Friday, June 22, 2007

Now Playing: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

I have a serious man-crush on crime cinema from the 1970s. I love the genre, I love the feel of everything, I love the funky music, and I certainly love the actors. Quentin Tarantino obviously loves this genre as well considering how much he rips off pays homage to it in everything he does. There is just something about seeing how things were back then and the naturalism used by film makers at the time. There were no big ILM-generated special effects, it was simply the good guys versus the bad guys and each set would try to outwit the other. There is something refreshing about it, and I get a charge whenever I find one that I’ve never seen. Such was the case with The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

I’d heard about this film for years but never actually seen it until recently. Tarantino most famously ripped it off paid homage to it with Reservoir Dogs because this is the film where the villains are named after colors. The setup is that four men, under aliases such as Mr. Blue and Mr. Grey, take a commuter train hostage one weekday afternoon and demand $1 million in cash be delivered in exactly one hour.

The Netflix packaging confused me because it said the bad guys threatened to carve graffiti on the passengers’ heads if their demands are not met, which is bizarre because Mr. Blue quite clearly states that they’ll kill a hostage for every minute the money is late. But the authorities are puzzled because since the bad guys are trapped underground on a commuter train, they have nowhere to go even if they get the money.

In short, the movie is fantastic. Robert Shaw is terrific as Mr. Blue and he’s calm, efficient, and utterly ruthless. Shaw was great in practically everything he did and the man was unfairly taken from the world far too early. He’s a very slick villain here and he’s matched by Walter Matthau as the hilariously put-out New York Transit Authority supervisor who is guiding a tour through the Authority’s offices when the hijackers call in. He then works with the cops and the Authority to bring down the bad guys who somehow manage to stay one step ahead of everything the cops do.

It also has a genuine classic final shot and one that had me laughing my head off. Oh, and did I mention the movie is absolutely hilarious at times? Matthau gives such great gruff that even in the midst of a crisis like this he brings the funny. The cast is also filled with tons of New York character actors and it was especially amusing to see Jerry Stiller as one of the transit cops who gets roped into things.

This is one of those films that perfectly captures the look and feel of just how skuzzy New York City was back in the 1970s. Plus it has that great period music and equally great actors who seem to relish the cat-and-mouse nature of the story. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is definite viewing material if you’re even remotely a fan of the crime films of the 1970s.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Nope, PA Still Isn't Funny

In short, the point of the following commentary is that I don't think the website/comic Penny-Arcade is funny in the slightest. I'm stating this right from the outset so you know where I stand regarding their sense of humor. One, I don't think it's funny at all (I can count on one hand the number of times I've laughed at their comics) and two I think they're more than a little high on blatant thesaurus usage with their news and commentary.

Basically I think they're hugely unfunny and more than a little full of themselves. But considering their massive success I've accepted the later as a fact of life that's been earned.

The PA crew put together their own game and this month PC Gamer has five separate "collector's" covers to choose from. The caveat is that when you open the front page you'll find this editorial written by known fool Greg "The Vede" Vederman, the mag's editor-in-chief. When he was the hardware editor and even before that, Vederman repeatedly proved himself a fool so when he writes that he doesn't like PA and hopes the magazine fails so he can feel a sense of vindication it leaves a bad, albeit familiar, taste in one's mouth.

Then Scott Kurtz at PVP wrote up this response which I actually agree with. I still don't think PA is funny, but I will never begrudge them their success which is more than just financial.

Penny-Arcade's Child's Play charity has raised millions for children and for that act alone I would support their website from now to the end of eternity. In addition, their gaming expo PAX has gained such prominance in recent years that once E3 died, it was assumed PAX would take its place.

Not bad for a couple of guys who based their living on writing a web comic.

So I will say congratulations to PA for their roaring successes and I do genuinely wish them well with their game and with all future Child's Play events. But I still don't find them funny nor do I understand how anyone could.

Different strokes I guess.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Now Playing: The Venture Bros. Season 2


Season two picks up right where Season one left off, with the Venture clan not especially torn apart over the last-second deaths of sons Dean and Hank. Heck, even the opening credits star Venture patriarch Rusty along with bodyguard Brock Sampson and neighbor/necromancer Dr. Byron Orpheus. The show basically hits the ground running and the hilarity is out in full force this year.

