Thursday, September 30, 2010

Frasierquest 2.24: Dark Victory

Black bears attacking a black forest campground at night
Frasier: Now we can all sit here in the dark and be miserable or we can try to have some fun.

Niles: I'm going to call Maris.

Frasier: Well, Niles has voted. Who votes for fun?

As I hit post 400 and the end of the second leg of our journey, I’m starting to feel I’ve maybe got the hang of this thing. At some point I learned the virtue of mentally outlining what I mean to write before I start putting it down, and I think the pieces I have on the site will be stronger for it, while also making it less of a drain on me. October may see a bit of a slowdown on the FRASIER front because there’s something I want to do for Halloween, but nothing’s in stone.

After the high absurdity of the last episode, “Dark Victory” ends the season on a down-to-Earth note. Like the last season ender it involves all the characters in a situation where they get to look at where they are in their lives and what their goals are, but it also manages a surprisingly deep observation of the psychic cost of listening to other people’s problems.

Frasier’s had a rough week at work and is looking forward to the weekend, but Roz is depressed because she decided to skip her annual family reunion; a brick of cheese sent from home is giving her second thoughts. To cheer her up, Frasier invites her to Martin’s birthday party at his place; unfortunately, that’s quickly degenerating into an argument between dad and Daphne over his unhealthy habits and refusal to exercise. Roz tries to leave early, but then a power outage strands the whole gang in Frasier’s apartment, each with their own problems that, inevitably, Frasier must help them solve. From Niles’ resentment over having a patient leave him (based on advice from Frasier’s show), to Daphne fretting over whether to get her own place or stay with the Cranes, to Roz’s off-and-on homesickness, it’s gonna be a long night.

While this isn’t as much of a recap as “My Coffee With Niles”, the similarities go beyond them both being season finales. Both are built around the idea of a series of interactions between Frasier and each of the other characters in turn, learning a bit more about all of them in the process. A season finale is expected to touch base with all the major players; it’s going to be a while before we see them again and there’s a comfort in knowing where they are when we leave. (The equally valid alternative is to put them in a cliffhanger and make damn well sure we come back to see what happens, and the show will not be averse to taking this route in the future.)

This particular recap ends up mostly being about strengthening relationships. Frasier bonds further with Roz, makes Daphne realize the bond she has with her adopted family, and mends fences with Niles, and generally makes everyone get along by getting them to vent the things that are really making them angry. The blackout provides an opportunity for a cooling-off period, at least after Frasier realizes the game of “I’m the Dullest Person” isn’t going anywhere.

It comes at a cost, though. Frasier’s end speech about the pieces of him he keeps giving away didn’t make a lot of sense to me the first I caught this episode in syndication, but with time and experience I’ve come to realize the truth of it. It’s hard to listen to all the bad things that go on in people’s lives, which is why we’ve invented meaningless pleasant conversation. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, and it’s obviously a good thing to give people a shoulder to cry on, but doing good sometimes just isn’t easy. Frasier can’t really refuse any of the unstated requests for help that come up during the evening, but he insists on his right to sulk a little on his own instead of joining the interesting party downstairs.

So “Dark Victory” ends up having a couple of meanings apart from the movie/play reference. It’s really a Pyrrhic victory, one that comes at a cost to Frasier, but it’s a victory nonetheless. He is a force for good in his friends’ and family’s lives, and he’ll keep on doing so even if it gets hard sometimes. It’s a nice contemplative note to leave the season on, and the willingness to deal with a difficult and sometimes unexamined theme is one of the things that makes FRASIER so very, very excellent.

More to come.

Guest Caller: Shelley Duvall as Caroline

Written by Christopher Lloyd, Linda Morris, and Vic Rauseo
Directed by James Burrows
Aired May 23, 1995

Niles: Nineteen floors down to my car! Garage door's electric! Can't open! Twenty floors back up! Lost count! Bad lady upstairs! Big dog! Need place to die!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Frasierquest 2.23: The Innkeepers

Daphne helps Niles with his eel problem.
Daphne: Owning a restaurant is hard work. If you don’t scald yourself or lop off your finger with a clever, you spend your whole time gagging at grease fires, killing rats, and brawling with labor racketeers. (Beat) Me auntie had a little tea room.

