The Thing (1982)

The Thing. Universal Pictures 1982.

Before watching the movie:

This is one more legend that’s a bit of a black box. I know there’s a monster besieging a research station in the Arctic or Antarctic, and that’s about it. I think almost the entire movie goes without showing the monster? It might be an alien but it’s left ambiguous? The poster is as much of a masterpiece as the movie, they say, and it is a fantastic poster.

I dimly recall a TV special about practical and visual effects in horror movies in general that may have touched on this movie, but I’m not sure. The images I’m remembering could be almost any horror movie, but they could fit a frozen research station for all I know.

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Caveman

Caveman. United Artists 1981.

Before watching the movie:

The summary on this that I saw first was pretty scant. Ringo Starr is a loser caveman, he wants to get the girl. I dug deeper and there wasn’t much more short of a blow by blow synopsis. There’s something about an adventure and exile, but it seems to just be “let’s put Ringo Starr in a silly costume and have some fun with how stupid cave people were.”

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Movies of My Yesterdays: An American Tail

This movie has always existed. Or at least, it’s always existed in my world. As my ability to remember the past coalesced, this title was among the ones that was already in our collection, which I was watching regularly. Maybe not as regularly as others, but I can’t clearly remember how much I watched one or the other. Anyway, I wasn’t allowed to watch anything more than once in a day, which I came to realize later in life was probably mostly for the preservation of my parents’ sanity, and in a distant second, the cassette tapes my brother and I were wearing out.

I’m not sure if I have actually watched An American Tail since we gave up on our Betamax player long, long after that format war had been lost. Maybe I felt I’d rewatched it so many times I didn’t need to see it anymore. It didn’t hold all that much special significance for me to seek it out. Don Bluth movies are a little weird anyway, and of those that I was regularly exposed to in my youth, this doesn’t have the “wait, I don’t think I got the complexities of the plot” that The Secret of NIMH had, the polished, hit-me-in-just-the-right-moment chemistry of Anastasia, or the dinosaurs of The Land Before Time. And so I come back to it only now in a spirit of “wait, I don’t think I grasped the complexities of the emotions and satire”. By the time I really comprehended that it was about the immigration experience, I was too busy for it.

An American Tail. Amblin Entertainment 1986.

In Russia in the late 1800s, the Mousekewitz family lives in fear of cats, but otherwise content, though Papa will tell anyone who will or won’t listen of a land called America where there are no cats, a place of such abundance the streets are paved with cheese and a mouse can live at peace. When the human village their mousehole is in is burned in a pogrom and Cossack cats terrorize the fleeing mice, the Mousekewitz family boards a boat to New York. Shortly before arrival, the middle child Fievel is swept out to sea in a storm and given up for lost by his family. Luckily, Fievel ends up in a bottle and floats to shore on his own, where he is found by a French pigeon who assures him it’s possible to find his family and directs him to the harbor they would have come in through. However, before he can reach the immigration office, he is instead found by Warren T. Rat, who promises to take Fievel to his family but instead sells him to a sweatshop. With the help of an Italian teen named Tony, Fievel escapes the sweatshop and sets off looking for his family in a city that is not as free of cats as the tales they old in the Old Country.

Dom DeLouise’s friendly cat character is a much smaller part than I remembered, which is honestly just as well, though I think they corrected the oversight of having their biggest star in such a small role for the sequel. Christopher Plummer was completely unrecognizable with a French accent. I’m sorry to say that when I try to decide how I feel about Fievel’s performance, what mainly comes to mind is Caillou, the public television bane of parents everywhere. What is absolutely perfect, however, is Papa Mousekewitz, who sounds exactly like a beloved Jewish Russian father should (though that’s probably partly from stereotypes). There’s so much warmth there.

When I was very young, I didn’t really understand accents. That is, in the sense that I didn’t understand that they connoted something about the person speaking. This meant I lost a lot of information as a kid watching this movie, especially the other people telling their cat attack stories on the boat, who were not Italian and Irish stereotypes to me, just cartoon people with silly cartoon voices. So I guess I never picked up how just about every person Fievel interacts with in America is an immigrant, including Honest John the politician and Gussie Mausheimer the wealthiest mouse in town. The people helping Fievel, from the bottom to the top, are from elsewhere, even the ones who have cemented their place in American society. And by the end, so has Fievel.

