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Geez, I have to do all the acting: Chiklis in Fantastic Four.

Super Dumb Fun
By Shawn Stone

Fantastic Four

Directed by Tim Story

The beauty of Fantastic Four is that it doesn’t make you think. This is a special kind of celluloid-induced stupid, however, not the usual garden-variety, intelligence-insulting, summer-blockbuster brainlessness. Fantastic Four is pleasingly subversive; it actually preempts thought. It does this on a couple of levels, too.

First there’s the story, which is typical comic-book hooey. A team of scientists gets caught in some type of cosmic space storm that alters their DNA, and they subsequently develop superpowers that passeth all understanding. The filmmakers—director Tim Story, with screenwriters Michael France and Mark Frost—know this isn’t exactly Arthur C. Clarke, and they acknowledge so in a funny scene between scientific genius Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and teen dork Johnny Storm (Chris Evans). When Richards says that exhaustive tests will be needed to determine what happened, Johnny—now transformed into the Human Torch—shoots flame out of his fingertips. The genius relents.

Now, before all you fanboys get huffy, I know that Stan Lee knew this was hooey when he cooked it up with Jack Kirby 40 years ago, and that Marvel comics were about character and story as much as superpowers and heroic deeds. But in many Hollywood adaptations of comic heroes, this kind of stuff is treated with a degree of seriousness Cecil B. De Mille couldn’t muster for the Bible. Credit Story and company for not emphasizing the wrong things.

Second, there’s the casting. Pretty people are more appropriate for summer fun than talented people, so the less-talented pretty people are not asked to do anything complicated. This is why the really good actor (Michael Chiklis, as Ben Grimm, aka the Thing) is the only one entrusted with semi-serious emotional scenes. And, since this is supposed to be family fun (and not another Sin City), going too heavy on the “ogling Jessica Alba” factor would be inappropriate. So, while the physically alluring Ms. Alba (Sue Storm, aka the Invisible Girl) is never costumed in anything too demure, the filmmakers don’t go the sleazy route either, making the obligatory invisible-chick-turns-visible gags more funny and embarrassing than salacious.

Given that they cleverly stop you from thinking too heavily about the plot, or the acting, or even the sexy actress, what do they encourage you to do? Laugh at the jokes and watch the freaks blow stuff up real good. What better recipe is there for breezy summer cinema?

Soggy, Not Scary

Dark Water

Directed by Walter Salles

Dark Water is a remake of a Jap anese film that shares its pedigree (author, screenplay, and director) with the Ringu horror films (and their American remakes). But as directed by Walter Salles (Central Station), who takes the dank and brooding route, this Dark Water is not horrifying in the least—in fact, it barely qualifies as creepy. It is distressing, and admirably textured, but these attributes alone can’t carry a movie, especially one whose central elements—dual little girls, and various permutations of impure water—have recently become overly familiar. Star Jennifer Connelly, however, can carry a movie, and as a loving but fragile young mother she certainly gets some extra mileage out of the played-out screenplay.

Connelly’s Dahlia is newly separated from her cheating husband (Dougray Scott) and facing a nasty custody battle over their 5-year-old daughter, Ceci (Ariel Gade). Unemployed and new to New York City, Dahlia finds an affordable apartment in an institutional-looking complex on Roosevelt Island. Ceci reacts to the island with claustrophobia, and she’s justifiably appalled at their new home, which is one coat of paint away from squalor. It also has serious plumbing issues, which stem from either the apartment above or the rooftop water tower. Neither the slick rental agent (John C. Reilly) nor the off-putting handyman (Pete Postlethwaite) are much inclined to help. Stressed by their awful environment, Ceci falls under the influence of an invisible friend named Natasha while Dahlia experiences flashbacks from her traumatic childhood. Her only support is a lawyer of dubious distinction and even more dubious motives (Tim Roth). Reilly and Roth are both remarkable in small roles, but Postlethwaite hams it up mercilessly, perhaps to compensate for his character being a plot contrivance.

Though there’s an ephemeral subplot about the mysterious disappearance of the upstairs tenants—a Russian couple and their 5-year-old daughter—Dark Water is more effective at mining the financial and emotional horrors of divorce on women with children, and using them to deepen the unease of slightly out-of-the-ordinary situations such as a strangely malfunctioning washing machine in the basement, or the taunts of bored teenagers. Because the pressures of coping with her new life seem much more sinister and intriguing than the apartment’s resident evil (and its affinity for faulty plumbing), the resolution of the film’s mystery comes off as merely perfunctory. Despite Connelly’s hypnotic performance and Salle’s impeccable sense of atmospherics, Dark Water is a total washout.

—Ann Morrow

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