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Interview: David Dastmalchian talks ‘Ant-Man,’ Marvel, DC

Dastmalchian in 'Ant-Man' (photo: Disney-Marvel)

By Tim Lammers

David Dastmalchian is one of those rare performers in the film business who can stake claim to something not many of his acting counterparts can: Not only has he been a part of both the Marvel and DC movie universes, he’s effectively been preparing all his life to help bring their stories to life as a lifelong comic book fan.

“As an actor, you try to absorb and feel the tone of the material as best you can, and I’ve always found that always comes from the director and the material itself,” Dastmalchian told me in a call this week from Los Angeles. “So I think knowledge of comic book mythology and the history of it has been helpful to me as an actor. Also, the directors of these films that I’ve worked on have had very strong visions, and have been very good about communicating and setting up the tone.”

Dastmalchian’s first big-screen gig, of course, came in a small but haunting role as Joker thug Thomas Schiff in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 DC blockbuster “The Dark Knight Rises.” On Friday, though, he’s on the side of the good guys helping Paul Rudd save the world in Peyton Reed’s “Ant-Man,” the latest installment in the expansive Marvel Universe that’s led to the assemblage of the Avengers.

Dastmalchian stars in “Ant-Man” as Kurt, a Russian computer hacker sporting an Elvis Presley-inspired pompadour who, along with Luis (Michael Pena) and Dave (T.I. Harris), joins forces with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd). Scott is an ex-con who has to resort to what he thinks will be a big score when his past as a burglar limits his options outside prison walls.

As it turns out, the score was actually set up by the mark, legendary scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), as a test to see if Scott would steal a specially designed suit that decreases his size down to that of ant, yet greatly increases his strength and makes him as resilient as a bullet. Dubbed “Ant-Man,” Scott and The Crew need to devise a heist — along with Hank and his estranged daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) — to break into the corporation he’s no longer in control of to steal a similar suit dubbed “Yellow Jacket.” Ant-Man must break into an ultra-secure facility and steal the suit, designed by Hank’s protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), before the technology falls into the hands of the wrong people and puts the world in peril.

The irony for Dastmalchian in “Ant-Man” is that unlike his role in “The Dark Knight,” Kurt is not dark and twisted. It’s probably a good thing, since Dastmalchian has long been split on which comic book company has traditionally provided the best heroes and villains; and in the case of “Ant-Man,” he happens to be on the right side.

“My favorite villains were always the DC ones — I’ve said that to everybody, including Stan Lee,” Dastmalchian said. “But interestingly, my favorite superheroes were always on the Marvel side. The DC villains embody darkness — including the film that I got to be a part of — perfectly. On the other side, here in the Marvel world, Peyton has brought to life is a vibrancy and brightness in a very high-stakes adventure, which happens just the right amount of humor and irreverence. I feel like I’ve gotten the best of both worlds. In the Marvel movie I worked on, I got to be somebody playing for the hero, and in the DC one, I got to be on the side of the villain. It’s a dream.”

Dastmalchian’s involvement in “Ant-Man” has been interesting, since there was a period of time when he didn’t know if he’d be in the film despite being cast in January of 2014. The actor, who’s made indelible impressions in recent years with frightening roles on both film and television, said he was originally cast in “Ant-Man” by writer-director Edgar Wright, yet didn’t know where he stood when the filmmaker left the project and was replaced by Reed.

“My concern was that they were going to let go of me,” Dastmalchian said. “Of course, Paul was on-board, as well as Michael Douglas, and Evangline Lilly, because they’re movie stars. But when you’re an actor like me, there’s very few assurances when a situation like that comes up. When I tested during auditions, I want to say in the original script the crew had eight or nine guys, and they cast all of us.”

The uncertainty came on the heels of what Dastmalchian called a “crazy, awesome time” time for he and his wife, Eve. The couple’s son, Arlo, was born, and the actor/screenwriter’s deeply personal addiction drama, “Animals,” won a Special Jury Award at SXSW. Suddenly, Ant-Man’s Crew began undergoing some changes and Dastmalchian became a bit nervous.

“Originally, I was just going to sit around a month before ‘Ant-Man’ got started, but then I started to see that actors were leaving or being let go from the film — and they were all the guys from ‘The Crew,'” Dastmalchian recalled. “The script was being changed and I knew the crew dynamic was changing, as well as the number of people in it. But ultimately, I was very, very lucky that they kept me and Pena, and then T.I. came on board later, so we ended up with three of us.”

