Movie Review: Seventh Son (2014)

April 12, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

seventh son

Seventh Son is a bleak illustration of just how difficult it is to make a good fantasy film in a single instalment.

Having heard all sorts of terrible things about it, I knew it was probably not going to be great, but as a sucker for epic fantasy action flicks, this one was supposed to have it all: a seemingly interesting plot about the “special” seventh son of a seventh son; witches and monster hunters; swords and magic; shape-shifters, snarling dragons, dudes with four arms, dudes who turn into bears and giant lizards — all of it presented with stunning special effects; and an impressive all-star cast featuring Jeff Bridges, Ben Barnes (best known as Prince and then King Caspian in the Narnia series), Julianne Moore, Kit Harington (Jon Snow), Olivia Williams, Antje Trauer (from Pandorum), Alicia Vikander (who is apparently going to be huge after Ex Machina becomes a global hit), Jason Scott Lee and Djimon Hounsou.

And yet, Seventh Son failed to exceed my low expectations. Cliched, predictable, dull, with stock characters and a disappointing climax, the only thing it really had going for it were some impressive special effects and a handful of nice action sequences. Sadly, what everyone said about it turned out to be true.

The film is based on the novel The Spook’s Apprentice by Joseph Delaney, which is actually the first in a series of books about a 12-year-old boy named Tom Ward, who as the seventh son of a seventh son is able to see supernatural things others cannot. His parents apprentice him to a Spook — basically a ghost/monster hunter of sorts — named Gregory, and so begins his adventure into a world of crazy stuff.

But while The Wardstone Chronicles, as the series is known, has 16 books, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Seventh Son is going to be a one-and-done effort given how cursed the entire production was. Ben Barnes was a late replacement for Sam Claflin. Filming began back in March 2012, with a target release date in February 2013. But the special effects team went bust and had to get a court-issued payment of US$5m to finish their work on the film. The guy who was supposed to complete the score left due to scheduling conflicts and they had to get someone else. Legendary Films then parted ways with distributor Warner Bros. The film was eventually released in France late last year and most other regions in February, a delay of almost three years from the initial target. When a film gets delayed that long you just know that no one involved thought highly enough of it to try and get it pushed through.

The finished product, as you might expect, is a bit of a mess. The biggest problem is the complete lack of character development, especially for Tom Ward. It appeared they made a decision early on to focus on the film’s bigger star, Jeff Bridges, who plays the master Spook to the apprentice. Bridges was given top billing and probably equal screen time to Barnes, and they made the story more about him than its titular character.

The Spook is an intriguing character, but it defeats the purpose when the supposedly central protagonist, the Seventh Son, turns out to be a character you don’t care about and can’t really be bothered to get to know. In this film, Tom Ward is the most vanilla hero you could possibly come up with. We know he’s a cliched farmer’s son who grew up not knowing anything about the real world or his destiny. And apart from that, we don’t learn much more about his personality throughout the rest of the film, except that he’s a little horny and has no problem bending the rules for sexy ladies (in this case Alicia Vikander, who plays a witch — setting up the typical “star-crossed lovers” dynamic).

Ben Barnes, whom I’ve always thought is one of the prettiest actors of his generation, gets little to work with here. He’s a fine actor, but with such a thin plot and character there’s not much he can do to turn Tom Ward into a protagonist audiences can give a shit about. Jeff Bridges slurs his way through like he’s still The Dude from The Big Lebowski, while Julianne Moore is probably willing to hand back her Oscar to pretend she was never the baddie/witch/dragon lady she played in this film.

With the exception of a couple of relatively exciting, CGI-filled set action pieces, Seventh Son is a failure that never manages to escape an air of familiarity and predictability. The source material may have had a genuinely interesting world to offer, though it’s sadly something audiences would never know from watching this film. It’s easy to blame the script or the direction of Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov (who has received a couple of Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Film), but the reality is that it’s just extraordinarily difficult to make a decent epic fantasy in a standalone film, especially one that’s 102 minutes. It’s no wonder why the gold standards of the genre are Lord of the Rings, which is basically three three-hour films, and Game of Thrones, which is 10 hours per season.

