Saturday, March 30, 2013


Blancanieves (2013)
Dir. Pablo Berger

3.5 out of 5

There’s no shortage of beauty in Blancanieves, a black-and-white silent movie that re-imagines the tale of Snow White in Seville, Spain during the 1920s.  The film’s comeliness is propelled by its dialogue-free conceit, as writer-director Pablo Berger seizes on the power and pleasures of the pure cinematic image.  His imagination is certainly invigorated by the challenge, merging the iconography of the classic Grimm Brothers fairy tale with a wonderfully detailed portrait of Spain during the Roaring Twenties.  It’s an ideal setting for the heightened emotions of this tongue-in-cheek adaptation.  Blancanieves tosses out strikingly romantic images with ease, often aided by an old-fashioned sense of tactile pleasure and clever visual motifs – like a full moon that dissolves into a little girl’s first communion wafer. 

That girl is the spirited Carmencita, the child of a famous bullfighter and a gorgeous dancer who, in typical Grimm Brothers fashion, is snared in a web of tragedy almost as soon as she is born: her mother dies in childbirth on the same day that her father, the great torero Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho), suffers a crippling injury that ends his career in the bullring.  Heartbroken and depressed, he remarries the gold-digging Encarna (Maribel Verdú), securing for Carmencita a wicked stepmother who keeps her from knowing her father and forces her into a life of servitude. 

Years pass, and Carmencita – now know as “Carmen” – grows into the attractive, vivacious young woman played by Macarena García.  This is of course too much for the aging Encarna, so she sends a lackey into the woods with Carmen with orders to drown her.  From here the story proceeds more or less like the classic version with all of its signifiers – the merry dwarves, the poison apple, the glass coffin – interpreted with a few ingenious twists – particularly the heroine’s rousing reinvention as a top-drawing bullfighter, as well as the person to whom Berger assigns the role of “Prince Charming.”

The sly humor and modern gender politics of Blancanieves set it apart from the countless filmed versions of the Snow White story, as well as another self-conscious homage to the golden age of silent cinema.  Though it’s hard to avoid comparisons with The Artist, it’s worth noting that Berger’s film has more somber notes than Michel Hazanavicius’ Oscar-winning lark.  Berger also doesn’t feel as beholden to tradition, employing a lively flamenco score and rapid-fire editing alongside classic Hollywood storytelling techniques. 

The desire to accomplish both goals occasionally leads to frustration.  Berger vacillates too much on which direction he ultimately wants the film to go, especially in the final act – an odd, overly serious anticlimax that arrives 10 minutes too late overcompensates for the more trivial leanings of the movie’s latter half.  Still, there’s more than enough fidelity to Blancanieves’ fairy tale origins to keep its whimsical charm intact, no matter what modern guise it tries to assume.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Room 237

Room 237 (2013)
Dir. Rodney Ascher

4 out of 5

One of the best qualities of art - perhaps the best quality - is that it can take on meanings beyond its creator's original intent.  But how far is too far?  That's the question posed by Room 237, a feature-length critical analysis of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.  Its commentators are not film scholars but five individuals convinced that Kubrick buried a secret subtext beneath the staccato chills of his classic 1980 horror film.  Though idiosyncratic readings of the famously mercurial director's work are not uncommon, Room 237 explores the wildest theories about what Kubrick was really up to in The Shining - which range from a commentary on the genocide of Native Americans to experiments in subliminal Freudian messaging to a sideways confession about his role in the Apollo moon landing conspiracy - that reveal far more about the theorists and their runaway imaginations than the film itself.

Juxtaposing the audio from individual interviews with five Kubrick fanatics sharing their interpretations of The Shining, as well as a passel of clips from Kubrick's filmography (and beyond), director Rodney Ascher creates a mesmerizing patchwork portrait of obsession.  The constantly flowing stream of information helps rein in the more digressive interviewees, with Ascher turning otherwise pedantic moments into the groundwork for a series of mini-movies all occurring at once, cleverly arranging each explanation into a rhythm of subtly escalating tension and cathartic payoffs.  Even the most far-fetched ideas are treated seriously - though some inevitably wind up as the target of the documentary's sharp deadpan humor.  A prime example: a blogger's insistence that The Shining is meant to be watched "backwards and forwards" leads one interviewee to superimpose a normal projection of the film with one running in reverse, a quixotic project that echoes claims from generations of stoners who insist that Dark Side of the Moon totally syncs up with The Wizard of Oz

Even as he gently skewers the head-spinning mental gymnastics required to generate these theories, Ascher humanely tries to find at least a sliver of a rationality in all of them.  Of course, some are more eloquent than others.  Veteran journalist Bill Blakemore's conviction that Kubrick was attempting to convey the horror of atrocities committed against Native Americans stands out as an intriguingly specific reading that falls in line with more mainstream interpretations of Kubrick's oeuvre - particularly the way it positions audience members as impotent witnesses to unspeakable and unfathomable evils.  

