Jack the Giant Slayer


Think of it as "rural renewal".

Think of it as “rural renewal”.

(2013) Fantasy (New Line) Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McShane, Stanley Tucci, Bill Nighy, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, Christopher Fairbank, Simon Lowe, Mingus Johnston, Ralph Brown, Warwick Davis, Joy McBrinn, Lee Boardman, Tandi Wright. Directed by Bryan Singer

Fee, Fai, Fo, Fum…I smell the blood of a Hollywoodman. A beloved fairy tale is given the reel CGI treatment and turns out a cut above other recent celluloid fairy tales.

Jack (Hoult) is the son of a farmer recently passed of the plague. He lives with his uncle (Fairbank) who is stressed out – money makes the world go round even in the world of Grimm. As a boy, Jack’s father read him the bedtime story of the mighty King Erik the Great, who fought the evil giants who lived in a land between Heaven and Earth and has used magic seeds to grow enormous beanstalks that rose to the land of th Giants. It was only through the use of a magic crown forged from the heart of a giant that allowed Erik to vanquish his much larger and stronger foes.

Isabelle (Tomlinson) has heard the same tale only from her other the Queen (who, like Jack’s father passes away before the opening credits) and yearns for adventures of her own. Her good but misguided father, King Brahmwell (McShane) has betrothed his headstrong daughter to his advisor Roderick (Tucci), a man she thoroughly loathes. She is constantly slipping out of the castle to mingle among the common folk much to the consternation of Sir Elmont (McGregor), the brave and noble knight charged with the protection of the Princess. Not an easy task to say the least.

Roderick has in fact discovered the magic crown and remaining beans and means to use them to get to the Land of the Giants and lead them in conquest of the entire Earth (why have one kingdom when you can have it all?) or at least the parts they can reach. A monk (Lowe) has stolen the beans and manages to pass them on to Jack while he is at market trying to sell his horse. Jack takes the beans home, not knowing what they are.

In the middle of a rainstorm, the Princess (who is out on one of her adventures) seeks shelter from a storm in the farmhouse Jack lives in. The two hit it off but accidentally activate the beans which of course grow a beanstalk, sending the farmhouse up into the clouds. Jack is knocked senseless in a fall, discovered by the King and Elmont who are out searching for the wayward Princess.

They quickly discover the story of the giants was no myth and the giants, led by the fearsome two-headed General Fallon (Nighy) have quite the mad on about humans and also the treachery of Roderick is revealed. Jack will have to rescue the princess and warn the King before it’s too late – but who will believe him?

If you gathered 100 people together, I doubt you’d find even one who would name “Jack and the Beanstalk” their favorite fairy tale and therein lies the main obstacle for the filmmakers. They need to take a story that is well-known but not necessarily beloved and make it appealing for modern day moviegoers. That’s no easy feat – ask the makers of recent fairy tale adaptations like Mirror, Mirror. There needs to be a balance between light and dark to appeal to children who prefer the light but at the same time dark enough because as Christopher Nolan will tell you dark sells.

Nicholas Hoult, who has shown promise in recent roles like Warm Bodies is an engaging hero, likable and charismatic. He is still a bit raw but he shows every sign of graduating up the ranks into the pantheon of A-list stars. He’s not quite there yet but his work here illustrates that he has the tools to get there. He’s come a long way since About a Boy.

Tomlinson I’m less sure about. Her performance isn’t particularly memorable but to be fair she’s given kind of a lousy hand to play with. Sure, Isabelle has spunk but then she spends most of the film being rescued. Note to filmmakers: the reason little girls are so obsessed with Disney princesses is that they are given girls who are not only glamorous and beautiful but also self-reliant and heroic. Most Disney princesses will like as not be the ones doing the rescuing; they don’t need a prince to do the job for them.

The giants are kind of fun, although there’s not a single giantess – apparently these humanoids reproduce asexually. They have a variety of looks which is to the good, from the two-headed Fallon to the squat-headed Fum. They are kind of goofy-looking and not particularly scary, but they unleash a good deal of mayhem and find human flesh to be a delicacy. It’s not so much the look of the giants but their actions that might induce nightmares in the very young.

The CGI is fairly impressive in most places, with the beanstalks themselves some of the best of the computer generated filmmaking here. They are labyrinthine, semi-realistic (real world physics would collapse the structure of the beanstalks if ever a magic bean makes its way to our dimension) and impressive. The castle of Cloister and the Giant’s Castle are both impressively rendered, a tribute to the set designer as well (Gavin Bocquet, take a bow).

Sadly the story doesn’t pass muster. It’s fairly predictable and despite McGregor’s and Tucci’s best efforts and bringing comic relief, it lacks a lighter side that will make this more palatable for parents. However, thanks to Hoult and director Singer’s acumen with action scenes and CGI, the movie actually is much better than I expected it to be. In a year which has been off to a rocky start in terms of quality movies, that’s as good as a goose that lays golden eggs.

REASONS TO GO: Hoult has A list potential. McGregor and Tucci are fun. Some fairly decent eye candy.

REASONS TO STAY: Some fairly significant plot holes.