An absolute classic, “The Innkeepers” takes FRASIER’s newly developed farcical element to magnificent extremes. This is an episode almost everyone remembers, and while the fact that it’s easily summed up as the one where Frasier and Niles open a restaurant is obviously part of that, it’s plain and simply one of their most memorable shows. The premise is novel but just close enough to believable, the humor builds from understated to insane, and it’s easily the most ambitious thing the show has yet undertaken from a technical perspective. It all works so well that you never stop to consider how it couldn’t.

Gil Chesterton gets things rolling by letting Frasier know via his show that Orcini’s, an ancient and respected restaurant where the Crane boys went as kids many times, is closing down. A farewell visit to the old place finds her a swiftly-crumbling ruin with grim lighting and a decrepit skeleton crew of a staff; Frasier and Niles decide they can turn this thing around, and buy the restaurant. The rechristened "Les Fléres Hereux" is bright, glamorous, and packed to the rafters on opening night. It is also inevitably doomed, as arguments over soufflé service lead to a mass defection of the kitchen staff, forcing Frasier, Niles, and Daphne to handle the cooking while Roz plays waitress. For a brief period it looks like they may get out of this okay, but we know better.

Looking back I have to admire the ambition it took for FRASIER’s producers to attempt this show (an homage to Blake Edwards, if the script book is to be believed. And script books have never let me down before.) It’s a story loaded with physical comedy, prop business, and elaborate gags performed at a breakneck pace in an environment that’s not quite live theatre but where there’s still an audience who would like to go home eventually. Sure, the cast and crew are very talented, but from a logistical perspective this must have been a nightmare.

And from a creative standpoint it’s also a bit risky. Buying a restaurant is a big, broad comic premise; it’s a departure from the show’s core story engines, and the heavy slapstick craziness a departure from the show’s more highbrow tone. The major problem is how you get the audience to go along with all of this business.

“The Innkeepers” answers these challenges with a very strict, disciplined approach to what it’s trying to do. The first couple of scenes aren’t much different from your normal Frasier episode, and Frasier and Niles’ restaurant venture at first seems like another doomed collaboration, like their book. And to be sure, sibling rivalry provides the impetus for most of the evening’s problems; they argue over the soufflés and drive away the head chef, they both manage to injure wait staff during their comings and goings from kitchen to dining room, and they both take it upon themselves to load up the cherries jubilee with extra brandy. (The repercussions of which, in retrospect, should have been obvious.) There’s plenty of typically urbane banter throughout the evening, so the slapstick builds without making us feel that we’re going too far afield. The scope of the disaster is also slow to build up; at first a few misunderstandings, some mixed signals or wrong words spoken, then the characters get put into absurd situations, and then the really unexpected happens.

The pace of the action really demands a lot of the actors. The higher the pressure and the faster everything moves, the more character can be buried or reduced to shrill stereotypes. But even to the casual viewer flipping by, this episode establishes the basic personalities of all participants, and Grammer, Pierce, Leeves, Gilpin all hold on to the reality of their characters as the evening grows worse. John Mahoney is very good too, but he doesn’t have quite the same job; Martin knows this is not going to work and is determined to enjoy the carnage. It sounds callous, but you really can’t blame him. Edward Hibbert and Dan Butler both provide backup, and it’s interesting to catch an early bit part by Diedrich Bader, later of THE DREW CAREY SHOW, OFFICE SPACE, BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, and something now on NBC that we won’t hold against him.

In many ways this show pushed the envelope; at the time it probably seemed atypical, but afterwards everyone knew they could tackle this material. Many more grand disasters await the happy brothers in the future, and while losing the restaurant didn’t seem to dent them much financially, it looms like an omen over all their later schemes. Murphy’s Law never applies so well as to a Crane venture.

No Guest Caller

Written by David Lloyd
Directed by James Burrows

Aired May 16, 1995

Niles: How much firepower do you suppose is necessary to imbed a cherry in an acoustic ceiling tile?

