Monday, August 31, 2015

Top Favorite Movies of All Time Pt. 1

So I've done this before, in multiple installments actually, for my Top Comedies of All Time. I covered about 20 in total in that genre, and I could easily have gone on to cover 30 or more. I also just last year capped off the Christmas season with a Top Christmas Movies list. It is entirely probable that at some point down the road, I will make similar articles dealing with my favorite Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Animated, etc. type movies. But for now, I'm going to cover a much broader, but in some ways much more difficult topic: my top favorite movies of all time, in ANY genre.

My criteria for any "best ever" is simple. Just as it was for my Favorite Video Games list, for movies it's largely based on the simple principle of "I can sit down and watch it at almost any time". With games, of course, that translated more to "I can sit down and play this any time", or at least games I've played many, many times over because of how much I love them. Well, it's not much different for movies. Films I've considered my absolute favorites have certainly changed over my life, as with many things. There was a time in my late teens when I considered my favorite movie of all time to be Dragonheart, and to be perfectly fair, that is still one of my's just not anywhere in the Top 10 anymore, or likely even the Top 20. Similarly, Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment in his (not nearly as awful as the later Hobbit films would be) Lord of the Rings trilogy, I considered for a brief time to be my favorite movie of all time. I think, in that particular case, I was just more enamored at the time with seeing The Lord of the Rings represented competently (though in hindsight not as great as they COULD have been), in live action cinema.

But much like my favorite games list, in my "older age", I think I have settled upon what my TOP favorite movies of all time are, and likely shall remain, certainly at least the Top Five or Six, which are pretty well set in stone by now. So without further exposition, let's get down to business.

Favorite Comedy, Favorite Movie Period.

1. Young Frankenstein (1974) - I already described why this was my favorite movie of all time in my Top Comedies entry, but I'll elucidate a bit further here. As I've said, my "favorite movie ever" has jumped around quite a bit from my early childhood until right now. I'm quite certain that at a certain age in the late 1980s, my favorite film of all time was The Land Before Time, because I was obsessed with dinosaurs at that age, and Don Bluth's 80s output was mind-blowing. At certain other points, I'm sure my favorite movie floated around from perhaps a Godzilla film, to Dragonheart, to whatever. But I eventually decided, through deep introspection and deductive reasoning, that Mel Brooks' quintisential classic, and quite frankly masterpiece, was my top movie ever.

There is absolutely nothing NOT good about this film.

To be perfectly honest, I think that Young Frankenstein might just be my favorite movie of all time, because it is, at least in this man's humble opinion, quite possibly THE perfect film, as in the most perfect film ever crafted. Why, you ask? And how could I possibly make such a claim? Well, it's simple really. The problem that you run into with many horror and comedy films alike, is that these genres really rely strongly on the aspect of the unknown, they count on you not knowing what's coming and thus being able to surprise you, to elicit either fear or laughter. Once you've seen many horror or comedy films that first time, the surprise is over, you know what happens, you know what's coming, so while you may still like it, the impact is dulled. It likely may very well never be anywhere near as scary or as funny as the first time you saw it. But with Young Frankenstein, it is a perfectly concocted, perfectly blended mix of both. It IS, in certain ways, at least a loving tribute to the classic golden age of horror. And it IS, most certainly, a comedy, one of the highest order in fact. It is arguably, as I've stated in that other article, Mel Brooks' and Gene Wilder's finest work, as they collaborated on the project completely, and it was Wilder's brainchild.

But again, where a great many comedy or horror films lean heavily on their laughs or chills, they also often lack much outside of those  key elements. That is not true with this masterpiece, however. It is, in my view, the perfect film, because it is such a finely tuned and lovingly crafted mixture of so many things. It is a love letter to classic horror and comedy films, but a strong story in its own right, with fantastic writing by Wilder, superb acting by pretty much everyone involved, even the small cameo roles, and it is without a doubt Mel Brooks' finest work in a legendary portfolio of films. It stands strong in repeated viewings because of all of these things, and more. It's just, at the end of the day, a damn good movie, and I can literally put it on at any time, and enjoy it, and be entertained by it.

