Review: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Doug Jones, Laurence Fishburne, Julian McMahon, Kerry Washington. Directed by Tim Story.

rise1The Fantastic Four returns with a pretty decent story involving their old nemesis, Victor Von Doom, and the titular, mysterious space visitor whose appearances around the globe are so damaging that the team is called into action. The Silver Surfer is a strange creature, zooming around through the atmosphere for no apparent reason, but somehow he doesn’t seem malevolent. His path of destruction includes the nuptials of Reed Richards and Sue Storm, whose wedding is again interrupted by their need to save the world. Richards and Storm consider leaving the superheroing behind for the sake of their impending marriage, inspiring bitterness from Johnny Storm.

rise2The acting, still not the greatest, is a lot better than in this film’s predecessor. Ioan Gruffudd is a passable leading man here, and the camaraderie of the four principles is again the movie’s greatest strength. There’s a fun plot element that involves the four heroes’ trading powers, a nice little twist with a satisfying payoff.

rise3The Silver Surfer story is kind of bizarre, but this character is interesting and kind of likeable. It could have been improved with a voice actor other than Laurence Fishburne, whose quiet wisdom affectation is a slight distraction. Still, I like the tensions from multiple sources pulling characters sometimes in opposing directions and others in similar directions.

It’s kind of a fun movie, if not exactly one that sticks with you. I would have looked forward to another film with this cast. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is a step in the right direction, easily on the north end of okay.

6/10
65/100

Review: Fantastic Four (2015)

Fantastic Four (2015)
Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson. Directed by Josh Trank.

ff20151Yikes.

The 2015 reboot of Fantastic Four was presumably supposed to rejuvenate the franchise. It seems instead to have used the 2005 film as the baseline for finding new ways to be bad. While some aspects are certainly better—Miles Teller as Reed Richards the most striking—this new attempt is good where the first film was bad, and bad where the first film was good. It’s not a winning approach.

Reed Richards, a high-school student who’s been working for years with his friend Ben Grimm on a teleporter, enters his project in the school science fair. Although the exhibition is a failure, he’s worked out one detail that’s been evading Franklin Storm and his teenaged science prodigies at the government-sponsored Baxter Foundation. Dr. Storm and his daughter Sue somehow happen to be at the science fair, and seeing that Richards’s machine brings things back from wherever they’re teleported, offer him a scholarship.

ff20152The Baxter Foundation is what Richards has always yearned for: not only access to expensive equipment and time to work with it, but a social admiration for the talents that have always alienated him. We’ve seen this same setup before, with Harry Potter and Ender Wiggin (for example), so there’s good dramatic gold to be mined here, but the film instead hurries through a rivalry with Victor Von Doom and a romantic interest in Sue Storm to get the bodies into the transporter and the mutations into the bodies. We get cursory character development (although Sue’s proclivity for recognizing patterns is an intriguing idea that could have worked) and absolutely no meaningful sense of place or wonder. Nor do we get any real emotional buildup for Richards.

What we get instead are ridiculous visual effects, a dumb story, and worst of all, no relationship development with the heroes. The one visual effect that’s cooler than in 2005 is the rendering of the Human Torch, which looks pretty much just like the comic book character.

ff20153The acting is somewhat better, but the actors aren’t given enough to work with. Miles Teller is a Reed Richards I could have believed in, if only the film had made an effort to let Teller do what he does, which is relate. There is nothing between Sue and Reed except a vaguely defined intellectual admiration that never turns into a spark, which is another waste, because although Kate Mara is no Jessica Alba, she could have been sexy in a completely different way for the likes of Richards. Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm is fine. Jamie Bell and Toby Kebbell as Ben Grimm and Victor Von Doom are completely forgettable.

4/10
44/100

Review: Fantastic Four (2005 film)

Fantastic Four (2005)
Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Julian McMahon, Kerry Washington. Directed by Tim Story.

f41I was not a comic-book reader when I was a kid, but every so often a stack of comics fell into my hands, either through some friend who had them lying around, or some family known to my parents who was shipped away by the Navy, leaving behind a box of books. While I remember very little of what I read, I do remember that most often, the stack would contain more issues of Fantastic Four than anything else. This means that I came to 2005’s Fantastic Four film with no real memory of—but a definite fondness for—its characters.

