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FANTASTIC FOUR

Producer:  Simon Kinberg, Matthew Vaughn, Hutch Parker, Robert Kulzer and Gregory Goodman
Director:  Josh Trank
Writer: Jeremy Slater, Simon Kinberg and Josh Trank
Stars:  Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson, Owen Judge, Evan Hannemann and Tim Heidecker
Studio: 20th Centrury Fox

D

It’s pretty much agreed among fans of superhero movies that the two Tim Story “Fantastic Four” flicks based on the long-running Marvel quartet, dating from 2005 and 2007, were among the worst in the recent explosion of the genre. (How things changed for Chris Evans when he graduated from the Human Torch to Captain America!) So it comes as no surprise that the studio decided what was needed wasn’t another sequel, but a full-scale reboot—or is it reset? Whatever the proper term, the new “Fantastic Four” goes back to the drawing board and emerges no better than before. Perhaps this quartet is simply a hopeless case.

What director John Trank and his co-writers Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg serve up is yet another origins episode, one that spends literally two-thirds of its running-time in endless exposition setting up a final battle that’s curiously brief, sloppy and dull. Its opens with cute little Reed Reynolds (Owen Judge), a pint-sized science nerd, building a prototype of a matter teleporter in his garage with the help of Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann), a tough kid whose family owns the scrapyard where Reed gets the final component. Seven years later the two—now played by Miles Teller and Jamie Bell, both way too old to be remotely convincing high school students—show off the improved but still not perfect device at the local science fair, where it catches the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), a computer whiz. Their foundation is working on a similar project, and though officious head honcho Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson) is getting anxious about the probable success of the venture, Storm offers Reed a scholarship to join his team, which eventually includes not only Sue but Franklin’s reckless, drag-racing son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and surly but brilliant genius Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell).

Reed’s presence proves the catalyst, and soon their gigantic machine transports a chimp to an alternative dimension, a barren place of rocks and bubbling energy, and brings the critter back safely—at which point Allen connives to bring in NASA and turn things over to the government. Reed, Johnny and Victor feel betrayed that they’ll not be the first humans to teleport, so they decide to do so unofficially, bringing along Ben as Reed’s wingman. This turns out to be a very bad idea as their decision to plant an American flag on the extra-dimensional landscape, thereby earning everlasting fame, releases a burst of energy that seems to consume Victor and sends the other three guys back home much changed: Reed has developed elastic limbs, Johnny bursts into flame, and Ben becomes a humongous rock monster. Sue, who’s thrown for a loop in the lab in the melee of their return, is endowed with the power of invisibility.

Reed escapes guinea pig confinement, but Johnny, Ben and Sue remain and a year later are being trained to employ their abilities as instruments of the military under Allen’s heavy hand. The fugitive Reed is eventually tracked down and returned as well, just in time to be part of the inauguration of a new teleporter, which sends a crew back to the alternate dimension. There they discover Victor, transformed into a grisly bundle of unearthly energy, who aims to destroy earth because—well, apparently because he’s a misanthrope. After trashing Storm’s lab he returns to his own dimension, where he gathers the power to wipe out his old planet. But our newly-minted heroes follow him there and, in a remarkably unexciting fight, finally stop trying to act alone and work in unison to defeat him by pushing him into his own billowing energy ray. Then they get their own research facility and decide to call themselves the Fantastic Four. The end.

The problems with the movie are numerous. A full hour is devoted to dull exposition, which is then followed by thirty minutes of even duller battle. The effects (supervised by James E. Price) are subpar by today’s standards. The central characters are tissue-paper thin, and even the able young cast can’t give them any heft. Cathey is a bland father figure and Nelson a dreary bore as his malevolent counterpart, while Kebbell exudes little more than a bored sneer as Doom. The dialogue is limp, with little humor beyond a few juvenile lines, and Trank’s direction is flaccid. Even on the purely visual level the picture is mediocre, with a cheap-looking production design by Chris Seagers and cinematography by Matthew Jensen that’s barely workmanlike. Add to the drab images a score that promises something usual, coming as it does from a weirdly matched duo—Marco Beltrami and Philip Glass—but turns out to be utterly generic.

The result is a tedious bargain-basement Marvel movie that’s sure to disappoint an audience accustomed to the blockbuster-sized action of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Avengers. You might call it “Fantastic Bore” or “Fantastic Snore,” but whatever moniker you hang on it, by the time the final credits roll (conspicuously without word of a sequel), you’ll probably be ready to quote Reed’s words after he and his partners have defeated Doom: “Let’s get the hell outta here!”

