First, that title. Based on Jack and the Beanstalk, the movie was originally called Jack the Giant Killer (the title of a nominally related fantasy from 1962). Marketing decided that was too harsh, so it was changed. If I were to take my post-Buffy kids they would ask, “Dad, what’s a ‘slayer’?” To which I would be obliged to respond, “A ‘slayer’ is a ‘killer.’” Thanks, Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.
But they weren’t wrong. It is a “slayer” movie, harmless, forgettable, and about on par with lesser product from Dark Knight franchise molders Legendary Pictures. Like 10,000 BC or Clash and Wrath of the Titans it’s long on budget and CGI, short in other areas. (Thanks to its PG-13 rating, it’s also off limits to my children.) Why Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-Men movies and the eternally vexing Superman Returns, wanted to make it is a mystery. After a break from blockbusters did he feel rusty with the newest technologies? Have a need for a jumpstart for next year’s far more promising X-Men: Days of Future Past?
In any case we’re back in marginally “grownup” fairy tale land, where Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood have gone to die. Not one of my favorite places, nor one of yours, and the sooner the movies abandon it, the better. Jack, it must be said, is a more lighthearted affair, with an air of anachronistic irreverence that recalls The Princess Bride…or would, if the screenwriters could get past the fart jokes and occasional f-bombs. You want wit? It pretty much ends at the opening credits, with the unveiling of a new, giant-strewn logo for Singer’s Bad Hat Harry Productions.
In a world where…forgive me, I’m struggling to find an original way to synopsize. In a medieval-ish world where fearsome giants have been banished to an unreachable upperworld, daydreaming Jack (Nicholas Hoult), a lowly farmhand, comes into possession of some magic beans sought by the wicked Roderick (Stanley Tucci). Roderick plans to contact the giants, put them under his command, and bring them to Earth to subjugate the kingdom of Cloister, ruled by King Brahmwell (Ian McShane). But Jack mistakenly plants the beanstalk, which soars skyward and whooshes the king’s feisty daughter, Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), into the land of the giants. Jack, who is lovelorn over the princess, the scheming Roderick, and the gallant knight Elmont (Ewan McGregor) begin a perilous journey upward, where they soon cross paths with the giants, who look like oversized troll dolls left out in the rain. I’ll take it on faith that an unrecognizable Bill Nighy was playing their plus-sized commander, who has an idiot second head perched on his shoulder. Did Singer when he signed on for this assignment?
This is fatty red meat for the fantasy adventure crowd. The actors play to type and can do no more. Hoult, the About a Boy boy who grew up to play Colin Firth’s jailbait boytoy in A Single Man, and an X-man and the amiable zombie in the hit Warm Bodies, is a colorless hero, in a matching set with the pretty Tomlinson. (It’s the kind of movie where the leads survive without a single hair mussed.) McGregor is McGregor, his fallback position when confronted with immobile material. Even the reliable Tucci, who brought a little zip to The Hunger Games and The Core, falls below his average number of chuckles.
The IMAX 3D presentation does Jack no favors. Part of it was circumstance; I wound up down in front, “under the 3D,” as the guy in the next seat said, not that the film is particularly immersive. The DP, Newton Thomas Sigel, has done great work for Singer and others, and I can’t believe he’d plan such soft, mushy, textureless visuals. Maybe the enhanced Hobbit rewired my synapses for the third dimension. Maybe it was the 1D material clashing with the 3D. Whatever–Jack looked like jack up there. And I usually don’t have a problem with the process. My advice: Either see it in 2D, save your magic beans and hope for better from next week’s fantasy, Oz the Great and Powerful, or skip the whole thing and rent or rewatch Puss in Boots, which reworks the same legend far more delightfully.
The Insider cast a giant shadow over the 1999 Oscar race, with seven nods, and though it came away winless it’s aged as well or better than a number of movies from that very good year. (A year for very long movies, too, like 2012; at 157 minutes, The Insider was a relative breeze compared to The Green Mile or Magnolia.) Remember when 60 Minutes was the gold standard for TV journalism, before the puff profiles of Lincoln or the Obama/Clinton love taps? Director Michael Mann did, and the movie puts its ethics to the test, with the tortured case of Big Tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe, in a sensitive, agonized performance, itself nominated, that is the complete opposite of his winning work in the next millennium’s Gladiator). Big Tobacco pushes back hard against the program and producer Lowell Bergman (a restrained Al Pacino), and the stage is set for whisper campaigns and internecine legal manueverings. Mann, a premier visual stylist, makes what could be heavygoing nimble, suspenseful, and fascinating. I hadn’t seen the film in years until its resurrection on Blu-ray, and the time flew. In a wonderful cast Christopher Plummer also stands out as Mike Wallace, a model of how to portray and play (then) living people, but the highlight scene belongs to Bruce McGill, in a slow-burning paroxysm of outrage.
The good news is that the Blu-ray transfer leaps ahead of the now rickety DVD in every respect, and the price is right for the purchase or repurchase of a film that needs to be better remembered. The better is that Mann, who is known to tinker with his movies on home video, including some damaging revisions to The Last of the Mohicans, has left The Insider alone. That said the Blu-ray, like the DVD, is bereft of interesting supplementary material, other than the trailer and an EPK making-of. One of the best journalism films ever made, and an unfortunate flop with audiences, deserved someone to speak up for it in a commentary.