The makers of this movie did their best to erase even that. Ridiculously bad dialog, stiff acting, and more cheese than a chalupa turn what could have been a pretty good experience into little more than something to get through so I could mail the DVD back in time to get something good before the weekend.

f42Reed Richards thinks human evolution was triggered by clouds of cosmic energy from space. A bunch of these clouds are scheduled to approach Earth soon, but he has no funding to study them. Accompanied by his friend Ben Grimm (an astronaut I think he knows from days at MIT), he begs much wealthier MIT acquaintance Victor Von Doom for funding and facilities. Von Doom is also Reed’s romantic rival for the affections of Sue Storm, who now works in Von Doom’s company. The project is green-lit, and Richards,Grimm, Von Doom, Storm, and Storm’s younger brother Johnny leap into space to begin their study.

There’s an accident, and all five are exposed to the cosmic energy, some worse than others, resulting in mutations leaving Richards with a stretchable body, Grimm with a body seemingly made completely of stone, Sue with powers of invisibility and energy manipulation, Johnny with the ability to set himself on fire (and fly), and Von Doom with (I think) a body made of some super metal.

f43It’s not a bad setup, but within ten minutes of the opening credits, I was already wondering if I would make it to the end. Not only are there ridiculous amounts of space between lines in the dialog as if the actors are being fed their script through an earpiece first and then directed to repeat them for the camera, but characters are made to say stupid things, sometimes to let you in on what they’re thinking in ways nobody ever speaks, and sometimes to tell you the meaning of what you just witnessed, in case you’re an idiot.

Of the actors, only Michael Chiklis looks like he didn’t just see the script moments before filming his scenes, and I can’t tell how much of his character is him and how much is CGI, so it’s possible I’m crediting the wrong person here. Everyone else—and I mean everyone—is just awful, but Ioan Gruffudd as Mr. Fantastic is the worst of all, ridiculously stiff (ironic, considering his character’s super powers), lost, and out of place. Chris Evans as the Human Torch usually adds lightness and ease to overly dramatic scripting, so I guess he gets a little bit of a pass for his sometimes awkward timing, and Jessica Alba is very pretty, but not pretty enough to make up for what I hope is a low point in her oeuvre.

What keeps the movie from being a total disaster is the dynamic of the characters. With their completely different skills, they do some pretty neat things in averting a bridge disaster one of them actually causes, and then in defeating Dr. Doom in the film’s climax. Bringing the comic book characters to life for the big screen was a great idea, so someone deserves props for making it happen. The heroes are interesting enough to rise above the actors who portray them, but only high enough to put this just north of must-miss.

4/10
44/100

Review: Daredevil

Daredevil (2003)
Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan, Colin Farrell, Jon Favreau. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson.

daredevilDaredevil is quite a bit better than I expected. I missed it in theaters because I didn’t know a thing about the comic book hero, and because I didn’t know Jennifer Garner was in it. It turns out to be nicely dark—darker even than the Dark Knight series—with interesting fight sequences and an intriguing romance-driven plot. I’m disappointed there isn’t a sequel with the same protagonist.

daredevilBen Affleck plays Matt Murdock, a lawyer blind since childhood, who takes clients who can’t always pay in cash. The office he shares with his partner Foggy Nelson (Jon Favreau) is crammed with sports equipment and other items received as payment for the firm’s services. The accident that took Murdock’s sight also left his other senses extremely heightened, in a super power kind of way. He can’t see, but his hearing is so acute that it serves as kind of a radar, so he can judge shapes and distances through (I suppose) echolocation. These super senses, combined with a restless, reckless need for justice, serve him at night, when he dons a costume and fights crime as a mysterious, mythical character named Daredevil. I have long thought that Ben Affleck doesn’t get enough credit for his acting chops, and he does better than an apt job with this role.

