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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 2014 Best Picture Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

A hotel owner and his lobby boy (played by Tony Revoloro and Ralph Fiennes) go on a bizarre adventure in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

A hotel owner and his lobby boy (played by Tony Revoloro and Ralph Fiennes) go on a bizarre adventure in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Anyone else here who missed seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel back when it was released in the spring? Yes, I’m guilty of that too. I can blame it on things like me being tired right after last year’s Oscar season to having a lot of preoccupations in my life at that time. This year’s Oscar race sent me the message of what I missed out on the first time. I finally saw it on DVD a few days ago and I now finally see why it ranks among one of the best of 2014.

This is another review of mine where I won’t give an analysis of the plot. Instead I will put focus on the movie’s strengths and possible flaws.

This film is quite typical of what to expect from a Wes Anderson film. It has an eccentric situation along with eccentric characters and a lot of comedy along the way. However this movie has its charm: the common charming eccentricity with Wes Anderson movies that continuously attract fans of his movies and moviegoers looking for something different. It’s also a trademark charm of the director that does not run stale with their movies time after time and continues to be enjoyable.

This too is a film that offers a lot and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at first but makes sense as it goes along. It starts with a young girl paying honor to a writer in the present. Then flashing back to the writer in 1985 talking about hearing from Zero the owner of the practically lifeless Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968 about why he won’t close it down and Zero flashing back to 1932 to explain the whole story why. Wow, a lot of flashing back!

The story itself unravels itself over time with its various chapters from Zero joining the hotel as an orphaned lobby boy to the fictional country of Zubrowska nearing war to the owner Monsieur Gustave’s affair with Madame D to inheriting her most coveted painting much to the anger of her own family who hoped to have it to being framed for her murder. Yes, already bizarre. However the colorfulness comes with Zero’s love for the cakemaker Agatha whom he eventually becomes engaged to and helps bake cakes with escape tools.

The situation gets weirder as an assassin is on pursuit for him and the hotel needs to be managed, especially since news about a second will from Madame D is in existence somewhere. It’s after a pursuit while at a winter sport’s to kill off the assassin that the can return to the hotel only to find it overtaken by soldiers in the war and police on the hunt for Gustave.

As you can tell, this all makes for a bizarre confusing story and even leave you wondering about why the hotel is still in existence.  Understanding it means having to see the story for itself from beginning to end. There may be some confusing moments along the way and even a lot of eccentric humor but you will understand it and even the reason why a mountaintop hotel that’s completely useless is still in existence. You’ll even understand why the lobby boy is the only person in the world Gustave can trust wholeheartedly and would eventually own it. It’s no wonder Wes had to write a story along with his writing partner Hugo Guinness in order to bring this to the screen and make it work.

There are even times when I felt the story resembled Farewell To Arms, albeit with Wes Anderson’s dark humor intertwined into the story. Actually the credits in the end say the film was inspired by the readings of Stefan Zweig. I’ve never read Zweig’s writings so it’s hard for me to judge on that factor. Nevertheless the fact that Zweig was an Austrian Jew who fled to Brazil for refuge where he died may have some bearing on this. Even seeing how the character of The Writer looks like Zweig gives a hint.  Whatever the situation and even if the story does not go as well as you hoped it would, it does leave you feeling that it does end as it should.

Despite this film being another excellent work from Wes Anderson, we shouldn’t forget that this is also because of the excellent ensemble of actors. Many of which have already acted in Wes Anderson movies of the past. Here they deliver well as a whole to make the movie enjoyable and true to Anderson’s style of humor and style of film making. However it also succeeds well with those who have never acted in a Wes Anderson movie before, like lead Ralph Fiennes. He delivers a character that’s humorous and true to the humor of the movie. Newcomer Tony Revolori also adds to the charm of the movie as the young bellboy who becomes Gustave’s partner in crime as does Saoirse Ronan as Agatha. You can easily see why she won his heart. Even minor roles from other Anderson first-timers like Jude Law and F. Murray Abraham add to the story.

