Strangers on a Train

Strangers on a Train. Warner Bros. 1951

Before watching the movie:

This is one of those that nobody ever really discusses beyond the concept. A pair of strangers meet on a train and through conversation, discover that they both have someone they’d like to murder, and if they each just kill the other person’s target, they could both get away with it from having no apparent motive.

The only other thing people say about it is that it’s a Hitchcock film, which does more or less define a genre, or at least a tone. I also note that Raymond Chandler worked on the screenplay, so it should come off as a good detective story, assuming there’s a detective in it that nobody talks about. There has to be one, so there’s an antagonist, I assume.

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Snuffy Smith, Yardbird

Snuffy Smith, Yardbird
(or Private Snuffy Smith)
Monogram Pictures 1942

Before watching the movie:

This is based on the newspaper comic strip (Barney Google and) Snuffy Smith, that’s coming up on its hundredth anniversary and is still in newspaper comics today that one could argue that fresher strips deserve, except at this point all the new strips worth reading are webcomics. In that hundred years, the focus shifted from city slicker gambler Barney Google to the hillbilly rascal Snuffy Smith, to the point that Smith was added to the title by the 1930s and Google was written out by the 1950s, only very recently being remembered by the current writer(s).

It looks like it’s going to be hard to tell what the movie changed from the strip and what the strip itself changed between the 40s and the time I became familiar with it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Snuffy’s moonshining, which seems to be a major character point here, was a bigger part of the strip that got deemphasized to the point of nonexistence by the 90s for the purpose of making the funny papers safe for children who might accidentally learn about alcohol and lawbreaking otherwise.

After watching the movie:

Snuffy Smith is a moonshiner in the hills outside the Appalachian town of Hootin’ Holler, who defends his still from the Revenuers with the help of his friends. When revenue agent Ed Cooper tracks Snuffy back to his cabin, he goes to his friend Saul’s cabin to hide out, and arrives while Saul’s daughter Cindy is being courted by Don Elbie, a Hootin’ Holler native now a US Army Private. As Snuffy is impressed by Don’s khaki britches, gold buttons, and description of “all the food you can eat, a nice place to sleep, and $30 a week”, and as he interfered in Saul trying to run off Don for blood feud and daughter-protection reasons and so now can’t hide out there, Snuffy decides that joining the Army sounds like a pretty good deal. However who does his sergeant turn out to be but Sgt. Ed Cooper! Also there’s a distilling accident that turns Snuffy’s dog invisible.

The concept of “cartoon character joins the military” stories during the 40s is pretty well-traveled. Popeye didn’t wear his iconic outfit before he joined the Navy, and of course Disney and Warner Bros. characters made propaganda cartoons that are still enjoyed today. Everyone was making “the characters you love join the military to do their part for their country (so how about you do too?)” movies. So it’s not too weird to take a hillbilly with no interest in leaving his part of the hills and drop him into the military. What’s odd is that he doesn’t just enlist or get drafted, he tries to enlist, gets refused for very good reasons, and then the General is accidentally indebted to him, and gives Snuffy special dispensation, to a point.

The invisible dog is a much more random element, and what’s bizarre is that an entire movie could be done with that, but instead, it’s a really minor thing that’s used for some jokes here and there, but mostly just gets Snuffy out of some scrapes in the third act. Snuffy and Loweezy don’t understand why this batch turns things invisible, and Snuffy suggests he’ll paint his still with it to hide it from the Revenuers for good, but then the Army calls him up and tells him he can’t bring his dog, so he just pours the invisible spirits on the dog and brings him anyway. That’s weirder than anything that I can imagine happening in the comic.

So like a lot of the propaganda wartime “join the army” stories, this is all about being at a camp still at home. The rising action is mostly concerned with Snuffy’s division winning a wargame with a special new gunsight that Don invented, but there’s also American fifth columnists trying to steal the gunsight to sabotage the army, which would be the most bizarre thing about the movie if not for the invisible dog that’s mostly ignored.

I understand why this exists, but also, the entire thing is a “why does this exist?” Most pieces make sense on their own, but they add up to something highly unusual and not necessarily good. The parts that aren’t confusing are fun, though.

A Night to Remember

A Night to Remember. 
The Rank Organisation 1958.

Before watching the movie:

Since 1997, James Cameron’s movie has been considered the epitome of the Titanic legend on film, but this is the dramatization of the epitome of the Titanic in print. I suspect that a documentary would have suited the book a little better, but as I have not yet read the book, I can’t definitively say. At least this movie focuses on people who actually existed and characters composed from people who existed.

I’m watching this movie as part of a brief interest in Titanic media outside of the 1997 movie due to reading a short dramatic account of the Carpathia‘s rescue mission, which does not seem to have been dramatized on screen in the way this account sounds like it deserves. Though apparently that telling largely comes from the book The Other Side of the Night, which I now also intend to read.

