PERCY JACKSON & THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF
Just because the title is rather unwieldy, and the film is about an adolescent with otherworldly abilities, and this kid has male and female tag-along pals with powers of their own, and there are a lot of CGI effects on display, and the director is Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets helmer Chris Columbus, don't think that Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is necessarily indebted to J.K. Rowling. The latest Harry Potter movie, after all, found its hero contending with a Half-Blood Prince. This adventure, on the other hand, finds its son-of-Poseidon protagonist attending Camp Half-Blood. See? They're not even remotely similar.
You're not buying this, are you? That's all right; there's nothing here to suggest that Columbus, screenwriter Craig Titley, and author Rick Riordan - who has thus far written five young-adult novels in the Percy Jackson series - would want you to. Swapping ancient-Greek gods and monsters for the wizardly instructors and nemeses of Hogwarts, The Lightning Thief follows the Rowling blueprint so slavishly that it almost seems like a remake of one of Columbus' Harry Potter outings. (After the detailing of Percy's miserable home life and the discovery of his magical powers and the introduction to his future friends and foes at Camp Half-Blood, Pierce Brosnan's centaur instructor barks, "Now we must train!" Of course we must.) Unfortunately, like Columbus' Rowling adaptations, this one is also a mostly slack, bland affair. Despite the manic plotting and Christophe Beck's score blasting away at you, the movie is replete with obvious staging, graceless dialogue, and young performers desperately lacking in big-screen charisma, with Percy Jackson portrayer Logan Lerman actually a triple-threat - petulant, charmless, and dull.
Thankfully, and somewhat surprisingly, the effects are pretty spectacular. There's a wonderfully exciting scene wherein a substitute teacher transforms into one of the mythological, winged furies, and strong, kinetic confrontations with a minotaur, a hydra, Hades, and Uma Thurman's Medusa; the film's CGI is like a high-tech variant on the low-tech, stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen. And amongst a welcome (if underused) supporting cast that features Catherine Keener, Joe Pantoliano, Sean Bean, and Steve Coogan, Rosario Dawson, as Persephone, is like a special effect unto herself. Grinning with wicked malice and reading her lines with unapologetic salaciousness, the actress is easily the most entertaining, invested performer in sight ... just as she was in Columbus' otherwise tepid take on the musical Rent. I'm in no way hankering for another big-screen Percy Jackson endeavor, but if Columbus' unofficial good-luck charm managed to slither her way into the proceedings, that might be enough to change my mind.
A SINGLE MAN
In the first reel of director Tom Ford's A Single Man, there's a closeup of Colin Firth that lasts just over a minute, and if there's a stronger piece of acting to be found among 2009's releases, I haven't yet seen it. The moment in question occurs when Firth's George Falconer - a gay, middle-aged college professor living in 1962 Los Angeles - receives a phone call informing him that his lover of 16 years (played, in flashback, by Matthew Goode) has just perished in a car crash, and what Firth does over the next 60-plus seconds is a marvel of instinct and craft; it's his companion that's died, yet damned if you don't witness all the life slowly, but unmistakably, draining away from George, as well. Firth has always been a confident, reliable character actor, but watching his supremely subtle, heartbreaking delineation of confusion leading to grief leading to utter annihilation is nothing short than revelatory, as is everything about this brilliantly layered, thoughtful, and sardonically funny portrayal. (Oscar-nominated for Best Actor, Firth would be likely be the odds-on favorite in a Jeff Bridges-less year.)
It's really asking for too much to want Ford's directorial debut - which follows George on the day of his planned suicide - to be as effective as its star. But there are times, a lot of times, when it comes awfully close. Based on author Christopher Isherwood's gay-literature touchstone, and with a script by Ford and David Scearce, A Single Man is a little self-consciously artsy, boasting a frequently employed gray-fading-into-color technique that calls too much attention to itself, and a few too many sequences that lapse into tedium. (A scene of George dancing with his best friend - the superbly blowsy Julianne Moore - runs much longer than it should, as if Ford was determined to include every last second the actress filmed during her extended cameo.) But while the movie is occasionally over-directed, it's at all times gorgeously directed; there are unusual, haunting images galore and some profoundly beautiful encounters between Firth and Goode, and the score by Abel Korzeniowski and Shigeru Umebayashi has a propulsive, Philip Glass quality yet isn't the least bit oppressive. And, of course, the film has Colin Firth, who would make A Single Man worth a viewing - at least one - even under far less engaging circumstances.