FANTASTIC FOUR Assign acclaimed directors to superhero flicks and you get the likes of the Spider-Man pair, the X-Men duo and Batman Begins. Assign any Tom, Hack or Harry, and you get flaccid duds like Elektra, The Punisher and now Fantastic Four. The protagonists of this new film certainly deserved a better fate: Arriving on the scene in 1961, before the X-Men, the Hulk or even Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four were the heroes who initially established the popularity of the Marvel Comics universe. It's shocking that 20th Century Fox didn't treat this with the same care as their classy (and wildly successful) X-Men franchise; instead, they handed the directorial reins to Tim Story, whose brief resume (Barbershop and the Jimmy Fallon bomb Taxi) offered no hints that he was the right man for the job. So what we get is a half-assed enterprise that might play better with the general public than with fans who will be outraged at the liberties taken by Story and screenwriters Mark Frost and Michael France. While on a scientific mission into outer space, Dr. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), his ex-girlfriend Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), her brother Johnny (Chris Evans) and Reed's best friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) run afoul of a cloud of cosmic radiation; the exposure ends up turning them into, respectively, Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Girl, The Human Torch and The Thing. When they're not busy bickering among themselves, they spend their time matching wits with industrialist Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), whose own contact with the radiation transforms him into the villainous Dr. Doom. Among the heroes, Chiklis fares best as the tortured Thing, but McMahon makes a pitiable Dr. Doom, a towering comic book villain (think of him as the forerunner to Darth Vader) reduced to a wimpy matinee crook. 1/2
BATMAN BEGINS One of the finest superhero films ever made, Batman Begins marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship - between the creative forces who have resurrected a popular franchise and the fans who felt betrayed when that same franchise went belly-up in the late 90s. Never afraid to peer into the darkest recesses of the mind, director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) has created a brooding picture that has as much in common with his previous works as it does with the storied saga of the Caped Crusader. To dismiss this as escapist fare would be to ignore the myriad adult themes that bulk up the picture, issues ranging from the duality of man to the politics of fear. Christian Bale leads a sterling cast that also includes Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson; their committed performances help make this that rare summer movie in which thought often speaks louder than either action or words. 1/2
BEWITCHED As far as ill-advised Nicole Kidman vehicles that plunder past artifacts of pop culture are concerned, the nicest thing one can say about Bewitched is that it's an improvement over The Stepford Wives. That's primarily because of Kidman herself, who manages to harness her maddeningly inconsistent role with such success that the result is an offbeat and original characterization. Otherwise, this initially clever comedy, in which a real witch (Kidman) is cast as a fictional one on an update of the Bewitched TV series, takes one wrong turn after another beginning around the halfway mark. As Kidman's unlikely love interest, a miscast Will Ferrell delivers a manic performance that quickly grows tiresome, while old pros Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine are wasted in malnourished roles.