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 protĂ©gé 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

REVIEW: “The Spectacular Now”

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It’s rare to find a teen movie that actually treats teens like real people with real problems and real emotions. So often these films peddle juvenile humor and exaggerated stereotypes in place of stronger and meatier stories. That’s why it’s refreshing to find a movie like “The Spectacular Now”. This intelligent and nuanced coming-of-age story steers clear of cliches and gimmickry by respecting its characters and portraying their circumstances in a thoughtful and naturalistic way.

Miles Teller plays Sutter Keely, a popular and hard-partying high school senior. He has a hot girlfriend, a great personality, and no real ambition for the future. Sutter tells several people he lives in the now, not worrying about anything other than the moment. But that attitude proves to be destructive – something he can’t see through his fog of hedonism. His girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) finally has enough and breaks up with him. He is warned by a concerned teacher that he may not have the grades to graduate. And his constant drinking becomes a growing concern. Sutter’s life “in the now” isn’t the happy, sunshiny place he projects. It’s just a facade to hide the truth of a troubled and conflicted life.

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Sutter’s life takes an unexpected turn when he meets Aimee (Shailene Woodley). She’s a shy and studious ‘good girl’ whose reserved lifestyle is in stark contrast to Sutter’s. The two opposites hit it off but it takes some time for their relationship to blossom. But several of Sutter’s issues get in the way – his ego, his ‘cool guy’ reputation, his fixation on old flame Cassidy, and his self-destructive behavior. We never really know how Sutter and Aimee’s relationship will turn out. The film doesn’t lay out a standard formulaic plot line and a big part of its success is the experience we have watching this authentic relationship play out.

The story is also helped by some nice performances by the two leads. Teller and Woodley have noticeably different acting styles yet they seem to gel nicely with these two characters. For Teller this film is wedged in between two run-of-the-mill raunchy comedies so I was pleasantly surprised at his work here. Woodley’s nice performance is no surprise. Her film debut in Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” received rave reviews and here she delivers another eye-catching performance. The supporting work is also uniformly good. Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and especially Kyle Chandler each have some strong screen time.

One of the interesting things about “The Spectacular Now” is how it employs several familiar plot points, but it treats each of them with a fresh and prudent sincerity. There are moments where you can guess how certain things will play out, but the film also steadily surprised me by not going the conventional route. More importantly it is all grounded in a realistic portrayal of these two teenaged characters which separates this film from the bulk of teen pictures we get. That alone is something I welcomed with opened arms.

VERDICT – 4 STARS