Monday, August 03, 2015

Beach Week Movie Trailer: Jaws (1975)

Beach Week: Cult-TV Theme Watch: Sharks

In the summertime -- and at the beach -- there is no more fearsome a nightmare than the appearance of a shark in the surf.

Sharks terrify us because of their strength, power and "alien-ness," but also because they can attack, often fatally, without warning.

In the course of everyday life today, man as a species has few real predators.  But go to the ocean, and a predator swims just beneath the glassy surface of the sea...watching and waiting.

Accordingly, cult-TV has often featured stories that feature sharks as the villain.  On an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, in 1977, for example, Steve Austin (Lee Majors) had to defeat the trained sharks of Pamela Hensley while working to retrieve a nuclear submarine, in "Sharks."

Oddly, the sharks of cult-TV history are not always traditional in nature, or even ocean-bound.

For example, a classic episode of The Outer Limits (1963-1965), "The Invisible Enemy" featured an alien shark of sorts on Mars, one who could glide invisibly beneath the sand, and pull astronauts down to their deaths.

On Saturday Night Live (1975-present) in the 1970s (and immediately following Jaws), there was a recurring sketch about a "land shark," one who could ring your doorbell or knock on your apartment door.  Once let in, he would eat you.

On a sixth season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 - 2003) called "Tabula Rasa," Spike owed money to a loan shark demon who was literally a bipedal shark.

Shark aliens (called Karkarodon), similarly, have appeared on The Clone Wars (2008 - 2014).

And on Saturday morning television, a shark knock-off of Scooby Doo had his own show, called Jabberjaw (1976 -1978).

Today, we associate the phrase "jump the shark" with a 1977 episode of Happy Days (1974 - 1984) titled "Hollywood."  There, Fonzie (Henry Winkler) went water skiing -- over a shark -- and that's the weirdest, perhaps, of all Jaws knock-off/tie-ins. 

The Cult-TV Faces of: Sharks (Beach Week)

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: The Outer Limits: "The Invisible Enemy."

Identified by Hugh: Saturday Night Live (Land Shark!)


Identified by Hugh: Jabberjaw


Identified by Hugh: The Super Friends

Identified by Hugh: Happy Days


Identified by Hugh: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Identified by Chris G: Smallville

Identified by Chris G: Shark

Identified by Hugh: Doctor Who: "A Christmas Carol"

Identified by Carl: Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Sunday, August 02, 2015

The Eight Most Disgusting Parasites in Cult-TV History

A parasite is defined as the dominant partner in an unwelcome relationship of different organisms.  In other words, the parasite is a life form that benefits from an involuntary partnership, while the other creature in the relationship…does not.

Throughout cult-tv history, we’ve encountered many memorable and monstrous parasites, a fact which probably arises from the popularity of the 1951 alien invasion novel The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein.  

By some definitions, Star Trek’s the Borg might themselves be considered parasites, since, with their assimilation nanites, they transform and co-opt organic beings into Borg.  

But for this post, I’m going to concentrate on some memorable and gruesome biological parasites, rather than mechanical ones.

What's the fear of parasites?  In short, it's the idea that our bodies can be used and abused by an intelligence not our own; that our bodies could be viewed as a resource or even food by some other creature.  Many of the creatures on this list assume control of our physical selves, and replace our intelligence with theirs.  Others see us, alarmingly, as just meat.

So here are eight truly horrific, incredibly disgusting cult-tv parasites.  These are the monkeys you most definitely don’t want on your back…or anywhere else inside you for that matter.

8. Prehistoric tape worm.  This revolting creature appeared in the fourth episode of Primeval, which aired in March of 2007 in the UK.  

Here, a flock of adorable dodos  waddle through one of the series' colorful time anomalies into modern England, but a few of these extinct, flightless birds are carrying a parasite that can temporarily seize control of the host and act aggressively to assure reproduction.  One of Connor's (Andrew-Lee Potts) friends, Tom (Jake Curran), is infected with the organism after a dodo bite on his arm.  He soon suffers debilitating headaches, massive pain and increased paranoia as the worm inside him...grows.  At one point in the episode, we see a high-resolution scan of Tom's skull, and this large, lively worm wriggling about inside it.  

