Sea Monster Quest (Percy Jackson: The Sea of Monsters, 2013)

Perecy_Jackson_Sea_of_Monsters_PosterSea of Monsters leaves behind a lot of the characters from the original.  And several of the actors.  Lerman, Daddario and Jackson are back. Replacing Pierce Brosnan in the role of centaur Chiron is Anthony Stewart Head (Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer).  This is actually a decent fit, as Head is capable of both intensity and scholarly attitude.

Opening with the story of how four children were running to Camp Halfblood long ago, all but one making it.  Thalia, daughter of Zeus sacrifices herself.  Zeus causes her to grow into a tree that creates a barrier that protects the camp.

Decades later, Percy is a minor celebrity for saving Olympus, but he is facing competition from Ares’ daughter Clarisse. She has been racking up quest, while Percy has…well, he saved Olympus. Everyone is surprised by the arrival of Tyson, who claims to be a child of Poseidon. He is not, however, half human, rather he is half dryad, which results in him being a cyclops.

The camp is startled when a large mechanical bull breaks through the barrier and starts to tear up the camp. Percy and friends discover that the Thalia Tree has been poisoned.  They decide it calls for a quest to find the Golden Fleece, which could heal the tree. Clarisse strikes out on her own, while Percy, Annabeth, Grover, and Tyson go on the run.

What they also find is that they are in competition with Luke yet again. This time, he seeks to resurrect his grandfather Kronos and bring about the destruction of the world. So, the stakes are not high or anything. The kids encounter sea monsters, cyclops and oracles as they seek to stop the end of the world.

There are some things that this film does better than the last.  We only meet a couple of gods, but Stanley Tucci has droll fun with Mr. D (“D” for Dionysus).  He is cursed by Zeus to be unable to consume wine (cause, he is, among other things, the god of wine making, so…ironic!).  When he pours wine, it becomes water.  He tells Chiron, “You know, the Christians have a guy who can do that in reverse.  Now that’s a god!” This film suggests there are more than just the Greek Pantheon of Gods, but it is unclear how it all works out, and the film is unconcerned by it.

Nathan Fillion appears as Hermes in a rather fun performance that plays to his charms.  The story’s updates to classical characters are far more effective this time around.  The Gray sisters (prophetic witches who share a single eye), are reckless cab drivers. Polyphemus the cyclops…well, he is a cyclops.  But he lives under an amusement park.  And Hermes runs a UPS/Fed Ex style delivery service.

The film tries to build tension with Annabeth unable to trust Tyson because he is a cyclops.  But Tyson is such a sweet kid, it is a hard sell.  The film also tries to give a feel like everyone rallies behind Percy.  And they do, but it is entirely unconvincing as to why Clarisse so quickly abandons her chip.

The cgi in the film ranges from middling to video game cut scene level.

Sea of Monsters is not a terrible follow up, and it does do some things better than the first. But what we have is something mildly enjoyable if you are bored one evening and usnure of what to do with your night.

Dwight Dons Spandex (Super, 2011)

super_posterYou remember that movie Kick Ass?  You know, the one where the loser kid wonders why nobody ever fights crime in a costume-so he decides to do it?  And teams up with a precocious ten year old girl who kills people and swears a lot?  And how it was all seen as good something sane people would do?

James Gunn (writer director of Slither and Guardians of the Galaxy) thought that film was full of $#!^ (to use comic book talk).  In the world of Super, in which Dwight from the Office has a mental breakdown and decides to fight the evil Kevin Bacon to save his elvish wife with the help of Juno, you have to be a little off to want to put on a costume and fight crime.

The story centers on Frank (Rainn Wilson, Dwight on the Office).  Frank has lived a life of humiliation after humiliation.  His only two good moments were marrying his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) and the time he helped catch a criminal.  His wife falls in with a bad crowd, hooked on drugs and eventually, she leaves him.

Frank sees a cheesy Christian Super-Hero called The Holy Avenger (played by Nathan Fillion) on TV (think Bibleman).  Later, after pouring his heart out in a prayer, Frank has a vision.  This vision convinces him he has a special calling.  And so he vows to fight crime in a costume with a night stick.

Beating up criminals makes him a public phenomenon at first, until Frank overreacts to a guy who makes a slight social faux pas.  He meets Libby (Ellen Page), who discovers his identity and becomes obsessed with being his “kid” sidekick.  What soon becomes apparent is that she is not interested in doing what is right so much as the action and rush involved.

That the film can be very dark was not truly a surprise to me.  It really does present the idea of super-hero work as requiring that you be a bit disturbed.  While not a new idea in comics (Garth Ennis makes quite a living off of the notion) after several years of stable heroes in film…this rather cynical take works pretty well.  Of course, it came out the same year as the film Defendor-and even covers similar ground.  But still, Wilson makes a pretty compelling mental case, who can be endearing and yet a bit scary.  Kevin Bacon is good as a low level drug kingpin wanna be, while Page goes from a fun exuberance to a really uncomfortable and tragic place.  Gunn really makes the story work, and finding a way to inject satire in with sincerity that is usually very hard to get right.

There is a brutal honesty when Frank is on his knees, in tears begging God for an answer as to why his life seems so stacked against him.  He pours out every bit of self resentment and begs God for an answer…why do I have to look like this?  Why couldn’t I have been smarter?  Cooler?  More lovable.

Frank is messed up, but you can understand and sympathize as to why.  He really wants life to be more simple than it is.  Underpinning the film is a rather grim and unpleasant portrayal of violence that challenges the cool action hero of something like Kick Ass.  It is disturbing and lacks the “cool one liners and puns” prevalent to other violent action heroes.

And yet, in spite of the grimness, the film finds a way to end on an upbeat and even inspirational note, without feeling false or tacked on.  It never justifies what went on before, instead suggesting some healing for Frank.

Super really caught me off guard, in spite of having heard positive raves about it, I think I anticipated a more gritty take on Kick Ass, but I got something much better out of it.  Yes, it was violent, but it was also thoughtful, touching and inspirational.

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