Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Bookshelf: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Forever War cover and Amazon link

I try to keep abreast of all the classics of science fiction literature, but it gets difficult sometimes. Joe Haldeman's The Forever War came out when the genre was going through a lot of changes in response to the times and to new literary trends, and it's certainly a product of that era. But it also manages a timeless feel, defying the traditional jingoistic slant of military sci-fi with a story that shows the real horrors of war, horrors psychological as well as visceral. Though a grim and intense read, it's also a very heartfelt human story.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Frasierquest 4.17: Roz's Turn

Frasier, Daphne, and Niles help Roz make a demo tape.

Frasier: Well, it was just an offhand remark, how did I know how she'd react?

Roz: She's Bebe! If you had said you liked my eyes, they would have been on your desk tomorrow in a Tiffany box!

So I haven't timed this season's coverage right to get any appropriate holiday episodes ready for this time of year. That's too bad, but "Roz's Turn" is a great episode anyway so it doesn't matter. I always seem to like it when Roz gets some emphasis, if only because at this point in the series it's such a break from the routine, and this episode goes one better by throwing in Bebe Glaser. The result is an episode that never gets dull, and is a great lesson in building humor.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Frasierquest 4.16: The Unnatural

Frasier at the Bat

Roz: All right, there's a guy on second, one guy's out, I drive one to the gap. The throw to the cut-off man is late, our guy's safe at home, and I try to stretch it to a double. I make a beautiful hookslide right under the tag. How can I be out?

Frasier: I'm still trying to understand why you drove to the Gap in the middle of a game.

I think we all pretty much knew Frasier couldn't play softball by now, or really any sport, but it's nice to have confirmation. "The Unnatural" throws a few different balls in the air, but the central premise is that Frasier doesn't have a chance of hitting any of them. It's also an episode that focuses on the ever-developing relationship between father and son, as Frasier sees an unfortunate milestone coming up for him and Frederick. It's the biggest role the younger Crane has had on the show, and we start to see some real development of his character. I can't tell if this is an especially funny script or if I've been suffering from deprivation neglecting this feature for so long, but it's definitely an eventful episode which does a lot with a basic premise.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Random Who Report: The Five Doctors (1983)

Five Doctors DVD cover and Amazon link

There's a first time for everything. "The Five Doctors" was the very first Doctor Who story I ever saw, when all I knew about the show was a few passages in sci-fi books, the Peter Cushing film Dr. Who and the Daleks, and faint memories of seeing something really creepy on PBS. "The Five Doctors" was a twentieth-anniversary special that ran as a full 90-minute feature (as opposed to being serialized), and while it's not the best story of its era, it's a good introduction, a pastiche of several familiar faces and story elements into a fun if scattershot story. Oh, and it's not quite five Doctors, but we'll get to that.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Bookshelf: The Flying Eyes by J. Hunter Holly

The Flying Eyes cover and Amazon link

I am a simple kind of man. If I see a book on the shelf with the title "The Flying Eyes", you know damn well I am going to purchase that book. I may not know if it's good or bad, or the author, or when it was written, but I just have to dive in. This is an obscure volume- the version I purchased doesn't even have a copyright date or much information of any kind, but it was apparently originally published in 1962 or 1963 (depending on which source you believe), and J. Hunter Holly is the pen name of Joan Carol Holly. It's a terse, effective, albeit supremely goofy novella, and its retro B-movie premise is accompanied by an appropriately cinematic tone. It works surprisingly well.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

In Theaters: Hugo

Hugo poster and IMPAwards link

Hugo is the kind of movie I wish I saw more often. While Martin Scorsese doing a children's fantasy film in 3-D may not seem like the most obvious match, this kind of tribute to the history and power of the movies could only have been done justice by someone like him. An adaptation of Brian Selznick's acclaimed book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" (which I have not yet read even though it is literally sitting next to me as I type this), Hugo is both a dazzling spectacle and a warm, intimate story about dreams and lives lost and reclaimed. It's one of my favorite films of the year.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Frasierquest 4.15: Roz's Krantz & Gouldenstein are Dead

James Earl Jones as Norman

Norman: Are you here visiting somebody?

Frasier: Oh no. I'm just here with a friend of mine, Roz. She's here doing some community service.

Norman: Ah, the Angel of Death, nice girl.

Most Frasier episodes try to build themselves around one main plot or specific theme, with subplots and such around the edges. "Roz's Krantz & Gouldenstein Are Dead" is more of a melange, with two main stories build on slightly different themes which nonetheless end up intersecting. It's a very pleasant episode, built around scenes of genuine insight mingled with its humor, and not demanding too much of the viewer in terms of following a story.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

In Theaters: The Muppets

Poster and IMPAwards link

It never really felt like the Muppets went away. Sure, they hadn't made a movie in over a decade, and the less said about the Wizard of Oz special the better, but they never really sank below the horizon. Nonetheless, we all wanted to see more of them, and The Muppets is a return to glory, as a new generation of behind-the-camera talent steers Jim Henson's creations away from after-school platitudes and back to grand irreverence. The new film hits just the right blend of silliness, self-awareness, and pure idealism, and is simply the funniest the old gang have been in some time.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Academy of the Underrated: Dune (1984)

Dune cover and Amazon link

Over four years ago, when I reached my one hundredth post, I introduced the Academy of the Underrated, dedicated to defending the disliked, the disregarded, and the despised. Since then, one entry has been inevitable, but I've been waiting for the right time. Four hundred posts later, the proper moment has arrived.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Academy of the Underrated: Explorers

The success of Super 8 this past summer had me thinking of how "Spielbergian" used to be a category of movies all its own. Throughout the Eighties, filmmakers and studios made many, many attempts to capture audiences with stories about the magic of childhood and stories of ordinary people encountering the otherworldly. Explorers was Paramount's big-budget attempt to follow in E.T.'s footsteps, but with Joe Dante at the helm and a particularly offbeat script by Eric Luke, the film is both quirkier and more personal than a typical summer offering then or now. Though it's not really consistent, it has an innocence and whimsy that makes it more effective than most attempts at sci-fi-tinged nostalgia.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Random Movie Report #96: Journey to the Seventh Planet

There's an entire subgenre of science fiction movies, in which a group of astronauts lands on a planet controlled by some powerful psychic intelligence, which throws hallucinations, disasters, and monsters at them until they defeat it or all die in the process. It runs from such early efforts as Angry Red Planet and The Wizard of Mars all the way to the Roger Corman sleazefest Galaxy of Terror, and possibly Event Horizon. (Whether Stanislav Lem's Solaris counts is arguable.) Journey to the Seventh Planet, a Danish/American production from 1961, is in some ways a standard telling of this timeless and universally relevant story, but some odd decisions and budget woes end up with a much weirder- and frankly more entertaining- picture than probably would have resulted from a slick approach.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Frasierquest 4.14: To Kill a Talking Bird

Niles and his new friend

Niles: I don't think my reputation can suffer more than it already has.

Frasier: I wouldn't be so sure about that. Wearing a white bird after Labor Day...

Niles is in a transitional phase in his life. He's not quite divorced, not quite reconciled, and while he's been living on his own we really haven't seen him doing so. "To Kill A Talking Bird" gives us some stability, in the form of the Montana, a high-end apartment building where Dr. Crane will make his home for several years. It's a lovely place, old and stylish and full of stuffy people, the Gallifrey of sitcom settings, but entry to a place for which Niles is suited so perfectly comes at a price. Just what that price is, is explored in a welcome return to farce, featuring one of the first of many disastrous Crane dinner parties.

Friday, November 11, 2011

In Theaters: In Time

In Time poster and IMPAwards link

Andrew Niccol is probably one of the most undervalued filmmakers around today. While Gattaca and The Truman Show both caught attention, not much of what he's done in this millennium has met with acclaim. But he's always working with interesting ideas and applying a distinct low-key touch to his films. In Time is an unexpectedly relevant film, a picture about the growing divide between haves and have-nots released just as a lot of the have-nots have finally become vocal, and it couches this in a metaphor that's both obvious and powerful. It's high concept, but makes sure to ground the concept in genre convention, this time a thriller. The blend of concept and genre is rough around the edges, but it works more often than not.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Frasierquest 4.13: Four for the Seesaw

Laura and Beth, the ones who will inevitably get away

Frasier: Maybe we should ask them out.