7. The Hellgramite.  This parasite appeared in the third season of the first Twilight Zone remake (1985 – 1989) called “The Hellgramite Method.”  In this tale by William Selby, an alcoholic named Miley Judson (Timothy Bottoms) realizes he risks losing his family if he doesn’t get off the booze permanently. Accordingly, he answers an ad for a cure for alcoholism and meets with Dr. Murrich (Leslie Yeo).  The doctor, -- who lost his own family to a drunk driver -- gives Judson a red pill to swallow.  Inside that pill, the drinker later learns, is a parasite called a Hellgramite: an unusual brand of tape worm that survives and thrives on alcohol. The more Judson drinks, the more the worm feeds and the bigger it grows.  Now, Judson doesn’t even get the buzz of feeling drunk, no matter how much liquor he consumes!  Eventually, if he keeps drinking, the Hellgramite will kill Miley, so the traumatized alcoholic must either starve the tapeworm and stop drinking for good, or let the thing kill him…

In this case, the cult-tv parasite, while quite horrible, is actually put to good use: curing alcoholism.  At episode’s end, the Hellgramite Method works, and Miley Judson is a new man.  As the voice-over reminds us, what this drinker needed “was something a little extra,” something that could only be found…in The Twilight Zone.

6. The Selminth.  This parasitic creature appeared in the fifth and last season of Angel (1999 – 2005), in an episode titled “Soul Purpose,” written by Brent Fletcher and directed by David Boreanaz.  

In this entry, Angel becomes trapped in a vegetative state while under the influence of a slimy worm-like creature called a Selminth Parasite.  

This creature causes hallucinations in its host, and in the episode, Angel dreams that Spike has replaced him as the champion of the Shansu Prophecy.  Here, the worm is used as a weapon by a sinister agent (Eve), and alters the very mind-state of the host.  Angel must wake up and remove the parasite from his chest, or live in a a nightmare for the remainder of his days...

5. "Conspiracy.”  In “Conspiracy,” a late first season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is warned by a friend, Captain Walker (Jonathan Farwell) that some kind of sinister agenda is afoot in Starfleet Command.  

After Walker’s ship, The Horatio explodes in an apparent accident, Picard fears there might be some truth behind his friend’s paranoia.  He orders the Enterprise back to Earth, and there discovers that the Admiralty itself has been infiltrated by parasitic aliens bent on conquering the Federation from within.  These small, crab-like aliens enter human beings through the mouth, and then completely control all higher mental functions.  The small parasites also report to a much-larger, dinosaur-like “mother” being that has found a home inside Commander Remmick (Robert Schenkkan).  The parasites die without this mother being in close proximity.

These creepy alien parasites (revealed in Star Trek novels to be related to the Trill…) can be detected by a sort of breathing gill that extends from the back of the host’s neck.  In the episode, Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) rigs one for Riker (Jonathan Frakes) so that he will appear compromised, but can actually rescue Captain Picard from danger.

I must admit, I absolutely love this episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  It has a more sinister, diabolical vibe than most episodes.  In fact, it’s downright scary at times, especially the unresolved ending, which suggests the parasites could return one day, and have sent a message to their brethren out in space. I also love the visual of Picard and Riker frying the alien mother organism with their phasers.  So much for respect and tolerance for all alien life forms!   I've always found it ironic that Gene Roddenberry so vociferously complained about Admiral Kirk's treatment of another parasite, the Ceti Eel in The Wrath of Khan (1982) -- how dare he shoot it! it's a life-form -- but then Picard and Riker reacted exactly the same way in this TNG episode, with revulsion and phasers firing.

4. The Ganglions.  These skittering, slimy, multi-tentacled parasites appeared in the short-lived alien invasion series Dark Skies (1996 – 1997).  The ganglions were first seen in the pilot episode, “The Awakening,” written by Brent Friedman and Bryce Zabel and directed by horror legend Tobe Hooper. 

