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Column Fri Mar 01 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer, 21 & Over, Stoker, Phantom, A Place at the Table, Like Someone In Love & The Sweeney


Hello, everyone. I'm not a big fan of doing this, but due to combination of a busy week and a lot movies being released this week, I'm going to have to blaze through these reviews, with just two or three paragraphs per film.

Jack the Giant Slayer

Whether you love, hate or are indifferent about the latest fairy tale fleshed out and turned into a feature-length film, Jack the Giant Slayer (based on the Jack and the Beanstalk story), you're all going to come out of it with at least one common thought: "Those giants were pretty fucking cool." There's really no denying it, especially when the leader of the giants, General Fallon, is voiced by the great Bill Nighy and has a second, malformed head on his shoulders that acts as something of a mentally challenged parrot for his proclamations of war against the humans that invade the giants' land in the clouds.

I was genuinely excited to see this film due in large part to the director, Bryan Singer, who has a solid track record with the first two X-Men movies (and the next one as well), The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie and Apt Pupil. I also like the cast, led by Nicholas Hoult (Warm Bodies, X-Men: First Class), Ewan McGregor, Eddie Marsan, Stanley Tucci, Ian McShane and the lovely Eleanor Tomlinson. Jack is handed a small number of beans by a monk trying to escape capture by the king's men, but when they get wet, a giant beanstalk grows into the clouds taking with it Jack's house and Princess Isabelle (Tomlinson). The king's guard (led by McGregor's Elmont) heads up the stalk to retrieve the princess. One member of the party, Roderick (Tucci), is planning to marry the princess and overthrow the King (McShane), but Isabelle has her eyes on Jack, because the young pretty ones deserve each other.

Jack the Giant Slayer is a bit overwhelmed by its expensive-looking special effects, but the look and movements of the giants and how they interact with the human characters is spectacular. The performances and writing are handled in broad strokes, probably to appeal to younger audiences, although the film's PG-13 rating is well earned. The movie plays more like a series of wildly inventive and exciting moments peppered into an average story that feels like so much fluff to puff out this film to nearly two hours. The sight of a beanstalk crashing to the ground is something I will not soon forget, but so much of the action, in-fighting, over-acting (Tucci is mostly terrible), and extraneous story is unmemorable. A giant biting off the head of a human is quite eye catching, but the love story between Jack and the Princess is standard-issue stuff that Singer has never been very good with. There's actually more than you might think to like here, I just wish I'd found ways to become more invested in these cut-out characters.

21 & Over

So they let Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the writers of such classics as The Hangover, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, The Change-Up and Four Christmases, direct a movie as well, and I can literally count the number of times I laughed on two hands with fingers left over. Guess which fingers I'd like to offer for these guys? Which is to say, I laughed more at 21 & Over than the ultra-shitty, similarly dim Project X from last year. This time around, former high school buddies Casey and Miller (Skylar Astin and Miles Teller) are now at separate colleges but decide to reunite to celebrate the 21st birthday of fellow friend Jeff Chang (Justin Choon). Jeff begs the guys to put off the celebration because he has a med school interview the next morning, arranged for by his dictator-ish dad (François Chau).

As the night progresses, the guys start to learn that their lives after high school have not turned out the way they'd hoped in most cases, and where they've ended up in their lives is sometimes downright scary. If that had been the primary thrust of this film, it might have been worthy of some sort of attention. Instead, such moments are hidden away in the darkest corners of 21 & Over, obscured by people screaming "Dude" at each other endlessly during plotlines involving drinking, doing drugs, trying to get laid, and other worthy endeavors that are fun to actually do and really boring to watch other people do. Seriously, it's like watching a movie about someone else riding a rollercoaster — it looks like fun, but watching doesn't really replicate the experience. Naturally, one of the guys meets the perfect girl for him (Sarah Wright from The House Bunny), but they can't quite seem to connect until, tah-da, all of their obstacles disappear in one crazy night.

I'm not saying the actors don't give it their all, but could you really tell if they weren't? These guys aren't Harold and Kumar, so why bother? And who is this film for exactly? Are high schoolers or college students really going to see themselves in this film and laugh at familiar behavior? Unlikely. Instead, I expect them to see this and say, "Shit, I'm an alcholic." Seven or eight laughs in a 90-minute debauched mess is a bad ratio, and if you see this film this weekend, you're part of the problem. Go catch an Oscar winner or something; there are so many to choose from.


