A Brilliant Young Mind (X+Y)


What could possibly be more English than this?

What could possibly be more English than this?

(2014) Drama (Goldwyn) Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Martin McCann, Jake Davies, Alex Lawther, Alexa Davies, Orion Lee, Edward Baker-Close, Percelle Ascott, Suraj Rattu, Jamie Ballard, Clare Burt, Adam Foster, Lee Zhuo Zhao, Shannon Beer, Tasha Connor, Lawrence Jeffries, Ciaran Wakefield, Song Chang, Bo-Han Huang, Christina Low. Directed by Morgan Matthews

Those who show any intelligence in our culture are often ostracized for it. When you add to that a touch of autism or any other emotional or developmental disorder and it spells an equation for a lonely childhood. Often it is the most gifted of our species who end up being the most misunderstood.

Nathan Ellis (Butterfield) is a math prodigy. He sees the patterns in everything and is fascinated by things like prime numbers, calculus and Fibonacci sequences. His father (McCann) was his biggest supporter and he and dad had a special bond until his father was killed tragically. Now his mom Julie (Hawkins) is left to raise him alone.

But Nathan is more than just good at maths (the British slang for mathematics); he’s also got a trace of autism and a form of aphasia. Socially he is very closed off; he hates to be touched and he is very particular that things fit into rigid patterns to the point that the prawn balls he orders from his favorite Chinese take-out (takeaway if you’re British) is from a combination plate that is a prime number and the number of prawn balls on the plate must fit in the Fibonacci sequence. It’s enough to drive his poor mum half-mad but she has the patience of a saint more or less although there are times she feels more alone than the average single mum – not only is she without a husband but her son is distant and doesn’t like touching her or being touched by her. Think about being robbed of pretty much all human contact and you might get an idea of what Julie’s going through.

But Nathan’s math prowess catches the attentions of the school’s headmaster (Ballard) who orders math teacher Martin Humphreys (Spall) to tutor the young whiz. Martin was once a prodigy like Nathan but the onset of multiple sclerosis effectively sabotaged him in the International Mathematics Olympiad when he was on the British team and led him to a life of drinking and disappointment. Martin is not happy about the situation but sees something of himself in Nathan and agrees to take him on.

Martin’s unconventional teaching methods prove to be effective for Nathan and despite a little bit of forced suspense (that won’t fool any veteran moviegoer), Nathan eventually makes the British math team and goes to Taiwan to train for the event, chaperoned by gravelly math teacher Richard (Marsan) who is more concerned about winning the event against the heavily favored Chinese team (who have won the last three) than in the well-being of the boys.

For Nathan’s part, his eyes are opened when he discovers that the other boys are at least as brilliant – and some more so – than he, and most are just as socially awkward. He is also assigned a study partner from the Chinese team, Yang Jo (Mei). Much to the audience’s surprise, Nathan begins to develop a great deal of affection for Yang, who to be truthful is depicted here as an utter ray of sunshine, one of the few really nice to be around people in the movie which is filled with smart people who can be utterly rotten.

As the pressure mounts, Nathan’s personal growth still requires some work and while Yang is working on it, Nathan’s relationship with his mother – who has developed a relationship with Martin – is reaching the breaking point. And Nathan has reached a point where he must decide what is most important to him – his beloved numbers or the people who care for him.

When I saw the previews for this film, I didn’t have high hopes for it. After all, the “smart/socially awkward genius” trope has been done to death as has been the mind/sports athlete underdog film. The latter are often documentaries and while this is not, director Morgan Matthews did a documentary on the English Math Olympiad team that largely inspired this movie, although this one is completely fictionalized. The trailer made the movie look pretty typical.

It’s anything but. Yes, there is a certain heart-warming element to it, but it is earned. The characters are completely realistic and if not down-to-earth, feel like they could be slapping shoe leather on this planet. Nathan is capable of cruelty and heartlessness, most often in regards to his mom, but let the audience still roots for him. Mei, Marsan and Spall all deliver strong performances in supporting roles.

Hawkins is a brilliant actress who has been nominated for an Oscar in the past and likely will be again in the future, although not necessarily for this. She could play Julie as the martyr which perhaps in the minds of other actresses she might be, but as Hawkins plays her she’s just a mom coping with tragedy and an imperfect relationship with her son; she is just trying to make things as good as possible for him, as “normal” as possible. Hawkins plays the part with humor and with charm; I wanted to hang out with Julie too, not just with the math whizzes who were frankly a little bit beyond me, which was okay – I’m sure if I started talking movies around most of them they’d be as lost as I am when they talk algorithms.

What I liked about the movie most of all is that the movie treats Nathan’s issues matter of factly as a part of life. Of most of the autistic people I’ve known, Butterfield’s portrayal comes closest to who they are; yes, they are a little different than the so-called normal people and they require a little bit more patience in some cases but otherwise they are just like you and just like me.

