Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Frasierquest 2.19: Someone to Watch Over Me

Daphne attempts to hide Roz's zit with her hair.
Niles: Well, as some illustrious person said, "popularity is the hallmark of mediocrity."

Frasier: You just made that up, didn't you?

Niles: Yes, but I stand by it.

It’s SeaBee time again! While the yearly awards show idea is a good story engine, the challenge is keeping it fresh. While the first SeaBee episode was about the actual politics of award-getting, “Someone to Watch Over Me” instead uses the SeaBees as a backdrop for a story about one of the perils of being famous. If celebrities and therapists both have to worry about people obsessing over them, you can imagine how bad it is for a radio shrink.

Kari (Renée Lippin) is Frasier’s #1 fan, and Frasier, being Frasier, admires the attention she lavishes on him. She calls him up on-air to congratulate him on his SeaBee nomination, and he doesn’t mind. She sends him a scarf as a gift (or rather sneaks it in his bag), and he doesn’t mind too much. Then she writes him a note saying she’s disappointed he didn’t wear the scarf and that the last man to disappoint her so died, and Frasier starts to think Kari is his #1 fan in the Kathy Bates sense. He doesn’t know who she is and has never seen her face, so he starts looking into bodyguards to make sure the award thing goes well. Roz can’t offer much help, partly because she is not an expert on personal security but also because she now has a zit on her nose that could guide Santa’s sleigh. (Daphne steps in to help there, which is how we get the image above.)

We know that things can’t get too dangerous, but there’s suspense of a sort. It’s not immediately obvious how the plot’s going to resolve, but it ends up being less about Frasier being stalked than how Frasier lets the idea of a stalker get to him. For once nobody discourages him from getting carried away; they all think Kari might be dangerous, and to be fair they’re not all wrong. A little caution is well-advised. But then they actually go to the awards and Frasier, bodyguard in tow, really goes to pieces.

In the meantime, the actual awards get neglected. It’s only in the credits sequence that we see Frasier and Roz actually win. I like that the show doesn’t fall into the trap of making the protagonists constant underdogs, which can start to feel contrived over the course of a long-running TV show. By keeping the win on the margins, the show dodges this cliché in as quick and painless a way as possible, establishing the Frasier and Roz are respected in their field without wasting too much time establishing it. (Following a misunderstanding with the head of the nomination committee, Roz remarks that they’re probably not going to be nominated again, but nothing seems to come of that.)

Since there’s only this one storyline (two is you count Roz’s nose trouble), and it’s kind of low-key, the whole episode feels a little slight. It’s not the most memorable, but it handles the story well; it’s to the writer’s credit that he don’t go as over the top as he could with the premise, handling it in an almost realistic way. A local celebrity has an over-enthusiastic fan, he gets spooked, he makes a fool of himself. FRASIER isn’t always low-key, and I’m not even sure the entire episode can be described as such, but it is when it needs to be, something sitcoms don’t always manage. “Someone to Watch Over Me” has some nice gags wrapped in an engaging story, and while it doesn’t reach great heights of hilarity, it’s definitely solid.

Guest Caller: John Lithgow as “Madman” Martinez

Written by Don Seigel
Directed by James Burrows
Aired March 28, 1995

Frasier: [about Roz's facial blemish] Have you considered wearing a beekeeper's mask?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Frasierquest 2.18: The Club

Niles, Frasier, and Daphne schmoozing.
Frasier: I might as well say this while I can: "If you need me, I'll be at my club."

Frasier and Niles long for privilege. It’s not enough to be rich, respected, and in Frasier’s case famous; they want to drink century-old port, sit in the finest leather chairs, and join the elite that most people only hear about in poorly written political speeches. It’s one part appreciation for the finer things, and one part wanting to be validated. “The Club” shows the two at their best and worst, all over membership in one of those upscale clubs that’s basically a room full of rich old white guys sitting around not doing anything in specific. I’m sure these places still exist, and while their allure eludes me, it’s the sort of thing the Crane boys long for, and when they both long for something, odds are neither of them will get it.

