Thursday, September 26, 2013

Childhood Memories: Goosebumps

Hey there boys and ghouls! Halloween season is almost upon us, and while Retro Revelations will be celebrating all through October, this year I'm going to get a bit of a jump-start, right now! So consider this your first of many Halloween 2013 inspired articles to come! 

My reading career as a child was perhaps a bit different from many. While I would somewhat give up caring (for various negative reasons) later into my high school years, as a young child I was one of those so-called "smart kids". I was in the "G.A.T.E" Program for many years (Gifted and Talented Education), as well as many other extra-curricular stuff. Part of that sprung from my learning to read pretty well at a young age. I was reading full books on my own by 1st or 2nd grade, and my grandmother encouraged/fostered this, because she was an avid reader herself. At some point around 1990 or so, I would imagine, we started getting Scholastic brand catalogs in the mail, and since my grandmother regularly bought herself books through a science fiction club of some sort, she was thrilled when I took a more active interest in reading, and had no problem ordering me books on a regular basis.

The first thing I really got into, in the long term sense (beyond my childhood obsession with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), was a children's series called "The Boxcar Children". It was somewhat of a kids' mystery series created by Gertrude Chandler Warner, and written by her and later many other authors. I really liked these for a couple of years, as the four Alden siblings featured in the stories got into all sorts of adventures and mystery solving. They were kind of like the Scooby Doo gang, minus a majority of the supernatural elements. But then in what must have been the summer of 1992, my interest in continuing to get Boxcar Children novels ceased as soon as I discovered a new, and far more enthusiastic literary passion: Goosebumps!

The first ever Goosebumps book, published July 1992.

For a little bit of background, the Goosebumps series is (to this day) written by author R.L. Stine. Stine is an author of mostly stories for children and teens, as well as having been a screenwriter for the Nickelodeon show "Eureka's Castle", a very Muppets style children's show that I also happened to love growing up. He first started writing a series for teens entitled "Fear Street" in 1989, before eventually starting the slightly younger skewed Goosebumps novels in 1992. Goosebumps has been, without a doubt, his most resounding success, spawning a TV series, toys, board games, video games, you name it. But enough about that, let's get back to telling you why I loved them so much.

I must've stumbled upon this new treasure in the Scholastic catalog one day, and (as has been well documented here) being the childhood monster nut that I was, I absolutely had to have it. I can't rightly recall now whether the first book I actually read was the first in the series, "Welcome to Dead House" (pictured above), or the second, "Stay Out of the Basement". Either way, for a 10 (nearly 11) year old, having never really read "horror" novels before, it was quite the experience for me. And long story short: I was in love.

Aside from good readin', these books also had some of the best cover art around.

Take a moment, and just look at that cover for "Stay Out of the Basement" pictured above. That picture right there probably sold me on the book, as did most of the covers. That cover especially really does all it needs to, to draw you in and make you want to find out what's going on. You see a monster's hand, but that's it, and that's all you should see. I've seen a later re-printing with a new cover that shows you WAY too much, kind of a "spoilers" cover, and I personally think that's a horrible idea. The point of cover art for a book or a comic or an album, is to stir your imagination, and give you just a hint of what to expect from the actual material itself. And the original Goosebumps covers did that better than anything this side of comic books. Even that cover further above for "Welcome to Dead House", you take one look at that ominous night shot of a creepy house with something in the window, and you immediately say to yourself "alright I gotta know what the hell's going on." Classic stuff, really.

Naturally the stories themselves, at least to me, were also great, and unlike some books, totally lived up to the cover art. The Goosebumps books really started something with me, where with them especially, I would get one and blaze through it right away. Not so much because I didn't want to take my time to read it and really take it in. But because these things were like word crack to me, total page-turners that kept me up well past my bedtime on many a night, staying awake to read "just one more chapter", because I absolutely HAD to find out what happened next!

Again with the awesome, ominous art that just draws you in.

So while my love affair with these books must've started around the summer of '92, or at the very least late 1992, I kept up with them regularly, and I honestly think I may have had every single one from #1 through at least #30. In fact, I'm pretty sure I had up to #31, "Night of the Living Dummy II", which came out in May 1995. Around this time, my grandmother had lung cancer and was firmly into the throes of chemo-therapy. Either because she was too sick to bother ordering more, or what, I can't really remember anymore, after #31 I didn't really get anymore. I saw some of them on store shelves or whatever once in awhile, and they seemed to get even weirder, with titles like "Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes" and whatnot. For whatever reasons, by summer '95 my love and passion for the books kind of fizzled out, and I more or less lost interest. But let me tell you, for that two or three year stretch, R.L. Stine was churning these things out like a madman, seriously about one per month, and I got them, every single month, #1-31.

