'Fantastic Four': Marveless, By Kurt Loder

Yet another sequel bites. Also: Marion Cotillard gives the performance of the year in 'La Vie en Rose.'

I saw "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" with members of its target demographic, which is to say, kids within hailing distance of their teens. They loved it. They laughed and applauded, and at the end they cheered. They really had a good time.

For those who've moved on into other demographics, however -- and seen a lot more movies -- it should be noted that this is an action flick with not a lot of action. There's virtually none in the first third, which is largely devoted to wedding-planning. (Really.) The picture is also overloaded with CGI of a very familiar sort. The Silver Surfer himself -- one of the more beloved figures of the Marvel Comics universe -- is nothing but; and while he looks great, and the producers went to the expense of bringing in Peter Jackson's WETA Digital effects shop to help cook him up, anyone who's watched Willem Dafoe and James Franco hanging ten around Manhattan in the "Spider-Man" films for the last five years won't be inordinately impressed by his actions. This is a super-hero sequel with a crippling lack of superness.

(See why the "Fantastic Four" cast thinks the Silver Surfer can win back angry fans in this video.)

The Fantastic Four have become a cuddlier bunch since last we saw them. Having dispatched brainiac bad guy Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) in the first film, they're now looking to kick back. Stretchy-man scientist Reed Richards (the tepid Ioan Gruffudd) is about to marry the occasionally invisible Sue Storm (very blonde Jessica Alba); and walking-rockslide Ben Grimm (the affable Michael Chiklis) is in full nuzzle mode with his actually-not-just-metaphorically blind girlfriend, Alicia Masters (talented Kerry Washington, well-paid, we hope). Only Sue's fireball brother, Johnny (the better-and-better Chris Evans), remains eager for action. Which is soon forthcoming.

The big wedding is derailed when Reed gets a PDA "cosmic radiation" alert right in the middle of the ceremony. A pinballing meteor has been wreaking weirdness around the world -- triggering snow in Egypt, snuffing the lights in L.A., really bad stuff. Turns out this is the Silver Surfer (mo-capped CGI star Doug Jones, of "Hellboy" and "Pan's Labyrinth"), an advance man for "Galactus, Destroyer of Worlds." (In the Marvel comic in which he debuted back in 1966, Galactus was an imposing badass with a complicated metal helmet; here he -- or it -- is just a computer-spawned intergalactic blizzard of the so-what variety.) After an airborne chase through New York's Holland Tunnel (a pale descendant of a similar but much cooler sequence in "Men in Black"), Johnny Storm's fiery superpower starts going haywire. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what's happened, but resident-genius Reed explains anyway: "Your encounter with the Surfer has affected your molecules." Why? Because the silver guy has "the ability to convert matter and energy." This sort of comic-book science would be fun if the lines were delivered with satirical snap, but the colorless Gruffudd isn't the man to do that.

Then Victor Von Doom reappears, and our hopes for the movie are momentarily stoked. (In the last film, McMahon's dastardly doings added some much-needed pizzazz to the proceedings.) That hopeful moment soon passes, though -- Dr. Doom is given insufficient room to deploy his evil flamboyance. Instead he is imposed upon the Fantastic Four as a new teammate by a special-ops military commander (Andre Braugher) who's obviously unaware that movie generals have been wasting their firepower on invincible alien invaders since the 1950s. The movie limps along for a bit (it only runs 92 minutes), and finally comes to a quick and surprisingly unspectacular conclusion.

Fantasy pictures needn't be bound by the constraints of real-world logic, but they can't survive the quotidian blandness by which this one is smothered. The sunny visual design lacks drama, and the score (by John Ottman) is as perfunctory as the team's trademark superpowers (the Hulking Ben still has the ability to hold up really heavy things, and Sue Storm still excels at fancy take-that! hand gestures). The jokes are pretty thin, too. Mild chuckles arise when the Four, boarding a flight to New York for the wedding, are downgraded from First Class to Economy (Ben naturally gets a middle seat); but we immediately wonder why they didn't just make the trip in their flying Fantasticar. About halfway through the movie, I wished I had one myself.

"La Vie en Rose": The Soul of Paris

Maybe you've heard that the French actress Marion Cotillard gives a great performance in this Edith Piaf biopic. But that over-flogged adjective doesn't really convey how great her performance is. Assisted by expertly designed makeup and prosthetics, Cotillard disappears into the melancholy spirit of the iconic Parisian singer; and with unflagging energy and strikingly precise lip-synchronization, she provides a fresh illumination of Piaf's timeless songs. (The original recordings have been beautifully remastered for the picture.) Cotillard's transformation into the diminutive, birdlike Piaf -- who was not conventionally beautiful, beyond the beauty of talent -- is so complete that you strive in vain to detect the attractive actress within the uncannily conjured persona. (Cotillard was last seen here as Russell Crowe's love interest in "A Good Year.")

Piaf's life might be mistaken for melodrama had it not been so painfully real: abandoned by her parents, raised in a bordello, afflicted with childhood blindness, addicted to morphine. Unfortunately, the director, Olivier Dahan, ladles his own invented melodramatic touches onto a story that hardly needs them; and so we get lines like "I must sing, Louis -- I have no choice." But even the most shameless melodrama can have an irresistible effect; and so while a fantasy scene late in the film in which Edith is reunited with her abusive father is brazenly manipulative, the manipulation still has an undeniable emotional tug.

Dahan has also chosen a confusing structure for the movie: It's a disorienting procession of flashbacks, a mosaic of unconnected scenes, and at several points it's difficult to tell where we're supposed to be, or when. Fortunately, the director has assembled a vibrant cast, and he gets exceptional supporting performances from Sylvie Testud, as Edith's winningly debauched friend, Mômone; Gérard Depardieu, as the kindly club owner who discovers the teenage Piaf singing for tips in the streets of Paris; and Jean-Pierre Martins, as the matinee-idol boxing champ Marcel Cerdan, the love of her life.

But the movie is essentially a showcase for Cotillard's spectacular performance. She plays Piaf from her scruffy street-singing youth, through her years of international triumph in the 1940s and '50s ("Your voice is the soul of Paris," Marlene Dietrich tells her, during a chance nightclub encounter), right up to her final hours in 1963 (when she died at the age of 47). Whether childishly berating the friends who love her or glowing with the discovery of a great new ballad, Cotillard's Edith is never less than radiantly convincing. Piaf's timeless songs are all here -- "Milord," "Non, je ne regrette rien" and of course "La vie en rose" (even those unacquainted with her work will probably recognize them). And thanks to Cotillard, Piaf herself, in all her troubled, cantankerous glory, is brought back whole for one final bow.

Check out everything we've got on "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" and "La Vie en Rose."

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