Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Bookshelf: The Death of WCW by R. D. Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez

Death of WCW cover and Amazon link
As of late I’ve become a bit of a mark for pro wrestling. It’s more of a performance sport than anything else (albeit without a formal judging system), and I enjoy the theatrics and the over the top clash of larger than life personalities. WWE’s Wrestlemania XXVII is this Sunday, so it’s as good a time as any to do something wrasslin’ related on the site.

I actually bought this book a while ago and devoured it quickly; I remember the heyday of the Monday Night Wars between then-WWF’s Raw and WCW’s Nitro. Like a lot of people I watched both, but drifted away, and was surprised to hear that the whole business ended in 2001 when World Championship Wrestling was bought by the WWF and effectively dissolved. From the minds behind Figure Four Weekly and, The Death of WCW details precisely how the Ted Turner-owned promotion, which for a time outdrew the WWF by a wide margin, not only fell behind but slowly and surely ran itself into the ground. It’s a fascinating look at the inner workings of a business that often isn’t taken very seriously, but which can have as much at stake as a movie studio.

The book runs in chronological order and effectively covers the company’s entire lifespan, starting from its beginnings in the late Eighties. As Vince McMahon’s New York-based WWF went national with Hulk Hogan at the forefront, Ted Turner bought the ailing Jim Crockett Promotions, part of the prestigious-by-wrestling-standards National Wrestling Alliance, and turned into a nationwide competitor. WCW struggled to find its feet for many years, but used Turner’s millions to nab Hogan and debut TNT Monday Nitro against Raw. Aggressive booking and poaching of WWF stars Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, combined with an angle that saw the two waging a proxy war on the WCW, helped propel the promotion into the lead, with a key moment being Hogan’s turn to the dark side at a summer pay-per-view, joining with Hall and Nash to create the New World Order.

So what went wrong? Well, according to the book, a number of things. Manager Eric Bischoff had created a plotline and an approach to wrestling on TV that worked, and so saw no need to change things for years. The New World Order continued to dominate the WCW without the good guys scoring substantial victories (a crucial match between Hogan and perennial babyface Sting at the Starrcade 1997 PPV ended in a messy, unsatisfying finish), and new talent was consistently kept low on the card while the focus remained on familiar and aging stars like Hogan, Ric Flair, and Randy Savage. In the meantime, the WWF rallied, with the rise of the raunchy and very 90s “Attitude” era and the ascent of new stars like Stone Cold Steve Austin (ironically a WCW castoff) and the Rock. When Raw started beating Nitro in the ratings again, Bischoff panicked, and WCW’s programming became increasingly erratic in an effort to be unpredictable. Increasingly confusing booking continued with other managers and with the teamup of Bischoff and former WWF writer Vince Russo, and business went into an outright freefall.

The book takes a very methodical approach to unravelling the WCW collapse, going through individual shows and pay-per-views with ratings, gate revenues, and buyrates for each. There’s a real sense of the momentum of storylines as they unfold (the book can’t cover every plot that was going, but the crucial “main event” angles are followed closely), and there’s a sense of genuine excitement as the Hall/Nash “Outsiders” plot becomes the nWo. The book also gets across the sense in later years of that very storyline starting to stall out, extended well beyond its time. Even as the mammoth Bill Goldberg begins his ascent to company icon status, Reynolds and Alvarez point out a few missteps made in his push (including piping in “Goldberg” chants when the cameras showed audiences with their mouths closed, and having his victory over Hulk Hogan appear on free TV instead of pay-per-view in order to boost Nitro’s ratings). It can be hard to keep track of all this, as individual wrestlers and staff come and go, but the writers have a strong sense of the company’s momentum.

As well-written as the book is, it does suffer from an apparent lack of editing. At times the writing lapses into a crude, unprofessional voice, as with the observation that during an on-air tribute of sorts to the newly villainous Hogan by the nWo, “[i]t looked for al the world like he [Bischoff] was either going to propose to the Hulkster or blow him mid-ring. Maybe both.” Though, to be fair, this informal style does produce some funny observations now and again, including the assertion that regularly throwing wrestlers into swimming pools could have saved the company. And at times the writers do attribute motives and reasoning to some people’s actions without any actual way of knowing what was going through their heads (though this is not unheard of in nonfiction writing.) The book assumes some familiarity with pro wrestling terms and concepts, not really explaining things like matches being in “negative star range” or what a buyrate is; most of this you can pick up from context or the internet, but it could have been more accessible.

