Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Frasierquest 3.24: You Can Go Home Again

Frasier and Eddie, May 21, 1993
Frasier and Eddie, May 21, 1996
Frasier (on tape): Good afternoon, Seattle. My name is Dr. Frasier Crane. If you can feel, I can heal.

Frasier (in the present): Fasten your seatbelt, Eddie. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

The end of the season brings us full circle to the start, in a nice little story that revisits the series’ emotional roots. It follows the pattern of the last two season finales, being another episode built on contemplation and Frasier and other characters considering their lives and where they are. The difference is that this time, we effectively get a prequel, a glimpse of Frasier’s life between moving to Seattle and having to take in his father. And despite the bad rep prequels get, it’s a memorable retrospective.

May 21, 1996 marks the third anniversary of The Dr. Frasier Crane Show, and Roz gives Frasier a tape of the first show as a gift. Listening to it sweeps Frasier into a reverie, remembering his disastrous first day, when Roz was a last minute sub for his planned producer (who dumped him for reasons Frasier can’t quite understand) and he couldn’t think of a decent catchphrase. When he meets Niles later that day, he’s reminded, begrudgingly, that he hasn’t been to see his father, who is still living on his own, since he came back to Seattle. The two have been out of touch since mom died, and reconnecting is going to be tough.

There’s a nice parallel plot in the present, where Daphne has a vacation coming up and is trying to decide between seeing her family and heading off to sunny Acapulco. She asks Frasier the all important question, “Why is it so easy to love our families but so difficult to like them?”, and that’s probably what weighs on Frasier’s mind as he listens. Frasier and Martin weren’t getting along when the series started, and things were apparently even worse before then. It’s a really jarring contrast between the easy, joking friction they have in the show’s present and the genuine emotional tension of their earlier relationship, and when we return to the present at the end we get an encouraging sign that things have progressed (Martin can now listen to up to 10 minutes of his son’s show before falling asleep.)

So, it’s not really about Frasier’s first show, but we get all sorts of fascinating details and jokes built on the situational irony of knowing what’s going to happen in the future. Niles and Roz have a rude brush-by at the CafĂ© Nervosa without ever really being introduced, and later Niles catches a whiff of something in the air as a certain adorable Manchester girl (in the most 90s outfit imaginable) briefly dips in and out of scene. And Eddie, who used to stare at Niles, finds a new object of affection. The episode is full of rewards for regular viewers, and the show’s been around enough to indulge them. It’s one of the pleasures of a show lasting into later seasons- it can build on and play around with our knowledge of its characters, tropes, and running gags.

Frasier’s long-form flashback gives him an answer to Daphne’s dilemma, letting her take two vacations so that she can be with her family and work off the tension of being with her family. (This is a good idea that needs to catch on.) His position- that family is tough but rewarding work- is a theme that comes up in the series a lot. The same could be said of relationships in general, but at least we get to choose some of those.

So, as with “My Coffee With Niles”, the season ends with Frasier in a place of serenity. The show’s ability to take these little emotional and philosophical jaunts is one of the things that puts it in such rarefied territory; though it’s a situation comedy, the situation can be as simple as a little quiet time. Not all the finales are like this, and most aren’t from this point on, but the overall level of thoughtfulness remains. I’ll be taking a short break from this for probably a couple of weeks, but as soon as I decide I want to we’ll dive right into Season 4, because the unexamined life is not worth living.

Guest Caller: Sherry Lansing as Angela

Written by Linda Morris & Vic Rauseo
Directed by David Lee

Aired May 21, 1996

Frasier: Little owlet in the glen, I'm ashamed of you /
You're ungrammatical at speaking as you do. /
You should say "to whom, to whom," not "to who, to who." /
Your little friend Miss Katydid may be green, 'tis true, /
But you've never heard her say, /
(sees Roz enter)
Who the hell are you?

Frasierquest 3.23: The Focus Group

The other side of the mirror
Leader: Now I know, you’ve been eyeing this two way mirror, but the only people behind there are data consultants, so please, speak freely. There’s no one involved with the show whose feelings could be hurt.

