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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Four Brothers

Four Brothers. Di Bonaventura Pictures 2005.

Before watching the movie:

I’m not sure I’d even heard of this movie before I was invited to watch it. It’s definitely something outside my normal tastes, but I should occasionally broaden my intakes in directions I’m not as eager about as well, and crime drama still has the potential to excite.

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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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Hollow Man

Hollow Man. Columbia Pictures 2000.

Before watching the movie:

I remember this being framed in the commercials like the invisible guy was the villain of a horror story, which I suppose could be from his slide into monstrous behavior without human consequences for his actions. I vaguely remember the movie coming up in an early explanation of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, though that’s probably more because it was recent than because it’s a particularly significant hub in Bacon’s connections with other actors.

I also remember it putting CGI effects that seemed completely novel front and center to do a more visually engaging telling of The Invisible Man than had been seen before. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen came out not long after, but I don’t think they put as much effort into the Invisible Man effects because he was part of the ensemble, but also it wasn’t as new anymore.

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300

300. Legendary Pictures 2007.

Before watching the movie:

Here’s one more that’s always been something I would probably get to eventually. It doesn’t seem to have much to recommend it to my tastes, but it was too big to ignore forever. I foresee a slow motion CGI mess with a couple of dead memes and hardly any plot, but it’s based on a Frank Miller comic, so there’s some hope that it has some engagement besides the visual spectacle I expect to enjoy until it overstays its welcome.

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The Day of the Dolphin

The Day of the Dolphin. Avco Embassy Pictures 1973.

Before Watching the Movie:

There were three things that I knew about this movie when I decided I had to watch and review it:

  • It has George C. Scott
  • It features a plot to train a dolphin as an assassin
  • This insane pitch is a real movie made in the 70s.

It turns out that this is based on a novel, because even in the 70s, Hollywood can’t be so creative to put The Manchurian Candidate underwater. I also suspect that this was inspired by the ketamine-fueled investigations into dolphin speech by John C Lilly.

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Holiday Rewind: Die Hard

Most movies that I watch for review, I don’t come back to often. Lately, I may come back to them once to watch them with my wife, but usually pretty soon after the first viewing. In this case however, the time I watched Die Hard with my wife is closer to now than it is to the time that I reviewed it, in no small part because I reviewed it over ten years ago, long before we ever had a chance of meeting.

So often, when a movie has this much cultural relevance you see a lot of references to and spoofs of parts of the movie in other works, but aside from some quotable lines, there’s not much that gets directly referenced. Even the Die Hard pastiche episode of the recent Turner and Hooch TV adaptation doesn’t really go past putting the character in a similar outfit and hostage situation, and parodying a couple of lines. I’m surprised I knew as much as I did before my first viewing.

Die Hard. 20th Century Fox 1988.

John McLane of the NYPD didn’t follow his wife when she and the kids moved to LA six months ago for her new job, and now he’s coming to join them for Christmas, if she’ll have him. Her company, Nakatomi, invites him to their Christmas party on the thirtieth floor of their brand new skyscraper, but while John is in the bathroom airing out his feet from the flight, the party is crashed by a gang of international criminals and the partygoers taken hostage. As the only one in the building not under their control, John tries to not only keep the hostages safe and foil the terrorists, but also get the local authorities to take the situation seriously, with one pistol, one stolen radio, and no shoes.

A couple of months ago I saw Die Harder for the first time and it actually kind of felt like a better movie, or at least a better Christmas movie. It leans very hard into the Christmas angle. While I remembered this was more than incidentally set on Christmas, I didn’t remember very well how. This movie is in fact, just as much as alternative Christmas movie as I didn’t remember. It’s not necessarily concerned with the holiday for most of the movie, but there are frequent reminders. Also the movie ends with family, debris falling from the sky like snow and plays a Christmas song, so viewers leave feeling like a Christmas movie just happened. I’m a little surprised to see in my original review I did consider it only incidentally festive, since I’ve come to remember it as much more so.

What struck me this time is how carefully the tension is modulated. John is almost constantly put in situations where he’s barely able to squeeze out of an immanent threat, and even as he wins small victories and chips away at the criminals’ power, it never feels like he’s getting the upper hand, because the criminals get more actively dangerous as their team gets picked off and their plans get derailed. John is only ever escaping the crisis of the moment, and the stakes stay high because he can’t save everybody.

I think I said everything that needed to be said about the performances the first time. Alan Rickman is a joy to watch as Hans Gruber even if his accent is a bit thin. John feels human in a way that a lot of action heroes don’t, even later Bruce Willis characters.

This may not be the most festive movie to watch at Christmas, but it’s at least a seasonally appropriate palate cleanser when one feels overloaded on the more saccharine fare. Anyone who enjoys action suspense movies would probably rank this near the top of their list.

