Tuesday, August 30, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Monday, August 29, 2011

Frasierquest 4.7: A Lilith Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Guest Caller

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Random Movie Report #94: Gamera Vs. Viras

DVD cover and Amazon link

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Nisan Takahashi
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa

Grade: B-

Friday, August 19, 2011

In Theaters: Glee: The 3D Concert Movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by N/A
Directed by Kevin Tancharoen

Grade: B

Monday, August 15, 2011

Frasierquest 4.6: Mixed Doubles

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

Ah, so this is what happened with Joe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Guest Caller

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

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

Saturday, August 13, 2011

In Theaters: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Monday, August 08, 2011

In Theaters: Captain America: The First Avenger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Frasierquest 4.5: Head Game

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

Niles: Well, I know you always have!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Caller: Wendy Wasserstein as Linda

Written by Rob Greenberg
Directed by David Lee

Aired November 12, 1996

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

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

Niles: Don’t worry about your appearance.