the power of love (they’re finally introducing a male member of the group, but he gets to wear something dignified.) There’s the black Firestorm being absorbed into his white predecessor (and his Asian girlfriend getting killed during BLACKEST NIGHT), there’s the Japanese Dr. Light still being overshadowed by her dead rapist supervillain predecessor whom someone apparently still thinks is an interesting character despite all evidence to the contrary, and on top of it all, there’s the fact that Hal Jordan helped save the day in BLACKEST NIGHT by becoming the White Lantern- which wouldn’t have been so bad in and of itself (the whole chromatic lantern thing was clearly building to it), but in the context of all this really becomes unfortunate.

(Man, when I total it up it’s really the people of Asian descent getting hit the hardest. Sorry, guys.)

As Sims himself had to make explicit, as does anyone tackling this, I don’t specifically believe that anyone in charge at DC has any particular racial prejudice. It’s not that they’re racist. They’re not. If anything, they in particular are having this problem because they tried to add some diversity with their legacy heroes, and they took a lot of heat for “tokenism” at the time (which I think they generally avoided by making the new characters pretty well-rounded.) They deserve a lot of credit for having made that push, but they seem to have decided that that approach isn’t working. “Brightest Day” has the feel of a quick-and-dirty reset, trying to go back to basics and not really thinking too much about what’s getting thrown out in the process.

Except I’m not sure that’s going to work either. Ryan Choi’s Atom didn’t sell many comics, but neither has Ray Palmer. “The Atom”, as a concept, doesn’t move a lot of books on its own, and the market as it is depends a lot on marquee value. This is a problem in and of itself, but it’s not one that will be solved by rushing back to the status quo of the Satellite Era.

Here’s what’s bugging me. As I’ve said before, I’m not happy with Ted Kord’s death. A lot of work has gone into casting it as a noble and essential sacrifice, but I think it goes against the merry prankster element of his character, I don’t like Max Lord as an irredeemable supervillain, and for various reasons I’d like to see him come back. But now I don’t think I do. Not now, anyway. Maybe not for five, ten years. Because the way things are working out now, any resurrection of Ted would put Jaime Reyes, the awesome new Blue Beetle, in danger. Maybe he’d be grotesquely killed, maybe rudely pushed aside, but whatever happens it would likely taint the joy of Ted’s return. So let’s hope that part of the status quo stays in place for now.

Part of this is DC’s old bugaboo, killing way too many characters way too often, most often to “raise the stakes” or establish how badass a villain is. But even just pushing these legacy characters out of sight is a waste. There needs to be room for the old and new, for variety.

In short, killing a likable if low-selling legacy hero who added diversity to the DCU for the sake of the comic book version of a series pilot was a bad move. DC really seems to be heading in the wrong direction- not just going retro, but actively paving over its recent past and cutting off avenues for future development. They’re still publishing some good books, and I’m not going to give them up entirely, but- they can do better than this. Seriously.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Frasierquest 2.7: The Candidate

Frasier and Phil Patterson
Holden Thorpe: So a guy like you, unmarried, didn’t serve his country, sees fit to criticize a patriotic family man who fought in the battle of Grenada...

I kind of hate politics.

As necessary as they are, they’re deeply unpleasant and confrontational, and dominated by stupidity. When we can’t understand the issues fully (and who can?) we make decisions based on irrational first impressions and superficial judgement calls. “The Candidate”, which actually aired the evening of the 1994 U.S. elections, lightly spoofs some of the sillier aspects of our democratic process, but it can’t help but induce some of the same frustration that the real thing inflicts on us. I was hesitant to revisit this one, because again it’s an episode that’s technically well done but hits just a little too close to home. Still, it’s more fun than I recall.

Martin surprises the boys when he shows up in a local commercial, supporting right-wing (presumably) and tough-on-crime candidate Holden Thorpe for Congress, using his own experience being shot in the hip as fodder. Frasier and Niles are dismayed, both leaning towards the more liberal side of things, and despite some ethical misgivings Frasier decides to publicly back Phil Patterson (Boyd Gaines), an idealistic underdog. His ethics, however, are further tested when he finds that his candidate of choice secretly believes he was abducted by aliens years ago, and that they invited him to a conference to tell him their concerns about what mankind is doing to Earth.