Once Reed started on the project, not only was Dastmalchian thrilled to discover that his new director had the same tastes as when it came to the Marvel Universe, but the sorts of filmmaking sensibilities to properly execute it.

“Peyton was made to make this movie. He’s as big if not bigger a comic book geek than I am, he loves the obscure characters like ‘Ant-Man.’ It’s a character he’s read and been devoted to for a very long time,” said Dastmalchian. “Plus, he has this real flair for bringing a good story to life, while utilizing action and comedic elements. So, as difficult as the starts and stops of the film process was, it ultimately all happened the way it was meant to be.”

One particular thing that Dastmalchian said he loved about working in the Marvel Universe was the involvement of talent on many different levels.

“Marvel is proof positive that the formula that massive kinds of collaboration can lead to effective filmmaking and really great story-telling because this is an all-hands-on-deck kind of process that the company has,” Dastmalchian observed. “The producers who have developed this sprawling cinematic universe have input on the film because they’re connecting the threads to the comic books that Stan Lee oversaw. He oversaw all of the different comic characters, even the ones he wasn’t writing or producing month to month.”

Once Dastmalchian settled into the role and was on-set, he got to experience things only a comic book-lover could dream of: hanging out with Lee, the Marvel icon and “Ant-Man’s” co-creator.

“Me, Rudd and one of our producers, Brad Winderbaum, would hang out in Stan’s trailer and just talk,” Dastmalchian marveled. “It was about 1987 when ‘Avengers’ No. 240 became the first comic book I ever bought. It was a from a spinning rack at a Seven Eleven in Kansas City, Kansas, and ultimately I’ve kept every comic book I’ve ever collected, including that one. It’s all tattered now, but I brought it to work and Stan signed it, ‘To my good friend Arlo,’ who is my son. I almost cried.”

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Another legend Dastmalchian got to encounter, of course, was Douglas, who shares some screen time with The Crew. And while Dastmalchian is a professional who’s shared the screen with some pretty impressive talent, there was something about being on-set with Douglas that made his stomach gurgle.

“We only have a couple scenes together, which are very funny, but I am the least comfortable doing comedy,” Dastmalchian said. “I’m more comfortable with doing dramatic stuff, especially with the likes of Michael Douglas or Paul Rudd, for goodness sakes. It was very nerve-wracking, but Michael and I immediately hit it off. He’s a wonderful guy and the nerves went away pretty quickly. We talked a lot about Karl Malden (Douglas’ co-star on the classic TV drama ‘Streets of San Francisco’), who was a huge mentor to him, and to me, one of my all-time favorite actors. He’s right up there with the kind of actors I aspire to become. He had a reputation for propelling scenes and his scene partners.  It was amazing to talk about Karl’s legacy and Michael’s amazing history.”

The bonus for Dastmalchian in “Ant-Man,” though, is that amid all the laughter, cool special effects and engaging action, tucked within is a poignant storyline about family. In two completely different circumstances, Hank and Scott are trying to reconnect with their daughters: Hope, fully-grown and angry at Hank over her childhood; and young Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), holding out hope for Scott in the hope that he can go the straight and narrow so he can be a good dad to her.

“The thing I love about ‘Ant-Man’ is there’s a theme that runs throughout the whole movie, that even families that have been frayed, or have been through the ringer or have really been tested — ultimately love can win out,” Dastmalchian said. “That’s something that’s really special about ‘Ant-Man’ that I don’t think I’ve seen in other big superhero movies really be as intimate.”

While the fun of his experience of “Ant-Man” will soon end, you get the feeling that the warmth he got from the family angle of the film will always remain with him. After all, he’s living it every single day of his life.

“I don’t know how to properly put it. When you go home at night after being in a film like ‘Ant-Man,’ you can say, ‘It was incredibly satisfying,’ but then you’re just another guy walking down the sidewalk,” Dastmalchian said. “But then you see your wife holding your kid at the end of the block and get to go and be with the people you love. If you have someone that you can love and share the experience with, it’s all that matters, man. It really is.”

Dastmalchian will have many more film experiences to share — and very soon. He just finished filming the James Gunn-penned horror-thriller “The Belko Experiment,” and is prepping “All Creatures Here Below,” another film drama he wrote and will star in. Also coming out soon is the drama “Chronic,” in which Dastmalchian stars opposite Tim Roth.

