Monday, February 28, 2011

Opening Credits Sequence Theatre, Snubbed by the Oscars edition: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

It's that time again! This month I've decided to focus on a film that, despite being lost in the shuffle of awards and critics' lists, was one of the more entertaining, energetic, and spirited of last year, and is pretty much a lock for my "Opening Credits Sequence of the Year" award when I finally do my Top 10.

The sound is a little off, but that may be how it's supposed to sound. (Sex Bob-omb are not actually that good.) One nice touch: all the actors' backgrounds have little visual references to their characters, including a pair of knives for Ellen Wong (as Knives Chau) and black censor bars for the oft-censored Aubrey Plaza. It's a very frenetic sequence which sets the pace for the movie as a whole, and the low-fi charm is endearing.

I am going to have to find a way to make Youtube windows fit my blog layout.

Random Movie Report #87: Gamera vs. Gyaos

Link to the Double Feature DVD on Amazon

After a short experiment with entirely grown-up characters, the Gamera series veered back sharply into kiddie territory. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, and one of the things I realized going over GAMERA VS. GYAOS is that the series, however derivative, managed to be pretty fresh. Some of its approaches to the giant monster battle genre were appropriated by the Godzilla series in the following decade, and while this entry contains more than its fair share of borrowings, it manages not to feel like a retread. Instead, it gives the giant flying turtle his definitive adversary, and comes off as an effective spectacle done on the cheap.

A series of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions rocks the Pacific Rim, and the eruption of Mt. Fuji lures Gamera back to Japan. The upheaval also results in a green glow emitting from a mountain near a remote village in northern Japan, where a development company is trying to build an expressway over the objections (and demands for money) of the townsfolk. A mysterious ray from the glowing mountain destroys a survey helicopter, and eventually an inquisitive boy named Eiichi (Naoyuki Abe) discovers (and names) the culprit: Gyaos, a supersonic, prehistoric flying monster with traits of bird, lizard, and vampire bat. Gamera comes along to save the day, but finds himself vulnerable to the creature’s supersonic beams, which cleanly cut through just about anything they come in contact with. The military tries to develop its own ways of combating the creature, focusing on its aversion to bright light, which is ultimately revealed as a vulnerability to the sun’s rays. Of course, knowing its weakness is one thing; taking advantage is another.

You can see a formula for the series already emerging; a new monster appears, Gamera challenges it but is wounded, and the humans work out a weakness and set up elaborate plans to try and defeat it, which inevitably must serve only to delay or inconvenience the monster until Gamera’s ready for a rematch. It’s not a bad formula, to be sure, and it’s one thing that the Godzilla series would adopt now and again.

It is, for one thing, an opportunity to show off the new monster. Gyaos has become Gamera’s signature adversary, chosen to headline the revival of the series in 1995, and in a series filled with weird monsters, he still stands out. The sleek, sinister, cartoonish design of the creature is inspired, and there’s something nicely horrific in his habit of eating people alive and emerging at night to feed. The “sonic beam” is also an interesting effect, splitting cars and helicopters in twain with a surgeon’s precision. The series tradition of brightly colored goriness continues apace as well, Gyaos bleeding bright pink and having the ability to regrow severed limbs.

The monster’s nocturnal dining habits mean this is a moodier film than you’d expect, with nice visuals of dark wooded mountains. The cinematography for this picture actually won an award, and it does help the film carry its low production values. The picture simply has a dark atmosphere that is unusual in a kids’ kaiju movie.

Of some note is the subplot involving the developers, though only some. It’s actually framed in an interesting way, with the developers determined to finish the highway but the villagers determined to get the best price they can for their homes, and having the project foreman Tsutsumi (Kojiro Hongo) be the dashing male lead almost gives the story a pro-big-business slant. As much as this plot gets buried by the whole giant bat monster business, it does get a resolution eventually, one that’s expectedly pro-niceness and pro-compromise and so on. As plainly for kids as the series was, it’s interesting to see the various attempts at social comment that pop up.

