It’s part two of my round-up of all the movies I sat in front of in 2019, whether at home or in the theater. Ten movies, presented in release date order, starting off in the 1990s and making it into 2018 — which, as I said last time, just goes to show that I mostly saw stuff from 2018 & 2019 last year. (I’m really hoping to do better this year.)
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
Here’s an old favorite I still remember seeing in a theater; in fact, I swear I remember seeing at least twice, because one of those times we came in late to the sight of the walls bleeding in the Cathedral during the prologue. So many things I love in this: the way Oldman hits all the necessary notes as the Count — at various points coming off as creepy and camp, commanding and terrifying, and dashing and romantic; the aforementioned prologue, which was just awesome when I was eleven and today comes off as a bit cheesy, but still cool; and the mad relish with which Anthony Hopkins plays the vampire hunting scientist Van Helsing. It’s also a nice touch, given the way the film presents itself, that there’s an effort to adhere to the epistolary nature of the novel, presenting Jonathan Harker’s letters, Mina’s diary, the log of the ship Dracula arrives on, etc. as narration. The one sort of weak link in the film, of course, is Keanu Reeves as Harker; he almost works in the role, hitting the right straight-laced and clueless/naive notes for the character, and he and Winona Ryder’s Mina work as a couple — but he is a bit stiff, and the less said about his accent the better. Winona Ryder, though — there’s somebody I’ve liked in everything I’ve seen her in (yes, even Alien Resurrection). Which reminds me, I’ve got a disc of Edward Scissorhands here I haven’t given a spin, and I don’t think I’ve seen that in, like, thirty years. But yeah, this is still a great deal of fun.
(As an aside, am I right in thinking this is the last Coppola movie that people generally like? Does his Grisham adaptation, The Rainmaker have any fans?)
Guyver: Dark Hero (1994, Dir. Steve Wang)
I can’t remember if I originally taped this from a late night cable airing (as I did with the bad ’90s live action Fist of the North Star movie) or watched it as it aired late one night on Sci-Fi (I think it may have premiered there in the U.S.), but in either case, this is another one I did see back in its home decade, but hadn’t seen since ’til last fall. Dark Hero is the second American movie based on the manga by Yoshiki Takaya, which at the time was being released in English by Viz and had also been adapted into two separate direct-to-video anime projects — a one-shot subtitled Out of Control and a twelve-episode series — that also were released over here on VHS. (I keep waiting for somebody like Discotek to announce they’re releasing those old Guyver anime projects in a shiny new disc release, but it hasn’t happened yet; I think the 2005 TV series going over like a lead balloon over here killed it dead.)
The first movie was a loose adaptation of the origin of the Guyver: young man accidentally comes into contact with alien weapon (the titular Guyver bio-mechanical armor), fights monsters working for the evil Cronos corporation — a front for the Zoanoids, an ancient alien race intent on world domination — and, he believes, shuts them down courtesy the giant cannons in The Guyver suit’s chest. Where the first flick was cringe-inducingly jokey, with an unappealing lead and brief appearances by name actors who didn’t have anything else going on that week (Mark Hamill, Jeffrey Combs, Jimmie Walker), this one has no slumming stars and a tone closer to the original source material. Sean Barker (a brooding David Hayter, replacing the first film’s hapless Jack Armstrong), the reluctant host to the Guyver bio-armor, is seeing strange images in his dreams. Thanks to a local newscast, he discovers that the same images are being found on cave walls at an archeological dig in Utah. With the help of Cori (Kathy Christopherson), the daughter of the archeological team’s leader, he slips into the dig site to discover that the dig site is home to an ancient space ship — and that the dig is being funded by Cronos. Hayter, today best known as the English voice of Solid Snake in most of the Metal Gear Solid games, is a solid action lead, and while most of the cast isn’t great, nobody embarrasses themselves or ruins the movie. The Guyver suits look rad, the monsters are cool, and the fights — staged with the familiar leaps and cuts you’d expect out of a Super Sentai or Power Rangers action scene (longtime Power Rangers fight coordinator Koichi Sakamoto did, in fact, work on this movie) — are a lot of fun. Like the Tarzan movie I was talking about last week, this was a Warner Archive disc, but this is only available as a burned-on-demand DVD, which looked fine; that said, for most of you, I’m sure Vudu’s free-with-ads stream or a three dollar rental on Amazon or YouTube will do.