The books I did own gave me a lot of great times though. I can't remember them all anymore, but I do have clear memories, say, of reading "Stay Out of the Basement", burning through most if not all of it in one afternoon. Being at the "edge of my seat" (not literally), turning those pages one after the other, just glued to the page. The way that story played out was really gripping, and was for it's time, I think, something very unique that hadn't really been touched upon before. I don't want to spoil it, of course, but let's just say it involved secret experiments and plants and human blood......I mean look at the cover, you can imagine for yourself from there! I surely didn't love each story equally, but none of them were ever dull or uninteresting.

Arguably my favorite book of the series.

The book pictured above is probably the closest candidate I can actively remember for my absolute favorite of the entire series. Why isn't too hard to figure out, but for fun I'll tell you anyway. In the early 90s, I was totally obsessed with several key things: Nintendo, Godzilla, monster/sci-fi/fantasy films in general, Monster in my Pocket figures, a lot of various classical mythology (because of the monsters, duh), Mystery Science Theater 3000, TNT's MonsterVision, and last but hardly least, the Saturday morning X-Men cartoon. Seeing as how I lived with a grandmother who thought comic books were "bullshit" and even tried to tell me once that "anyone other than Jesus who has powers, must get them from the Devil, and therefor they're bad". Right. Moving on, I kinda obviously wasn't really allowed to own comic books (though I did manage to sneak in a nice stash of Fleer trading cards). But because I had a TV in my room from about '91 onward, I WAS able to get away with watching super-hero cartoons, such as Batman, Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and most importantly, the one I absolutely loved to death, X-Men.

So, bringing it all the way back around, since I was totally batshit crazy for this cartoon about super-powered mutant people, imagine how I practically shat with glee upon discovering that the next Goosebumps book in line, circa November 1994 (right around my birthday no less), was a story about a kid who was obsessed with COMIC BOOKS, most especially one called "The Masked Mutant" about an evil mutant mastermind who constantly fought with the "League of Good Guys" (real name). "Attack of the Mutant" is an awesome story, but it was especially mind-blowing for my almost-thirteen year old self, reading it fresh and new. The "Masked Mutant" of the title, is a villain with the power to shape-shift into basically any solid form he pleases, be it a snake, a stair-case, or a telephone. Well the kid, named Skipper, finds the Mutant's base in real life, in his home city, and it all goes crazy from there. Not to spoil it too much, but he does wind up getting to fight alongside one of his favorite heroes, the "Galloping Gazelle" (think The Flash with a goofier costume), and it also features one hell of a twist ending.

Again......just look at that fuckin' cover art. I would seriously put that on my wall.

So as I said, from about mid-92 through mid-95, I collected every single one of these books, and while some were better than others, I was almost always entertained, as well as spooked out during the course of the story. Stine, as an author, has a really unique presence that stands out, his storytelling is strong, his ideas are creative, he has a quirky (and dark) sense of humor, and he is able to genuinely chill you with some really evocative imagery. Some of the other standout titles include the likes of "Monster Blood", "Say Cheese and Die!", "Let's Get Invisible!", "Night of the Living Dummy", "The Haunted Mask", and pictured above, "The Werewolf of Fever Swamp". The original run of the series actually carried on for quite awhile after I stopped getting them, in fact it lasted till book #62, "Monster Blood IV", published December 1997.

There's a part of me that wishes that I had kept up with them til the end, as I'm sure there were several gems along the way that I missed out on. Then again, there's a big part of me that wishes I still owned the collection that I did have. As one of many teen-era blunders of mine, I randomly decided one day when I was fourteen to sell (I sure HOPE I didn't give them away) all 31 of my collection to some dumbass friend of my buddy Harold's (M.C. Kids Guy) older sister. Not only was that borderline retarded of me to do, but I'm pretty sure she just turned around and sold them to someone else. I have bought about four of the ones I used to have as a kid, and when I can afford it will likely grab some more (because they're honestly still great reading). But it really sucks that, along with many other things from my childhood, I felt in my teenage stupidity at some point they were someting that I "had" to get rid of. Teens can be really dumb, bottom line.

A clip from the TV show's intro.

My last experience with the Goosebumps brand for many many years, was the television show that came on at some point later in 1995. I don't know if I caught it right when it came out, but what I do remember, at the time, was that I just really wasn't that impressed with it. Having been spoiled by the fantastic kid/teen Nickelodeon show "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" in the early-to-mid-90s, the Goosebumps series, which I was initially excited about upon discovering it, really kind of came off as second rate. And part of that, of course, was caused by the fact that I'd read so many of the books, and your imagination will almost always be better than what they can churn out in a show or movie. It also didn't help that even though the book series was hot enough to even GET a TV show based on it, it just didn't seem to have all that big of a budget. I've gone back and have been watching some of the episodes on Netflix recently, and I've got to say, they're okay. They don't look like SHIT, per say, but I still think the production values, acting, etc., isn't up to snuff with the aforementioned Nick show. One other thing that bothered me about the show upon seeing it, was that for some (if not all) of the episodes, they changed certain things in the story, and while I know "it happens", many of them were just kind of dumb decisions.

