Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘film review’ Category

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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Diamantino *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd December, 2018

7DC8781F-E16E-4D52-A159-FFD18D589CECFew films merit the description “truly original”, but Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s Diamantino defies categorisation or comparison. The central story-line is deceptively simple: a super-talented and handsome Portuguese footballer (Carloto Cotta) with a childlike mind and understanding of the world has a kind of epiphany when he comes across a dinghy containing African refugees while out sailing on his yacht. Unfortunately the timing of this coincides with the sudden death of his beloved father and manager, leaving him at the mercy of his evil, scheming twin sisters. Things now take on surreal proportions in a whacky sequence of events that mix science fiction with political and social satire. The cinematic and popular culture references are legion, from billboards of our hero Diamantino in white briefs, David Beckham-style, to an exact Portuguese version of the ballot paper used in Britain’s 2016 EU Referendum. There is also a fairy tale quality to much of the narrative, where good battles evil in a swirl of conspiracies and gender fluidity. In short, this film is totally bonkers, but miraculously it works.

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Tinta Bruta ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 21st December, 2018

B0CD9F9F-79A2-4E28-9924-9C4043FC74EFPedro is a young man with two big issues overshadowing his life. The first is a criminal assault charge after he attacked a guy, blinding him in one eye, but the second issue is in many ways more serious: an inability to socialise or communicate normally with virtually everyone except his sister and grandmother. He survives, both psychologically and financially, by doing Internet strip shows, smearing his body lasciviously with phosphorescent colours. The number of subscribers watching his show suddenly falls off, and just before his sister moves out of the apartment they share, to live thousands of kilometres away, she informs him that someone else has copied his idea. Plucking up courage, Pedro decides to confront his imitator, Leo, though when they meet things develop in a totally unexpected direction. The location for all this is Porto Alegre, in Brazil’s far south, but the city is portrayed as an anonymous agglomeration of dreary blocks of flats, many being vacated as people seek better opportunities elsewhere, while older residents stand at their windows menacingly observing what goes on below.

C0950E85-CB0E-4270-8673-CF589BBA7D07Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon, who both directed the film and wrote the screenplay, present a grey cinematic canvas, against which the neon colours of Pedro and Leo’s erotic body art contrast shockingly. The chat room comments on Pedro’s site are strikingly authentic and the gay sex, when it occurs, is graphic. But for most of the film, Pedro (brilliantly played by a slim, long-haired Shico Menegat) is half locked inside himself, making him a natural victim for bullies, until something snaps and he lashes out with ferocious energy. The film’s pace is slow — at times a little too slow, perhaps — but the extended shots of Pedro’s face communicate more than a thousand words. In many ways, Tinta Bruta (Hard Paint) tells a depressing story, but even if it is not artistically flawless it is definitely memorable.

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Adrift in Soho ***

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 15th November, 2018

Adrift in SohoSoho in the 1950s and 1960s was a magnet for young people tired of post-War England’s grey atmosphere and grey food — a place where you could find a good, cheap French or Italian meal or sit for hours over a beer in the Coach and Horses or a coffee at the 2i’s, and where sexual liberation had arrived. In Colin Wilson’s 1961 novel, Adrift in Soho, a young provincial, Harry Preston, is drawn in, at once intrigued but also slightly nauseated by the astonishingly free people he encounters, at various stages in their creative growth or disintegration. Some are self-manufactured “characters”, while others are genuinely eccentric or original. And many seem to have succumbed to Sohoitis, a clearly mental as well as physical lassitude that can lead to depression and death. Pablo Behrens’ new film, of the same title as the book, beautifully captures the atmosphere of the period and place in a cinematic style that is a homage to Francois Truffaut and the French Nouvelle Vague. There are some really beautiful shots and angles and good use is made of the sub-plot of a film being made within the film. Owen Drake, as Harry, looks suitably bemused as he chronicles the people and events around him, from seedy strip joints to preparations for the Aldermaston anti-nuclear March, but it is Chris Wellington as the handsome young sponger and lothario, James Compton-Street, who really steals the show, charming but reckless and ultimately doomed. There are some nice cameos, not least a scene with a camp Francis Bacon-inspired artist, but there are also longueurs. Cutting 15 or 20 minutes from the film would make it sharper. The politics could be edgier, too. The film has been made on a tight budget, which at times shows, but it is nonetheless an important achievement, and as Colin Wilson’s son, whom I met at the premiere after-party in Soho, said, his father would probably have been pleased.

