Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘film review’ Category

1917: Why the Russian Revolution Matters

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 26th November, 2017

1917 why the russian revolution mattersDuring this centenary year of the two Russian Revolutions there has been a tsunami of books, articles and documentary films, most accepting that the birth of Soviet Communism was a catastrophe which distorted the political development of much of the world for the rest of the century. So there is certainly room for a counter-narrative. That appears to be the purpose of 1917: Why the Russian Revolution Matters, directed by WorldWrite’s Ceri Dingle. I caught a screening at the rather wonderful Castle Cinema in Homerton this afternoon and it was clear that most of the audience concurred with the left-wing sentiments of the film’s interviewees (non of them Russian, due to financial constraints). The interview clips are interspersed with archive footage — always the most captivating part of historical documentaries — garnered from newsreels of the time and early Soviet propaganda films, as well as some shots of modern St Petersburg. Kerensky’s liberal administration, which followed the February Revolution, gets short shrift in the film, while Lenin and the October Revolution are hailed as the real breakthrough, one interviewee defining the Dictatorship of the Proletariat as real democracy. It is true that the early Soviet years saw a blossoming of artistic creativity, as well as real advances in both individual and collective freedoms. But before long things started to go horribly sour, the blame for which cannot all be placed at the feet of the White Terror in the Russian Civil War, aided and abetted by Western powers. The biggest question that the film leaves hanging, however, is: if Bolshevism was at first a genuinely progressive and humane endeavour, what on earth went wrong? It would be simplistic to reply, “Lenin good, Stalin bad”, though some on the far left of European politics might argue the case. No, the reality is much more complex than that, and at least by offering a different perspective. this film makes a challenging contribution to the debate.

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Paddington 2 *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 25th November, 2017

Paddington 2I am usually wary of films with the number “2” in their title, as sequels rarely live up to brilliant originals. But Paddington 2 will not disappoint those who loved its predecessor. Paddington Bear is neither as twee as Disney’s Winnie the Pooh nor as gross as Ted (especially in Ted 2). Instead, he is endearingly clumsy and charmingly naive, so that audiences of any age will be rooting for him as he faces new and dangerous challenges. Not least of these are the machinations of the fiendish and self-obsessed former star of the stage, Phoenix Buchanan, now reduced to doing dog food commercials, a la Clement Freud. Buchanan is played with relish by Hugh Grant, devious and smarmy to the nth degree and as fated for failure as any pantomime villain. Hugh Bonneville as Mr Brown is the somewhat clueless paterfamilias in a very British household whose other members, including the children, fortunately have much more nous. There’s a nice little cameo by Joanna Lumley, effectively sending up herself, and a number of cinematographic references that will amuse genuine film buffs, from a scene that could be straight out of Murder on the Orient Express to Paddington running across train carriage roofs like Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. The chase scenes are fast paced, but some of the most effective comedy is often from gags in which Paddington is on his own, for example pretending to be a rubbish bin in Paddington Station or catastrophically attempting to work as a window-cleaner. It is all jolly fun, with Ben Whishaw giving Paddington an earnest, innocant little voice that matches his moral propriety. Perfect stuff in the run-up to Christmas, and I can’t help feeling that the recently-deceased creator of the Paddington books, Michael Bond, would have loved it.

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Call Me by Your Name

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 29th October, 2017

Call Me By Your NameIs it possible for a film to be perfect? Maybe that is an absurd question, as no man-made creation can ever be utterly perfect, but some movies do reach true greatness. That is certainly the case with Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, which is the most astounding film I have seen for years. The screenplay (by James Ivory, Walter Fasano and the director) is based on an American novel of the same title by André Aciman and is set in early 1980s Italy, largely in and around the beautiful old house and garden of a liberal and cosmopolitan university professor and his family. Each summer a graduate student comes to stay to help the host with his work, but this particular summer the incomer is a handsome, young American Jew, Oliver, (convincingly played by Armie Hammer), who is self-assured and self-reliant to the point of apparent arrogance. Initially put off by this newcomer, the skinny and shy 17-year-old son of the house, Elio (brilliantly acted by Timothée Chalomet), gradually falls under Oliver’s spell and soon the youth’s already nascent sexual spring awakening is channeled in the older man’s direction. Seemingly used to being the centre of amorous attention, and flirtatious when in the mood, Oliver gently leads him on, though all concerned know that the relationship cannot endure. The story unfolds in masterful fashion against the backdrop of glorious countryside and in an ambiance suffused the discreet charm of the intellectual haute bourgeoisie. Elio is a talented amateur pianist, so music naturally plays a very important role in the film, but even more atmospheric and at times breathtaking is the cinematography, by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Some shots are like perfectly composed still photographs, making imaginative use of angle as well as light. Probably some people will consider parts of the film of the too graphic, but Guadagnino wanted to express both desire and joie de vivre in a positive light, as well as the bonds of loving family relationships, especially between father and son, as exquisitely represented by Elio and the professor. All in all, the film is a masterpiece.

