SEVENTH SON (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Fantasy Violence and Action throughout, Frightening Images and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Sergei Bodrov

Written by: Charles Leavitt & Steven Knight

(based on the novel THE SPOOK’S APPRENTICE by Joseph Delaney)

Starring: Ben Barnes, Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Olivia Williams, Antje Traue & Djimon Hounsou

SEVENTH SON is yet another film in a long line of would-be franchise starters adapted from various young adult novels. What separates this YA adaptation from those of recent years is that the source material is actually an eerie medieval fantasy that favors mood, good character development, and disturbing villains over bombastic ADD-pacing and cheap cartoony battles. This cinematic adaptation of SEVENTH SON ignores every possible opportunity for a serious and well-written fantasy flick, while opting for D-level script that feels as if a whole book series was thrown into the space of single film (ala CIRQUE DU FREAK). It should really come as no surprise that SEVENTH SON is such a bad flick as the studio kept this abomination shelved for two years, but I was hoping for a bit of big dumb fun. Unfortunately, this forced fantasy epic is too dull to be fun.

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Tom Ward is of a rare group of men. He’s the seventh son of a seventh son and therefore gifted with the ability to fight the supernatural. Raised as a pig farmer, Tom finds his life upended when Master Gregory, the last remaining Spook (keeper of the supernatural), comes calling for his services as an apprentice. A blood moon is fast approaching and the evil Mother Malkin, a powerful witch, is planning to unleash hell on earth. Tom must learn to battle the supernatural, while distinguishing friend from foe. It’s up to this oddly coupled master and apprentice to stop an evil witch and her band of minions.

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As soon as SEVENTH SON begins, it seems in a rush to get itself over with. There is little in the way of introduction to each of the characters. We spend a grand total of less than 5 minutes getting to know Tom before his world changes. That’s not exactly a huge complaint as there’s nothing original to be offered here. The screenplay reminded me of other terrible studio bombs that seem similar formulaic set-ups, namely R.I.P.D. and JONAH HEX. An underdeveloped hero, aided by an unlikely sidekick, must take down some crazy person’s plan for world domination. In this case, the characters of Tom, Gregory, and Malkin fill in those blanks. To make things even worse, there’s nothing in the way of spectacle to be offered either. These effects look like they belong on the Syfy Channel and not in multiplexes nationwide.

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Seeing as there’s little effort put into turning any of these characters into someone worth caring about, there’s not much of an emotional reaction when something bad happens to them. One scene is absolutely laughable in execution as the person who we’re supposed to feel sorry for has received less than 3 minutes of total screen time and about 6 lines of dialogue. Ben Barnes is hollow as blank-slate hero Tom, but Jeff Bridges is downright embarrassing as Master Gregory. Bridges has been typecast as a drunken mentor with a silly voice in recent years (R.I.P.D., THE GIVER) and seems to be half-heartedly phoning it in. Julianne Moore is laughably over-the-top in as the scenery chewing Mother Malkin.

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The biggest issue with SEVENTH SON is the muddled, dreary script. There seems to be far too much material squeezed into 102 minutes with little in the way of developing certain plot points that definitely needed more time spent on them. A great example in showing just how crammed SEVENTH SON is comes in the villains. There are multiple big threats including a shape shifter, a ruthless assassin, a four-armed swordsman, Mother Malkin, and another underdeveloped witch named Bony Lizzie. While two (or even three) of these villains might have been cool, the screenplay packs all of them (including some faceless assassins) into the film for a climactic fight that becomes repetitive. The end result is a chaotically edited mess in which I didn’t care about who was killing who. There’s also a half-assed attempt at a romance between Ben Barnes and a young witch, but that story arc is just as clichéd and wooden as everything else in this film.

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There should have been something decent to say about SEVENTH SON. I initially imagined that watching a guy kill monsters could be entertaining, even if the movie was poorly made. However, SEVENTH SON doesn’t have a single redeeming quality that I can identify. It’s a hollow mess of a movie that was delayed for over a year with good reason. That time period only allowed even more promotional material to hit and this disaster to feel even more painful for audiences. At the very least, SEVENTH SON should have been slightly fun, but there’s not a single drop of fun to be had here.

