REVIEW: “Mr. Jones” (2020)

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The story of ambitious truth-seeker Gareth Jones is one of inspired vigor and rich with modern-day relevance. Jones was a journalist working as a foreign affairs advisor to Prime Minister David Lloyd George. He’s best known for exposing the horrors of the Holodomor, Stalin’s state sponsored man-made famine responsible for the deaths of millions in Soviet Ukraine. Jones was discredited by many of the world’s Soviet sympathizing media but never quit fighting for truth. He was shot to death one day before his 30th birthday.

“Mr. Jones”, a period bio-thriller from Polish director Agnieszka Holland, tells Jones’ story through a ‘cold-hard-facts’ lens. The film takes its time framing its story, spending most of its first half exploring Stalin’s propaganda apparatus and underlining the deception of Soviet stability. But then the movie makes a rather profound shift into gritty, unvarnished survivalism with barely any dialogue but full of haunting, visceral images.

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Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

We first meet Gareth Jones (played by a firmly committed James Norton) in 1933 shortly after his attention-grabbing interview with Adolf Hitler. He stands before a group of British cabinet ministers telling them of Hitler’s ambition and warning that the next Great War is already taking form. The stuffy old men blow off Jones’ claims, hardly ready to plunge their country into another world conflict. Discouraged but not defeated, Jones sticks to his belief that a tectonic shift is underway and the truth is being ignored.

Jones takes notice of some unexplainable changes happening in the Soviet Union. While the rest of the world struggles under a global economic crisis, the USSR is experiencing a surge in growth and modernization. Hungry for an interview with Stalin, Jones is able to get a press visa and heads to Russia. Once there he’s set to meet with his friend and embedded journalist Paul Kleb who has information that could validate Jones’ suspicions.

But first he crosses paths with Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), a hedonistic Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent for the New York Times with deep connections to the Kremlin. Duranty lives a lavish life in Moscow and is paid handsomely by the Soviet government to persuade the world’s perception of Stalin. Sarsgaard is a perfect fit, slithering from scene to scene, putting off the scent of respectability but every bit of a loathsome snake. A steadily intense Vanessa Kirby plays Ada, a writer for Duranty who doesn’t approve of her boss’ propaganda but is fearful of the power he wields.

From there the movie takes on a much different look, feel, and tone. Jones secures a supervised trip to the Ukraine investigating claims that Stalin had been funneling grain and other resources out of the country leaving the Ukrainian people to starve. He shakes his Soviet chaperone and ventures into the country discovering horrific truths – barren villages, dead bodies in the snow, packs of starving children, and Soviet soldiers with a chokehold on the food supply. It’s a story the world needs to hear, but getting the truth out of the USSR proves to be no easy task.

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Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

“Mr. Jones” feels like a neglected slice of history that’s finally being exposed. It’s story digs into a horrifying period that has been terribly underserved on our screens. And considering our current age of misinformation and biased “news”, this film packs a stinging modern-day applicability. I only wish it had plowed deeper into the Holodomor, specifically Stalin’s twisted motivations and unthinkable justifications. You could make a good argument that it would change this into a different movie altogether. But considering how big a part it plays in the story, it needed a more informative framing.

Still, this British-Polish-Ukrainian co-production does a good job immersing you in its setting and leaves you wanting to learn more. Holland and her screenwriter Andrea Chalupa deserve a ton of credit for the glance they give into Stalin’s propaganda machine and their vivid portrayal of the Soviet atrocities in the Ukraine. The latter is the movie at its most potent, avoiding big screen trappings and allowing the camera and Norton’s well-tuned performance to do the work.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Military Wives” (2020)

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For many of us the States, a quick glimpse of the title “Military Wives” could be misleading. It’s actually a reference to a broad network of choirs made up of women from the British military communities. The original idea was to bring women together while their husbands were deployed, offering them support and the opportunity to express themselves. The Military Wives Choir has grown exponentially and is present in British military bases across the world.

“Military Wives” comes from director Peter Cattaneo and the writing duo of Rachel Tunnard and Rosanne Flynn. It’s inspired by the formation of the very first military wives choir and focuses on a group of women brought together after their partners are deployed to Afghanistan. The film has all the workings of a classic feel-good crowd-pleaser down to some pretty predictable story beats. But even though you can see certain emotionally-charged scenes coming from a mile away, they’re still handled earnestly and respectfully. You can’t help but be affected.

