Saturday, August 31, 2013

Top Comedies of All Time Pt. 2

Back for Round 2 of my personal Top Comedy Films list. And away we go!

 Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) - Directed by the quintessential "80s" director John Hughes, and starring the comedy tandem of Steve Martin and John Candy, there was pretty much no way that this film was ever going to be anything less than great. And it most certainly is. The pairing of Martin and Candy is so good in fact, that I would dare say they should have done more films together. They had a real chemistry here, on the same kind of level that Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor had. And naturally John Hughes' writing really plays into both actor's strengths. A story about two traveling businessmen who get stuck together by Fate during the Thanksgiving week rush, it's the classic "Odd Couple" case of two opposite personalities who must learn to coincide. Comedy gold, along with some real dramatic acting chops (something Hughes was famous for), with a great, very 80's soundtrack to boot. This film is one of both Steve Martin and John Candy's best, and that's saying something. It is highly recommended that anyone who enjoys life should see this film. And even if you don't, see it anyway, it just might cheer you up.

The Great Outdoors (1988) - Another John Hughes classic, this one written and produced by Hughes and directed by Howard Deutch. It is also another John Candy classic, and another classic "Odd Couple" style pairing, this time with Candy and Dan Aykroyd. The pair play brother-in-laws, one of whom is taking his family for a nice quiet vacation on the lake, the other who shows up out of nowhere and invites himself and his family to stay the week with them. Dan Aykroyd is great as the unlikable, blowhard, "jet setting" businessman type. John Candy, of course, is John Candy, and again Hughes' writing shines with the actors. Probably the best camping/outdoors related film I can think of this side of "Earnest Goes to Camp", and again one of the best films either star ever did. Very highly recommended.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) - Like all of the films I'm listing, really, this movie deserves it's own article at some later date, because there is just so much to talk about when it comes to the reasons why this is a great and genuinely classic comedy film. I've seen the other Monty Python films, "The Life of Brian" and "The Meaning of Life", but for my money, this is the best and funniest one. The only one I would consider a favorite of mine to be sure. The entire cast (Eric Idle, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam) is on fire and at their peak in this picture, the writing, acting, timing, and even low budget production are all at their absolute finest. There really isn't a bad thing to point out about the entire thing, and it's absolutely fucking hilarious besides. Some people don't "get" the British brand of humor, but I think Monty Python was it's own special brand of silliness that can translate easily to just about anybody. I'm sure there's some grumpy curmudgeons out there who wouldn't find it funny, but hey, some people have serious issues that just can't be helped. If you haven't seen this movie, do so, you owe it to yourself as a "Bucket List" type of ordeal. The musical Camelot scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Christmas Vacation (1989) - The third (and to this guy best) of the four National Lampoon's Vacation films that Chevy Chase did, this just so happens to be yet another film John Hughes wrote and produced. People remember him for his "80s teen films" he did, but those were really few and far between when you consider how many great, classic comedy films he was involved in as well (he even wrote and produced Home Alone for shit's sake). I'm also a fan of Chevy Chase, and this was him still in his prime. I would say it's arguably his best movie. John Hughes wrote the first three Vacation films, and while the first is a classic, again I'd have to say, at least to me personally, that this was one the strongest overall. It has a great ensemble cast that includes the likes of Brian Doyle-Murray, Randy Quaid, Juliette Lewis, John Randolf, Doris Roberts, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, along with of course Beverly DeAngelo and Chevy Chase as Ellen and Clark W. Griswold. 

I would also go so far as to say that, along with Home Alone, this is the best Christmas season movie for me. The original 1947 "Miracle on 34th Street", and "It's a Wonderful Life" are strong candidates as well, and everyone seems to love "A Christmas Story" (even though it's played on tv nonstop every year). Then there's also the great Rankin/Bass holiday specials, especially "Rudolf the Rednosed Reindeer". Those are all great. But for my money, "Home Alone" and "Christmas Vacation" need to be watched every Christmas season, without a doubt.

The Burbs (1989) - Another fine 1989 piece of film greatness, "The Burbs" was directed by Joe Dante, who much like in his earlier film "Gremlins", shows a masterful ability to blend comedy and horror elements seamlessly together. This is another film, similar to "Haunted Honeymoon", that blends a strong sprinkling of comedy with a genuinely good mystery/suspense story, as Tom Hanks, your regular average suburban Joe, who gets caught up by his neighbors investigating the new, mysterious additions to the neighborhood. Another great ensemble cast is featured, including Carrie Fisher, Bruce Dern, Corey Feldman, Brother Theodore, Henry Gibson, and Rick Ducommun. I would have to say that while I enjoy many of his films (especially several of his 80s output), this is my all-time favorite Tom Hanks film. And without spoiling anything, the scene with Bruce Dern on his roof always gets me, every time, to this day.

