Sunday, July 31, 2011

Opening Credits Sequence Theatre: Mean Streets (1973)

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

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

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Frasierquest 4.4: A Crane's Critique

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

Roz: Not the way you throw.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Guest Caller

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 25, 2011

In Theaters: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Friday, July 22, 2011

Frasierquest 4.3: The Impossible Dream

Frasier in the wrong bed
Niles: Focus on any detail in the motel room. What’s the first thing that pops into your mind?

Frasier: Uh... a crescent shaped lamp.

Niles: Perfect. Crescent shaped lamp. Run with that. Crescent... moon... Daphne Moon... French maid... brass bed... satin robe...

Fraiser: This is my dream.

Dream analysis is one of those weird bits of psychology that even amateurs like myself can pretend to understand. I’m not sure how seriously it’s still taken, but fiction likes to use dreams as symbols a lot, and so sooner or later we end up getting a personal look into Frasier’s head. In practice, the premise of Frasier confronted by an inscrutable but disturbing dream ends up playing almost like an episode of House, with multiple false diagnoses before the final correct one. All in all it’s a cool change of pace, with a few fun extras thrown in.

Frasier’s plagued by a recurring nightmare. He wakes up in a seedy, dimly lit hotel room with a tattoo reading “Chesty” on his arm, when none other than Gil Chesterton steps out of the shower. Frasier is so distressed by this dream that he enlists Niles to help find its true meaning (which he’s reasonably certain is not wish fulfillment.) Twice he thinks he’s come up with a solution, pointing to a dilemma that may be brewing in his subconscious, and by moving it to his conscious mind hopefully expelling the dream, but it keeps coming back and defying his analysis.

I like how the structure of this episode is built on the idea that a dream can be expelled or altered by interpreting it. Even when Frasier’s theories fail to get him out of this recurring nightmare, they end up changing details. It does mean that the structure is just “this doesn’t work, this doesn’t work” until Frasier cottons to the real explanation (and even that may not fully fix things), but in the course of twenty-some minutes it doesn’t feel that repetitive.

There’s a potentially problematic element of gay panic in Frasier’s dream, but I like how this ends up being handled. Instead of simply being comically terrified at the suggestion that he might have buried homosexual feelings, he honestly starts to wonder. He talks with his father about it. In some ways it’s an overreaction- dreams are probably not the best place to look to start confirming or questioning your sexuality- but since we’ve established Frasier is in a dry spell, some existential questioning is understandable. Martin’s probably right- if Frasier were gay he’d know by now- and in any case, I doubt Gil’s his type.

Continuing what now looks to be a pattern of trying to give everyone something to do, Martin and Daphne share another scene this episode, playing a joke on a fellow elevator passenger by improvising a discussion straight out of a spy novel. This has absolutely nothing to do with anything, but it’s brilliant- it’s really funny in itself (a rare instance of something that’s funny to the characters also being funny to the audience), and illuminates the characters by showing their more playful side. It’s something we haven’t quite seen before from either, but it doesn’t feel out of place. Both characters also try to help Frasier with his dream problem, Daphne making an adorably loopy suggestion and also sharing a story that, well, let’s say it makes for a nice mental image. (And speaking of nice images, the lovely Pauley Perette, now of NCIS fame, shows up as a CafĂ© Nervosa barista.)

The end of the episode implies that Frasier hasn’t quite licked his problem. He’s worked out that his boredom with the dull cases on his show lately forced his subconscious to come up with a complex puzzle for him to solve, but all that means is that now Sigmund Freud is his bedtime companion. in a sense the episode just sort of ends when the premise is exhausted, but given how much fun the ride has been it’s hard to complain too much. This isn’t a classic episode but it’s a memorable one, with a fun concept effectively mined for laughs and for a little bit of character shading. If nothing else, it leaves us with the lesson that if you have a bizarre and disturbing recurring dream, it may just be because you’re really, really bored.

Guest Callers: Kieran Culkin as Jimmy, Christopher Durang as Rudy

Written by Rob Greenberg
Directed by David Lee
Aired October 15, 1996

Daphne: Well, in your dream, who was in the shower? Gil. What is a shower? Running water. Who needs water? Fish. What do fish have? Gills. Do you see where I’m going?

Frasier: Insane?

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Frasierquest 4.2: Love Bites Dog

Bulldog: Last night, for the first time in my life, I actually said those three little words... ‘Stay for breakfast.’