Niles: On a date? We just met!

Frasier: Good point, Niles. Perhaps we should go out with them a few more times before we ask them on a date.

On the surface, "Four for the Seesaw" is basically a misadventure; the Crane boys get into a good situation and ultimately screw it up. It's an odd kind of story which doesn't rely on building comic momentum, but while it seems inconsequential at first, there's some interesting character stuff going on. And hey, any episode with Megan Mullally is worth remembering.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Monsterthon: Island of Lost Souls

Criterion Island of Lost Souls cover and Amazon Link

Happy Halloween! To cap this Monsterthon off on an appropriately scary note, we're going old school.

Genre fandom is sort of an incubator for critical appreciation. Metropolis was hailed as a masterpiece by sci-fi fans (including fan guru Forrest J. Ackerman) long before mainstream criticism did so. Island of Lost Souls seems to have taken a similar course; growing up, reading books on horror and sci-fi films, I was led to believe it was a well-regarded classic of the genre, but as late as the seventies, when psychotic killers and demonic possessions were the order of the day, it was considered something vulgar and trashy, and a minor film in comparison to other classics of the era. It's taken decades in the public domain and finally, a Criterion release to move from a cult item to a proper place in the horror canon.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Monsterthon: Godzilla vs. Hedorah

Godzilla vs. Hedorah DVD cover and Amazon link

Let's jump ahead to something more horrific. Godzilla vs. Hedorah, once released in the US as Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, came at a dark time for the Godzilla franchise, with the passing of Eiji Tsubaraya and the general collapse of the Japanese film industry, which had an especially harsh impact on the budgets of kaiju and other effects-driven movies. Intended to kick off a new generation of Godzilla movies, with a new director and new, more kid-friendly attitude, Godzilla vs. Hedorah ended up being a strange, surrealistic experience. It is, frankly, insane, defying any expectation of what a Godzilla movie should be and playing by a set of rules it just made up. There's never been a Godzilla film like it before or since, and the results are goofy, atmospheric, and kinda creepy.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Monsterthon: Mothra Vs. Godzilla

DVD cover and Amazon link

Godzilla's bout with King Kong was a major box office draw, really giving birth to the Godzilla series proper by showing he was no passing fad. But for his next fight he needed another lofty opponent, and so Toho called up its second-biggest draw to give us Mothra vs. Godzilla. This particular entry is a fan favorite, showing Godzilla at his meanest and most relentless, Mothra at her bravest and most selfless, and still treating the whole affair with some degree of seriousness. Though it's not my favorite of the period, Mothra vs. Godzilla does what it sets out to do and makes us believe without reservation in an epic life-or-death struggle between a radioactive dinosaur and a giant bug.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Frasierquest 4.12: Death and the Dog

Dr. Arnold Shaw: What do you imagine would be human Eddie's favorite cologne?

Martin: Aqua Velva. It's a little strong but I think he can pull it off.

Daphne: Grey Flannel. I don't know why!

Frasier: Cologne? Well, actually I think he would prefer toilet water!

Niles: By the way, same answer for favorite beverage!

Wisdom comes from strange places. Sitcom episodes are rarely known for it, but Frasier's just a little more thoughtful than the average, and while I'm not sure anything it's ever said would qualify as philosophically profound, "Death and the Dog" casts a familiar problem in an interesting light. Sometimes we just feel bad for no reason, and sometimes we look for reasons to feel bad. The fragile nature of our emotional states is the subject for an episode that's hilarious, poignant, and yeah, kind of insightful.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Monsterthon: Gamera vs. Guiron

DVD cover and Amazon link

Gamera vs. Guiron is a movie I've seen many times via Mystery Science Theater 3000, so I was looking forward to seeing the full and proper version of it. Surprisingly it's not that different an experience, even in Japanese- the film doesn't seem like it was altered much for American release, and it's short enough that it didn't need to be cut down too much in order to be riffed on. Like the film before it, it's a slight, microbudgeted affair, but seems to wear it a little better. You really have to treat it as a kids' movie, and it appeals to a child's sense of wonder even if it is goofy as all get-out.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Comics Page: Dungeons & Dragons: Shadowplague

Shadowplague cover and Amazon link

I'm not going to be the first person singing the praises of the new Dungeons & Dragons comic, but it's worth adding to the chorus. John Rogers (of Blue Beetle and Leverage fame) and Andrea DiVito have managed to be the first people to  successfully translate the tabletop fantasy game into a fun action comic. Shadowplague is a nice hardbound collection of the first major arc, and if you, like me, have been having trouble following the monthly issues, it's a great way to catch up.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Monsterthon 2011: King Kong vs. Godzilla

Link to King Kong vs. Godzilla on

This October is gonna be another month of monsters, and I'm going to concentrate on our friends the kaiju. They're not often scary, though they are awesome, and I may throw in some traditional horror stuff as time permits.

King Kong vs. Godzilla is a tough film to review because, like the original Godzilla, it exists in two versions, but with a much larger gap in quality between them. What's more, the "proper" version of the movie, the original Japanese release, is going to be inaccessible to most readers of this blog; there is no legal English-language release of it, nor is there likely to be anytime soon owing to complicated legal issues. This is the 21st century, though, so… well, I'll let you do the searching.

In any case, this is a lot of fun. Godzilla returned after a 7-year hiatus to battle the original icon of giant movie monsters in a big splashy color Tohoscope production to commemorate the studio's thirtieth anniversary, and not only did the filmmakers deliver the spectacle, they packed in a sly, satiric attitude and some jabs at the world of advertising and publicity. While Godzilla's original rampage was deadly serious business, and the follow-up a straightforward sci-fi thriller, King Kong vs. Godzilla shows Ishiro Honda, Eiji Tsubaraya, and company loosening up and having a little fun with their larger-than-life superstars.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Frasierquest 4.11: Three Days of the Condo

The condo board 

Martin: Oh hi there, Mrs. Langer!

Langer: Ms.

Martin: Oh, right, Ms… (elevator doors close)… ssserable old cow.

A man's home is his castle, only it's never that simple. "Three Days of the Condo" is an interesting foray into the politics of condos, neighborhood associations, and other petty tyrannies. It's the sort of thing you'd expect Frasier to be really good at, but it wouldn't be much of a show if he did everything right. This is a broad misadventure of an episode, one that feels not terribly important to anyone involved, but, well, we're talking about a condo board.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Frasierquest 4.10: Liar! Liar!

Daphne straddles Niles

John Rajeski: How is Niles, anyway?

Frasier: Ah, he's, ah- he's abroad now.

John: Really? Woah, that musta hurt.

Are the SeaBees over already? Man, I didn't even get to make my predictions. This year the awards are disposed with off-screen as a starter for a less glamorous story about Frasier confronting an element of his past. "Liar! Liar!" is kind of odd. The episode focuses on something that Frasier did wrong years ago, and is unable to really fix, but he does his best. The structure is weird and we end in a way that's barely foreshadowed by the rest of the story, but it ends up being pretty funny so it's easy to let go. And Niles and Daphne's relationship takes an interesting turn.

After a defeat at the Seabees, Roz calls her grandma from Frasier's apartment to tell her she won. This prompts a debate among those present about whether it's ever acceptable to lie, and during the course of the conversation, Frasier and Niles reveal that they got out of their physical fitness exam at school by pulling a fire alarm and blaming it on the local bully, John Rajeski (Saul Stein). Martin is upset with them, since the bully ended up getting expelled, and Frasier decides to find out where John ended up and maybe come clean. He finds John in prison for passing a bad check, and John can, with some assistance, trace his life of crime back to being kicked out of Frasier's prep school. Rather than let John know what happened then, Frasier tries to help him indirectly, going to his wife (Carlene Watkins) to work on their marital problems. Her problems revolve around wanting a more exciting and dangerous sex life, and since her husband has been released and is on his way home, she's got plans for the doc.

