Sweet Samba Sally, there’s a whole lot of Blu-rays and DVDs of note coming out this week. Some Oscar-nominees in there (gotta hurry up before the awards), a few great and/or weird television shows, and movies that weren’t very good but are coming out anyway! It’s the beauty of everything. Warning: Spoilers below for some titles.
One of the very best shows on TV, I didn’t think Game of Thrones Season 3 could ever be beat in terms of “holy crap” moments and epic, fantasy-laden adventure, but oh how wrong I was, dear friends. The fourth season of HBO’s monster international hit gave us some really messed up messed-uppedness including characters we like getting the hell killed out of them, and characters we hate also getting the hell killed out of them. It features great arcs for just about all of our characters, with specific fantasticality going to Arya Stark, who’s still on the run with The Hound and who doesn’t believe she’s ever going to get home or find any living relatives, and Sansa Stark, who eventually decides just to give in and be a horrible person like her new pseudo-uncle/lover probably Lord Petyr Baelish.
But, the main thread this year was about Tyrion Lannister being falsely accused of murdering his horrible nephew and being incarcerated awaiting a trial. This plot line proved A) what a continual badass Tyrion is, 2) what a deliciously despicable villain Tywin Lannister is, d) what a hateful shrew Cersei Lannister is, and VII) never to talk too much before you’ve killed a big giant guy with skull-crushing hands. Man, still difficult.
The best episode for me was yet again episode 9 (what is it about this show and its penultimate episodes always being the most everything?) which was an entire massive siege on the Wall by the Wildling Horde against the Night’s Watch which saw Jon “You Knuh Nuuuthing” Snuuuuuh proving what a leader of men he is, and ending his romantic plotline with a lot of sadness and upsettery. Poor guy can’t catch a break, especially when it comes to Wildling women who want to murder him.
And I haven’t even mentioned the Mother of Dragons herself, Daenerys Targaryen, who is still in Essos learning what being a ruler is like on the day-to-day, especially when that has to do with presiding over a conquered people. Not the nicest thing for a benevolent ruler to have to deal with. Poor Ser Jorah has a falling out over past mistakes, and suddenly things in the East look a little less set in stone.
All in all, a fantastic ten episodes yet again, and can’t wait for the next round.
The clear front-runner for the Oscars, probably neck and neck with Boyhood, is Alejandro G. Innaritu’s Birdman, a film with a trailer that doesn’t quite do the movie as a whole justice, but was certainly bombastic enough to get people intrigued. The movie is actually about art, and attempting to make legitimate, meaningful work after decades of wide-appeal popcorn fare. A theatre in New York is its setting and what has most people talking is the method of shooting, which follows its characters down corridors and across stages and rooftops while attempting, like Hitchcock’s Rope, to make it seem like it’s all one continuous take, which it mostly is, though with technology now, hiding the joints between shots is a lot simpler.
Michael Keaton (who I really hope wins the Oscar, please-o-please-o-please) plays a wealthy but unfulfilled former superhero movie star (huh, wonder why they cast him) who puts all of his fortune into producing and starring in a play off-off Broadway, as a means of proving he’s a real artist, but having to deal with a public that can only see him one way, a daughter (Emma Stone) with a drug problem, a cast (Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Edward Norton) who are just as insane and absurd as all theatre actors are portrayed to be, and a critic (Lindsay Duncan) who is ready to eviscerate the show before she sees it. All the while, his friend, a lawyer (Zach Galifianakis), can only see dollar signs. Keaton’s character either really has, or just believes himself to have, some kind of telekinesis brought on by the constant inner monologue of Birdman himself.
This is a movie that is at once about very pretentious people and is itself very pretentious, which sort of soured me to it initially, but it’s a movie that stuck with me more than I expected it to. I ranked it very highly on my top films of the year list as a result. Do I think it’s the best picture of the year? I don’t, but if it comes down to this or Boyhood taking the top prize, I think I’d go with the one that aimed way higher than just filming people once a year for twelve years.