Even the technical aspects of the story are excellent. The costumes designed by Milena Canonero are perfect to a T in this movie as is the set design and the makeup and hair. All these elements fit the times they’re set in and add to the film’s charm. The cinematography by Robert Yeoman fit the story well and the music from Alexandre Desplat also fit the film.

The interesting thing to note is that The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson’s highest-grossing film ever with $59.1 million in North America and almost $175 million worldwide. Buzz for the film first started after it won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Buzz continued after it continuously impressed film festival after film festival. Although his box office total in North America is not too impressive, it should be seen as respectable as it opened around the same time as the summer movie phenomenon that was happening. It made for a nice humorous alternative to the overhyped summer schlock.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a DVD worth watching. We all didn’t know what we were missing during the summer and now we can finally see why.

Movie Review: Birdman

Michael Keaton plays a movie star trying to escape the image he was famous for en route to a comeback on Broadway in Birdman.

Michael Keaton plays a movie star trying to escape the image he was famous for en route to a comeback on Broadway in Birdman.

I know the awards season is just starting to declare winners en route to the Oscars. I will have a lot of movie watching to catch up with. I finally did see Birdman, one movie with a lot of big buzz, and I’m glad I did.

Riggan Thomson is a former Hollywood movie star who hit the big time as Birdman: a movie that propelled his fame and had him act in two more sequels. However he soon became yesterday’s news after he left the Birdman franchise and he’s aiming for a Broadway comeback. His plan is a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love which he plays lead, directs and writes. However something is knwing at him. He hears a voice and he has telekinetic powers.

Upon rehearsal, he is pissed off with the male lead actor. Suddenly a stage light lands on his head. Everyone is shocked and fearing for his life except Riggan, who just walks away. He soon admits to his lawyer friend Jake that he rigged the light to fall on him to get popular stage actor Michael Shiner into the play. Getting Michael came from him refinancing a house that should belong to Sam, his recovering drug-addict daughter and assistant.

However friction eventually happens. Riggan is unhappy with how Mike does a scene during rehearsal and he storms off violently. Even Mike’s suggestion of using a more realistic gun for the suicide scene doesn’t sit well with him. The feelings are justified when Mike is scene in a news story and how he mentions Raymond Carver made him want to become an actor. On top of it, reviews of the dress rehearsal are not impressive at all and it hits Mike bad.  Meanwhile the voice inside his head is either supporting him or mocking him for turning his back on Birdman. Adding to it, Sam is unhappy with him and tells him that his play is garbage and that he doesn’t matter. Not in this day and age of Facebook and Twitter, media streams he consistently rejects.

Things actually take a turn for the better but through some of the most unlikely of methods. Right in the middle of a preview, Riggan accidentally locks himself out of the theatre with the door accidentally catching hold of his robe. He impulsively walks around Times Square in nothing but his underwear to get back to the theatre and catches the notice of everyone whom he walks by and even enters the theatre leaving the audience confused and delighted. After the show, he gets drunk and encounters theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson who says she will crucify his play because of her detest of Hollywood movie stars trying to pass themselves off as legitimate actors. The next day, a drunken Riggan actually has a hallucinative conversation with Birdman and he gains powers including flight. It’s like he became Birdman again as he’s flying all around Manhattan.

Then opening night for the play happens. Riggan uses a real gun for the suicide scene shooting himself in the head in front of the audience. Everyone in the audience gives him a standing ovation but Tabitha just walks out without emotion or applause. Turns out Riggan didn’t kill himself. He survives but wakes up in a hospital bed learning the bullet badly damaged his nose. On top of that, he learns from Jake that Tabitha gave the play rave reviews. He’s even able to spend a poignant moment with Sam in his hospital bed. After Riggan is left alone, the film ends in a way I don’t think most people will understand. I guess the point was to have you the audience decide the ending. You’ll have to see it for yourself.

