Tag Archives: Poland

UEFA EURO 2020: Group Stage With One Game To Go

To be among the 16 to qualify, it takes two wins to guarantee. The only way it could ever be possible for a team with two wins not qualifying is if all six groups had three teams with two wins and a loss. And that’s extremely unlikely. Whatever the situation, all four teams of each of the six groups have played two games and there are a lot of telling stats. Three have qualified already while twenty others still have the last game as one last chance, and only one is officially out. Here’s how the groups look so far. Those who have already qualified are bolded:

GROUP A:

Italy came to Euro 2020 with the hope of redeeming their reputation in the football world. They delivered 3-0 wins against Turkey and Switzerland to guarantee themselves qualification for the Round of 16. Wales’ 2-0 win over Turkey and 1-1 draw against Switzerland put them in very good chances of qualifying.

For the next game, Italy could lose to Wales and they’d still qualify, but I’m sure they’d want to win or at least draw so that they can keep their #1 status. Wales’ chances of qualifying are healthy, but they would have to win to take the lead in Group A, draw to guarantee 2nd place, or rely on their game stats and goal differentials if they were to lose to Italy. Switzerland will have to win over Turkey if they want to qualify. A draw won’t cut it as game stats and goal differentials decide the four third-placers that qualify. And Turkey will need nothing less than a win for them to have a chance. They’ve lost to Italy and Wales. Only a win against Switzerland will do if they are to have any chance of qualifying.

GROUP B

Many touted Belgium as the team most likely to win Group B based on their third-place finish at the 2018 World Cup. With two wins, they’ve already guaranteed a qualification no matter how bad their game against Finland goes. They haven’t completely guaranteed the #1 spot. If Finland beats Belgium they will be the #1 team as a result of head-to-head play.

With Russia and Finland having a win under their belts, drawing can guarantee a 2nd place for Russia and a 3rd-place for Finland which would have to rely on their wildcard stats to qualify. However I’m sure Neither of the teams simply want to draw in their last matches on Monday. Denmark is in the uncomfortable position that they will need to win against Russia if they are to have any chance to qualify. It would not surprise me if the Danish team has been shaken since the collapse of Christian Eriksen. That’s a shocker he was dead for five minutes. It’s very good fortune that the first aid on the field did all the right stuff to resuscitate him and have him taken to a hospital. Actually since Eriksen’s cardiac arrest, it’s a reminder to us all that living is more important than winning.

GROUP C

Most groups would normally have a simple qualifier if they have two wins by now. Group C has an official first-place with the Netherlands! It was their two wins and big goal differential that did it! And I doubt if they will want to lose to North Macedonia in their last game!

The game of Ukraine vs. Austria will be the game for second-place in the group. If there’s a draw, Ukraine will have the advantage because of bigger scoring. Austria could qualify due to the combination of game results and goal differentials. If both qualify for the Round of 16, or either one, it will be their first time ever at the Euro that they do. As for North Macedonia, they have the misfortune of being the first team eliminated. Even if they win against the Netherlands and by a big margin, it won’t matter because of their head-to-head losses to Ukraine and Austria.

GROUP D

Interesting that Groups A to C already have a qualifier guaranteed while Groups D to F don’t have anything decided and it will take Matchday 3 to not just decide it all but decide anything. If if any team in those groups is guaranteed a Top 3 finish, that still doesn’t completely guarantee them qualification. Focusing on Group D, Both first-matches for the group’s teams resulted in wins, but both second-matches on Friday resulted in draws. That means with two teams having a win and a draw and two teams with a loss and a draw, none of the four have secured qualification and all four still have a chance in their third-matches on Tuesday.

In the match of the Czech Republic vs. England, the winner will naturally claim the #1 spot of Group D. If there’s a draw, the Czech Republic has the advantage with better goal differentials. However I’m sure both teams want to win. Croatia and Scotland both have a win and a draw. Croatia leads because of goal differentials and a draw would solidify Croatia to finish in third place, but that most likely won’t be enough to qualify. The six third-place teams will be ranked by game stats and goal differentials. Only the top four will qualify for the Round of 16, and two draws and a loss will most likely make Croatia one of the two third-place packing sooner than they hoped. So either Croatia or Scotland will have to win and nothing less if they want to secure qualification.

GROUP E

Like Group D, Group E has the difficulty of two draws causing the statistics to remain completely undecided for who will qualify. One thing that is certain is that all four still have chances to qualify and it’s up to Matchday 3 to decide it. Sweden has the best luck so far with a 1-0 win over Slovakia despite their scoreless draw against Spain. Despite the loss, Slovakia is second in ranks thanks to their 2-1 win over Poland. Spain, normally a powerhouse, has just two draws while Poland looks like their still waiting to deliver. They’re lucky they saved themselves against Spain 1-1.

Sweden has the luxury that they can qualify simply by drawing, but I doubt if they want a simple draw. Especially since Poland will be hungry for the win. The winner of Slovakia vs Spain will definitely qualify, but Slovakia will have better qualifying chances if they lose because of their win over Poland. You can be sure Spain want to win this. Attempting to qualify on a wildcard with three draws is pushing it. Possible, but pushing it. Also Poland requires nothing less than a win if they want to qualify. Two draws and a loss has very low chances of cutting it. Plus they’d have the added bonus that is they win over Sweden, they’d overtake Sweden in standings because of the head-to-head result!

GROUP F

Group F looked to be the Group Of Death. However a lot of lopsided play has turned a lot of things around unexpectedly. France is one team that has underperformed. One would usually expect a lot of big play from the team that are the reigning World Cup holders. However their 1-0 win over Germany came thanks to an own-goal from Germany’s Hummels and they drew 1-1 to Hungary. Drawing against Portugal will guarantee them qualification, but they will have to win if they want to prove themselves a worthy winner. Isn’t that something? A rematch of the Euro 2016 final happening in group play?

Germany has had it most interesting. They got a loss to France because of an own-goal, but a 4-2 win over Portugal thanks to two own-goals from the Portuguese! A draw against Hungary will guarantee them qualification, but Hungary won’t make it easy as they will want to win. Despite the loss, Portugal are still in good contention after their 3-0 win over Hungary. They can still qualify if they lose to France, but they would have to rely on goal differentials to see if their stats are good enough for the wildcard berth. Finally Hungary proved themselves strong players by drawing 1-1 against France, but they need nothing less than a win against Germany if they want to qualify. That’s how it is for them with just a loss and a draw.

And there you go. This is how things look right now with the teams of Euro 2020 with only one game to go. Matchday Three will finalize everything to decide the thirteen others who will advance and the seven others who will be packing for home sooner than they hoped. Looking forward to it!

UEFA EURO 2020: Group E and Group F Review

Interesting to note for this year’s qualifying teams, there are only two new teams competing this year: Finland and North Macedonia. Also this year are nine of the ten countries that have one at least one Euro title. Greece is the only former winner that didn’t qualify. The funny thing about football is that any team can win the Euro. There have been surprise victories before when the underdog came out the winner like Denmark in 1992 and Greece in 2004. It’s very possible a country that has never won a Euro before can win here.

Continuing on with my group reviews, I focus on Group E and Group F today.

GROUP E

For this group, this looks to be the most unpredictable. This group consists of two teams that are known for great play, but frequently fall short. It also has two teams that can go further than most people expect them to.

Spain (6) – La Furia Roja are an enigma. For so long they had been known as football’s greatest underachievers. However that all changed around the time of the late-noughts, early-2010’s. During that time, Spain won two straight Euros (2008 and 2012) and finally clinched the World Cup in 2010. After that, Spain lost their winning edge. They were stopped in the Group Stage of the 2014 World Cup and since then it’s been the Round of 16 at both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup.