That’s pretty cool, but add a few details, and you really have something. Murdock lives in the stony, unlit basement of an old Catholic church, sleeping in a water-filled sarcophagus that acts as a sensory deprivation chamber. He has no family, and his father’s murder is unsolved many years later. He literally smells attractive women before they enter a building, and he has some nicely honed moves for getting to know them. I have often wondered why superheroes in these films are never horndogs—I mean, given their abilities and their abundance of testosterone, it seems like a natural thing. Now I’ve seen two in three weeks who seem to enjoy the company of women (the other is Deadpool, but we see this before he has any powers, so he’s not employing his advantages). There’s also a short Kevin Smith appearance I appreciated.

daredevilI love Jennifer Garner, so my opinion here is disproportionately influenced by my affection, but her smart, tough, feline portrayal of Elektra Natchios, who seems able to keep up with Murdock, makes the film work. She’s a great love interest for him, and an obvious choice for the spinoff series we never got. Michael Clarke Duncan and Colin Farrell as the villains are fine, but the characters are (and I realize I shouldn’t complain about this in a comic book movie) silly and cartoonish.

This could have been the beginning of a great series. As it is, it’s like watching a great TV show pilot and never getting to see any other episodes: promising but just a bit flat.

7/10
74/100

Review: Deadpool

Deadpool (2016)
Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, T.J. Miller, Gina Carano, Leslie Uggams. Directed by Tim Miller.

deadpool1Deadpool is the first of the X-Men films to be rated R by the MPAA, and it is a gleeful, proudly R-rated film—crude, vulgar, profane and violent. It’s like everyone involved, rather than seeing how much they could get away with and still keep a PG-13 rating, decided from the beginning to get the R rating and see how much fun they could have.

deadpool3A LOT of fun. Not only does it revel in action and dialogue that’s strictly for adult audiences, but it destroys the fourth wall, it’s incredibly self-aware, and it opens with one of the best frozen-action camera shots I’ve ever seen. It’s as if the irreverent antihero Deadpool character also wrote and directed the film as kind of an anti-comic-book antimovie. Even the opening credits are anticredits.

deadpool2Wade Wilson is a former special forces dude who hangs out in the roughest bar in the world and seems to intimidate people on behalf of other people for money. He meets a woman, falls in love, and is diagnosed with cancer. Lots of cancer. Someone says he might be able to cure Wilson, but it’s going to be painful. Wilson agrees to the treatment, which is really a series of experiments by a sadistic man named Ajax who subjects Wilson (and others) to extreme physical trauma in hopes of triggering an artificial mutation.

This is Deadpool’s origin story, and its plot elements are not especially intriguing or interesting. The film’s strength is in telling the story in a manner unlike any comic book film I can think of. Wolverine may be a loner, resistant to joining anyone’s team, but his moral compass is pretty easy to read. Deadpool is morally ambiguous, and without apology, and while this makes some of his decisions unpleasant, the ride is so enjoyable it’s hard to complain.

Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool is excellent. I honestly thought he was good as Green Lantern too, though, so maybe my opinion here is questionable. Two of the X-Men from Xavier’s school, Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, help out, and they’re great too. I don’t know a thing about either of them, but I love Colossus, who seems to be Deadpool’s opposite in every way.

Superhero origin stories are getting tiresome, yet here is one that had me curious and entertained all the way through.

8/10
80/100

Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Olivia Munn, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne. Directed by Bryan Singer.

X-Men_Apocalypse_reviewIn X-Men: Apocalypse, an ancient Egyptian mutant is awakened by Moira McTaggart, and he does not like what the world has become in the centuries since his live burial. He finds a few young mutants (Angel, Storm, and Psylocke among them) and – wait for it! – decides he needs to blow up the world.

apocalypseMagneto is living under cover in Poland, with a wife and child, while working in some kind of steel mill or something. He’s trying to live a quiet life, but as he keeps reminding us and Xavier, the world doesn’t want to allow it. I think Xavier finds him and enlists his help, with a bunch of young X-Men, including young Jean Grey, young Cyclops, young Nightcrawler (in what seems to be a timeline inconsistency), and young Quicksilver, in stopping Apocalypse, that Egyptian mutant, from ending things.

The Magneto story is great, and I appreciate the film taking its time through it. The Xavier-McTaggart story is interesting, but there’s not enough of it. And there’s just not enough of the relational stuff that makes other X-Men films so much better than this. Without it, you just have a crazy cartoonish villain wanting to – wait for it! – blow up the world, and that’s just not interesting. I still enjoyed the film, because I enjoy the X-Men and the students at Xavier’s school, but scenes with Apocalypse were just something to sit through, and there were a lot of them.

