New Releases for the Week of September 5, 2014


The IdenticalTHE IDENTICAL

(Freestyle Releasing) Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Seth Green, Brian Geraghty, Joe Pantoliano, Blake Rayne, Amanda Crew, Erin Cottrell, Chris Mulkey. Directed by Dustin Marcellino

 

Identical twins born during the Depression are separated at birth for economic reasons. One stays with his birth parents in poverty and becomes a rock and roll legend; the other is given to an evangelical pastor and his wife who are unable to have kids. He lives a more stable upbringing but is torn between trying to please his adoptive father and following his own muse.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Musical

Rating: PG (for thematic material and smoking)

Alive Inside

(Projector) Dan Cohen, Oliver Sacks, Doug Thompson, Yvonne Russell. The founder of a non-profit organization that uses music to help patients with severe memory loss must fight against the medical establishment and a broken health care system to combat the affliction and restore the sense of self that is lost along with the memories.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Documentary

Rating: NR

Innocence

(JSC) Kelly Reilly, Sophie Curtis, Linus Roache, Graham Phillips. A young teenage girl whose mother’s death in a surfing accident haunts her moves to Manhattan with her novelist father and tries to start over at an exclusive prep school. However, her hopes for normalcy are shattered when she discovers that the women who run the academy may be witches who retain their youth and vitality by drinking the blood of virgins – and guess who’s been saving herself for marriage?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: PG-13 (self-applied)

The Last of Robin Hood

(Goldwyn) Kevin Kline, Elle Fanning, Susan Sarandon, Max Casella. The great Errol Flynn in the twilight of his career has become enamored of a young actress named Beverly Aadland. Her fame-obsessed mother enables the affair but when it goes public, it puts the young girl in a spotlight of intense pressure and only fuels her mother’s obsession further.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: R (for some sexuality and language)

Mary Kom

(Viacom 18) Priyanka Chopra, Darshaan Kumar, Sunil Thapa, Zachary Coffin. The true story of Kom, a female boxer in India whose dream was very nearly an impossible one. In a country where the perception of women doesn’t include strength and power, she took on the sports establishment to make her way into the boxing world – and defied the odds.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sports Biography

Rating: NR

The Remaining

(Sony Worldwide) Johnny Pacar, Shaun Sipos, Bryan Dechart, Alexa Vega. Don’t you just hate it when you go to a wedding and the Rapture occurs instead? That’s what happens to a group of friends who discover that salvation and damnation ride on the decisions they make – but that they might not necessarily be so easy to determine which is which.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of terror, violence and destruction throughout, and thematic elements)

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Loosies


A ridiculously handsome man.

A ridiculously handsome man.

(2011) Dramedy (IFC) Peter Facinelli, Jaimie Alexander, Michael Madsen, Vincent Gallo, William Forsythe, Marianne Leone, Christy Carlson Romano, Joe Pantoliano, Eric Phillips, Tom DeNucci, Tom Paolino, Ara Boghigian, Anthony Paolucci, Glenn Ciano, Johnny Cicco, Stella Schnabel, Peter Berkot, Anne Mulhall, Sera Verde, Rebecca Forsythe. Directed by Michael Corrente

Sometimes people do the right things for all the wrong reasons. Just as often, people sometimes do the wrong things for the best of reasons. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter why you do things, just that you did them.

Bobby (Facinelli) is a handsome, charming kind of guy. He walks around New York in a suit all day, letting all and sundry know that he works on Wall Street as a broker. Actually, Bobby is a pickpocket and a damned good one. He snatches watches, cash, cell phones, the occasional police badge – whatever he can get his slick fingers on.

But things are changing in his life. Lucy (Alexander), the pretty and spunky bartender at his favorite tavern, is pregnant – and Bobby’s the baby daddy. What had been a one night stand turned into a life changing event. Bobby, at his core a decent sort of fellow, wants to do the right thing. He wants to marry Lucy and settle down into being a good husband, father and provider.

That’s not going to be easy. Bobby owes Jax (Gallo) a fairly hefty debt, the legacy of his gambling-addicted father and is struggling to pay it off. Lt. Nick Sullivan (Madsen), the cop whose badge Bobby stole, is absolutely pissed off about it and is pursuing Bobby with the ferocity and tenacity of a pit bull on meth. His mom Rita (Leone) has a new boyfriend, the jeweler Carl (Pantoliano) who has been known to exchange punches with Bobby. And Lucy doesn’t want to be the wife of a lowlife, nor her child to be raised by one.

