Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘film review’ Category

Doubles Vies****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 19th April, 2019

440AF66A-7874-437A-949D-6DFFA0D8994EMarriages often go through a mid-life crisis, but in truly Gallic fashion, in Olivier Assayas’s wry drama Doubles Vies, so do spouses’ relationships with their respective lovers too. The setting — apart from a lyrical interlude in the Midi — is the literary scene in Paris, a world in which a book editor (Guillaume Canet) is trying to come to terms with the effect on his industry in a new environment of ebooks, blogs and social media. He turns down the latest manuscript from one of his closest author friends (a very crumpled Vincent Macaigne), unaware that his own wife has been having an affair with him. One feels that one day this will come back to haunt him, as the writer’s novels are blatantly autobiographical, landing him in hot water with some critics. As might be clear by now, this is a very literary film, in which words are as significant as the images and dramatic plot twists barely impinge on the main characters’ inner turmoil. Handsome Canet is paired with beautiful Juliette Binoche, while Macaigne’s other half is a somewhat kooky but political Nora Hamzawi. Some audiences may find the film dialogue-heavy and a little forced in its contemplation of technological change, but having lived in such a literary environment in both Paris and Brussels, I find it rings painfully true.

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3 Faces*****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 10th April, 2019

CC37924E-8CE2-4F3C-AE9B-D22A028A73CD.jpegI imagine it would come as quite a surprise to the current occupant of the White House to learn that Iran is producing some of the most interesting and challenging films around and has done so for many years. Cowboys and Injuns are probably more his style. But cinephiles have long been championing the work of Iranian directors, both those who continue to live in the country and those who decided (or had decided for them) that they could only be true to their art abroad. Among those directors who have received international recognition is Jafar Panahi, whose latest offering, 3 Faces (shot if Farsi and Azeri, in the wild mountain scenery of north-west Iran, not far from Azerbaijan) wowed critics at Cannes. The storyline is superficially simple: the director (playing himself) is persuaded by the renowned film actress Behnaz Jafari (again a self -portrait) to go in search of a country girl, Marziyeh (Marziyeh Rezaei) who has managed to send indirectly to Ms Jafari a video of herself apparently committing suicide in a grotto because the actress has allegedly ignored her pleas to help her leave her isolated rural community to go to study drama in Tehran. The actress has no idea who the girl is nor whether the story is true, but walks out of her current film shoot in order to find out.

215E2F05-DD9D-4DA3-BB2A-72C747825D0CUnlike most actor-directors, Jaffar Panahi does not thrust himself to the fore. On the contrary, for the first few minutes of the film one does not even see him, though one can hear his voice, as all the attention is focussed on a distressed Behnaz Jafari. Similarly, when the pair reach Marziyeh’s village Behnaz moves in a female domestic sphere, from which Jafar is excluded — symbolically so by having to spend a night sleeping in his car. But there is another  form of alienation which affects both of these sophisticated visitors when they are confronted with the conservative traditions and suspicions of a rural community that has not encountered modernity, even if they recognise Behnaz from film posters or the TV. There are wonderful vignettes of village life and traditional hospitality, not in the least condescending or judgmental. But there are also moments of delicious comedy, as when an old man presents his son’s foreskin (removed at his circumcision, and neatly preserved in a tiny blood red fabric bag) to Behnaz to pass on to some person who can influence his future. I also relished the in-joke about how two creative acquaintances of the two main protagonists wanted to meet, but couldn’t, because one was not allowed to leave Iran and the other was forbidden to return from exile. But best of all for me was the lyricism of this encounter between two contrasting words within one country, with a hesitance on both sides to learn some of the consequent lessons, all against the backdrop of an arid landscape and humble village dwellings.

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Turkish Ice Cream **

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th March, 2019

Turkish Ice-cream 1Comedy can sometimes be a powerful method of highlighting the futility and awfulness of war. One thinks of Richard Attenborough’s directorial début, Oh! What a Lovely War, for example. And that was what Turkish film director Can Ulkay had in mind when he made his latest film, Turkish Ice Cream, a drama mainly set in a hick town in Australia in 1915. This opened at cinemas all over Turkey recently and will be screened at the London Turkish Film Week next month. In fact the film embraces three quite separate genres: comedy, horror and action, in what I found a sometimes uncomfortable mix. The two main actors — the ice cream seller Mehmet, played by Ali Atay, and a fairground cameleer, Ali (Erkan Kolcak Kostendil) — make an attractive comic duo along with Ali’s fetching camel. But slapstick soon gives way to more serious violence as the town turns on the two Turks once the Ottoman Empire joins the First World War and they therefore become enemy aliens.