6/10
58/100

Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Holt, Kelsey Grammer, and Peter Dinklage. Directed by Bryan Singer.

days1In some future time, mutants (and their supporters) are being exterminated by Sentinels, robot-like things that have Mystique’s powers of transformation. To combat this, Shadowcat has been sending other mutants’ consciousnesses back in time, to warn their recent past selves of the impending danger, so the mutants can go elsewhere. This affects their present so that they were never where the Sentinels show up, a kind of going back in time to prevent a bad present.

days_2But it’s not enough; the Sentinels can’t be held off like this forever. So Charles Xavier’s plan is to send someone’s consciousness back to 1973 to prevent the murder Mystique committed that resulted in her being captured and experimented on, which gave the government the knowledge for the creation of the Sentinels. Shadowcat can’t go herself, because she didn’t exist in 1973, and the strain on even the formidable mind of Xavier would be too great to survive. So Wolverine of the self-healing mind* volunteers to convince Xavier and Eric Lensherr to help him stop Mystique. Xavier, remembering what he was like in 1973, warns Logan that he will “not be easy to convince.”

days3Wolverine’s present mind goes back to his 1973 self, which is a genius move for the writers, because rather than putting makeup on Patrick Stewart, Rebecca Romijn, Ian McKellen, and Kelsey Grammer to make them look decades younger, the film just uses the cast from X-Men: First Class. I love this.

The premise is so good that even a so-so realization would still have made this a pretty good film, but the writers and director have fun with the back-in-time bit, and they play with the suspense so it’s enjoyable without being manipulative. Jackman and McAvoy are excellent, loaded with all kinds of dark conflict—McAvoy’s Xavier manages to out-dark Logan in this film, and this is a very good thing. The continued friendship-rivalry between Xavier and Lehnsherr keeps working. It’s one of the best things about the X-Men series, and X-Men: Days of Future Past is possibly my favorite of the X-Men movies.

7/10
79/100

*I love the premise, but if I understand Wolverine correctly, it’s his body that recovers from injury, which means his brain regenerates, not necessarily his mind.  If his mind heals itself, why can’t he heal the parts of his memory that Stryker has taken away from him?

Review: Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Rene Russo. Directed by Alan Taylor.

thor2The first Thor film was an unexpected surprise. I saw the trailer and thought, “There is no way that can be any good.” I was wrong. As utterly bizarre as the premise and plot were, it was an entertaining movie whose underlying conflict between immortal brothers was strangely humanizing. Add that to Thor’s fish-out-of-water story on earth, and there was something almost universal about a Norse god roaming the streets of New Mexico with Padme Amidala.

thor3I had high hopes for this sequel, but then reviews were lukewarm, and people close to me said it was a fairly unmemorable movie, so I didn’t go out of my way to see it until I decided two years later that I want to see all the films in this Marvel universe. Low expectations were surely part of my enjoyment of the first movie, and now they contribute to my enjoyment of the sequel. It’s compelling and funny, with characters I enjoyed spending time with, and I like it just as much as I liked the first film.

thor1Loki is imprisoned by his father Odin, the king of Asgard. Thor and his buddies are finishing a war across nine realms, sparked (I think) by the events in the first movie, so although his heart yearns to get back to Jane Foster in New Mexico, as he promised, he’s been a little too busy. Now the nine realms are about to converge, creating portals linking them directly, and an ancient foe who has been in hibernation arises to undo the mistake that was the creation of the nine realms. Jane gets involved, her life is in peril, Loki’s assistance must be solicited, and we get another round of the Thor-Loki love-hate dynamic.

And it is not tired. It’s still gripping. Don’t ask me how. There are so many ways Thor: The Dark World should just be laughable, but it’s not, and I don’t know how they do it, but it may have something to do with one very quick scene at the beginning of the third act. Thor shows up at Jane’s house, and as he enters, he hangs Mjolnir, the mighty hammer that has vanquished giants with one blow, on a peg on a coat rack. It is an acknowledgment of the strangeness of this film’s premise without conceding any of its reality within the universe it has created. Thor sees how out of place he is, how impossible it is for him to be there, but he is there, and Hemsworth plays his part with the right amount—just a smidgen—of awkward imbalance to flavor the rest of his utmost earnestness. It totally works, even with a nonsensical, ambiguously western European accent.