The Ganglions enter the human head through either the nose, ear or mouth, and the assimilation process is slow and incredibly painful.  First, possession by the parasite causes a nervous breakdown, but eventually the host mind is erased completely, and the Ganglion is in total control of his human steed.  We learn in the course of the series that the Ganglions took over the Greys' planet, much in the same way that they intend to take over the human race.

In “Awakening,” cult-television gets one of its most gruesome and effectively shot scenes as the scientists of Majestic attempt to remove a ganglion from its human host, a farmer.  The results aren’t pretty.   The ganglion escapes, attempts to attach to another unlucky soul, and then is deposited in a jar by John Loengard, using very long tongs.  This scene remains harrowing, even today, and is splendidly shot by Hooper.

3. “Roadrunners.”  An eighth season X-Files episode, Roadrunners,” by Vince Gilligan, introduces a parasitic creature that may or may not be of this Earth.

Here, Agent Scully (Gillian Anderson), sans partner, visits Utah to investigate a strange death.  She soon runs afoul, instead, of a weird cult that believes a worm parasite represents the second coming of Jesus Christ on Earth. 

These committed cult members attempt to get the worm inside Scully – who is pregnant at this point – by allowing it to burrow underneath her flesh, inside her back.  This episode successfully gets under your skin too, by forging an atmosphere of extreme isolation and vulnerability.  

In The X-Files, we are used to Mulder always having Scully’s back during a crisis.  But here, Mulder is gone, abducted by aliens, and we don’t quite trust Agent Doggett (Robert Patrick) yet.  Here, Scully is the most alone we’ve ever seen her, in real physical danger, contending with villains who can't be reasoned with.  And she faces, clearly, a fate worse than death with that wriggling, monstrous worm in her back. In a truly upsetting scene, Scully is tied to a bed on her stomach, as the creature makes its subcutaneous approach.

A group of vocal folks like to complain about the last two, largely Mulder-less years of The X-Files, but episodes such as “Roadrunners” certainly  prove the series was effective as ever in generating authentic, deep-down scares.  I also appreciate the conceit that this particular parasite is never explained.  We don't know what it is, where it came from, or why it is here.  Creepy.

2. The Invisibles. In a classic first season Outer Limits episode written by Joseph Stefano and directed by Conrad Hall, an undercover GIA agent, Spain (Don Gordon) attempts to infiltrate a secret and subversive society called the Invisibles.  

Once inside the secret community, Spain learns that the strange group is led by hideous alien invaders: horrible crab-like creatures that attach themselves to the human spine and totally control minds.  If the joining process goes wrong, humans are rendered deformed and nearly lobotomized.

Gordon attempts to warn government officials about the alien invasion in the offing, but the Invisibles are already onto him, and just waiting to absorb him into their ranks.  In an absolutely tense and suspenseful scene near the episode’s climax, a wounded, prone, Spain is unable to escape as a skittering, multi-legged Invisible dashes towards him, attempting to join with him.   He pulls himself along, screaming for help, as the thing, in the background, looms ever nearer.  The feeling of vulnerability, entrapment and terror generated in that image, and throughout “The Invisibles,” remains incredibly potent almost fifty years later.  Being joined with these huge, inhuman things is indeed a fate worse than death… 

1. Earwig.  We never actually see the parasite in the classic episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "The Caterpillar," but we certainly learn all about it.

Here, a nasty civil servant, Stephen Macy (Laurence Harvey) covets a co-worker's wife (Joanna Pettet) and attempts to off her husband with a parasite called an earwig.  The murder scheme goes horribly wrong, however, when Stephen himself is exposed to the wee bug.

The earwig, you see, possesses a “decided liking” for the human ear. Once inside the ear canal, the odds of an earwig evacuating it are a thousand-to-one. They can’t turn around, and so instead keep plowing endlessly forward...burrowing into the brain and feeding on grey matter as they seek an escape route. The pain caused by these “stealthy chaps” is agonizing and horrible, and death is nearly always the result. Here, Macy undergoes agonizing pain as the earwig digs in. In fact, his hands must be bound to his bed-posts so he doesn’t claw his face apart in an attempt to get rid of the bug chewing a path through his brain.

