An Unlikely Equation

Greek tragedy + flashy sci-fi = summer blockbuster

Movie Guru

by Brad Case

The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer brings the most enigmatic of all the Marvel superheroes to the screen, and does so with style. Within a taut 93 minutes (47 minutes less than the overblown Wagnerian epic, Spiderman 3 ) we are reintroduced to the superhero quartet, picking up where the last film, 2005's Fantastic Four, left off.

Reed Richards a.k.a. â“Mr. Fantasticâ” (Ioan Gruffudd) is prepping to marry Sue Storm a.k.a. â“The Invisible Womanâ” (Jessica Alba), while brother Johnny Storm a.k.a. â“The Human Torchâ” (Chris Evans) and friend Ben Grimm a.k.a. â“The Thingâ” (Michael Chiklis) offer support. The power couple is now an accepted and recognized part of the New York social scene, and the event has all the trappings of a celebrity union under the microscope.

Of course it couldn't be a Fantastic wedding without a bitchin' bachelor party, and what transpires when a rubber man, a human torch and a brick-hard thing throw down a few shots and trip the light is well mined by screenwriters Don Payne and Mark Frost. In fact, all the returning principles build nicely on the chemistry established in the first film, offering a likeability that makes you root for them when things go south.

And that isn't long, as bad things are brewing in the cosmos. There is a massive terrestrial power called Galactus who dines on inhabited planets. Earth is next in its sights and a sleek metallic dude from another galaxy named Norrin Radd (played by Doug Jones, voiced by Lawrence Fishburne) is sent to do the dirty work. Hanging 10 through space on his long board as his alter ego, the â“Silver Surfer,â” Radd creates a whole bunch of trouble that, among other things, postpones the Fantastic wedding.

After a spectacular set piece that devastates London's Thames River, the Fantastic Four take the Silver Surfer-Galactus threat seriously. They even reluctantly re-team with old nemesis Victor Von Doom, a.k.a. â“Dr. Doomâ” (Julian McMahon), to try to get a grasp on the situation. The clock is ticking, and the battle to save Earth from Galactus is on.

All of this may sound a bit far-fetched, but in fact the film is pretty much a spot-on replication of the original 1966 Marvel comics. Drawn in broad strokes with vivid characters employing biting humor, FF-ROSS delivers the precise retro-groove that made these classic comics so beloved in the first place.

Which begs the question: â“When did everything go so awry in comic book-to-film nation?â” Perhaps it began innocently enough back in 1978's Superman when director Richard Donner pledged to inject â“verisimilitudeâ” into the superhero universe: a novel idea at the time that has since been mimicked by every comic book franchise since. Of late, the Spiderman and Batman series have become so bloated and absorbed in their own sense of self-importance that one forgets these were initially 12-cent magazines kids bought at the drugstore.

As a refreshing counterpoint, The Fantastic Four seems to get it right. The original 2005 flick, which was lampooned by most critics as well as some of its get-a-life hard-core fandom, had grassroots buzz amongst many filmgoers, and wound up a box-office success. By all accounts The Rise of the Silver Surfer will surpass it. Returning director Tim Story once again lends a crisp economy to his exposition, and true to his name spins a yarn that nicely melds the light-hearted cartoon universe of the F-4 with the more sobering saga of the Silver Surfer. This is no easy task, for the tone of the two strips couldn't differ more. Whereas the Fantastic Four's genesis unfolded as flashy sci-fi, the Silver Surfer's backstory reads as a metaphysical Greek tragedy. In order to spare his planet Zenn-La and protect his lover Shalla Bal, he is doomed to serve Galactus. It's a messed up deal for SS, and no matter what, he is never allowed to return to his planet or visit his girl. Instead, he must shred the cosmos on his board that, if separated from, he loses the one asset he has left: â“the power cosmic.â”

At a time when teen angst and alienation is at peak level, the Silver Surfer provides a superhero whose time has come. Back in the early '80s, there was a pop-culture remake of the Jean Luc Goddard classic Breathless that starred an in-his-prime Richard Gere, who risks everything to be with his ladylove. The one thing that kept him going within his bleak existence was Silver Surfer comics. In the film no one can relate to him or his hero; the Surfer being an iconic figure for the courageous loner, the maverick. The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer sets up this character perfectly; his ironic and poetic existence in contrast with everything around him. The stage is now set for the surfer's own flick, one that may be worthy of an epic treatment.

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American Redux

â“Bad memories! I welcome you anyway. You are my long lost youth.â” â"Georges Courteline

There's no better epigraph to open Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows (1969). It's a story of joy always followed closely by despair.

And as the quote fades to black, we see German soldiers marching down the Champs-Ãlysées with the Arc de Tiomphe standing in the background. An eerie shot, taking into account the significance of that march. Like most of the scenes in Melville's film, it needs no words, no lengthy explanation. Ze Germans have arrived in France.

Having received a rather apathetic critical reception during its French opening nearly 40 years ago, the film was not released in the United States until last year in a restored version by Rialto Pictures.

Army of Shadows ( L'armée das ombres ) is an ode to Melville's days as a member of the French Resistance during World War II. He adapted the script from a Joseph Kessel novel of the same name, but the film's palpable air of fear, its imminence of death and its hopelessness of war are touches only the director himself could've conjured.

The plot centers on freedom fighters Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse), Jean Francois (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and Mathilde (Simone Signoret). They're robotic in their noble cause: Gerbier cold and calculating as he escapes from internment camps and jumps from a British plane in darkness; Mathilde daring as she infiltrates German headquarters in various guises; and Jean Francois cunning as he smuggles radios past German officers and transports the chief to safety in the cover of night.

Although it is technically a re-release, Army of Shadows is like seeing one of those classic foreign filmsâ" 400 Blows , The Bicycle Thief , Wild Strawberries â"for the first time. Baffled by the way Truffaut and De Sica were breaking cinematic conventions and reexamining age-old narrative techniques, you begin to rethink your allegiance to the American directors of the Sex, Drugs, and Rockâ‘n'Roll era, who were obviously following the lead of others. â" LaRue Cook

 

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