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Fahrenheit 11/9 ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 22nd October, 2018

Fahrenheit 11 9Michael Moore has carved out a special place for himself in contemporary US film-making: as an intrusive, progressive Democrat who cares passionately about environmental issues, the abuse of power and the sad state of American society. So no-one is going to go to his new documentary Fahrenheit 11/9 expecting that the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, is going to be given a smooth ride. The parallels Moore draws between Trump and Adolf Hitler and the way that the American public is being softened up to accept demagoguery and dictatorship, as happened in 1930s Germany, are hardly subtle, yet no less effective for that. Moore rightly likens the Trump tactics of holding mass rallies, whipping up crowd fervour against blacks/Hispanics/lesbians or whichever particular minority he is taking a pot-shot at, or the mainstream media, to those of the Fuehrer. Perhaps the most shocking thing to emerge from the film, for a traditional liberal such as myself, is to realise that far from being stupid (as we liberals tend to think) Trump has been very clever in the way he has reached out to the poor white working class, those who treasure the right to bear arms and self-identifying patriots. He knows how to manipulate and resonate, and hopes to be in there for the long haul.

Trump in Fahrenheit 11 9 The overarching message about how the fuck Trump got there (to quote Moore directly) and where the hell this is all heading, is nonetheless somewhat diluted by two very different sub-stories or plots in the film. One is the awful tale of the predominantly black Michigan town of Flint, whose people were poisoned by a water supply contaminated with lead because of the state governor’s switching of the pipes from the Great Lakes to the filthy local river to win favour from contractors. But even Barack Obama gets a big slap in the face over that, as he flew to Flint, to be greeted like a hero, only to dash local residents’ hopes by drinking a glass of the water to show them it was actually OK. That’s one reason many people in the area did not turn out to vote for Hillary Clinton in November 2016. Sure, she lost because of the antiquated Electoral College system, which meant that Trump won although she had a majority of the popular vote overall. But Ms Clinton also comes over as a poor candidate, badly prepared and in hock to big business, in contrast to Bernie Sanders, who obviously does rock Michael Moore’s boat. So too — indeed, much more so — the youngsters from Florida who reacted to yet another mass school shooting by standing up and speaking out against guns and then, through social media, organising big rallies across the country. When dealing with them, Michael Moore abandons his usual satirical bent, which makes things a little uncomfortable. But towards the end, the movie swings back to Trump and Hitler and the rise of the alt-Right. So there is an awful lot thrown together in this film, which makes it more uneven than some of his earlier work. But there are enough “oh my God” moments, as well as dark humour and the director’s trade-mark sloppy bear act, to make it fairly gripping throughout.

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The Wife ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 6th October, 2018

The WifeIt has often been said that behind every great man there is a great woman — or maybe in this postmodern world one should say “great Other”. This is as true of artists as it is of politicians, though the license to abuse such a relationship often given to painters and writers goes way beyond what most political figures would dare to try to get away with. Think Picasso and Augustus John, or in the literary field V. S. Naipaul or Evelyn Waugh. So the initial premise of Bjorn Runge’s movie The Wife, in which a Jewish American Nobel Prize for Literature laureate sets off to Stockholm with his wife and son to collect his medal and cheque while manifesting a certain degree of nerves seems fairly straightforward until it gradually becomes clear — with the help of flashbacks to the beginning of his career — that things aren’t that straightforward at all. His wife — a tour de force by actress Glen Close — increasingly demonstrates that she is much more than just his loyal spouse and nursemaid and that burning within her is a deep resentment at what has been a concealed truth ever since he left his first wife for her. As one begins to understand the greater depth of her character one simultaneously becomes uncomfortably, even nauseatingly, aware of the writer’s shallowness. In its own way, Jonathan Pryce’s performance as the insecure, selfish and manipulative novelist is also remarkable as one’s reaction to the character migrates from sympathy to disgust. Max Irons, as the son crying out for his father’s approval, is in contrast a little two-dimensional and Christian Slater as the slimy young biographer determined to make a killing by writing an exposé about the writer’s true limitations is something of a caricature. However, it is probably right that the minor characters are denied a real opportunity to be in the limelight as it is the wife, and therefore Glen Close, who emerges towards the end as a butterfly, escaping from the cocoon into which her marriage and sense of duty had encased her. Not a perfect film, then, but one that makes one think.

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