Ultimately, Seventh Son is not terrible — it’s just another major disappointment. It’s a film that felt like it set out with high ambitions but everything about it suggests that it was aiming low.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Giver (2014)

January 25, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

the giver

The Giver is the latest big screen adaptation of a popular teen sci-fi novel (this one’s based on Lois Lowry’s 1993 book of the same name). But anyone expecting another Hunger Games or Divergent is likely to be disappointed. While The Giver is not a complete waste of time as it explores, maybe intelligently for some, familiar themes about free will and dystopian and utopian societies, in the end there’s just not enough there — whether it’s action, romance, heart or genuine substance — to call it a worthwhile experience.

The story is set several decades into the future, in which a post-war community comes up with the brilliant idea of erasing everyone’s memory in a bid to create a world of peaceful co-existence. Additionally, everyone is assigned to preselected families and jobs, and have to live by a strict set of rules, one of which gives Katie Holmes the opportunity to say, “Precision of language!” a lot. Doesn’t sound like utopia, but I suppose the idea is that ignorance is bliss.

Our 16-year-old protagonist, Jonas (Aussie Brenton Thwaites in yet another Hollywood role), is assigned by the community’s chief elder (Meryl Streep) to the most important role in the community, the next Receiver of Memories, meaning he must become an apprentice to the current receiver, The Giver (Jeff Bridges). Naturally, as the plot necessitates, the more memories of the past Jonas receives, the more he begins to question the validity of the whole regime. Boom shakalaka!

The Giver comes across as a bizarre crossbreed between Pleasantville and Divergent, where people pigeonholed into rigid categories by an authoritarian system shake things up by inevitably giving in to the urges of human nature. And like Divergent, it’s one of those films where you get the sneaking suspicion that the story works much better on the page than the screen because of its high concept premise. There’s no denying that the central conceit of the film is difficult to swallow, and if you think too much you’ll just get tangled up in the web of common sense and logic fails.

Still, I quite liked the pleasing visual style of Aussie director Philip Noyce, and it’s never a bad thing when screen legends Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges are involved. The surprising stand out for me, however, has to be Katie Holmes as Jonas’s mother, though I suppose she has an unfair advantage when it comes to acting zombie-esque in a cult like environment after being married to Tom Cruise for all those years. By the way, Taylor Swift is also in this, and as expected she is a singing robot.

In the end, The Giver feels like a valiant effort at bringing to life a beloved novel, but the various elements just don’t quite come together. This is a film I think lovers of the book might be able to enjoy a lot, though for me it felt like there were more than just a few pieces of the puzzle missing.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: R.I.P.D. (2013) (2D)

August 29, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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When I first caught a glimpse of the trailer for RIPD I thought, man, this looks a lot like Men In Black for ghosts. A young guy joins a clandestine organization dedicated to eradicating threats common folks don’t know anything about — for their own good — and gets paired with an older partner who is somewhat wacky. Throw in some special effects, light humour and an anagram for a title. Sound familiar?

And so I watched RIPD and my thoughts were confirmed. Yes, it is strikingly similar in idea and tone to MIB, except it’s not as good — and I don’t even think MIB is particularly good.

Ryan Reynolds plays a young cop who does something a little dodgy with his partner, Kevin Bacon, but then his conscience strikes and he has a change of heart, which of course inevitably leads to his demise. Given his skills, he is given an option (which he naturally accepts) by Mary-Louise Parker to join the RIPD, which stands for the Rest In Peace Department (so clever). He is teamed up with an old gunslinger from the 1800s, played by Jeff Bridges, who is quick with his gun and has a fetish for hats and ankles. The two are sent back up to Earth where they take on “deados”, essentially demons disguised as humans. Somehow, they become embroiled in a case where the whole world is at stake and they have to save the day.

As it turned out, a derivative premise is the least of RIPD’s worries. The biggest problem with this film is that it is boring and unexciting, even when our heroes are driving around, chasing and shooting at comically grotesque monsters. The plot is painfully predictable. The progression is flat. The jokes are not funny or fresh (they try to milk this gag where our RIPD officers are in avatars of a hot blonde woman and an old Chinese man — for far too long). The special effects are some of the worst I have ever seen in a recent movie, with the deados looking less authentic than creations in most modern video games. They essentially look like cartoon characters — no joke. And the tone of the film was clearly designed to appeal to a very very young audience.