Roz: If anybody says anything bad about me I’ll kill myself.

One of the consequences of being too smart for your own good is overthinking things, and expecting rational answers where none can be found. Like people’s opinions; it’s good if they’re objective but sometimes they just aren’t, and their likes and dislikes can’t be helped. “The Focus Group”, an episode probably with some roots in the writers’ personal experience, is about the fact that no matter how good you are, somebody is going to dislike you, and it’s not even their fault. Despite falling firmly into the “humor of discomfort” category more than I normally like, it’s a really strong episode buoyed by a fun subplot and some superb acting.

The titular focus group is one being run for Frasier’s show, as is done with a lot of radio shows. The random 12 people chosen seem to like it a lot, with the exception of the soft-spoken Manu (Tony Shalhoub), who doesn’t like the show and doesn’t like Frasier. He’s too shy to be very forthcoming as to why he doesn’t like him, and his lack of a reason drives Frasier nuts. Finding Manu running a newsstand, Frasier sets out to discover what specific complaint he had, and needless to say his attempts at subterfuge and diplomacy do not go well.

Frasier’s insecurity here seems to reflect one that people in the media sometimes suffer; on the one hand, feedback is good because it means your work is being seen/heard/read and generates a response, but no matter how many times you hear “You’re doing great”, it’s those few negative comments that resonate more. I’ve had it happen myself now and again with my various non-review ventures. Obviously Frasier takes this to an extreme, because he’s Frasier. It’s probably worse because he’s a psychiatrist- he helps people, he sees himself as one of the good guys. How could anyone not like that?

The territory is a little similar to that of “I Hate Frasier Crane”, with the key difference that Manu is really a nice, humble guy, who does his best to try an back out of the oppositional situation he’s in once he realizes it. That’s what edges us into discomfort territory, especially with Shalhoub having gained so much experience earning audience sympathy on Wings. But Frasier’s attempts to get a clearer answer (or really just win him over) are so ludicrously disastrous- and done in full view of a completely disbelieving Martin and Niles- that it’s just plain hilarious.

Niles and Daphne get the episode’s main subplot, but it’s not what you think. With both characters on edge due to their own troubles (Niles being billed for art repair after a gallery mishap, Daphne’s boyfriend being off in Vegas on their anniversary), the two back into a full-fledged argument with each other, and though they quickly come to their senses and make up, Niles is frankly turned on. It’s a nice twist on their normal relationship- we, the audience, get a little nervous seeing the two fight (well, I did, can’t speak for you), but the fact that it only excites and attracts Niles to her even more is at once surprising and also so very much him. And though it’s not closely related to the main plot, the fact that it’s about an irrational dislike boiling up and becoming more fuel for an irrational attraction at least keeps it in the same ballpark.

I’m sure Frasier was subjected to a lot of test screenings and focus group meetings itself, and that all the writers, Rob Greenberg included, have been on shows which were given even more scrutiny. Rather than mock the process itself, though, “The Focus Group” deals with how we react to criticism- and specifically, the worst way to do so. It seems like it’d be nice to know just what problems people have with us, but the moral of the story is that you have to accept that you’ll never please anyone. That, or fighting with girls is fun. One or the other.

No Guest Caller

Written by Rob Greenberg
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie

Aired May 14, 1996

Martin: Vegas, huh? Great! Tell him not to miss the show at the Diamond Lounge; “A Topless History of the World”! If they’ve still got the same Bathsheba he’s in for a real treat.

Daphne: Oh, yes, that’s just where I want Joe spending our anniversary. Some smutty show in Vegas!

Martin: No, it’s very tasteful and historically accurate. Except at the end, where Eleanor Roosevelt and Eva Braun settle World War II by wrestling in pudding.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Frasierquest 3.22: Frasier Loves Roz

Frasier helps Roz put herself together
Niles: He claims to have been with, at last count, one hundred and fifty women!

Frasier: Oh puh-leeze. A hundred and fifty...

Niles: As if anything over, say... seven weren't absurd.

Frasier: Well, I would say eleven, but I get your point.