In what is by far my favorite film of the week, Stoker would probably have been a bit of Southern Gothic, skin-crawling weirdness even without South Korean master director Chan-wood Park (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Thirst) at the helm. But thank the movie gods he has firmly imprinted this unstable bit of darkly humorous and often mysterious work from writer Wentworth Miller and "contributing writer" Eric Cressida Wilson.

I'm not inclined to say too much about the looping plot, but the film begins with Richard Stoker (scene only in flashback and played by Dermot Mulroney) dying in a car crash. His daughter India (Mia Wasikowska) is devastated and left strangely col by the experience, especially after her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) arrives on the scene to comfort the family. Although her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) knew him years earlier, India had no idea Charlie even existed prior to her father's funeral, and she becomes increasingly fixated on why that is. Also backing up the creepy story is India's Aunt Gwentolyn (Jacki Weaver) and a boy named Whip (Alden Ehrenreich).

Park injects dangerous levels of Vitamin B(izzare) into Stoker, an absolutely beautiful and haunting work that isn't happy until it's making you squirm in your seat. India and Charlie's relationship is the key to the film, and watching them dance around each other is a great treat. Wasikowska truly wipes the floor with everyone around her, bouncing from anger to confusion to depression to sensual, all within a single scene. And Goode has never played quite so captivatingly icky ever, at least not this well. The places this story goes may shock or simply fascinate you, but you will never stop guessing what's next and who will betray whom as Charlie's true intentions make themselves clearer. It's a magnificent combination of atmosphere and great storytelling. Park continues his winning streak of depicting awful behavior so beautifully with Stoker, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


I have no idea where this movie came from. I've never seen a trailer for it, read about it getting cast, made or released. I have no idea if this film sat on the shelf for a year or two, or just finished production a couple months ago. Until I got the notice that it was screening last week, I'd never heard of the film called Phantom, which tells the story behind a real-life missing Russian nuclear submarine during the height of the Cold War. Hell, if you'd told me this film was made in the late '80s or early 1990s, I might even believe it, because there's something wonderfully retro about a time when so many Americans believed the Russians wanted nothing more than to end the lives of every American with a rain of nuclear missiles because they believed that we wanted to wipe them out similarly.

Ed Harris plays Captain Demi, a soon-to-be-retiring naval officer who is charged with taking out an antiquated sub on its and his last mission. We find out that the captain and the vessel have a shared, deadly history, but more importantly, the captain is unfit medically and has seizures occasionally. The always-great William Fichtner plays his No. 2, and does his best to hide the captain's condition from the political officer Pavlov (Johnathon Schaech) and two mystery KGB men (including David Duchovny) charged with testing out top secret new equipment on the sub.

I'm not going to ruin all of the surprises, but let's say a power struggle leaves the wrong men in charge of the sub's nuclear capabilities. Phantom does a solid job of capturing the sub's claustrophobic surroundings (I figure a submarine movie that can't get that right should just submerge itself and never return), but more importantly, there are some sub vs. sub battles here that writer-director Todd Robinson stages in such as way that we always know what's going on and how skilled Captain Demi is performing countermeasures. There's a fair amount of tension built up in the film, and I liked the performances, especially the rough-edged Harris and Duchovny playing a bad guy. I'm not sure if this story itself is accurate, but the filmmakers never said this was a documentary, so who cares? It feels like it could have happened. If you're looking for a change of pace in your movie going, you can't get much further afield than Phantom, which I think fans of military strategy films might get a kick out of.

A Place at the Table

One in four children don't know where their next meal is coming from on a daily basis; the experts call this "food insecurity." That's a number that shouldn't sit well with you. So let's say the parents (or more likely single parent) of one of these children does get a little bit of money with which to buy food. What is available to them with the limited money they have to spend. Is it pricey organically grown or raised food? Of course not, it's chips, soda, candy and other nutrition-less items that cause children and adults to have health issues at younger and younger ages, which in turn causes additional money problems. It's a cycle that about 49 million U.S. citizens have been living with for years, and the new documentary A Place at the Table, directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, attempt to lay out the problem, its causes, and possible solutions.

I remember seeing a movie in the mid-1990s called Hidden In America about poverty and the shame associated with it, starring Beau and Jeff Bridges, and A Place at the Table makes the case (actually Jeff Bridges himself makes the case) that that film could have just as easily been made today, since many Americans are too proud or embarrassed to ask for help. The film does a remarkable job not only discussing the connection between hunger, poverty and poor health, but it further connects the erosion of government aide programs to help those who don't quite qualify for food stamps, but still live well below the poverty line. One mother actually gets an office job and off food stamps, but that somehow makes her situation worse by not having that little extra money.

