Mini Reviews (February 2010)
Extraordinary Measures, Temple Grandin, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Blind Justice, The Maid, The Messenger, Uptown
Extraordinary Measures (February 6/10)
Based on a true story, Extraordinary Measures follows businessman John Crowley (Brendan Fraser) as he teams up with a grouchy research scientist (Harrison Ford's Robert Stonehill) to find a cure for a genetic disorder before it claims the lives of his two children. It's a compelling premise that's employed to watchable yet far-from-spectacular effect by director Tom Vaughan, with the filmmaker's pervasively middle-of-the-road approach ensuring that, as virtually every other critic has already noted, the movie generally plays like a small-screen inspirational drama. There's little doubt, however, that the stellar performances and almost procedural-like nature of the storyline prove instrumental in elevating the proceedings on a fairly consistent basis, as it's admittedly difficult not to become wrapped up in Crowley and Stonehill's ongoing efforts at conquering the deadly disease. The surprising absence of tension - Crowley is, after all, working against the clock to find a treatment - is subsequently not as problematic as one might've expected, with the inclusion of a few thoroughly moving interludes certainly going a long way towards cultivating a sporadically poignant atmosphere. In the end, the unapologetic earnestness with which Extraordinary Measures has been infused effectively compensates for its various flaws - with the actors' uniformly stellar work ultimately staving off the movie's made-for-television proclivities.
Temple Grandin (February 8/10)
Anchored by Claire Danes' best performance to date, Temple Grandin effectively rises above the limitations of its genre - the biopic - to become an engrossing, downright fascinating look into the life and times of the title character. The storyline follows autistic scientist Temple Grandin (Danes) as she attempts to overcome a series of obstacles - some entirely unrelated to her condition (ie sexism) - while devising humane methods for handling livestock, with the inclusion of well-placed flashbacks covering her upbringing and her education. There's little doubt that Temple Grandin gets off to an admittedly slow start, as director Mick Jackson - working from a script by Christopher Monger and Merritt Johnson - essentially drops the viewer into the protagonist's life with little by way of explanation or exposition. It's only as the movie progresses and the details of Grandin's life are fleshed out that Temple Grandin begins to morph into a seriously compelling piece of work, with Danes' captivating turn certainly playing a significant role in the movie's unexpected success (ie in the actress' capable hands, Grandin never becomes the twitchy, over-the-top caricature one might've expected). The presence of several undeniably poignant moments - ie Grandin (badly) sings "You'll Never Walk Alone" at her graduation - ensures that the film sporadically packs an impossible-to-anticipate emotional punch, and it's consequently not surprising to note that Temple Grandin ultimately establishes itself as a stellar true-life tale that's consistently heightened by Danes' award-worthy performance.
Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (February 11/10)
Based on the ongoing fantasy series, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief follows average teenager Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman) as he embarks on a perilous quest after learning that he's the half-human son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd). Director Chris Columbus - working from a script by Craig Titley - has infused Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief with an unapologetically goofy sensibility that often threatens to segue into high camp, as the movie boasts a whole host of intentionally ludicrous elements that prove effective in consistently holding the viewer's interest. The less-than-fresh nature of Percy's quest - ie his sidekick is a sarcastic black guy, for crying out loud - is subsequently not as problematic as one might've assumed, with the hit-and-miss midsection alleviated by the inclusion of several tongue-in-cheek encounters and interludes (ie a slinky Uma Thurman makes a one-scene appearance as Medusa, Pierce Brosnan has a recurring role as a helpful centaur, etc). Columbus' expected reliance on computer-generated effects is lamentable, admittedly, yet it's worth noting that the filmmaker generally compensates for the needless digital trickery by hard-wiring the proceedings with a fun, '80s-adventure-movie sort of vibe. And although Lerman's personable work as the title character is often overshadowed by the progressively broad spectacle surrounding him, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief ultimately establishes itself as an agreeable fantasy adventure that should leave fans of the genre satisfied.
Blind Justice (February 20/10)
Watchable yet entirely forgettable, Blind Justice follows near-blind gunfighter Canaan (Armand Assante) as he reluctantly agrees to help defend a small town against vicious bandits (led by Robert Davi's sinister Alacran). It's an excessively familiar premise that's employed to middling effect by director Richard Spence, as the filmmaker - working from Daniel Knauf's screenplay - has infused the proceedings with a deliberately-paced sensibility that essentially (and effectively) prevents the viewer from wholeheartedly connecting with the material on an all-too-consistent basis. There's little doubt, then, that the movie's mild success is due primarily to Assante's typically intense turn as the grizzled protagonist, with the actor's engrossing work matched by an eclectic supporting cast that includes Elisabeth Shue, Adam Baldwin, and Jack Black. It also goes without saying that the sporadic emphasis on elements of a decidedly tongue-in-cheek nature - ie Canaan grabs ahold of a thug's genitals and snarls, "how do you like your eggs? Scrambled?" - proves instrumental in compensating for the unusually sedate atmosphere, and although the action-packed climax ensures that the film ends on a positive note, Blind Justice is ultimately not quite the irresistible bit of pulp fiction one might've expected from its promotional materials.