Spain have been in a struggle to get their winning ways back. The current team has an all-Spanish team of coaches. Most of the players play for La Liga with six playing in England’s Premier League teams. Since the start of 2020, they’ve only had a single loss, to Ukraine. They would also beat Ukraine in that time as well as Germany, Switzerland and Lithuania. They also had draws against Greece and Portugal. Chances are Euro 2020 could be the domain for Spain to redeem itself.

Sweden (18) – One thing about football is never underestimate the Blågult. After a disappointing Group Stage ouster at Euro 2016, they came back with a World Cup qualifying surprise against Italy in the playoff round and would then go on to finish in the quarterfinals of the Cup. And this is after superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic retired from the national team!

You can thank coach Janne Andersson for the turnaround. Team Sweden’s players play for various leagues around Europe. They arrive at the Euro competition with a set of mixed results since the beginning of 2020. They’ve had losses to France, Portugal and Denmark, but they’ve also had wins against Russia, Croatia and Denmark. Whatever Sweden does here in Euro 2020, they have what it takes to deliver the unexpected.

Poland (21) – Making it to the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 has been Poland’s biggest Euro success ever. This is a team that has finished as high as third at two World Cups and three Olympic medals including gold in 1972. Unfortunately Poland didn’t get the breakthrough they were hoping for at the 2018 World Cup as they were out in the Group Stage. Robert Lewandowski didn’t even score a goal.

The current Polish team consists of players who mostly belong to teams in England’s Premier League and Italy’s Serie A. Poland has had mixed results in its play since the beginning of 2020. They’ve won against Bosnia, Finland and Ukraine, both also lost to England, Italy and the Netherlands. The Euro 2020 arena will be another chance for Poland to prove itself and what it’s made of.

Slovakia (36) – Slovakia is a team that is constantly under low expectations, but will surprise many of their naysayers. They’ve only qualified for a single World Cup back in 2010 and their first-ever Euro was the Euro 2016. In both cases, they progressed past the Group Stage into the Round of 16.

Here in Euro 2020, The Falcons hope to do much better. Their coaching staff is completely of Slovakian coaches and the players play for a wide variety of leagues throughout Europe. Slovakia have had a mixed set of results since the beginning of 2020. They’ve won over Russia, Scotland and Northern Ireland, drawn against Cyprus and R. O. Ireland, and lost to Israel and the Czech Republic. Anything can happen in Euro 2020 and the Slovaks have what it takes to pull a surprise.

My Prediction: For this group, I anticipate that Spain will top it and Sweden will come in second. I have a feeling Poland will come in third but may not have enough to earn the wildcard qualifying berth.

GROUP F

Of all the groups in Euro, this is the group most deserving of the title the Group Of Death. Two of them have won the World Cup in the past ten years, one is the defending Euro champion and the other is a former great looking to reclaim its greatness.

Hungary (37) – The Magyars have been hoping to regain the success their team used to have from the 1930’s to the 1960’s that carried them to two World Cup finals and three Olympic gold medals. For those that don’t know, the Euro began in 1960 and Hungary’s best-ever result is a third back in 1964. For a long time it seemed like their era was long over. However Euro 2016 showed signs of a comeback as the team qualified for the first time since 1972 and made the Round of 16.

The head coach is Italian Marco Rossi whose been hired since the 2018 World Cup. A majority of the players play for teams in the Hungarian league. Since 2020, they’ve only had a single loss to Russia, a single draw to Poland, and wins against Iceland, Serbia and Turkey. Not much is expected of Hungary here but they have what it takes to pull an upset in Euro 2020.

Portugal (5) – Portugal comes to Euro 2020 as the defending champions. They started the Group Stage with straight draws but came on in the knockout round winning all their games en route to the win. Unfortunately, they followed it up at the 2018 World Cup with an ouster in the Round of 16.

Fernando Santos, who coached them at Euro 2016 is still their head coach. Cristiano Ronaldo is their captain, but they also have a lot of other greats with the team like Pepe, Joao Moutinho and Rui Patricio. Since the start of 2020, they’ve only had a single loss, to France. They’ve had draws to Spain and Serbia, and wins against Croatia, Sweden and Israel. Portugal has made it as far as the semi-finals in four of the last five Euros. It’s highly likely the magic of the Navigators will be back in Euro 2020.

France (2) – France is a case of a success story that rose over time. They started after humiliation at the 2010 World Cup. Then became slow-and-steady progression with a quarterfinal finish at the 2014 World Cup to becoming runners-up at Euro 2016 to winning the World Cup in 2018.

Les Bleus is still coached by Didier DesChamps who has coached them since the 2012 Euro. Ironically there are more players on France’s team that play for Spain’s La Liga and England’s Premier League than in France’s Ligue 1! Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who is the team captain, plays for Tottenham Hotspur! For play, France has only had a single loss since the beginning of 2020, to Finland. They’ve won against Croatia, Sweden and Wales, but also had both a win and a draw against both Portugal and Ukraine. Euro 2020 could be the stage where France can claim their third title.

Germany (12) – The Mannschaft have always been known as a top contender in football, whether it be the World Cup or the Euro. Their win at the 2014 World Cup kept their reputation of consistency alive. However their reputation took a severe beating at the 2018 World Cup when they were ousted in the Group Stage. That made it the first World Cup in 80 years Germany failed to progress past the opening round. Some say it was because of a team that wasn’t together. Some even say it’s the ‘curse’ of the defending World Cup champion. Germany’s disappointment would continue as they struggled during the first year of the UEFA Nation’s League.

Despite the setbacks, Joachim Low is still the national coach. The current team features some of the 2014 World Cup alumni but mostly consists of a lot of new younger players. A majority of players play for Germany’s Bundesliga. Since the beginning of 2020, Germany have only had two losses: to Spain and North Macedonia. They’ve also drawn against Spain as well as Switzerland and Denmark and they’ve achieved wins over Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Iceland. A recent 7-1 win over Latvia shows the Mannschaft have something to prove. Euro 2020 could prove to be the domain for Germany to redeem themselves.

My Prediction: This is a tough one as even the best teams have shown some visible weaknesses. I predict Spain to top the group with Portugal second and Germany third, but with enough game stats to qualify as a wildcard.

And there you have it. That’s the last of my predictions for Euro 2020. Sure, a lot could be told. However we should remember that lots have changed since the pandemic and that could also mean the prowess of some teams. Those expected to fare well might now here. That’s why whenever I make my predictions, I tell people not to use them for gambling bets! Anyways this should be an exciting month with a lot of exciting play.

Movie Review: Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało)

Corpus Christi

Bartosz Bielenia plays a parolee who poses as a priest in a small town in Corpus Christi.

Just around this time with the Oscars drawing closer, you would’ve thought my interest in the foreign films would be finished, right? When I saw Polish film Corpus Christi was playing, it caught my intrigue with the story. I thought it was worth seeing.

The film begins in a juvenile prison. Prisoners are prone to the same harsh actions, beatings and retaliations of other prisoners. 20 year-old Daniel knows he could be one. He killed someone when he was a teenager and was sentenced to juvenile prison, or ‘juvie’ as it’s commonly called, for manslaughter. Daniel has found a personal escape in religion. A priest, Father Tomasz, performs mass at the prison every Sunday. Daniel is the most willing participant as he even sings Psalm 23 for the mass. Every night he prays the rosary. Parole is nearing for him, which is a relief as one of his fellow prisoners named ‘Pinczer’ is threatening him. He wants to become a priest, but Father Tomasz says he can’t because of his criminal past. They’re not allowed in the seminary. As soon as Daniel achieves parole, it’s obvious he’s not ready for the priesthood as he happily does drugs and has sex at parties. He does however own a priest’s shirt.

