Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘film review’ Category

The Wife ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 6th October, 2018

The WifeIt has often been said that behind every great man there is a great woman — or maybe in this postmodern world one should say “great Other”. This is as true of artists as it is of politicians, though the license to abuse such a relationship often given to painters and writers goes way beyond what most political figures would dare to try to get away with. Think Picasso and Augustus John, or in the literary field V. S. Naipaul or Evelyn Waugh. So the initial premise of Bjorn Runge’s movie The Wife, in which a Jewish American Nobel Prize for Literature laureate sets off to Stockholm with his wife and son to collect his medal and cheque while manifesting a certain degree of nerves seems fairly straightforward until it gradually becomes clear — with the help of flashbacks to the beginning of his career — that things aren’t that straightforward at all. His wife — a tour de force by actress Glen Close — increasingly demonstrates that she is much more than just his loyal spouse and nursemaid and that burning within her is a deep resentment at what has been a concealed truth ever since he left his first wife for her. As one begins to understand the greater depth of her character one simultaneously becomes uncomfortably, even nauseatingly, aware of the writer’s shallowness. In its own way, Jonathan Pryce’s performance as the insecure, selfish and manipulative novelist is also remarkable as one’s reaction to the character migrates from sympathy to disgust. Max Irons, as the son crying out for his father’s approval, is in contrast a little two-dimensional and Christian Slater as the slimy young biographer determined to make a killing by writing an exposé about the writer’s true limitations is something of a caricature. However, it is probably right that the minor characters are denied a real opportunity to be in the limelight as it is the wife, and therefore Glen Close, who emerges towards the end as a butterfly, escaping from the cocoon into which her marriage and sense of duty had encased her. Not a perfect film, then, but one that makes one think.

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Cold War *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 13th September, 2018

Cold WarWhen the Communists took over power in Poland after the Second War — marginalising the government-in-exile in London — the country had to adjust to new frontiers, a more homogenous population following the expulsion of minorities and the gradual imposition of a new political order to fit in with the dictates of Joseph Stalin in Moscow. The febrile period of the late 1940s provides the setting for the opening scenes of Pawel Pawlikowski’s melodrama, Cold War, in which we see a handsome pianist and musical director, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), fall under the spell of a fiery blonde singer/dancer, Zula (Joanna Kulig), who is part of a troupe training in the echoing halls of an abandoned stately home. They are both free spirits and as romance stumbles along its rocky path, they find their lives and art increasingly circumscribed by the demands of philistine bureaucrats. A trip to perform in East Berlin in the early 1950s enables Wiktor to escape by walking out of the Russian zone into the West, but Zula is too insecure to accompany him. He moves to Paris, where he plays in nightclubs, unable to get her out of his mind despite other relationships. Fate throws them together later, both in France and Yugoslavia, and such is Zula’s fascination that the defector Wiktor determines to follow her back to Poland, with dire consequences. In less capable hands, this story could be a romantic tear-jerker, but Pawlikowski’s handling of both image and mood is magisterial. Shot in black-and-white, Cold War beautifully captures the atmosphere of the times. Polishness and the country’s folk culture are part and parcel of the narrative, intertwined with the political trope and the passion of fatal attraction. There are odd flashes of humour, but as the story unfurls it is clear that things are going to end badly. Logically, there is only one way the two lovers can resolve their dilemma, as what has become the prison of the system in which they now have to live becomes unbearable. By this stage most viewers will have taken both Wiktor and Zula to their hearts. Shakespearean in its intensity, Cold War is without doubt a masterpiece and visually stunning.

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The Miseducution of Cameron Post *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 9th September, 2018

The Miseducation of Cameron Post largeWhen high school student Cameron Post is caught making out with another girl in the back seat of a car by her boyfriend, she is sent off to an evangelical Christian camp in up-state New York to be “cured” of Same Sex Attraction (SSA). The year is 1993, and there is a motley crew of both girls and boys who have been tempted by Satan to love their own kind. The institution — very much like an upmarket summer camp, with extensive sports facilities — is run by a glacially-smiling Doctor Lydia Marsh (chillingly played by Jennifer Ehle) with the help of her gentle, guitar-playing, moustached brother, who has himself been “saved” from being gay. The institution uses none of the nasty gay aversion therapy such as electric shocks, which were still an option at the time, but there is nonetheless an undertone of menace as the inmates — all in neat blue uniforms — are shamed into hating their sexuality and cajoled into loving God and letting him help them become “normal”. Cameron soon discovers that the best way to survive in such an environment is just to play along, but she is saved from going crazy by bonding with a small but diverse group of others who rebel against the system. This all might sound rather heavy, and there are a few shocks along the way, but the film also has brilliant flashes of humour, some resulting from the absurdity of the saccharine environment and the religious language used by the conversion therapists. But director Desirée Askhavan avoids turning the story into a farce by spectacular pacing, long drawn-out shots and challenging camera angles, really building up the dramatic tension. The main focus throughout is Cameron Post, so sensitively played by Chloe Grace Moretz that one can almost read her thoughts from her facial expressions. It is a stunning performance that makes this film one of the most important of this year. The subject matter, too, given the way it is handled, awards it added significance. How much the movie-loving Cameron Post would have benefited if there had been such a film as this around 25 years ago!