By some miracle, Macy survives the ordeal, which he describes as an “agonizing, driving, itching pain,” and the earwig exits his ear.  Unfortunately, those two weeks are only the beginning of Hell for Mr. Macy.  He learns that the earwig was female and laid eggs inside his brain.  The larvae will hatch soon, and find a ready source of food: his brain,  Despite its lack of overt horrific visuals, "The Caterpillar" proves utterly disgusting and macabre in its suggestion of a fate worse than death: a perpetual itch you just can’t scratch.  

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Valley of the Dinosaurs: "Test Flight" (December 7, 1974)

In “Test Flight,” the Butlers construct an “aerodynamically-sound” glider, and hope to fly it over the valley to pinpoint an exit from the prehistoric land.  

Gara worries, however, that to “fly in the air is to anger the great birds.”  

When Ardock, a pteranodon, attacks the glider in flight, her superstitions prove correct. Fortunately, John is an accomplished pilot and able to defeat the flying dinosaur in a dogfight.

Meanwhile, Greg and Tana must head into the Great Swamp to evade a giant sloth.  The Butlers use the glider to pinpoint their location from the air.  They also attempt to find them from a boat in the river.

In the ensuing rescue, the glider is destroyed, but all is not lost.  Mr. Butler believes he saw a hiking trail out of the valley, some sixty or seventy miles from the family cave...

In “Test Flight,” the Butlers and Gorak’s family again join forces to solve a problem, in this case the rescue of the children, Greg and Tana.  A 20th century glider comes in handy in that regard, though it doesn't survive the half-hour.

The series’ episodes always features some scientific principle or invention, and “Test Flight” is no exception. While lost, Greg creates a make-shift compass that can help him find the way out of the swamp

The episode also suggests there may yet be an escape from the valley: a hiking trail.  An early episode also featured this possibility.  The biggest question, however, involves the glider.  Why not just build another?

The other question about the glider, the episode does address.  The glider can't be used for an escape from the valley (though it can pinpoint an exit...) because of the powerful winds in the air above the prehistoric terrain.

Next episode: "The Big Toothache."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: ElectraWoman and DynaGirl: "Return of the Sorcerer" (November 6 and 13, 1976)

In “Return of the Sorcerer,” the super-villain Sorcerer (Michael Constantine) and his side-kick Miss Dazzle (Susan Lanier) steal Merlin’s Magic Mirror from an exhibit in the Municipal Records Building.

Crime Scope detects a “space-time disturbance of unknown origin,” and before long the Sorcerer has also stolen a priceless clock from Lori (Deidre Hall) and Judy (Judy Strangis). 

The villains contact Electra-Base and tell ElectraWoman and DynaGirl of their next target: The Crown Jewels of England.

When the heroes intervene, the Sorcerer traps the duo in another dimension inside Merlin’s Mirror. 

ElectraWoman and DynaGirl attempt to escape this bizarre nether realm, but only manage to follow their nemesis through time, where the Sorcerer plans to steal the Mona Lisa from Leonardo Da Vinci.

“Return of the Sorcerer” is a particularly strange episode of this Sid and Marty Krofft Saturday morning series. The Sorcerer traps the heroes in an alternate dimension, and travels through time.  

Then, Crime Scope and Frank (Norman Alden) “rip a hole” in space time to retrieve the heroes.  It’s kind of crazy, though inventive.  Suddenly, these villains and heroes have the capacity to affect all of creation, all of time and space.

Not every aspect of “Return of the Sorcerer” works well. 

For example, the alternate dimension looks more like a relatively cramped sound-stage, with the mirror exit to “reality” plainly visible in certain shots. 

And one scene just doesn’t make any sense at all.  ElectraWoman and DynaGirl are menaced by giant “clapping hands,” (really an illusion projected by the Sorcerer).  But they are deafened instantly by the sound of the clapping.  Frank tells the heroes they won’t be deafened if they don’t believe the illusion.  But ElectraWoman and DynaGirl reacted instantly to the sound, before the illusion of the hands’ presence was even seen.  Why would an illusion make them recoil in pain?  They had no chance to believe or not, their ears ‘heard’ the clapping.