A secret like this is no fun unless it gets leaked, so that’s what Frasier inadvertently does when he hears that Patterson is in a scandal involving aliens (actually a misunderstanding with some exchange students.) Needless to say, Frasier ends up ruining everything. It’s more of a bummer than usual, since it’s not just his ego that suffers; a good guy loses, not because his policies are inferior but because he holds an ultimately irrelevant belief. (Part of my problem with this episode is I’m not sure being a UFO abductee would harm a candidate in a regional race, though the script lampshades this near the end.)

And this is the problem I have with politics. The results of elections matter, and matter for a long time, which means too much rides on a short cycle, which means craziness abounds. I may never truly understand the mindset it takes to be a political person- you need to have both the conviction that winning the conflict is important, and the perspective to pick yourself up after losing. It’s this admirable zen detachment that Patterson displays in the episode’s final scene, which does help take some of the sting off.

Of course, for all that this episode is about politics, it goes out of its way to not be too polarizing. Not only are no political parties mentioned, but I don’t think we ever hear the words “conservative” or “liberal” either. Holden Thorpe is “tough on crime” and gets connected to Grenada, while Patterson is a “bleeding heart” who helps out at soup kitchens. Both sides get mocked to some degree- I wouldn’t call it balanced, but it’s not trying to be.

Luck Hari shows up as a CafĂ© Nervosa server again after her memorable turn in “My Coffee With Niles”, which is a touch I enjoyed for some reason. Like Eric being promoted from bit player to breaking Daphne’s heart, it shows that the staff recognized talent- Hari would appear several more times up through 1997. I’ll keep an eye out. She’s cute, okay?

There’s also some more interesting stuff about Frasier’s professional ethics, both as a psychiatrist and public figure. He’s not sure he should get politically involved at all, and when he does he runs into the question of whether Thorpe’s little close encounter means anything to his endorsement and whether he should tell anyone. (Niles comes up with a workaround for the latter, though I’m not sure that’s characteristic of him.)

The episode ends on something of a sweetly redemptive note, which at least helps Frasier get over the guilt he feels. Our boy has been through a lot of stress, much of it self-inflicted, over the past couple of episodes, a situation which I can empathize with. But things are about to get interesting.

Guest Caller: Sydney Pollack as Holden Thorpe

Written by Chuck Ranberg & Anne Flett-Giordano
Directed by James Burrows
Aired November 8, 1994

Phil: Maybe I’ll run in California. A thing like this could actually help me there.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

In Theaters: Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 poster and IMPAwards link
Two years ago, IRON MAN managed to surprise a few people by being a smart, banter-heavy summer blockbuster with some great performances and strong characterization. IRON MAN 2 can’t help but suffer a little bit from heightened expectations, and though business is apparently booming it has gotten a less enthused critical reception. As for myself, though, I find myself liking it about as much as I did the first entry. It takes a couple of steps forward, a couple of steps back, and maybe one or two sideways; it’s a bigger movie, which has its advantages and disadvantages, and it delivers what it promises while not quite living up to its potential.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), having come out to the world as the man inside the Iron Man battlesuit, is well on his way to 21st century godhood as the story begins. He opens a year-long Stark Expo in New York, promising an unusual mix of better living through technology and sheer capitalist decadence, while trying to keep the government from seizing control of this new weapon. His decision to go it alone is reinforced by his private knowledge that he doesn’t have much time left- the palladium reactor keeping his heart going is also poisoning his bloodstream, and he has nothing to replace it with. He turns over ownership of Stark Industries to his overworked assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and is doing his best to live up his last days. However, industrial rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) Is gunning for Tony’s tech, and Russian inventor/badass Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) wants to personally make him bleed, and after the latter attacks Tony on the race track at Monaco, the two team up to make his life as hellish as possible.

As is common with superhero sequels, IRON MAN 2 has a lot more on its plate than its predecessor. It’s possible to distill the plot down to “Tony Stark has a lot of rivals”, but the details are sometimes hard to keep track of. Ivan blames Tony’s father for the exile and ruin of his father, believing that the former stole the plans for the ARC reactor- the dynamo that powers the Iron Man armor- from the latter. Hammer cozies up to the government by trying to turn the Iron Man concept into something that can be mass-produced, and Tony’s Air Force buddy, Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard), ends up siding against him, thinking he’s getting a little drunk on power when he isn’t just plain getting drunk.

