Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" / Mini-Reviews: "Black Dynamite" / "Revanche" / "From Paris with Love"

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief - Directed by Chris Columbus, starring Logan Lerman, Alexandra Daddario, and Brandon T. Jackson - Rated PG

It's not the second coming of Potter, but it is a lot of fun.

Okay, let’s get one thing straight: Percy Jackson is not Harry Potter. If you’d read anything else about Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (from here on out I’ll just stick with The Lightning Thief) then you’ve read that Percy doesn’t stack up against Harry. I have never seen a movie so completely defined by what it isn’t more in my life. I think this is the laziest critique anyone can give this film. I knew this wasn’t Harry Potter as soon as I saw the first preview; the title is a dead giveaway. Yeah, The Lightning Thief deals with supernatural elements, there is a quest involved, the heroes are young people, and it’s all based on a series of popular young adult novels, so the film shares basic elements with that other franchise, but I think it stands pretty well on its own.

The Lightning Thief is about Percy Jackson, a high school student who struggles with dyslexia and ADHD. It turns out that Percy’s learning impairments are the result of his strange parentage: Percy is the son of Greek god of the sea Poseidon. He has dyslexia because he is meant to read ancient Greek and his ADHD is really just battle instincts. He is a demigod, or a half-blood, and he is not alone. It turns out that the Greek gods and goddesses are very real and they are still around; they’ve just moved to America. I don’t want to get bogged down with more plot details than that, just know that the film contains plenty of Greek mythology references and it adds up to some entertaining, innocent fun.

Since this is the first film in what may be a franchise, there is a lot of setup to go through. This movie speeds through all of that pretty quickly, however. We’re introduced to the safe haven for demigods, Camp Half-Blood, but Percy is barely there before he has to take off on a road trip. I understand that movies like this need to move quickly, but I would have liked fifteen more minutes to set up the day to day life at the camp. It’s not much of a problem, though, because the characters are fun to watch.

Logan Lerman plays Percy with a sufficient amount of dumb wonder. Alexandra Daddario plays off of him quite well as his love interest/rival Annabeth (daughter of Athena). Out of the three leads, though, it’s Brandon T. Jackson (Tropic Thunder) who shines. Jackson plays Grover, a satyr who is Percy’s friend and protector…and his comic relief. Grover is mainly used for the laughs of the film and it might be painfully obvious that he’s only there to be goofy, but Jackson really does come through with the laughs. I won’t spoil any gags, but I think it’s safe to say that people of all ages will laugh at least a few times.

Aside from the leads, there is a plethora of stars in small roles as mythological characters. Pierce Brosnan stands out as Chiron, the centaur/teacher. Uma Thurman gets to ham it up as Medusa. Steve Coogan, Sean Bean, Kevin McKidd, and Rosario Dawson also star as supernatural characters. On the mortal side there is Catherine Keener, who is apparently stuck in “mom” mode and Joe Pantoliano in a fun role as Percy’s scumbag stepfather. Pretty much every actor handles his/her role ably, except, ironically, Jake Abel as Luke, the camp’s demigod leader. He is completely unconvincing, but his screen time is thankfully limited.

Of course, with all of these mythological characters there is going to be some CG. The Lightning Thief handles most effects quite well, never appearing completely goofy. The centaurs look decent, and Grover’s satyr legs look very convincing. There’s nothing here that will blow you away, but you certainly won’t roll your eyes at any of the effects, either.

The visuals are suitable for the film, but a lot of your enjoyment depends on your knowledge of Greek mythology. If you remember how Medusa is taken down, then you’ll probably smile when you see the modern way it plays out in this film. And if you remember the Lotus Eaters from The Odyssey, then you’ll love the scenes in the Lotus Casino. That was by far my favorite sequence of the film.

So The Lightning Thief isn’t Harry Potter. But it is a fun movie that I think people of all ages can enjoy. Yes, the younger viewers will probably like it the most, but the older viewers will probably find themselves having more fun with it than they thought they would. Just don’t take it too seriously and you’ll be fine. Save your serious viewing for boy wizards.