This is meant to be a star-making vehicle for Facinelli who has labored in the shadows for much of his career. An engaging lead with star potential, he has been relegated mainly to supporting roles although when he’s gotten the opportunity to shine (as on the too-brief TV series Damages) he has generally made the most of it and he does so here.

Bobby is a thoroughly likable rapscallion and while his choice aren’t the best, they are generally the lesser of two or more evils. Facinelli imbues the character with a general charm, ensuring the audience will like the schlub even though they know he’s doing things that are less than kosher. Facinelli and Alexander make a believable couple; there are a lot of bumps in the road for their characters but one never doubts the genuine affection.

While this is a bit of a mash-up between a crime caper and a romantic comedy, I don’t really see anything fresh here from either genre. It’s a bit paint-by-numbers in a sense  that is elevated by the performance of its cast. Facinelli is engaging enough performer that you’ll want to spend an hour and a half with him without checking your watch. These days, that’s kind of a plus.

WHY RENT THIS: Facinelli is likable. Good chemistry with Alexander.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really offer up anything new.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, some sexual content and some rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The husband of Nikki Reed, who co-starred with Facinelli on the Twilight series, contributes three songs on the soundtrack with his band Grand Magnolias (his name is Paul McDonald of American Idol fame).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3,519 on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: New York, I Love You

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: X2

Memento


Memento

Do be wary when Guy Pearce wants to show you his vacation snapshots.

(2000) Mystery (Newmarket) Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Russ Fega, Jorja Fox, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Ransom Harris, Thomas Lennon, Callum Keith Rennie, Kimberly Campbell, Marianne Muellerleile. Directed by Christopher Nolan

 

There is a yardstick I use with thrillers. The simpler they are, the better they work, but when it comes to plot twists, the bigger, the better.

Memento, directed by then-newcomer Christopher Nolan (who got  a lot of messages on his answering machines from major studios after this nifty little piece came out) has a plot device stunning in its simplicity. Leonard Shelby (Pearce) is unable to make new memories. He forgets where he is, what he’s doing, even what he just said a few minutes ago. It just fades away, like an Etch-a-Sketch on a pressure cooker.

However, his long-term memories are intact. He knows that in his previous life, he was a successful insurance investigator. He also knows that his wife was raped and murdered by someone he knows only as “John G.” However, in the attack on his wife, Leonard was smacked hard enough on the head to give him brain damage.

Leonard was able to shoot and kill the assailant of his wife. However, his injury happened after the shot was fired; therefore, there was a second person involved in the attack. However, the police don’t believe a brain-damaged man, and don’t think John G., whoever he was, was clever enough to erase all traces of his presence. Leonard uses his organizational skills honed from his years as an insurance fraud investigator which he has somehow retained, making notes to himself, taking Polaroids of those he is associating with, and tattooing particularly vital bits of information on his body so that unlike written notes, they can’t get lost or misplaced.

So Leonard is searching, but in a particularly smart bit of moviemaking, the story is told backwards, following Leonard’s torturous trek. He is assisted by Teddy (Pantoliano) and Natalie (Moss), two people who may or may not be trustworthy. As the story unfolds, we become as Leonard, lacking in critical information that explains the motivations of the characters involved but as the movie progresses, we see what happened in the past which explains what happened previously. Think of the film as 113 minute-long flashback. This movie would never work as well with a traditional linear storyline. It’s a gutsy move by Nolan, and it pays off.

I’m deliberately keeping plot details to a minimum. Because of the nature of the story, it’s best not to reveal too much. This is one of the smartest movies I’ve ever seen; it requires the viewer to pay attention, and it requires the viewer to think. In other words, if you’re looking for brainless summer fare, it’s best to keep moving down the list of rentals and/or streaming movies.

Pearce gives a low-key performance as Leonard. Up to that point he hadn’t really followed up his jaw-grinding performance in L.A. Confidential with anything noteworthy (don’t get me started on Ravenous or his phoned-in work on Rules of Engagement), finally makes a movie worthy of his talents. Moss, so memorable in The Matrix trilogy, is terrific again here in a role very different from Trinity.

