Mini Reviews (December 2008)
Jack and Jill vs the World, Lifelines, Superhero Movie, Doubt, Palestine Blues
Jack and Jill vs the World (December 5/08)
Though there's nothing particularly fresh about its story or its characters, Jack and Jill vs the World ultimately establishes itself as an affable endeavor that benefits substantially from the charismatic work of its two leads. The film casts Freddie Prinze Jr as Jack, an uptight advertising executive whose unexpected relationship with the free-spirited Jill (Taryn Manning) slowly but surely brings him out of his self-imposed (and hopelessly orderly) isolation. There are few plot twists within Jack and Jill vs the World that most viewers won't see coming a mile away, admittedly, yet it's hard to deny the effectiveness of filmmaker Vanessa Parise's laid-back, easy-going modus operandi. Parise, along with co-writer Peter Stebbings, does a nice job of infusing the proceedings with a pleasant atmosphere that inevitably proves impossible to resist, as the chemistry between Jack and Jill - coupled with Prinze Jr and Manning's solid work - ensures that one is easily able to overlook the almost egregiously conventional nature of their respective characters (ie this is essentially Dharma & Greg: The Movie). The expectedly melodramatic sensibilities of the movie's third act - which includes, of course, a fake break-up - undoubtedly dilutes the strength of all that preceded it, although the upbeat conclusion does ensure that the whole thing ends on a surprisingly positive note. The end result is a film that is - while not quite as effortlessly engaging as Parise's debut, 2002's Kiss the Bride - not entirely without its charms, even if it often seems to have emerged directly from a romantic-comedy template.
Lifelines (December 13/08)
Assuming one is able to look past the almost unwatchable opening half hour, Lifelines eventually establishes itself as a surprising, downright gripping drama revolving around a seriously dysfunctional family. This is despite a first act that's been infused with as lamentably over-the-top an atmosphere as one could possibly envision, as writer/director Rob Margolies paints the central clan with egregiously broad strokes that effectively drain the proceedings of authenticity (ie 12-year-old Spencer calls his father a "cocksucker" and is subsequently handcuffed to the car). It's only as the Bernsteins - father Ira (Josh Pais), mother Nancy (Jane Adams), daughter Meghan (Dreama Walker), and sons Michael (Robbie Sublett) and Spencer (Jacob Kogen) - arrive at a psychiatrist's office for family counseling that the movie slowly but surely morphs into a compelling piece of work, with Joe Morton's expectedly engrossing turn as the doctor serving as the catalyst that resuscitates the viewer's dwindling interest. Once Morton's Dr. Livingston begins to examine his subjects' respectively (and almost uniformly) horrifying pasts, Lifelines becomes a tense and sporadically searing drama that's anchored by a number of undeniably poignant sequences - as Livingston's one-on-one encounters with the Bernstein children ultimately elicits a series of painful admissions (including the revelation that Spencer's sarcastic demeanor is a cover for abuse within his past). It's not surprising to note that the movie does suffer as Morton's character exits the proceedings and the Bernsteins once again take center stage, with an overwrought trip to a restaurant certainly emblematic of Margolies' penchant for exaggerated histrionics. That being said, there's little doubt that Lifelines' tremendously affecting midsection - coupled with a twist ending that's genuinely unexpected - does assure that it primarily comes off as a thoroughly promising debut for filmmaker Margolies.
Superhero Movie (December 22/08)
Filmmaker Craig Mazin's affinity for the spoofs of yesteryear is obvious virtually from the opening frames of Superhero Movie, as the film - unlike its similarly themed (and hopelessly incompetent) contemporary brethren - boasts an actual storyline and a few genuinely hilarious jokes and gags. And while the whole thing is ultimately a far cry from such classics of the genre as Airplane! and The Naked Gun, Superhero Movie is undoubtedly a serious step above what now passes for a parody flick (ie Meet the Spartans, Disaster Movie, etc). The storyline follows an awkward young high schooler (Drake Bell's Rick Riker) as he transforms into a bona fide superhero after being bitten by a radioactive dragonfly, with his larger-than-life journey eventually bringing him face-to-face with the villainous Hourglass (Christopher McDonald). Mazin generally does a nice job of sending up the various tropes that viewers have come to associate with the superhero genre, yet there's little doubt that most of the movie's funniest bits are the random, totally out-of-left-field references (ie Tom Cruise's infamous Scientology video, Stephen Hawking, etc). And although it's hard to deny that more jokes fall flat than succeed, Mazin - following in the footsteps of obvious mentors David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker - compensates for the ineffectiveness of certain bits by essentially pummeling the viewer with a rapid succession of comedic asides and set-pieces. The end result is an amiable effort that stands as a marked improvement over its myriad of spoof-movie contemporaries, although - admittedly - the film isn't quite able to sustain the viewer's interest for the duration of its appreciatively brief running time.
Doubt (December 28/08)
Superbly acted yet ultimately underwhelming, Doubt - set almost entirely within the confines of a '60s era Catholic school - details the conflict that ensues after Meryl Streep's rigid Sister Aloysius becomes convinced that a progressive priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman's Father Flynn) has molested a young boy. Filmmaker John Patrick Shanley - working from his Pulitzer-prize winning play - does a nice job of establishing a very specific time and place virtually from the opening frames, with the uniformly strong performances effectively drawing the viewer into the slow-moving proceedings. It's subsequently not surprising to note that one is essentially (and immediately) forced to side with Hoffman's character, as the actor's open, effortlessly charismatic work proves a sharp contrast to Streep's unapologetically abrasive turn as the hopelessly old-fashioned Sister Aloysius. The battle that ensues between the pair is certainly instrumental in initially holding the viewer's interest, though there does reach a point at which the inherent staginess of the source material becomes awfully difficult to overlook - with the inclusion of a few overtly needless sequences only exacerbating the increasingly erratic atmosphere. As such, Doubt finally can't help but come off as an actor's showcase that's generally not quite as enthralling as its various performances (ie it's a solid drama, sure, but it's hard not to expect more with folks like Streep and Hoffman in front of the camera).
Palestine Blues (December 30/08)
Palestine Blues is a well-meaning yet hopelessly erratic documentary detailing filmmaker Nida Sinnokrot's journey into the heart of Israel, where Palestinians are being forced off of their land due to the installation of a concrete wall known as a "security fence." Sinnokrot primarily explores the grassroots resistance movement that has formed against the wall, with a particular emphasis on the trials and tribulations of a kindly fruit farmer whose family-owned orchard is at risk of being destroyed. There's little doubt that Palestine Blues initially holds quite a bit of promise, as Sinnokrot peppers the proceedings with a number of stark, distinctly affecting images and scenes (ie several individuals stage a peaceful protest against approaching bulldozers, mourners pay their respects for a fallen comrade by placing flowers and posters on a passing tank, etc). It's strong stuff that initially proves effective at compensating for Sinnokrot's periodically ostentatious visual choices - ie he'll surreptitiously cart around his camera by carrying it sideways - yet there inevitably reaches a point at which the filmmaker's low-rent modus operandi becomes impossible to overlook. The ratio of intriguing sequences to those that are downright pointless grows exponentially as Palestine Blues progresses, with the ensuing lack of cohesiveness ultimately lending the proceedings the feel of a glorified home movie. The end result is a terminally uneven endeavor that's simply unable to sustain the viewer's interest for the duration of its 72-minute running time, which is certainly a shame given the undeniable importance of the film's subject matter.