Wings

Wings. Paramount Pictures 1927.

Before watching the movie:

The machinery of the Public Domain has shuddered back to life and as with last year, new works are transferring ownership to the people. Perhaps most notably, the copyright on the final Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories finally expired, so it will be entertaining to see what shaky legal argument the Doyle Estate will come up with to try to continue to get money out of Holmes now. Also joining the Public Domain is The Jazz Singer, which has an enduring technical legacy and, I hear, little else to recommend it.

But the member of the PD class of 2023 that I’ve heard the most praise for is Wings. While I don’t recall hearing of it before now, it has not only a good reputation in story but also very impressive aerial cinematography for its time. I’m strongly reminded of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, so much as I remember anything about it. While that movie was set in the first world war but made in the 1960s, it will be interesting to see how the 1920s retold WWI.

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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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Movies of my Yesterdays: Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

I had intended to do another movie on the basis of a current meme, but I didn’t really feel up to that and then the week got away from me, so instead I’m going to share my thoughts on rewatching one of my favorite Christmas movies.

I vaguely remember when this was new, even if I don’t directly remember it coming out. We got around to it eventually on video, probably the next year. Movies are available at home the next month now somehow, but they still had a very long embargo then, and of course they wouldn’t release a Christmas movie in the summer, so I’m sure I saw it the next year. I do recall reading the novelization a few years later, though while I remember it being the first time I noticed scenes in a novelization not from the book, I don’t really remember more than that. I especially like to watch this toward the beginning of the season since it begins with the end of the Thanksgiving Parade. I wouldn’t say it’s ever been a foundational tradition of the season, but it’s almost always been there, and it carries innocent nostalgia in my mind, so it’s time to see if it holds up to a modern cynic.

Miracle on 34th Street. 20th Century Fox 1994.

Dorey Walker is a very guarded and practical single mother and teaches her young daughter Susan the same, including that there is no Santa Claus to put any childish faith in, something their neighbor friend, lawyer Brian Bedford, finds concerning. Dorey’s employer, old fashioned department store Cole’s, prepares to go into an incredibly important holiday shopping season, as if they don’t make enough to pay off the debts they incurred evading a hostile takeover from Victor Landburgh’s soulless megacorp Shopper’s Express, they’ll default and Landburgh could buy up the company for cheap. This year, Cole’s will have a new Santa at their flagship 34th Street store thanks to an emergency hire of a charming old man named Kriss who was very particular about the portrayal of the character for the Thanksgiving Parade. Dorey, Susan, and Brian soon discover that this man, isn’t just a very good Santa, he believes he is the legendary Kriss Kringle. Brian and Kriss make it their mission to make believers out of Dorey and Susan, but while the family wrestle with their personal faith, Kriss’s unexpected habit of giving parents advice on what other stores have items Cole’s doesn’t have or charges too much for is paying off in brand loyalty and inspires Cole’s to introduce a dedicated “find it for you” concierge service, pulling in an unprecedentedly fantastic sales season and foiling Landbergh’s plans, unless he can scheme a way to get Kriss out of the way. Also Dorey suggests that doubting Susan can test Kriss with the kind of Christmas wish she’d never ask her mother for, and Susan tells him her most impossible private wish: a father, a brother, and a big house upstate.

I’m coming back to this movie with a lot more context. I’ve since seen the original movie, and I had thought this carried through the old real life rivalry between Macy and Gimbel. Of course, few remember Gimbel’s anymore, or anything of that rivalry. It’s actually a pretty clever translation into an outmoded business from a friendlier time fighting for its life against the modern mercenary corporate raiders. While the pacing and tone is much more approachable here, I do have to say I prefer the resolution of the earlier version, in which the judge decides to uphold the decision already made by the US Mail to accept Kriss’s identity, rather than taking the extra leaps of “if the government can trust in God on faith to the point they print it on their money, this court can accept on faith that Santa Claus exists”, and further “Santa Claus exists and therefore this court trusts that Mr. Kringle is who he says he is.” But then, better legal experts have torn these movies apart on the court proceedings.

I had always taken the narrative intent to be that Kriss is indeed Santa Claus, so I was surprised a year or two ago to see someone arguing that the point is that we don’t know and it shouldn’t matter. That might be more the case for the earlier version, but this treatment gives us every reason to believe Kriss short of seeing him do a scrap of supernatural magic. My current take is that, while anyone can embody the spirit of Santa Claus, Kriss has so dedicated himself to it that he might as well be the man in the flesh, but the most important thing is the spirit he inspires in others, and which the public reciprocates in the support that is unfortunately nerfed down to not much more than a montage of signs in this telling, moving to the audience but not to the plot.

The warm feelings of this movie persist. It’s the inspiring story of a man who gives himself to the world, and most of the world, on learning he’s in trouble, responding in kind. It’s a lesson in open minds and open hearts, and the joy and wonder that can result from being the one person to insist on caring for and loving everyone in spite of the hostility of the societal machine running as usual.