For his parole, Daniel has to do sawmill work at a mill in a small Polish town specifically for parolees. He notices a church and introduces himself as ‘Father Tomasz’ to a young girl praying named Eliza and introduces himself as ‘Father Tomasz.’ He’s then introduced to her mother Lidia, the church secretary, and the ailing priest. Daniel is given the job to perform priestly duties. Daniel’s first mass goes excellently, and people believe him to be the temporary priest. Daniel soon notices as he walks around town people praying to a memorial to six young people. They died in a car accident which the driver hit them head-on. The image of the driver, who also died, is not on the memorial.

Over time, Daniel becomes more involved in the community with each mass he serves. He even wins the liking of the town mayor. Daniel even takes the opportunity to help those that constantly pray by the memorial to help overcome their feelings. Eliza and Lidia are among those as Jakub, Lidia’s son and Eliza’s brother, was one of the fatalities. He also notices how some people shout ‘the whore’ when dealing with their grief. He finds out people have been directing their anger to the driver’s widow. When meeting with the widow, he learns that people have been sending her hate-mail.

Daniel tries to think of a solution, but he later learns Pinczer, one of his rivals from prison who was called ‘Bonus,’ knows he’s posing as a priest. He demands 5000 Euros or else he will expose the truth of ‘Father Tomasz.’ Daniel tries to continue on as a priest and even works at making the town confront their unnecessary anger to the widow by showing them all the hate-mail they sent her. Soon her husband is given a proper burial and is attended by all: even those that lost a child in the accident. However it soon becomes apparent that Daniel’s secret will be exposed. It does happen and the aftermath becomes a case where you can watch and draw your own conclusions about the town, Eliza and Daniel.

One thing that caught my attention is that this film is based on true events. It may not be a true story, but it is of a collection of true events. Director Jan Komasa made mention in a Los Angeles Times interview that he has taken notice that there are several unordained men who have posed as priests. Many of those men believe they are doing priestly duties for the right reasons. The issue of fake priests is one that the clergy in Poland know of, but they sweep the issue under the rug. Scriptwriter Mateusz Pacewicz said in the same interview that he became very fixated about the idea of these fake priests and their spiritual passion. He even wrote a short story of it and that would lead him to write the screenplay for this film.

This is a film that will cause a lot of people with strong Catholic values to think a lot about. Some may even be outraged of a positive depiction of a fake priest. What we have here is a young man who found himself in God possibly through prison ministry. Daniel has this problem with him as he’s a killer and he’s reminded his past crimes will not allow him into the seminary. However he sees the town where he is to do his parole duties as his chance to be a priest. We should remember during his short time as a priest, he didn’t do anything to hurt the citizens of the town. He didn’t rob from the people, he didn’t disturb any masses. Instead he became a symbol of help and hope. He helped the townspeople overcome the losses they were enduring. He got the people to stop with their unnecessary hostilities towards the widow of the killer. He even helped the widow get back to being accepted rather than be the subject of a town’s wrath.

The film allows to both question and even make your own judgments about what happens in the story. First off it makes you wonder if Daniel posed as a priest because he feels he was meant to be one or to avoid an act of vengeance from the other parolees at the sawmill. It’s not made obvious but one can even sense in the film that Eliza always knew Daniel was not ‘Father Tomasz.’ I sensed that in the scene where Daniel was asked for his priest card and she says it’s in the laundry she was working with. Even that sex scene between Eliza and Daniel suggests that; an ordained priest would not have sex or else we would be forced to resign. However Eliza knew Daniel was the right man to bring peace to the town. Eliza also wanted healing along with the people of the town, including hard-hearted Lidia. Eliza felt she knew Tomasz could bring healing and was the only other person who felt making peace with the killer’s widow and allowing a dignified burial of his ashes can make the town heal.

The ending will especially get one thinking as what has happened and what has happened next for Eliza and Daniel. Even as Daniel learns after being recaptured that he was meant to be a criminal, he should be thankful he was able to be a priest and had the chance to do the right things while doing so. It’s possible being a priest during that time brought out his best personal traits while prison brought out his worst traits. It’s interesting to see that a killer who poses as a priest was the one that got the town to heal from the tragedy.

I commend the direction of the film by Komasa and the script by Pacewicz. This is a story that will keep you interested from start to finish. It has a lot to say and will allow one to draw their own conclusions of what the overall message of the film is. I don’t think the film is too critical of religion. We should remember Poland is a very religious country and the only European country where more than half of the population (65% to be exact) attends religious service at least once a month. Showing an anti-Catholic film in Poland is sure to spark outrage. I do feel both Komasa and Pacewicz were trying to make a critical statement without being disrespectful to the Roman Catholic Church. The statement being in Poland, anyone can be a priest.

Also excellent acting from Bartosz Bielenia. He did a great job as a man with immense faith but had something to hide. Eliza Rycembel was also very good at playing Eliza. She was good at knowing the truth of Daniel but being supportive in silent manner. Also very good was Alexandra Konieczna. Her best parts were the moments where she didn’t speak, but you call tell her emotions by her body language. Actually the acting from all involved was very believable and very good at telling the story. They were all very good at showing extreme emotion without going over the top.

Corpus Christi is the twelfth film representing Poland to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film (formerly Best Foreign Language Film).’ It was a highlight at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, it won the Edipo Re Award at last year’s Venice Film Festival, and Bielenia won the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Actor at this past Palm Springs Film Festival as well as the Best Actor award at the Stockholm Film Festival.

Corpus Christi is remarkable as it’s a film that will leave you asking more questions than giving you answers about the story. The film will also get you thinking about morality and how people judge others, or how flawed people deal with their feelings. You will be left thinking at the end.

WORK CITED:

Ellwood, Gregory. “Scammers or spiritually motivated, fake priests figure in Poland’s ‘Corpus Christi.'” Los Angeles Times. 1 Jan 2020. <https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2020-01-01/corpus-christi-delves-into-fake-priest-trend-in-poland>

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.’

Movie Review: Cold War (Zimna wojna)

Cold War

Joanna Kulig (left) and Tomasz Kot play a musical couple whose love overcomes politics and separation in Cold War.

At first I didn’t plan to see Cold War. It had a lot of good rapport, but I doubted its Best Picture chances. It may not have been nominated for Best Picture, but it did earn three nominations including Best Director. That’s enough to catch my intrigue.

The film begins in the late-1940’s. World War II has ended and Poland is now under Communist rule. People from the Communist party are called out to go into the towns and villages of farmers and peasants. They meet out in a remote area consisting of a forest, a single solitary building, and a bombed-out church. Their purpose is to create an ensemble of Poland to be shown to the Communist world. The art will consist of traditional song and dance, but will also consist of propaganda songs too. This is the new world order. Wiktor Warski and Lech Kaczmarek are the two men hired to construct this ensemble.

The men decide the pieces to have for the choir as well as the dances to have for the shows. They also decide who will be singing the lead for the choir. During the audition, Wiktor takes a special interest in a singer named Zuzanna, but nicknamed ‘Zula.’  Lech notices the affection between the two. Zula is not that vocally skilled as the other female singers, but has that ‘it’ quality and sings lead through most of the choir songs. During the time of rehearsals, Wiktor increasing becomes more in love with Zula. Their love for each other continues as the ensemble Masowske finally start performing for the whole of the nation.

However years later, the leads of the ensemble decide to develop propaganda songs that will be sung during the performance. They will also be touring internationally to other Eastern Bloc countries with the goal to eventually win praise in Moscow. The tour goes into East Berlin as part of the plan. The show goes well, but unsuspectingly Wiktor notices the French Sector which can easily be crossed. Wiktor invites Zula to cross with him, but she’s afraid, feeling that something will be lost behind. Wiktor does crosses and would eventually settle in Paris, France.