Despite this the book is endlessly rereadable; it’s a thrilling and extremely informative account of a time when wrestling was at its hottest, and there’s both the amusement factor of watching a company do everything wrong, and sadness at what ended up being lost. I genuinely enjoy WWE’s current product more often than not, for all its faults, but it’s clear that losing its closest competitor was the worst thing that could happen to it. The pro wrestling business has stagnated since, and while nobody’s nostalgic for the days of the KISS Demon and World Heavyweight Champion David Arquette, it still feels like the business is missing something. If you’re at all interested in pro wrestling and how it really works, this is a must-read.

Grade: A-

Random Movie Report #88: Woman in the Moon

Woman in the Moon DVD cover and Amazon link
The mark that Metropolis made on the science fiction genre- and really, on movies, period- was so distinctive that it’s easy to overlook Fritz Lang and Thea Von Harbou’s second major sci-fi epic. Woman in the Moon isn’t quite the masterpiece its predecessor is, but it’s remarkably ahead of its time, managing to set conventions not only for future man-in-space epics but also, apparently, for actual space travel. Parts have aged better than others, but it’s worth a look.

Young Wolf Heilus (Willy Fritsch) is friends with the brilliant Professor Georg Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl), who for decades has held to the theory that there is a bouty of gold on the moon, and that a rocket could be used to ferry the precious metals to Earth. Working with his friend Hans Windegger (Gustav Wangenheim), Heilus is hoping to realize Manfeldt’s dream and travel to the moon, all the better to get away from his lost love Friede Velten (Gerda Maurus), to whom Windegger is now engaged. However, on hearing of his plan to leave, both Windegger and Velten insist on going with him, Velten as the expedition’s official documentarian. However, there’s also a saboteur working for the major gold barons of the world, and this mysterious “Mr. Turner” (Fritz Rasp) blackmails himself onto the expedition; there also turns out to be a stowaway, Gustav (Gusti Stark-Gstettenbaur), a young boy fond of reading science fiction magazines. The rocket is completed and the launch successful, but the voyage taxes everyone’s spirits, and the moon itself has a few fatal lures.

This is a film that takes its time to get going, as epics are wont to do. We’re more than an hour in before we get to the actual day of the launch, and unfortunately way too much of that time is wasted on a rather sloppy corporate espionage plot that only serves to put Turner on the crew. It’s really very slow and it’s never entirely clear what Turner is intending to do as part of the mission. Von Harbou wrote the story as a novel before she and Lang adapted it for film, and apparently Turner played a much bigger part in the book, but what’s left in still seems too much.

Once all the prep work is out of the way, though, the story becomes a rather tense and effective space adventure which would influence films in the genre for decades. Lang actually manages to predict a number of elements of actual space travel some forty years before we actually landed on the moon; there’s the first ever countdown to launch, a multi-stage rocket, a figure 8-orbit complete with the ship rotating, and a lot of discussion about acceleration pressure and how much will squish the passengers flat. Parts like the ship being launched from a water bath are more fanciful, and of course the moon itself is shown to have an atmosphere, burbling mud pits, and lots of gold. Still, it works; the special effects are superb, and the characters start to realistically feel the tension of being confined in a perilous environment.

The human story starts to narrow itself down to a love triangle, between Heilus, Windegger, and of course Friede as the titular woman. Early in the voyage the film makes it clear where it’s leaning by turning Windegger into a weeping nervous wreck, instantly regretting going into space and wanting to go home as soon as possible. I generally don’t like it when a romantic subplot forces things this heavily, but I will credit Wangenheim with a believable performance, and the film with at least making his breakdown understandable. He’s not really a bad guy, and ultimately the love story is not as melodramatic as it could have been.

The film is a spectacle, and on that level is a remarkable achievement. Whatever problems it has on the character and pacing level, it still has a certain humanity and sincerity carrying it over the rough patches. The film is cinema’s first really serious look at a concept that at the time, many people still believed was impossible. While not Lang’s best, it’s a flawed classic, and has both prescience and power.

