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At the Movies Episode 48: Ant-Man

What I’ve Watched In… May 2015

Favorite of the Month: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Favorite of the Month: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), A
2. Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show (2014), B+
3. Face/Off (1997), B-
4. Digging Up the Marrow (2015), B
5. Theatre of Blood (1973), D
6. Evacuate Earth (2012), B
7. Mr. Jones (2013), C
8. Grizzly Man (2005), B
9. Chillerama (2011), B+
10. Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut (2014), B-
11. Moon Zero Two (1969), D; MST3K Riff, B
12. Max Max (1979) B
13. The Crucible (1996), A
14. The Great Gatsby (1974), A
15. The Road Warrior (1981), A-
16. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) B+
17. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) A
18. Tomorrowland (2015), A
19. The Boxtrolls (2014) B
20. Forest of the Damned (2005), F
21. Everly (2015), B-
22. The Karate Kid (1984), B+
23. Sparks: The Origin of Ian Sparks (2013), D
24. The Karate Kid Part II (1986), B-
25. The Karate Kid Part III (1989), D+
26. Goodfellas (1990), A

What I Watched In… June 2014

Favorite of the Month: Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

Favorite of the Month: Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

First off, allow me to apologize for the lack of activity here lately. I know I promised to start hitting you guys with more regular reviews, but June didn’t allow me a lot of time for writing of any kind because — and this is the part I make no apologizes for — I got married. It’s been a great month, but a busy one. The odd thing is, I did manage to squeeze in a healthy number of movies, while simultaneously having virtually no time to DO anything with them.

Anyway, back to the usual stuff. In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. Jaws (1975), A
2. Pulp Fiction (1994), B+
3.  The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), B
4. Cool as Ice (1991), F; Rifftrax Riff, B+
5. G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013), C+
6. The Institute (2013), B-
7. Timecrimes (2007), A-
8. Curious George (2006), B
9. Knights of Badassdom (2013), B+
10. Identity Thief (2013), C
11. American Psycho (2000), B-
12. The Adventures of the American Rabbit (1986), B-
13. Hercules (1958), D+; MST3K Riff, B
14. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), B
15. From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999), C
16. From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter (1999), B-
17. Full Tilt Boogie (1997), B-
18. Killers From Space (1954), D; Film Crew Riff, B
19. Much Ado About Nothing (2012), A-
20. High Anxiety (1977), B
21. The Aristocats (1970), C+
22. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), B+
23. The Matrix (1999), A
24. Armageddon (1998), B-
25. Frozen (2013), A
26. How to Train Your Dragon (2010), B+
27. You’re Next (2013), C+
28. Maleficent (2014), B-
29. Planet of Dinosaurs (1977), F; RiffTrax Riff, B
30. The Wolverine (2013), B-
31. The LEGO Movie (2014), A
32. The Conjuring (2013), C-
33. Monsters University (2013), B+
34. The Blue Umbrella (2013), A

Get my short story ASSOCIATED PRESSURE for free tomorrow!

AssociatedPressure_LoHey, guys — if you’ll permit me a rare post that has nothing to do with movies whatsoever, I’ve got a new short story that’s going to be available for free in the Amazon Kindle store for five days starting tomorrow, May 4. Click on the link for more details and please, if you’ve got a Kindle or any device with a Kindle App, download the book and help me boost my numbers. (And if you don’t have a Kindle App, find something you can download it on — iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android, any Mac or PC computer, and the apps are all free too!)

If I was making the Justice League movie…

Justice League V2 1Fans of DC Comics’s Justice League franchise saw what seems to be another setback this week, when word leaked the script that has been in development is being scrapped entirely. For those who just want to see the damn movie made already, this is obviously distressing news. But my approach is slightly different. I absolutely want to see a Justice League movie, but I want to see a great movie. So if Warner Bros recognized that the script they’re working with is crap, by all means, start over and do it right.

Earlier this week over at CXPulp, I wrote about how Disney seems to be planning to apply the lessons of Marvel Studios to their recently-acquired Star Wars franchise. (For those of you who may not follow this stuff the way I do, let me briefly explain that Disney bought Marvel in 2009 and that Marvel and DC have been the two biggest publishers – and therefore the two biggest rivals – in American comic books for decades). Marvel created films for several of their characters, brought them together in their mega-hit The Avengers, and are now breaking them off into smaller films again before the next combined go-around. Comic book fans, delighted with what Marvel is doing, are asking why the hell the movies based on DC Comics – the Justice League, Superman, Batman, and many more — can’t do the same thing. Although DC Comics, for a long time, had properties with more mainstream recognition than Marvel, in the past decade Marvel has dominated superhero movies. The only hit from the DC Universe in recent years has been Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, while Marvel’s X-Men, Spider-Man, and Avengers-related films have become legitimate powerhouses.

