Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Opening Credits Sequence Theatre: Nosferatu (1979)

So, because I was at the National Audio Theatre Workshop in West Plains last week, posting for the month's pretty light, so here we go.

WARNING: This one contains footage of the Guanajuato mummies in Mexico, and so you might find it pretty icky. May not be work safe.

The music and visuals are perfectly matched here- unnerving, but with an almost sacred undertone, conveying the stark gravity of, well, death. Which is what most horror films are about, but this particular one focuses on the titular vampire's unlife and detachment from the living world to a greater extreme than other entries in the genre, so it's an appropriate start. And that music is awesome.

Frasierquest 2.12: Roz in the Doghouse

Bulldog paints Roz's toenails. No, seriously.
Frasier: Well, I mean - dropping by, bringing a little gift? It was obvious he was after something!

Daphne: Well, that's not fair! Dr. Crane is always dropping by and bringing me little gifts and he's not after anything!

One thing that I’ve noticed going back to look at the early episodes is that it’s taken a while for Roz to get much attention. The show’s stories tend to be centered on the family dynamic, of which she is not yet a part, and in the work-related episodes she tends to play the role of savvy cohort to Frasier’s naive pomposity. Here, for once, they are set in conflict, and as a result she gets to command our attention. It’s a big step forward for her, and I like the results.

It begins when Roz trips over Bulldog in the hallway at KACL, injuring her ankle in the process. Bringing over some deli to make amends, Bulldog drops the possibility of her taking over producing duties on his show. Frasier dismisses this as an attempt to get her into bed, and though it’s far from the least plausible theory, a fight erupts between the two, which leads to her walking out (or rather hobbling out as she’s still on crutches) and taking sides with Bulldog. Frasier is convinced that Bulldog will make a pass at her, but is forced to watch helplessly as the two make a scintillating radio team, while he in turn is saddled with a succession of totally incompetent producers. Is he man enough to apologize, or will the impasse continue?

This is our first glimpse of Roz’s apartment, which would become a recurring set for a few seasons. Giving the character a place of her own helps bring focus on her as an individual, and the eclectic, slightly messy style adds some color to her personality while being in line with what we know of her.

The story hinges, in a way, on Roz’s ambitions and the pride she takes in her work. She’s Frasier’s friend and co-worker but doesn’t rule out the idea of moving to greener pastures, and she resents it when he implies that her job is easy. She wants to be in an environment which stimulates her, and for a time Bulldog’s show provides that.

Frasier, meanwhile, is caught in one of his biggest weaknesses. He hates being wrong, and every minute that Bulldog fails to make a pass at Roz is a separate blow to his self-esteem. He was a jerk to Roz, and he knows it, but an apology isn’t quite something he can manage right away. Not that this is all down to their unique personalities- in a way it’s a lot like Martin’s feud from a couple of episodes back.

And what’s Bulldog’s angle? Well, we eventually find out, but in the meantime it’s an opportunity for Dan Butler to flesh out his character a little as well, showing that Bob Briscoe can be kind of charming when he turns down the volume a little.

The finale of this episode is pretty abrupt, but it’s not exactly out of left field either. Perhaps Frasier could have learned more of a lesson, but asking him to be humble is a tall order. Of course, by the time of the episode’s final scene he’s probably already learned his lesson- he appreciates having a good producer after going through a series of terrible ones, and so probably realizes that he was at least partially wrong.

This episode is the first real test we see of Frasier and Roz’s friendship, and while it’s not the last, I like to think that they grow a little closer because of the experience. On a creative level, the writers doing a good Roz-centric story is a movement towards integrating her more with the rest of the cast. She’s becoming a part of the family, and it’s about time.

Guest Callers: Rosie Perez as Francesca, Carly Simon as Marie

Written by Chuck Ranberg & Anne-Flett Giordano
Directed by James Burrows
Aired January 3, 1995

Frasier: You don't understand. It's not the same as Dad being wrong, or your being wrong. I have a degree from Harvard. Whenever I'm wrong, the world makes a little less sense.