GAMERA VS. GYAOS more or less does what it says on the tin, but is distinctive enough to be memorable. As derivative as the Gamera series can be, it’s also unique, and Gyaos is another strange entry in a wonderfully weird rogue’s gallery. Shout! Factory has again given this film better treatment than it’s ever had in the English speaking world, and the picture holds up stronger for it. This is a series I’m glad I have the opportunity to revisit.

Written by Nisan Takahashi
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa

Grade: B

Friday, February 25, 2011

Frasierquest 3.14: The Show Where Diane Comes Back

Frasier reacts
Daphne: I wish someone would just tell me who this woman is, and why we're trying to impress the pants off her.

Frasier: She's a one-time Boston barmaid who had a nervous breakdown and ended up in a sanitorium, where I met her, fell for her, and then was so mercilessly rejected by her that to this day there is a sucking chest wound where once there dwelled a heart!

We’ve all seen Lilith’s effect on Frasier’s mental health, but there’s another woman who weighs heavily on his mind. As Diane Chambers, Shelley Long only made two appearances on this show, but both are pretty strong, and “The Show Where Diane Comes Back” ranks as one of the better Cheers-reunion episodes. It’s a come down from “Moon Dance” (and what isn’t?), but also a nice return to focus on Frasier.

For those who don’t know their history together, the above quote is as good a summary as you’ll find. The two actually became engaged, only for him to be left at the altar when she rushed back to Sam Malone (who would also be left at the altar.) Diane shows up in Seattle with a play being produced, and the intervening years have not given Frasier any real sense of closure on their relationship. He’s determined to make himself look good in front of her, but it’s hard to flaunt your wealth at a former writer for Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. It turns out, though, that the backers for Diane’s play have pulled out, and Frasier sees an opportunity to step in, play the hero, and maybe win her over in the process. But then he sees a rehearsal of her play, and it brings back some bad memories.

If Frasier and Lilith’s relationship is a story of two people trying to be mature about their growing apart, Frasier and Diane’s is the much more neurotic flipside. Their original relationship was based on dependence, with Diane being a flighty free spirit occasionally dependent on the kindness of strangers, but both partners are equally needy. While Diane needs Frasier’s help, Frasier needs her to need him (as Cheap Trick so eloquently put it.) It... almost works, but she doesn’t have the same level of emotional attachment to him.

It takes the play to realize this, and lucky for us. “Rhapsody and Requiem” is a giant in-joke for Cheers fans, being an eerily note-perfect recreation of the show, turned into an ego trip, as the patrons of a Boston bar profess their love and obsession with a wonderful barmaid named Mary Anne. The great John Carroll Lynch (of Fargo and The Drew Carey Show) gets stuck as “Franklin”, Frasier’s double, but it’s “Stan” (Perry Stephens) who has stolen Diane’s heart just as Sam once did. Or at least he’s a fling.

So Diane comes off not so well in this episode. She doesn’t mean to hurt Frasier, and she doesn’t even seem to be consciously giving him the wrong impression, but her self absorption blinds her to a lot. Frasier isn’t at his best either, but this being a fairly empathetic show, in the end both of them are able to make their amends and say a fond farewell. It may just be for nostalgia’s sake, but it’s a fitting ending anyway. (From some accounts this was also a burying of the hatchet for Grammer and Long, after some bad blood during Cheers’ run when Long apparently resented the attention the new character was getting.)

Diane really only pops up this one time in the flesh, but it’s not Shelley Long’s last work on the series. Still, the episode is a fitting denouement for their relationship, such as it was. The various Cheers reunions really only exist for old time’s sake, but this one captures that wistful nostalgia quite well. There’s really no getting over a relationship, at least not one that ended as badly as this, but Frasier finds what closure he can.

No Guest Caller

Written by Christopher Lloyd
Directed by James Burrows

Aired February 13, 1996

Frasier: What you are feeling is that this woman has reached into your chest, plucked out your heart, and thrown it to her hell-hounds for a chew toy! And it's not the last time either! Because that's what this woman is! She is the Devil! There's no use running away from her, because no matter how far you go, no matter how many years you let pass, you will never be completely out of reach of those bony fingers! So drink hearty, Franklin, and laugh! Because you have made a pact with Beelzebub! And her name is Mary Anne!

