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VIFF 2019 Review: Mr. Jones

Gareth-Jones

Mr. Jones is about journalist Gareth Jones, played by James Norton (left) who seeks to expose a tragedy in Ukraine the USSR is determined to hide from the outside world.

I was interested in seeing Mr. Jones at the VIFF as it’s based on a topic of my interest: the Holodomor or Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933. It’s an intriguing story with a relevant message for today’s world.

In 1933, Gareth Jones is a 28 year-old Welsh journalist who is very good at getting stories. He was the first foreign journalist to fly with Hitler and Goebbels at the start of Hitler’s regime while working as an advisor for British statesman Herman Lloyd George. During the time, he discovered of Hitler’s intentions to wage war. His story fell to deaf ears in the press and his job as advisor is dropped due to budget cuts. Despite being dropped, George gave Jones a letter of recommendation. He hopes to use it to go to the USSR to find an investigative journalist. Before he does, he gets a phone call from a friend named Paul Kleb in the USSR. He talks of how the economy is booming in Russia, but he is about to tell of something terrible happening in Ukraine… and then he gets disconnected.

Jones arrives in Moscow. His trip is regulated from start to finish: what he does, how long he stays and where he goes. That’s how things are in the USSR. In fact his job as a foreign journalist is under heavy scrutiny by national officials during his stay and no foreign journalist is allowed outside of Moscow. He arrives at the hotel in Moscow of New York Times bureau chief Walter Duranty. Duranty welcomes him and introduces him to his assistant Ada Brooks. Jones is expected to be in the USSR for seven days but he can only stay at the hotel for two days. Duranty offers Jones to stay and partake in the late-night partying. At the parties is all kinds of debauchery from prostitutes to heroin shooting to even homosexual advances. Jones wants none of this as he knows Paul Kleb was killed in Ukraine and has to find out why.

Jones finds a train headed to Eastern Ukraine. He breezes past security to stow away on it. When he arrives in Ukraine, he steps off to see the farmed grains loaded onto trucks by the Soviet army, but people dead in the snow and farmers starving. He tries to get answers. He goes to soldiers putting the bagged grain in a truck. He asks in English where it’s going, but is suspected as a spy. Soldiers go out chasing and shooting after him. Fortunately, Jones is able to evade the pursuit. He comes across some children who sing a haunting song to him of the death and starvation happening around him. He goes to a house which is in a photograph he holds, but sees the residents dead in their beds. Jones goes into a town where he sees the Soviet army take the dead bodies in the snow and pile them in a sled to be buried in a mass grave. They even take a baby that’s alive and still crying. Jones goes into a house where he is able to find living residents. They give him something to eat, which appears to be meat, and from Kolya. He soon learns they’re staying alive by cannibalism, and Kolya is a famine fatality.

Soon Jones is captured by Soviet forces. The Communist government commands him to be silent by using the lives of six British auto workers as hostages. Jones tries to plead with Walter Duranty to expose the truth of what’s happening, but Duranty is ‘in bed’ with the Soviet regime. Duranty has a habit of writing of the ‘Worker’s Revolution’ in the USSR like he romanticizing it. In fact Duranty has the reputation of being known as ‘Our Man In Moscow.’ Ada however is more supportive towards Jones and believes he has to get the story out. This can’t be hidden and knowing that Jones is to be sent back to the UK, she encourages him to make the truth known.

Back in the UK, Jones can’t get any British paper to buy into his revelations of a man-made famine. The government either doesn’t want to believe it, or fear it will jeopardize diplomatic relations with the USSR. This upsets Jones as he knows this must be stopped. The events upset him so much, he can’t stop himself from breaking down in tears in his hometown. However he has an opportunity to talk to William Randolph Hearst while at a newspaper office. Hearst, however is extremely busy and will only allow Jones thirty seconds to state his case. However when he mentions of the death of Paul Kleb, that grabs Hearst’s ear and makes Hearst want to hear everything Jones saw. Finally the story ‘Famine In Ukraine’ makes the front page of the New York Times. Jones is defamed. He is not allowed in the USSR again. Duranty is also defamed, but never had his Pulitzer Prize rescinded. Nevertheless George Orwell is caught in the intrigue of Jones’ pursuits and it inspires him to write ‘Animal Farm’ published ten years after Jones was shot to death.

I’ll admit any story about the Holodomor catches my interest. I’m of Ukrainian ancestry. My great-grandparents arrived in Canada around the 1890’s-early 1900’s. They came here long before World War I even started, before Ukrainian land was annexed as part of the USSR and before the Holodomor. This¬†film showcases the Holodomor and is possibly one of the best cinematic depictions of it, but the Holodomor is not the biggest theme of the film. The biggest theme of the film is about censorship in the USSR at the time. All the censorship that happened in the film is an example of the censorship that happened in the USSR since it began after World War II until it broke down in the mid-80’s to when it dissolved in 1991. All news was censored. Nothing but good news was to be published in Soviet newspapers and whatever negative news could not hit either Soviet news nor news to the outside world. Phone wires were tapped and letters were opened and investigated by authorities before it reached the mailboxes of the citizens or outsiders. Even speaking negative words of the Communist government would get one a jail sentence. The Soviet media promoted propaganda to glorify itself and its Communist system and vilify the capitalist system in the United States.