Nolan is someone to keep an eye on. In many ways, this movie has the same kind of risk-taking that M. Night Shyalaman showed in The Sixth Sense. It’s that good, certainly one that will be appearing on a lot of year-end best lists. The final twist at the end is not the kind that will blow you right out of your seat, but it elegantly fits in with the various twists and turns the story has been taking throughout. If Alfred Hitchcock were alive today, this is the kind of movie he would be making. Higher praise for a movie I cannot sing.

WHY RENT THIS: Innovative story structure flawlessly executed. Fine performances from Pierce and Moss. A thinking person’s cinematic mystery.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Plot is a bit pedestrian and final twist isn’t particularly mind-blowing.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are plenty of bad words, a heaping helping of violence, a rape (although not graphically portrayed) and a brief scene of drug use.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The original DVD release included an IFC interview with Nolan, the short story that the movie was based upon (written by Nolan’s brother Jonathan)  and a feature illustrating how the clues in the film lined up. The Collector’s Edition DVD included these as well as a copy of the director’s shooting script and the ability to play the film in reverse order.  The original 2006 Blu-Ray edition contained none of these, oddly enough. Last year’s 10 year anniversary Blu-Ray release restored most of these features with the exception of the director’s shooting script and the ability to play the film in reverse; however it did add a new interview with Nolan about the film, a diagram of the tats on Leonard’s body as well as Leonard’s journal.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $37.9M on a $9M production budget; the movie was a modest hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rear Window

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Alex Cross

The Matrix


The Matrix

Keanu Reeves demontrates proper Bullet Time technique.

(1999) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran, Belinda McClory, Anthony Ray Parker, Paul Goddard, Robert Taylor, David Aston, Denni Gordon. Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski

Reality can often be a four letter word; dull, vicious, cruel, lonely…reality sucks for most of us. However reality is a matter of perception and perception can be messed with. What we see, feel, experience is always – always – a product of our senses. What if those senses were wrong?

Thomas Anderson (Reeves) is a cubicle code writer by day and a hacker who goes by the handle Neo by night. His dual existence is dull and boring, but he is eager to discover the nature of something called the Matrix, cryptic references to which he’s found on his computer. A fellow hacker named Trinity (Moss) confirms that there are answers out there and guides him in the direction of a legendary hacker named Morpheus (Fishburne).

However, not everybody wants Neo and Morpheus to meet. Government agents, led by a man named Smith (Weaving) arrest Mr. Anderson and grill him on Morpheus and the Matrix, but Neo knows nothing. Undeterred, Neo meets with Morpheus who gives him the choice of a red pill and a white pill to take. The white pill will merely give him a good night’s rest; the red pill will show him the truth about the Matrix. Neo takes the red pill.

He wakes up in a nightmarish world, in a small pod filled with liquid. Morpheus rescues him and takes him aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, a high-tech airship. Morpheus explains that the year isn’t 1999 but closer to 2199 and that mankind lost a war to sentient machines of their own making, who have made the surface nearly uninhabitable. Humans are used for their bioelectric energy which is harvested; the humans are kept docile by having their minds plugged into the Matrix, a computer-simulated world of 1999 that fools the human race into thinking that everything is okay. Morpheus and his group which includes Trinity, Cypher (Pantoliano), Tank (Chang), Mouse (Doran), Dozer (Parker), Switch (McClory) and Apoc (Arahanga) are part of a resistance movement fighting the machines. They are headquartered in Zion, a hidden underground city that the machines have as yet been unable to locate.

Within the Matrix, the resistance is able to act with superhuman abilities because of their knowledge of what the Matrix is. Neo is trained to do this as well. Morpheus believes Neo to be “The One,” a messianic person who has been prophesized to end the war and put the humans back in control. Neo isn’t so sure but is willing to be examined by The Oracle (Foster) who is the one who made the prophecy to begin with.

They take Neo back into the Matrix to meet the Oracle who implies that Neo isn’t the one, but he will have to make a crucial decision that may result in the death of Morpheus. Shortly thereafter they are ambushed by Agents and Morpheus allows himself to be captured so that the others may get away. However, there is a traitor in their midst and not all of them will make it back. The future looks even more bleak for the humans now – unless Neo can realize his undiscovered potential.

This is one of those movies that is a game-changer. The Wachowskis, who had previously directed the critically-lauded Bound proved that they had an amazing cinematic vision. The look of movies, particularly action films, has been heavily influenced by this movie from their super slo-mo “bullet time” effects shots to the shades-and-dusters costuming. Turn of the millennium hip was largely defined by The Matrix.