Adding some interesting ambiguity to this, Tony’s detractors aren’t entirely wrong. They don’t know that he’s dying because he insists on confronting that- and all other problems- alone, and his similarly unilateral approach to world peace seems almost selfish and self-deifying. Pride inevitably goeth before a fall, and though the film isn’t very dark and only a little mopey, a big part of it is Tony being knocked down a peg even as he tries to live up to his responsibilities.

From a thematic standpoint all this is fascinating, but it does a number on the movie’s structure. It rambles around a lot, and it’s not always clear where it’s going, which would be good except we then have to wonder if it’s going anywhere in particular at all. Some sections feel a bit bloated, and the plot just isn’t as clear as it could be. It’s not really obvious what the stakes are, and the sudden involvement of the international spy organization SHIELD feels like a plot element thrown in from another movie (and, to be sure, it’s mostly there to foreshadow the upcoming AVENGERS movie.)

Downey is as good as he was the first time, which is to say pretty awesome. He knows the character and he keeps Tony sympathetic even though he’s kind of coming off as a jackass to everyone. Paltrow is very strong as Pepper Potts, but the character this time kind of gets sidelined near the end, which is a shame. Cheadle makes a great Rhodes, though I had no problem with Howard in the original. Rockwell takes a fairly thin “evil corporate douchebag” role and makes it entertaining, and Rourke’s a nice counterpoint even if his accent is unconvincing. Scarlett Johansson, as a legal secretary and part-time stealth badass, is- very pretty, with a talented stuntwoman, but sadly doesn’t make as much of an impression as everyone else.

When the film’s plot finally does get underway, we do get some very good action; Jon Favreau shoots the picture’s main setpieces clearly and cleanly, letting the spectacle of metal men clashing with heavy artillery speak for itself. Vanko’s attack on Tony at the race track is as good a setpiece as was teased in the trailers, and I think the final battle represents an improvement over the somewhat murky climax of the first film. At times Favreau does fall prey to what some are calling “the teal and orange fungus” but thankfully it’s not in every scene.

So, a bit better in the action department, a little worse in terms of structure, but with some really interesting thematic and character stuff to make up for that. Overall I was satisfied- the film neither falls prey to its excesses nor fails to deliver the excess we want from this kind of thing to start with. The franchise, I think, has yet to live up to the full potential of the talent involved (both in front of and behind the camera), but hopefully they’re getting there. Tony Stark’s story continues to be a fascinating one, warts and all.

And yes, there’s another after-credits sequence this time. One that I thought was just a little bit awesome.

Based on the comic by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, and Jack Kirby (not necessarily in that order)
Screenplay by Justin Theroux
Directed by Jon Favreau

Grade: B+

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Special Screenings: A Boy and his Dog

A Boy and his Dog poster and Amazon linkEvery so often I’ll see a film in circumstances that are, themselves, worth writing about. Hence, the new category.

One of these was a few weeks ago at Kansas City’s annual Filmfest, wherein veteran actor and brief director L. Q. Jones was on hand to host a special screening of his film of Harlan Ellison’s A BOY AND HIS DOG, originally released in 1975. It’s a wonderfully weird little picture- of a piece with the grim futures of 70s sci-fi (it's a fine term, Mr. Ellison, so shut up), but unpretentious and possessed of a wickedly dark comic sensibility. Jones was happy to answer questions about the process of adapting Ellison’s work (though the interviewer, on behalf of the Creative Screenwriting podcast, seemed a lot more interested in his days working for Sam Peckinpah), and provided some great insights into this movie.

The film takes place in 2024, some time after World War IV, the great nuclear exchange which turned the Earth into a blasted wasteland in a little under 15 minutes. Vic (Don Johnson, several years before he was lookin’ for a heartbeat) is a boy paired up with Blood, a sentient dog who communicates with Vic telepathically (in the voice of Tim McIntire). Since Vic is a virile male, his main priority is finding a woman to have sex with, and fertile women are vanishingly rare in the apocalypse. Blood helps with searching in exchange for food, and acts as the brains of the outfit. One night he picks up the scent of a female, the lovely Quilla June Holmes (Susanne Benton), who turns out to be from the underground colony of Topeka. After being menaced by local gangs and unseen mutants, Vic decides to head with Quilla to her underground colony, with Blood staying behind. But underground, he finds that her paradise is not quite what he wanted.