The film also rightfully spends a great deal of time praising the works of charities, especially church-related ones, that have picked up the lion's share of the responsibility of taking care of these people for whom ends are not meeting. A Place at the Table is one heartbreaking story after another, followed by a few causes for hope. One of the more interesting proponents of healthier but not necessarily more expensive school lunches is Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, who has taken an active role in this cause. If you hate the poor or somehow think they've earned their position in life, you probably won't respond to this exceptional, action-inspiring doc that should be required reading in schools across the nation. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Like Someone In Love

If you come to Like Someone In Love, the latest work by the great Iranian director Abbas (Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us) Kiarostami, thinking you need to look for hidden meaning or the cinematic magic of his last film, Certified Copy, you may work your brain into overdrive. His new film is a straight-forward telling of a story of three people trying to find love — one because she's never had it, one because he misses what he once had, and one who is deeply afraid (rightfully so) that he isn't capable of experiencing it. I adore the fact that Kiarostami has taken to moving each new story he has to tell to a new setting, outside of Iran (Certified Copy was set in Tuscany; the new film is in Japan), because it feels like a type of discovery of both character and setting for us and the director.

Rin Takanachi plays a sociology student who is also an escort for extra money. She is sent to visit an elderly professor (Tadashi Okuno, a well-respected stage actor in Japan, starring in his first film at the age of 81), but he seems more interested in eating food and talking to the young woman than sex, and eventually the girl simply falls asleep in his bed. Meanwhile, we learn early on that she has a jealous boyfriend (Ryō Kase, bordering on psychotic), who doesn't know about her moonlight job, and is constantly questioning her whereabouts. In a strangely serene moment, when the professor is driving the girl around the next morning, the boyfriend and the professor have a long talk about what it is to love someone properly, and we actually start to think this young man is salvageable. But that feeling doesn't last long.

The title of the film is beautifully deliberate. None of the relationships in Like Someone In Love can be classified as actual love, but an approximation or bastardization of it. The performances are across-the-board great, but I think I would have been just as impressed with this film is the boyfriend character had never been seen and only discussed. I'm not sure including him here made any difference to the plot, and it chews up a lot of time, especially a sequence in which he takes the old man to the garage he runs to replace a part in his car (scintillating stuff). Still, Like Someone In Love is a moving, beautiful work of a filmmaker still capable of giving us the gift of another way of looking at something we think we understand fully. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

The Sweeney

Sometimes a crime drama is just a crime drama, and sometimes a great cast elevates the material into something a little more. Based on the wildly popular '70s British television series, The Sweeney updates the timeframe to the present and casts the great Ray Winstone in the role as Jack Regan, the head of a division of the police force that has a little more leeway than the rest of the police. They kick down doors and ask questions later. Are we supposed to love their methods? Probably not, but it sure makes for riveting entertainment. The younger sidekick, George Carter, is played by Ben Drew (an occasional actor who is perhaps better known as the UK singer/rapper Plan B).

The Sweeney is at its best when the characters are talking, conspiring, and sometimes breaking the law themselves to get to the bad guys in the film, who are inherently forgettable. Regan is bedding co-worker Nancy Lewis (Hayley Atwell), who just happens to be married to an internal affairs investigator Ivan Lewis (Steven Mackintosh), who loathes every ounce of Regan. It's fascinating watching Regan sometimes physically bite his tongue not to say something to Ivan when they argue. I also liked seeing "Homeland's" Damian Lewis as Regan's boss Frank Haskins. They have a couple of dicy conversations about skirting the law in order to capture a crime gang.

I've never seen a previous film by director and co-writer Nick Love (The Firm, Outlaw), but there seems to be a fair amount of derision for what he brings to any movie. For one, I think his work on The Sweeney is pretty solid stuff. He keeps things moving, keeps his bad guys loathsome and his good guys just a little less so. But without this great group of performers, the film would without a doubt be a lesser thing. Let's give it up for the casting director, and hope that if they attempt to make a sequel to The Sweeney (which appears to be in the works), the filmmakers work a little more on the screenplay since they know the actors will more than pull their weight.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with The Sweeney star and producer Ray Winstone.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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