One great particular example I can give, perhaps the only episode I might have really watched all the way through, was the one based on book #1, "Welcome to Dead House". SPOILERS, but the ending of the book is incredibly dark and even gruesome for a kids novel. Basically the town this family moves to turns out to be full of "zombies" of a sort, who need fresh human blood to keep on existing, due to some chemical plant accident years ago. The novel ends with most of the family about to be sacrificed in a shaded amphitheater, but then one of the kids who stayed free knocks over a tree (as I remember it), that lets the sunlight in, and the sunlight causes all the zombies to start melting, while the family is able to get away. Well, sufficed to say, they dropped that whole bit from the TV episode, in fact I feel like they changed several things about the story in general, and the ending they came up with was lame by comparison. That alone might have turned me off to really paying attention to the show after that, which ironically enough also ended in 1997, just as the original series did.

He has a little bit of Stephen King to him....except not so creepy.

R.L. Stine has gone on to write many other books, including more than one newer Goosebumps offshoot series. He still churns them out at an amazing pace, even to this day, and while I realize most of his work is just (relatively short) children and teen novels, still, I sincerely wish that I possessed even a fraction of his apparent writer's discipline and productivity. I'm still working on it, but that's a story for another day.

Regardless, he is someone I can honestly say helped, at least to some small extent, shape my childhood, right up there with the likes of  J.R.R. Tolkien, Bruce Coville, Shigeru Miyamoto, Ishiro Honda, Ray Harryhausen, Joel Hodgson and so many others. If you don't know who some of those people are yet, don't worry, keep reading this blog and you eventually will hear about them, probably more than once. But his work had an impact on me, gave me a lot of late-night chills, as well as a hell of a lot of entertainment. There were many things, I'm sorry to say, that were not so great about my childhood. Many things. But I am happy to say that Goosebumps was one of those good things, a happy memory I can look back on, even today. If you've never dabbled, even though they are "kids' books", I would suggest picking up a copy of one of the original series, especially the first 30, because they're honestly really good. And considering October is almost upon us, it's the perfect time to give it a whirl!

Stay tuned for the next in my ongoing Halloween festivities. Happy Haunting!

Edit: I'd like to give a special thanks and shout out to author R.L. Stine, who was turned on to my article on Twitter via one of my followers. He actually wrote me back personally on there and said he thought this was a good piece and that he really enjoyed it. Talk about the kind of thing that makes it all worth it! Certainly one of the coolest things to ever happen to me in my life so far.

If you're on Twitter, please follow him @RL_Stine, because he rocks, and is very fan-friendly.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Pixelated Dreams: A Tribute to Hiroshi Yamauchi

Today, September 19th, 2013, Hiroshi Yamauchi, the long-time president of Nintendo (1949-2002), passed away at the age of 85. Mr. Yamauchi was the third generation head of a little company known as Nintendo. Formed on September 23rd 1889, it was originally, and for many decades afterward, a playing card manufacturer. They specialized in "Hanafuda" cards, which they innovated by adding hand-drawn artwork instead of generic designs, which made them more popular. The company had a unique line of succession as it's head, with the original founder Fusajiro Yamauchi only having daughters, and thus he adopted his son-in-law, Sekiryo, who then took over. Sekiryo also only had daughters, and thus he too adopted his son-in-law with succession in mind, Hiroshi's father, Shikanojo. However, Shikanojo eventually abandoned his wife and son, thus when Sekiryo became ill and wanted to hand his company on, he asked Hiroshi, his grandson, to take over Nintendo instead. He had to leave college to do so, but agreed, even though he would quickly earn a reputation as a hard and domineering boss.

And that is how the now infamous man became head of what would eventually become the most famous video game company on earth, a stint that would last the better part of 53 years. But when he took over in the late 1940s, things were much different, and it was a long road ahead before video games even became a twinkle in someone's eye. In post WWII Japan, which was still recovering in the late 40s,  playing cards were associated with gambling, which was largely illegal, and thus Nintendo's business wasn't great at the time. One of Hiroshi's first acts as company head, was to make a deal with American company Disney, to have family-oriented cards that featured Disney characters on them, a move that both increased their popularity once more, as well as foreshadowing Nintendo's own future "family friendly" image.

Nintendo's first toy, the "Ultra Hand".