The episode sets up its major premise explicitly; is lying ever acceptable? On the one hand, the lie that we follow through the story is clearly a bad one- it set a young man on a life of crime and all to get out of exercise. On the other hand, Frasier quickly decides that just telling John the truth won't solve anything (especially since John has a way of messing guys up.) When John's wife comes on to him, he ultimately has to hide in their apartment to get out with his limbs intact. Once again he has to weasel out of things rather than confront them head-on, so he's not entirely unsold on the "lying" bit.

Niles gets caught up in the lying business too, sort of. When he actually throws his back out, he happily accepts Daphne's offer of a lotion rubdown, only to discover it's the kind of lotion that goes on cold and turns into a raging inferno. So he tries to pretend it worked in order to avoid a second coat.  It's an unusual twist on their normal shenanigans, and it ties into the episode's theme a bit, though "lying" is a broad category and applies to a lot of sitcom plots.

So the actual story for this ends up going all over the place, but there's a certain elegance in how it wraps up. Frasier does his best to try and get the couple to reconcile, and they sort of do, or at least reach a state of stable dysfunction. So in lieu of taking a strong moral stance on the lying issue, "Liar! Liar!" concludes that lies cause trouble but we do our best to muddle through. That's probably accurate.

No Guest Caller

Written by Chuck Ranberg & Anne Flett-Giordano
Directed by James Burrows

Aired January 14, 1997

Daphne: Just yesterday you reconciled that couple on the brink of divorce, and today, you helped Molly from Tacoma overcome her addiction to Swedes…

Frasier: That was sweets, not Swedes.

Daphne: I thought it was strange when you told her to limit herself to one or two after meals.

Friday, September 23, 2011

In Theaters: Drive

Poster and IMPAwards link

Drive is a unique experience, and because of that it may not hang around theaters for long. It's basically a crime thriller done in the style of a film from the eighties, with neon-letter titles and a score reminiscent of Tangerine Dream. But in its spare beauty, deliberate pace, and moments of merciless brutality, it's not something you can easily peg as a genre piece or style emulation. This may be why it's having a polarizing effect on audiences, and why the people distributing it can't quite work out how to sell it. Most of the time we want a clear idea of what kind of movie we're going to see and what we're to expect from it, but if you can take Drive on its own terms and let it establish itself, it's a rich and compelling thing.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Why You Should Watch Community

The men and women of Greendale

Tonight at 8/7c is the third season premiere of NBC's highly underrated Community. The show has been a cult darling for most of its existence, though that hasn't translated into ratings or Emmys (seriously, nomination committee what is your problem.) This means I have the unenviable task of trying to get you to listen to why you should really give this a try, trust me, you'll love it, etc. Fan evangelizing is annoying, I know, and yes I'm going to get started on The Wire at some point, but the job of even an amateur blog critic is to call attention to these sorts of things, so hear me out.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Frasierquest 4.9: Dad Loves Sherry, The Boys Just Whine

Marsha Mason as Sherry

Niles: I didn't know Mae West had children!

And now things really get interesting for Martin Crane. He got a girlfriend last season, but not one we saw very much of. It's a shame that Jane Kaczmarek never got a lot to do on the series, but the arrival of Marsha Mason as Sherry Dempsey is something of a big deal. She looms large in this and next season as a force in the lives of the characters, becoming sort of a marker for this particular part of the show's history. In retrospect it's remarkable that the character worked at all, let alone was a welcome presence for as long as she was.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Tabletop: Space 1889: Red Sands

Space 1889 cover and Amazon link

I've long been in love with Space: 1889, the RPG that captured the spirit of Victorian science fiction long before anyone knew what "steampunk" was. The setting is one of my absolute favorites, thick with romance, mystery, wonder, and morally ambiguous colonialism. The system I'm not quite as devoted to (though I don't think it's bad), and while Heliograph Incorporated has been doing the Lord's work keeping the original game in print, Space: 1889: Red Sands, a setting book for Savage Worlds, has the promise of updating the classic world with a more modern, streamlined rules set. The two prove to be a good match, and while the book has a few shortcomings and doesn't quite capture all the things that made me love the original game, it's a good translation of the setting with some new elements that open up gameplay quite a lot.

The setting is based on the premise that Thomas Edison invented a form of space travel in 1870, with ether propellers taking ships to the planets of the inner solar system, which happened to be mostly inhabited. Earth's major colonial powers took advantage of the opportunity to expand their empires, setting up bases on the new worlds and making the Great Game of political intrigue even more complicated. While the original game limited PCs to human adventurers, and generally presumed they'd be loyal subjects of the British Empire (with options for anarchists and criminals), Red Sands gives us the opportunity to play noble or savage Martians and Venusian lizard men (no Selenites, though, but I'll get to that later.)

The thing tying all characters together is that they're all members of the British Association's Explorer's Society. It's a group dedicated to discovery, advancing knowledge, and also saving the civilized worlds from the predations of evil secret societies. This is where some of the new stuff comes in- a mysterious cult called the Brotherhood of Luxor has arisen, and while the Explorer's Society doesn't know a lot about it, they know they're up to no good.

The conflict between the Explorer's Society and Brotherhood of Luxor does two things. First, it sets up the Red Sands campaign, a serialized adventure taking up a chapter, which takes the players all over the inner planets fighting a sinister conspiracy. It also alleviates one element of the setting that people may have a problem with- nowadays we generally view old-school imperialism as a Bad Thing, what with our valuing self-determination and not treating other peoples as disadvantaged savages and so on. Frank Chadwick's original game showed some understanding of the messy complexities of the British Empire and Victorian values, but it was hard to really push against those things, and characters were locked in a "colonizer" role by default. Now the characters are not only not necessarily the colonizers, they're not necessarily fighting for the Empire or Queen Vic- they're united by a more palatable, more universal love of adventure and dislike of diabolical masterminds.

The campaign itself is fairly interesting, mirroring the serialized adventures in other Savage Worlds setting books. It has a darker, grittier tone than most of the published material for the original game, and it may be worth double checking the lethality of some elements, but it's a compelling story and likely won't require a GM to do any more tweaking than he or she wants to. There are also a number of shorter, self-contained "Savage Tales" plot hooks, and a nice random adventure generator system to spark ideas.

There's a good amount of setting information, though space concerns mean you may want to turn to some of Heliograph's reprints to pick up on details. However, there are problems I do have with Red Sands' presentation of the setting. As the name implies, the central campaign- and so much of the material- is very Mars-centric, and this is a problem the original game had in terms of the supplements it put out before the line was canceled. More on the lizard men and dinosaurs of Venus would have been welcome, and there's very little information on the moon; the insectoid Selenites aren't even statted up anywhere. Only one of the Savage Tales plots takes place on the moon, and that doesn't involve the Selenites, rather dealing with the vanished Vulcan culture. I had hoped at first that Pinnacle planned to deal more with the other worlds in future books, but I've not heard much on that front. So if you really want to explore all the Many Worlds you may have to do a few conversions yourself.

Though Space: 1889's original rules system was a little clunky and unfocused, I am glad that the Savage Worlds conversion preserves something of its funky, fiddly Invention system that lets you create everything from a more efficient ether propeller to a goddamn lightning cannon, as well as rules for building your own ether flyer (which any good group should do, in my humble opinion.) Converting characters over should be no problem, and of course Savage Worlds was designed for pulpy action-adventure so it fits the setting quite well.

I'm not entirely satisfied with the book, but this may be because I'm applying high standards to the treatment of one of my favorite settings ever. It's definitely focused a bit more on savage adventure than on the wonder of discovery, but the latter isn't shortchanged. I do think the emphasis on Mars represents a missed opportunity to correct the same imbalance in the original line, which was discontinued before it could begin to focus elsewhere. And I'm still nonplussed about the Selenites (they should be in the errata or something.) Still, I can't argue against this being a successful translation of the setting to a new system, and not only is the change in mechanics is for the better, but Red Sands opens up the setting and adds quite a few new possibilities for adventure. It's good enough that I want to see more.

Grade: B+

(Note: this review or something like it should be up on later. Since this site gets less traffic I figure I'd give you a sneak preview.)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Frasierquest 4.8: Our Father Whose Art Ain't Heaven

If you can't see this painting, you're lucky
Frasier: Honestly, Niles, by calling her so many times you've given her all the power. You're much better off coming from a position of strength.

Niles: Don't pour that sherry on your shirt - it will stain.

Frasier: What?