Frasier: Another question we should have asked ourselves before we entered the exciting world of food service.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Now Playing: Your Friend, The Tripod

I've mentioned THE MOVIES by Lionhead before, and the fact that I'm using it to dabble in the machinima arts. Over this summer I decided to do something a little more focused than my usual slapdash hope-the-subtitles-save-it approach, with a fully voiced (by myself) satirical filmstrip about certain moviemaking trends and how we need to reacquaint ourselves with the fundamentals of good camera work. Took me forever to finish, and I needed iMovie and a couple of game mods to make it, so I hope you enjoy. Comments are welcome.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Frasierquest 2.22: Agents in America, Part III

Frasier and Bebe: the morning after
Frasier: Bebe, I don’t think there are any words to describe what we shared last night...

Bebe: It was like Greco-Roman wrestling on a trampoline!

I wasn’t quite sure which episode this was before I started watching it; the Bebe Glaser story has many twists and turns. Bebe’s episodes are fun just because of the actress and the character; it doesn’t matter so much what she does, because her very presence is entertaining. Harriet Sansom Harris gets quite a workout in this episode, with Bebe playing evil, sexy, suicidal, and a few other beats in between. In so doing she leads Frasier into some very sketchy ethical areas, both as an employee of KACL and as a man. She’s always a figure of temptation, but here she’s a little more direct than usual.

Frasier is due for a raise, as his contract called for when he first signed on to the station. Bebe convinces him that the original 8% promised is not enough for a breakaway talent, so she recommends that he take a prolonged “sick” leave until the station agrees to renegotiate. It smacks of a bad work ethic to Martin, but what worries Frasier is that the station starts to play hardball, painting over his space on the parking lot and clearing out some of his supplies. Bebe comes over to his apartment to convince him to hold out, and gives the station a midnight deadline. With five minutes to go, the station caves and agrees to open negotiations. Frasier and Bebe celebrate into the night, and that celebration continues into next morning. Now Frasier is in an uncomfortable position with his agent, and there are still negotiations coming up.

Bebe is usually in the role of the Temptress when she shows up, so it makes sense that she’d take that one step further. But the episode is not really so much about their night of passion, as the larger temptation Bebe drags Frasier into. There’s no indication that Frasier feels underpaid or underappreciated at the station until Bebe plants the idea in his head, and Martin probably speaks for more than a few viewers when he points out the ethical dubiousness of Frasier’s “sick day” ploy. Of course, Frasier is not a salaried worker doing a job with a fairly steady value, but a media personality, and frequent renegotiations based on popularity and prestige are par for the course in this particular game. Frasier’s not wrong to want more money, necessarily, but in following Bebe down this path he puts himself in a compromising situation or two; she’s really in control the whole time.

It’s a tour-de-force for Harris, who gets some wonderful dialogue. She’s an actress I’d like to see in more regular roles, though I’m sure I’m just not looking in the right places; her brief parts in NURSE BETTY and MEMENTO were similarly strong. You can tell that in this episode the writers are starting to get comfortable with Bebe as a recurring character, developing her personality and showing just how cunning and dangerous she really is.

Speaking of returning characters, this episode also has Eric Lutes showing up as Tom Duran, the station manager, in a nice bit of continuity from earlier in the season. Meanwhile, of the regulars, David Hyde Pierce has some memorable moments, but it’s mostly Kelsey Grammer and Harris’ show, the two displaying great comic chemistry. (This is the challenge about the recurring actors; they can’t just be funny in and of themselves, they have to play well off the main cast.)

In the long run, Frasier’s temptation has no consequences apart from some awkward moments and a certain existential dread on realizing how far Bebe will go to get what she wants. He even gets his raise, presumably. It’s not so much bad behavior with no consequences as it is vaguely questionable behavior with vaguely unsettling consequences; a quite subtle model for a sitcom episode, and one that you don’t normally find as part of the standard formula. Bebe never openly tries to jump Frasier’s bones again, which is probably for the best, but there’s little doubt she could do it again if her plans called for it. Her game is deep.