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The Death of Stalin

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 26th October, 2017

The Death of Stalin 1I was only a toddler when Joseph Stalin died, so his demise did not impinge on my consciousness. But I vividly remember his successor, Nikita Krushchev, and his notorious shoe-banging episode at the UN General Assembly in 1960. Yet intriguingly it is neither Stalin nor Krushchev who really stand out in Armando Iannucci’s controversial new film satire, The Death of Stalin, but rather Georgy Malenkov and Laventriy Beria. Jeffrey Tambor plays the former as a dim-witted but callous automaton incapable of human emotion, who has risen way above his rightful station, while Simon Russell Beale (without doubt one of the finest British actors working today) is truly chilling as the calculating Soviet security chief (much tubbier than his real-life character). Though some moments in the film have a slapstick quality that has resonances of Monty Python, far more striking is its exposure of the banality of evil, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s phrase about that other 20th century circus of horror, Nazi Germany. Without rubbing one’s face in gore, the film nonetheless leaves one in no doubt about the brutality and pervasive sense of fear in Stalin’s Russia, yet most of the  key figues are portrayed as being rather ordinary men, constantly watching their backs while looking for opportunities to stick the knife into others. I’m not surprised the film has divided critics and audiences, as some may feel that the subject matter is too serious to be made fun of, and there are at least as many uncomfortable moments watching it as here are laughs. The Moscow backdrops give it a sometimes disconcerting validation. No wonder the Russians have been in two minds about whether to ban the film. For me, it is something I can’t exactly say I enjoyed watching, but I am glad I did.

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The Party

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th October, 2017

The PartyWhen an ambitious Labour politician is appointed Shadow Health Secretary, she invites her closest friends round to the house for a small celebration. But from the moment her neglected husband starts acting weirdly it becomes clear that things are not going to plan. That turns out to be the understatement of the year, as the complex plots strands of this rich black comedy become ever more tangled and extreme. Tightly constructed, Sally Potter’s film The Party is shot in black-and-white, intensifying resonances of 1960s’ French cinéma d’auteur, as well as Look Back in Anger and other kitchen-sink dramas. The contemporary twist is that this is essentially a film about women, by a woman, and with a stellar cast of female actors, including a bravura performance by Kristin Scott Thomas as the increasingly discombobulated politician hostess, Janet. The screenplay — by Sally Potter herself — fizzes and the camera work is brilliant, some of the most effective shots being taken at floor level. All in all, this is a wonderful, subversive package of surprises, leaving this viewer at least stunned and with much food for thought.

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Loving Vincent

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th October, 2017

Loving VincentVincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), the Dutch post-Impressionist painter, is today recognised as one of the fathers of Modern Art, though in his day his work was derided by all but a few devoted supporters, including his brother and the subject of one of his finest portraits, Dr Gachet. He sold precisely one of his 800 or so canvases before dying from a gunshot wound to the chest, usually presumed to be self-inflicted. But in the extraordinary hand-painted full-length feature film, Loving Vincent, now on release in the UK< the directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, an alternative explanation of the artist’s demise is the centre of speculation: that he was accidentally shot by a gang of boys who had been tormenting him for some time. But what is truly original in this film is the way that an essentially new genre of hand-painted animated film using actors and backdrops of Van Gogh’s own work has been created. Apparently it took seven years to make, with a hundred painters working on it — a genuine labour of love. It is also a wonderful example of European film cooperation — with Poland in the lead — underlining just how valuable such transnational work within the EU can be. The film is visually seductive, sensitively handled and the provincial English and Irish accents of several of the lead performers give an added flavour of alternative authenticity.

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Goodbye Christopher Robin

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 8th October, 2017

Goodbye_Christopher_RobinWinnie-the-Pooh played no part in my childhood, unlike that of most British children of my vintage. I only became truly aware of E H Shepard’s wonderful illustrations when I was at university (well, it was Oxford, albeit 20-odd years after the publication of Brideshead Revisited). I still have not read any of the four Pooh volumes penned by A A Milne, though I think of him often when I enjoy the fruit of his generous legacy to the Garrick Club. However, I was aware that A A Milne’s son — the Christopher Robin of the book — found his unwanted fame burdensome and that he was bullied as a result at school. So I was genuinely curious to see how Simon Curtis would handle the story. It is a complex challenge, because the film has to try to balance the brutal effect of the First World War on the author (sensitively portrayed by Domhnall Gleeson) with the fairy-tale quality of the rural idyll to which he and his somewhat disgruntled upper class wife moved with little Christopher Robin, and where the Pooh stories and adventures materialised, as well as the boy’s growing disenchantment with his situation.