Hiroshi tried to diversify Nintendo's business, by branching out into other ventures such as a taxi company, love hotels (places for couples to be alone), and even instant rice. But these ventures ultimately failed, and nearly threw Nintendo into bankruptcy. It wasn't until Mr. Yamauchi one day happened upon company engineer Gunpei Yokoi, a man who would one day be famous for working on such classic products as Metroid, Kid Icarus, and the Game Boy, as he was playing with a small plastic claw he had made to amuse himself during his breaks. Yamauchi was impressed, and ordered Yokoi to make it a commercial product, which eventually became a hot new item for Nintendo, the "Ultra Hand", and thrust them into a new and successful avenue, toy manufacturing. Gunpei Yokoi was at this point made the sole product developer, and his adeptness at electronics led to Nintendo innovating a line of electronic toys, something that at that time in the 1960s and 70s, had not yet become a big market. It was during this period that Nintendo finally began to grow from a small-time company, into a bigger force, and they began to compete firmly with other Japanese toy giants such as Tomy and Bandai.

Nintendo's first video game, the "Color TV Game 6"

With the 1972 release of American company Atari's "Pong", an arcade smash hit, even in Japan, the gradual rise of video games was born. Keen to get into this new venture as well, Nintendo negotiated to become the distributor for the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game console, in Japan, in 1974. Mr. Yamauchi saw money in this new kind of entertainment, and thus wanted Nintendo to start making their own game system, which they did, in the form of 1977's "Color TV Game 6", pictured above. There would later be a "Color TV Game 15" as well, the number indicating the number of games built into the device. Much like the Odyssey, Nintendo's own product mostly had primitive versions of Pong, and other similar concepts, but it was still an important step, marking Nintendo's future direction as a company. Their first video game was actually an arcade game, called "EVR Race", which would be followed by several other successful arcade games in the late 70s and early 80s, such as an original, mechanical based light gun arcade version of later NES hit "Hogan's Alley", as well as games like Radar Scope, a space shooter that would see success in Japan, but not America. This would lead into Nintendo's biggest success yet.

Nintendo's first major international arcade hit, Donkey Kong.

Because Radar Scope was not successful in North America, and because Nintendo didn't want to lose money, Yamauchi originally wanted to use the same cabinets to make a new game based on popular American cartoon Popeye the Sailor. Original negotiations fell through however (even though they would eventually make a Popeye game a couple of years later), and so Yamauchi tasked Yokoi and new company artist Shigeru Miyamoto, young and fresh out of college, to design a new game concept to put in these cabinets. Thus Donkey Kong, Miyamoto's first major creation for Nintendo, was born in 1981 (the same year yours truly joined the world). The game's hero, known only as "Jumpman" in 1981, would eventually be renamed Mario, who would star in further arcade hits "Donkey Kong Jr." and "Mario Bros.", and ultimately became the face of the company and the biggest star in video game history. But that's jumping too far ahead.

During this time, other Nintendo game-related products were created, such as the digital watch/game creation "Game & Watch", first introduced in 1980, a product that would continue on until 1991. The Game & Watch was very similar to America's Tiger Electronics games, featuring limited animations on small LCD screens. But it was still a popular product for it's day, in some ways ahead of it's time. But despite the success of things like Donkey Kong and the Game & Watch, Nintendo in the early 80s was still just a smaller player in a market that at that point was dominated by Atari's 2600 home console, as well as it's many imitators. Nintendo wouldn't start becoming the force they are today, until they finally produced their first full home game console in 1983.

Nintendo's crowning achievement, the Famicom, later known as the NES in NA.

In July 1983, after messing with prototype designs, Nintendo released the "Famicom", meaning Family Computer, in Japan. It was their first true home video game console, and was also an instant smash hit. With the Famicom, Nintendo found their "true calling", if you will, and their production of arcade and other types of games decreased as they focused most of their attention on this new hit product. As is now well known (and has been covered by myself already in last year's Happy Birthday NES article), the same year that Nintendo and competitor Sega were having great success, the American home video game market suffered a massive depression due to overcrowding and lack of quality control. The mighty Atari 2600 faltered, it's competitors all but dried up, and Atari itself was in dire straights. Mr. Yamauchi saw this as an opportunity to grab a foothold in a now largely vacated US market, and set Yokoi and co. into redesigning the Famicom into what would be dubbed the "Nintendo Entertainment System", a console that looked a bit more like a toy, and was even marketed with the toy accessory R.O.B. "The Robotic Operating Buddy". Because of clever marketing, as well as a slew of outstanding hits, most especially Shigeru Miyamoto's newest masterpiece "Super Mario Bros.", the NES, released in 1985, became a smash success as well.

Nintendo's next innovation, the handheld Game Boy.

