“Jack the Giant Slayer” – 3 STARS

JACK-THE-GIANT-SLAYER poster

Hollywood is all about the fairy tales these days. Much like the superhero craze, we’ve seen a load of fairy tale features covering everything from Snow White to Hansel and Gretel. The latest is a variation of the familiar Jack and the Beanstalk story titled “Jack the Giant Slayer”. It comes from director Bryan Singer and to call it a slight deviation from the classic story would be misleading. This CGI laden fantasy picture takes a few of the ingredients from the fairy tale but basically builds its own original story.

I find Bryan Singer to be a very hit or miss director so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from this picture. What I got was an above average and sometimes surprisingly fun fantasy film that can be entertaining as long as you’re able to overlook its flaws. I know some who have struggled with doing that, but for me and my tempered expectations I actually came out of the theater a bit surprised. Unfortunately there are a few hiccups and for that I just can’t let the movie off the hook.

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It almost feels like they took parts from several other fantasy films, threw them in a pot, and mixed them together to get the story of “Jack and the Giant Slayer”. I have no doubt that throughout the film you’ll be saying “yep, I’ve seen that before” repeatedly. We get the blind and bull-headed king who insists on an arranged marriage between his daughter and a devious lord. We get the poor commoner who falls in love with the princess. And we have a huge event that allows the commoner to prove his worth. Throw in a silly sidekick and a trusted protector and you’re into some pretty familiar territory. And while all of these characters play out pretty much as you would expect, I still think the story does enough fun things with them to entertain.

Nicholas Hoult (you may remember him from this years “Warm Bodies”) plays Jack, a poor farm boy who goofs up one day by trading his uncle’s horse to a monk for a handful of mystical beans. Of course you know the story, these are magical beans but Jack’s irate uncle doesn’t buy it and he flings them across the room with one falling through a crack in their floor. In a slightly similar story of frustrated youth, Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) pleads with her stubborn father King Brahmwell (Ian McShane) not to sanction her marriage to the slimy Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci). As usual the King is blind to Roderick’s scheme to take over his kingdom even though we recognize it before he says a line of dialogue. Then again if some of these characters were smart we wouldn’t have much of the story left.

Repelled by the arranged marriage to a man she doesn’t love, the princess disguises herself and sneaks out of the city on horseback. But after ending up lost in the middle of a late night deluge she comes across Jack’s house where she seeks shelter. The two make starry-eyes at each other but are interrupted when the rainwater soaked bean under the house sprouts. And boy does it sprout! Jack is knocked out of the house and Isabelle is taken through the clouds by the humongous beanstalk. Soon the King and his men arrive and Jack informs them about the princess. A rescue team of Guardians led by Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and including Jack and Roderick head up the beanstalk to find the princess. But waiting above is a sky world inhabited by giants with a special appetite for human flesh.

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Now even though this movie features some pretty standard characters I can honestly say I was interested in some of them. Hoult is quite good and believable as the unexpected hero. I also thought Tomlinson was solid and very princessy. Sadly she isn’t given anything to do outside of the typical damsel in distress routine. That’s unfortunate. I would love to see her character have more depth. I also didn’t mind Stanley Tucci, a very good actor who’s clearly having a lot of fun as the antagonist. And as always Ewan McGregor is very good giving a variation of the knight in shining armor. McShane on the other hand seems dry and by the numbers. That could be because his character was probably the most poorly written in the film.

But where the movie spends most of its money is on the visuals. “Jack the Giant Slayer” is a virtual feast of tantalizing eye candy. The beanstalks are incredibly well conceived. The scenery with its green meadows, huge waterfalls, and lush forests are nothing short of gorgeous. But the giants are the real treat, each designed with amazing detail. I was really surprised at just how well done they are particularly in some big action sequences in the second half of the film. But in spite of all of these great special effects I did at time feel a bit disconnected due to the massive amounts of CGI. It wasn’t the quality of CGI but the volume. And it wasn’t helped by the 3-D. Like so many films the 3-D offered nothing for me and it felt pointless. I also have to say some of the costume designs were pretty dreadful, specifically the royalty garb. I couldn’t help but laugh at McShane in his gold-plated monstrosity.

“Jack the Giant Slayer” is a mixed bag but overall I found it to be an entertaining mixed bag. If you can shake off the cookie cutter characters, the occasional cheap and lazy writing, and the overload of CGI there’s some fun to be had here. I can honestly say I had a good time with this picture and I would really like to praise it more. Unfortunately its shortcomings keep me from doing that and instead I’m left feeling that this could have been something really special. Instead we’re left with a good but not great film that left a lot of potential behind. Still, you could do a lot worse at the theater.

