JACK THE GIANT SLAYER
It happened to Hansel and Gretel. It happened to Red Riding Hood. It happened to Snow White. (It happened to a couple of Snow Whites, actually.) And now it's Jack, of "... and the beanstalk" fame, who's getting a pricey, kitschy, effects-filled makeover, serving as protagonist for director Bryan Singer's Jack the Giant Slayer. At the rate this trend is going, I can hardly wait for the inevitable big-budget updating of The Pied Piper with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Marion Cotillard, and Harvey Fierstein taking on the role of a lifetime in The Frog King.
All told, this latest attempt at blockbuster-izing a storybook classic isn't awful. The visuals involving Jack's mutating stalk and the hordes of giants - yup, there are hordes of 'em here - are enjoyable, and there's some wit in the performances of the swashbuckling Ewan McGregor and the great Stanley Tucci, despite the latter relying too heavily on his nefarious character's gap-toothed grin to suggest comic perversity. But the movie still feels lethargic and unmotivated and sadly lacking in personality; it's an expensive-looking trifle designed to be quickly consumed and forgotten the minute Hollywood releases its next revisionist fairytale. (Which, with Sam Raimi's Oz the Great & Powerful on the immediate horizon, should happen in a week's time.) Because our heroes are so bland and our villains so broad, there's no dramatic urgency behind the newly constructed narrative that finds Jack having to save a kidnapped princess from oversize heathens in the sky. Because they stare at each other with the same look of sappy, doleful blankness, there's no romantic ardor, or even playfulness, in the scenes between Nicholas Hoult's Jack and Eleanor Tomlinson's Isabelle. (Hoult's going-through-the-motions performance is especially disappointing coming so soon after his sensational undead turn in Warm Bodies.) And because Singer's generically competent, mostly unimaginative staging suggests that his heart wasn't in the project from the start, there's no true excitement or surprise generated between Jack the Giant Slayer's Once Upon a Time and its Happily Ever After. At its best, as when giants chuck burning trees at terrified townsfolk or Bill Nighy's freakish behemoth converses with his second head, you watch the film with mild interest and amusement. At its worst, you close your eyes and imagine you're at Snow White & the Huntsman instead.
Thank goodness that writer/director Todd Robinson and his cast collectively opted against employing Russian dialects for the Soviet-sub thriller Phantom, because your giggling at the resulting silliness may be the only thing that'll prevent you from napping. A repetitive, deathly dull exercise in which Ed Harris' grizzled captain is strong-armed into leading a covert oceanic mission with KGB agents amongst his crew, the movie feels claustrophobic, as befits a film in the vein of U-571 and Das Boot. But it's claustrophobic in the worst way: For 100 minutes, you're trapped with nothing to react to but Robinson's thuddingly obvious dialogue and "unexpected" twists that aren't unexpected at all, and nothing to look at but the puke-green sets and dour mugs of a bunch of actors who seem barely awake. (Co-star David Duchovny, of course, always looks barely awake, but he's uncharacteristically lifeless here, as are the usually reliable Harris, William Fichtner, and Lance Henriksen.) Still, I did momentarily perk up - by which I mean I fought off attacks of derisive laughter - each time someone directly addressed a character named Bruni or Tyrtov or Yanis while speaking in flat Midwestern cadences, as everyone in Phantom's cast does. You know how it's said that no accents are preferable to bad accents? Not always true.
21 & OVER
I'm not sure anyone could've been less enthused than I at the prospect of 21 & Over, another booze-fueled "What did we do last night?!?" comedy by The Hangover writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (both of whom also direct here), and a movie whose crude, obnoxious, painfully unfunny previews suggested the second coming of Project X. So color me shocked: Not only did Lucas' and Moore's outing make me laugh, but at no point did it even bore me. Granted, part of what kept me alert was the frequently jaw-dropping stupidity of its storyline, which wraps up its already uninspired plot threads with complete, almost offensive disinterest and is utterly senseless in terms of time. (Apparently, the college campus where the film is set hosts school-sponsored outdoor pep rallies that begin at 3 a.m.) But while the movie is dopey and tasteless and plenty of four-dollar-words that are generally tossed at products of its ilk - "misogynist," "xenophobic," and "puerile" all come to mind - leads Miles Teller and Skylar Astin, amazingly, make most of it work. With Teller as the loutish, Seann William Scott type and Astin as the low-key, Paul Rudd type, the actors share a spirited camaraderie and boast exceptional comic timing, and are strong enough actors to suggest that something might actually be at stake during their debaucherous adventures; the ingratiating, quick-witted stars even make the movie's occasional forays into legitimately dramatic territory feel earned. It's very much the formulaic, gross-out slapstick you're anticipating, but 21 & Over is also smarter and more hilarious than it needed to be ... though I was bummed that my fellow patrons reserved their biggest laughs, and biggest "E-e-e-ew!!!"s, for the scene in which Latina sorority sisters forced Teller and Astin to (chastely) kiss. They were aware that we also watched 30 seconds of slow-motion projectile vomiting and a guy eating a tampon, right?
THE LAST EXORCISM PART II
Unlike its 2010 predecessor, whose title was apparently a big fat lie, The Last Exorcism Part II isn't terribly inventive or clever, as it eschews the original's mock-doc presentation in favor of a more predictable scare-flick arc in which a traumatized teen (the returning Ashley Bell) is courted by a malevolent spirit. For most of its length, and despite director Ed Gass-Donnelly offering some impressively creepy imagery in his New Orleans locale, there are few scares and even fewer examples of solid writing and acting. But with her beautifully dark, imploring eyes and her emotional delicacy suggesting Carrie White before the pig's blood, the empathetic Bell at least keeps you engaged in her character's plight throughout. And while the first film went completely off the rails toward its finale, this one, despite some unconvincing CGI, absolutely delivers the goods. This Part II may not be great, but it's at least satisfying enough to make you not dread the inevitable part three - The Last Exorcism: We Mean It This Time!