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Movies of my Yesterdays: The Iron Giant

I dimly remember actually seeing this movie in the theater, but for whatever reason, what sticks with me more is getting it for Christmas, in a set with a toy figure (example photo, not mine) that was both exciting and yet I don’t think I ever actually played with. I seem to associate the story with winter scenes as well, even though I know there are summer scenes. I guess it takes place over a longer period of time than I thought.

I do recall that seeing the movie in the theater was at least one of the first times I allowed myself to cry at a movie (in a dark theater). The emotion that this movie draws out of celluloid is one of the main reasons that it’s endured as a modern classic and stands out against the more bland landscape of contemporaries that, unlike the perennial vintage cinema, we can still remember. In the nine(!) years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve covered many movies from that year. Only a few of them come close to the legacy The Iron Giant immediately cemented.

The Iron Giant. Warner Bros. 1999.

Hogarth, a boy in advanced classes with an excitable imagination outside of small town Rockwell, Maine, goes investigating his missing TV antenna and comes across a 50-foot tall robot from space! The giant robot, which eats metal, tries to eat a power station transformer, and gets tangled up in power lines, and Hogarth rescues him by pulling the shutoff switch. As Hogarth investigates, the giant befriends him, and they quickly form a secret partnership with junkyard artist Dean for the use of his scrap metal so the giant won’t go hungry. But the reports of strange sightings draw government agent Kent Mansley, a cold war G-man who sees Soviet threats in anything he doesn’t understand. Kent quickly susses out that Hogarth isn’t telling all he knows, and if he can get proof that there’s a dangerous weapon in Rockwell, he’ll finally get the respect he thinks he deserves.

This might not be the first time I’ve watched the movie since that VHS, but it’s the first time I’ve really noticed how much care was put into the art for this movie. I’m not sure I’ve seen better cel-shaded CGI before, but the Giant, Sputnik, and the missile are CG renders blended in so well it’s easy to forget they’re technically a different medium, and if they used it for other things, I couldn’t even tell or it wasn’t major enough to remember. However, the CGI was something I was aware of years ago. This time, I was also looking at the traditional animation, and especially the lovingly-created backgrounds. I think I’ve seen this movie called a love letter to traditional animated movies in an era where everyone wanted to make the next Toy Story, and I got it then, but I see it for myself now. As well, the music is quite evocative of cartoon features of a different age, and sometimes comes very close to evoking Looney Tunes incidental music.

My first instinct was to say that the messages of the movie are what makes it resonate, but there’ve been a lot of bad and forgettable movies with messages of “friendship is good, guns are bad, be yourself, help others, your past doesn’t define you”. What makes it effective is the execution. This story is not just character driven, but the characters express real emotion and profound thoughts that manage to all align to create a package of concentrated Feelings. It’s no wonder Pixar incorporated Brad Bird into their inner circle of creatives after this.

As the 1950s setting evokes a kind of nostalgia for a lost age of childhood, the movie is itself nostalgia for a generation, as it now approaches 20 years since its release. I’m sure that there are professional animators now who were inspired by this opus, and hopefully many of them are actually getting to do something close enough to that to satisfy them, as the market has moved away from traditional animation with any real budget for artistic flair. Being an inspiration is probably the highest honor a work of art can aspire to, and this is certainly one that has inspired careers as well as daily lives.

Blade

Blade. New Line Cinema 1998.

Before watching the movie:

I have no familiarity with the Marvel comics this is based on. For all I know, this movie was made because New Line had bought a package of cheap comics properties to turn a fast profit on. I don’t like to be so dismissive, but Blade is one of the most prominent notably black superheroes I can think of who aren’t carrying a legacy mantle, and I wouldn’t know that the book exists without this movie that exemplifies an era of moviemaking where “based on a comic book” was something to hide.

Lacking any of the brand recognition and shared continuity that makes comic book stories enticing now, this is essentially sold on the strength of Wesley Snipes slaying vampires with martial arts for two hours. Which is exciting enough if you’re into that sort of thing.

After watching the movie:

Thirty years ago, a baby was born to a woman dying of a vampire bite. Now, Blade is a Daywalker, a being without the vulnerabilities of vampires, but with many of the advantages, including super strength and speed and decreased aging. Blade and his partner Whistler save Dr. Karen Jenson from a vampire that eluded Blade’s assault on a vampire-owned rave, and they introduce Karen to the secret war to free human society from the elite order of vampires that secretly rule. As Blade fights vampire activity, a vampire named Frost manages to translate one of the ancient texts of the vampires, unlocking plans for a ceremony to bring about the age of the Blood Gods.