I came into it this time expecting a relatable story of immigration, but I kind of feel like while Fievel’s circumstances get him into a variety of places that allow us to see a spectrum of life in a city full of immigrants, his own story is so out of the ordinary that I didn’t get that sense. Also, the story was a hundred years in the past when the movie came out, so culture has significantly changed. I guess the point of the story is that anything can happen in America, and when I think about why that’s more likely than in Europe, I have to come to the conclusion that social hierarchies were in flux because it was still a new society. That’s less true now than a hundred years ago. What hasn’t changed is the stark contrast between the reputation and reality of the New World, and the harsh conditions desperate people brave for their fresh start.

Movies of My Yesterdays: The Fox and the Hound

While as a Disney feature this eventually became part of our collection (I think it may not have arrived until after our late switch to VHS), I never really appreciated it much as a child. It’s slow, quiet, sad, and not all that much really happens. It’s one of my least-watched Disney movies for the amount of time I had access to it.

The Fox and the Hound. Walt Disney Pictures 1981.

When Widow Tweed finds a fox kit orphaned by a hunter, she takes him into her home, names him Tod, and raises him as a pet. The hunter on the property neighboring her dairy farm, Amos Slade, has just acquired a new puppy named Copper he intends to have his older dog Chief help train in hunting. Copper happens to meet Tod independently from his trainer and the pair instantly bond, unaware of the fact that Copper’s purpose in life is to catch foxes like Tod for his master. When Tod comes to visit Copper on Slade’s property, Chief wakes up and chases Tod, resulting in the upsetting of Slade’s chickens, and Slade tells Widow Tweed that he’ll kill the fox on sight if he ever trespasses again, then takes his dogs on an overwinter hunting trip. Warned by his owl mentor Big Mama that Copper will come back a hunting dog, Tod insists they’ll still be friends. But when Copper does come back, he tells Tod that things are different now and he can’t come around anymore, then Chief wakes up and chases Tod again, with Slade bringing Copper in pursuit. Copper gives Tod one chance to escape, but Chief finds Tod and gets into a nearly mortal accident trying to catch him. With Slade exploding at Widow Tweed about her fox nearly getting his dog killed, Tweed realizes she has to give Tod up and leave him at the game preserve, where he should be safe, though completely unprepared for his new life. But the law against hunting in the game preserve doesn’t deter a man and dog on a quest for revenge.

This story likely requires an adult’s understanding to fully appreciate. I just didn’t have the patience for it as a kid. The Boomer and Dinky chasing Squeaks parts seem to be the main appeasement to the younger audience, and even as a kid they felt extraneous because they were pretty much completely separate from the main plot and also there weren’t enough of them to sustain my interest. As an adult they’re almost jarringly out of place now. However, I’m in a much better place to ride along with the complicated emotions of the actual story.

I imagined that the book was a treasured children’s novel, so I looked it up, and it looks more literary than I pictured. The summary mentions that you see the human world in the background evolving over the years, and that sounds like some fascinating detail that I think I have to read now. Wikipedia notes that the movie was “heavily modified from the source material”, and it definitely does sound like that was more than just turning the death of Chief into a broken leg.

I also didn’t appreciate the art style. It’s not as rough-sketched as 101 Dalmations, not as vintage as the Snow White, and not as modern as the post-CAPS animation of movies like The Great Mouse Detective and the Disney Renaissance movies. But what it does have is possibly the peak of what that style of animation could do without a major shift in the supporting technology. I was particularly impressed by the effects animation in places.

These days, when we talk about “adult animation”, we tend to mean animated shows with humor inappropriate for children. But this is adult in that it almost completely fails to work for children because it’s not really talking to experiences children are ready to relate to. At least, it didn’t work with me as a child, but I’m much more prepared to pick up what it’s laying out now. And it still has more of a plot than Bambi.

Christine

Christine. Polar Film 1983.

Before watching the movie:

This is a horror movie about a possessed car. Even though it’s based on a Stephen King novel, I think the chances are good that it’s going to be more silly than actually scary. Maybe it’s just my frame of reference, but when people refer to a story about a living car, they’ll go for a lighter story like The Love Bug or “My Mother The Car” (that one’s almost certainly my reference pools), because the concept really does seem to be better suited for comedy than horror. A car can kill you, and we’ve built our cities with a little too much focus on car accessibility, but ultimately a car is only dangerous to a person under a very specific set of circumstance.

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Throw Momma From The Train

Throw Momma From The Train. Orion Pictures 1987.

