'Fantastic Four' An Underwhelming Quartet; 'Dark Water' A Damp Shame, By Kurt Loder

Superheroes flame out; J-horror remake full of familiar surprises; Leguizamo memorable in chilling "Crónicas."

"Fantastic Four": Super Zeroes

First the bad news: There could be a sequel to this movie.

Now the good news: There probably won't be.

"Fantastic Four" is derived from the unending Marvel Comics series, which began in 1961. A movie version has been making the development rounds for more than a decade, so this picture has been a long time coming. Alas, not long enough.

Ioan Gruffudd ("King Arthur") plays scientist, inventor and clueless dork Dr. Reed Richards. In search of funding for a rocket trip to study a space storm of some sort first-hand, he approaches a snotty rival from his M.I.T. days, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon, of the cable series "Nip/Tuck"), who is now a snotty industrial billionaire. Victor agrees to finance Reed's expedition in return for 75 percent of the scientific spoils. He'll also be going along for the ride, and bringing with him his "director of genetic research," Sue Storm (Jessica Alba, of "Sin City"). Sue happens to be Reed's ex-girlfriend. (She's still miffed, and we are dumbstruck, that he failed to realize that an earlier offer to play house meant that she really liked him.) Sue will be bringing along her brother, hotshot pilot Johnny Storm (Chris Evans, of "Cellular"), while Reed will be making do with the company of his gruff, loyal pal, Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis, of TV's "The Shield").

Despite all the genius onboard, their space ship gets creamed by the cosmic storm. Plummeting back to Earth, the brave little band discovers that this extraterrestrial calamity has, as Sue pertly puts it, "fundamentally altered our DNA," to the point where they must quickly come up with some superhero names. Sue, who is suddenly able to render herself invisible, will become ... let's see ... Invisible Girl! No, wait -- that was her original name in the long-ago Marvel comics. Now she must be -- Invisible Woman! And Reed Richards, who has acquired the nifty ability to distend his body into all kinds of stretchy shapes, shall become ... Plastic Man? No, wait -- Plastic Man is a DC Comics character who's been around since 1941. Something else. Okay, Reed will henceforth be known as, uh -- Mr. Fantastic! (Simple, but says it.) Johnny Storm, now able to burst into flame at will, is easy: the Human Torch. And Ben Grimm, who has been turned into a hulking -- indeed, Hulk-like -- man-mountain, will have to settle for just being called "the Thing."

While not technically a member of the cliquish Fantastic Four, Victor needs a super-name, too -- he is, after all, turning into metal and shooting death rays out of his fists. Only a minor moniker-adjustment is needed here: Victor becomes Dr. Doom.

And so the stage is set for super-doings both heroic and villainous, occasionally even interesting. The Thing head-butts a speeding truck. Johnny learns to fly and becomes such a hothead that Sue tells him, "You were at 4000 Kelvin -- any hotter and you'd be at supernova!" Reed discovers that shaving's a lot easier when you can pull your cheek out like a handful of taffy. ("Hey," says Victor, when Reed begins melting during a heated confrontation, "why the long face?")

Comic-book movies have to be fun, but they need some soul. Spider-Man is sad but stoic. Batman is troubled and broody. The X-Men are ... well, the X-Men are a lot more dynamic and vividly individuated than this crew of pallid superfolk. The Fantastic Four talk too much, and apart from some undeniably slick effects -- mainly involving Mr. Fantastic and his ability to slide his flattened hand under a locked door, or lasso his arm out to scrawl formulae down at the end of a long laboratory chalkboard -- the wow factor in this movie is surprisingly minute. Ioan Gruffudd is too bland to bring much vitality to the transformed Reed Richards; and Jessica Alba, as the ads for the movie make curvaceously clear, is used mainly for decorative effect. (Why is her super-suit the only one that shrank at the super-laundry?) As the Human Torch, Chris Evans has comic charm to spare, but there's something intrinsically unconvincing about a character who's composed mainly of flames. And while Michael Chiklis, as the Thing, manages moments of actual feeling using nothing but his eyes, the bunch-of-boulders body suit in which he's buried remains a distraction -- he's a guy wearing a bunch-of-boulders body suit.

Only Julian McMahon's nefarious psycho, Dr. Doom, shows real promise here, especially after he dons his hooded cloak. If there must be a sequel to this film, it'd be best if he were the only one in it.

"Dark Water": Low Tide

Question: If you're watching a horror movie that features creepy kids, spooky dwellings and lots of watery weirdness, are you watching (a) "The Ring," (b) "The Grudge," or (c) the new "Dark Water"?

Answer: Who cares anymore?

Trolling the Asian movie bazaars has become a cheap source of Hollywood remake fodder in recent years, but the pickings on the horror front are getting slim as the source material grows more and more, shall we say, familiar. "Dark Water," a remake of a 2002 Japanese picture by Hideo Nakata (the director of the two original "Ring" films), is the latest case in point.

