MSPIFF 2015 Reviews: Bogowie (Gods) + To Life! + A Brilliant Young Mind (X Plus Y)

MSPIFF15reviewsGods (Bogowie)

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A thrilling biopic about a 1980s era cardiologist bringing heart transplants to Poland, Gods is often riveting. Start with director Lukasz Palkowski’s opening, when he montages the fallout from the first ever (failed) attempt by a Polish doctor to transplant a heart from one patient to another. Here the director immediately and powerfully sets tone.

After the terrific opening montage, Palkowski settles into a more traditional biopic, focusing on protagonist Zbigniew Religa (Tomas Kotz), first as he operates to save a life, and then as he navigates the political realities of trying to be progressive in a country that doesn’t invite the innovations he embraces. Impressively, even though we immediately know the picture’s resolution, Palkowski and writer Krzystztof Rak, make the story tautly suspenseful, filled with requisite moments of joy and other moments of equal sorrow.

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Partially, Palkowski and Rak are successful because they wisely limit Gods’ purview to a relatively short time span (just several years). Moreover, they do not herofy Religa; they make him a multi-faceted, real human being. Here Religa is brilliant, effective and determined to help, but he is also quick-tempered, emotionally withdrawn, manipulative, sometimes cruel, and a glory-hound. His complexity makes him interesting. It also means we relate to him.

Unfortunately, the writer and director barely develop any of the minor characters. The doctors who join Religa’s clinic are interchangeable ciphers. Ditto that for other medical professionals who oppose the protagonist. Even Religa’s wife, who could have been a marvelous character, is almost personality-less. In other words, we know Religa intimately, but we barely know anyone else here, a fact that limits the movie’s impact, at least to some degree.

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To Life! (Auf Das Lieben)

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Odd couples often form the basis for compelling narrative, and the protagonists of To Life!, a German film, are an example thereof. Ruth (Hannelore Elsner) and Jonas (Max Riemelt) have little in common, except that both are in crisis and both are lonely. When Ruth is evicted from her flat and her possessions are seized, Jonas is one of the men the bank has move her things into a smaller residence. Ruth is immediately interested in Jonas, if only because he closely resembles a man she once knew well, and he, being a good Samaritan, offers to perform a favor for her. When the task proves more complicated than Jonas expects, he returns to Ruth’s residence, only to find she has attempted suicide. So begins a relationship drama that shows us how Ruth copes with depression while Jonas lives through physical illness.

And it is a good drama, indeed. Both Elsner and Riemelt are terrific. Plus, writer Thorston Wettcke and director Uwe Janson craft Ruth and Jonas as deeply complex and equally compelling people. Most of the other characters are minor enough that sparse development doesn’t prove a flaw.

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Moreover, Janson edits his film such that transitions from the modern day to an earlier period in Ruth’s life are always seamless and engrossing. Ditto that for the ways he foreshadows Jonas’ condition, ensuring we know what’s coming long before anyone speaks of it.

To Life’s!, biggest issue is its ending. While Ruth’s story is cleverly completed, Jonas’ feels unfinished and thereby a little emotionally flat. It is not a major issue, however, and so, in the end, To Life! succeeds.

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A Brilliant Young Mind (aka X Plus Y)

XPlusYposterA heartwarming little indie drama about a math genius with Autism, but one doesn’t have to know much about the subject to appreciate it. For those like me who’s not familiar with Autism, it’s a neuro-developmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior.

‘I think I see the world differently to others’ Nathan (Asa Butterfield) says early in the film and we follow his journey from his childhood marked by personal tragedy to being chosen to compete on the British team at the International Mathematics Olympiad. The film did a wonderful job in giving us a glimpse into what it’s like growing up with Autism, from the point of view of the person with the disorder as well as those close to him, especially his mother. Nathan’s relationship with his mother is heartbreaking and you truly feel for both sides. The flashbacks of Nathan’s early life with his beloved dad is interspersed throughout that helps us see why Nathan behaves the way he does, but it doesn’t overwhelm or drags the film.

