Marvel Double Feature: Avengers Age Of Ultron & Ant-Man

avengers the age of ultronRight off the bat, I’ll admit that I did not actually watch Avengers: Age Of Ultron and Ant-Man as a true double feature. We probably watched the latter a month ago and just peeped the former yesterday. But, since I didn’t write about the Avengers sequel, it seemed liked a proper time.

I went into Joss Whedon’s Ultron with fairly low expectations. It seemed like a lot of the people I follow on Twitter and actually communicate with weren’t super into it. The general feeling I was picking up on seemed to be that, while it’s got all kinds of spectacle, it didn’t live up to the original.

And that was my experience as well, but then again, this is a different kind of blockbuster super hero movie. The original — which I love — seemed custom built to show that all of these series-leading, mega stars could come together, fight the bad guys and look good doing it. Meanwhile, this film seemed built with a different goal in mind: showing how said group (plus new members) can work together even when times are tough.

It’s also clearly a bigger piece of the Marvel Cinematic Universe puzzle leading up to Captain America: Civil War and the Infinity War movies. To me as a viewer, the first felt like it was worked into the bigger tale while this one was more obviously built to lead to something else. This is something I’m not usually a fan of in comics and even less so in comic films and it all just boils down to a feeling I get while watching.

And yet, I still found myself enjoying this darker take on team superheroics. Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and Vision all make interesting additions to not just the team, but the universe at large. Plus, it’s not all dark. I could watch an entire TV series about the Avengers hanging out like they did at that party. I also just adore James Spader (as I mentioned here) so watching and listening to his take on the killer robot Ultron was a treat as he’s basically Blacklist‘s Raymond Reddington but crazy and a robot.

I think that the problem with this movie as related to the first one comes down to this fact: I don’t want to rewatch it a bunch. I probably could have sat through another showing of Whedon’s first Avengers film right after the first one and even stop flipping or pop in for a few minutes every time I see it on TV. I don’t see that happening here. In other words, it’s not nearly as fun as the first one, which it clearly wasn’t supposed to be, but it’s still a bummer.

ant-man posterAnt-Man is far from a bummer, though, which is great. I admit, my feelings towards these movies have been a bit tainted by elements from beyond the movies themselves. I’m not sure how I feel about every single film moving forward painting towards this gigantic epic that will end Phase Three. I love the inter-connectivity between these films, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I want them all to be about this one big thing leading forward.

And then I watched Ant-Man and it felt like a nice step away from all that intergalactic craziness to just tell the story of a few people trying their best to not make the world a worse place. I love the approach of using this intelligent thief to wear a potentially fatal suit in an attempt to stop tech from ruining the world. It’s perfectly comic book-y, but also fits in so well with this universe and Paul Rudd just kills it. I also really enjoyed watching Michael Douglas who seemed to break the rule that every old dude in a Marvel Studios movie turns out to be bad. Oh, and how fun is Michael Pena? And how bad ass is Lilly? More of both of them please! Basically, everything came together to give me a beautiful mix of heist and hero that gets a major thumbs up from this guy.

However, all respect to director Peyton Reed who did a great job, but I still wish we would have been able to see Edgar Wright’s version of this film which we reported on all the way back in the days of Wizard and ToyFare. Yes I bet it would have been an amazing movie, but it more so bums me out that a relatively slow filmmaker like Wright spent ALL that time on a movie that just didn’t happen. He’s got such an amazing vision for what he makes that I want him to make all the movies he can and this felt like a major entanglement that resulted in a great vision for Ant-Man, but not a full-on Edgar Wright movie.

And, yes, I still remain a bit nervous about Marvel tying up too many of their films to Infinity War, but then I must remind myself that Guardians Of The Galaxy did a great job of incorporating some of that into its movie and this one basically skips over all of that. Back to what I was saying above, it feels like Ant-Man is its own thing that will get incorporated into the larger goings-on of the MCU instead of the other way around. I like that and as long as that’s the way these things go, I’ll keep enjoying them.