There was no bigger phenomenon for me when I was a kid between the ages of 8 and 11 than Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the incredibly hokey kids’ adventure program where five absurdly positive teenagers are recruited to become an ancient fighting force to take on a witch from another planet that sends monsters to Earth to destroy it. This show was the shit. But even then, I knew that all the footage of the Rangers actually came from Japan, basically because it didn’t match the video quality and Rita Repulsa’s voice was very clearly dubbed. Plus, only Japan would have guys in robot and monster suits fighting over tiny village sets. Very common Godzilla-ish occurrence. Well, the show that gave MMPR its costumes and fighting footage initially was the 16th in a very long line of Japanese superhero team shows collectively known as Super Sentai. This one specifically, which harnessed the dinosaur defenders and fought the witch on the moon, was called Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger.
It’s very weird to watch this show and recognize a lot of the footage I remember from Power Rangers but in a totally different context, and with a lot more connection to the world around them. In Power Rangers, the Ranger scenes seem to take place in another dimension without any discernible geography, while Zyuranger is entirely in a cityscape in Japan. It’s also totally nutter butters, making little to no sense to me, and somehow being more serious and goofy all at once. The kids aren’t normal people who get powers, they are ancient guardians awoken to fight evil when it appears. The episodes are serialized, often leading directly into the next one. Also, very funny to me, is that the Yellow Ranger is a dude. Yep, in the Japanese original, the Sabretooth Tiger driver was male, while a female in Power Rangers, but it’s the same footage. I guess it makes sense now why the Pink Ranger has a skirt but the Yellow Ranger does not.
This set contains all 50 original episodes, and has all the Sentai magic you could ask for.
There’s something so fascinating about Japanese folklore as opposed to any kind of European ones. Everything is based on communing with nature and the mysticism involved is simply a given. Instead of wizards or demigods instilling the story with magic, the magic in Japanese stories is just an everyday fact of life, and people expect the amazing to happen. It’s this kind of disconnect between Japan and the West that makes Studio Ghibli’s newest animated feature, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya so welcome. Directed by Isao Takahata, it introduces audiences to the oldest piece of narrative fiction in all of Japanese history, and it feels somehow ancient and brand new at the same time.
Despite being one of the founders of Studio Ghibli, Kaguya represents only the fifth film Takahata has directed for the company, following Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Only Yesterday (1991), Pom Poko (1994), and My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999). Unlike his co-founder and undisputed king of feature anime, Hayao Miyazaki, whose films often bridge the gap visually and narratively between Japan and the United States, Takahata’s films are very attuned to Japan and its history, although they clearly share the tipping into the magical as all Ghibli films do. Kaguya is drawn and animated like a series of watercolor paintings brought to life, like the immaculate scrolls of the Edo period in which the film takes place.
The first thing to be said for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is that it feels like a piece of folklore. The story is very episodic and has very definite sections to it. Early on, it feels like a kids movie, despite seeing the young princess suckling on her mother’s animated breast, and is very funny and charming, but the older the princess gets, so too does the tone of the film subtly change until it’s pretty much a straight drama and our heroine’s victories and defeats are intellectual rather than physical. There is still humor to be sure, but it’s much more subdued and it becomes much more melancholic.
The Theory of Everything – Another multi-Oscar nominee, this film tells the story of Stephen Hawking from university through his developing motorneuron disease and relationship with his first wife Jane. Eddie Redmayne is, of course, very good as Hawking, but I think Felicity Jones is not getting nearly enough credit for her much less showy and very grounded performance.
St. Vincent – Bill Murray stars as a down-and-out loser who befriends and begins to mentor a shy new neighbor boy, mostly just to make extra cash from the boy’s single mother (Melissa McCarthy). Read my full review here.
Dumb and Dumber To – I didn’t see this, and neither did you.
Phantom of the Opera – An uber-dark horror version of the classic film done in the ’80s with Robert Englund as the Phantom? Umm, yes please!
An Autumn Afternoon – Classic Japanese film fans can rejoice because Yasujirō Ozu’s 1962 film about a patriarch arranging a marriage for his daughter has finally made it to Blu-ray thanks to Criterion. It was Ozu’s final film; he would die the following year.