X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of Violence, Action and Destruction, brief Strong Language and some Suggestive Images

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Directed by: Bryan Singer

Written by: Simon Kinberg

(based on the X-MEN comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Ben Hardy & Lana Condor

After seeing the stinger at the end of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, X-MEN fans were greatly anticipating the big screen appearance of the X-Men’s greatest foe: Apocalypse! With Bryan Singer returning to direct, it seemed like nothing would potentially go wrong with this ninth(!) installment in the X-MEN franchise. While APOCALYPSE definitely has its moments and glimmers of great potential, I couldn’t help but be reminded of X-MEN: THE LAST STAND during multiple points. APOCALYPSE isn’t quite as bad as that film, because it still manages to maintain a big dumb fun sense of entertainment. Still, prepare to be underwhelmed.

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The year is 1983 and the events of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST have changed the world. Mutants and humans find themselves in danger when En Sabah Nur (a.k.a. Apocalypse, played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac) awakens from a centuries-long slumber in his Egyptian tomb. This intimidating villain was history’s first mutant and has acquired a vast variety of powers throughout the years, making him pretty much invincible. Apocalypse is looking to break down our world and build a better one on top of it, recruiting four horseman along the way: Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and a newly enraged Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Pitted against Apocalypse and his four horsemen are Professor X (James McAvoy), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Havok (Lucas Till) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), alongside newcomers Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Phoenix (Sophie Turner), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). It’s mutants vs. god-like mutants in a showdown that will determine the fate of the world as we know it.

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The X-MEN films often stick out in the crowded superhero genre, because they usually tackle subplots of self-discovery, prejudice, and civil rights as addressed through mutants. While APOCALYPSE has some of these elements, they are mostly overshadowed by a sloppy script covering familiar ground that’s already been seen many times before. This is basically a clichéd, by-the-numbers “good vs. evil” tale that happens to feature the X-MEN. To make matters worse, the screenplay is downright messy and unfocused. It seems like attention was being paid to the wrong details and important scenes were missing (opening up plot holes along the way). This ultimately leads to pacing issues that immediately spring up with four (count ’em, four!) prologue sequences before the main plot can even begin.

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Though he’s a clichéd and one-dimensional baddie, Apocalypse remains cool nonetheless. Played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac under layers of make-up and a forty-pound costume, this evil mutant has various abilities that make him seemingly unstoppable. There were multiple points in this story where I wondered how the X-Men could possibly hope to defeat him. Though his preachy monologues can get repetitive, Apocalypse is genuinely scary in his ability to manipulate matter (making for lots of cool kills), teleport, being super strong and having psychic powers to boot. Though he may look a bit ridiculous, this cinematic version of Apocalypse more than resembles his comic book counterpart.

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Other fresh faces come from a new class of young mutants and three of Apocalypse’s “horsemen.” It occasionally feels like APOCALYPSE is trying to cram too many mutants into one film and spends a lot time reintroducing each of them, which slows down the movie’s already mixed momentum. While I love the character of Psylocke and Olivia Munn is positively breathtaking in the role, she really isn’t given a whole lot to do other than fight. Storm and Angel both receives a strong introductions and then don’t do much afterwards. The horsemen (save for Magneto) mainly stand around, make Apocalypse look cool, and then engage in a quick fight or two.

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I was really excited to see Tye Sheridan as Cyclops and Sophie Turner as Phoenix…but they both seem to be hit or miss in their roles. It’s almost as if they want to emulate James Marsden and Famke Janssen’s versions of the characters, but are also trying to do their own thing. This results in two uneven characters from performers who seem slightly uncomfortable in their roles. Kodi Smit-McPhee more than makes up for their shortcomings as Nightcrawler. McPhee has been hit-or-miss in his past roles, but Nightcrawler is easily one of his best performances. He nails the awkwardness of this teleporting, blue-tailed mutant. It doesn’t really bear mentioning how Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, and Michael Fassbender are in their roles, because they all have their parts down and have done so for two movies.

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APOCALYPSE’s script suffers from a by-the-numbers plot, missing beats, and lots of filler (included for fan service and setting up future installments). The villainous William Stryker (Josh Helman) appears yet again and pads the film by an extra twenty minutes, but the pay-off to this comes in purposely erasing the worst X-MEN movie (no, I’m not talking about THE LAST STAND). The Blob and Jubilee make blink-and-you-missed-it appearances, which seemed like a waste of time for fans altogether. If you’re going to include these characters, show them doing something other than being dragged unconscious out of a fighting ring or walking down a hallway. Also, the Quicksilver scene from DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is replicated here to an eye-rollingly excessive degree.