Rebel Highway Double Feature: Jailbreakers & Runaway Daughters

jailbreakersA few weeks back I was looking around on Netflix Instant and saw the poster for a Shannen Doherty/Antonio Sabato Jr. movie called Jailbreakers from 1994 that looked very 90s Miramax. Even with all that going for it, it wasn’t the kind of movie I immediately wanted to watch until I looked at the director and saw that it was directed by William “The Exorcist” Friedkin! That was such a bonkers combination that I needed to check it out.

While reading the IMDb trivia page for this movie — something I can’t seem to go 10 minutes without doing after starting anything — I discovered that it was actually part of an anthology series on Showtime called Rebel Highway. The basic idea was to take the title of an old American International Pictures teen movie from the 50s and 60s, give it to a director and have them make a more gritty film with a cast of young up-and-comers. Each project had a $1.3 million budget and 12 days to shoot. Sounds like a pretty rad experiment to me!

So how are the results? Well, not so great in the case of Jailbreakers which suffered from two major problems for me. First off, there wasn’t a frame of this movie that looked like it was from the time period of the story. Actually, that’s not quite the case. More accurately, there isn’t a frame of this film that doesn’t scream, “I was made in the mid 90s!!!” It’s just got that dull look of TV movies from the 90s that, no matter how good your costumes or set dressing are, look like the time it was made in instead of the time it’s supposed to be. I can chalk that up to the low budget and pay cable quality of the day.

The second problem is more, well, problematic and it leads in to the part where I talk about the plot. Doherty plays a high school kid named Angel who was a good girl up until she met Antonio Sabato Jr.’s Tony, a bad boy biker. The two start getting into trouble which leads to them getting caught by the cops. Tony goes to jail while Angel moves with her parents to another town where they don’t know anything about her mistakes. Tony eventually gets out and reunites with Angel only to realize he might be more than just a little bad. Sound familiar? Yeah, it was pretty familiar to me too and hit a ton of notes that I’ve seen before. And, aside from a great performance by Adrien Brody, the tried and true elements don’t get much of a boost from this particular group of actors.

runaway daughters

I had a much better time with another Rebel Highway offering, Runaway Daughters. This one features Paul Rudd and Julie Bowen, though they’re not really the stars 0f this film directed by the always awesome Joe Dante. In this case Mary (Holly Fields) winds up getting together with two of her girlfriends Angie (Bowen) and  Laura (Jenny Lewis who was in The Wizard!) and driving to San Diego in order to grab Bob (Chris Young, PCU), Mary’s baby daddy before he can officially enlist in the army. Along the way they find themselves dealing with crooked cops, crazy preppers and a variety of other problems.

While Jailbreakers took an old story and just did it again with more cursing and violence, Runaway Daughters actually used the framework of this kind of story to get into some actual social commentary. Throughout the film, Laura talks about how ridiculous it is that society shuns young women for having sex when it’s a natural thing. We’re mostly told by TV and film that everyone in the 50s was a buttoned-up square, but that’s a myth. There were plenty of people looking at the norms and realizing some of them were silly.

Plus, while this movie looks the same as Jailbreakers, it does boast a more interesting story and a much better cast. Rudd doing his best James Dean or Marlon Brando impression is a lot of fun. Then you’ve got Bowen playing the instigator perfectly, Dick Miller as a grizzled but also somewhat socially conscious private detective and even appearances by Roger Corman and Joe Flaherty. And those are just the people I recognized. This might be the least Joe Dante movie I’ve ever seen, but it was still an enjoyable outing that adds a nice layer to his filmography. 

80s Odyssey: Mac And Me (1988)

I owe Paul Rudd one. I was watching Conan one day last week (Thursday, maybe) and Rudd was on to promote his upcoming movie Our Idiot Brother, a movie I’m actually really looking forward to seeing. The interview went well with laughs being had all around and then, when they threw to the clip of the flick, instead we got a clip of a kid in a wheel chair falling off a cliff into a lake and then a weird alien popping up on the screen. It was from an 80s E.T.-esque flick called Mac and Me. Apparently, Rudd has pulled this gag a number of times on Conan’s various shows.

