Tag Archives: C+

PERCY JACKSON: SEA OF MONSTERS

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C+

Of all the wannabe Harry Potter successors Hollywood studios have churned out over the last decade, this is one of the few that have actually managed to get beyond a first installment. The first movie about Percy Jackson, the teen who discovered he was a “half-blood,” the son of the Greek god Poseidon by a human woman, and sent off to a camp where along with others of his kind he could be protected and trained, was subtitled “The Lightning Thief.” Based on the initial installment in Rick Riordan’s series of popular young adult books, it pitted Percy and his friends—brainy Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), a daughter of Athena, and the half-goat satyr Grover (Brandon T. Jackson)—against handsome Luke (Jake Abel), a son of Hermes, who’d stolen Zeus’ powerful thunderbolt with plans to use it to inaugurate a new era. It wasn’t just episodic but loaded down with tedious exposition, and it was stymied by director Chris Columbus’ leaden approach.

This second entry, “Sea of Monsters,” marks a few changes from the first. Anthony Head replaces Pierce Brosnan as Percy’s mentor, the centaur Chiron, and Stanley Tucci has been added as Mr. D—for Dionysius, the god of wine—as the head Camp Half-Blood (there’s a pretty good joke about how he’s being punished by Zeus for a previous indiscretion). Percy also gets a half-brother in the form of Tyson (Douglas Smith), a clumsy Cyclops who’s looking for a family. And while it’s similarly episodic, it has more action and moves along better, thanks to director Thor Freudenthal and editor Mark Goldblatt.

As to plot, the movie is basically a teen version of the Argonaut story, which begins when a group of nasty Cyclopes destroy the protective perimeter set up around Camp Half-Blood by a tree that Zeus created from the body of his daughter Thalia, who was killed trying to reach the place. After consulting the prophetess of Apollo who’s apparently kept in the attic, Percy decides that the only way to restore the Thalia tree to life—and bring the barrier back—is to send a mission to the titular sea (known to humans, we’re told, as the Bermuda Triangle) to find the Golden Fleece, which has life-restoring properties. Mr. D decides to act on this, but chooses a team led by Clarisse (Leven Rambin), a daughter of Ares who’s Jackson’s great rival for leadership among the students. But Percy and his chums, including Tyson, decide to take up the task as well, though without authorization.

The quest takes up the rest of the running-time. It turns out that Luke is once again behind all the mischief, seeking the Fleece in order to restore the Titan Cronos, the father of the gods, to life so that he can overthrow Zeus and allow a new generation to assume power. A series of adventures follow, involving a wild taxicab ride, a meeting with Hermes and some mild oceanic adventures—including a Jonah-like stint in the belly of a beast where some zombies also reside—before the crew winds up at an abandoned amusement park where a hungry Cyclops—and the tomb of Cronos—are to be found. There they have to face off against Luke and his army of the discontented.

This is hardly deep stuff, or a faithful rendition of the Greek myths: it’s more like a cross between Harry Potter and Ryan Gosling’s “Young Hercules” series. But it’s a reasonable modern equivalent of Ray Harryhausen’s cherished boys’ adventure movies, not just the mythological ones but the Sinbad series as well. Dads and granddads who remember those fondly will appreciate the nostalgia it brings. And the youngsters should enjoy it as well, since it features a passel of appealingly heroic teen types (a couple of them female for the girls), pretty good special effects, messages about the importance of family that aren’t too heavy-handedly transmitted, battle scenes that are fairly exciting without becoming overly nasty, and a few dollops of sentiment applied without much treacle. Lerman makes a pleasant if somewhat bland Jackson, and Daddario is an engaging partner for him. And while Jackson once again forces things in trying for laughs, Smith makes a nice addition to the crew. Among the others Abel is no more than a standard-issue young villain and Rambin shrill as Clarisse, but Tucci and Fillion seem to be having a field day in their brief appearances. Shelly Jackson’s cinematography is fine, with the3D providing some nifty moments, and Andrew Lockington’s score adds to the action without being at all memorable.

In all, “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” improves on the first movie, making the obvious promise of another sequel at the end not completely unwelcome. As a boys’ adventure tale, it’s not awful, but not particularly wondrous either.

WHITE HOUSE DOWN

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C+

Home invasion thrillers have always been a staple of movies—just this month “The Purge” proved an unaccountably successful example of the genre—but only recently has the White House become the target. Not so long ago we had Antoine Fuqua’s ludicrous “Olympus Has Fallen,” and now Roland Emmerich—who, after all, made the destruction of the iconic building a crowd-pleasing special-effect in “Independence Day”—takes his shot at the notion with the unimaginatively titled “White House Down.”

