The Black Balloon (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.
I Can Do Bad All by Myself (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Written and directed by Tyler Perry, “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” stars Taraji P. Henson as a nightclub singer who had to take care of her nephews (Kwesi Boakye, Frederick Siglar) and niece (Hope Olaide Wilson) when Madea (Perry) brought them to her doorstep after catching them trying to steal home appliances. Henson did not take kindly to the idea because she was so used to only thinking about herself and the current man (Brian J. White) in her life. But when a kind-hearted man (Adam Rodriguez) from Colombia arrived in her life, all her resentment and defenses slowly faded away. Upon watching the first half of this film, I was so convinced I was going to give it a recommendation because not only was it hilarious because of Madea, it had a real dramatic gravity because of the kids who were dealing with serious issues of abandonment. I didn’t mind the melodrama and the clichés because the story kept moving forward. However, the second half had a very noticable change of momentum to the point where I felt like I was attending church (I haven’t been to church in years but it’s fresh in my mind how tedious and hypocritical it is) because of all the sermons and singing. I mean, I understand that music and religion were important to the characters but I constantly took into consideration the possibility that Perry was taking the easy way out both as a writer and director. There were more subtle ways for his characters to realize the errors of their ways; in reality, it’s mostly about the little things we notice, such as the silences while we’re doing something important, that eventually force us to wake up. It’s not necessarily about the big musical numbers and dropping in at the perfect moments of a sermon. So I found that a bit disturbing because of its very contrived nature. I do have to credit Wilson as the sister who was so used to having to put up an angry front because she essentially had to be a mother. The way she delivered her lines broke my heart because I’ve known people like her growing up. And, to be honest, many people like her character end up in terrible situations. Unlike this picture, Wilson knows how to be subtle yet still go for the jugular when necessary. I’m interested with what project she’s going to tackle next. “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” is not a bad film. It just needed to take more risks and not get too caught up on the message it wanted to get across to the point where it becomes heavy-handed. Still, it’s worth watching because of Madea’s incredibly hilarious grab bag of biblical stories alone.
Couples Retreat (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Peter Billingsley directs this comedy about four couples who decided to go on a tropical resort that, according to one of the characters, “looks like a screensaver.” Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell were having trouble with their marriage so they asked their friends (Vince Vaughn and Malin Akerman, Jon Favreau and Kristin Davis, Faizon Love and Kali Hawk) to come along with them to an island for a relationship therapy because it was cheaper to come as a group. I enjoyed the first few minutes of this picture because it was fun and it clearly established the many dynamics of romantic relationships. Although boys will always be boys, there were enough subtleties to keep me interested and observe how it would all unwind. Unfortunately, with a running time of almost two hours, the movie ran a little too long so there were parts that lagged and definitely could have been cut to make the movie more focused. I like all of the actors in this project because I think they were all very funny in other movies but the script wasn’t strong enough to push through the typicality of marriage comedies. It really bothered me when the very same people who were having trouble with their own marriages gave (supposedly) insightful advice. If they were so wise, they wouldn’t have been so deep into a troubled relationship in the first place. However, there was one particular scene that stood out to me. When Vaughn and Akerman were talking to a marriage counselor, the counselor picked them apart; even though they seemed to be happy and content (and having the healthiest relationship in the film), there was still a certain level of resentment underneath it all. They got so used to their habits that they forgot to live life in such a way where hardwork should be met by rewards. During that scene, there was this great silence in the movie theater. It really made me think about where I am in life–that maybe I’m slowly turning into that kind of person. If “Couples Retreat” had more moments like that, I would’ve liked it a lot more. Either that or the comedy should have been consistent from beginning to end instead of most of the laughter being clumped in the first twenty minutes. In “Couples Retreat,” a hit was followed by two misses so I can’t quite give it a recommendation.
Rudo y Cursi (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Rudo y Cursi” stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as brothers who started off as workers in a banana plantation and, with the help of a soccer scout (Guillermo Francella), eventually became Mexico’s soccer stars. One of the things I liked most about this movie was it allowed two very different characters to start off in the same level of happiness (or unhappiness). But when they finally achieved stardom, they were rarely on that same level and that caused tension, resentment, and bitterness which ate them inside out. But what’s even more impressive is that writer and director Carlos Cuarón painted the picture in a light-hearted manner with a real sadness in its core. It was easy for me to buy the fact that Bernal and Luna were very competitive brothers because of their lingering chemistry from “Y tu mamá también.” Although their characters genuinely loved one another, they forget that one time or another because they constantly got caught up in their own problems and inner demons. Such issues were commented on by the narrator who discussed things like the similarities and differences between a mother and a uniform, passion and talent, and the labyrinthine world of fame. The way their luck and fortunes fluctuated from golden fevers to pitiful desperation engaged me throughout. This is far from a typical sports film where a lead character goes through all kinds fo hardship in life and finally gets that big break. It’s really more about the dynamics between brothers who constantly had to build themselves up and could not help but compare themselves to each other in order to determine if they were good enough. (Which kind of works as a cautionary tale.) Carlos Cuarón’s debut film impresses on many levels which, admittedly, could have been a lot stronger if it had a better sense of pacing. I was just glad that it actually had a brain despite the sport.