Niles: Oh, I'm sorry. I thought this was the portion of the afternoon where we gave each other patently obvious advice.

Episodes revolving around Frasier's relationship with his dad inevitably are about how fundamentally different the two are, and artistic taste is one particularly rich area of distance. As strong as family bonds and inherited traits may be, nothing's trickier to figure than what other people like. In this episode Martin learns the hard way that he doesn't know his sons' tastes, but it's an opportunity for him and for Frasier to discover what values they actually share.

When Daphne says she's ready to try her hand at sheep's head stew, the Crane men suddenly realize they have reservations at Le Cigar Volant, the local classy French bistro. Martin wants to pay for dinner since it's his turn, which prompts the Crane boys to order light- he notices and an argument erupts. Later, Martin tries to make amends by actually buying them something he's sure they'll like- a painting from the restaurant that Frasier had complimented earlier. Of course, Frasier had only done so in order to get a table, and wants nothing to do with this garish rendition of bovine violence, but he doesn't want to tell Dad that.

First things first, I have to congratulate the show's art department on the works of Cordoba. The painting Martin buys is garish and ugly, but just polished enough that you can see why he's convinced Frasier actually likes it. If I knew a little more about art I might be able to confirm my suspicion that they're lampooning a certain artist or style, but you see art like this in a lot of places. (Though what's a French restaurant doing with a bunch of bullfighting pictures? No wonder Martin was able to buy one the next day.)

The episode gives us a good opportunity to look at how far Frasier and Martin's relationship has developed. Martin clearly wants his sons to be happy and to do right by them, but he's so insistent on doing the right thing that he becomes belligerent about it. Frasier, meanwhile, thinks he's walking on eggshells, probably because he's already offended his father by not letting him pay for dinner. They're not really opposed to each other in this story, but they don't feel easy being honest and open with each other and that creates conflict where none should exist.

A subplot revolving around people deserting Niles' party for one Maris is holding that same date is an indicator of how things are going for him, i.e. poorly. Niles isn't entirely disentangled from her, and the power she has over his social circles is yet another snare she uses to keep him close. Meanwhile, Daphne is dating again- someone named Marshall, whom I'm not sure we ever meet- and Roz is on hand to offer her own story of unwanted gifts, this time in hippo form.

This is a fairly straightforward episode, as most of the ones revolving around the show's father/son dynamic are; the conflict is easy to see, and it's a question of getting two very stubborn people to come around. But it's still rewarding to see how well Martin and Frasier's relationship is handled after all these years, and how it addresses the relatively normal, low-key problems families have. The resolution is especially sweet, and shows how silly fussing over the details of reciprocation can be. This is an episode that goes back to the show's roots, and finds there's still plenty there.

Guest Caller: John Cusack as Greg

Written by Michael B. Kaplan
Directed by Jeff Melman
Aired December 9, 1996

Martin: You're eating light? All the way over here you had the same look on your face that Eddie gets when he hears the can opener.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Random Movie Report #95: Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God

DVD cover and Amazon link
A long time ago, there was a movie version of Dungeons & Dragons, and it was pretty terrible. As I wrote at length for the Agony Booth back when they still did text recaps, it was a dull, unimaginative quest through clunky exposition with the only reward being watching Jeremy Irons devour every last scrap of the set. Somehow it did well enough to merit a direct-to-video sequel, and astonishingly, not only is it not terrible, not only is it actually kind of fun and in keeping with the spirit of the game, but it's actually good. Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Dragon God doesn't try to be much more than a cheesy sword & sorcery picture, the sort of thing that Syfy airs regularly, but it tries hard within that framework. With only a tenuous connection to its predecessor it manages to do just about everything better.

The hero of the film is Berek (Mark Dymond), a former adventurer who discovers that an ancient dragon god is slumbering beneath a local mountain, waiting to be released. Doing some research, his magic-user wife Melora (Clemency Burton-Hill) discovers that an undead villain named Damodar (Bruce Payne, returning from the original) has located a magic orb which can be used to release the dragon- and that he intends to do so, in hopes that he can rule over what's left of the world when his scaly partner is done with it. Melora is struck ill by her divinations, and Berek gathers a band of adventurers- a barbarian (Ellie Chidzley), a thief (Tim Stern), a cleric (Steven Elder), and an elven wizard (Lucy Gaskell)- to travel to an ancient ruin and track down Damodar before he can unleash evil on the kingdom.

All of this is really just a prelude for the action, and rushed through efficiently as a result. If a few details get lost in the process, it's not a big deal because it's easy to follow the "bad guy wants to do bad thing, heroes must stop him" thread. This is, on balance, a good thing; unlike its predecessor, the picture delivers what it promises, packing plenty of action and incident into its running time. The key to low-budget filmmaking is the efficient use of resources, and while you can see the corners that have been cut now and again, they manage a few impressive CGI monsters and good-enough-for-cable production values.

A real effort to be true to the game has been made here, which is impressive considering that Dungeons & Dragons doesn't even have a fixed setting or characters (the makers of the Monopoly movie would be wise to take note). We have your standard adventuring party, not defined much beyond their class stereotypes but likable nonetheless, lairs and tombs filled with traps and treasure, a few familiar monsters, and even a plot point hinging on the differences between "arcane" and "divine" magic. Fortunately the emphasis is not on the grognardy details but on the general "band of heroes in a dangerous land" territory that should be familiar to anyone- sure, the nerds will get the most satisfaction from it, but it's not exactly impenetrable.

Despite all the in-jokes and a generally unpretentious tone, Wrath of the Dragon God does manage a genuine sense of danger and drama. One of the party is killed about midway through, making it look like all of them are at risk, and the dungeoneering is played parallel to Melora and the mage council's attempts to get in touch with the elder gods who imprisoned the dragon in the first place; we're constantly reminded of her encroaching curse, which threatens to turn her into an undead abomination like Damodar. She's a nice character, well-played, and it's not clear if she's going to make it.

So against all odds, despite specifically not aiming much higher than B-movie fare, Wrath of the Dragon God genuinely works. It captures some of the hack-and-slash feel of the tabletop game without getting bogged down in geek minutiae, and it has just enough heart and regard for its characters to make one want to see how it turns out. In a just world this would have gotten the theatrical release, but then again, it makes for a perfect TV matinee.

Written by Robert Kimmel, Gerry Lively, and Brian Rudnick
Directed by Gerry Lively

Grade: B

Monday, August 29, 2011

Frasierquest 4.7: A Lilith Thanksgiving

Frasier gives Lilith a pinch
Frasier (on phone): Hello? Yes, Lilith. Yes, Lilith. Yes, Lilith.

Martin: Gee, it's like they're still married

Thanksgiving already? The gap between the last two episodes was pretty big (I think this was due to Grammer's absence, or else NBC had baseball), but it's a shock to be this far along. November sweeps means it's time for Lilith to return as well, in an episode that takes us out of Seattle but is still within the recognizable territory of high-class farce. Usually at odds, Frasier and Lilith team up to make bigger idiots of themselves together than they could ever be on their own.

Frasier, Niles, and Martin are all planning to take Frederick (and Lilith) to a rustic cabin for Thanksgiving (well, it's Niles', so it's not too rustic.) However, Frasier discovers that Frederick is a candidate for the prestigious Marbury Academy, and decides to move the celebration to Boston, so that he and Lilith can make sure their son gets in. To this end they visit with Dr. Campbell (Paxton Whitehead), the head of the school, and do their best bootlicking; but after their visit, they decide they weren't clear enough on some points, and go back to try and clarify. The second meeting doesn't go well, which means they have to go back and try again, and again. In the meantime, Martin and Niles are looking after Frederick, and, well, it starts when Martin tries to teach him to play catch and goes downhill from there.

Not having raised children myself (and not being terribly rich), I can't speak to the authenticity of Frasier and Lilith's conflict. The idea that a child's fate can be sealed as early as grade school never made sense to me, but it is something parents make a fuss over when they don't have enough actual problems to worry about, and it's something that Frasier and Lilith would totally do. Enrollment in ivy-league elementary schools comes up a lot as a plot point when television writers want to show status and overparenting gone mad, and both our protagonists are known for that. Lilith's often the "sane" one in her Frasier appearances, so it's fun to see her being just as unreasonable as her ex-husband.

