FILM REVIEW: X+Y

Since the sudden death of her husband, Julie (Sally Hawkins) has been desperate in her quest for the same love and approval that her brilliant, autistic son Nathan (played by Asa Butterfield) had for his late father. Nathan’s a shy and socially bewildered boy; a mathematical genius and yet he’s simply unable to formulate the necessary equations in his mathematical mind to tackle life and its myriad unpredictabilities.

X+Y is essentially Nathan’s world and how his rather insular existence not only affects the people closest to him, but somehow allows them to confront their own issues and personal demons in one way or another.

When done well, these kind of British, slice-of-life dramas tend to be the perfect blend of charm, poignancy and dry wit, components that X+Y has in abundance.

Rafe Spall in particular is superb as Humphreys, Nathan’s sarcastic, wise-cracking personal tutor and although his humour is probably lost on Nathan and is in itself more of a coping mechanism for him to deal with his own frustrations at living with the debilitating effects of Multiple Sclerosis, it’s laugh-out-loud funny at times and the perfect antidote to Nathan’s occasional innocent, yet cutting, socially unaware outbursts.

When Nathan is chosen to represent British schools in the International Mathematical Olympiad in Taiwan, he is taken under the wing of no nonsense trip coordinator Richard, played by Eddie Marsan, whom, to my consistent shame, I can never seem to disassociate from his long past ‘Grange Hill’ days whenever I see him. He’s a whole lot better than that, clearly.

A whole new world of friendships, opportunities and experiences open up for Nathan here as he confronts both who he is and the social inadequacies that he struggles with, whilst Zhang Mei (a sweet performance by Jo Yang) enters his life and an innocent sort of forbidden, young love blossoms.

Morgan Matthews has cast the roles well and directs X + Y with great respect and affection.
I dislike the ‘feel-good’ label when attached to films, but in fairness, it’s pretty apt on this occasion. It’s not quite up there with the very best of British, but it’s a charming little piece nonetheless with its heart very firmly in the right place and that’s certainly no bad thing.

Well worth a watch.

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FILM REVIEW: STILL ALICE

Alice is fifty years old, in her prime and has just been diagnosed with young onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland are clearly keen to point out that Alice (a subtle and beautifully nuanced performance by the evergreen Julianne Moore), is the healthy, clean living, intellectual type; an habitual jogger with filtered water in the fridge and a penchant for online word puzzles; even her chief indulgence is nothing more than frozen yoghurt with a sprinkling of blueberries and coconut, so the fact that her particular type of Alzheimer’s disease is genetic / familial, almost renders her well-intentioned choice of healthy lifestyle, inconsequential.

Alzheimer’s disease, needless to say, is a cruel, destructive disease that seemingly robs everyone of everything.

In a stirring speech, Alice connects Alzheimer’s with the notion of loss and the fact that, much like her lauded, professional linguistic expertise, she’s now resigned to becoming an expert in loss too.

There are many, directly or indirectly that have been affected by the degenerative effects of Alzheimer’s. The gradual decline in cognitive function is tackled here both accurately and sympathetically. ‘Still Alice’ however is an engaging story in its own right and resists the temptation to become a medical case study of sorts.

The effects of the disease upon Alice are predictably heartbreaking, but it’s the film’s focus on Alice’s family and the way that they must deal with this monumental shake up in their lives, that really adds depth. Husband John (Alec Baldwin), struggles to make the transition from Alice, his soulmate and lover, to Alice, his patient and the object of his guilty, reluctant pity, whereas most of the children, whilst taking the news hard, push on with their busy existences.
Tellingly, it’s youngest daughter and aspiring actress, Lydia, the one that Alice has pleaded with (to no avail) to finish college in the name of life security and stability, that seems to connect on the deepest, most soulful and understanding of levels, demonstrating a depth of maturity and dependability when it’s really needed.

There are no dramatic twists and turns here. Rightly or wrongly (and I’ve heard grumbles of discontent from some for ‘overly sanitising’ the subject matter), the film does not choose to deal with the latter stages of this most cruel of diseases. Instead, we have a very sad, very poignant, yet at times heart-warming piece that truly reaches inside us and demands that the disparate twin emotions of fear and empathy sit up and pay full attention.

Much like The Theory Of Everything, there’s very little more affecting than a film that induces a sense of melancholy, whilst simultaneously reviving the appreciation we so often take for granted, of our own lives, our health and the health and well being of those that we love.

Still Alice – a tragic, yet at times beautiful meditation on the notion of family and the importance of an all-enduring, all-conquering and merciful love.

Film Review: selma

“Negotiate, demonstrate and resist” – the mantra and considered approach of one Martin Luther King Jr, the preacher and founder of the SCLC movement of the mid-twentieth century; a peaceful yet determined outfit, set on establishing voting rights and demanding equality for the back population of the United States of America.

Selma, Alabama; the backdrop to the scene of what was initially hundreds of black African Americans and later, thousands of black and white folk from all over America, marching across the Edmund Pettus bridge, en route to Montgomery, Alabama, to confront its sinister and racist governor George Wallace (played by the excellent Tim Roth).

King Jr (a fine performance by David Oleyowo it should be said), is portrayed as a man of great passion and religious conviction, yet a man that seemingly struggles somewhat to balance his life’s calling with the responsibilities he faces as a father and husband.

There’s clearly a great deal of heartfelt reverence in director Ava DuVernay’s re-telling of this pivotal point in America’s race relations history and such a serious and faithful rendition requires a strong cast: Selma’s cast delivers, right across the board.

We’re probably all aware of Martin Luther King Jr; a great man in anyone’s eyes and therefore a man whose story can probably be afforded a little artistic licence without detracting significantly from the salient points of his mission and story, yet Selma feels a little too much like a King Jr biopic; a linear re-telling of historical events and not quite the all powerful, cinematic experience it might have been.

Yes, in a rare turn of events, I’m actually bemoaning a lack of ‘Hollywood’ in a mainstream Hollywood release.

2014’s ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ was another film based upon true events and again tackling racial tensions and prejudices in America’s deep south, yet somehow possessing the ability to translate this effectively to the big screen, a quality that this King Jr biopic certainly strives for, yet curiously never quite achieves.

Whilst Selma does contain moments of intensity and conviction (notably the more violent altercations that transpire, along with some interesting observations with regard to the power and influence of both the church and the media), we never truly get under the skin of Martin Luther King Jr, the man, and this you sense is a critical flaw.
There was certainly far greater scope to explore King Jr, the family man and the somewhat unavoidable marital tensions between him and his wife Coretta (played by Carmen Ejogo); to really sense his true emotions, his inner demons and to fully appreciate the weight of expectation resting firmly upon the man’s shoulders. Perhaps DuVernay thought that that would have side-tracked us away a little too much from the principle point and focus of the film, but I suspect it could only have added the piece a greater depth.

From rapper ‘Common’ to America’s favourite daytime agony aunt and matriarch, Oprah Winfrey, (who incidentally turns in a nice cameo as Annie Lee Cooper), right through to producer Brad Pitt, it’s pretty obvious that America’s ‘A list’ wanted in on this project, but maybe that’s the real issue here: The enormity of Selma – the subject matter and agenda – seems on this occasion to have dwarfed Selma – the movie – resulting in an admittedly well-intentioned, respectful and occasionally powerful homage to a great man and an important set of events in, American and world history, yet, for one reason or another, a piece that doesn’t truly satisfy or realise its potential on the big screen.

Good, but above all, a bit of a missed opportunity.