Will TilstonGiven that the film has to cater for the millions of Pooh fans in America (most of whom will know the bear of little brain through the Disney animation), there is an occasionally OTT chocolate box representation of England in the 1920s, but much of the Sussex countryside is indeed beautiful and all those who relish seeing period cars and furniture in pristine condition will be happy. The father-son relationship is touchingly presented, in all its ups and downs, as is Christopher Robin’s dependence on his nanny (played by Kelly Macdonald, more convincingly than Margot Robbie as the self-centred mother). But it is the young newcomer Will Tilston, who plays the young Christopher Robin, who steals the show. His is an extraordinarily competent performance, tantrums and all, and I can hear the “aahs” of a myriad cinema-goers as they watch his first entry on screen. So, this is a bit of a curate’s egg of an experience, but when it is good it is very good. And probably now I shall go away and read the Winnie-the-Pooh books at long last.

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Tom of Finland

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th September, 2017

Tom of Finland film posterI have never been a fan of the drawings of Tom of Finland, skillfully executed but to my mind grotesque caricatures of gay sex role models, from leather bikers to sadistic cops, all with bubble butts and humongous genitalia. However, they were phenomenally popular; when I was in California in the mid-1970s, researching my biography of Christopher Isherwood, they seemed to be everywhere. Until yesterday, however, I had virtually no idea about the man behind these homoerotic works, but after watching Dome Karukoski’s biopic of the artist Touku Laaksonen, Tom of Finland, at the ICA, I feel wiser and more positively inclined. A decorated officer in the Second World War, mainly fighting the Russians, Laaksonen found it difficult to adjust to civilian life as a gay man in a particularly homophobic environment. That environment only improved gradually and it is no exaggeration to say that Tom of Finland helped the cause of “gay liberation”, which really started in America, where he briefly rode the crest of a wave of success before the whole scene was clouded by the arrival of HIV/AIDS. One might imagine that this subject matter would make for grim, even sordid, viewing, but in fact Karukoski’s film is beautifully and sensitively constructed and features a stellar central performance by Pekka Strang in the title role. Laaksonen was clearly a very thoughtful as well as talented man who dared to express himself in a way that would inevitably at first provoke outrage and censorship, but which later became an important part of the counter-culture of the second half of the 20th century.

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Victoria & Abdul

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th September, 2017

Victoria &amp; AbdulThe extraordinary story of the maternal affection that the widowed Queen Victoria felt for a young Indian servant, Abdul Karim, brought over to England in 1887, is a worthy subject for Stephen Frears’ new film, Victoria & Abdul, which is now out on general release. The real Abdul — dubbed the Munshi or teacher, because he taught the monarch Hindustani (actually Urdu) at her request — was nowhere near as handsome as actor Ali Fazal, who plays him in the film, and as the years went by he became chubby and arrogant. But Victoria was certainly besotted with him, as she had been earlier with her devoted Scottish attendant, John Brown. On his mother’s death, King Edward VII ordered the burning of the correspondence between Victoria and Abdul, but there is enough material extant in diaries and other letters to reconstruct the skeleton of the story. As is portrayed in the film, the Royal Household was indeed scandalised by the Munshi’s increasingly high-profile presence at Court, for social and racial reasons. Of course, the film inevitably takes some historical liberties (there is no mention of Abdul’s trips home to India during Victoria’s lifetime, for example), but some of the things that might appear the most preposterous, such as Abdul’s kneeling down to kiss Victoria’s feet, are absolutely true. The settings, from the painted hall at the Royal Naval College at Greenwich to Osborne on the Isle of White, are stunning and the filming itself is a thing of great beauty. Judi Dench is magnificent as Victoria, her moods shifting from impatience to joy and then despair. At times there is a risk of caricature among the members of the Royal Household and doubtless some people will find that there is an uneasy balance between comedy and tragedy in the story as portrayed. But so there is in life, too.

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God’s Own Country

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th September, 2017

God's Own CountryWhen a young, inarticulate Yorkshire hill-farmer’s son, Johnny, gets particularly stressed out, as more responsibility falls on his shoulders after his father’s debilitating stroke, he drowns his sorrow in drink and quick, emotionless sexual release with blond youths. But then along comes a handsome, dark-haired Romanian temporary farmhand — initially humiliated and insulted as a gypsy — and Johnny’s whole world is turned upside down. Shot against the panoramic background of the Yorkshire Moors, much of it by hand-held camera, Francis Lee’s first full-length feature film (which he wrote as well as directed) draws on his own background growing up on a farm in the area, lingers lovingly over mucking out cowsheds and birthing lambs, and spares no blushes in the escalation of the two young protagonists’ growing physical intimacy. But this is a film in which some of the most eloquent moments are when nothing is said — just a look, or a gesture. And gradually the blinkers are removed from Johnny’s eyes, as well as the chip from his shoulder, and he even begins to realise that his father and gran are not quite as demanding and insensitive as he thought. There are stellar performances by both Josh O’Connor as Johnny and Alec Secareanu, as his liberating angel, and the final scene brings the whole movie to a triumphant resolution. A truly beautiful film.

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