Turkish Ice-cream 2Fleeing the wrath together with Ali’s wife and baby and Mehmet’s deaf and dumb new Australian girlfriend, they find what appears to be a safe haven until that is discovered and retribution falls in a bloody scene of Tarantino intensity. Mehmet and Ali nonetheless manage to escape and subsequently engage in a 2-man war against the British army (which has been recruiting local youths to go off to the Dardenelles) in sequences that are a role-reversal of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. This time, it is the Turks who hatch a plot to blow up a Anglo-Australian train, in which there is a dastardly English captain (Will Thorp) who has become their sworn enemy.

This action part of the movie will doubtless appeal to mainstream audiences in Turkey in search of heroic ethno-nationalist validation, but I wasn’t persuaded by the argument that the inevitable slaughter conveyed a compelling anti-War message. Can Ulkay has had some marked success with previous films and reportedly commanded a budget of $26million for this one. That enabled him to build an entirely artificial Australian town in a wasteland in Turkey, which nonetheless resembles a gigantic stage set rather than a realistic community. Buildings helpfully have huge signs on them, such as HOTEL, to enable the cinema-goer to follow what is going on. The English sub-titles used in the copy of the film shown at a Press launch at the Regent Street cinema (attended by the amiable director) were clearly not produced by a native speaker, alas, making them clunky and distracting, which is a shame. But maybe those viewers who are able to suspend their disbelief more than I was able to, and who like a film that provides comedy, horror and action all in one, will enjoy it more than I was able to.

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Capernaum *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th March, 2019

CapernaumCinema verité has always been one of my favourite genres — so realistic and true to life that one is totally drawn into the heart of the action, whether the film is a documentary or, as in the case of Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum, a fiction feature. From the opening shots of Capernaum, one is absorbed into the chaos of a poor, urban neighbourhood in Lebanon and the squalour and tensions of the lives of the marginalised and dispossessed living there. The central character of the film, a young boy called Zain (grippingly played by Zain Al Rafeea, his expression numbed by the debilitating hopelessness of his life) is at the bottom of the pile, neglected by his mother and knocked about by his father, but helping the family survive by selling home-made juice by the roadside with his siblings. When his 11-year-old favourite sister is married off against her will he snaps and runs away, finding a temporary new home with an illegal Ethiopian migrant worker and her infant son. The relationship between the two boys develops as a kind of coming-of-age for Zain as he finds himself more and more responsible for the little kid’s welfare. This situation also provides an opportunity for humour and the sweetest of moments (not least because tiny Boluwatife Treasure Bankole is an absolute natural; however did Labaki get him to do everything that he does?!), which relieves what is otherwise growing tension and a sense of imminent doom. Actually, one learns right near the beginning what violent act Zain will be driven to, so in a sense most of this justifiably lengthy movie is a story of what got him there. Even though there is a moment of light after all the darkness right at the end, one is left frozen in one’s seat as it closes, numbed by the power of it all. It is a truly great movie, worthy of all the accolades it has received.

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Green Book *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd February, 2019