Before watching the movie

I know this is inspired by, in the story and in reality, Strangers On A Train, only as a comedy. I can definitely see the comedy in a weird guy trying to get a relatively normal person to do a murder for him in exchange for a murder he did on spec. I’m just now confronting the realization that Danny DeVito has pretty much always been mostly a comedy actor. I thought his career had more roles similar to a Joe Pesci type and then transitioned to comedy later. I don’t know that I would’ve thought of him to be the weird guy who wants to trade murders, but it makes a lot of sense.

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Holiday Rewind: When Harry Met Sally

When Harry Met Sally. Castle Rock Entertainment 1989.

Being in a completely different chapter in my life than I was when I first watched When Harry Met Sally, I’m not sure if it will have the same effect on me now. This movie was a bit aspirational for me at the time, but now I’m more settled and have different life issues and resonances.

I don’t remember very many scenes outside of the two or three iconic moments, but I also remember the whole thing with the wagon wheel table, which was pretty irrelevant but left an impression for some reason.

Twelve years ago, Harry Burns caught a lift from Chicago to New York with his girlfriend’s best friend Sally Albright. The 18 hour drive did not go well, including when Harry suggests that men and women can’t be just friends because the man will always want to have sex. Seven years ago, Harry and Sally happened to share a flight. Harry suggested that, as they’re both in serious relationships now, they should become friends, but had to admit that his earlier statement stands. Two years ago, Sally and Harry ran into each other again, Harry freshly divorced from his wife who left him for another man, and Sally broken up with her man who didn’t share her life goals. Both clearly hurting, they hit it off and became what each other needed. They quickly fall into a relationship that’s almost a platonic life partnership. Both of them encouraging each other to get back out into the dating scene, they try to set each other up with their best friends Jess and Marie, who instead fall for each other and quickly get married, while Harry and Sally help each other navigate relapses in their respective post-breakup depressions, trying to determine what this thing they have really is.

This movie is entirely dialogue driven, which means the biggest star is Nora Ephron’s script. However, a lot of Harry’s lines don’t sound like a Nora Ephron script, and that’s apparently because most of his part was punched up by Billy Crystal. I understand that it’s fairly common for some actors to get a pass on the script where they or a favorite writer makes them sound the way they sound in every movie, but it does kind of stand out here. It also runs on observational humor, which I understand was a big movement in comedy about that time, but now it just feels like proto-Seinfeld.

The mockumentary segments with decades-married couples telling the stories of how they met is a sweet framing device, but I come up empty at least half the time trying to decide if the particulars of the story being told has some thematic bearing on the chapter about to unfold. I think they’re just stories, but one or two come close enough that it seems like there might be more meaning.

I didn’t remember just how much I was disappointed in the neatness of the resolution initially. They found each other, went through a crisis that forced them to reevaluate what they really meant to each other, and that’s a completely okay resolution. I wanted it to be more relevant to where I was then, and it wasn’t, and I took that out on it a bit. This is a delightfully charming, unconventional romcom that ends up in a conventional place because that’s what makes it a romcom, and that’s okay.

Holiday Rewind: Die Hard

Most movies that I watch for review, I don’t come back to often. Lately, I may come back to them once to watch them with my wife, but usually pretty soon after the first viewing. In this case however, the time I watched Die Hard with my wife is closer to now than it is to the time that I reviewed it, in no small part because I reviewed it over ten years ago, long before we ever had a chance of meeting.

So often, when a movie has this much cultural relevance you see a lot of references to and spoofs of parts of the movie in other works, but aside from some quotable lines, there’s not much that gets directly referenced. Even the Die Hard pastiche episode of the recent Turner and Hooch TV adaptation doesn’t really go past putting the character in a similar outfit and hostage situation, and parodying a couple of lines. I’m surprised I knew as much as I did before my first viewing.

Die Hard. 20th Century Fox 1988.

John McLane of the NYPD didn’t follow his wife when she and the kids moved to LA six months ago for her new job, and now he’s coming to join them for Christmas, if she’ll have him. Her company, Nakatomi, invites him to their Christmas party on the thirtieth floor of their brand new skyscraper, but while John is in the bathroom airing out his feet from the flight, the party is crashed by a gang of international criminals and the partygoers taken hostage. As the only one in the building not under their control, John tries to not only keep the hostages safe and foil the terrorists, but also get the local authorities to take the situation seriously, with one pistol, one stolen radio, and no shoes.