While I had never seen M&M as a kid, I do remember the poster from various video stores growing up. A few months back, when I was on a huge 80s movie kick, I added it to the top of my Netfllix Instant queue and eventually got to it. (Speaking of which, I just realized I never got around to writing about Littler Monsters, which was actually a fun, weird and original movie.) The film has been panned for being an E.T. ripoff (which it is in many ways) and for being drenched in product placement (also true), but I thought it had a kind of quirky charm that kept my attention throughout the movie’s 95 minutes.

Here’s the story. A family of aliens are hanging out on their planet which is pretty desolate when a NASA probe lands and literally vacuums them up. Unaware of this, NASA brings a family of aliens back to Earth who promptly escape with the youngest hopping into a family’s minivan. The alien, dubbed Mac, winds up revealing himself to the kids (a younger brother in a wheelchair and the older one played by Douglas from Charles in Charge!), but the mom doesn’t believe them. Eventually the neighbor girls get involved as well and the kids head off to the desert with Mac to find his family who aren’t doing so well.

The E.T. comparisons are impossible to ignore. From the single mom with two boys to the scene where government guys are chasing kids on wheeled vehicles (this one utilizes the wheelchair instead of bikes), it’s pretty obvious that they were using Steven Spielberg’s flick as a guide. Heck small spherical candies even come into play (Skittles here, Reese’s Pieces in E.T.). This might sound strange, but I actually preferred a few of the changes in plot that the M&M folks made. I kind of like seeing Mac with his family in the beginning of the film. Sure, it sets up the emotional impact of him being estranged from his family in a more in-your-face manner, but I dug it. I also liked the gonzo ending, though I’m not sure how appropriate it is for kids (SPOILER, it involves cops shooting one of the aliens). There’s also less melodrama in the proceedings, which, depending on my mood, can be preferable.

Overall, though, the film definitely falls into the so-bad-it’s-good category. The above changes were interesting, but as a whole the movie’s still a rip off and super corny. Plus, there’s all the product placement I mentioned. McDonald’s plays HEAVILY into the events of the movie. Not only does the older girl-next-door work there (never seeming to take her ugly green uniform shirt off) but there’s also an extended dance scene that takes place in one of the restaurants under the auspices of a birthday party. Oh, plus, the aliens only seem to eat Skittles and Coca Cola, which are always positioned towards the camera so you know exactly what they’re eating or drinking.

If you are a fan of bad movies, I can’t recommend a flick more. Get some friends together, make up a drinking game (drink once every time you see a product name, twice anytime McDonald’s appears or is mentioned, finish your drink when the teddy bear dances, etc.) and have a blast!

Veronica Mars Is Awesome (2004-2007)

Man, you guys, I love when I wind up really liking a show I didn’t think I could even get through. I had heard good things about Veronica Mars, but thanks to a general dislike of things other people get SUPER excited about and a growing dislike of Kristen Bell, I wasn’t super interested. But, pretty much anything showing up on Netflix Instant gains my attention. One day I was feeling curious and the missus and I were in need of a new show to watch, so we jumped in and wound up devouring most of the series in a pretty short amount of time (we started right before she gave birth to our daughter and wound up finishing the other day).

My dislike of Kristen Bell stems less from a dislike of her as a person and more so the characters she’s played in movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Couples Retreat and Burlesque (where the young-looking 30 year old actress hilariously played a washed up veteran dancer, a role that should have gone to someone older or more broke looking than Ms. Bell). She was really good at playing assholes to the point where I couldn’t really see myself liking her in a different role (I must have forgotten her in Fanboys). Thankfully, it turns out she’s a pretty damn great actress and the role of Veronica Mars seems absolutely tailor made for her and suits her perfectly.

