Fantastic Four (2015)

2016 #110
Josh Trank | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Fantastic FourSometimes you just have to see what all the fuss is about, even if that fuss is overwhelmingly negative. Obviously that’s the case with the most recent attempt to bring Marvel’s popular “first family” to the big screen. The behind-the-scenes stories are already the stuff of movieland legend, so I won’t repeat them here, but what of the film itself? Or the version that ended up available for public consumption, anyway.

Reimagining the group’s origins, the film sees young genius scientist Reed Richards (Miles Teller) recruited to a research institute where he works with Sue Storm (Kate Mara), her adoptive brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and the precocious and rebellious Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) to develop a teleport to another world, Planet Zero. When the device is proven to work, the institute’s supervisor rules astronauts will get to take the maiden voyage. Annoyed, the scientists rope in Reed’s childhood friend Ben (Jamie Bell) to help them use it first. But things go horrendously awry, leaving the gang with new abilities…

That chunk of the story takes most of the first hour. Other than being a little slow getting to the point, considering most viewers know where it’s all going, and perhaps not building the characters’ relationships as thoroughly as it could have, I thought it was shaping up as a pretty decent film. It’s not a mind-blowing masterpiece, and it’s certainly not faithful to the original comic, but as a sci-fi movie? It’s good. Not incredible, but good. Well, aside from one truly terrible reshoot wig.

Then the story suddenly jumps forward a whole year, and things go to pot. From that point the film’s ideas aren’t bad, but it feels like the movie was ripped apart and put back together awkwardly, with parts missing, some out of order, and other bits added to cover gaps Awkwardly assembledand serve as new pieces — like a shattered mug that’s been reassembled with lashings of superglue and using a handle from another vessel, which has inexplicably wound up a slightly different size and shape to how it used to be. Considering the studio got cold feet and insisted on massive reshoots, this is quite possibly exactly what happened.

It climaxes with a rushed action sequence on Planet Zero, which was clearly constructed entirely during reshoots (the constant presence of Reshoot Wig gives that away, if nothing else). The speed with which it’s dispatched makes it feel anticlimactic, despite the alleged world-destroying scale, and mainly leaves you wondering how the film originally ended. When it’s done, the heroes return to Earth and triumphant music swells… as they survey a scene of total devastation. It’s clear this hasn’t been thought through. There are still more signs of a rushed production: the CGI used to realise the Thing is pretty good for most of the film, but an unbearably cheesy final scene looks like a poorly-composited unfinished draft. Allowing such a rushed, underfunded, and heavily reshot final act to be released feels amateurish on Fox’s part.

While the studio are obviously keen to blame director Josh Trank for all the film’s problems, and possibly sink his career in the process, I can’t help but think it’s their own fault. It was they who chose to commission a “dark and serious” take on the Four, at odds with their usual depiction, but then wimp out and not follow through on the directorial vision they’d chosen. Despite what some fans would say, it’s this lack of commitment that’s the actual problem. Even in the face of the success of the lighter-toned Marvel Studios movie universe, Too cool for superhero schoolFox like to keep their superhero movies Serious and Dark — and why not? Before this, it had worked pretty well for them across seven X-Men movies, while their colourful-and-cheery earlier attempts at bringing Marvel’s first family to the big screen met with unwavering derision and diminishing box office. It was not an illogical choice to try something different tonally.

In the end, however, this version crashed and burned even harder than those earlier films, both with fans and at the box office. Meanwhile, the latest X-Men movie was similarly ripped asunder by critics and has only performed acceptably; and concurrently, superhero comedy Deadpool took the world by storm. Perhaps this will create a sea-change in the way Fox approach their superhero properties? Only time will tell — though with Deadpool 2 set to offer more of the same and a Wolverine threequel following in its R-rated footsteps, while another X-Men movie is surely in development but not officially announced and the planned Fantastic Four sequels have been quietly cancelled, perhaps it already is.

Fantastic Four’s real problems are twofold: deviating so heavily from the original comic book, which meant from the outset that an awful lot of fanboys were always going to hate it; and then not having the confidence to see that vision through, titting about with things in post. The latter results in a mess of a second half where the whole thing unravels. It’s not perfect before that, but it’s a decent sci-fi movie. I’d love to see Trank’s original cut — I’m not sure it would be a great film, and I’m damn sure it still wouldn’t properly resemble the Fantastic Four of Marvel’s comics, but I bet it would be a lot more consistent than this, and consequently better.

Beam of blue light shooting into the sky? Never seen that before...What could have been a comfortable 3-star movie, maybe even 4 if it followed through well enough, is dragged down to 2 by studio meddling. Will they never learn? Nonetheless, I actually enjoyed enough of Fantastic Four that, while it won’t be going on the long-list of contenders for the best movies I’ve seen this year, I won’t be putting it on the list for the worst either.

2 out of 5

Whiplash (2014)

2015 #84
Damien Chazelle | 107 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue
2015 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 3 wins

Winner: Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay.

WhiplashMr Fantastic dates Supergirl and is taught the drums by J. Jonah Jameson in writer-director Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-winning music drama.

In reality, the story concerns Andrew (Miles Teller of 2015’s Fantastic Four reboot), a drumming student at a prestigious music college where everyone wants to be in the ensemble run by Fletcher (J.K. Simmons of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy). When Andrew makes it in, he soon discovers what a hard taskmaster Fletcher is; some would say abusive. Is Andrew prepared to give up everything, including his burgeoning relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist of the forthcoming Supergirl series), to impress? How far will he go to be the best?

