Friday, March 29, 2013

GI Joe Retaliation: Too inane to be witless

GI Joe Retaliation (2013) • View trailer 
One star. Rating: PG-13, for nonstop violence and occasional profanity
By Derrick Bang

This sorry excuse for a movie is for folks who find the Transformer series too intellectually stimulating.

Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson, foreground left) and his fellow Joes — from left, Lady
Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) — are running
out of options, before the evil Cobra Commander and his minions start doing Very
Bad Stuff to the world. Are we worried? Do we even care?
Honestly, even in the realm of dumb fluff, this new GI Joe entry is impressively pathetic. Rarely has so much money been squandered, to such little effect.

I’m surprised Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick were brave enough to admit writing this dreck. The proverbial 10 chimpanzees with typewriters could have created something better. A random episode of the kid-oriented Power Rangers TV series has more dramatic heft.

Basing a movie series on a toy line does not, of necessity, require all concerned to fashion the result for undiscerning 5-year-olds. Any set of characters can be made captivating; indeed, Reese and Wernick have the advantage here of some established archetypes, just waiting for a bit of back-story.

But, clearly, that would have been asking too much. Instead, we labor through flimsy expository scenes and battle sequences that appear to have been assembled at random. I’ve no doubt, if director Jon M. Chu had simply tossed the script pages into the air and filmed them as they fell, that the result would have made more sense.

What we have, in fact, displays the dumb plotting, wooden acting and lunatic dialogue that grace afternoon TV soap operas, stitched Frankenstein-style to an A-production budget that delivers plenty of golly-gee-wow special effects.

Actually, GI Joe: Retaliation is nothing but special effects. This isn’t a movie; it’s a video game. And one that’s thuddingly predictable and insufferably boring, at that.

This isn’t even bad enough to be campy fun; it’s merely bad. When an actor of Jonathan Pryce’s stature, playing the U.S. president, is forced to utter corn-pone dialogue such as “Send in the Joes!” — and do it with a straight face — we know the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

This is one of those narratives that repeatedly has the actors tell us what their characters are doing, or about to do, or have done ... because, otherwise, it would be impossible to make sense of anything.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen: If only it were so...

Olympus Has Fallen (2013) • View trailer 
1.5 stars. Rating: R, for strong violence and plenty of profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.22.13

An “exhortation to tweet,” handed to patrons who attended Tuesday evening’s preview screening of this film, asked if we all were ready for a “heart-pounding, nonstop, action-packed thrill ride?”

Hey, you bet; I’m always up for that much entertainment.

Once a suicide bomber blows a hole through the protective fence that surrounds the
White House, terrorists begin to pour through the gap. Seeing his slim chance,
Banning (Gerard Butler) follows quietly from the rear, hoping to pick off any stragglers.
Hey ... it could work!
But having now seen the film, I’m still waiting.

Olympus Has Fallen isn’t a thrill ride; it’s a thoroughly unpleasant, mean-spirited, jingoistic slice of propaganda disguised as a mainstream movie. It’s also insufferably and unforgivably stupid, laced with characters who spout laughably trite dialogue while behaving, for the most part, like cowardly morons.

If our heads of state truly responded like the idiots depicted here in Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt’s offensively brainless script, we’d deserve to be invaded by terrorists.

Attempting to position this bomb as a “thrill ride” also implies at least a certain degree of fun, and you’ll find none of that here. What you will find, under Antoine Fuqua’s hammer-handed direction, is a first act that lovingly depicts the mass slaughter of hundreds, if not thousands, with most victims gorily shredded by high-powered gunfire. The bloodbath goes on and on and on and on. Long past the point of necessity.

Then, for good measure — and to rev up our patriotic fury, donchaknow — we watch the Washington Monument destroyed in a manner uncomfortably similar to the 9/11 shattering of the twin towers. And then Fuqua lays waste to the White House.

Uh-huh. Jolly good fun.