This movie has been executed just about as well as it possibly could be. The cast, headed up by Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly and Oscar nominees John C. Reilly and Tim Roth, is first-rate -- the actors add the kind of unexpected emotional tones and jabs of tart humor that are rarely wasted on this sort of material. And the cinematography, by Affonso Beato, best-known for his work with Pedro Almodovar, is unusually classy, as is the score by longtime David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti. The director is the Brazilian Walter Salles, whose last movie, "The Motorcycle Diaries" (2004), drew a pair of Oscar nominations itself. That's a strong lineup. And yet, "Dark Water" sinks under the weight of its rampant and, in the end, laughable predictability.

Connelly plays a young mother named Dahlia who has just separated from her husband (Dougray Scott, in a pitiably intermittent role). She is looking for a new apartment to move into with her little daughter, Cecilia (Ariel Gade). Dahlia hasn't much money, so, as the movie opens, we find her checking out a festering dump on Randall's Island, an unattractive stretch of low-income real estate situated in New York's scenic East River. She is inspecting these dreadful premises in the company of a rental agent named Murray (Reilly), who's touting this apartment, on the ninth floor of a 10-story building, as being on the "lower penthouse level." (He's an everyday urban horror.) The dismal quarters come with a sinister-looking superintendent named Veeck (Pete Postlethwaite) and a vile-looking stain on the bedroom ceiling that's dripping dark-brown water. The hard-up Dahlia has little choice, so she takes the place.

You'll be surprised only mildly, if at all, to learn that a strange family once lived in the apartment above, and that both parents have disappeared, leaving the whereabouts of their little girl, who was Cecilia's age, unknown. And you'll be fumbling for your check-list of fright-flick inevitabilities when Cecilia starts conversing with an "imaginary friend," and then when Dahlia sets off all alone to inspect those ominous digs upstairs. Faint wisps of interest arise with the arrival of Dahlia's divorce lawyer (Roth), who tries to help her but keeps begging off in order to return home to his "family." But when it's revealed that he has no family, only a red herring to go home to, J-horror initiates will know exactly what that means in the ultimate scheme of things. Nothing.

Jennifer Connelly, as serenely beautiful at 35 as she was at 13, when she made her unforgettable movie debut in Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in America," conveys the dead-end desperation of her character without over-reliance on all-out hysteria. And Beato's purgatorial lighting and close-up cinematography put you right inside her increasingly waterlogged misery. There's a lot of contrived tension, of course, and jolts of by-now largely theoretical terror. In the end, though, anyone familiar with this threadbare strain of imported horror yarn will likely be twitching with derision. The movie's a weary joke. On guess who?

"Crónicas": TV Eye

John Leguizamo gives one of his most controlled and memorable performances in this disturbing Mexican film, playing a Miami-based tabloid-TV journalist who is losing his grip on what the "truth" really is that he traffics in. At the end, he must confront a terrible truth about himself.

Manolo Bonilla (Leguizamo) is a star correspondent for "One Hour With the Truth," a tabloid show that mixes base sensationalism with crusading self-righteousness, and is broadcast all over Latin America. Out in the field in his tight black shirt and designer shades, making his way from one videogenic human disaster to another, signing autographs and flashing his famous smile along the way, Manolo is a celebrity crusader for truth and justice.

One day, on assignment in a village in Ecuador to cover the funeral of three young children who have been murdered by a serial child-killer called "the Monster," Manolo and his producer, Marisa (Leonor Watling, of "Talk to Her"), and cameraman, Ivan (José María Yazpik), become involved in a subsidiary incident. An itinerant Bible salesman named Vinicio (Damián Alcázar) has hit a local boy with his truck and killed him. The villagers surge around and begin to beat the man brutally. Manolo and his team, concerned only to push their way into the crowd and get this story down on film, wind up unintentionally saving Vinicio from certain death.

Later, when Manolo is visiting Vinicio in the town jail to get an interview that will flesh-out this human-interest story for later broadcast, the grateful Vinicio tells him that he has met the Monster, and knows things about the killer that no one else knows, like the location of another child's body. Sensing the tabloid story of a lifetime, Manolo decides to break this case himself, without calling in the police.

One rainy night, Manolo and Ivan drive out to a remote spot described to them by Vinicio, and begin digging. They soon unearth the body of a murdered girl. Manolo is exultant, but conflicted. On one hand, solving this case will make him a bigger star than ever. On the other, by withholding his discovery from the police, he will be obstructing justice. He decides to further cultivate Vinicio's trust (and learn more about the murderer) by conducting interviews with him off-camera. Ivan disapproves: nothing that happens off-camera, he argues, is real. Manolo tries to rationalize the situation with Marisa, telling her, "Without us, this story wouldn't exist." Marisa is disgusted. "It exists without you, without us," she says. "That girl is buried in the mud."

Manolo ultimately learns the truth about the Monster, but in order to save his own neck, he can't reveal it. He flees back to Miami, knowing in his stunted conscience that he's leaving the murderer free to kill again.

"Crónicas" was directed by Sebastián Cordero and coproduced by the noted Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón ("Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban") and Guillermo del Toro ("Hellboy"), in association with the Sundance Institute. It's the kind of "small" picture that rarely crops up in the mainstream Hollywood movie system. But it focuses -- quietly, and with intense concentration -- on large issues of celebrity media and moral culpability. It's an unsettling piece of work -- a scenic and sunlit, chilling film.

-- Kurt Loder

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