BFI Flare Festival 2015 – Review

I managed to catch a couple of films this week at the BFI Flare Festival at the Southbank. The review for effective indie drama Tiger Orange was posted earlier tonight and the review of the excellent Dear White People goes live tomorrow morning. I also reviewed Peter Strickland’s bizarre but hilarious The Duke of Burgundy when I saw it at the London Film Festival last year.

The festival had a great atmosphere and it was a pleasure to be part of it, even if I only managed to visit it for a day. It looked like most of the tickets sold out but for a handful of seats for matinee performances, so there’s still chance to check out some screenings if you’re quick.

X+Y (Morgan Matthews, 2014)

X+Y is a British film from BBC Films that follows the story of Nathan (Asa Butterfield), a teenage mathematics prodigy who is more comfortable dealing with numbers than he is with people. When he is selected to represent Great Britain on the International Mathematical Olympiad, he is forced to travel to Taiwan. As pressure to perform in the tournament grows and he finds an unlikely source of romance in Zhang Mai (Jo Yang), he soon finds that being out of his comfort zone is the starting point for a challenging journey of self-realisation.

One thing I was worried about as I sat there in the cinema waiting for it to start, was how they were going to portray autism. Inevitably we’re going to compare lead character Nathan to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man or Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, probably the two most iconic on-screen portrayals of people on the autistic spectrum. Unfortunately for sufferers of autism, this drastically sells the condition short to people who aren’t overly aware of it. Autism is a condition that affects those close to someone on the spectrum as much as the person themselves, and to assume that they will simply be a bit awkward around people and good at maths is doing it a misjustice. Many sufferers find comfort in the strict rules set out in maths – it’s an emotionless interest. However, others find the same solace in a regimented interpretation of music, with its repetitive patterns and melodies and set mathematics behind complimentary frequencies of notes. Others become obsessive over lists and facts, whatever the topic might be. Others just don’t. There are mild forms of autism and severe forms, which is why diagnosis can be tricky as early signs can’t be placed on the spectrum by someone unfamiliar with the condition. 

So it’s unfortunate that autism has been portrayed on screen by means of a maths genius yet again, even though the director has previous work on autism (2008’s Beautiful Young Minds), which covers it in a more factual manner. However, X+Y is by no means just a light-hearted walk in the park and I enjoyed the fact a lot of time was spent with Nathan’s mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) as she came to terms with the loss of a close relative with no emotional support from her son. This was an important portion of the film that gave the right emphasis to the right areas and should be applauded.



I felt Butterfield’s portrayal of a child suffering from autism was very accurate, and I felt the frustration seeping through his inability to understand others. He has become a very accomplished actor throughout the three or four major films he has been part of so far, and as long as he keeps his feet on the ground for a couple more years he will continue to be successful for a long time.

Another great performance was from Jake Davies as Luke, whose character was a much more acute sufferer of autism. One scene involving a dead prawn stuck out for me and I’m sure we’ll be seeing more from him in the future.

The comradery of the maths students didn’t ring true for me. From first hand experience (I partook in mathematics competitions as a child, to some success), these competitions are far from a sociable affair, with most children very much “in the zone” and either unable or unwilling to communicate with their peers. It was a case of get in, do maths, win. Anything else was just unneccesary. So when there’s laughing and joking and, most notably, a cringeworthy rap session (including an awful rhymical recitation of Pi), I just thought back to the suits and classical music I had to endure and wondered how much it really could have changed.

I felt let down by the end. I’m not going to go into details as the film is yet to be released, but it just didn’t ring true to me and seemed to undo a lot of hard work they’d put in earlier in the film in a manner that suggests to me they got lost with the message they wanted to send out. I’ll let you make your own mind up on that one.

Overall it’s a very accomplished film and has many enjoyable points, but I didn’t feel it quite fulfilled its potential.

X+Y is released at UK cinemas on 13th March 2015.