This film is a unique method of telling a story and giving portraits of the characters. The film’s method of following characters around and often appearing like one non-stop shoot adds to the film and can make the audience curious to what will happen next. However the most striking thing for me about the film is how it shows actors and even those involved in the whole showbiz scene. We have a lead actor who’s a former movie star now struggling to re-establish himself. We have a daughter who’s loving but ill-tempered and frequently at odds with him. We have a supporting actor who isn’t as big a name but well-respected and tries to use this opportunity to promote himself further. We have both an ex-wife and a current flame struggling with personal issues with him. We have a theatre system that demands the movie be a hit for the sake of the show, the sake of the theatre and for the sake of Thomson’s finances. We have the fame system which has had major changes in the ‘fame game’ in recent years thanks to online technology giving us video sites and personal homepages. We have media critics who not only make judgments about plays but are egotistical enough to unapologetically trash a work if they see fit. It’s no wonder an actor/director like Riggan Thomson drinks a lot. Heck I’ve frequently said: “Actors and drinking go together like ham and eggs.” Here I’m finally shown why!

The funniest thing about the film is that while I was watching, I was constantly sensing that Birdman may be about Michael Keaton himself. For those that don’t know, Michael Keaton was the first Batman when the franchise was revived on the big screen in a big way back in 1989. He also starred in the second Batman movie Batman Returns from 1992. The role of Batman has since gone onto Val Kilmer and now Christian Bale. Michael Keaton had some continued commercial success for a few years after his last Batman movie. Actually he even had some healthy commercial success before thanks to 80’s movies like Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice. So it had me wondering if Riggan’s struggle of coming back while having the baggage of being famous as Birdman was a parallel reflection of Michael Keaton being famous as Batman. I found it odd because I’ve never heard of Michael having a struggle with it. I even looked over his biography and info of his personal life at Wikipedia to see if it was. Although I saw some parallels, I was still left without a conclusion. I haven’t even seen an interview of Michael Keaton where he publicly declared it synonymous.

I will say that Keaton did an excellent performance as Riggan. This is not like any performance I’ve seen from Keaton and this is the best acting I’ve seen from him. Possibly the best acting performance of the year. Edward Norton was also great as Michael Shiner and did a great job of showing ego conflict between actors. Emma Stone also delivered her best ever performance as a daughter who’s also an assistant with the same showbiz-style nastiness to her own father. Zach Galifianakis gave what I feel to be his best acting performance and one where I actually end up liking him in a film. Additional standout supporting performances are Amy Ryan as the ex-wife, Andrea Riseborough as the new girlfriend and Lindsay Duncan as the theatre critic who did a lot in that one scene of hers.

The technical aspects are also excellent and one-of-a-kind for this film. Emmanuel Lubezki did a smart job with having the follow-around method of filming. Usually such a method is risky in the storytelling aspect of film making but it works to near-perfection here. Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione also did an excellent editing job especially in how they made it look like there was a single non-stop scene for over an hour. Of course modern technology can do the film fakery to make it look like a non-stop scene but Crise and Mirrione did it all right and made it work. Also kudos to composer Antonio Sanchez. I like how he delivered a score that was a jazzy style of music for the stageplay scenes and then our typical grandiose orchestrated score for the Birdman scenes. That score that corresponded with the themes was an excellent choice for the film.

Birdman is not your typical Hollywood fare but it’s all the better for it. It doesn’t make sense to a lot of people but would make more sense to those who see it twice or even those that know acting or showbiz as a whole.

Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom

Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman escape together in Moonrise Kingdom.

Moonrise Kingdom is one of those films one who wants get off the beaten path might want to see. Knowing that Wes Anderson is directing it is one sign this is something out of the ordinary. But is it enjoyable?

