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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21

21. Columbia Pictures 2008.

Before watching the movie:

This is a movie I have clear memories of being advertised in a poster case in my high school cafeteria, which wouldn’t be possible since it was released almost a full year after I graduated. It does occupy close quarters in my brain with The Perfect Score (a 2004 heist movie about students stealing SAT answers) and Easy A (a reimagining of The Scarlet Letter set in a modern high school that didn’t even come out until 2010, why is it even in this trio?), but I don’t recall Perfect Score being in that case. Memory is incredibly fluid sometimes.

Right. This is the one with MIT students counting cards in Las Vegas. It seems like it’s being positioned as a heist movie, so it will be interesting to see how the film makes counting cards visually and emotionally engaging.

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Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me if You Can. Paramount Pictures 2003.

Before watching the movie:

I have an impression this is kind of comedic, but I’m not sure if that’s accurate. Or if it came from trailers that may or may not have been pitching it in a different direction to get more ticket sales. What I’m looking at now says drama, but I’m guessing it’s a bit of a modern caper with a lot of fun thrown into a high-stakes drama.

All I know for sure is that it’s based on the memoirs of a real con man, and it’s about the con man eluding capture from a pursuing detective, and I think there’s a lot of bluffs that get a little over the top, but there hasn’t been much talk about this movie since it came out, so I’m not sure of much of anything except the cast.

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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.

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.

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

The Most Dangerous Game. RKO Radio Pictures 1932.

Before watching the movie:

I recall reading the short story in high school, which is probably a very common curriculum element since it’s so widely referenced, parodied, and built upon. Short stories are often the perfect length to be adapted into movies without having to cut or add anything. But then they seem to have added a love interest because of course they wanted a love subplot. I suppose that it was more necessary because of how much of the story would’ve had the protagonist alone without someone to talk to than for time. But also a movie without a love story doesn’t seem to be allowable.

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Guys and Dolls

Guys And Dolls. MGM 1955.

Before watching the movie:

I always had the impression this was a story about mafiosos and their molls, but the closest I ever came to any glimpse of the actual contents of the musical was… highly adulterated, and I’m pretty sure bears no relationship to the actual musical.

The summaries I’m seeing now seem to revolve around illegal gambling, which probably means organized crime, but it doesn’t really seem to be the focus. Obviously the real focus is probably “That Frank Sinatra is having a swell time singing”, more than likely with a dash of “and that nun is going to break her vows for him.”

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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.

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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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