Harris Turns Red in ‘Phantom’; ‘Jack’; ‘Stoker’: Movies

The villain of the Cold War thriller “Phantom” is an ideological maniac (David Duchovny) who takes his orders “from the most zealous elements of the KGB,” and thinks touching off a nuclear war will be good for the Soviet Union.

The year is 1968, the setting a Soviet submarine. The man who must stop him is the sub’s broken-down, epileptic captain (Ed Harris), a political moderate who kind of likes Americans.

Distress over governmental dysfunction must be seeping into the popular culture: Duchovny’s hard-liner resembles no one so much as the Congressional ideologues who are ready to accept a sequester that will blow up the economy.

The writer-director, Todd Robinson, is eager to take on large themes. But he doesn’t have the basic technique to make the story or the action (when there is some) comprehensible.

He shoots in deep murk and writes dialogue to match. The actors bark out opaque nautical jargon, occasionally pausing to ponder (“Do you think we can be redeemed for the things we’ve done?”).

As sailors chased each other around the sub, some desperate to neutralize its warhead, others to foil them, I couldn’t tell who was where or which side they were on or even whether the missile had been disarmed. It’s possible I nodded off.

“Phantom,” from RCR Media Group, is playing across the U.S. Rating: * (Seligman)

Bean There

Another bedtime story gets supersized with digital effects and a prestige budget in “Jack the Giant Slayer,” director Bryan Singer’s likeable if overinflated take on magic beans and the trouble they cause.

More fun than either “The Hobbit” or “Snow White and the Huntsman” (what isn’t?), “Jack” comes close to justifying adult-level investment in kid-brained fancy.

Embellishing -- if not improving -- the familiar folk tale, the movie’s outline follows tradition. Farm boy trades horse for beans, climbs stalk, battles big bullies.

But Singer and his team of screenwriters don’t shy from raiding more modern entertainments.

A headstrong princess (Eleanor Tomlinson), her kindhearted father (Ian McShane) and blackhearted betrothed (Stanley Tucci) are pure latter-day Disney, and Ewan McGregor’s dashing knight could probably handle a light saber.

Warty Skin

Adopting a more-is-better approach, Singer multiplies the traditional tale’s solo villain into a race of humongous “Hobbit”-like trolls with earthen, warty skin and belching, nose-picking bad manners.

With one or two exceptions, though, the giants lack distinct, compelling personalities. The best quirk is a visual one: the ogre’s leader (Bill Nighy, given the motion-capture treatment) has a second smaller (and dumber) head sprouting grotesquely from his shoulder.

As Jack, “Warm Bodies” actor Nicholas Hoult, in distressed leather and a hipster hoodie, gives his second winning performance in as many months, skipping smirks for sincerity.

Would that Singer had given his heroine more appeal. Despite her initial pluck, Tomlinson’s Isabelle turns trophy princess just when some heroic revisionism might make “Jack” more than a gigantic near-miss.

“Jack the Giant Slayer,” from Warner Bros. Pictures, is playing across the U.S. Rating: *** (Evans)

Hitchcock Homage

No vampires were harmed (or portrayed) in “Stoker,” South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s mannered Hitchcock homage with a misleading title and a studied air.

Written by actor Wentworth Miller (“Prison Break”) and having nothing to do with “Dracula” or its author, “Stoker” takes inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 “Shadow of a Doubt,” even name-checking that film’s all-smiles killer Uncle Charlie.

This Charlie is played by swoony Matthew Goode. Upon the mysterious death of his long-estranged brother (Dermot Mulroney), the debonair bachelor comes calling on his grieving, sex-starved sister-in-law Evelyn Stoker (Nicole Kidman) and morbid, pouty niece India (Mia Wasikowska).

At once resentful of their familial intruder and attracted to him, the grim India calls up her hunter’s training: watch, wait, go in for the kill.

Miller’s big contribution to the cat-and-mouse genre is the fangs he gives his mouse -- little compensation, though, for a script that has more holes than the Stokers’ body-filled garden.

The director, making his English-language debut, seems to take the pedestrian script as a both a challenge and a permission slip. He stuffs any 10 minutes of “Stoker” with more artificial dread than the whole of “Black Swan.” The result will likely be as polarizing.

“Stoker,” from Fox Searchlight Pictures, is playing in select theaters. Rating: ** (Evans)

‘Table,’ ‘Witch’

Two movies reviewed earlier at their film festival premieres also open this week: “A Place at the Table” (***1/2), a cri de coeur against hunger in America and governmental indifference, has only grown in relevance since its 2012 debut at Sundance.

Kim Nguyen’s “War Witch” (***), seen at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a lyrical film highlighted by the lovely, understated performance of Rachel Mwanza. As a 12-year-old African village girl kidnapped by rebels and forced into brutality, Mwanza guides the audience through a nightmare beyond most comprehension. (Evans)

What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and New York Weekend.

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