Both she and Frasier suffer from perfectionism, so it makes total sense that their problems in this episode stem from an unwillingness to leave well enough alone. It's almost symbolic when Frasier tries to tug off a stray thread from his jacket, only to find that he's unraveling the pattern on one of Dr. Campbell's chairs. They just can't stop pulling. Their desperation builds beautifully, culminating in a brutal intrusion on Dr. Campbell's Thanksgiving dinner. (The scene is also notable for an early appearance by Jane Lynch, almost unrecognizable.)

A similar escalation occurs when Martin and Niles try to babysit Frederick (the first appearance by Trevor Einhorn in the role, which he'd play through the rest of the series.) In theory a small child being repeatedly accidentally injured by his caregivers is not funny at all, but Frederick's blasé acceptance of whatever happens to him is hilarious and contrasts nicely with Martin and Niles' panicked incompetence. (There's also a brief mention by Daphne that she's spending the holiday with her transvestite uncle Jackie, who is also apparently a minister, and I can't tell you how disappointed I am that we never meet this guy.)

"A Lilith Thanksgiving" ends on a weirdly triumphant note, and it's made all the better for how Frasier and Lilith handle it. They care more about the welfare of their son than they do about being liked or even tolerated, and that's admirable, even if their zeal blinds them to Frederick's increasing number of injuries. The episode's parallel action and escalating absurdity makes for some great laughs, and it's a worthy visit with Frasier's inescapable ex.

No Guest Caller

Written by Chuck Ranberg & Anne-Flett Giordano
Directed by Jeff Melman
Aired November 26, 1996

Niles: Oh, just a little depressed. It's my first Thanksgiving without Maris.

Martin: Oh, yeah, I know, son. It's hard.

Niles: Do you remember the year I plopped that big wedge of pumpkin pie in front of her, and we all laughed? Then I put a big scoop of whipped cream on top of it and we laughed some more! Then her eyes welled up with tears and we all knew it was time to stop.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Random Movie Report #94: Gamera Vs. Viras

DVD cover and Amazon link

Inspired by the nigh-miraculous release of the Gamera episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 recently, I've decided to restart my look at the giant turtle's original hits. Gamera vs. Viras avoided the gaze of the Satellite of Love, but it's worth noting for the shift it marks in the series. This is when the goofiness really started to set in, and though it's weird to talk about the Gamera movies of all things getting "more childish", the filmmakers have toned down the darker parts of earlier movies. Not that this is a problem; the film's only major flaw comes down to cheapness rather than kiddie appeal. That flaws kind of a big one, but there's still some fun to be had here.

The movie starts off with a bang as Gamera, flying through space as is his wont, destroys a spaceship from the Viras system which is preparing to invade Earth. Now realizing that Earth is protected, Viras sends another ship, with orders to target Gamera and see how he can be disposed of. The ship manages to snare Gamera and, after probing his mind, realizes his great weakness is that he is the friend to Earth's children. And so the aliens kidnap two boy scouts, Masao (Toru Takatsuka) and Jim (Kurl Crane), and inform Gamera via telepathy that they will kill the children if he doesn't obey them. While Masao and Jim explore the alien ship and try to evade their captors, the aliens plant a mind control device on Gamera, forcing him to go back to his old city-destroying ways.

While there is an actual enemy monster Gamera ends up fighting, the film deviates from the formula a little by not focusing on him until the final battle. Before then, the emphasis is on the Viras spaceship and its attempts to kill or control Gamera, and the kids' attempts to stop the aliens. The aliens and their ship owe a lot to the same colorful, jazzy 60s aesthetic that pervaded Toho's Invasion of Astro-Monster, and the film never steps into outright horror the way the previous installment threatened to. You never get the sense that the kids are truly in danger, and they have a surprising amount of autonomy so long as they don't threaten the ship or its inhabitants. This isn't a bad thing, but it's a bit of kiddie movie logic that you have to accept.

Unfortunately, the series' low budget was felt rather strongly in this film, and it struggles to reach a proper feature length. Seemingly ten to twenty minutes are spent on the spaceship's mind-probe of Gamera, which translates into a lengthy montage of the monster's exploits from three previous movies. It's kaiju action, and I shouldn't complain, but it's clearly padding. It gets worse, though, when Gamera goes on his alien-ordered rampage, which consists entirely of stock footage from the first and second films, the first still in glorious black and white with only traces of color tinting. It's really shameless, even in comparison to what some 70s kaiju films would end up doing to save money.

While all this very nearly ruins the picture, it's saved by a nice atmosphere and an entertaining finish. The climax hinges on a particularly contrived bit of kiddie movie logic, but then, this is a kiddie movie. The main event is a good one- though Viras the monster doesn't have as many tricks as Gamera's other foes, he can still pack a wallop, and there's some truly disturbing kaiju violence, including one particular scene that Gamera by all rights shouldn't survive. But then, he is Gamera.

Gamera vs. Viras (sometimes circulated under the title Destroy All Planets) is a weaker entry than its predecessors, but still delivers some quality entertainment. The film takes the series on a turn towards the stars and towards bright, fun adventure, and it's hard to find much fault with that approach, at least as it relates to a giant jet-powered turtle who breathes fire. I think we can all agree that that's really neat.

Written by Nisan Takahashi
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa

Grade: B-

Friday, August 19, 2011

In Theaters: Glee: The 3D Concert Movie

Poster and IMPAwards link
I think I’ve worked out why Glee: The 3D Concert Movie isn’t doing well. Though the show is still popular despite a backlash in some quarters, for a good portion of its audience it’s enough of a guilty pleasure that they wouldn’t want to be seen in public buying tickets to a film of a stage revue. I’m probably projecting my own self-consciousness here, though. Going to see this was like going to see one of the Human Centipede movies- I bought the ticket at an electronic kiosk and did my best to remain inconspicuous as I walked to the theater. I’m not a proud man but the film, in its earnest and celebratory embrace of Gleemania, just seems to invite brickbats. But if you’re still Gleek and proud, it’s actually a fun experience: inessential, but pleasant fanservice that, despite some uneven choices in presentation, contains a lot of fairly talented individuals giving good performances.

The film records a concert from the live tour the Glee cast did not too long ago, between seasons 2 and 3 (which hasn’t started airing yet.) The cast did this last season as well, and as the show’s popularity has grown, the concerts have attracted a large audience of loyal Gleeks. Between numbers we get interviews with the cast which seem to be at least half in character, as well as a lot of talking head spots with the fans. Rounding it out, we have in-depth profiles on three fans who fit the whole “be proud of not fitting in” ethos of the program- there’s a cheerleader who’s also a little person, a gay teen who recounts the rough road he had being outed, and a girl with Asperger’s who idolizes Brittany S. Pierce (which, let’s face it, is what more people should do.)

The whole “fan profile” thing is the film’s most ill-advised decision. It’s a little shameless in tying Glee to a message of empowerment and individuality and loving who you are, and it definitely feels at least a little like the show patting itself on the back. But the fans themselves are charming people, and on balance the segments focus more on them than on how the show changed their life (and even acknowledges it didn’t at all in one case.) It still feels a bit like padding though, and unnecessary padding given that this is obviously not the whole show (a number of sketches have been trimmed, including one featuring Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester that popped up in previews, and the songs are also cut a bit from their full versions.)

What we see of the show works pretty well. The cast’s voices aren’t quite as processed as they are on air, and they all sound good. Heather Morris as Brittany pretty much steals the show, be it in her ultra-sexy Britney Spears number (which justifies the 3-D process in and of itself), her feature dancer status in other songs, or just contributing an awesome gesture or two in the background. That said, all the cast have gotten pretty good at working the crowd over two tours, and it’s fun to see them throw in little gestures or reactions to spice up the performance. I think 3-D may be a particularly good fit for concert pieces like this, especially with the number of dance numbers involved- it enhances the spectacle without getting in the way of anything, since the people on stage may as well be floating in space to begin with. Sadly, some cast members get the short shrift, notably Jenna Ushkowitz as Tina who has no on-screen solos.