In the years since his defection, he has immersed himself into the jazz scene and even formed his own ensemble, becoming very successful. He’s even married to a French poetess Juliette. One night while his band is on tour in Split, Croatia, he notices the Polish ensemble he was a part of is performing there. He goes to watch the show. Zula is able to notice Wiktor in the crowd. Before they can meet, the secret service drags him back to Paris.

Years later, Wiktor notices Zula again, but in Paris. Wiktor fills in with his life of how he’s found a woman of his own. Zula tells him she’s married to a Sicilian man in Italy. She defected the ‘proper’ way. Zula is able to become a successful jazz singer under the wing of Wiktor which includes singing a jazz adaptation of one of the ensembles’ songs. However Wiktor notices something else in Zula. Zula has become very flirtatious. He notices it when ‘Rock Around The Clock’ is performed in the bar and she dances around with many a man. It takes Wiktor to stop this. They have an argument outside, but it becomes clear the argument exposes their selfishness and their ambitions. In the end, their worst traits are exposed and it sours their love for each other. It’s noted how Wiktor’s jazz playing has gotten worse that something is wrong.

In 1961, Zula is back in Poland fairly. Wiktor wants to return, but Lech informs him of how much he has insulted the country with his defection. Lech informs him that he can spend 15 years in a labor camp for what he has done. Wiktor is willing to accept for the sake of winning Zula back. Zula hears the news and goes to the prison camp to find him. Upon being reunited, they need to reaffirm their love for each other despite it all. They go back to the ruins where it all started.

This is a slow story of a love that grows and faces friction through art and political tension. The purpose of the slowness is to feel the dramatic tension of the love between the two. We have a man and a woman who have a love for each other, but face the tests of politics with the Cold War and the Iron Curtain causing a lot of division between the two. Plus we have the personal obstacles of the two, most notably their pride, that possibly is the biggest barrier between the two. They both love each other, even through marriages of their own, but their selfishness gets in the way.

I believe that was the point of the film. The central theme of the film is about divisions. We have the Cold War that represents the divided world. We have the selfishness and pride of Wiktor and Zula that causes division in their relationship. We also have the division of the two arts as jazz is more Wiktor’s thing. I think that’s the reason the film is shot in black and white. Pawlikowski may have done black-and-white before in the film Ida, but here, black and white is fitting as it represents all the divisions in the film.

The divided world may be the common ‘world’ in the film, but possibly the most present world in the film is the world of music. The film shows a lot about the arts in both song and dancing. It’s the song of peasant people that is the heart and soul of the people’s voice. It is the stoic choir singing propaganda songs that represents the new rigidity Poland has to go through and the ‘free world’ has to deal with. It is the happy folk dancing that shows the joy of the Polish people of generations past. It is the Rock Around The Clock dancing that shows Zula’s freeness and thus her biggest personal weakness. It’s that song of the love that can’t be allowed sung by Zula as lead of the choir and in a jazz song that becomes symbolic of the obstacles in the love between Zula and Wiktor. Music and dance are the biggest metaphors in the film.

This is possibly the crowning achievement of Pawel Pawlikowski, which he directs and co-writes with Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski. Pawlikowski has been mostly involved with the British film scene, but has recently delivered films in the Polish language. His previous film, Ida, was shot in black and white and won Best Foreign language Film three years ago. Here he delivers another Polish-language film. The story is more personal as it’s based on the romance of his own parents. The film he delivers is a masterpiece both of filmmaking and art. It’s a charming story that incorporates love, politics and music that works as a bittersweet romance.

The acting was also very good. Joanna Kulig is very good as Zula. Kulig has acted in many of Pawlikowski’s films before like Ida and The Woman In The Fifth. This film is her best performance. Tomasz Kot also does a very good job of playing the complicated Wiktor. Borys Szyc does a very good job in his first film role. Borys is more famous as a musician rather than an actor. Lukasz Zal does an excellent job with the cinematography in the angles he chose and the way they add to the story. The music, both original by Marcin Masecki and that performed by the performers make the story and add to its richness.

Cold War is one of the surprises of this year’s Oscar season. Those who see it will know why it has its recent renown.

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group H

Hard to believe it’s finally about to start. The very first World Cup game starts at 8:00 on Thursday June 14th in Luzhniki Stadium and it ends there too on Sunday July 15th. And at the end of it all, only one country is left smiling! Anyways on with my last group review: Group H. How do they stack up?

Poland fixed-Poland (10)- Poland has a football success that usually is strong one quadrennial, weak another. This time around, it looks like Poland has its strongest team in decades. They topped their World Cup qualification en route to Russia. They’ve even produced a superstar in Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski.

Poland is not just Lewandowski. There’s also midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski and defender Lukasz Piszczek. The team features a good mix of young and older talent. They were very impressive in World Cup qualifying. The team has had some notable wins in the past year against Lithuania and South Korea, but they’ve also had 1-0 losses to Nigeria and Mexico. Russia 2018 is yet another chance for Poland to seize the moment.

Senegal flag-Senegal (28)- 2002 seems like a memory. It was Senegal’s first World Cup and they surprised defending champions France in the opening game of that World Cup and en route to going to the quarterfinals. They’ve failed to return to the World Cup scene until now. They hope to show the world they still have what it takes.

After 16 long years, The Lions Of Teranga come back via coach Aliou Cisse who played for that Senegalese team in the World Cup. Most of the players play for teams with the Premier League or France’s Ligue 1 or Ligue 2. Senegal have had some noteworthy wins in the last year such as to South Africa and South Korea. However they’ve also lost recently to Croatia 2-1 and also had a scoreless draw against Bosnia. Senegal returns to the World Cup stage here in Russia with lots to prove.

Colombia-Colombia (16)- This appears to be a new era in Colombian football. They first had a chance in the 90’s to make a name for themselves at the World Cup, but poor performances marred by political strife in their country prevented that from happening. Then they made a return to the World Cup scene in 2014. There they made it to the quarterfinals for the first time ever. On top of that, striker James Rodriguez won the Golden Boot for scoring six goals.

Rodriguez is back, along with midfielder Carlos Sanchez, striker Radamel Falcao and Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina. Colombia has had some recent noteworthy wins such as 3-2 against France and 4-0 against China. However they’ve also lost 2-1 against Paraguay and 2-1 against South Korea. Chances are Colombia can go further than they ever have here in Russia 2018.

Japan-Japan (60)- Japan is one Asian country that has been struggling to show how talented their team is. The Samurai Blue have made it to the Round of 16 in 2002 (which they co-hosted) and 2010, but that’s as far as they’ve ever gotten. Japan has produced a boom in football back with the boost of the J-League in the 90’s but they’re still waiting for their big moment. Sure, they’ve won many AFC Asian Cups in the past, but they feel they have more to prove internationally.

This past year has had its ups and downs for Japan. They recently won against Paraguay 4-2 and won against Australia 2-0. However they’ve had some notable losses to Brazil 3-1, Switzerland 2-0 and Belgium 1-0. Remember anything can happen in World Cup play and Japan could just surprise everybody during Russia 2018.

So that’s my summary of the Group H teams. As for the two I feel will advance, I will have to go with Poland and Colombia.