The Sorcerer, meanwhile, continues to come up with alliterative names for the heroes in a turn that seems right out of the original Batman (1966 – 1968).  He calls ElectraWoman and Dynagirl “Kilowatt Cuties,” the “Clumsy, Computerized Combo” and “Diode Dollies.”

This episode marks the second and final appearance of Constantine’s the Sorcerer and Lanier’s Miss Dazzle.  It also features an appearance by a cult-TV staple, Leonardo DaVinci, who has also appeared on Star Trek: Voyager (1995 – 2001).  His famous painting, the Mona Lisa, appeared in Doctor Who’s 1978 serial, “City of Death.”

Next week: “The Pharaoh.”

Friday, July 31, 2015

Found Footage Friday: Hollow (2012)

(Beware of spoilers!)

Ambiguity is scary.

That’s not merely a good riff in Mystery Science Theater 3000’s take-down of Manos the Hands of Fate.

It’s a fact of human existence.

We don’t fear what we know. 

We fear what we don’t know. 

And as fallible, mortal humans limited by our own field of vision and our own biases, we don’t always get answers to life’s greatest mysteries. Or even its tiniest ones. Sometimes, we must go on living with the knowledge that life is ambiguous.

Of course, man invented religion to make the scary ambiguities of existence tolerable. If we there is a God -- diving, loving, and good, watching over us at all times -- we don’t have to fear the things we don’t easily understand.

Instead, we can be comforted by the “fact” that there is a cosmic order, beyond our vision, which involves love, and justice. We can paint away ambiguity with phrases such as “God works in mysterious ways,” or “God has a plan for your life.”

But the best horror movies are invariably those that tread fully into life’s ambiguities. 

This is why The Blair Witch Project (1999) is an authentic masterpiece. Many questions about the film’s narrative are left unanswered.  Is there really a witch?  Is she the reason why the filmmakers are hopelessly lost in the woods?  What happens -- really -- to Heather, Josh, and Mike in that creepy house?  Who murders them? The witch? Or a human being?

We see things happen on camera, and yet exactly why they happen is left purposefully unexplored. 

By contrast, Paranormal Activity (2007) destroys all sense of ambiguity in its final act as a demon gets its close-up, front-and-center, on camera, satisfying the human psychological need to “see” the monster, and in the process, understand everything.

My point, I suppose is that ambiguity is real, and it is scary, and therefore it of good use to horror films.  

More to the point, the way that horror movies often express ambiguity is by diagramming two possibilities at the same time, and never really settling on an answer. 

Instead, we get competing theories.

And in a really good horror film of this type, both theories track, and don’t negate each other.

That’s the kind of movie Hollow (2012). This impressive and scary found footage movie treads deeply into ambiguity, and its story of horrific happenings can be interpreted in two very different ways.

Either this film is the story of a depressed, psychologically-disturbed young man who, after losing the girl of his dreams to another man, finally snaps and descends to bloody violence. 

Or, this is the story of a regional curse in Suffolk, of a gnarled old tree that causes lovers to mysteriously commit suicide. Afterwards their corpses are found hanging by first light.

It is to Hollow’s ever-lasting and artistic credit that the film succeeds in telling both stories simultaneously, leaving the audience to slow boil in a frightening, and unending stew of authentic ambiguity.

Hollow remembers that human beings not only don’t always get the answers they desire. 

Sometimes they get no real answers whatsoever.

“Whatever we take in there gets twisted.”

Scott (Matt Stokoe) and Emma (Emma Plumtree) are planning to get married. They decide to take a weekend trip to Suffolk, to the home of Emma’s recently-deceased grandfather, a vicar at the local church.

Along for the trip are Emma’s best friend, James (Scott Stockman), and his current girlfriend, Lynn (Jessica Ellerby).  

But the truth is that James is hopelessly in love with Emma, and convinced that on this weekend  he can expose Scott for the player he is, and win her love.  He intends to manipulate Lynn too.

