Jack the Giant Slayer: Review

Jack-the-Giant-Slayer-Poster-439x650There’s no magic in this beanstalk, and viewers foolish enough to spend money on tickets are likely to feel as cheated as Jack when told he’s been swindled out of a horse and cart for a few worthless beans. The root of the problem lies in a fatal uncertainty about exactly what JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is supposed to be: a grim fairy tale, a light-hearted adventured, or an epic LORD OF THE RINGS knock-off. Whatever the intent, with its British flavor and oddball mix of humor and horror applied to a fanciful childhood tale, the film recalls JABBERWOCKY (1977). The misbegotten result would seem to suggest that only Terry Gilliam should direct Terry Gilliam films. (After all, if he couldn’t get it right, why should we expect anyone else to?)
The jumbled screenplay (credited to four different writers) mixes in bits of “Jack the Giant Killer,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and the “King Incognito” plot device (in which a royal personage takes on the guise of a peasant in order to get a street-level view of the kingdom). There is also a love story and a villain plotting to overthrow a kingdom, and needless to say, there is a third-act ogre battle.
If this sounds like more than enough to fill up an entertaining movie, then I am not doing my job, because JACK THE GIANT SLAYER feels empty – of warmth, romance, humor, and most especially wonder. The exposition plods; the jokes fall flat; the adventure stalls; and the love story withers on the … beanstalk, I guess.
Director Bryan Singer is undoubtedly talented, but he does not have the required deft touch for this sort of thing, nor does his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. The opening prologue is a cut-rate version of THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS, telling us what we need to know without making us care. The “clever” cross cutting between Isabelle the Princess and Jack the farm boy foreshadows their eventual union, but the parallels are ridiculously exact and leave the end result in absolutely no doubt, so that the love story feels over before it begins.

Two heads are not better than one for this giant
Two heads are not better than one for this giant

Unable to install a Sense of Wonder into the proceedings, Singer and McQuarrie eventually resort to visceral  shocks. Giants (whose visages are impressively detailed if not cleverly designed or particularly expressive) munch and crunch their victims, both animal and human, which seems a bit daring (though not explicit, thanks to the PG-13 rating), but in the end it amounts to little more than gratuitous titillation, something seen and then forgotten in time for the happy ending.
In a way, this points up the difficult of transferring fairy tales to the screen. The strength of the original lies in its simplicity and in its literary form: terrible things happen – as when, for example, the Big Bad Wolf devours the first two of the Three Little Pigs – but those deaths are abstract and symbolic on the page, a warning that bad behavior leads to bad ends, while the audience identification figure survives by doing the right thing. The characters are archetypal, without distinguishing details to bring them to life in a way that would make them mourn their demise. Children can enjoy these stories without being traumatized, enjoying the thrill of fear and the cathartic satisfaction when their hero triumphs, often by exactly a grizzly retribution on the villain – a safe, simple morality tale that works precisely because there is no gray area to cloud the issue. Movies, which usually at least attempt to create individual characters have it a lot tougher; the visceral impact is stronger, eclipsing the moral point, which in any case is usually not profound enough to warrant being expanded beyond a few pages.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER certainly has little to say that would suffice to justify the running time. Unless you think it is profound wisdom to opine people of lowly station may aspire to something bigger. Or that a princess should get to know her kingdom. Or that her father shouldn’t marry her off to a scoundrel. Strangely, for all its attempts to build Eleanor up as a strong female lead, her role remains that of a damsel in distress; her appearance in armor is just another form of bling, not indicating that she is actually going to do anything.
Ewan McGregor
Ewan McGregor

But wait, not all is lost. Although romantic leads Nicholas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson are undermined by the script insistence on keeping them bland (Hoult made a much better lover when he was a zombie in WARM BODIES), the supporting cast shine through. Ewan McGregor is dashing as the princess guard, Elmont; his confident smile hits just the right tone – almost tongue-in-cheek, but not quite. Ian McShane is an impressive king. Bill Nighy provides an intimidating voice for the lead giant, General Fallon.
Best of all is Stanley Tucci as the scheming Roderick. In fact, he is too good. He makes you hate him so much you want to see him dispatched with – well – dispatch, but if and when that happens, what else has the movie got?
Stanely Tucci steals the giant's throne - and the movie.
Stanely Tucci steals the giant's throne - and the movie.