DARK PLACES

Producer:  Stephane Marsil, Charlize Theron, A.J. Dix, Beth Kono, Matt Jackson, Azim Bolkiah, Matthew Rhodes and Cathy Schulman
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Writer:  Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Stars:  Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Chloe Grace Moretz, Tye Sheridan, Sterling Jerins, Corey Stoll, Christina Hendricks, Drea de Matteo, Sean Bridgers, Andrea Roth,, Shannon Kook, Addy Miller, J. LaRose and Jeff Chase
Studio:  A24

D+

Perhaps Gillian Flynn’s name as the author of the novel on which “Dark Places” is based will be enough to attract viewers who flipped over “Gone Girl.” But David Fincher’s film, despite its flaws, was obviously the work of a master craftsman; Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who directed this film as well as adapting the book, is not in the same league, and what he delivers is a moodily grim, choppily edited potboiler with a howlingly ludicrous ending.

Of course, he didn’t have much to work with. Flynn’s tome is a pretty tasteless mash-up of “In Cold Blood” and the Robin Hood Hills murders covered by the “Paradise Lost” documentaries, along with bits and pieces of various other grotesque true-crime horror stories and plenty of over-the-top imagination. The narrative centers on Libby Day, who as an eight-year old child (Sterling Jerins) survived the murder of her mother Patty (Christina Hendricks) and two older sisters in their Kansas farmhouse. It was on the basis of the girl’s testimony that her fifteen-year old brother Ben (Tye Sheridan) was convicted of the killings and sentenced to life in prison.

Thirty years later, Libby (Charlize Theron) has exhausted the royalties from her book on the tragedy and the donations of well-wishers. Exuding toughness on the outside but tormented within, she’s in desperate need of cash to keep her dumpy house and get her car out of hock, and so accepts an invitation from slightly creepy true-crime buff Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult) to visit with the members of his so-called Kill Club, some of whom are oddball re-enactors but others, like him, are serious investigators of notorious murders that might have ended in wrongful convictions. Many in the group, who are also tracking the itinerary of a serial killer called the Angel of Death, believe that Ben is innocent and want to pick Libby’s brain for clues about what really happened that fateful night. Prodded by Wirth, her need for money, and her suppressed fear that she might have been induced to give false testimony against her brother, Libby undertakes an investigation of her own.

In laying out what follows Paquet-Brenner juxtaposes contemporary scenes featuring Theron against gritty, black-and-white flashbacks of the killings and others in color showing Patty’s struggles to keep the FHA from foreclosing on the family farm, even going so far as to meet with an enigmatic fellow (Jeff Chase) who promises deliverance from her woes, while fending off the monetary demands of her mostly absent ne’er-do-well husband Runner (Sean Bridgers), who’s deeply in debt to local bookie Trey Teepano (Shannon Kook). Trey is also the main figure in a Satan-worshipping cult that Ben’s wild girlfriend Diondra (Chloe Grace Moretz) Wertzner, whom the lad’s gotten pregnant, involves him with as well. Ben’s even been accused by pretty eleven-year old Krissi Cates (Addy Miller) of sexually abusing her, apparently as part of the cult’s Satanic practices.

In looking into all the murky circumstances swirling around the night in question, Libby tracks down as many of the players as she can. After years of refusing to do so, she visits Ben in prison, finding that he wants to reconnect with her. (Incarceration has evidently been hard on him, since it has transformed handsome Sheridan into bald, horsey Corey Stoll.) She locates the still-menacing Runner (still Bridger, in heavy makeup) living, with some poetic justice, in a toxic waste dump somewhere in Missouri. She confronts Krissi (now Drea de Matteo) in a strip joint and finds her happy to confess her childish lies, and finds a reformed Trey (now J. LaRose), who gives her a clue to the location of long-missing Diondra (now Andrea Roth). Diondra proves key to unraveling the mystery, though a revelation from the Kill Club’s work on a different case is instrumental in revealing the full truth.

The labyrinthine character of the plot—the sort of thing that can work on the page but comes off as silly when reduced to a movie’s running-time—is mirrored in the complex, fragmented way in which Paquet-Benner and his cohorts have elected to tell it on screen. Their technique, with its chaotic meshing of past and present, may be intended to paper over the absurdities in Flynn’s narrative, but all it does is to produce a jumbled, tortured effect. Theron’s one-note performance isn’t much help, and though Sheridan, Hendricks and Hoult all manage hints of humanity, most of the other actors are either dull (Stoll) or indulge in wild overplaying (Moretz). The technical credits aren’t particularly strong, with Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography predictably variable, given the different visual modes for the various timeframes, and editors Billy Fox and Douglas Crise are defeated in their efforts to impose clarity on the myriad temporal shifts. But Laurence Bennett’s production design—complemented by Daniel Turk’s art direction and Linda Lee Sutton’s set decoration—certainly creates a grubby, messy look throughout, something April Napier’s costumes add to.

The sheer luridness of “Dark Places” may hold your attention, but by the close the goofy plot twists and laughable motivations will probably induce a few snickers—which can’t be what Paquet-Brenner intended.