A couple of months ago I saw Die Harder for the first time and it actually kind of felt like a better movie, or at least a better Christmas movie. It leans very hard into the Christmas angle. While I remembered this was more than incidentally set on Christmas, I didn’t remember very well how. This movie is in fact, just as much as alternative Christmas movie as I didn’t remember. It’s not necessarily concerned with the holiday for most of the movie, but there are frequent reminders. Also the movie ends with family, debris falling from the sky like snow and plays a Christmas song, so viewers leave feeling like a Christmas movie just happened. I’m a little surprised to see in my original review I did consider it only incidentally festive, since I’ve come to remember it as much more so.

What struck me this time is how carefully the tension is modulated. John is almost constantly put in situations where he’s barely able to squeeze out of an immanent threat, and even as he wins small victories and chips away at the criminals’ power, it never feels like he’s getting the upper hand, because the criminals get more actively dangerous as their team gets picked off and their plans get derailed. John is only ever escaping the crisis of the moment, and the stakes stay high because he can’t save everybody.

I think I said everything that needed to be said about the performances the first time. Alan Rickman is a joy to watch as Hans Gruber even if his accent is a bit thin. John feels human in a way that a lot of action heroes don’t, even later Bruce Willis characters.

This may not be the most festive movie to watch at Christmas, but it’s at least a seasonally appropriate palate cleanser when one feels overloaded on the more saccharine fare. Anyone who enjoys action suspense movies would probably rank this near the top of their list.

Holiday Rewind: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Yesterday’s Movies has been going on for long enough that even though I’ve been more likely to avoid seasonal movies than write a holiday post, there are enough holiday movies in the back catalog that I can take a month to review my reviews.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the only movie I ever think of as a “Thanksgiving movie”. Well, excluding A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving because it’s only a half-hour special. And it could really work just as well as a Christmas movie, but that just makes it slightly more interesting that it’s different like that.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Paramount Pictures 1987.

Neal Page’s family lives in Chicago, but he’s working in New York, which is a little unclear whether this is a regular thing or an increasingly frequent business meeting trip, but his plan is to dash out of his last meeting before the break and catch the 6:00 flight home. Even though some oaf with a huge trunk ineptly foils his attempts to get a cab twice, he manages to make it to the airport just in time to see his flight get delayed, and while waiting, he meets that oaf, the obliviously talkative Del Griffith, itinerant shower curtain ring salesman. Who is also his seatmate for the flight when they do get to board. When O’Hare gets shut down due to a snowstorm, Neal and Del’s flight gets diverted to Witchita, where Del suggests they share a cab to a motel he knows. On a complete disaster of a trip home, Del seems to have all the answers, but also provide all the problems, and Neal is seemingly shackled to this bad luck charm of a man by fate.

I’m always a little surprised to see this is a John Hughes movie. Hughes is cemented in my mind as being associated with teen (and preteen) coming of age movies, but I know he’s made plenty of adult-focused movies as well. Especially having that in mind this time, I kept thinking that Neal’s house looks like the Home Alone house, but it turns out they aren’t even the same style. Apparently Neal’s is a colonial and Kevin’s is a Georgian, and even bigger than Neal’s.

I think I know what I was going for when I called it “comedy that piles misery on top of misery”, but that’s more about secondhand embarrassment. When a protagonist is making a fool of themselves, it makes me squirm, but the humiliation Neal is going through isn’t embarrassment, it’s indignity. Neal suffering through this trip teaches him the humility to care for even someone as annoying as Del who’s reaching out for some human companionship.

There’s a couple of places where the editing is a bit confusing because something nondiegetic isn’t immediately recognizable as not being part of the scene, but that’s my main quibble. The no-homo type jokes in the shared hotel scene haven’t even aged all that terribly, as the main object of humor is the men’s own insecurities.

In a landscape replete with Christmas movies of all genres, this holiday travel movie doesn’t even have to be nominally set at Thanksgiving to have staying power. John Hughes seems to have had some kind of sense of how to make an evergreen classic through very human storytelling. Cookie cutter Hallmark movies may pull at the heartstrings, but I feel like movies like this give a nudge to the soul.

Big Business

Big Business. Touchstone Pictures 1988.

Before watching the movie:

I had never heard of this until it came up in a streaming library, and it sounds like the reason why is that nobody was very impressed by it. The concept looks like separated at birth by way of city mouse/country mouse. It’s probably wholly unlike Twins, but it seems like kind of a mirror reflection of it on the surface.

I’m definitely interested to see what they do with Midler and Tomlin both playing double roles. I don’t know if the city/country aspect of it will play all that well. I hope they get some good thematic mileage out of the way that the two sets of twins get to see what they could’ve been like if they grew up in different circumstances.

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