Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘film review’ Category

A Cambodian Spring ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 7th May, 2018

A Cambodian SpringWhen the wave of popular uprisings — given the misnomer The Arab Spring — swept across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011, few of us international journalists paid much attention to what was going on over in Cambodia. But for some time already, residents of marginal housing round Boeung Kak Lake in the capital, Phnom Penh, had been protesting about the flooding and in some cases destruction of their homes because of land reclamation and the industrial activities of a company with close links to senior figures in the government. Chris Kelly’s documentary, A Cambodian Spring, shot over a period of six years, focuses in particular on two young women activists in that campaign, who speak truth to power, though later they were to have an irrevocable personal falling out. Assisting them at times was a media-savvy Buddhist monk, the Venerable Sovath, who filmed the harassment of demonstrators and the demolition of homes and increasingly became an outspoken activist himself, to the extent that he was evicted from his pagoda by a religious hierarchy that accused him of having become political. Such occurrences reminded me of the Buddhist monks who self-immolated in Saigon during my period in Vietnam, though nothing so extreme occurred with Sovath. The rather idyllic city of Phnom Penh that I remembered from 1969 would soon have its population expelled wholesale by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge to the countryside, where hundreds of thousands perished in the killing fields, while others were instead tortured and murdered in hideous urban concentration camps. A later Vietnamese invasion therefore came as something of a relief, but the Cambodian People’s Party government of Hun Sen that has been top dog for the past 30 years has proved itself to be less interested in defending the rights of poor people but rather in allowing key figures and allies to enrich themselves, including through land grabs.

Sam RainsyHad Chris Kelly just limited his film to the story of the three main protagonists and had he provided an effective running commentary throughout, I think A Cambodian Spring  would have been a very powerful movie. Instead, the viewer is left to make his or her own sense of what is going on, and in the first part the story is confused by some coverage of farmers in Siem Reap province who were also clashing with the authorities. Later, the opposition politician Sam Rainsy [pictured] is suddenly shown returning to Phnom Penh from exile, to be met by enthusiastic crowds, but we are not told that he would soon have to flee again, his democratic tail between his legs, under merciless assault from the government and state media. The film runs to two hours, which is probably 30 minutes too long; some strict editing would have been beneficial. As it is, there is much that will fascinate those who want to learn more about Cambodia. But should a documentary leave quite so many unanswered questions?

A CAMBODIAN SPRING will premiere at Curzon Soho on 17th May 6.30pm and released in cinemas from 18th May


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BBC Arabic Festival 2018

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 21st April, 2018

BBC Arabic Festival 2018 openingLast night I was at the Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House in London for the opening ceremony of the 2018 BBC Arabic Festival. Now an annual event, this celebrates the output of young and independent filmmakers producing work that reflects the changing Arab world of today. That includes some full length feature films, but most of the films screened are non-fiction shorts or documentaries, inevitably focusing predominantly on conflict, occupation and exile. There is an added reason for celebration this year as it is the 80th anniversary of the BBC Arabic language radio service (which used to broadcast a lot of my current affairs talks in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was based at Bush House). Last night’s programme featured a live interview with Gazan film director Mohamed Jabaly, winner of the 2017 festival’s Young Journalist Award, who introduced and showed nine minutes of his latest work in progress, Stateless, about a diverse group of young Arab asylum seekers sharing a flat in northern Norway. Also screened were Rana Kazkaz and Anas Khalaf’s Mare Nostrum, about a Syrian father’s attempt to get his six-year-old daughter safely across the Mediterranean to Europe, and Fate, Wherever It Takes Us, an experimental autobiographical short by a Syrian woman, Kadar Fayyad, who has found sanctuary in Amman, Jordan. The festival runs at the Radio Theatre until 26 April; entry is free but tickets must be booked online via the site linked below:

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Isle of Dogs ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th April, 2018