Many movies I would get tired or even sick of, and certainly have to be in a "mood" to want to watch them. But while I have not tried to test the extreme limit of my love for this film, and likely wouldn't, I really can just watch it any old time. And it never stops being good, and it never stops being funny, or charming, or giving me that almost indescribable, warm fuzzy feeling inside when you partake in something you really, genuinely love. So yep......that is why Young Frankenstein is, without a shadow of a doubt, and shall forever remain, my number one favorite movie of all time.

"Puttin' on the Ritz!"

It doesn't have poster art, but this looks awesome anyway.

2. The Hobbit (1977) - I will state, for the record, in a moment of what I suppose could be construed as "movie snobbery", that it genuinely makes me sad that what most people now know as "The Hobbit", are the stretched out, overly long, 50%+ worth of filler content, "we like money so let's stretch what by all rights should have been one film into three, and stuff in a ton of completely made up bullshit because why not" Peter Jackson films that released in recent years. It makes me sad because The Hobbit is one of my favorite stories of all time. It is something that holds a very special place in my heart, from my childhood. It was something that was read to me when I was too small too read. It was something I read myself when I was old enough, and it was a world in general, this Middle Earth, that I totally loved growing up. Part of that, and certainly not at all a small part, was the 1977 television production of The Hobbit, which I watched countless times throughout my childhood years.

"The Greatest Adventure is what lies ahead...."

It was produced by Rankin/Bass, a company most known for their holiday specials, most notably their classic stop-motion adaptation of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But they also did their fair share of non-holiday fare, including many fantasy offerings, such as this, the 1980 sequel The Return of the King, and their later 80s films The Last Unicorn and Flight of Dragons. And while the character art specifically, might strike one right off the bat as "odd", as it was handled by animators that would largely later be responsible for Rankin/Bass shows like Thundercats and Silverhawks (in fact you can tell, because the Goblins in these movies look very much like the minion monsters in Thundercats), it's also a very signature look. And what's more, as you can see from the promo shot above, the production crew took great care to model the look of Middle Earth and it's landscapes, directly off of illustration work that Tolkien did himself. Everything in this film, from Hobbiton, to Mirkwood, to the Lonely Mountain, look very much how Tolkien himself drew them.

"Down, down to Goblin Town..."

But beyond looks and aesthetics, this adaptation, in my humble opinion, kicks the shit out of the bloated, grotesque crap that Jackson, who did an alright job with the previous Lord of the Rings films, just pooped out for money's sake, because it manages to cover in it's meager "for television" 77 minutes, all of the key points of the book. And while it certainly leaves some things out (for that matter, with something like 9 hours of total film, and ALL the ridiculous shit they just made up, Jackson's films ALSO still left some key things out), it still manages, by a country mile, to be far more accurate and true to Tolkien's actual work. Yes, Gollum looks "weird", "frog-like", whatever the Japanese animators decided to make him look like....but you know what? He also looks awesome, and for my money, this cartoon features THE best Gollum performance, in no small part due to the fact that the voice actor, Brother Theodore, is just flat out fantastic and owns the role. John Huston is also an awesome Gandalf the Grey, Orson Bean shines as Bilbo Baggins, and everyone else, from the 13 dwarves to Elrond to the dragon Smaug himself, are performed beautifully.

