The Pitch: New Jack Country.
The Review:Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of some Englishmen, And also a Scot, but mainly a Yank, The director whose efforts we now have to thank For bringing this fairy tale brashly to life; But fantasy movies, once scarce, are now rife, So is this another Lord Of The Rings, Or just some half-hearted fantasy mings? Fee-fi-fo-fudget, They’ve really not skimped when setting the budget. A director who once shone with limited means, But now Bryan Singer’s got more than old beans. So how come the CG looks rather unfinished, The threat of the giants being somewhat diminished By their poor design, their look unrealistic And not just their looks that are far too simplistic Fee-fi-fo-farrative, The original Jack’s not a complex narrative: Jack sells cow for beans, beans grow big, Jack turns out to be thieving pig. This Jack’s less concerned with harps and gold coins, Instead it’s a princess that’s stirring his loins, So Jack’s a good lad, and does what he oughter, And heads for the giants to find the king’s daughter. Fee-fi-fo-fenanigans, This slayer has no greater plot shenanigans, It’s tweaked motivations, but still such a story Could muster a framework for fairytale glory But it’s hard to know who’d appreciate Jack, The tone skews too adult, it’s all out of whack; The battles are no match for Middle Earth conflicts, The characters weak and the tale never quite clicks. Fee-fi-fo-ferformances, This film is a dead weight of earnest performances, Hoult and McGregor are likeable leads But seriousness isn’t what this fable needs, It’s just Stanley Tucci that finds the right tone, But his scenery chewing stands sadly alone, And even the giants are flat and annoying There’s not much of anything for your enjoying. Fee-fi-fo-fum, This lavish folly is just a bit rum, It’s all inoffensive, occasionally pretty But story wise never surpasses just bitty. Now Singer and Hoult will soon reunite On X-Men; Singer did more than all right Telling mutant tales, and maybe that’s where He should stay; for his Jack I just don’t care.
Why see it in the cinema: The last act is certainly epic – more epic than the first two, anyway – although it feels as if more happens than actually does at times. But certainly the cinema is the best place to appreciate the spectacle, one of the few saving graces.
Why see it in 3D: It does ensure that the tiny characters look far away on occasion, helping to add to the effect, but movies from the LOTR trilogy to Honey I Shrunk The Kids have managed without 3D, and despite being shot in the format there’s very little to require you to pay the premium for the indoor sunglasses. Speaking of which, there’s also been little done to address the brightness issues so some sequences, such as Jack’s cabin, look murkier than a giant’s underpants on wash day.
What about the rating: Rated 12A for moderate fantasy violence and threat. That may be the biggest flaw in Jack The Giant Killer, for the moments that justify that rating are few and far between, and you can’t help but think this would have worked better with a lighter tone and a pitch for the upper end of the PG market.
My cinema experience: A sparse Saturday tea-time crowd, but thankfully sound and projection were both decent. No one hung around when the credits rolled.
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: As is often the case with a 3D release, an extra trailer with a dog reminding you to put on 3D glasses bumped the running time up that bit further, so it was 26 minutes before Jack started slaying giants.
The Score: 5/10
The Review: We live in a fairly fragile world, when it comes down to it. We like to think we live in safety, comfort and security, but actually this lump of molten rock that orbits our sun at 67,000 miles an hour is subject to all kinds of natural phenomena that put our relatively tiny, fleshy bodies at immediate risk. We suffer from the weather above and from the movement of the land below, and one of the most striking effects of this in recorded human history was an earthquake of around 9.0 on the Richter scale which occurred on the 26th December 2004. It struck 100 miles off the west coast of Sumatra, and the sudden displacement of tectonic plates underwater caused a tidal wave that reached heights of up to thirty metres and washed up as far away as Somalia and the Maldives. It took two hours to reach Thailand, but there were no early warning systems, so the wave caused by an energy release equivalent to 1,500 atomic bombs came as a total surprise to everyone, but among the 230,000 people that lost their lives in the disaster there were survivors, and The Impossible is the story of one family’s attempt to count themselves among the latter.
Given the enormity of events (as evidenced by the paragraph above), it’s a brave decision to focus purely on the fate of five individuals, but the real life traumas of one Boxing Day tsunami family have become well known in their native land, Spain. Director Juan Antonio Bayona has Anglicised the story of Maria Belon and her family, with Belon and her husband now portrayed by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. (Bayona has claimed that their nationality is irrelevant, although that would have been more believable had Watts not had to match her accent to the plummy English offspring she and McGregor are raising.) After a brief glimpse of family life in their Thai resort, with floating lanterns and Christmas presents, the wave strikes with devastating force, leaving Watts with eldest son Lucas and with Maria badly hurt, and Lucas attempting not only to help his stricken mother but anyone else they might come into contact with.
The story that unfolds sticks closely to real events, outside the nationality of its central participants, but the five family members are the only real characters. Not only the local Thai populace but the other survivors are reduced simply to interactions rather than defined people, less a facet of the unfolding tragedy and more a storytelling decision to draw focus onto the central family. The tsunami and its effects are devastating, and superbly captured, but the lack of a rounded cast makes the aftermath of the drama feel surprisingly small scale. Part of that is the cinematic language which The Impossible is fighting against; we’re so accustomed to fictional or factual disasters writ large with bulging casts to emphasise the scale of the drama, it takes time to readjust to the intimacy of the family’s story. Ultimately The Impossible isn’t the story of the tsunami on a worldwide scale but on a very personal one; the main flaw in this approach is that by clinging so closely to fact, there’s not enough narrative to sustain three acts of a film.