FAMILY VALUES:  While most of the giants aren’t terribly frightening in looks, the damage they do (and is done to them) is and there are a few foul words thrown in for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: D.J. Caruso was initially set to direct but was replaced in 2010 with Singer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100; the reviews were fair to middlin’.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Love Crime

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The Princess Bride


The Princess Bride

True love's kiss always comes complete with horse and sunset.

(1987) Romantic Fantasy (20th Century Fox) Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Chris Sarandon, Mandy Patinkin, Andre the Giant, Wallace Shawn, Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Fred Savage, Peter Falk, Peter Cook, Mel Smith. Directed by Rob Reiner

 

Some romances have a fairy tale quality to them – brave princes, fair princesses, monsters and magic, quests and daring rescues. Okay that doesn’t happen much in real life but sometimes we all love to feel as if our romance is fairy tale-esque.

Buttercup (Wright) is the daughter of a simple farmer who has the farmboy Wesley (Elwes) wrapped around her finger. It isn’t too long before they fall deeply in love with one another. However, Wesley cannot marry Buttercup as a farmboy, so he sails across the sea to seek his future. His ship is taken by the Dread Pirate Roberts and sent to the bottom of Davey Jones’ locker and Wesley with it.

Buttercup is inconsolable. However she attracts the eye of Prince Humperdink (Sarandon), heir to the throne of Floran. She becomes engaged to marry him but remains sad and unhappy. She will marry him but her heart belongs to the late, lamented Wesley.

Then one day while she is out for her daily horseback ride she is abducted by three men – Vizzini (Shawn) the Sicilian mastermind, Inigo Montoya (Patinkin) a Spanish swordsman looking to avenge his father who was murdered by a six-fingered man some years back, and Fezzik (Andre), a giant from parts unknown.

They ride for Gilder, the sworn enemy of Floran with the Prince and his right hand man, Count Rugen (Guest) hot on their heels. Also right behind them is a mysterious man in black who catches up with them and in turn dispatches Montoya, Fezzik and Vizzini. He then takes Buttercup who guesses him to be the Dread Pirate Roberts – which turns out to be correct. But in her attempt to escape she discovers he is also Wesley, who has assumed the identity of Roberts when the pirate using that name retired.

But with the Prince right behind them, they run into the Fire Swamp to evade capture. Sadly, although they survive the Fire Swamp, they do not evade capture and they are taken  back to Floran where the Prince prepares for his wedding and the Count prepares to torture Wesley. Will true love win in the end? Only with the help of Miracle Max (Crystal) and his buttinsky wife Valerie (Kane) will the heroes save the day, rescue the princess and allow true love to triumph. That and a holocaust cloak.

Let’s start out by saying this is one of my very favorite movies of all time. Not a single misstep is made, nothing feels wrong from the framing device of the devoted grandfather (Falk) reading to his sick grandson (Savage) to the haunting score by Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler.

Reiner assembles an impressive cast who all inhabit their characters impressively and the fact that they are given a marvelous script full of great dialogue helps immensely. Who can forget Mandy Patinkin repeating “Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die” as he fights Count Rugen, the six fingered man, to the death. Who can forget Wesley begging Buttercup “Gentlyyyyyyy!” as they are reunited or his regular “As you wish” whenever she asks something of him.

There is a certain cheese factor in the somewhat low-budget special effects and sets. This is meant to be a Grimm’s Fairy Tale with a slightly modern twist, pre-Shrek but minus the pop culture references. The cast is without exception top-notch with Elwes giving a career-defining performance. Wright made her film debut here and has since gone on to a long and acclaimed career of 25 years.

Patinkin, one of the more versatile actors out there, channels Errol Flynn (down to the moustache) and has a genuinely affectionate chemistry with the late Andre the Giant, who remarked later that he had never felt so accepted as he did on the set of this movie. You can feel the camaraderie of the cast come through onscreen – this is the type of movie that leaves you with as good a feeling as it is possible to come away with from a movie.

This should definitely be at or near the top of the list for romantic movie night viewing. This is a movie that understands love, understands its magic and is able to translate that to the screen. If you aren’t in love when you start watching this film, you will be by the time it’s over.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the most romantic movies ever, with great wit, panache and Andre the Giant.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You are freaked out by Rodents of Unusual Size.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few items of mildly crude humor and a few scary moments of Andre the Giant flambé but this really is perfectly fine for kids of all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Max and Valerie are named for original author William Goldman’s parents. And by the way, the Dread Pirate Roberts was a real person – Bartholomew Roberts, also known as Black Bart. He was a very successful 18th Century Pirate. Inconceivable, no?

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There have been several DVD releases of the film, including a Special Edition (2001) which includes home movies taken on set by Elwes and a Dread Pirate edition (2006) that includes that and a featurette on the real Dread Pirate Roberts, a featurette about fairy tales and their similarities, a tourist brochure for Floran and an interactive trivia game. The 20th Anniversary edition (2007) strangely contains none of these things but does have featurettes on the swordplay in the movie as well as a bit on how folklore is incorporated into The Princess Bride and how it compares and contrasts to other books in a similar genre. All of these are available on the Blu-Ray release (2009) which makes it the best choice for extras.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $45.7M on a $40M production budget; the movie was unable to recoup its production budget during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: An Affair to Remember