After a long period of networking, aided by Maris, Niles has finally spotted an opening in Seattle’s prestigious Empire Club. Two members have stepped down (one after a stroke, another after an S&L indictment), so Niles invites Frasier along in hopes that the two can buff each other’s Diplomacy checks. Maris comes along (offscreen of course), and Daphne is Frasier’s last-minute date, much to her amusement and Niles’ consternation. Unfortunately, they discover that the departing businessman was acquitted of all charges and is now back in the club, leaving only one slot. The amount of time it takes from this announcement for the Crane brothers to start undercutting each other is not measurable by most watches.

One of the interesting things about Frasier and Niles’ minglings with the upper crust is how almost universally appalling that upper crust is. This episode is a typical example; none of the other club members we see are terribly charming or passionate, they’re just boring old men who set arbitrary standards for whom they mingle with. (One challenge to Frasier’s candidacy is that he is a figure in the entertainment industry, as though this is somehow disreputable.) It’s not so much that Frasier and Niles like these people- Frasier’s initial date is with a woman he considers dull as corn starch- as that they want to be accepted by them, to be seen as worthy. Frasier’s in love with the idea of having a club; they don’t have to do anything, so long as he can tell people he’s there.

Sibling rivalry episodes are, of course, one of the show’s mainstays. Give the two characters a single goal and they’ll go at each other’s throats (even in some cases when it’s not a zero-sum game.) It’s become a ritual to the point where they now keep track of whose turn it is to apologize first after the inevitable blowups. The great irony this time is that, for once, it’s the Cranes’ attempts at virtue that do them in. Frasier attempts to give up the position he thought he won, only to find it was meant for his brother, who storms in and makes a scene just at the wrong moment. Their hearts are in the right place but timing continues to elude them.

This is a one-plot episode, but there’s some funny side material at least. Daphne’s amusement at being Frasier’s “date” is another confirmation of how they’ve put each other clearly into non-romantic boxes. We also get a radio show caller gag after a long drought (well, four episodes), and some business with Eddie learning tricks, which he instantly puts to use getting his paws on Frasier’s imported prosciutto.

Frasier and Niles will have many more opportunities to get in with Seattle’s elite, and we will continue to be mystified at how important it is for them to get in the good graces of what appear to be the most boring people on the planet. It’s an interesting contrast; the Crane brothers are snobs, but they’re funny snobs, interesting snobs. Perhaps the grand irony is, what makes them interesting is their desire to be accepted by people who are so clearly not.

Guest Caller: Gary Sinise as Sid

Written by Elias Davis & David Pollock
Directed by David Lee

Aired March 21, 1995

Frasier: Oh, Daphne, listen, call me Frasier. I don't want people to know that you work for me, all right? If they ask, we've been dating for six months.

Daphne: Alright, Frasier. [she laughs] Anything else, Frasier? Now, are we in love, or is this just a physical thing, Frasier? [she grins]

Quotes from the transcript by Brandon Westerheim at TwizTV.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

In Theaters: Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim poster and IMPAwards link
Into a cinema landscape of drab monochrome visuals and forced attempts at gritty realism comes SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD. It’s not the best film I’ve seen this year, but it’s the most refreshing; upbeat, lightweight, but substantial at the same time. Edgar Wright has impressed before, and in adapting Brian Lee O’Malley’s cult favorite Canadian magna romantic comedy, he brings the strengths of the comic and film media together, along with a few touches from the video game world.

Michael Cera is the title character, a 23-year-old slacker in Toronto who is ostensibly part of the garage band Sex Bob-omb (who kind of suck but are getting better.) He sort of accidentally started dating 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), and it’s a bad decision but fortunately never gets far beyond hand-holding. Anyway, Scott’s attention soon drifts to the mysterious Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a neon-haired American delivery girl who eventually agrees to go out on something like a date with him. Many problems result from this, for starters his attempt to juggle both Knives and Ramona, but the big one is that Ramona’s seven exes have banded together and Scott must battle and defeat them all if he wants to keep dating her. She’s not keen on it, he isn’t either, but apparently those are the rules.