Based on the novel by Thea von Harbou
Screenplay by Fritz Lang and Thea v. Harbou with scientific material by Prof. Hermann Oberth
Directed by Fritz Lang

Grade: A-

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Frasierquest 3.16: Look Before You Leap

Daphne Moon in her punk phase.
Roz: After watching me crash and burn like that you’re gonna go out and sing this very difficult song, in a foreign language, under these unflattering lights, with your clothes soaked with sweat, on live television...

Frasier: How long are you going to stay mad at me?

Roz: Until the day I get married.

Every once in a while Frasier gets an idea in his head. He’ll develop a philosophical conceit or principle that he tries to apply to his entire life and those of the people around him, and it inevitably causes disaster. “Look Before You Leap” is a tale of good intentions gone wrong, as a piece of advice that would be taken as positive in 95% of all situations ends up being just the wrong thing for its characters to do. It’s also a seasonal episode of sorts, and as such is a good indicator of how far behind I’ve gotten.

On an unseasonably warm and sunny Leap Day, Frasier ponders the benefit of a “free day” drifting around every four years, and decides the best way to commemorate it is to take a leap, to do something daring and shake up one’s routine. Daphne decides to get her hair restyled, Martin heads off to celebrate an old friend’s birthday, Roz is encouraged to give an on-air greeting to a cute guy she met on a bus, and Frasier decides that during the local PBS pledge drive he’ll sing an aria from Rigoletto as opposed to his usual rendition of “Buttons and Bows”. Niles, meanwhile, is tempted by an offer from Maris to have some meaningless marital relations, but Frasier convinces him to take his own leap of willpower and resist her charms (such as they are.) This grows harder to do as the other characters’ leaps backfire on them one after another, and Frasier himself starts thinking he should back out of his own dare.

This episode is structured as a cosmic farce. None of the characters’ stories are directly related to each other, but they’re all examples of Murphy’s Law in action. They’re all simple in structure, with what goes wrong being fairly simple too- Daphne just happens to get a very bad perm, Martin has plane trouble, and Roz’s guy is married. It’s the cumulative effect of them all going down in flames that makes each successive story funnier, as well as the pressure their failures put on Niles (who really wants to get some) and Frasier (who really can’t sing the aria he chose.) The pacing of the episode is great, the disasters growing more random and ridiculous as time goes by.

I particularly like Roz’s story in this, because it throws an interesting light on her character. She has an authentic schoolgirl crush on this guy she’s just met, and she betrays a little more of her romantic side; most of her relationships are just for fun, but she’s open to the idea of falling in love. That she won’t get involved with a married man (as he turns out to be) is not exactly unexpected, but it does establish her as having some limits. Of course, Frasier’s own flameout is one for the ages, a brilliant sputtering out of a half-remembered song which includes the immortal improv, “Let’s all go to a taco show.” (Thankfully, this song ended up on the Frasier soundtrack CD.)

Is the message of this episode not to take chances? Well, no- Frasier tries to back out, and he crashes so spectacularly it makes everyone else feel a little better. Maybe the cosmos is punishing him for trying to push everyone else into something when he himself didn’t have the guts. Or, perhaps, as the Simpsons once put it, maybe there is no moral, and it’s just a bunch of stuff that happened.

Either way, this is a lot of fun. The show gets to mess around with various silly things, all the characters get some spotlight time, and it ends on a great song number. “Look Before You Leap” is an episode about a day that’s not really a holiday and only exists to correct a timekeeping problem, but damn if the show doesn’t run that ball all the way to the end zone.

No Guest Caller

Written by Chuck Ranberg and Anne Flett-Giordano
Directed by James Burrows
Aired February 27, 1996

Frasier: You will rue the day!

Niles: I don't care! Niles gotta have it!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Academy of the Underrated: Zardoz

Zardoz DVD cover and Amazon link
I’m not sure what this says about my personality, but often when there’s a movie about which it’s said “You’ll either love it or hate it”, I will instead come down nearer the middle. Works like these tend to have very obvious flaws but also very clear strengths, and while I’m almost never at the absolute median point, it’s nice to be able to see both sides.

Zardoz is a movie that invites such responses, because it is gorgeous and stately while also being goofy as hell and, worse, pretentious as fuck. In short, it’s a John Boorman movie. Of the many, many dystopian futures predicted in 1970s science fiction, none is quite so unusual as what he’s presented here, in an elaborate fable about mortality, civilization, and testosterone. It’s confusing and strange and sometimes slow, but also thoughtful and compelling both in its concepts and its presentation. It’s basically what would happen if an art filmmaker adapted a cheap postapocalyptic dime novel from one of the smuttier newsagents.