STADIUM SPOTLIGHT

ST. PETERSBURG: Krestovsky Stadium (Saint-Petersburg Stadium)Krestovsky

Year Opened: 2017

Capacity: 67,000

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, B, D, E,

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16, Semi-final, bronze-medal match

Situated on Krestovsky Island in St. Petersburg, this stadium is not just known for its design, but its enormous cost to construct: an estimated $1.1 billion! It is considered one of the most expensive stadiums ever built. The high cost had a lot to do with a delayed civic loan, wind damage and flooding to materials and a withdrawal of a major corporate funder. Its opening in 2017 is nine years later than expected. The design of the stadium is based on Japanese designer Kisho Kurokawa’s ‘ Spaceship’ design. The stadium is situated where the old Kirov Stadium used to be. After the World Cup, the stadium will be the host venue for FC Zenit St. Petersburg.

MOSCOW: Luzhniki Stadium Luzhniki

Year Opened: 1956

Capacity: 80,000

World Cup Groups Hosting: A, B, C, F

Additional World Cup Matches Contested: Round of 16, Semi-final, Final match

This stadium has an immense amount of history with it. Actually during the days of the USSR, it used to be known as Central Lenin Stadium. After the collapse of the USSR and the doing away of Communism, the stadium has been named after the Luzhniki district it’s situated in. During the days of the USSR, the stadium was the centrepoint of the national Spartakiad sports celebrations. It was also the host venue for the 1980 Summer Olympics, 1973 Summer Universiade and 1986 Goodwill Games. Since the fall of Communism and the emergence of the Russian Federation, the stadium has hosted the 1999 UEFA Cup Final, 2008 UEFA Champions League Final and the 2013 World Championships In Athletics.

RUSSIA-LANDSCAPE-ARCHITECTUREThe stadium has had three renovations in the past. The most recent being before the Confederations Cup in preparation for the World Cup. World Cup renovations include a demolishing of the old stadium to have a new stadium with enclosure. The self-supported wall and facade of Lenin Stadium was maintained. New construction allowed the stadium to be connected to a main building. After the World Cup, the stadium will be the host venue for the Russian national team.

And that does it! This is the last of my group previews for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Hard to believe the opening ceremonies are 24 hours away, give or take. One thing for sure is that it will deliver a full month of excitement and surprises.

VIFF 2017 Review: Animals (Tiere)

Animals

Birgit Minichmayr (right) is caught between a troubled marriage and disturbing images in Animals.

The Altered States series at the VIFF provide for a lot of films that cross into the genres and subject of horror, paranormal and the supernatural. Animals is a Swiss film that taps into the supernatural with mysterious results.

The film begins with a suicide outside an apartment building in Austria. A young woman falls to her death. Soon after, a couple by the name of Nick and Anna are to leave on a long trip in the Swiss Alps. Nick rents his suite out during the trip. The taker is a woman named Mischa, who looks very similar to the woman from the floor above.

The two then go on their vacation. Nick is a celebrity chef and Anna is a children’s book author. You can tell the marriage has been going through a lot of difficulties. Some things, like how Nick doesn’t want to have children, are said, but some aren’t. Then all of a sudden, Nick accidentally hits a sheep on the road. The collision kills the sheep and damages the car, but the two aren’t hurt seriously. Later that night, Nick receives the dead sheep wrapped up.

Back at the apartment, a man comes knocking to win back the love of Andrea. He keeps insisting in tears that he wants her back terribly and that his life is nothing without her, but Mischa keeps insisting: “I don’t know you.”

Nick and Anna try to go on with their lives and their marriage after the collision. However Anna is very suspicious of infidelity. Especially after she sees Nick get too friendly with a waitress by the name of Andrea. An attack by a robber on Anna from their car late at night seems to reconfirm Nick’s love to Anna. However Anna had a dream days earlier that Nick was the one who pulled her out, which is why she’s uncomfortable. Nick keeps notes of recipes that he is to use for some of his shows, but Anna is suspicious. Anna gets what she suspects; there is another woman in Nick’s life. When she tells him the news, it appears that Nick hears something completely different. It’s like he’s deaf and in another world.

Back at the apartment, Mischa is in love with another man. Two men are outside her apartment how they were both loved and neglected by her. Days pass and Nick comes across a news article about a ‘horrific sheep collision’ on a country road. The picture of the incident shows Nick looking distraught with a woman being carried away in an ambulance. Nick is shocked. That can’t be since they both survived the incident. They next day, another collision with a sheep happens. This time Anna is taken away in an ambulance. The film ends with a surprise, albeit too rushed.

The film focuses on a wide variety of common themes in a thriller. It focuses on the supernatural, a case of image versus reality, the power of dreams, and even the foretelling of the future. Nick and Anna are living out a slow but intense personal drama in their lives. However things intertwine right after they rent the house to Mischa. There are images of the future, not all pleasant. There is a barrier of communication, or Nick could be in another world of his own. There is a housesitter who either looks like a person who used to live at the apartment or is the same person with a completely different identity. Plus there are the animals that appear to tell something about what will happen in the future. There’s the sheep on the road, the birds that hit the house, and the cat that talks in French. The film can often be seen as including many thriller elements Alfred Hitchcock included in his films. It’s not just the birds reminding one of The Birds. It’s even the feel of the unknown, the mysterious and even the feel of being chased down that adds to the Hitchcock feel in this film.

The problem with this thriller is that it sometimes moves too slowly. The film has a lot of moments that create suspense, but it drags on in a pace that can be too slow for a thriller of such. I can understand why directors would want to slow scenes down for the sake of creating the intensity of the moment, but it appeared to take too long. The film creates intrigue, but it doesn’t keep its feel of the thriller consistent. It also seems like Swiss-born Polish director Greg Zglinski is trying to pack too many elements into the film. It’s impressive that it uses a lot of common thriller elements like the supernatural, the power of dreams, and the future happening in the moment, but it gives a sense that something’s missing. On top of it, Zglinski and co-writer Jorg Kalt appear that they don’t have the story stitched together properly. It’s a film that like a puzzle set that needs to be pieced together, but it doesn’t feel like it’s pieced together well. Even the ending that shows two completely different emotions on Nick gets one wondering.

The film’s actors are the highlight of the film. Birgit Minichmayr does a very good job of playing the wife caught between a fading marriage and this mystery happening before her eyes. Philipp Hochmayr is not given very much range in his role, but he does a good job in what he is given. Mona Petri also does a good job with her multi-personality role as Mischa/Andrea. In addition, the music by Bartosz Chajdecki adds to the drama of the film when it’s there.

Animals is a thriller that shows a lot of potential at first, but comes off as slow, not all together and even incomplete at the end.

UEFA Euro 2016: Group C Focus

Super Victor

Meet Super Victor, mascot of Euro 2016.

This is actually my favorite group of the six because I’m 3/4 Ukrainian, 1/4 German. Plus I like Poland because Poland and Ukraine have a lot in common, especially in their language. Nevertheless this should make for an exciting group with a lot of rivalry. So here’s my review of Group C:

Poland fixedPoland (27): Poland may have a good World Cup legacy with seven appearances and two third-place finishes but they lack a Euro legacy with competing in only the last two and going out in the Group Stage both times. Last Euro was especially embarrassing since they were co-hosts and didn’t win a game. Since then the White Eagles has gotten better. And it’s not just with Robert Lewandowski becoming a star striker for Bayern Munich. It’s the whole team that has been performing consistently. In fact the team even scored their first ever win against Germany in October 2014 during Euro qualifying. They’ve had other notable wins in the past two years against Ireland, Czech Republic and Serbia. Their only loss in the past two years came to Germany when they got their Euro qualifying revenge last September. Before I even give my predictions, I can already say I know Poland will advance to the Round of 16 at the very least. Poland could be the team most likely to cause a surprise.