The general idea behind VM is that Veronica works for her dad’s private investigative firm. The cases she handles, though, usually involve students at her high school and later college asking her for help to figure something out while overarching mysteries play out over the whole season. The first season revolves around Veronica trying to figure out who killed her best friend Lilly (can’t tell you how disappointed I was when I discovered that the beautiful Amanda Seyfried was on the show, but playing a dead girl who spent a good deal of her on-screen time in weirdly lit dream sequences or with gaping head wounds). The second season focuses on the murder of several students who were on a bus that crashed into the ocean. The third actually finished up it’s overarching story early on, but most of it dealt with a serial rapist at the college Veronica (and many of her high school friends) wound up attending.

When I asked my buddy Ben Morse about the series–he was a big fan when it was actually on–he said that the first season was an incredibly tight season of television with a fantastic mystery and then the quality kind of went down from there. I actually really dug all the seasons. Some of the mysteries-of-the-week might not have been quite as interesting as the other, but I thought that overall the writing and acting were of a surprisingly excellent level.

I’d like to give whoever casted this show a hug because he or she did such an amazing job. Bell is perfect as Veronica, starting off hard and jaded thanks to her fall from grace, but eventually getting more comfortable. At the same time, she’s a real ass-kicker who doesn’t let anyone give her shit. That’s a great character and one you don’t see often, especially in such a likable package. You really want to hang out with her, but also stay on her good side. I also loved her dad, Keith Mars, played by Enrico Colantoni. He walks that tightrope between dad who lets his daughter work cases for him and bulldog. He doesn’t look like the most threatening dude in the world, but there are times where he really puts the screws to someone and you can’t help but cheer. Her friends Mac (Tina Majorino), Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Weevil (Francis Capra) are all pretty good at their roles. Her one time boyfriend Duncan (Teddy Dunn) was a bit wooden, but lowered expectations actually lead to some really surprising moments from him. Background character Dick (Ryan Hansen) is this amazing example of a rich kid who truly doesn’t seem to have a care, worry or thought in his head beyond getting laid or drunk…until the end. Most impressive, though, for me was Jason Dohring as Logan. He starts off as this total asshole, but has the biggest progression as far as character goes from the beginning of the series to the end becoming something of a tragic hero by the end. Dohring has a great skill for conveying a lot with a little look or nod and saying nothing. I was most impressed by him and think he should be a pretty big star.

The series also sported some great guest stars like Harry Hamlin as Logan’s dad, Charisma Carpenter as Dick’s step mom and Paul Rudd as a washed up 90s rocker, but they weren’t all gold. Lisa Rinna–who played Hamlin’s wife on the show and does the same in real life too–was absolutely atrocious. She couldn’t even convincingly act like she was listening to people in the same scene as her like a human does. Blech. Luckily, she’s not in the show for very wrong. To give you an idea of how bad she is, I’d rather Paris Hilton had stuck around for more than her two episodes as a high schooler (snicker) than watch Rinna on the screen. But, hey, no show is perfect and Hamlin wound up murdering his role, so it’s an okay tit for tat.

Another problem with the series is that it doesn’t have a real ending. There’s a last episode and lots of hints throughout the final season that might lead towards Veronica’s future with the FBI, but there’s not a real finale, even with a last episode filled with familiar faces. From what I’ve read, the show never really had a solid foundation with it’s network and didn’t really garner a huge number of viewers. As such, they didn’t know if they’d get renewed for a next season. Turns out they didn’t. Had VMars been one season and ended thusly, I think it could be off putting for future viewings, but with a solid three seasons, it’s less of a negative mark for me.

Which brings me to my last point, I really want to watch Veronica Mars again. Not in the near future, but I want to see how it holds up the second time around when I know all the big reveals and whether the hints and clues of the actual killers/criminals are there from the beginning. This is actually a lot different than most mystery-of-the-week type shows for me. I used to watch CSI all the time, but I don’t have a desire to go back and watch that again. Or even a show I like a lot like Bones. The overarching stuff there tends to be relationship-based, which Veronica definitely has, but those long-reaching season-long mysteries add an extra layer to the series that will probably bring me back to it somewhere in the future. Highly recommended!