Testament of Youth (James Kent, 2015)

Testament Of Youth is a dramatisation of the memoirs of famed pacifist Vera Brittain. Her story is a powerful and heartbreaking one to tell. It’s just a shame that first-time director James Kent fails to bring it to life.

Alicia Vikander portrays Brittain as she watches her fiancé Roland (Kit “You Know Nothing” Harington) leave France to fight in World War I, along with her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and friends Geoffrey (Jonathan Bailey) and Victor (Colin Morgan). The story follows her as she joins the fight as a frontline nurse, giving up her studies at Oxford University to get closer to her loved ones in France.

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Premiering at the BFI London Film Festival in the year of the centenary of the start of the war, giving the story additional poignancy, the underlying themes of the film are no less true today. We see Brittain in all her inspirational glory, fighting for her beliefs and showing resilience in the face of adversity.

But it is far from a perfect film. Perhaps one of the most distracting parts of the feature is Kit Harington. Known a little for his modelling work but quite a lot more for his role as Jon Snow in HBO’s episodic epic Game of Thrones, he failed to ignite anything but boredom in me as I watched him try to manage a deep gamut of emotions whilst just looking a bit lost and out of place.

The pacing of the film was another downside. I think the tendency with these wartime biopics is to draw them out and allow them space to breathe, but I’m sure this could have been cut slightly. Alternatively, if they wanted to give the story more time to develop, they could have opted for a more appropriate mini-series. Oh wait…

Vikander’s accent needed work. She is of Swedish origin and clearly hasn’t mastered the English nuances yet. You’d have thought that there were better options available, although director Kent has previously stated how thrilled he was that she signed up. Maybe I missed something.

My final bug-bear is the desire to build up sympathy in a character that seemingly has everything. We watch her in the opening scenes have a disagreement with her father because he bought her a grand piano instead of helping fund her to go to university. She storms off out of the room, whilst their maids look on in horror, up the stairs and into her oversized room, which I think was in the East Wing. You get the idea. I just don’t find this sort of thing entertaining as I have no connection to that sort of lifestyle.

The film has tough competition at the box office from Oscar tips Birdman, Foxcatcher, Cake, American Sniper, Whiplash, The Theory of Everything (the list goes on). There are still some huge blockbusters too in The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, Into The Woods, Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One, Paddington and How To Train Your Dragon 2. And Dumb and Dumber To is still on. I’m sure this film won’t be overlooked when it hits home media releases later this year, but I can’t see why they’re releasing it in awards season. It needs more help than that.

Testament of Youth is released in UK cinemas on 16th January 2015.

’71 (Yann Demange, 2014)

Screened as part of the First Feature competition at the London Film Festival, Yann Demange’s ’71 is an accomplished action thriller that serves as yet another reminder of the supreme talents of Jack O’Connell.

Set during The Troubles in 1971, the story follows Derbyshire soldier Gary Hook (O’Connell) who has been sent on his first mission with the Armed Forces to Belfast. His first call out, to quell some disturbances in a housing estate dubbed as “the front line” near the Falls Road, goes wrong fairly quickly and he is thrust into a man-in-hiding situation, on the run from the locals who believe the British Armed Forces have no place in their conflict. In danger and in isolation, the story becomes an cross-analysis of one man desperate to survive and return to his base safely.

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What I found interesting was how similar this plays out to other recent films set in more modern wars. One that immediately springs to mind is the Mark Wahlberg-starring Lone Survivor, which was set in Afghanistan. Of course the two films are as far apart as you could get in terms of style, but it serves as a reminder of how extreme the conflicts had got in the early 1970s.

Despite his frequenting of the tabloids, Jack O’Connell keeps on proving himself to be an actor with plenty of natural talent and it’s fantastic to see him building on his excellent performance in last year’s Starred Up (also reviewed here).

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There are moments of real tensions and shock along the way. I think it would be unfair of me to discuss them in great detail as I might ruin a great film that needs to be seen first-hand.

With a fantastic support cast (Sean Harris stands out as Captain Sandy Browning), this is a solid film worthy of your attention. Seek it out.