No Guest Caller

Written by Joe Keenan
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired May 9, 1995

Frasier: Once a woman has dipped her toe into Crane Lake, dry land is never the same again.

Niles: Yes, she's probably sitting at home writing "Mrs. Bebe Crane" over and over again in her Algebra book.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Academy of the Underrated: Jennifer's Body

Jennifer's Body poster and Amazon link
I began watching JENNIFER’S BODY with some trepidation. One of the more poorly received films of last year, this horror comedy marked a backlash against both star Megan Fox and writer Diablo Cody, both apparently having gotten too big for their respective britches. I wasn’t interested enough to see it in theaters, and the reviews weren’t encouraging. But I couldn’t help but wonder. Though I didn’t think JUNO was a great movie, I never developed the disdain for Diablo Cody that others have, and I found the rush to take down one of the few Hollywood screenwriters to get attention and some level of creative control disheartening. The screenwriter is generally treated as an easily replaceable and disposable commodity by a production, and often as a nonentity by critics, so anyone who can actually draw attention in this role is okay by me. As for Megan Fox, eh, I got nothing against her, but then I didn’t see JONAH HEX. In any case I had to see if maybe the narrative of the prideful screenwriter and the overhyped model getting their just desserts was obscuring the actual movie.

To be sure, it’s easy to see why JENNIFER’S BODY didn’t go over so well. It’s the kind of horror-comedy blend where it’s not entirely clear where one genre ends and the other begins; it’s definitely funnier than the marketing implied (and they’re still trying to sell it in the horror section), but the blend isn’t always successful. But after an uneven start the picture reveals itself as creative, clever, and more well-thought-out than it appears. It tells a good story with a certain amount of visual flair and energy, thanks to some stylish direction by Karyn Kusama, and deserves better than its reputation.

The film stars Amanda Seyfried as Anita/”Needy”, your average, slightly bookish high school student (albeit an incredibly gorgeous one), who is best friends with star cheerleader and general alpha female Jennifer Check (Fox). Jennifer drags Needy to a concert by Cold Shoulder, a somewhat bland emo-ish band with a hunky lead singer (Adam Brody), but during the show the bar catches fire and the two barely escape with their lives when Jennifer is spirited away by the band. Later that night Jennifer bursts into Needy’s house, bloody and disoriented, and devours a whole roast chicken before vomiting up strange black goo. The next morning, she’s back at school and surprisingly chirpy, given the horrible fire which killed several students and faculty. But she’s got a secret: she’s now a demon who’s taken to seducing, killing, and eating local boys- the murders, obviously, plunge the school into a deeper funk, and Needy has to figure out what’s going on in order to keep her own boyfriend (played by Johnny Simmons) from becoming Jennifer’s next meal.

The whole “school tragedy” element is one that I wasn’t actually expecting; it was never advertised, and it’s both the source of some of the film’s flaws and its best aspects. At first, it just doesn’t seem to gel. There’s something a bit too real about the sadness and the grief hanging in the air after the disaster, with students crying in hallways and teachers struggling to address their classes (though I did enjoy J. K. Simmons as a professor saying “We can’t let the fire win.”) Compare with HEATHERS, the film’s most obvious antecedent, where the community response to an apparent rash of suicides was so farcical that we were clearly staying within the bounds of black comedy. But there’s a terrific turn with Cold Shoulder suddenly becoming famous through its “support” for the school and a town it can’t even name, shamelessly exploiting the tragedy with the school gladly participating (to the point that the big dance is named after the band’s hit single that they were playing when the fire started.)

The band’s own complicity in what happened to Jennifer is ultimately revealed, of course, and what that is and how it’s executed is kind of brilliant. It becomes a nice major through line for the story as a whole, thus acting in parallel to the more straightforward “girl becomes evil demon” plot. The film is not content to just run through the motions of a story that, on the surface, isn’t much more than a single BUFFY episode; there are twists and bends and things that indicate more than cursory thought being put into the action.