Rounding out the affair are a few fun clips and vignettes, such as a very young “mini-Warbler” captured performing along at home, and Lea Michele as Rachel ruminating on the possibility that her idol Barbara Streisand may be in attendance. Nothing comes of this, but it’s a great bit of acting on her part, arguably the best she’s done Glee-wise. (It’s naturally followed by her standout rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade”.) Other parts feel like they don’t quite fit, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s appearance as Holly Holiday, as fun as she was on the show. It definitely kind of rushes to the ending, as though the filmmakers suddenly realized they shouldn’t let this run long, and I hope more shows up on the DVD release.

If you hate Glee, there’s obviously no reason whatsoever to see this. If you’re ambivalent, you probably won’t get too much out of it either. But for fans who didn’t actually catch the tour, it’s a nice substitute, and is worth catching while you can. The film is just over halfway through a limited two-week release and the box office obviously hasn’t been good enough for it to be held over, so if you want the full big-screen 3-D spectacle, get going. I had to push myself to see it, but in retrospect it’s better than I expected, and was a nice reminder of why I like this crazy thing to begin with. As obvious as the show’s “be proud of who you are!” message may seem, there are a lot of people who don’t actually hear that enough, and if nothing else the film does provide a little pop culture snapshot of an audience for whom that message was just what they needed. And there’s some fun singing and dancing. Nothing to be ashamed of.

Written by N/A
Directed by Kevin Tancharoen

Grade: B

Monday, August 15, 2011

Frasierquest 4.6: Mixed Doubles

Niles in stereo
Martin (on phone): Hello? Oh, I can't talk right now, Duke. I'm in the Twilight Zone!

Ah, so this is what happened with Joe.

I always look forward to handling the Niles/Daphne episodes; they’re invariably sweet, funny, and appeal to the misty-eyed romantic in me. “Mixed Doubles” is no exception, but it skews funnier than most of their episodes; Niles’ longing for the delightful Ms. Moon is turned into the set-up for a punchline that would be cruel if it weren’t so profoundly goofy. As with many other episodes in this saga, we’re teased with the possibility of a major change in the status quo, said status quo ends up being mostly reaffirmed, but we get a sense of how close these two are, and that bond gives us hope for the future. This time around, it happens to be utterly hilarious, arguably one of the show’s funniest episodes.

It begins with Daphne dropping a bombshell one evening; she and Joe, after being on-again-off-again for a while, have finally called it quits. More specifically he did. She’s heartbroken, and Niles is ready and willing to declare his love for her now that they’re both unattached, but Frasier convinces him to wait until she’s in a less fragile state. The next day, however, Daphne has already met someone, courtesy Roz taking her to The Sure Thing. Niles, angry at Frasier, calls Roz and gets her to take him to that same bar in hopes of meeting someone of his own, which he does- the comely Adelle (Allison Mackie). But then one night he and Adelle stop by Frasier’s just as Daphne is coming by with her boyfriend, Rodney (Kevin Farrell)- a small, fussy, immaculately groomed man who loves to smell Daphne’s hair. As traumatizing as it is for Niles, it’s worse for Frasier’s collection of decorated drinking glasses.

So Daphne is dating Niles’ doppleganger and dear God, is this hysterical. The irony is cruel, almost brutally so, but the sheer oddness of the two meeting and not actually recognizing each other for what they are is what makes it work. Farrell doesn’t bear the closest facial resemblance to David Hyde Pierce, but his mannerisms and cadence are incredibly close. Daphne remains happily oblivious to the end, but Frasier and Martin’s reactions sell the bit better than anything (Grammer gets one of the very best line readings, as can be seen below). Nothing too outrageous has happened up until the scene where he’s introduced, so it’s really a sudden burst of visual comedy.

The ramifications for Niles and Daphne are interesting. We get why Niles likes Daphne and we’ve seen them be cute together without really being together, but now we get another interesting hint- Daphne is attracted to someone like him. Perhaps it’s just a rebound thing, and Niles never really has time to consider this angle anyway, but for viewers convinced they’re meant to be it’s another piece in the puzzle. The end, however, does two things. First, it gives us another reason to put off any further development- Daphne says she’d never get involved with a man who’s separated, and suggests that Niles probably still has feelings for his wife. So that has to be resolved, and that’s some time off. But in that same final scene, both of them say “I love you.” As friends, of course- but it’s taking their connection still deeper. They’re closer at the end than they were before.

Let’s not forget Roz’s part in all this. She’s only involved in the first act, but her scene throwing Niles into the scene at the Sure Thing is a highlight. She’s unusually friendly towards him, and willing to help. It could be a sign that their relationship, too, is softening slightly- she doesn’t quite despise him anymore, at least. Or maybe she just loves her work- the idea of finding someone for even Niles presents to her a unique challenge. It’s an adorable scene, and her attempt to make Daphne feel better about her breakup is... well, noble at least.

Poor Niles gets put through the wringer here, denied a clear chance at Daphne and later spurned by Adelle for Rodney (which, to his credit, results in his being angry for Daphne more than anyone else.) But all is redeemed by a drink at the Sure Thing and a moment of honest, tender conversation which affirms just how much these two people care for each other. When I first saw this episode I honestly thought this was the writers’ way of burying the angle for good, as ridiculous as that seems to anyone who knows anything about how TV works. It’s a satisfying episode, but the dance has barely begun.

No Guest Caller

Written by Christopher Lloyd
Directed by Jeff Melman
Aired November 19, 1996

Frasier: Niles, whatever you do, do not engage him in a physical fight. The whole thing would just look too weird!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

In Theaters: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

poster and IMPAwards link
If I didn’t know any better I’d swear that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was propaganda designed to make us feel good about the coming simian uprising. True, we haven’t seen any evidence that such a thing is in the offing, but the perverse joy of this film is that takes the “nature’s revenge” plotline to its inevitable extreme and has us rooting for a pack of damned dirty apes. That a second attempt at rebooting a decades-old movie franchise (long after Tim Burton’s less-than-ideal effort) feels like one of the most fresh and original big movies of the year is probably damning of something, but the film itself is such a positive experience, one that not only lives up to the potential suggested by its advertising but actually exceeds it.

The star of the film is Caesar (a CGI creation with motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis), a chimpanzee born to a test subject for an experimental Alzheimer’s drug. His mother is killed along with the other test apes, but a remorseful doctor (James Franco) brings him home to his increasingly senile father (John Lithgow.) With the drug, which promotes the growth of new brain cells, passed on genetically, Caesar develops a remarkable intelligence, becoming like a member of the family and gaining the ability to communicate with his surrogate father. He is eventually discovered, and thrown by court order into a grim and poorly run primate enclosure, at the mercy of a particularly sadistic keeper (Tom Felton of all people.) Caesar continues to learn, and decides that maybe the other apes could use a boost to their intelligence- and as luck would have it, the pharmaceutical company that got the ball rolling is testing a newer, stronger version of the drug. A few escapes and night raids later, and soon enough we got ourselves an ape army.

For a while, the movie pretends to be about its human characters and their struggles, and it’s not bad at it. Franco and Lithgow and the lovely Freida Pinto give just fine performances, and Felton (no longer menacing Hogwarts) is virtually unrecognizable. But as Caesar’s relationship with his human family sours, he gets more screentime to himself, and his interactions with the fellow apes at the primate “sanctuary” enter the film’s dramatic foreground. The effect is to invert the apocalyptic vibe that the premise suggests; as the humans continue to set up their own destruction, the apes learn and communicate and build something resembling a society. It’s frankly fascinating, and it’s hard not to see them as the good guys in all this, even as some of the humans remain sympathetic. It also helps that the apes aren’t really dedicated to totally wiping us out; at several points Caesar tries to get his comrades-in-hairy-arms to refrain from killing innocent or defenseless humans.

The visual effects on the film are rare in that they not only bring the story to life, they do actually make it better. We’ve seen performance capture used effectively in other sci-fi epics (Avatar most significantly), but the apes- all digital, with no live animals used- are still more convincing, capable of extremely subtle and nuanced expressions. There are the inevitable telltale signs that we are looking at something digital in a live-action environment (they’re always a little too in-focus), but on their own the apes are nothing less than real. It’s something of a leap forward for digital performance, allowing the skill of the performers to shine through as clearly as with makeup or puppetry.

