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Review: ‘Seventh Son’

'Seventh Son'
‘Seventh Son’
Jeff Bridges does a great impression of Mr. Ed, the Talking Horse, in this middling fantasy that is structured around a series of CGI-powered action sequences.

Grumbling and mumbling throughout, Master Gregory (Bridges) is a Spook, the last survivor of a proud army that has been decimated over the years. As a Spook, he is charged with fighting evil spirits to protect the local citizenry on a planet that may or may not be Earth, sometime in the Middle Ages, but he is growing old and must train a replacement, who must be the seventh son of a seventh son.

That individual turns out to be Tom Ward (Ben Barnes), a blandly handsome young man who is languishing on his family’s farm. Master Gregory arrives to take him away, paying a handsome price in gold, but before Tom leaves, his mother Mam (Olivia Williams) gifts him with a necklace that is very special to her.

Training to become a spook may take a decade or more, yet only weeks remain before the Blue Moon arises, signaling a crisis for the land because the powerful witch Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore) is poised to conquer the kingdom with the assistance of her younger sister Bony Lizzie (Antje Traue) and her niece Alice (Alicia Vikander), who are both witches as well.

When Tom and Alice meet, both are instantly smitten with the other, which spells trouble, since a Spook is supposed to kill all witches and this particular witch has been charged with spying on the Spooks, leading to their downfall.

More twists and turns arise, but the story comes down to a battle between the Spooks and the witches, the latter of whom can transform into dragons, making for a series of confrontations between CGI-empowered creatures.

Given a better-written vehicle for their talents, Bridges and Moore could make for a much more compelling couple, but with their characters drawn so plainly as hero and villain, there’s no room for complexity. This is a straightforward fairy tale, yet with the sides drawn so broadly, and played in such a sober manner, the battles lack any dramatic weight.

Director Sergey Bodrov has previously made large-scale epics, such as 2007’s Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan, and there is nothing much wrong with his manner of staging action sequences, but the excitement is tempered because such a high percentage of the scenes are devoted to watching computer-generated creatures fight each other. It’s tempting to call it a video-game movie, but there is no sense of narrative to the fiercely-moving pixels, so it all plays out in a desultory manner, as though the viewer were watching someone else play the game.

Bridges, Moore, Vikander, and Williams do their best, but they can’t overcome the limp narrative nor the extended sequences that accomplish little more than passing the time quietly, if colorfully. Seventh Son amounts to little more than a seventh-rate fantasy.

The movie opens wide in theaters across North Texas on Friday, February 6.

Review: ‘The Giver’ Stands Out, But Probably Not For Reasons Intended

'The Giver'
‘The Giver’

In a sea of movies adapted from young-adult dystopian novels, The Giver stands out because of its visual scheme.

Phillip Noyce, the Australian veteran who has directed finely-tuned dramas such as The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence, as well as brash action thrillers such as Salt and Patriot Games, has kept busy helming episodic television shows for much of the past decade, which is how he spent much of the early 1980s before his breakout feature, Dead Calm. In other words, he knows what he’s doing, and always brings a degree of poetic restraint to the theatrical features that he directs, as well as an expert idea of how to fashion the material into a compelling whole.

At 97 minutes, The Giver flies by, buoyed by opening sequences that are presented monochromatically, starkly drawing attention to the idea that the movie must be set on another planet. Instead, it appears that the story takes place in a horrid  dystopian future, in which Earth’s leaders have somehow banded together and eliminated all inclinations toward war and poverty and discontent, largely by means of a mandatory drug regimen that pacifies everyone who is allowed to live past infancy.

Closer examination reveals the utter ridiculousness of the premise, but it’s adapted from Lois Lowry’s immensely popular 1993 novel for children, in which the lead character is 12 years of age. For whatever reason, the movie ages the lead character to 18, which means that he can be played by a young man who can appeal to the teen demographic.

Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is the uncertain, innocent, and naive hero who must wrestle with a weighty, singular assignment upon graduating from school. While his best friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) happily accept their new roles as infant nurturer and drone pilot, respectively, Jonas must take on the burden of being the Receiver of Memories. As he learns from an aged and mumbling man that he comes to know as The Giver (Jeff Bridges), Jonas must accept memories of the old, destroyed world of mankind telepathically, so that he can advise the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) when called upon to do so.