(Quote assist from Shawne Wang at

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Frasierquest 2.11: Seat of Power

John C. McGinley as Danny Kriezel
Frasier: We’ve had a hard day, tangled with a little pipe and porcelain. Now it’s Montrachet time.

Bullying is an odd thing. I am as geeky as you can get, and was super-awkward growing up, and while I was teased, I was never shoved into lockers or held upside down in toilets. Then again, I never showed up at school wearing a tweed blazer and carrying a valise. Frasier and Niles got hit by all the old tricks, from the swirly to the jetpack, and as we see in this episode, the pain still runs deep. Of course, in screwball comedy tradition, “Seat of Power” is also about fixing a toilet, something neither man is really fit for and so which naturally they must do. The result is a minor classic.

When the toilet in Frasier’s bathroom breaks, Martin convinces him in his usual loving manner that he should try to repair it himself. Niles happens to be there too, so the two brothers make a game attempt, and it almost works until the thing starts overflowing. Instead they call a plumber (John C. McGinley), who happens to be Danny Kriezel, who bullied Niles relentlessly at school. Niles wants to confront Danny; Frasier tries to hold him at bay until he’s distracted by the calling in of Billy Kriezel (Mike Starr), who was his school bully. The two pairs of victim and victimizer try to resolve their differences, with varied results.

So the big item of interest here is McGinley’s appearance, long before SCRUBS would make him a star, though he was already a prolific character actor. (In fact, this looks like this was his first sitcom gig.) He isn’t delivering snarky insults, and in fact there’s something engagingly earnest about his character; he’s not the school bully anymore, so Niles’ rage seems almost displaced. Mike Starr, fresh off of appearing on movie screens as B-movie mogul George Weiss in ED WOOD, is great as Billy, who is still pretty much the guy who tortured Frasier as a kid.

Frasier and Niles themselves are as fun out of their element as ever, with Niles inadvertently turning on Maris when talking to her on the phone during his attempt at manual labor. The entire episode could well have been about their attempt at pipesmanship, but instead it takes an inspired direction- one that actually includes a callback to the first season’s “I Hate Frasier Crane”, in which Frasier’s memories of Billy Kriezel haunt him still. Here he pretends to be the more mature man, but that can’t last.

A lot of what makes this episode good is in the payoff, where Niles manages to have a heart to heart with Danny while Frasier takes the more barbaric approach. It’s an obvious plot twist in itself, but by then the story has already taken a few turns, and it’s played so well by Pierce, McGinley, Grammer, and Starr that it feels satisfying instead of hackneyed. A final denoument with Frasier and Martin feels unnecessary, but we do get a good gag about the unusual disadvantages of low-flow toilets.

Roz and Daphne play minor roles this time around, both given some business but nothing really to do with the major plot. Fortunately their scenes are funny enough, and Eddie has some good moments as well. Still, it’s mostly the Frasier and Niles show (with some assists by Martin), with two very good comic actors as their special guests. One of the show’s simple pleasures is watching these two play against each other, and “Seat of Power” keeps the dynamic fresh, a challenge that the show would continue to meet for a surprisingly long time.

Guest Caller: Macaulay Culkin as Elliott

Written by Steven Levitan
Directed by James Burrows
Aired December 13, 1994

Niles: When you think about it, our only mistake today was trying to fix that toilet ourselves.

Frasier: Yes, we tampered with the natural order of things.

Niles: But now, order has been restored. By hiring a plumber, that plumber can now afford, say, a Dolly Parton album. Miss Parton can then finance a national tour which will, of course, come to Seattle, allowing some local promoter to make enough money to send his cross-dressing teenaged son to us for $150- an-hour therapy.

Frasier: [raises his glass] To the circle of life.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Frasierquest 2.10: Burying a Grudge

Martin and Artie attempt to have wordsMartin: Oh, all right, it was worse than any of that. [pause] He told people... I cried at "Brian's Song."

Frasier: Dear God! You always think that's the kind of thing that happens to other people's fathers, not your own!

