Safe House

Safe House. Filmquest Pictures 1999.

Before watching the movie:

For all the actors I mowed through the filmographies of when I first realized I had the ability to discover and summon movies, somehow I never did that for Patrick Stewart. Most Star Trek regulars don’t seem to have enough high profile projects outside of Star Trek to get me to think in those kinds of terms.

So I first heard of this movie from a viral video recasting a clip of it as “Look at how jarringly out of character Captain Picard is!” I had to look up the source, and it sounded funny, but it’s heavily marketed as a thriller. Maybe it moves from comedy to thriller?

Also it seems to be a TV movie, which I try to avoid, but here it is anyway.

Continue reading

Movies of my Yesterdays: Operation Dumbo Drop

This is a movie I originally saw as the kind of catch up that I later turned into this blog, but the revolution was ordering holds from the library instead of online subscriptions. I have much stronger memories of seeing it advertised on other Disney movies than of the one time I watched it years ago. I mainly remembered that the ads made it look a bit more fun and kiddish than it actually was.

Operation Dumbo Drop. Walt Disney Pictures 1995.

Green Beret Captain T.C. Doyle has been assigned to replace Captain Sam Cahill in maintaining good relations between the US Military and the Vietnamese village of Dak Nhe, strategically important due to its proximity to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. When the Viet Cong soldiers find the wrapper from a candy bar some village children stole from Doyle and realize that Dak Nhe has been helping the Americans, they shoot the village’s elephant as a punishment. In this region, elephants are companions, workhorses, and have ceremonial roles, and the village elders blame Doyle for the loss of their only elephant, but Cahill promises that they will bring a new elephant by the end of the week in time for an important ceremony. Doyle and Cahill requisition two GIs and enough money to buy a new elephant, as well as blackmailing a fast-talking black market racketeer into the group as well. The elephant they can afford, named Bo Tat, comes with an orphaned boy named Linh attached as the driver. Linh’s parents died in the war, and he doesn’t trust either side, but the gang have to trust him to help them transport Bo Tat across hundreds of miles of Vietnamese terrain, while VC soldiers stalk them, determined to make the Americans break their promise.

I didn’t even remember from my initial viewing that this is set in the Vietnam War, but that’s because this is probably the most sanitized Vietnam War story put to film. The 90s were a time when morally grey heroes and antagonists were becoming popular, but the closest that this movie comes to acknowledging the crisis of conscience that America faced in Vietnam is that the American characters admit they can’t be sure which side killed Linh’s parents, and it turns out that his father was gunned down by the VC for unclear reasons. This could have easily been a romp in any jungle with American military presence at any time in the latter 20th century, it could have been Peace Corps, it could’ve been anyone else with any reason a bureaucratic organization stuck them thousands of miles from the Western world, but it’s based on a story from the Vietnam War, so it’s set in the theme park version of the Vietnam War.

There’s a really fun chemistry between the army guys that is most of the reason to watch the movie, however it seems a bit off-balance that of the two GIs who were just assigned as backup, one is the very visible comic relief guy who’s scared of everything because he’s got less than a week until he goes home and wants to survive the week, and the other is just the Iowa farmboy who’s also kinda there. His biggest contribution is failing at being a backup elephant driver when they need to rescue Linh from a VC interrogation.

In the 90s, “Dumbo” felt more like a generic nickname for elephants than it does now. I wonder if that’s because Disney tightened control over their trademark or if I just had a smaller reference pool. I seem to remember the use of “When I See an Elephant Fly” being a bit jarring the first time I watched it, because I didn’t necessarily remember until then that this was a Disney movie. It still feels a bit out of place and forced. If nothing else, it along with the title is a reminder that somebody seems to think that the whole movie is a vehicle for delivering the climax and little else.

I hope this is nobody’s only exposure to Vietnam War history, but aside from that, it’s fun, maybe as much fun as Cool Runnings, which I gather is also more in the territory of being “suggested by” history. Maybe Disney should do fewer “live action remakes” and go back to making more “adventures suggested by true stories”. Even if the results were controversial, they’d be controversial for less silly reasons than the fights over Belle’s dress or the completely soulless hypernaturalism of The Lion King. Also maybe more fun.

