While Hollywood studios are often criticized for having a lack of imagination where feature films are concerned (too many sequels and reboots, thank you) and have been knocked recently for plumbing the Fairy Tale Vault far too often, if the resulting film is as well-crafted and smart as Bryan Singer's "Jack the Giant Slayer," I would willingly sit through a movie about "Tom Thumb."
Intelligently written, imaginatively realized and with a touch of humor that's never self-aware, this retelling of the tale of an eager boy, some magic beans and an enormous plant in dire need of trimming proves to be a vibrant entertainment that benefits from the conviction of its cast and Singer's ability to effectively render the film's fanciful elements alongside the characters' humanity with equal conviction.
The traditional fairy tale serves as the foundation for the film, telling of a young man and woman, each from separate social stations, yet on parallel paths. Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is an 18-year-old with his head in the clouds. Naive but with a good heart, he lives with his uncle (Christopher Fairbank) in a rundown shack on the edge of the kingdom known as Glouster and longs for adventure. On a trip to town, he not only mistakes the lovely Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) for a commoner but is also duped into taking a bag of magic beans in exchange for his horse. While Jack has to face the wrath of his uncle, the young lady is forced to contend with her father, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), who has arranged for her to be married to his most-trusted adviser Roderick (Stanley Tucci, channeling Basil Rathbone). This does not sit well with her, so she flees the castle that rainy night, only to find herself forced to seek shelter from the storm, at what turns out to be Jack's humble hovel.
Circumstances occur in which the magic beans are accidentally planted, a huge multi-tendril stalk rapidly grows and poor Isabelle is whisked up beyond the clouds where she finds herself in a realm of exiled giants. Ordered to rescue her are the leaders of the King's Guard, Elmont (Ewan McGregor) and Crawe (Eddie Marsan), with Jack, Roderick, his right-hand stooge Wicke (Ewen Bremner) and a handful of victims, I mean soldiers, in tow.
The film is surprisingly dense as a captivating backstory involving the giants and a magic crown that controls them is told before the opening title card appears, while elements of court intrigue are dispensed with in a quick, engaging and clever manner. Credit the three screenwriters, particularly Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for penning Singer's "The Usual Suspects," for taking such a literate approach to the material, never treating it as a children's tale but as a coming-of-age story told as a grand adventure.
And quite an adventure it is as Jack and his crew must not only escape from the giants, who are a barbaric and frightening crew, but also a traitor in their midst who hopes to bend these behemoths to his will for personal gain. Be forewarned that some of the violence is gruesome, and you should not get too attached to anyone in the cast. Some unexpected fatalities occur, only increasing the film's tension, which Singer effectively maintains with the crisp pace he employs.
The veterans in the cast lend great support to the two young leads as McGregor, Tucci, McShane and Marsan each create distinctive characters without ever going over-the-top. They allow Hoult and Tomlinson to shine, and that they do.
This film as well as the recent "Warm Bodies" proves that Hoult is a star in the making. Handsome, self-effacing and charming, this young actor is as natural on screen as green is on frogs.
He's a delight to watch while Tomlinson, in her first major role, is captivating, providing Isabelle with the proper balance of strength and vulnerability, carving out her own place on screen with confidence.
And while the giants are a sight to see, it's these two you want to spend the most time with, as Hoult and Tomlinson provide the human element in this wonderfully told fantasy.
'Jack the Giant Slayer'
3 1/2 stars out of 4
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, Ian McShane, Christopher Fairbank, Ralph Brown and Warwick Davis.
Directed by Bryan Singer; produced by David Dobkin, Ori Marmur, Patrick McCormick, Neal Mortiz and Singer; screenplay by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney.
A Warner Brothers release. 114 minutes. Rated PG-13 (fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief language). At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.
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'Rock' shows surprising range in compelling "Snitch." (3 stars out of 4)
Based on a true story, Ric Roman Waugh's "Snitch" is far better than it has any right to be. As a vehicle for Dwayne Johnson, going a far way toward putting his "Rock" image in the past here, it includes elaborate action scenes. However, there are far fewer explosive moments than usual for this kind of fare as Waugh focuses more on how the characters react to ever-tightening web of circumstances they find themselves in.
