Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘film review’ Category

Early Man ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 17th February, 2018

A8AC253F-61C3-488B-AEE1-C53CF31BE7ACI have long been a fan of Nick Park’s stop motion animated films. I can’t count the times I’ve watched the Wallace and Gromit movies — made all the more special because my late, inimitable friend Peter Sallis voiced the character of Wallace — and I laugh each time. Shaun the Sheep, longer and more ambitious, turned out to be a gem as well, but I worried that as Aardman Animations grew from its modest beginnings to its current global mega-status whether it would be able to maintain the magic. So I went to see Early Man this afternoon with a certain degree of trepidation. It’s all on a much grander scale than its predecessors, with a large cast of “human” figures (albeit Stone Age and a Bronze Age ones). The central character is a goofy but courageous youth, Dug, who takes on the  Bronze usurpers with the aid of his faithful sidekick, a determined and bright, semi-canine wild boar. Surreally, the battle between the two civilisations takes place on a football pitch, which enables Nick Park and his colleagues to spoof the beautiful game, its players and commentators, offering some amusing referencing for dads (and some mums) accompanying their children to see the film. The outcome is inevitable; in true British tradition, the underdog must come out on top. And there is even a romance in the offing for Dug with a Bronze Age girl whose secret dream is to be a soccer star. One result of Aardman’s record of achievement is that a veritable galaxy of stars provide the voices, from Eddie Redmayne as Dug, through Tim Hiddleston as the villain (deploying an outrageously cod French accent) and Miriam Margoyles as the Bronze Queen. Doubtless these big names will help ensure the film’s commercial success, especially in the United States, but it should really be the strength of the characters in Park’s films, with all their petty faults and quirks, that make the movie work. Usually they do, but I am less convinced this time. Though the toothy figures are still visually true to the Aardman brand, the plot and action veer quite a long way towards Disneyland. Early Man is still fun, nonetheless, and kids will laugh as their parents smirk at some of the double entendres and nods to football mania. But it’s not up there with Wallace, Gromit and Shaun, alas.


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Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 13th February, 2018

9B42423F-F841-4B0C-8AB0-E55CF2BC40A0When a young woman is raped and killed in a small town in America’s Deep South, her mother, Mildred, rages at the local police’s inability to find any suspect. After months of no progress, Mildred challenges the police and the whole of the town’s largely redneck community by posting provocative messages on three battered old billboards on the outskirts of town. This puts her on a collision course with the head of the local police station and his somewhat dim-witted younger colleague. Mildred, who runs a gift shop selling cheap china animals, essentially becomes an outcast, like the barely emancipated black inhabitants of the area and the gays. Her reaction is effectively to turn into an outlaw, with escalating consequences. Martin McDonagh’s film deals intelligently with the grey zone between right and wrong and as each of the characters develops during the film we begin to realise that they are not as good or bad or even stupid as they first appear. Too often in cinema, when there is a strong moral narrative, characters can seem two-dImensional, but in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri they are remarkably multi-dimensional, sometimes surprising themselves as well as the viewer. The pace of much of the film is as languorous as the southern community it portrays, but punctuated with shocking outbursts of violence. Both Woody Harrelson as the police chief and Sam Rockwell as his underling put in fine, nuanced performances that enrich the drama, but the undoubted star is Frances McDormand as Mildred, with her care-lined face and half-destroyed soul, both grieving and vengeful over her daughter’s fate. One is rooting for Mildred from the beginning until things start to go seriously wrong and her actions become ever more deceitful and aggressive. Only during a chance encounter with a deer do we get to see an inner sweetness to Mildred, which has otherwise been buried beneath a hard carapace of bitterness and despair. McDormand is magnificent in conveying all of Mildred’s complexity and Martin McDonagh should be applauded for producing a truly remarkable movie.

