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Fantastic Four lives up to its name

By Lady Liberty
web posted July 11, 2005

Dark Water

* 1/2 out of ****

Dark WaterWith some decent early reviews — not to mention the fact the story used by the movie was penned by the same man who wrote the very scary The Ring — I was looking forward to seeing a scary movie that actually lived up to its promise of being scary. Sadly enough, Dark Water isn't that movie. The film does have some moments of mild suspense, but on the whole is so entirely predictable that it could only have been redeemed if it had at lest involved substantial drama. Alas, it doesn't manage that, either.

Dahlia Williams (Jennifer Connelly) has long been in quietly desperate straits. As a child, she was traumatized by her mother's abandonment. As a young mother herself, she's in the midst of a painful and acrimonious divorce with her cheating husband, Kyle (Dougray Scott). She's determined, however, to manage as best she can and to keep at least joint custody of her young daughter, Ceci (Ariel Gade) as well. With money tight, she finally finds an apartment she can afford on New York's Roosevelt Island. Although the building's owner Mr. Murray (John C. Reilly) oversells the place in grandiose terms, Dahlia and Ariel both have doubts. The apartment is small. It's in poor repair. And it's in a building that's definitely seen better days and which undoubtedly began in a better neighborhood.

Still, Dahlia can afford it, it's near a good school, and it's close to her new job. And then suddenly, without warning, Ceci changes her mind and begs her mother to take the apartment. Pretending to an optimism she doesn't feel for the sake of her child, Dahlia signs the paperwork and moves in. But it's not long after Dahlia and her daughter begins to live in their new home that things begin to go wrong. A leaky ceiling in the bedroom threatens to be an ongoing problem, and the building's grumpy superintendent Mr. Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite) is uncooperative when it comes to repairs. The basement laundry room is not only creepy but has serious mechanical problems. The elevator has a tendency to misbehave. A pair of delinquent teenagers vandalize apartments and otherwise cause trouble for Dahlia.

As if Dahlia doesn't have enough to deal with, her estranged husband cuts off mediation and tells her to hire a lawyer for a contested divorce settlement. With the advice of a friend, Dahlia hires an attorney named Platzer (Tim Roth) to represent her. In short order, he becomes nearly as concerned with Dahlia's mental health as her husband claims to be. Simultaneous problems with Ceci's behavior only make matters worse as the child develops an invisible friend named Natasha. When Ceci's teacher Mrs. Finkle (Camryn Manheim) tells Dahlia she might want to consider sending the child to see the school psychologist, Dahlia is nearly at the end of her tether. Poor Dahlia doesn't know that she's not yet anywhere near the end of the downward spiral her life is taking...

The constant rain in Dark Water and the grey tones of virtually every scene are surely intended to set the dark mood of the film. It works, but perhaps not in the manner intended. Rather than creepy, it comes across as almost unredeemably depressing. The actors are, without exception, very good. Standouts are Connelly and, not surprisingly, John C. Reilly. Ariel Gade is impressively able to hold her own against the Academy Award® winner and nominee. But as good as the performances are, the script (compounded by the editing) is disjointed at best, and disappointing at times. While being predictable insofar as the mild scare attempts go, the film also wastes moments that might have been frightening if they hadn't culiminated in letdowns rather than some kind of startling or awful event. And the unexplained abounds.

For instance, Platzer lies about his family. Why? Veeck apparently leads a less than squeaky clean life behind the door of his apartment, but what might that mean for tenants, especially young, pretty ones? The character of Kyle seems angry and disinterested enough that some of his actions concerning his daughter are jarringly out of character. In other words, what's there in Dark Water has possibilities, but what's missing in the movie negates them almost in entirety. There are moments of stellar cinemetography, and times when the story's possibilities are almost — almost! — brought to fruition. Unfortunately, they never quite get to where they ought to be. Bad movies are bad enough. But it's truly a shame when movies that could have been good aren't.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Dark Water is rated PG-13 for "mature thematic material, frightening sequences, disturbing images, [and] brief language." I would agree that Dark Water is singularly inappropriate for young children. With its missing connective material, you have to fill in some missing parts of the story yourself, something small children couldn't do. I suspect little ones would also find the abandonment issues in the film to be too disturbing for comfort. Meanwhile, those old enough to follow the plot and to appreciate a scary movie aren't going to be scared. Although I can't say that Dark Water is the worst movie I've ever seen, I'm sorry to say that I can't really recommend it, either. If you have another option at the movies this weekend, I'd suggest you take it.

Fantastic Four

*** out of ****

Fantastic 4I've never been a comic book reader, but I did enjoy a few Saturday morning cartoons as a kid. One of my favorites was the Fantastic 4 series. I was delighted to hear that a live action version of the story was finally being made, and I held high hopes for what modern special effects might make of such a film. I'm delighted to say that I wasn't the least disappointed when I finally sat down to enjoy almost two hours of just plain fun.