The reason for this, I believe, goes back to the late 90s. Marvel, at the time, was still an independent company, although one reorganizing after a bankruptcy. DC, however, has been wholly owned by Warner Bros for a very long time. That means Warner Bros is the only game in town to make a DC movie. If Warner Bros isn’t interested, it won’t happen, and if Warner Bros doesn’t understand what makes the property work, we get crap like Steel and Catwoman. Marvel, on the other hand, had the freedom to shop their properties around. Universal doesn’t have the right feel for Spider-Man? Take it to Sony. Paramount can’t give us a decent X-Men film? Bring them to Fox. Granted, this system turned out its share of clunkers too (let’s not forget that some genocidal maniac gave approval to not one, but TWO Ghost Rider movies starring Nicolas Cage), but their batting average over this period, beginning with Blade in 1998, is pretty damn good.

Things are different now, of course, since Marvel is owned by Disney. But by the time of that purchase in 2009, Marvel had already launched their own film unit to make movies with the characters other studios didn’t have – Iron Man and Incredible Hulk had both already come out and production was underway on Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. By the time Marvel was a Disney property, they’d proven that they could make great films on their own, and Disney has wisely stayed the hell back and let them do it, the way they did when they bought Pixar in 2006. (Disney seems to have a three-year cycle for buying other companies, they got Lucasfilm in 2012. That means I have until 2015 to create a franchise with lucrative enough IPs that I can sell them to Disney and retire in luxury.)

This, more than anything else, is what Warner Bros needs to learn in regards to any DC Cinematic Universe. It’s not about copying Marvel’s storytelling or casting tricks or format. It’s about letting the people who know the characters do what they do best and getting out of their way while they do it.

Marvel needed to raise the profiles of their lesser-known characters or Avengers never would have been the hit that it was. DC has a different problem. Ten years ago, nobody who wasn’t a comic book fan knew who Iron Man or Thor were. DC’s problem is that everybody knows many of their characters – Wonder Woman, Aquaman – but they fundamentally misunderstand them. Aquaman is a punchline, he’s “the guy that talks to fish.” But as writers like Geoff Johns and Peter David have shown us, he can be so much more than that – a tragic monarch, a man who struggles with the responsibility of protecting two-thirds of the surface of the Earth… not to mention the fact that the physical changes necessary to allow a person to survive on the ocean’s floor would make them pretty strong and otherwise badass on land. Putting Aquaman in a movie doesn’t necessitate that you explain who he is, it necessitates you explain what makes him awesome.

So if I was in charge of the Justice League movie, this is what I would do.

First, start with this summer’s Man of Steel. The film is generating some positive buzz and I’m excited about it. I’d work in a small reference to a larger DC Universe – have some news report about Green Lantern in the background, or a page of the Daily Planet referencing the chaos in Gotham City that happened during The Dark Knight Rises. Nothing that would really influence Superman’s story, but enough to nod at the fact that he’s not – as Nick Fury said in the first Iron Man – the only superhero in the world.

Then, I’d work on putting together a phenomenal Justice League story. I wouldn’t start with the big bad that was in the previous script, Darkseid, for two reasons. First, Marvel is already using Thanos in their movies, and although Thanos was largely a Darkseid rip-off when he was created in the comics, movie fans won’t get that and will think it’s the Justice League that’s being derivative. Second, he’s too big for the first movie. Where do you build from there? You need a threat big enough to justify bringing all of these characters together, of course, but they shouldn’t go up against the biggest threat in the universe their first time out.

Next, get the recognizable aspects from the current DC films and put them together: Henry Cavill as Superman, build off the end of The Dark Knight Rises (as a spoiler consideration I won’t be more specific than that), and yes, I’d get Ryan Reynolds back as Green Lantern. That movie had problems, but his casting really wasn’t one of them. Then I’d add the characters that the public has heard of but doesn’t understand – Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash. Use this movie to showcase them the way Avengers suddenly turned everyone in America into fans of the Hulk for the first time in decades.

Don’t bother with everybody’s origin. It’s a convention of the superhero genre, true, but it’s often the least exciting part of it. You don’t need to know why John McClane became a cop to enjoy Die Hard, so why do I need to see Barry Allen get struck by lightning when I’ve already accepted a world with a man from Krypton and another guy with a magic ring? After Justice League, we’ll start spinning the other characters off into their individual movies – if necessary, work in the origins there. There’s no rule that says they have to take place after the Justice League movie just because they’re made in that order, although even then, I think a quick flashback would probably be more than sufficient in most cases.