As we near the home stretch for this season, we’ve got some big episodes to go through. “Frasier Loves Roz” is not as Earth-shattering as its title would indicate, but it is an extremely important episode in terms of defining the relationship between the two characters. Roz-focused episodes are welcome because of how rare they are, and this one, executive producer Suzanne Martin’s first writing credit on the show, is a real gem.

On hearing about the latest problems Roz is having with her love life, Frasier advises her to maybe make a change from her usual pretty boys and look for someone more substantial. Roz starts to get serious with a man named Ben (Michael Mitz)- unfortunately, Frasier learns from Niles that Ben is a serial womanizer and sexual compulsive who tends to discard women as quickly as they start to try and get a commitment out of him. Even more unfortunately, Frasier can’t tell Roz about this becase Ben is Niles’ patient and Niles told him this in confidence. Frasier tries to drop subtle hints to Roz that maybe she shouldn’t get so attached to this one, but Roz interprets it as jealousy and, with some unintended help from Daphne, starts to think that maybe Frasier wants her for himself.

One of the things that we learn about Roz in this episode is that despite her penchant for one night stands, she wants a significant relationship as much as the next person. She’s not necessarily looking to settle down, but she’s in the mood for romance. It’s another nice, believable shading to her character that- she’s not inherently lovelorn but everyone gets lonely sometimes. Perhaps her feelings are triggered by the fact that someone back home is getting married, and she’s been asked to wear a hideous green bridesmaids dress, and never expected the bride-to-be to go to the altar before her. Whatever the reason, it puts her in a weaker state than we normally see her.

Frasier and Roz’s interaction in the episode is made especially entertaining by how they talk past each other the entire time. It’s sort of a mirror episode to “Roz in the Doghouse”, where a man coming between them in a professional capacity nearly killed their friendship entirely. Here, with a romantic relationship doing the splitting, they both deeply care for each other and have each other’s happiness in mind. It’s hard to do comedy where almost all the characters are basically decent folk, but it’s always been one of Frasier’s strengths. The misunderstanding which makes up the basis for the humor is plain enough, but it’s a device that lets us see two friends trying to be there for each other without getting to treacly and sentimental.

This is also another test for Frasier and Niles’ legendary and often-strained ethics, another example of how psychiatry as a premise creates plot hooks for the show. It’s solved more by circumstance than by anything else, but that doesn’t prevent Frasier and Niles from hitting the books and looking for any reason that Roz might be declared mentally incompetent so she can be told not to get too close to Ben. Even with her best interests at heart, Frasier can’t help but undercut some of Roz’s more unstable behavior, as well as things he just finds insane (like drinking white zinfandel.) The things we do for our friends.

There’s some very nice acting here by Peri Gilpin, showing Roz at a personal low as she gets her heart broken and ends up sobbing and smearing her makeup while wearing the most hideous green dress. She and Kelsey Grammer establish just the right note for a man and woman who are very close friends but could never really be more than that. (The subplot with Niles and Frasier trying to get Martin on videotape for future generations doesn’t really go anywhere but has a couple of inspired gags.)

The irony of the title is that it’s actually true; Frasier’s not in love with Roz, but he does love her in a way that this episode makes clearer than any before it. We’ve seen Frasier and Roz as partners and friends, but we see now, close to the end of the season, that they’re really best friends. “Frasier Loves Roz” is a sweet, fun episode that quietly shows just how far they’re willing to go for each other.

Guest Caller: David Duchovny as Tom

Written by Suzanne Martin
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired May 7, 1996

Roz: Can you believe I actually have to be seen in public in this thing?

Frasier: Well, Roz, it’s only for a few hours, after that you can donate it to the Salvation Army, and one day make some Irish drag queen very happy.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

In Theaters: Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids poster and IMPAwards link
It’s a sign of how bad things have gotten for the “chick flick” genre that Bridesmaids essentially was promoted and given buzz for not being terrible. There’s something sad about how what should be a totally legitimate function of the film industry- catering to a demographic that makes up 50-odd percent of the population of the world- has been reduced to a cinematic ghetto, with each new ripped-from-Cosmo’s-advice-column entry filling critics and film buffs of both sexes with dread. Hollywood’s been accused of not getting women more than usual lately, and the way this genre has become a toxic dump site makes me think there’s something to it.