You may have worked out that this is not the most realistic of coming-of-age stories. Though it takes a while for the self-proclaimed League of Evil Exes to start challenging Scott, the story’s connection to video games, manga, and other geek culture is evident from the opening (which features a modified Universal logo that I prefer to the current one.) There are visualized sound effects, patches of narration, caption boxes to point out the odd background detail, and music from the Legend of Zelda series often pops up at appropriate times, to name a few touches. (Though the last is sort-of explained by one character having a Nintendo DS open whenever the music is heard.) The battles themselves are pure video game boss fights, with elements that recall various genres of games and in pop culture- one is sort of like a Bollywood dance number, another is a battle of the bands, another still recalls Tony Hawk, and so on. The action is dazzling but also clearly comprehensible and well-edited, an outright rarity in this day and age, and with an exception or two, each of the evil exes is allowed time to develop a strong personality. (Chris Evans is an action star with a team of stuntmen, and Brandon Routh gives a great comic turn as a righteous vegan who gains super powers from his vegan training.) Nobody ever questions the logic of this game reality, or even what happens to the defeated Exes after they turn into piles of coins. (If it’s death, it’s not made a big deal of.)

But the whole thing is more than just a collection of visual gags and pop culture references; though Scott is fighting for a girl, he’s also fighting his own inadequacies and faults. And of course, the Exes are a manifestation of the baggage everyone brings to a relationship; Ramona is no perfect dream girl, and the fact that she’s been the one to end every relationship she’s ever been in starts to weigh heavily on the two. The story here is compressed from the six-volume series, both in length and the amount of time it seems to span, but even though Scott and Ramona’s relationship moves at a brisk pace the emotional reality of it is intact. Both characters have some maturing to do, though maybe Scott carries more of that particular burden. In any case, the reality of the characters helps ground the insanity around them.

Michael Cera has been criticized as a one-note actor, but while he doesn’t quite break the mold of his past performances, he does stretch it a bit. As Scott, he’s a bit more energetic, a bit more upbeat than he normally is, and though it’s a subtle change (the Scott of the comics struck me as more manic) it’s enough to make the character work. Winstead is alluring as ever, and the entire cast never misses a beat. The two standout performances, by far, are Ellen Wong and Kieran Culkin. Wong actually manages to add a bit more depth to Knives Chau than was there in the comics, and as Wallace, Scott’s gay roommate who owns everything in the apartment, Culkin is an utterly magnificent smug drunken bastard who steals almost every scene he’s in. I also liked the contributions from Anna Kendrick and PARKS AND RECREATION’s Aubrey Plaza, to name a couple.

SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD is having trouble finding an audience, so you should catch it while you can; the energy and visual spectacle plays best on a big screen. It’s a bit of a shame, since as I said, there’s a lot here I’d like the movie industry to learn, about embracing color and shooting fight scenes coherently and putting details into things. Fortunately the story is complete in one film (it shares the last book’s rather overstuffed finale, even minus a subplot or two), and I’m sure Wright has more surprises in store in the future. A film like this makes me resent all the films this year that haven’t been as good as they could have been, that were content to deliver what was expected or stay within strict boundaries. This isn’t a perfect film, but it’s one that, while it looks back on our pop heritage, points the way to the future.

Based on the Scott Pilgrim books by Brian Lee O’Malley
Screenplay by Michael Bacall & Edgar Wright
Directed by Edgar Wright

Grade: A-

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Frasierquest 2.17: Daphne's Room

Frasier finds a photo of Daphne and Prince Charles
Niles: It wasn't as bad as all that. It's not like you saw her naked or something.

(No answer from Frasier)

Niles: YOU DID! (beat) Frasier I want to help you with this, so you have to tell me everything, every sight, every sound, unburden yourself before you explode!

Frasier: No!

Niles: (getting out a pencil and paper) All right, I'll show you how I've always imagined her and you tell me where I'm wrong.

It’s not really clear on what this one episode is actually called; the DVD says “Daphne’s Room”, the script book says “A Room With A View”, and I used IMDB as the tie breaker because I am lazy. It’s been a while since we had an episode centering around our dear Daphne, and it’s almost as revealing a look for us as it is for Frasier. (Sadly, there is that “almost”.) His stumble into her room is both his and our first time inside, and we learn a good bit about her. This is one of the season’s classics, and it’s a very basic episode, with no guest stars and a simple plot- a nice return to the fundamentals after last week’s CHEERS crossover.