Up until now, Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe has basically been a one-note character. He’s a horny jackass who loves sports almost as much as he loves himself. And this is all well and good, seeing as he only shows up once in a while as the plot demands. “Love Bites Dog” doesn’t upend the boat, but it takes that first crucial step in character development by having him play against type. It’s Comedy 101, but the character is unexplored enough for it to work.

Roz is worried about Frasier’s continuing dating dry spell, and decides to try and fix him up with a friend of hers, a gorgeous woman golfer named Sharon (Jennifer Campbell). She’s a big fan of his show, and they hit it off for all of two minutes before Bulldog happens to butt in. After a vigorous and flirty argument on the merit of golf as a sport, Bulldog steals away Frasier’s intended, and comes back to KACL the next morning acting a bit odd. He’s happy, pleasant, and understands the lyrics to “Time in a Bottle”. He’s in love. But before the full impact of a romantic Bulldog can hit his co-workers, he’s dumped, and takes it hard, breaking down on-air and running out, leaving Frasier to fill in. So, it’s either find a way to bring Bulldog back to his old scummy self, or let Frasier try and talk about sports for three hours.

The episode pulls a nice emotional swerve on us early on. Frasier’s initial frustration with Bulldog is easy to sympathize with; though he and Sharon weren’t even on a date, they were nonetheless in mid-flirt when Bulldog swooped in, and anyone who’s ever tried to chat up anyone has to give a knowing wince. But the pain quickly subsides in the face of the sheer madness of a lovestruck Bulldog, with Dan Butler doing some of his best work with the character. Something has gone fundamentally wrong, and as in many sitcoms, we find ourselves anxious to see the status quo restored. It’s just not right otherwise.

We actually get two subplots in this episode, the first being Niles’ attempt to expand his practice with a little advertising, the second being Daphne’s attempt to find Martin a new pair of weather-resistant Muckabee shoes after accidentally burning them in the microwave. Neither story is terribly substantial, but they speak to an attempt to get every one of the regulars involved in the episode. Roz sets Frasier up, Daphne and Martin go shoe hunting, Niles ends up appealing to the wrong clientele- I noticed this with the premiere as well, and I can’t help but think there’s a more conscious effort this year to showcase everyone. Daphne and Martin in particular are a nice mix; logically they should interact a lot, as health care worker and patient, but we haven’t seen it that much previously.

The episode resolves with one of those neat little balancing acts that take place in sitcoms; one character has strayed far outside his status quo, so someone else- in this case Frasier- must stray outside his own in the opposite direction to bring about balance. The perverse joke of the episode is that the characters are better off with Bulldog as a sexist uncaring pig than as a sensitive lover, though it’s largely in the name of Frasier getting to go to a restaurant and not demonstrated his ignorance of popular sports.

This is an episode with a lot of memorable scenes, even if overall the impact isn’t that huge. Bulldog himself gradually becomes more of a regular over the next few years, and stories like this give him some potential beyond simply irritating Frasier and Roz. As for Sharon, we never see her again, which is probably for the best. We don’t need another maneater so long as Roz is around.

Guest Callers: Marv Albert as Jerry, Bob Costas as Jake, Julius Erving as Mike

Written by Suzanne Martin
Directed by Jeff Melman
Aired September 24, 1996

Jake: Yeah, you think it was a good idea for the Sonics to give up those draft choices so they could free up some money under the cap, you know to go after a wide body to help them in the paint?

Frasier: Yes.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Academy of the Underrated: The Return of Captain Invincible

DVD cover and Amazon link
This Fourth of July, America’s got all sorts of problems, from a bad economy to unpopular wars we can’t quite seem to end to the fact that the usual political infighting has degenerated into all-out warfare. Patriotism itself is being used as a political tool, with the implication that anyone who likes “freedom” and “liberty” must invariably also hate the existence of social welfare programs. Times are tough, so we get angry and selfish. But once in a while it helps to look up to the skies.

The Return of Captain Invincible is a genuine obscurity, released just as its distributor was going out of business and more or less vanishing from view for a very long time. It’s a fascinating and very odd picture whose execution doesn’t match its conceptual potential, but as superhero comedy musicals go, it is... well, the only one I know of so far. Leave it to the Australians to come up with one of the most interesting patriotic American movies ever, one that satirizes the shortcomings of our nation while holding up its ideals.