With the success of Miyamoto classics such as Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, as well as big third party hits like Mega Man and Castlevania, the NES quickly became the dominant game console, not only in Japan as the Famicom, but throughout much of the world, most especially North America. Yamauchi would later be both hailed and even somewhat reviled for the harsh business tactics he would employ, such as limiting companies to only so many releases on their system per year, and demanding that if a game appeared on the Famicom/NES, that it would not appear for some time on any competing console. But while harsh, these tactics did see the NES enjoy unparalleled success, and Nintendo itself finally grew to become THE giant of the industry. In 1989, their next big product, created by none other than Gunpie Yokoi, was the Nintendo Game Boy. The video game market had beforehand not yet seen a true portable gaming machine on par with the home consoles, with only limited LCD products such as Tiger and the Game & Watch existing. But with the Game Boy, all bets were off, as this was a real, honest to goodness video game console, that you could easily take with you on the go. The screen was limited to "black and white" (or rather, different shades of green), but no one really cared when you had huge hits like Tetris and Super Mario Land to take with you anywhere you went. And thus the true portable video game console market was born. Many competitors would pop up over the years, such as Sega's Game Gear, Atari's Lynx, and even Tiger's own last big gaming attempt, the, but none of them would have the success of the Game Boy line. Even to this day, Nintendo's portable systems rule the market, even while their home systems fluctuate.

The Japanese version of the Super Nintendo, the Super Famicom.

Nintendo's video games success would continue, as Mr. Yamauchi presided over the release of the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo console, the Nintendo 64 console, the Game Boy Color, the Game Boy Advance, and the Nintendo Gamecube console. Nintendo's success as a company grew to the point that they actually purchased an American pro sports team, the Seattle Mariners baseball team (a landmark in American baseball, as it led to Japanese players being allowed to play in the MLB). The character of Mario became an international icon, growing in popularity and recognition even over the iconic Mickey Mouse, and Nintendo's games in general have had astounding sales success, even while the sales of some of their home consoles have fallen behind the competition at times. Of the Top 50 highest selling video games of all time, well over half of those listed are Nintendo published products, that include the likes of Mario, Zelda, Pokemon, Tetris, and Wii Sports. They have created arguably the most enduring and popular gaming brands in the history of the industry, and it's fair to say that in large part, Mr. Yamauchi "built that".

Hiroshi Yamauchi is largely known to those who follow gaming, as a man who was a strict leader, and an often ruthless businessman. And while all of that and more is true, I think it's fair to point out that he also took care of his employees, and gave men like Yokoi and Miyamoto all the credit for their creations, instead of taking it for himself as some of his contemporaries in the home gaming and computer markets have been known to do. He was not a man concerned with personal accolades, and he obviously didn't care all too much about his public image. He was concerned with the success of his family's company, and that is a part of him that most people don't realize. He apparently was deeply affected by the death of his estranged father, as upon going to his funeral, he met sisters and family that he til that time did not even know he had. He had not spoken to his father at all in his adult life, something that he deeply regretted, and as such he was a man that was committed to his own family, as well as being loyal to his employees. It's also worth noting that, upon fully stepping down from Nintendo to retire in 2005, he refused his entire pension, said to be as much as $14 million US dollars, because he felt the company could put the money to better use than in giving it to him. He also was reportedly responsible for a majority of 7.5 billion yen donated to create a new cancer treatment center in Kyoto, his home.

All in all, he was a complex man, and the details of his private life are sparse, because he was also a private man. But while he was often shrewd or even ruthless in business dealings, what is known is that the man did have a heart in private, and regardless, he deserves to be remembered as a key figure, in some respects the most prominent key figure, in the history of video games. His contributions to gaming speak for themselves, and we as gaming fans owe him much, and should honor his memory always.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Top Comedies of All Time Pt. 4

Alright, so it's time to make this Top Comedies list of mine even. Here come #16-20!

Spaceballs (1987) - Another great Mel Brooks comedy, this late 80s hit was, as you can probably tell from the poster, a spoof on, more than anything, the uber-popular Star Wars films. It also contained little bits of everything from Star Trek to Alien, and as a whole it really worked. I was kind of overexposed to this movie as a kid. My mother, who would stay with my grandmother and I from time to time, was the kind of person that would latch onto a certain movie, and want to watch it on a regular basis. So at one point in my childhood, when I was probably around 9 or 10 years old, I had to watch this and Gene Wilder's "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" over and over, so you can understand that I got kind of tired of them. It was the same way with the show "Cheers", she watched that all the time, and I got tired of it. But later in my life, I of course went back and realized that I loved all three.