Never Been Kissed

Never Been Kissed. Fox 2000 Pictures 1999.

Before watching the movie:

I’ve always been only very vaguely aware of this movie, and I’ve expected to get around to it for at least the last few years when I realized it was available to me. It’s one of those that gets mentioned a lot without any of the content really getting referenced, so all I had in mind until I looked up the summary was that it was some mildly successful romcom.

The premise is actually that the main character is an established adult journalist ordered to pose as a high schooler for a story, and that somehow sets up a love story. All I had expected until I read that was that she’s also never had such a relationship before, which is not all that unique for a love story.

Continue reading

Movies of my Yesterdays: Bicentennial Man

Bicentennial Man. 1492 Pictures 1999.

This movie may have been my most anticipated movie of my childhood, or at least the most anticipated non-Star Trek movie. Robin Williams, playing a robot, in a movie based on a story by one of my father’s favorite sci-fi authors? Sign me up! I don’t remember being disappointed not to see it in the theater, but I’m sure I was anxiously awaiting the chance to order it from the library when it came out on video.

In the very near future, Richard Martin introduces his family to his newest labor-saving purchase, NorthAm Robotics’ NDR-114: a humanoid robot with a positronic brain whose purpose is to serve the family around the house, named “Andrew”. After snotty older daughter Grace orders Andrew to throw himself out a window, Richard makes the decree that although Andrew is not a person, he is to be treated with the same respect one would give a person. After breaking younger daughter Amanda’s favorite glass horse sculpture, Andrew takes it upon himself to carve a replacement from wood, and quickly begins to display unique characteristics that Richard decides to encourage, mentoring him, giving him access to all the books he could want, and, at Amanda’s suggestion, providing Andrew with his own bank account for the money he earns from making clocks. As years pass, Andrew eventually asks for his own freedom, which Richard bitterly grants, stung at the assertion he hasn’t given Andrew enough. Soon, Andrew begins to feel lonely, and goes on a 20-year journey looking up every other NDR unit hoping to find others like him. The search leads him to cyberneticist Rupert Burns, a tinkerer obsessed with making more lifelike androids, sending Andrew on a new course to remake himself as a member of human society.

It occurs to me that I have a fondness for the dated charm of late 90s/early 00s sci-fi, especially the optimistic stories. Real world technology was already reshaping the world, but there was a radical readjustment to the kinds of futures we were imagining after the mainstreaming of mobile computing, the social internet, and all-knowing algorithms. Even the dystopias can seem a bit naive now, especially considering the social mindset that our culture was in between the end of the cold war and the beginning of the global war on terror. I especially appreciate how this movie isn’t really afraid to make the near future implausibly near. Most other stories would set the technology required to make robots like the NDR at least 20 years out, but this movie makes it explicit that Andrew was first activated in 2005, which was only six years in the future from the release date.

While I appreciated the civil rights concept in the abstract, Andrew is sapient and should be respected as any other sapient being, I didn’t really appreciate the story of the slow path to acceptance and justice before. It takes Andrew generations to be fully granted the rights he deserves. He needs four generations of allies to wield their privilege on his behalf to even have a chance of going from the othered, lesser role he was intended to be becoming a fully recognized member of society, and he couldn’t even imagine himself taking such a place and standing up for himself without multiple people telling him he deserved it. I also saw allegorical resonance in how even those allies varied in their acceptance of Andrew’s true nature. Richard, who saw Andrew’s nascent personhood and encouraged and defended it with everything he had, couldn’t imagine the necessity of such a person to have true autonomy. Amanda’s son Lloyd, who rejects Martin’s personhood but helps him for his own selfish interests. And Amanda’s granddaughter Portia, who can accept Andrew’s personhood but for a long time hesitates at recognizing the humanity of his full self. The “a tree will always be a tree” conversation never stood out to me before I had an understanding of the real world struggle of people who are having similar arguments with their loved ones every day, some of whom are even making radical body modifications of their own to make the outside match the inside while fighting for the government to recognize their truth and grant them their dignity.

