Jack, the Giant Slayer

Je ne sais quoi is a famous French phrase meaning “I don’t know what.” It’s used when you know something, but you can’t accurately describe it.

What’s missing from Jack, the Giant Slayer? It’s hard to say. Je ne sais quoi.

Jack, the Giant Slayer has a stellar cast, cool effects and a classic story (with some fresh tweaks). The trailers and TV spots look great. But the movie lacks that certain something—something that would make it a “must see.” Je ne sais quoi.

As it begins, JTGS looks like a family flick for all ages. A bedtime story is shared in separate scenes with a young boy and a young girl. The boy grows up to be Jack. The girl becomes princess Isabelle. Jack goes to town, meets the princess, gets the magic beans and the story takes off. In short order, so does the beanstalk.

Jack is played by Nicholas Hoult, who was tremendous as R in the recent Warm Bodies. Isabelle is played by the gorgeous Eleanor Tomlinson. Ian McShane is the king and Ewan McGregor (good guy) and Stanley Tucci (bad guy) are members of the king’s court. Eddie Marsan, who is becoming one of my favorite character actors, also has a small role.

As the story develops, so does the violence. The reasons for the PG-13 rating become obvious. The battles between the earthbound residents and the giants from the sky are epic. The film’s climax is especially well conceived. The 3-D is good, if not great. Still, there’s something needed to make this film special. Je ne sais quoi.

When you spend $185 million to make a movie, you should deliver a bit more magic to the screen than JTGS does. While the film’s accomplishments do amount to more than, pardon the expression, a hill of beans, I was expecting to be dazzled.

Jack, the Giant Slayer is a good, solid, well-made film. You will not walk out of the theater grumbling that you were ripped off. But it falls short of classic. I wish I could tell you exactly why. But I can’t quite put my finger on it. Je ne sais… oh, you know.

A Place at the Table

It’s not that people are dying of starvation. But many Americans don’t have the food choices that you and I do.

The reasons are many and varied as A Place at the Table points out. The documentary goes to Collbran, CO; Jonestown, MS and Philadephia, PA to show real people and their difficulties obtaining a nutritious diet.

The two school-age girls in Mississippi and Colorado and the young single mom in Philly are the central characters in the film. Their problems, as depicted, are heartbreaking. The single mom, for instance, finally gets a job, but her pay, which disqualifies her for food stamps she had been receiving, is not high enough to feed her two kids and pay for daycare.

A Place at the Table features celebrities. Actor Jeff Bridges offers his thoughts about the nation’s food problems and mentions Hidden in America, a TV movie from 1996 that starred his brother Beau as a member of the “working poor.”

Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio appears to talk about his efforts as a hunger activist. His wife, Lori Silverbush, is co-director of APATT with Kristi Jacobson.

As do many advocacy films, A Place at the Table offers certain statistics and declarations without sufficient attribution. And, ironically, some of the people described as victims of hunger are, in fact, obese.

While the film encourages a variety of government actions to correct shortcomings, it is not an overly political film. Yes, Michelle Obama has a cameo, but APATT does not engage in bashing of any particular party or administration.

The film does takes aim at the US Department of Agriculture’s price supports, which APATT claims are inordinately high for commodity crops (corn, soybeans, etc.) but low for growers of more nutritious fruits and vegetables. The result is healthy fruits and veggies are too costly and limited funds (and food stamps) go toward less healthy foods that provide more calories for the buck.

The film’s highlights include many upbeat moments: a Colorado church offering a free hot meal each week to any and all, a group of Mississippi school kids learning to prefer honeydew melon as a snack over junk food, the Philadelphia mom sharing her pride in her accomplishments.

A Place at the Table brings attention to vital concerns and offers suggestions for improving conditions in America. But will it reach those persons who can affect change?

In addition to its theatrical run, the movie will be available starting March 1 for download on iTunes. By the way, APATT features cool music from The Civil Wars and T-Bone Burnett.

Safe Haven

An attractive couple in a picturesque resort town makes Safe Haven a good-looking movie. It’s a sweet love story that has a bit of conflict and ugliness, but not enough to damage the warm glow Safe Haven gives off.

Safe Haven is adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel, as were such movies as The Notebook, Dear John and others. Safe Haven is the eighth movie based on a Sparks novel.

Josh Duhamel plays Alex, a likeable widower with two cute kids. He runs a store in a small town in coastal North Carolina where busses stop to let passengers grab a snack and stretch their legs.

One passenger chooses not to get back on the bus, but to stay in town. Katie is played by Julianne Hough, best known for appearances on Dancing with the Stars. Katie is on the run from something, but what she’s trying to escape is not revealed immediately.

In the meantime, she gets a waitress job in town and falls in love with the hunky widower.

Yes, Safe Haven is like a Hallmark Channel movie with better writing and acting. It has new love, kids, family, sunny days, rainy days, a trip to the beach, a canoe ride, pleasant locations. Romance is in the air and life is good.

Safe Haven also has the peril element found in Lifetime movies. When Katie’s past problems come to call, she and others must confront danger.

Cobie Smulders of How I Met Your Mother fame has a small, not especially glam, role as Katie’s neighbor Jo who is always ready with advice and encouragement.

