The Black Balloon is a touching, engaging Australian drama about a family with two teenage sons, one of whom is autistic. At the start of the film, the mother is pregnant again, trying her best to manage the two boys she already has, plus a husband and a household. The autistic son, Charlie, naturally takes up a great deal of both parents’ time as well as the time and attention of the other son, Thomas. When Thomas brings a girlfriend home for dinner, things do not go exactly as planned, as with most things when the ever-unpredictable but sweet Charlie is around. All of the performances in this film are stellar, especially the two boys. I even had to watch the DVD special features to find out if the actor who pays Charlie was autistic or not (he is not). Sometimes, acting performances of characters with special needs go too over the top or are too unrealistic. Here, Charlie is a non-verbal, highly inquisitive young man who likes structure and regiment, but is not seen as a victim or a character in need of sympathy from the audience. He is just a teenage boy. He is happy in his own world with his own games. And the relationship between the two brothers is also not sugarcoated at all. There even is a very emotional scene when the brothers fight; it’s tough to watch since they are so close. The strong performances and convincing script are what make us so attached to these characters. No cardboard characters here!

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This is the story of how a small Australian town is turned upside-down overnight when NASA needs to utilize its large satellite for the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. Sam Neill plays the by-the-book chief who has difficulties controlling his less-than-professional staff. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this film, since it did not get much buzz when it was out in theaters. I was pleasantly surprised by the cast, the story, and the subtle way this film weaves together all of the plot points. A small dramatic film with quite a bit of comedy tossed in to make a sweet, unassuming film.

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I know I often begin these reviews saying I don’t like something or someone but I took a chance and saw such-and-such movie anyway. Well, here I go again. I do not like Nicole Kidman, but I took a chance and watched this one after I’d heard quite a few positive things. And, I was pleasantly surprised. I always like Sam Neill so that part wasn’t much of a stretch, but I usually try to give Kidman movies a wide birth. Ignore my rant about that, it is a good thriller…and even if you don’t like Nicole, try it. Why? Well, it would have to be something pretty good to overlook the “Kidman” factor. And, it is. This is a methodical thriller that takes place almost entirely on two boats. Neill and Kidman are husband and wife who’ve just lost their only child. Neill, a naval officer, takes his wife on a long sailboat trip to try and ease her pain and guilt (the child died while she was driving) of losing her son. While at sea, Neill spots a boat that appears to be in trouble. One of its passengers is heading toward them in a dingy. They take him aboard and he tells the couple that all of the passengers he was sailing with have died. Neill, not believing this story, heads to the other boat…finding out that the people didn’t just die…they were murdered. That’s a big problem, especially since he left his wife on his boat alone…with the murderer! Neill gives an excellent performance and Billy Zane is particularly menacing as the psychotic murderer. And, Kidman is…OK, which is pretty high praise from me. Dead Calm does one of the best jobs ever of giving a realistic feeling of claustrophobia. Even though they are in the middle of the ocean, we continuously feel trapped…which is something that only heightens the suspense. A great thriller!

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No, it’s not going to win any Oscars but it’s a charming film that I think everything will get something out of. Danny is a frustrated bricklayer who has been bitten by the “vacation” bug and has a camping trip planned. His headstrong girlfriend has different ideas…none of which include a vacation but rather include ways to jumpstart her real estate career. After hearing that his vacation has been axed, Danny has one too many beers and comes up with a great idea…or what seems like a great idea at the time. What happens next takes the film on a predictable wild ride. Yes, predictable, but I didn’t care…somehow it all just works. I mean when Danny’s “idea” lands him in the backyard of a beautiful, single lady, I dare you guess what’s going to happen! But, the ride getting to the end is a fun one. Danny is an odd character…not only because of what he does but also because he can go from being wild and outrageous one minute to serious and introspective the next. In the beginning of the film, I kept thinking “what a fool!” but by the end of the film I had grown fond of Danny. And I guess that’s part of the film’s progression…Danny is supposed to “grow” as a man…discovering what he was missing in life and doing something to fill the void. All of this philosophy might be a little too much, since this film is much less complicated than I’m making it out to be. It’s a charming, funny love story with entertaining characters and extremely comical situations.

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When you watch a film that, within the first ten minutes, makes you laugh so hard you can’t catch your breath, it’s a sign that it’s going to be a pleasant cinematic experience. This film, though, knows it’s funny…knows it’s WAY over-the-top…and knows that the audience is either going to love it or be offended by its touchy subject. This “touchy” subject matter deals with three homosexual men…one transsexual and two transvestites. They, for lack of a better term, are drag queens. They get a job to perform several hundred miles from home and accept it…finding a broken-down bus to get them there. As I said, this movie KNOWS it’s dealing with campy material and truly makes the most of it. These drag queens are flamboyant…outspoken…raunchy…not politically-correct by any means (can a drag queen be politically correct?). And the plot and the dialogue cater to this flamboyance. I would almost call this film a musical because of all of the production numbers…some “gay” films try to steer away from the stereotypical ideal that all gay men love dancing and performing, but this film not only doesn’t steer clear from musical numbers, it gives new meaning to the term “outlandish.” Yes, the subject matter is touchy so I guess I should “advise” some to stay away, but I think that it is a film that, no matter what your personal, political, or religious views are, you will still be able to find the humor in it. At least I hope so. My suggestion is that if you don’t like to laugh, just stay clear of this one.

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