One day, looking for a book, Frasier strays into Daphne’s room, and though he finds what he’s looking for, he’s distracted by the slightly eccentric decoration and other details. Daphne catches him snooping about, and is a little upset with him; she grew up in a house full of boys, and has come to value her privacy very highly. Things are okay until Frasier realizes he pocketed a bottle of her thyroid medicine during his adventure, and attempts to sneak in again to replace it, only to end up seeing a lot more of her than he ever intended. Frasier wonders what he can do to keep Daphne from quitting after this incident, and everyone around him suggests flat-out bribery (Niles using the example of his smoothing over relations with Maris by buying her a Mercedes.)

Thanks to a rerun of COMMUNITY, I’ve been reminded that “character A sees character B” naked is actually a fairly common sitcom trope. It’s happened on WHO’S THE BOSS, it’s happened on MURPHY BROWN, and on the American OFFICE. One important thing about making this storyline work is that character A really doesn’t want to see character B naked, otherwise it’d just be pervy. Frasier has long since compartmentalized Daphne as “family”, and he instantly regrets overstepping his boundaries.

So why does he get into this mess to start with? Well, because there’s a snoop in all of us. Frasier has an odd woman living under his roof, and though he doesn’t particularly want to know what she looks like without her clothes on, he’s curious enough about her life to want to linger in her room, peruse her knicknacks, and see what kind of medication she’s taking. The second time is a simple error on his part, but through sheer panic he fails to take advantage of opportunities to sneak out (and his bolting into the bathroom is just plain stupid.)

The entire experience does reveal something very important about Daphne; as great a den mother as she is, she has her demands, and first and foremost among them is privacy. This actually stays pretty consistent through the series- we rarely see Daphne’s room afterwards, Frasier and Martin (and even Niles) keeping a respectful distance. She may tell all sorts of embarassing stories about her past, but she does so on her time; she wants a corner of her own, and if we go back to “Space Quest”, that’s something Frasier can certainly empathize with. And it also goes back to Daphne being raised with eight brothers, all of whom also tried to get a look at her in the shower when they reached a certain age. (Well, all of them except Billy, the ballroom dancer.)

The second major thread of this episode is just how to apologize to a woman when you have trespassed this grossly. The answer “with cash” stabs at Frasier’s ethical sense, but it’s something everyone else is used to, and in truth it’s probably as fair an approach as any. But Frasier, bless his heart, tries to spin it in a more positive way; he offers to pay to have Daphne’s room redecorated to get it precisely the way she likes it, so that it can really be hers again. It’s a sweet gesture and the fact that he later has to throw in a new car undermines it only slightly.

Leeves and Grammer do an excellent job playing off each other, something they didn’t get to do too much after the first few episodes. Both actors have to run the gamut from broad physical comedy to heart-to-heart character interaction, but it never feels forced. It’s no surprise by this point that both of them are very good at what they do, but what’s interesting is that I only notice this in retrospect; on screen, it’s just Frasier and Daphne having their troubles.

It’s hard for a show to keep finding new wrinkles in the interactions between its main characters; that’s why we have guest stars and the occasional change in the status quo. But the question of what it’s like for Daphne to live in Frasier’s apartment hadn’t really been dealt with before, and handling it makes for grand farce and a nice insight into both characters. I always like it when Daphne gets the spotlight.

No Guest Caller

Written by Linda Morris & Vic Rauseo
Directed by David Lee
Aired February 28, 1995

Frasier: Maris was upset with Niles so he bought her a Mercedes.

Roz: Woof!

Frasier: And if you're suggesting that I buy my way out of my problem, the answer is no! It's the coward's way out!

Niles: Oh, so I'm a coward?

Frasier: Yes!

Niles: Well, I'm a coward with a hickey!

