Relative quickies: Extreme Measures, Book of Eli, Pajama Men (theatre)

FILM: Extraordinary Measures (review originally from ffwdweekly.com)

Extraordinary Measures is a saccharine, heartstring-tugging Hallmark card of a movie, an inspirational tale jury-rigged to provide as much cockle-warming as can be uncomfortably wedged into 105 minutes. If watching wheelchair-bound children delivering life lessons to cantankerous scientists while the soundtrack plays Eric Clapton’s “Change the World” is your idea of a pleasant night at the theatre, your dreams have been made material.

The rest of us will find plenty to politely nod through in the second directorial effort from Tom Vaughan, who previously helmed the much-reviled Ashton Kutcher-Cameron Diaz vehicle, What Happens in Vegas. Brendan Fraser stars as a marketer of pharmaceuticals and a father of three. His climb up the corporate ladder from humble New Jersey origins has given him and wife Keri Russell a borderline idyllic existence, except for one thing — two of Fraser’s children suffer from Pompe disease, a fatal disorder that has them confined to wheelchairs for their tragically shortened lives.

Enter Harrison Ford as the eccentric but brilliant scientist (eccentric in this case means he wears jeans and listens to classic rock) who is head-and-shoulders above his fellow researchers in pursuit of a cure for Pompe. Though initially reluctant to leave his low-paying, underfunded University of Nashville lab, Ford eventually joins Fraser in a risky ploy to start their own pharma-corp and make the theoretical cure a reality.

There’s enough personal, professional and entrepreneurial conflict in the material for a legitimately compelling story, but this screenplay (by Robert Nelson Jacobs, from the book by Geeta Anand) isn’t it. Ford and Fraser are both burdened by one-note characters, though those characters admittedly play to the actors’ strengths. Ford is perpetually sour, refusing to play nice with his co-workers and taking every criticism, no matter how valid, as a direct personal assault — it’s a variant of the same character he’s been enjoyably portraying since Han Solo, but with more medical jargon thrown in.

Fraser, on the other hand, transforms himself into a vessel of pure earnestness, emoting love for his family and disgust for the “profit-first, people-second” mentality of big pharma with wide-eyed sincerity. It’s a testament to Fraser’s everyman charm that he’s still recognizably human by the film’s end; as written, the character is practically a Platonic ideal of fatherhood.

The film is the first from CBS’s newly relaunched film division, which is entirely appropriate — aside from the presence of Ford and Fraser, Extraordinary Measures feels like a TV movie. The only thing missing is an impassioned shout of “These are my kids we’re talking about, damn it!” from Fraser. But then, that might be getting a bit too edgy.

FILM: The Book of Eli: And so we delve into Serious Face territory again. The Hughes Brothers’ post-apocalyptic Christian samurai western isn’t quite as muddled as that description would let on, but it’s not exactly a tightly wound masterpiece, either. Denzel Washington plays a lone warrior, survivor of an unspecified apocalyptic event (though it’s strongly hinted that it was a nuclear war) who’s headed west to find a home for his most prized possession: the world’s last Christian bible. It’s a promising premise, but it turns out social commentary isn’t the Hughes Brothers’ purpose.

If it was, they might’ve put more thought into a plot riddled with as many holes as anyone unfortunate enough to attack Washington. Thirty years doesn’t seem like a particularly long time for literacy to become a lost art, but I guess that’s plausible enough. And the idea that angry citizens would try to destroy all bibles after a religious war almost wipes out existence is reasonable enough, in its own way. But that all traces of Christianity could be eliminated, right down to the very idea of a god? Unless we’re saying that the rapture happened and all true believers up and disappeared, well, it’s a stretch.

But plot isn’t the point. Chronically desaturated visuals, fast-paced (and tension-free) battles loaded with decapitations and an admittedly bad-ass drone-based score are Eli’s strengths. That, and delightfully hammy performances from Gary Oldman and Tom Waits, which give some life to an otherwise dead screen. Mila Kunis is less successful as Washington’s disciple — as likeable as she was in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, her performance here is more along the lines of her Max Payne turn.

It’s just that the whole thing feels like a waste. There’s ample room to talk about the benefits and dangers of religion, and to show the profound effect that the concept of a higher power could have on desperate people. Instead, we get a well shot and well acted messiah story with a fairly ridiculous twist and an extremely pro-Christian bent that feels under-thought and reactionary. Not to mention the absurd, sequel-baiting ending — I guess no one likes ending their movies conclusively anymore.

THEATRE: The Pajama Men: This performance was hyped up to me to no end (Fast Forward theatre writer Jeff Kubik is a huge fan, and editor Drew Anderson was also pretty blown away), which can be a kiss of death when it comes to comedy. Fortunately, the Pajama Men’s reputation as two of the funniest dudes around is well-earned. Their rapport is so well-honed, their transitions between characters so seamless and their improvisation so effortless that it feels like watching a pair of old friends sharing inside jokes. Which I suppose, in a way, it is.

The framework — a group of people are on a cross-country train journey — exists only to provide opportunities for the Men to indulge in bizarre characters, silly wordplay and crudely eloquent storytelling (the latter culminates in an extended monologue about a painting of a horse, involving, among other things, the warping of space-time and baby horses covered in burning semen). Even at its raunchiest, though, the show is always lighthearted enough that it feels almost wholesome. Much of the performance rests on the the delivery and physicality of the performers, which means that it’s not a show I’ll be quoting (with a few exceptions… “But I am so small,” the refrain of a much-scorned “cute thing” has already entered my vernacular), but if they ever come through town again, you can be damned sure I’ll check them out.

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