"This is when they really knew how to make not action movies, but suspense movies."
URBANA — As a 10-year-old, Patton Oswalt would watch "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" on TV — repeatedly.
He remembers it seemed to be on every other Sunday, and seeing it over and over allowed him to "notice little things about it."
"It's a great movie," he said Tuesday night before going on the Foellinger Auditorium stage to introduce it to 300 people, most of them University of Illinois students who welcomed him with applause, whistles and cheers.
But first, the actor, stand-up comedian and writer who's in town as a guest of Roger Ebert's Film Festival told a few jokes.
"Thank you, guys, so much for coming out on a Tuesday night," he said. "I looked at the bulletin board at the Illinois (sic) Union and there's so much happening this evening — like a papier-mache making thing and there's a bird on the Quad to look at."
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Then the self-described film geek struck a more serious note, turning his attention to the movie at hand, about a group of criminals taking hostage for ransom the passengers of a New York City subway car.
"This is when they really knew how to make not action movies, but suspense movies," Oswalt said of the 1974 release. "This is so ridiculously suspenseful. The villain played by Robert Shaw is so frightening and on top of it. He's eight steps ahead of everyone one, like Hans Gruber in 'Die Hard.'"
"The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" offers a great portrait of New York City in the early '70s, he said, one so gritty that the audience will want to take a bath afterward.
"Everybody's reaction (to the hostage situation) is like 'What?' Especially watching how the mayor deals with the situation is so funny and probably real."
To inform himself more about the flick he planned to show here, Oswalt called Jerry Stiller this past week "and asked him a lot of questions."
Stiller plays a police lieutenant in the movie.
"All of his lines are improvised," Oswalt told the audience, leading one young woman to gasp, "Wow."
Indeed, Oswalt appreciates so much the '74 version of "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three" that he didn't see the 2009 remake, starring Denzel Washington in the role that Walter Matthau originated, that of the frumpy New York police lieutenant in charge of the hostage crisis.
"Walter Matthau seemed so incompetent," Oswalt told Ebertfest director Nate Kohn before the screening at Foellinger. "He didn't seem like the guy who could handle the situation. Denzel Washington — you can't believe him as being frumpy. They should have gotten Paul Giamatti or somebody totally out of his element."
Oswalt actually is here in town with another movie, "Young Adult," starring himself and Charlize Theron; it will be shown at 9 p.m. Thursday at the Virginia Theatre as part of Ebertfest, a special event of the UI College of Media.
In it, Theron plays a divorced, 37-year-old ghost writer of young adult novels who returns to her small Minnesota hometown to try to rekindle her romance with a high school boyfriend, whose wife just had a baby.
Oswalt plays one of her former high school classmates who befriends her though she barely remembers him.
"I'm flattered that I got to be in such a great movie and that they want to show it here," Oswalt told The News-Gazette on Tuesday night.
He's also glad to be here: Oswalt was set to appear at the 2012 Ebertfest with "Big Fan," in which he plays the title character of a hard-core New York Giants fan who is beaten up by his favorite player after he and his friends follow him to a nightclub.
At the time, Oswalt was in Iceland on the set of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," starring Ben Stiller. It rained on set and to make up the lost time, Oswalt had to stay.
"I was bummed out," he told The News-Gazette. "I was in Iceland and I couldn't make it."
When he accepted that Ebertfest invitation, Oswalt set the condition that he be allowed to show UI students the classic movie "Kind Hearts and Coronets," a 1949 black comedy starring Alec Guinness.
His goal in showing movies to young people, he said, is to show them that seeing a film with a lot of people changes the experience.
He doesn't host campus screenings often. He mentioned he once showed "Blade: Trinity," the 2004 vampire superhero action film starring Wesley Snipes, at Harvard. Oswalt, who plays Hedges in the movie, sat through that screening with a "live mic" to comment on the action as it unfolded, and on how the scenes were shot.
"It was a terrible movie, and it was really fun to watch it that way," he said.
Besides being an actor and stand-up comedian — considered one of the best of his generation — Oswalt writes and is a voice actor.
He voiced Remy in the animated hit "Ratatouille." Another role for which he's known: Spencer Olchin in the TV sitcom "The King of Queens."
Oswalt recently released his newest comedy album, "Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time." Now he's taking time off — he has nothing on his work schedule for the next two months.
"I'm a happy blank right now," he quipped.