Journey to the Center of Time

Journey to the Center of Time. Borealis Enterprises 1967.

Before watching the movie:

A nonsensical title on a movie about time travel? This should be just the kind of campy midcentury sci-fi story I’ve really been itching for. They’re getting harder to come by, at least ones that are new to me.

I don’t know much more about the plot than that some scientists get lost in time, and really, does one actually need more?

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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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Movies of My Yesterdays: An American Tail

This movie has always existed. Or at least, it’s always existed in my world. As my ability to remember the past coalesced, this title was among the ones that was already in our collection, which I was watching regularly. Maybe not as regularly as others, but I can’t clearly remember how much I watched one or the other. Anyway, I wasn’t allowed to watch anything more than once in a day, which I came to realize later in life was probably mostly for the preservation of my parents’ sanity, and in a distant second, the cassette tapes my brother and I were wearing out.

I’m not sure if I have actually watched An American Tail since we gave up on our Betamax player long, long after that format war had been lost. Maybe I felt I’d rewatched it so many times I didn’t need to see it anymore. It didn’t hold all that much special significance for me to seek it out. Don Bluth movies are a little weird anyway, and of those that I was regularly exposed to in my youth, this doesn’t have the “wait, I don’t think I got the complexities of the plot” that The Secret of NIMH had, the polished, hit-me-in-just-the-right-moment chemistry of Anastasia, or the dinosaurs of The Land Before Time. And so I come back to it only now in a spirit of “wait, I don’t think I grasped the complexities of the emotions and satire”. By the time I really comprehended that it was about the immigration experience, I was too busy for it.

An American Tail. Amblin Entertainment 1986.

In Russia in the late 1800s, the Mousekewitz family lives in fear of cats, but otherwise content, though Papa will tell anyone who will or won’t listen of a land called America where there are no cats, a place of such abundance the streets are paved with cheese and a mouse can live at peace. When the human village their mousehole is in is burned in a pogrom and Cossack cats terrorize the fleeing mice, the Mousekewitz family boards a boat to New York. Shortly before arrival, the middle child Fievel is swept out to sea in a storm and given up for lost by his family. Luckily, Fievel ends up in a bottle and floats to shore on his own, where he is found by a French pigeon who assures him it’s possible to find his family and directs him to the harbor they would have come in through. However, before he can reach the immigration office, he is instead found by Warren T. Rat, who promises to take Fievel to his family but instead sells him to a sweatshop. With the help of an Italian teen named Tony, Fievel escapes the sweatshop and sets off looking for his family in a city that is not as free of cats as the tales they old in the Old Country.

Dom DeLouise’s friendly cat character is a much smaller part than I remembered, which is honestly just as well, though I think they corrected the oversight of having their biggest star in such a small role for the sequel. Christopher Plummer was completely unrecognizable with a French accent. I’m sorry to say that when I try to decide how I feel about Fievel’s performance, what mainly comes to mind is Caillou, the public television bane of parents everywhere. What is absolutely perfect, however, is Papa Mousekewitz, who sounds exactly like a beloved Jewish Russian father should (though that’s probably partly from stereotypes). There’s so much warmth there.

When I was very young, I didn’t really understand accents. That is, in the sense that I didn’t understand that they connoted something about the person speaking. This meant I lost a lot of information as a kid watching this movie, especially the other people telling their cat attack stories on the boat, who were not Italian and Irish stereotypes to me, just cartoon people with silly cartoon voices. So I guess I never picked up how just about every person Fievel interacts with in America is an immigrant, including Honest John the politician and Gussie Mausheimer the wealthiest mouse in town. The people helping Fievel, from the bottom to the top, are from elsewhere, even the ones who have cemented their place in American society. And by the end, so has Fievel.

I came into it this time expecting a relatable story of immigration, but I kind of feel like while Fievel’s circumstances get him into a variety of places that allow us to see a spectrum of life in a city full of immigrants, his own story is so out of the ordinary that I didn’t get that sense. Also, the story was a hundred years in the past when the movie came out, so culture has significantly changed. I guess the point of the story is that anything can happen in America, and when I think about why that’s more likely than in Europe, I have to come to the conclusion that social hierarchies were in flux because it was still a new society. That’s less true now than a hundred years ago. What hasn’t changed is the stark contrast between the reputation and reality of the New World, and the harsh conditions desperate people brave for their fresh start.

Safe House

Safe House. Filmquest Pictures 1999.

Before watching the movie:

For all the actors I mowed through the filmographies of when I first realized I had the ability to discover and summon movies, somehow I never did that for Patrick Stewart. Most Star Trek regulars don’t seem to have enough high profile projects outside of Star Trek to get me to think in those kinds of terms.

So I first heard of this movie from a viral video recasting a clip of it as “Look at how jarringly out of character Captain Picard is!” I had to look up the source, and it sounded funny, but it’s heavily marketed as a thriller. Maybe it moves from comedy to thriller?

Also it seems to be a TV movie, which I try to avoid, but here it is anyway.

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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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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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