This is the sort of turgid melodrama that forces an actor of Morgan Freeman’s stature — playing the Speaker of the House of Representatives, fergawdsake — to intone the immortal line, “They’ve opened up the gates of hell!” To a melodramatic crescendo from Trevor Morris’ bombastic score, of course.

I’d dismiss this hokey nonsense as a latter-day descendant of 1970s disaster flicks, such as Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, were it not for the nasty political subtext. Otherwise, though, the genre clichés are consistent: Any bit player granted a line of dialogue here — just enough to fix him or her in our minds — is guaranteed to go the way of Star Trek red-shirts. Gratuitously, I might add.

Our hero is Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), once a star Secret Service agent in charge of protecting President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart), now assigned to desk duty in the Treasury Department, in the wake of events in a rather cruel prologue. That’s typical of the overkill approach Rothenberger and Benedikt take to all elements of their script: no need for credibility or reasonable psychological subtlety, when a sledgehammer will do.

Admission: Not quite top marks

Admission (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for occasional profanity and mild sexual candor
By Derrick Bang

Paul Weitz obviously courts variety; his writing and directing résumé includes everything from dumb comedy (American Pie, Little Fockers) and impudent horror (Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant) to the heartfelt relationship dramedy of About a Boy.

Admissions officer Portia (Tina Fey) can't understand why John (Paul Rudd, right) is so
enthusiastic about getting Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) into Princeton; as far as she can tell,
this young man — although certainly personable — just isn't university material, let
alone Princeton material. But she's about to learn a detail that will seriously
compromise her objectivity.
His newest film, Admission, belongs in the latter’s company; its frequently whimsical, romantic-comedy trappings are blended with some sharp social commentary about the lengths to which parents and students will go, to ensure entry to an appropriately prestigious university.

That’s a delicate balance to maintain, and for the most part scripter Karen Croner succeeds; we’re never quite sure whether it’s appropriate to root for what the central characters seem to want, in this adaptation of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s perceptive novel. Even well-motivated actions have unfortunate consequences, and one’s past has a way of revealing that an apparently “comfortable” life may be little more than a façade.

Admission also is a big-screen starring vehicle for Tiny Fey, who needs a solid next step in a career that has been dominated, until recently, by her all-consuming involvement with television’s 30 Rock. Fey is smart, savvy and sharp: an all-around talent who hasn’t always been served well by her occasional trips to the big screen. She was ill-used in trivial fluff such as Date Night and The Invention of Lying, and her more successful presence in Baby Mama had just as much to do with co-star (and frequent cohort) Amy Poehler.

In a nutshell, then, Fey could use a few starring roles that grant her characters with the all-essential blend of intelligence, comic impulsiveness and vulnerability that has made 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon such a delight for so many years. Weitz and Croner come close to granting her the necessary formula in Admission, although Fey’s character here is just a bit too much the helpless victim for my taste. But that’s a personal judgment call, and likely not enough of an issue to bother most viewers.

Portia Nathan (Fey) is an admissions officer at Princeton University, one of the dozen or so “gatekeepers” who evaluate thousands of applicants every spring, and then decide which anxious high school seniors will win entry within these Ivy League walls.

Korelitz is a former part-time application reader for Princeton, so if this aspect of Weitz’s film has the queasy, casually cruel tone of reality, it’s no accident. Korelitz knows the territory, and Croner has done her best to replicate the impossible necessity of such a job: of the need to choose between this gymnast with multiple extracurricular activities, or that impassioned scholar with an aptitude for different languages.

Korelitz’s book employs a narrative device that allows us to eavesdrop on various application essays; Weitz and Croner replicate that gimmick here by having Portia imagine these various young hopefuls standing in front of her, as they eloquently argue their own merits ... only to drop through a hidden trap door and vanish forever, as she regretfully discards yet another fat orange folder.

