Tag Archives: Randolph

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 2015 Best Picture Review: The Big Short

Big Short

The Big Short will make you lose all the respect you have in the banking system, if you’re even dumb enough to have any respect for it period.

We live in an era of fraud in America. Not just in banking, but in government, education, religion, food, even baseball… What bothers me isn’t that fraud is not nice. Or that fraud is mean. For fifteen thousand years, fraud and short sighted thinking have never, ever worked. Not once. Eventually you get caught, things go south. When the hell did we forget all that? I thought we were better than this, I really did.

The Big Short has been the surprise of this year’s awards season. It’s one of the Oscar entries with the least hype but is somehow coming out on top or pretty close. I decided to find out why.

The film begins in 2005 with Michael Burry, an eccentric hedge fund manager who’s socially flawed but very successful at what he does. He’s actually an M.D. but decided to go into the financial industry. One day he hears how housing prices have increased in Silicon Valley despite the decrease of jobs. He gets his answer. He finds out that the banks and financial industries are giving out subprime mortgages with big risk to underqualified people. The banks either don’t know about this or their too lazy to solve things.

Burry suspects this will lead to the collapse of the American economy within due time. However Burry is also creative. He knows how to ‘short’ the system by creating by creating a credit default swap market allowing him to bet against the housing market. He goes to the various banks offering megamillions to wager. The banks are willing to accept, feeling Burry will lose and the housing market is secure.

Burry’s deal catches the attention of Deutsche Bank trader Jared Vennett, whom the film is mostly scene through his point of view. Vennett hears about it from a banker he dealt with and investigates Burry’s claims for himself. Once he learns of the truth that the mortgages are high-risk, poorly-organized, sold-for-big-numbers and practically unsupervised by the banks and lending companies, he gets his own piece of the default swap action of his own.

An accidental phone call from Vennett to hedge fund manager Mark Baum catches Baum’s interest. Baum is a good businessman but is tough, cynical and isn’t afraid to let people know when something is going wrong. Heck, he was a Doubting Thomas since he was a child. Baum meets up with Vennett and is given a demonstration by Vennett and his assistant through a Jenga blocks set. Vennett demonstrates how the encroaching collapse is being further perpetuated by the sale of CDOs: Collateralized Debt Obligations. These poor loans are given incorrectly high loan ratings from A to AAA and B to BBB due to the dishonesty of the ratings agency. Baum is reluctant and this takes over his mind.

At the same time, Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley are making their way into Wall Street. The two young Colorado men formed their own investment and trading business in Jamie’s garage where the two helped turn $100,000 into $40 million in four year. Now they want to take it to the next level by achieving on Wall Street but despite their promise, they lack the stuff to play with the big guns. At a bank where they failed to get assistance, Geller encountered a paper where he learns of Vennett’s attempt to short and they want a piece of the action. However they will need an IDSA and they lack the minimum capital to profit from this. They are able to get what they need from their friend and mentor Ben Rickert: a retired banker who now gardens for a living.

The time after is not business as usual. Burry’s story may have gotten a lot of notice but it’s also gotten to the ire of his clients. They feel the housing market is very secure and he’s wasting their money. Many demand he stop what he’s doing but he refuses. He even keeps the percentage increase in his ‘shorting’ in big red numbers on his whiteboard. Geller and Shipley consult with Rickert on making a future deal. Geller proposes a large amount of money despite Shipley’s reluctance.

Baum is frustrated by all this and he enlists two of his workers to check up on the housing situation by driving into neighborhoods. What they see is not pleasant: people with low incomes owning two-storied homes and one home rented out to a low income family by a landlord owing five months on his mortgage which he took out under his dog’s name! The landlord himself abandoned his own home to the point an alligator was able to crawl into the swimming pool. In addition, Baum learns of successful mortgage salesman who are going as far as selling mortgages to underqualified immigrants and even giving out NINJA mortgages (NINJA: NO Income No Job no Assests) as well as a banker for a major bank who’s willing to let it happen for fear clients will take their business to the competition and get their mortgage there.

Then comes the American Securitization Forum in Las Vegas. Burry isn’t there but Vennett and Baum are there together along with Geller, Shipley and Rickert to get their IDSA and their own piece of the default swap. Baum comes across a CDO manager who reveals much to Baum’s horror that he’s created synthetic CDOs: a chain of large bets on the faulty loans which actually total more money than the actual CDOs. It’s there where Baum’s business partners convince him to take this on. Geller and Shipley get their IDSA and they find their piece of the action in AA CDOs which have been overlooked by most of the bigwigs. They get their opportunity but they’re reminded by Rickert of the immense hurt that will happen to the American public once they win in their gamble. The celebration of the two ends right there.

Returning back to their business expecting the doomsday to happen any day soon, Baum wants to be the one settling the score as he himself tries to get the word out at public meetings. Geller and Shipley try to get the word out to the news but no one from a former college classmate who now works for the Wall Street Journal to Jamie’s brother’s ex-girlfriend who is a broker to even Charlie’s parents believe their doomsday claims. Burry’s investors still continue to refute his claims and want to pull out until Burry puts a moratorium on their withdrawals, much to their anger.

The stock market crash of 2008 eventually happens. Burry, Vennett and Baum were right all along. Businesses collapsed, the unemployment rate went up, the homelessness rate skyrocketed, trillions of dollars invested by the American people were lost. Not to mention many countries, especially in Europe, went through their economic crises that still exist today. In addition Burry’s investments increased fivefold from his original investment, Vennett made a nifty $77 million and Charlie and Jamie got the big financial break they sought. But no one’s smiling. Oh yeah, did I mention that there was no bank reform done and there was only one arrest from this whole mess?

