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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Minesweeper

Minesweeper. Paramount Pictures 1943.

Before watching the movie:

Sometimes I like to watch movies I have zero clue about before I see them. I know about one sentence about this movie. The protagonist is a Navy deserter re-enlisting under a false name to serve in the war. It’s supposedly very exciting, though that’s rarely the case for movies from this time.

After watching the movie:

Days after Pearl Harbor, Richard Houston gets thrown out of a boxcar by the other hobos for arguing in favor of every able-bodied man signing up for duty. He’s found by “Fixit” Smith, a handyman going home to reactivate his Navy service as a CPO. Houston claims his name is Jim “Tennessee” Smith, and enlists claiming experience as a salvage diver. Staying at Fixit’s mother’s home, he meets Fixit’s niece Mary, and is immediately smitten, soon drawing her attentions away from another Navy beau who was about to propose to her. Tight-lipped about his secret past, Houston, actually a deserter Navy Lieutenant, gets assigned to a minesweeper as a Gunner’s Mate and builds an honorable life for himself with the Navy, gaining attention for spotting and recovering new enemy detonator tech, though he has a weakness for Mary and for gambling. But all of that is put at risk when a diving accident puts him in the hospital and his commanding officer notes his one keepsake from his old life, a pocketwatch identifying him by name as an academy graduate.

I’m sure this was made as propaganda promoting enlistment, showing a man with a checkered past getting a new start in the Navy and earning his honor back. The Navy didn’t assist with the production out of their love of cinema. There are a few tense scenes, mostly dive sequences. Disarming a bomb is suspenseful, doing it underwater with air piped from the boat above even moreso. Unfortunately, the distressed print I saw was so dark in those scenes I couldn’t make out much of what I was seeing.

This is a sweet, but small story. The summary promised a lot of action, but I don’t think it was considered action even at the time. It’s actually relatively uncomplicated. Pretty much the only conflict is Houston’s secret identity, which isn’t that hard to keep in the 1940s. Once he knows a real identity that nobody’s using, he can just send a wire for an expedited delivery of the other man’s birth certificate with no need to prove he’s someone who should be allowed to use it.

I would’ve appreciated some more of an impression that he feels a class difference between serving as an officer and working as an enlisted man, but he seems to have put any ambition he had behind him and truly want to just serve his country in any way the Navy will have him. Again, there’s an element of propaganda there. There was a communal spirit of doing your part in this country during WWII, but I think it’s been exaggerated by the propaganda that fostered it and nostalgia from the people who lived it. It would be interesting to get a more nuanced look at the wartime climate than contemporary popular media allowed, but of course that wouldn’t get anywhere near a movie sponsored by the Department of Defense like this, and for what it is, it’s nice.

The Devil Bat

The Devil Bat. Producers Releasing Corporation 1940.

Before watching the movie:

Aside from what amounts to silent stock footage in Plan 9 From Outer Space and clips from Dracula movies that I must have seen, I don’t think I’ve actually seen any of Bela Lugosi’s work. I ought to track down good copies of the classic monster movies.

A mad scientist creating a substance that can drive bats to kill is one thing, but I’m curious about the summary I saw describing it as an aftershave lotion. It would be interesting to see the scientist try to create an aftershave lotion and slowly go mad with power on realizing he can use it to make bats get people out of his way for him. But with the quality of many summaries I’ve seen, I think it’s more likely that he passes it off as an aftershave lotion once or twice to get it past skeptical people.

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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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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?

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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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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.

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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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