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Christopher Robin **

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 19th August, 2018

A A MilneDisney bought the rights to A A Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh for a reported $350 million dollars (richly endowing some of the late author’s beneficiaries, including the Royal Literary Fund, Westminster School and the Garrick Club, in the process). That means Disney can basically do what they like with the characters of the children’s books until the copyright expires in 2026, including, it appears, what they like with the character of A A Milne’s son, Christopher Robin, for whom the books were originally written. Simon Curtis made a rather good biopic about the boy, Goodbye Christopher Robin, which came out last year and which highlighted how overwhelmed the lad felt by all the attention caused by the books’ success; in later life he just wanted to escape from it. Christopher Robin Milne died in 1996, but I fear he may be churning in his grave over the latest film offering from the Disney studios, Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin.

Christopher Robin 1 This is despite a sterling performance by Ewan McGregor, who somehow makes himself totally credible in the tittle role, while around him are prancing animated cuddly toys such as Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and, of course, Winnie-the-Pooh, the latter two voiced by American voice actor and singer, Jim Cummings — doubtless to make the movie more attractive to the American market, but it just sounds wrong in the context of this most English of settings. Similarly, the honey-textured musical soundtrack might have struck someone as a good idea, but it intrudes on the real drama of part of the story: the adult Christopher Robin’s relationship with his wife and daughter in a world where work takes first place. The real problem, though, is that the film doesn’t seem to know who its audience is. Children may love the scampering and blundering stuffed animals, but will adults be so enchanted? Similarly, while adults can relate to the human drama of this fictionalised version of the mature Christopher Robin’s life, including a flashback to his military service in the Second World War, will children really understand the nuances of what is going on? In other words, Christopher Robin falls between two stools with a thud. It’s only really worth seeing for Ewan McGregor as you have never seen him before, but otherwise frankly it’s a turkey.

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Path of Blood *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 2nd July, 2018

Path of BloodFollowing the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, most of the world media’s Middle East focus was on what transpired in that benighted country. But from 2003 to 2009 another story was unfolding, in Saudi Arabia, though not much was reported about it in the West, partly because foreign journalists did not have easy access to the desert Kingdom. The narrative promoted by George W Bush (and his then acolyte, Tony Blair) was that the godfather of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden — initially holed up in the mountains of Afghanistan — posed an existential danger to Western civilisation, for which one obvious piece of evidence was the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. But a more immediate goal of bin Laden and his followers was the overthrow of the House of Saud. So for six years, a terror campaign was carried out in the Kingdom, mostly by radicalised young locals. Not all the attacks were successful, but some were very bloody, and on one occasion Al Qarda operatives managed to get to the Assistant Minister of Interior for Security Affairs, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, though somewhat miraculously he survived. It is this six-year war of underground activity that is the subject of Jonathan Hacker’s riveting documentary, Path of Blood, which combines footage from both the Saudi security forces and Al Qaeda cells. The juxtaposition provides a unique portrait of a cat-and-mouse game between what most Westerners would see as religious fanatics and a not always efficient state apparatus. Some of the shots are predictably gruesome — this is not a film for anyone who can’t bear the sight of blood, or of dismembered body parts — but other moments give an unparalleled insight into the minds as well as the practices of Al Qaeda extremists. Some scenes of the boys — and some are little more than boys — larking about inevitably raise a smile. But when a clearly rather educationally backward youth makes a real hash of recording his pre-suicide mission video, there is undeniable pathos. I have spent nearly three decades reporting on the Gulf and the wider Arab world, but this film taught me more in one-and-a-half hours than some trips to the region. It is due out in cinemas from 13 July.

http://www.pathofbloodfilm.com/

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McQueen *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 20th June, 2018

Alexander McQueen and Isabel BlowAs a lad in London’s East End, Lee McQueen (later to be rebranded with his posher-sounding middle name Alexander) had little interest in the subjects he was meant to be studying, instead spending most of his time in class drawing. His taxi-driver father would have liked him to become a mechanic or something similarly practical, but the podgy youth — encouraged by his mother and gran — was determined to become a fashion designer, pursuing his vocation with a determination that belied his years. He managed to get an apprenticeship at a tailor’s in Savile Row, but already his creative imagination was heading in directions that were wildly different from the norms of traditional fine tailoring or haute couture. An MA course at Central St Martin’s (paid for by an aunt who withdrew her nest-egg to sponsor him) enabled him to experiment, to learn about working in a team, and to get noticed. His designs were outrageous, both in their style and often in the materials they were made of. He was essentially on the breadline financially, living off the dole after graduation, while hiding the fact that he was working, and forming a key friendship with the avant garde style guru, Isabel Blow. He embarked on a number of gay relationships, but none was to prove permanent, as his work always came first. And as he rose rapidly to success — becoming chief designer of Givenchy in Paris as well as maintaining his own label in London — his moods became darker and his personal life started to fall apart. On 11 February 2010, the eve of his mother’s funeral, he hanged himself, aged just 40.