The Croods: Stone Age family frolic

The Croods (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG, and needlessly, as this film is fine for all ages
By Derrick Bang

Although the enormously successful Ice Age franchise would seem to have captured the market for animated features set in prehistoric times, that series has focused exclusively on animals, while ignoring the early stirrings of humanity.

Clearly, that oversight begs to be addressed, and The Croods does so with considerable humor: much of it derived from the cheekily anachronistic manner in which these characters interact with an environment that never quite existed in our own past. Writer/directors Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco have set their saga — in their own words — somewhere between the Jurassic Age and the “Katzenzoic Era” ... which explains the colorful assortment of birds, reptiles and mammals that we’re unlikely to find in the fossil record.

Think of television’s The Flintstones, although considerably more primitive, and with a lot more attitude.

The Croods can be transfixed by the simplest things, and so we frequently see
expressions of awe fill the faces of, from left, Gran, Eep, Grug, Thunk, Sandy and
Ugga. And things get even better when they meet the new neighbor...

Our family is composed of a father figure, Grug (voiced by Nicholas Cage), who does his best to preserve the safety of his mate, Ugga (Catherine Keener); their adolescent son, Thunk (Clark Duke); and toddler Sandy (not really talking yet). The clan also includes Grug’s mother-in-law, Gran (Cloris Leachman); and typically rebellious teenage daughter Eep (Emma Stone).

At first blush, it wouldn’t seem that Eep has much to rebel against, but in fact her home life has become insufferably claustrophobic. The Croods once shared their valley with several other family units, all of which have perished, often in some larger predator’s stomach.

As a result, the iron-handed Grug has issued a series of edicts that allows his family only two activities: foraging for food, and hunkering for safety in a dark cave. He regards their continued existence as proof that his various credos are the height of wisdom: Fear is good, change is bad; Anything fun is bad; and Never not be afraid.

A rather stifling set of rules, particularly for a headstrong and curious young woman who wants to live, and see more of her world.

Following a brief explanatory prologue, in order to set the stage, Sanders and DeMicco open their story with a frenetic set piece: a typical egg hunt, in order to secure breakfast. This hilarious sequence has the rip-snortin’ pace of a classic Warner Bros. cartoon short, with Alan Silvestri’s equally tumultuous score further propelling the action. I promise, you’ll gasp for breath, mostly from laughing so hard.

It’s a great way to introduce these six characters, and their dangerous environment.

Stoker: A chilling family affair

Stoker (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for violence, disturbing sexual content, dramatic intensity and brief nudity
By Derrick Bang • Published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.29.13

In Chan-wook Park’s corrosive view of the universe, blood isn’t merely thicker than water; it positively congeals the connective tissue of inherited moral putrescence.

And nurture doesn’t stand a chance against nature.

India (Mia Wasikowska) loves to play the piano; it's a great way to release tension.
Charles (Matthew Goode) also enjoys the instrument, but his fondness seems more
directed at playing with his niece ... and the resulting duets turn rather creepy.
Park, the South Korean director known for gorgeously stylized but grimly unsettling thrillers such as 2003’s Oldboy and 2009’s weirdly disturbing Thirst, has made an equally disconcerting American debut with Stoker. This new film is gorgeous to look at, with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung creating captivating magic with every frame, but the on-screen beauty is at odds with the casual rot festering within our three primary characters.

That juxtaposition is intentional, of course, as is the undercurrent of amused detachment that laces every scene in Wentworth Miller’s gleefully nasty script. These characters taunt, torment and torture each other with an élan the Borgias would have admired, and Park orchestrates the mayhem in a manner that essentially dares us to enjoy the depravity right along with them.

Some of the humor is obvious, starting with the connotations raised by Miller’s choice of a family name — Stoker — or the affectionate nod toward Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, by naming Matthew Goode’s unhinged interloper Uncle Charlie. But we also can’t help chuckling at the enthusiastically carnivorous manner in which Goode tears into his character; rarely has evil been this charming, tempting ... and forbidden.