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On the positive side of things, APOCALYPSE excels in Magneto’s storyline. This tragic metal-bending villain is easily one of X-MEN’s most complex characters and a few powerful scenes expand upon his tragic past. The film looks good and is packed with convincing special effects. Though it becomes too over-the-top in places, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE remains entertaining enough. I am happy that I watched it, but probably won’t subject myself to it again, unless I’m doing an X-MEN marathon. APOCALYPSE is the third-worst X-MEN film (better than THE LAST STAND and ORIGINS: WOLVERINE) and is far from terrible, especially given the high quality from the rest of the series. If you’re an X-MEN fan, you’ll probably find things to like in this mixed bag installment. Still, prepare to walk away underwhelmed.

Grade: C+

DARK PLACES (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Disturbing Violence, Language, Drug Use and Sexual Content

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Directed by: Gilles Paquet-Brenner

Written by: Gilles Paquet-Brenner

(based on the novel DARK PLACES by Gillian Flynn)

Staring: Charlize Theron, Christina Hendricks, Nicholas Hoult, Andrea Roth, Corey Stoll, Sterling Jerins, Chloe Grace Moretz & Tye Sheridan

GONE GIRL was one of my favorite films of 2014. Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel is an intense thriller with great characters, brilliant writing, and it only gets better with repeat viewings. Seeing as I loved that movie, I was pretty excited for DARK PLACES (which is also based on a novel by Flynn). However, there were a few signs that this might not be nearly as good as GONE GIRL way in advance. Namely, other countries were receiving this film months before us and the production values didn’t look that great. While it’s nowhere near as good as Fincher’s Flynn adaptation, DARK PLACES is a suspenseful flick that should satisfy thriller-hungry adults to a certain point. There are pros and cons in this film. The pros outweigh the cons, but the cons are distracting enough to weigh this movie down as a whole (more on that in a moment).

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Libby Day had a rough childhood. When I say rough childhood, I mean that she was the sole survivor of her brother’s massacre that took the lives of the her mother and sisters. Libby has lived on donations from strangers for years and her funds are now running out. Traumatized by her past and not wanting to necessarily get a career, Libby takes an offer from the mysterious Kill Club. This Kill Club is full of morbidly curious amateur investigators obsessed with notorious true crime cases. They believe that the massacre Libby survived isn’t necessarily as cut-and-dried as it was made out to be. Thus, Libby is forced to dive headlong into her disturbing past to piece together what exactly happened at her Kansas farmhouse on that fateful night. Not everything is as it appears and Libby finds that her path is taking her to some dangerous, dark places (see what I did there?).

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The first thing that really stuck out of this film for me were the performances. Charlize Theron plays a damaged character who initially seems unlikable (in spite of her tragic past) and turns into someone worth rooting for. She might have a bad attitude towards everyone around her, but her hardened outer shell occasionally cracks to show that she’s still a scared little girl inside. In flashback scenes, Christina Hendricks plays Libby’s mother as a broken woman doing her very best to keep the family together. Also present in these flashbacks are Chloe Grace Moretz and Tye Sheridan who have been given their most mature roles yet. Moretz especially gives a darker, dirtier performance that’s different from anything I’ve seen her play before. Though he’s in a minor role, Corey Stoll plays Libby’s brother. His character is a wild card, but the performance is rock solid. Stoll continues to impress me with every film I see him in and his work is no different here. Nicholas Hoult actually becomes the most annoying part of this film, but I don’t think that’s entirely on his shoulders. Instead, his character (a main member of the Kill Club) just seems poorly written and mainly serves as a plot device.

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There’s a creepy atmosphere hovering over DARK PLACES. The cinematography might not always look great (with a cheap grainy effect in some of Libby’s memories), but I could feel a rising amount of tension as Libby’s investigation went into more complex, twisted areas. The non-linear storytelling (sort of like the first half of GONE GIRL) keeps you on your toes as to where things might head next. The decision to show past events in flashbacks as opposed to just have a film full of talking heads was a wise move too. The script manages to highlight themes of extreme poverty and the Satanic Panic era during the 80’s flashbacks as well. In fact, both of these things make for an integral plot points. I do wish that the Satan-worshipping angle was a tad less cheesy in its execution, but there are definite eerie moments. Also, I wish the film had spent more screen time with the actual Kill Club (who are arguably the most interesting part of this plot). I can only recall two (possibly three) memorable scenes that weren’t only featuring Hoult’s geeky character.

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While the screenplay is interesting and creepy for a majority of the film, DARK PLACES really drops the ball in its ending. The final 30 minutes of this film take an intense, twisted mystery that we were watching and cap it off with far-fetched plot twists and a cop-out finale. These aren’t the only mediocre scenes in the film though. There are a couple of places where the movie becomes melodramatic, especially in the epilogue.

