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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Meet Dave

Meet Dave. Dune Entertainment 2008.

Before watching the movie:

I clearly remember the promotion for this movie (it’s still a little strange to have films from about the time I started this blog that are old enough to show up here), but everything I saw indicated that Dave wasn’t a real person but a ship piloted by tiny people for some reason. One of the more intriguing Eddie Murphy vehicle concepts since the late 90s, but since so few of his projects have been well received since he got enough fame to make any movie he wanted, not that compelling. Also I seem to recall the little people were all played by Murphy, which seems to further underscore the artificiality while also playing into his enthusiasm for multiple roles (something I can’t begrudge him for, as when I was regularly making videos I kept writing stuff that let me act against myself too).

However, when I came across this opportunity now, the summary I saw described Dave like he’s a man hijacked in his own body by tiny aliens sabotaging his love life. Everything I assumed may be wrong and I’m now more interested in the story instead of just the concept.

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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.

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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Rush Hour

Rush Hour. New Line Cinema 1999.

Before watching the movie:

My perception of this movie isn’t even a poster’s worth. Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker (though apparently he occupies the same space in my head as Kevin Hart) do action cop stuff. I’m not sure the posters really say more than that they’re the stars of the movie, and somehow I expect posters to have a sliver more of the setting than that.

I’m always interested in more Jackie Chan movies, and buddy cop action comedies are usually fun, so I guess the only reason I never got around to this is that I don’t have anything else to go on beyond that. I would’ve thought I’d hear something about why the title is significant other than the city traffic.

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Two if By Sea

Two if By Sea. Morgan Creek Productions 1996.

Before watching the movie:

I have never heard of this movie before deciding to watch it. I’m not entirely sure how it fits the romantic comedy beats if they’re already together, but a comedy about art thieves getting in over their heads, with Sandra Bullock, sounds very appealing. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered Denis Leary in a romantic comedy role before, but that doesn’t detract from my interest. I’m really not sure about Leary starring in a romantic comedy he co-wrote though, which sounds like it could go very poorly.

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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.