Roz: (To Niles) Buy me a Mercedes and I'll make your neck look like a relief map of the Andes.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Random Movie Report #78: Dragonslayer

DVD cover and Amazon link
The early Eighties were a vibrant period for sci-fi and fantasy movies. After decades (arguably the life of the film industry) of being relegated to the B-slot, they were now major summer and winter tentpoles, and despite a few down periods that’s been the case for a long time since. What’s interesting is that the craze was so hot that, for a brief and foolish period, studios were not only backing genre films, but wholly original genre films. No well-known source material, or even big stars were necessary; everyone was on the hunt for the next STAR WARS, and after Disney’s BLACK HOLE failed to fit the bill, they went the medieval route, teaming up with Paramount for DRAGONSLAYER.

That it didn’t work at the box-office is a shame, but almost thirty years on and that doesn’t matter so much. We’re left with a really surprisingly good little movie; it has a cult following but has never really gotten its due as one of the few really good pure fantasy pictures to come out of this period. Not only does it deliver some of the spectacle that hundreds of cheap barbarian epics and van murals could only hint at, but it’s downright subversive and way more intelligent than it needed to be.

It’s sometime in the dark ages in England; hints of civilization are starting to creep in, Christianity is starting to spread, and the older beliefs are starting to fade. But there are still dragons in the Earth, and one of them, technically known as Vermithrax Pejorative, has been holding a town in its grasp for centuries, demanding virgin sacrifices on a regular basis. Some of the townsfolk head out to the lair of the wizard Ulrich (Sir Ralph Richardson), but he dies letting them test his powers, and leaves the job to his apprentice Galen (Peter MacNicol). Heading to the dragon’s lair, he seems to seal in the monster with a giant rockslide, but that’s not enough to kill the beast, and now it needs to be appeased again with another sacrifice. Princess Elspeth (Chloe Salaman), who has been spared from the unlucky lottery in the past because, well, she’s the king’s daughter, rigs it so that her name is chosen, while Galen and village girl Valerian (Caitlin Clark) seek to find a way to put the dragon down for good.

The main draw for this movie at the time was its monster; bringing a flying, firebreathing leviathan to life in live action was no easy feat in 1981, and Industrial Light & Magic had to resort to every technique available, from stop-motion animation, to puppetry, to the occasional full-size prop. Vermithrax Pejorative is unveiled slowly, with glimpses of claws and tail in early scenes, but at about the 2/3rds mark the film delivers exactly what it promised. The effects hold up really well; the monster looks great, and has an interesting personality conveyed in birdlike body movements and a tendency to light everything in the immediate vicinity on fire. Only the blue screen work is distracting, and that’s unavoidable.

At the same time the film gets to work early subverting the conventions associated with fairy tales like this. The town being saved is something of a dump, ruled over by a corrupt king who made a pact with the dragon years ago, hence the virgin sacrifices. The princess is never really a serious love interest for Galen, despite Valerian briefly thinking so. Subverting fairy tale clichés is almost hackneyed by now, but it’s not overdone and we’re still able to enjoy the battle of good against evil while smirking at the hypocrites in the supporting cast. The whole business with the church is a bit allegorical, especially given the cynical twist near the end, but this isn’t explored too much as the priests are basically impotent against dragons and that old black magic. (You do get to see a pre-RETURN OF THE JEDI Ian McDiarmid get roasted, though.)

Though slow at points, the film eventually kicks into high gear and delivers some really thrilling scenes of swords and sorcery. MacNicol is an interesting choice for the young hero; he has the look and the attitude, but he’s not a conventional lead actor by any measure, nor is the crossdressing Clark a conventional female love interest. Their presence ups the quirky attitude that the movie has, as does Richardson’s subtly comic turn.

All the various twists in the film (many of which I feel like I shouldn’t reveal) and the general defiance of convention may have contributed to DRAGONSLAYER getting lost in the shuffle during a busy summer for fantastic adventure (though I have seen some notes in old issues of Film Comment suggesting the marketing campaign was misguided as well.) But I have to admire that something this offbeat was made as a big summer movie, and that it in fact works as a grand fantasy adventure alongside the more transgressive elements. DRAGONSLAYER is an example of using the power of effects-driven cinema for good, and modern filmmakers would do well to learn from it.

Written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins
Directed by Matthew Robbins

Grade: B+

Friday, August 06, 2010

Frasierquest 2.16: The Show Where Sam Shows Up

Sam and his fiancee
Frasier: So, you're not in Seattle because of the Mariners?