A large part of the film takes place in Taipei, which gives this film a richer International flair as the characters explore a different culture halfway being paired up with a student from that region. The young romance aspect doesn’t work quite as well at times as I feel that the dialog is a bit too corny and over-sentimental for my liking. It could be due to the fact that Jo Yang, the actress playing Nathan’s friend/love interest Zhang Mei, has never acted before this film. Some of the scenes between Nathan and the rest of his Math teams are also uneven, there are parts that work and some that I think miss the mark.

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Thankfully they didn’t derail the film and the mostly British supporting cast are excellent. I really like Rafe Spall as Nathan’s teacher who also deals with a debilitating disease. His scenes with Butterfield are my favorite parts of the film because they feel so natural, as well as genuinely funny and heartfelt. There’s a subplot of a little romance between him and Nathan’s mother played by Sally Hawkins that could’ve been irksome if it’s not handled well, but the actors made me care about their characters. There’s also Eddie Marsan as the lead Math teacher, I seem to always see him playing a henchman or some lowlife bad guy so nice to see him play a ‘normal’ character for once.

The star here is truly Asa Butterfield who at 18 is surely one of the brightest young actors working today. There’s a certain sensitivity and earnest-ness about him that makes you sympathize with him right away, but I think he’s versatile enough where he could also play someone truly dark and conflicted. This is the first film I’ve seen him in since HUGO in 2011 and he’s certainly developed into a compelling lead actor. He’s truly believable in the role due to his ability to express his emotion without any words being spoken. Whilst watching this he reminds me a lot of Cillian Murphy!

This is Morgan Matthew‘s first feature film debut after doing mostly documentaries. All things considered, it’s an impressive debut as he infuses the film with a nice mix of drama and humor. I enjoy the cinematography and music, it’s beautiful without overwhelming the story. The ending is a bit predictable, but there’s one emotionally-engaging scene between Nathan & his mother that really tugs my heartstrings. This is more than just a film about Autism or about Math, as much as The Theory of Everything is more about the relationships in the protagonist’s life that defines that person more than the circumstance one might find him/herself in. I highly recommend this if you’re looking for a delightful family drama that will make you see your own life and life’s priorities in a whole new light.

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Thoughts on any of these films?

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33 thoughts on “MSPIFF 2015 Reviews: Bogowie (Gods) + To Life! + A Brilliant Young Mind (X Plus Y)

    1. Hi Jay! I don’t think X+Y has opened wide yet in the States but it’s really worth a look. It’s been fun finding gems during these film festivals.

    1. Ha..ha.. yes that’s my reaction too when I saw Eddie Marsan here. His character is snarky and even insolent at times but he’s actually a nice guy here.

  1. Yes we definetely came to similar conclusions re- X+Y Ruth, though I had a personal connection to it, your thoughts echoe mine almost entirely. This line:

    “I think I see the world differently to others”

    that line gave me a chill. It is something I have said many, many times about myself.

    I had never seen Rafe Spall but I loved him in this. The film isn’t perfect, but as you said, if looking in from the outside, “…will make you see your own life and life’s priorities in a whole new light.” I had a personal connection to the film yet I also felt that. For me its a bit different.

    This film makes me appreciate what I have and how much I have recovered. When I was a teenager, I was pretty much Nathan. Minus the math wiz stuff!

    Great review Ruth. Haven’t seen the other two films mentioned here though.

    1. Hey Jordan! That’s good that the film seems to have done a good job in portraying the Autistic tendencies. The personal connection must make it especially interesting for you, esp since you see yourself in Nathan and his relationship w/ his mom. Rafe Spall was in Life of Pi and a few others I can’t remember on top of my head. He’s Timothy Spall’s son who’s also a great actor.

  2. All of these sound like they’re worth a look, the festival looks great. Glad you enjoyed X+Y Ruth. Spall and Hawkins were one of my favourite parts of this film! There were things here that shouldn’t have worked but the film is carried off with such charm that it worked for me. I’m keen to see what Butterfield does next too.

    1. Hi Natalie! Thanks for reviewing this, that got me intrigued to see it on the big screen instead of renting it later. I really like Spall and Hawkins, they both are quite underrated. Butterfield has a nice presence on screen, he’s definitely a talented kid!

