Monday, December 07, 2015

Seen in November 

Basically I spent November ingesting Jessica Jones and not much else. Sure I could've binged on it, but I prefer the slow drip approach to my drugs of choice. There were some other things watched but not worth noting here.

Hayao Miyazaki and his assistant. Image via The Movie DB

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness
The title of this documentary sounds much more interesting than it actually is. The film is a behind the scenes look at Japanese icon of animated films Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli that created classics such as Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke. It may come as no surprise that the Studio has a live-in cat who pads around freely, or a roof top garden where moments of introspection occur, or that Miyazaki loves little kids and is inspired by nature. The only real surprise is how poor his relationship is with his adult son which is not really discussed much but seems jarring nonetheless. Many nights we see the grand master sketching or writing until everyone else has left and he walks home to his nearby house. This isn’t really that revealing or inspiring a film but to fans of Studio Ghibli films it may be reassuring that these movies are thoughtfully, quietly and earnestly made with a sort of workman like love of craft and dedication that we rarely see anymore.

The Shop Around the Corner
As a consequence of bad news heard from every corner, I decided to lift my spirits by re-watching The Grand Budapest Hotel which is a meringue of a film as lovely as a treat from Mendl’s Patisserie. After reading that Wes Anderson was influenced by Ernst Lubitsch, a director who worked in the 30s and 40s, I sought out one of his more popular films. The Shop Around the Corner from 1940 is set in a little shop in Budapest, where two co-workers played by Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, find each other completely annoying at work but through anonymous written correspondence are actually falling in love. The story was the basis for the modern remake You’ve Got Mail, with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks and is the sort of sophisticated romantic comedy Lubitsch became known for. It’s a pretty simple story with the kind of pitter-patter dialogue you’d expect from a film of this era in which an attempted suicide is dismissed as a case of over-worked nerves and the blues while upon the climatic reveal of the lovers real identities, the couple kiss and immediately decide to marry. Simpler times.

The latest installment of the Daniel Craig James Bond series is its most conventional. The producers of the Bond films oscillate between making Bond grittier than the Bourne series, bigger than the Mission: Impossible films and funnier than Kingsman: The Secret Service without succeeding at any of that. Spectre is a return to ridiculous stunts on ski slopes, crashing very expensive cars and convoluted plots full of red herrings and nonsensical characters (Léa Seydoux’s character is interesting and could have her own film but adds nothing to this film. Her character is entirely meaningless other than being a kick-ass babe for Bond to bed). The Daniel Craig Bond got an incredible kick start with Casino Royale as a well tailored spy who killed assassins in bare-knuckled brawls and got the job done with only a wink to his own PTSD, psychosis and misogyny. It wasn’t just a re-boot, but a re-boot in the arse. Yet this latest Bond re-enacts the dumbest stunts (why not chase a car in a prop plane down a snowy mountainous road?) and failed attempts at his reformed chauvinism (okay, so he didn’t date rape his drunken ingénue - bravo, Modern Man). If Skyfall represented the character’s (and perhaps filmmaker’s) mid-life identity crisis, then Spectre is supposedly the answer, which is unfortunately, a 70s era super-spy in a modern world of terror. To “fix” Bond, you don’t have to ditch the fancy cars, just ditch the fancy cars with flame throwers out the back. You don’t have to ditch the sexiness, just make his sexy counterpart his equal, you don’t have to intertwine four plots and international backdrops, just have one plot set against international backdrops. The really funny thing about this Bond film was the opposing reviews it received. British critics lovingly gave it glowing reviews crowing, “Bond is back, yay!” Meanwhile, American reviewers panned it as a hackneyed reversal of the series crowing, “Bond is back, ugh.” I fall somewhere in-between. It was an entertaining flick but the lack of originality really bothered me because Daniel Craig is a really great Bond and one of the better actors to have portrayed 007. Thus Spectre could have been so much more. Instead of being steak & frites it was steak & frites flavoured chips.

Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones. Image via The Movie DB

Jessica Jones
Jessica Jones is the latest Marvel hero to appear on Netflix. Her character was unknown to me but belonged to the Defender series which has enough history that I remember the other characters such as Luke Cage and Iron Fist from my childhood. The Jessica Jones character is an unlikely one to develop because, well, her story is kind of icky and difficult. Endowed with super-strength, Jessica gave up being a costumed hero after an 8-month long enslavement (sexual, physical and mental) under the influence of a mind controlling psychopath, Killgrave. Since that time, she has become an effective, if alcoholic, private investigator barely paying her bills. She also keeps her “gifts” under wraps. So what we have is a beautiful mess, played by Krysten Ritter, drinking her way through Hell’s Kitchen dive bars, in blue jeans and a leather jacket rather than a cape and tights. One of those dive bars is tended by another equally discrete, street-clothed-clad hero, Luke Cage. Marvel is pushing its catalogue of super-heros in ingenious ways using the unique platform of Netflix to achieve those goals. Like Daredevil, Jessica Jones is gritty, violent, foul-mouthed, dramatic, thrilling fun. I’m not even sure these episodes would satisfy the PG-13 ratings their cinematic cousins receive. What I love about this approach is they’ve found the core of the characters, grounded in a real place with real lives and asked, what if these people could do extraordinary things? It is the very thing that makes Marvel Comics different and unique from its DC counterpart. Another intriguing part of the Marvel/Netflix partnership is just the crazy and different characters they are planning to develop, including Luke Cage and Iron Fist. If they follow up with the other planned series their cast of heroes will include, in order, a blind lawyer (Daredevil), a rape survivor alcoholic woman with PTSD (Jessica Jones), a reformed (possibly framed) crook and street wise black American (Luke Cage) and a first generation Chinese American (Iron Fist). They would basically be one Spanish speaking American short of a full house. Despite how good Daredevil is, I like to think of Jessica Jones as the one of the best adaptations of a comic book I've seen since History of Violence, which really shouldn’t count because Cronenberg essentially ignored the source material. The only problem with this adult approach to super-heroes is they are so much like a dramatic series that when they veer into any cliché voice over or cheesiness you have to remind yourself that these are comic book characters and that this isn’t The Sopranos or The Wire.

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