Dastmalchian’s SXSW award-winning “Animals,” meanwhile, is streaming now and coming out on DVD Aug. 25.

Movie reviews: ‘Ant-Man,’ ‘Trainwreck,’ ‘Manglehorn’

Paul Rudd in 'Ant-Man' (Disney-Marvel)

“Ant-Man” (PG-13) 3 1/2 stars (out of four)

The best things truly do come in small packages in “Ant-Man,” a thrilling and oftentimes funny Marvel superhero adventure that’s much different than its predecessors in tone. More of a heist adventure than anything, “Ant-Man is bolstered by a winning cast including the always affable Paul Rudd and screen legend Michael Douglas, who brings gravitas to the movie in a pivotal role.

Rudd stars as Scott Lang, a convicted burglar who’s trying to straighten out his life after he is sprung from prison. Finding his options are limited because of his criminal past, Scott is lured back into the game with the promise of a big score, only to find out that it’s all a set up by Hank Pym, a legendary scientist who’s been marginalized in his own corporation by his protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).

Turns out that Cross is on the cusp of perfecting a formula to shrink people down to ant size – a process that increases their strength and gives them the resilience of a bullet. It’s a process that Hank perfected years before, and he needs Scott’s brains and physicality to don a special suit to become the new “Ant-Man” to stop Cross before the technology falls into the wrong hands and threatens the world.

“Ant-Man” is a fantastic voyage from beginning to end, thanks to a smart script, spectacular special effects and expert direction by Peyton Reed. The filmmaker makes excellent use of his talented cast, which also includes Evangeline Lilly as Hanks’ estranged daughter, Judy Greer as Scott’s ex-wife and Bobby Cannavale as her husband, and Michael Pena, David Dastmalchian and T.I. Harris as The Crew, which helps Scott plan the big heist of Cross’ invention, dubbed “Yellow Jacket.”

The most surprising aspect of “Ant-Man” is that it’s also a family-themed film, as Hank tries to re-connect with Hope, while Scott desperately tries to be the best father he can be to his young daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston). It’s a great film from beginning to end – and we’re talking the very end of the credits, where Marvel has a big reveal for its next adventure.

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“Trainwreck” (R) 3 stars (out of four)

Comedy Central star Amy Schumer finally hits the big-screen with her own comedy in “Trainwreck,” a raunchy but oftentimes funny tale about, well, a trainwreck. Written by Schumer and directed by comedy king Judd Apatow, “Trainwreck” is sure to satisfy Schumer and Bill Hader fans, and surprise others with funny turns by the likes of NBA star LeBron James and professional wrestler John Cena.

Schumer stars as Amy, a big-time journalist who spends most of her nights in one-night stands. Raised by a loving yet philandering father (hilariously played by Colin Quinn), Amy was told early in life that it’s impossible to commit to one person, so she goes to the other extreme, believing she’ll never fall in love. Things change dramatically, though when Amy is assigned to interview big-time sports doctor Aaron (Hader), and experiences feelings beyond their first night together. Before too long, Amy begins to struggle with those warm, fuzzy feelings, hoping her life doesn’t go off the rails once again.

While Schumer wrote and stars in “Trainwreck,” she gives her co-stars plenty of opportunity to shine. Apatow definitely has a keen eye for casting to bring those characters to life, which probably explains why James and Cena fit perfectly in their roles. Hader is terrific, too, as Schumer’s boyfriend, as is Tilda Swinton, who is barely recognizable as Amy’s boss. Apatow also makes great use of her stand-up comedy buddies like Dave Attell and Quinn to round out the film’s impressive cast.

While “Trainwreck” is a bit too long and ultimately predictable, it’s a solid first effort by Schumer in a prominent role. It’ll be interesting to see if she’ll eventually be able to break the mold and do other roles, because raunchy comedy, like any other genres, can be limiting for any performer. For now, though, “Trainwreck” will give Schumer the power to push full-steam ahead.

“Manglehorn” (R) 2 1/2 stars (out of four)

Al Pacino is at the top of his game in “Manglehorn,” a character-driven drama that’s unfortunately more depressing than it is enlightening. It’s one of those movies that’s worth watching if you want to see terrific acting, but mostly it just breaks your heart as the title character (Pacino) leads a lonely existence of his own doing.