So there's another batch, rounding out my personal Top Ten Comedies of All Time. It may be a coincidence that a majority of my Top Ten are 80s films, but it really can't be helped, as the 80s were a great time, really, for movies of all genres, but most especially comedies. I'll return again soon to further flesh out of the list, but I think these ten already provide a pretty great look into my personal tastes. And into some truly great, and funny movies. If you haven't seen them yet, go do so. If you have already seem them, go see them again because they're worth it. Cheers!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Top Comedies of All Time Pt. 1

Well, I've been meaning to do this for quite some time, so I figured I might as well jump into it. It's an arduous task, to say the least, trying to compile a list of my personal top all-time films, starting with comedies. I say arduous because other than the top one or two, it gets a bit rough really trying to place them, let alone the stickiness of "well it IS a comedy, but it also isn't", which many of my favorites fall into. Some that fall into this pit of doom, are movies like The Princess Bride, Big Trouble in Little China, Home Alone, Beetle-juice, The Addams Family, etc., which are all certainly comedies, but they also have elements of one or more other genres, sometimes heavily so. So it gets a bit rough trying to say "Well should I count this as one of my top comedies, or a top something else?"

But that conundrum aside, I'm going to start making the attempt anyway. It should be noted that naturally, I will be covering pretty much all of these films on their own, in far greater depth, at some point down the road. It should also be noted (though it kind of goes without saying) that these are my own personal top comedy picks, and not any sort of attempt at some kind of "Official List". So here goes nothing.

Young Frankenstein (1974) - This Mel Brooks classic tops not only my list of favorite all-time comedies, but favorite movies of all time as well. Over the years of my life, my "favorite movie ever" has changed many times. But now that I'm into my early 30s, and am getting pretty well set into my adult ways, Young Frankenstein just absolutely tops the list. There is really nothing NOT to like about this film. It has everything: it's a great send-up to the classic Hollywood horror films of the 30s and 40s, it's a hilarous, and terribly clever comedy, it's got an amazing cast, great cinematography, perfect pacing, you name it. It was co-written by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks (one of the few Brooks films he doesn't also at least appear in on-screen), and the genius of both men really shines. I honestly wish that Brooks and Wilder had done more than three films together, because their work (The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein) is just solid gold. They both did great things separately, but I don't think it's too hard an argument to make, to claim that their best works were together.

But at the end of the day, there is a very select number of films that are at the top of my favorites list, that I can literally pretty much just put on and watch any time. Most of my favorite films, even if I really love them, I have to be in the mood to want to watch them. But there those precious few, that I can be totally content watching almost any old time. And Young Frankenstein, again, tops that list.

Ghostbusters (1984) - What do you get when you combine the creative genius of guys like Ivan Reitman, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, with the onscreen chops and chemistry of people like Aykroyd, Ramis, Rick Morranis,  Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray? One of the single greatest films ever crafted, is what. A film that, when in production, I'm sure very few people ever suspected would blow up to become the massive, decade defining mega-hit that it was, but that's exactly what Ghostbusters did. Similarly to Young Frankenstein, I have only slight qualms about including it on a "Top Comedy Film" list, simply because it has such strong elements of other genres, namely horror and science fiction. Ghostbusters blends it's elements so well, the sci-fi and paranormal pastiche, the at-times-genuinely-creepy horror moments, the clever and subtle humor infused throughout. The casting was perfect, the writing spot on, the cinematics again excellent, a great (though very 80s) soundtrack, the story was interesting and compelling, and the film even had great stop-motion and practical special effects work that still stands up today. 

Ghostbusters became so popular, that it pretty much made the careers of Aykroyd and Murray, both of whom were already rising stars, it solidified the directing careers of Ramis and Reitman, it helped further propel the likes of Weaver and Morranis to their own stardom, and that was just the people involved. The theme song by Ray Parker Jr. is still popular to this day, and was a massive hit in the 80s. The movie spawned toys, comics, video games, a 1989 sequel, and one of the greatest cartoon shows of all time, "The Real Ghostbusters". This is another film atop that list of movies I can watch at any time.

