Flying Blind

Flying Blind. Paramount Pictures 1941.

Before watching the movie:

I got as far as the title, that it’s a comedy, and the main character starting a charter air service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas for elopements, and trying to keep his stewardess from marrying another man and decided this would be a blast to watch.

I have a strange feeling I’ve seen Richard Arlen play a small airline pilot in a comedy before, but I don’t seem to have done this movie or the other two the producers made with him on this blog, and if I didn’t blog it, I don’t think I would have watched it.

It seems this is the first 1941 movie I’ve watched. Some years ago I made an effort to have covered every decade of the 20th century, maybe it’s time to fill in the holes by year. Around 52 updates a year and over ten years running, hopefully there aren’t that many holes.

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The Bank Dick

The Bank Dick. Universal Pictures 1940.

Before watching the movie:

Between my tastes tending toward the 80s and more recent, having by now seen quite a lot of the more popular movies from that era, and it getting harder to find content on the major platforms from before the last ten years, sometimes I go specifically looking for something much older, especially before the move to color. That’s usually either B-movie sci-fi/horror or a romance, so when I came across a comedy vehicle for W.C. Fields, I jumped at it.

I didn’t spend much time looking over the summary, but it was kind of confusing, like two or three stories at once. It feels like I’m going in even more blind than if I hadn’t read anything.

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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.

Tower Heist

Tower Heist. Universal Pictures 2011.

Before watching the movie:

I passed by this a few times because I generally don’t consider crime movies to be my kind of thing. But then I noticed that it has comedy actors leading it, so I looked closer, and saw that it’s not just about stealing money, it’s about folks who lost their retirement funds to a scummy hedge fund manager stealing it back, and that interests me a lot.

I get the sense that a lot of “revenge on the Wall Street crooks” movies came out in the years after the 2009 collapse, but I mainly get that from having seen Fun with Dick and Jane in the last year, which was very very loudly about surviving a Wall Street implosion (looking it up, I realize that movie in particular wasn’t about the 2009 collapse, but the timing seems more like it was about Enron).

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Harold and Kumar go to White Castle

Harold and Kumar go to White Castle. Senator International/Kingsgate 2004.

Before watching the movie:

I’ve been on the fence about trying this movie for a long time, as well as about reviewing it. This seemed like it had a pretty big cultural impact that lasted longer than the rest of the late night comedies of its time. It had at least two sequels, the leads both went on to bigger and better things, and I think this movie was what restarted Neil Patrick Harris’s acting career.

So while it is an R-rated comedy about a pair of stoners, it seems to be still relevant and probably worth reviewing despite some objectionable content, or at the very least an anthropological study of a snapshot of a subculture from the recent past.

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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.

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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.

Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star

Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star. Happy Madison 2003.

Before watching the movie:

I remember being probably exactly in the lower bound of the age range this movie was made for at the time, and advertised at relentlessly about it, but not at all interested because I didn’t do raunchy movies them. Now I do consider raunchy movies to capture valid facets of the human experience, I just disapprove if they’re raunchy in ways I don’t care for. And it’s an early 2000s movie, so there will probably be jokes that aged terribly.

This movie seems to package David Spade’s type pretty well. I’ve enjoyed him in a few more family friendly things, but that often sanded down his edge a bit too much. This is probably going to be too much David Spade edge.

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The Cheap Detective

The Cheap Detective. Columbia Pictures 1978.

Before watching the movie:

It’s amazing how for a while after the debut of Columbo, pretty much every noir detective character type seems to have gravitationally attracted Peter Falk. Not that there were all that many such roles to go around. It turns out this is parodying Humphrey Bogart specifically, but basically all Bogart films, compared to Murder By Death, which is specifically a Sam Spade parody.

It’s probably not a good sign that this movie is so jam-packed with big name actors and I’ve only heard of it by cruising the back catalogs of streaming platforms, but on the other hand, anything from before 1998 that isn’t an 80s or 90s cult classic is getting hard to find online. Which is a shame because there are a lot of great movies over 40 years old.

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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.

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