Interestingly enough, the one thing Cody as a writer is both most known and most derided for- overly snappy and hip dialogue- is not as prominent here as in JUNO. It’s there, but I didn’t pick up any real eye-rollers on the level of “honest to blog” or “Your eggo is preggo”. Then again, perhaps I was waiting for dialogue like that and so it didn’t stick out. This gets into a very, very subjective realm, and I’m sure others who have seen the movie can point to pieces of dialogue they thought were absolute howlers, but I think the volume was dialed back a tad.

This is really Seyfried’s film, despite Megan Fox getting all the press. She has more screen time, gets to do more as a character, and makes a stronger impression. This is a good thing, as she’s a fine actress and easy on the eyes. Fox is not bad. I suspect a better actress could have added a little more texture to the character, but she’s believable. One of the big obstacles the picture does have is that Jennifer is a bit of a bitch before she becomes a demoness, so not only is the shift less radical (which I don’t actually mind- it’s kind of interesting that she becomes a monster but is still to some extent the same person), it’s a bit harder to believe that she and Needy are BFFs. Then again, they’ve known each other since the sandbox days, and it’s not unheard of for jerks in both genders to acquire non-jerk friends through sheer force of personality; they’re not nice but they command attention. Personally I thought this worked, but it’s another fiddly area where your mileage may vary. I do have to give credit for some amazing cameos in the picture, including Amy Sedaris as Needy’s mom.

Back when I posted my Best of 2009 piece I noted that I was leaving the “most underrated” spot empty, since the movies I liked were generally ones that the critics did as well. Is JENNIFER’S BODY the Most Underrated Film of 2009? I’ll say yes, for now. I reserve the option to change this at any time.

Really, though, this is worth a reevaluation. It’s nowhere near the disaster I was dreading, though obviously I had some hope or I would never have put it in the Netflix queue to start with. I hope Cody continues to grow as a writer; her dialogue is an acquired taste still, but she has a strong grasp of character and the ability to weave an interesting story, and both of those things are much more important anyway. Anyway, I think she’s doing a TV show now so she should be okay. The point is, I do have to conclude that this film was the unfortunate victim of a backlash that had very little to do with its own strengths and weaknesses. It’s not a great picture, but I felt surprisingly good at the end of it.

Written by Diablo Cody
Directed by Karyn Kusama

Grade: B

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Frasierquest 2.21: An Affair to Forget

Niles: En garde!

Frasier: Oh, yes, that’s just what we need, a fourth language!

I think I’ve pinpointed the precise moment where Maris became unfilmable. There’s a point in the action where we hear a love letter apparently composed to her by a German suitor, who describes her as his Nichteinmenschlichfrau. I’m not sure this is an actual German compound word (though they are fond of those), but the translation is “not quite human woman.” In that moment, I think it became clear that no actress could embody her, and that the visual effects required to properly render such an entity would bankrupt the series. “An Affair to Forget” does more with this invisible character than any episode in the series has to date, and in the process presents us with one of its grandest stories, loaded with incident and going in some really wild directions.

Frasier gets a call from a German woman named Gretchen (Glenne Headly), who is worried her husband Gunnar (Brian Cousins), a fencing instructor, is having an affair with his wealthy new student. He later hears that Maris is taking fencing lessons from a German man, and later gets some further information from Gretchen- i.e., the above letter- that confirms his suspicion. He tries to take this up with Maris, but a miscommunication with the Cranes’ housekeeper means he ends up telling Niles. He is naturally distraught and tries to find a way to win back his razor-thin beloved. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, swords are drawn.

Maris exists on the cusp between “character” and “force of nature”; I’m not sure whether, strictly, she even counts as a character on the basis of having no scenes, no lines, and no physical presence. Even the Cloverfield monster popped its head into frame on occasion. Here, the episode draws her so vividly we can pretty much see her, between Gunnar’s loving desription and the fact that she’s taking fencing lessons and brushing up on her German. It just conjures up the image of a slight, pale, haughty woman in dueling gear. We do learn a bit more about Maris as a person from the story, and she’s shown to have her redeeming qualities.