’71 is released in cinemas across the UK on 10th October.

Giovanni’s Island / ジョバンニの島 (Mizuho Nishikubo, 2014)

Back in July when I initially viewed Miyazaki’s final film The Wind Rises, I commented that it was a story that would have been better told in live action. The subject matter was very serious, there was nothing magical required of the story. It was simply an animation that didn’t need to be an animation.

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Giovanni’s Island, the new anime release from Mizuho Nishikubo, could have had a similar issue. It is a film set on Shikotan, a small Japanese island in 1945, which tells most of the premise in itself. We follow Young brothers Junpei and Kanya Senō as they deal with the island’s occupation by Russian soldiers, the upheaval of life as they know it, their integration with Russian culture at their school and Junpei’s romantic interest with Tanya, a Russian schoolgirl with a high-level military father.

It is overall a very depressing subject matter. By this I’m talking Grave of the Fireflies sort of level of depressing. There were many teary eyes as the film reached its conclusion, and that is testament to what a fantastic job Nishikubo has done here.

The animation style was actually quite intelligent and as the film went on there was a clear reason why animation was the medium of choice to tell this tale. There are three distinct styles on show: very realistic imagery is used for all the modern-day portions of the work; a more childlike design with juxtaposing dull greys are used for the sections covering 1945; and Junpei’s dreams and fantasies are more varied, with styles ranging from basic sketches to star-filled neon visual fireworks. The decision to use all three styles to represent a now much older Junpei’s memory of the events is a smart move, especially when we see the childlike times he spends with his brother overlaying a truly grim memory of the surrounding landscapes.

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One key theme throughout is the children’s obsessions with trains and railways, inspired by the brothers’ favourite book Night of the Galactic Railroad. According to the director this book used to be extremely popular but has since become just a phrase that is used. In fact, only 10 out of approximately 100 children who auditioned for the film were aware of the contents of the book. Perhaps the choice of this particular book was a comment that the younger generations of Japan are trying to move on from the painful memories suffered by their grandparents. Or perhaps it was just a happy coincidence and I’m reading too much into it.

Nishikubo has come in for criticism for the content of the film. Some Japanese critics thought he should have used the film to make more of a political statement. I tend to disagree. It really is an important and compelling story to simply tell the experience these two young children went through, without being judgemental of any of the parties. Neither the islanders nor the Russians are particularly singled out as being in the wrong. This allows us as viewers to make up our own minds, and it’s a much more balanced approach to allow the story to gain popularity and recognition in the world markets. In so many ways, this does a far better job than being highly favourable to the Japanese islanders, who went through terrible treatment no matter which way you look at it, and I’m sure this is the conclusion most will draw.

Giovanni’s Island has a limited release in UK cinemas in 2014, including the London Film Festival (10th October onwards), Scotland Loves Anime 2014 in Glasgow (12th October), Leeds Vue in the Night (12th October) and Edinburgh Filmhouse (18th October). It will subsequently be released on Ultimate Edition Blu-ray (limited to 1000 copies) and DVD on 8th December, and standard Blu-ray on 26th January 2015. More information on all these releases can be found on the official Giovanni’s Island website.

The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, 2014)

Peter Strickland’s latest film, The Duke of Burgundy, is an interesting one. Screened in competition at the British Film Festival under a wave of great reviews, it is a film very hard to categorise. I’ve seen it described as an erotic drama. It’s also been referred to as a sexual romance. I’ve a tendency to go with a black romantic comedy, albeit based on the sexual fetishes of a lesbian couple.

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On the face of it, it concerns a sadomasochistic relationship between a dominant woman and her submissive lover. They live in a small community populated exclusively by women, who we are led to believe share similar sexual tendencies. They are all clearly well off, and none appear to work outside a few butterfly lectures here and there.

To label it as a film simply about fetish sex is to do it a disservice. Actually by the end of the film it is clearly more about the demands made by the desires of one person in a relationship, and the effect that has on the second party, especially as they grow distant from these demands and find them less appealing.