However, Ascher's video collage suggests that in trying to certify Kubrick's brilliance, these armchair analysts are not seeing the forest for the trees.  Room 237 is all about paying tribute to The Shining as a polished piece of psychotronic cinema from a highbrow auteur.  It's so insidiously effective at burrowing its way into the mind that viewers easily overlook the genius of its execution; one of the interviewees even admits the possibility that Kubrick created a psychological trap specifically to ensnare those who looked at it too closely.  Likewise, viewers shouldn't be fooled by Room 237's superficial resemblance to a sophisticated YouTube video essay.  Ascher's film traverses the darkest corners of pop cultural obsession in a contemplative yet mischievous manner that communicates what Kubrick maybe was trying to say all along: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)
Dir. Jon Chu

2 out of 5

Though G.I. Joe’s 1980s heyday coincided with the very real military brinksmanship of the Cold War, the evil Cobra organization always felt like it was populated with an old-fashioned breed of villain – characters whose idiosyncrasies and nefarious world-domination plots were borrowed from vintage Bond films, rather than ripped from the headlines.  The bombast of these flamboyant multinational terrorists is about the only notable element of the uninspired sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation.  Despite the capture and imprisonment of their top brass, Cobra still has an ace in the hole: an operative impersonating the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) who peppers his speech with cheesy gems like “I’m the quicker blower-upper, baby.”

Nevertheless, the subterfuge goes unnoticed by the G.I. Joes, who have experienced their own personnel changes in the interim.  Square-jawed leader Duke (Channing Tatum) is joined by new recruits Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Flint (D.J. Cortona), and Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki).  Their ranks are thinned further when the imposter president orders an attack on the Joes and frames them as traitors attempting to hijack a nuclear warhead.  With the help of mercurial ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park), it’s up to the newbies to clear their names and foil Cobra’s plan to trick the world’s atomic powers into disarming their nuclear arsenals at a bogus peace summit.

Taking the franchise reins from Stephen Sommers, Step-Up series veteran Jon Chu is an able caretaker who adds a kinetic energy to several of the action sequences.  He particularly excels outside of a firefight, as in a sideline ninja revenge saga that peaks with a daring raid on a Himalayan monastery where Snake Eyes pursues convalescing Cobra agent Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee). 

Unfortunately, the bulk of Retaliation is puzzlingly subdued and removes all of the colorful silliness that partially redeemed its predecessor, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.  While Rise’s climax took place in an underwater Arctic base, Retaliation meanders through nondescript bunkers and military compounds, telling you everything you need to know about its dearth of imagination.  Chu periodically bucks the trend with appropriately campy appearances by a fully-masked Cobra Commander (voice of Robert Baker) and vaguely Cajun henchman Firefly (Ray Stevenson), but that only lasts so long before he has to re-focus on the clunky, nondescript plot.
Not even the legacy addition of Bruce Willis can make this retooled cast of good guys remotely memorable.  Despite its unnecessarily bloated runtime – perhaps the result of the studio’s well-publicized decision to add more scenes featuring Tatum – the movie barely has enough time to flesh out its heroes beyond the most perfunctory of clichés.  (Pity Cortona, whose ridiculously underwritten character exists solely to demonstrate Johnson’s leadership abilities.)   While far from unwatchable, Retaliation is the typical action sequel that that takes few risks and strongly suggests its financially-motivated origins in scattering a handful of exhilarating moments across almost two hours of bland, rehashed visual pabulum.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Jump Cuts: Less Loved Michael Crichton Adaptations Edition

Though critics hailed Jurassic Park as a return to blockbuster form for director Steven Spielberg after a mini-slump in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, it’s also the high water mark for the movie career of best-selling author Michael Crichton.  A Harvard med school student moonlighting as a novelist (most of his early books were published under pseudonyms), Crichton left the medical profession for good in the late 1960s and in his writing established a thematic pattern of technological or biological systems gone awry.  The ‘70s appetite for disaster flicks also helped launch his burgeoning film career, notably in the Jurassic Park progenitor Westworld, about a theme park overrun by malfunctioning robot ‘actors.'