Throw Momma From the Train (1987) - In what would be a breakthrough "leading man" role, as well as first major directorial success for Danny DeVito, his pairing with Billy Crystal for this film was pure magic from start to finish. Where the first two films on this list take elements from/are sendups to classic science fiction and horror films, this is equally a comedy as well as a love letter to classic noir and Alfred Hitchcock style mystery/suspense films. Character actress Anne Ramsey had a great turn as DeVito's senile, overbearing mother. As a writer, this film also holds some special resonance with me, on being a writer and the struggle of keeping yourself writing, not to mention finishing a work. But beyond that, it's just a great, truly classic comedy in every sense of the word.

Haunted Honeymoon (1986) - Two of Gene Wilder's directorial efforts that I really love (the other being 1977's "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother"), this film upon theatrical release was a financial failure, as it's stay at the box office was terribly short. Which, in this man's estimation at least, is a real crime of Hollywood, considering the fact that it is, in many ways, a truly brilliant and genuinely funny film. Wilder wrote, directed and starred in this film, co-starring alongside his then wife in her final film before her death to ovarian cancer in 1989, Gilda Radner. And they really are fantastic together on-screen. The film features a great supporting cast of character actors such as Jonathan Pryce, Paul L. Smith and of course Dom DeLuise in a great cross-dressing role as the eccentric "Aunt Kate". This film is yet again a bit of a genre-bender, a send-up to both classic radio dramas as well as classic Hollywood horror and mystery films.

Of the "Top Five" that I'm covering in this entry, this is by far the most under-viewed and underrated. A largely unappreciated film upon it's original release, it is one of those that found it's audience later through cable and home video, which is where I first discovered it as a kid. It's a great film, and also no coincidence whatsoever that Gene Wilder features so prominently in my favorite comedy films, as he was to me, without question, one of the few true geniuses of the art.

Groundhog Day (1993) - A Harold Ramis film starring Chris Elliot, Andie MacDowell, and Bill Murray, this is (spoilers) probably the most recent comedy film in my "Top Ten". It is also the only one of these "Top Five" that is not really a send-up to another genre, though it's fairly original premise does carry light science fiction within it: the idea that a man could get stuck living out the same day, over and over, for a very long time, perhaps even forever. The genius of this film, is both in the concept, and the way Murray is able to portray a character's evolution and growth within a never-ending existential crisis, how he copes with it, and how he eventually comes out the other side. This movie is not as rife with completely "laugh out loud" moments as it's fellow top candidates, but what it does share with them, is that it too is basically a movie I can sit and watch whenever. Not AS strongly as the others, there is a slight "in the mood" threshhold for Groundhog Day, but it's still right there, toeing that line.

So that's it for now. I'll be back with continuing increments in the future, but for now, enjoy, and if you haven't seen any of these films I've mentioned, please do yourself a favor and make sure that you do see them, as soon as possible. They're that good.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Childhood Memories: Earliest Gaming Experiences

My earliest video game memory of all time, of course, is probably Pac-Man. Either Pac-Man or Dig Dug. Either way, it was the early 80s, me having been born in late 1981, and games like Pac-Man and Dig Dug were still all the rage, at a time when video arcades were probably at their peak. One of my favorite pass-times in my early childhood, was sitting at a table-top machine of Pac-Man or Dig Dug (because they were easier for me to see and get to), and pretend that I was playing. At a very young age, naturally, I wasn't fully cognizant of the fact that the demo mode gameplay the machine would display, wasn't me actually playing. I eventually figured it out of course, but that still didn't stop me from pretending. I did, of course, get to actually get a quarter and play one of these classics, every once in awhile, but par for the course (and my age), I really didn't understand how to play them that well, and thus never made it that far. We're talking like 3 or 4 years old here, so it's understandable. But I still loved it. I was not yet obsessed with video games as I would become when I first got my NES many years later. But it's fair to say, whether it was Pac-Man or Dig Dug that I actually saw first, that I was fascinated from the get-go. You might even say it was love at first sight.

Ladies and gentlemen, THE bleeding edge of early 80s technology!

Now arcades would continue to be a love affair of my childhood, all the way up into my teens. Part of it, growing up, was the mystique of it all, because my grandmother didn't really like me playing them, so she would rarely ever "waste money" by giving me quarters. So I usually just got to watch others play, and the rare times when I would manage to get my very own shiny quarter, whatever game I played, because I rarely ever GOT to play, that quarter would burn up faster than Mario in hot lava. So my little tastes of early arcade gaming were terribly fleeting, and that made me love it and want it all the more.