Northern IrelandNorthern Ireland (26): This is Northern Ireland’s first ever Euro. They’ve played in three World Cups before and even made the quarterfinals in 1958 but no previous Euro. The team may not have a George Best right now but they appear to be getting stronger in recent years. Five players play for the Premier League and they’ve scored notable wins against Hungary and Greece. Their two losses to European teams in the past two years were to Romania and Scotland. France could be another proving ground for the team.

Germany fixedGermany (5): You think that since they’ve won the World Cup in 2014, they should be top of the world, right? Well one of the reasons why they won the World Cup is because they had the most team unity and best team chemistry of all. No standout superstars, just one functioning team. And that’s how it should be. However three of its top players from World Cup 2014–Per Mertesacker, Phillipp Lahm and Miroslav Klose–retired immediately after. This led to dealing with a new team format since then and also into developing new national team players. Manuel Neuer, Thomas Muller, Mesut Ozil, Andre Schurrle and Mario Gotze and still part of The Mannschaft but they’re also added some new younger talent too.

With the changes to the team, they’ve gone through some ups and downs. They qualified for the Euro top of their group. They’ve had some notable wins against Poland, Spain, Scotland and their traditional ‘Achilles heel’ Italy.  However they’ve also had some notable losses to Argentina, Poland, the U.S., France, England and most recently Slovakia. However Germany has a habit of coming alive when they most need to so it’s not right to dismiss them quite yet. Plus Euro 2016 could be the grounds for a lot of the new younger players to come of age. Only time will tell.

Ukraine FixedUkraine (22): Ukraine is a team that either gets better or keeps on learning over time. They first arrived as a team at the 2006 World Cup where they made the quarterfinals. However they’ve struggled to qualify for a World Cup since. They played in their first Euro in 2012 as co-hosts going out in the Group Stage. The current team mostly plays for teams in the Ukrainian Premier League. The current team has a lot of good talent like veteran Anatoliy Tymoschuk and rising great Andriy Yarmolenko. In the past year, the team has had some notable wins over Wales, Romania and Slovenia. Their only loss in 2015 came to Spain. In their history, they’ve either won or tied Northern Ireland, had mixed results against Poland and never won against Germany. Chances they could be on at Euro 2016.

Prediction: I think Germany vs. Poland will be a draw game and both teams will have the exact game results in all of group play. But I think Germany will come out on top over Poland because of goal differentials. Third place in this group will go to Ukraine.

And there you go. My thoughts on Group C. My thoughts on Euro 2016’s Group D coming soon.

UPDATE:

Here are my reviews of other groups:

2016 Eurovision Song Contest Final Preview

eurovision2016euro

I’ll admit I had no intention of posting a preview blog about the final. I was just content with watching the performers and playing ‘armchair judge’ for my own leisure. Besides I intended for my detailed blog of the ESC to be my only blog about it.

However that all changed last night as I was on Youtube and the ESC channel watching video after video of the night’s semi-final performances. Hey, when the show’s on live at noon your time, that’s your resort. That all changed after I added comment after comment with many of the videos. And that’s what inspired me to do this preview of the final for the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest.

For this preview, I’ve decided to post my opinions about the performances in the semi-finals. I will be judging the performances of both the competitors from the semis as well as those from Sweden and the Big 5 whom I will call ‘automatics’ because they automatically have their berths in the Final and their performances in the semis are simply a dress rehearsal for the Finals.

I felt it best that I place my judgements mostly on their semi-final performances. A lot of people have based their judgements from the song’s official music video released on YouTube months before the Contest. The videos are very telling in terms of how well each song will do however I feel the performances in the semis are more telling as it gives a good sense what their live show will be and even how together they are as a performer. Sure the semi won’t tell it all but it will tell it most. I do feel that the song is the key thing to base a judgement on. No matter how big of a show you put on, the song and its content is unavoidable. However I will consider showmanship as a performer will still have to make the song entertaining and eyecatching. Simply put, I will give top kudos to those performances who deliver best.

I will also start with my first section where I give opinions of the performances that have qualified for the final. I will then give my personal picks for who I would give the biggest point to if I were a jury. Note I will not be making predictions like I normally do. I will be giving my preferences and opinions. I’m not familiar with the music tastes of most European countries nor am I familiar with jury tastes. So here goes:

SEMIFINAL 1:

  • Hungary: Freddie  ‘Pioneer’ Very good song with a very dramatic opening. Freddie has very good vocals in singing the song. The song is far from boring. It will catch your ears. A deserving finalist.
  • Croatia: Nina Kraljic ‘Lighthouse‘ – Nina came to Stockholm in hopes of breaking Croatia’s bad-luck spell of missing out in the finals since 2009. She did exactly that. As for her performance, you’ll think her outfit at the beginning is ridiculous but that’s part of adding drama or theatrics to the song. I’m cool with that as long as it’s done right. Her performance was very good and deserving of her final berth.
  • Netherlands: Douwe Bob ‘Slow Down‘ – This is one of my delights of the night. I’m impressed to see how the Dutch know how to do bluesy rock or rockabilly. The Dutch did it before in 2014 with ‘Calm After The Storm‘ and they do it again here. Best song of the evening that delivers as a great alternative after so many techno numbers. Stage show is minimal but it works for the song instead of against it. I ranked it my 3rd place of this semi.
  • Armenia: Iveta Mukuchyan ‘LoveWave‘ – It’s not the best of the night but it’s still good and a deserving finalist. Very good song with good vocals. I felt the stage show was a bit iffy. Otherwise very deserving nonetheless.
  • Russia: Sergei Lazarev ‘You Are The Only One‘ – What can I say? For me that was the show of the first semi and my #1 pick for that night. It didn’t have the same song quality the Netherlands had but still an entertaining song with the most entertaining stage show of the evening. Definitely an eye-catcher and it will not surprise me if this song is a top contender for the win on Saturday.
  • Czech Republic: Gabriela Guncikova ‘I Stand‘ – Not exactly a song that stands out too much. Nevertheless Gabriela did sing it well and perform it well on stage. what it lacks in catchiness, it makes up for in its consistency and professionalism. A very deserving finalist. Especially since this is the first time in five tries a Czech performer qualifies for the final. Great job!
  • Cyprus: Minus One ‘Alter Ego‘ – You’d think with this being Cyprus, it would be ethnopop, right? Actually this is a hard rock song high in energy. I could even feel the energy of the song while watching it. Great song and great performance which was one of my favorites of the night. I feel it should do strong on Saturday.
  • Austria: Zoe ‘Loin d’Ici‘ – This was my surprise of the night. I like it when a song goes beyond my expectations. At first you’d think a number too sweet would come off as saccharine to you. However this is one ‘sweet’ song that actually did everything right and even charmed me. Excellent stage show that tried mimicking what was in her video. However if anyone had doubts about her song while watching her video before the Semi, I think her performance in the semi increased her chances of winning. It was better than the video. I consider this my 2nd place of the semi.
  • Azerbaijan: Samra ‘Miracle‘ – Once again a case of an Azerbaijani singer performing a song written by Swedes. This is one of only two semifinalists whom I did not have on my list of my ten ‘finals picks.’ The song was good but I’ve seen better performances by Azerbaijani acts in past ESCs. I think 2013’s ‘Hold Me‘ is their best ever.  Also the back-up dancers did a real tacky job of dancing. That’s all I can describe about it. Their dancing was tacky. Nevertheless Samra was dressed well and she did sing her song very well despite t not being much of a song. I just feel it didn’t deserve to be in the semis.
  • Malta: Ira Losco ‘Walk On Water‘ – Once again a case of a stageshow that was hard to swallow thanks to backup dancing. Ira did her song very well. However the dancer on stage just plain came off as ridiculous and irritating. It actually turned me off the song. This is the other finalist from the first semi that I felt didn’t deserve it.