5 PHENOMENALLY AWFUL SUPERHERO MOVIES

In honor of this Friday’s release of “The Avengers”, I’m spending the week looking at comic book/ superhero movies. Yesterday we listed 5 Phenomenal Superhero Movies. Well, just like every other genre, you have good movies and you have some real stinkers. Today I’m listing 5 Phenomenally Awful Superhero Movies. As with yesterday’s list, this one stays within the comic book arena. The main difference is that these films simply got it all wrong. Unfortunately there were plenty to pick between and I found it a little difficult narrowing it down to five. Nonetheless here they are. As always I wouldn’t call this the definitive list, but there’s no denying that these 5 superhero movies are most certainly not phenomenal!

#5 – “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND” (2006)

It’s a shame that a franchise that started so good could fall so far in such a short time. “X-Men: The Last Stand” was the third X-Men movie and by far the worst. Bryan Singer, the director of the first two films, left and Brent Ratner took over. But the biggest problem was with the story. The ridiculous liberties that were taken with the team were simply unforgivable. The series went from being about a superhero team to being a Wolverine and Jean Grey love story. The special effects are really good and the production value is fine. But X3 turned the series on its head. “X-Men: The Last Stand” severed its ties to its comic book roots and proved to be a franchise killer.

#4 – “JONAH HEX” (2010)

Talk about a great example of a missed opportunity. Jonah Hex has more than enough wonderful source material to make a great movie. Why on earth did the movie stray so far off course? “Jonah Hex” is an absurd and often times incoherent mess than only gives the audience brief glimpses into what makes the character great. What’s even worse is that Josh Brolin is perfect as Jonah Hex. The makeup combined with Brolin’s portrayal is right on target. Unfortunately the material is so ridiculous and lame that it’s impossible to enjoy what he’s doing on-screen. Then you have the casting of Megan Fox who offers up one cringe-worthy line after another. Even the often times reliable John Malkovich is like fingernails on a chalk board. “Jonah Hex” is one of the most poorly written movies I have ever seen and even at only 81 minutes, it drags on forever.

#3- “THE SPIRIT” (2008)

Acclaimed comic book and graphic novel writer Frank Miller wrote and directed “The Spirit” and I have to say he should stick to books. “The Spirit” is an absolute mess right from the start. The movie is a lifeless and emotionless film that is a good example of style over substance. Miller’s over-the-top style works visually but the material is so flat and grating. Miller’s self-indulgence make some scenes seem to go on forever and it’s truly a laborious task to make it through the picture. The actors drudge along never developing a single character worth caring about. It’s almost as if Miller simply forgot the difference between print media and cinema. Whatever the reason, “The Spirit” is a movie that I pray I never have to see again.

#2- “CATWOMAN” (2004)

I’m not alone in calling “Catwoman” a terrible movie. It’s one of those rare movies that I honestly wasn’t able to make it through. I struggled with leaving it off this list simply because I never finished it. But then I asked myself WHY I never finished it? Oh yes, because it was absolutely horrible. Loaded with ludicrous and cheesy dialogue and a paper-thin story, “Catwoman” takes a great DC Comics character and butchers her all for the sake of putting Halle Berry in a cat suit. Both Berry and Sharon Stone are laughably bad and the material is no better. The direction, the special effects, the character development, all of it is subpar and the result is a disaster that some have said derailed Berry’s once promising career. If you’ve seen “Catwoman” (or if you’ve tried to see it), you know exactly why it’s on this list.

#1- “BATMAN AND ROBIN” (1997)

The first Batman movie franchise wasn’t the best. The first film starring Michael Keeton and Jack Nicholson was a lot of fun but after that it slowly started going downhill. The series hit rock bottom with Joel Schumacher’s abhorrent “Batman and Robin”. Schumacher’s film was a catastrophe and was the ultimate death knell for the franchise. Nothing in “Batman and Robin” works. It takes such a flippant and arrogant approach to Batman and his universe. It’s never as funny or as clever as it thinks it is and Schumacher seems more interested in clowning around than making a quality film. George Clooney is a fine actor but he was a terrible Batman and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze is one of the worst characters in film history. I have a laundry list of faults associated with “Batman and Robin”. Maybe it’s my affection for the source material, but it doesn’t take much to see that this is a poorly made movie on almost every level. It’s absurdity is off the charts and it’s lazy, unfunny attempts at humor never let up. I hate “Batman and Robin” and there is a reason why it’s accused of killing the Batman series.