Once the kids’ death is explained away courtesy of a side-splitting montage, the Venture clan is reunited once more and on to new adventures featuring recurring villains like Baron Underbheit, Phantom Limb, The Monarch, and dozens of other characters with classic names such as Manic Eightball, White Noise, and the mysterious Grand Galactic Inquisitor.

The fiendishly-voiced Dr. Girlfriend also returns as do HELPR, Richard Impossible and the Impossible Four (the target of one hilariously off-the-cuff snarky comment), Monarch henchmen 21 and 24, Master Billy Quizboy, Mr. White, The League, and new characters Jefferson Twilight and Dr. Henry Killinger.

Yes, the insanity continues at full speed and if one joke doesn’t make you laugh then three more will hit you in the face in the next 10 seconds.

For my money though, nothing prepared me for the hilarity of "20 Years 'Til Midnight" which introduces the famed Grand Galactic Inquisitor and kicks off with Brock finding a video tape from Rusty’s father, Jonas Venture Sr. As it turns out, Jonas Sr. stashed special equipment all around the world that must be assembled at a certain time and in a certain location or else the fate of the world would be at risk. Naturally, the specific time is a day after they watch the tape so the race is on all while under the watchful eye of the Inquisitor. I never saw the ending coming and laughed so hard at the final rant that I practically passed out.

Equally funny was the episode where Molotov (name deleted) trains the boys in the ways of hand-to-hand combat and heavy weaponry while Brock is out on assignment, although several moments in the Scooby-Doo spoof "Viva Los Muertos!" rocked the comedy scale pretty dang hard. Creator Jackson Publick has a knack for skewing about as juvenile as is possible to go, but then teeing off a home-run of a punch line at just the right moment.

The result is a gaspingly funny series that I am now convinced is the funniest thing Cartoon Network has on its schedule. The downside is that season three won’t hit the network for probably another year, with season four hitting the year after (or so). In the meantime, definitely check out this and season one if you like your comedy bizarre, fast, and furious.


Saturday, June 2, 2007

Now Playing: Gojira

The first Godzilla film hasn’t been available in the United States since it was originally released in Japan back in 1953, and the only way we’ve seen it since then was the hacked together Hollywood version starring Raymond Burr. Last year it was finally released as a two-disc DVD set with the original, uncut film on the first disc while the Hollywood version was put on the second disc. A pamphlet included in the set explains how the film was brought over to the States by a couple of producers who saw value in the monster movie appeal but decided to jettison pretty much everything else.

What stunned me was just how powerful all the excised footage was.

This revelation was akin to watching Jaws 4 for years and thinking all the rest of the films were like that, only to see the original for the first time and think, "Oooooohhhh..." Gojira was written in direct response to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in only eight years before and as such the film is a powerful commentary on the dangers of nuclear bombs. Godzilla himself is, in essence, a giant metaphor for the inescapable devastation nuclear bombs cause and I was simply floored at how bleak a film this was.

I can completely understand why American producers at the time figured that the public wouldn’t accept anything outside of a giant lizard stomping through Tokyo. The producers re-cut the film and inserted Burr to give it an American perspective that makes it an entirely different film. The American version is little more than a generic monster flick, albeit one that introduced Godzilla to the world. The uncut Japanese version though is an entirely different animal altogether and one that I, frankly, was left stunned by.

Godzilla films do not feature a terrified mother clutching her children to her as she assures them that they’ll be with daddy in heaven soon. Godzilla films do not feature incredibly cute kids sitting shell-shocked in a hospital as doctors watch helplessly as their Geiger counters spike when near the children. This is a deadly serious film that was created by people who were intimately familiar with the two dual bombings and it is a powerful anti-war and anti-nuclear message.

