Movies of my Yesterdays: The Iron Giant

I dimly remember actually seeing this movie in the theater, but for whatever reason, what sticks with me more is getting it for Christmas, in a set with a toy figure (example photo, not mine) that was both exciting and yet I don’t think I ever actually played with. I seem to associate the story with winter scenes as well, even though I know there are summer scenes. I guess it takes place over a longer period of time than I thought.

I do recall that seeing the movie in the theater was at least one of the first times I allowed myself to cry at a movie (in a dark theater). The emotion that this movie draws out of celluloid is one of the main reasons that it’s endured as a modern classic and stands out against the more bland landscape of contemporaries that, unlike the perennial vintage cinema, we can still remember. In the nine(!) years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve covered many movies from that year. Only a few of them come close to the legacy The Iron Giant immediately cemented.

The Iron Giant. Warner Bros. 1999.

Hogarth, a boy in advanced classes with an excitable imagination outside of small town Rockwell, Maine, goes investigating his missing TV antenna and comes across a 50-foot tall robot from space! The giant robot, which eats metal, tries to eat a power station transformer, and gets tangled up in power lines, and Hogarth rescues him by pulling the shutoff switch. As Hogarth investigates, the giant befriends him, and they quickly form a secret partnership with junkyard artist Dean for the use of his scrap metal so the giant won’t go hungry. But the reports of strange sightings draw government agent Kent Mansley, a cold war G-man who sees Soviet threats in anything he doesn’t understand. Kent quickly susses out that Hogarth isn’t telling all he knows, and if he can get proof that there’s a dangerous weapon in Rockwell, he’ll finally get the respect he thinks he deserves.

This might not be the first time I’ve watched the movie since that VHS, but it’s the first time I’ve really noticed how much care was put into the art for this movie. I’m not sure I’ve seen better cel-shaded CGI before, but the Giant, Sputnik, and the missile are CG renders blended in so well it’s easy to forget they’re technically a different medium, and if they used it for other things, I couldn’t even tell or it wasn’t major enough to remember. However, the CGI was something I was aware of years ago. This time, I was also looking at the traditional animation, and especially the lovingly-created backgrounds. I think I’ve seen this movie called a love letter to traditional animated movies in an era where everyone wanted to make the next Toy Story, and I got it then, but I see it for myself now. As well, the music is quite evocative of cartoon features of a different age, and sometimes comes very close to evoking Looney Tunes incidental music.

My first instinct was to say that the messages of the movie are what makes it resonate, but there’ve been a lot of bad and forgettable movies with messages of “friendship is good, guns are bad, be yourself, help others, your past doesn’t define you”. What makes it effective is the execution. This story is not just character driven, but the characters express real emotion and profound thoughts that manage to all align to create a package of concentrated Feelings. It’s no wonder Pixar incorporated Brad Bird into their inner circle of creatives after this.

As the 1950s setting evokes a kind of nostalgia for a lost age of childhood, the movie is itself nostalgia for a generation, as it now approaches 20 years since its release. I’m sure that there are professional animators now who were inspired by this opus, and hopefully many of them are actually getting to do something close enough to that to satisfy them, as the market has moved away from traditional animation with any real budget for artistic flair. Being an inspiration is probably the highest honor a work of art can aspire to, and this is certainly one that has inspired careers as well as daily lives.

Deep Blue Sea

Deep Blue Sea. Warner Bros. Pictures 1999.

Before watching the movie:

I’m surprised that I don’t recognize any of the names at the top of the cast list other than Samuel L. Jackson. I would have thought the central protagonist would be a big name.

Anyway, scientists meddle with sharks and make them more dangerous because science things. It makes more sense than some of the places the Jaws franchise went, really.

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Blue Streak

Blue Streak. Wintergreen Productions 1999.
Blue Streak. Wintergreen Productions 1999.

Before watching the movie:

This came up in automatic recommendations, and I know very little about it. Apparently, it concerns a jewel thief trying to recover his stash, which had a police station built over it while he was in jail. I’m expecting something of a heist, but there are indications he spends a while posing as a police officer to get inside, which implies a deeper level of infiltration than I usually think of for a heist.

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Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow. Mandalay Pictures 1999.
Sleepy Hollow. Mandalay Pictures 1999.

Before watching the movie:

I principally know the story of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow through the Disney featurette. Wishbone did an adaptation, but it was the second season that I’m much less familiar with. It would be easy to go more into why Crane gets involved with the Horseman legend than the Disney version did, but it seems to pretty simply be that he’s spooked by the legend and happens to become a victim of the ghost. Well, it was a short story to begin with, so there’s not much need or room for motivation.

In this version, apparently they’ve changed him from a superstitious schoolteacher to a detective. Which would let him drive the plot, so it might be a good change. Definitely means this is going to be very different. Continue reading

Movies of my Yesterdays: Galaxy Quest

Few things have been kept alive by love for half a century. That club will probably be growing enormously for the next few years because so much of our culture was born in the 60s and 70s, but this week, fans are celebrating that milestone for Star Trek. While anything can achieve fifty years since just by the nature of time, fifty years continuous is something special in pop culture. If the Animated Series is included, the longest hiatus in Star Trek is only around five years. There’s a new movie in theaters now and a new series coming direct to home streaming next year. And it all began before men walked on the moon.

