Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘film review’ Category

Once upon a Time in Hollywood ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 17th August, 2019

Once upon a Time in HollywoodI have always abhorred violence, so Quentin Tarantino has never been one of my favourite directors. Indeed, I walked out of a screening of Pulp Fiction in Havana, to the disgust of my Cuban companion. But the director’s latest movie, Once upon a Time in Hollywood, got such positive preview hype that I thought I had better try it out — and I am glad I did. It’s over two-and-a-half hours long — admittedly with a couple of longueurs in the middle that could have been pared down — but most of it is hugely entertaining, inventive, quirky and a film buff’s dream. The movie is sprinkled with countless celluloid references, like hundreds and thousands on an ice cream sundae. I particularly enjoyed the stand-off between “Bruce Lee” and Brad Pitt’s character, stunt man Cliff Booth, when Booth refers to Lee as Cato, like the character who springs surprise attacks on Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies, though I can understand why Lee’s family and friends are not amused. Cliff Booth works for his great mate, actor Rick Salton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is on a downward career slide oiled by a considerable amount of booze. His playing the baddie in Wild West “B” movies provides Tarantino plenty of opportunities for nods to that genre. The film itself is firmly set in 1969 Hollywood and is pitch-perfect when it comes to the period setting: the cars, the clothes, the dreadful shows on daytime TV. But when Charles Manson’s “Family” materialises one just knows things are going to get nasty behind their superficial hippy loopyness. Brad Pitt really comes into his own staring them down, but as “Sharon Tate” has been popping up in several short interludes and becomes increasingly pregnant, one imagines (or at least I did) that we are about to witness the slaughter of her and her friends. Wrong. That’s not what happens at all. The carnage when it comes is so unexpected and played partly for comic effect that one’s emotions are kicked about like a rubber ball, while rooting for the dog at the centre of the action. There is so much else in the film that is genuinely hilarious that even this loather of violence couldn’t squirm in his seat, let alone make for the door. So although this is not a perfect masterpiece, I believe it is a bloody fine film.    


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Marianne & Leonard ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 29th July, 2019

Marianne & LeonardCreativity can be a cruel affliction. The number of writers, painters and other creatives who struggle with depression, battle with drink and drugs or have completely chaotic private lives is beyond count. The beautiful Norwegian blonde Marianne Ihlen, who was living on the Greek island of Hydra with her young son Axel in the 1960s, had to cope with that when she fell for the Canadian writer-turned-singer Leonard Cohen, becoming his mistress and his muse. At the outset, Cohen was living on a shoestring (life was cheap on the island before it was discovered by the international jet set), but as his reputation grew and he divided his time between Hydra and Montreal, with concerts and recordings elsewhere, he became affluent enough to indulge in all the excesses of the 1960s, popping acid and Mandrax, drinking half the day and indulging in free love to the extent that he effectively became a sexoholic. Muse Marianne could only ride the choppy waves of their affair, until cruelly replaced by a determined Other. Little Alex not surprisingly went off the rails and ended up in an institution. So as a love story, Nick Broomfield’s documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is bitter-sweet, to put it mildly. The “words of love” are what Cohen sent Marianne in a letter on her deathbed (he would follow her three months later), at last telling her what she always wanted to hear. But of course it was too late. She had left Hydra — a “paradise” that destroyed many of the creatives who were taken in by its siren charms) — and back in Oslo she became a secretary and got married. Cohen’s own muddled mind led him to escape to a Zen monastery for six years. When he came out he found that his manager had embezzled all his money, so he was forced back on to the concert stage in his 70s, astonishing everyone (not least himself) by becoming a big star. At least Marianne got to see him in concert then. Because Broomfield’s film is sensitively made from contemporaneous footage as well as black-and-white photographs it really captures the spirit of the age, a unique period of social history against which the free spirits of the Arts world played out their experimental lives. But there is an added twist, namely that Nick Broomfield himself had been to Hydra as a young man and had briefly been Marianne’s lover. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that she comes over as a much more sympathetic soul than Leonard Cohen. He is dark, handsome, irresistible to women and phenomenally talented, but like many great artists a bit of a shit, tied up in his own creative preoccupations.

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Midsommar *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 7th July, 2019

MidsommarMidsummer in Sweden is a time to escape the cities and relish the almost midnight sun, in jolly celebrations in which young maidens in ethnic dress and with crowns of flowers on their heads dance daintily as family and friends commune with nature. But what if a community of religious cultists obsessed with reading the runes and practising pagan rituals cut themselves off almost completely from the outside world and every 90 years had a particularly significant ceremony of blackest intent? That is the main scenario of Ari Aster’s new film, Midsommar, which is a brilliantly original piece, though not something for the squeamish. There’s a prologue in America where a very needy young woman (a great performance by Florence Pugh) is driving her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) to distraction, though when her worst fears about her sister’s bipolar condition are realised he rallies round and offers to take her to Sweden along with a fellow young anthropologist friend (William Jackson Harper), and another, rather goofy, college mate (Will Poulter) tags along. One knows as soon as this mismatched quartet pitch up in a superficially idyllic location where little blond children (in real life mainly Hungarian, rather than Swedish, as it happens), run around and the rest of the commune members are engaged in various pastoral and mystical activities that somehow everything is going to turn sour. Indeed, gradually the true nature of the cult begins to emerge and the sinister intentions of its leaders towards the foreign visitors become clear. Clues, like a bear imprisoned in a small wooden cage, are casually laid before the viewer. The rising tension is periodically punctured by some rather good jokes and sexual play. But darker and darker the action gets, despite the bright June light; far from bringing the two lead characters together the Bizarre situation drives them further apart and there are major casualties along the way. Some reviewers have described this a horror movie, but to my mind that is far too simplistic a classification. There are some nasty moments and one empathizes with  the growing anxiety of the American visitors. But it is a far more complex work of art than a mere shocker, making one think about relationships, family and the communal discipline of cults. And the ending is positively operatic as a climax.

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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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