Spaceballs features a pretty great all-star type of ensemble, with Mel Brooks as writer, director, producer, AND playing the President of Planet Spaceball, Skroob, as well as the loveable (and super Jewish) knockoff of Star Wars' mystic wiseman Yoda, known as Yogurt. It also featured Rick Moranis as the Darth Vader analogue, Dark Helmet (one of his best career roles). Bill Pullman stars in one of his earlier roles, as Han Solo type Lonestar, and John Candy turns in one of his own best roles as Lonestar's sidekick "Barf" (short for Barfolomew). Daphne Zenega is Princess Vespa of Planet Druidia, and her own sidekick/servant is the C3PO knockoff "Dot Matrix", voiced by Joan Rivers. There are many great cameos as well, such as Vespa's father King Roland, played by Dick Van Patten, Dom DeLuise as space mob boss "Pizza the Hut", Michael Winslow from the "Police Academy" series as a Spaceball radar tech, and even John Hurt (SPOILERS) as his character Kane from "Aliens".

The film really shines from beginning to end, one of Brooks' strongest efforts (and that's saying something).

Murder by Death (1976) - One of two Robert Moore directed films from the late 70s starring Peter Falk (the other being 1978's "The Cheap Detective"). Murder by Death is also a spoof film, of a sort, this one being a send-up to classic murder mystery novels and films. It features an ensemble cast, who each portray caricatures of famous detective or crime solving fictional icons. Peter Falk plays a hard boiled (meaning a bit of a jerk) San Francisco detective named Sam Diamond, a send-up to various such "Private I" type characters, most especially Sam Spade from the "The Maltese Falcon". Peter Sellers played "Chinese" detective Sidney Wang, a send-up of the infamous Charlie Chan character, who has an adopted Japanese son "Willie" that he is constantly berating, and he spouts out hilarious "fortune cookie" witticisms throughout the film. David Niven and Maggie Smith portray Dick and Dora Charleston, based on Nick and Nora Charles from "The Thin Man" film series. James Coco plays Milo Perrier, a spoof on Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot character, and James Cromwell plays his chauffeur. Last but not least, Elsa Lancaster (of Bride of Frankenstein fame) plays Jessica Marbles, based on another of Agatha Christie's characters "Miss Marple", with Ellie Windwood playing her senile, elderly "nurse".

The movie also features a humorous turn for Alec Guinness (Obi Wan from Star Wars) as the blind butler Jamesir Bensonmum, and a rare acting role for author Truman Capote, as the eccentric millionaire Lionel Twain, who invited them all to his home for the weekend. The story itself has a very strong "Old Dark House" vibe, as Twain has invited these famous detectives to one place to see if they can solve a murder. Twain claims that it is actually he who is the world's greatest detective, and to prove it he challenges them to solve a murder, the one who does wins $1 million dollars. Hilarity ensues, of course, with all sorts of great wordplay, and such great character actors assembled. This is a highly underrated and I fear largely unknown film, that deserves to be seen by more people. It is a genuine classic, and honestly one of the funniest films you'll ever see.

The Addams Family (1991) -  This film represents, much like Ghostbusters, one of those murky areas where it IS most definitely a comedy, but it also has elements from other genres that are strong enough to make it a bit foggy what you should call it. But at the end of the day, I suppose this one is outright silly enough that you can't really get away with calling it anything but a comedy. Based on the classic 60's TV show, as well as the original New Yorker cartoon, this movie also represents a rarity, I find at least, in the form of an adaptation of an old show that actually works and succeeds as a film. It is not exactly like it's source material, and very much has it's own flavor, yet it does also retain the spirit and essence of the old show. Few actors could probably ever match John Astin's portrayal of Gomez Addams, the family patriarch, and that makes sense, because creator Charles Addams allowed Astin to flesh out the character on his own. But if anyone could do it, it would be Raul Julia, who does an amazing job here. Anjelica Huston does an equally fine job as Morticia Addams, as does Christopher Lloyd in one of his best roles as Fester Addams. Christina Ricci plays Wednesday Addams, and Dan Hedaya plays Tully Alford, the Addams' shady family accountant. 

The film itself is truly fantastic. Director Barry Sonnenfield did an amazing job, as this might be his best film, and composer Marc Shaiman put together a very fitting score. There is plenty of singing, dancing, laughing, and Addams-ing to be had, and if you haven't seen this film, you may very well have been living under some sort of rock. I loved it as a kid, and still do. The sequel, "Addams Family Values" isn't quite as good, but the first film is a masterpiece.

