REVIEW: “Fantastic Four” (2015)

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I doubt many people initially thought rebooting the Fantastic Four series was a great idea. Even though the previous two films made decent money, the cast has clearly moved on and calls for a third movie have been nonexistent. But that didn’t stop 20th Century Fox. Desperate to revive one of their lone Marvel Comics properties, the studio went ahead with their shaky venture. They compounded skepticism with some questionable casting choices and statements made during production that gave comics fans cause for concern.

Director Josh Trank was handed the reins and $120 million to bring his vision to the movie. Trank made a surprising splash with his 2012 debut film “Chronicle”, a movie loved by critics and audiences but one that I found to be inconsistent and predictable. We see these same issues fester up in “Fantastic Four”, but this film’s problems stretch much, much further (horrible pun intended) and the resulting mess of a movie is pretty tough to endure.

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Sleep – Prepare to fight it.

The decision to completely rewrite the superteam’s history proved to be a bad one for a couple of reasons. First, I’m not convinced moviegoers really want to sit through another origin story especially about this group of heroes. Second, when you make the decision to rewrite well known characters and their history you better make sure you have a good story to tell. Unfortunately this is an painfully long and dull origin story and not a single new element offers anything of value.

When I say this is a long origin story I mean it is a LONG origin story. The film starts with Reed Richards meeting Ben Grimm in elementary school. The two build a close friendship around Reed’s garage-based teleportation experiments. Next we jump ahead seven years to Reed (Miles Teller) and Ben (Jamie Bell) showing off the experiment at a high school science fair. They are approached by Professor Franklin Storm (Reg Cathey) of the Baxter Foundation who recruits Reed to help work on a dimensional portal called the Quantum Gate. Reed joins the research team consisting of Storm’s daughter Sue (Kate Mara), his rebellious son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and a disillusioned young protégé Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell).

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I had the same reactions…

The film then lumbers through the completion of the Quantum Gate giving us loads of monotone exposition. It takes a few breaks for personal exchanges meant to add some life and emotion to these characters. It doesn’t work. Not one single relationship feels authentic and the emotionally inert characters are void of any compelling personality. Trank and Company want us to believe that Victor has a thing for Sue. They want us to believe that Sue and Johnny are actually brother and sister. They want us to believe in the inevitable team camaraderie that we get later on. But that’s tough to do when the characters are as interesting as tree stumps.

It’s a full hour into the movie before we get to the experiment that grants them their powers. With the evil U.S. government and specifically scientist and government liaison Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson) breathing down their necks, the team decides to use the Quantum Gate and stake a claim on their discovery. Obviously things go terribly wrong. Each are imbued with unique powers but their reactions to their new abilities fractures the team. It’s only when they face a powerful and unexpected threat that they realize the strength they wield as a team. Blah, blah, blah.

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Mara’s expression…through the entire film.

It doesn’t help when the performances are as drab as the story. People are high on Miles Teller but here he flatlines and is embarrassingly bad once the action ratchets up in the final act. Jordan doesn’t offer an ounce of charisma or good humor vital to his character. Cathey’s ultra-serious monotone dialogue is robotic. Mara is strikingly mundane. Yet it’s Tim Blake Nelson who gets the ‘prize’ for the worst performance. He constantly flashes this odd snarky smirk meant to show he is the man in charge. He actually looks like he just sucked on a dozen lemons. In his defense he does get some of the worst lines of dialogue. On the other hand they all get crappy dialogue yet no one is able to rise above it.

Trust me when I say this – reading about the movie is a lot more fun than watching it. You don’t always expect these types of films to be narrative masterpieces, but you do expect them to be spirited, whimsical, and energetic. “Fantastic Four” is a lifeless bore, devoid of any of the ingredients that make these pictures work. Trank has already started pointing fingers at the studios and the studios are already bracing for what looks like a big loss at the box office. I can’t say I’m surprised. Simply put, this is a bad movie and 20th Century Fox should be on the phone with Disney making a deal and getting whatever they can from this now dead-in-the-water franchise.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

1.5 stars

“THE EAGLE” – 2 STARS

There have been several movies about Rome’s powerful Ninth Legion and their annihilation in the British territories in the 2nd century. The newest addition is “The Eagle”, adapted from the novel “The Eagle of the Ninth” by Rosemary Sutcliff. Channing Tatum plays Marcus Aquila, a young Roman centurion taking his first command in a dangerous and isolated part of Britain. Aquila seeks to restore the honor of his father who was leader of the powerful Ninth Legion when they mysteriously disappeared along with the sacred golden Eagle of Rome. After their fort is attacked, Aquila gains the trust and admiration of his legion by leading them to victory but is injured in the battle resulting in his honorable discharge. But with his father’s name still held in contempt and the Eagle still missing, he sets out on a quest past the Northern Wall, accompanied only by his newly acquired slave Esca (Jaime Bell), to find the Eagle and redeem his father’s reputation .