This is the first episode to feature Marta, the head housekeeper for Maris and Niles, played wonderfully by Irene Olga López. She is, in a word, adorable. She’s energetic and perky despite working for what may be the most neurotic woman in the Pacific northwest, and seeing her pop up now and again is a gratifying bit of continuity. Clearly the production staff grew fond of her, as it would have been easy to have a new character/actor each time a member of Maris’ help was required for a story, without having to track down the same actress each time.

Everything in this episode comes down to a failure to communicate. Nobody ever actually sees Maris and Gunnar in any compromising situation; obviously we can’t, but Frasier himself never has anything to go on but accounts from others, first Gretchen then Niles. He lets Niles overhear his suspicions because of a miscommunication with Marta (who is still working on her English, but knows a smatter of German thanks to a German family who moved to Guatemala shortly after the war.) The final confrontation between Niles and Gunnar has to intermediated by both Frasier and Marta due to the language barrier, and Frasier’s crucial slip- which I knew just enough Spanish to catch- makes things even more awkward.

What makes this episode so much fun is that it keeps building, with Frasier making himself look increasingly ridiculous on-air in order to get more information from Gretchen, Niles sweetly going to pieces at the thought of losing Maris, and so on up to the climax. The sword fight is a brilliant piece of physical comedy, with both participants veering between murderous rage, goofy clumsiness, and a hilarious pause when Gunnar accidentally smashes a vase. I’m not sure how the thing was executed in terms of stunts, but it comes off as both hilarious and convincing.

This isn’t the first sign we’ve had that Niles and Maris’ marriage is, well, complicated. There’s usually some conflict taking place, and while obviously we wouldn’t be hearing about them if nothing was happening, the sheer quantity is a bit worrying. For once, it’s not actually the fault of either of them; Maris resists Gunnar’s Teutonic temptation, and the whole thing could have been resolved with some frank talk if it weren’t for the pesky language barrier. Future problems won’t be as easy to solve, but “An Affair to Forget” still ranks as one of the best Maris stories and one of the show’s very best episodes.

Guest Caller: Gleanne Headly as Gretchen

Written by Chuck Ranberg and Anne Flett-Giordano
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired May 2, 1995

Martin: Seattle’s a big city. There must be a bunch of German fencing instructors, each one of them with dozens of students.

Frasier: Yes, but are they wealthy students?

Martin: No, they’re inner city kids trying to work their way out of the ghetto with nothing but a foil and a dream.

(Note: That would make a good movie.)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

In Theaters: Machete

Of all the recent films you would expect to be getting sequels, GRINDHOUSE surely was not one of them; it was a high-profile flop that still hasn’t gotten a DVD release in its “proper” form. And yet, 3 years later, one of its fake trailers has finally been made into a movie that, while it seemed destined for direct-to-video, somehow snuck its way into theaters, where it’s doing not-bad business. The film industry is weird sometimes.

MACHETE was advertised as a pure action trash picture, and so it is, and the fact that it deals rather bluntly with the issue of illegal immigration in America doesn’t change that. We like to think of sleaze as apolitical, and it often is, but at the same time low-budget and grindhouse features have often been used to send messages and make points that would be too polarizing for major productions. Just as “blaxploitation” pictures acted both as cheap entertainment and transgressive social commentary, MACHETE offers sex and gore alongside some rather blunt statements in defense of a growing underclass.

Before this goes any further I want to make one thing perfectly clear: I will be watching the comments section like a goddamn hawk. True, I rarely actually get comments, but in the event that there are, I’ll try to make sure they stay on the subject of MACHETE and not become yet another immigration debate.

Veteran character actor Danny Trejo is the titular Machete, an ex-federal agent from Mexico who, after seeing his family murdered by drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal) has drifted across the border and works as a day laborer. His strength and badassedness are noticed by a man named Booth (Jeff Fahey), who offers him fifty thousand dollars to assassinate Texas state Senator McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro), who is running for re-election on a tough anti-illegal-immigration platform featuring plans for a giant border fence. But it’s a set-up; Booth is actually working for McLaughlin, and he makes sure the assassination merely wounds the Senator, putting him ahead in the polls while the cops are now after a large and threatening looking Mexican. Machete has to unravel the conspiracy to clear his name, and is interested in taking revenge, especially when he learns that the conspirators are connected to Torrez. He teams up with an ICE agent named Sartana (Jessica Alba), as well as Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), a taco seller who is also mostly in charge of an elaborate and benevolent immigrant-smuggling group known as the Network.