I was looking forward to this film from the start, since it looked to have a crudeness and outright irresponsibility that the genre so desperately needs, but even though I’m biased the picture more than met my expectations. The analysis of what this picture means for women in film has gotten a little ridiculous, and it shouldn’t have to carry that weight, but it is a really smart and well-put-together picture that transcends its “The Hangover for women” marketing and successfully strikes a balance between bad taste comedy and emotional realism.

Kristen Wiig is Annie, a woman whose life is not great and bordering on awful. She once owned a bakery, which went out of business, and now works unenthusiastically selling jewelry and having rather meaningless sex with a strangely unappealing Jon Hamm. Her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) gets engaged (to a decidedly nontalkative Tim Heidecker), and asks Annie to be her maid of honor. This puts Helen in contact with the other titular maids, including the newlywed Becca (Ellie Kemper from The Office), burned out wife Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey from Reno 911), hard living Megan (Melissa McCarthy), and the rich, dainty, and all too perfect Helen (Rose Byrne). Helen takes on most of the planning duties for the wedding, and starts to muscle in on Annie’s duties of planning the bridal shower and bachelorette party as well, touching off the most passive-aggressive of feuds. Annie thinks she may actually be losing Lillian, not to her fiance but to Helen, and this starts to wear at her mind, touching off a spiral of freakouts, fights, and generally destructive behavior which puts her friendship- and a potential relationship with a charming patrolman (Chris O’Dowd)- in jeopardy.

This is Wiig’s picture, and where Saturday Night Live usually has her trotting out a succession of one-note characters, here she gets to prove what she can do with an actual role to play. (It likely didn’t hurt that she’s the co-writer.) Annie goes through a lot of emotional damage in this film, and Wiig manages to make it ludicrous and funny while also staying strangely believable. It’s a challenging comic performance that calls upon all her skills for timing, body language, and inflection, and while I can’t be sure what improvisation there may have been I’m going to wager there was at least some.

Wiig is backed up by an excellent cast. Rudolph has a great rapport with her fellow Not Ready For Prime Time Player, and Rose Byrne takes what could have been a broad caricature and gives Helen a certain gentleness- we see that she probably means well, she and Annie just don’t get along. McCarthy has the most off-the-wall character, the kind that has to be in every movie like this to establish the upper limits of outrageous behavior, and she steals several scenes. It’s disappointing that McLendon-Covey and Kemper don’t get more screen time- they clearly have interesting stories but don’t get to tell them because the movie’s running long. It’s the picture’s one real flaw.

As one might expect from a film with Judd Apatow’s involvement, Bridesmaids blends some very lowbrow jokes with genuine insight into how we behave. The low we see Annie hit in this picture is very recognizable and relatable; it’s mostly her own doing, but we can understand the reason she gets into such a state, and we see it from her perspective. The themes of self-loathing and projection are strong, and what we find is a woman who never pulled herself up from the last time she got knocked down. There are no real bad guys, for once- it’s all about the obstacles we throw in our own way. The jealousy that Annie feels as Helen starts to become Lillian’s close confidant is also really well-handled; again, nobody’s entirely in the wrong, everyone has good intentions, but it creates something sour.

Of course, this is a comedy, so there’s a chance at redemption as well as a lot of very funny business. The film’s shift from broad comedy to deeper material can be jarring, but it feels like it earns it. Whether or not Bridesmaids saves the chick flick, or even if that means anything, it’s a really fun experience with loads of talented and funny people, mostly women, whom I very much enjoyed spending time with. I can’t think of any reason not to see it.

Written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo
Directed by Paul Feig
Grade: A

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Random Movie Report #90: Strange Days

DVD cover and Amazon link
Strange Days is a film both of its time and relevant to today; it’s aged in a way that recalls the good things about the era in which it was made. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow from a script by James Cameron and Jay Cocks, the film is a cyberpunk thriller set a mere 4 years in the future and a surprisingly strong comment on the times. Perhaps inevitably because of Cameron’s involvement and the fact that a lot of money was spent (it was a flop at the time, but has since become a cult item), it retreats from some of its more daring elements and embraces a conventionality that prevents it from being as good as it could be, but the overall ride is still a memorable one.