Safe Haven provides a safe haven for moviegoers looking for a more wholesome contemporary romance. No T & A, no bad words, minimal sex, a necessary (for the sake of the plot) bit of violence. No urban scenarios with dance clubs and cool workspaces. No freaks or geeks.

Julianne Hough is a younger, blonder, prettier version of Jennifer Aniston and Josh Duhamel is hunky without being obnoxious about it.

Is Safe Haven just about the perfect Valentine’s Day weekend romance movie? Without a doubt, yes.





Beautiful Creatures

Beautiful Creatures has many positives including charming lead actors and some big names in the supporting cast. But the story is not that good and the outrageous special effects are over the top (not in a good way).

Set in Gatlin, South Carolina, a fictional small town, the movie touches on witchcraft, curses and strange religious practices. A bit of local Civil War lore and trees laden with Spanish moss add to the southern flavor of the film.

The new kid in town, Lena Duchannes, plots to avert the curse which will change her on her rapidly approaching 16th birthday. She’s played by Alice Englert. Alden Erichreich plays Ethan Waite, a high school kid with an engaging smile and tons of charisma. He, of courses, falls hard for Lena.

The cast includes Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson and Viola Davis. While their talents are considerable and appreciated, their casting seems odd for a movie that aspires to grab some love from the Twilight crowd, now that that franchise is (supposedly) exhausted. Emmy Rossum, however, as Lena’s older sister is a perfect addition to the company of players.

Beautiful Creatures is an okay teen love story, perfectly timed for a Valentine’s weekend release. And, it’s worth repeating: these two central characters have good chemistry and onscreen charm.

But the paranormal/witchcraft elements in Beautiful Creatures are not as compelling as those seen in other such movies. See this creature feature? Eh, maybe wait for the DVD or the cable run.






A Good Day to Die Hard

I like things that go boom.

A Good Day to Die Hard puts NYC policeman John McClane (Bruce Willis) in Russia to visit his son Jack (Jai Courtney). Shortly after arriving, John encounters Jack, says a quick hello and gets involved in a spectacular car chase. The chase produces enough vehicle carnage to populate St. Louis’ biggest junkyard.

In short order, John learns that Jack is a CIA agent who is trying to get a political prisoner out of Russia. The prisoner wants to bring along his daughter, but the rendezvous with his offspring results in the prisoner’s being taken away by bad guys.

Willis maintains his trademark smirk throughout the film, dropping quips almost as frequently as he drops bad guys. There’s a bit of father/son bonding as dad helps his kid through some tight spots. Seems Jack has some resentment. He felt his father’s work as a cop kept him away from the family too much. At one point during their day of violent mayhem, they mention that they’ve sort of enjoyed the togetherness, such as it is.

Along with car crashes, A Good Day to Die Hard delivers voluminous amounts of gunplay, featuring automatic weapons that never seem to run out of ammo. The film is bookended by huge explosions: a Moscow courthouse bombing shortly after the opening and a copter crash at the finale. (Hope that’s not too much of a spoiler.)

A Good Day to Die Hard does not have a lot of in-your-face anger. Because of its quick pace, there’s not a lot of time to build tension. Many longtime fans of the Die Hard movies are not exactly saying Yippee-Ki-Yay in their online comments. But AGDTDH is kinetic, with action aplenty. And many things that go boom.





Side Effects

Looking for a great movie for grownups? Side Effects satisfies! It has a suspenseful story, well told, and compelling characters, well portrayed.

Rooney Mara is Emily Taylor, a twenty-something in NYC who meets Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) after she drives her car into a brick wall. He’s a shrink who begins treating her for depression. Channing Tatum plays her sympathetic husband who’s just been released from prison where he served time for insider trading.

One of the medications Dr. Banks prescribes for Emily appears to help but has a significant side effect: it causes sleepwalking. When Emily commits a crime, her meds and Dr. Banks are called into question. The situation is complicated by the fact that Dr. Banks is taking money from a drug company for consulting on medications.

Side Effects steps into many timely and topical areas, including mental illness and its treatments. Also within the film’s sights is the pharmaceutical industry, as well as doctors who are in cahoots with those companies. After Emily’s crime, the blame and the repercussions remain unresolved.

Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Dr. Victoria Siebert, a Connecticut psychologist who treated Emily for depression before Dr. Banks. As the story unfolds, her involvement with the drug companies becomes a key plot point.

While there is no doubt that psychotropic drugs have helped many people with mental illnesses function normally, we know that drug companies have marketed products with dangerous (sometimes lethal) side effects. It’s easy to throw stones at large organizations that have questionable practices, but not always so easy to determine which individuals should suffer the consequences.

That’s the case in Side Effects. Who’s the good guy? Who’s the bad guy? And who’s in that gray area in the middle? See the movie and find out.

Side Effects is directed by Steven Soderbergh, whose movies are always interesting, even when they’re not as good as Side Effects. And, as with all his movies, the soundtrack is excellent. Thomas Newman is the music composer.

For Jude Law, this is his best performance in years. His stubble, worn in many scenes, gives him a more mature look. Rooney Mara was excellent in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but that was more of a caricature. In this role, she hits it out of the park as a real woman with real problems. Bravo!