So I came to the question of how to celebrate it here. I grew up with Trek. Trek was in the house before I was born. The number of times I’ve watched the first six movies probably adds up to dozens, and the ones worth talking about as representative of the franchise have been talked about to death. I’ve seen every episode of the original series at least once. I saw the new movie a few weeks ago. What can I talk about?

Galaxy Quest. Dreamworks Pictures 1999.

The 90s were the height of Star Trek as a franchise. From 1993 to 1999, there were always two series in production, and from 1994, there were movies on top of that. There was always something new in Trek, and as the internet grew, it became much easier to talk about it with other fans. Continuity was huge even before there was a shared universe across three productions to keep track of. And as the preeminent fandom in the public’s eye, Trekkies were the easiest target to spoof the weird fans who take the things they love maybe a bit too seriously.

 

And then along comes a movie that spoofs Trekkies themselves. What if somebody completely didn’t understand the concept of fiction and dedicated their lives to a show, forcing the actors to be their characters for real? What if somebody loved a show so much they made it real?

What strikes me about describing the story like that is that the idea of a fictional story colliding with the real world is actually pretty common, but it’s always through magic. Last Action Hero comes to mind, and Stranger Than Fiction is a good example of not explicitly being magic, but it’s a weird thing that is narratively indistinguishable from magic. The Thursday Next novels interestingly begin with a bit of technology to jump into the fictional worlds in the first book, but dispense with it subsequently. I’m sure there must be other examples of fiction intruding upon reality through a purely sci-fi mechanism (aliens receive TV broadcasts, model their society around the show), but I can’t think of any.

Of course, Peter Q. Taggart is clearly based on William Shatner. Ego to the brim, alienating the castmates that are stuck with him, and too stuck in the glory days to realize it. That he is the main protagonist makes him sympathetic, but it has to get pretty savage to break Taggart down to the point where a real-life space adventure is what he needs. Everyone else is a bit more vague. Tawny Matheson’s best parallel is Uhura, but they cast Sigourney Weaver and arguably her function is more of a parody of Tasha Yar at tactical. I have a dim memory of the novelization letting her find a function that wasn’t just repeating the computer and looking pretty, but unfortunately the movie doesn’t have time for it and she just ends up embracing the part. Tommy Webber is mainly a Wesley Crusher type, but casting him black invokes Geordi’s season at the helm as well. Dr. Lazarus is kind of a hybrid of Spock and Worf. Dane/Rickman is clearly emphasizing the Spock side, but his cool logic in this case is an attempt to control his hot-blooded warrior tendencies.

I really enjoy Tony Shalhoub’s performance, but they cast him as Fred Kwan/Tech Sgt Chen, and he’s not at all Asian. If they’d given Fred a surname of a more appropriate ethnicity it could’ve at least been a joke about Hollywood casting anyone vaguely not white in any ethnic role, but instead it’s an honest example. Shalhoub is of Lebanese descent, but could be mistaken for Mediterranean European, and so this spoof of a show that was promoting diversity before diversity was a watchword comes off as having a token black guy and a token woman/love interest, and everyone else is white guys. And one green monster.

But they’re just the ones having the adventure. The real heroes of this story are the fans. The alien fans who were united by their respect for the “historical documents” from another world, and the human fans whose knowledge of the show guides the crew to victory. In the end, the Thermians are encouraged to make their own adventures, to be inspired by the Protector rather than devoted to it. Fans that become creators are what keeps franchises going, spawning legacies without bound. The Thermians will make their own history, and Galaxy Quest will live again. And Star Trek, and its fans, will continue the mission.

Bowfinger

Bowfinger. Imagine Entertainment 1999.
Bowfinger. Imagine Entertainment 1999.

Before watching the movie:

Why haven’t I seen this movie? Well, it’s PG-13, and I was ten or eleven when it came out. But why haven’t I seen it since? I’m not sure why I never circled around to it. Eventually I started doing this blog and I knew when I saw it, I’d have to review it here, which has a tendency to slow things down. But Steve Martin and 80s-90s Eddie Murphy together make for a film I’d have to experience eventually.

I always had some concept of the plot as being about a scam going down, so I was picturing something like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. But then a movie is involved, so maybe it was more like After the Fox. It turns out, the scam is that a box office superstar is getting tricked into acting in a no-budget film for free, I guess via hidden cameras. This is going to be fun.

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The Out of Towners

The Out of Towners. Paramount Pictures 1999.
The Out of Towners. Paramount Pictures 1999.

Before watching the movie:

I need a break from Christmas. Also there are very few Christmas movies I can get hold of that I can blog and wanted to see.

The impression I had of a couple getting out to New York for a change and everything going off the rails reminded me a lot of Date Night, but it looks like they’re looking at moving out there permanently as a change once their kids have moved out, so it’s a different time of life here. And also it probably isn’t going to go off the rails in anything like the same way.

Steve Martin is of course very consistent, and I recall Goldie Hahn doing well in Foul Play, but that may be the only thing I’ve seen her in.

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