An eccentric locksmith, Manglehorn’s only true connection is with his cat, and he locks everybody else out because he’s never been able to get over his one true love several years before. As hard as the people surround him try – including his estranged son (Chris Messina) and a lonesome bank teller (a wonderfully sweet Holly Hunter) – no one can seem to crack the complex mind of the cranky old man, until he has a revelation that may just result in a second chance at life.

The biggest trouble with “Manglehorn” is that it moves along slowly as it bizarrely illustrates different aspects of its title character’s miserable existence. There’s a payoff at the end, thankfully, but even a 97-minute run time can’t make it come soon enough.

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Interview: Zoe Saldana talks personal indie film ‘Infinitely Polar Bear’

Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana in 'Infinitely Polar Bear' (photo -- Sony Pictures Classics)

By Tim Lammers

The cinematic universe has proven to limitless to Zoe Saldana, who in recent summers has played pivotal roles in the new “Star Trek” movie franchise and last year’s mega blockbuster “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

This summer, though, the acclaimed actress is keeping things down to Earth, quite literally, with the family drama “Infinitely Polar Bear.” But while her role is decidedly different than Lt. Uhura and Gamora, Saldana said signing on to the film was more a matter of happenstance than a conscious decision to play opposite ends of the movie spectrum.

“I wish I was ‘The Man with the Plan,’ but I’m really not that kind of artist. I never have a whole year lined up,” Saldana told me in a recent interview. “Every now and then a project will come, whether it comes in small independent package or in a big studio package, and if I like the story and if I feel like it’s going to be a wonderful experience to be a part of it, then I’ll start pursuing it.”

Now playing in select cites and expanding throughout the U.S. in July, “Infinitely Polar Bear” tells the story of Maggie (Saldana) and Cam (Mark Ruffalo), a once happily-in-love couple  with a pair of young daughters (Ashley Aufderheide and Imogene Wolodarsky), whose marriage eventually falls apart over Cam’s inability to deal with his manic depression.

Separating from Cam and struggling as a single mother with the girls in small apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Maggie, stressed and broke, comes up with a solution: If she can attend business school at Columbia University and earn an MBA in 18 months, she can ensure a better life for daughters. However, she can only do it with the help of Cam — that is if he can take responsibility of his daughters as well as himself  — while she’s away in New York.

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Saldana said once she read the script by writer-director Maya Forbes, she was desperate to do the film.

“I just kept reading the script over and over again — it was so beautiful and spoke to me on so many levels. It was real, so I wanted to be a part of it and do the character justice because it was so special to me,” Saldana said. “It deals with a very heavy subject with bi-polar disorder.  So many people are affected by it, yet we know so little about it. Maya captured it in a very beautiful way because not every scene is about Cam’s condition. Every scene is about her father and her mother, and her sister and herself. The dad has this condition, but he’s a great guy and he tries hard every day. That’s what I loved.”

If that wasn’t enough, Saldana, 37, said stories of father-daughter relationships always resonate with her on a personal level.

“I lost my dad when I was very young, so I’m a sucker for stories having to do with daughters and fathers. I just had to be a part of this,” said Saldana, who just had twin sons in November with her husband, Marco Perego.

“Infinitely Polar Bear’s” approach is unique in that, while the film is set in 1978, it doesn’t draw any attention to Maggie and Cam being a bi-racial couple. In fact, apart from one brief scene where Maggie discusses her black heritage with one of her daughters, race is not mentioned throughout the entire picture. Saldana, whose mother is Puerto Rican and late father was Dominican, said she’s glad Forbes didn’t turn the film into a racial discussion.

In a day an age where the subject of race is broached on many different levels daily, I told

Saldana how refreshing it was to see Maggie and Cam not portrayed as a black parent and white parent (and nearly 40 years ago, no less) struggling with their marriage and who both love their children; but simply as parents struggling with their marriage and who both love their children.

“I’m so happy that you mentioned that. I always wait for people to mention race in order for us to talk about it,” Saldana told me. “Race is not a subject that I spend a lot of time with because I don’t want to, unless it’s done in the right way. That’s what I loved about this film, because it reminded me of the way I grew up.  My father was much darker than my mother, but it was never about that growing up at home. They never mentioned anything about color unless we were painting on paper or deciding what we wanted to wear. It was never about the skin color of people.”

Saldana said Forbes grew up in the same way, which gave the film the proper insight of not making an issue out of race.