Isle of DogsWes Anderson’s quirky imagination and deep love of film guarantee that anything he directs will give cinephiles much food for thought as well as entertainment, and in his latest stop-motion animation offering, Isle of Dogs, there is so much content that at times it is hard to digest. The basic plot is simple, however, like any good fantasy or fairy tale: a cat-loving despotic mayor in a dystopian future Japanese city banishes all dogs to an island used as a giant garbage dump. But his 12-year-old ward is distraught at the loss of his guard-dog, Spots, and sets off to find him. Meanwhile the dogs have started to organise themselves and a plan is put into place to turn the tables on wicked Mayor Kobayashi, with the aid of a feisty American girl exchange student in a blond fright wig. However, this simple tale is framed in settings of immense complexity, stuffed full of cultural and cinematic references. There is a distinct irony in this, as so much classical Japanese theatre uses almost no scenery, leaving the audience to imagine the location from the context of the words and action, whereas in Anderson’s film there is so much visual detail that at times one’s mind is totally consumed by taking it all in, to the extent that one’s concentration drifts away from the story. All the classic Japanese stereotype scenes are there, from sushi preparation to sumo wrestling and falling cherry blossoms, much to a soundtrack of dramatic taiko drums. But other references are more nuanced, including not only homage to Japanese art and architecture but also Japanese cinema, from Kurosawa to anime. Much of the dialogue is in Japanese, only some of which is translated, which may sound a bit strange yet works effectively in intensifying a sense of mystery; the dogs have difficulty understanding much of what the humans are saying. The dogs all talk American English, voiced by well-known actors such as Bryan Cranston and Scarlett Johansson, For me that was the only really jarring thing about the film, playing into a subconscious Hollywood narrative of a plucky American kid helping dogs overcome a monstrous adult. Otherwise, the film could not do more to celebrate Japan and things Japanese, though some people might feel at times it veers towards cultural appropriation. I don’t think that is the case. Having studied in Japan as a young man, I revelled in a lot of the references as well as in the jokes. There is a clever balance between humour and seriousness throughout. But I do think Anderson tried to cram too much in — which probably means one needs to see the film more than once to get anything like a full appreciation.

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Phantom Thread *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 29th March, 2018

10915E47-725E-4134-9207-12EFA7BEE9D7I have never had the slightest interest in women’s fashion, so was a little tardy in viewing Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, but of course one doesn’t need to be engaged with haute couture to understand what a very special film this is. Daniel Day-Lewis, in what he says is his swan song as an actor, although only 60 years old, employed all the skills of method acting to become the lead character, Reynolds Woodcock — handsome and superficially charming until his total self-centredness and obsession with his work comes to the fore, buttressed by his icily supportive sister and collaborator, Cyril (a brilliant piece of character acting by Lesley Manville). But the person who pierces Reynolds’ carapace is a German waitress encountered by chance at a hotel in Yorkshire, Alma — an apt name, as it is her spirit as well as her beauty which captivated him. But like a butterfly collector who seizes a spectacular specimen and pins it to a board, so Reynolds tries to exert complete control over Alma as model and muse, belittling her whenever she shows any sign of individuality or passion. But Alma (captivatingly portrayed by the relative newcomer from Luxembourg, Vicky Krieps) is built of sterner stuff than any of the other devoted women surrounding the maestro. She hatches a devilish plot, straight out of a fairy-tale, to weaken Reynolds and then strike in the guise of apparent saviour. The viewer watches with fascination as the spider Alma spins her web and grabs her prey. What makes the film truly great, however, is the direction, which not only brings out the best in the actors but also draws the viewer convincingly into the world of fashion houses in 1950s London, with their snobbery and pandering to the egos of wealthy but often unattractive women, as well as highlighting the dedication of the seamstresses (many taken from real life, rather than using actors). The timing in this exquisite film is all: long drawn out silences, powerfully-delivered single words (no that gradually becomes yes, in the arc of the story) and flashes of sudden anger. All is not well in the House of Woodcock, and his secretly sewing little messages into the hems of the dresses of his ladies will not stave off the curse that is coming and against which he is powerless.

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From Russia with Love

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th March, 2018

SIFFA UKThere isn’t much love between the UK and Russia these days, in the wake of the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, but while the war of words continues between the two governments, at a cultural level there is a determination to keep things friendly. So there was a good turn-out — and no embarrassing demonstrations — at the gala UK premiere of Artyom Mikhalkov’s 2016 film, Betting on Love, at the Soho Hotel’s screening room in Soho last night. The event was all part of the London end of the Sochi Film Festival Awards (SIFFA) — a relative newcomer to the film festival circuit, based in the Black Sea resort that hosted the Winter Olympics four years ago. There were drinks and awards of various kinds before the Soho screening, with a great many bouquets of flowers. Stephen Frears — who collected a certificate, along with one for an absent Dame Judi Dench — was so festooned with blooms he could have opened a stall in Columbia Road market. Artyom Mikhalkov was on hand to receive his own Sochi gong. His film was a romantic comedy that made many nods to the rom-coms of the 1960s and 1970s, with a bit of James Bond thrown in. The hero was a diminutive Armenian waiter working in a sushi restaurant who nonetheless has the chance of winning the hand of a fair maiden. There are some nice gags about Russian mafiosi as well as armospheric location shots in Las Vegas, but the film was as frothy as whipped cream in a can — and everyone kissed, made up and paired off at the end.