Beverly Hills Ninja (1997) - I honestly love all four of Chris Farley's starring-role movies. And as I mentioned in a previous entry, as a young teenager, my best friends and I bonded, in part, over Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey and Chris Farley comedies. But to me, this one takes the cake. His two pairings with David Spade were classic, and even his last film before his death, "Almost Heroes", was a genuinely funny film. But for my money, this was his best, simply because it's so ridiculous. Plus it marries two of my favorite kinds of film: slapstick comedies and martial arts action films. Robin Shou of "Mortal Kombat" fame co-stars as his "brother" and actual ninja Gobei, and Chris Rock also features as Joey Washington, a hotel bell-boy who looks up to Farley's "Great White Ninja" character. The movie is a riot, really, as Farley bumbles his way around Los Angeles trying to "ninja" and solve a case for a beautiful woman who "hired" him in Japan, and the film really gets the balance between comedy and action just right. It's worth noting that Robin Shou is great in this, he not only displays his trademark awesome martial arts skills, but also shows that he has depth and range as an actor, as well as good comedic timing. It's really a shame that he didn't become a bigger star here in the states, as I honestly felt at one point that he was going to be the next Jackie Chan type star. All in all, this movie is arguably Farley's strongest work, and it's just a hell of a lot of fun besides.

Dumb and Dumber (1994) - If there was ever a movie that walked the line perfectly between genuinely endearing and "feel-good", as well as flat-out silly as fuck, this would be it. Hands down my favorite Farrelly Brothers film, and also probably my second-favorite Jim Carrey comedy, this film just has so much going for it, that it's hard not to like. And trust me, I've met people who just don't like it. But that's probably because they're dead inside and wouldn't know funny if it punched them in the nose. Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels star as Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne, two of the nicest, but also incredibly dumbest guys on the planet. Lloyd meets a gorgeous woman (Lauren Holly), who forgets her briefcase at the airport. So Lloyd and Harry both having lost their jobs the same day, and with nothing better to do, decide to take what little they have left, and go travel to Aspen, Colorado to find this Mary Swanson chick, so that Lloyd can return her case and hopefully win her love. Little does he know, of course, that the case holds a shitload of ransom money, and of course when the two idiots (SPOILERS) accidentally open the case and discover the money, they go about spending it all, thinking they can just "IOU" it later. This movie is full of so many memorably ridiculous scenes and quotable lines, and is another movie that if you haven't seen it, you must've been in a coma.

Without a doubt one of the funniest movies ever made, and now apparently getting a real sequel, bringing the same directors and stars (at least Carrey and Daniels) back together...all I can say is hopefully it's good.

So that fills out my personal Top 20 Comedies of All-Time. I'm gonna give the series a break, for now, but just to entice my readers, I'll go ahead and tell you that this all comes from a list I compiled recently that currently goes up to 40. So future entries will most likely happen, further down the line. As for what's next? Well who knows? But one thing is for certain.....Halloween season is right around the corner, and you can bet your boots (or whatever footwear you prefer) that you're in store for some amazing Halloween-inspired madness up ahead. Cheers!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Top Comedies of All Time Pt. 3

Round 3, ready for liftoff. Here's #'s 11-15!

Happy Gilmore (1996) - Having explained in the past my being raised by a frugal grandmother who didn't see the value in taking me to see movies in the theater, I didn't get to start really going to theaters until around 1995. That being said, "Happy Gilmore", Adam Sandler's second major picture, was one of my first theatrical comedies, along with "Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls". Some people don't like Sandler's brand of comedy (or by extension, Rob Schneider's, Chris Farley's, Norm McDonald's, etc.), because it's "sophomoric" and "immature". But really, there are many different brands of comedy, and the 90s really saw a rise in this sillier, "in your face" style of comedy, that included most of Jim Carrey's early hits. I enjoy Mel Brooks style satire, or Leslie Nielsen style word-play humor, or Monty Python style silliness as much as the next person. But I think just as there is room for Three Stooges style slapstick, so too is there room for the "grown men acting like total silly asses" style that people like Sandler made popular.

To be honest I like a great deal of Sandler's output, and I would probably even say that there are later movies of his that in many ways are better than this. But "Happy Gilmore" will always hold a special place in my heart, as it was one of the first comedies I got to see in theaters, as well as Adam Sandler and Chris Farley movies being something that my friend Brandon and I really bonded over in those early teen years. Plus, the story of a shitty hockey player going on to excel in golf, and all the rampant silliness that this movie offers, is just too good. It's a classic as much as any of the others I've listed are, and thus it deserves this spot on the list.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) - I'm sad to say that Abbott and Costello were not something that I was exposed to as a kid, nor the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, etc. I suppose my grandmother didn't appreciate/approve of their brand of humor, or something, and if she wasn't into it, especially in my early years, I didn't get to see it more often than not. I must admit that I actually didn't get into A&C until well into my adulthood (IE within the last few years). But I'm glad I finally did, because it's great. To be honest, I think I tried watching this film several years ago, and for whatever reason, at the time, I just didn't appreciate it. But upon watching it again a few years back, I guess I finally "got it".