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Darkest Hour ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 6th February, 2018

Darkest HourJoe Wright’s somewhat fictionalised biopic of Winston Churchill (a tour de force by actor Gary Oldman, unrecognisable beneath remarkable prosthetic makeup that convincingly brings back to life Britain’s war-time bulldog) recounts the tense weeks of May 1940, when the Germans were sweeping west across continental Europe and the bulk of the British army was stranded on the French coast. Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister who had declared Peace for Our Time after meeting Adolf Hitler in Munich two years earlier, was ousted but it was by no means inevitable that Winston Churchill would succeed him as Leader of the Conservative Party, as he had quite a lot of inconvenient political baggage, too, including several years as a defector to the Liberal Party and, more damningly, ownership of the disastrous Gallipoli landings in the First World War. In Anthony McCarten’s powerful screenplay, Chamberlain and the Foreign Secretary, Viscount Halifax, are pitted against Churchill as proponents of peace negotiations with Hitler, to be brokered by Mussolini. Churchill gambled to stand and fight instead, saved by the successful evacuation of most of the 300,000 men from the beach at Dunkirk and the power of his own rhetoric, which roused and united the nation as well as the House of Commons. But the key to the success of Darkest Hour is the delicate balance between the bluster and bullying of the politician Churchill with the self-doubt and vulnerability of the man that existed behind the facade. Winston’s three important relationships in the film are with his wife Clementine (convincingly played by Kristen Scott Thomas), King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) and his young secretary, Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) — all sensitively handled, at times with humour that pricks the tension of the dramatic times. Visually, the film is sumptuous, the atmosphere enhanced by Joe Wright’s characteristic tracking shots of Londoners going about their daily business. There is an almost dream-like sequence in an underground carriage when Churchill sounds out ordinary people as to whether they are ready to resist to the death. I found that jarred rather with the realism of most of the rest of the footage. But the evocation of determined national spirit will wow many cinema audiences during our own period of a different kind of political uncertainty. And Gary Oldman’s towering performance largely makes up for any historical shortcomings.

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The Post *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 21st January, 2018

The PostThe Pentagon Papers (at least some of them) were published by the New York Times and Washington Post in the summer of 1971, just before I set off — for the second time — for Vietnam, to cover President Nguyen Van Thieu’s re-election (he was the only candidate; he won). Though the explosion caused by the publication of details of how successive US Presidents had lied to the American people about the “success” of the War was not quite as huge in Britain as it was over the other side of the Atlantic, it meant that Saigon was a pretty febrile place by the time I got there. Steven Spielberg’s new film, The Post, opens with scenes of US soldiers in Vietnam — very much as I remembered them — but most of the movie’s action takes place in Washington, in the Washington Post’s editorial office and at the printing presses, as well as the mansion of proprietor Katherine Graham and grand residences of her friends, including the former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (for whom actor Bruce Greenwood is made up to be a disconcertingly spitting image). As the title of the film suggests, it is essentially about the newspaper and the way that Kay Graham learned fast how to behave as its owner and to guarantee its bright future in the face of legal challenges launched by the Nixon administration. Authenticity is added by the detailed recreation of the atmosphere of early 1970s newsrooms and the workings of linotype printing, as well as some key realtime tape recordings of Richard Nixon talking to Henry Kissinger and others over the phone from the Oval Office. Meryl Streep is such a consummate actor that one expects her to be brilliant, and she does not disappoint. But the real star, without a doubt, is Tom Hanks, who just is the Post’s editor Ben Bradlee — utterly convincing both in his professional and domestic personae. Not all Spielberg’s films are unalloyed triumphs, but this one undoubtedly is. I can almost hear it hooverng up the Oscars already…

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Just Say Goodbye *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 19th January, 2018

Just Say GoodbyeJesse is a skinny but artistic 16-year-old living in a suburb of a small town in Massachusetts, bullied at high school and largely ignored by his handsome but sometimes violent alcoholic father. As a small boy, he found his mother’s body, dead in bed from taking an overdose of pills. No wonder the kid is introspective. But Jesse has a devoted school-friend, Sarah, to whom he confesses his determination to commit suicide himself, at midnight on his next birthday. All her efforts to dissuade him are in vain. This might sound like the makings of a really heavy movie, but in fact Just Say Goodbye, directed by the young Matt Walting, is an often lyrical piece of great sensitivity and profound psychological insight. Though shot on a minuscule budget, raised from a range of donors, the film is anything but amateurish, fortified by a powerful script by Layla O’Shea and an extraordinarily self-assured performance by Max MacKenzie as Jesse; his voice is mesmerising and his steely determination to put an end to his largely unsatisfactory life gripping. Given the subject, the film could so easily have been maudlin, whereas in fact it is just the opposite: unsentimental and dignified, with an unusually perceptive insight into a troubled adolescent’s mind.