Zardoz is the god of the wastelands, a giant floating stone head who commands bands of roving Exterminators to kill the Brutals who populate the Earth, leading them with the now-infamous cry, “The gun is good! The penis is evil!” Zed (Sean Connery), one of the more inquisitive Exterminators, hides inside the stone head and finds it taking him to the Vortex, a paradise zone inhabited by the Immortals- the elite scientists and aristocrats who survived the apocalypse by walling themselves off and discovering the secret of eternal life. Ages of eternal bliss have made them decadent, impotent, and largely bored, and while the wise Consuella (Charlotte Rampling) advises that the brute be killed, they want him around in hopes that they can learn a few things, including how to make their men potent again. The increasingly cynical Friend (John Alderton), however, has a more subversive and ambitious plan: he thinks Zed can discover how to make them all mortal again, so that they can finally get around to dying.

Though an original creation of John Boorman’s crazed imagination, Zardoz plays like it could be an adaptation of a book. It has many of the earmarks of written postapocalyptic sci-fi, from a virile alpha-male barbarian protagonist to a society written as clear commentary on modern decadence / sterility / whatever-issue-is-bugging-the-writer-at-the-time, with an emphasis on matters sexual. It’s actually a surprisingly well-thought-out and coherent society that only requires a little handwaving as to how immortality was uncovered. Zardoz’s message of death makes sense as the Immortals’ attempt to keep the Brutal population in check, and ironically it’s when they change their mind and Zardoz tells them to use the Brutals for slave labor to grow food instead that Zed and other exterminators rebel. The Immortals are all linked by a kind of psychic network, those who meet with hazard are regrown, and punishment is doled out via forced aging. The Vortex is not quite a dystopia, but cracks are appearing, and Zed’s influence precipitates more violence and decay, as though it were inevitable.

The film’s gender politics are, frankly, I don’t even know. Zed is in some ways the ultimate image of what masculinity was supposed to be in the 1970s; if the fashion industry still existed he would no doubt be in menswear catalogs. There’s a definite contrast between the hyper-manly Connery and the more delicate males of the Vortex, which may be an early example of the fear-of-emasculation crap that rears its head whenever someone discovers that not all men like football, but unlike many postapoc barbarians, Zed doesn’t see bending prideful women into place as a concern; indeed, it’s in Consuella’s increasing aggression and bloodthirst that she starts to come to Zed’s level, and soon just about everyone is finding some way to devolve. The ultimate theme is that death is necessary for life to have meaning, and in some ways the story is the collision of two unbalanced societies, one locked in immortality and another valuing death over all.

Boorman made this film for around one million dollars, and it looks incredible for that amount. Zardoz itself is the finest effect; the visual of a fearsome stone head slowly gliding through the air is indelible, and it’s frequently accompanied by Beethoven’s 7th Symphony (the one that was used in The King’s Speech a lot) for extra atmosphere. Both the Vortex and the brute lands beyond look very convincing, and while the costuming is odd at best, it’s also memorable.

That phrasing could equally well apply to Zardoz as a whole, a film that sticks in the mind whether you want it to or not. As with many of Boorman’s films, not all of the action makes objective sense, it moves quite slowly at times, and the visuals straddle the line between gorgeous and silly right up until the end. But it has power, and beauty, and while it’s not the clearest or most coherent work of social criticism there is, it is provocative. A strange spectacle such as this bears watching at least once.

Written and Directed by John Boorman

Grade: B

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Top 10 Best Films of 2010 and Assorted Miscellany

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the list that takes its time! The list that doesn’t care about currency or relevance or pageviews, but waits until anything that could possibly be from the past year has passed through Kansas City and the world! This is the list that completes the line-up! The last list you’ll ever need! This is the Best Films of 2010 and Assorted Miscellany!