It’s good to get back to a “normal” episode after the big sweeps epic. “Burying A Grudge” is a story drawing on Martin’s past, and these are always kind of offbeat. Martin inhabits a different world, and when we get a glimpse of it, it’s like what would happen if a 70s cop drama had a 20-years-later reunion. The episode’s main story sidles up to us, and it’s a low-key affair all around, lacking huge laughs but sweet enough to make up for it.

Maris is having a facelift, and Niles is running over to the hospital frequently to check up on her and make peace with the nursing staff. While accompanying him, Frasier and Martin find that Artie (Lincoln Kilpatrick), one of Marty’s old pals from the force, is in the hospital and not doing too well. However, Marty and Artie haven’t spoken to each other in a long time, all owing to a petty spat and some harsh words. Both men are too proud to actually apologize, but Frasier feels that since Artie might not be around much longer, it’s worth settling things. Martin always wants the last word, though. In the meantime, relations between Maris and the hospital staff continue to worsen.

It’s weird for Maris, of all people, to be the plot driver for this episode, considering how little the actual plot has to do with her. (And also the fact that she can never be on camera.) For the first several minutes I found myself trying to remember which episode this was; it’s similar to how you can watch a SIMPSONS episode and not know which one you’re watching until the first act break.

We’ve seen Martin’s stubbornness in display in many previous arguments with his son, who inherited the same trait. In Artie, he has another worthy foe, one just as desperate to win in a conflict that no longer exists. The sheer triviality of the cause for the split is, itself, an inspired touch (seriously, who doesn’t cry at BRIAN’S SONG?)- there’s really not much for either person to apologize for, so it’s not like they’d really be conceding anything. But for Martin and Artie, it’s enough to have to even appear to begin to concede. It’s stupid and it’s immature, and it is a twist that Frasier is the voice of reason in this story.

The B-story surrounding Maris is brilliant. In a relative handful of scenes the character’s neuroses create a situation that rapidly spirals out of Niles’ ability to control it, to the point where he has to bribe the staff with gifts. By now it’s clear that Maris can never be shown; she works too well as an immaterial force causing pain, suffering, and chaos. She is what Lilith is joked about as being. The plot also gets us Daphne saucily joking to Niles about having a mole removed “just south of Manchester”, and even though she doesn’t know what she’s doing, it’s fun to watch her wind him up.

Even though Artie’s in bad shape, the episode never gets too maudlin or sentimental. It’s never stated what’s wrong with him, and maybe he’ll recover, maybe he won’t. That he’s ill isn’t the point- that they need to talk to each other again is, and though Frasier uses some manipulation to make it happen, that manipulation is never pointed at us. Even the reconciliation scene is played mostly for laughs, with a genuinely great gag revolving around Martin and Artie’s inability to let either have the literal last word. There’s also a great early example of a recurring mannerism for Martin, where he can never let a statement speak for itself. He always has to explain it. He wants to make sure everyone knows what he’s saying. He doesn’t know when to stop himself.

Maybe I’ll take a lesson from this and stop the article here. Good episode, a little offbeat.

Guest Callers: Betty Comden as Linda, Adolph Green as Walter

Written by David Lloyd
Directed by Andy Ackerman
Aired November 29, 1994

Niles: Maris's doctor feels it's more soothing for the patient to duplicate the home environment as closely as possible. So I slipped a pearl-handed revolver under her pillow and got myself a room across the hall.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Frasierquest 2.9: Adventures in Paradise, Part II

Frasier, Lilith, and Madeline meet.
Lilith: I’m here on a layover. And, judging by Frasier’s trademark mangoes-on-a-stick, so are you. If you want, I could come back in ten minutes.

And so the pale white bombshell has been dropped. Frasier’s run of good luck is at an end, as demonstrated by the surprise appearance of his ex-wife, and now the cosmos seeks to right itself by screwing over our protagonist, something he himself participates in. Brutally unfair, perhaps, but it’s not just a parade of misery; “Adventures in Paradise, Part II” takes another step in the development of Frasier and Lilith’s post-marriage relationship, and in fact their dealings with each other are much more mature than usual. Not that this is saying much.

