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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Another methodical, character-driven book by the Queen of Family-in-Crisis Novels, Anne Tyler. When I say that Tyler is the Queen of these types of books, it’s a compliment, not an insult. Just because she writes mostly about issues with families doesn’t mean she’s not one of the strongest writers still writing today in America. And this novel proves she is as good as ever! Her main character here, Liam, is a recently laid-off (AKA early retirement) school teacher who, according to him, is too young to retire but too old to be hired by another school. After losing his job, he gives up his larger home for a smaller apartment, and on his first night in the new place, he is attacked by an intruder. Sadly, after he wakes up in the hospital the next morning, he has NO memory of the attack. The last thing he remembers is going to bed. From that moment on, Tyler weaves Liam into a complex, yet simple, man who is trying to get his life, and memory, in order. A slow-moving, yet fascinating story unfolds…Liam’s story. And, Tyler, as usual, tells it with thoughtfulness and care.

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This movie got panned in the theatrical release reviews. But, it is a good film. Not the best about families and how family situations change as time goes by, but it’s a strong movie that’s worth while seeing…ESPECIALLY if you are a parent or have middle-aged to older parents. One of the reasons this film has a soft spot for me is that the De Niro character reminded me of my father. Approximately the same age, both my dad and the De Niro character are sorts of aimless, lost men. De Niro’s reasoning behind this aimlessness is that he is recently widowed. My father’s is just that he likes to be aimless (my mother is still very much alive). Now back to the movie…the De Niro character, after having all four of his grown children cop out on coming to visit him for a family reunion of sorts, he decides to go to them instead. What lies ahead of him is an odyssey he never anticipated. No, it’s not a GREAT movie. But, over-all, it’s a tender movie with lots of heart.

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Once again, a small film that DESERVES TO BE SEEN gets tossed into a few theaters for a measly weekend in NYC and LA (just so it can say it’s a “theatrical release”) and then sent on its merry way to obscurity as a seemingly “direct to DVD” title. Sadly, this has little to do with caliber of acting and/or even the box-office draw potential of the cast (though I doubt Brad Pitt still has a few years to wait for this to happen to him): this film stars Kate Beckinsale, who after her Underworld films, not to mention other action films, is a pretty big star. It has, rather, to do with money…which, as usual, is what everything, especially in Hollywood, comes down to. So, this great film with great performances by a strong cast gets lost in the DVD shuffle. But, please…seek this one out! Loosely based on the true tale of a Washington political reporter, the script perfectly captures the right tone…not going too overboard to the weepy or the harpy, which could have easily been done here. And the cast takes that intensity from the page and adds power and subtlety and depth. Inspired by the case of real reporter Judith Miller who went to prison in 2005 to protect the identity of a source, the movie could have become one of those “it’s in the news so Hollywood must capitalize” flicks that are mainly seen as made-for-TV films. But, Nothing But the Truth is much more than that. I would say that this film far surpasses most intense dramas and thrillers you find in your local multiplex. Beckinsale plays the reporter who finds herself caught in this tangle of excitement and confusion after a story she wrote and championed found its way into the inner-workings of the D.C. elite. Every tactic possible is used to get her to reveal her source and the saga finally leads her to jail and away from not only her job, but also her family. Beckinsale, not someone I would call a “deep” actress, is highly emotive and rich here. She is calm and fearless when necessary, but at other times, she is raw and unabashingly open. Vera Farmiga, again not someone I’ve seen give a truly meaningful performance in the past, is tense and controlled…but just the right amount. Alan Alda also shines as a high-powered attorney who takes on Beckinsale’s case, against all odds. The supporting cast, including Angela Bassett, Matt Dillon, and David Schwimmer, is strong as well, making this a stellar effort by all involved and an all-around excellent film.