Reeves will most likely be most identified with this role. Having achieved stardom with the Bill and Ted movies he became in every sense an A-list actor with this. His Neo was cool and hip, but also had doubts and fears. He’s heroic but someone people could relate to. I think most adolescent boys in 1999 wanted very much to be Neo.

But the acting is not what drew people to this movie. It’s the incredible visuals. How many computers in 1999 had screen savers with the “raining” numbers graphics that made up the Matrix? How many movies had the “bullet time” slow motion bullets with liquid contrails? Sure, there were plenty of antecedents for this movie – no movie exists in a vacuum – and the Wachowskis were almost certainly influenced by the films of Sam Peckinpah, the art of H.R. Giger, anime, Hong Kong martial arts movies and the fiction of William Gibson, but they drew all those elements into a nice package that resonated with people all over the planet. The Matrix isn’t a perfect movie – the second half isn’t quite as good as the first – but it is a movie that almost 15 years later continues to influence the way movies are made and is just as entertaining now as it was the first time we all saw it.

WHY RENT THIS: Visuals that are just as dazzling now as they were back then. The ultimate cyberpunk movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sort of loses its way near the end.

FAMILY MATTERS: A whole lot of violence and a little bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Neo is an anagram of One.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The original DVD release included a White Rabbit feature in which when activated a white rabbit would flash in the bottom right of the screen; if the enter button was pressed on the remote, a featurette would run explaining how that sequcnce was made. The Blu-Ray edition expands on this.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $463.5M on a $63M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Johnny Mnemonic

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Rubber

Daredevil


Daredevil

Matt Murdock and Elektra Natchios engage in a little foreplay.

(2003) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Ben Affleck, Colin Farrell, Jennifer Garner, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jon Favreau, Scott Terra, Ellen Pompeo, Joe Pantoliano, Leland Orser, Lennie Loftin, Erick Avari, Derrick O’Connor, Paul Ben-Victor, David Keith, Kevin Smith. Directed by Mark Steven Johnson

It is a fact that every day, handicapped people show over and over again that they are capable of amazing things. Some are aided by technology but much of it is sheer willpower.

The young Matt Murdock (Terra), who has stood up for his father (David Keith) when neighborhood punks call him a washed-up boxer and a mob enforcer, is shocked one day to spot his loving dad thumping on someone who hadn’t been making his vig. Matt runs off, causing a traffic accident that ends with him being doused by toxic waste, right in the eyes. This leaves him blind for life. However, there is an interesting side effect: Matt wakes up to find he has outrageously acute hearing, including a kind of sonar sense, which allows him to “see” almost as well as any sighted person — better, in some ways.

He also spends time developing his body into a graceful, acrobatic, athletic machine. When his Dad refuses to throw a fight and is murdered, his son is left to seek revenge. The adult Matt Murdock (Affleck) becomes a lawyer. Justice being blind jokes aside, he has a particularly strong streak of wishing to do the right thing in him.

Not content at achieving justice through conventional means, Murdock adopts the persona of Daredevil, utilizing a red leather costume, and becoming a semi-urban legend in New York, one that reporter Ben Urich (Pantoliano) is hell-bent on tracking down. Those who have seen the first Batman movie will note the similarity. His day job allows Murdock to represent the downtrodden, much to the chagrin of partner “Foggy” Nelson (Favreau), who yearns for clients who pay in actual cash, rather than in foodstuffs. Murdock meets Elektra Natchios (Garner), the daughter of a wealthy industrialist (Avari) who is in bed with the corrupt Wilson Fisk (Duncan), the legendary Kingpin of Crime. When Natchios tries to get out of business with Fisk, the Kingpin brings in a psychopathic master of hurled objects, Bullseye (Farrell) to kill Natchios, which he does, framing Daredevil for the deed in the process. Elektra — who is falling in love with the blind lawyer, swears revenge, not knowing that it is his alter ego she has sworn to kill.

The New York City of Daredevil is a dark, gothic place, not unlike the Gotham City of Batman, and like the Caped Crusader, Daredevil inhabits the shadows and rooftops of a corrupt, dangerous city. The problem with casting Affleck in the role of Matt Murdock is that he is far too likable. Affleck doesn’t carry off the brooding vigilante as well as he does the wisecracking lawyer, so the dual personality of Murdock doesn’t mesh as nicely as it could.