Grade: F

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Adventure Action and some mild Rude Humor

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Directed by: Dean DeBlois

Written by: Dean DeBlois

(based on the book series HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON by Cressida Cowell)

Voices of: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Cate Blanchett, Djimon Hounsou & Kit Harington

DreamWorks has been bringing impressive competition for Disney in computer-animated family entertainment. Out of their catalog of films, I would definitely say that HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is the best movie they’ve brought to the screen. Apparently, plenty of audiences and critics agree with me, because that first film has become acclaimed and made huge bank at the box office. It took four years for a sequel to hit theaters and was well worth the long wait to see this stellar sequel in the new animated series. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 manages to keep the level of high quality that the original had and bring to life a completely new chapter that’s unlike anything in the previous film. Usually animated sequels have an unfortunate habit of wearing out tropes that worked in the past, but DRAGON 2 takes some bold new turns. It’s a great adventure for the whole family.

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Five years have passed since dragons and Vikings have learned to live together. The village of Berk has become a wonderful ever-expanding place. With dragons being kept as pets and being rode in Quidditch-like games, everything seems to be working out perfectly. One-legged Hiccup and Toothless have taken to discovering nearby lands and expanding a map of what surrounds Berk. A chance encounter with a group of dragon hunters leads Hiccup to a familiar face from his past and brings the attention of vicious warlord Drago Bludvist.

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One of the twists that might have been genuinely (god forbid) surprising has been given away in nearly every piece of the marketing. This is just one of many ways that HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 expands the world of its predecessor and ups the stakes at every possible turn. The first film was excellent, but you could definitely tell it was a “kid’s movie” in the comical sense of humor that came through in nearly every scene. It’s a great follow-up, but DRAGON 2 made me forget I was watching “family entertainment” on multiple occasions. I don’t mean this in any sort of negative way, but I am saying that director/writer Dean DeBlois is more willing (or was allowed more room) to take risks this time around. He does and the emotional payoff to most of them resonates strongly. This is the first movie I’ve seen in 2014 where the theater burst into a round of applause when the end credits began to roll. It’s a terrifically exciting adventure that’s perfectly suitable for any age, despite heavier material thrown in here and there.

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Every memorable character returns from the first film and some get more screen time than others, but everybody is fleshed out. Two major new additions (one of which will not be specifically mentioned, even though the trailer gives it away) are also very well executed. The first film kind of followed the “secret friendship” formula of storytelling and there was no clear-cut antagonist (save for a massive dragon in the final third). DRAGON 2 introduces the intimidating Drago Bludvist and this is one of the best villains I’ve seen in an animated film for quite some time. He comes off as a little understated at first, but more the time spent on him, the more you understand what made him so cruel and why he’s such a lunatic. There was a good portion of the movie where I wanted Drago to die a horrible, painful as possible death because of how downright evil he comes off. That’s a very rare thing to see in a bad guy (especially in a computer animated “kid’s movie”).

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The visuals have gotten even better this time around and that’s saying a lot because they were really phenomenal parts of the first film. Everything is beautiful to look at and every landscape feels like a piece of art. The dragons themselves still come off as winged, scaly, fire-breathing pets and all the children in the theater seemed to love that aspect of it. Toothless is undeniably cute and I still wish that he was real, so I could ride him through the skies. There’s still quite a bit of comic relief thrown in and the story does go through some predictable motions (especially in the final act), but it’s an exciting ride that perfectly fits into this summer season saddled with a drought of family movies.

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I won’t say that HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is better than the first film, but I like them on equal ground for different reasons. This second installment is more mature, complex, and takes far more risks. It’s an awesome piece of family entertainment and shows that the series (third movie is already in the works) is blossoming into a maturity, kind of like the young central characters. Beautifully animated, surprisingly gripping, and braver than most of the family entertainment to come out in the last few years, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 is a sequel that completely justifies it’s existence. It lives up to the first film and serves as a wonderful second chapter in a series that might go down as one of the best of its kind since the TOY STORY trilogy!