The film is littered with treats for fans of the original Apes movies; there are not only in-joke references but details that genuinely anticipate this being the same world. Of course, now that the Cold War has ended, a threat other than nuclear annihilation is necessary for our overthrow by simians to be plausible, but without spoiling too much I’d say the film comes up with a good approach. Some of the callbacks nicely evoke the series’ thematic interpretations of the ape rebellion, without going too blatantly into any kind of social allegory.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes leaves us wanting more; it ends a little too soon, perhaps, though sequels are already being discussed. But for its running time Rise is immensely satisfying; its tinkering with our sympathies and the basic structure of an apocalyptic uprising narrative means it’s full of surprises, even if the title gives the game away. For a franchise reboot it’s downright quirky, and the overall feeling is one of subversive fun at the human race’s expense. Apparently when the revolution does come, it won’t be so bad.

Suggested by the novel “La Planéte des Singes” by Pierre Boulle (uncredited)
Written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Grade: A-

Monday, August 08, 2011

In Theaters: Captain America: The First Avenger

Poster and IMPAwards link
Though the superhero genre may be reaching a saturation point at the movies (as opposed to comics where it apparently never gets boring), I’m not quite tired of them yet. At least a good entry can still stand out, and Captain America: The First Avenger, the last step in Marvel’s buildup to next year’s The Avengers, is a remarkably fun movie. Captain America was always going to be a challenge, as three failed movies have demonstrated, but the filmmakers, notably director Joe Johnson (of The Rocketeer), embrace the character’s wartime origins and star-spangled cheer, delivering an old-school pulp adventure with just the right balance of character and action. It’s way more fun than a lead-in to an upcoming summer blockbuster should be.

Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is introduced to us in 1942, applying for enlistment in the U.S. Army and being rejected repeatedly based on his many, many physical deficiencies, from asthma and a touch of TB to a generally scrawny physique. A 4F label is no fun to live with, but beyond any shame, Rogers feels an innate desire to help his country just as his mother and father did (giving up their lives in the process.) His repeated efforts to get in attract the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who is working with the Army to develop a super-soldier serum which amplifies a person’s strength, agility, and possibly his or her basic character. Erskine sees in Rogers’ gentleness and perseverance the qualities the soldier of tomorrow will need, and Steve steps up to be the subject of a painful and dramatic medical procedure which turns him into a musclebound superman.

Erskine is killed shortly after the experiment and his serum destroyed, and the newly powered Steve is sent on a propaganda tour to sell war bonds under the name “Captain America”. When he ends up in Anzio performing for unenthusiastic troops, he discovers that a friend of his has been captured by the forces of HYDRA, the Nazi’s covert science arm which, under the leadership of the “Red Skull” Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), has broken away from Hitler to try and conquer the world themselves. The Captain leads a prisoner breakout and graduates from USO performer to full-fledged hero, aided by Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), the lovely and kickass Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), inventor and aviator Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), and a host of fighting commandos.

As you might imagine, this film has a solid sense of humor about itself. Cap’s brief sojourn into showbiz is an inspired twist- it allows the filmmakers to trade on the original Golden Age image of the Captain, and the historical context in which he and other patriotic heroes arose. It adds self-awareness to the film’s retro pulp indulgence, just enough to make it interesting but not so much that it undermines the reality of the story. As in the Indiana Jones movies, we’re being told that this is an old-fashioned adventure film and to adjust our mindset accordingly.

Continuing what has been an encouraging trend in Marvel’s pre-Avengers movies, the hero is surrounded by a strong supporting cast of characters, and their interactions form the film’s heart. As Peggy Carter, Atwell is enchanting and convincingly kick-ass, and Tommy Lee Jones’ dry persona is a good addition as well. Chris Evans plays Rogers as more the starry-eyed cadet than the respected veteran Cap would become, but it fits the story very well. There’s a bit of sweetness and even sadness to Steve’s arc, even managing a moist eye or two near the end. On the side of evil, Weaving plays the Skull as the Captain’s snarling opposite, someone who has also been given great power and sees himself as no longer human as a result.

The action sequences in this one are really good, some of the best I’ve seen this year. They’re clear, they’re legible, and there’s a good balance between CGI effects and stuff that seems to be live on set. It helps that, as Cap is fighting a war against fascist scum, the whole “superheroes don’t kill” law gets to be waived (though the picture does take care to emphasize Steve’s gentleness- he doesn’t want to kill Germans, he just doesn’t like a bully.) This is another movie where 3-D conversion was done after the fact and doesn’t add a whole lot, but it doesn’t hurt the visuals either.

Though Marvel Studios’ whole strategy as regards setting up an Avengers franchise may be calculated commercial filmmaking at its most corporate, it’s hard to be too concerned when it produces genuinely good movies. Captain America: The First Avenger is just fun in a way that blockbusters aspire to but are often a little too cynical to manage. It’s a lead-in, and ends in a very direct fashion that precludes other potential directions for the series on its own, but it works not just as a prelude, but a great adventure in and of itself.

Based on the character created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Directed by Joe Johnston

Grade: A-

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Frasierquest 4.5: Head Game

Niles and his patient have an impromptu consultation
Roz: This is Seattle. It rains nine months out of the year. We take our indoor sports very seriously.

Niles: Well, I know you always have!

Roz: You're a hero today so I'm going to let that one go.

I try to avoid talking too much about the personal lives of the people involved with this show, partly because this isn’t that kind of blog, partly because I prefer a more formalist approach to criticism, but mostly because I don’t actually know that much about them. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, though, as here, when Kelsey Grammer suddenly needed a leave of absence to go into rehab for his alcohol addiction, and an episode centered on his character- the guy who headlines the show- was rewritten to focus on Niles. As unfortunate as these circumstances are, however, they don’t prevent this episode from being an enjoyable one. “Head Game” wears its silly premise with pride, and doesn’t suffer from the rewrite, as apparent as it is in some places. It helps that the real life story didn’t get any worse.

With Frasier attending a meeting of radio psychiatrists in Aspen, Niles is asked to fill in on air. While helping the people and occasionally cats of Seattle, Niles runs into a guest of Bulldog’s: Reggie McLemore (Lorenzo Newton), a point guard for the Seattle Sonics who’s been having trouble with his game. (For reference, because I probably wouldn’t know either, the Sonics are a basketball team.) Niles gives Reggie some brief therapy, which seems to do wonders, and Reggie goes on to win the game that night and thank Niles on-air. After enjoying his status as the man who saved the Sonics, Niles takes his dad and Daphne to the game, where he makes a rather distressing discovery; his therapy seems to be wearing off, but Reggie regains his mojo by rubbing his head. Niles’ ethics make him uncomfortable with the role of good-luck charm as opposed to legit psychiatrist, but he doesn’t want to disappoint his dad.

It’s easy to see how Frasier would have worked in the original script. The changes seem to amount to a couple of different scenes and a few mentions of Niles feeling out-of-place at KACL, plus the usual unwitting innuendo by Daphne. Some of Niles’ dialogue even sounds like Frasier, especially when he interacts with Martin. Despite some of these changes obviously being done quickly, the show was fortunate in that Kelsey Grammer only really missed one episode, and even then was able to film the first scene. This may be a trivial thing in the face of a serious problem like alcoholism, but we can look back and be grateful, as Grammer has apparently managed to stay clean and sober not only through the end of the series but up until this day, a rare thing indeed. (I think this scramble may also have been part of “The Two Mrs. Cranes” coming first in the season, and Daphne is still with Joe in this episode.)

All of that aside, the story does work well with Niles in the lead. He’s a little smaller and more vulnerable than his brother, and his getting validation from the world of sports is as gratifying for us as it is for him. We like to see the little guy succeed. Without failure as a driver, the episode instead derives humor from Niles’ incongruence in the world of sports; not just in the sense of not being a jock and not really getting the whole game of basketball, but not willing to buy into an athlete’s superstition about the magical powers of his hair (which is still pretty nice this season.)

The way this episode resolves is rather ingenious. Neither Niles nor Reggie get to prove themselves right; instead Reggie comes up with a rather practical offscreen solution. And it just ends with that, because there’s nothing else to resolve; Niles’ ethical dilemma wasn’t that severe, and no matter what he decided he couldn’t follow the team everywhere anyway. Despite it being a thin story, it’s sold by the funny chemistry Pierce and Newton develop- their interactions are genuinely fun to watch.

