“PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS: The Lightning Thief” (2010) Review

“PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS: The Lightning Thief” (2010) Review

Last winter, I discovered there was another literary children’s fantasy franchise other than ”HARRY POTTER” that became a best seller. Well, I am certain there are more than two of these franchises that I am not aware of. But I certainly became aware of the PERCY JACKSON franchise when I saw the trailer for ”PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS: The Lightning Thief”.

The ”PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS” series had been created by a best-selling mystery writer named Rick Riordan. The novels centered around a New York City boy named Percy Jackson who discovered he was a demigod – the offspring of a mortal woman named Sally Jackson and the Greek god Poseidon. He also discovered that his best friend, a physically disabled young man named Grover Underwood was really a satyr assigned to be his protector.

This particular movie is an adaptation of the series’ first novel, ”The Lightning Thief”. Following the discovery of his true identity, a fury disguised as a substitute teacher attacked him during a field trip, while accusing him of stealing the powerful lightning bolt that belonged to his uncle – Zeus, the ruler of Mount Olympus and god of the sky and thunder. He also discovered that one of his other teachers – Mr. Brunner, was the centaur, Chiron at a place for demigods called Camp Half-Blood. His other uncle, Hades, informed Percy that he has his mother in captivity, and is willing to exchange her for Zeus’ lightning bolt. He also learned that he has two weeks to return the lightning bolt or a war will commence between Zeus and his father Poseidon – a war that might have negative repercussions on the mortal world. In the hopes that Hades can convince Zeus of his innocence of the theft, Percy sets out to find to find an entrance to the Underworld, along with three pearls that can help him make a quick exit from that domain. Grover and the demigod daughter of Athena named Annabeth Chase accompany him.

I did not harbor any high expectations before I saw ”PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS”. As I had stated earlier, I have never read any of Riordan’s novels. And considering it had been released during the pre-summer season, I did not expect to enjoy it very much. And yet . . . I did. Much to my surprise. I found the story to be an engaging and entertaining story filled with family drama, humor, actor and dazzling special effects. More importantly – at least for me – the movie’s running time seemed perfect. Not too short and not too long. I also enjoyed the three main characters’ encounters with a variety of characters from Greek mythology during their journey that included a Mintaur, Medusa, and the Lotus Eaters. Most importantly, Percy’s quest to find entry to the Underworld and the three pearls resulted in a travelogue that took the heroes from Manhattan to Los Angeles, via New Jersey, Nashville and Las Vegas. And I just love road trips in movies.

”PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS” does not have the same quality of special effects that had enhanced theHARRY POTTER films. Why did I mention HARRY POTTER? Well, the director of this movie, Chris Columbus, had also directed the first two HARRY POTTER films. And yet, PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS had a slightly more mature style. I suppose that was due to its main characters being four or five years older than the three mainHARRY POTTER characters in their early films. I understand that the Percy Jackson character was younger in the literary version of ”The Lightning Thief”. Since I have never read the novel . . . or intend to, I do not care.

The cast of ”PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS” struck me as pretty solid. Columbus did a good job in steering the actors through the movie. And Logan Lerman, who portrayed Percy, turned out to be better than I had expected. But aside from four performances, I found nothing exceptional about the cast. Who are these four exceptional performers? One of them turned out to be Uma Thurman, who gave a deliciously wicked performance as Medusa, the gorgon who used her eyes to turn humans and other beings into stone for her garden collection. I also enjoyed Steve Coogan’s rather wild and sexy take on the god, Hades. And I must say that I found him surprisingly sexy. And Rosario Dawson also gave a sexy performance as Persephone, the parthenogenic woman who became Hades’ bored and put upon consort in the Underworld. In fact, one of her sexiest moments occurred when she flirted with a very interested Grover. Speaking of Grover, Brandon T. Jackson gave a hilarious performance as the satyr who happened to be Percy’s best friend. I found him brave, resourceful, witty and an absolute hoot.

”PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS” was not the best fantasy film I have ever seen. In some ways, it came off as a poor man’s HARRY POTTER. This is especially apparent in the film’s depiction of Camp Half-Blood, the training camp located off Long Island for children with a Greek god as a parent. It looked so half-assed that I could only shake my head in disbelief. And its production values were certainly not of the same quality as any of the POTTER films or many others I can recall. But I found the movie enjoyable to watch and would have no qualms about seeing it again.

