Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘film review’ Category

Little Women ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 19th January, 2020

Little WomenLouisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women (1868) is not just an American classic but one of the most memorable English-language novels of millions of people’s childhood. It certainly was of mine. And even though I have never re-read it, the portrayal of the four March sisters — each with her own distinct character — at home with their loving and lovable mother in New England while Father is away serving as a pastor ministering to soldiers in the Civil War (on the Union side) has remained vivid and alive in my mind. This was particularly true of the tomboy Jo, who aspires to be a writer and was clearly Ms Alcott’s favourite, too. Katharine Hepburn played her memorably in boisterous and gauche fashion in George Cukor’s 1933 screen adaption of the book. But in Greta Gerwig’s recently released version, Saoirse Ronan’s Jo largely internalises her frustrations with convention and her passionate creative urge and is profoundly more credible. Her performance is one of the best things about the film, which is physically beautiful and avoids the twee romanticism of many period costume dramas, even though love is one of the core themes of the story, along with sisterhood and individualism.

Louisa May Alcott’s novel is strongly auto-biographical and Greta Gerwig plays with that fact by merging the character of Jo with the author of the book, which ‘Jo’ succeeds in getting published at the end. The director creatively moves the story back and forth across time as well, though this runs the risk of leaving some viewers a little confused until they realise what is happening. Other liberties (artistic licence) include the replacement of the earnest German Professor Bhaer, whom Jo marries towards the end of the novel, with a fiendishly handsome young Frenchman. However, most of the other characters are fairly faithful to the book and Meryl Streep clearly has huge fun in her cameo role as the sisters’ rich and grumpy Aunt March.

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And Then We Danced ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th December, 2019

3549BA0F-D8AB-4471-A6C2-5A39BE1A3A5FGeorgian traditional dance, truly a form of ballet, is an expression of the nation’s soul, but it it is also a manifestation of the age-old human mating display. The girls glide gracefully, their eyes focused on the ground, in virginal modesty, while the young men stomp and strut their stuff, like peacocks on parade. Just as some families work in circuses for generations, handing down their experience and technique, so sometimes this dancing is also a family tradition, poorly paid but blessed with a certain cultural kudos, rejecting the homogenisation of our contemporary globalised world. This is the case with two brothers in Tbilisi in Levan Akin’s delicate drama, And Then We Danced. One drinks to excess and chases girls, eventually getting one of his conquests pregnant, while the other, Merab (beautifully played by newcomer Levan Gelbakhiani) is a more sensitive soul, in a gently romantic relationship with his main female dancing partner that he is no hurry to consummate. Then a handsome newcomer arrives from Batumi, Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). At first Merab sees him as a rival, but quickly falls under his masculine spell and circumstances lead to a brief carnal relationship. The innate homophobia of Georgian society then swings into action. Merab’s dancing is damned as effeminate but he has by now acquired a new spirit of defiance, accepting that if he is going to be true to his real nature he will have to leave the country, while Irakli opts for “normality”. Levan Akin (of Georgian stock, but based in Sweden), handles this profoundly sad story beautifully and it is given added depth by its non-sensationalised depiction of the poverty of many people’s lives in post-Soviet Georgia; Merab and his brother wait tables in a restaurant at night to help support their mother and grandmother, yet still the electricity in the family’s little flat sometimes gets cut off. There is the camaraderie of the corps de ballet to help sustain the youngsters’ morale, until some of the male dancers hear the rumour that Merab is a fag and his position becomes untenable. And Then We Danced is thus a trailblazer in the Georgian context, but perhaps one that was only possible because its director effectively lives in exile.

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Parasite *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 23rd December, 2019

889B2E3E-B203-408B-9B8A-543D86629447The Kims, a poor South Korean family living in a dank and smelly basement, dream of extracting themselves from their misery. Clearly, folding cardboard pizza boxes isn’t going to make them rich. Then, through a friend, the son — who learnt English during his military service — is offered the chance to be English-language tutor to the daughter of a rich industrialist, Mr Park. When he turns up at their extensive, ultra-modern home he soon captures their affection and trust with his cute looks and gracious manner. But he quickly realises the golden opportunity to get his father, mother and sister (supposedly strangers) employed in the household, even it means using increasingly extreme measures to displace those who currently have those jobs. With each deception and strategy the lies get more difficult to sustain and the Parks’ house begins to reveal its own unexpected secrets. As things escalate in a mixture of tragedy and farce, young Mr Kim realises that the only way to avoid things going wrong is not to have any plan at all. But events have taken on a terrifying momentum of their own, meaning no-one knows how things will end.