Alexander McQueen showFrom this potted biography one can see that McQueen was an obvious subject for a biopic, but rather than use actors to tell the tale, the co-directors of the movie McQueen, Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui chose a documentary style, enabling the story to unfold through interviews with McQueen’s family, lovers and friends, as well as clips of the designer himself talking about his work, home movies, catwalk footage of his increasingly dark and bloodily-themed shows, all to a characteristic soundtrack by Michael Nyman. Quite a lot of the footage is jerky or blurred, adding to a growing sense of anxiety as McQueen’s character mutates from talented ingenué to angst-ridden diva. The pace and mood are brilliantly controlled and even if one is not interested in the slightest in women’s fashion (certainly true in my case) the portrayal of a strikingly original talent heading towards seemingly inevitable self-destruction — underscored by cocaine-abuse and McQueen’s HIV status — this is a film which engages one’s emotions to an extraordinary degree, so that one is left grieving with his spectacularly ordinary relations at the end.

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The Happy Prince ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th June, 2018

The Happy Prince 1In Richard Ellmann’s magisterial biography of Oscar Wilde, the Irish playwright’s final couple of years — in other words, the period between his release from prison and his death in the Hotel d’Alsace in Paris — gets somewhat short shrift, partly because Ellmann himself was a dying man as he struggled to complete his book. I have long maintained that that means that Wilde’s exile is nearly always portrayed as pure tragedy, whereas in fact any close reading of his voluminous letters from 1897 to 1900 makes clear he enjoyed many good times and sexual encounters in France and Italy, free of the moral strictures of perfidious Albion (less so in Switzerland, where he thought the people looked like turnips). Indeed, as his devoted friend and first homosexual lover, Robbie Ross, recalled soon after Oscar’s death, apart from a few barren periods when his monthly allowance ran out, he was able to have champagne every day. I was delighted that in Rupert Everett’s films, The Happy Prince, which is now on release in London, the champagne does indeed flow. As do the willing youths of Naples and the Paris boulevards, including the delightful young soldier Maurice Gilbert, who was passed around among members of what would in the 1930s would wittily be dubbed The Homintern of well-connected queer gentlemen.

The Happy Prince 2But Rupert Everett (who wrote, directed and partly produced The Happy Prince, as well as playing the lead role) focuses particularly on the tragic triangle of Oscar’s main loves: his wife Constance (by this time handicapped after a fall down stairs in the House Beautiful in Tite Street and doomed to die before her husband), Robbie Ross, and the “golden boy”, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. Colin Morgan (unrecognisably blond) was an inspired choice to play Bosie, as he radiates exactly the sort of pretty petulance and sporadic vindictiveness that made Bosie mad, bad and dangerous to know — a true scion of the Black Douglases. At times one wants Oscar just to slap him, though one knows that he won’t, besotted as he is, despite everything that has happened. Instead, it is (in this film’s imaginative relating of the story) Robbie — sensitively and beautifully played by Edwin Thomas — who lashes out at Oscar’s graveside. But it is an empty victory, because everyone has in fact lost, in the battle for Oscar’s love and compassion.

The Happy Prince 3Rupert Everett’s own portrayal of Wilde externalises the playwright’s inner torments and bitter regrets, so that his face is often distorted and his visage a ravaged mockery of his own glittering past — a sort of walking Picture of Dorian Gray, brought down from the attic. I am not convinced that Oscar or Reggie Turner (Colin Firth, as one has never seen him) would have been quite so ready with the expletives as they are in the film. But a lot of the scenes are redolent of fin-de-siecle atmosphere and historical fact, though the notion recounted that Robbie Ross at the age of 17 picked up Oscar in a public lavatory was actually the scurrilous tittle-tattle of the self-aggrandising pornographer Frank Harris, rather than the more prosaic truth that Robbie came into Oscar’s orbit because Constance (Emily Watson in the film) and Robbie’s mother were both active in the Chelsea Women’s Liberal Association. Of course, film-makers must be allowed some poetic licence, and Everett only had the length of a feature film to put over his concept of Wilde, a person who has dominated much of his artistic thinking for years (as it did earlier with Stephen Fry). The title of the film comes from Oscar’s first real literary success, a book of short stories for children, originally composed for his young sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, but then polished and made suitable for an adult audience as well, with a profound moral message, unlike some of the sanctimonious twaddle wrapped up in some other Victorian fairy tales. The story is used imaginatively to bookend the film, and is at other times cleverly woven into the narrative. So although this movie is not perfect, there is much in it that is beautiful, and sad, and gives one cause for reflection.