The immigration debate in this country is so polarizing that it’s genuinely surprising to see a film come out that takes as hard-nosed a position as this. Sure, Hollywood leans left, and there are a lot of TV shows and films where illegal immigrants are portrayed as mostly decent folks wanting a better life (and it’s not like I have evidence to the contrary), but MACHETE goes a step further and says that immigration law as it exists just doesn’t work, and is merely something to be manipulated by anti immigrant forces, businesses wanting cheap labor, and drug lords wanting easy traffic. The constant cries of “But it’s against the law!” mean little to the heroes of this film, since the villains already ignore the law in their own way.

In a way, the blunt pro-immigrant politics fit the picture’s grindhouse origins. Low budget films have long been able to take brazen political stands that bigger films avoid for the sake of appealing to as broad an audience as possible. From Ed Wood arguing against nuclear proliferation in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE to the entirety of the Blaxploitation genre throwing in messages about fighting the white Establishment between gunfights, cheap B-movies were and hopefully remain platforms for subversive political views.

Not that any of this is in any way subtle. After all, another feature of grindhouse movie politics is that they’re often driven in with a sledgehammer, on the grounds that people are there for blood and sex and are not going to complain about lack of nuance. Honestly, it works; I’m a fan of ambiguity but I can admire a bold stance on something if it’s presented right.

As for the blood and sex, there’s plenty, and it’s reasonably well-presented. The action is solid, with some amusingly over-the-top gore effects; the film’s tongue-in-cheek attitude is clear throughout (by comparison, I thought PIRANHA 3-D couldn’t quite make up its mind how campy it wanted to be.) You have villainous thugs debating the ethics of what they’re hired to do, fights with garden implements, and some uncomfortable cell phone placement. The action in the film’s final act gets too messy for its own good, but parts of it are still quite thrilling.

Dominating it all, of course, is Trejo, who at 66 is still never less than fearsome. What’s more, he’s also a genuinely good actor, and though Machete doesn’t speak much he can be quite charming when he wants to be. Jessica Alba manages well in her role, but can’t hold a candle to the still-enchanting Michelle Rodriguez. Cheech Marin has a brilliant turn as Machete’s brother, a priest; Lindsay Lohan plays Booth’s wild-living daughter, and at this point it’s just nice to see that she can successfully complete a movie shoot. I wish her well, the crazy kid.

Robert Rodriguez has become a reliable workhorse, and MACHETE is as strong as I’ve come to expect. It’s kind of ragged, and maybe lacks the sheer immersive power of the original GRINDHOUSE experience, but in the end it delivers on its promises with a certain style, enthusiasm, and maybe a hint of subversion. With this doing all right at the box office, HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN starring Rutger Hauer on the way, and THANKSGIVING in development, it seems we’re getting what Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were hoping to start three years ago, despite the inconvenient lack of ticket sales. At this point, though, I just want to see DON’T. Is that too much to ask?

Written by Robert Rodriguez and Alvaro Rodriguez
Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis

Grade: B+

Monday, September 13, 2010

Death to the Demoness Allegra Geller!

The power of Debbie Harry compels you to click here!
And by that I mean be sure to head over to Cinema Viewfinder to read my entry in the site's Cronenberg Blogathon, which technically ended yesterday but my post was kind of late in the queue and my net connection was fussy then. I'm reviewing his 1999 sci-fi thriller eXistenZ, which has nothing to do with male enhancement but does feature some unnecessary surgery. There are a lot of other great posts there too, covering most of the great man's career with a variety of approaches, so be sure to look around.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Happy Julia Sawalha Day!