The film was made as a family film, and features (as many of Rankin/Bass' productions did) songs throughout the film, but the fact of the matter is that outside of the opening theme song ("The Greatest Adventure", a great song performed by folk singer Glenn Yarbrough), all of the songs in the film are songs directly from the Hobbit book itself, which was chock full of songs, poems and riddles. But even so, being a "family film", it holds little back, with very real danger, war, death, and everything else you could imagine from this epic fantasy tale. It's full of fun and whimsy, like the book, but like the book it's also full of some very dark moments. And all in all, very similarly to Young Frankenstein, the reason it's my second favorite film of all time, and I can watch it pretty much any time, is because it least in my opinion, pretty close to perfect. The only conceivable way it could have been better, is if it had been a bit longer, and included a few more things from the book, such as Beorn the shapechanger, or the talking Ravens, or the Arkenstone. But even without those things, most everything from the book is represented, and represented well. I loved Tolkien's world growing up, but it's fair to say that I may very well have not loved it AS much, if it had not been for the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings cartoons, which built up and cemented that love.

THIS will always be Thorin and Company to me.

One of the most bad ass movie posters of all time.

3. Big Trouble in Little China (1986) -  I may or may not have yet quite gotten around, in this blog of mine, to professing my love for one John Carpenter, but it should be stated here, if it hasn't before, that he is absolutely one of my top favorite directors of all time (a topic that deserves an article of it's own someday, both on him, and on my fav. directors). I don't love every one of his films, by any means, but I at least like most of them, and a good handful of them, I genuinely love. And Big Trouble in Little China, more than any of his other works, I love the most of all.

"You know what ol' Jack Burton says at at time like this...."

It's another of those films that kind of just has a bit of everything. It's a modernized "western" story. It's a martial arts/action flick. It's a fantasy film. It's a comedy. Just as (bad ass) sorcerer Egg Shen states in the film, it's just like Asian buffet, you take what you like and leave the rest. Perhaps one of the best aspects to the film, is that in all of it's tongue-in-cheek comedic moments and over the top "80s" styling at times, it is also steeped in respect for not only Chinese culture and mythology (many elements from the story, such as Lo Pan, come from actual Chinese legends), but also martial arts, with Carpenter loading the cast with mostly real martial artists, and some serious choreography. The film, in a way, is a love letter to 70s Hong Kong "Shaw Bros." type movies, and the rest is just filled to the brim with John Carpenter awesomeness. This movie has so many little things going on, that even though you can totally just sit back, "turn your brain off" and enjoy the ride, upon repeated viewings, there is just so much going on that you still notice little things here and there, years later. Ultimately, there is just so much packed into this awesome little film, from memorable, snappy dialogue, to great action, to pure (but great) ridiculousness, that it just lends itself to watching it time and time again.

The Three Storms.

They're Ready to Believe You

4. Ghostbusters (1984) - As a kid, I loved The Real Ghostbusters cartoon, or what I was able to see of it. And while it wasn't totally cannon to the films, I like to think it is. Once I finally got to see the two live action movies in my teens, my love for all things ghost-busting was further cemented, and over time this movie has revealed itself to be one of those that I can watch just about any time. As I mentioned in the comedy article, I honestly really love Ghostbusters II just about as much as the first, it's really just a "five years later" continuation of the first movie, just "the further adventures of", and while it was a sequel that certainly never needed to get made, I'm glad it was, for several reasons. But really, as I also said in that article, the reason that the first, original film gets in on the top lists over the sequel, is that it IS the original. They're both really good, but the first just has that was a complete package, and another fairly "perfect" type of film. Which is likely why a little passion project that Aykroyd and Co. didn't expect to turn into much, became not only one of the signature hits of the 80s, but a cultural phenomenon that included the cartoon, toys, clothes, Halloween costumes, you name it. And let's not forget the super catchy Ray Parker Jr. theme song, that I used to rock out to at the skating rink as a kid.

This is just a finely tuned mix of humor, science fiction, horror, mysticism, great special effects that still stand up to this day, a cool soundtrack, and "New York Charm". The players involved, again even the minor roles, were all memorable and acted with enthusiasm, and it shows. It was just a really great, novel concept, that exploded into a deserved mega-hit. It's just too bad that Mr. Bill Murray, whom I love as an actor, but sometimes kind of hate also, putzed around for so many years, never signing off on doing a third film, until the point that now, poor Harold Ramis has passed away, and they're doing what is sure to be a god awful "Chickbusters" reboot that I, as a longtime fan, want nothing at all to do with. Alas.....we'll always have the two classics that did get made.