As it turns out, it’s not only the title that lacks inventiveness. What’s astonishing is how many beats James Vanderbilt’s script shares with “Olympus.” Yes, the mechanism used by invaders to gain admittance to the place is different—a fleet of home-entertainment trucks rather than sanitation vehicles! And the motivation of the well-armed perpetrators is different (although there’s an incredible similarity in the ultimate villains, who are frankly telegraphed so far in advance that it would take a pretty dense viewer to be surprised by their unmasking). John Cale (Channing Tatum), the “Die Hard”-like protagonist who saves the day, isn’t a Secret Service agent like Gerard Butler was in the earlier movie, but merely a prospective one, and the youngster he’s anxious to protect not the president’s son but his own daughter Emily (Joey King). A great many of the episodes are strikingly similar—the air assault met by missiles from the White House roof, the long-drawn-out acquisition of nuclear-launch codes (though for different purposes), the absurdly easy elimination of all the protective personnel on the grounds. And of course there are the bone-crunching fistfights that periodically occur between the hero and the various intruders, as well as the ineptitude of the military commanders trying to cope with what’s happening from their elaborate command post somewhere in Washington.

The major difference this time around is that the President, James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx), isn’t a captive of the bad-guys. Quickly freed by Cale, he goes on the run with him, dodging bullets (and occasionally firing them) alongside the rugged SS wannabe as they try to escape the White House grounds—in one sequence memorable for its silliness, engaging in a car chase in the presidential limo while pursued by what looks like an armored personnel vehicle. In one respect this is beneficial to the picture. Tatum and Foxx have a good chemistry, and Foxx adds some nice, if rather juvenile, humor to the whole pursuit scenario. On the other hand, it must be admitted that while you can easily accept Tatum as a divorced dad who’s kind of a lovable lunkhead in his personal and professional lives, but a sturdy, determined ex-soldier and intrepid fighter, Foxx isn’t remotely credible as POTUS, and the policy he enunciates that sets the plot in motion—a Middle East peace plan so simplistic as to be utterly laughable—isn’t either.

That’s a problem, of course, only if you try to take “White House Down” at all seriously, which is entirely the wrong approach. It’s basically a live-action comic book, much as “Die Hard” was, and it would work on that level if Fuqua’s movie—inferior though it might be—didn’t make it feel like a second serving of the same meal. Still, one has to admit that the ingredients are classy. Physically it’s a first-rate piece of work, with Kirk M. Petruccelli’s production design, the art direction supervised by Isabelle Guay and the set decoration by Marie-Soleil Denomme and Paul Hotte all contributing to a look more convincing than the action that goes on in front of their backdrops. Adam Wolfe’s editing is only slightly less commendable, allowing the movie to extend well beyond the two hours mark but keeping the plot convolutions (if not the geography) clear. Thomas Wander’s score is a bit more subdued than what one might expect, though no less button-pushing.

The supporting cast is aces, too, with King a standout as the plucky daughter who manages to blog out photos of what’s going on inside the White House online, but James Woods (as the retiring Secret Service chief), Maggie Gyllenhaal (as one of his loyal subordinates, and an old friend of Cale’s), Jason Clarke (as the snarling lead intruder), Michael Murphy (as the weakling vice president), Matt Craven (as a Capitol cop), Nicolas Wright (as a comic-relief White House tour guide), and Richard Jenkins (as the Speaker of the House of Representatives) all doing stellar work, although sometimes in parts that require a good deal of scenery-chomping. It’s not Jimmi Simpson’s fault that his turn as Tyler, the super-hacker who enjoys talking to himself and licking suckers, is so irritating. Vanderbilt and Emmerich decided, following today’s action cinema playbook, that such a villainous character should constantly be listening to classical music—in this case, Beethoven. Why can’t somebody have the courage to portray these smugly nasty types as fans of the kind of crappy pop stuff we all know such creatures would be devoted to? Is it really necessary to trash serious composers—and those who appreciate their music—by perpetuating this idiotic stereotype?

But at least Tyler’s of a piece with the other characters in “White House Down,” who are all stereotypes as well. This is a summer action movie without a brain in its head, but if you approach it by putting yours on hold, you’ll find it skillfully enough made to hold your attention as you consume that tub of popcorn and—given its length—a refill as well.