Full of surprises, Bong Joon-ho’s increasingly black comedy is also a striking social commentary on the gap between the rich and poor, with neither knowing or understanding how the other half lives. The spoilt children of the Parks are nonetheless deprived of the love and everyday support that binds the Kims together, but the young boy’s psychological problems prove not to be as inexplicable as the mother believes. There are some exquisite sub-plots and diversions — including a beautiful parody of a North Korean TV announcer — but Bong keeps his hand firmly on the tiller as mayhem ensues. Visually, the film is unforgettable, not least in the stark contrast of the two families’ homes, but it is the acting that seals the movie’s place as one of this year’s most unforgettable cinema experiences. No matter how surreal the action becomes one believes utterly in their characterisation.

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A Vida Invisivel *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th December, 2019

D6468D38-3CE8-425A-978F-14A6137D0103Just a few years after the Second World War two sisters in Rio de Janeiro rebel against the strict domestic regime of their humourless Portuguese baker father and his cowed wife. One, a talented pianist, dreams of going to study at the conservatoire in Vienna while the other takes the plunge and runs off to Europe with a handsome Greek sailor, which will see her banished from the family home when she returns, pregnant but with her marriage in ruins. The other sister meanwhile has married a man who despairs that she seems to care more for music than for him. Austria remains an unrealised dream. In reality, the greatest love the two young women have is for each other, but they will be kept apart by a wicked lie, each believing the other is on the other side of the Atlantic. The grief of separation is almost unbearable for the sensitive pianist. Karim Ainouz’s family drama could all too easily been schmalzy whereas in fact his delicate direction and the brilliant acting of Carol Duarte and Julia Stockler as the two sisters make this an unforgettable, lyrical portrayal of sibling love and loss. The physical settings of Rio in the 1950s and 1960s, often in rain or under low cloud, greatly add to the atmosphere. There are moments of humour as well as some unflinching sex, but the dominant key is minor, not major. The expression of growing helplessness on the face of the pianist as the years go by leaves an indelible impression.

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Knives Out *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th November, 2019

KO_07197.dngWhodunnits are an important genre of popular fiction, perhaps best typified by the prolific output of that West Country mistress of mystery, Agatha Christie. Many of her books were turned into films or television specials; one thinks particularly of Murder on the Orient Express and the long-running TV series, Poirot. Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, which has just been released in the UK, is in many ways a tribute act to Christie, with the setting moved to New England. The celebrated private detective, who is able to deduce what the more plodding law enforcement officers cannot, is an ill-shaven southerner with an outrageous drawl, Benoit Blanc (improbably but entertainingly played by Daniel Craig). Most of the action takes place within an ugly, gloomy mansion, its interior eclectically stuffed full of weird objects and books reflecting the unconventional character of its octogenarian owner, a hugely successful crime writer (Christopher Plummer). He summons all of his dysfunctional family for his 85th birthday party, where jealousies and feuds bubble under the surface, periodically bursting out like molten lava. Each of the family members has glaring faults and is clearly waiting for the old man to die so they can inherit. The only sympathetic character is a young Latin American nurse-companion, whose nationality the snobbish family constantly misremembers. When the writer’s body is found up in his garret study the following morning, with its throat cut, the assumption is that he has committed suicide, until Benoit Blanc (anonymously commissioned to look into the matter via an envelope stuffed with money) suspects foul play.

Knives Out Daniel Craig As in a Christie novel, everyone seems to have a motive for such a killing, but the plot of Knives Out veers off in an unexpected direction, more than once, so it really is only at the end that Blanc is able to tie up the loose ends in front of the astonished family assembly. In the meantime, the movie has walked a tightrope between detective story and black comedy, in which there are indeed many laugh-out-loud moments. There are infinite nods not only to Agatha Christie but also to other popular crime writers; at one moment, the Latin American nurse comes home to find her mother watching Angela Lansbury in Murder She Wrote on TV, dubbed in Spanish. The actors playing the writer’s family members in Knives Out clearly have a lot of fun personifying nastiness — from a chillingly calculating Jamie Lee Curtis as one of the daughters to a creepy young Jaeden Lieberher as a nerdy grandson with alt-right tendencies. Rian Johnson wrote the screenplay as well as directing the film and the dialogue is a triumph of social observation as well as literary referencing. This may not be the most suspenseful whodunnit you will see this season, let alone the most significant piece of cinema, but as pure entertainment it is hard to think it will be beaten.