Black Dynamite - Co-written and directed by Scott Sanders, starring Michael Jai White (also co-writer), Salli Richardson, and Tommy Davidson - Rated R
Black Dynamite is the spoof version of blaxploitation films. Yeah, those movies are plenty goofy on their own and some would argue that the filmmakers were aware of how bad some of them were, but that does not take away from the hilarity of Black Dynamite. Michael Jai White is perfect as the titular character and I'm sure this will go down as his best performance. He knows exactly when to play it serious and when to wink at the camera. The film is funny on its own when it keeps things serious, but I found myself scanning back to check out all of the intentional mistakes; like when a fight scene gets accidentally serious and the rest of the scene features a different actor, or when Black Dynamite stands up quickly only to have the boom mic in the rest of the scene, even though he keeps staring at it, trying to tell the guy to raise it. It's the little things that will have me watching this again and again. That, and lines like, "I thought I told you honkies from the CIA that Black Dynamite was out of the game!" make this a comedy worth checking out.

Revanche - Written and directed by Götz Spielmann, starring Johannes Krisch, Andreas Lust, and Ursula Strauss - Not Rated (but if it was, it would be an R)
I've been itching to see Revanche for quite some time now. This Austrian film was nominated for Best Foreign Film last year. It's a shame how some of the better foreign films take so long to get a release in the States. It turns out that it is well worth the wait. Revanche is about Alex, an ex-con with a dream of leaving the city with his prostitute girlfriend, Tamara, and going to Spain to start over. Well, that dream doesn't happen, of course. Since the film translates to "Revenge" (or also "Return Match") you know that someone dies, so it's not a big spoiler to say that Tamara doesn't make it and Alex wants payback. But this isn't a typical revenge film. Alex doesn't go around bashing heads. He waits around his grandfather's farm stoically, biding his time to strike. "Waits around" is the key phrase here. Spielmann even lets the camera "wait around" a few seconds too long in numerous scenes. It gave me an impression that I was witnessing something utterly personal. The extra seconds the shot lingers really got me thinking and reflecting while I watched. Of course, a few lingering shots doesn't make a great movie. What makes this great is the emotional journey all the characters involved go through, including the man who killed Tamara. You can't really root for anyone, and that's a good thing, because it makes it seem real. I still found myself hoping for the best for Alex, but that might just be because of Johannes Krisch. The man has such a screen presence he makes what could be a boring scene completely tense and interesting. So if you're in the mood for a well acted, slow, realistic, thoughtful revenge film, then give Revanche a try.

From Paris with Love - Directed by Pierre Morel, starring John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Kasia Smutniak - Rated R
This one took me by surprise. I went into the theater expecting a decent, forgettable action movie. I ended up seeing a very entertaining film that I will definitely watch again when it comes to DVD/Blu-ray. From Paris with Love is about a fledgling spy, Reece, (Rhys Meyers) who partners up with Charlie Wax (Travolta), the craziest spy in American history. This is one of those movies that let's Travolta go crazy. Now, you either embrace a Travolta performance like this, or you despise it. I happen to embrace the crazier performances of Travolta, so I loved every ridiculous line of dialogue. Rhys Meyers, on the other hand, does a good job of looking flustered, but can't stand up next to Travolta (and he really shouldn't play an American until he figures out an accent). So Travolta is crazy and once he's introduced the movie never slows down. You get extended action scenes that feature Travolta laying waste to enemies while Rhys Meyes follows along with a cocaine-filled vase (which turns out to be a really funny element). Then there's Travolta taking out an entire terrorist filled apartment. And eventually you get Travolta hanging out of a car window with a rocket launcher...while talking on a cell phone. It is completely ridiculous and I loved every minute of it. The storyline turned out to be surprisingly satisfying as well. It's not ground breaking, but just when I was wondering what the point of an early scene was, I had an answer. But I can't strees enough: If you like Travolta, check it out; if you have a problem with his over the top performances, then skip it.

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