(Transcriptions by Mike Lee at

Monday, February 14, 2011

Frasierquest 3.13: Moon Dance

Niles and Daphne on the dance floor
Martin: Take my word for it - you're sticking a fork in a toaster.

Niles: Well, my muffin's stuck!

When last we left Niles and Daphne, they were firmly in the “not going to happen anytime soon” category; Frasier had supposed that his actually winning her on any level would require a mass extinction event. “Moon Dance” doesn’t upend the status quo, but it’s the first episode since “Midwinter Night’s Dream” two seasons ago to suggest that these two might be a good couple. In so doing it creates one of the most striking and romantic images of the series, one that would be referenced years and years later.

It’s also an amazing fluke of an episode. At the last minute, it was bumped up in the production schedule, and so in order to turn the story into a full script, the entire staff broke into teams and wrote each scene separately, doing minor editing at the end to make it work together. Without the much larger than usual “Written by” credit at the beginning, I doubt anyone would guess; it’s a great script. Kelsey Grammer makes his directorial debut here, and the warmth he brings helps make this a television masterpiece.

Maris has been gallivanting around town with all sorts of male suitors, and it’s driving Niles mad. He’s quickly being perceived in high society as a lonely sad sack, and he decides that he needs to start dating pronto. He manages to invite Marjorie Nash, the fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt heiress, to a gala winter’s ball, but he can’t dance. Daphne volunteers to give him a few lessons, and he starts to enjoy their sessions so much he doesn’t tell her when Marjorie cancels. But all goes well, as when he finally does tell Daphne, she decides she’ll accompany him. Niles is even more overjoyed, but Martin warns him that he may just end up saying something he’ll regret. Guess what happens.

You’ll notice that Frasier himself is not really in this episode very much. On a vacation with Frederick to Colonial Williamsburg, he unintentionally leaves Martin to deal with the insanity at home. Martin does an okay job with the whole “voice of reason” thing, understanding Niles’ attraction to Daphne and almost making him see that he’s in a dangerous situation, but because Daphne doesn’t know any of this he can only go so far. It’s a nice twist on the formula; it can be hard for a show to get to the point where they barely have their star in an episode, but Frasier’s ensemble has been strong enough for a while now. Grammer’s direction is superb, managing to be visually striking in a format which most often settles for technically competent, in addition to getting some great performances. The dance sequences themselves are very impressive, with Tim Smith choreographing and David Hyde Pierce and Jane Leeves (who started her career as a dancer) apparently doing their own moves. There are a couple of overhead shots, I’m not sure, but the rest is them.

Most of this episode’s appeal and impact lies in the simple joy of the dance. I’m no connoisseur of dancing as a spectator sport, I’ve never seen an Astaire/Rogers movie, but I can only imagine that the people making this episode had that tradition in mind. Daphne, perhaps understanding that a lot of Niles’ problems come from his being so very high strung, encourages him to relax and let himself go, and we feel his liberation and his exhilaration as he makes a connection with the woman of his dreams. Of course, it eventually leads to his making a major blunder, but thankfully, she doesn’t quite understand that he means it when he says he adores her.

The final twist is an interesting one. It’s sad, of course, because Niles really hasn’t won Daphne over in one mad tango, but what I can’t help but be left with is a sense of just how sweet a gesture she’s made. It’s hard to think of what bold instinct told her to go ahead and play the paramour, but it does wonders not just for Niles’ image, but his confidence. It’s a profound gesture of friendship and affection, and though Daphne’s already well established as a sweet and caring woman, it’s almost above and beyond the call of duty. She may not be in love with Niles, but there’s love in her actions.

And so we have an episode both bittersweet and thrilling; funny, with some extra doses of cuteness thanks to a subplot involving Eddie, but emotionally powerful as well. Niles and Daphne’s dance may not have brought them together, but from here on out they gained a sense of inevitability. The greater dance between them has started, a slow and complicated waltz that makes up one of the greatest romances in television history. And it all started with a simple box step.