While “The Eagle” does start off promising, it’s an inconsistent and uneven film that falls into mediocrity. The first act is encouraging. The attack on the fort features the film’s best action sequences. They are furiously shot and edited and bring reminders of films like “Gladiator”. Later, as we’re introduced to Esca, the relationship between wounded Roman hero and Rome-hating slave offers up potential even though it’s built upon pretty familiar grounds. But it never goes very far. Nonetheless the movie still has some pretty decent moments early on.

But then the picture bogs down in numerous scenes of tedious exposition and a quest that lacks any real sense of urgency or peril. These problems can be traced back to a very lackluster script. Other than a few bits of text in the opening, there’s no real effort to develop the film’s historical setting. There is no real explanation of the importance of the Eagle other than “The Eagle is Rome”. The relationship between Aquila and Esca is underdeveloped and hard to buy into. The ending is flat and lacks any real punch or emotion. These are all issues that could be resolved with better writing.

Channing Tatum does a better acting job than in many of his previous films but the verdict is still out for me. He gives a good effort but he just can’t carry a picture like this. His scenes involving interaction with his soldiers early on are his best but he struggles elsewhere. Then you have Donald Sutherland who is laughably bad and terribly miscast as Marcus’ uncle. He appears to be just going through the motions and he’s impossible to take seriously. Jamie Bell gives the better performance of any but even he is handcuffed by the weak screenplay.

“The Eagle” is a very “ok” movie. It’s best parts are experienced early then the movie falls off considerably. It starts off as a poor man’s “Gladiator” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But then it loses it’s identity and heads off into a different direction becoming a very mediocre action picture. The characters and the story are underdeveloped and in a movie like this you have to buy into the quest and the stakes must be high. The stakes weren’t that high and I was never sold enough on the story to really invest in it.

“MAN ON A LEDGE” – 2 1/2 STARS

Some movies can take a pretty preposterous concept and still make a fun and entertaining film out of it. There’s no denying that “Man on a Ledge” has a pretty preposterous concept. The question is, is “Man on a Ledge” a fun and entertaining movie? Well…kinda. Underneath the surface the movie has a fairly interesting premise. But it gets bogged down in it’s occasionally lame dialogue, it’s run-of-the-mill characters, and some truly head-scratching moments.

Sam Worthington plays Nick Cassady, an ex-New York City Policeman who is serving a 25-year prison sentence for stealing a $40 million diamond from a shrewd and unscrupulous businessman named Dave Englander (played by an alarmingly thin Ed Harris). After being notified of his father’s death, Nick is allowed to attend the funeral where he evades the guards and sets out to prove his innocence. His plan? To check into the Roosevelt Hotel, have a final meal, then climb out on the ledge of the building prepared to jump. It’s certainly not the normal approach one would take in trying to prove their innocence. Officer Marcus (Titus Welliver) arrives and takes charge of the scene and, at the request of Nick, calls in negotiator Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks).

Now it’s clear that there is more going on than just a man about to jump to his death. Nick has a bigger plan in motion that hinges on Lydia’s cooperation, the craftiness of his brother Joey (Jaimie Bell) and Joey’s girlfriend Angie (Genesis Rodriguez), and the rabid crowd that has gathered below. The story takes several different turns and throws a few twists at the audience, but it’s hard to fully invest in them. Things get a little outlandish and it’s pretty hard to believe at times. Now in the defense of director Asger Leth, he’s well aware that he’s working with some wild material. He keep things moving at a crisp pace and he doesn’t drag the movie out longer that it needs to be. Also, Leth really uses the camera well and I had read where they filmed several scenes with Worthington actually out on the ledge. Unfortunately the good looks of the film isn’t enough to save it from it’s glaring flaws.

There are numerous instances where the writing left me scratching my head. Some scenes will leave the audience asking themselves “Can the NYPD really be this inept?” and “Is the movie making fun of New Yorkers or are we really to believe that 99% of them are bloodthirsty animals?”. There are also several cheesy exchanges between characters that either feel out-of-place or are just plain goofy. The film also features some of the same character types that we’ve seen in so many other movies. We have the wicked, wealthy corporate businessman. We get the typical corrupt cop. We even have the self-serving reporter who is more interested in getting the story that public safety. We’ve seen them all before.