RIPD might be a passable 96 minutes of fun-ish entertainment for audiences with very low expectations, but the truth is that it is one of the worst comic book adaptations, possibly ever. I won’t lie. I missed a bit of the movie because I fell asleep. It really was that bad.

1.25 stars out of 5

PS: I pity anyone who paid extra to watch this in 3D.

Movie Review: True Grit (2010)

February 8, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

They say remakes seldom better the original, but it’s hard to imagine the 1969 John Wayne classic (which I haven’t seen) being better than the new version from my favourite filmmaking duo.  True Grit is vintage Coen Brothers, more No Country For Old Men than The Big Lebowski but still funny and quirky.  And when it comes to dialogue, human interactions and suspense, few can compare with Joel and Ethan Coen.

Based on Charles Portis’s 1968 novel of the same name, this version of True Grit is supposedly truer to the original source.  It tells the story of young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), a wise-beyond-her-years 14-year-old who seeks to avenge the death of her father by tracking down and killing Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).  To do so, she seeks the assistance of Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a merciless but drunk and out-of-shape Deputy US Marshal.  Tagging along for the ride is Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who is chasing Chaney for an unrelated crime.

I’m not usually a fan of Westerns, but True Grit had me hooked from the beginning.  It moves with at a pace similar to No Country, which might be on the slow side for some, but whichever way you look at this film — whether it’s the screenplay, the performances or the direction — it’s top notch.  And all through out was that trademark Coen Brothers touch, that unexpected, random hilarity that I can never get enough of.

Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon were expectedly excellent (as were Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper in smaller roles), but it was the remarkable performance of young Hailee Steinfeld that carried the film from start to finish.  Good to see that she received an Oscar nomination, but how it was for Best Supporting Actress as opposed to Best Actress (considering she was in just about every scene) beats the hell out of me.

My only complaint was that it felt like the film needed subtitles at times because of the excessive mumbling (mostly by Jeff Bridges) which made the conversations difficult to follow.  But apart from that, an awesome experience.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Tron: Legacy (2010)

January 3, 2011 in Movie Reviews

Tron: Legacy was one 3D movie that I actually wanted to see (and was not too torn about forking out the extra cash to see it).

I’m too young to have seen the original Tron (except maybe on video, though I can’t remember it), but I have older friends who keep raving on about it and say that it’s a timeless classic.  Made in 1982, Tron featured special effects that were revolutionary for its time, and it’s fascinating to see just how far CGI has improved over the last 28 years.

I can’t say the trailer instilled much confidence in the film itself, but I was willing to give it a shot.  It seemed like one of those movies where the visuals were going to be impressive but the story was going to suck.

As it turned out, the visuals were even more incredible than I could have hoped for, and the story probably sucked a little more than I had expected.  Nevertheless, I was satisfied with the overall result — style over substance, for sure, but still a dazzling and (for the most part) exciting spectacle that’s different to anything I’ve seen before.

The film begins in 1989, several years after the first film, where Kevin Flynn (a young Jeff Bridges) is telling his young son Sam about the virtual world he created in Tron.  Twenty years later, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is all grown up and through a series of discoveries finds himself transported to that very world.

And it’s a very very cool world, full of neon lights, flying discs, and amazing bikes (‘Light Cycles’) and planes (Light Jets).  A gamer’s wet dream.

Interestingly, even though Tron:Legacy is only released in 3D, the parts of the film set in the ‘real world’ are intentionally shot in 2D so as to contrast the awesomeness of the virtual world.  You will be hard pressed to find a more vocal critic of 3D films than me, but I didn’t mind it so much here.  At least it was a clever idea, and at least it enhanced the special effects.

Speaking of special effects, Tron: Legacy may not have been as revolutionary as its predecessor, but it was still a visual feast that made my eyeballs dance in awe.  However, the young version of Jeff Bridges didn’t feel quite right to me — perhaps it was his Beowulf-like eyeballs or the way his mouth moved, but it felt less authentic than the de-ageing technology I saw in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button from two years ago.

As for the story…well…after a cracker of a start, as soon as the action died down it became rather boring and muddled.  A lot of techno talk that didn’t make much sense to me, and still doesn’t.  Not that it mattered.

3.5 stars out of 5