On the way to the dead vicar’s house, the young adults accidentally hit a fox in the road. It disappears after being injured, and Emma realizes they have stopped in close proximity to a haunted tree that is famous in the area.  

In particular, the tree reportedly causes lovers to commit suicide.  

Worse, Emma’s mother has often told her stories of a creepy experience with the tree in her childhood.

As the weekend continues, Emma finds the vicar’s files about a series of suicides nearby; of lovers found hanging from the branches of the tree...necks broken.  

Meanwhile, the youngsters party, abusing alcohol and drugs.  While stoned -- and after touching the tree -- Scott makes a pass at Lynn, effectively ending his engagement to Emma.

But that doesn’t mean Emma is going to be with James, either, and he simply can’t take the rejection. By night, James disappears into the woods, and the others follow him, only to encounter violence and terror.

“I feel like everything’s changed.”

When you get down to it, every aspect of the narrative in Hollow can be explained in one of two ways.  Either the young adults self-destruct, after consuming copious amounts of alcohol and drugs, and ultimately kill one another, or -- in the tradition of the urban legend of region -- they are felled by the cursed tree.

At one point, Emma says of the tree that “whatever we take in there gets twisted.”  

This is her way of describing the impact of the haunted tree upon her friends, and on her too. 

But if you think it about, “whatever we take in there” might also refer to the drugs/alcohol that are consumed. Drugs can also twist up the emotions inside people, and reveal hidden qualities or facets of a personality.  

Certainly, you can ask yourself which option is more plausible: that relentless partying releases sexual inhibitions in twenty-somethings, or that proximity to a cursed tree accomplishes the same task.  

But since this is a horror film, we can suspend disbelief, and Hollow doesn’t choose a path for us. We must countenance both ideas.

Similarly, the film’s boogeyman -- either the specter from the tree, or a psychologically-disturbed James -- wears James’ slicker.  

And when this “force” attacks, we never actually see the blows.  

Instead, the film simply reveals people yanked out of frame. Importantly,  that yanking could be done by a violent supernatural force, or just a very murderous rejected boyfriend. 

Scott’s disappearance, while looking under the hood of the car, especially supports this reading.  He is holding the camera when he is attacked.  It just drops to the ground, so viewers have no idea what, precisely, has grabbed him and pulled him away. It could be anything. supernatural or human.

I know where I come down on the parallel paths proposed by Hollow.  The last scenes of the film reveal all the youngsters hanging by their necks from branches of the old tree.  

But only one of their bodies is still twitching. 

That body belongs to James, not the last victim, Emma. 

Therefore, my guess is that mad with jealousy and grief he killed the others, and then, in the last instance, hanged himself.

Of course, maybe the (devil) tree made him do it.

It takes a high degree of patience, discipline and precision to craft a film that walks a fine line between two equally supported possibilities, and Hollow works because that line is never violated or disrespected.

Ultimately, this is a found-footage film that can be read in the way the audience chooses to read it, but no clear or definitive answers are provided.  All we can say for certain is that four young people die at that tree, and that the tree has been the site of suicides before.  

Everything else is conjecture.

If Hollow boasts any drawback or deficit, artistically-speaking, it is that some of the final scenes, set inside a car parked under the tree, go on far too long. We know a negative, sinister force -- either human or not -- is nearby, and so the camera seems to endlessly pan around the gray, unattractive car interior.  

A full five minutes or so could be trimmed here, and the movie would lose none of its visceral or cerebral impact.

Other than that scene, Hollow is diligent, smart, and on-target. One terrifying scene, involving a cliff, a drop-off to the beach, and a “floating apparition” (that also has another, more earthbound explanation), is genuinely pulse-quickening.  

Another sequence, with Emma walking on a lonely road alone at night, and hearing noises -- her vision limited by the range of the camera light -- is also tension-provoking.

All the tropes of the found-footage horror film are here in Hollow, to be sure.  There’s the driving sequence/car accident scene (Exists), the character engagement announcement (Extraterrestrial), the creepy artwork (see: The Taking of Deborah Logan), and so forth, yet Hollow innovates where it counts.  

