Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Percy Jackson - Sea of Monsters

Dinner and a Movie

Percy’s Braai

By Steve Herte

I may have said before that, as far as restaurants go, I feel I’ve already dined at most of the best in New York so from now on all that are left will be surprises or disappointments. I fear the same is to be said about actors and actresses. My list of non-actors and actor-wannabes is getting longer. It seems to me that there are a growing proportion of people getting into Hollywood either on their parents’ coattails or through a persistent agent. Talent no longer seems to count. At the same time, I’m viewing more and more quality acting in animated features than in live movies. When I think about the Nicholas Cages, the Brendan Frasers, and most especially the Matt Damons out there I’m convinced that computer graphics will replace many. But I’m still hoping that’s not true. Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy if you don’t think about it.

Percy Jackson – Sea of Monsters (20th Century Fox, 2013) – Director: Thor Freundenthal. Writers: Marc Guggenheim (s/p), Rick Riordan (novel – Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Sea of Monsters). Cast: Logan Lerman, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Head, Alisha Newton, Samuel Braun, Bjorn Yearwood, Katelyn Mager, Alexandra Daddario, Douglas Smith, Leven Rambin, Connor Dunn, Brendan T. Jackson, Shohreh Aghdashloo, & Jake Abel. Color, 106 minutes.

Before you read this review, throw away your Edith Hamilton and your Bullfinch’s books of mythology. They got it all wrong. Forget the fact that all classical mythology was written before the New World was discovered and it was considered dangerous to venture beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar). In this tongue-in-cheek (they can’t possibly be serious) sequel to the 2010 Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief the audience is misinformed by a mish-mash of misplaced mythology posing as a movie.

Percy Jackson (Lerman) discovers in the first movie that he is indeed the son of the sea god Poseidon and therefore a demigod. A centaur, Chiron (Head), and Mr. D (which stands for the god of wine Dionysus/Bacchus, and is played by Tucci) eventually lead him to a kind of summer training camp and safe haven for half-bloods that they run. The intent is to instruct these feisty teens so that they use their supernatural powers wisely and to keep them from being destroyed by the evil beings at large on the Earth (funny, I’ve never been attacked by a Chimera).

The film opens with four younger versions of Annabeth (Newton), Luke (Braun), Grover – a Satyr (Yearwood), and Thalia, daughter of Zeus (Mager), running for the safety of the haven and being chased by a pair of Cyclopes (Yes, that’s the correct plural of Cyclops). Thalia turns to fight and distract the monsters and succeeds but is killed in the process. Her father Zeus reincarnates her as a redwood and a safety force field around the haven.

All are safe until late teenage when, after having completed a skill tester which looks more like a structure one would see on the TV show Wipeout (Percy is bested by Clarisse, daughter of Ares because he stops to help a fellow competitor dangling upside-down from the rope ladder), the entire camp is rocked by heavy hoof-falls. After a few loud crashes into the force field, it shatters like glass and a large, fire-breathing mechanical bull charges through. It’s one of the two Chaldean Bulls Jason (of Argonauts fame) had to harness to a plow so he could sow dragon teeth into a field (remember that, myth-lovers?). How it found them and why it was determined to destroy them is left unanswered in the film. Percy (actually Perseus) literally throws a monkey wrench into its machinery by tossing his retractable sword in its mouth, which subsequently gets stuck in its gears, causing it to blow up. If this was a Three Stooges movie, Curly would be hit on the head with one of the enormous gears to a loud clanging sound followed by several “ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh’s” and the movie would be funny.

Not here. The breaking of the force field causes the tree to be poisoned and once more Thalia is dying (so is the plot). Fortunately, Annabeth (now played by Daddario) looks up the cure on her I-Pad and announces, “We have to find the Golden Fleece,” which is no longer in Greece (someone must have stolen it from Jason). Meanwhile a new character is introduced as another son of Poseidon and hence, a brother to Percy: Tyson, a Cyclops, because the god had an affair with another sea nymph (Smith).

