Niagara Gazette

March 5, 2013

CALLERI: When bad things happen to good filmmakers

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Director Bryan Singer has a solid reputation in Hollywood. He’s talented, clever, and gets his movies finished on-time and within budget. Singer’s made fast-paced action films such as “X-Men,” “Superman Returns” and “Valkyrie.” He’s also got a controversial “art” picture under his belt, the fascinating and beautifully acted “Apt Pupil,” which stars Ian McKellen and the late Brad Renfro. It's based on a novel by Stephen King. And if the dream of every director is to be remembered for a classic cult movie, Singer’s entry in that field, “The Usual Suspects,” is one of the great ones. It was released in 1995 when he was 30-years old.

Now 47, Singer is one of only three directors to make three live-action adaptations of a comic book series. The others are Sam Raimi with the Spider-Man films and Christopher Nolan with his Batman features.

Singer has a fourth X-Men coming in 2014 (“X-Men: Days Of Future Past”). However, 2013 has not started well. He’s a good filmmaker, but even good filmmakers get caught in the revolving door that is the bane of working on big budget adventure movies for the major studios. His newest effort, “Jack The Giant Slayer,” is a dud.

Based on the children’s fable, “Jack And The Beanstalk,” you see clearly that its weaknesses are not as much Singer’s fault as they are the fault of the ego-driven players in the executive offices who called the shots and of the marketing people who promoted the movie poorly. Although, I can’t imagine how you could promote this picture in a positive way.

You justifiably wonder where its $190-million production budget went? It certainly isn't up on the screen. The movie looks cheap, with shoddy special effects. Too much of the visual “art” looks artificial. Unimpressive and fake. Add $80-million for publicity and promotion, and you’ve got a $270-million dollar fairy tale with no sense of wonder about it, and scant hope of recouping its stunning cost.

Somewhere down the line, the doomed fate of “Jack The Giant Slayer” was sealed. The movie was supposed to have been released in June 2012. But the bosses at Warner Brothers wanted to tinker with the special effects and beef up the battle scenes. They wanted more bloodshed and less bedtime story. Almost a year later, some studio heads need to roll, just as heads roll in this fragmenting of a beloved children’s tale gone awry.

In the old English fable, which may go back to Viking times, Jack is an only child living with his widowed mother. Their cow, their sole source of income, stops giving milk. On the way to the market to sell the animal, Jack runs into an old man who gives him some magic beans in exchange for the dried-up cow. Jack is thrilled, but his mother is furious, and she throws the beans out the window. Eventually, the beans generate a giant stalk that Jack climbs into the stratosphere. There he meets a giant who loathes Jack. However, the giant’s wife takes a shine to the eager English lad. The giant soon becomes quite weary -- and wary -- of Jack, especially when his gold coins, a hen that lays golden eggs, and a magical harp that plays itself all disappear. The angry giant eventually tries to follow Jack down the beanstalk, but Jack’s mother chops down the stalk with her axe and the giant falls to his death. Jack and his mom live happily ever after, enjoying riches of which they never dreamed.

You watch “Jack The Giant Slayer” quickly recognizing that someone at Warner Brothers swallowed some magic beans of their own. Except for Jack, mom, cow, beans, and the giant, much of the movie is unrecognizable from the original fable. A simple story has been pummeled into mediocrity, but at gargantuan levels. Set in medieval times, the overwrought, and utterly demented film, also involves a kingdom and its ruler, a princess with whom Jack is smitten, a race of vicious giants, raging digital armies with vast weaponry, and a heroic knight who has little to do. There’s also a cloying romance that might make older children yawn, and there’s violence that could cause younger children to scream in terror. Jack wields a mean knife.

The movie, which is available in unnecessary 3D (should you have money to burn), only sparkles a little because of the fine acting from Ian McShane, Ewan McGregor, Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson and others. Praise director Singer for that. Three men share screenwriting credit, including Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for writing “The Usual Suspects.” The script is bonkers, with characterizations that are daft.

“Jack The Giant Slayer” is a misguided nightmare.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.