The film opens as India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), recently turned 18, stands at the edge of a field, staring intently at something within. She describes herself cryptically via off-camera narration, adding a layer of poetic eloquence to a tableau that already seems vaguely wrong.

The scene shifts to an India who seems slightly younger and significantly more withdrawn; we understand that we have retreated in time, but not too much. This is her 18th birthday, and she’s indulging in her favorite annual treat: finding the “special” present from her beloved father, who always hides it in a cryptic manner. The gift itself doesn’t matter all that much, and in fact it’s the same every year: a fresh pair of saddle shoes (definitely not an accidental choice on Miller’s part, given the shoes’ striking contrast between black and white).

No, India anticipates the thrill of the hunt, and the knowledge that her father has gone to so much trouble to please her.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone: Hey, presto!

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for profanity, sexual candor, fleeting drug content and dangerous stunts
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.15.13

Las Vegas magic acts — with their glitzy, overwrought buffoonery — are ripe for parody, and director Don Scardino attacks this subculture with verve, in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.

Having discovered that his childhood idol is living in a retirement home, Burt
Wonderstone (Steve Carell, left) is delighted when Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin)
eventually consents to do a few tricks for the other residents.
Armed with a witty script that hits most of the right notes, Scardino demonstrates his own gift for prestidigitation, by shaping a gaggle of scene-stealing camera hogs into a well-balanced ensemble comedy troupe. That’s no small thing, when dealing with the likes of Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi and Jim Carrey, any one of whom could ruin a project by being too uninhibited ... and all have done so, in the past (in Carrey’s case, rather frequently).

Not this time. Scardino keeps his stars on point while also drawing deft supporting performances from Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini and Olivia Wilde. The latter, in particular, demonstrates an unexpected talent for comic timing that was nowhere to be seen in her token hottie roles in Tron: Legacy and Cowboys & Aliens. Given her work here, Wilde actually may have an acting career in her future.

The biggest miracle, though, is that this film’s script manages to stay reasonably well focused — and dead-on perceptive, as it skewers Vegas’ wretched excess — despite being a committee affair from four writers: Jonathan M. Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Chad Kultgen and Tyler Mitchell.

Gentlemen, my black top hat’s off to you.

Scardino clearly learned well from a long, Emmy Award-winning television career that has seen him helm shows as diverse as 30 Rock, Law & Order, Ed and even the wonderful Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. The common element: rich ensemble casts with characters we care about.

The story opens with a brief prologue in the early 1980s, as latchkey kid Burt (Mason Cook) celebrates a birthday by himself, forced by his working mother’s absence to bake his own cake (a droll and endearing touch that hints of great things to come). His one present: a celebrity magic set that will evoke strong memories from viewers who remember being a kid back in that era, when Marshall Brodien — as Wizzo the Wizard —hawked his “TV Magic Kit” of “mystifying tricks” on syndicated stations.

In this case, young Burt is awestruck by the kit’s videotape, wherein tuxedo-garbed Rance Holloway (Arkin) promises that magic can change one’s life. Burt, enchanted, starts pulling scarves out of thin air; his school time antics attract the attention of the similarly geeky — and bullied — Anton (Luke Vanek). The two become fast friends, energized by a desire to invent newer, fresher and ever more amazing tricks.

The Call: Better hang up!

The Call (2013) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: R, for violence, profanity and disturbing content
By Derrick Bang

This is a taut and tidy little thriller ... for awhile.

Unfortunately, the need to sustain the wafer-thin premise for 90 minutes prompts plot developments that are increasingly contrived, tawdry and — ultimately — downright stupid.

The calm before the storm: LAPD 911 operator Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) is good at
her job; indeed, she's one of the best. But all her training goes for naught when an
unknown nutjob goes on a serial kidnapping spree ... and worse. Alas, Jordan's
behavior will get pretty damn stupid by the time this numbnuts story concludes.
Not to mention exploitatively violent, with director Brad Anderson lingering almost lovingly on moments of gruesome death. By the time we hit the third act and its jaw-droppingly ludicrous conclusion, we’re firmly in the realm of exploitative trash.