RIP Harold Ramis (Egon Spengler)

Pure Harryhausen

5. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) - I already professed my love for and paid tribute to the man himself shortly after he passed away, but it bears repeating that Ray Harryhausen was one of the things/people that had a huge influence on me growing up. Seeing his old films really fired up my imagination as a kid, and gave me a deeper appreciation for not only monsters and mythology, but also the special effects wizardry that he used to bring those things to life in his movies. I was fortunate enough to see the majority of his films on television, mainly on TNT's MonsterVision, and I loved them all. But this is the one I kept coming back to the most, not only because I owned it on VHS tape as a kid, but even into adulthood, and owning his catalog on DVD, this is still the one that I can pop in at pretty much any time and watch it. There are films he did later that were technically more impressive or epic, such as Jason and the Argonauts or Clash of the Titans, but to me, this film was a perfect balance of elements, and had a little bit of everything. It has perfect pacing, a wonderful and catchy score by Bernard Herrmann, great turns as Captain Sinbad, Princess Parisa and the sorcerer Sokurah by Kerwin Matthews, Katherine Grant and Torin Thatcher, and of course the great stop-motion work by Ray himself. But beyond even that, it just tells a good, succinct story and it plays out like a great, classic fairy tale, more so than the later Sinbad movies, which is precisely how it should feel, as the Sinbad stories were basically fairy tales, of magic and high adventure.

I clearly remember the first time I saw this as a child, I was in awe. Not just of the spectacle, but of the story and everything it encompassed. A kind genie that longs only to be set free, a demon sorcerer who will stop at nothing to command the genie's power, great monster cyclops who guard this great, mysterious island full of treasures, an engaged couple trying to avert their countries going to war, and a treacherous crew of criminals, all things that add layers to the story. It could have easily just come off as hokey 1950s Hollywood cheese. But it's played pretty straight, even with all of it's fantastical elements, and it just works. I also clearly remember the climactic battle between the dragon and the cyclops near the end of the story, and seeing it for the first time, while I thought the cyclopses were cool, I was rooting for that dragon. I've always been a dragon guy, which is probably why I fell in love with Godzilla.

It helps that the dragon is just bad ass looking, even without wings.

And that covers my Top 5. I was going to do a full Top 10 in this one article, but as usual I always have plenty to say (in fact I still had to reign myself in) about just these movies, and it took a long time to get even this far. Plus it gets a bit murkier to suss out just what should go on the list the further I get into it. In the interest of writing more regularly, I'm going to endeavor to fill out the list even more. Til then, enjoy, and don't forget to take the time to think up your own "Favorite Movies Ever" lists. If you have trouble, just remember, the most important thing to consider, when trying to think of what exactly your favorite movies of all time are, is to consider not just how often you can watch them, but also how these movies make you feel. For me personally, just these Top 5 here alone, yes I can watch each of them pretty much any time, but it goes deeper than that. These movies make me feel good when I watch them....they put a smile on my face, not just when I watch them, but even times like now, when I'm just thinking about them.

If you can find movies that make you smile and feel better just thinking about them, without even having to actively watch them, then I think you've found good candidates. Cheers.

You can read the second part to this article here, covering my Top Films 6-10.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Silver Screen Stories: They Live

In honor of the fact that legendary pro wrestler and actor "Rowdy" Roddy Piper passed away at the fairly young age of 61 on July 31st, 2015, I thought it would be a good time to do an article on a John Carpenter film. Particularly, the Carpenter film that Roddy Piper famously starred in in the late 80s, called "They Live". I was going to get around to doing an article on it someday anyway, but now is as good a time as any. It seems that we've lost so many famous people in the last couple months, from Piper, to actress Mary Ellen Trainor, to wrestler Dusty Rhodes, to famous game programmer and late Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata, and as my last article covered, the last great horror icon, Sir Christopher Lee. I honestly thought about doing a retrospective on the career of Iwata as well, seeing as he created one of my top five favorite games of all time, Kirby's Adventure (with designer Masahiro Sakurai), but Christopher Lee died right around the same time, and I didn't want to fill up my blog with a series of obituary pieces. But with Roddy, because he starred in a great film by one of my all-time favorite directors, I figured I could make the article more about the movie, while also paying tribute to the man who made the movie such a classic. Two birds, one stone.