Alan Arkin stars as the titular Captain Invincible, the Man of Magnets, the Legend in Leotards, a superhero who fought gangsters and Nazis all through the period which just happens to be the comics Golden Age. As the 1950s dawned, however, the Captain fell afoul of HUAC, and fled from questions about why he was helping the Russians (during World War II), flying without a license, and wearing his underwear in public. He disappeared into drink and has ended up in Australia, apparently shot down by Skylab and now not knowing where he is or how to use his powers. When an American base in Australia is raided and thieves make off with an experimental hypno-ray, the US President (Michael Pate) puts out an APB on the MIA superhero. Fortunately, Sydney detective Patty Patria (Kate Fitzpatrick) has just recently happened across a drunken vagrant who flipped a car into the air just by standing in its path, and she and the President persuade the Captain to try and sober up and help the free world once more. The Captain and Patty soon find out that the hypno-ray has been stolen by arch criminal Mister Midnight (Christopher Lee), who is using it in an elaborate scheme to ethnically cleanse Manhattan, driving minorities into suburban housing developments that will then be targeted by nuclear missiles.

The casting of Arkin in the lead was something of a stroke of genius. He can’t sing that well, which is a problem, but he captures that paternal wisdom and affability that we expect from our superheroes, especially the ones that wrap themselves in the red, white, and blue. With a grab bag of powers (flight, magnetism, and an amazing computer brain, all voice-activated), and a memorable if busy costume, Invincible is a little bit piecemeal, but Arkin finds a certain reality to his disillusioned self, and his likability gets us in the movie’s corner as well. It helps that he doesn’t look like most movie superheroes- he doesn’t have the square-jawed ethnically-indistinct face we expect, and the actor’s Russo-Germanic-Jewish origins tie in not just to the movie’s plot, but to the fact that Superman, Captain America, and many other legends of that time were generally the creation of first- and second-generation immigrants.

The songs for this film are an odd lot, composed by a number of different teams. It’s no surprise that the most memorable of the lot- including the two showcases for Lee as Midnight- are by Richard O’ Brien and Richard Hartley, of Rocky Horror and Shock Treatment fame. (If such a thing as Shock Treatment fame exists, and it ought to.) The very first song is simply the President singing the word “bullshit” over and over again, and while Arkin has a bit of trouble with the singing bit, Fitzpatrick is dubbed over completely in her character’s one number. The music works more often than it doesn’t, but the uneven quality and the rather abrupt shifts into musical mode mean this doesn’t feel a lot like a proper musical, more a comedy with some numbers on top.

If there’s one thing that dogs this picture it’s inconsistency. It can never quite figure out the tone of humor it’s going for, from vulgarity to broad slapstick to subtler jibes (the Captain fingers a traitor at a Jewish deli when he puts mayo on a pastrami sandwich.) Some of it is quite funny, but you’ll get whiplash. The film was budgeted at five million dollars Australian, and though I’m not sure how strong the currency was back then it didn’t seem to buy a lot- the special effects extend mostly to rear projection and a lot of stock footage, and all sorts of shortcuts are apparent in the more elaborate scenes. Director Philippe Mora’s editing style is a bit clumsy, though he does get some very striking visuals. A certain sloppiness extends a bit to the characters and plot as well- the idea of a traitor in the group rehabbing Invincible is never quite explained, and the film is somewhat undecided as to whether Mr. Midnight is specifically racist or if he’s a primal force of terror (who would then, logically, want everyone of all ethnicities to suffer).

So what saves this film? Well, a lot of it is the sheer charm of it. Arkin, as explained above, is wonderful, and Christopher Lee is in his element. (You will note I did not criticize his singing. That is because there is not a damn thing wrong with it.) Fitzpatrick is sharp and charming as well, and she and Arkin play off each other nicely. Both the actors and the characters they portray are compelling, and even if Captain Invincible’s world isn’t as explicitly developed as a proper comic hero’s, it has that certain mythic resonance.

What’s more, the film seems sincere in a way that not many are. The filmmakers, not Americans themselves, are willing to show off the country's faults but also respectful of the dream. Like Superman and Captain America, Captain Invincible’s allegiance is not to the President or the flag or our country right or wrong, but to the ideas behind the country. And specifically he is devoted to the melting pot, to the Golden Door, to the nation of immigrants who have made America what it is. There’s a simple beauty in the film’s final images under the credits, affirming that belief and holding out a wistful hope that just maybe everything could be just great again.

Written by Andrew Gaty and Steven E. DeSouza (additional dialogue by Peter Smalley)
Directed by Philippe Mora

Grade: B