Chalk up another dog on Halle Barry’s increasingly lamentable résumé. This woman has no taste or judgment whatsoever.

We also must wonder why anybody saw merit in Richard D’Ovidio’s brain-dead script, which feels like a one-sentence “What if” concept stretched far beyond its limits. I note that D’Ovidio had help from Nicole D’Ovidio and Jon Bokenkamp for the initial story, which staggers the imagination. It took three people to cobble together this laughable mess? The mind doth boggle.

That said, the first act is promising, as Anderson and cinematographer Tom Yatsko slowly swoop through the “hive” of the greater Los Angeles 911 call center, hovering over operators one by one, as they assess emergencies — and trivial nonsense — while logging details via an impressive computer interface. We finally come to rest on Jordan Turner (Berry), a crisp and efficient veteran who calmly handles everything that comes.

Including an inebriated “regular” who somehow seems to reach her whenever he desires. Which begs an obvious question — since I’m not aware that one has the option of requesting specific operators when dialing 911 — but hey, we’ll grant this rather odd detail for the sake of a quick smile.

The levity doesn’t linger, though, because Jordan’s next call comes from a terrified teenager who’s alone in her house as an intruder is breaking in. Jordan rises to the challenge, and one must credit Berry for navigating the escalating situation with a persuasive blend of calm and crisp efficiency; she does look and sound right for the part.

But it quickly becomes apparent — to us first, and then to Jordan and her increasingly concerned colleagues — that this is no mere burglary. This particular intruder’s intentions are far worse, and Jordan can only listen helplessly as the grim scenario unfolds.

A day or two later, the girl’s body is found.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Dead Man Down: The dish best served cold

Dead Man Down (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for profanity and considerable violence
By Derrick Bang

As I expected, David Fincher’s American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo completely eclipsed Danish director Niels Arden Oplev’s vastly superior 2009 version in this country ... and let me note, as well, that Noomi Rapace’s Lisbeth Salander blew Rooney Mara right off the screen.

Victor (Colin Farrell) thinks that the scarred Beatrice (Noomi Rapace) merely wishes to
go on a date, to forget — for an evening — the despair that has lingered in the wake
of the car accident that left her with such a crippled self-image. In fact, though, Beatrice
has chosen Victor for a very specific reason ... as he's about to learn.
Imagine my delight, then, to see that Oplev and Rapace have reunited for the former’s American film debut, with a riveting crime thriller that offers more of the intense, claustrophobic character interactions that marked their first collaboration.

Dead Man Down also owes much of its narrative snap to a slick script from J.H. Wyman, a writer/director/producer best known for a pair of engaging TV shows: Fringe and the woefully under-appreciated Keen Eddie. Wyman has a knack for provocative concepts, and he certainly delivers that — and more — in this new film.

The setting is contemporary, the locale the seedier underbelly of any American metropolis (filming took place in Philadelphia). Dead Man Down hits the ground running, with a gaggle of hoods summoned by their boss, Alphonse (Terrence Howard). Somebody is playing a nasty game with Alphonse, sending cryptic messages that arrive on the corpses of his men.

The newest oblique missive sends Alphonse and his gang to the lair of a local drug kingpin (Andrew Stewart-Jones, vividly compelling), which prompts a confrontation that doesn’t go at all well; indeed, Alphonse survives solely due to the timely intervention of Victor (Colin Farrell).

This clash doesn’t sit well with regional boss Lon Gordon (Armand Assante), who feels that Alphonse has gotten seriously out of line. A price will need to be paid. Alphonse scarcely registers this warning, obsessed instead with what these damned notes might mean.