His future's so terrifying, he's gotta wear shades. Sorry, had to.

While not in any of my personal "top" lists, as John Carpenter made one of my Top 10 favorite films of all time (Big Trouble in Little China), and also probably my favorite modern horror film of all time (The Thing), They Live still stands out as one of Carpenter's stronger works, especially because for him, at the time of it's production, it was more of a passion project than anything. After the tragically low box office success of arguably his best work (Big Trouble), mainly due to big studio sabotaging of a sort, Carpenter decided he had had enough of dealing with bigger budget movies and big studios for a while, and decided to scale things back. For his next few films, he went for smaller budget, more "indie" style films, the kind that made him famous in the 70s. The first of which was a very dark, apocalyptic number called Prince of Darkness, which while okay, is hardly anywhere on even my Top 100 list. But then he set about making what would become They Live, and the rest is history.

The subliminal mantra of the film.

Much as he had done with 1982's The Thing, Mr. Carpenter decided to adapt something that had been based on both an older short story, as well as a comic book adaptation of said story. In this case, he took the 1963 short story by Ray Nelson, "Eight O'Clock in the Morning", which had also been adapted into an anthology piece in the sci-fi comic Alien Encounters, in a story called "Nada". The basic gist of the story, and thus of the movie, is a man who "wakes up" to the reality that the world is not what we think it is, and that the society we think we've built all on our own, was actually the construct of alien overlords who herd and control us for their own gain. Hence the mantra "They Live, We Sleep". Carpenter had featured far more subtle hints of satire and social commentary in previous films, especially his infamous cult hit Escape From New York, but by the time of the late 80s, it was obvious that he had reached a far more cynical place, personally, largely due to the frustrations he had endured with some of his 80s films and the headache of dealing with the big Hollywood machine. Because in They Live, all subtleties are purposefully dropped, and much like the nameless protagonist of the film, he just goes after our often shallow and absurd society, both barrels, guns blazing.

The infamous scene, the infamous line.

But to make such a film really work, you need one specific ingredient that even a great premise or great writing cannot help, and that is the specifically right lead actor to really bring the story to life. And there was no other "right" actor for this story, for this part, than Roddy Piper. Born Roderick Toombs in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1954, by the mid-80s, thanks to the media craze of Vince McMahon Jr.'s World Wrestling Federation, their hit event "Wrestlemania", and the MTV-fueled "Rock n Wrestling" phenomenon (which paired icons like Hulk Hogan and Mr. T with pop stars like Cindi Lauper), Piper was at the height of his mainstream popularity. Meaning that if he was ever going to make the jump to film, there was no better time than the late 80s, to "strike while the iron was hot". The fact was, Roddy was well known in the world of wrestling for his mouth, and more importantly his ability to just riff on people and go off the cuff, coming up with memorable lines. And that is precisely what John Carpenter got when he cast him, as he let Piper ad-lib many of his own lines, which led to some pure gold, including the line from the infamous scene pictured above: "I've come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubble gum." Co-Star Keith David and some of the supporting cast absolutely do their part to make this film memorable, but the film simply wouldn't have WORKED the way it does, wouldn't have the same feel or energy, without Piper in the lead role.

"But you....real fuckin' ugly".