“TROPIC THUNDER” (2008) Review

”TROPIC THUNDER” (2008) Review

While playing a small part in Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama, ”EMPIRE OF THE SUN” (which ironically starred a young Christian Bale), actor/comedian Ben Stiller had come up with the idea of a group of prima donna actors filming a Vietnam War film. Over twenty years later, Stiller’s idea came to fruition in the action comedy movie, ”TROPIC THUNDER”.

Stiller and fellow co-writers, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, created a hilarious and very original story that began with a series of fake commercials and movie trailers. The commercials featured rap singer Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) promoting his “Booty Sweat” energy drink and “Bust-A-Nut” candy bar. Then the movie continued with a series of movie trailers that included action star Tugg Speedman’s (Stiller) latest film, “Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown”; and another for low-brow comedian Jeff Portnoy’s (Jack Black) film, “The Fatties: Fart 2” that spoofed Eddie Murphy’s portrayal of multiple characters such as in “NUTTY PROFESSOR II: THE KLUMPS”. But the final trailer – and the funniest in the bunch – featured award winning Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downy, Jr.) and Tobey Maguire as two gay medieval monks in a parody of films like “BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN” called ”Satan’s Alley”.

But the meat of the story featured the three actors, the rap singer and character actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) as co-stars in ”Tropic Thunder”, a movie adaptation of the memoirs of a disabled Vietnam War veteran named “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte). The movie’s production is spiraling out of control and rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) seemed unable to handle the prima donnas or keep the movie on schedule. Cockburn is ordered by studio executive Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) to get the production back on track or risk having it shut down. With inspiration from Tayback, Cockburn drops the spoiled actors into the middle of the jungle, where he installs hidden cameras and special effect explosions rigged by pyrotechnics man Cody (Danny R. McBride) so he can film the movie “guerrilla-style”. The actors have only a map and a scene listing to guide them to the helicopter waiting at the end of the jungle. Shortly afterward, the director is blown up by a land mine left by the French, but thanks to his preceding diatribe, only Lazarus realizes his death was real. Even worse, the actors ended up in the middle of the Golden Triangle, the home of the heroin-producing Flaming Dragon gang, led by a young boy named Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo). And Cody and Tayback end up as prisoners of the Dragons. As for Tran and the Dragons, they believe the actors to be DEA agents.

”TROPIC THUNDER” not only struck me as a parody of the Hollywood movie industry, but also a parody of the lengths human beings go to create illusions about themselves. Tugg Speedman is a failing action star who had earlier attempted a serious role in order to save his career. I can only assume that ”Tropic Thunder” is his second attempt. Yet, he seemed incapable of facing the possibility of being a has-been and has to depend upon his agent, Rick “Pecker” Peck (Matthew McConaghey) to maintain his ever deflating ego. Jeff Portnoy resorts to drug addiction to deal with the realization that his past success mainly came from his talent from flatulence humor. Lazarus is an Oscar-winning Australian method actor who has a bad habit staying in his role even when the cameras are not rolling. For ”Tropic Thunder”, Lazurus deliberately undertook an operation to change his skin pigmentation in order to portray an African-American sergeant. Naturally, Lazurus’ role produced resentment and anger from Alpa Chino, the rapper trying to break into films. But even Chino is projecting a façade about himself, which his fellow co-stars manage to break through near the end of the film. The only one in the bunch who seemed real is young Sandusky, the drama student who seemed to be the only sane head in the bunch. Yet, despite the fact the film is bursting with Hollywood phonies, the biggest phony turned out to Tayback, who had never seen combat during the Vietnam War or was disabled. Even worse, he had spent the war aboard a Coast Guard garbage scow that never left U.S. waters. He had originally written the book as a tribute to U.S. servicemen.

I have to say that this movie’s cast more than impressed me. Ben Stiller portrayed one of his best roles as Tugg Speedman, a Hollywood veteran struggling to save his career. Yet, his sanity nearly went down the toilet when Tran and the Dragons force him to replay the scenes of his failed drama, ”Simple Jack”. By the time his fellow cast members found him, Speedman had gone by the way of Colonel Kurtz. I must admit that I usually have difficulty finding Jack Black funny. However, I do believe that Jeff Portnoy was probably one of his better roles – hilarious without being over-the-top. I realize that drug addiction is nothing to laugh about, but his and Sandusky’s attempts to help him deal with withdrawal and reject the temptation of the Dragons’ own heroin were rather funny. Nick Nolte and Danny McBride made an amusing comedy team and I especially enjoyed their interaction when Cody discovered that Tayback is not a Vietnam veteran, but a phony. Matthew McConaghey did one of his best roles as Speedman’s always eager agent, Rick Peck. And Tom Cruise must have had a blast portraying the arrogant and overbearing film producer, Les Grossman. He was hilarious. A member of my family was surprised to discover that the balding, foul-mouthed man was actually Cruise.