So 2010 was not a very good year. I do my best not to fall into easy pessimism or nostalgic despair, but Hollywood showed some structural issues that need addressing, and the indie and foreign scenes didn’t quite pick up the slack. Granted, a lot of the former may be the final shakeouts of the writers’ strike, and really, year to year the quality of movies released can vary widely. Still, a problem I had was a certain lack of ambition in the films released. Too many pictures were content to be good or even just okay films of their type; action films, comedies, horror flicks, etc. tried to do one job well, and that’s admirable, but it created a certain lack of urgency. There wasn’t enough that you had to see in the theater, not enough that fulfilled the promise of entering a movie house and going elsewhere. The film industry needs competence, but it doesn’t need austerity. Even among the great films, even some on this list, there was a sense of unnecessary restraint.

That said, it wasn’t all bad. There were original stories, moments of showmanship, and some surprise hits among the critical darlings. And some of the unambitious B-fare was pretty good too. So let’s ac-cen-tu-ate the positive with a countdown of the year’s Top 10!

(Order subject to change at any time. Management not responsible for inconsistencies that may result. Close cover before striking.)

10. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. And already I’m cheating. This was unveiled to most of the world in 2009, and played some US dates late that year, but whatever. Weird distribution patterns qualify. In any case, it’s a splendid thriller, in some ways a traditional murder mystery while in others expanding and focusing more on the broken personalities of people brilliant enough to solve such things. The plot is full of surprises that end up making sense, and the lead performances are fearless in their intensity. Hard to watch in at least one place, but gripping and compelling.

9. Winter's Bone. An excess of blue notwithstanding (Note to filmmakers: OTHER COLORS EXIST), this is a strong picture that is mostly a noir-esque thriller, but also a fascinating portrait of an oft-unseen culture. It treats the concept of impoverished communities becoming havens for meth without straying too far into lurid sensationalism, and the focus on the lead character’s need to keep her family taken care of at all costs holds it together.

8. The King's Speech. I still don’t quite think this deserved Best Picture and I confess my ranking might have been slightly higher had it not won. It’s a very good picture, with amazing performances and a script that manages to wring genuine tension, emotion, and surprise out of a series of diction lessons. Firth and Rush alone guarantee it a spot on the list.

7. Inception. An expertly crafted bit of psychological acrobatics, Inception is crisp, elegant, and engaging in its constant shifting of realities. Sharp acting and dialogue, and the occasional moment of good humor, keep it from becoming a cold and lifeless academic exercise, and the puzzle-box construction of the thing is truly a wonder.

6. Toy Story 3. In some ways this is a film that confronts many of the same issues and themes as the first two entries in the series, but it gets closer to the nub- the cold reality that nothing lasts forever- than it ever has before. It’s funny, it’s gut-wrenching, it’s surprisingly imaginative for a third run-through, and it’s one of the few new 3D films to make the technology work.

5. Shutter Island. A reasonably straightforward, traditional psychological thriller may not be what most people expect from Scorcese, but he brings a real flair and energy to the genre. Shutter Island is atmospheric, intense, and let’s just say it, scary as Hell. It’s an old fashioned thrill, and the twist is one that you may see coming, but it’s still a great time.

4. True Grit. There’s something weirdly welcoming about this movie, despite it being a spare and brutal story of vengeance and death on an unforgiving frontier. Maybe it’s the performances (especially those of Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld), maybe it’s that the Coens know just the right balance of terror and beauty and dark humor, maybe it’s that it just looks so damn good. It’s so low-key that you don’t know who or what to credit most.

3. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. THIS is what I’m talking about, people. Someone puts together a dazzling and audacious slam-bang action romantic comedy that defies genre boundaries as it reinvents them and is full of treats for the viewer in nearly every frame, and it gets completely ignored. Remember fun? Remember bright colors and action sequences that make sense? This is not a film without its flaws- it shares the comic series’ problem with a protracted conclusion (even if it’s not the same conclusion)- and I guess if you’re the sort of individual who does not forgive personal flaws easily the main characters may seem unworthy of true love, and there’s something you could say about “hipsters”, but all of it just seems so insignificant. This is spectacle, this is a main event, this is smarter than it looks and more sincere than you would ever expect, and it’s a pure example of the kind of satisfaction we should be demanding when we pay ever-increasing ticket prices.

2. Black Swan. Darren Aronofsky likes to make movies about obsession, and like The Wrestler this is focused on the obsessions of performance and art. It’s moody, intense, and unwavering, at once a pile of dance movie clich├ęs and a glorious head trip. Natalie Portman doesn’t miss a step, the visuals only get ridiculous when they’re supposed to, and the result is one of the most memorable pictures of the year.