7/10
72/100

Review: The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt, Tim Roth, Tim Blake Nelson. Written by Zak Penn; directed by Louis Leterrier.

hulk1I didn’t think I’d care much for Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, now that I’ve gotten used to Mark Ruffalo, but it only took a few minutes for me to see the appeal of this casting. He reminds me so much of Bill Bixby in the television version that I felt comfortable and nostalgic with Norton in the role. I love the brainy quiet Norton brings, and he communicates the always-looking-over-his-shoulder vibe well.

hulk2There’s a little bit of playing around with Hulk’s origins, if I remember things correctly, but they’re minor enough that I don’t really care. I don’t remember Hulk having any love interests, so I went in with a blank canvas for Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, whose smart, loyal, kind of girlish silliness I took very quickly to. There is a scene, when Ross and Banner connect after a long time apart that pretty much sold me on the rest of the film just because it felt so great. I found myself wistful and nostalgic for reunions I never had, happy that these two characters were going to go through the next terrible hour together.

hulk3It’s this relationship that makes the tension in The Incredible Hulk bearable. Banner’s situation is so unspeakably terrible that it’s hard to imagine him finding any peace at all, ever again. Yet Ross’s unflinching loyalty makes it seem possible, even knowing the love story is likely doomed to failure.

While I’m neither a fan of extended superhero fight sequences nor urban chase scenes, both are interesting enough in this movie to keep me engaged, especially a rooftop-and-alley run through the slums of a Brazilian city that’s beautiful to look at. There’s a lot of running in Hulk movies.

The villain is a creature named Abomination, the alter-ego of a character played by Tim Roth. I didn’t find either incarnation especially intriguing, even though I generally love Roth. His enabler, a general played by William Hurt, is so two-dimensional he’s practically a line segment on the screen. If not for Banner’s own personal conflicts, this movie would have been dreadful. Thankfully, Norton and Tyler make it pretty dang good.

7/10
74/100

Review: Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Stanley Tucci. Directed by Joe Johnston

ca3You know how, in those side-scrolling video games of your youth, you were so familiar with the early levels that you could guide your character quickly to the boss monster, running, leaping, punching, slashing, and firing your way past a hundred no-longer-challenging minions and pitfalls? There are sequences in Captain America: The First Avenger like that, and if you don’t overthink them, they’re pretty fun to watch.

Chris Evans is Steve Rogers, a scrawny young man trying and failing to enlist in the Army to serve his country in World War II. He’s beset with a shopping list of physical ailments that keep him out, but so sincere and pure are his motives that he’s an ideal candidate for a scientific military experiment that turns him into a super soldier.

ca2I’m kind of a superhero newbie, and it seems that superpowers are the
result of military ambition, science experiments gone haywire, or alien birth. Of these, I suppose the military angle is most believable, but it comes with an underlying cynicism that works against my sensibilities. I once scoffed at the rich guys with expensive toys because they don’t actually have superpowers, but their stories are dark enough for my tastes while not originating with physical and mental abuse by the government.

ca_1Despite these ignoble beginnings, Steve Rogers adds enough brains and
earnestness to rise above the intentions of his creators and become an admirable hero without cheap sentiment. My only experience (at all, in any medium) with Captain America before now had been the first Avengers film, in which he was mysteriously bland and poorly defined. I’d missed Captain America in theaters, and after The Avengers, I was in no hurry to get caught up. But then one Captain America film became three, and for some reason, I recently decided I wanted to be completely fluent in the lore of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, and I was pleased to discover such a likeable, vulnerable hero. Apparently, one needn’t be the Dark Knight to be a tortured soul with a reason to kick butt.

Supporting characters in this film are interesting if cartoonish, but I guess you can’t really complain about comic book characters being cartoonish, so I won’t. I won’t even complain about the main villain’s ridiculous visage. There’s a canon that needs to be served, and I’m a visitor in this world, so I’ll accept the Red Skull on its terms.

Captain America: The First Avenger is a fun, engaging movie with a reasonable explanation for the dorky name and costume, and the kind of main character I want to see more of.

7/10
74/100