Most critics have lauded Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as the method actor Lazurus, who spends most of the movie trying to act like an African American. RDJ was hilarious. In fact, I can honestly say that he was the funniest member of the cast. His most hilarious moment came on the heels of an argument between Lazurus and Chino, when he breaks into a litany about the black man’s 400 years of oppression (damn, has it been that long?) and Chino’s use of the “n” word that ended with him singing the theme to television series, ”THE JEFFERSONS”. It took me nearly five minutes to recover from my laughter. But Downey’s take on Kirk Lazurus could have ended in disaster without the presence of Brandon T. Jackson. His Chino not only expressed anger at Lazurus’ portrayal of a black man, but provided some pretty sharp zingers at the actor’s ego and sanity. Another funny scene featured Chino’s insults about Lazurus’ Australian background. What made the scene so humorous were Lazurus’ protests against Chino’s insults, while maintaining his charade as a black man. Weird.

I believe that Ben Stiller should be proud of ”TROPIC THUNDER”. Not only did he give an excellent performance, he also co-wrote and directed what I believe should become a comedy classic. That’s right. A comedy classic. ”TROPIC THUNDER” is one of the best comedies I have seen in years – along with the British action comedy, ”HOT FUZZ”. I also feel that it is Stiller’s best movie since the police parody, ”STARSKY AND HUTCH”. Hell, it is better than the 2003 movie he had co-starred with Owen Wilson. The cast was superb. So was Jon Toll’s photography of the island of Kauai, which stood as both Vietnam and Cambodia. Stiller, Theroux and Cohen had created one hell of a comedy.

“THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL” (2008) Review

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”THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL” (2008)

Back in 1951, Robert Wise directed a science-fiction film about a humanoid alien visitor who comes to Earth with a warning. The film, starred Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal. Fifty-seven years later, Scott Derrickson directed a remake of the classic that stars Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connolly.

Based upon Harry Bates’ short story, “Farewell to the Master”, this updated version of ”THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL” ditched the Cold War theme and settled upon humanity’s environmental impact upon Earth. Another change in this latest version centered around the main character, Klaatu (Keanu Reeves). In the 1951 version, Klaatu (portrayed by Michael Rennie) started as a “humane” and ended up as a slightly cold alien who threatens the humans during a United Nations conference, with “the big stick” – threatening annihilation if the nations refused to find a way to settle the Cold War. Klaatu experiences a reversal of characterization in this new version. He starts out as cold and tough, with very little hope for humanity. Due to his interactions with Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connolly), Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese) and Helen’s stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith), Klaatu becomes more humane and compassionate over humanity’s situation.

I wish I could point more of the similarities and difficulties between the two versions. But if I must be honest, my memories of the 1951 version are not that sharp. It has never had much of an impact upon me. It just happened to be one of many decent movies that I did not find particularly mind boggling. Even when I became older. And If I must be honest, I can say the same about this version. In the end, ”THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL” (2008) seemed like nothing more than a solid, yet entertaining science-fiction story with a message about a real life crisis in present-day Earth. Namely our endangered environment. Everything about this movie seemed solid – Scott Derrickson’s direction, David Scarpa’s screenplay and the cast led by Reeves and Connolly.

However, there were some exceptional standouts in both the cast and the crew. Jeffrey A. Okun’s visual special effects struck me as being impressive. I especially liked the updated design of Klaatu’s starship and the fact that it, along with Gort, was biologically based. As for the cast, I was impressed by two performers – young Jaden Smith, who portrayed Helen Benson’s stepson and Kyle Chandler as John Driscoll, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Kathy Bates). Smith did an excellent job of conveying young Jacob’s anger over his father’s death and resentment toward being “stuck” with his stepmother. And Chandler provided another example of his talent for portraying ambiguous and sometimes, dark characters with his portrayal of the frightened and desperate Driscoll.

Other than that, I found nothing really exceptional about this version of ”THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL” . . . anymore than I did about the previous 1951 version. If you are looking for something exceptional, you will be disappointed. If you are simply looking for a solid story that is also entertaining, then ”THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL” is your movie.