1. The Social Network. We’ve all heard that Aaron Sorkin took a lot of liberties with the real story behind Facebook, but it’s hard to care that much. The point is not to do a hatchet job on Mark Zuckerberg or create conflicts where none exist, but simply to show with clarity and beauty the growth of an idea and the rise of a man who is utterly devoted to making it work. It doesn’t push too hard on the negatives or positives of what Facebook is and how it’s changed us, and Sorkin and Fincher focus on the exhiliration of the journey. It’s a subdued yet daring picture, spinning a remarkable story out of what could have been either dry as toast or a bad movie of the week.

Just missing the cut off: Get Him to the Greek, The Tempest

Still need to get around to: 127 Hours

The ever-expanding list of notable performances:

Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Justin Timberlake, The Social Network
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Helen Mirren, The Tempest
Djimon Honsou, The Tempest
Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom
Danny Trejo, Machete
Joseph Gordon Levitt, Inception

Most Underrated Movie of the Year: The Tempest. I’m convinced part of this is fallout from the Spider-Man on Broadway debacle, but Taymor deserves better. I’ve already written up a full review, suffice it to say: movie good, imagery not over the top considering subject matter, Mirren flawless.

Saul Bass Award for Best Opening Credits Sequence: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Academy of the Underrated: The Tempest (2010)

Tempest poster and IMPAwards link
I can’t help but be in Julie Taymor’s corner. Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark may be shaping up to be a bigger catastrophe than anything in Broadway’s history, but it takes inspiration to stage that kind of failure, and Taymor has an imagination and ambition that I think more filmmakers ought to have. The Tempest puts that imagination on vivid display, in a bold but surprisingly straightforward adaptation of Shakespeare’s final classic. It’s received tepid reviews, but I can’t quite figure why, since there’s not a lot wrong with it.

The one major change is that Prospero is now Prospera, and is played by Helen Mirren. She’s a former duchess, exiled from Venice for practicing magic, now living alone with her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones). With the aid of the sprite Ariel (Ben Whishaw) she has used her powers to wreck a ship containing King Alonso (David Straitharn), the man who exiled her, and washed all the passengers ashore alive, planning an elaborate revenge for the injustice visited on her. Drunks Trinculo and Stephano (Russell Brand and Alfred Molina respectively) join up with the strange island native Caliban (Djimon Honsou) on a deluded ramble to try and depose the island’s master, Alonso and his cohorts (Chris Cooper, Alan Cumming, and Tom Conti) make their way believing his son to be dead, while his not-dead-at-all son (Reeve Carney) falls in love with Miranda.

The major flaw of this film is the same as that of the play, namely that the plot is all over the place; the characters amble uncertainly towards their appointed points in the story, and are walled off from each other until near the end. As such it can feel a little formless, and there isn’t a whole lot of forward momentum. The various sections of it are entertaining in and of themselves, but it does go slack at times.

As one might imagine, the film’s major asset is Helen Mirren. It’s a sign of how natural she is in the role that it never seems like Prospero now being Prospera is that much of a change. She has authority, wit, and a subtle weariness that grows and betrays her inner conflict. The other major standout performance in Honsou’s, though it’s a more troubling one; for better or worse Taymor confronts the colonialist subtext of the play head-on, casting Caliban as more native than monster, and calling up some uncomfortable stereotypes in the process. Caliban is treacherous, but not unsympathetic, easily misled, but not without cunning- there’s a frission to his scenes that I’m sure is intentional. Overall the cast is quite strong, though Russell Brand is one of those performers who is not for all tastes. Whishaw has to carry the weight of the film’s crazier scenes and ideas, and he’s remarkably convincing.

Julie Taymor is known for visual extravagance and flashy effects, which I would argue makes her perfect for Shakespeare. Elizabethan audiences loved unnecessary elaboration and crazy magic, and though Shakespeare got some nuance in he knew to play for their love of the flowery and gratuitous. Taymor doesn’t throw around CGI and visual effects willy-nilly; she saves them for when Ariel and Prospera are really working their stuff, giving us spectacle that, as bizarre as it may seem at times, feels more like true magic than the traditional sparkles and bolts of lightning. It errs on the side of too much, but it works more often than it doesn’t. The photography is grand, with some splendid Hawaiian locations.

