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New films: Jack the Giant Slayer, 21 and Over, plus Jewish Film Festival and other news

A more upbeat week at the movies

After a relatively disappointing month of new releases, and no great expectation of that changing anytime soon, I was pleasantly surprised by two of this week’s new movies. Not that they’re especially wonderful, but they’re both quite a bit better than their previews might suggest.


Jack the Giant Slayer
Directed by Bryan Singer

Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects,” “X-Men,” “Superman Returns”) brings his B-game to this mashup of the traditional English fairy tales of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Jack the Giant Killer.” And for anyone who is offended that the movie takes generous liberties in blending and adapting these two stories into a new form, realize that the two “original” stories themselves liberally blended and adapted earlier folk tales from multiple source cultures.

In simple terms, in the traditional “Jack and the Beanstalk,” a character named Jack plants magic beans which produce a beanstalk that reaches up to a land where a rich giant lives. Jack ultimately robs and kills the Giant – and different versions of the story have suggested that the Giant previously killed Jack’s father, in order to make Jack seem more justified in his actions. By comparison, in “Jack the Giant Killer,” a character named Jack roams the countryside killing problem giants, helped by assorted magical weapons – in a story a little more like the serial witch hunting in the recent and awful film adaptation of the “Hansel and Gretel” story.

Throwing these elements together, in “Jack the Giant Slayer,” we get the magic beans and beanstalk elements – but instead of there being one giant at the top of the stalk, there’s a whole giant society with a history of killing humans on prior visits. It’s actually a blending of story elements that’s works surprisingly well as the basis for a tween adventure story.

The giants are, not surprisingly, all rendered in CGI and, while the level of sophistication is not as high as we’ve come to expect from characters like Gollum, they work well enough and seem to look better in the final version than in the previews. Also working better in the full film than in the previews is the dialog – this isn’t really a film of snappy one-liners and it doesn’t translate well when it’s cut down in that manner.

I think what made it work for me was that it’s really quite simple and, despite the modern filmmaking techniques, also quite old school in its storytelling. There’s no great attempt at trick endings or multi-level double and triple crossing – and even with its shared story origins, it remains very traditional in its delivery.

Here Jack (Nicholas Hoult – who also starred in what is still my favorite 2013 release “Warm Bodies”) is a simple farm boy who encounters the Princess (Eleanor Tomlinson), who’s quantum leaps out of his social league. He’s surrounded by a very traditional cast of supporting characters in the King (Ian McShane), the Captain of the Guard (Ewan McGregor), the evil courtier who covets power (Stanley Tucci), and the leader of the giants (Bill Nighy). And the depth of quality in that supporting cast is another aspect of the film’s modest success – although they aren’t given a great deal to do, they simply execute their respective parts very ably.

The screenplay is simple as well and it creates these well defined and uncomplicated characters that we expect in stories for younger children. And it isn’t weighed down by any awkward attempt to infuse adult humor into every other scene, to pander to the parents and older siblings in the audience. This is children’s story telling pure and simple, with the only complication being that it carries a PG-13 rating, presumably because the film is violent enough to produce a significant body count – albeit mostly death from a distance rather than up close and personal. In that respect, it reminded me of the second of the recent Narnia adaptations “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” which also produced an alarmingly high body count for a children’s movie in a similar siege situation.

“Jack the Giant Slayer” isn’t a great film, but it’s solid children’s storytelling and probably quite safe for kids who see more explicit violence in even mild video games or in their school cafeteria.


21 and Over
Written and Directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore

This is another film with a preview that undersells it as nothing more than a crass romp through vomit-inducing binge-drinking on a college campus. Which is a touchy subject in and of itself, especially with respect to 21st birthday celebrations. And the previews also suggest a more mean-spirited tone than it actually has.

What makes it work in practice, again at a modest level, is that it has a surprising amount of heart. It’s primarily a story about friendship and how friendships change over time, as high school and childhood friends move apart and go their separate ways. And for all of the crass dialog and ethnic/racial-based humor, it’s the kind you tend to find engaged in for fun within groups of tight-knit friends, rather than the kind that gets thrown at others with the intent of hurting or diminishing them. Which is the kind of distinction that’s hard to capture in a preview that lacks context.

To some extent it’s a film of odd contrasts. Jeff Chang’s two old friends, Miller and Casey, surprise him on his 21st birthday with plans for a night of drinking, but he has a medical school interview the next morning. Undeterred, they drag him out and although they put him into a ridiculous series of compromising positions, they also refuse to ever abandon him. It’s peer pressure meets loyalty.

It’s also a film that has unexpectedly deeper messages in its consideration of not just friendship, but also bullying – and not just the big man on campus style of bullying, but also the kind perpetrated by parents who exert extreme pressure in a manner than can be just as damaging. And it does it all wrapped in a steady barrage of dialog that is often so funny that entire lines are missed as the audience is still recovering from the fits of laughter resulting from the previous line.

As with “jack the Giant Slayer,” it’s not a great film – but it’s a film that might surprise you by managing to convey a message, while still being crude in an amusing way, and by avoiding the mean spiritedness of so many similar attempts at comedy.


Sacramento Jewish Film Festival and other film news

One of the region’s oldest film festivals, the Sacramento Jewish Film Festival, turns 16 this year and will screen four feature films and three shorts over three days next week at the Crest Theatre. The Festival opens on Thursday, March 7th and continues on Saturday, March 9th and Sunday, March, 10th. The full schedule and ticket information can be found at www.thecrest.com.

Also playing next week in the Crest Theatre, in its expanding lineup of special, limited engagement film events, is “The Bitter Buddha” about standup comedian Eddie Pepitone. Covering life on and off stage, and complete with interviews from other funny folks, this portrait of a comedian’s comedian screens on Tuesday, March 5th and Wednesday, March 6th only. More details and ticket information at www.thecrest.com.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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