Dr. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) is a brainiac scientist who believes that, by studying a cosmic storm, he can get the basis for technologies that could prolong life and cure disease. His best friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) is a space shuttle pilot and astronaut who partners with him to present the proposal to various business and government entities. Unfortunately, none seem to be interested in spending the money needed to send Dr. Richards into space where he can more closely study a coming storm. In desperation, Richards turns to his old college rival, Dr. Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon). Von Doom is a successful industrialist to the tune of a substantial personal and professional fortune and Richards hopes that offering a percentage of the return on any new technologies will get Von Doom to invest.

Dr. Von Doom is both greedy enough and vengeful enough to accept Richards' proposal. Though he demands most of any future profits for himself, Richards grudgingly agrees because — to him, at least — it's the research that matters most. But Von Doom isn't done quite yet: he triumphantly brings out his own genetics researcher to join Richards' crew. Susan Storm (Jessica Alba) isn't just a scientist, but Richards' ex-girlfriend and Von Doom's current paramour. To a lesser extent, Grimm, too, is dismayed to find he's relegated to co-pilot under the command of Sue's brash younger brother, Johnny (Chris Evans).

Despite the inevitable personality conflicts, the group — including Von Doom — make it into orbit and on to a well shielded Von Doom company space station. But things begin to go wrong almost immediately when the cosmic storm arrives hours before the estimates and the shielding doesn't work quite as well as expected. Though all survive the exposure to the extreme conditions of the storm, it turns out that there are some after effects. The cosmic rays have fundamentally altered the DNA of each of them in ways they discover entirely by accident.

As each of those affected works to get their newfound talents under some semblence of control, Richards vows to do everything he can to reverse the effects. Von Doom, meanwhile, suffers a profound reversal of his own when a group of investors pulls its funding from his company. Motivations and emotions have a profound effect on each in their subsequent struggles, and it doesn't help that their secrets inevitably become public knowledge or that the public clamors for more from the astronauts dubbed by the media the Fantastic 4.

The storyline in this first Fantastic 4 movie (yes, sequels are already in the works) is relatively shallow, but it does provide a solid foundation for future films. The acting, too, is sometimes merely adequate (Jessica Alba, though drop dead gorgeous, is overrated as an actress in my opinion; Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis, on the other hand, come across particularly well). The script is often trite. And the director has previously helmed films dramatically different from this one (Barbership and Taxi are on Tim Story's résumé). But this is a comic book brought to life, for heaven's sake, and neither drama nor deepness are required for such a movie to be a good one; creative editing or camera angles would be no more than whipped cream on an already fluffy and sweet dessert.

This is, of course, a very special effects intensive movie. As such, it's fortunate that those effects are absolutely stunning. A scene on the Brooklyn Bridge combines wonderful on site action with beautiful effects — or so I thought. I've since learned that the entire scene was filmed on a stage set surrounded by blue screens, and that the rest of the bridge, city, river, and more was later added by computer. This scene is brilliantly done, and the rest of the movie no less so. Though the effects rendering the super powers of all of the major characters are impressive, the Human Torch in particular is nothing short of awesome to watch.

I freely admit that Batman Begins and Spider-Man 2 did take comic book characters and give them some gravitas. Those movies are not only fun to watch, but emotional and dramatic as well. Fantastic 4, on the other hand, doesn't offer comparable drama. Comic fans have already lamented that this movie isn't as "deep" as some of its predecessors ahve been. What it does give the theatre goer, however, is pure, unadulterated entertainment for almost two hours. That, as far as I'm concerned, is worth every nickle of the ticket price and then some. Some genuinely comic moments in an otherwise okay script don't hurt, either. The friend with whom I saw this movie agreed: Fantastic 4 makes no pretense to be other than what it is, and what it is is fantastically entertaining.

POLITICAL NOTES: NASA is momentarily lambasted in the film as being essentially afraid (or disinclined) to take many risks or to pave any new ground. Unfortunately, there's more truth to that notion than I'd like to admit. Space exploration is dangerous, but the public's demands for the impossibility of complete safety are hobbling NASA. Between the general attitude of the public and the government's penchant for controlling things it doesn't know enough to control, NASA is, indeed, disinclined to do much to truly push the envelope any more. But by turning to a private investor, Dr. Reed Richards shows that what we've just barely begun to do in the real world is likely the best hope for the future of exploration and research in space.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Fantastic 4 is rated PG-13 for "sequences of intense action and some suggestive content. Any child who can handle an action-filled video game should be fine with this movie which, at times, resembles such a video game. The intensity, though, and some difficult personal moments for some of the characters would likely best be understood and appreciated by slightly older children. I'd say Fantastic 4 is likely just fine for ages 10 and up, and the effects are just terrific enough that adults will enjoy the experience as much as their children.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.


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