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As an Anglophile, I guess my most deep, dark fantasy (no, NOT that kind) is that I will find out that I was switched at birth…and that my real parents are British! Trust me…this is not an insult to my American parents. They would be MORE than happy to trade me to an unsuspecting couple across the pond. But, alas, my fantasy is just that…fiction. Well, in this novel, the first by stand-up comedienne/actress Alison Larkin, the main character, Pippa, is raised by British adoptive parents in England but finds out that her biological parents are truly American. This immediately makes sense to Pippa, since she’s always considered herself something of an American-phile but most importantly, she is NOTHING like most the British people around her. This information propels Pippa on a quest to find her true identity and the reasons for all of her non-British idiosyncrasies. Larkin, herself, is a biological American and adoptive Brit, so the story resonates very true. Larkin’s writing style is sharp and witty and Pippa is a truly engaging and highly enjoyable character. We want her to be happy…whether in America or England. For me, I will just keep searching for that one day when I find my true parents…and I’m able to go home where I belong…England! Sorry mom and dad.

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For a light, relaxing time in the Scottish Highlands, look no further than Monarch. But, sometimes, relaxing can be far from accurate…especially for new Laird of Glenbogle…Archie MacDonald. Archie was just another unassuming business owner in London…his girlfriend was also his business partner and they had a good, yet unadventurous relationship. Enter a sudden trip to the Highlands, where he finds out his family’s home and land is in threat of foreclosure…and Archie is forced (begrudgingly, at first) to become more of a Scotsman than a Londoner. The show is sweet and innocent…filled with colorful characters and breathtaking scenery of the Scottish landscape. A great show for all ages.

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It took me a little while to get into my first season of Cracker Mysteries but once I did, I couldn’t stop. Robbie Coltrane is simply perfect as the highly-flawed psychologist, Eddie “Fitz” Fitzgerald. I mean, he’s smart and good at “seeing” into people’s minds and souls to help solve cases, but this guy really has a messed up life. He drinks too much, he gambles uncontrollably and his marriage is usually on the rocks (because of the gambling and drinking). But, somehow, someone that is that messed up can really pull it together when it comes to solving crimes. And he not only is able to help the police find the right man or woman, but he also helps the criminals themselves by being able to help them work out their demons. After all, Fitz knows a lot about inner demons…he has more than his fair share himself.

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For a British police show with a female main character, comparisons will always be made to Prime Suspect, the Helen Mirren series that has won over audiences all over the world, in addition to accolade after accolade for Ms. Mirren. In Blue Murder, DCI (Detective Chief Inspector) Janine Lewis is tough (like Mirren), has problems with her supervisors because she’s a woman (like Mirren), and also has issues controlling and getting respect from her staff because she’s a woman (like Mirren). What makes Lewis stand out above the other detective shows, including Mirren, is that this female detective is a single mother, which gives her even more complications and more of an edge than Mirren’s character. A great series that is for anyone who likes cop shows…with either male or female leads.

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When I first saw this one years ago, I thought it was too much of a farce…too over the top…too silly. But, re-watching it, I am able now to see it’s fine details as one of America’s great broad comedies. Cary Grant is at his wackiest here…as the nephew of two matronly ladies who have begun an unusual pastime…murdering lonely old men and having them buried in the basement. We’ve all seen (and loved) Grant do screwball…but this is pretty much as slapstick as comedy can get. He’s physical and very expressive…perfect for this role as the befuddled nephew of these two crazy killers. Directed by Frank Capra, I think one of the reasons this one took a while to sink in is because it’s almost TOO over the top. But, I guess as I’m getting older, I find the need for more and more comedy. And this one will sure satisfy that need!

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Another Newman/Richard Russo collaboration stems, this time, from Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a dying Maine town and its sad, depressed townspeople. Set in a former mill town, once the mill closed, the people of Empire Falls had nothing to do but be unemployed and desperate. Ed Harris plays main character Miles Roby, who is one of the stronger citizens of Empire Falls, considering he runs the local Empire Grill. But, this life is far from idyllic. Filled, like the novel, with an array of fun, colorful characters, this mini-series is not from one of Russo’s best works, in my opinion, but it still is a strong story that lends itself flawlessly to the screen.

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