If you have the chance to watch the original version of Gojira then by all means do so. It is a little hokey in parts due to its age, but the message has only increased in power as nuclear weapons have proliferated across the globe. Don’t miss this.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Now Playing: Stranger Than Fiction

I’ll tell you what is truly stranger than fiction: The fact that I loved a Will Ferrell movie. Personally, I don’t find the man funny in any capacity but I was amazed at how exceptional a performance he turned in here as Harold Crick, a lonely tax auditor who starts hearing voices. Actually, he starts hearing one voice that belongs to a woman who appears to be narrating his life. It bothers him constantly, but then the voice makes the off-hand comment that events have been set in motion that would result in his death.

Naturally, he freaks out.

The narrator, as it turns out, is a novelist famed for killing off her main characters. The writer, brilliantly played by Emma Thompson, has been suffering writer’s block for a number of years and her publisher has sent an assistant, Queen Latifa, to oversee the final work. Meanwhile, Harold tracks down a literary professor (the great Dustin Hoffman) to find out what sort of story he’s in and how he can get out of dying. Harold also has to audit a neighborhood baker who is, shall we say, resistant to the idea of paying taxes.

Surprisingly, everything works in the film and the fact that I not only didn’t want to cut my own throat every time Ferrell was on screen but that I actually came to like Harold Crick speaks volumes about how good he is. Apparently, the man was born for drama which is probably why his screaming fits on SNL and his other movies never struck me as funny. He makes Crick a very lonely person who has isolated himself from enjoying what life has to offer. He’s always followed his own specific schedule and never varied from anything because he was born a rule follower. But as he begins to realize his life suddenly has an end date, albeit in a form he never expected, his eyes open up to everything he’s missed.

My Fair Lady wasn’t as big a fan of the film as I was. In her words, "It was just weird." It speaks to writers though and was very clearly written as a love letter to the craft. The commentary about how writers are all thieves stealing from each other among other things cracked me up while My Fair Lady sat on the couch emotionless.

If you’re even remotely familiar with writing novels or scripts or stories in general, then you’ll have a ton of fun watching how Crick comes to terms with the very literal nature of his own life. It’s a fantastic drama with only one truly wrong sight gag that doesn’t belong in the film. But since there is only one gag like that, and the rest of it is pure gold (especially the way they handle Crick’s fate and the emotional punch it packs), this is a film that comes highly recommended.

Now Playing: Secondhand Lions

To my dying day, I will swear that this film was undone by a weak marketing campaign and a bad (though appropriate) title. It’s a shame such an excellent film practically vanished at the box office. I remain amazed at how ultra loud, obnoxious films like Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End continually find vast oceans of unassuming film goers yet a true classic (yeah, I said it) like Secondhand Lions goes completely over looked and unrewarded.

The film follows the adventures of a young kid, played by Haley Joel Osment, who is unceremoniously dumped by his flakey mother (Kyra Sedgewick) at a farm belonging to his two distant uncles. The uncles, played by Robert Duvall and Michael Caine, are both old hell raisers who have seen better days and want to be left alone. They have no experience raising children, let alone socializing with people, yet they are constantly swarmed by both traveling salesmen and distant relatives who all want a glimpses of their treasure.

Apparently, the uncles have untold millions in riches laying about somewhere on the farm and their scheming relatives want to make sure that they are the ones who inherit the wealth, and not some know-nothing kid who was just dropped off on the farm.

What makes things fun is how the two uncles gradually take a shine to the boy. They soon realize that he’s just as much a stranger to common folk as they are and that he’s their one relative who wants absolutely nothing to do with their money. Caine eventually tells Osment stories about where they came from and what adventures they had when they were younger, and these stories are rife with imagination and adventure.

Duvall’s character is played by Angel-alum Christian Kane during these sequences and it’s amazing how charismatic he is while battling evil sheiks and thugs in the Middle East during the 1920’s. He comes off as a though the writer combined Indiana Jones with Conan the Barbarian. The result is a series of adventures that are bigger than life, and Osment knows it when he hears them. But he decides to run with it to get to the end of the tale, which proves to be a harder ending than he expected. In the meantime, he learns how to stand up for himself and be a man.

This is an absolutely wonderful film about how family is what you make of it, and how the choices people make tend to echo through several generations. If you haven’t had the chance to see this yet then it is highly recommended.