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In Another Life *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 12th January, 2018

In Another Life 1In another life, Adnan (Elie Haddad) was a teacher in Syria, but he and his wife Bana (Toyah Frantzen) had to flee as their home city, Aleppo, was destroyed around them. Their flight took them through Turkey to Lesbos in Greece, then braving hostile security guards and dogs in Hungary before arriving in Calais. Bana was successfully smuggled away to England, but Adnan had to face the law of the Jungle — the informal camp where refugees from the Middle East, Afghanistan, Eritrea and other parts of Africa risked their lives trying to board trucks or trains to the UK, harassed by French police, prey to unscrupulous people traffickers, but supportive of each other and grateful for gestures of kindness from people who came from England and elsewhere to help. Though Adnan is the main focus of Jason Wingard’s powerful and at times gut-wrenching film, In Another Life, he is a 21st Century refugee Everyman, his plight one of a million personal dramas and tragedies. He finds solace in friendship, even though his closest friend, Yousef (Yousef Hayyan Joubeh) turns out to be living in a fantasy world in which his parents’ long-distant support is nought but a fantasy. Much of the film takes place in the Calais Jungle — real and constructed — shot in black and white in documentary style, gritty and immediate. Occasionally, there are insights into Adnan’s dreams, including an imagined attempt to swim the Channel, and despite all the setbacks, sordidness and inhumanity around him, hope and his love for Bana drive him on. The acting is powerful, so that at times one forgets that this is not a fly-on-the-wall biopic, and there are moments of real beauty to alleviate the greyness and gloom. The film — largely crowd-funded — was made on a shoestring, but the use of hand-held cameras and drone footage adds effectively to its impact. Doubtless some people will criticise In Another Life for being “political”, maybe even “left wing”, but in fact it is a brilliant portrait of the human condition in our time, in the tradition of Honoré de Balzac and Charles Dickens, depicting those who find themselves at the very bottom of the pile in their contemporary world; as Oscar Wilde put it, in the gutter, but with their eyes firmly fixed on the stars.

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Gauguin — Voyage de Tahiti **

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 9th January, 2018

GauguinArtists often make wonderful subjects for biopics. Gilles Bourdos’s Renoir (2012), for example, was marvellously evocative of both time and place, as well as a sharp portrait of the man at work, and Kobiela & Welchman’s animated treatment of Van Gogh, Loving Vincent, was one of the highlights of last year. So I watched Edouard Deluc’s Gauguin — Voyage de Tahiti  with eager anticipation. But what a disappointment! After some rather loud and clumsy intimations of gai Paris during the Belle Epoque, the action suddenly shifts a rain-sodden Polynesia where the heavily made-up and bearded actor, Vincent Cassel, makes a grumpy and frankly unconvincing job of Paul Gauguin as unappreciated genius and part-time stevedore. Malik Zidi makes a better fist of it as his sympathetic friend, Henri Vallin, but although Tuhei Adams certainly looks the part of Gauguin’s Tahitian mistress, Tehura, half the time she appears as if she would rather be somewhere else. Weirdest of all, given that the principal subject was revolutionary in his use of bright colour, very little in the film is colourful or even sunlit. Indeed, at times it is almost funereal in its gloom. It could so easily have been a bird of paradise, but in fact turned out to be a turkey.

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120 Battements Par Minute *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 5th January, 2018

A9BAF350-A708-41A5-98C6-EE75ACE2BC48The 1990s were a terrifying time to have AIDS, when no medication had yet been invented to hold the HIV virus in check. One watched dear, young friends slowly die, often reduced to a skeleton, pockmarked with Kaposi’s Sarcoma and in great pain. Some accepted their fate with resignation, while others organised and campaigned, demanding  governments and health authorities do more to publicise the risks of unsafe sex and the life-saving potential of condoms, and lobbying pharmaceutical companies to speed up the release results of their drug trials. That is the context of Robin Campillo’s remarkable film 120 Battements par Minute, which starts in documentary style filming imagined group meetings of Act Up Paris in a college lecture theatre, discussing tactics such as public die-ins, the invasion of medical seminars using fake blood bombs and participation in Gay Pride. Gradually the different characters involved emerge as individual personalities, from nervous new members with the virus to the mother of a 16-year-old infected through contaminated blood, before homing in on two young men who form a relationship: handsome Nathan (Artaud Valois), who has managed to stay HIV-negative despite sexual contact with at least one infected partner, and the boyish Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), who probably contracted the virus when he was seduced at school by a married teacher. Nathan stands by Sean as the latter’s condition worsens; Campillo’s sensitive handling of the intimacy between them as death approaches is heart-wrenching. Perez Biscayart’s performance is nuanced and powerful, as he changes from being a sometimes angry young man into an increasingly helpless physical being. The film brilliantly conveys the solidarity between the protagonists as well as the atmosphere of the age. Long sections are without dialogue, as we watch them enjoying a disco or going to the beach, and there are numerous pertinent small details, like the alarm clock that goes off at 2am, to prompt Sean to take his pills (which in the early days of only palliative treatment had to be taken every few hours, exactly on time, to have any effect). Though well over two hours long, the film keeps one engrossed and well deserved the Grand Prix that it was awarded at Cannes.