This was one of the later in a long line of films that this classic comedy team made, in fact it was such a success that they would go on to do their own sub-series of "horror comedy" films involving Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, an Invisible Man, a mummy, etc. And of course the film buff in me feels compelled to point out that obviously the title of the film is referring to them meeting Frankenstein's creation, "The Monster", and not the doctor himself. But this film is a classic in the truest sense of the word. It features Bela Lugosi in his only other film appearance (officially) as "Count Dracula", Lon Chaney Jr. featured for the fifth and final time as his infamous "Wolf Man", and Glenn Strange's third and final appearance as "Frankenstein's Monster". Vincent Price even makes a cameo appearance (SPOILERS) near the end of the film, as the Invisible Man. The one thing this movie was missing, really, was some kind of appearance by Boris Karloff, but he wasn't available or just not interested at the time (though he would later do two films with A&C). This film truly deserves it's own full article to really explain all the things that make it so great, but it is pure gold, from start to finish.

Wayne's World (1992) - Another of those aforementioned 90s comedies, and another vehicle for one of Sandler's fellow Saturday Night Live alumni, Wayne's World is really the movie that made Mike Meyers a star. What began as a beloved skit on SNL for several years, "Wayne's World" was a public access show broadcast from Aurora, Illinois, from the basement of host Wayne Campbell's parents' house. Along with his ever-present (and ever-awkward) best friend and co-host Garth Algar, Wayne would wax not-so-philosophical about all manner of pop-media subjects, including he and Garth's love of rock and metal music. Well, this turned out to be a winning success at the box office, as director Penelope Spheeris managed to transform those skits into a living, breathing world, and it became a huge hit, spawning a 1993 sequel that was just as good. Featuring the gorgeous Tia Carrere as Wayne's dream girl, rocker Cassandra, and bad guy music producer who's trying to horn in on said girl, Benjamin Kane (played by Rob Lowe), as well as awesome appearances by the likes of Brian Doyle-Murray, Kurt Fuller, Chris Farley, Alice Cooper, Robert Patrick and Ed O'Neill. This movie is pretty much perfect from beginning to end, the cast is fantastic, the Bohemian Rhapsody scene in the "Garthmobile" is amazing. Everything just works, which is the sign of a great film. In some ways I like the sequel even better (it DOES feature Christopher Walken as the villain), but all around, kind of like Ghostbusters, the first just wins in the classic nostalgia battle.

The Cable Guy (1996) - To be honest, much like Adam Sandler, I'm a huge Jim Carrey fan, and I really love all of his big early-to-mid-90s hits. In fact Ace Ventura 2 was one of the very first movies I got to see in theaters, so that one alone certainly holds a special place for me, and I was sorely tempted to include it this high on the list instead. But when it comes down to it, while I love Ace Ventura, The Mask, Dumb & Dumber, etc., The Cable Guy just takes the cake for me. "The Truman Show" would also be a good candidate, but in some ways I don't even consider that a comedy, so it doesn't count. Ben Stiller directed this masterpiece, starring Carrey as a nutcase "cable guy" who latches onto poor milksop Steven Kovacs (played by Matthew Broderick). The film also features early appearances in the careers of guys like Jack Black and Owen Wilson. It's a lot like Wayne's World to me, in the sense that it does just about everything right, and is great from beginning to end. It's the kind of story where Carrey's character "Chip Douglas" is totally a nutbag, and you get that, yet somehow you wind up rooting for him a bit, even as he gets continually creepier in trying to insinuate himself into new "friend" Steven's life. Ben Stiller has directed some great films, such as "Zoolander" and "Tropic Thunder", but I there's a strong argument to be made that this is his best work.

Silver Streak (1976) - Another Gene Wilder film, I did of course mention before that he's one of my all-time favorites. I also mentioned that I loved his work pairing with Richard Pryor, and while I love the other three films they did together (Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Another You), I decided to add this one because it's not only the most well known, but probably also the most balanced of the bunch. It's a play on the Hitchcock mystery/thriller type of story, but the pairing of Wilder and Pryor just takes it over the top, as would be expected. Most of the film takes place on the eponymous "Silver Streak" train that is crossing the country, though Wilder hilariously meets up with Pryor one of the times that he gets thrown off by Richard Kiel (Jaws from James Bond). Wilder and Pryor's pairings were just magic, and to me all four films they did together were great simply because of the level of chemistry and comedic timing they had together. They were close friends in real life, and it really shows up in their on-screen performances together. I would highly recommend watching all four of their films together, but if you only catch one, make it "Silver Streak".

P.S. I just now noticed that this might be the worst case of "movie poster spoilers" ever. 

And that wraps it up for another installment. It's rapidly approach the time when I'll start doing Halloween inspired pieces once again, but I just might manage to fit in at least one more installment of this series beforehand. Cheers!