SEMIFINAL 2:

  • Latvia: Justs ‘Heartbeat‘ – The biggest thing about the song is its arresting instrumentation. The stage graphics fit the song very well and Justs delivers the song in style and with the right moves you’d expect from a male pop singer. Justs does it solo without backup singers or backup dancers and does it with style. I ranked it the best performance of this semi because it grabs your attention from the very start and won’t let go.
  • Poland: Michal Szpak ‘Color Of Your Life‘ – This is a good ballad delivered very well from Michal. Its style really stands out. Michal delivered it very professionally despite missing a note near the first chorus. The biggest glitch I feel has to be the vintage military jacket he wears on stage. I don’t think it fit the performance that well. Especially since Justs that was on just before him came on stage with a leather jacket. Backup violinists and stage graphics blended well with the performance.
  • Israel: Hovi Star ‘Made Of Stars‘ – This is an excellent ballad delivered very well with excellent singing from Hovi. I almost thought he was doing a cover of an Adele song. The stage graphics added excellently to the song. However the two dancers on the spinning hoop had me questioning whether they were worth it or not? Do they add or subtract? Because Hovi delivers well in a no nonsense performance.
  • Serbia: Sanja Vucic ZAA ‘Goodbye‘ – It’s both a ‘Balkan Ballad’ and a power ballad. Excellent vocals full of emotion and a set up back-up singers that add to the drama and power. Might bring back memories to some of 2007 winner ‘Molitva’ but it holds its own. The male backup dancer didn’t add but he didn’t subtract from the performance either. If there’s one weakness, it’s her stiff black dress. Overall an excellent package and I rank it second-best of this semifinal.
  • Lithuania: Donny Montell ‘I’ve Been Waiting For This Night‘ – A powerful song with a lot of energy and Donny knows how to deliver it vocally. However I didn’t like how he added Michael Jackson-like dance moves to his performance. I feel it did not fit the song at all. Maybe the front flip near the end helped but the dancing didn’t. This is one of two from this semi that qualified for the final that didn’t make my personal Top 10.
  • Australia: Dami Im ‘Sound Of Silence‘ – A very powerful ballad delivered excellent by Dani. I also have no problem with the dress since it was meant to fit the song. However I’m not too happy about some of the stage choices she was given such as sitting on that platform until after the second chorus. She does walk around after that and deliver the song well but I don’t think she was given enough movement.
  • Bulgaria: Poli Genova ‘If Love Was A Crime‘ – Many people felt Poli was robbed of a finals berth five years ago with ‘Na Inat‘ but she finally gets it here. I’ll admit this is not that much of an attention-grabber of a song. Nor were a few of her dance moves the best. Nevertheless Poli delivered the song well and gave it its energy and made it enjoyable to hear. It’s very good for the most part.
  • Ukraine: Jamala ‘1944‘ – This is the first song at the ESC with Crimean Tatar lyrics. This is probably the most political song at this Contest. She has a song with a message and she delivers it with emotion in the song. The wailing at the end of the song is a big plus and especially shows off her vocal abilities. However political songs are touchy grounds at the ESC. They welcome it as long as it’s subtle. I feel this is deserving of its finals berth.
  • Georgia: Nika Kocharov and Young Georgian Lolitaz ‘Midnight Gold‘ – The number starts with a lot of potential with some exciting rock instrumentation and fitting stage graphics. However it goes downhill when the singer delivers vocals with notes that don’t seem to fit the song. I don’t know if he did it for creative purposes but his choices don’t really fit at all. Can’t complain about the instrumentation as it’s the best part. However this is the second qualifier to the final from this semi that I felt didn’t deserve it. Actually I ranked it second-to-last of this semi.
  • Belgium : Laura Tesoro ‘What’s The Pressure‘ – At last! A song that makes you wanna get down! Laura delivers a funky, feel-good energetic number that delivers all the best qualities of a pop number including vocals, dancing and even trying to get the crowd involved. I ranked this the third-best of this semi.

AUTOMATICS:

  • France: Amir ‘J’ai Cherche‘ – Good song, has a lot of energy, very good singing, but it comes across as rather boring. I don’t know what it is but when I saw Amir perform, I felt like there was something missing. I don’t know how this will fare on Saturday.
  • Spain: Barei ‘Say Yay!‘ – Now this is one number I feel will go far. A very good song that is full of energy and has good potential of being catchy. Also she performs excellently on stage. She dances like she’s in control and delivers the song as she should. I question her dress, especially with the 03 on it. However I feel she will be great on Saturday night.
  • Sweden: Frans ‘If I Were Sorry‘ – Sweden has one of the best success records at Eurovision. This number however is very questionable. Frans delivered a boring performance where the background tries to make the song interesting by flashing key words. He does sing the song well but his accent is too thick to comprehend some of the lyrics. I think he might score well in the popular vote because of his teen idol status but I don’t think he’ll score well with the judges.
  • Germany: Jamie-Lee ‘Ghost‘ – I have to say a good song and Jamie-Lee is a very good singer. However her outfit was too over the top. I’m cool with a weird outfit done for theatrical purposes such as Nina Kraljic’s outfit during the opening of ‘Spotlight’ but that was too ridiculous like Alice In Wonderland went through a flower garden. The backup singers had on sensible clothes and the trees that shot laser beams worked good but that outfit is dumb and works against her performance. However the outfit will make her win the Barbara Dex award.
  • United Kingdom: Joe & Jake ‘You’re Not Alone‘ – I have to say it’s a very good song with a very good performance. The two sing the song very well and add to the young energy of the song. It’s hard to find something to dislike about this number, especially since it’s very low in gimmicks. I think the one cheesy thing was probably the jumping near the end. One thing we have to keep in mind is that ‘no nonsense’ performances like these are great but they face the obstacle of winning attention from both televoters and the juries. Nevertheless I do wish the best for both of them. Especially since the UK used to have quite a Eurovision legacy and the 21st century has been very unkind to them with only two Top 10 finishes.
  • Italy: Francesca Michielin ‘No Degree Of Separation‘ – Italy rarely disappoints. They’ve mostly delivered some top notch performances to the Contest over the years, even in the last few years. And this year’s entry is a delight too. 21 year-old Francesca Michielin is already a seasoned pro. You’ll notice it as she sings the song consistently and with feeling. Adding the feeling to the song is a big plus. A big minus to the song however is all those stage props and stage graphics. I don’t know if they were trying to reflect a theme or emulate the music video but I feel it went too far and they were distracting from the song. This could work against her performance which holds its own without all the added stuff.

So those are my thoughts for the qualifiers. As for the ‘also-rans’:

Semi-Final 1: I know I said Malta and Azerbaijan didn’t deserve to be in the final. In their place should be Iceland and Moldova. They did their performance better. Finland’s Sandhja was good but came off as flat. That’s not good especially when you’re first up. Greece must have forgotten the golden rule of rap acts at Eurovision: rap acts go nowhere, even if it’s mixed with ethnopop. It’s a shame because I usually like the Greek numbers. San Marino’s Serhat had a style but I didn’t see it as enough to qualify for the final. Estonia came off as ridiculous in his stage antics and his voice. Montenegro’s number sounded like a mashed-up song and Bosnia’s on-stage theatrics made me wonder if it was really necessary for the song.

Semi-Final 2: If I were to trade Georgia and Lithuania from the finals, I’d put in Ireland and Macedonia. Ireland was full of energy and delivered well. Macedonia was also excellent, especially in her vocal range. Switzerland had a good song but it all fell apart with all the on-stage props and moves she was given. Belarus had potential but I thought the face stripes were dumb. Slovenia was good but the singer delivered awkward stage poses that worked against her. The Danish vocal trio came across as rather boring. Norway delivered a song that alternate from one tempo and mood of the verses to a different tempo and completely different mood in the chorus. It didn’t really mix well. And Albania had good potential but I feel her chances were marred by lousy backup singers.