So there they are. Do you agree or disagree with my list. See something I may have left off? Please share you comments below.

5 PHENOMENAL SUPERHERO MOVIES

You may have heard that a little movie called “The Avengers” hits theaters this Friday. In honor of this highly anticipated, sure to be blockbuster I thought it would be fun to spend some time this week looking at the hugely popular superhero genre. I’m doing two Phenomenal 5 lists this week starting with 5 Phenomenal Superhero Movies. Now with the title “superhero” my intentions are to stay within the comic book arena. Since the genre has grown there are many movies to choose from. But these are five that made the cut for me. As always I wouldn’t call this the definitive list, but there’s no doubt that these 5 superhero movies are absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “X-MEN” (2000)

Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” should be thanked for its role in relaunching superhero movies into the popular money-makers they are today. Here Singer does a great job of introducing the team and effectively laying the groundwork for what the team was all about. Another great thing is the fun casting. Patrick Stewart is absolutely perfect as Charles Xavier and Hugh Jackman stole the show with his portrayal of Wolverine. Ian McKellen, James Marsden, Famke Janssen, and Halle Berry are also well cast. While some of the dialogue is a little clunky, the story is well written and even though dealing with some heavier underlying themes it doesn’t take itself to seriously. “X-Men” spawned two sequels, neither as good as the first film. But “X-Men” is a movie I can watch anytime.

#4 – “SPIDER-MAN” 2 (2004)

I really enjoyed the first Spider-Man film but this was a case where the sequel was better than it’s predecessor. With the constraints of an origin story behind him, director Sam Raimi puts together a sharp, action-packed story pitting Peter Parker (Tobey Mcguire) against Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina). The character development and story progression is very well done, the production design is at a higher level, and the movie as a whole is much more polished. Molina is fantastic and the special effects are a blast. The train scene alone is worth the price of admission. Unfortunately the third movie flew completely off the rails instead of building on the success of this film. But “Spider-Man” 2 remains a great example of how to make a really good sequel.

#3 –BATMAN BEGINS” (2005)

When I heard Christopher Nolan had signed on to do “Batman Begins” I was immediately intrigued. Batman is my favorite comic book hero and I was still bitter at how Joel Schumacher had left the previous Batman franchise in shambles. How happy I was to see Nolan not only successfully reboot the franchise but develop an enthralling film that captured the fun elements of a comic book movie as well as a darker and more fitting tone for the Batman character. Christian Bale is great as Bruce Wayne and Gary Oldman is the perfect Jim Gordon. Throw in Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, and Morgan Freeman and you have a brilliant cast that perfectly fits Nolan’s vision. “Batman Begins” is not only a really good movie, but it sets the foundation for what has been an incredible franchise so far.

#2 – “IRON MAN” (2008)

I remember when I first heard that an Iron Man movie starring Robert Downey, Jr. was coming soon. I didn’t see how on earth Downy, Jr. could play the role of Tony Stark and I pretty much doomed the movie to failure. Not only was I wrong about the movie but I have no problem saying that Robert Downey, Jr. IS Tony Stark! “Iron Man” is a well crafted and incredibly well written movie that rides Downey, Jr.’s performance. It takes a second tier Marvel superhero and catapults him into the lead role of the upcoming Avengers film. There’s some fun supporting work from Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Terrence Howard and some jaw-dropping special effects. “Iron Man” is a brilliant franchise-launching origin story and a super fun action popcorn picture. It’s incredibly well done and Robert Downey, Jr. is a blast to watch.

#1 – “THE DARK KNIGHT” (2008)

“The Dark Knight” is the second movie in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and I have no problem calling it the best superhero / comic book movie of all time. But it can’t be confined to just the superhero genre. It’s an incredible film that can stand its ground against any movie from any genre. Nolan’s vision takes Bruce Wayne and Gotham City down a much darker and more violent path with the introduction of The Joker played by Heath Ledger. Ledger gives a stunning and unforgettable performance that won him the posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Nolan’s direction is near perfect and his slick style is evident throughout the film. The special effects are very well done and Hans Zimmer’s score is a perfect fit. Bale, Oldman, Freeman, and Caine all return and Aaron Eckhart makes a great Harvey Dent. “The Dark Knight” is a comic book movie but one that never strays to far from reality. It’s dark and intense but it’s also an exercise in precision filmmaking. It’s a movie that legitimizes the superhero genre and one of my favorite movies of all time.

There you have it. What do you think of my list? See a glaring omission? What are you favorite superhero movies?