Finally, make it clear that the Justice League isn’t the be-all and end-all of the DCU. Marvel can’t reference Spider-Man, the X-Men, or the Fantastic Four, because the rights to those characters are still tied up with other studios thanks to deals they made before they were purchased by Disney. DC doesn’t have that problem. Guillermo Del Toro is working on a movie featuring some of DC’s supernatural characters like Swamp Thing and Deadman – a Justice League movie could drop in a reference to them. Give us veiled hints or rumors about other Leaguers from the comics like Zatanna, Plastic Man, Firestorm… characters that have potential for their own films in the future, assuming of course that they’re done right. Even better – if you have some sort of huge battle for the end piece, the sort of thing that the public can’t help but notice (like the battle of New York in The Avengers, and it just shows how great that movie was structured that it keeps being the best analogy), give us glimpses of some of these other heroes fighting their own battles while the League takes on the Big Bad, whoever it happens to be.

And most importantly, make sure that the story is one that satisfies the fans but is broad enough to grab people who don’t know all of the characters. This is what Marvel has done brilliantly and what Warner Bros has prevented DC from doing for years. If you can pull off that trick, we’d have a movie that could launch not just one franchise, but an entire universe.

Of course, that’s what I would do. But what do I know? I’m just a guy who reads comics and watches movies. It’s not like I’ve got the pedigree of the man who gave the green light to Jonah Hex.

(If that line isn’t enough to convince people I should be running the show, nothing will be.)

Lunatics and Laughter Day 7: The Toxic Avenger (1984)

toxic-avengerDirectors: Michael Herz & Lloyd Kaufman

Writers: Lloyd Kaufman & Joe Ritter

Cast: Mitch Cohen, Andree Maranda, Jennifer Babtist, Cindy Manion, Robert Prichard, Gary Schneider Dick Martinsen, Pat Ryan Jr., Kenneth Kessler, Patrick Kilpatrick

Plot: Welcome to Tromaville, a small suburb of New York City, and the number one dumping ground for toxic chemicals in America. Melvin Ferd (Mark Torgl) the janitor at a local health club, is constantly tormented by a group of club members, including Bozo (Gary Schneider), Slug (Robert Prichard), Wanda (Jennifer Babtist), and Julie (Cindy Manion). They decide to teach him a lesson, with Julie luring him into a locker room just as a truck full of exposed barrels of toxic waste parks outside. She tricks him into putting on a pink tutu and poka-dotted leotard, and he is humiliated in front of the club’s customers, fleeing through a window and landing in the toxic barrels. People continue to mock him as the chemicals burn through his skin and Melvin, now burning alive, stumbles home and sits in a cold bath, where he transforms into a hulking brute of incredible size and strength.

A group of drug dealers, meanwhile, try to buy off a cop (O’Clancy, played by Dick Martinsen) who refuses to cooperate. Before they can castrate him with his own gun, a huge man (Mitch Cohen, voiced by Kenneth Kessler) appears and savagely kills two of the criminals (well… kind of savagely, the fight itself is actually played mostly for laughs), leaving a mop across their faces. Mayor Peter Belgoody (Pat Ryan Jr.) is horrified by the murders… mostly because the dead criminals were some of the best dealers in his employ.

The Monster – a mutated Melvin, of course – shocks his own mother into a dead faint. Despondent, he makes his way to the Tromaville garbage dump and constructs a crude home for himself there. Later, a group of criminals robs a Mexican restaurant, killing a bystander and a seeing-eye dog belonging to a blind woman named Sarah (Andree Maranda). The crooks’s leader, Leroy (Patrick Kilpatrick) is preparing to rape her, when the Monster Hero appears and fights them, ripping an arm off the would-be rapist and sending the customers fleeing in terror. The Monster beats the crooks and finishes them off in the restaurant’s kitchen. He goes to the sobbing Sarah and she begs him to help her home, where they begin to become friends. Given new confidence, Melvin begins a one-man war on crime, battling pimps, drug dealers, and other criminals, and saving lives along the way. The newspapers begin to run stories about the “Monster Hero” of Tromaville. Belgoody sends his men to hunt the monster down.

Melvin and Sarah fall in love, and he takes her back to his junkyard hideout to live. He returns to the health club, attacking Julie in the locker room. Minutes later he finds Bozo and Slug, fresh from beating an old woman to steal her car. He hurls Slug from the car and sends Bozo through a series of crashes, burning him alive but leaving Melvin unharmed.

Things go bad when Melvin kills a little old woman in a dry cleaner’s shop, turning people against the Monster Hero. Ashamed, he goes home and tells Sarah the truth about who he is and what he has done. They decide to leave town, and Belgoody rejoices… until he discovers the old woman was the leader of a slavery ring. Belgoody covers it up and sends the cops out to hunt the Monster. They find him and Sarah in the woods, and the town assembles outside their tent, torn between people who want to protect the monster and Belgoody and his men who want to kill him. The townspeople stand in front of Melvin to protect him, soon joined by O’Clancy and the rest of the cops. Belgoody opens fire, but the bullets bounce off Melvin. He stalks Belgoody to his limo and rips his guts out, literally. The townspeople applaud the vicious murder, Melvin kisses Sarah, and all in Tromaville is well once again.