The film starts with a young girl, the oldest of four children and only daughter, has her binoculars out for a search. She leaves her house on the search with her cat, six books and a record player but we don’t know what she’s searching for. Her name is Suzy Bishop. Meanwhile it’s rise and shine for the Khaki Scouts at Camp Ivanhoe. Only one scout is missing and no one can find him. His name is Sam Shakusky.

Flashback a year ago. Suzy is about to perform for a church musical for Noye’s Fludde by Benjamin Britten. Sam sneaks in and meets Suzy. It was like love at first sight for the two. Over the year’s time, they were pen friends and they made a secret pact to reunite in the summer and run away together. Now today is the day. As Suzy is walking to the area with binoculars in hand, Sam paddles his canoe over the lake well-equipped with camping equipment. They meet and camp out for several days on a secluded cove which they call Moonrise Kingdom. Their love blossoms as the days pass and as Sam paints pictures of her.

Eventually the two are located by the scoutmaster, the police and Suzy’s parents. They’re first able to evade escape by the scouts after Suzy stabs one in the side with lefty scissors. But it’s all too late as they are caught. Suzy is taken home by her parents and is ordered never to see Sam again. Sam is in custody with Captain Sharp and is about to be sent to ‘juvenile refuge’ because he is an orphan and his foster parents no longer wish to house him. The two run off again and hide. One other thing to add: a hurricane is expected to hit the area in a matter of days.

It’s this second incident that people are more cooperative. The Scouts learn of the love of the two and believe it their duty to help them hide. The Scouts even seek out the help of Cousin Ben to help them in the hiding out. It appears to be successful but there are many twists and turns including a flash flood within the camp and the recovering stabbed boy blockading Sam’s escape. After a lengthy chase, they return back to the church as it is about to do a musical. Problem is all those attempting to chase the two down head there too and the hurricane is slowly but surely approaching. Sam and Suzy refuse to give up and even go as far as going to the top of the church steeple while the storm is at its wettest and windiest to evade capture. The ending ends in an offbeat way but it’s a happy ending that ends in a charming manner.

I’m unsure if Wes was trying to get a point across in this movie or if he was just trying to deliver a quirky but nice story. It’s easy to sense that there may be a message here with a lot of elements in the story: 1965, New England, scouts, church plays, lawyer parents, an orphan who runs away a lot, a girl with behavioral problems. Whatever the situation, Wes succeeded in making this offbeat kiddie-romance quite charming. Wes has had a history of doing charming but quirky movies like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited and even the animated family movie The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Here he has a story of children in love that commonly make for a typical cutesy story, adds his own quirks in there, gives the two children in love unique characters and delivers a winning and entertaining story. How often can a director accomplish that?

Besides Anderson’s filmmaking, the film has  other great qualities too. The script he co-wrote with Roman Coppola, son of Francis Ford Coppola, adds to the charming quirkiness of the movie. The acting performances of the leads Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward were very good, especially since they’re debut performances. The one thing is that Wes Anderson wanted the two to act in a certain style of acting that would fit the movie instead of your typical acting. Both did a good job of not only doing their character but succeeding in making the chemistry both quirky and a perfect aspiring at the same time. Anderson also brings back actors he has worked with in past movies like Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Larry Pine and he also includes Edward Norton who will star in his upcoming The Grand Budapest Hotel. Their addition as supporting players also add to the story as well as supporting performances from other established actors like Harvey Keitel, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton.

It wasn’t just the writing, directing and acting. The music also added to the movie as well. The first is the inclusion of Benjamin Britten’s music in the movie. It’s obvious Wes had a liking to Britten’s music as a child. In fact we hear the Young Person’s Guide To the Orchestra played by Suzy’s little brothers at the beginning. The original music from Alexandre Desplat also added to the movie’s charm too. Many can agree that the use of such music had a lot to do with the movie’s charm.

Moonrise Kingdom is an odd and quirky story that will win you in the end. Great movie to watch for moviegoers who want to get off the beaten path.