However, if you'll observe the picture above, you'll see the face of my first truly extended experience with "gaming". Around the age of 3 or 4 I would say, my grandmother bought a Radio Shack model of one of these early Tandy computer contraptions you see in the picture. These things were one of the first readily available home computers, and thus were very popular, long before IBM and Windows compatible computers took over the market. My grandmother, as adults tend to do, bought it to use as a word processor and to to her finances on. But she also did use it to try and invest in my early education, by bringing home several educational "games" for me to play. I enjoyed these, as much as they can be enjoyed I suppose. The one I remember most was some version of "Hangman", a spelling game, where you have to guess the letters in a word, and if you get too many guesses wrong, it finishes building a gallows complete with a poor little blocky dude hanging. There were other games, very basic math based games, and I do believe some kind of odd "image matcher" type of game, involving extremely blocky representations of playing cards or something like that.

The true oddity, if you really study the pic for a second, is that this picture specifically shows the obscure and really oddball "disc drive" our computer had. It's a cassette tape deck, and somehow they had really simple programs on these tapes that you pop in, and the computer reads it. Tandy computers also had floppy disc drives, but I don't think ours did. I mainly just remember the tape deck thing, because it was something no other device I ever had since possessed.

"Now you're playing with power...........oh wait".

But really, my first TRUE home video gaming experience must've come around '86 or so, when I was 4 or 5, when one of my aunt's gave us a hand-me-down Atari 2600, because their family had gotten one of the newer Atari systems. I do seem to remember us having the paddle style controllers pictured above, with the dial and the button on the side. We probably also had the regular stick controllers, but the dial ones stand out more. The only games I remember us having, were Combat, Space Invaders, and this game called Astroblast. Combat was fine, and it was two-player, so my grandmother played it with me a handful of times, though she wasn't really into games that weren't specifically puzzle or card type games. For anyone who doesn't know, Combat pretty much was the pack-in with Atari 2600, as everyone had a copy. It's a multi-games-in-one cart type of deal, with various tank and plane one on one battle games, hence the title "Combat". Space Invaders speaks for itself, but while the artwork for the game looked cool and made me want to play it the most, I rarely ever did try to play it, because it was fucking hard, especially for my 4/5 year old self.

Classic video gaming at it's finest.

The first game that I suppose you could call my "favorite game", outside of pretending to play things like Pac-Man and Dig Dug when we would go out for pizza or something, was the third game, "Astroblast". Now, for most of my life, for whatever reason, I used to think that this game was called "Asteroid", as in the same title as the famous "AstroidS", minus the "s". I'm not sure why I thought it was called this, maybe it was simple childhood logic, because you shoot asteroids, or I suppose it's possible that maybe the game was mislabeled. Regardless, I used to search for pictures or footage of this game online, and could never find it, until I did some deeper sleuth-work, and discovered it was actually called "Astroblast". In this game, as you can see, play a little tank or whatever, and you have to shoot at a non-stop barrage of falling asteroids. Like many 2600 era games, it was more of an endurance type of game, where you lasted as long as you could, to get the highest score you could. In a nutshell, classic gaming in it's purest form. Every once in awhile, a UFO would wander across the top of the screen, and if you were lucky enough to hit it, you got bonus points. Naturally, the longer you lasted, the faster the asteroids started coming down, and thus the harder it got.

I don't really remember anymore how far I ever got, or what my highest score ever was. I was a bit too young to really remember those types of details. But I will say that this was the first game that I actually got to play extensively, that I got addicted to, as I pretty much only played this on our Atari. It's good, solid pre-8-bit gaming, and a fond memory from my early years. Now I know there was a definite gap where we no longer had the 2600, before I finally got an NES. We had the 2600 when I was in preschool, and we moved to a different town for a bit when I was in kindergarten, and by that point already, my grandmother had gotten rid of it for some reason, or we just never unpacked it. I'm not really sure, though I do know we definitely didn't still have it years later when I finally got an NES around 3rd grade or so. But either way, my childhood gaming took a bit of a nap, except for when I would come across an arcade machine somewhere, for a few solid years before Nintendo took over my young world.

So there you have it, some of my earliest gaming memories. It's safe to say that video games have been a part of my life, in one way or another, for most of my existence. And quite frankly, with the exception of some (totally justified) cases of gamer rage at some game or another being a real asshole to me, gaming has always been a source of escape, relaxation, and happiness in my life. So here's to you, video games. Cheers!