Fantastic Four is the first comic-book adaptation in ages that doesn't seem ashamed to be a comic-book adaptation, for which I applaud it. No one could possibly argue that the film is better-made than something such as Batman Begins, but I, for one, certainly preferred it; given the choice between this obvious, goofy time-waster or Christopher Nolan's dour mope-fest, I'd go with Fantastic Four every time. What we might lose in subtext, technical precision, and performance quality is more than made up for in inspiration and good humor, and the film has a true sense of playfulness. Finally - screen superheroes who are actually enjoying themselves!
Sure, the storyline - a standard origin tale - is thin, the acting, particularly by Jessica Alba and Julian McMahon (doing a B-grade Kevin Spacey) is spotty, and the effects aren't exactly seamless; the elongations of Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd), in particular, are slightly less believable than the contortions of The Incredibles' Elastigirl. Yet I'll gladly trade state-of-the-art visuals for high spirits, which Fantastic Four has in spades. The X-Men and Spider-Man flicks feature their fair share of laughs, but this movie, directed by Tim Story (of Barbershop!), is something unusual, and most welcome - a live-action comic-book comedy. Great jokes pop up throughout, and while some are strictly for the comic's fans - I loved it when The Human Torch (Chris Evans, confident and hilarious) asks The Thing (a perfectly cast Michael Chiklis), "Where are your ears?" - most of the laughs come when our heroes use their gifts to make daily life just a tad easier. (When The Thing wants juice, he does so by squeezing an entire bag of oranges into a mixing bowl; while shaving, Mr. Fantastic gets at those tricky spots under his chin by pulling the flesh on his neck out a full 10 inches.) The gags make the characters, like the film itself, intensely likable. Despite its weaknesses, Fantastic Four understands the primary reason kids (and adults) read comic books - being a superhero looks like an absolute blast. Who among us, at some point, hasn't imagined what kind of super power they'd most like to possess? My favorite moment in the film, and its most telling one, might have been when the Human Torch, awestruck by his new abilities, asks his colleagues, "Am I the only guy who thinks this is cool?!" Nope. Not the only one.
ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM
You can keep your Dr. Dooms and Darth Vaders and Scarecrows; for my money, the most terrifying bad guys onscreen this summer are those notorious CEOs Kenneth Lay and Jeff Skilling in Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Yet in this marvelous documentary, currently playing at the Brew & View, director Alex Gibney makes Lay and Skilling the most human of monsters. He shows how hubris and greed, fueled by jaw-dropping sums of cash, caused Enron - at one point the seventh-largest corporation in the world, worth an estimated $70 billion - to collapse; the true villain of the piece is a flawed system that allowed Enron to flourish in the first place. Unlike, say, Michael Moore railing against George Bush in Fahrenheit 9/11, Gibney doesn't rest the blame solely at Lay's and Skilling's feet; he isn't interested in turning Enron's chiefs into hissable figures of moustache-twirling evil. The Smartest Guys in the Room lacks the heartfelt passion and almost tangible sense of outrage of Moore's film, but it's a shrewder, more nuanced piece of work, and it succeeds brilliantly at making an unimaginably complex tale not only lucid, but riveting, frightening, and even moving.
There's practically no end to the amazing sights - and conversations - we're privy to: Jeff Skilling appearing in a PR spoof discussing a means of hypothetical profiteering, which proves to be no different from the actual profiteering Enron was engaged in; an outraged Californian, protesting Enron's complicity in the state's energy crisis, throwing a blueberry pie at Skilling's head; the phone recordings of Enron traders roaring with laughter over the series of fires and blackouts that were making them rich; Kenneth Lay, with astonishing insensitivity, comparing his company's woes to the 9/11 attacks a mere month after the terrorists' strike; Enron's haunting commercial slogan - a repeated refrain of "Why?" that accompanies the corporation's "Ask Why?" logo - that becomes deeply, sadly ironic. Gibney amasses his footage with a devastating clarity and momentum, and as the company's inevitable end draws near, the movie grows darker and more sinister; like Errol Morris's peerless The Thin Blue Line, Gibney's work is often a thriller in the guise of a doc. Yet, in the end, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is a supremely human thriller; we know the victims because, for thousands of Americans, we were the victims.
In Rebound, Martin Lawrence plays an egomaniacal college basketball coach who guides a team of middle-school geeks to the state championship.
And that's about it.
There's little point in critiquing a prototypical family movie such as Rebound. Like most bastard children of The Bad News Bears, the film follows the losers-who-become-winners formula plot point for plot point, and it's sappy and "inspiring" in equal measure; kids who've never before seen a movie of its ilk might have a good time. Granted, if it weren't for the sharp contributions of supporting players Megan Mullally and Patrick Warburton - whose hostile whisperings as a rival coach are really funny - adults in the audience might have a hard time staying awake, but it's harmless, and Lawrence's young charges are nicely cast.
It's Lawrence himself who's the problem. Not that it's a good movie by any means, but one of the bigger surprises of 2005 has actually been The Pacifier, because it proved that even a one-note dullard such as Vin Diesel could find some renewed vigor within the family-film format. His performance might have been typically weak, but Diesel at least appeared to be having some fun. Here, though, Martin Lawrence exudes a distracting mixture of arrogance and laziness; he goes through the motions in Rebound with a look of: "Has it really come to this?" When Lawrence's coach gives the climactic speech about how the basketball-playing towheads made him a better person, the words seem to stick in the actor's teeth - it might be a sign of Lawrence's mental wellness that he can't make this sentimental pap believable, but it sure doesn't do the movie any favors - and his stabs at comedy are even more half-hearted. He makes faces and barks and makes a cameo as a motivational speaker with a gold tooth, and none of it is very entertaining. Perhaps it's time for Lawrence to give comedy a rest for a while; he's capable of focus and sincerity, and could prove revelatory in dramatic works. But Rebound finds him working at a low ebb as a comic performer; for someone whose comedic shtick has grown increasingly tired over the years, Martin Lawrence shouldn't turn up his nose at playing ball with kids.