The Maid (February 24/10)
Sporadically intriguing yet ultimately unsatisfying, The Maid follows the title character (Catalina Saavedra's Raquel) as she attempts to hold onto her position as the sole caregiver for a larger family - with the arrival of a second maid triggering a series of passive-aggressive schemes designed to push the newcomer out. Filmmaker Sebastián Silva has infused The Maid with a low-key visual style that instantly establishes an atmosphere of documentary-like authenticity, which initially proves effective at sustaining the viewer's interest even through the movie's more overtly mundane stretches. One's willingness to indulge Silva's decidedly laid-back sensibilities slowly but surely begins to wear thin as time progresses, however, and there's little doubt that the film's pervasively less-than-enthralling vibe exacerbated by a kitten-murdering, increasingly unlikable central character (ie it's impossible to believe that this willfully obnoxious woman would've remained in the family's employ for over two decades). And while the inclusion of a few crowd-pleasing moments within the film's final half hour - ie Raquel finally meets her match in the guise of a grizzled older maid - effectively (and temporarily) alleviates the otherwise tedious atmosphere, The Maid's uncomfortable mix of avant-garde and conventional elements ultimately cements its place as an admittedly well-made misfire.
The Messenger (February 26/10)
Oren Moverman's directorial debut, The Messenger follows injured soldier Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) as he's assigned to the Army's casualty notification service alongside a grizzled veteran (Woody Harrelson's Tony Stone) - with problems ensuing as Will finds himself drawn to a recent widow (Samantha Morton's Olivia) and her young son (Jahmir Duran-Abreau's Matt). Moverman has infused The Messenger with an atmosphere of gritty authenticity that's certainly reflected in its various attributes, with the documentary-like vibe perpetuated by, among other things, the uniformly naturalistic performances and Moverman and Alessandro Camon's pared-down screenplay. There's little doubt, though, that the film's early success is due primarily to the inherently compelling nature of the protagonists' harrowing duty, as such moments have been hard-wired with a suitably intense feel that's heightened by the searing work from several one-scene actors (with Steve Buscemi's moving turn as a grieving father a clear highlight). It's only as Moverman places an increasingly prominent emphasis on Will and Olivia's tentative friendship that the movie begins to lose its momentum, with the couple's less-than-enthralling scenes together culminating in a technically-impressive continuous conversation that effectively brings the proceedings to a dead stop - thus ensuring that the remainder of the film suffers from an anti-climactic quality that's exacerbated by Moverman's progressively aimless modus operandi (ie the inclusion of a rather inconsequential stretch in which Will and Tony embark on a spur-of-the-moment road trip). Such concerns can't quite negate the strength of The Messenger's opening hour, however, and it ultimately goes without saying that Foster and Harrelson's respectively striking work is alone justification for the film's existence.
Uptown (February 27/10)
Uptown follows strangers Ben (Chris Riquinha) and Isabel (Meissa Hampton) as they get together in real life after meeting on the internet, with the film subsequently revolving around the pair's efforts at getting to know one another over the course of several dates. Though director Brian Ackley generally does a nice job of capturing the awkwardness that's part and parcel with new relationships, Uptown has been suffused with a pervasively uneventful atmosphere that ultimately proves oppressive - as Ackley continually stresses the almost aggressively inconsequential small talk that comes to define Ben and Isabel's ongoing encounters. Ackley's unabashedly low-key modus operandi wouldn't be quite so problematic had he managed to transform either of the central characters into fully-fleshed out, thoroughly compelling figures, with his inability to do so ensuring that it becomes impossible to work up any interest or enthusiasm in Ben and Isabel's tentative romance (ie the relentlessly superficial nature of their conversations inevitably ensures that there's no real connection between the couple). This absence of chemistry also plays a significant role in dulling the impact of what should've been an emotionally-affecting conclusion, which effectively cements Uptown's place as a well-intentioned yet thoroughly uninvolving misfire (and this is to say nothing of the less-than-clear sound quality, as much of the dialogue is drowned out by Ackley's decision to shoot at real locations like subway cars and crowded parks).