  3. I’m unfamiliar with the first two but they both sound interesting. I’d definitely like to see them. As you know I’ve seen X+Y (the US title is a bit bland, don’t you think?!) and I agree with you that it has a few faults, but overall it’s quite moving and with good intentions. Interesting how you preferred the older couple’s relationship to the younger pair…I was the opposite way round.

    1. Though I haven’t seen it yet, X+Y appeals to me, too. Hopefully I get a chance to see it someday.

      And the first are solid flicks. I recommend both if ever they screen near you.

        1. I am. Not completely back, really. Just making a guest appearance to help Ruth cover the fest. Outside of the fests I’ve done with her, I’ve barely seen any movies since I started teaching again.

          Hopefully, when the school year comes again, I’ll find more time for blogging and movie watching.

    2. Hi Stu! Well, it’s not that I prefer the older couple’s relationship between Nathan’s teacher & mom, but I just didn’t like some of the dialog Zhang Mei was given and her delivery felt so mawkish, probably as she’s not an experienced actress. I think there’s a certain sweetness in the young romance tho, so I didn’t completely dislike it.

    1. Figured you might be intrigued by Auf Das Lieben, Cindy. And I think you’d like it.

      X+Y sounds interesting, too. Hopefully I get to see it at some point.

      1. Hey Josh, Bogowie and To Life! sound really good! Since I have the online screener I just might check those out at some point. Thanks for all these great reviews man!

        1. My pleasure! Thanks for letting me do it!

          X to Y sounds good, too.

          As to Bogowi and To Life! . . . I think you’d like both. My instinct is that you’d probably enjoy the latter slightly more.

    2. Hi Cindy! I think you’d really enjoy X+Y, you can especially relate being a parent yourself. Plus it can be categorized as a ‘travel movie’ as it’s filmed in England and Taiwan.

        1. You’re the second person to be surprised that I am the same Josh as the one Ruth has guesting. 🙂

          So to explain: it turns out Ruth and I live more or less in the same city, so we started occasionally getting coffee together sometime last year. A little after that, she let me help cover the local film fests.

          Even though I don’t see a whole lot of movies these days (as in almost none since I started working last August), I can’t say no to the film fests. They’re just so cool.

  4. Your review makes me even more eager to see it….but I think I will have to wait for its DVD.

    Maybe one day they can play as father and son 😉 Cillian haven’t played as father of teenager yet

    1. Hi Nov! I think you’ll like this one, it’s interesting to see the relationship between Zhang Mei and Nathan develop, if only the dialog weren’t so overly-sentimental. It reminds me of some of the foreign exchange students I met when I was in high school. I had this huge crush on one of them named Martin though now that I think about it, I wouldn’t be attracted to him at all now, he’s not even manly. Ahah, we were kids, what did we know [shrug]

      Well Cillian is still too young to be playing dad of teenagers!

  5. I’m a fan of Butterfield based on his tremendous performance in 2008’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and so I’m intrigued by his teenage acting.

    1. Hi Drew! I didn’t even realize Butterfield was in that film. Someone told me about that film a while back, sounds so heartbreaking! Have you seen HUGO? That’s a great film by Scorsese!

  6. I recently watched ‘To Life!’ as well and I totally agree that Jonas’ storyline feels unfinished. Looking forward to ‘X+Y’ (which is a much better title than ‘A Brilliant Young Mind’ btw), I’ve heard good things.

  7. X+Y is decent, yet I can’t figure why it could not climb that threshold, why wasn’t it great? Slightly over-dramatic? Poor filming location choices and modest camera work that gave it an unshakable small budget indie feel? Sally Hawkins that strangely looks older in the scenes where she is supposed to look younger? The overly confident Chinese teenager girl that acts and sounds more like a Thai hooker than a 15-17 year old kid? Hard to tell. Using almost entirely the same cast but engaging a more skilled director and cinematographer this might have been an Oscar contender in a few categories. I think the same actors and the script could have obtained a much better result. A good opportunity has been missed.

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