Sunday, March 03, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer & Phantom

If there's a theme to the movies I saw on Saturday, it would probably be something along the lines of "not getting a fair shake". I won't claim either Jack the Giant Slayer or Phantom are masterpieces by any stretch of the imagination - when giving them star ratings (because I can't break bad habits), I vacillated between the ones that say "OK/average" and "I like it", in part because a lot of folks don't take two and a half stars here or three on eFilmCritic - basically, the midpoints - as good movies. Maybe I'm forgiving or just like movies a lot, but an average movie isn't a bad thing, and these two are each worth a matinee ticket.

Their troubles come from different directions, though. At least I gather they do, because I tend to avoid the box-office prediction and "buzz" columns on entertainment websites; I care about the business only so far as good movies making a profit means more money spent on things like those good movies.

Jack the Giant Slayer seemed to get a lot of the same treatment as John Carter did last year - pot shots taken at a high profile director, big budget being spent on lots of effects rather than name stars, the whole thing falling out of favor with the studio. And like that movie, it's not really bad. It's probably not a great investment; two hundred million dollars is a lot of money, and even if there's a good chance it can make that back once foreign markets and post-theatrical life is taken into consideration, it's a lot of risk for what is probably never going to be a great movie.

But, you know what? I'm not paying $200M for it; I'm paying $15 (well, $6.50 by paying new release/RPX/3D surcharges on a rewards program ticket, but anyway...). And for an afternoon's entertainment, it's not terrible value. All the reporting on the behind-the-scenes stuff poisons the well early, though; people hear there's something wrong with it, and that impression sticks, no matter how the previews and reviews look (and influences those who write the reviews some; we're only human). It's a spiral that a movie has to be extraordinary to climb out of, but Titanic doesn't happen very often.

Phantom, meanwhile, seemed to have trouble enough just getting seen. It was produced by a small company that seems to make most of its money on doing direct-to-video sequels to franchises that the originating studios feel have been more or less tapped out, and was the first film they distributed theatrically. They got it into about 1100 screens nationwide, which isn't bad - gets you into every market, though not in the same way Jack was, where it's on multiple screens in multiple theaters.

Getting the word out, though, is tougher. RCR is not going to be doing a television blitz like Warner is, and while AMC Boston Common did set up the standee that they were sent, I don't recall ever seeing a trailer for this one. I kind of get that - with some restrictions, previews are attached to movies at the theater/chain's discretion, and when I worked at a multiplex, we often didn't know what we'd be running on Friday until Tuesday morning. So a theater might have had a DCP file for Phantom for months, but given the small studio and lack of buzz elsewhere, it probably seems unlikely that they'll be playing that movie at that theater, so what's gained by putting the trailer in the rotation? Sure, if it were my theater and I was going to be programming 20-minute blocks of previews like AMC does, I'd throw two or three previews for movies that may or may not play into the package and see which ones got a reaction, but I suspect it doesn't work that way in chains.

Even beyond that, though... The screening times for evening shows are at 6:15pm and 10:50pm, for a 97-minute movie - or, as I tend to look at it, "too early to get there from work" and "too late to get home on the T". Even if you add twenty minutes for previews and another twenty for the First Look thing, that still leaves about two hours and fifteen minutes between showtimes. Just looking over their schedule, it looks like they're jamming an extra screening of The Last Exorcism Part II into that gap, and while that may do better for them at the box office - in part because they didn't promote Phantom, of course - a movie that doesn't have any screenings within "prime time" is going to have an uphill battle.

Jack the Giant Slayer

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2013 in Regal Fenway #13 (first run, RPX/digital)

Here's a fun thought experiment - what if you took the cast and design work for Jack the Giant Slayer, and instead of shooting a live-action 3D movie, you did a little work on the script with the idea of moving the rating down a notch and had Disney animate it? You would not necessarily get a classic, but you'd maybe get something about as good that might be looked upon a little more fondly.

As in every version of the fairy tale, Jack (Nicholas Hoult) is a farmboy who winds up with a handful of magic beans instead of a farm animal, which grow into a beanstalk that leads to a land of giants, taking his house and runaway princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) with it. King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), naturally, dispatches top knight Elmont (Ewan McGregor) to retrieve her, with Jack and Isabelle's fiance Roderick (Stanley Tucci - it's an arranged marriage) in tow.

Traditionally, the hero of Jack and the Beanstalk is kind of a jerk - making a foolish trade, trespassing, stealing, and ultimately killing the giant when his crimes are discovered. Not exactly a fitting protagonist or plot for a family movie, so the four credited writers have added some backstory and a brace of other characters, which all conspire to cast Jack in a rather more heroic light. It brings the story to the modernized fairy-tale template, with the princess who bristles at her fate and what seems like the occasional anachronism, but it's a style that's tried and true; director Bryan Singer and the rest play it straight enough for it to be comfortable while still giving the characters enough room to be funny and individual.

Full review on eFilmCritic.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 March 2013 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first run, 4K DCP)

Many elements of Phantom are almost certain to remind audiences of The Hunt for Red October, and it actually draws heavily on one of the incidents that inspired Tom Clancy's novel and the later film adaptation - or at least, the popular theories about the sinking of Soviet submarine K-129. It's not quite in Red October's class, but by the time it's done, it's hit a nice little peak as a fairly decent thriller.

It opens with Dmitri (Ed Harris), a Soviet submarine captain with a revered father but a more checkered personal history being told that he and his crew will be having their scheduled shore leave cut short to staff D-23, an ancient submarine on a secret mission to test some new equipment. First officer Alex (William Fichtner) notices a few other red flags - the sailors supplementing the crew members who could not return in time have the sort of empty personnel files that indicate KGB, and members of a radical branch at that. Bruni (David Duchovny), the man in charge of this "Phantom" device, is the worst, keeping secrets close to the vest and constantly undermining Dmitri's authority.

Phantom has its problems, especially with how writer/director Todd Robinson chooses to get things started and dole out information in the beginning - there's a fair amount of speaking cryptically about things that will perhaps get explained later (and perhaps won't), bits of Soviet protocol like naval political officers that viewers who weren't born while there was still a Soviet Union may not pick up, and things that just aren't clear: Does Dmitri see what Lance Henriksen's Admiral Markov does as the D-23 sets sail, or not? The framing and cutting suggests he would, but it's not referenced. Are the scenes of Dmitri's wife and daughter supposed to be present day or flashbacks indicating he messed things up long ago? And there's a whole thing about Dmitri having hallucinations and epileptic seizures that sits there like a Chekhov's Gun only to figure into the movie very little.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

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