Victor hasn’t much of a life outside his duties as protective gunsel, although he has bonded with fellow hood Darcy (Dominic Cooper), an ambitious fellow looking to work his way up the gangland ladder. After hours, Victor eats makeshift meals in a minimally furnished, upper-level apartment in a complex that might be one scant step up from slum projects. He occasionally spots an attractive young woman on the balcony of a similar apartment in the adjacent tower.

This time, however, their eyes lock. She tentatively wiggles her fingers in an almost-wave. After a lengthy pause, he does the same.

Oz, the Great and Powerful: Enchanting trip down the yellow brick road

Oz, the Great and Powerful (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG, and rather generously, for considerable fantasy peril, scary scenes and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.8.13

Disney got it right this time.

The Mouse House’s previous attempt to sequelize L. Frank Baum — a high-profile release in the summer of 1985 — was a dark and dreary affair, its rich Oz-ian landscape sabotaged by a grim atmosphere and a level of peril that bordered on child abuse. Opening Return to Oz with a sequence that finds little Dorothy sent to a primitive psychiatric ward, and nearly subject to electro-shock therapy? What the heck were the screenwriters thinking?

Having worked out a plan to steal the wicked witch's magic wand, thus removing her
ability to fight back, Oz (James Franco, right) and his two companions — Finley and
China Girl — wait for the proper moment to strike.
Oz, the Great and Powerful, in pleasant contrast, is a rich, imaginative and droll delight from start to finish. To be sure, its protagonists face their share of peril — the winged monkeys were the most terrifying part of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, and that’s still true in this new film — but the tone is more appropriately adventure-scary, rather than psychologically twisted.

More to the point, scripters Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire — drawing from more of the rich material in Baum’s 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — have fashioned a prequel that cleverly imitates the style and formula established by the beloved 1939 musical, while also laying the groundwork to anticipate key events in that earlier film’s storyline.

That’s no small accomplishment. Better still, director Sam Raimi and editor Bob Murawski pace their film perfectly, alternating essential character development with fantastical encounters both exhilarating and unnerving.

And — as was the case with Tim Burton’s recent re-boot of Alice in Wonderland, also for Disney — Raimi doesn’t slow the pace by pausing and calling attention to Oz’s myriad wonders; they’re simply present to be enjoyed, if even noticed the first time through. I predict hot home-video sales and plenty of repeat viewings, in order to spot and savor everything that production designer Robert Stromberg and visual effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk have packed into this film.

Heck, when a dozen or so “horses of a different color” graze quietly in a field — not even noticed by our main characters, let alone commented upon — you know that we’re in good hands.

The story, set in the early 20th century, begins roughly a generation before the events in the 1939 film. We’re once again in a small Kansas community — displayed in time-honored black-and-white, in a squarish, standard-frame image — this time in the shabby, sepia-toned “tent city” of a worn and seedy traveling carnival. Its various sideshow attractions include Oscar Diggs (James Franco), nicknamed Oz, a flashy stage magician and rake of dubious ethics who likely has a woman at every stop ... with an angry father or husband right behind her.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Quartet: A beautiful noise

Quartet (2012) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, and quite stupidly, for fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.1.13

Music fills almost every frame of Quartet, whether created vicariously by this delightful story’s many talented characters, or delivered via Dario Marianelli’s evocative score, as a means to augment a reflective or dramatic moment.

Although Jean (Maggie Smith, right) initially refuses to become part of the musical
community at Beecham House, even she can't resist the kind, bubbly enthusiasm of
Cissy (Pauline Collins). But Jean also faces other issues, not the least of which is a
fellow resident who happens to be a long-estranged lover.
Dustin Hoffman’s thoroughly engaging directorial debut, working from Ronald Harwood’s adaptation of his own stage play, is another charming — if occasionally bittersweet — reminder that life need not end at 60, 70 or even 80. We’ve seen quite a few such films recently, and while it’s not true that Maggie Smith has been in all of them, she certainly dominates this one.

And that’s no small thing, given the cluster of scene-stealers with whom she shares the screen.