Though a whopping 13 of his books have been adapted into feature films, it took the success of Jurassic Park to boost Crichton’s Hollywood profile into the stratosphere.  On the occasion of Jurassic’s 20th anniversary 3D re-release in two weeks, I decided to take a second look at a handful of films based on ideas from one of the premier high-concept yarn-spinners of the 1990s.

In the 1980s, a tide of Japanese investment in American corporations inspired a minor media hysteria fueled by paranoid fears of insecurity and espionage - at least until a crippling economic recession that severely weakened Japan’s economy throughout the 1990s.  The exhumation of this economic boogeyman instantly dates Rising Sun (1993), but still it chugs along with a lurid tale of sex, death, and xenophobia, starring Wesley Snipes as a cop called to investigate the apparent murder of a call girl in the Los Angeles high-rise of a Japanese company.  Snipes reluctantly accepts the assistance of Sean Connery, a retired police captain introduced as an expert in Japanese culture who nonetheless relates to his beloved people as if they were dangerous circus animals.  (“The Japanese find big arm movements threatening,” he sternly warns.)  

Rising Sun attempts to salvage its warmed over mismatched-partners premise with gratuitous Eszterhas-ian sleaze, earning the dubious distinction as one of the first mainstream films to bring erotic asphyxiation to the masses.  Crichton’s interest in cutting-edge technology surfaces in the film’s key plot point: a doctored security camera video presented as the best way to blow early-90s minds.  When a disbelieving Snipes expresses his skepticism, cyber-sleuth Tia Carerre haughtily sneers, “What, you don’t think videos can be altered?” and demonstrates how easy it is to swap his face with a video still of Connery’s.  It’s a rare moment of personality in this repetitious, by-the-numbers thriller that was already woefully behind the zeitgeist before it was released.

Lumbering along in the wake of Jurassic Park was Congo (1995), another tech-infused jungle adventure story that tried to duplicate Jurassic’s success in tossing a bunch of colorful characters with competing agendas into a tense life-or-death struggle against nature.  To say that Congo fails on this front would be an understatement.  It’s more like a plunge into a smoking abyss of camp and terrible screenwriting with several unintentionally distracting cameos (Bruce Campbell!  John Hawkes!  Mr. Eko from Lost!).  

The overcomplicated plot concerns a communications executive (Laura Linney) hoodwinking a Berkeley primatologist (Dylan Walsh) into leading an expedition to a remote corner of central Africa, for multiple stupid reasons including lasers powered by diamonds and a gorilla whose gestures are translated into speech by a virtual reality armband.  Joining them are an inexplicably fey survival guide (Ernie Hudson) and an opportunistic Romanian looking for King Solomon’s fabled diamond mines (Tim Curry).  While Hudson and Curry complete for the movie’s worst accent and Walsh registers as bland and gullible, only Linney emerges unscathed in a role that allows her to be an awesomely no-nonsense badass - by the climax of the film, she's howling ridiculous one-liners that would make Arnie blush.  Directed by Spielberg’s long-time producing partner Frank Marshall and written by Oscar-winning scribe John Patrick Shanley, Congo’s ill advised attempt to re-capture lightning in a bottle instead produces a perversely fascinating hot mess.

The underwater sci-fi spectacular Sphere (1997) features arguably the most impressive cast of any Crichton adaptation, pulling in Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone (when she still commanded above-the-title billing), Samuel L. Jackson, and a young, fidgety Liev Schreiber (in a fitting homage to Jeff Goldblum’s tic-filled performances in the first two Jurassic films).  But despite its intense star wattage and blockbuster aspirations, the Barry Levinson-directed film is best at delivering the tension of a superior TV bottle episode.  Sphere takes place almost entirely in a high-tech laboratory at the bottom of the ocean floor, where a team of scientists is investigating a mysterious metallic orb that houses an extraterrestrial lifeform.  