Thoughts: It would be impossible to get through a month of horror/comedy without touching upon the films of Troma. Lloyd Kaufman’s legendary low-budget B-movie studio has become synonymous with campy sci-fi and monster flicks, and how better to represent them than with this, their flagship property?

Buoyed by the likes of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz built this film (and, for that matter, their entire film studio) on the premise of the “So Bad It’s Good” movie. Whereas older movies – the sci-fi and horror clunkers of the 50s and 60s – made an earnest attempt at making good movies and simply fell short, Kaufman has no such delusions. From the beginning of the movie the acting is terrible, the script laughable, and the special effects and graphics absurdly cheap, even by 1984 standards. Watch the quality of this film compared to Ghostbusters and you’d swear that Toxie’s debut is at least ten years older, instead of both films coming out in the same year.

The film’s absurdity doesn’t just come from the effects and acting, though. Kaufman sets out to be as deliberately offensive as possible. There’s an early scene where one of the punks and his girlfriend recite a litany of racial slurs and other negative stereotypes, ranking them on a point system for running them over with a car, before finally deciding to target a kid on a bicycle (children under 12 being worth maximum points). They hit the kid once, then back over him to crush his head, stop, and take pictures. The sympathies of the audience are swinging wildly at this point. You hate the gang for doing it, which is how you’re supposed to feel, but by the time the girls whip out the Polaroid camera, you’re pretty much ready to hate the filmmakers as well.


Our hero, ladies and gentlemen…

(It is worth noting, at this point, that the Toxic Avenger films eventually spawned a children’s cartoon show. I doubt most of the moms who let their kids sit through it would have been thrilled if they saw this particular sequence.)

Kaufman actually triples the genres he plays with here. His heavy layer of goofy comedy is draped over a plot that draws upon nuclear-mutant themed monster movies and wraps it around the skeleton of a superhero origin story. No superhero has ever been so ridiculous, though – even the drivers of the truck that gives us the “toxic” part of the hero’s name comment on how ridiculous it is for them to drive around with open, sloshing barrels full of chemical sludge. Belgoody is also an extreme stereotype of a villain. It’s hard to believe even the most corrupt politician in a serious film would think he could get away with dumping toxic chemicals literally twenty feet away from the city’s drinking water. Even Belgoody’s gang is comical – it’s a patchwork of stereotypes, containing a street hood, a Capone-style gangster, and representatives of just about every crime stereotype there is. The notion is preposterous enough to remind us that this film takes place in, at best, an exaggerated reality, where all of the elements that make up monster movies and superhero films have been amplified to a ridiculous degree.

At times, the movie starts to outsmart itself. The toxic reservoir scare, for instance, is played up as though it will be a major plot point, perhaps even the Big Evil the hero will battle in the film’s climax. That isn’t what happens, though – it’s mentioned once and then abandoned as Belgoody’s resources are turned exclusively towards seeking out the monster. Most of the villains are portrayed as one-off as well – the theatrical mob Leroy leads is all killed right away, for example. Even the moments where Melvin confronts his tormentors seem like they’re worked in simply to tie off those dangling threads while we’re waiting to get back to the real plot, such as it is.

Kaufman picks up on a lot of sources, with Melvin’s transformation smacking of the Incredible Hulk and his relationship with Sarah echoing both the friendship Frankenstein’s monster shared with the blind (Gene Hackman in the Mel Brooks version) and the longtime romance in the Fantastic Four comics, in which the mutated Thing finds love with blind sculptor Alicia Masters.  He even picks up on a few slasher tropes – Melvin’s fatal confrontation with Julie comes complete with a silhouette shot of the monster approaching her with a pair of menacingly raised scissors. It sends images of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees across the brain, until you remember that this is your hero.

Sarah takes us to the extremes of broad comedy, knocking over an entire rack of canes and smacking Melvin accidentally, playing up on pretty much every joke you could think of making about the blind. Although not as bad as the scene with the racial slurs, this starts to tread close to the line of being offensive as well. And true to form, Kaufman doesn’t care at all. In a way, it’s almost a liberating thought. When you see so clearly that you’re dealing with somebody who doesn’t give a damn what you think of him, you manage to stop giving a damn and concentrate more on the actual content of what you’re watching.

Is it cheap? Yes. Is it exploitive? Oh yeah. Is it ludicrous? To be kind. But like the makers of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Lloyd Kaufman and his Troma team have never attempted to take themselves seriously. They know what they are, they know what their audience expects, and they deliver it as effectively (and as cheaply) as they possibly can. It will never make for great cinema, but nobody can deny that this is a film studio that consistently meets its goal, artistically. It’s easy when you set the bar so low.