You have to be impressed just looking at the movie’s strong cast. I like Sam Worthington even though he’s yet to really show much range in his performances. He’s actually quite good here even though the role doesn’t require as much from him as you might think. His New York accent does give way to his natural Australian accent in some scenes but he still gives a solid performance. Banks is also pretty good as is Edward Burns as a fellow negotiator. But the biggest problem is none of these performers can truly rise above the material which lets them down on numerous occasions. The always strong Ed Harris and Anthony Mackie as Nick’s former partner are terribly underused and should have been given more to do.

If you can put aside the flaws and suspend disbelief, there is some enjoyment to be found in “Man on a Ledge”. It’s impossible to take seriously and I have no doubt you’ll be shaking your head more than once. But “Man on a Ledge” is a harmless film with some cool action and fun moments. And while it’s a decent little afternoon diversion, it’s an action thriller that’s ultimately forgettable. Check it out if you have some free time. Otherwise, you can probably find something better to watch.

“DEFIANCE” – 4 STARS

Edward Zwick’s 2008 World War 2 movie “Defiance” is an intriguing look at the Nazi’s invasion and ultimate occupation of Belarus. As with every other German occupation, the brutality was rampant and the death tolls were high. The Nazi’s stormed through the countryside, destroying villages, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, and shipping hundreds of thousands more to forced labor camps. As expected the Jewish population was hit particularly hard. This is the harsh and troubled setting for Zwick’s film.

“Defiance” is based on the true story of the four Bielski brothers. After their parents are murdered by Nazi sympathizers, the brothers flee to the forest to avoid the German atrocities which are spreading from village to village. While there, they come across fellow Jews who are also seeking refuge. While hesitant at first, the brothers agree to help protect them. In order to survive, they begin making trips into occupied villages where they swipe food and supplies and are assisted by a few sympathetic farmers. The Bielskis also see their numbers grow as more and more Jews came to be under their protection. In a span of over two difficult years, it’s said that over 1,200 Jews were saved by the Bielski’s efforts.

Daniel Craig plays Tuvia, the oldest brother who finds himself the leader of their forest community. At first his perspective is controlled by his desire for revenge. But over time as he connects more with the people under his care, he begins to see things differently. His tough, burly brother Zus (Liev Schreiber) has a different approach which at times causes friction between the two. Craig is an excellent actor and he is very good here. I’ve always liked Liev Schreiber and have felt that due to some of his past roles he is often time underappreciated. He’s also really good here and shares some fantastic scenes with Craig. I also enjoyed Jaime Bell as their younger brother Asael and Mia Wasikowska as young Jewish girl he becomes involved with. The movie also features strong supporting work from Alexa Davalos, Mark Feuerstein, and Allan Corduner.

“Defiance” is a pretty by-the-books production that plays it pretty safe. But that’s not to say its a bad film. In fact, I really liked the movie despite it’s formulaic approach. At it’s core it’s a truly extraordinary and inspiring story with roots in reality that gives it even more punch. Zwick makes it easy to care about his characters and their plight but he also shows some of the Bielski’s more questionable actions. The complexity of their situation goes beyond mere survival in the forest. For example we see the impact of the Soviet Partisans on everything from the Bielski’s forest camp to the relationship between Tuvia and Zus. As the camp population grows, internal fighting and power struggles pop up as supplies begin to run short. There are several other interesting dynamics that Zwick explores well.

Some have argued that the movie’s desire for a broader audience resulted in the inclusion of content that just didn’t belong. In some countries, people took issue with the film’s portrayal of the brothers. They felt they were made to look more heroic than they were and their shady dealings were underplayed. Some accused it of rewriting history while others griped about its use of other languages instead of Belarusian. It’s hard for me take issue with the movie for any of these issues. As with many historical movies, things were added for dramatic effect. Also, I never felt that it was dealing with the material in an irresponsible or half-hearted way. There may be some issues with the overall narrative, but as a whole the movie really worked for me.

“Defiance” is an underappreciated and often times overlooked World War 2 picture. It doesn’t take many risks and it never strays too far from the more conventional survival movie path. But it’s a very well made film that captures the look and tone of the period. It tells a story that many may be unfamiliar with and even with the historical objections of some, I found it to be a testament to the will to live possessed by this group of Jewish refugees. Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber are fantastic and their performances drive the film. “Defiance” is an underrated film that may not be the best World War 2 movie but it’s certainly worth a watch.