I really liked this movie a lot; it’s one of the best ones I’ve seen this year. The performances are strong and the writing is as well. If there is a workman-like quality to some of the story when it comes to portraying the love story, it can be forgiven because the relationships in the movie are so real. While the theatrical run for this film is essentially over, it is certainly one to look for on home video once it is released there.

REASONS TO GO: Warm-hearted without being treacly. Treats autism with respect and realism. Doesn’t overload with math. Fine performances from Spall and Hawkins.
REASONS TO STAY: A few Hollywood-type tropes in here.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual references and a few expletives here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story is loosely based in Daniel Lightwing, an actual math prodigy and current mathematician.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Happy-Go-Lucky
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Beasts of No Nation

The Taiwan Oyster


I wouldn't buy a used car from these guys, let alone let them bury my corpse.

I wouldn’t buy a used car from these guys, let alone let them bury my corpse.

(2013) Drama (Spoonbill) Billy Harvey, Jeff Palmiotti, Leonora Lim, Erin King, Fu-Kuei Huang, Chia-Ying Kuo, Joseph Shu, Sean Scanlan, Will Mounger, Jimi Moe, Hai-Sen Ni, Eva Liao, Michael Jian, Catherine Li, Magnus von Platen, Bob Bloodworth, Bin-he Feng, Klairinette Wu. Directed by Mark Jarrett

 Florida Film Festival 2013

When you’re an expatriate in a country radically different from your own, it’s not that hard to sometimes be caught by the current that flows between cultures, adrift on that current without much effort on your own part. When that happens, ascertaining what the right thing to do is can be murky viewing at best. It’s easy to do the right thing for the wrong reasons in circumstances like that.

Simon (Harvey) and Darin (Palmiotti) are a couple of Americans living in Taiwan. They earn their living as kindergarten teachers by day and put together a very dodgy fanzine by night. Their ‘zine, called The Oyster is their ticket out or so Darin thinks. Simon just wants to write for any magazine. He has an opportunity to return home but he’s unsure what to do. About anything, really.

One night the two of them are drinking with some fellow ex-pats when tragedy strikes. One of their number dies in a terrible miscalculation of his own limitations. He has no family to claim his body and the state will eventually cremate his body and dispose of the remains in some anonymous grave. However, Simon discovers to his dismay that the man signed his “funeral wall” – a wall in the apartment Darin and Simon share in which they and fellow ex-pats have left instructions on what to do if they should die in Taiwan. The two realize they must claim the body and bury it in the right spot, a mournful song by Hank Williams blaring on their boom box.

This is easier said than done. An officious clerk (Feng) won’t release the body to non-relatives and their attempts to disguise themselves as American embassy officials is embarrassing at best. So they steal the body – with the help of a sympathetic clerk (Lim) who Simon quickly develops a crush on, feelings which are reciprocated.

The two then take a journey throughout Taiwan, trying to find the perfect place to bury their countryman, whom they barely knew. As they discover Taiwan, they begin to discover a sense of responsibility that they both have been lacking and figure out that growing up doesn’t have to be so painful after all – but it always is.

Taiwan is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and it wouldn’t be hard for anyone to make a decent-looking movie while filming there but Jarrett and cinematographer Mike Simpson have good eyes and make a great-looking movie. It’s worth seeing for the visuals alone.

Darin, who in indie-quirky fashion rips the sleeves off of all his shirts (which I don’t think he understands how that is the 21st century equivalent of a mullet) and Simon both start off the film as kind of typical young guys who are more interested in their next good time than in making something of themselves. Simon in particular is capable of deciding nothing, preferring instead to drift on whatever wind finds him. Darin is not much better but he at least instigates things, although they are often the wrong things.

Harvey and Palmiotti are pleasantly surprising with strong onscreen presences the both of them. They have good chemistry together and the bickering between them, which sounds a lot like good friends in their mid-20s, is believable. Lim is there pretty much as a love interest and as an audience surrogate; her character is a third wheel at times and she knows it. Still, Nikita (her character’s name) can sense the potential in Simon and while he isn’t ready for a relationship with anyone, he is changed for the better for his relationship with Nikita.

Jarrett characterizes this as a Texas road film set in Taiwan and that’s as succinct an appraisal of the film as you’re likely to get. There is a good deal of insight here into the nature of being a young man with no direction in a foreign land. While the plot is resonant of other incidents (and the very self-aware Darin probably knows it – he’s more interested in becoming a local legend than doing right by a man he barely knew) it also carries with it a kind of Texas feel to it; while there’s no sagebrush or badland prairie to be seen here, Simon and Darin could easily have been traveling from Plano as they were from Taipei. Larry McMurtry, the noted author, would certainly recognized some of his own style here as would Tim Burton – the ending reminded me a bit of Big Fish in some ways (more in the feel of it than anything else – nobody turns into a giant catfish here).