The tone is always a surprise. I carry with me the light-hearted romp that the trailer promised, emphasizing the jokes and the feel-good and omitting the somber, inexorable march through the lived experience of learning what it is to be human, the highs and the lows, the love, but mostly the parade of heartbreak and disappointment along the way. It’s not overall a sad movie, but it’s almost constantly introspective, contemplative, and pensive, mostly ruminating on loneliness and loss along the road of self-discovery. It’s a bit exhausting, but yet I love it. There’s almost enough levity sprinkled in to keep it from getting too overbearing, it’s never too depressing, and it’s irrepressibly hopeful, tracing a path of only positive progress, the setbacks mostly in losing relationships and never permanent. There are few movies of the recent decades that better capture the wonder and potential portrayed in early 20th-century science fiction. If it feels off, it’s because it’s a spoiled era’s reflection of an inspiringly, if naively, hopeful one.

Men at Work

Men At Work. Epic Productions 1990.

Before watching the movie:

The main attraction to this movie for me was the novelty of Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez acting together, which I guess happened more often than I thought, and that it’s a comedy about garbage men in over their heads. However, they don’t play brothers here as I thought.

I don’t recall knowing before looking up a summary of this movie just now that the plot concerned the two main characters finding a dead body in a barrel. I totally overlooked the feet sticking out of the can in the poster, which I blame on bad contrast and small thumbnails.

Continue reading

Anaconda

Anaconda. Columbia Pictures 1997.

Before watching the movie:

Well, here’s a “scary animal is the monster” horror movie. Comparing it to Jaws is easy. Probably harder to compare to Arachnophobia, even if I did remember enough of it to do that. In this case, it’s a documentary film crew stuck on the Amazon getting picked off by some guy’s scaly White Whale, which is a somewhat interesting angle to get into the story through. It would probably be most interesting as a pure found footage movie, but even though this was about the time that Blair Witch proved that could work, I don’t expect that will be the case.

The cast is particularly eclectic. I started thinking that when I saw Ice Cube featured prominently, but also how often do actors like Jon Voight and Jonathan Hyde mix with Owen Wilson and Jennifer Lopez?

Continue reading

Free Willy

Free Willy. Le Studio Canal 1993.

Before watching the movie:

This was one of the big cultural moments in my early childhood that I was aware of even as it passed me by. Everyone was talking about Free Willy for some reason. I dimly recall it being on in the same room at one point, but I think it was in the way that one dips in and out of a movie someone else is watching while at a family gathering.

There’s a good movie finding its audience, and then there’s a cultural phenomenon. The latter I can understand for a lavish tentpole movie like Titanic, but this doesn’t seem to be that kind of visual-oriented extravaganza. It kind of looks like it has a similar domestic plot to the original, before the franchise fatigue Air Bud, actually, like if you took all the basketball out of that movie and swapped the dog for an orca, you’d come close to this movie. While cetaceans were popular in the 90s, I would’ve thought that more came out of the popularity of this movie than contributed to it. Well, I guess I’m about to find out.

Continue reading

Movies of my Yesterdays: Richie Rich

I knew when I rewatched Blank Check that I’d eventually come back to Richie Rich. I’m completely unfamiliar with the comic, and while I don’t think it ever had an animated adaptation, I couldn’t say for sure without looking it up. But I’d say this live action movie came out between when I started noticing new movies coming out and when I started connecting strongly with them, so while I remember it as part of my childhood, it was mostly remarkable because it had Macaulay Culkin and had a similar “kid with an unreasonable amount of money” movie come out at vaguely the same time. I may have only actually watched it once before now, though I do recall being in the same room with it playing at least once.

Richie Rich. Warner Bros. 1994.

