Box-Office Alternatives: Avengers Edition

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I remember watching an interview a long time ago where Roger Ebert commented that nothing a critic said, good or bad, could alter the power of the superhero blockbuster. Those movies would always be hits because people were determined to make them so.

Ebert went on to say that where a critic's power truly lies is in giving attention to smaller films that don't usually have a such a grand platform on which to be discovered.

So in honor of the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), I decided to comb through the filmographies of its stars for some of those titles that definitely deserve a little more attention.

Robert Downey Jr: Two Girls and a Guy

Everyone was astounded with Robert Downey Jr's extraordinary career turnaround playing Tony Stark. It's resulted in people forgetting about some of the interesting films the actor made during his rocky period. Case in point, the actor-driven Two Girls and A Guy (1997). Teaming for a third time with writer/director James Toback, Downey plays Blake, a cheating New York actor who is confronted by his two current girlfriends (Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson-Wagner).

At first, Two Girls and a Guy exists as a movie about a cheater with the first 20 minutes or so showing both girlfriends fumingly anticipating Blake's appearance. After Downey appears, the movie takes a fascinating turn as the cast engage in a sly battle of late-90s relationship politics. Downey' leads the trio with a fine and accomplished performance that reveals many complexities under the actor's trademark delivery of one-liners. Made at the height of Downey's troubles, the actor's outside influences did nothing to tarnish a truly fine piece of work.

Where to watch: Two Girls and a Guy is currently available for online streaming via Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and iTunes. It's also on DVD and you can rent it locally from Vulcan Video.

Chris Hemsworth: A Perfect Getaway

I have a feeling that most B-movies would be much better if the filmmakers admitted they were B-movies. A Perfect Getaway (2009) remains the best example of this theory. The summertime thriller places three vacationing couples on an isolated island in Hawaii and reveals clues that a pair of them are cold-blooded killers. As Cale, of the the half-dozen vacationers, Chris Hemsworth radiates terror and fear without uttering a line. His dark intensity and hard-to-read looks make his character one of the most intriguing in the film. As every character's motivations are revealed, Cale remains a mystery. His role may not have been as standout as other members of the cast, yet there's enough material for Hemsworth to create a persona as far removed from Thor as possible.

Thanks to a precise level of suspense, a great twist and well-planned action pieces, A Perfect Getaway received some surprisingly decent reviews from critics and even managed to turn a small profit. Yet not enough people know about it. I guess that's another reason it remains a great B-movie.

Where to watch: A Perfect Getaway is currently available for online streaming via Amazon Instant Video and iTunes. It's also on DVD and you can rent it locally from Vulcan Video.

Mark Ruffalo: Reservation Road

Its rare that a movie can actually succeed as both a gut-wrenching drama and a revenge thriller, yet Reservation Road (2007) managed that feat seamlessly. When a divorced father (Mark Ruffalo) is driving his son home, he accidentally hits the son of a professor (Joaquin Pheonix) before quickly fleeing the scene. The story then traces both men and their families, which include Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino, as one man tries to search for justice while the other finds himself consumed by guilt.

Even though the script doesn't ask you to root for Ruffalo's character, the actor manages to make the viewer know the depth of his anguish and pain, and the actor's final scene is one of true raw heartache. Virtually unnoticed when released, Reservation Road provides an interesting simultaneous view on guilt and grief, showing that both emotions take many forms.

Where to watch: Reservation Road is currently available for online streaming via Amazon Instant Video and iTunes. It's also on DVD and you can rent it locally from Vulcan Video.

Chris Evans: Cellular

 

You'd be hard pressed to find a movie more popcorn than Cellular (2004). It's got enough plot holes, funny side characters and action scenes to satisfy any movie lover. The movie tells the story of housewife Jessica (Kim Basinger), who finds herself kidnapped and put into a strange room with a smashed telephone. After connecting some wires, she's able to reach young surfer Ryan (Chris Evans), who must search throughout all of Los Angeles for Jessica's whereabouts.

All commercial elements aside, Cellular boasts some great characteristics. The pacing is near-perfect with many of the script's twists and turns delivering excellently timed punches. The overall concept of an ordinary guy able to run all over a major city, yet unable to free himself from the grasp of a phone (if Ryan hangs up, Jessica might not be able to make another call) is an interesting experiment to watch. Evans' everyman quality was just right for the persona of Captain America and while Cellular may call for a different kind of average Joe, Evans is able to bring it through and through.

Where to watch: Cellular is currently available for online streaming via Amazon Instant Video and iTunes. It's also on DVD and you can rent it locally from Vulcan Video.

Scarlett Johansson: Scoop

Even though she's good at them, I wish Scarlett Johansson would venture away from the action movie safety zone she has so skillfully made her own. For me, one of the most enjoyable times of watching the actress was in the Woody Allen comedy Scoop (2006). Sandwiched in between Match Point (2005) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Allen crafted the role of an American journalism student visiting London who encounters the ghost of a recently-deceased newspaper man (Ian McShane) who informs her that a wealthy playboy (Hugh Jackman) is responsible for a series of murders in the city.

There's great joy in watching Johansson take on a rare comedy role and her scenes with Allen (playing a past-his-prime magician) make for some great buddy-comedy moments. Scoop is a blend of madcap comedy and light mystery with enjoyable doses of magical realism thrown in. Though sometimes the presence of Allen and Jackman do threaten to steal the film away from her, Scoop remains Johansson's show thanks to her goofy, yet earnest work.