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DARK PLACES is a decent enough time-killer, but I wouldn’t recommend spending too much money to see it. The film has a complex story that drops the ball with a cheap, unconvincing finale. While the tone is mostly disturbing and creepy, there are also moments where it feels like an above-average Lifetime movie-of-the-week. I like this film as a whole, but its problems weigh it down significantly (especially the silly ending). Overall, DARK PLACES is an okay crime thriller.

Grade: B-

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours

MPAA Rating: R for Intense Sequences of Violence throughout, and for Disturbing Images

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Directed by: George Miller

Written by: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy & Nico Lathouris

Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoe Kravitz & Abbey Lee

In 1980, a crazy little Australian revenge-thriller called MAD MAX made it to American shores as a midnight movie. It gained a fast cult following and spawned a sequel titled THE ROAD WARRIOR. The second entry upped the ante on every possible level and become one of the best action films in the history of cinema. Then studio interference screwed up the third entry (BEYOND THUNDERDOME) which had a solid first half and then devolved into a family friendly Peter Pan-esque mess by the end. About thirty years have passed and creator George Miller has finally brought his fourth MAD MAX movie to the screen. With 150 million backing it, this is the most expensive MAD MAX yet and every single dollar is on the screen. In FURY ROAD, George Miller has demonstrated that he has more imagination and kick-ass action in his little finger than a majority of young whippersnappers working these days. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is amazing!

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Functioning as both a reboot and a sequel, we find Max (former cop turned vigilante loner) as a shell of his once-human self. He relies purely on his instinct of survival, but even that isn’t enough to protect him from a violent cult-like community (called the Citadel) who capture him as a slave. When Furiosa (a female warrior) betrays Immortan Joe (the self-proclaimed religious leader of the Citadel) by rescuing a group of brides (kept as his breeders), Max is strapped to the front of a car as a would-be hood ornament/blood donor to one of Joe’s pale-skinned soldiers sent out to capture Furiosa. A sand storm hits and Max escapes from his predicament, only to join Furiousa and her group of escapees. If any of them have a hope of escaping Joe’s clutches, they must fight or die.

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With nearly three decades, it’s clear that George Miller had plenty of time to plan his return to stellar post-apocalyptic form. Every vehicle, character, and set piece is well thought out and elaborately constructed. Miller introduces everything in a way that doesn’t completely spell out anything for the audience, but let’s them see a system in action and learn from it (e.g. the warrior’s suicide rituals, a massive pulley system, and the use of humans as living blood bags). Miller clearly wasn’t worried about going too off the rails in his demented creativity, because this movie starts off insane and only gets crazier from that point forward. Kudos to a man who can pull off a lunatic wielding a flamethrower guitar and making it totally fit within the confines of the movie. Also, the landscapes may be sparse (aside from the canyon city that is the Citadel), but they look stunning. I especially liked how the night scenes appeared in pure blue lighting.

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Tom Hardy serves as a more-than-worthy replacement in Mel Gibson’s shoes as Max. It doesn’t seem like a single characteristic has changed despite a different face in the role. He’s a survivor who isn’t afraid to kill, but also has a heart of gold that slowly comes out of its shell over time. Serving as a fantastic companion is Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. This one-armed warrior ranks among the strongest female badasses to ever grace the silver screen (right alongside the likes of Ellen Ripley from ALIENS and Sarah Connor from TERMINATOR 2). Theron is compelling from the very first scene and ends up as one of the best characters to come out of the whole series. The brides also serve as more than damsels in distress too as they do everything in their power to help fight bad guys and protect their rescuers. Nicholas Hoult gives his best performance yet as Nux (the aforementioned pale-skinned soldier). The villains are also uniquely and delightfully insane.

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Running at two hours, FURY ROAD is the longest MAD MAX movie yet, but manages to feel perfectly paced all the way through. A majority of the film is action, but it’s all beautifully rendered action. You’ve pretty much seen nothing like the scenes in this movie before. It’s all about the brilliant execution of the carnage and mayhem! What’s really neat is to see an action film that’s loaded with scenes that feel like they’re really happening. I don’t know how many cars Miller had built and destroyed for this movie, but I’d wager there were a lot of them. If you can imagine the sheer madness of ROAD WARRIOR’s finale stretched for two hours and never getting boring, you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head as to what watching FURY ROAD feels like.