It’s now time for a counter plot. Luke (now played by Abel) is disillusioned in the powers of the gods who gave them birth and their disinterest, and has now gathered a group of several other malcontents, including a pet Manticore (human head, lion’s body, scorpion tail – but someone in the special effects department nixed the human head). They want the fleece to resurrect the Titan Kronos (Father of Zeus, who rather than be replaced by his children started eating them and Zeus freed them by killing him and dooming him to Tartarus). Is anybody lost yet?

Clarisse (Rambin) is selected to lead the quest for the Golden Fleece. Because they need a Satyr to find it, Mr. D chooses Tereus (Dunn), much to Percy’s dismay and Grover’s (now played by Jackson) relief. Percy, after hearing from the Oracle (Aghdashloo) that he will either be the salvation or the destruction of Olympus, gathers Grover, Annabeth and Tyson (much to Annabeth’s chagrin) on their own quest. Now it gets a little sillier and more like Harry Potter.

Luke has a huge lead on the quest on his luxury yacht (where’d he get that?), and Clarisse, with a crew of zombies (really?) on her Civil War Era ironclad, and is gaining on him. Annabeth gives out a loud whistle and two eerie lights come weaving through the forest and join in front of our heroes in . . . a New York yellow cab. All four of them cram into the back seat and the cab rockets through the forest. Who’s driving? – Why the Graea, also known as the Gray Sisters, directly related to the Gorgons (of which Medusa was most famous). The Gorgons share only one eye, and it’s tucked away in the visor over the windshield. After some nail-biting moments the sisters throw out the four travelers when they find out they won’t get paid and the setting is now Washington, D.C., where Tyson mistakes the Capital Building for Olympus. Luke’s group uses a matter transporter device to kidnap Grover (hey, they need a Satyr to find the fleece too) and all seems lost. But Tyson redeems himself by summoning a Hippocampus (Seahorse to those not in the know) in the harbor and the three are back in the race.

Did you know that Scylla (a many headed monster) and Charybdis (a giant whirlpool with teeth and a gut) moved from the Mediterranean to the Bermuda Triangle? Well they did and Clarisse’s ship and Percy’s lifeboat (from Luke’s yacht) both get swallowed up. Only one way out – the way of all food.

It’s an epic journey told in a very silly light-hearted way. None of the characters are believable. Percy is too unsure of himself, Clarisse is right out of a Charlie Brown cartoon “Nyah, Nyah”- ing her way through the script, Grover is the token African-American who will do anything – no matter how debasing – to survive, and Luke as a villain is only Luke-warm. The Gray Sisters were hilarious, Chiron very noble but wishy-washy, and Mr. D undeveloped. I’m sure he could have been my favorite character if Joe Mantegna had played the part. He really loves his wine and Zeus keeps changing it to water on him. He has the best line in the movie, “You know the Christians have a man who does this in reverse order! That’s a true God!”

Percy Jackson – Sea of Monsters is an entertaining hour and 46 minutes of remarkable special effects, trite to silly one-liners and anachronisms. Most of the people in the audience seemed to enjoy it because they laughed at the right times (almost) and made snide remarks at the right times. So, throw away what you know, sit back and enjoy the ride. Rating: 2½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

329 West 51st Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues), New York

You really have to look for Braai (Outdoor Grill in Afrikaans) on 51st Street because there are almost as many restaurants here as on Restaurant Row (46th). When I entered, I stopped halfway and was about to turn around and leave. I thought I had the wrong place. Instead of the native long tent with bamboo thatched ceiling, faux tree trunks supporting the tent, African murals on the walls and golden glow, I was confronted by a white-washed cave, nothing on the walls but exposed wires, a bar on the right and tables on the left leading to the back room.

I announced my reservation to Priscilla and she gave me my choice of tables. I chose one at the back of the main room near the partition to the back room and thence to the kitchen. My chair was not too comfortable but I made do. The first thing I wondered about was where (if any) was the air-conditioning. My left arm was warm. This was because, for some reason, the wall between rooms was hot. I moved my chair away from the wall and it helped. I felt a little robbed because I was attracted to this restaurant online by its South African cuisine as well as by its charming décor. I hoped desperately that the food was good.