Guest Caller: Jodie Foster as Marlene

Written by (takes a deep breath) Joe Keenan, Christopher Lloyd, Rob Greenberg, Jack Burditt, Chuck Ranberg, Anne Flett-Giordano, Linda Morris, and Vic Rauseo

Directed by Kelsey Grammer
Aired February 6, 1996

Daphne: Don't think, just feel. You're an Argentine slum dweller. You have no house, no car. You don't know where your next meal is coming from. But none of that matters, because tonight- we have the Tango.

Niles: Oh mama, I've got it all!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Random Movie Report #86: The Thing From Another World

The Thing DVD cover and Amazon link
Remakes and adaptations aren’t a zero-sum game; to love one version of a story does not mean you have to love the other any less. But when it comes to both film versions of John W. Campbell Jr.’s short story “Who Goes There?”, it’s been an up-and-down affair. At first John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing was considered a gory retread, inferior to the Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby original; now it’s generally considered the better picture, to the extent that The Thing From Another World is dangerously near obscurity. We just can’t have that.

A very early blend of science fiction and horror, The Thing From Another World must have seemed startlingly original at the time; the tale of men and women trapped at the North Pole and confronted with a violent alien monster was simply something that hadn’t been done yet, at least not on film. It still has a certain freshness to it; none of the cliches have been established yet, and while we see them formed, they arise organically and aren’t just forced in out of a sense of obligation. It’s a tight, well told suspense story that also lets itself breathe now and again, and is a more rewarding experience because of it.

The film takes place at an Arctic research base under the command of the US air force. Something has fallen to Earth nearby, and on investigating the military discover a crashed flying saucer frozen beneath the ice. An attempt to thaw the craft with thermite instead ends up blowing it to bits, but they’re able to recover one of the aliens, frozen himself. The block of ice is kept in a cold room on the base, but is accidentally covered with an electric blanket and melts- disgorging the living occupant, a hulking humanoid plant which feeds on animal blood and can fend off seemingly any attack.

It’s long been rumored that Howard Hawks was more the director of this picture than the freshman Nyby, and to be sure the picture contains a number of familiar Hawksian touches- overlapping dialogue, a sharp female love interest, etc. Of course, as a producer Hawks no doubt had a lot of influence already, but film being a collaborative medium, it’s hard to say just who did what.

It’s probably best to look at Nyby and Hawks, and screenwriter Charles Lederer, as partners; this is the kind of film that uses the old assembly line to good effect. The dialogue is superb, the witty banter between servicemen (and a smartmouth reporter) seeming strangely natural, a response to fear and tension. There’s especially a nice sense of joy and discovery when the crew realize they’ve discovered a flying saucer. At times the atmosphere almost seems too jovial, but it’s so enjoyable in and of itself that it doesn’t really matter that it’s not what you expect from a horror movie. We really get a sense of the men on base as individuals, their personalities shining through the confrontation with the unknown.

The creature itself is played by James Arness, for all we see of him. The filmmakers weren’t fully satisfied with the makeup design, and instead decided to show as little of the monster as possible. We see the silhouette, a towering bald creature in ragged black clothes resembling nothing so much as the Frankenstein monster, and there are fleeting glimpses of clawed hands. (Of course the DVD cover gives the entire game away.) Apart from a truly memorable alien howl, the creature’s main threat is in the explanation of what it does; a pure vegetable, the alien not only feeds on blood, but uses it to cultivate the seed pods containing its offspring. Even though this is mostly done offscreen, there’s something horrible enough in the idea to make the creature more than just a lumbering killer. (Some critics have observed a parallel with this film’s story of alien invasion in the onset of the Cold War, and while this is never hammered in, the echoes are there.)

Some really strong performances underlie this, most notably Margaret Sheridan as Nikki, the feisty love interest for the stubborn Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey). The obligatory romance is usually death to the sci-fi thriller, but here it’s treated as more than a pat obligation, and instead is real enough to be engaging. Douglas Spencer gets all the best quips as the reporter Scotty, while Robert Cornthwaite is nicely chilling as Dr. Carrington, the archetypal movie scientist who thinks the creature will be peaceful if we can just communicate with it. Ultimately I think one of the reasons I prefer this film to its remake is the far more colorful cast; we like these people, and want them to win over this soulless visitor. There’s a certain heart to it all that the more focused thrillers often miss.