So, yeah, I think Julie Taymor is still a great talent. I didn’t love The Tempest as much as the hugely undervalued Across the Universe, but there’s still a passion here, passion married to considerable skill. All the themes that make the original a great work are here, amplified by striking images and an engrossing atmosphere. Mostly gone from theaters, The Tempest deserves better than to sink into obscurity.

Based on the play by William Shakespeare
Written for the screen and directed by Julie Taymor
Grade: A-

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Frasierquest 3.15: A Word to the Wiseguy

Frasier and Niles' new friend
Niles: You see, last week, my lady got on the wrong side of Larry Law, and since then, certain, shall you say, complications have arisen. And now things are hot, hot, hot. And we hear you're the man to turn on the air conditionin'.

Jerome Belasco: I sense you're a film buff, Dr. Crane.

After a couple of touching and relationship-intensive episodes, it’s good to dive back into silliness. “A Word to the Wiseguy” feels like an episode that was slated for an earlier season; it hearkens back to the status quo of Niles and Maris as a couple, with most of the comedy coming from an outside event. It does some interesting things for the Niles and Maris plot, but is mostly just entertaining because it’s funny to see Frasier and Niles dealing with gangsters.

Maris is in trouble. She’s got a huge backlog of unpaid parking tickets and moving violations, and the police have issued a warrant for her arrest. Niles sees this as an opportunity to come to her rescue and possibly work out their conflicts coming from a position of strength, but Martin refuses to help. Roz, after some coaxing, gives him the name of a man who once “helped” a guy she dated. Niles and Frasier contact Jerome Belasco (Harris Yulin), who makes Maris’ criminal record disappear with a phone call, and asks only that perhaps they might be in a position to do a favor for him. And so, eventually, they are; Jerome’s girlfriend Brandi(y/ie/the traditional spelling) (Faith Prince) refuses to marry him, but he thinks advice from the famous radio shrink Dr. Frasier Crane would change her mind. Frasier must choose between having his sacred trust with the public broken or having his bones broken instead, and he’s not even the one who needed the favor.

This is the first indication we get that Niles wants to reconcile with Maris. It’s an unheralded, unannounced wrinkle in the story, but it makes sense; he still loves Maris, and wants her back, but only if things will be different. He wants her to value him, and this is a step in that direction, even if it does involve organized crime.

For the most part the implications for Niles’ relationship are left as subtext, and most of the episode focuses on the more direct problems of what you do when you’re in a gangster’s debt and you have neither the desire nor the ability to break anyone’s kneecaps. Frasier gets placed in an ethical quandary yet again, and it’s not much of a fight- the more he hears of Jerome’s flaws as a boyfriend, the harder it is to pretend to help Brandy*. He makes a game attempt, though.

Jerome himself is a fun character, but probably too flat for anything more than a one-shot, especially since most of the humor comes from his not revealing much about himself. There’s no detail on who he works for, what he’s actually done or is willing to do to those who cross him; Frasier and Niles being easily frightened, he can afford to be subtle. Yulin’s performance is great, skirting the edges of stereotype but never falling into it entirely (and to avoid upsetting anyone, his character is kept ethnically indistinct.) The effervescent Faith Prince turns in a wonderful voice cameo as Brandi*, and gets some of the episode’s best jokes (though one relies on pronunciation and is impossible to replicate in print.) The picture we get of the two as a couple and as individuals is brief but vivid, one of those occasions where broad strokes work best.

There’s not a lot to talk about, not because the episode itself is that thin but because its substance is mostly good, solid joke construction. For all its relationship drama and character development, the show is rooted in sitcom tradition, and this is a premise you could imagine seeing on just about any show. Still, it’s good to see the old conventions when they’re done right. Developments on the divorce front aside, this episode is a fun detour into the more well-lit portions of the underworld, and a great opportunity for two really strong guest actors to strut their stuff.

Guest Callers: Randy Travis as Steve, Faith Prince as Brandie*

Written by Joe Keenan
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired February 20, 1996

Brandi: Money ain't everything, especially when you got a sex life like ours.

Roz: He's not even good in bed?

Brandi: Who knows? We're never there long enough to find out.

Frasier: Oh for... you know this really isn't necessary...

Brandi: I said to him last night, "What the hell was that? I've been vaccinated slower!"

* All I know is, it’s “the traditional spelling.”