“Jack the Giant Slayer”: Fee fie fo fumble


“Jack the Giant Slayer” opens Friday at Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema and Cinema Cafe in Stoughton. PG-13, 1:56.

It was just a little over a month ago that “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” opened, and I joked to a colleague that “Jack and the Beanstalk” would be the next storybook tale to get the IMAX 3D treatment. I thought I was joking, but here it is, “Jack the Giant Slayer.” I would quip that next up will be a PG-13 “Little Miss Muffet,” with Amanda Seyfried battling armies of giant spiders, but I don’t want to give anybody any ideas.

Suffice to say that “Jack” isn’t the worst of the fairytale trend (“Little Miss Riding Hood” owns that) nor is it the best (the gonzo stylish “Snow White and the Huntsman”). But the story of Jack does present a tricky question for director Bryan Singer and his team of writers (including Singer’s “The Usual Suspects” collaborator, Christopher McQuarrie); who’s the movie for, exactly?

You can’t just make a kids’ movie, since the studio is demanding a PG-13 action film that will bring in the teens. But there’s only so dark and violent you can go in a movie that has magic beans as a key plot element. So “Jack,” although energetic and prone to some moments of giddy visual wit, never settles on a consistent tone. It’s too scary for your youngest kid and too silly for your oldest.

A lengthy animated prologue (in which the giants don’t look much different than in the “live-action” film) explains how there’s a world of giants living in the clouds above ours, and how magic beans can build beanstalks to bridge the two worlds, so the giants can come down and kick our asses. (No real upside to the magic beans, methinks.) Luckily, a magic crown is forged that allows the wearer to control the giants.

The human sent the giants upstairs generations ago, but the king’s right-hand man Roderick (a gap-toothed Stanley Tucci) gets his hands on both the beans and the crown, with plans to use the giants to conquer the kingdom. Except farmboy Jack (Nicholas Hoult) gets ahold of the beans, accidentally sprouting a stalk in his living room that sends his house — with princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) inside it — shooting up to the heavens.

The king (Ian McShane) sends a few good knights, along with Jack and the sneaky Roderick up to find her. It’s here, I think, that “Jack the Giant Slayer” makes its first major misstep. What I remember of previous fairytale iterations was the tension of Jack sneaking around the giant’s lair, trying not to be discovered, hearing the rumble as the giant gets closer and closer. Here, the humans are caught almost immediately, and the CGI giants are presented almost immediately. Wouldn’t want to waste any of that visual-effects money on actually building a little suspense.

And, honestly, the giants are a little boring. Visually and personality-wise, it’s hard to tell them apart, aside from one that looks like Harvey Keitel for some reason, and another that looks like either Kid or Play from “House Party” (I can never remember which is which.) Otherwise, they’re basically just one-dimensional brutes that like to munch humans like they were at Buffalo Wild Wings.

There’s one clever action sequence, in which gallant knight Elmont (Ewan McGregor) has to avoid being baked into the giant equivalent of a Hot Pocket. But Singer otherwise doesn’t get much mileage out of his villains — other than their size, they’re just generic “Lord of the Rings”-knockoff bad guys. Just imagine the mischief that a more daring filmmaker like Terry Gilliam would have had with this story.

But then, the studio likely couldn’t have trusted Gilliam to hit all the expected notes of big-budget fantasy-action, including the obligatory endless battle between humans and giants. It’s not awful, but for a movie about 40-foot behemoths, “Jack the Giant Slayer” has pretty small aspirations.

What’s playing in Madison movie theaters: March 1-7, 2013


It may not feel like spring outside, but the calendar does say March 1. And that’s all the excuse Hollywood needs to kick of the spring movie season. So the low-profile dramas and comedies of January and February that the studios had little hope for will start giving way to some semi-blockbusters that the studios hope will generate some big box office.