Farrell carries the movie, enthusiastically chewing the scenery and spitting it out so he can chew more. Favreau and Duncan are excellent as they nearly always are; Favreau would go on to direct the Iron Man movies but his association with the Marvel studios began here. His chemistry with Affleck is pretty keen.

The Elektra of the comics is far more threatening than the Elektra of the big screen. Garner, who on paper is an excellent choice to play her, is dispatched with near-comic ease in nearly every fight she takes part in. This compares unfavorably to the character in the four-color version (who is kickus assus maximus to the nth degree) and herein lies the problem with any adaptation of any comic.

Those who love the comic book will inevitably measure the movie against the comic, and in most aspects will find it wanting. Daredevil has always been one of the consistently best-written and innovative of story in Marvel’s arsenal. The movie’s writing denigrates it to an unsophisticated Batman knockoff. Yet, there are moments of poetry, such as when Murdock asks Elektra to stand in the rain, which allows him to see her face using his radar sense. That’s one of the best moments of any Marvel superhero film, ever.

A nice little aside – many of the characters here are named after comic book writers and artists, many of whom who worked on the Daredevil book itself. There are also several people associated with Daredevil’s long run at Marvel (including Smith, Stan Lee and Frank Miller) who make cameos in the movie. In addition, something must be said about the soundtrack which is one of the best for any movie in the last ten years. The tracks from Evanescence are particularly haunting. Also, The final confrontation between Fisk and Daredevil is very nicely done, visually speaking although the whole thing of the little water conduits running below the floor are head scratch-inducing.

Overall, this isn’t a bad movie. There are some deficiencies, true, but there is a large number of things the movie does well. Affleck would have been an excellent Daredevil had he another movie or two under his belt. The most important thing here however is to take the movie on its own merits. Try not to see it as a note-perfect portrayal of the comic hero, because you’ll only wind up disappointed. Judge it for what it is; a better-than-average action-adventure movie, and you’ll enjoy it a lot more.

WHY RENT THIS: Better than average action movie. Fine supporting performances from Farrell, Duncan and Favreau.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit of a Batman knock-off. Affleck carries off Murdock better than Daredevil. Elektra a bit too wimpy here.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first American movie in which Farrell uses his native Irish brogue.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: The DVD features a featurette on the comic book series, a comparison of the “Shadow World” as visually realized in the movie vs. the comic book, three music videos and an enhanced viewing feature which, when an icon appears onscreen, allows viewers to see the same scene from different points of view. There is also a Directors Cut DVD edition which restores 30 minutes of footage to the film, cut initially to bring the movie from an R rating to PG-13.  However, oddly enough, the Directors Cut edition has almost no special features, merely a commentary track and a 15 minute making-of featurette. The Blu-Ray contains both the Directors Cut and all the features from the initial DVD release and as such is the best bet for those interested in the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $179.2M on a $78M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Tower Heist

Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore


Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore

Even dogs can't save this movie from going to the dogs. Ahem.

(2010) Family Fantasy Comedy (Warner Brothers) Christina Applegate, Michael Clarke Duncan, Neil Patrick Harris, James Marsden, Bette Midler, Nick Nolte, Joe Pantoliano, Katt Williams, Chris O’Donnell, Paul Rodriguez, Sean Hayes, Jack McBrayer, Fred Armisen, Wallace Shawn, Roger Moore.  Directed by Brad Peyton

In Ghostbusters, a sure sign of the end of the world according to Bill Murray was cats and dogs living together. I wonder what he would have made of this.

A disgraced ex-police dog named Diggs (Marsden) is recruited into a spy agency called DOGS by Butch (Nolte). The fearless leader, Lou (Harris) informs them that there is a rogue former agent of their rival cat spies CATS named Kitty Galore (Midler) who has developed a secret weapon that would drive all the dogs on the planet insane, forcing them out of their long ensconced spot as man’s best friend and giving the cats a base to eventually overthrow mankind as the dominant species. Using high-tech gadget and good ol’ dogged determination (couldn’t resist), Diggs and his partners go after the bald sphinx Kitty and try to stop her fiendish plot.

That’s really all the plot you need to know. This is more or less a sequel to the 2001 family film Cats and Dogs which I found rather clever and charming, with effects that looking back seem a little bit low budget by today’s standards. The sequel has been percolating for awhile and it took nine years for it to finally bubble onto the big screen, where it was received with a bit of a thud. Live action/talking CGI animals are more or less commonplace these days.