So Lilith is in Bora-Bora too, at the same resort, and why not? She and Frasier went there together once. So she’s come with her boyfriend Brian, a handsome and brilliant man who seems as fit for her as Madeline is for Frasier. Frasier can’t handle this, and an attempt by him to impress the next door neighbors sends Madeline packing early. Back in Seattle, Frasier goes on the air to try and win her back; she gives him a second chance, but unfortunately, Lilith’s not quite out of his life yet.

The spectacular downturn of Frasier’s fortunes is the focus of this episode, and I do have to say the sad part is losing Madeline. By nature something like 90% of Frasier’s girlfriends are one-or-two-episode guest stars who are far too busy to commit to a recurring role; it’ll be a while before we get any steady girls. It’s not so much that Madeline leaves as that she’s driven away by circumstance- Lilith shows up at the wrong moments, and Madeline decides the situation is too complicated for her.

But maybe it’s not just circumstance. Frasier and Lilith are still recently divorced, and just last season they were on the verge of getting back together. Even though legal and custody issues seem to have been worked out offscreen, there are lingering emotions to be settled, and with Lilith ready to marry again, Frasier has to push past another barrier. Will he be bitter about her success, or wish her well?

That he does the latter ultimately, I feel, gives the episode a positive tone. He does his best to win Madeline back, almost succeeds, but when he loses, he works past his frustration. We can chuckle a little at his misfortune, and he rants amusingly when he sees Lilith has chased off his girlfriend, butat the end feel that he’s an okay guy and maybe things will work out.

This is far from the funniest Lilith episode, mainly because she’s not in it as much and is on fairly serious business, but it’s not always about the laughs. The maturity with which their relationship is portrayed continues to surprise me as I revisit the series- they throw barbs at each other and he dreads her appearance and she occasionally gives Daphne psychic migraines, but in the end they’re two decent folks who just didn’t work out together. I’ve probably said that before, but it’s worth restating as we go along. Frasier and Lilith’s marriage is over, but their relationship continues.

Guest Caller: Kevin Bacon as Vic

Written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs
Directed by James Burrows

Aired November 22, 1994

Niles: Just wonderful, when's the happy occasion?

Lilith: Tomorrow, in Las Vegas.

Niles: [laughs] Oh, Lilith, how delightfully kitschy! It's your second marriage, so you've decided to poke fun at the institution by getting married in the tackiest place you could possibly choose!

Lilith: Brian's family lives in Las Vegas.

Niles: Well... isn't that convenient? You'll have someone to show you the museums.

(From the transcript by Mike Lee at

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Bookshelf: Fade Out: The Calamitous Final Days of MGM by Peter Bart

Scanned book cover and Amazon link
As of late I’ve been getting very heavy into movie history. I’ve become totally fascinated with the process of how the sausage is made, down to the soulless number crunching and dealing between studios and parent companies that make modern film possible. At the local library I found a book that's actually become more relevant since I finished reading it. (I scanned the cover since I couldn't find a good image online.)

If you follow movie news, you may have heard that Guillermo del Toro recently dropped out of the director’s slot for the planned live action film(s) of J. R. R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT, due to delays in production. The project looked ready to go for a while, but then MGM, who are financing the production, announced that they were in deep financial trouble again and had to delay any check writing until they could raise more capital. The part that actually surprised me was that they still existed.

The irony of this is that a long time ago, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the dominant player in the old-time studio system. They owned the most theaters, had the most stars on contract, and their style was excess- they could produce epics like GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, both the silent and sound versions of BEN HUR, and so on. Peter Bart’s FADE OUT is an up-close memoir of the studio in decline, focused on an attempt in the eighties to revive production that fell apart for various reasons. There are some issues I have with the way it tells its story, and the limited scope will leave you with a few questions, but it has some fascinating material, and to a certain extent, the problems it was having then are very close to the problems it’s having now. Bart, who worked with Frank Yablans as he tried to right things through an ambitious slate of pictures, argues that MGM/UA suffered from a combination of bad picks, missed opportunities, and perhaps most damningly, a top-level inability to commit to the expense and uncertainty of being a film studio.

