Saturday, 26 December 2015

Movie Review: X+Y/Joy (2015)


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When a person is discovered to have what is considered above-average intelligence, there is a certain expectation that they will fulfill their potential. Now, to a degree, this is understandable: Knowing how many truly stupid people exist in the world, it really would be a shame if someone with genuine intellect would just let it go to waste. But then, there’s the side effects that that kind of expectation can have on the person in question. I remember my last day of Year 10 excruciatingly well, as probably one of the best and one of the worst of my entire school career. Somehow, and I still don’t know how, I managed to top the class in my English School Certificate. The next year, I was “heavily advised” to go into the Advanced class, despite my best wishes. This would end up culminating in my HSC two years later, which officially broke me because not only was it clearly beyond my abilities, but that I was expected to pass it by my teachers. Sure, hindsight is a miracle worker and let me understand that all that work really doesn’t mean jack shit later on in life, but in a vacuum it is a horrific experience. Keep that idea of the supposed responsibility to one’s own intelligence as we get into today’s subject. This is X+Y, otherwise known as A Brilliant Young Mind.

The plot: Nathan (Asa Butterfield) is a teenaged mathematics prodigy, whose main goal is to make it into the International Mathematics Olympiad. With the tutelage of former maths Olympian Martin (Rafe Spall) and the support of his mother Julie (Sally Hawkins), he makes it to a maths camp that will decide if he is one of the six to make it to the IMO. However, when confronted with others like him, he finds that he may not be ready for the social possibilities presented to him.

Asa Butterfield previously knocked the socks off of the critical masses with his turn as the lead in Hugo, probably making for one of the best showcases for child acting in recent memory. Thankfully, he hasn’t lost an inch of his touch, as he portrays Nathan’s social disconnection and confusion of the world around him expertly. Edward Baker-Close does a terrific job as the younger Nathan, showing a real-life sense of naivety and freshly learning about the world that would go on to confuse him later on in life. Rafe Spall makes for a more rattled mentor role than is usually seen in what is essentially a sports movie, balancing aloofness with a hint of tragedy surprisingly well; good to see his experience with Edgar Wright hasn’t gone to waste.

Detailing a teenager’s social inadequacies is hardly anything new for the realms of coming-of-age cinema. However, what genuinely impresses with this film is how honed-in it feels. I’ve seen how adults act when they are trying to show that they approachable to run-of-the-mill teens, let alone teens who have diagnosed on the spectrum. This doesn’t carry any of that hokeyness nor feel like it’s aiming for what it can’t reach. Instead, through Butterfield’s down-played performance coupled with the atmosphere afforded him by the camera work, editing and score, we get a real sense of a kid who doesn’t fit into social circles. The film ties a lot of the actions of the characters into the idea of patterns and recurrence, beyond just the realm of mathematics, and how people feel most comfortable when they established their own. Through Nathan, we see the comfort he takes in solving mathematical equations, and through Martin, we get something more self-destructive in a downward spiral with his lack of self-worth and dependency on pharmaceuticals. We also see how changes in said patterns can affect people who operate so heavily on routine, like those on the spectrum. Whether it’s seemingly minor changes, like flying overseas for the first time, or drastically major ones, like the loss of his father, it is a palpable feeling even for those who can’t exactly connect with it.

However, the big surprise of the whole production comes about in the form of one of the side characters, that being Luke Shelton played by Jake Davies. Now, from his first handful of scenes, he is shown as even more socially awkward than most others, coming across as cold and inflexible and, if I’m being honest, a bit of a prick. Really, he kept making me think of the almost inhuman socializing Sheldon from TBBT would partake in, and God knows that reminding me of that isn’t going to help anyone. Then, through a single scene involving him watching an old Monty Python skit on a computer, there is a total paradigm shift. Being considered clever brings with it a lot of pressure to fulfill what is considered to be your obligation to use your cleverness in schooling. Of course, there’s the fact that we are social creatures and, regardless of how we may come across, every one of us needs interaction with other people. If given the chance, I’m willing to bet that most people would give every bit of intellect they have, if only it meant that they could get along better with others. Hell, just because they’re in a room with people that are like them with similar interests, that doesn’t change the fact that that crippling shyness is still present.

What I’m getting at with all this is that, with how Luke is portrayed as trying to connect with the other mathletes, it should be reluctantly relatable for the more introverted audiences out there. Hell, given how much I’ve been cramming my days full of films to review over the last few weeks, that feeling of trying (and failing) to connect with people on terms that you feel most comfortable with really hits home. Through how he reacts to the pressure of not only succeeding academically, but also in the social sphere, Luke actually becomes the best character in the film; it’s undeniably tragic how badly he wants to fit in but, from all outward appearances, he seems to just hate everyone.

All in all, this is a deeply resonating emotional drama about the pressures that society places on people to use their God-given intellect and the attitudes that result from it. The acting is great, particularly from Butterfield and Davies and the writing portrays social anxiety brilliantly, balancing out the characters’ evident smarts with their lack of knowledge about interacting with others. This probably ranks higher with me because I still remember going through similar situations myself from a few years back, but that doesn’t negate how well executed the production is as a whole. It ranks higher than Secrets In Their Eyes, as the romance here feels a lot better set-up and has a far greater payoff. However, as much as I commend this film for compassionately portraying what are essentially First Brain Problems, Lead Me Astray for a more completely enthralling experience as an overall film.