She stars as Jean Horton, a once-celebrated opera vocalist fallen on hard times, whose career is naught but a fading memory; she now must swallow her pride and accept government-supported lodging at Beecham House, a retirement home for musicians. But we don’t meet her right away; Harwood first introduces us to the celebratory warmth and magic of Beecham itself, which echoes morning to night with the rich sounds of pianos, strings, woodwinds and quite a few other orchestral instruments, along with plenty of singing.

Beecham’s residents are a bit more a-flutter than usual, because they’ll soon be performing in the retirement home’s annual fundraiser, timed to celebrate the birthday of famed opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. The event is being helmed by the imperious Cedric Livingston (Michael Gambon), a fussy, fusty martinet who lounges about in day robes and barks commands like a traffic cop.

He’s the only Beecham resident who doesn't make his own music, and thus exemplifies the punch line of that venerable saying: Those who can’t, direct. But nobody seems to mind; Cedric merely clings to the remnants of the career he knows best, as they all do.

Contrasting Cedric is Reginald (Tom Courtenay), a calm, quiet and emotionally withdrawn scholar who gives occasional lessons in opera history to local teenagers. Harwood grants us a glimpse of one such session, and it’s utterly enchanting; we expect poor Reggie to be overwhelmed by these kids, but in fact his gentle but authoritative delivery holds their attention — and ours — as he considers the intriguing similarities between opera and rap.

Jack the Giant Slayer: A massive disappointment

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense fantasy action violence, frightening images and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang

We’ve recently had two rounds of Snow White, not to mention re-imagined takes on Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel, and now Warner Bros. has taken a crack at Jack and his beanstalk.

What’s next ... Clever Hans? The Fox and the Geese?

After Jack (Nicholas Hoult, right) comes up with a clever plan to distract a giant that is
blocking their escape, the stalwart lad and his companions — Elmont (Ewan McGregor)
and Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) wait to see if the scheme will work.
Hollywood’s current fascination with fairy tales seems a logical next step after spinning so much box-office gold from comic book superheroes, but one does wish for material that’s more mature, rather than less. Aside from its marvelous CGI giants — and one helluva weed — Jack the Giant Slayer is a curiously clumsy and vacuous affair.

The screenplay — a patchwork affair credited to Darren Lemke, David Dobkin, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney — has no moral whatsoever, which seems an odd way to approach this venerable English folktale. The characters, both good and evil, are handled haphazardly, with little regard for satisfying plot structure. Good guys get dispatched hastily and pointlessly, not even granted a chance to perish in an act of noble self-sacrifice; villains also check out too quickly, at unsatisfying junctures in this protracted narrative.

The whole film feels like a committee affair, as if the four writers squabbled and then grudgingly allowed each contributor’s favorite bit to get stitched into the final result.

The first-act build-up isn’t bad, with farm lad Jack (Nicholas Hoult) chafing over his dull life, as he works the land outside the 12th century fortified English city of Cloister. He seeks escape in the books once read aloud by his father, now dead: particularly the grim legend about the massive creatures who exist in a fearsome realm hovering between Heaven and Earth.

Elsewhere in the kingdom, headstrong Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson, perhaps remembered from 2010’s Alice in Wonderland) feels equally confined, thanks to an overly protective father — Ian McShane, as King Brahmwell — who refuses to let her mingle with the common folk. Worse yet, she has been betrothed to the smarmy Roderick (Stanley Tucci), whose frequent sneers suggest far less than a noble heart.

Roderick has come into possession of the magic beans that are capable of growing a massive beanstalk to Gantua, the giants’ realm of lore, these days regarded as little more than a myth. Roderick intends to control said giants and rule the land, but a guardian monk manages to steal back the beans, which in turn are passed along to Jack. He and Isabelle “meet cute” — the second time, actually — during a stormy night when, clandestinely out and about, and seeking shelter from the rain, she happens upon Jack’s rustic house. (Such a coincidence!)