Black Balloon, The (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
The Mollison family (led by Toni Collette and Erik Thomson) was new to the neighborhood. Upon their arrival, neighbors couldn’t help but stare because Charlie (Luke Ford) had autism. One of the kids voiced out what the onlooking adults might be thinking. Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) defended his older brother. He initially thought that moving into a new house was an opportunity for him to start anew. He wanted to make friends or maybe even get a girlfriend (Gemma Ward). Just as quickly, he realized that perhaps nothing would change. He was still torn between wanting to lead a life of normalcy and his family’s expectations concerning Charlie’s condition. Written and directed by Elissa Down, “The Black Balloon” had moments of painful honesty but only to be watered down by a typical romance often found in coming-of-age movies. The best scenes were the ones that wanted us to feel uncomfortable. For instance, when Charlie acted out in a supermarket, it was when we had a chance to truly feel Thomas’ resentment toward his brother. Yes, he was embarrassed because of the other customers’ stares and misguided judgments but the point was for us to realize that even though he lived with Charlie, Thomas, like most us, didn’t really understand the mysterious condition that is autism. Another scene that supported Thomas’ lack of understanding was when he tried to teach Charlie to speak “like a normal person.” Unfortunately, just when the film was about to come into its own, the material had focused its attention on Thomas’ attempt at getting a girlfriend. Were we supposed to believe that the only way that Thomas would find happiness was for him to get a girl? It seemed too easy and transparent a solution. For me, since we saw the film through Thomas’ eyes, it should have been about his coming to terms with his brother’s condition, even in the smallest way, and realizing that it was okay for him to sacrifice more than his peers and that life is indeed unfair. Not once did I see him pick a book or ask a question in order to educate himself about how he could further help his brother. He resulted to using force. I was also waiting for the movie to acknowledge that autism had varying degrees of severity. For those who aren’t as knowledgeable about the disorder, I’m afraid they might interpret people with autism as having explosive personalities, cannot function well in society, and that it is uncommon for them to return affection. That isn’t always the case. Nevertheless, I knew that “The Black Balloon” had good intentions. It was at its best when it highlighted people’s prejudice toward people with disorders that we don’t fully understand yet. Like Thomas, it just needed to sort out its priorities.
Animal Kingdom (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
J (James Frecheville) passively watched his mother die from heroin overdose. He didn’t know what to pay attention to: the program being broadcast on television or his mother’s last attempts for air. Still under eighteen years old, he felt like he had no choice but to contact his grandmother Janine (Jackie Weaver) because he didn’t know what to with his mother’s corpse. J was reluctant to seek help because his mother did not want anything to do with her siblings (Ben Mendelsohn, Sullivan Stapleton, Luke Ford) because she knew of their criminal activities. “Animal Kingdom” was an involving thriller because we were asked to empathize with a minor who had no idea what he was getting himself into. A family is supposed to be a group of people that we can go to and seek comfort but his family is not like our families. They sold drugs for a living and whoever got in the way had to die. Holding a gun to someone’s head was as familiar as offering a helping hand. J living in the Cody household was an uncomfortable experience at best. His uncles had an almost incestuous relationship with their mother. When J’s girlfriend was over, one of the uncles eyed her up and down like a vulture, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. J acknowledged that fear was always in the air but he didn’t know what everyone was afraid of. Were they afraid to get caught by the police? Were they afraid of each other? Perhaps it was both. There was no room for laughter or a harmless joke because the uncles had such volatile personalities. The audiences were like a person tied to a chair and we just waited for them to explode. As the innocent and the guilty dropped like flies, sometimes for no good reason, desperation challenged the characters to reevaluate their loyalties. Enter Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce), a cop who saw J as an innocent. He believed J could be saved by putting his family behind bars. Leckie convinced J that he could offer protection but the promise didn’t last for long. Someone had deep connections in the force. Written and directed by David Michôd, “Animal Kingdom” was an Australian thriller of the highest caliber because it was able to draw us in and play with our expectations. Just like animals, especially those that lived in the deepest oceans, the harmless-looking characters ended up the most venomous. Stripped of gangster glamour and incendiary Tarantino-esque dialogue, Michôd made an argument that when crime is added in the equation, like animals in the jungle, people will do absolutely anything to survive. Is there crime in that?
Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, The (2008)
★ / ★★★★
When I read this film’s scathing reviews (to say the least), I thought people were just being way too hard on it so I still wanted to watch it. Despite people’s advice (and insistence) to stay as far away from this movie as possible, I still hoped that I would like it even just a little bit because I love the first two “Mummy” installments (they reminded me of the spirit of the “Indiana Jones” franchise). This time around, I’d have to agree with everyone else; this is as bad as they say it is. First of all, they replaced my favorite actor from the franchise: Rachel Weisz. I thought she was perfect as Evelyn O’Connell because she excels at being bookish-smart and rarely depending on chance in order to reach some sort of success. It means that she’s perfect for Brendan Fraser’s character, Rick O’Connell, because he’s too goofy for his own good (which often leads him to trouble) and only depends on luck in order to get the upper hand. Maria Bello, Weisz’s replacement, interprets the character so differently, I felt like she was Rick O’Connell’s unwelcome second wife. She’s one dimensional, not that strong, and lacks charisma. Not to mention she doesn’t have chemistry with Frasier. Moreover, even though Luke Ford as Alex O’Connell is nice to look at, I didn’t find him as witty and as plucky as the younger Alex O’Connell (Freddie Boath) back in “The Mummy Returns.” In fact, I found Ford as interesting as an inert plank leaning against a wall. Brendar Frasier, despite his best efforts and fun energy, was sidelined. To me, the focus of this film was the conflict between Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li’s characters. Not only did the camera spend too much time on them (even though I really liked their martial arts scenes), the story is really about a thousand year old thirst for power and revenge. And somehow, Frasier and the gang managed to get tangled in its maelstrom. As for the film’s pacing, it didn’t really get interesting up until the forty-minute mark. In fact, I was kind of getting sleepy which is not a good sign because I love action-adventure films. I love watching characters travel from one place to another, seeing exotic locales, and winning at the end of the day. In this film, I didn’t really care about the characters because I never thought they were in any real danger. I literally rolled my eyes from when the Yetis appeared up until the end. Just when I thought that’s the worst of it, a dragon appeared… and then a giant monster that could bring down planes. In a nutshell, it just got too ridiculous. As much as I love the “Mummy” franchise, I’d have to urge everyone to skip this one and see something else–something that truly captures how it’s like to go on an adventure.