Jack the Giant Slayer” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — When “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” came out in January, the 77 Square graphic designer Brandon and and I were joking about what fairytale would be next. And I jokingly suggested “Jack and the Beanstalk,” imagining a poster with the tag line “Fee Fi Fo Summer 2013.” They took everything but the tagline.

The Last Exorcism Part II” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — My favorite movie title in quite some time. If the first movie had the last exorcism, then how can there be a Part II? Unless “last” didn’t refer to “final,” but merely “The Previous Exorcism,” or “The Most Recent Exorcism.” And that didn’t look too good on a poster.

21 & Over” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — The writers of the “Hangover” movies make a raunchy R-rated comedy about three buddies out on a night of drunken debauchery, in which their straight-laced buddy ends up getting the wildest. But this time, the friends are college-age. So it’s completely different.

Phantom” (Point, Eastgate, Star Cinema) — It’s been ages since we had a good submarine movie, and I had high hopes for this one, in which the great Ed Harris plays a Russian sub captain who takes aboard a covert ops team led by David Duchovny on a mysterious mission during the Cold War. Alas, early reviews have not been kind.

A Place at the Table” (Sundance) — This revealing documentary looks at the 51 million people (including 1 in 6 children) who live with hunger in America. I’ll be doing a post-show chat after the 7:05 p.m. Tuesday showing, and it looks like, as a very special bonus, I’ll be joined by Capital Times food writer LIndsay Christians, who recently did the Food Stamp Challenge. Come join us! Here’s my review.

The Frankenstein Theory” (Star Cinema) — Mary Shelley meets “Blair Witch” in this found-footage horror tale of a scientist in the Arctic out to prove Shelley’s tale was non-fiction, and the monster is out there. If handled well, it could be a lot of fun.

“Punishment Park” (UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall, 7 p.m. Friday )  — The free on-campus film series presents a pair of films by button-pushing “mockumentary” filmmaker Peter Watkins with this disturbing 1971 film, in which antiwar protesters are rounded up for deadly exercises for the National Guard. It still has the power to shock over 40 years later. FREE!

Death Rides a Horse” (UW Cinematheque, 7 p.m. Saturday) — Oh yeah. The Cinematheque’s big spring series of spaghetti Westerns (which will spill over into the Wisconsin Film Festival) begins with this violent classic about a teenager (John Phillip Law) searching for his parents’ killers with the help of an outlaw (Sergio Leone favorite Lee Van Cleef.) Free!

Porco Rosso” (Chazen Museum of Art, 800 University Ave., 2 p.m. Saturday) — In this charming animated film from Studio Ghibli, a flying ace doesn’t let the fact that he’s turned into a pig keep him grounded. Free, but get there early, because the Ghibli series has been selling out every Sunday.

Middle of Nowhere” (Union South Marquee Theater, 1208 W. Dayton St., 7 p.m. Friday) — In this 2012 Sundance Film Festival award winner, a promising med student sees her life change when her husband is sent to prison for eight years. Free!

Skyfall” (Union South, 9:30 p.m. Friday, 6 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday). — I love it. Free!

Planet Terror” (Union South, midnight Friday and Saturday) — Watch the full version of Robert Rodriguez’s half of “Grindhouse,” in which toxic sludge turns folks into killer zombies. Weird they’re showing the other half, Tarantino’s “Death Proof” as well, no? Free!

Broken On All Sides” (Union South, 7 p.m. Monday) — Co-sponsored by UW Athletics, this documentary looks at mass incarceration in America and the role that poverty and race play. Free!

High Ground” (Union South, 7 p.m. Tuesday) — Vets for Vets co-sponsored the screening of this triumphant documentary about 11 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who climb a 20,000-foot peak in the Himalayas. Free!

Margin Call” (Union South, 7 p.m. Wednesday) — An all-star cast (no, really — Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore and more) turn the 2008 financial meltdown into the stuff of high drama, as we spend one tense night in a Goldman Sachs-like company facing Armageddon. Here’s my review. Free!