I'm not a big fan of doing this (in fact, I haven't done it in years), but due to combination of a busy week of mostly prep work for SXSW, which begins in one week, and a lot movies being released this week, I'm going to have to blaze through these reviews, and do a roundup of a few mainstream releases (kind of what I do with the art-house films) with just two or three paragraphs per film. And I promise to be back to full reviews next week. Thanks for your indulgence…
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER Whether you love, hate or are indifferent about the latest fairy tale fleshed out and turned into a feature-length film, JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (based on the Jack and the Beanstalk story), you're all going to come out of it with at least one common thought: "Those giants were pretty fucking cool." There's really no denying it, especially when the leader of the giants, General Fallon, is voiced by the great Bill Nighy and has a second, malformed head on his shoulders that acts as something of a mentally challenged parrot for his proclamations of war against the humans that invade the giants' land in the clouds.
I was genuinely excited to see this film due in large part to the director, Bryan Singer, who has a solid track record with the first two X-MEN movies (and the next one as well), THE USUAL SUSPECTS, VALYRIE and APT PUPIL. I also like the cast, led by Nicholas Hoult (WARM BODIES, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS), Ewan McGregor, Eddie Marsan, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane and the lovely Eleanor Tomlinson. Jack is handed a small number of beans by a monk trying to escape capture by the king's men, but when they get wet, a giant beanstalk grows into the clouds taking with it Jack's house and Princess Isabelle (Tomlinson). The king's guard (led by McGregor's Elmont) heads up the stalk to retrieve the princess. One member of the party, Roderick (Tucci), is planning to marry the princess and overthrow the King (McShane), but Isabelle has her eyes on Jack, because the young pretty ones deserve each other.
JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is a bit overwhelmed by its expensive-looking special effects, but the look and movements of the giants and how they interact with the human characters is spectacular. The performances and writing are handled in broad strokes, probably to appeal to younger audiences, although the film's PG-13 rating is well earned. The movie plays more like a series of wildly inventive and exciting moments peppered into an average story that feels like so much fluff to puff out this film to nearly two hours. The sight of a beanstalk crashing to the ground is something I will not soon forget, but so much of the action, in-fighting, over-acting (Tucci is mostly terrible), and extraneous story is unmemorable. A giant biting off the head of a human is quite eye catching, but the love story between Jack and the Princess is standard-issue stuff that Singer has never been very good with. There's actually more than you might think to like here, I just wish I'd found ways to become more invested in these cut-out characters.
21 & OVER So they let Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the writers of such classics as THE HANGOVER, GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST, THE CHANGE-UP and FOUR CHRISTMASESh, direct a movie as well, and I can literally count the number of times I laughed on two hands with fingers left over. Guess which fingers I'd like to offer for these guys? Which is to say, I laughed more at 21 & OVER than the ultra-shitty, similarly dim PROJECT X from last year. This time around, former high school buddies Casey and Miller (Skylar Astin and Miles Teller) are now at separate colleges but decide to reunite to celebrate the 21st birthday of fellow friend Jeff Chang (Justin Choon). Jeff begs the guys to put off the celebration because he has a med school interview the next morning, arranged for by his dictator-ish dad (François Chau).
As the night progresses, the guys start to learn that their lives after high school have not turned out the way they'd hoped in most cases, and where they've ended up in their lives is sometimes downright scary. If that had been the primary thrust of this film, it might have been worthy of some sort of attention. Instead, such moments are hidden away in the darkest corners of 21 & OVER, obscured by people screaming "Dude" at each other endlessly during plotlines involving drinking, doing drugs, trying to get laid, and other worthy endeavors that are fun to actually do and really boring to watch other people do. Seriously, it's like watching a movie about someone else riding a rollercoaster — it looks like fun, but watching doesn't really replicate the experience. Naturally, one of the guys meets the perfect girl for him (Sarah Wright from THE HOUSE BUNNY), but they can't quite seem to connect until, tah-da, all of their obstacles disappear in one crazy night.
I'm not saying the actors don't give it their all, but could you really tell if they weren't? These guys aren't Harold and Kumar, so why bother? And who is this film for exactly? Are high schoolers or college students really going to see themselves in this film and laugh at familiar behavior? Unlikely. Instead, I expect them to see this and say, "Shit, I'm an alcholic." Seven or eight laughs in a 90-minute debauched mess is a bad ratio, and if you see this film this weekend, you're part of the problem. Go catch an Oscar winner or something; there are so many to choose from.
PHANTOM I have no idea where this movie came from. I've never seen a trailer for it, read about it getting cast, made or released. I have no idea if this film sat on the shelf for a year or two, or just finished production a couple months ago. Until I got the notice that it was screening last week, I'd never heard of the film called PHANTOM, which tells the story behind a real-life missing Russian nuclear submarine during the height of the Cold War. Hell, if you'd told me this film was made in the late '80s or early 1990s, I might even believe it, because there's something wonderfully retro about a time when so many Americans believed the Russians wanted nothing more than to end the lives of every American with a rain of nuclear missiles because they believed that we wanted to wipe them out similarly.
Ed Harris plays Captain Demi, a soon-to-be-retiring naval officer who is charged with taking out an antiquated sub on its and his last mission. We find out that the captain and the vessel have a shared, deadly history, but more importantly, the captain is unfit medically and has seizures occasionally. The always-great William Fichtner plays his No. 2, and does his best to hide the captain's condition from the political officer Pavlov (Johnathon Schaech) and two mystery KGB men (including David Duchovny) charged with testing out top secret new equipment on the sub.
I'm not going to ruin all of the surprises, but let's say a power struggle leaves the wrong men in charge of the sub's nuclear capabilities. PHANTOM does a solid job of capturing the sub's claustrophobic surroundings (I figure a submarine movie that can't get that right should just submerge itself and never return), but more importantly, there are some sub vs. sub battles here that writer-director Todd Robinson stages in such as way that we always know what's going on and how skilled Captain Demi is performing countermeasures. There's a fair amount of tension built up in the film, and I liked the performances, especially the rough-edged Harris and Duchovny playing a bad guy. I'm not sure if this story itself is accurate, but the filmmakers never said this was a documentary, so who cares? It feels like it could have happened. If you're looking for a change of pace in your movie going, you can't get much further afield than PHANTOM, which I think fans of military strategy films might get a kick out of.