David O. Russell might be one of the most emotionally intuitive filmmakers working today, if not ever. Every film he’s been attached to explores some inner working of the human psyche to (usually) great effect: Sex (Spanking The Monkey), personal identity (Flirting With Disaster), greed (Three Kings), comfort through the metaphysical (I Heart Huckabees), pride (The Fighter), depression (Silver Linings Playbook), deception (American Hustle) and… okay, I haven’t quite figured out where Accidental Love fits into this overall picture. Nevertheless, the man is a phenomenally good writer and director, especially in recent years. After the largely confusing mess of Huckabees, which people seemed to love or hate for the same reason (that it made no sense), O. Russell went through a definite change in his tactics. His slapstick style of direction became more introspective, resulting in a trio of films that were not only good but were legitimately some of the best films of their respective years, if not the entire decade. So, given how much I clearly adore the man’s work, I look forward to today’s subject hoping that Accidental Love wasn’t some kind of ill omen. Even for filmmakers I like, I can’t help being cynical. This is Joy.

The plot: Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is a divorced mother of two who lives with her mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), father Rudy (Robert De Niro), sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) and ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramírez). Wanting to get a better grip on her life, she enlists her family, along with Rudy’s girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), to help her realize a new type of mop that she has invented and sell it. As she creates a business connection with QVC executive Neil (Bradley Cooper), it seems that the world is going to throw everything it can in her way.

Time to go over the traditional O. Russell ensemble cast. Lawrence is great as always as the strong and determined lead, Cooper is a little below par but still shows a lot of energy when the calls start coming in, and De Niro probably gets the best lines in the film which he delivers admirably. Beyond that, Virginia Madsen is good as the soap-opera addicted mother, Édgar Ramírez redeems himself a bit for Deliver Us From Evil and gets to show off his decent pipes as well, Isabella Rossellini has managed to stop detailing the sex lives of animals (no, that’s not a joke) long enough to give an alright turn as the almost predatory Trudy and Elisabeth Röhm plays the terminally jealous bitch Peggy on exactly that note. Honestly, the only real down point in the cast is Aundrea and Gia Gadsby as Joy’s daughter Christie; knowing how good O. Russell is at getting performances out of his actors, I expected better.

If we’re continuing the idea of psychological analysis in O. Russell’s previous work, then this film’s core theme would be optimism. From her family to her friends to her investors, Joy repeatedly gets shat on by life; she proves that Murphy’s Law not only exists, but that it has numerous agents at its disposal. The film does give a good sense of just how many hurdles Joy has to clear in order to redeem herself, and there’s definite catharsis to be felt when she starts doing well. It can feel at times like a soap opera with how intent some of Joy’s family are to stab her in the back, though. However, it seems that O. Russell planned ahead for this one, as one of the running gags involves Joy’s mother comparing their lives to the soap opera she watches all day. Bonus points for populating the in-universe soap opera with legends of the format like Susan Lucci, Maurice Benard, Laura Wright and even Donna Mills. That tactic might not be bulletproof, but it at least shows a reasonable bit of self-awareness about how melodramatic the events of the film are.

More than anything, O. Russell’s strength is his talent for character: His writing provides excellent framework for living, breathing people to inhabit the story and his aptitude for directing actors (which may be more than a little problematic, given the arguments he’s gotten in on-set) allows those people to realized on-screen. Well, knowing how good he can be with that, particularly with his last two releases, this is a serious letdown. Joy is pretty much the only solid character in the entire film, who is determined and resilient and everything else we’ve come to expect from a J. Law role. Everyone else, save for her ex-husband Tony, exists solely as emotional roadblocks that Joy has to overcome. Rudy and Neil get on-off moments where they are genuinely supportive, but even they have their moments of standing in her way for the usual strawman sexist reasons. They don’t really come across that much as people, let alone people we should sympathize with in any way.

What makes this fall even harder is how, at times, they are absolutely right. Not completely, and I stand by how even for the 90’s their housewife comments are a bit much, but Joy as depicted in this film isn’t nearly as prepared to run a business as the film keeps insisting that she is. In real life, the Miracle Mop sold okay numbers until Joy went with the ‘face of the company’ approach. In this film, given how disastrous first impressions can be for a product, how events are shown make it look like she wouldn’t sell a single unit prior to her going front and centre. Hell, it’s through a semi-makes-it-easy moment that everything ends up working out in the end in the first place.

The cinematography is seriously annoying in this film. Linus Sandgren has done good work before with American Hustle and, as much as I didn’t like the film as a whole, The Hundred-Foot Journey, but this has some real visual problems. For one thing, the camera work will occasionally contradict the script in frankly bizarre ways. Regardless of what the dialogue indicates on its own, there is an inordinate amount of actors talking out-of-frame in a way that does not fit in the slightest with what’s happening on-screen. There’s also this weird effect that occurs with the focus that makes everything look like they’re happening on a green screen, even when they’re sitting at the dining room table. As a result, a lot of the zoom-ins and outs look disjointed and can really bring you out of the film with little effort.

All in all, while I have been largely bitching about this film and it definitely has its flaws, this film is still pretty good. Most of the film involves connecting with the main character as she fights to get through every bad scenario that’s given to her, and that mostly succeeds based solely on the strength of Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. The rest of the acting is good, caricature characterization notwithstanding, the music selection is on par with O. Russell’s oeuvre, and while the camera work could definitely get distracting at times, the overall package is at least worth a watch. It’s better than Everest as, even if there’s only one properly defined character here, that still makes more than could be found in that film. However, given how this film left me a bit cold on the emotional front, it falls short of the cripplingly depressing Leviathan.

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