The foundation of the story, as the movie adaptation tells it, is that a small group of scientists accidentally discovered a TV signal that is being broadcast that makes us all blind to both the fact that there are rather ugly aliens (as seen above) living all about us, but also that our society is rife with subliminal messages and commands, from these very aliens, meant to influence and control us. The main character, called only "Nada" in the credits, but going entirely unnamed in the film itself, as portrayed by Roddy Piper, accidentally runs across these scientists and special sunglasses they've crafted, which allow people to see the truth that is being hidden from us all. A homeless drifter just looking for a chance at pay for an honest days work, "Nada" meets up with Keith David's character, Frank, after getting a temporary job working on a construction site. Frank leads him back to a make-shift homeless community (never stated, but likely somewhere in Los Angeles), where he eventually snoops around in an abandoned church across the street and discovers the subversive group and their glasses. The camp and the church get mysteriously attacked by an extreme overkill police force, and Nada later comes across one lone remaining box of these glasses, and hides them, taking one pair for himself.

Putting them on, with no way of knowing what will occur, his whole world becomes shattered as he quickly discovers he can "see" things that are completely hidden from everyone else's sight, such as the fact that our American paper money secretly bears the words "This Is Your God". Realizing that everything he's known and been told is largely a lie, he understandably goes a bit nuts, going on a rather mad, surreal escapade for awhile, that includes the semi-infamous scene where he enters the bank and spouts the pure gold line about ass-kicking and chewing gum.

Nada gains a partner.

One of the highlights of the movie, is a ridiculous, well rehearsed, but also highly ad-libbed nearly six minute fight scene between Nada and Frank, after Nada decides that he needs someone else to see what he sees, so he won't be the only one, as for all he knows the scientists who created them might be dead. The fight isn't some piece of Bruce Lee martial arts magic, but it IS highly entertaining, and the two actors really put their all into it. The humor and awesomeness of it, not to spoil too much, stems from the fact that the fight just.....keeps....going.

Two bad-ass mother-fuckers.

While drifting away from spoiling too much of the plot for folks who haven't seen this gem, needless to say, shit gets even crazier the further the movie goes along. Which is exactly how you want a surreal story like this to go. Not only does Carpenter, as usual for him, maintain a nice pacing that ramps up gradually as the adventure builds momentum, but the "wise-cracking nutcase and grounded realist" duo of Piper and David really carry the movie along. Nobody would have worked for the lead role anywhere near as well as Roddy Piper, to be sure, but to give credit where it's due, few people could have worked AS well as his "serious" counterbalance as Keith David does, with Carpenter having written the part specifically for him, wanting someone who could hold their own and not just be a run of the mill "sidekick".

Not quite as scary or cerebral as his horror classics like Halloween, The Fog, or The Thing, nor quite as outright drenched in crazy and awesome as Big Trouble or the Escape movies, They Live still stands on it's own as a great piece of work, and more importantly, stands on it's own as a very unique type of film, not only a strong sci-fi/thriller, but also one of the most potent, while still quirky and entertaining, stabs at the absurdity and often outright awfulness of American corporate and pop culture. While Roddy featured in many more films during his life, They Live also stands alone as the best work he ever did in that medium, because it's not just a "cult hit", but a genuine classic.

They so need to make a Metal Slug type They Live video game....

As stated at the beginning of this article, Roddy Piper passed away in late July 2015, in his sleep from a heart attack. It was incredibly unfortunate all around, as he had survived a bout with cancer, and was survived by his wife, children, and grandchildren. He spent much of his time alone with that family, on his property near Portland, Oregon, where I myself was born. He loved that area, and by all reports loved his family even more. He accomplished a lot in his life, and was a lot of things to a lot of people, including a hero to his many fans. But to his closest friends and family, I'm sure he was something even more important: simply a good human being. He is another that "died too young", and he surely will be missed. So if you've never seen They Live, then do yourselves a favor, fire it up, enjoy the fun, ridiculous ride it takes you on, and honor the memory of one of the most purely memorable entertainers to ever grace our screens.

RIP "Hot Rod", 1954-2015