Green BookIn 1962, the southern United States was not a place that African Americans could move around freely. “Negroes” were banned from many restaurants and hotels, and they faced frequent discrimination and humiliation. To make the life of black travellers a little easier a guide to places that were open to “Coloureds” was published — a sort of paperback Michelin Guide known as the Green Book. So when the phenomenally talented black pianist Don Shirley decided to challenge the colour bar and do a concert tour sweeping through the Mid West and Deep South he wisely took a copy with him, along with a Italian-American driver — a bouncer from the Bronx, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga — who would stand up for him when things got tough, which inevitably they did. The film Green Book is about that tour and the unlikely friendship that developed between the two men. The result is a road movie unlike any other, an often comic but at times searing social critique, beautifully managed by director Peter Farrelly. The personal drama takes place on the cusp of profound political change in America, with John F Kennedy in the White House and his brother Robert as Attorney General, but the red necks who still ruled the roost in the South paid little or no heed to liberal Washington. There was a high degree of moral hypocrisy around; Don Shirley was feted for his music and played in rich men’s mansions but was not allowed to use their lavatories. The irony was that he was super-sophisticated — effete, even — whereas Tony Lip, who could go about unhindered, was a loud-mouthed tough with atrocious eating habits. The contrast between the two characters — brilliantly played by Mahershala Ali and Viggo Modensen — makes the film truly delicious, as they overcome their mutual distaste to bond, as something much closer than employer and driver. Vallelonga’s son, Nick, was involved in the writing, drawing on interviews with and letters from his father,though Shirley’s family questioned the historical veracity of some parts of the story. But if one accepts a little artistic license, this is a gem of a movie, so atmospheric of the period — a dark age that isn’t ancient history but contemporary with my own childhood.

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Beautiful Boy ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th February, 2019

Beautiful BoyI have never had the slightest temptation to dabble in drugs and I don’t have a son (nor ever wanted one). So I am maybe not the ideal person to empathise with the main characters in Felix Van Groeningen’s movie, Beautiful Boy. The story of how a father tries to rescue his 18-year-old offspring from the downward spiral of addiction and self-destruction, encountering a disorientating mixture of cooperation and resistance along the way, is based on the true-life experience of David Sheff and his son Nic, both of whom later wrote books about what they went through — the sort of survival memoir that is increasingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic. The setting (mainly) is affluent, white middle class California, especially San Francisco, with a sidebar in New York. Young Nicolas should have everything going for him, but he rebels against his comfortable, liberal home life (nonetheless fractured by his parents divorce) and after early academic and sporting success rejects the idea of college life. The film is therefore mainly about a struggle both with and inside young Nic; he is played by Timothée Chalamet, who I loved in Call Me By My Name, but who is less successful in this challenging role; at times one wants to hose his character down with cold water, but maybe that is partly the point. Steve Carell as the father, however, is brilliantly cast. One accompanies his emotions, his frustrations and underlying paternal love through each agonising development. Much of the film is shot in semi-darkness or very low light which heightens the mood of frequent despair and potential disaster, and there are long periods where no word is spoken (spoilt for me by a soundtrack of music, both ancient and modern, which I felt superfluous, even counter-productive). The characters being American, they shout at each other rather a lot. But of course, the story is of relevance worldwide. There are moments that are memorable, in a not altogether satisfactory whole; I suspect I might have preferred reading David Sheff’s book.

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Bohemian Rhapsody ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th February, 2019

D5F4B5E4-7120-45A7-85F0-1EA91156D236I deliberately did not see Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody when it first came out. I’m not a fan of pop or rock and couldn’t have named one song by Queen unless prompted. Of course I knew about Freddie Mercury, the boy from Zanzibar with projecting teeth and an outrageous peacock style on stage, who died from an AIDS-related illness. But with such a crop of good films out recently, I had other priorities. However, the movie was in the selection offered on my recent Emirates airline flight — not the best way to see a film, I know — and I found myself riveted. Lead actor Rami Malek has received both awards and brickbats for his performance, but I found him credible and engaging, as well as convincing in the star’s decline. I loved the music (most of which I did recognise, after all) and I thought the long Live Aid scene really moving. It was astonishing to see an unrecognisable Gwilym “Midsomer Murders” Lee as Bryan May, displaying a talent I didn’t know he had. All in all, it’s a great entertainment (with some brilliant comic moments), as well as a  challenging reflection on the highs and lows of the popular music industry. Even an old square like me was engrossed.

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Can You Ever Forgive Me? *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 5th February, 2019