In the time this was made, comic book movies were often trying to be mature and serious while at the same time providing spectacular violence shows. This created a lot of movies that seem afraid to have fun, even as the stunt sequences the plots excuse are really fun and cartoonish. This has some really fun fight scenes, and the plot is pretty cartoonish, but the story and the fights often seem to belong to different movies because of how different they are in tone.

Most of the effects are highly effective. There’s a lot of work with prosthetics and practical creature effects that create convincing looks, and probably a lot of background CG that’s not noticeable. The disintegration of silver-stabbed vampires is really good for the time. The only time I was really taken out of the scene by bad effects was in the finale, with the demonic vampire souls flying around. That might have been partially caused by a frame rate mismatch, like how jarring the ED-209 was in RoboCop.

Even though there have been over 20 more years of superhero movies and Hero’s Journey plots further wearing out their cliches since Blade, the tropes this plot leans on seem particularly lazy. Developments in act one set up developments in act three with a megaphone. At least this movie introduces the character already established and just recaps the origin story, which is a rare approach. 

I have to respect that this was one of the vanguards of the modern rebirth of superhero movies, but it’s not a part of it. The success of movies like Blade and Spawn demonstrated that the market was safe for comic book movies again, but they didn’t do it by revolutionizing or commenting upon the genre, just by playing it straight. Often too straight, but I have to keep in mind how early this was. This is still a fun movie that doesn’t need too much of an excuse to explode some vampires, and that’s really all it had to be.

Movies of My Yesterdays: Meet the Robinsons

I remembered this movie as having come out a little earlier. Spring of course, but I didn’t remember that it was my final spring as a high school student. I do remember that spring and summer being significant to me in a lot of ways that made me feel like I was growing up and defining my own tastes. Placing it in that year, I know that I had a car that was mine to use rather than borrowed when I needed it for the first time. It was a good year for listening to songs on the radio, which is something I rarely chose to do. I think I was making occasional trips to bookstores by myself to browse.

However, this was not a movie I found all on my own. I knew it was coming, I was looking forward to seeing it, but soon after its release, my grandfather wanted to take me to a movie. Looking at what was coming out around that time, I can see that this was pretty much the only option for us.

Meet the Robinsons. Walt Disney Pictures 2007.

Sometimes I talk about movies coming out at the right time for me. Usually that probably just means they were things I’d have liked anyway reaching me at an age when I was old enough to think about it a little more deeply than a child, but still simply enough to easily generate nostalgia for it later. I suspect that’s the case with Tarzan, though it did introduce me to the music of Phil Collins. But I feel like Meet the Robinsons was perfectly suited for my mindset at the time, and considering that I was about to graduate high school, it’s easy to see how a story about a bright kid dropped into a colorful future that turns out to be of his own making might’ve particularly spoken to me.

Lewis, a 12-year old abandoned at an orphanage as a baby, is already an inventor capable of revolutionizing modern science when he sets his mind to it. Still unable to get adopted at his advanced age, he decides to invent a memory scanning machine to help him find the mother who left him years ago. However, at the science fair, Lewis encounters a teen claiming to be from the future, and a mustache twirling saboteur with a sentient bowler hat. In order to get Lewis back on track, Wilbur Robinson takes him to the future to prove that he is a time traveler, and Lewis gets mixed up with Wilbur’s eccentric family. If meeting his mother doesn’t work out, surely Lewis could find a home with the Robinsons.

I still love the fanciful spin on classic futurist design. Robots, another William Joyce-inspired movie, was made in a similar style, but I like the results here better for some reason. The music doesn’t grab me now like it did at the time, both the neo-swing I was very into back then and the 00s Disney boy band songs that did a lot of the work of opening me to modern pop.

I’m always impressed with how well the non-destructive time travel is set up and paid off. The Cornelius loop as well as the orphanage steps and Bowler Hat Guy’s origins are meticulously detailed and make repeat viewings rewarding. It’s so well done that the rewritten timeline begins to seem like an illusion that Cornelius somehow arranged in order to get Lewis set on the right path. After all, Cornelius did invent the evil hat that started it all.

It’s probably never going to be as good as the first and second time I watched it, but Meet The Robinsons will always hold a special place with me for when it came to me, and as long as I like time travel stories, it will stand among the better ones for me.

Brewster’s Millions (1985)

Brewster’s Millions. Silver Pictures 1985.

Before watching the movie:

I’ve already covered the 1945 version of this story, but I knew that eventually I’d come to this one. This is the 7th movie adaptation of the 1902 novel just in English, and at this point it’s surprising that it hasn’t been tried again. The reputation this version has is tepid, and it’s the version people think of when the name comes up (the last version with the same title was made 40 years previous), but it’s clearly a story with staying power, and within the next ten years, every memorable movie from the 80s is going to get remade if it hasn’t already.

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