Wednesday, February 11, 2015


Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges has made many memorable movies.  “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot,” “Jagged Edge,” “The Big Lebowski,” “The Fisher King,” “Fearless,” “Against All Odds,” “Men Who Stare at Goats,” “Iron Man,” “True Grit,” and “Crazy Heart” stand out among the more than 60 theatrical features that he has starred in since he started acting back in the 1970s.  Bridges’ latest outing “Seventh Son” (** OUT OF ****) proves that he can make an occasional stinker, too.  Making his English-language film debut, Oscar-nominated Russian director Sergey Bodrov, who helmed the 1997 Tolstoy tale “Prisoners of the Mountains,” has spared no expense in bringing this sprawling but predictable $95-million, medieval fantasy to the screen.  A posse of demon-possessed souls that can turn into voracious supernatural beasts tangle with our venerable hero and his na├»ve sidekick as the two struggle to vanquish an unforgiving witch.  Interestingly, this larger-than-life adaptation of retired English teacher Joseph Delaney’s young adult novel "The Spook's Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch," the first of fourteen books in his “Wardstone Chronicles,” has generated greater enthusiasm overseas.   Chinese and Russian audiences flocked to it.  Meantime, American audiences have shunned it, and box office analysts have branded this Universal Pictures release as a flop based on its dismal opening weekend receipts of little more than $7 million.

“Seventh Son” opens as the last of the Falcon Knights, Master John Gregory (Jeff Bridges of “TRON”), locks up the malevolent Queen of Witches, Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore of “The Big Lebowski”), in an oubliette in a remote mountain range.  Gregory and Malkin, it seems, once loved each other.  Gregory abandoned Malkin for another woman, and the jealous Malkin killed Gregory’s wife.  Gregory retaliated and imprisoned Malkin for what he thought would be an eternity.  Designated as a ‘Spook,’ Gregory earns his living as a spell-casting, witch-busting, dragon slayer equipped with a flame-throwing staff.  He has dedicated himself tirelessly to the destruction of anything supernatural that frightens common folk.  Despite Gregory’s elaborate precautions, Mother Malkin breaks out of captivity many years later as a result of a centennial lunar event termed ‘the Blood Moon.’  The Blood Moon revitalizes Malkin’s evil powers, enabling this witch to transform into a winged dragon, and flap away to her own mountain-top fortress.  Master Gregory and young apprentice William Bradley (Kit Harington of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) recapture this diabolical dame with arrows and a silver net.  Unfortunately, Malkin kills poor Bradley, and Gregory must recruit a new apprentice.  Gregory comes across another ‘seventh son of a seventh son,’ Tom Ward (Ben Barnes of “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”), a farm boy living in relative obscurity who slops his father’s swine.  Tom reminded me of Luke Skywalker when he appears initially in “Star Wars.”  Anyway, Tom takes advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to escape from a life of drudgery.  Surprisingly enough, Tom had visions of his chance encounter before Gregory actually bargained with his dad to apprentice him.  Meantime, Tom’s doting mother, Mam Ward (Olivia Williams of “Sabotage”), entrusts her son with a unique magical pedant to wear out-of-sight around his neck.  While Gregory tutors Tom about witches, Malkin assembles her own culturally diverse posse of sinister shape-shifters.  Initially, Malkin enlists the aid of her younger sister Bony Lizzie (Antje Traue of “Pandorum”) as well as Bony’s pretty niece Alice (Alicia Vikander of “Ex Machina”), who are witches, too.  Alice beguiles young Tom and keeps the lad hoodwinked for about three-fourths of the film until he wises up about her treachery.  Ultimately, Malkin and her devils lure both Gregory and Tom into her own mountain-top fortress for a fight to the death under a blood red moon.

Essentially, “Seventh Son” suffers from second-rate scripting despite its impressive scribes: “Blood Diamond’s” Charles Leavitt, “Eastern Promises’” Steven Knight and “Reign of Fire’s” Matt Greenberg.  These guys have scrapped most of Delaney’s narrative in favor of something more bombastically cinematic but at the same time hopelessly incoherent.  For example, neither Mother Malkin nor any of her witches mutate into dragons.  Our heroes never ride horses and Gregory doesn’t ride off and leave Tom with his former residence.  Alice doesn’t leave of her own accord; Tom’s mom doesn’t die; and Gregory’s only other friend Tusk works for Mother Malkin. If you loved Delaney’s novel, you will probably abhor “Seventh Son.”  Moreover, the characters in the film lack depth, dimension, and/or decadence.  If you’ve seen “Season of the Witch” with Nicolas Cage and “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” with Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, you’ll know when to yarn during the formulaic, by-the-numbers, adventures.  Mumbling as if with a mouthful of marbles, a bearded Jeff Bridges appears to be imitating not only his own cantankerous “True Grit” character Rooster Cogburn, but also he channels a combination of Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan from the original “Star Wars” and Ian McKellen’s Gandalf the Grey from the “Hobbit” movies.  Whereas Obi-Wan and Gandalf emerged as flamboyant, Gregory is far from flamboyant.  His best scene takes place in a tavern where he wields a cup of ale without spilling a drop to thrash a presumptuous swordsman.  Oscar nominated actress Julianne Moore restrains herself as a despicable witch who can morph into an airborne dragon, entwine adversaries with her chain-link tail, and then skewer them without uttering a clever line.  Mind you, this description of Moore’s character sounds like she could have had a blast indulging herself, but she refuses to chew the scenery.  Comparatively, Moore’s lavishly attired, red-haired sorceress is nowhere as audacious as Charlize Theron’s wicked witch in “Snow White and the Huntsman.”  Sadly, secondary leads Ben Barnes and Alicia Vikander generate neither charisma as stock characters nor chemistry as an amorous couple.  Barnes is about as wooden as Hayden Christensen was in the second “Star Wars” trilogy.  Meanwhile, talented thespians like Olivia Williams, Kip Harrington, Djimon Hounsou, and Jason Scott Lee languish on the periphery of this synthetic sword and sorcery saga.  

Although it drums up minimal intensity between fade-in and fade-out, “Seventh Son” boasts some lively combat scenes that the 3-D visual effects enhance.  “Star Wars” visual effects specialist John Dykstra has created several outlandish CGI monsters, but few are terrifying.
The picturesque mountains of British Columbia are as scenic as “Canterbury Tales” production designer Dante Ferretti’s sets are spectacular.  Unfortunately, “Seventh Son” recycles the usual dungeons and dragon shenanigans with little to distinguish it from its prestigious predecessors.