It’s 1999, and Los Angeles is coming apart at the seams. Rapper and social activist Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) has just been killed in an apparent act of gang violence, and a perpetual riot is running in the streets in the buildup to New Year’s Eve and the turn of the millennium. (Well, not really the turn of the millennium but as close to it as makes no ends.) Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is an ex-cop and dealer in “clips”, recordings of people’s experiences drawn directly from their spinal column and able to be re-experienced by anyone with money and a player. People can live out robberies, daredevil tricks, vacations, sex fantasies with themselves in any role; Nero draws the line at “blackjack” or snuff clips, but others aren’t so scrupulous.

Between dodging the law, dodging creditors, and trying to win back his ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis), Nero is sent a clip of an anonymous assassin brutally murdering one of his contacts, a prostitute named Iris (Brigette Bako) who was earlier being chased by the police. Nero is being framed for the killing, so he teams up with an old friend, bodyguard/chauffeur Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett), as well as his ex-partner on the police force (Tom Sizemore) to try and solve the case himself. In the process the two uncover a conspiracy and a story that could provide the final catalyst to plunge the city into anarchy, just in time for 2000.

Key to all of this is the casting of Ralph Fiennes, and how he and Bigelow interpret the character. Unkempt, unshaven, and just a little unhinged, Nero is an authentic fringe dweller, a man addicted to his own past and living life moment to moment in the present. He more than anyone gives the film its character, and Fiennes keeps up a junkie intensity throughout. Bassett is a particularly good counterpoint, and there's a nice if underdeveloped romantic tension between the two that contrasts well with his obsession with Faith.

The film’s storyline has a fairly gradual buildup- we’re well into the picture before Lenny finds out that anything is wrong at all. On the downside this makes for slowish going in the early segments, though to some extent the world the movie presents is interesting enough to keep us occupied. The upside is that as soon as Lenny discovers something’s wrong, he’s in so far deep that it’s almost too late. He’s being chased by sinister cops (Vincent D’ Onofrio and William Fichtner), has to find a clip that Iris recorded that she left in his car which just got towed, and has to deal with Faith’s sleazy lover/promoter (Michael Wincott) who is also involved somehow- once the plot swings into gear it’s pretty intense, intricate stuff.

The film’s action sequences benefit a lot from Bigelow’s sheer technical skill, and from the slick and vibrant style of 90s action movies, before desaturation and handheld cameras threw us all in the direction of gritty realism. The “clip” sequences are particularly engaging, most notably the very first, what seems like a long unbroken shot of a restaurant robbery from the POV of an unfortunate accomplice. The action is almost too intense at times, and the film has a twisted and relentless atmosphere that you don't expect from something James Cameron helped bring about.

That said, this was also a substantial production with a good bit of money spent, and perhaps because of this it stops short of being as brutal or audacious as it could be. There are themes of racial tension, police oppression, and general apocalypse and social upheaval brewing, but the end holds back. Parts of the story and dialogue are a little clunky and predictable, and you may well end up figuring out the major mystery well before it is revealed. It’s this retreat into formula that keeps the movie from being a genuine classic, and keeps it at merely very good.

For a while I’d hoped we’d stop predicting the imminent end of the world after the real arrival of the milennium failed to wipe us out, but the apocalyptic intensity of Strange Days remains relevant. We still have all sorts of tensions boiling, and in our anticipation of collapse and upheaval there’s both fear and hope that we could finally resolve things. The film captures this tension beautifully, and even if it’s not all it could be, it’s a hell of a thing for what it is.

Story by James Cameron
Screenplay by James Cameron and Jay Cocks
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Grade: B+

Monday, May 16, 2011

Frasierquest 3.21: Where There's Smoke There's Fired

Frasier and a smoke-happy Bebe
Daphne: Well, I smoked for years but I never became addicted. To this day, I can buy a pack, have a cig or two, toss them in a drawer and not crave another for months.