The first thing I noticed, seeing this film in a theater (I’d seen it before on video), is that this is one very loud movie. From the opening sequence of atom bombs going off, to various firefights and carousal, to the Topeka parades, the film almost never has a quiet moment. It grabs for our attention early and doesn’t let us drift away at any point. Since we’re dealing with a post-apocalypse story originally written by Harlan Ellison, this kind of raw, crude atmosphere feels fitting.

(I should perhaps observe here that, though I have read some of Ellison’s work, I have not yet come across A BOY AND HIS DOG. Hunting down the man’s short material can be tough, since it gets only sporadically reprinted.)

The film depends on its two leads, and it’s quite amazing how convincing they are from the outset. McIntire’s voice is distinctive, paternal, authoritative, and Jones described Tiger as giving one of the best animal performances in film- rarely needing to look at his trainer, and capable of performing as many of six distinct actions in one take without prompting. He’s got the right look for the dog too, almost wizened with his long hair but not too fancy. Johnson plays off his animal companion remarkably well- when Vic argues with Blood, the actor buries deep any awareness that he is a grown man getting into a heated discussion with a dog. Benton is wholesomely beautiful, and Jason Robards, as one of the head Topekans, is also memorable.

Though Jones is proud of the film he’s made- proclaiming it one you will remember whether you like it or not, which is pretty much right- he has never directed another. The process was, from all accounts, exhausting, and it didn’t help that it took around four years to complete the project. A BOY AND HIS DOG was both independently financed and independently distributed, a sort of slow roadshow rollout which actually ended up being quite profitable. (He bragged that it’s one of the few movies to actually make money for the people who made it.) Surprisingly enough, a sequel was considered, to be titled “A Girl and Her Dog”, but it never got off the ground; it was to have examined the story and setting’s weird sexual politics from the distaff angle. Now, Jones is involved in an attempt to bring the story to the screen again, this time through animation.

So, the sexual politics. Hoo boy. This is a very heavy male-gaze picture, being, at its core, about a guy who wants to get laid and how this gets in the way of his friendship. The post-apocalypse stuff is set dressing, but it adds an unpleasant tinge- Vic takes a pretty explicitly objectifying view of the females he’s looking for, as things to be used to fulfill his mission. Of course, this falls apart when he actually meets a live one; Quilla talks him into something like a relationship, though she’s got her own agenda.

Some of the details of the postapocalyptic setting are actually kind of brilliant. We have the never-seen “screamers”, poor souls so riddled with radiation that they glow green and kill whomever they touch. All we ever get is a bright green light and their howls of pain, but it’s a nicely chilling detail (another group of bandits looks like something out of Fellini.) Meanwhile, the Topekans, having lived underground for so many years, all wear heavy facepaint to simulate the rosy complexion they’ve lost, making it look like a colony of mimes. (Hal Baylor is hilarious as Michael, a perpetually-grinning enforcer who exists only to crush heads.) A lot of things have been thought out that aren’t talked about on screen, and I think that’s one of the marks of a good genre movie.

But then, it feels almost wrong to describe A BOY AND HIS DOG as a genre film- I’m the last person to find genre labels demeaning, but somehow it just doesn’t seem appropriate to lump this in with other postapocalyptic sci-fi even though that’s just what it is. The film’s wit, aggression, and deliberate crudeness give it a quality unlike other science fiction films of the period; the end of the world here is not an excuse to talk about the problems ailing the present day, but a backdrop for a more eternal story about how sex can make us do stupid things, and how valuable some friendships can be.

Based on the novella by Harlan Ellison
Written for the screen and directed by L.Q. Jones

Grade: A-

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

So the UK folk should be voting soon...

Time to post this before it becomes totally unusable:

(Explanation here .)

Best of luck to those at the polls, making what appear to be some fairly complex decisions.