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It’s not hyperbole to call MAD MAX: FURY ROAD one of the very best summer blockbusters in a long, long time. This movie is gloriously insane and extremely well-crafted! The heroes and heroines are fleshed out and worth rooting for, with main figure of the latter being one of the single best female characters that I’ve ever seen. The levels of creativity and imagination are through the roof. George Miller just schooled pretty much every wannabe action filmmaker who only rely on explosions and computer effects to make films. In FURY ROAD, the characters are developed, the stakes are high and the action gets your adrenaline pumping like no other. It’s said that if this film does well at the box office, there are already sequels lined up. If those future films are anywhere near as excellent as FURY ROAD, bring on more high-octane madness! Go see this movie on the big screen! You’ll be spending your time wisely and it deserves your money and support!

Grade: A+

YOUNG ONES (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Violence and Language

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Directed by: Jake Paltrow

Written by: Jake Paltrow

Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Elle Fanning, Michael Shannon, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alex McGregor & Aimee Mullins

YOUNG ONES is yet another film that I was interested in possibly catching at this year’s past Sundance film, but I never got to it for one reason or another. It’s a good thing too, because much like LIFE AFTER BETH and THE SIGNAL, I possibly might have hated this film even more had seen it in a festival environment (full of long lines and expensive tickets). YOUNG ONES is a low-budget science-fiction tale mixed with a classic Western style. While there’s definitely a lot of ambition in this project, it ultimately crashes and burns due to poor writing and bad directing.

YOUNG ONES, from left: Aimee Mullins, Kodi Smit-McPhee, 2014. /©Screen Media Films/courtesy Everett

In an apocalyptic future ravaged by severe drought and violence, Ernest is a farmer trying to make ends meet in taking care of his two children (Jerome and Mary). Conflicts with nearby folks have intensified after the water near their land runs dry. Ernest finds himself at odds with his daughter’s punk boyfriend/young neighbor Flem Lever. As circumstances look more dire, Ernest, Jerome and Flem are forced to make decisions that no one should ever have to make (let alone someone in their teens).

YOUNG ONES, Nicholas Hoult, 2014. /©Screen Media Films/courtesy Everett Collection

The best thing I can say about YOUNG ONES is that it’s remarkably well shot. The cinematography spanning across patches of desert looks beautiful. This futuristic world (brought to life by clever minimalist sets) is also somewhat clever in many respects. There are good ideas on display, but they’re executed with mediocrity that one can’t help but wonder how solid this film would be if a young Ridley Scott or James Cameron were tackling the material. A thread-bare screenplay puts a damper on the whole affair from the opening, but it’s the overconfidence from second-time filmmaker Jake Paltrow that really makes everything close to unbearable. There’s a sense of pretentiousness and a “Look what I can do!” mentality through the movie. Scenes go on for far longer than they need to, especially a confrontation in the final 20 minutes. These cumulate in making YOUNG ONES into a tedious poorly made bore rather than a mature sci-fi flick worth anybody’s time.

YOUNG ONES, Elle Fanning, 2014. /©Screen Media Films/courtesy Everett Collection

Not that the shoddily constructed characters allow for much in the way of performances, but the robotic donkey-like machine actually emits more emotion than any of the human performances on display. The acting varies to different degrees of bad. Michael Shannon is phoning it in as a weary, tired father (who’s also a recovering alcoholic to throw another cliché on top of it). He’s the best actor here, but he’s not given anything to do with his throwaway role. Nicholas Hoult is over-the-top with an obnoxious attempt at a bad Southern accent that comes and goes (depending on what scene you’re in). Kodi Smit-McPhee (who was stellar in THE ROAD) lacks a single discernible emotion as Jerome. Meanwhile, Elle Fanning is just plain annoying as the love-stricken teenage daughter who hates her family. A good screenplay might have expanded on her and made the viewer sympathize with where she’s coming from, but instead she’s pretty much regulated to being the bitchy sister (who can be argued as a catalyst for most of the bad things happening in the story).

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YOUNG ONES sounded very intriguing on paper. However, the result is a massive disappointment that possibly might have been an excellent film in the hands of a better director and screenwriter. The characters are bland, some of the overly dramatic scenes are unintentionally funny, and the desperate sense of trying to make this film feel like a classic kind of movie comes off as more pretentious than earnest. It’s clear that director/writer Jake Paltrow’s reach exceeded his grasp by a few miles. The cinematography is impressive, but that only counts for so much when everything else ranges from mediocre to terrible. The biggest problem is that a lot of the story feels underdeveloped and lazy, as if throwing big concepts at the viewer will make up for the lack of a compelling plot. YOUNG ONES is one to avoid at all costs.