As seen through Gareth, the Soviet system was also restrictive to outsiders. The system decided if a person from an outside country could visit, where they could go and stay and for how long. There were already six British autoworkers who were treated like hostages at the time and threatened with death to have the UK comply to their demands. You can understand just what Jones had to face in order to get the truth out.

Gareth had good reason to pursue the story. It’s not just trying to find out why Paul Kleb died, but Ukraine had personal interest to him as his mother taught English in Ukraine in the 1890’s.¬†Gareth even had barriers in journalism to overcome once he had his story. He had top journalist Walter Duranty to deal with. Duranty had a big reputation at stake and kept insisting that the Holodomor isn’t happening. It isn’t until Jones meets with William Randolph Hearst that he finally gets a willing ear. The big feud between Duranty and Jones shows how even in what is supposed to be the ‘free world,’ there is still a lot of truths that are suppressed or even denied. Seeing all that goes on can make one wonder if this is happening today in what is supposed to be free countries. If we are really getting this freedom of speech or if we’re getting a lot of concocted stories.

This film is great in making a point about journalism and getting the truth out. There are a lot of truth even in today’s world that need to be exposed, but are covered up. The film does a good job in making a moment of past history, and the journalistic feuding surrounding it, make for a relevant message for today. Even the fact that Gareth was shot to death in 1935 while investigating a story in Chinese territory bordering Russia (which many consider to be a Soviet plot of revenge) reminds us of how many journalists risk their lives to uncover truths.

The film was very good at making its point. However the story didn’t seem to be heading on a straight path. There were times when moments that only deserved a certain time, like all the debauchery at Duranty’s hotel party, was slowed down and given more screen time than necessary. Even the moments of the journalistic feuding and political feuding appeared to take too long. The moments involving Jones witnessing the Holodomor in Ukraine were given the best screen time and the best on-screen depiction. It showed a lot of brutal honesty of the Holodomor, including that of cannibalism. It may have taken over less than half the screen-time, but it was done in excellent detail and gave the right haunting feel to this moment of tragedy.

Veteran director Agnieszka Holland teams up with emerging writer Andrea Chalupa to bring this story to the big screen. The story is one of great personal interest to Holland as she is well-knowledged of the Holodomor. Holland also has renown for her depictions of the Holocaust in some of her films. She does a very good job in directing the story, even if there are some moments of irrelevance or moments drawn out longer than they should be. James Norton does a good job in his portrayal of journalist Gareth Jones, but his part could have been developed more. Most of the parts didn’t have too much development and could have had more done with it. Nevertheless, Peter Saarsgard was able to make Walter Duranty hateable on the big screen. Vanessa Kirby was able to make her role of Ada gain more dimension over time.

Mr. Jones is about more than just about the Holodomor. It’s also about the topic of censorship that is just as relevant now with the ‘freedom of speech’ we’re led to believe we have in the ‘free world.’

Oscars 2018 Best Picture Review: Black Panther

Black Panther

Chadwick Boseman plays The Black Panther who has to save the kingdom of Wakanda and his people.

People have been waiting for the longest time for a superhero movie to get nominated for Best Picture. If there’s a movie genre the 2010’s will most be remembered for, it will be for the heydays of the superhero movie. Deadpool and Wonder Woman were heavy favorites that ‘missed by that much.’ However it’s Black Panther that finally did it. And rightly so!

Now I’m not going to give a brief synopsis of the plot because most of you already know the story and saw the action. I will talk about superhero movies and how it lead to Black Panther’s most recent Oscar success. Now we’ve had superhero movies in previous decades and back in the 20th Century. I’m sure many of you can remember the old Superman and Batman movies from the 80’s and 90’s. The problem is around that time, the emphasis on popcorn movies back then was to be heavy on the action, and even heavy on the market hype, but comparatively minor attention to the characters and story-line. You couldn’t blame them; action movies blew people away and won big at the box office. However the flaws of a shotty script with minimal character development would soon become noticeable, especially by the critics. Around the 90’s as independent films were winning people over with storylines and well-developed characters, the stories and characters in action movies were starting to look either cardboard or idiotic. 1998’s Godzilla was possibly the best example of a film loaded with hype and action, but a ridiculous cookie-cutter story with foolish acting.