Where to watch: Scoop is currently available for online streaming via Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and iTunes. It's also on DVD and you can rent it locally from Vulcan Video.

Jeremy Renner: North Country

If there's one thing most people took away from the devastatingly compelling North Country (2005), it was Charlize Theron's mesmerizing, Oscar-nominated work as a female miner who sues the company she works for after enduring an endless series of sexual assaults. Inspired by a true story, the case, which was successful in establishing sexual harassment laws in America, made North Country not the easiest watch, but definitely an important one.

While most of the male miners in North Country are seen as villains, the film's most menacing presence comes courtesy of Jeremy Renner. As Theron's boss and main assaulter, Renner carves out an antagonist not blatantly evil, but rather skillfully predatory. Holding a secret from his victim's past in which he is confronted about, gives Renner a nice mix of guilt and conflict which is a gimmie for an actor of his skill. Theron may have been the star and the film may now exist as a footnote, but Renner's work remains as strong as always.

Where to watch: North Country is currently available for online streaming via Amazon Instant Video and iTunes. It's also on DVD and you can rent it locally from Vulcan Video.

Elizabeth Olsen: In Secret

Since 2011, Elizabeth Olsen has proven herself to be one of those actresses who seems equally at home in both large and small-scale films. It didn't come as a surprise that she was cast as Scarlet Witch in the new Avengers installment. She'll no doubt bring as much dedication to that role as she did with In Secret (2013). The period drama sees Olsen playing Therese, a young woman in 18th-century Paris who is forced into marrying her sickly cousin (Tom Felton) by her strong-willed aunt (Jessica Lange). When she enters into a passionate love affair with her husband's childhood friend (Oscar Isaac), the two resort to murder in order to be together.

In Secret is dark in nature thanks to the grim life of its central character. And yet, that grimness is also the film's best feature. It's downright fascinating to watch Olsen embody a woman whose life was never her own and how being used as a function has shaped her into someone wrestling with passion and madness. The rest of the cast (especially Lange) is fantastic, but it's Olsen's shoulders on which In Secret so dynamically rests.

Where to watch: In Secret is currently available for online streaming via Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and iTunes. It's also on DVD and you can rent it locally from Vulcan Video.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson: The Greatest

Aaron Taylor-Johnson's turn as Quicksilver in Avengers: Age of Ultron gives the actor another superhero to add to his resume in one of the most diverse careers of any young actor around. For me, I'm still reminded of his touching work in the indie drama The Greatest (2009). The film centers around the death of a teenager (Taylor-Johnson) in a car accident and the damage it wreaks on his family (Susan Sarandon, Pierce Brosnan, Johnny Simmons) and his pregnant girlfriend (Carey Mulligan).

 

Though Taylor-Johnson's role is told mainly in brief flashbacks, with the majority of The Greatest focusing on how the average family deals with death, the actor's role is perhaps the most vital because it signifies all that has been lost. Taylor-Johnson brings a genuine warmth to his scenes with Mulligan, which make the viewer ache with wonder at the kind of movie their relationship would have made. It is truly fine work and without it, none of The Greatest's dramatic moments would ever ring true.

Where to watch: The Greatest is currently available for online streaming via iTunes. It's also on DVD and you can rent it locally from Vulcan Video.

James Spader: The Watcher

Its hard to find an actor who can pull off a villain's role the way James Spader does, be it drug dealer, werewolf or Ultron. Yet one of my favorite turns of his sees him hunting a villain in The Watcher (2000). As a retired LA FBI agent starting a new life in Chicago, Joel Campbell finds himself being taunted by a serial killer (Keanu Reeves) whose capture eluded him years earlier. There are a few generic turns The Watcher takes (especially in Marisa Tomei's “damsel in distress” role). Yet there are a number of white-knuckle sequences which elevate the film beyond the standard thriller trappings. Most of all, it's great to watch the cat-and-mouse game between Spader and Reeves. Their scenes together are dynamite, especially since both actors are playing against their usual screen personas. There are some actor pairings as a film lover that I would kill to watch simply for the sheer energy that would no doubt transport the movie into an area which makes it something more than it would otherwise be. Thanks to Spader and Reeves, The Watcher earns its place in that club.

Where to watch: The Watcher is currently available for online streaming via Amazon Instant Video and iTunes. It's also on DVD and you can rent it locally from Vulcan Video.

Samuel L. Jackson: Amos & Andrew

A year before Pulp Fiction (1994) and a number of years before Nick Fury, Samuel L. Jackson turned in an early leading role in the bold comedy Amos & Andrew. Prominent figure Andrew Sterling (Jackson) buys a home in an upscale island community only to be mistaken for a thief by his neighbors, who immediately call the police. In order to save face, the chief of police hires passing criminal Amos (Nicolas Cage) to act as an intruder in Sterling's home, leading to a huge media uproar.

Released a year after the Rodney King incident, Amos & Andrew was a risky film to put out with its upfront take on how race relations were still rocky. And yet the film remains laugh-out-loud funny thanks to its two leads, especially Jackson, who manages to make his straight man role the more hilarious of the two. It's also a stretch for Jackson to play someone as normal as Andrew given his penchant for offbeat characters. Yet the dignity and humor he brings to the role, and what he manages to convey about being an intelligent black man in the early 90s, makes Amos & Andrew both a sharp piece of social commentary and a truly funny comedy.

Where to watch: Amos & Andrew is currently available for online streaming via Amazon Instant Video and iTunes. It's also on DVD and you can rent it locally from Vulcan Video.