As portrayed in the movie, the Chief Elder is not particularly interested in anyone else’s advice, and tends to ignore it when it’s offered by the current Receiver of Memories, so … whatever. (Remember, this is from a book intended for children, and was never intended for deep reflection upon its practicality or advisability.) It’s not clear why the Chief Elder — or any of the other elders, who are only shown in silence — has approved what The Giver is doing, especially since everyone is medicated to the point of meek compliance with every instruction given, but … whatever.

When memories are passed from Giver to Receiver, the screen comes alive with stock footage of conflicts and wars and people of color, and the Receiver — or Jonas, if you prefer — almost immediately ignores orders to keep all this learning stuff to himself. He’s just so happy that he starts alluding to it when talking to his parents (Katie Holmes and Alexander Skarsgard), little sister, or Fiona, on whom he’s had a terminal crush, evidently for many years.

This is bad, and the Chief Elder even takes the time to advise the Receiver to stick to his studies, but Jonas is a young man and so he ignores all the warning signs. (And, again, why did the elders approve someone so young receiving such a heavy-duty assignment? Haven’t they learned that young people are more impulsive and more likely to share secrets, especially ones that adults tell them to shut up about? But … whatever.)

Eventually, things get intense, and colors burst out all over the place, and people run and are concerned, and a baby gets put out to pasture, and then people ride cool-looking bicycles furiously, their legs churning, without ever breathing heavily, and so, yeah, don’t take medication that adults give to you and don’t reign in your emotions and don’t worry about war and pain and suffering and all that bad stuff, because the main thing is that YOU NEED TO FEEL. Or … whatever.

The Giver is a strange beast of a YA movie, but it’s always cool to listen to Jeff Bridges mumble and Meryl Streep emote, and I really liked the visual scheme developed by Phillip Noyce and Ross Emery, who’s served as director of photography for cool horror movies like Underworld: Rise of the Lycans and odd-looking blockbusters like The Wolverine. And, hey, it’s only 97 minutes, so … whatever.

The film opens wide in theaters across Dallas and Ft. Worth on Friday, August 15.

‘True Grit’: Modern Cool Meets the Authentic West (Review)

True Grit
Jeff Bridges as Rooster and Haillie Steinfeld as Mattie. (Paramount Pictures)

It’s the voice. Charles Portis created Mattie Ross in his novel “True Grit,” first published in 1968, and it’s the authentic voice of Mattie — righteous, forceful, Scripture-quoting, judgmental — that gives the story such a distinctive flavor. She’s an old woman in 1928, writing about the events that occurred after her father was shot dead by a scoundrel named Tom Chaney. She was only 14 years of age, but was determined to avenge her father, and knew she was the only one to do it.

The novel is lively and funny, filled with succinct character descriptions (“Mama was never any good at sums and could hardly spell cat”) and telling details (“The three killers dropped to judgment with a bang. A noise went up from the crowd as though they had been struck a blow”). Mattie’s voice is predominant, of course, but ornery U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn comes through just as truly as Mattie, as does Texas Ranger LaBoeuf.

The Coen Brothers have kept the guts and retained the spirit of Portis’ novel for their spirited, highly entertaining new version of “True Grit,” starring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie, and Matt Damon as LaBoeuf, pronounced “La Beef” as only a true Texas would tackle a French moniker.
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‘TRON: Legacy’ Serves Up Rocket-Fueled Eye Candy (Review)

TRON: Legacy
Computer Construct: Olivia Wilde

Rocket-fueled eye candy is a good thing in my book. “TRON: Legacy” delivers visual spectacle in abundance. Director Joseph Kosinski, making his feature debut, creates a universe of beautifully-etched stained glass windows. Is it thin on plot, characterization, and common sense? Yes. Do I care? No.

In a perfect world, of course, “TRON: Legacy” would have thrilling visuals as well as a deeply satisfying storyline and characters who come alive despite being computer constructs. The script, credited to Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, makes about as much sense as the final season of “Lost,” which is understandable, since Kitsis and Horowitz were writers on that show for several seasons.

Like “Lost,” “TRON: Legacy” is aces at pseudo-profound dialogue that often lands with a thud. Like “Lost,” “Tron: Legacy” features characters whose motivations remain unfathomable mysteries. Like “Lost,” “Tron: Legacy” will either alienate or fascinate.

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