The 21st Century would mark a turning point for popcorn movies and especially for superhero movies for them to deliver better stories and better acting. Some say 9/11 became a turning point for movie watchers as they became less interested in cheering for villains and sleazes, but there’s more to that. The first sign was 2002’s SpiderMan. The producers were aware that despite the love for action in movies, the films story and acting could not be compromised. The film was loaded with action, as expected, but it did an excellent job in delivering a good story along with good acting as a result. That would not only open the doors for more superhero movies to come, but would also change the way superhero movies were done too. Marvel and their cooperating studios would become less focused on marketing hype — have you noticed there are less fast food chains plugging action movies lately? — and more focused on developing a well-written and well-acted story. It’s not to say that there were duds. There were a few SpiderMan sequels that were lousy and the 2015 rehash of the Fantastic Four was lame, but most superhero movies were very winning and easily demonstrated why they were winning crowds over.

Also on the subject of superheroes, I remember there were groups from religious organizations highly critical of the movies Hollywood was shelling out. They were complaining about all the ‘hazardous’ things in movies and how it threatened their values. Although no censorship occurred from their pleas, it did have an effect on the way superheroes are portrayed in the big-screen movies. One thing the studios were reminded of was that superheroes didn’t just simply do amazing things with their hands. They were characters that took a stand for values and were not afraid to do what’s right and be unafraid to deliver in their call of duty. In fact there have been many cases of some studios’ writing teams hiring Christian writers for the task. In most cases (obviously not for Deadpool), the superhero movies of the 21st Century were often praised by Christian critics of promoting values and dignity in a winning way. To think back in the 1990’s while gangsta rap and anti-hero entertainment were the call of the day, most people thought a story promoting values would come across being like a Mister Rogers. The 21st Century superhero movies proved that promoting values can be done in a winning way.

However it’s only been in recent years that superhero movies have the potential to do very well in the Oscar race. Most of the time, the best chances superhero movies had at scoring Oscars or Oscar nominations were in the technical categories like Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing. Sometimes they would win nominations in Best Costume Design, Best Production Design or Best Original Score despite nominations going mostly to ‘timepiece’ movies. The big turning point came in 2008 when The Dark Knight was a heavy favorite to get a Best Picture nomination. It didn’t happen, but Heath Ledger won an Oscar for his portrayal as The Joker. It was the biggest sign of how much better superhero movies, and even popcorn movies in general, became. In the past two years, there were two superhero movies, 2016’s Deadpool and 2017’s Wonder Woman, that were nominated for Best Motion Picture for the Producers Guild Awards. The Oscar nomination however did not happen: for Best Picture or any category!

It’s 2018; enter Black Panther. The Black Panther is a hero that actually made its debut in the Marvel universe in a Fantastic Four strip in 1966. The Black Panther has made many appearances in various Marvel comic stories. In film, the first appearance of the Black Panther was in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War where he was played by Chadwick Boseman. That of course was an Easter Egg of what was yet to come. The movie of The Black Panther was released in 2018. As expected, it was to tell the story of how the Black Panther came to be and how the Black Panther had to achieve their first defining moment of greatness. However it did a very good job in presenting a story of a moment in the distant past, to the ‘near-past’ of 1992 to the present. The story doesn’t just simply focus on T’Challa becoming the Black Panther, but also on his family and restoring the dignity of the Jabari Tribe and the wealth of the kingdom of Wakanda.

The film also does a good job in developing a story that’s entertaining for adults but also not too confusing for children. Another hard job of superhero movies is developing a story that works for both children and adults. It shows the conflicts abounding between T’Challa and Killmonger, as well as Killmonger’s pursuit of the throne of Wakanda with the intent to rule corruptly. It delivers the story in an excellent and entertaining manner with well-developed characters. Of course a superhero film needs to have its action moments, but the film does not compromise at all on the story or the characters.

The best efforts of the film come from director/co-writer Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole. Coogler has had a steady progression in the film world. His first film was the 2013 independent arthouse film Fruitvale Station, then progressed to popcorn movies with 2015’s Creed, and now Black Panther. All have had winning results. Black Panther could have gone to another white director that was part of the Marvel team, but marvel made the right choice to have Coogler direct despite never directing a sci-fi movie. The result is winning. Cole has also been able to make his mark in this film. The most writing experience he had before the film was 2011’s Amber Lake and the TV series The People vs. O.J. Simpson. Here, he’s able to make a name for himself in a big way and should open bigger doors in the future.

With the great directing and the great story, the acting is also excellent. Chadwick Boseman delivers very well as the Black Panther and succeeds in delivering a three-dimensional role for the character. Michael B. Jordan (who also acted in Fruitvale Station and Creed) also does a great job portraying the villain. Lupita Nyong’o was possibly the biggest scene-stealer of the movie. She was enjoyable. The costuming by Ruth E. Cater worked excellently for the film as well as the sets for the film. It made Wakanda look very believable as a place. The music by Ludwig Goransson also fit the film excellently and the special effects were dazzling and entertaining.

It’s easy to see why Black Panther is a winning film. It’s a superhero story that delivers in all facets and manages to dazzle crowds too. It also succeeds in again taking a seldom-known Marvel superhero and turning him into a household name.