Chazelle’s screenplay is admirable in its psychological complexity here, particularly as it’s contained in a straightforward-seeming master/pupil, abuser/abusee drama that also functions as a surface-level dramatic thriller. The extra levels come from these exact characters and their exact relationship. Fletcher is striving for true excellence, which means he has to push his students… but is he pushing them too far? Andrew wants to be truly excellent, which means a certain amount of dedication… but is he investing too much? Is the relationship that grows between them mutually beneficial, or mutually destructive… or only destructive to Andrew? Whiplash may look like a drama about a music student, but the twists and turns grip more like a thriller, while the questions it raises are not given easy answers. The ending in particular is deliberately ambiguous, and different people have certainly made different assumptions about its intended meaning.

Not a happy chappySimmons’ Oscar is well earnt as the unpredictable Fletcher. If you’ve seen clips and trailers you might imagine it’s a fairly one-note turn, the Angry Teacher who possibly reveals a Heart Of Gold either just in time for the third act or at the very end. But no, there’s more to it than that, and Simmons negotiates every facet and nuance with the expertise of an experienced character actor. Commendations to both Chazelle and Simmons for wrong-footing me on what was actually going on with him more than once.

If the rest of the cast exist in his shadow, it’s because everyone’s giving appropriately restrained performances. Teller actually offers a very strong turn as the lead, who we are of course invited to like and identify with at the start, but who goes so far that it distances the viewer. This is a tricky feat to pull off — many a film has faced accusations of failure because our relationship with the hero was severed when they did something the viewer disapproved of. Andrew isn’t the hero, though; not exactly. He’s the main character, certainly, and we are following his journey and the battle for his future — his soul, if you want to be poetic about it — but that doesn’t mean we like everywhere he goes, or will approve of his eventual destination.

Really, the film is about Andrew and Fletcher. If there’s one serious criticism that could be levelled at the film, it’s that the Nicole subplot is slightly underdeveloped. Personally, I'd choose Melissa Benoist over J.K. Simmons any dayThat thread could do with a boost in the middle, to give their relationship a little more weight when we reach the decisions Andrew must make about it later on. (Personally, I’d choose Melissa Benoist over J.K. Simmons any day, but I don’t think that’s the point…) The same could be said of Andrew’s relationship with his father (Paul Reiser), though that’s actually given more screen time and is consequently more impactful.

These are mere niggles, though, in a film that appears quite simple but actually contains quite a lot of power. It’s certainly more thrilling than you might expect from a character drama about someone learning to play drums, as well as more psychologically complex, and definitely more thought-provoking. There are no easy answers here, just real life; but, unlike most films you’d say that about, Whiplash thoroughly entertains.

5 out of 5

The aforementioned Fantastic Four is in cinemas from Thursday.

Superhero Movie (2008)

2008 #52
Craig Mazin | 85 mins | in-flight | 12A / PG-13

Superhero MovieYears ago, I saw Scary Movie. I don’t really know what I thought of it anymore, but I never expected I’d find myself watching another entry in the critically-derided …Movie series. But then I found myself on a plane, half asleep and with a choice of films I’d mostly rather watch on a decent-sized screen, and decided that maybe Superhero Movie wouldn’t be so bad after all…

As anyone who saw a trailer will have guessed, Superhero Movie is mainly a spoof of Spider-Man… a film that is now six years old. Unfortunately, this means that most of the best jokes have already been done in numerous other sketch-length spoofs, amongst them one at the MTV Movie Awards and one during Comic Relief 2005. The latter even did the green costume thing, though the hero was ‘Spider-Plant Man’ rather than the (less funny) Dragonfly employed here. Superhero Movie takes all this sketchery to the next level, however, crafting its story simply by reworking the first Spider-Man film almost scene by scene, inserting jokes (and, more often, ‘jokes’) where it can — which is about once per scene.

There are also asides that spoof X-Men, Fantastic Four and Batman, but they barely warrant a mention. They’re certainly not any funnier. In fact, the climax is the only wholly original plot point — or, at least, plot point not directly lifted from Spider-Man, as it may well come from some other comic source. This incessant copying makes the film feel like an over-extended sketch, and so it becomes clear that something like Mystery Men, with its genuinely original plot, makes for a much better superhero comedy movie.

As for the gags themselves, they’re childish, lewd, offensive (“isn’t Stephen Hawking funny!”), too specific to American culture, too topical (they’ll be dated within six months), already dated (“isn’t the Windows paperclip annoying!”), too obvious… It’s very much a movie made for now, not for posterity. Actually, to be fair, it’s very much a movie made for six years ago. In this respect I suppose it’s just like the rest of the …Movie series, which I’ve always felt looked like cheap TV specials owing to their specificity and, well, rubbishness. Still, believe it or not, some bits are actually amusing. Or amusing enough while they’re on. Perhaps I was just laughing out of desperation. I certainly can’t remember any of the jokes now.

Intriguingly (a word I use loosely here), there are a bunch of deleted scenes and gags during the end credits — not bloopers, but genuine deleted bits. It’s a mystery as to why these aren’t either in the film itself or relegated to DVD extras — it’s not like running time is an issue, and clearly pacing isn’t. In fact, some of the deletions are much funnier than gags that were left in. They’re probably the only reason to keep watching Superhero Movie to the end, though they’re not reason enough to start it in the first place.

2 out of 5

Superhero Movie featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2008, which can be read in full here.