Though Richard “Richie” Rich Jr. is the world’s richest boy, there is one thing his parents’ money can’t buy him. His life in obscene wealth has kept him isolated from children his own age, aside from the handful of kids at his private school who are already obsessed with being mini moguls like their parents. Richie’s parents are admirably devoted to him, but his only real friend is his manservant Cadbury. While Richie tries to figure out how to make friends with his age peers, the CFO of his father’s company, Lawrence Van Dough, is scheming to get Richard Sr. out of the way to not only cut the cost of the Riches philanthropy out of the budget and control Rich Industries, but also get his hands on the priceless treasures that are stored in the secret Rich Family vault. Together with the Rich family’s security chief, Van Dough has a bomb planted on the family plane, intending to wipe them all out at once, only Richie survives by backing out of the trip at the last minute, and finds himself now the heir of the family fortune and majority shareholder in the company, much to Van Dough’s frustration.

It turns out I had pretty much forgotten the entire movie. Everything that I remembered could’ve come from trailers. Richie’s dollarmation, Mount Richmore, Richie’s amazing toys. I didn’t remember anything about the plot beyond something about being robbed and maybe home invasion. Richie’s loneliness was new again to me, and so was Van Dough’s plot. The only settings that looked familiar were Richie’s bedroom and the tent in the back yard with the laser that etched Mount Richmore.

It sure is nice to imagine rich people who give millions away to every cause they see without worrying about diminishing their wealth. Van Dough isn’t even worried about the Riches spending the company into bankruptcy, just into lower profits. It’s far beyond the scope of the story to tell us how they made their fortune, though it’s probably meant to just be being really really good at investment picks and selling good products and not ever exploiting anybody, and now they have enough money in banks and other hands-off investments that it’s impossible to spend faster than it earns interest. There may have been a time when fortunes could be made completely honestly and innocently, but it’s always been unlikely. Once a huge fortune is acquired though, it can be possible to give it away without worrying about it going so fast the money runs out. I know there’s a Disney who just isn’t allowed to divest as much as she wants to, and Jeff Bezos’s ex wife has devoted a lot of her time to giving away her half of his fortune, and at the end of every giving spree she seems to have more money in the bank than she started with. Unfortunately, I can’t really not think of that when I see a story about benevolent megarich people anymore.

The friendship subplot felt a bit underdone. It’s the most important personal arc for Richie, but it really just gets him into position to have allies when he retakes the house. On the other hand, his relationship with Cadbury carries some significant emotional weight, and we do feel Richie’s loss of his parents as deeply as a fun kids’ movie can comfortably do.

I kind of have to wonder briefly who this movie is for. 90s kids weren’t familiar with the source comic, and at times it seems like things from the comic are being brought out to say “hey, remember…?” It’s also simplistic to the point of not really working as well as it could for adults. I think as an adult I can engage with a show like Annie on a level that is missing here. So it seems like it might be a letdown to people who did grow up with the comic. It probably is intended to be something for those people to share with their children, but it doesn’t feel like it’s been exactly updated enough to serve either. I guess what I really want it to be is more like DuckTales. But not everything can be DuckTales. Hardly anything, actually. But this seemed to serve children’s fantasies at the time, and I was one of them then.

Johnny Mnemonic

Johnny Mnemonic. Tristar Pictures 1995.

Before watching the movie:

I heard about this movie a long time ago, though I’m not sure what movie it was brought up in contrast to anymore. I know I already knew of Keanu Reeves as the central player in the Matrix movies, and that heavily colored what little I knew about the movie. I still really only know the core concept, but I’ve always thought of this movie as being very cyberpunk, and had a hard time separating the idea of “mind in computer (simulation)” from “computer in mind”.

Taking a look at the poster right now, it seems like it’s positioning itself as the futurist version of Speed, but that might just be because it’s an action movie with Keanu Reeves.

Continue reading

Newsies

Newsies. Walt Disney Pictures 1992.

Before watching the movie:

This looked like a bland musical in a setting I wasn’t very interested in until I recently heard it discussed as a unionization success story, which is pretty topical. I also have more understanding of the newspaper landscape of the late 1800s and the media dueling media empires of the day.

It also still looks like a kind of bland musical, but I haven’t looked too closely.

Continue reading