Well, hello there, dear reader! I’m Captain JLS, your faithful Robotech / comics / ’80s robot toy fanatic (over twenty years now of making loud noises about Robotech on the internet, which is utterly horrifying), welcoming you to my shiny new blog. Having given in to the idea that 2020 is the start of a new decade and tidied up my living situation within the past six months, it seemed the right time to press the eject button on my largely abandoned previous home on the web and get a fresh start under a unified branding umbrella. The screen name I’ve been using since high school — and which I still use on my Robotech-related videos on YouTube (and by which I refer to myself above) — seemed the easiest bit of nomenclature to attach everything to, hence the site you see before you.
The plan is to try and jot something down here at least once a week, and also use this space to cross-post the similarly weekly videos I’m hoping/trying to do up on the ol’ YouTube account. If all goes according to plan, and I can keep up production on both ends, I’ll be building from there (ah, but building what you might ask; patience, my friends!) — but, we’ll see how this all goes, y’know?
Since 2017, I’ve been keeping track of all the movies I’ve seen all year long in an ongoing Pages file. This all started because I was trying to plan out what I wanted to take in on my Amazon Prime and Netflix accounts and also make sure I was watching enough on each to justify paying for each. Then I got on a bit of a roll, found things that weren’t up on either and bought a bunch of DVDs and blu rays, and by the end of 2017 I’d wound up watching one hundred and eighty-two different films, across streaming, discs I’d bought, and trips to the movie theater. Sure, it was a mix of things I’d seen before and things that were new to me, but that’s still a crazy number of flicks; over the two years since, I haven’t watched that many movies combined, but I still keep the document going. (I also keep all the TV shows I watch on the same list, which is super-handy when I go, “Right, I still haven’t finished watching Zillion; what episode was I on?”)
So it is with that information at hand that I provide the following capsule reviews of all the movies I watched over the course of 2019 — again, some new, some old, and some just new to me. There were only fifty this year, so what follows are the first ten of ’em, listed in release date order rather than the order I saw them. This means we’re not even going to make it to 1990 today — but no worries, next time we’ll be well into 2018, which now that I mention it feels a bit unbalanced; really will need to spend more time filling in gaps in my 20th century cinema this year.
That said, we are starting the flicks I watched in ’19 with something in glorious black & white at least …
Godzilla Raids Again (1955, Dir. Motoyoshi Oda)
The second Godzilla movie, one of several I missed during my tour of the Showa series (the first run of Godzilla films, from the first in ’54 through Terror of Mechagodzilla in 1975) back in 2017 — while I missed a few of them because the discs had gotten prohibitively expensive, in this case I was waiting for a blu ray release. Lo and behold, last year Criterion released the big Showa series blu ray box set, and this was the first (and only, so far) I gave a spin. I was surprised to find it reasonably enjoyable. It’s not the stone cold classic that the original is, but it has its charms.
A pair of pilots working for a tuna cannery company discover a second Godzilla on a small Pacific island; the replacement ‘zilla is battling another dinosaur-like creature, the four-legged Anguirus. While the pilots are able to warn the authorities well in advance of the beasts’ approach, sole returning character Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) advises that they can’t kill this one the same way they killed the original Godzilla — the scientist who created the oxygen destroyer took its secrets to his grave. Godzilla and Anguirus ultimately do battle in Osaka, which is one of the highlights of the flick; the model work is up to the usual standard, and it’s neat seeing some rarely-knocked-over landmarks given the monster movie treatment. Also, I really like the look of Godzilla in this one, mean-looking and with a mouth full of bad teeth. (See also, the recent Shin Godzilla.)
A lot of time is spent, however, on personal drama with the tuna company pilots, one of whom, Tsukioka (Hiroshi Koizumi), is dating the company president’s daughter. There’s also a whole bit where a bunch of prisoners break out of a police transport that, for a long time, seems like it’s going nowhere. Still, it rarely drags, the monster action is good fun, and watching the more mundane bits got me thinking I should dial up some period Japanese drama on the Criterion Channel. While it does feel totally stripped of the first film’s themes and message, it’s definitely better than I thought it would be given its reputation.
Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959, Dir. John Guillermin)
A few times a year, Warner Archive does a “5 for $55” sale on a wide swath of their catalog of DVDs and blu rays; I bought this during one of those sales last year because I remembered reading about it in an issue of Films in Review when I was a kid. It was in an article about the dozens of Tarzan films up to that point, and this was described as one of the best of the lot, a major turning point in the depiction of Tarzan on film. Up to Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, the main series of Tarzan films depicted a simple jungle hero speaking in broken English, doing the whole “me Tarzan, you Jane” thing — a far cry from the well spoken and world-traveling Lord Greystoke of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novels. But here Gordon Scott, in his fifth outing as Tarzan, gets to play a version of Tarzan closer to Burroughs’s hero: a clever and articulate guardian of the jungle. The idea that this movie was “the one that brings the character back to his roots” appealed to me, as well as this being “the one that was really good after the producers made a whole bunch of shoddy ones.”
It opens with a group of thieves (in blackface, to disguise their identities) raiding a village of its dynamite, and killing some folks in the process. The criminals are a band led by a hunter named Slade (Anthony Quayle); he’s leading them to a secret diamond mine that only he knows the location of. Tarzan learns of the raid and, upon discovering who’s responsible, pursues the party down the river; he’s accompanied by Angie (Sara Shane), a pilot and model who was in the area and is looking for adventure. She gets more than she bargained for; Slade’s group are a nasty bunch — at each other’s throats constantly, but equally ruthless when provoked by our heroes.
There’s an edge to this that I wasn’t expecting. One of Slade’s crew is a loudmouthed, sadistic, and cruel drunkard named O’Bannion played by Sean Connery, seven years before Bond — a real piece of work that I both wanted to see get what he deserved, but kinda missed when he was gone. Slade himself proves to be less interested in the destination and the money than the thrill of the journey, and ultimately pursuit of his pursuer. He ends the film with a genuinely terrifying wild look in his eyes as he turns on the last of his cohorts. Angie, when she first meets Tarzan, is also shockingly callous — the kind of girl you really do have to tell, “Hey, this isn’t a game!” (Am I misremembering, or does Tarzan actually say that more-or-less early on?) I was surprised that they didn’t make her naive, just cold.
I was disappointed to see the almost-as-well-regarded follow-up, Tarzan the Magnificent isn’t on blu ray yet; I’m this close to biting the bullet and just buying a copy of the DVD to give it a spin, but there’s plenty more to watch across the myriad streaming services I pay for and around the apartment. I’m sure I can wait. After all, it did take me thirty years to watch this one …
Star Wars (1977, Dir. George Lucas)
This was part of my lead-up to seeing The Rise of Skywalker this past December; no, I didn’t watch the new version on Disney+ where Greedo screams “Maclunky!” before he and Han shoot almost simultaneously — I watched this on the 2o06 non-anamorphic DVD with the pre-Special Edition cut of the film. Yes, that means I had to fiddle with the TV to blow the already sorta grainy DVD picture up to fill the screen.
The original Star Wars is so weirdly apart from everything else surrounding the franchise. Luke doesn’t do much in the way of swashbuckling; his big “hero” moment is as a fighter pilot. The Jedi and the Force are overtly treated as parts of this ancient religion. Han comes off as a real greasy, dangerous asshole. Vader is a short-tempered thug, second banana to Tarkin’s cool menace. Oddly the characters who feel most fully formed here are the non-humans: the definitive Threepio and Artoo material is the pair running around the blockade runner and then bickering in the Tatooine desert. Meanwhile, when I think of Chewbacca, I first think of him leaning back and folding his arms behind his head as Han informs the droids that when droids lose, they don’t pull people’s arms out of their sockets.
