Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘film review’ Category

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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Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory) *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 2nd September, 2019

Dolor y gloriaIt might sound like a truism, but many film directors are in love with the art of making films. This is particularly true of what the French call films d’auteur, in which the director’s artistic personality is a core element. Though there are some North American directors whose work falls into that category — interestingly more often Canadian than American, in my experience — the genre for me is quintessentially European. We can all rattle off a list of greats, particularly from France and Italy. And of course Pedro Amodóvar from Spain. When I watched his high-camp romp Los amantes pasajeros (I’m So Excited, 2013) I feared he may have gone off the boil, but if anyone else thought that Almodóvar had passed his peak, they should go to see his latest release Dolor y gloria. The central character is clearly at least partly autobiographical: a film director in late middle age who is plagued by several ailments, physical and psychological. He is still handsome in a grey fox type of way (Antonio Banderas was the natural choice of actor and executes his role brilliantly) but distinctly going a bit to seed. He is lacking inspiration for any new project and repeatedly turns down invitations to festivals and social events, yet one such invitation prompts him to contact an actor with whom he fell out two decades earlier, a superannuated hippy who regularly uses heroin. Somehow this encounter triggers a reflective mood in the director, as he remembers his impoverished childhood living in a village of cave dwellings where he had a shocking realisation of sexual attraction when he saw a young house-painter taking a bath. The whole setting and handling of his childhood, as well as a subsequent echo of that experience, is elegiac. Later another man who was probably the love of his life fleetingly re-enters it. Little wonder, given the exquisite pace of the film and the sensitivity of the direction, with occasional little twists of humour that leaven the pathos, that one is put in mind of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. This is a film that will not easily be forgotten.

 

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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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