MelissaMcCarthyLee Israel was a celebrity biographer who experienced declining sales and increased penury in 1990s New York, falling out with her agent and behind with her rent. Her only solace was her aging cat. Having successfully sold one, genuine autograph letter to a local bookshop she then set about forging 400 others, purporting to come from a whole range of literary and media figures from Noel Coward to Dorothy Parker. She even filched some genuine letters from reference libraries. Inevitably her deception was uncovered — one trigger being that one of her “Coward” letters was just too openly gay — though for a while she was able to prolong her success by using her flamboyantly louche homosexual friend Jack as a surrogate salesman. The FBI was now on to her, though once confronted with this sad and somewhat delusional figure, the justice system was fairly lenient on her — and she had the last laugh by writing up her experiences in a book. Lee Israel and Jack are both dead, but in Marielle Heller’s deliciously constructed Can You Ever Forgive Me?, they are brought vividly back to life by Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant. McCarthy’s performance as the antisocial, often foul-mouthed whiskey-dependent cat lady, is a tour de force. She is the personification of 50-year-old dowdiness, frowning beneath her fringe. She is both pathetic and achingly funny and the audience soon becomes co-conspirators in her criminal activities as she launches into them with ever increasingly gusto. Richard E Grant has great fun — and is great fun — as the camp blagger Jack, living in a world of fantasy and casual pick-ups. They are an odd couple but their tetchy partnership is one of the most delightful things in this perfectly pitched and nuanced film. Truly a gem.

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Colette *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 19th January, 2019

coletteFin-de-siecle Paris is often depicted as a decadent playground savoured by the likes of Oscar Wilde, but the period was also one of great technical innovation, from the building of the controversial Eiffel Tower in 1887 to the introduction of electricity in middle class homes. Interestingly, both feature in Wash Westmoreland’s lyrical biopic, Colette, helping to signal the time; as for place, the film is not alone in finding that Budapest today offers more authentically “Parisian” staircases and interiors. The story is at first a portrait of a marriage, between the critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (who wrote under the pen name “Willy” and employed a small stable of impoverished younger authors to ghost his stories, while he enjoyed the literary salons and amorous liaisons of the city) and a pretty, nature-loving young country girl, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Parisian society was at first sneering at this ingénue, who had brought no dowry and who bristled at the extravagant pretensions of le beau monde. But soon the young wife displays not only a free spirit but a creative one as well. Determined not to be constrained to the domestic life of a dutiful wife she starts to write herself, and although at first Willy derides her efforts soon he accepts that she has talent and starts publishing books, in his name, that are essentially her work, with just a few of his own tweaks here and there. A series of effectively autobiographical novels featuring “Claudine” become best-sellers and Colette (as she now calls herself, symbolically reclaiming her maiden name) is no longer satisfied to have Willy take all the credit. She has also become less tolerant of his arrogance and bullying, his endless philandering and profligacy, while herself engaging in affairs with other women, notably the cross-dressing aristocrat Mathilde de Morny, “Missy”. The marriage is doomed but a new literary star is born and and a feminist blow against male chauvinistic piggery has landed with effect. This is indeed a feminist film, albeit directed by a gay man (touchingly dedicated to his recently deceased husband and collaborator Richard Glatzer), but it does not preach. Instead it allows the story to gently unfold against a background of luscious canvases, both rural and urban. Keira Knightley magnificently conveys Colette’s evolution from country girl to creative talent; one so engages with her performance that one accompanies the character along her journey of discovery, empathizing at every twist and turn. Dominic West is also effective as the caddish Willy, a puffed-up peacock who is occasionally shaken by moments of insecurity, self-doubt and pure panic. The story of Colette has been told on film before, but not nearly so well. Westmoreland succeeds brilliantly. not only in the narrative of an amazing life but also in producing a beautiful work of art.

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Stan & Ollie *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 12th January, 2019

stan & ollieLaurel and Hardy were one of the great comic duos of the 20th century, their films huge box office sensations. But Jon S. Baird’s affectionate biopic, Stan & Ollie, covers their twilight months, when they were touring theatres in the British Isles, trying to resuscitate the old magic in a changing world newly enamoured of television. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly were inspired casting for the lead roles, even if Coogan’s accent does occasionally go a bit Alan Partridge. They mimic perfectly some of Laurel and Hardy’s comic song and dance routines, though with a poignant edge of stars on the wane. The period settings are atmospheric and the film’s pacing immaculate, and there are some wonderful cameos such as Rufus Jones as an oleaginous Bernard Delfont and Nina Arianda as Stan’s vampish Russian wife. But the best thing of all is the chemistry between the two central characters, ranging from love through frustration to a certain degree of jealousy. There are some deliciously funny moments, but even more tender scenes that left many a teary eye in the audience I saw the film with, rooted in their seats until the credits were totally over.

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