Holiday Rewind: The Bishop’s Wife

I thought I had originally selected The Bishop’s Wife as a Christmas viewing, but I originally reviewed it in a September, so clearly not. I remember it as being less about Christmas than I had expected, which is strange if I hadn’t gone out of my way for it.

I also remember it being a quiet and almost thoughtful movie. It was light and feel-good more than being about the comedy or the drama. The busy man has to feel in danger of losing his wife to a man in tune with her needs to remember to value life outside of his ambitions. Merry Christmas, take nothing for granted. If I didn’t know that It’s A Wonderful Life only got popular much later because it could be run on TV for cheap, I’d suspect that this movie that came two years later was trying to capitalize on it.

The Bishop’s Wife. RKO Radio Pictures 1948.

Harry Brougham used to be the reverend of a small church in a poor part of the city, but not too long ago was appointed as the local bishop and tasked with overseeing the fundraising and construction of a new cathedral, which he’s become obsessed with building as a glorious edifice, but in order to get the money for such a grand work, must brown nose with the area’s wealthy elite, especially Mrs. Agnes Hamilton, who wants to leverage her donation to make the cathedral a monument to her late husband. But with his constant negotiation and planning meetings with the big donors, Bishop Brougham has not only lost all joy and charity, but also any time to love his wife Julia and daughter Debby. Strained by the tension between his principles and his desire to realize the magnificent cathedral of his dreams, Henry prays for guidance, and into his life pops Dudley, an angel who’s come to pose as Henry’s assistant and help him find his path. Though Henry doesn’t want to believe Dudley is who he says he is, particularly as Dudley won’t perform any miracles with witnesses, he does begrudgingly believe that Dudley may be supernatural. But instead of a helper to raise a cathedral from nothing with the wave of a wing, Dudley spends most of his time raising the spirits of Julia and Debby by “representing” Henry in his roles as husband and father. As Julia is lifted out of the misery of her existence since Henry’s duties took him away from his family life, Dudley’s relationship with her begins to resemble something wholly inappropriate.

This gets billed as a comedy, but it seems more like a light feel-good melodrama. Or really, it’s an unorthodox romance, where the central tension is that not only can the central couple really not be allowed to end up together, but the whole point of them getting dangerously close to falling in love is as a wakeup call to the protagonist. Dudley’s lies of omission and other interactions with the secondary and tertiary cast bring some levity, but it really feels more like comic relief than something intended as a comedy. Although perhaps in its day it was entering comedy territory just to put the pair into situations that lend themselves to misinterpretation from the outside. Definitely there’s a mild laugh a couple of times from people getting the wrong idea, but it’s very mild.

One may almost be tempted to consider it interesting that Cary Grant is not here as a romantic lead, only that’s not actually true, since again, the main shape of the movie is a romance story, only Dudley and Julia can’t actually be together. What makes it unusual is that the tragedy of them not being able to be together isn’t really foregrounded, it’s more of a postscript to the morality play of staging a crisis in Henry’s life.

I’m impressed with myself that in the original review I summed up the movie as feeling like a Christmas card, because I came up with the same imagery in organizing what I expected to write this time. Both times I was probably inspired by It’s A Wonderful Life originating as a short story in a Christmas card, even though I didn’t reference that movie directly in the original review. This came from a novella, as most movies with an unusual amount of texture do.

I also think I was pretty harsh on the diversions from the plot for entertainment value. Does the scene with Dudley, Julia, and their cab driver advance the plot the whole time? No, but it advances the theme of brightening the world with understanding and unconventionality. Does the boys’ choir scene advance the plot? No, but it illustrates some Christmas magic. I don’t know why I remembered it as barely a Christmas story, since so many scenes are steeped in at least being in early winter and the climax is on Christmas Eve, as well as having a very Christmas message of love, generosity, and fellowship. This could easily be among the movies left on repeat on cable channels that send everyone home for Christmas week.

Cliffhanger

Cliffhanger. Carolco Pictures 1993.

Before watching the movie:

There’s really only one thing I can say about what I know about this movie. It’s pretty clearly meant to be a “Die Hard on an X” type adventure. There’s a single guy accidentally in the wrong place at the right time thwarting bad guys. Like Under Siege. Like Air Force One. Probably like other movies I’ve blogged and can’t remember.

However, it’s also Sylvester Stallone fighting the bad guys single-handedly, so it’s probably also meant to be like Stallone movies like First Blood, or rather, like the Rambo sequels that dropped the main thematic point of the original.

All of that is to say that I don’t know what this movie is, but I’m pretty sure I know exactly what other movies they wanted me to think of by making it.

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