Johnson is John Matthews, a successful businessman who owns his own trucking firm. Ensconced in a McMansion in the 'burbs with his second wife, his middle-class dream is shattered when his son Jason (Rafi Gavron) is arrested on a rather bogus drug charge and faces a 10-year sentence thanks to mandatory sentencing laws. Unwilling to let that happen, Matthews attempts to cut a deal with Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon), a self-serving district attorney with eyes on an open congressional seat.
Though she initially brushes him off, once Matthews convinces her that he can infiltrate the local drug trade by offering to transport their merchandise with his big rigs, she's willing to see what he can do. Though he eventually gets a local drug lord (Michael Kenneth Williams) to implicate himself, Keeghan's eager to reel in his supplier, the head of the Mexican drug cartel, Juan Carlos Pintera (Benjamin Bratt). Matthews finds a way to infiltrate his operation but at great risk to himself and his partner Daniel (Jon Bernthal), an ex-con.
If I were a betting man, I'd wager that about 35 percent of the story is true with the rest fashioned to please Johnson's fans. Be that as it may, credit must be given to Waugh for resisting to make this nothing but a slam-bang affair. The axe he's here to grind is that of mandatory minimum sentence laws being unfair, and he approaches the material as if it's a modern film noir. Though there's no femme fatale in sight, the film effectively employs other conventions of the genre, namely the notion of fate being stacked against its characters as the noose they willingly put their heads in gets tighter and tighter with no escape in sight.
Johnson is very good here, and it's fun to watch him stretch himself. More beleaguered father than outsized action hero, he's able to convey Matthews' sense of frustration and worry over his son's plight in a quiet, poignant manner. The actor is proving himself to be quite smart where managing his career is concerned, and like Clint Eastwood, he's slowly showing that he's capable of much more than meets the eye.
Equally good is Berthal, fresh from his run on "The Walking Dead." The cards are stacked against his character as well, and we sympathize with his plight due to the actor's ability to channel a sense of desperation that's never less than heartfelt.
Their efforts, as well as Waugh's tactful direction, help elevate "Snitch" above its B-movie roots, making for a solid and engrossing piece of social commentary.
Sluggish "Dark Skies" fails to realize potential. (2 1/2 stars out of 4)
There's a fine line between building suspense and testing an audience's patience, as well as having the instinct to know when you've crossed it. With his first two features, "Legion" and "Priest," director Scott Stewart proved that he has a way with creating intriguing set pieces but had yet to master any sense of pacing, as his thin stories were stretched past the breaking point, resulting in ultimately tedious movies. With his latest, the alien abduction thriller "Dark Skies," it becomes evident that the director is following the pace of his own drummer, and it's far too slow for me.
At its core, the story is an engaging one as it focuses on the Barrett family, which is falling apart at the seams. Lacy (Keri Russell) is a real estate salesman who is too soft-hearted to go in for the kill where closing a deal is concerned, while Daniel's (Josh Hamilton) self-esteem has taken a serious hit what with being unemployed for a prolonged period. Their teen son Jesse (Dakota Goyo) has become a mystery to them, as he's navigating adolescence with attitude to spare while young Sam (Kadan Rockett) has his hands full just being 6 years old. With foreclosure emminent for the Barretts, things take a turn for the worse when a series of supernatural events take place in their home that eventually lead Lacy to think aliens are visiting them.
Unfortunately, her suspicions are well-founded as objects go missing, mysterious beings are seen on the many video cameras Daniel installs and horrific marks are found on the bodies of both of the boys. Stewart doles these tidbits out a bit too slowly, resulting in a film that fails to build any sense of suspense. The fact that we know where the movie is headed certainly doesn't help, and while the film's big reveal is done effectively, the sense is that it's a bit too little after all that wait.
What's ironic about the film is that its producer, Jason Blum, was one of the makers of "Paranormal Activity," which did such an effective job of using the found-footage aesthetic so effectively. Telling that ghost story by splicing together the various points of view from multiple cameras put the viewer and the characters on equal footing, as in limiting the point of view, it made for a more claustrophobic, suspenseful setting.
"Dark Skies" could have easily adopted this technique and would have been far more effective as a result. As it is, the film ends up being a by-the-numbers affair that wastes a potentially effective premise.
A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, Chuck Koplinski studied film at Chicago's Columbia College and has reviewed films for 20 years. For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter at chucksmoviepicks. He can also be reached at email@example.com.