Bebe: You know there's a word for people who can do that. What is it? Oh, yes: bitch!

Does anyone like PSAs? They are treated as, at best, a necessary evil, and when a TV show or movie starts to bear even the slightest resemblance to a PSA we begin to get defensive. So the various attempts by the networks to primp up their image by reminding us that we shouldn’t smoke, or drink and drive, or get hooked on drugs usually wind up as examples of the worst episodes of their respective shows. (Ask a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan about “Beer Bad” sometime.) “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fired” manages to avoid this inglorious company, mainly because it’s only half committed to the bit. I can’t even be sure it was a network-ordered thing, though last season’s cigar party during “Adventures in Paradise, Part I” may have attracted a few complaints. But it’s not a story about smoking, it’s a story about Bebe Glazer, and her glorious scumminess overrides any sensation we may have that we’re being taught a lesson.

The station has yet another new manager, “Big Willy” Boone (Richard Hamilton), an aging Texas tycoon who asks (or rather orders) that Frasier cure his young fiancee of her smoking habit in time for their wedding, which is three days away. A challenging assignment becomes to Frasier nearly insurmountable when he realizes that the fiancee is Bebe, who is marrying Big Willy for pretty much the reason you’d expect. He gives her some pointers at his apartment one evening, but when she starts smoking again before she’s even left, it becomes an all-night intervention, and Frasier’s career and future stardom becomes dependent on getting one very dedicated and crafty woman to overcome one of the most powerful addictions known to man.

One of the reasons this episode feels much more substantial than some of the ones we’ve had recently is more involvement from the supporting cast. Because the story concerns the station and Frasier’s career, it’s enough to get not only Bebe, but Roz, Bulldog, and Gil involved. Daphne and Martin, who’ve been shown smoking in the past, also get dragged in, their habits stirred awake by Bebe’s professions of love for cigarettes. Niles has his own subplot involving an attempt to become more frugal, but offers some assistance to Frasier as well. For everyone to be involved, including a guest star and two semi-regulars, means there’s more places for the story to go and more it can do in the twenty-plus minutes it runs.

Writer Joe Keenan’s ease with farce may also have been a crucial element in getting this story to work as well as it does. The story may not completely fall into that genre- the action isn’t quite complex or chaotic enough- but Keenan knows how to shove people into high-pressure situations and find the humor in their responses. We get to see a side of Bebe we’ve never seen, one where she’s downright vulnerable, even childish, and it represents a fundamental upending of her and Frasier’s relationship, even greater than their tryst in “Agents in America, Part III”.

On top of everything, the episode is almost perverse in the way it handles the anti-smoking element. Bebe’s monologue about the near-sexual experience of smoking is almost a sales pitch, as well as a good depiction of just how personal our vices are to us. When Frasier does ultimately wean Bebe off of tobacco, it’s solely so that she can cash in on Big Willy’s almost certain incipient demise; in a final irony, that ends up happening anyway, and she goes right back to the cancer sticks. So, yeah, this probably wasn’t meant as a sop to the American Lung Association.

Harriet Samsom Harris again delivers a dynamite performance, and contributes a lot to making this episode as memorable as it is. It’s the kind of episode where everyone gets their moment to shine, though, and so we get to see the ensemble working at top form with some unusual subject matter. There’s something of a successful anti-smoking message to it, in that we see how addiction makes fools of the people who suffer it, but it doesn’t press for a message at the expense of quality comedy. Sometimes that’s the higher road to take.

No Guest Caller

Written by Joe Keenan
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie

Aired April 30, 1996

Bebe: I like the way a fresh firm pack feels in my hand. I like peeling away that little piece of cellophane and seeing it twinkle in the light. I like coaxing that first sweet cylinder out of its hiding place and bringing it slowly up to my lips. Striking a match, watching it burst into a perfect little flame and knowing that soon that flame will be inside me! I love the first puff, pulling it into my lungs... little fingers of smoking filling me, caressing me, feeling that warmth penetrate deeper and deeper until I think I'm going to burst! Then 'woosh!'... watching it flow out of me in a lovely sinuous cloud, no two ever quite the same!