This is a film that gets inside the world financial crisis of today. We should all be angry and outraged with the system for what it did with the people’s hard-earned money. We had a banking system that was too laxed and had next to no restrictions in giving out mortgages to people even if they weren’t qualified. We had people who saw the eventual doom but opted to get a piece of the action. We had bankers and mortgage dealers who were irresponsible enough to make salesmen of themselves and only care about getting big numbers for bonus checks. We had the bankers, investors and other financial professionals either negligent or ignorant to what’s happening. People’s hard-earned investments, funds and savings were treated like gambling money by these professionals. In the end, it led to the biggest collapse in the world’s economy since the stock market crash of 1928.

The film gives us what we should have to be angry with the system. However the film also does a good job in making a comedy out of it. I myself have come across a lot of situations that have been very nasty or very stressful but also very funny because of the stupidity behind it all. This is the magic of the film. It finds the humor of the stupidity that occurred in the system. While The Wolf Of Wall Street made Wall Street look like a jungle, this film made the banking and loan system look like they treated the system like it was a playground of people’s money. The film gives us many characters we find entertaining and funny but also types we just want to give the middle finger to. The film also makes us laugh at the stupidity that’s going on while having us leave the theatre infuriated in our afterthoughts.

In the end, the laughter ends and even those that profited big are disheartened. Burry’s not celebrating the big returns his investments got. Baum is left with a huge stomach ache and looks like his soul is crushed in the end. Geller and Shipley have possibly the biggest impact as you can see as they’re in the abandoned NYSE building and they’ve lost complete faith in the system.

Another quality of the film is that it helps the average person make sense of a complicated system. The story of how it all happened is a long and complicated story that consists of terms the average person hasn’t heard of and exists in a system only those inside can make sense of and understand why it happened. In making this film, they had to make a film that would help the average person make better sense of the banking system and the products and outside products that come with it. Who outside of banking or investing knows what a CDO is or how to ‘short’ the market when it’s doing business or even what an IDSA is? This film helps make sense of these complicated terms and showed how they worked in a business that is supposed to make things work. The vignettes from celebrities giving an explanation or a demonstration of how things worked added to the humor of the film as well as the quality. Even that flashback to the late 1970’s of how Lewis Ranieri changed the bank system, and our lives ‘more than Michael Jordan, the iPod and YouTube put together’ also added to the story and make more sense of the irresponsibility.

I have to say this is an accomplishment for director Adam McKay. Adam is not known for directing serious movies. For the most part, he’s most famous for writing and directing Will Ferrell comedies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Stepbrothers. This film is a completely different change of pace for him. However he succeeds in directing and co-writing with Charles Randolph an excellent film that’s as much a comedy as it is a tragedy.

It’s often a wonder why someone would take what is a terrible moment in American history and turn it into a comedy. I guess that’s what McKay and Randolph are doing is that they’re showing the bizarre stupidity that happened the whole time in a comedic way. They deliver a film that will have you laughing at the ridiculousness of it all and at the same time infuriate you for days or even weeks after leaving the theatre.

McKay and Randolph also succeed in delivering a film that defies convention which is all the better for it. The use of cameos from other people in an attempt to get the audience to understand banking methods and money-making methods adds to the movie. Most people would think something like this would subtract from the quality. Instead it adds. Additional tricks in the film that add to the quality are scenes and moments where the characters stop the drama in their scenes and face us explaining the real story.

Standout performance has to go to Christian Bale as an eccentric businessman whose socially flawed but smart enough to sense a danger and get rich off of it despite his anger. His social reclusiveness as well as his fixation on music adds to the character’s dimension. The other big standout from the film was Steve Carell. His character of a man who just can’t get the impending doom off his mind and is unapologetically frank but also troubled is another show-stealer. Actually there were a lot of eye catching characters including that from Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett despite the role not being as complex as Bale’s Burry or Carell’s Baum. Additional scene stealers include John Magaro and Finn Wittrock as the two young and hungry businessmen who want a piece of the action but have a lot of learning to do. They first come off as the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of the film but it’s right at the end you see how much the realities have bit them.

The film doesn’t prove much in terms of outside things like a score or cinematography or effects. However the film put together unconventionally worked on so many levels. Besides other unconventional qualities I talked about previously, there’s also the added element of showing pictures and film clips of average Americans as they would be the ones paying the hardest price of it all. Even the addition of various news clips and music videos add to the film. The addition of a wide variety of music from hip-hop to rock is another added quality. I feel the film ending with Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks was the right choice because the levee broke here.

The Big Short is one film that will get a lot of people thinking. I may be Canadian but I was shocked at what I was seeing. I too was outraged at how irresponsible the American banking system was and how it appears to have learned nothing from this. I consider myself lucky to be Canadian after seeing this. For all its headaches, the Canadian banking system is a lot more responsible in terms of who it lends its products to and even declines if it feels it has to. However it does have some careless elements of its own. For my own experience, I signed up for a credit card the very first week I was in university while under NINJA status and I still got it. There was another time I was at my bank during company time but a credit card saleswoman wanted me to sign up for a Gold Visa card. Since she wouldn’t take no for an answer, I signed up for it hoping she would get off my case. I thought I wouldn’t get it since I didn’t have the minimum annual income for a Gold card. I got it to my surprise. I’m still unhappy about this. Makes you wonder how and why banks seem to have forgotten their standards. No wonder that British man in a pub said to Rickert: “$100 million? Are you a banker or a drug dealer? Because if you’re a banker, you can fuck right off!”

The Big Short will make you angry with the banking system but will also make you laugh at the stupidity as well. It’s part drama, part comedy, part history lesson and that is probably what makes it a winner.

Oh yes. Another year of watching all the Best Picture nominees. This makes it the fifteenth year in a row I’ve done so! Here’s to another Oscar year.