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The Irishman *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th November, 2019

The IrishmanHollywood has often glamorised the world of gangsters, giving the nastiness a gloss of adventure and sometimes comedy. But Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman takes the viewer far more subtly into the head of an Irish American truck driver, Frank (played by Robert De Niro), who gets sucked into the violent world of Italian mobsters before graduating to become a hitman and confidant of Jimmy Hoffa (an unrecognisable Al Pacino), head of the Teamsters Union, who is himself up to his neck in fraudulent and thuggish activities. Frank’s rise is not through ambition but rather as a result of circumstances, then later as a means of survival. Any moral qualms he had at the beginning quickly evaporate, but from an early age one of his four daughters looks on disapprovingly, like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, somehow intuiting her father’s inner corruption before breaking with him completely. The rise and fall of the Kennedys (Jack and Bobby), then the nefarious activities of Richard Nixon, are all backdrops to some of the action, whose grisly inevitability underlines the fact that there is no honour among thieves. By the end, when almost everyone else is dead, a wheelchair bound Frank, in a care home for the elderly, is offered the possibility of a sort of redemption, or at least forgiveness, but he cannot bring himself to feel regret, let alone remorse, for the deaths and collateral suffering he has caused. In Robert De Niro’s brilliant portrayal, Frank’s dissociation is burningly credible. You think he could have been a nice fellow in other circumstances, and as things get progressively worse he is mentally increasingly absent, though physically present, even centre stage. De Niro’s career is choc-a-bloc with great performances but this is the capo dei capi among his roles. He is on screen for almost the entire three-and-a-half hours of the film, but one’s interest in him never wavers as we watch him morally disintegrate the higher he rises, while still seeing himself as a regular guy. Martin Scorsese’s direction is impeccable, particularly in its depiction of 1950s and 1960s Pennsylvania and the mid-West, with their garish clothes and super-size cars and grizzly motels. With a budget reputed in excess of $120,000,000, no expense has been spared in the production of this movie and the attention to tiny details is such that one could willingly sit through the whole thing again — and I probably will.

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Farmageddon ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 18th October, 2019

SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE FARMAGEDDONI have long been a huge Aardman fan; I must have seen all the Wallace & Gromit films a dozen times. And Shaun the Sheep (2015) was a work of genius. In that, young Shaun and his motley little flock of helpers set out on an adventure into the city to rescue their farmer. But in Farmageddon, which opened in cinemas today, a much broader canvas is backdrop to some of the action: the universe. A young extraterrestrial alien girl mischievously goes for a ride in her parents flying saucer, crash-landing not far from Mossy Bottom Farm. Shaun soon becomes her bosom friend, once he has got over the shock of her being able to mimic any animal sound or noise. Mayhem ensues, as the iron maiden head of the Ministry of Alien Detection turns up with her team of assistants and robots, thrilled at the prospect of nabbing her first specimen. The farmer meanwhile has the idea of capitalising on all the local media stories about UFOs to turn his run-down property into a UFO theme park: Farmageddon. The only character who actually says anything is the little girl alien (slightly too Disneyesque for my liking), and one quickly learns the alien words for Mummy and Daddy. But this is far from a silent movie. The noises are a big part of the fun. And this movie is fun, from beginning to end, skillfully providing fodder for toddlers alongside cheeky asides to mature Dr Who fans and film references galore. The pace is breathless; in fact, the gags come so thick and fast one can easily miss some of them, but even adolescents with a short attention span are unlikely to get bored. I was sad that almost all the songs that accompany the film are American as Shaun the Sheep, like Wallace & Grommit, is quintessentially British, but I guess Aardman had to have an eye on the lucrative North American market. Nonetheless, the film is a joy and just what’s needed as Brexit enters its endgame — or not.