Daphne: [Visibly aroused, as are the others] More potatoes, anyone?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Frasierquest 3.20: Police Story

Martin and Maureen on a date
Niles: Maybe underneath it all, you’re attracted to this woman, and you wanna go out with her.

Martin: Oh, are you nuts? That’s sick! That’s disgusting! But for the sake of argument let’s say you’re right.

Marty Crane has a way with the ladies. It’s not something he tries too hard at most of the time, unlike Frasier- women just seem to like him. “Police Story” has him returning to the dating scene after a hiatus of a couple of seasons, and as such it actually sets up material for some later episodes. On its own, it’s a sweet enough little story, marred by not quite knowing when to stop.

Frasier has agreed to drive Roz to a date while her car’s in the shop, and while speeding to her destination he gets pulled over. The cop, Maureen Cutler (Jane Kaczmarek) turns out to be a fan and lets him off with a warning, and Frasier is smitten enough to want to see her again. He gets Martin to accompany him to McGinty’s, a favorite watering hole for Seattle’s finest, and sure enough runs into her again. However, in the course of things, Maureen and Martin get to talking, and it turns out she’s more attracted to Crane the elder, asking him out. This puts Martin in two quandries- whether he can tell Frasier that Maureen picked him, and whether he wants to date again.

Something that’s obvious but not really stated is that Maureen is at least a couple of decades younger than Martin. I make no moral judgements beyond a certain point, and Jane Kaczmarek is clearly well over 18, but TV does have a double standard and it is more common to see older men with younger women than the other way around. The episode doesn’t bring this up, though I imagine Maureen was always going to be around Frasier’s age. Niles does sense some nervousness on Martin’s part about dating Maureen, but some of the subtext may be that he’s worried about getting into a relationship with someone younger. Either way, he takes the plunge.

Martin has dated before on the show, but it’s after this episode that we start to see him as an active ladies’ man. His scenes with Maureen are played well by both actors (that Kaczmarek is good is hardly a surprise), with a real sense of chemistry. Martin’s dating life is solid material for the show, because he tends not to make the epic blunders his son does (in fact, Maureen stays his girlfriend well beyond this season.)

Unfortunately someone has to lose in this arrangement, namely Frasier. The episode takes place around his 43rd birthday, and he’s been some time without knowing the touch of a woman. This weighs heavily on him, and though meeting a sexy police woman gives him some confidence, it ends up being taken away just in time for the worst surprise party ever. The last scene comes off as almost unpleasant; it’s the kind of unearned embarassment I have a hard time laughing at. Frasier just ends up having a bad day and it’s not really his fault.

There’s an amusing scene here introducing two of Daphne’s Anglo-American friends, Charlotte (Jillie Mack) and Maggie (Denise Poirier). They are never seen again, but it’s a brief picture of Daphne’s life outside the Crane home, something that was never developed much. (Incidentally, Mack is Tom Selleck’s wife and Poirier is the voice of Aeon Flux.) Luck Hari appears again, and we learn about an unhappy love affair Frasier had with one of his coworkers many months ago.

“Police Story” would probably have worked better if it were focused more on Martin; Frasier’s story is just him having a terrible day, without much to learn from it. Still, the episode has its moments, and it’s more significant than it looks. From here on in, Martin’s no longer content to be a lonely widower, and when a Crane man is on the loose, that can never end well.

No Guest Caller

Written by Sy Rosen
Directed by Philip Charles Mackenzie
Aired April 23, 1996

Niles [to Frasier]: The gleam of her jackboots, her dangling nightstick, the glint of her handcuffs hanging on her leather belt... you’re off on some lurid little disciplinary fantasy.

Daphne: Oh, Dr. Crane, shame on you, you’ve got icing up and down your sleeve.