Hoffman is perfectly cast as the dry, nebbish psychologist who succeeds in divining the sphere’s emotional intelligence but is too late in fathoming its true intentions.  His romantic chemistry with Stone, however, is less than convincing, as is the movie’s rather silly cop-out ending.  And clocking in at more than two hours, Sphere displays a tendency towards narrative bloat that almost spoils the fast-paced, economical thrills of its first half.  Still, it’s a surprisingly effective B-movie adaptation of an above-average Crichton novel that also includes Huey Lewis in a cameo as a helicopter pilot and Peter Coyote getting crushed by an emergency door, so that’s fun.

The awkward conceit of Timeline (2003) - the last feature film based on a Crichton novel to date - begins with the casting of the decidedly non-Scottish Paul Walker as the son of twinkly Scottish archaeologist Billy Connolly, and continues with the marriage of a hokey time travel story with a superficial re-creation of the sword-and-shield epic.  After Connolly’s team discovers modern artifacts while excavating a French monastery, the professor visits the headquarters of the technology firm sponsoring the dig and mysteriously disappears.  The corporate benefactors reveal that they've stumbled across a wormhole connecting medieval France to the present, and admit Connolly is stranded in the past and needs rescuing.  

The zippy script initially does a good job of depicting the inevitable flailings and culture shock of Walker’s extraction team (which includes a pre-romcom Gerard Butler as a muscular academic).  But the film quickly abandons any intellectual pretense as it morphs into a silly adventure tale where the visitors from the future improbably steer the outcome of a pivotal battle in the Hundred Years’ War.  Superman and Lethal Weapon helmer Richard Donner lends a professional touch to sequences like an impressively-staged castle siege; however, most of Timeline wallows in the director-for-hire doldrums.  It’s an uninspiring swan song for Crichton (who passed away in 2008), but like most halfway-decent adaptations of his work it succinctly captures the freewheeling promise of technology alongside its chilling potential for disaster.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)
Dir. Don Scardino

2 out of 5

For established entertainers, risk is often a scary thing.   Once that meal ticket is punched, it's difficult to muster the courage and willpower to take on new challenges.  So it's hard to tell at first if The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is simply being faithful to its theme of professional ennui, or if it really is nothing more than a rote comedy vehicle designed around its stars' re-heated shtick.  Here I might say "spoiler alert," but in truth the film tips its hand from the moment we first see the silly wigs and flamboyant stage costumes.  

The titular Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carrell) is an imperious illusionist headlining a long-running Las Vegas magic show with his partner and childhood friend, the perpetually optimistic Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi).  However, interest is waning in their old-school act, and their fractious relationship isn't helped by the increasing popularity of brash street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey).  When the duo's attempt to seize on the audience-grabbing potential of Gray's publicity stunts goes awry, it finally splits them apart and sends Burt spiraling into an intermittently funny mid-career crisis.

Horrible Bosses scribes Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (the actor of Freaks & Geeks and Bones fame) take a step back with their sophomore effort, which tries to cram in as many different types of gags as possible to disorienting effect.  Essentially, Burt Wonderstone is three movies in one - none of them remarkable.  There's the feckless overconfidence of Carell, whose fussiness encounters new obstacles from living in a fleabag motel to performing magical sales pitches in the aisles of a grocery store.  There's the unrestrained slapstick of Carrey, employed here in a fashion that only reminds the audience of how obnoxious his nonstop mugging can be.  And then there's the acerbic old-fogey wisdom of Alan Arkin as Burt's childhood idol, a legendary magician living out his twilight years in a nursing home for Vegas showbiz types.

Burt Wonderstone manages to get in a few choice digs, particularly in the gauche vanity of James Gandolfini's casino tycoon, Doug Munny - whose new signature resort is named simply "Doug" - and the ridiculous antics of Carrey's David Blaine/Criss Angel hybrid that parodies their attempts to pass off extreme bodily abuse as "magic."  The movie largely lacks bite, however, and focuses on a comfortably broad definition of humor designed to please as many people as possible.  This is frequently an issue, such as when the film's assertion that magic is an inspiring spectacle with a special appeal for children commingles with jokes about narcotics and slight-of-hand-assisted sexytime between Burt and stagehand/aspiring magician Jane (Olivia Wilde), his tacked-on love interest.  Though it tries to use the insular world of magic to create crackling comedy, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone casts too wide a net and disappointingly sticks with the same old tricks we've seen a thousand times before.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers (2013)
Dir. Harmony Korine