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Wonder Wheel ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th December, 2017

3DF60832-ADAA-4597-BC4B-5E9615AC3666I was a huge fan of Woody Allen’s early films, with all their quirky introspection and New York Jewish humour, but in recent years his output has been more patchy. His two love letters to Paris and Rome, for example, were too saccharine for a hard-core European like myself. So I went to see his latest offering, Wonder Wheel, without great expectations. However, even if it is not one of his masterpieces, the film offers much food for thought. The setting is Coney Island’s funfair and beach in the 1950s, at a time when the resort was starting to lose its allure even for working class New Yorkers wanting a jolly day out. There are just four main characters (if one leaves aside a pyromaniac pubescent boy): the boy’s hardworking but disturbed mother (an almost unrecognisable, redhead Kate Winslet); the man who rescued and married her when she lost her musician first husband by cheating on him, a corpulent and formerly alcoholic carousel worker (Jim Belushi); the latter’s pretty daughter (Juno Temple) and a hunky lifeguard (Justin Timberlake), who aspires to be a playwright and has an affair with the mother before falling for the stepdaughter. One senses early on, rather like in a classic Greek drama, that things can’t end happily, despite several amusing little situations and some jokey commentary to the audience, of the kind given by Woody Allen himself in earlier films, but now handed over to Justin Timberlake. A great deal of the action takes place in the rickety rented apartment where the dysfunctional family lives, over a shooting arcade and in view of the big wheel, the Wonder Wheel. This means that some of the most intense scenes are rather like a stage play, and a Tennessee Williams stage play at that. Kate Winslet really comes into her own here, as her character slowly disintegrates as her 40th birthday looms and her dreams of a better life evaporate. The cinematography (Vittorio Storaro) is superb, the light and the colours in the outdoor scenes really capturing the atmosphere of the period, their gaiety barely masking the turmoil behind.

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No Intenso Agora **

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th December, 2017

2A6569B5-2901-474C-8FF8-134B88199B8D1968 was a milestone in European history (with resonances beyond), thanks mainly to the May “events” in Paris and the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. Both of these historic moments figure large, mainly in evocative black and white, in Brazilian João Moreira Salles’s documentary No Intenso Agora. But so, too, does colour home movie footage of his mother’s 1966 tourist trip to the People’s Republic of China with a group of similarly well-heeled art aficionados. As that was right at the beginning of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, some of those moments are a rich record, of temples boarded up to prevent vandalism by Red Guards and idyllic scenes (including of Shanghai’s Victorian Bund), now long since swept away by manic development. But no attempt is made by the director, through the narrator, to even hint at the horrors going on out of sight in China. Not a Red Guard rampage in sight, only singing children and cheering workers. Nor is a truly relevant link made to the twin stories of youthful revolt in Europe two years later. In the French section, we see extended clips of General de Gaulle and Daniel Cohn Bendit, and lots of good street action and workers’ strikes, but little sensible analysis. The Czech section is even thinner, and the attempt to bridge the two through coverage of the funerals of young victims in Prague and France rings false. Then right at the end there is a weird set of images, in which we see Chairman Mao age from young revolutionary of the Long March to a barely conscious old man. What on earth was that all about? Presumably João Moreira Salles felt that he had created a unified whole, but I couldn’t see it. Moreover, at over two hours, with some film clips, in both China and Europe, unnecessarily, even clumsily, repeated, the film is a good 30 minutes too long.

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