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The Day Shall Come **

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 14th October, 2019

The Day Shall ComeWhen a delusional young black pseudo-religious leader in Miami called Moses is intent on fomenting revolution against white capitalist society — with the aid of just four disciples, a horse and a battered old yellow school bus — he attracts the interest of the local chapter of the FBI, who have had little success in unearthing potential Islamist terrorist cells. Their dastardly plan is to frame him, with the assistance of various hapless characters, including a long-haired Persian paedophile and a fake neo-Nazi redneck group. The idea is that he should think he is going to earn $100,000 by trading what he is led to believe is uranium, so at last he will be able to pay the overdue rent on the tatty little farmstead where he lives with his wife and daughter. But Moses is so monumentally inept, as well as torn by moral doubts, that he manages to sabotage almost everything he does. The FBI agents meanwhile dig themselves ever deeper into a hole of their own making, leading to a catastrophic showdown in a roadside diner. In the meantime just about every politically incorrect remark has been made. The scandalous sentiments and behaviour are played strictly for laughs under the direction of Chris Morris, despite a few bitter twists. To a degree this is slapstick with a subversive political undertone, which many audiences may find riotously funny, but which left me pretty cold because most of the characters are such caricatures. The only saving grace is the very fine performance by the actor who plays Moses, Marchánt Davis; he conveys the sense that half-crazed Moses really believes in himself and his fantasies, so therefore the viewer can too.

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For Sama *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 19th September, 2019

For SamaOver history there have been several sieges of Aleppo, Syria’s commercial centre, but only the latest, ending in 2016, was broadcast to the world by brave journalists and activists, often transmitting their footage and interviews via mobile phones. One such was Waad al-Kateab, who stayed with her doctor husband and infant daughter in the ever-decreasing enclave controlled by opponents to the regime of Bashar al-Assad until the final surrender. With co-director Edward Watts she has made a film of that experience, For Sama, which is the most graphic and revealing portrait of Syria’s civil war that you are ever likely to see. Much of the footage is from inside the hospitals that were the centre of the little family’s life — hospitals which the Russian aircraft helping the Assad regime deliberately and relentlessly bombed. Accordingly there are many dead and mutilated bodies in this film as well as streams of blood, and one feels the terror of the people huddled in buildings as the bombs and the ceilings fall down. The great strength of this documentary, however, is the way the trajectory of the political developments — from the euphoria of the early Arab Spring uprising of 2011-2012 to the acceptance of defeat and exile four years later — is paralleled by the intimate story of how Waad and the doctor fell in love, baby Sama’s entry into this dystopian world and later a further pregnancy. In counterpoint to the bombardments and gore there are scenes of charming domesticity, especially involving a portly neighbour, her husband and their three children; she manages to remain cheerful almost to the last. One valid criticism of the film would be that there is only passing mention of how Islamist militants (backed by Gulf Arabs) co-opted and radicalised the insurrection, and no fighting by militia groups is shown. But as a portrait of human resolve in adversity this is an extraordinary documentary, unmissable for anyone who wants to understand the reality of Syria’s modern tragedy.

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Downton Abbey **

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 13th September, 2019

Downton AbbeyI am one of that rare breed of people in Britain who never watched a single episode of the long-running cult TV series Downton Abbey, though I did sit in on a live interview with its creator, Julian Fellowes, some years ago. One day, I thought, they will make a film of it, which I shall go to see, even though nostalgia-infused upstairs-downstairs dramas aren’t really my thing. This is indeed that feature film. The screenplay is also by Lord Fellowes and the cast will be familiar to fans of the TV show. In fact, I suspect it was mainly made to provide comfort and sustenance to those who had been feeling Downton withdrawal symptoms. The action is set in the late 1920s — after the general strike has caused a few shudders — and centres on an imagined visit by King George V and Queen Mary to Downton Abbey as part of a royal peregrination among fine houses in Yorkshire and other points North. Highclere Castle (the real “Downton Abbey”) is as glorious as ever in its starring role and Harewood House puts in a cameo appearance. Cue for National Trust members to swoon. And in all fairness, it is all very beautiful. Of course it is the intrigues and amours of both the extended Crawley family and their devoted servants that provide the meat in this period piece stew. A couple of new excitements, including an attempted assassination and a police raid on a pop-up gay dance venue, add an extra frisson, but otherwise the film just drifts gently along like a cricket match on a late summer’s afternoon. Hugh Bonneville, as the Earl of Grantham, is charmingly ineffectual; it is the women of the household who have  some gumption. Maggie Smith as the Dowager matriarch has a few spicy, acid quips and asides, but the part does not stretch her. Remember, this is an actor who is capable of something as remarkable and magnificent as the eponymous The Lady in the Van. There are some handsome men and some pretty women in Downton Abbey, which will please many punters. And I suppose as a couple of hours of escapism from 2019 Brexit Britain the movie has its uses. But, oh dear, surely it could have been less superficial and cutesy make-believe?

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