Even after all the cliches and conventions have become familiar, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD feels fresh. There’s the thrill of unexplored territory to it. It’s not the kind of relentless suspense picture that never lets the audience breathe, but rather one that rises and falls, creating a place of comfort and safety in a hostile environment and then having that place invaded by a cold and remorseless terror. It’s a slick, keenly polished piece of work that stays vibrant in the imagination, and it’s too important a film in the history of the genre to let fall by the wayside. Hopefully both versions of the film can happily coexist in the science fiction canon; at least, we should figure this out before the third version comes out.

Based on the short story “Who Goes There?” by Joseph W. Campbell, Jr.
Screenplay by Charles Lederer
Directed by Christian Nyby (with qualification)

Grade: A-

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Frasierquest 3.12: Come Lie With Me

Daphne and Joe, the morning after
Roz: Oh, let's see. "Please Daphne don't have sex. It disturbs my reading." No, that's not too selfish!

Even though Frasier, Martin, and Daphne have been living together for a long time now, new issues keep coming up. “Come Lie With Me” is partly about the trouble of Daphne having a boyfriend over, and partly about the need for us to accept little lies to get by every day. It’s also an excuse for an utterly hilarious portrait of just how bad things would get if Frasier and Martin had to live together without any kind of buffer, and while the audience doesn’t need to be sold on Daphne’s presence being a good thing, sometimes we need to appreciate just how valuable she is.

Daphne and her boyfriend Joe have taken things to the next level, and one morning he’s a little late getting out of her bed, and runs into Frasier and Martin. The awkwardness passes, but Frasier is uncomfortable with Daphne having sex under his roof, and asks her not to let it happen again. She decides the only way this can work is if she gets her own place, and when she goes off for a weekend getaway with Joe, Frasier and his dad discover just how bad a situation this would be.

Among other things, this story is a good way to show progress with Daphne and Joe; it confirms that they’re still an item and that he’s not a one-off boyfriend. This gets taken care of by the first commercial break, and Joe disappears for the rest of the show, but the reminder is useful because he’s going to be around for a while. This is the first long-term romance for Daphne on the show, and though I don’t think we ever spend enough time with Joe for him to become familiar, it adds just a little bit to Daphne’s character. We’re reminded that she has her own life, and isn’t just the Crane den mother.

That said, the Cranes clearly need a den mother. The sequence of Frasier and Martin trying to live alone together is just one segment of the episode, but it’s the funniest and most revealing. Martin’s slobbiness and pantslessness is to be expected, but Frasier has his bad habits too (he’s apparently an electricity hog), and so it’s less Felix Unger and Oscar Madison than it is two men actively determined to break each other.

The subplot of Niles’ divorce is taken a little further here, as he experiences an early casualty: losing touch with Maris’ rich society friends. As I’ve said before, it shouldn’t matter because these are by and large utterly horrible people that no sane human being would want to keep company with, and the fact that they forget Niles as soon as he splits from Maris is further evidence, but it hurts him nonetheless and this gives way to the episode’s big theme.

The idea is that sometimes you have to accept a few lies in order to get through the day. Daphne comes up with an utterly brilliant one in order to resolve the situation at home, and Frasier, gently pushing ethics to one side, talks her through it until it’s almost not completely implausible. Niles accepts a more standard one to explain his uninvitation to a charity gala, and in the end everyone celebrates with cookies. (Reduced Fat, so you can eat twice as many.)

So we have an episode that, while it basically advances and reaffirms two new storylines (Niles’ divorce and Daphne’s new boyfriend), goes back to the dynamic that was set up in the very first episode. Daphne’s presence is necessary for Frasier and Martin to live together, at least for now, because she can keep them from killing each other. And if she has to pretend that Joe is impotent because of an injury he received in the Falkland Islands, so be it.

No Guest Caller

Written by Steven Levitan
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired January 30, 1996

Frasier: Daphne... you can't go. You have to stay. I've only just recently realized how important you are to us. You see, if you go, Dad and I will kill each other. I'm not just tossing out hyperbole here, I'm speaking in the most literal sense: Dad and I, both dead.