So an episode with a lot of turmoil behind the scenes ends up coming together pretty smoothly. While I sometimes complain when the show does “slight” or thin-story episodes, this one is just too funny and likable to find much fault with. The writing is smart and the direction crisp, and it hits all the beats it needs to. Frasier will be back next week, but Niles does him proud with his time in the driver’s seat.

Guest Caller: Wendy Wasserstein as Linda

Written by Rob Greenberg
Directed by David Lee

Aired November 12, 1996

Niles: I want you to imagine yourself on the playing surface, doing whatever it is you actually do. Tell me what you see.

Reggie: Okay. Jeff’s passin’ me the ball... I’m bringing it up court... I’m dribblin’...

Niles: Don’t worry about your appearance.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Opening Credits Sequence Theatre: Mean Streets (1973)

(A better, non-embeddable version is here.)

Martin Scorsese's breakthrough film starts in a big way. On the surface, the scene establishes a character in isolation, wrapped up in himself, escaping into nostalgia to escape- well, we don't know yet, but that follows quickly. It's a small, intimate scene. But the music elevates it to another plane; the classic Spector "wall of sound" effect is used as a call to attention, making damn sure we're awake as the old filmstrip shows us the protagonist and his world. This was still a relatively new, uncommon approach to music in film, so it was also a signal that this was not going to be your average sleazy gangster picture. This is one of my favorites, because it sets the energy and intensity level of the film so very high, and the picture actually sustains that. Plus it's a really good song.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Frasierquest 4.4: A Crane's Critique

Martin connects with a famous author
Niles: We’re a stone’s throw away from one of the giants of American literature!

Roz: Not the way you throw.

“A Crane’s Critique” feels like a throwback. It has a fairly basic, slight plotline that only really makes use of Frasier, Niles, and Martin; it’s the kind of episode that would have worked easily in earlier seasons, but feels less than satisfying compared to some of the episodes around it. Which is not to say it doesn’t have its strengths, most notably a guest appearance by Robert Prosky, but it’s forgettable enough that I took a while to recognize it.

Frasier and Niles are taking their father clothes shopping when Niles catches sight of the reclusive author T. H. Houghton (Prosky), who wrote one earth-shattering book and then dropped out of public view. Frasier and Niles go on a wild chase after the man who changed their lives, only for Martin to befriend him at McGinty’s over a Mariners game and Bonanza discussion. Frasier and Niles keep missing opportunities to have a deep intellectual discussion with Houghton (who doesn’t seem interesting in that sort of thing anyway), but when he and Martin head to the stadium for a doubleheader, the brothers Crane accidentally find themselves in possession of something rather special: the manuscript for Houghton’s next novel. Of course they take a look.

This is an episode rooted in frustration and embarrassment, which puts it on difficult territory from the get-go. Frasier and Niles’ awkwardness as they try to relate to Houghton is palpable, and to a certain extent well-rendered; it’s a bit of a shock to them that such an important literary titan is more like their father than he is like them. It’s not entirely their fault- they don’t so much offend Houghton as perplex him- but it taps into how difficult it can be to meet our heroes.

It’s odd that this fairly simple plotline leaves no time for anything else; the episode doesn’t feel particularly slowly paced or, for that matter, particularly convoluted, so why Daphne and Roz are on the sidelines more than usual is hard to work out. I’m not sure that using all the cast necessarily makes for a better episode; it may just a personal preference. But I think we could have used a respite from Frasier and Niles’ continued exasperation, which does get a little one-note. The actors play it well as usual, but it could probably stand to be compressed a little.

The ending does leave us with a few interesting questions, though. From a comic perspective, what basically happens is that Frasier and Niles ruin Houghton’s book; he decides it’s crap and destroys it based on their attempts to offer their appreciation of it. Clearly they love it, so from their perspective the world has lost a masterpiece. But I wonder if this could really be blamed on them; Houghton is so down-to-Earth in earlier scenes that they may not realize just how deeply self-critical he can be, and in this specific case he’s really excessively worried by the potential damage done to his reputation by a structural similarity to one of the best known works of classical Italian poetry in the entire world. He overreacts, and the Crane brothers console themselves by thinking maybe they protected him from worse criticism later. That they, while clearly trying to make themselves feel better as they are wont to do, may not actually be wrong is an unusual twist.

So, not a top episode; I see what they were doing for the most part, but in the end, perhaps the story could have been taken further or developed into something more complex than simply the Crane brothers repeatedly failing to connect with their idol. Granted, there’s something to be said for setting out to do one thing and do it well, and while this episode gets a little crowded out by the bigger stories around it, I think most viewers can find something to like.

No Guest Caller

Written by Dan Cohen and F.J. Pratt
Directed by Jeff Melman
Aired October 22, 1996

Niles: Are you quite finished undressing him with your eyes?

Roz: Oh, please. I'm already looking for my stockings and trying to remember where I parked my car.

(Note: they are not talking about Houghton, thank God)

Monday, July 25, 2011

In Theaters: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Poster and IMPAwards link
I have not previously reviewed any of the Harry Potter movies, but I feel in my random fashion bound to comment upon the final entry in the series, just as I reviewed the final novel itself once upon a time. The movie series has lasted a solid decade, and in that time has matured from a fairly rote recreation of J. K. Rowling’s novels to a still-conventional but much more fully formed fantasy series, truly bringing the world of Hogwarts and its environs to life in a way that enhances the books even if it doesn’t quite eclipse them. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (abbreviated by many theaters as Harry Potter 7B), being the second half of the final book when it proved too lengthy to condense into a single feature without more alteration than either Rowling or her fans were willing to take, inevitably has its problems as a stand-alone feature film, but as the capper to the saga, it does its job with style.

The story so far: Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), boy wizard now firmly in his teenage years, has been tracking down the pieces of the soul of the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) in an attempt to kill him once and for all, before the villain’s Death Eaters can eradicate all of his enemies. To help he has his best friends Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint), now an item after some drama, but he finds himself drawn further towards an inevitable confrontation with the dark lord himself, a confrontation in which prophecy says both must die.

The film basically assumes that you know the rest of the story, which at this point is a fair assumption. Filmgoing habits being what they are, I’m sure some people are going into this at random without knowing the rest of the series, but that can’t be helped. Still, it leaps right into the action, to the point where it’s probably best to rewatch part one just to get reorientated. (Among the details I forgot were how many horcruxes were left, how they were planning to destroy them, and what the business with the wand was.) The good news is that for those who found all the wandering around the countryside in the first half to be a bit much, this story jumps quickly into action, with lots of chases and monsters and battle scenes.

There is a fundamental problem here, in that more than any “split” film I can name, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 really does feel like the back half of Part 1 rather than a movie in and of itself. It was perhaps unavoidable that the studio would split them- together the pictures total 276 minutes, and even shaving off some time for redundant credits that’s testing the patience even of the Potter fanatics. Still I think more work could have been done to actually make the two parts feel more like full moviegoing experiences. Even with the extra time, some of the nuances of the final book are lost, specifically the final significance of the Deathly Hallows themselves.

That having been said, as the final installment of Harry Potter’s cinematic adventures, the film does deliver the goods. The spectacle of the final siege of Hogwarts, while not rendered with the tactical detail of, say, the Lord of the Rings films, is still dazzling and exciting. The characters still ring true in their interactions, and while there isn’t quite enough of this, we come to sense how deeply everyone relies on each other in a time of crisis. The film’s conversion to 3-D doesn’t add a lot, though at the same time I didn’t notice the picture being dimmer than usual.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is a satisfying finish to what has, overall, been a pretty splendid set of films. The franchise started out a little too slick and shiny, but over time has come to bring the world J.K. Rowling created to life in a way. They didn’t really change the face of genre cinema (though they did make fantasy films a Hell of a lot more commercially viable), and this one doesn’t really gun for classic status either, but it’s all been fun. Maybe in twenty years or so we can get the twisted Gilliamesque adaptation we deserve, but this will do just fine.

Based on the novel by J. K. Rowling
Screenplay by Steve Kloves
Directed by David Yates

Grade: B+