Tag Archives: Wales

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.’

2016 UEFA Euro Semifinals: Preview And Predictions

Euro Semis

How about that? The past three-and-a-half weeks have narrowed the field from 24 to four. It’s been full of shocking surprises with teams like the Czechs, Swedes and Russians performing well below expectations in the Group Stage. It’s also had unpleasant surprises off the football field with rowdy behavior from Russian, Croatian and Hungarian fans. It’s also had a lot of positive surprises like Wales and Iceland humiliating bigger competition. And now we’re down to four: Portugal, Wales, Germany and France. It’s the semifinals to decide the two teams to play for the final for the Championship. So here’s my rundown of the two Semifinals:

SEMIFINAL #1: PORTUGAL vs. WALES

Head To Head Stuff:

This is one head-to-head scenario where I don’t have much to compare. Wales only once played Portugal all the way back in 2000. Portugal won.

Team-By-Team Analysis:

PortugalPortugal: Portugal has been an enigma at this tournament. They’ve been very successful in making their way to the semifinals but they’ve grazed the bar almost each and every time. One important fact for this Euro: Portugal is the only semifinalist that has not had a single win in regulation time. All three of their group games were draws, their Round of 16 win against Croatia game after a single goal from Quaresma in added extra time, and their quarterfinal win was thanks to a penalty shootout. Even star Cristiano Ronaldo has faced some flack for underplaying. He should be thankful his two goals against Hungary were what Portugal needed to stay alive in the tournament. If Portugal expects to win the semifinal, they will have to come together and play solid. They can’t afford to take it easy or give things away. Not while Wales has been performing while other teams have slacked off.

WalesWales: Two of the biggest Cinderella teams at this Euro have been Iceland and Wales. In fact the Euro 2016 can best be remembered as the tournament where Gareth Bale finally came to prominence in international play. He’s one of only five players here that has scored three or more goals. In addition to Bale, other teammates had moments to shine too like Ashley Williams, Aaron Ramsey and the currently-unsigned Hal Robson-Kanu. In fact the whole team has performed as a solid unit winning matches over teams with bigger clout like Slovakia, Russia and especially #2 ranked Belgium 3-1 in the quarterfinals. Who decides these FIFA rankings anyways?

Wales does have its imperfections. In fact it faced a heated battle against Northern Ireland in the Round of 16 and was only lucky to advance thanks to an auto goal scored by Gareth McAuley: the only goal of the match. In short, Wales have proven themselves able to deliver. However it’s a matter of them all being there.

My Verdict: With no reliable head-to-head stats to base a judgement, I have to base it on the team’s play during the Euro. I predict Wales to win 2-1 in added extra time.

SEMIFINAL #2: GERMANY vs. FRANCE

Head To Head Stuff:

They’ve both faced each other off twelve times ever. France has won six times, Germany four and two draws. Germany’s wins have been one home, three away. France’s wins have been three home, three away. Germany’s last win over France was at the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals. France’s last win over Germany was during a friendly in Paris in November 2015.

Team-By-Team Analysis:

Germany FootballGermany: Germany faced a lot of expectations here at the Euro. They came as the reigning World Cup holders who were struggling to form a new team with new younger talent. They’ve done very well for the most part as they won 2-0 against Ukraine and 1-0 against Northern Ireland. Their big moment came in the Round of 16 when they beat Slovakia 3-0. Remarkable since Slovakia beat them 3-1 in a friendly one month earlier.

This Euro has also been the arena where Germany’s weaknesses have also been exposed. First was the 0-0 draw against Poland in the Round of 16. The second came against Italy in the quarterfinals. It wasn’t simply drawing 1-1 but their three misses in the penalty shootout right during the first five. Usually Germany are the experts at penalty kicks going without a miss in a major tournament since 1982. That was a shock! Had Italy not also had three misses in their first five, it would’ve been the Italians heading to the semis instead.

The German team here in Euro 2016 is very capable of great play and have gone beyond most people’s expectations. However they cannot give anything away while playing against France. Not while France is host nation and playing brilliantly.

FranceFrance: France is one team that has been on a roll consistently. They’ve only had a single draw: 0-0 against Switzerland in the Group Stage. Everything else has been a win: 2-1 over Romania, 2-0 over Albania, 2-1 over Ireland and 5-2 over Iceland. They even have the three highest scorers: Antoine Griezmann with four, Olivier Giroud with three, and Dimitri Payet with three. Having Didier DesChamps, captain of France’s 1998 World Cup winning team, as coach definitely has a lot to do with it.