And yeah, it’s still good, and it’s better when it hasn’t been screwed around with. (I’m still not sure why Lucas continues to insist that the Jabba the Hutt scene — which largely consists of Han repeating the same things he told Greedo — is now necessary.)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979, Dir. Robert Wise)
My friend David and I almost went to the Fathom Events showing of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, commemorating its 40th anniversary, but when those plans fell through I wound up throwing in my DVD copy of the Director’s Cut of the film. The only adventure of the U.S.S. Enterprise to feature that sterile ’70s “disco sci-fi” aesthetic, it remains the definitive “Enterprise encounters weird crap in space” adventure, as Admiral Kirk, bored by his current desk job, forcibly retakes command of the newly refit Starfleet flagship to face down a massive alien vessel of unimaginable power headed on a direct course for Earth. Yes, the pacing is wonky — so much time is spent getting the crew together, the mission stated, and the ship launched — and the long, loving look at the new Enterprise doesn’t hit quite the same when you’re watching this at home, decades later, in a world where the Enterprise has been refit and redesigned at least a half dozen more times. Doesn’t matter. It’s a beautiful movie, with a magnificent Jerry Goldsmith score, that cast as those characters, and it’s the one that’s about Boldly Going and not time travel, soap opera, revenge, or politics. Don’t believe the old saw about the odd-numbered Treks being the bad ones. I bet this holds up better than Star Trek VI.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980, Dir. Irvin Kershner)
The definitive Star Wars movie. Harrison Ford as the Han Solo you remember, the charming scoundrel. Carrie Fisher’s Leia convincingly in charge of things, until she’s whisked away aboard the Falcon to roll her eyes and get sexually harassed by Han for about an hour of the film’s running time. Everyone getting tired of Threepio (Anthony Daniels). The Hyperdrive never works, and it’s always kinda funny, even when it’s also tense as all hell. And Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, lightsaber in hand, fighting beasts in the snow, training with a Muppet (Frank Oz as Yoda), and attempting a daring rescue of his friends only to discover a horrifying truth. I’ve seen it dozens of times, and every time I think, “This really is just about perfect, isn’t it?”
The Shining (1980, Dir. Stanley Kubrick)
It is a bit odd that this is the first time I’ve seen Kubrick’s The Shining since his Dr. Strangelove and 2001 are two of my favorite movies of all time, but horror’s never been a big genre for me, and I grew up soaking in parodies of this — the iconography and catchphrases of the film were all completely familiar. (The whole reason I watched this, in fact, is because I figured it was required viewing before seeing Doctor Sleep, this past year’s sequel to The Shining, about which more later.) It could be that this is why it’s not the supernatural story and the setting and mysteries surrounding it that stick with me — it’s the fact that Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance is one of those guys who raised a family because that’s just what you do and, despite assuring Danny (Danny Lloyd) that he loves him and would do anything for him, when the creepy hotel gives him a push, that whole alcohol-swilling, wife-hating, kid-resenting thing just goes into overdrive. You know this guy. You’ve either worked with him, or one of your friends’ dads was this guy — or, heaven help you, your dad was this guy. And one of the things I really liked about Doctor Sleep was seeing Danny dealing, as an adult, with his memories of his dad being the worst version of this guy, and trying to put that demon to rest.
Certainly after seeing it I do understand the decades of praise this has built up; Kubrick is a master of atmosphere, Nicholson and Shelly Duvall’s performances are iconic — and, hell, so are Lloyd and Scatman Crothers’s, for that matter. It is something that sticks with you. It’s just kind of a shame that I couldn’t go into this cold at all. I mean, at the end I was going, “Wait for it, wait for it …” in the moments leading up to the reveal of Jack’s final fate. I already knew that shot.
Like I said. A shame.
Return of the Jedi (1983, Dir. Richard Marquand)
Largely artlessly directed, crowded full of Muppets, and featuring Harrison Ford in a performance that ping-pongs from utter boredom to sliced ham and Carrie Fisher emoting so unconvincingly she’d get kicked off a soap opera set, Return of the Jedi is probably my least favorite of the three Star Wars trilogy enders. There’s a lot I love here — I don’t think the Tatooine rescue actually hangs together, but there’s nice bits to it, and despite my dismissal of the Muppets at the top, I actually like a lot of the creature designs on display. I don’t hate the Ewoks, either, though their fight against the Empire’s forces also doesn’t quite work for me. What does work is the battle against the Second Death Star, which I think is still the series’ best space battle — and, of course, Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine, the great villain of the saga, delivering every line with perfect relish. I swear, there’s a point right around where Han is snapping at Leia about Luke in the Ewok tree village where I go, “Why am I watching this again?” The Luke-Vader-Emperor scenes are where I go, “Oh, right. That’s why.”