The screening I was attending was plagued by technical problems, causing it to run late into the night and so I was fairly tired when I saw it which might have something to do with me not giving it a higher rating. I have changed my rating upwards since I saw it, something I rarely do and chances are if you ask me a week from now what I’d give it a higher rating still. Some movies grow on you long after you’ve seen it and this is one of those movies for me. That’s certainly something to consider when deciding whether to see it or not yourself.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. A road picture with insight. Resonates like the work of Larry McMurtry and to an extent, Tim Burton.

REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some morbid humor, a bit of bad language, drinking, smoking and drug use and some sexuality – not a Disney film by any means.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jarrett was inspired by William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (which is quoted at the beginning of the film) and his own experiences while residing in Taiwan from 1999-2001.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie has been on the festival circuit for the past year.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lonesome Dove

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Magical Universe

Formosa Betrayed


Formosa Betrayed

James Van Der Beek goes in guns blazing.

(2009) Political Drama (Screen Media) James Van Der Beek, Wendy Crewson, Tzi Ma, Will Tiao, John Heard, Tom Jay, Chelcie Ross, Leslie Hope, Kenneth Tsang, Adam Wang, Mintita Wattanakul, Joseph Anthony Foronda, Tonray Ho. Directed by Adam Kane

Most people are woefully uninformed. For the most part, it’s simply because we don’t want to be but even if we did we rarely get much truth from either the media or our governments. The way things appear to be are often not the way they are.

It all starts with what appeared to be a robbery gone bad. Professor Henry Wen (Foronda) is shot and killed by what appear to be ordinary carjackers. However, things begin to go sideways. The police discover that Wen was an outspoken opponent of the current regime in Taiwan (this movie takes place during the Reagan administration, by the way). The suspected killers appear to be Taiwanese nationals. The FBI is called in and Agent Jake Kelly (Van Der Beek) is assigned to the case. When the suspects flee to Taiwan, Kelly is sent after them – but as an observer, not a participant. The actual capture of the killers is left to the Taiwanese police.

This much is made clear by the starchy Susan Kane (Crewson), a liaison from the State Department. Kelly is immediately thrown into a curious charade that simply extrudes intrigue. He is sent to parties celebrating his arrival; the police are remarkably uncooperative when it comes to letting him in on any real investigation. Kelly begins to suspect that something is rotten in Formosa.

Kelly is contacted by friends of the late professor; Ming (Tiao) takes him on something of a tour of Taiwan’s underbelly, where the face of democracy is replaced by a corrupt military dictatorship. Ruthless and repressive, it soon becomes evident that the murder of the professor was in all likelihood ordered by the Taiwanese government. This is not good news; it would be a diplomatic nightmare if word got out that a United States citizen (Wen was of Taiwanese descent but was a citizen of the U.S.) had been murdered by a foreign government, particularly one we didn’t recognize.

I am pulled in different directions by this movie. On the one hand, it is about something that is not reported on often in the United States. For that reason, I admire the film’s content. However, the execution leaves much to be desired. The setting is done as a standard thriller with many of the clichés of the genre, with car chases, shadowy figures, shoot-outs and lantern-jawed heroes.

Van Der Beek, who is best-known as Dawson Leary from TV’s “Dawson’s Creek” is actually more than satisfactory in the FBI agent role. He gets across the character’s competency as well as his idealism while remaining a professional demeanor. It seems to me that an actual FBI agent in a similar situation would act with the same demeanor as Van Der Beek’s Jake would; however, his actions going all cowboy on the Taiwanese does seem a bit far-fetched, although it’s the kind of thing that gets forgiven in other movies with traditional action heroes in them. Crewson does a pretty good job as the diplomat who starts out by the book but ends up sympathetic. Heard is also a good fit as Van Der Beek’s superior.

I suppose because the subject matter was so compelling I wanted the rest of the movie to match up to it, and simply put, the writing seems a little bit formulaic to me. The actors try to work through it and do at least decent jobs in roles that are pretty much by-the-numbers, but the movie is rescued by a compelling story that is at least partially based on actual events, which makes the movie even more fascinating in my eyes.

WHY RENT THIS: Casts some light on events not well reported in this country.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unfortunately, makes the setting a rather poorly executed potbroiler.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence, some of it unexpected and jarring. There is also a torture scene that some may find disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was released on DVD in Taiwan on November 10 and proceeded to set records for single-day and single-week sales in Taiwan.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $326,034 on an unreported production budget; the film probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Fighter