It’s Julia Sawalha’s birthday! I’m sorry to say I kind of let this pass unnoticed in past years, but I decided she deserves the attention this time. After all, she’s 42 now, which means she’s officially the answer to the ultimate question about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

And it also means it’s as good a time as any to post this brilliant French & Saunders skit featuring her and Helen Mirren in what is both a nice reverse AbFab and a satire of twee British sitcoms.

Happy Birthday, Julia! You and Dame Helen need to collaborate more often.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Frasierquest 2.20: Breaking the Ice

Frasier, Martin, and Niles on the lake

Frasier: So you're suggesting that I go along, pretend I'm enjoying myself doing something that gives me absolutely no pleasure at all, just to hear the words "I love you"?

Daphne: Why not? Women have been doing it for centuries.

Looking back at the season so far, it’s been a while since we just threw some of the main characters in a room and let them have at each other. It’s something every sitcom just has to do now and again, and given FRASIER’s stage-y nature it’s well overdue. So, we have Frasier, Niles, and Martin setting out for some dysfunctional male bonding at an icy fishing lodge, and it’s pretty much an instant classic. It develops the relationship between Martin and sons to what’s actually a pretty significant degree, thawing it out if you will. Or not. That was a really bad pun, I’m sorry.

Every year, Martin and his friend Duke go up to a cabin on the lake to do some ice fishing. (This episode aired in the spring, but bear with me.) This year, however, Duke is sick and can’t make it, and Martin doesn’t want to go along. Niles volunteers to come along when he hears Daphne wax rhapsodic about rugged men coming home with kippers to pan-fry, and Frasier decides to accompany them as a way of getting closer to his father; he’s just realized that he’s never heard Martin say “I love you,” except to Eddie and sometimes Duke. Of course, things start to fall apart as soon as they get to the cabin; Niles has gone on a binge of sporting goods shopping and memorized every fact about the lake imaginable in an attempt to make conversation, it’s cold and boring, and Niles drops the car keys in the ice hole. It’s gonna be a long night.

Niles’ apparent enthusiasm for the trip adds an interesting dynamic. We’ve seen Frasier and Niles both grumble and snipe their way through an evening with Dad, but now Frasier is on his own in open misery. The balance of Martin’s enjoyment of a favorite pasttime, Niles’ chirpy enthusiasm, and Frasier’s sheer boredom offers a lot of potential, and as the night wears on and everyone moves a little from their initial perspective, a real camaraderie develops.

Frasier came on this trip to hear his father say that he loves him, and getting Martin to the point where he’s willing to do so is really the main thrust of the episode. It’s not that he doesn’t want to say it, but it’s hard for him, while with Eddie and Duke there are certain rules. (Sadly, syndication cuts one of the better passages, where he explains the difference between “I love you” and “I love ya”.) While actually going on a fishing trip was probably unnecessary to achieve this end, the bonding is worth it; Martin joins the boys in a drinking song from La Traviata, Frasier starts to loosen up, and even when Niles admits that he hates ice fishing as much as his brother, Martin just sort of accepts it, by this point honored that they’d go through the experience just to be with him.

I think we see a change from this point on. For once Frasier and Niles are willing to do a “dad” thing on dad’s terms, and not ruin it by being, well, them; the contrast between this and “Dinner at Eight” is noticeable. After this we see the relationship between Martin and sons as a give and take; they’re more willing to give a little. Granted, their relationship was already softening, and there will be arguments in the future, and I’m not sure that the writers planned any specific shift to take place at any given time. Nonetheless, I think this episode provides a marker point.

It’s also a great locked-room farce, with some of the season’s sharpest writing and most quotable dialogue. It’s hard to describe what makes FRASIER’s classic episodes stand out from the pack; the show has a lot of very good elements and sometimes they just come together. This run up to the end of the season contains some absolute masterpieces, so it may just be that they were saving their best for sweeps. But whatever it is, I’m really looking forward to the next few write-ups.

No Guest Caller

Written by Steven Levitan
Directed by Philip Charles MacKenzie

Aired April 18, 1995

Frasier: By morning we’ll be Stouffer’s frozen entrees for wolves!