Lupin III: The Legend of the Gold of Babylon (1985, Dir. Seijun Suzuki & Shigetsugu Yoshida)
The third film featuring Monkey Punch’s master thief Lupin III, and a definite change of pace after Hayao Miyazaki’s The Castle of Cagliostro. This is much weirder, hornier, and messier all around — and I really wasn’t a fan. I did know that was its reputation, and mostly bought it because of a newly recorded English dialogue track featuring the cast from the 2003 English dubbed version of the second Lupin III TV series: Robotech veterans Tony Oliver & Richard Epcar as Lupin and his marksman pal Jigen, Lex Lang as put-upon samurai Goemon and Michelle Ruff as Lupin’s rival and love interest Fujiko. Those pros providing the vocal intonations didn’t help the long stretches of watching the weird old lady dancing go down any better, nor did it help with Inspector Zenigata having to babysit the ludicrously stereotyped beauty contest contestants or the ridiculous openinh motorcycle chase that goes on way too long. Probably gonna be a while before this disc gets any further play ’round here.
The Living Daylights (1987, Dir. John Glen)
Oh yeah, the first of Timothy Dalton’s two turns as James Bond 007. I think this was actually my second time watching this in ten years, and despite that I completely forgot the ending yet again. I did remember, though, that this was a “back to basics” take on the franchise much in the same mold as Casino Royale almost twenty years later — an almost realistic spy thriller, with only a bit of the over-the-top gadgetry that the series is known for. Bond assists in the defection of KGB General Georgi Koskov, but during the operation notices that the sniper (Maryam D’Abo) sent after Koskov was a cellist at the concert they’d just left. Koskov is quickly recaptured from a British safehouse, but not before telling MI6 that the new head of the KGB, General Pushkin (John Rhys Davies), has reinstituted “Smiert Spionam”: “Death to Spies.” (A portmanteau of this phrase, SMERSH, was the name of the Russian agency Bond was constantly tangling with in the early Bond novels — talk about “back to basics!”) Bond doesn’t think this sounds like Pushkin, but nevertheless is ordered to track him down and kill him. However, he takes a detour to track down the cellist, Kara Milovy, who turns out to be Koskov’s girlfriend; the defection was a setup.
The defection plot and Bond’s eastern European tour with Milovy really bring to mind From Russia With Love; the movie even has a cut-rate Red Grant casually breaking folks along the way. (There’s a villain mop-up at the end that also recalls that film’s structure.) However, as this is a Cold War thriller in the mid ’80s, by the end of the movie we’re in Afghanistan and Bond is fighting alongside the Mujahideen, which naturally always plays a bit weird post-9/11. (See also: Rambo III.)
Still, I love Dalton’s charming but intense Bond, the A-ha theme song is killer, and I actually really like just how much of a twisty knot the plot is. Really wish Dalton had done at least one more. Did watch License to Kill a couple of weeks ago — more on that when I start talking about stuff I watched this year.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989, Dir. Terry Gilliam)
It was very strange watching this Gilliam movie not too long after seeing his newest film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, in theaters. Both have title characters who believe that they’ve been engaged in the most fantastic adventures. The difference is that in Munchausen, the crazy old man is right: John Neville stars as the titular Baron, who we meet as he interrupts a play about his legendary exploits to protest their inaccuracies. His own story is interrupted by an assault by the Turkish army — which, he explains, is all his fault, but not to worry, he’ll go and set it right. Accompanied by Sally (Sarah Polley), the daughter of the leader of the theater troupe, Munchausen travels to the moon, a volcano ruled over by the Roman god Vulcan, and the sea to round up his amazing friends to help him take on the Turks.
Munchausen is a whimsical, jolly adventure with fantastic sets and effects for the era that feels very much of a piece with other fantastic adventures of the era you might be familiar with — which means, if you like that sort of thing, you’d probably like this, too, and given that it had an intentionally hobbled release back in ’89 (studio politics are the worst), you probably haven’t seen it unless you came across it on cable. Bonus points for a barking mad Robin Williams performance I wasn’t expecting.
Next time: More Gilliam, More Star Wars, More Anime.