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Two Graves *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 10th June, 2018

Two GravesIt is said that revenge is a dish best served cold, but before anyone considers taking the law into their own hands in retribution for a crime or injury, it is best to note what Confucius had to say on the subject: “Before embarking on a journey of revenge, dig two graves” — in other words, one for the victim and one for oneself. That is the inspiration for the title of Gary Young’s first full-length feature film, Two Graves, which had its West End premiere at the British Urban Film Festival in the Curzon cinema in Soho last night. A middle-aged pathologist, Margaret (played by Cathy Tyson), can’t find closure on the death of her son until she has extracted a confession of murder from the young man, Finn (Neal Ward), whom she believes to be guilty, enlisting the help of a bitter young former junkie, Zoe (Katie Jarvis). But incapacitating him with an epidural and slicing off one of his fingers leads to a totally unexpected revelation and a nightmare sequence of events in which Finn’s father, a vicious gangster called Tommy (David Hayman, in truly sinister mode), becomes a key protagonist. By now, like in a Greek tragedy, it is clear that things are going to end badly, and as in a classical drama, despite some flashbacks, there is unity of time and place, as the action unfolds one day in the ruins of an abandoned shipyard. The horror and suspense are alleviated by a few flashes of black humour, but the tension is increased by shots of circling seagulls and a chilling soundtrack. This is film noir at its blackest. Remarkably, Two Graves is a début not only for its director but also for several of its actors, and moreover the whole thing was made with a budget of £500,000 — peanuts, by film production standards. Instead of costly special effects or other extravagances, the director and cinematographer (Adam Barnett) use some powerful still images and random shots — such as a pigeon up in the rafters — to unsettle the senses, Hitchcock-style. All in all, a remarkable achievement, with the impact of a punch in the gut.

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Mary and the Witch’s Flower ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th June, 2018

Mary and the Witch's FlowerJapanese anime have rightly won a global reputation. Compared with the often saccharine products from Disney et al the films often have an appealing edge to them. In Mary and the Witch’s Flower, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi takes the very English magical mystery story The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart and gives it a Japanese makeover. Thus the plucky little heroine Mary could well have been a figure in a movie by the great Hayao Miyazaki, to whose work Yonebayashi gives more than a few nods. There are some spectacular action visuals — with lots of flashing lights — that are distinctive and form a sometimes startling counterpoint to the chocolate-box setting of Mary’s great-aunt Charlotte’s rural home, to which the little girl has been sent out of her parents’ way. Quickly bored, Mary sets out for adventure and soon encounters a cheeky boy as well as two cats (my favourite characters) before being whisked off on a magic broomstick to a sinister magic school beyond the clouds. Inevitably Harry Potter and Hogwarts come to mind, but Yonebayashi opts for Middle Eastern oriental rather than Victorian Gothic for his house of spells. Some of the magic effects are memorable, but others I found rather banal, which mean that the overall effect is not as striking as it could be. Children may love it, however.

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Entebbe *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 5th June, 2018

ENT_LD_011216_05434.NEFThe Israeli raid on Entebbe airport in July 1976 is often hailed as a great tactical success in what would later become known as the War on Terror. The vast majority of the hostages who had been on an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris were rescued unharmed (a significant number having already been released by their Palestinian and revolutionary German captors), and only one Israeli commando died — a brother of the current Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, as it happens. What is often not mentioned is that 36 Ugandan soldiers were killed, as collateral damage; no wonder the country’s dictator Idi Amin was annoyed. It would have been very easy to have made a gung-ho Hollywood movie about the events surrounding Operation Thunderbolt, as it was dubbed, as others have indeed done previously, but to his great credit, Brazilian director José Padilha takes a much more nuanced approach, highlighting the ambiguities and contradictions within people’s characters as well as within the Israel-Palestine conflict itself. Imaginative use of dramatic dance sequences by the Batsheva Dance Company and pulsing music by Rodrigo Amarante really help pump up the tension. Though the discussions in the Israeli Cabinet — a real power-play between Yitzak Rabin and Shimon Peres — the verisimilude of much of the action is heightened by characters speaking in their own language (sub-titled) — Arabic, German, Hebrew and French. The underlying message is that in the end everyone lost, as fighting can never be a permanent substitute for negotiated peace. And as a caption screened at the very end of the film, in silence, says, 42 years later, no meaningful negotiations are happening.

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