France have been excellent though they aren’t perfect. The team has definitely risen to the occasion game after game and showed all of Europe they’re ready to win at home. They have not had a single loss in 2016. However they could face the pressure of playing at home. Sure, they may have beaten Germany in a friendly in Paris seven months ago but Germany may have something up their sleeve. Don’t forget Germany did a reversal on Slovakia. Also keep in mind Germany beat France 1-0 in the quarterfinals in Brazil as Des Champs was coaching. Some food for thought.

TRIVIA: The world was horrified on Friday November 13, 2015 when six bombs went off in various areas of Paris. The first attack was at 9:20pm just outside the Stade de France; right while the friendly between France and Germany was taking place. In fact the two explosions can be heard on video replays during the 16th minute and 19th minute of that game, which continued on and France won 2-0.

My Verdict: There’s no one ‘wonderteam’ at this Euro but I think France is the team that most has it together. I think they will win 1-0.

And those are my predictions for the semifinals for Euro 2016. I may be right. I may be wrong. All to be decided Wednesday and Thursday.

 

 

UEFA Euro 2016: Group B Focus

UEFA-Euro-2016-Live

Here I am with my second review of the Euro 2016 Groups. One thing I won’t do for this tournament is review the stadiums like I did for the World Cups of 2014 and 2015. I prefer to restrict it to World Cups. Group reviewing is something I won’t stray away from. So without further ado, here’s my review of Group B:

WalesWales (24): This is Wales’ first ever Euro. They may have played in a single World Cup back in 1958 but this will be their first Euro. Some will say this is thanks to star player Gareth Bale but you could say it’s more thanks to coach Chris Coleman. Besides there are four other players on the team with more career caps than Bale.

The Dragons may not have the biggest combined talent but they can prove to be a surprise such as winning against Belgium and tying against Bosnia and Northern Ireland. However they will face a tough Group B. They’ve played Slovakia twice ever winning once and losing the other time. They’ve never won against Russia in the four times they’ve played them and they’ve lost to England more often than they’ve won against them. It will have to take the right play and right team unity if they want to get far.

SlovakiaSlovakia (32): This is Slovakia’s first ever Euro. They’ve competed at the 2010 World Cup before but never a Euro. Slovakia doesn’t have too many players on its national team playing for too many major leagues but they play very well as a team. In the past two years, they’ve had wins over Spain, Ukraine, Switzerland, Czech Republic and most recently Germany. They’ve also lost to Spain and Belarus. Leading to Euro 2016, their chances in Group play are iffy. The Falcons have always lost to England, have a win and a loss against Wales and have mixed results against Russia. France will be the grounds where they will take another step in defining themselves.

England fixedEngland (10): What do you do after your team has possibly their most humiliating result in World Cup play ever? Surprisingly England still kept coach Roy Hodgson after World Cup 2014. The Three Lions has since delivered excellent play since winning all but four of their games and losing only twice, to Spain and the Netherlands. Notable wins since include Germany and France. Hey, humiliation can be one helluva motivator.

The big question is can they continue their success streak into Euro 2016 all the way to the win. England has always had the reputation of bringing the most talented players to a major tournament but lacking the necessary team unity to win. They’ve shown since World Cup 2014 that England can play as a united team, and play very good. They will come to France with a lot of young talented players as well some of the young players of World Cup 2014 that have become well-seasoned over time and some older experienced veterans like Wayne Rooney. Euro 2016 will write another chapter for the team.

Russia FixedRussia (27): If there’s one team that’s struggling to make a name for itself, it’s Russia. Ever since the fall of the USSR in 1991, Russian football has struggled to get a reputation. It’s fallen out during the Group Stage in each of the three World Cups they’ve played. They’ve had better success at the Euro with a semifinals placement in 2008 but they’ve been Group Stage each of the three other times including the last Euro.

They want to deliver an excellent performance at this Euro especially with the fact they will host the 2018 World Cup. They want to send a message to the world they’re a force to be reckoned with. One thing Russia has returned to is hiring their own as head coach. In the past they hired foreign coaches like Guus Huddink and Fabio Capello to get their team in action. Now they have Leonid Slutsky who also coaches CSKA Moscow. All but one of the players are part of the Russian Premier League. They have a mixed record in the past two years. They have notable wins against Sweden and Portugal. They’ve only had three losses but to Austria, Croatia and France. Euro 2016 will not only be the arena for them to prove themselves once more but also to prepare en route to the big one in 2018.

Prediction: England has the most consistency. I think they will come out on top. Russia will come in second and Slovakia will come in third.