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The Shape of Water ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 24th February, 2018

The Shape of WaterMonsters have never been my thing, whether in books or in films, so I approached Guillermo del Toro’s latest movie, The Shape of Water, with a degree of scepticism. Not only does the “monster” — actually a scaly, aquatic creature with a distinctly handsome, human face — not speak, but neither does the mute (but not deaf) young Hispanic cleaner, Elisa, who falls in love with him. She works in a secret US installation that is up to its eyes in Cold War scheming against the Soviets, the Americans annoyed at being beaten by the Russians in the race into space. It’s 1962 and both misogyny and racial prejudice rule among the alpha white males of the installation, not least the man who is tormenting the poor captured creature, brought in from the Amazon where indigenous peoples had revered him as a river god. At this point the film morphs into a fairy tale, full of mystery and not a little humour, punctuated by outbursts of sudden violence. The period atmosphere is beautifully recreated, from the glorious Cadillacs in a car showroom to the tacky advertisements in magazines and on television. At times the narrative heads off into pure fantasy, allowing the director to indulge in some agreeable referencing of multiple film genres, from black-and-white dance spectaculars to John  Le Carré style spy thrillers. Sally Hawkins as Elisa is genuinely affecting and one empathises enough with her predicament to forgive some of the implausible strands of the plot, though objectively speaking, much of it is tosh. Yet somehow the film is intriguing enough to hold one’s attention. As the story progresses, one increasingly feels that good must win out in a context where so much evil is present — though the dénouement is far from predictable.

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King of the Belgians ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 22nd February, 2018

King of the BelgiansLast night I was at Birkbeck College’s cinema in Gordon Square for the launch of a mini-season of Belgian films: Focus on Belgian Cinema. It was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me, as for most of the eight years I was based in Brussels as a journalist, I had a nice little side-line reviewing films for the English-language weekly there, The Bulletin (all of which figures in my forthcoming memoir of those Brussels years). At last night’s event, there were two excellent presentations by Belgian film critics/professors, outlining what has been happening in both French-speaking and Flemish-speaking movie making over the three decades since I left. The interesting point was made that films made (in French) in Wallonia-Brussels attract much bigger audiences outside Belgium than they do at home, whereas many of the Flemish films are locally popular. Belgium being Belgium, however, many films are effectively multi-lingual, including both French and Flemish (the latter sometimes in its very particular regional dialects), as well as German, English and so on. In fact, the film that followed the two talks — King of the Belgians (2016), directed by Peter Brosens and Jessica Hope Woodworth — included Turkish, Bulgarian and a snatch of Albanian, too. The film is a comic mockumentary, theoretically commissioned by the Belgian Queen, to try to make her rather stiff husband, King Nicolas III, seem more human. The King is beautifully played by one of Belgium’s leading actors, Peter van den Begin — tall, awkward and often at a loss for words (one could well imagine him a blood relative of the late King Baudouin, though no such caricature was officially intended).

The King and his faithful retainers get stranded in Turkey by freak weather which means that planes are grounded, so the little group has to turn to more unorthodox means of transport to return home via the Balkans, when Wallonia declares independence (a nice touch, as it is Flemish nationalists who sometimes call for independence for Flanders). Most of the film is thus an often funny road movie, as disaster piles upon disaster and the King and his entourage of three (plus the putative Scottish documentary maker) try to pass incognito through sometimes risky lands. Along the journey, there are many nice asides about Belgian life and the pomp and circumstance of royal protocol, but the King himself, probably encountering normal people in a natural way for the first time in his life, gradually opens up and begins to savour the world around him — a sort of middle-aged coming of age.

The rest of the Focus on Belgian Cinema mini-season is taking place at the Ciné Lumiere at the French Institute in South Kensington over the next four days, and includes a number of Q&A’s with directors of the films being screened, including André Bonzel and his black crime comedy, Man Bites Dog. Bookings through

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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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