4 out of 5

Here's the defining image of Spring Breakers, the latest teenage fever dream from professional provocateur Harmony Korine: a young woman brandishing a gun while wearing nothing but a Day-Glo bikini, high tops, and a pink ski mask.  Or maybe it's James Franco as Alien, a rapper/drug dealer with gleaming silver grills and a panoply of chest tattoos, plinking Britney Spears ballads on a poolside piano.  As a film that feels reverse-engineered to get us to these specific moments, it's easy to dismiss as a gonzo travelogue calibrated for maximum shock value, glamorizing the reckless hedonism that it ostensibly intends to critique.  They have a name for that kind of movie: exploitation.

Simple exploitation, however, isn't supposed to be as lyrical as Spring Breakers.  Projecting a vision that's nightmarish and exuberant and gaudy and brilliant all at once, Korine examines the bacchanalian rites of university students from the perspective of three rowdy co-eds - Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine, his real-life spouse) - who acquire their travel funds by brazenly robbing a diner in their college town.  They’re joined by their naive Christian friend Faith (Selena Gomez), who accompanies them to Florida on the wishful premise that the change of scenery will rekindle their sisterhood and spark some personal epiphanies.

The atmosphere of unfettered exhibitionism in the sun, surf, and seedy motels of St. Petersburg makes an obvious backdrop for a cautionary tale of a “good girl gone bad,” but Korine upends expectations and presents a story about bad girls becoming worse.  Guiding them in their downward spiral is the aforementioned Alien, who bails the foursome out of jail after they’re busted at a cocaine party.  Once Faith - the lone character with anything resembling a moral compass - decides to escape on the first bus back home, Spring Breakers shifts gears completely as the remaining girls embrace Alien as their slimy spirit guide.  ("I'm livin' the American Dream!" he bellows as he shows off his vast collection of automatic weapons and expensive fragrances.)

The abruptly sinister turn of events - which builds to a typical action climax vis-a-vis an intense gang war with Alien's mentor-turned-nemesis (Gucci Mane) - takes some of the satirical bite out of  this ode to curdled narcissism.  Still, Spring Breakers is unquestionably at its best when Korine and his cast are going for broke.  It's exhilarating to watch them toe the line between sheer genius and pure camp, from Franco's dead-on caricature of a white trash hoodrat who could be the younger cousin of Matthew McConaughey's character in Magic Mike, to Korine shooting the beachfront tourist traps and grubby urban sprawl of the Tampa Bay area in the intimate, ethereal style of his idol, Terrence Malick.

It's difficult to tell exactly what to take seriously amid the sparse dialogue, chaotic visuals, and hypnotic score from Cliff Martinez and Skrillex, but looking for a deeper message defeats the purpose of the film.  (Alien's plaintive, oft-repeated whispering of "Spring break...spring break forever..." is as close as it gets to a thematic statement.)  Like spring break itself, Spring Breakers is a libertine vacation from intellectual responsibility, though not without the hangover that reminds us of the dark self-delusion necessary to keep the party going at any price.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
Dir. Sam Raimi

3 out of 5

A prequel to the seminal Hollywood classic The Wizard of Oz isn't as far-fetched as it initially sounds.  The world created by L. Frank Baum sustained a key canon in fantasy literature for decades, not to mention Oz's re-appearance in modern revisionist tales such as Gregory Maguire's Wicked cycle and the wildly popular musical of the same name.  Disney's Oz the Great and Powerful is more of the latter, a big-budget extravaganza that investigates the origins of the Wizard of Oz, imagined as a womanizing circus magician named Oscar "Oz" Diggs (James Franco).  After running into some trouble involving the wife of a fellow carny, Oscar flees the traveling camp and gets swept up in a violent tornado that transports him to Land of Oz, where prophecy foretells of a powerful wizard bearing the name of his kingdom who will return to claim his throne from a wicked witch.

"Witch" is hardly an epithet here - on the contrary, they form a respected civic triumvirate.  The beautiful sisters Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz) watch over the Emerald City and its untold riches, which they promise to Oscar in return for protection from their enemies.  That group happens to include the third witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams), who, in the grand tradition of Disney recluses, is not the terrifying monster she is purported to be.