There’s a pretty solid voice cast and a ton of references to the James Bond series (see below) which makes this at least a little more palatable to parents and grandparents who intend to use this as a babysitting tool. Unfortunately, most of the amusing bits about the concept are pretty much covered in the first ten minutes and quite frankly, there are a lot more butt sniffing jokes than most humans should be allowed to experience in their entire lifetimes.

Kids are going to like the cute puppies and kitties, but quite frankly I think kids are a bit more sophisticated about their entertainment these days than they were even a decade ago. They seem to go more for CGI puppies and kitties rather than the real sort, even if they have CGI lips mouthing CGI dialogue.

This was about as forgettable as family entertainment gets and I’ve seen some pretty awful family films over recent years. Here, nearly every human is a complete nincompoop and not even kids can save us – our salvation lies in the animal kingdom, which is embarrassing to say the least.

I have this off-the-wall theory – all me crazy – but that if you treat kids with respect and not like little morons with hands inside their parents wallets, not only will you make a movie that parents will want to take their kids to see but that kids will love as well and will want to see it several times. When you talk down to kids – just like when you talk down to anyone – they tend to tune you out.

That’s kind of how I felt here, like I was tuning out the movie. That’s a shame because there are some moments worth enjoying, and Bette Midler is pretty good as a megalomaniac. A little less Bond and a little more personality of its own would have served the movie better.

WHY RENT THIS: Dogs and cats are cute.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Clever concept wears out its welcome. Even kids might find this low-brow.

FAMILY VALUES: This is rated PG for “animal action and humor” but really truly? This is fine for kids of any age. Seriously.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are a number of James Bond references herein; from Police Captain Flemming (after Bond author Ian Fleming) to Lazenby (after former Bond George Lazenby) the character played by Roger Moore (himself an ex-Bond) to Paws (after Bond villain Jaws) and even the main character of Kitty Galore is a take-off on Bond girl Pussy Galore.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Looney Tunes animated short featuring the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote in “Coyote Falls” which is significantly better than the main movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $112.5M on an $85M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Horrible Bosses

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief


Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Uma Thurman checks to make sure her new hairstyle is cutting edge; Logan Lerman doesn't think so.

(20th Century Fox) Logan Lerman, Brandon T. Jackson, Alexandra Daddario, Catherine Keener, Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Jake Abel, Rosario Dawson, Steve Coogan, Kevin McKidd, Joe Pantoliano, Melina Kanakaredes. Directed by Chris Columbus

According to ancient Greek mythology, the pantheon of Gods were in reality an incredibly horny bunch who spent a goodly amount of time rutting with humans and producing offspring who inherited some of the powers of the Gods as well as the attributes of humans. These were called demigods and many Greek heroes, such as Heracles and Perseus, were of this race. But of course we all know the Greek gods were myths…weren’t they?

Percy Jackson (Lerman) is a high school student who is a little bit…he’s not quite…he’s strange, okay? He can hold his breath far longer than most human beings are capable of and he likes to sit at the bottom of the school swimming pool because he likes to think while he’s underwater, freed of the distractions of the world of the New York City high school he goes to. His only real friend is Grover (Jackson), a young man who walks on crutches. Percy is dyslexic and suffers from ADHD which makes him a hyperactive teenager who can’t read well.

At home, things pretty much suck too. Percy’s mom (Keener), a beautiful woman who has been worn down by life and circumstance, lives in a crummy apartment with her boyfriend Gabe Ugliano (Pantoliano), a foul-smelling pig who treats his mother like dirt. Percy would love to kick Gabe out of his life, but his mother incomprehensibly refuses.

On a school field trip led by the wheelchair-confined Mr. Brunner (Brosnan), Percy is pulled aside by a substitute teacher (Maria Olsen) who turns into this hideous winged monster that Percy later learns is called a Fury and is attacked by the shrieking creature, who demands that Percy turn over “the lightning bolt” to her. Percy has no idea what this means, but the arrival of Mr. Brunner and Grover chase the Fury off.

Of course, Percy is confused about what’s happening but there’s not a lot of time for explanations. Grover, who calls himself “Percy’s protector” accompanies the boy back to his home where Percy’s mom is in the middle of serving a group of Gabe’s poker buddies. Grover tells her that they need to leave and right now. Strangely, she follows his instructions without question, which doesn’t sit well with Gabe who needs someone to fetch the beer. Grover dispatches him with his crutches and the trio gets out of Dodge.