Grade: D-

JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Scenes of Fantasy Action Violence, some Frightening Images and brief Language

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Directed by: Bryan Singer

Written by: Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie & Dan Studney

Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Thomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, Ian McShane & Bill Nighy

JACK THE GIANT SLAYER went through an overly long production period. It ultimately suffers as a clear example of too many conflicts between what the director wanted, what the screenwriters intended, and the studios’ vision. It seems like nobody got along in one clear idea of how this film should have played out and it becomes a victim of identity crisis. For half of the running time, JACK plays out like a children’s cartoon brought to life. During some brief glimpses, a darker streak is revealed as to how creative this movie could have actually wound up being. Everything concludes in a messy almost middle-of-the-road effort that winds up being serviceable enough as family entertainment.

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In a far away kingdom, Jack is a commoner struggling to get by on his uncle’s farm. In the towering castle nearby lives a generic princess who doesn’t want to be forced into marrying a selfish royal with a considerable age difference. The princess’ name is Isabelle. As fate would have it, Jack and a disguised Isabelle meet in the marketplace. The two fall instantly head-over-heels for each other. After the princess is revealed and taken back to her over-bearing father, a monk gives Jack some sacred relics (magic beans) for safe keeping. A rain storm hits and one of the beans gets wet, growing into a huge beanstalk up into the clouds and taking the helpless Isabelle with it. Those familiar with well-known fairy tale will know that a city of hungry giants is waiting at the top of the beanstalk. Jack journeys up into the clouds with a group of knights to rescue the princess.

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For a film that’s supposed to be a more lively version of a fairly basic tale, new additions have been made to the story. I wasn’t expecting that the film would tell everything as predictably and simple as possible. However, the needlessly exposition-heavy script adds in many subplots and different directions, but the real problem lies in that every single ounce of this movie is predictable. The film plays out far too long (90 minutes would have been plenty) and the mix of trying to make it both family friendly and darker results in a movie that won’t necessarily delight any particular audience. It’s not as if JACK is a terrible movie, but it’s a by-the-numbers popcorn flick that always plays it safe (despite the PG-13 rating) and doesn’t offer anything new or interesting. This feels like a live-action adaptation of a so-so Disney cartoon.

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The cast and characters aren’t given much to work with, therefore they merely add to the blandness of the story being told. Nicholas Hoult and Eleanor Tomlinson as Jack and Isabelle are equally wooden. When the film utilizes a familiar clichéd technique of cutting together conversations that both characters are having with their parents, it only showcased how uninspired things were. We’ve seen that device used over and over. It’s gotten old and JACK has the audacity to implement it twice in the first 20 minutes. Talented actors Ewan McGregor, Ian McShane and Eddie Marsan are all put into thankless roles as royalty that I couldn’t have cared less about.

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As the villains go, they’re also generic, but the actors in these bad guy roles seem to be having fun. Stanley Tucci plays a corrupt higher-up who intends to ruling the kingdom by marrying the reluctant princess Isabelle. Before you can say Jafar (among other royal baddies), Tucci is hamming up every second he appears on-screen. Tucci is using every bad cliché to his advantage and even uttering some corny one-liners. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the voice of Bill Nighy doing his best Davy Jones-voice (appropriate seeing as he played that character and this new gigantic monster is made up of the amount of CGI used on that octopus-bearded pirate) in the form of a two-headed giant.

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The effects work ranges from very cool to downright cartoony. At points, the beanstalk looks like it belongs in a Syfy Channel movie and the same can be said for the giants. However, there are some really impressive looking giants showcased. These effects also add into the mixed tone that the movie jumps around with. The climax goes on for far too long and there’s a would-be epic battle that resembles Helm’s Deep in the TWO TOWERS. The problem is that it’s treated with an epic scope for the second half of the movie and nothing in the film feels honest about this sequence. This scene is unbelievably repetitive and yearns to be more serious, when everything seen up to that point is wacky.

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The reason that I don’t downright hate JACK THE GIANT SLAYER or consider it to be a completely middle-of-the-road experience comes in some of the good effects, hammy villains, and over-the-top scenarios. I could see this film possibly gaining a cult fan base over the years in the same way that something like LABRYNTH or THE DARK CRYSTAL has. It’s the same kind of kid-friendly fantasy that goes dark in some places (though it downright gets messy in the effort to please both young and old audiences). If JACK THE GIANT SLAYER came out in the 80’s around the same time as THE NEVERENDING STORY or LEGEND, then it would have been right at home (though on a lesser level than both of those films). In the end, it’s a decent time killer that a possible young audience might warm up to over a decade or so. It’s just a pity that everything is so scattered about with clichés, familiarity, a mixed tone, and cartoony logistics.

Grade: C+

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