All of these plot elements point to another prefabricated "prophesied hero's journey" arc, but director Sam Raimi and screenwriters David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner add their own wrinkle by frequently pointing out that Oscar is a fraud, armed with parlor tricks against real magic.  He's a compelling protagonist despite his lack of agency - which only makes it more disappointing to watch a limited actor like Franco struggle mightily in the role.  He shuffles through the film with a stock expression of mild annoyance, reacting to the bizarre goings-on with a mixture of sleepy confusion and abject panic.  (Let's just say that a "green" city surrounded by soporific poppy fields is a fitting home for this particular wizard.)

Despite the anarchic possibilities of Franco actively attempting to troll an expensive, effects-heavy tentpole, Oz gets back on track thanks to the stellar performances of his castmates, including Zach Braff as the voice of Oscar's lowly monkey valet and the dazzling Williams as goodness incarnate.  Her sweet but firm presence elevates the film's second half, which also benefits from Raimi refocusing his attention on sly visual homages to the Oz mythos instead of generic CGI razzmatazz.  The Spider-man director's expertise in darkening the edges of a goofy, family-friendly fairy tale nudge the film closer to the tone of Disney's last Baum adaptation, the 1985 cult classic Return to Oz.  However, Oz the Great and Powerful unabashedly aims for the hearts and minds still captivated by the classic 1939 MGM musical, a pleasure trip to the past that employs just enough flash and humor to transmit the scrupulous moral lessons of Baum's stories to a new generation.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)
Dir. Bryan Singer

3 out of 5

Lightness has fallen out of vogue in the action-adventure genre.  More often than not, swashbuckling stories now come pre-packaged with complicated "mythologies," endless MacGuffins, or computer-generated visual clutter.  While Jack the Giant Slayer - Bryan Singer's first directorial effort since 2008's Valkyrie - contains its fair share of the latter, its no-nonsense backstory is immediately refreshing.  Long ago, vicious giants left their home above the clouds and invaded the human realm, utilizing a massive beanstalk as their conduit between the two worlds.  A warrior king helped slay one of these giants, then melted its heart into a magical crown blessed by his holy men.  Forced to obey whoever wore the crown, the giants were banished from the world below and the kingdom was saved.

This is the legend that enthralls Jack's two protagonists - the meek farm boy Jack (Warm Bodies' Nicholas Hoult) and restless teenage princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) - whose shared obsession with genocidal monsters kick-starts an old-fashioned adventure built on cinematic archetypes that have been around since Errol Flynn was swinging from castle staircases.  Isabelle is betrothed to the villainous Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci) who, unbeknownst to his king (Ian McShane), has located the magic beans and crown of legend.  He plans to recruit an unstoppable army of giants, but hits a snag when Jack acquires the beans and accidentally launches Isabelle to the land above the clouds.  The king demands that Jack accompany his elite guards, led by the dashing Elmont (Ewan McGregor), on a mission to retrieve his daughter.

At this point the spectacle begins to overwhelm the story.  Fortunately, Tucci and McGregor (who has some experience in green-screen acting) are up to the challenge, chewing on the nonexistent scenery like it was a month-old steak.  Both actors seem to enjoy their respective roles - especially Tucci, who plays a vintage boo-hiss villain with a murderous flair.  Hoult and Tomlinson, however, just try to do the best they can with their two-dimensional stock characters.  Despite some nifty cross-cutting that tries to establish a promising chemistry between Jack and Isabelle, their interactions borrow directly from the damsel-in-distress playbook.

Considering the film's long gestation period (D.J. Caruso was slated to direct a more "adult-oriented" version before being replaced by Singer) and its astronomical effects budget, it's impressive to watch Singer successfully maintain Jack's airy tone alongside its pervasive (though sanitized) violence.  While a few parts feel like an amalgamation of ideas, there are still plenty of moments where everything comes together in a perfect balance of family-oriented humor and thrills, such as a sequence where Jack rescues Isabelle and Elmont from being roasted by a gangly giant chef.  Close watchers will be able to spot where Singer was forced to pick his battles: some of the CGI backgrounds are absolutely hideous on the big screen, though even jaded audiences will admit that the climactic siege battle is pretty astounding.  But Jack is not just a typical effects-driven wannabe blockbuster.  It's a modest yet effective return to a type of entertainment that appeals to parents who grew up with moderately dark fantasy epics like Willow (there's even a Warwick Davis cameo), jazzed up with the next generation of visual effects to spark the adventurous imaginations of their children.