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: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”

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While it may have one of the clunkiest movie titles of 2014, that hasn’t stopped “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” from raking in loads of praise from critics and even more cash at the box office. I have to admit I’m surprised at how this franchise has found life again. I love the original 1968 classic, but frankly this doesn’t seem like the type of series that would appeal to the modern movie sensibilities of many of today’s moviegoers. The 2011 franchise reboot along with its $480 million box office grab proved me wrong. And of course when you make that kind of money you know there is going to be sequel.

I liked the first installment of this reboot but I didn’t see it as the gem that many did. This time around we have a new director and an overhauled cast but the writing team stays intact which you can sense from the first act. In what has become a very familiar way to setup these types of films, the movie opens with snippets from newscasts explaining the state of the world since the events of the first film. Human civilization has collapsed, ravaged by the effects of a deadly simian flu which decimated the population and triggered near apocalyptic after-effects. In other words things on earth are pretty bad, that is unless you are an ape.

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Caesar (Andy Serkis) now leads a large colony of apes who live in the forests outside of what was San Francisco. These apes share the intelligence of Caesar which we see exhibited in a variety of ways. Many of the apes believe that humans are now extinct, that is until they encounter a small group of them in the forest. The group turns out to be part of a pocket of survivors living in the city. Their energy supply is almost gone and a hydroelectric dam in the forest could supply them for years. But as they learn, the dam is smack dab in the middle of ape territory which presents a very big problem.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this film are the political wranglings that take place both between humans and between the apes. Internal debates, distrust, and dissensions plague both camps as each try to figure out how to handle the other. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the head of the small group, recognizes something special about Caesar and tries to form a bond with him. Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is more skeptical and he prepares the humans for war in case Malcolm fails. Similarly Cesar believes peace is the best option but his second in command Koba (Toby Kebbell) has personal animosity towards all humans and he wants to be proactive.

All of that is constructed in a way that shows the similarities between the humans and apes. In fact, that’s a central theme that runs throughout the picture. Whether it be tender family relationships or fear-driven warmongering, we see it all in both the humans and the apes. But what may be the most amazing feat accomplished by this film is its incredible way of translating emotion from the apes. Every display of love, hate, disappointment, frustration, anger, or sympathy that we get from them is incredibly…well…human. Much of it is due to the brilliant makeup and special-effects. But the true credit goes to the stunning motion caption mastery. I love hearing from people who are finally recognizing the genius of Andy Serkis. But folks let me just go ahead and say it – this is Oscar-worthy work. And Kebbell isn’t too far behind him.

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Now while the story is entertaining and never boring, it still has a few things that keep it from being truly phenomenal. There are so many familiar plot angles that we get throughout the entire movie. Honestly, I was amazed at how many things I saw that I had seen in other films. I don’t want to spoil anything , but it really stood out and it made many plot lines predictable. I also thought several of the emotional tugs were a bit obvious and gimmicky. What’s amazing about it is that they still worked for me. I knew I was having my heart-strings yanked during these instances yet I still went with them. Effective but still obvious.

Despite those gripes “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is still a highly entertaining picture. Regardless of its familiar directions the story still kept me engaged. It easily kept me attached to these characters and the film moved at an almost perfect pace. There is some great action, awesome effects, and the performances are strong (none better than the stunning work of Andy Serkis). This is yet another big budget 2014 blockbuster that delivers. I just wish the story itself went out a little more on its own.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

“WRATH OF THE TITANS” – 2 1/2 STARS

Apparently I was one of the few who liked 2010’s “Clash of the Titans”, a remake of the 1981 mythological action film. In fact, one of my biggest disagreements with critics centered around their brutal reviews of that movie. I like the remake because it never pretended to be anything other than what it was. It was a fantasy monster picture in the same vein as the first “Clash of the Titans”, “Jason and the Argonauts”, and the “Sinbad” films. In many ways the remake was an homage to that old genre, replacing the classic stop motion animation with computer-generated imagery. The movie wasn’t a deep, intellectual exercise nor was it intended to be. It was a fun popcorn action flick that reminded me of those old films I grew up with.

That brings us to “Wrath of the Titans”, an original sequel that tries to strike the same chords as the first film but ends up falling short. The sequel starts at least 10 years after the ending of the first movie. Perseus (Sam Worthington) has settled down in a small village where he fishes and raises his son Helius (John Bell). Zeus (Liam Neeson) pays him a visit and tells him that the walls of Tartarus are falling and the God’s powers to stop them is limited due to the lack of prayers from the humans. Zeus’ brief words are really the only introduction we get to story. There’s practically no setup at all. Perseus first refuses to get involved choosing to stay and raise his son instead. But when the walls of Tartarus fall, monsters are unleashed across the earth and one attacks Perseus’ village. Of course this gets him immediately involved.

Much like the first film, “Wrath of the Titans” turns into quest movie. Perseus teams up with Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike), Agenor (Toby Kebbell), Poseidon’s demigod son, and several token tagalongs to stop the fire monster Kronos from being freed from Tartarus. To do that they will need three weapons that will join together to form the Spear of Triam. Much like “Clash”, the journey takes them to several locations and they encounter several different creatures. But unlike “Clash” the creatures and the battles with them just aren’t that impressive. I still remember the extremely cool scorpion battle sequence and the fight with Medusa from “Clash”. There isn’t a single creature battle here that I’ll even remember a year from now.

It’s not that the creatures look bad. In fact, the CGI special effects are very well done. The creatures look amazing, feature fluid movements, and they blend in perfectly with the environments. The camera often times turns away or jerks at just the right moments to help the scenes look more realistic. The problem is the scenes aren’t choreographed that well. Another problem is that there really weren’t that many new creatures. Every creature in the film was shown in the trailers and I was disappointed that I wasn’t surprised with a few others. But the CGI is exceptional in creating some wonderful environments and landscapes. The group has to make their way through a rubik’s cube-like labyrinth that looks fantastic. Tartarus also looks great and I was really impressed by some of the sweeping overhead shots of some of the battle sequences.

While the story lacks a good introduction, some of the characters lack development. Neither Andromeda or Agenor are developed to the point of feeling like important characters. I think back to Perseus’ fellow journeymen from the first film. There were several of those characters that I liked despite their limited screen time. That’s not the case here. But the movie does ease up on the cheesy lines especially between gods. Ralph Fiennes is back as Hades and his conversations with Zeus as considerably less corny that before. Fiennes and Neeson are actually quite good and I did enjoy the powerless gods angle.

“Wrath of the Titans” does capture some of what I liked in the first film. It’s still a straightforward popcorn action picture that doesn’t try to be anything else. The story is simple but it still manages to provide some fun. The creatures look amazing even if their fight sequences aren’t as exciting as they should be. This Perseus is a kinder and gentler Perseus and in many ways this feels like a kinder and gentler movie. It has some nice eye candy and a few pretty cool moments but it lacks the kick and the grit of the first film. Even with its fun scenes and shiny coat of paint, I just can’t help but see “Wrath of the Titans” as a disappointment.