“We tell more stories where people make an issue out of it, and generally those stories are by outsiders looking in,” Saldana observed. “But the people who were in it — and whatever the case may be, whether it had to do with their race, gender or growing up with two parents of the same sex — it was never about that. When you’re in it, you’re not talking about it, you’re simply living it.”

Effectively, that’s how Saldana could tell how Forbes’ script was authentic — something the actress doesn’t get with every screenplay she reads.

“It’s something I always point out to writers. I can tell with stories when a person of a certain culture is writing about a foreign culture because they point out on every page and every scene something about the foreign culture,” Saldana said. “It’s like when a white writer writes about one character is black. They will have a white character at some point make a joke or a statement about their color. You can tell who the writer is without knowing them.”

But when the writer does get it right, like Forbes does with “Infinitely Polar Bear,” it’s an exhilarating feeling, Saldana added.

“When we’re talking about art and actors, we’re hired to be chameleons. We’re hired to do a job and if we do it well, you’re not going to see me, you’re going to see the character I’m trying my hardest to bring to life,” Saldana said. “So when that can be seen or pointed out, or I’ve been told that I’ve accomplished that, then I know that the writer has gets it and I’m on the right path. It just makes me feel really good to be doing what I do.”

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Movie review: ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’

Photo: Disney/Marvel

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” (PG-13) 3 1/2 stars (out of four)

Earth’s mightiest heroes are disassembled and reconfigured in an exciting new way in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” a thrilling, complex and action-packed sequel to the overrated 2012 original.

Once again written and directed by Joss Whedon, the hotly anticipated follow-up to “The Avengers” delves deeper into the fragile psyches of the seemingly unstoppable band of superheroes. It also skillfully blends a new villain and additional super-powered characters to the mix, thereby distancing it from any potential threats of sequelitis. The progression of the narrative feels natural and doesn’t try to rest in any way on its laurels, even though the film is a sure-fire box office blockbuster.

“Age of Ultron” picks up in the fictional Eastern European country of Sokovia, where the villainous organization HYDRA holds Loki’s scepter from the first “Avengers” film in their bid to develop weapons of mass destruction. The team recaptures it, but thanks to the wicked, mind-altering powers of Wanda Maximoff (Elisabeth Olson) and hyper-speed of her twin brother, Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a trap is set by Hydra when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) uses the scepter’s power to jumpstart his dormant global peacekeeping “Ultron” program. Stark has the support of Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), but the rest of the team – Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) feel left out in the dark.

The final execution of the program, which helps Stark finally realizes his goal of artificial intelligence, ultimately manifests itself in a super robot named Ultron (voice of James Spader), who not only wants to kill his creator, but rule the Earth after he realizes his plan of global annihilation. And that’s especially a big problem when the Avengers as a team find themselves at breaking point, where loyalties are questioned and trust becomes a big issue, since members of the group have different ideas on how to proceed with stopping the enemy and creating a peaceful future.

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Coming in at just over 2 hours and 20 minutes, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” doesn’t feel too long, but rather a complete story because Whedon wisely uses his time to weave in the darker, complex vignettes of each team member in between all the action. For this reason, the film has more of a Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” sort of edge to it, making the narrative that much more satisfying. While there are plenty of gags and laughs in the “Age of Ultron,” to be sure (a burgeoning romance between Hulk and Black Widow spurs some saucy humor, and there are also running jokes about Cap’s clean-cut demeanor and Thor’s hammer), it’s just refreshing to see that Whedon has adapted to the darker path of the Marvel movie series, where life for its superheroes moves onto shakier ground.

Of course, “Age of Ultron” is packed to the hilt with action, and the special visual effects are about as good as it gets. Particularly impressive is how the fluidness of the metal-based Ultron allows for some expressiveness, and you can really feel Spader’s smarmy characterization flowing through it. The hotly anticipated Hulkbuster scene is also hugely entertaining and diehard fans will definitely not be disappointed.

While the core cast of “Age of Ultron” delivers as expected, it’s exciting to see the introduction of new Marvel Universe characters to the mix like Vision (Paul Bettany) — who is a particularly thrilling addition — and the Maximoffs, who are finely realized by Olsen and Taylor-Johnson. And, without revealing too much, it’s great to see a hint of how the Avengers team is undergoing changes as the film series heads into the two part “Avengers: Infinity War” chapters coming in 2018 and 2019. There will be more in between, though, with “Ant-Man” (in July) and more “Captain America” and “Thor,” because the Marvel Universe is an expansive one – and we can’t get enough of it.

Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.

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