Quick Movie Review: Dinner For Schmucks (2010)

If you’re the kind of Office fan who watches and says to themselves “Man, this is great, but I wish Michael was MORE awkward,’ then Dinner For Schmucks is the movie for you. If not? Well, it will probably wind up being an okay, sometimes funny movie that you won’t remember much of the next day. I really wanted to like this flick because I’m a fan of Steve Carell, Paul Rudd and Zach Galifianakis but the film just didn’t do it for me. Here’s the deal, Rudd’s trying to get a promotion in his company, he’s gotten the attention of the boss (played perfectly by Bruce Greenwood, that guy’s great) which garnered an invitation to a dinner he holds where everyone has to bring an idiot. Whoever brings the biggest idiot wins a prize. Rudd’s a little conflicted about going mostly because of his girlfriend, but then he literally runs into Carell who has a penchant taking dead mice and putting them into dioramas as you can see in the above poster. You’d assume with that kind of set-up that you’re going to spend most of your time at the dinner enjoying the weirdness of everyone’s guests, but instead, Carell shows up for the dinner at Rudd’s place a night early and starts causing trouble for him.

If you listen to the Mallrats commentary with Kevin Smith like I have (lots of times), you’ll hear him talk about early versions of the movie that took half an hour to get the guys to the mall. The lesson being, if you’re going to call the movie Mallrats get to the mall pretty quickly. I kept thinking about this while watching Schmucks because it takes FOREVER to get to the actual dinner. In the meantime, you see Rudd’s problems with his girlfriend, trouble with a former one night stand, worry that his girlfriend’s cheating on him with a douchey artist and the introduction of Carell’s nemesis Galifianakis who is really weird, even for one of his usual characters. In addition to all that, the movie never really grabbed me and I just didn’t care about anything going on. There were a few good laughs here and there, but overall the movie was kind of boring, didn’t live up to its titular promise and wound up being too long at 114 minutes (I’m a strong believer that comedy should be a tight 90 minutes). Really glad I didn’t spend money on seeing this one in the theater.

Quick Movie Review: Year One (2009)

The impetus for me posting the full transcript of my Harold Ramis interview was the missus and me watching Year One. Unfortunately, I did not like it very much. For the most part I liked the performances by guys like Jack Black, Michael Cera, David Cross, Paul Rudd, Christopher Mintz-Platz, Vinnie Jones, the crazy skinny Horatio Sans and others. Unfortunately, none of those actors are really breaking down any comedic barriers or getting into new territory when it comes to their comedy. Overall, I think the story’s pretty interesting. It’s not a caveman movie like everyone originally thought, but a tour through the book of Genesis. Growing up Catholic, going to Catholic school and taking some ancient lit classes in college have given me a pretty good working knowledge of this story, so it was cool to see it from a different angle. The real problem is that the story seems to drag a lot and there are just too many gross-out jokes. Ramis created some of the greatest comedies of all time and he’s directing a movie where Black eats poop. Come on, you’re better than that. I wonder if all those kinds of scenes were taken out, I would have liked it better, but I can’t say because that’s not the case. By the end of movie I was wondering around our place cleaning and doing whatever I could to walk away from the TV. I was just bored and didn’t care anymore. It was sad. I really wanted to like this movie, especially because I’m sure it was a big part of the reason I got to talk to one of my heroes. Oh well, Ramis did a great job of directing the second half of the birth episode of The Office last week, so I’m happy enough. Here’s hoping if Ghostbusters 3 does happen, it’ll be rad. I don’t believe anything Bill Murray’s been saying about wanting to be a ghost, I think he’s just being Bill Murray. But we shall see. If you’re looking for a funny movie to rent, skip this one and watch something else from Ramis’ illustrious videography.