The soundtrack, provided by Cat’s Eyes, tweely pitches somewhere between Goldfrapp and Belle and Sebastian. With the constant references to butterflies I was repeatedly reminded of early 00s band Misty Dixon. This juxtaposition between what we see and what we hear is quite intelligent: it underlines the innocence of one party and her belief that this is normal behaviour, even though it is clearly a strain on her besotted lover. She is living in a dream world and the music, in that sense, is perfectly pitched. Plus it’s really lovely music, which helps.

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The whole nature of the relationship is completely flipped from its initial portrayal, and by the end we see the surprising reality. This about-turn makes for some hilarious and at times heartbreaking scenes. Indeed, such is the detail in which we see the emotions and pain seen by one party, we barely see a glimpse of any of the sexual acts, usually having them implied behind closed doors or inferred from showing us the before and after shots. In this way, Strickland managed to avoid it becoming all about the sex and makes it a much greater film as a result.

In a post-50-Shades era the subject matter will no doubt turn a few heads. In many ways I hope readers of the 50 Shades series seek it out and are either disappointed or, more likely, pleasantly surprised.

Whilst it didn’t have the impact of Strickland’s previous film Berbarian Sound Studio, it was a highly satisfying, twisting and twisted tale that deserves a wide audience.

The Duke of Burgundy is released in UK cinemas in 2015.

The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, 2014)

Every so often I see a new film that absolutely blows my socks off, where the storyline sits perfectly with my mood and I get totally enthralled in the joyous and rare occasion of seeing what could be one of my favourite films of all time. The Imitation Game was one of those films.

It is a film in three intertwined parts, covering three key periods of Alan Turing’s life: the schooldays in which Alex Lawther plays a young Turing, complete with serious bullying and a growing fondness of his best friend Christopher; the war years, where he devises and eventually builds the Turing machine that eventually cracks the Enigma code (sorry, spoiler alert!); and the early 1960s when he is investigated and prosecuted for his homosexuality. All three are critical to giving us the full picture of Turing throughout his life.

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Cumberbatch’s ability to transform himself and become his subject is uncanny, perhaps rivalled only by Michael Sheen by today’s younger actors for chameleon-like abilities. Having seen him in so many different roles (for range you can compare his performance as Smaug in the current Hobbit trilogy to his powerful turn in 12 Years A Slave), he never ceases to amaze me as to how there’s such little crossover between his characters. And so it is here: a totally unique take on a totally unique person.

The scenes during which the machine is developed and successfully executed is the real joy to behold. The take on Turing has no elements of a stereotypical cinema autism sufferer; this tale is set in the real world and without any intentional throwaway punchlines. People with severe autism often find themselves – intentionally or not – having disconnected exchanges with others in real life that to outsiders seem very hilarious, though the comedy here is brought to life by the chemistry with his on-screen companions. Perhaps the best example of this was the Armed Forces interview with Charles Dance, which almost completely ruins Turing’s chances of taking part in the war efforts. I won’t explain it, but it is certainly a highlight.

I imagine the film will come under criticism from people accusing it of being a slightly jingoistic, self-appreciating celebration of how great Great Britain really was back in the day. Very little screen time is given to even mentioning any other country’s war efforts. The truth is that Britain really were the only nation involved with the Turing machines and cracking Enigma, but this film isn’t about a war but about a man. In any case, it’s not only a celebration of a fantastic collaborative effort of some of the greatest minds of a generation, but also a celebration of a time when it was okay to be a proud Brit; when we had plenty to be proud of on a global scale. And jolly good it was too.

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I’d love to contribute some criticism of it and counter balance why I think negative aspects are acceptable, but nothing springs to mind. The support cast (Keira Knightley, Martin Strong, Charles Dance) were phenomenal, and ensured this didn’t turn into a one-man-show. The music was truly sublime and fitted the mood well. There really wasn’t anything to say that could be considered negative.

Please, do yourself a favour. Watch this film.

The Imitation Game is released in UK cinemas on 14th November and in the USA on 21st November.