They head for a place known only as “the camp” and almost reach the confines of it when they are attacked by a hideous gigantic bull-like monster called a Minotaur. The boys survive the attack but the Minotaur grabs Percy’s mom, who disappears in flame and smoke.

As it turns out, Percy’s teacher Mr. Brunner runs the camp and as it turns out, he’s actually a centaur named Chiron (the wheelchair was an illusion meant to mask Chiron’s plentitude of horse’s backside). As it also turns out, all the kids in this camp are the human offspring of Gods and humans, and Percy himself is the son of Poseidon (McKidd). The Gods were forbidden contact with their human offspring after they turn six months old, and so deserted their human partners. Gods as deadbeat dads…kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?

The big problem is that the lightning bolt, the most powerful weapon in the universe, has been stolen and its owner, Zeus (Bean) thinks Percy is responsible for reasons never explained. Zeus gives Percy 14 days to find the weapon and return it to Zeus at Mt. Olympus or else the Gods would go to war, a war which would devastate the earth and the humans living on it.

Chris Columbus, the man who kicked off the Harry Potter film franchise, is attempting to do the same with the popular young adult book series from Rick Riordan. Unfortunately, I don’t get the impression that this will pull in Potter-like numbers, not is it as good a film as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was.

The writers of the movie made the unilateral decision to make some wholesale changes from the book. Some of these changes were minor but several were fundamental. One of the reasons I think the Potter film franchise did so well is because the filmmakers didn’t make many changes at the insistence of author J.K. Rowling. I can understand skewing the movie to an older audience (more profitable y’see) but much of the charm and the wonder of the book has been cut out as well.

That leaves lavish action sequences and hideous monsters for the most part and these are executed well. Certainly there’s plenty of spectacle here, from the scenes in Hades and Olympus to more earthly locations like Vegas, New York City and the camp. There are plenty of well-known actors showing up here, from Uma Thurman as Medusa (and she does as good a job as anyone with a tangle of hissing digital snakes on her head) to Melissa Kanakaredes as Athena. The odd casting choice was comedian Steve Coogan as Hades – one would think Hades to be a not particularly funny character and in fact he isn’t.

The three leads have to absolutely click for this to succeed and while in some ways they do, they don’t to the extent that Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint did in Potter. Following the Potter formula of two guys and one girl at the forefront, Lerman as Percy is a bit bland. Jackson does a fairly good turn as the jive-talking African-American second banana, but the part seems a bit cliché; I would have appreciated him being a little less smart-mouthed and a little more smart. Not mentioned in my synopsis is Daddario as Annabeth, Athena’s daughter who doesn’t show up until the camp sequence. She is a brilliant strategizer and formidable warrior and is there essentially to be Percy’s love interest.

You’ll learn a lot of Greek mythology here and they use it fairly accurately and update it nicely (although in the stories, Medusa was killed by Perseus but appears here quite alive). I liked the Mt. Olympus set especially; it looked a lot like I imagined it. In fact, nearly all of the special effects sequences work magnificently.

The problem is with the script, I think. Lots of plot points are never explained or supported and some just flat-out don’t make any sense. For example, the big one is why is Percy accused of the theft in the first place? According to Zeus’ own law he isn’t aware of his divine parentage; why would he want to steal something that he has no idea of its existence?

All in all, this isn’t a bad movie by any means. It’s not a great movie either. As for kick-starting a major tentpole film franchise, I really am skeptical of the future of further Percy Jackson films. I hope I’m wrong, but they’ll need some better writing to really punch it into the popular consciousness. Until then, future Percy Jackson movies seem to be as much myth as the Gods themselves.

REASONS TO GO: A very clever use of Greek mythology in a modern setting. The special effects sequences are top notch.  

REASONS TO STAY: There are many plot holes that cause you to wonder if wholesale parts of the script were edited out. Not sure if the trio of young actors playing the leads have what it takes to sustain interest through a multi-movie series.

FAMILY VALUES: The monsters are way too frightening for younger children – you know, the core audience for the books. One family walked out of the theater we were in when their little one became upset at the Fury, and that was only the first monster encountered.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the original book, Percy Jackson is 12 years old. In the movie he is depicted as 17 years old.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely some of the big battle scenes and effects sequences should be seen in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Coraline