Reviews

The Magic Beans and Motherless Children of 'Jack the Giant Slayer'

Like the motherless children, this film's plot detail is not surprising, but it does reinforce very basic presumptions, including the idea that good and bad are easy to see.


Jack the Giant Slayer

Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, Ian McShane
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-03-01 (General release)
UK date: 2013-03-22 (General release)
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Trailer

"Mother used to say the giants made the thunder." And so, even as he seeks comfort from his father (Tim Foley), little boy Jack (Michael Self) reveals the key and supremely predictable plot point of his childhood: his mom had a nuanced, metaphorical mind and of course, his mom is dead. He and dad miss her, to be sure, but like so many kids in fairy- and folktales -- and perhaps especially in movies based on them -- his poverty, vulnerability and essential goodness are defined by his motherlessness.

This is underlined as this first scene in Jack the Giant Slayer expands into a clever comparative sequence: while Jack's father comforts him during the thunderstorm by telling him his favorite story about human-eating giants menacing and being duly vanquished by King Erik, another child hears the same story -- from her mother. This child is Isabelle (Sydney Rawson), the princess of the kingdom Cloister, whose mother (Tandi Wright) comforts her in a decidedly more comfortable setting, that is, a gigantic imperial bedroom featuring a soft bed and rich ornamentation. Both parents tell the same story, and both encourage their children to see themselves as the hero of it. Whether a boy or a girl, a royal or a commoner, each might imagine growing up to be valiant and strong and triumphant.

Ah well. Such imaginings are soon cast aside when the film lurches from this past prelude to its present day action, when teenaged Jack (now played by Nicholas Hoult) is now completely parentless and living with his uncle (Christopher Fairbank) on a muddy farm in the grimmest rural backwater of Cloister. Sent into town to sell his uncle's horse, Jack has a brief encounter with Isabelle (grown up into Eleanor Tomlinson), who has snuck away from the palace to spend some disguised time among the peasants. Their exchange is at once promising, as he saves her from a couple of peasant bullies, and also disappointing, as she's hauled away by her proper and late-to-the-scene guardians, including the noble knight Elmont (Ewan McGregor).

Her rescue leads directly to a scene you might expect: returned to the palace, Isabelle is scolded by her worried parent, King Brahmwell (Ian McShane). He's charming and not a little comic, what with his broad-chested golden armor and spindly legs in tights, not to mention the king's wide red cape erected for show, which he leaves behind in order actually to walk. He is also widowed, for the princess, like her beau to be, is now motherless.

It's a minor plot point in both cases, to be sure, as Isabelle and Jack will soon enough be off on a terrific adventure concerning the very giants whose legends thrilled them as children. But it's also a telling minor plot point, one that pre-ordains the roles each teenager will play in that adventure. Jack, per his titular designation, will be the giant slayer, like the courageous king Erik. And Isabelle will be rescued.

This adventure -- as you know -- is jumpstarted by a packet of magic beans, bestowed on him by a monk, who warns him, "Whatever you do, don't let them get wet." You also know what happens next. It rains, a lot. This leads to one of the beans getting very wet, and then sprouting into a humungous beanstalk that carries the princess -- who happens to be visiting Jack at that very moment -- away into the sky. Horrified by this news, King Brahmwell sends a team to retrieve her, including Jack, Elmont and his number two, Crawe (Eddie Marsan), and also the fellow he's selected to marry Isabelle, Roderick (Stanley Tucci). After quite a bit of climbing, the men do indeed locate Isabelle -- just as she's being brutally interrogated by extremely ugly and noisy giants.

It's a grisly scene, the lead interrogator a lumpy, gruesome two-headed giant, General Fallon (his two heads voiced by Bill Nighy and John Kassir). As he paces and looms and threatens the princess in order to learn how she came up to their fortress in the sky and who might be coming after her. The scene makes abundantly clear the monstrosity of the giants, which you already know because you've seen them consuming humans, biting off heads and tossing torsos with visible relish.

Witnessing these brutalities, the knights and Jack, are resolved more than ever to complete their multipart mission, to rescue Isabelle and vanquish the giants. They run into a few obstacles, of course, including the giants' efforts to cook and eat their captives (one of the would-be rescuers finds himself rolled up and floured in pastry, then cast into an oven alongside a couple of pigs in similar circumstances) and also a rather violent betrayal by Roderick and his snivelly minion Wicke (Ewan Bremmer). This last involves a scheme to take over rule of the kingdom, which you know about pretty much right away. By the time the knights and Jack discover it, well, it's awfully late.

The obstacles are laid out in an episodic plot, such that Jack and Elmont and eventually, the freed Isabelle too, encounter one ordeal after another wherein they must be smart and elusive or smart and aggressive. These scenes are first set against giant doorways and furniture and kitchen implements, in the giants' fortress in the sky, and then against a human-sized backdrop, once the giants make their way to earth, despite the knights, Isabelle, and Jack's best efforts to stop them. This last episode is full of special-effecty fury, the giants throwing rather large rocks and flaming trees and the humans firing off decidedly puny-looking arrows.

The contrast in scale -- and also in behavior -- ensures that the giants are utterly bad and so deserving of vanquishment, the more the better. Like the motherless children, this plot detail is not surprising, but it does reinforce very basic presumptions, including the idea that good and bad are easy to see. It might even be that such clichés are related, that the tendency to see the world in broad, absolutely defined categories is a function of lost mothers.

4

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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