Well, the film does have that colossal confrontation toward the conclusion, when the giants rain down on humanity like organic meteors. The siege is reasonably well done because it relies not only on visual flair (giants hurling burning trees over the castle walls) but also on at least halfway believable depictions of how a human army might attempt to hold off a horde of giants. Truthfully, a bit more could have been done with this (showcasing – for example – how leverage might be applied by a smaller adversary to topple a larger foe), but at least the screenplay pulls off an interesting variation on “Chekov’s Gun” (you know, the one that’s loaded in the first act and therefore must be fired in the third) – in this case, a leftover magic bean that Jack puts to good use at a crucial moment.
As is almost obligatory these days, JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is being presented in 3D engagements. Although officially not a post-production conversion, the film often looks like one. The early quiet scenes (of our lead characters as children, listening to bedtime stories) do provide a nice sense of depth, as the production design offers a genuine fairy tale ambiance. But once Jack and the Princess grow to young adulthood, and the action-adventure elements take over, Singer opts for camera angles and lens choices that create a resolutely flat look, with only a mild separation between the characters and the backgrounds. In a few cases, when we see human from the POV of giants looking down, the results are noticeably bizarre, with the human form stretched to ridiculous proportions, suggesting Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four.
Nicholas Hoult rides the beanstalk
Nicholas Hoult rides the beanstalk

JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is another sad example of a big-budget movie with all the production value Hollywood can offer (including a fine score by John Ottman) but little in the way of inspiration. If not for the spark of life provided by the cast, the film would be dead as a diver after leaping off the rocky cliffs of the giant’s land in the clouds. In striving to be big in execution, the film feels small in imagination – a fact strangely underlined in Singer’s occasional choice of downward camera angles that lend a diminutive-looking stature to the giants. Taking something meant to be large and making it look small is no great accomplishment. If, instead, Singer had taken Warwick Davis (who shows up in a bit part) and cast him as a giant – now, that would have shown at least a touch of wit.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (2013). Directed by Bryan Singer. Screenplay by Darren Lemke and Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney; story by Darren Lemke & David Dobkin. A production by Warner Brothers Pictures, New Line Entertainment, Legendary Pictures. Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, Ian McShane, Warwick Davis, Bill Nighy.

After Earth in theatres May 31

Sony Pictures releases this science fiction extravaganza. Will Smith and Jaden Smith star in a futuristic father-and-son version of ROBINSON CRUSOE, set on a depopulated Earth that has evolved in ways hostile to human survival. M. Night Shyamalan directed, from a screenplay he co-wrote with Stephen Gaghan and Gary Whitta, with additional dialogue by Michael Soccio. Cast also include Isabelle Fuhrman, Zoe Kravitz, and David Denman.
U.S. Theatrical Release: May 31, 2013 (moved up from an originally announced June 7).
After Earth 2013 Will Smith Jaden Smith poster vertical

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – film review

What's missing from THE HOBBIT poster? The Hobbit! Sort of a metaphor for the film itself
What's missing from THE HOBBIT poster? The Hobbit! Sort of a metaphor for the film itself

If you are a fan of Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, good fortune has smiled upon you this weekend, because THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY contains more of what you enjoyed before – much, much more. In fact, there is so much LORD OF THE RINGS that there is barely any room for THE HOBBIT. Unfortunately, instead of simply adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel, Jackson has opted to use the story as a jumping off point for a convoluted prequel that threatens to do for Middle Earth what George Lucas’s STAR WARS prequels did for a galaxy far, far away.
The strategy yields a schizoid mess that buries Tolkien’s simple tale beneath an avalanche of expository dialogue and CGI action  – the former intended to tie the events into the previous films, the latter intended to pad the story into an action-adventure epic. The problem is that, unlike before, this story is not big enough to support the epic length. Whereas THE LORD OF THE RINGS felt dense, even with each film clocking in at over three hours, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY feels thin – a good first act (of what should have been a two-hour movie) stretched to interminable length in order to fill a feature-length running time over two and a half hours.
The result is strangely disengaging – a virtual remake, hitting all the beats of its predecessor but missing the emotional resonance. The similarity is certainly inherent in the source material (when Tolkien wrote his sequel to The Lord of the Rings, he reused many story elements from The Hobbit), but Jackson has deliberately emphasized the echoes in an effort to recreate his winning formula of expanding the author’s literary prose into stunning cinematic visuals.
For example, like THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY begins with a massive battle in which monster-thingy smites a king whose heir must set things right, and it ends with our heroes standing on a hill looking into the distance at a forbidding mountain to which they will travel in the next installment. The images look just as spectacular as before, but this time they feel like empty spectacle.
Which wouldn’t be so bad if the spectacle were a little more…well – spectacular – but Jackson seems to have lost sight of how to build thrilling action scenes in which characters are caught in dangerous situations but manage to find a way out through ingenuity or perseverance. There is a surfeit of CGI long-shots of animated characters running around toppling bridges but less of the eye-level live-action camera work that drew the audience into the action to build suspense. The aesthetic here is less LORD OF THE RINGS than it is the silly T-Rex trapeze sequence in Jackson’s KING KONG 2004 remake. In a weird way, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY even recalls Toho’s giant monster films of the 1960s, when less and less live-action was filmed, reducing the city destruction to a series of crumbling miniatures bereft of any human scale.
Gollum (Andy Serkis) wonders "What has it got in its pocketss!"
Gollum (Andy Serkis) wonders "What has it got in its pocketss!"