This film from director Michael Axelgaard sets out to tell two stories in one, and ramps up that all-important quality of ambiguity.  

It's really amazing to consider, but in a genre format explictly about "seeing," Hollow never tips its hand, never reveals exactly what kind of force is working its dark purpose. 

Found Footage Friday: Hollow (2012)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Guest Post: Ant-Man (2015)

Ant-Man: The Incredible Shrinking Superman

by Jonas Schwartz

Everything lacking in the second Avengers movie can be found in Marvel’s latest, Ant-Man. Sly, well-paced and well-plotted, but always a little off-kilter, Ant-Man in the Marvel universe is like the favorite prodigal nephew who’s always unemployed, smells of Jack Daniels, and treats life like one big party.

Perpetual screw-up Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) leaves San Quentin after serving time for Robin Hood-ing his past corrupt employers. His little daughter worships him but is now being raised by a new father figure (Bobby Cannavale), a self-righteous cop. After trying to walk the straight and narrow, Scott falls back into crime; breaking into the safe of a retired scientist and only finds some blueprints and an odd suit. The suit, designed by the scientist (Michael Douglas), grants Lang the power to shrink to ant-size but to have the strength of a giant, making him a perfect weapon against evil.

The film had a long gestation period and lost several original creators including its original writer/director Edgar Wright (Shawn of the Dead). Many of Wright’s elements can still be found in the shooting script, including the well-fleshed out characters and humorous pop culture banter. Eventual director Payton Reed, known mostly for TV and minor films such as Down With Love and The Break-Up, steps up, lending the film a whimsical style but still pulling off the action sequences as adroitly as Marvel’s more action-oriented directions. The climax builds, instead of feeling like one generic battle after another, and there’s a true sense of danger for our heroes throughout.

The film’s only problem involves its villain Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, The Strain) and his relationship to Dr Pym. The script, and Stoll’s performance, clearly establishes Cross’s narcissistic psychosis. This is a person who truly believes everyone is a supporting player in his central universe. A sick mind damaged by a battle between his inflated ego and his inferiority complex, he has no compunction destroying the world if it proves he’s the smartest. However, he once was Pym’s protégé. Almost as an aside, Pym admits he rejected Cross in the past because he reminded him too much of himself.  However, because the movie reveals too little of Pym’s dark side (other than punching out someone who well-deserved it in the prologue), it’s vague why Pym would have ever taken on someone so clearly a sociopath. The film’s futile attempts to use dialogue to fill the holes fail where a well-constructed flashback was necessary.

Scott Lang may be the film’s superhero but Rudd is the MVP. His snarky yet earnest persona makes Scotty a lovable scoundrel that audiences beg to see redeemed. The film establishes his craftiness and his outlaw behavior but also bares his adoration for his young daughter. Both his ex-wife (the always dependable Judy Greer) and his mentor remind him that his daughter already thinks he’s a hero, now he just needs to live up to her idolization. The need to succeed for her drives his character arc.

Douglas is dependable in the mentor role. He infuses Pym with a savior mentality, and mirrors Lang’s relationship with his daughter, with the rocky but loving bond he has with his child and Girl Friday, Hope (Evangeline Lilly, Lost). Lilly is driven by her character’s anger towards her father, and her need to prove herself to him. She anchors that rage with a well-meaning sense of right. But whoever saddled her with that Louise Brooks flapper wig should be hung out to dry.  Not only was the wig unbecoming, it was askew throughout the film as if she had gone to a blind barber.

Stoll makes for a tragic villain, one ruled by his insanity and desperation to be idolized. As Lang’s motley crew, Michael Cena, T.I. and David Dastmalchian lend Three Stooges goofiness to the surrounding drama of the climax.

A winner of a superhero, Ant-Man is a wacky but respectful arm of the Marvel universe. Paul Rudd’s performance stands out, along with Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner and Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, as a three-dimensional, layered being, in a two-dimensional world.

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

Movie Trailer: Ant-Man (2015)