Niles: Oh. I am a naughty boy.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

In Theaters: Thor

Thor one-sheet and IMPAwards link
As comic book adaptations go, Thor must have been a tall order from the start. The original Marvel comic’s complex revision of Norse mythology, coupled with the traditional superheroics and a story of a god living on Earth due to family disputes, called for an expensive and elaborate epic about a character who doesn’t have a lot of recognition value for the average moviegoer. (Unless said moviegoer is a fan of Adventures in Babysitting.) There was a lot of skepticism about this film, and even I wasn’t quite prepared for how much I would enjoy it. Kenneth Branagh and a host of writers have managed a warm, funny, and engaging spectacle, and despite its purpose to build up to the eventual big screen debut of Marvel’s Avengers, there’s not a cynical bone in its body.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), ruler of the Asgardians, an advanced, godlike race of beings who once saved Earth from an invasion of frost giants, and so inspired the myths of the Norse pantheon. As Odin ages, Thor is to be named king (over the objections of his brother Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston), but the ceremony is disrupted by an attempt by the frost giants to break into Asgard and steal a precious artifact. Though the attempt fails, Thor is outraged and over his father’s objections leads his friends to the frost giant’s homeworld, trying unsuccessfully to discover the secret of how the giants were able to reach Asgard to begin with. For his act of aggression, Thor is stripped of his godlike powers and exiled to Earth, where he is discovered by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a young scientist researching the gates between worlds that the Asgardians use for travel. She’s not sure who he is at first, but when government agents start confiscating her work and constructing a base around a mysterious hammer which fell from the sky the same time Thor did, she starts to have her suspicions. Meanwhile, Odin falls into a deathly slumber from the stress of his actions, and Loki seizes power, putting dark designs into practice.

One of the benefits of the superhero genre’s popularity is that filmmakers now don’t seem afraid to embrace the wild and crazy aspects of the comics they’re adapting. Marvel’s version of the Norse gods was a blend of high fantasy and science fiction aided to no end by the wild visual imagination of Jack Kirby, the sort of thing that might get toned down, but then again this is a Kenneth Branagh film. He’s never worked with a picture quite this size before, but he’s never one to hold anything back, and we get Asgard in all its colorful glory, an at times downright breathtaking metropolis, populated by actors who were somehow persuaded to take their job of playing comic book space gods with the utmost seriousness.

Which is not to say the film lacks humor. Both in Asgard and on Earth, there are a lots of moments of realistic comic relief which somehow lend the more ridiculous plot events more credibility. Thor has a nice rapport with his friends, the Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and the Warriors Three (Ray Stevenson as Volstagg, Tadanobu Asano as Hogun, and Josh Dallas as Fandral)- fearsome fighters all, but also a lot of fun. Portman is warm and charming as Jane, and is aided by the amazing Stellan Skarsgard, and Kat Dennings as the loveliest comic relief I’ve seen in a while. The script has a lot of good banter, something which has served the Iron Man films exceedingly well and which I hope catches on.

There’s a surprising believability to the characters, aided no doubt by Branagh being very good with actors- Loki in particular becomes a complex villain, devastated by Odin’s revelation that he is actually born of the frost giants and thus driven by emotions that don’t become entirely clear until the film’s climax. Hiddleston and Hemsworth both play their roles very well despite being among the freshest faces in the cast. Hopkins is, well, Hopkins, and Idris Elba as the gatekeeper Hemdall has some wonderful scenes. The action is grand and imaginative without being overly contrived, and the 3-D effect is well done for the most part, though you could probably get the same impact from a 2-D screening.

The proliferation of writers on this film (the plague of big budget filmmaking is that coherent voices often get lost) does result in a story that’s not entirely seamless. Some thematic elements aren’t hit as strongly as they should be and some character movements are a touch too fast or too slow. None of these are really glaring, but they do add a bit of sloppiness to what is otherwise a well-crafted production.

Thor is just plain fun in a way that many blockbusters aspire to but often miss because they’ve thrown character and emotion under the bus. It’s technically possible for a film to get by without these things, but the ones that stay with me are the ones that try to have it all, that try to be clever and funny and sincere despite the best efforts of studios to breed out these characteristics. Of the Avengers set-up pictures, Thor may actually be the best, or at least my favorite, and while he’s guaranteed a return to the big screen there, I hope the god of thunder has another solo outing or two in him.

Based on the comic book character created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby
Story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich
Screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stewart, and Don Payne
Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Grade: B+