Bart chooses an odd alternating pattern to tell the book’s story, focusing on the eighties and his own time at the studio, but sometimes jumping back to the very beginning of Nevada entrepeneur Kirk Kerkorian’s reign as owner of the company. This gets a little disorienting, but suffice it to say, Kerkorian, who made his fortune chartering flights to Vegas for gamblers, bought a studio that was already teetering due to several expensive flops in the sixties. Jim Aubrey, brought in to cut costs and streamline the studio (including the sale and at times outright disposal of old props, sets, etc.), had a hard time finding hits, and started the trend of squeezing MGM’s budgets to a point where their output really slowed down as a result. Kerkorian, meanwhile, focused on leveraging the MGM brand, particularly with the new MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.

A few more bosses later, and Peter Yablans entered with a directive to actually try and jump start MGM’s film lineup. And to be fair, he really did try. The studio had just acquired United Artists (deep in hock because of the HEAVEN’S GATE debacle) to become MGM/UA, and UA had the Rocky and James Bond movies to help things out. Here, it mostly seems to be bad luck and wrong guesses that hurt; the studio pushed RED DAWN and 2010 as major blockbusters, but both did only middling business. The book also describes an interesting project called ROAD SHOW, about a modern day cattle rancher who, fed up with corrupt truckers, decides to get his herd to market the old fashioned way, with a horse-led cattle drive across the modernized Midwest. From Bart’s account it was difficult to get much conflict beyond the basic premise, and the premise itself isn’t the most plausible, but you can almost imagine a film like this working. Two directors came and went and the picture got quite close to production, which no doubt cost a lot, as did schedule delays on the unexpectedly elaborate MRS. SOFFEL, wherein Peter Bart personally visited director Gillian Armstrong in an attempt to curb her increasing perfectionism.

Overall, the larger problem seems to be that they still weren’t producing, at least not enough. Though each film is a risk and most movies take a little while to earn back costs (if they do at all), studios rely on producing a full slate each year and having a steady stream of income to offset both production costs and the basic costs of having a business. (This is a simplification based mostly on my playing THE MOVIES a lot, but it’ll have to do.) Kerkorian’s own lack of interest in the movie end of the game- he was always more a Vegas man than a Hollywood one- probably didn’t help. Bart doesn’t go out of his way to cast aspersions on Kerkorian, but by implication he comes off as a little too disinterested.

A key moment in the whole story seems to have been MGM’s deal with Ted Turner in 1986. Turner originally tried to buy the studio outright, but this put him a little too far in the red, so Kerkorian agreed to buy back key elements of MGM (including the brand). However, this still left Turner with the classic movie library that he would leverage so well for better or worse, and MGM’s studio facilities ended up with Lorimar, a television company. (Though this may not have been a big loss since those facilities hadn’t been used for much in a while.)

My one major complaint with the book, apart from the flashbacks and flashforwards, is that it ends kind of abruptly. We get a lot of detail on RAIN MAN, which was a nice unexpected hit, but after a couple of failed deals to sell the studio, the book just ends with Kerkorian back to writing the checks himself. Obviously this has everything to do with when the book was written, but it makes the subtitle “The Calamitous Final Days of MGM” sort of misleading. For the next decade and a half MGM continued to exist as a kind of shadowy almost-studio, occasionally popping up to release a movie or declare financial trouble. Kerkorian did eventually sell to another private group (thusfar, MGM seems to be the only historic studio that wasn’t gobbled up completely by a major multinational, though this is hardly a better fate), but since they don’t even handle their own DVD releases anymore, you can see why I thought they had actually died at some point.

Obviously Bart couldn’t cover events taking place in the future, and I had to piece this together from discussions concerning the recent HOBBIT troubles. So I think the book still works pretty well overall, illustrating some of the unique challenges of the movie business and making it clear just how unpredictable it can be. I hope that something, somewhere, happens to keep the MGM legend alive, but that may just be because I do want THE HOBBIT and the next Bond movie to actually get made. And Hell, we all love that lion.

Grade: B+