Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘film review’ Category

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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McKellen: Playing the Part ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 3rd June, 2018

Ian McKellenPossibly the greatest living male Shakespearean actor, Sir Ian McKellen has reinvented himself in his latter years, coming out (on the BBC) as homosexual at the age of 49, campaigning on LGBT rights issues and going into schools (sometimes adopting his Gandalf voice) to encourage children to be themselves yet enter into the world of make-believe. Sir Ian was a latecomer to film; as we learn from Joe Stephenson’s biopic, McKellen: Playing the Part (showing this weekend at my lovely local cinema, Genesis in Stepney Green), he was a bit sniffy about the seventh art until he actually took part in it. He was and is a stage actor par excellence. Theatre is in his blood. The film is essentially an extensive interview, illustrated with marvelous clips of McKellen’s performances (goodness, how chilling he was as Richard III!), a little reconstruction of his childhood and various shots of him behind-the-scenes. Despite living in Tower Hamlets for decades, he has never lost his northern affections — born in Wigan, but especially fond of the Grand Theatre in Leeds. It was the twin evils of the fatal AIDS epidemic and Mrs Thatcher’s Clause 28 that propelled him into political activism, raising funds to establish the London Lighthouse and to launch Stonewall. Latterly he has sometimes camped it up as “Serena”, notably pairing up with his old pal and fellow thespian, Derek Jacobi, in that ghastly TV series Vicious (tactfully not mentioned in Stephenson’s documentary). But we do see him facing up to a Tory homophobe in a memorable TV interview as he slaps down the idea that youngsters are not aware of their own innate feelings. This is done with such calm dignity that his opponent is left speechless. But, one might in fairness ask, as the octogenarian McKellen looks back on his life and playfully plans his own funeral, did he sacrifice personal happiness for the sake of his craft? Despite an earlier partnership with the younger theatre director, Sean Mathias, McKellen was and is essentially a lone figure, though revered by millions of fans around the world.

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Celebrating Christo

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 30th May, 2018

Celebrating Christo 1I first became aware of the Bulgarian-born artist Christo when he shrouded the Bundestag in Berlin in 1995. There was quite a heated debate among German MPs at the time, about whether this was a good idea, but in hindsight it was a blessing that Art won through. Christo (he habitually calls himself only by hist forename) left Communist Bulgaria for Prague in 1956 and managed to defect to Vienna by bribing a customs official to let him through in a sealed waggon on a train, eventually settling in New York with his French wife, Jeanne-Claude. Even now, they are a formidable team, as creators and business people; his most spectacular work costs millions of dollars to construct, all of it raised by themselves, interestingly.

Flotaing PiersBut what of the man? Now we know, thanks to a fascinating documentary, The Frontier of Our Dreams, directed by Georgi Balabanov and being screened tomorrow evening at 7.30pm in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. I caught it at a Press preview at the Bulgarian Cultural Institute today. It is actually a film about Christo and one of his two brothers, Anani, who would have loved to have been an artist himself but was essentially forbidden by the Communist autorities (as the son of a former industrialist, sent to prison on a trumped-up chare of sabotage). Instead Anani became an actor, hidebound by the strict political orthodoxy of that most pro-Soviet of Eastern European regimes. Though he did get the chance to travel abroad sometimes, he never followed his brother’s example by defecting (for which Christo was denounced as a traitor by the regime in Sofia). In the film, Anani wonders whether he made the wrong decision, whether in fact he wasted half his life, not envying his brother’s huge commercial success as such but rather missing the opportunity to be his real self. This gives a wonderful poignancy to Balabanov’s film, which is accompanied tomorrow by Evgenia Atanasova-Teneva’s more reverential documentary, Bridge to Christo, about his 2016 installation in Italy, Floating Piers. Huge crowds went to enjoy that piece, bringing considerable benefit to the local economy, as well as giving visitors the unusual sensation of walking on water. Though the V&A showing is a one-off, the two films deserve wider circulation, not least Balabanov’s.

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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 http://acambodianspring.com/

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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:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/showsandtours/shows/bbc_arabic_festival_2018

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