Melissa (no, not the same person from Morton’s) brought me a nice bottle of chilled New York tap water and a timber already half-full. She indicated the menu (which I thought was a placemat) and went about her business. The food was listed on one side of this parchment colored paper and the wine list was on the back. When their first location, Xai Xai at 369 West 51st Street opened in 2006 it was touted as a South African Wine Bar featuring the fine wines of South Africa. This was another lure for me for I know these wines and how good they are. The wine list here was entirely from South Africa with very reasonable prices. I chose a 2010 Shiraz from Wellington, South Africa (Diemersfontein Vineyards), before selecting my cocktail.

“Are you ready to order?” said Djamel. In addition to being my server, he was also the bartender, and the manager (way, way, too busy). No, but I ordered a cocktail, the South African Wildflower, a delicious combination of tea-infused vodka, grenadine and Cointreau, while I studied the menu. Djamel disappeared. There were so many choices on the menu I would have liked his opinion but he was wearing too many hats. When he wasn’t tending bar, he was taking orders from the tables (and they did fill in quickly), delivering drinks, or shouting at Priscilla.

The food menu only resembles the one online in the main courses list. Everything else, including the quaint Afrikaans titles was different. There was a choice of South African “Tapas” (frankly a Spanish concept) from which you could order a “rainbow” of three, Appetizers, Salads, Sides and Main Courses. Another server brought a small dish of four olives in oil and the breadbasket. The bread was wonderful, soft and fluffy with a nice black crust and the olives were gone before I knew it. I controlled myself with the bread or else I would have finished it then and there and ruined my appetite. Upon finishing my cocktail I gained eye contact with Djamel and almost had to chain him to my table to listen to my full order. I had to say “I’m not finished” twice, so eager was he to charge away.

The wine came first and my only conversation with Djamel took place while he uncorked it. Basically it was only a comment about how I love South African wines and his acknowledgement. He poured and disappeared before I could ask for the cork (but I shouldn’t have to). It was a lovely rich, full-bodied wine tasting almost thick on the tongue. I knew it would marry the meal favorably. 

Soon, my “rainbow” of tapas arrived – South African Grilled Octopus, Venison Carpaccio, and Frikadellen (meatballs) in Soweto sauce. The octopus was smoky and tender, the venison finely sliced and topped with baby spinach and shredded cheese, and the meatballs were succulent in their tomato-based sauce; all were wonderful. The surprise was that my side dish – the “Slap” Chips in Vinegar – arrived at the same time, which caused a minor logjam on my small table. I wondered why they were served with a small dish of catsup when they were already seasoned with vinegar. The answer was, they were not that good. They were not crisp and almost transparent. I left most of them.

Fortunately the servers waited until I finished my “rainbow” to bring my main dish, African Road Runner: two-pan-seared, herb crusted ostrich filets with curried coconut mashed potatoes, green beans, pearl onions and a blackberry peri-peri sauce (a spicy Portuguese hot sauce). The ostrich was fabulous with a dense but juicy texture, a tasty crust and steak-like flavor. The mashed potatoes were excellent (I don’t like mashed potatoes, but I finished these) the green beans were crisp and the sauce was not as spicy as I expected – that is until I popped a red chili pepper into my mouth. Between the mashed potatoes and the bread, the fire was put out.

As I finished the wine, having had to pour it myself, I realized I had room for dessert and there were several interesting possibilities. If the menu had described the Koeksisters – sweetly-spiced dough pastry in orange yoghurt mousse and rooibos ginger honey sauce with tropical fruit sorbet – I would have gone for that. But it didn’t and Djamel had no time to describe anything. He recommended the Malva Pudding – traditional soft apricot sponge cake pudding on a bed of amarula-granadilla (an African Passion flower cream liqueur) custard with vanilla ice cream. It was nice, but I didn’t like it and left most of it.

I didn’t order coffee or an after dinner drink because I felt a bit rushed. I had made the reservation through opentable.com and when I wanted to check the dress code, Braai had vanished from their website. When a called to confirm, the reaction was confused and curt. I guess it was a cumulative reaction to the non-décor, the hasty service, the so-so fries and dessert, and the fact that no one ever asked me how everything was – even though most of it was great. Maybe I’ll check out their other location where, hopefully, I’ll be able to talk to someone.

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