The other issue with that approach is the storytelling techniques employed in an attempt to contextualise the fate of the family members. The Impossible employs a different narrative device for each of its three main sections (if you count the pre-wave sequence as a prologue); when the wave hits, and the later flashback to it, rely on the staples of the horror genre, all the more startling for working so grippingly and being so difficult for the viewer to endure by the nature of their daylight setting, but not surprising given Bayona’s previous success with out-and-out horror The Orphanage. The films share a common trait in their excellent use of sound, both in design and deployment, and some sequences might take a strong stomach. The middle stretch then threatens a descent into melodrama, but is saved by the quality of the performances, from not only Watts and the ever underrated McGregor but also Tom Holland as eldest Lucas. Sadly, the final act falls back on thriller tropes in an attempt to wring tension from the remaining narrative, and it’s hard not to feel just a little manipulated. The Impossible is a reasonable stab at capturing a worldwide catastrophe still dangerously raw for many, but a wider focus may have served it better.
Why see it at the cinema? The disaster scenes are undeniably impressive visually, but it’s the sound design that’s the most compelling reason to venture out for this one. That, and the collective noise of horror that the audience made on seeing Naomi Watts’ leg injury. Sort of “sssss-ooohuuugggh.” Never quite heard anything like it in a cinema.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for natural disaster scenes, moderate injury detail and brief nudity. That’s a little bit of a surprise to me; I found it a tough watch, and I would be seriously nervous about taking anyone under 12 at all to this one.
My cinema experience: Caught late at work, then in motorway traffic on the way back from work, I arrived fairly late to the Cineworld in Cambridge. Thankfully there weren’t huge queues, but my server didn’t check which showing I was attending and sold me a ticket for the later showing. Thankfully there were still seats at my intended showing so I was allowed to simply slip in. A fairly full house saw me sat on the second row from the front, on the opposite end to a group of people who talked at full volume on and off through the entire film. It was also a bit nippy in Screen 5, judging by the people on the front of the main block sat with their coats on their laps to counteract the cold. Not sure if it was that or what was onscreen, but I did notice a couple of walkouts after about half an hour. Generally the film was enough to keep my mind off those distractions, thankfully.
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: A sharp twenty minutes, short for the Cineworlds normally, left me scrabbling to my seat just as the film started. Wasn’t planning to cut it that fine, but would be the one night I was running late.
The Score: 7/10
The Review: Steven Soderbergh films are like buses; you wait ages, then two come along at once. In some ways they’re actually better than buses, as if there’s one you don’t like the next one will probably be completely different. So it should be no surprise that after last year’s taut but slightly underwhelming Outbreak-remake Contagion Soderbergh has arrived on an entirely different bus, but actually one that left the depot two years ago. (I think I’d better park this bus metaphor now.) The difference between Contagion and Haywire is a prime example of Steven Soderbergh’s experimental and varied nature, but it also means that you can’t guarantee that you’re actually going to like every Soderbergh film. This time, the Soderbergh experiment is to take a female mixed martial arts star and to attempt to make her a movie star; but does this attempt to put the fair fight in My Fair Lady actually work?
A lot of that rests on Carano’s broad but still delicate shoulders. Coming off somewhere between Jet from Gladiators and Cynthia Rothrock, what she lacks in personality and acting ability and more personality she makes up for with a steely glare, a slight grumpiness when asked to wear a dress and an unerring ability to beat the senses out of men twice her size. Sensibly, the story constructed is very much designed to show off the sense-beating, grumpiness and steely glares and minimise the need for personality and acting ability. It’s pretty much a Bourne clone; there’s running, fighting, driving, all in the name of Carano finding something about about the people who she’s fighting, driving past or running away from. The fights themselves have a real physicality and heft about them, and when Carano and Michael Fassbender start laying into each other, it’s verging on cartoon violence and quite satisfying, if you like that kind of thing.
In order to draw attention away from any perceived lack of abilities on Gina Carano’s part, Soderbergh has surrounded her with some of the finest acting and action movie talent known to man. Ewan McGregor sports a dodgy haircut and his usual unlikely American accent and does most of the exposition, and the likes of Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas and Bill Paxton also pop up in supporting roles. Here lies the first of two major problems with Haywire: the bits in between the running and the fighting are deathly dull, written as if the Enigma machine had turned its hand to screenplays. There’s lots of obtuse references to lots of things which aren’t stated explicitly, and then in the last ten minutes reams of further exposition turn up to make sense of it all. By that point, if you didn’t enjoy the fighting and the running, you may have also stopped caring.
The other drawback of Haywire is that, for all of Steven Soderbergh’s experimental nature, it actually feels about as fresh as a three day old nappy at times. There’s a little Ocean’s meets Bourne feel going on, thanks to David Holmes’ unmistakably trendy, januty score which creates a familiar ambience, but Soderbergh has been experimental so many times, and often much more so than here, that actually the familiarity of the material can breed contempt in the quieter stretches. There’s a great stretch in the middle of the film where Carano goes on the run across Dublin, beating up security guards and running over rooftops, and somehow an extended version of this sequence, stripped of the babbling exposition and filling the short but overstretched run time, might have actually been an improvement. Soderbergh’s talking about taking a sabbatical after his next two films and on this evidence he might need to recharge his batteries, as Haywire’s a lot of fun when its star is handing out violence like it’s going out of fashion, but the rest of the time you’ll wish you had Jason Bourne’s Swiss-cheesed memory, as the non-violent scenes deserve to be forgotten.
Why see it at the cinema: Yay fighty bits! Yay running about on rooftops! The rest might be a little scrambled, but whenever Carano’s kicking butt or running about in pursuit of some other low-life, then you’ll thank yourself that you saw it on a screen that did it justice.
The Score: 6/10