Overall I have to say this is a mostly good set of performers for this Contest. There is a bit of the eccentric in some elements but it’s nothing compared to the ‘freak shows’ of five years ago or even ten years ago. I think the freakiest moments will come from Germany and Italy. I guess the country’s are now getting the message that doing something super-eccentric or super-gimmicky doesn’t pay. I didn’t notice too many off-key moments and those that did recovered well.

Like I said, I don’t know enough about European music tastes to make predictions. So instead I’m giving my personal Top 10. Eurovision style, of course:

  • Poland, 1 point.
  • Australia, 2 points.
  • Spain, 3 points.
  • Cyprus, 4 points.
  • Netherlands, 5 points.
  • Belgium, 6 points.
  • Serbia, 7 points.
  • Austria, 8 points.
  • Latvia, 10 points.
  • And my personal 12 points goes to…Russia!

So there’s my summary of the 2016 Eurovision finalists and their semifinal performances. I’m glad I don’t have to be a jury member because it’s a headache ranking them. Mind you anything can change on Saturday. They may go off key or something may malfunction or the energy that was there in the semi may not be there in the final. Even things like performance order can play a factor. How ironic how Belgium who ended the second semifinal will open the final? Ending the final will be Armenia. Whatever the situation, I wish all the performers the best and the winning performer’s country to get ready to host next year!

VIFF 2013 Review: The Closed Circuit (Układ Zamknięty)

Janusz Gajos plays a tough-guy lawyer in search of a victim in The Closed Circuit.

Janusz Gajos plays a tough-guy lawyer playing a legal gamble in The Closed Circuit.

DISCLAIMER: This may be mistaken as a review for the movie Closed Circuit starring Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall. This is actually a review for the Polish movie Układ Zamknięty whose English title is The Closed Circuit, also released in 2013.

The Closed Circuit is a legal drama from Poland that’s become one of the highest-grossing Polish-made movies there. Does it have what it takes to entertain North American crowds?

The film begins in Gdansk in 2003 where computer business Navar has just had a grand opening for their new factory. The building of the factory with high-tech equipment had a huge boost thanks to a partnership with a Danish community. Shortly after the deal, another businessman tries to make a deal with CEO Piotr Maj to no avail. Later it’s brought to the attention of a legal office headed by district prosecutor Andrzej Kostrzewa that the company made an illegal deal; that this was a scam. He hires Kamil Slodowski–a good lawyer who’s relatively new at tackling corporations–to head the crackdown.

Unknown to Kostrzewa at the time is that the company is headed by Maj who happens to be the son of a professor whom Kostrzewa got into a bad dispute with during his own college days and had him fired from the University and exiled back to Israel. One should take into account that Kostrzewa was a former Communist and still believes: “there are no honest businessmen.” Professor Maj died recently and his memoirs could be the smoking gun for Kostrzewa.

The arrests fly to the three businessmen and they are brutal not only to them but other family members too, even Maj’s pregnant wife who miscarries during the arrest. They get thrown into jail accused of financial irregularities and money laundering. They face inhuman conditions in the prison including Maj suffering at the hands of another prisoner. Meanwhile the team of lawyers get various recordings ranging from a news reporter stating the case will make him famous to one of the Navar’s head’s relatives bringing a lawyer down.

Meanwhile Slodowski is getting to the bottom of the case but Kostrzewa is wheedling the shares from the significant others. Slodowski is successful in getting whatever evidence he can against the accused. However he himself is being challenged by the media and he starts feeling like he’s being used in Kostrzewa’s team instead of getting his own fair share.

Soon the truths begin to unravel. Kostrzewa and his team experience retaliation on their part which leads to their fate. The two main businessmen of the factory are released with Maj recovering in the hospital from a suicide attempt. This sets up for a smart but unexpected ending to the events.

I don’t know if director Ryszard Bugajski was trying to get a message out about Communism meeting capitalism in a post-Eastern Bloc Poland or if he was trying to play out a drama that’s actually based on true events. If he tried to get a message out of old Communists in Poland trying to use power in keeping the spirit alive, I don’t think it was clear enough. Besides Kostrzewa suffers setbacks of his own. I’ll admit I’ve never lived in Poland so I can’t really describe this as a depiction of Polish power struggle or not. I feel it was more about playing events out and creating a drama that would have the audience intrigued with what will happen next for both the heads of Navar and the team of lawyers and the families of both teams.

There was an additional quality to the story line. The story didn’t just simply play out the events in a legal crackdown on a company. The story added the human elements to it too. The events during and after the arrests of the heads of Navar showed the hurt done to family members. Numerous times we saw the feelings of those played out. There were a lot of scenes that stood out. One was of Maj’s wife as she is left depressed after the arrest of Piotr and her miscarriage. Another is of the two heads of Navar who look through the empty factory after their release from jail. Another came from Kostrzewa, among other characters. Kostrzewa frequently comes across a tough pitbull-like lawyer determined to win. However there’s that scene where he sees Piotr Maj in the hospital after a suicide attempt. It’s as if at that moment, he’s no longer Mr. Tough Guy and he feels sorry for him. In retrospect, I think of that scene where Kostrzewa starts having regret and hopes not to destroy a second Maj.

This is a great film by Ryszard Bugajski. Bugajski is a director who has been able to prove himself well in recent years. He actually worked with legendary Polish director Andrzej Wajda in his Studio X in the late 70’s. He fled Poland in 1985 and moved to Canada where he was able to acquire opportunities in writing and directing episodes for American television dramas in the 80’s. His film work only started coming to light once Communism fell in Poland and his films have since won Bugajski renown of his own including Interrogation: a film made in 1982 but was denied release until the fall of Communism in 1990. Once released, he was nominated with the film for a Palme d’Or in Cannes and a European Film Award.

He has followed it up with excellent film works since and this is now his chance to make a movie in his home country. His direction in this film along with the collaboration of writers Miroslaw Piepka and Michal Pruski is an excellent drama that could even rival the suspense levels of American legal dramas. The acting was also excellent too as there were many good performances from the main leads to the supporting parts. If there was one performance that stood out, it was from Janusz Gajos as the tough guy Kostrzewa. His portrayal of a tough lawyer who eventually gets weakened mentally when he’s reminded of past mistakes and has to confront his misdoings in this case was a very good performance and definitely the one that got the most attention from the film.

The Closed Circuit is another example of countries trying to shell out movies internationally. They may have shelled out movies before that would fare well in their home country but would end up substandard internationally in the past. Now they’re making the effort to shell out quality movies that can fare well outside their home country too. As I mentioned before, the main thing that separates movies from films is that they are more entertainment-focused. As a legal drama, it’s very good at including incidents to keep the audience intrigued from start to finish as well as include human elements inside the story. I’m sure North American audiences who don’t mind watching a movie with subtitles would also be taken in by the suspense of the events. One thing about the VIFF crowd I saw it with. They laughed during the scene where the bishop blesses the factory. I guess they don’t understand Polish society where they value the blessings of priests even in business locations.

The Closed Circuit was a top attraction at the VIFF. It is a very good drama and is an excellent choice for people who like legal dramas. This also takes Polish moviemaking to a new level.

NOTE TO VANCOUVERITES: This weekend (October 18-20) there will be the Vancouver Polish Film Festival over at the SFU Theatre at the Woodwards square. The Closed Circuit will be playing Saturday the 19th at 5:30. More info at: http://www.vpff.ca

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