Grade: A

POMPEII (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Battle Sequences, Disaster-Related Action and brief Sexual Content

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Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson

Written by: Jane Scott Batchler, Lee Batchler & Michael Robert Johnson

Starring: Kit Harington, Emily Browning, Carrie-Anne Moss, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Jared Harris, Joe Pingue, Kiefer Sutherland, Currie Graham & Sasha Roiz

If POMPEII had come out in the late 90’s, people would have gone crazy for it! I say this, because the film is basically GLADIATOR by way of TITANIC with a volcanic disaster midway through. Director Paul W.S. Anderson isn’t known for making good cinema. He is known for screwing up a crossover between two beloved monsters with AVP, messing up two high-profile video game adaptations with MORTAL KOMBAT and RESIDENT EVIL, butchering a lame remake with a potentially cool idea in 2008’s DEATH RACE, and making a travesty of Alexandre Dumas’s THREE MUSKETEERS. In fact, EVENT HORIZON (his second film) is his best work to date. POMPEII could have been a terrible film and all indications were that it was heading that way. Some way, somehow, the film works very well. It doesn’t feel like a Paul W.S. Anderson movie and is the best film I wound up seeing at the theaters this weekend (which included 3 DAYS TO KILL and NON-STOP).

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Beginning in 62 A.D., we see a band of Roman soldiers wipe out a tribe of Celts. A young boy, named Milo, witnesses the massacre and pretends to be dead in order to avoid being slaughtered. Things don’t fare well for a lone child out in the wilderness and he’s sold into slavery. The film moves forward 17 years and we see that Milo has carved out a name for himself as a vicious gladiator. Through mere chance, Milo is brought to the grand city of Pompeii where he finds love in a high-class girl, evil in a corrupt Roman senator from his past, a friend in his gladiator opponent, and possible annihilation in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius…

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We’ve seen the storylines that POMPEII has to offer in other films. The romance angle in TITANIC. The tale of revenge and gladiators in the aptly titled GLADIATOR. Even the volcanic destruction in the silly disaster flick VOLCANO. Combining these three plotlines makes for a familiar film that winds up being pretty enjoyable. It’s not as if the predictable nature doesn’t exist, but the familiar tropes actually make for a more satisfying experience. Not every film has to be important. Sometimes, you want to sit down and munch through big bucket of popcorn while being entertained. This is what the blend of three well-known genres, POMPEII, does surprisingly well.

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As far as the cast goes, there are some familiar faces here playing roles you wouldn’t expect from them. Kit Harington (GAME OF THRONES) plays the unrealistically handsome gladiator and gives a decent enough performance with this role. I didn’t dislike him and that’s a feat in itself, because pretty boy roles usually grate on my nerves. Emily Browning (Babydoll from the underrated SUCKER PUNCH) is quite good as the royal love-interest Cassia. Again, this kind of throw-away role usually annoys me to no end, but Browning makes it work. Carrie-Anne Moss (THE MATRIX) and Jared Harris (SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS) make a convincing couple, which is another unexpected surprise. Meanwhile, Kiefer Sutherland chews the scenery like it’s going out style. Maintaining a stiff upper lip and a cocky demeanor, Sutherland practically begs the viewer to jump through the screen and deliver a punch to his face. Perhaps the key to making all of these well-known character types enjoyable to watch is that the actors made the most of what they were given and that benefitted the film greatly!

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Spectacle is what makes POMPEII really worth watching, because the effects are awesome. There is a great atmosphere and the costumes look convincing for the set time period. It never felt like I was watching actors on a sound stage or people pretending in front of a green screen. I would actually rank the atmosphere up there with (though the entire film is nowhere near as a good as) 300. The disaster sequences are beyond cool. We see everything around the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, including tidal waves, earthquakes, raining ash, and fiery pieces of death falling from the sky. It takes a while to actually work up to the disaster sequences, but everything leading up to that point is entertaining as well.

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This is not to say that there aren’t silly moments or over-the-top scenes though. Kiefer Sutherland is basically hamming it up in his villain role, but there’s something so inherently fun about watching him play a moustache-twirling baddie (with the absence of an actual moustache). I give the movie points for the ending, but some people may see it as really corny. Rest assured, it’s cheesy, but it fits in with everything else the film had delivered thus far.

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In the right hands, there is an astounding cinematic achievement to be made out of Pompeii. Paul W.S. Anderson is not the kind of filmmaker that can create such a thing. To his credit, this is his second-best film (faint praise, I know) and doesn’t feel like the stereotypical Anderson let-downs that audiences are used to seeing. It’s a fun ride and works just as well as a clichéd romance. We’ve seen these tales told before (in better films, no less), but POMPEII is a good movie and I will defend it against the many detractors that it has already received. This one comes (surprisingly) recommended!

Grade: B

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