And there are my thoughts on Group B. Review of Group C up next.

UPDATE:

Here are my reviews of the other groups:

 

VIFF 2012 Review: Hunky Dory

Minnie Driver urges her students on in Hunky Dory.

How often has a movie about a high school musical been done before? Now that Hunky Dory is out, does it add anything new or is it the same old schtick?

It’s the summer of 1976 in a small Welsh town. A young teacher, Vivienne, gets together with her drama group students to arrange to put on a play. As anticipated, it’s a Shakespeare play: The Tempest. Not as anticipated, she wants to put a twist on it by adapting the popular music of the time to it.

It’s difficult enough to arrange as it is but Vivienne and the students face other difficulties along the way. First Vivienne puts the students under a demanding rehearsal schedule that demands much of their time and in sweltering heat. Secondly the students have problems of their own: Stella is undecided between loving Davey or the boy at the disco; Evan is struggling to accept his homosexuality while he currently has a girlfriend; Kenny is pressured by his brother to join a gang of skinheads; the band face tensions of their own; and Davey, the central teen, faces the lures of Stella and Vivienne while dealing with the pressures of a broken home. Thirdly Vivienne faces a lot of dissent from many people in the school, especially Mrs. Valentine and Mr. Cafferty. She does find relief with the volunteering of the headmaster. Fourthly a fire happens and all the play’s props are burned to a crisp. The movie leads to a somewhat predictable ending but it also gives an epilogue detailing what has happened to the students since. It left me wondering “Did this really happen?” I’ve been known to question movies that are ‘based on a true story’ or ‘inspired by true events.’

I’ll have to admit this is not original stuff. This is a common scenario of a music teacher putting on a new twist to a play, people in the school unhappy and even offended with it and teenage conflicts during and between rehearsals along the way. How often have we seen that before? One quality that the story has is that the problems the students went through along the way were very common and realistic to the problems teenagers go through and continue to go through today. Romantic love triangles, the pressures of joining a gang, learning of one’s homosexuality, starting a band and tensions happening along the way, those are all common teenage problems that occur decade after decade. The young cast did a very good job of making them look real and relatable.

Another thing the film did very well is remind us of the charm of 70’s music. Yes the film gave you the feel you were watching a Glee episode but seeing the young people sing and perform songs from David Bowie, Roxy Music, 10cc, ELO, The Byrds this movie brings the charm back and reminds you why those songs charmed the teens then and continue to charm today. In fact the film’s title is the title of a 1971 album by David Bowie and one of the songs from it, Life On Mars, is the first song in the film where the students are performing or rehearsing.

Minnie Driver did a good performance where she was able to display her singing skills along with her acting, but I’ve seen better overall acting from her in the past. This movie actually belonged to supporting ensemble of actors playing the teenagers in the movie. The movie was about them growing up and dealing with their own personal issues while rehearsing for the musical and they did a very good job of it. They also did a good job of acting like Welsh teens from the 70’s. The one of the teens that stood out was Aneurin Barnard as Davey, the one caught in the middle of the play, family tensions and a possible liaison with Vivienne. The only adult actor to steal the movie away from the teens had to be Robert Pugh who goes from your typical stodgy headmaster to siding with Vivienne in the end. Marc Evans is not too experienced with directing features as he is with television and documentaries but he does a good effort in this movie, if unspectacular. Scriptwriter Laurence Coriat brings in some depth in what could have been another run-of-the-mill high school musical script. The music was very good and very professional. Overall all actors did a good combined job of acting and singing.

I didn’t originally plan to see Hunky Dory that day: the Sunday before Canadian Thanksgiving. I meant to see Late Quartet but tickets for volunteers were finished and I had to wait in the Rush Line as my last chance. I did secure a ticket for Hunky Dory just in case I was out of luck. Sure enough, I was out of luck for Late Quartet. Despite missing Last Quartet, I’m quite content in seeing Hunky Dory that Sunday night.

Hunky Dory has done the film festival circuit and is due for big screen release anytime soon. IMDB shows the movie listed as released on March 2, 2012 in the UK and Ireland. Wikipedia says that it will be released by Universal Pictures in the US and 20th Century Fox around the rest of the world. This would make it the first British independent film secured by a major studio. I thought Billy Elliot was. Whatever the stats, the purchase by those two companies should boost the box office outcome of Hunky Dory in the future.

Basically Hunky Dory is not meant to take film making or music making in any new directions. It’s the same story redone and made to look different. Nevertheless its purpose it appears is to entertain the crowd and it does just that. Fans of musical movies or shows like Glee or High School Musical will like it.