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005, Dir. George Lucas)
This is the only one of George Lucas’s much-mocked Star Wars prequels that I watched in advance of Rise of Skywalker, and honestly it’s the only one that I actually like. Yes, it gives poor Natalie Portman’s Padme little to do but be pregnant and cry — a sorry state for the character after two movies of running about, blasting droids, and fighting monsters — but Hayden Christensen’s awkward petulance as Anakin Skywalker just about works here, Ian McDiarmid is tremendous as the charming and sinister Chancellor Palpatine, and Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi … well, there’s a reason why everyone’s hoping that Disney+ series is still happening, and that’s because he’s one of the brightest spots in all three of these films, certainly bringing to mind Alec Guinness’s somehow both civilized yet worldly performance in the original 1977 Star Wars but making the role his own. The opening action set piece, in which Anakin and Obi-Wan rescue Palpatine from Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), is an all-timer, featuring a space battle that’s maybe a little too noisy to one-up the assault on the second Death Star from Return of the Jedi, but by golly they went for it. This, of course, is also the installment where Anakin meets Palpatine during that weird theatrical performance and learns the Tragedy of Darth Plagiueis the Wise, which — have I mentioned how much I love McDiarmid in these movies? His performance here, the long-promised final battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan on the lava planet Mustafar, and the way McGregor sells the emotional climax after that battle comes to a close are probably the reason I still rate this so highly despite it sharing certain shortcomings with its earlier siblings. (Its biggest sin, to my thinking, is the way it tries way too hard to dovetail into the original Star Wars — and this is not the last time one of these movies commits that sin.)
Trigun: Badlands Rumble (2010, Dir. Satoshi Nishimura)
The anime TV series Trigun, based on Yasuhiro Nightow’s manga, was one of my obsessions of the early 2000s, and I was so thrilled when, over a decade after that show’s debut, most of its major staff members came back together to make this movie, set somewhere in the middle of the series’s run (the same trick the staff of fellow 1998 anime space western Cowboy Bebop pulled when it came time to do a movie of their TV show). The film opens with goofball outlaw Vash the Stampede (Johnny Yong Bosch in the English dubbed version; the TV series was his anime debut, and he was the only member of that cast to reprise their role here) preventing the death of a legendary bank robber named Gasback, who was planning to retire after this One Last Score, but whose crew betray him. This, of course, is Vash’s standard M.O. in action — he doesn’t want anybody to die, but Gasback warns him this’ll come back to bite him. Sure enough, twenty years later Gasback sets plans in motion to get revenge on his betrayers, who are living high on the hog after building new lives atop their spoils — and, in anticipation of him seeking that revenge, a mass of bounty hunters have assembled at the original scene of the crime to pursue the bounty on Gasback’s head. Is Vash also there? Of course he is — as are put-upon insurance agents Meryl Stryfe and Milly Thompson and gun-toting traveling priest Nicholas Wolfwood, who has found himself in Gasback’s debt and is therefore fighting on his side.
I remain stunned that, twelve years after the end of the TV series, the feature film looks just like it, only with more consistent quality animation and the occasional 3D CGI flourish that in no way would have happened in 1998. Same manic action set piece gunfights, same extended physical comedy sequences where Vash acts the part of a fool to prevent bloodshed, and — most cringe-inducingly — same old Vash sexually harassing the story’s female guest lead in the most pleadingly pathetic display possible, which had me go, “Oh, right, I forgot that was a thing in this show.” It was the one black mark in what was otherwise a fun return to a world I hadn’t visited in a while. I may yet have to go back and give the series a re-watch — though, the line for shows I’d like to go back to right now is awfully long, so we’ll see.