Every once in a while, a scene comes alive in a way that makes a viewer yearn for what might have been. Gollum’s riddles in the dark with Bilbo are creepy and funny – the scene works as a stand-alone moment in in this film, and it foreshadows events that will happen later in LORD OF THE RINGS – without any heavy-handed cinematic threading to tie the incidents together. Ian McKellen is wonderful as ever as Gandalf: when he delivers his message in favor of mercy to Bilbo, he really does seem to be channeling a higher wisdom worth remembering. And Bilbo’s explanation of why he decides to help the dwarves is genuinely moving (Bilbo yearns for home – something the dwarves do not have).
Too bad THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY could not have focused on these considerable strengths instead of drowning them in a sea of CGI set-pieces and ill-conceived ret-conning. Tolkien’s tale is a fairly straight-forward children’s fantasy about Bilbo Baggins joining the wizard Gandalf and a dozen dwarves on a quest to reclaim their homeland from the dragon Smaug. His Lord of the Rings sequel trilogy is much deeper and darker, and Tolkien himself had to do a little revamping to stitch the two together (rewriting substantial portions of Gollum’s appearance in Chapter 5 of The Hobbit). However, when Tolkien later sat down to do a complete rewrite of The Hobbit, to bring it more in line with Lord of the Rings, he abandoned the task after three chapters, when someone told him “It’s not The Hobbit anymore.” Sadly, Peter Jackson did not heed the lesson of this anecdote. The humorous antics of the original (e.g., the three  trolls arguing over how to kill and cook Bilbo and his companions) remain, but the tone of these sequences jars with the grizzly, quasi-horror material that has been added.
In the appendix to Lord of the Rings and in various post-humously published stories, Tolkien laid out the connections (particularly in “Quest for Erebor,” in which Gandalf explains that, while the dwarves may have been concerned only with reclaiming their homeland from Smaug, Gandalf was eager to prevent the dragon from becoming an ally of the dark lord Sauron). Apparently, Jackson’s goal is to incorporate these ulterior motives and behind-the-scenes machinations into his prequel trilogy. Consequently, non-essential bits of business (e.g., the Necromancer – originally conceived as a plot device to get Gandalf off-stage for a while and later re-imagined as an incarnation of Sauron) end up being over-emphasized. Saruman (Christopher Lee), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Eldrond (Hugo Weaving) also show up, so that Gandalf can voice to them his concern about the evil brewing in the east. As interesting and admirable as it is to use the cinematic format to synthesize these elements together in a way the novel never could, the unfortunate side effect is that poor Bilbo, the little hobbit who could, gets pushed too often to the sidelines, obscuring what should be the main narrative.* And for all its attempt to satisfy the geeks audience by maintaining continuity between the films, Bilbo’s acquisition of the Ring plays out quite differently here than in the prologue from THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING.
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is not a complete disaster. There is still a good little movie in there, wishing it could escape from the epic aspirations forced upon it; the production values and special effects are excellent. The cast give it their all: Andy Serkis is as fun as ever as Gollum; and as Bilbo, Martin Freeman is a serviceable replacement for LORD OF THE RINGS Ian Holm (here seen only in a prologue to set up the flashback to earlier times). However, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY continues the downward slide that has afflicted all of Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations. It bodes ill for the future films – an omen neither from Mordor nor the Lonely Mountain but from the accounting office in Hollywood that demanded another tent-pole franchise from source material ill-suited to support one.
Bilbo's "warrior face" is a bit unconvincing.
Bilbo's "warrior face" in this poster is a bit unconvincing.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (Warner Brothers, December 14, 2012). Directed by Peter Jackson. Screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo Del Toro, based on Tolkien’s novel. Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Andy Serkis, Sylvester McCoy, Lee Pace, Barry Humphries. 169 minutes. PG-13.

  • In a similar way, the 1994 INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE film adaptation marred its narrative by incorporating scenes and ideas that appeared not in the original text but in its literary sequels.