Sam: Believe me, no ballplayer is in Seattle because of the Mariners.

One of the things I learned when David Lee was posting on the alt.tv.frasier group on Usenet was that the “Cheers alumni” episodes were something of a network obligation. It wasn’t that the staff didn’t like working with people like Ted Danson, but they’d wanted the show to stand on its own. The Lilith episodes are sort of a special case, often being the show’s best, but most of the rest of the time it was a struggle.

“The Show Where Sam Shows Up”, apart from pilfering its title structure from FRIENDS, does feel like an odd change of pace. Sam Malone, a great character in his own right, doesn’t entirely fit with Frasier’s home ensemble, and so the plot comes to revolve around Frasier and the guest stars. Along the way they do get to settle some continuity questions (sort of), and it’s a good episode, but how much you enjoy it is slightly dependent on how much of a CHEERS fan you are.

Fortunately I’ve seen every episode of that too.

Sam surprises Frasier by popping up at KACL during the show. After filling Frasier in on life in Boston, and meeting Frasier’s family, he reveals that he’s come here to ask for help regarding his impending marriage. And by impending, I mean “was scheduled for the day before.” Frasier helps Sam overcome his cold feet, and his fiancee (Téa Leoni) comes to town so they can sort things out. Unfortunately, Frasier recognizes her as a woman he slept with back when she and Sam were supposed to have been engaged. It turns out they’re both sexual compulsives who met in group, and Frasier now has the awkward task of trying to keep the couple together and preventing his tryst from becoming known.

During CHEERS’ run, we understandably didn’t learn much about Frasier’s background, but we were told that Frasier’s father was a scientist, and more importantly, dead. (His mother appeared for one episode as a clingy neurotic who threatened to kill Diane, though in fairness she wasn’t the only one.) In one scene the writers do their best to paper over the discrepancy, attributing Frasier’s misstatements about his father to a fight the two had gotten into over the phone. It’s a nice goofy kludge that acknowledges that it is neither possible nor really worth the time to perfectly line up the continuity of these two shows. So let’s just move on.

As I said there’s really not much room for any of the supporting cast in this episode. Sam flirts with Daphne, offers Niles a tip on how to spice things up with Maris, and Roz tries to bag him, but none of this can be any more than side business. Which is fine, and there have been plenty of episodes before that have just been about Frasier and some other person, but somehow this story feels a little more like it’s been forced into the show’s model.

I’m not sure this is necessarily a bad thing. The show was well established enough by this point that a tangent like this didn’t threaten its identity; clearly FRASIER could get by without constantly trying to remind the audience of CHEERS, so doing so once in a while was merely an indulgence. In this case the episode’s major punchline does depend a bit on knowledge of the first show’s characters; Paul is described briefly when his name comes up, and Cliff is name-checked earlier, but the jokes involving them are much funnier if you’ve actually seen them.

Téa Leoni is a nice presence in this episode; this was shortly before she was given her own show, THE NAKED TRUTH, and briefly hyped as the next Lucille Ball (this was something networks used to do whenever they had an attractive funny woman.) She is indeed funny and attractive, and her character seems like she’d be a good match for Sam, but then, ending Malone’s bachelorhood is too big an undertaking to be handled in one episode of a spin-off.

The episode isn’t as incongrous as some later CHEERS crossovers, at least in retrospect. Frasier’s still trying to help people and getting in trouble in the process, the difference this time being that we know the history between him and the guest star. If Sam Malone’s journey to Seattle doesn’t entirely stand on its own, well, we do have to allow ourselves some fan indulgences once in a while.

No Guest Caller

Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
Directed by James Burrows
Aired February 21, 1995

Martin: Hey, Sam, what'd he tell you about me, the father, the old cop?

Sam: Well, uh, he told me you were dead.

Martin: Dead?

Frasier: Well, we had an argument one day. He called me a stuffed shirt and hung up on me. I was mad.

Sam: [to Martin] You were a cop? [to Frasier] You told me he was a research scientist.

Frasier: [to Martin] You were dead! What did it matter?

(Quote the first taken from the transcript by Andrea Day at TwizTV.org)