Tron: Legacy (2010, Dir. Joseph Kosinski)
A relic of the days when Disney was searching desperately for new action-adventure franchise hits prior to their acquisition of Marvel and Lucasfilm, Tron: Legacy — the sequel to their 1982 cult classic Tron — marries an undercooked, nonsensical quest story to rad production design and a fantastic Daft Punk soundtrack. Jeff Bridges returns as programmer Kevin Flynn, who disappeared without a trace some years after the events of the original film. His son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), is leading a generally directionless life; following his annual elaborate prank on the company his father once ran, Kevin’s old friend Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) delivers a clue to Kevin’s whereabouts. Naturally, this results in Sam finding his way to the Grid, the computer world from the original film, which is now ruled by a corrupt program called Clu — a program created in Kevin Flynn’s image to build the Grid into a perfect system. Sam is rescued from Clu’s clutches by Quorra (Olivia Wilde), a program who has served as his father’s protege these past twenty years. From the moment Sam is reunited with his father, the goal becomes escaping the Grid, which feels shortsighted; “here’s this rad black and neon world we’ve created, and the movie we’ve made about it is all about getting the hell out of it.” Quorra seems cool, and Wilde is great in the role, but the character is very much a stock type: the super-awesome female protagonist who’s cut down a notch to re-center the movie on the less awesome male protagonist who needs to man up. In fact, she’s quite like Leeloo from The Fifth Element in that she has a child-like innocence and desire to learn while also being awesome in a fight and a Magical Key To Everything. Sam is an unappealing “hero,” spending most of the movie seeming like a boring jerk, and Hedlund is one of a whole crop of these guys who were supposed to be our next wave of movie heroes in the late 2000s and early 2010s who were not interesting or charismatic in the least. Bridges is reliably good, but the CGI de-aging effect on him that appears first in the early scenes set in ’89 and then in the Grid when he’s portraying Clu (or rather, when his likeness is mapped over another actor) isn’t quite there yet; Disney didn’t perfect this tech ’til they magically gave us young Robert Downey, Jr. in Captain America: Civil War. The effect in this movie is unnerving and unconvincing, though it almost works for Clu. In short, though, probably not worth a watch. Still love the soundtrack, though, and I remember the tie-in cartoon, Tron: Uprising, being good — and that’s currently streaming on Disney+, so I might just finally sit down and finish it.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, Dir. J.J. Abrams)
A much better legacy sequel than the above, although it does share with it the fact that the character you want to spend the most time with is the old star of the original movie: here, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, putting in a performance equal to his work in The Empire Strikes Back — and sure, it doesn’t hurt that Solo wasn’t being given crummy lines and dumb stuff to do as well, though it doesn’t make any sense that he’s been flying with Chewbacca for over forty years and has never once ’til now fired Chewie’s bowcaster.
But yeah, you know this movie: the first Disney Star Wars film, in which a new legion of space fascists are on the march across the galaxy, and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) thinks the only thing to put a stop to this is finding her self-exiled brother Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, barely appearing in this picture). Through a series of mishaps and coincidences, the mission lands in the hands of a runaway Stormtrooper (John Boyega) and a desert scavenger (Daisy Ridley). Sure, it’s a safe retread of broad beats of the original ’77 movie, but the cast is uniformly excellent, it’s backed by a tremendous John Williams score, and while it’s in motion it never lets up, so you don’t even notice that the charging sequence for Starkiller Base doesn’t make any sense until 3 AM the night after you saw it for the first time, or for that matter that the “map to Luke Skywalker” also kind of doesn’t make any sense — especially as presented, with the bit new droid BB-8 is carrying fitting neatly into the chart R2-D2 displays. Two goofy shortcomings in an otherwise well-made piece of space fantasy entertainment.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, Dir. Rian Johnson)
Johnson, the first-rate filmmaker behind Brick and Looper (and this year’s Knives Out), ends up making the Star Wars movie designed to take all the risks after Disney proved they could make a movie engineered to within an inch of its life to win back fans’ trust following Lucas’s bizarrely off-putting prequel cycle. In the end, as we all know, this one wound up being extremely divisive:
“Why is my hero Luke Skywalker now a grouchy asshole who gave up?”
“Why is John Boyega hanging out with this short, round-faced Asian girl on a stupid-looking casino planet for a third of this movie?”
“This whole creeping fleet pursuit thing is stupid, and purple-haired Space Laura Dern is stupid for not telling anyone her plan to get Our Heroes out of it.”
I could go on. But the fact of the matter is, there are more strikingly beautiful scenes in this movie than in any other Star Wars movie, Mark Hamill gives his greatest performance ever as grouchy washed-up “legend” Luke Skywalker (and as far as I’m concerned, Luke’s self-imposed exile makes sense when you draw a line from the redemption of Vader to the corruption he sensed in his nephew), Kelly Marie Tran lights up every scene she’s in as newly-introduced Resistance tech Rose Tico, and from the moment our heroes start making their way back to the First Order’s flagship it’s one tense situation and twist after another, culminating in some of the all-time great take-your-breath-away sequences in the entire series. The throne room massacre. The light speed maneuver. Luke’s reunion with Leia, and Luke staring down the legion of walkers. Yeah, pretty clear from all my gushing what side I’m on with this one. Depending on the day I might still think The Empire Strikes Back is better, but it’s awfully close. Very curious what Johnson has planned in this universe, given a blank slate to play with (though I’d almost rather see his Knives Out sequel first).
Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Dir. Anthony & Joseph Russo)
And then there’s the other big “I watched this in prep for this year’s franchise installment” picture. Again, you know how this works: fractured by the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are divided when forces under the command of the Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) launch a concerted effort to seize the Infinity Stones he needs to reshape the universe. It doesn’t have the character of better installments in the Mighty Marvel Franchise Machine, but the quips are amusing, there are genuinely heartbreaking moments — Thor (Chris Hemsworth) admitting to Rocket (Bradley Cooper) that he has nothing left to lose, Quill (Chris Pratt) finally agreeing to go through with his promise to Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and honestly the whole last five minutes or so of the movie — and it had the gall to end where it did, which on first viewing actually had me laughing out loud in the theater. Marvel, over two years, finally brought the Big Dumb Crossover Event to theaters, and it worked. I’ll probably be going back to this and its follow-up every couple of years and will remain flabbergasted that they pulled this off until the day I die.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018, Dir. Terry Gilliam)
Speaking of pulling things off, Gilliam finally finished his Don Quixote movie and it saw a limited theatrical release through Fathom Events last year — and I just saw Mark Kermode review it a week or two ago, so I guess it also got a proper U.K. cinema release this year.
Adam Driver plays Toby, a hotshot commercial director who’s having a hard time wrapping a Don Quixote-themed shoot in Spain when he’s reminded of a student film he made nearby that was also about Cervantes’s troubled knight. When his curiosity about what became of the folks he met during the making of that film gets the better of him, he discovers that the humble cobbler he cast as Quixote, Javier (Jonathan Pryce), now believes that he is Quixote, and also believes that Toby is Sancho Panza. Misadventures ensue, and Toby finds himself getting caught up in the unreality of Javier’s delusion, even as he is reunited with other acquaintances from the Spanish village and navigates obligations related to the shoot courtesy of his boss (Stellan Skarsgard) and Alexei Miiskin (Jordi Molla), a Russian oligarch who owns a castle-like estate in the area.
For all the nonsense Gilliam’s been spouting off lately, I find myself incapable of arguing with the work he’s done; it’s a gleeful ode to — and warning against — the transformative power of fantasy, beautifully crafted and with a joyful and heartbreaking central performance by Pryce. One hopes, when a movie takes this long to emerge, that it’s not a sad disappointment — this was far from it. (As we’ll see next time, this was kind of a theme of my viewing last year.)
Dragon Ball Super: Broly (2018, Dir. Tatsuya Nagamine)
Back during the original run of Dragon Ball Z in the 1990s, a series of original films told the story of a ludicrously overpowered villain called Broly — a member of the super-strong Saiyan race, like our hero Goku, but capable of powering up to an obscenely ridiculous level where he just gets cartoonishly buff and the change in color to his spiked hair that denotes his “Super Saiyan” transformation passes from yellow to a tinge of green. This character was popular enough to appear three times in the Dragon Ball Z films, but like all the villains of the films, he didn’t “count”; these stories took place outside of series continuity. They were a fun spectacle, beautifully animated bonus threats to our cast of martial arts planetary defenders.
Fast forward to 2018. The official TV continuation of the Dragon Ball saga, loosely plotted by original manga creator Akira Toriyama, goes off the air, but a movie follow-up is planned. Toriyama, knowing how popular Broly was with fans twenty-five years ago — and continues to be! — reworks Broly’s story and knits it into the fabric of Goku’s current adventures. Gone is his absurd animosity towards Goku, which was originally rooted in his being right next to a constantly crying Goku in the Saiyan nursery; this, as well as Broly’s simplistic villainous arrogance are entirely ejected, making him a much more sympathetic character. He remains manipulated by his father Paragus, with whom in this version he was exiled by the Saiyan monarch King Vegeta, who feared Broly’s terrifying potential (and was also just ticked that his potential so outshone his own son’s). The two are recruited in the present day by the revived Dragon Ball Z villain Frieza, who is trying to rebuild his army. With Frieza hoping to be able to gather the Dragon Balls to make a wish, he pits Broly against Goku and Vegeta — the latter, of course, being the son Broly’s latent ability so outclassed forty years ago.
Even with all that laborious explanation, this probably makes no sense to you if you don’t follow Dragon Ball. The 2010s Dragon Ball movies have been pitched directly at existing fans of the franchise, lovingly animated continuations of the comics and TV series that ended in the ’90s. What sets Broly apart from the last two is that it’s longer (a full whopping 100 minutes, the longest released to theaters yet); it opens with some fascinating (again, for fans) rooting around in the series’ prehistory that shades in some early events surrounding Goku’s parents, Frieza taking control of his organization from his father King Cold, and the genocide of the Saiyan race in a new way; and the fights are some of the most spectacular ever animated in the series’s thirty-some-year history, although I remember some of the 3D CG work disappointing a bit. (It has been a year since I saw this now, so there are bits that are a little hazy.)
However, the most disappointing thing to me is: we still don’t know what happens next! I fully expected to have some kind of announcement by now about when we’ll next see Goku and Vegeta on our TV screens. What’s the hold-up, Toei?
Next time: As for us, next time we’ll be looking at ANOTHER project we never thought we’d see, more Marvel, a pair of endings, and romps through history both recent and not-so-much!