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by Mark Jenkins,
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MAY 1, 2009

Angry and Angrier

12 is a courtroom drama that begins in Chechnya, but thematically goes just about everywhere in contemporary Russia; The Black Balloon takes an unblinking look at autism, but softens the conflict with an idealized character.

By Mark Jenkins

Also opening in D.C. this week, a film I reviewed for NPR: LEMON TREE, a feminist parable from the border between Israel and the West Bank.

TALK ABOUT "OPENING UP" a one-location TV drama. Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov's reimagining of 12 Angry Men, simply titled 12, begins in a bombed-out street where rain drizzles on a burning bus and stray corpses. This is Chechnya, whose war haunts the movie in a way that Iraq and Afghanistan have yet to touch American cinema. Mikhalkov is best known in the West for 1994's Burnt by the Sun, a tale of Stalinist-era betrayal, and his update of the original (televised in 1954 and adapted for the bigger screen three years later) is no less grand a depiction of internecine conflict.

The case the 12 men are considering is a parable that supports various political interpretations: a Chechen boy is accused of murdering the Russian officer who adopted him and brought him home to Moscow. Eleven of the 12 jurors feel they have better things to do than closely ponder the testimony, and hastily vote for conviction. One holds out, necessitating more deliberation. What gets deliberated is almost everything that bedevils contemporary Russia, from corrupt businesses to alcohol and heroin abuse to longstanding ethnic hostility.

For the American viewer, the jurors will seems both alien and familiar. They include a surgeon, a high-tech inventor, a reality-TV producer who went to Harvard, and the son of a Holocaust survivor. (The film never explains why all 12 are men.) Yet the rawness of some characters's tribal hatred is startling. The defendant is a "stinking Chechen bastard," a juror who argues for acquittal is using "Jewish logic," and residents of the central-Asian countries that were once part of the Soviet Union are "bastards." The discussion becomes a psychological encounter session, with a series of side lessons on ills both classic and contemporary.

Ingeniously, Mikhalkov and co-writers Alexander Novototsky-Vlasov and Vladimir Moiseenko have relocated the central action from a confined jury room — the courthouse is under renovation — to a nearby gymnasium. The move provides the 12 actors more room to emote, and a wealth of props to illustrate their arguments. The gym is a wreck, with oozing pipes and unreliable wiring, which gives the space yet another purpose: as a metaphor for a big, decrepit country. Exclaims the racist cab driver who sometimes bullies his fellow jurors, "everything is very Russian here somehow."

No kidding. 12 deviates from American jurisprudence with scenes in which jurors threaten each with knives, and the inventor tells a story of damnation and redemption that might as well be from Dostoevsky. Ultimately, the story twists itself into a celebration of the generosity of the Russian soul. That's not altogether convincing, and the flashbacks to blood-spattered, blue-tinted Chechnya become a distraction. (The latter also contribute to the movie's unwieldy length.) Yet underneath all the contrived flourishes runs a stream of truth. 12 is wildly theatrical yet emotionally honest.

12 — 2008, 159 min; at Landmark E Street.

BASED PARTLY ON THE DIRECTOR'S OWN CHILDHOOD, Elissa Down's The Black Balloon begins by placing Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) in a perilous position for an almost-16-year-old. He's the new kid in school, somewhere in suburban Australia. And his older brother Charlie (Luke Ford) is loudly, boisterously autistic. The bullies at Thomas's new school call Charlie a "spastic," and Thomas is expected to protect both himself and his unpredictable sibling. Plus, the boys's mom (Toni Collette, of course) is in the last month of a troubled pregnancy, so that Thomas must do a lot of mothering as well as brothering.

The real anguish it causes aside, autism is a difficult premise for a movie. Either the condition is sugarcoated — as in 2007's Snow Cake — or it becomes crushingly immutable. Down, who co-scripted with Jimmy Jack, doesn't suggest that life with Charlie will ever get easier, although the movie's climax does show him in a happy, amenable mood. The narrative escape hatch is the introduction of an outside character, Thomas's classmate Jackie. Played by model Gemma Ward, who looks like she just walked off a Botticelli canvas, Jackie is pure wish-fulfillment. Sympathetic beyond mere human nature, the girl isn't even upset at her first encounter with Charlie: Wearing only underpants, he rushes uninvited into her house and uses the toilet in the bathroom where she's taking a shower. (Thomas, also clad only in underwear, is chasing his brother, so he too ends up in her bathroom.)

Jackie, who lives with her father and dreams of her lost mother, is clearly attracted to the warmth of Thomas's family. Life with Charlie isn't easy, but his parents accept him unconditionally, and Thomas is close to his brother, despite moments where he finds him unbearable. As Jackie becomes Thomas's girlfriend, the future dynamic is only suggested: In a sense, she wants both brothers, because what appeals to her in Thomas is his attentiveness to Charlie. There's potential tension in this relationship, but The Black Balloon includes only one incident in which the equilibrium is disturbed: Thomas attacks Charlie when his unrestrained sexuality shocks Jackie.

The film is candid about such matters, showing the range of Charlie's infantile, annoying, and potentially self-destructive acts. But it's less forthright about psychology, and quits before Jackie and two brothers's three-way relationship really develops. The Black Balloon is fine as far as it goes, but that isn't very far.

THE BLACK BALLOON — 2008, 97 min; at the Avalon Theater