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Photo Courtesy of Bleeker Street

The film features a great pairing of Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan. Both play wives at Flitcroft Garrison who couldn’t be more different. Kate (Scott Thomas) is the wife of the ranking officer (Greg Wise) and carries a lot of clout around the base. She’s also viewed as a bit stuffy by the other women. Lisa (Horgan) is more freethinking straight-shooter who most of the other wives seem to love.

The call to service comes and soldiers leave for a 6-month tour in Afghanistan where escalating tensions add an extra layer of stress for the women left behind. The wives do their best to create an atmosphere of normalcy, but it’s tough when every ring of the phone or buzz of the doorbell brings a jolt of fear. It’s the reason Kate constantly reminds the others “It’s very important to keep busy.” It’s what she does to keep from dwelling on her own son’s recent combat-related death.

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Photo Courtesy of Bleeker Street

As the ones in charge of organizing social activities, Kate and Lisa put together a choir although with very different ideas on what it should be. Kate takes a professional approach while Lisa thinks it should be fun and easygoing. It leads to several funny clashes between two really good actresses. Scott Thomas is a shrewd screen veteran who makes every movie she’s in better. Horgan, best known for her television work, is a terrific foil.

I probably don’t have to tell you where the story goes from there. The movie’s biggest problem is its predictability. Nothing in it will catch you by surprise. It uses the same basic story structure as so many movies before it. The relationships, though fun, come together exactly how you would expect. But what it lacks in originality it makes up in heart. “Military Wives” plays out like a thoughtful, well-meaning tribute to a those married into the military, a group too often forgotten. The characters make us care and the performances are authentic enough to make the familiarity less of an issue.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Men in Black International”

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I can say with absolute certainty that there was no part of me yearning for another “Men in Black” sequel. I was never a big fan of the original 1997 film with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Even less enthused about the next two sequels. So could a spin-off movie eight years later with fresh new faces invigorate the franchise for a new audience? If comparing box office numbers, the answer is a resounding ‘No’.

Here’s the surprising thing – “Men in Black: International” isn’t terrible. In fact it can be surprisingly fun at times. Predictable, unimaginative, and unnecessary? For sure. But the charisma and chemistry between its two stars Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson at least makes the globetrotting goofiness bearable.

The story (penned by Art Marcum and Matt Holloway) begins with two flashbacks. One back to 2016 where Agent H (Hemsworth) and High T (Liam Neeson) fight off an alien invasion on top of the Eiffel Tower. The second is 20 years earlier in Brooklyn where a young girl named Molly helps a friendly alien escape as Men in Black agents wipe the memories of her parents.

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Photo Courtesy Sony Pictures

Twenty-three years later the bookish Molly (Thompson) sneaks her way into the MiB New York City headquarters aspiring to join their ranks. She makes a strong impression which prompts the head of the US division (Emma Thompson) to give her probationary status as Agent M. She is assigned to the London branch of the MiB which is ran by High T. and is partnered with the disaffected Agent H to stop two twins empowered with alien energy and so on.

Along the way we meet Kumail Nanjiani voicing a tiny alien chess piece creature named (of course) Pawny and Rebecca Ferguson as one of H’s old flames. Both are good performers and they have their moments but neither add much to the story. It all comes back to how much of the load Hemsworth and Thompson can carry. The pair definitely do their part but the movie needs more than just two likable leads.

“Men in Black: International” disappointed at the box office and numbers show it didn’t quite break even. You have to think this will mark the end of a franchise that (if we’re honest) probably shouldn’t have been resurrected to begin with. But it was, it came, it went, and (for many) I’m sure it has already been forgotten. I can understand why. It’s pretty middling entertainment with nothing particularly memorable or exciting to offer.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Marriage Story”

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The title of Noah Baumbach’s emotionally-charged, fractured-family drama “Marriage Story” is dripping with irony. It could more accurately be called a divorce story, but one full of personal reflections on a marriage that was. It’s also one of the rawest and most authentic looks at divorce ever put on screen. Obviously that doesn’t make it an easy watch, but it is an incredibly affecting one.

But there is a better way to read the title. It could just as easily be a reference to the stories told by the two leads to friends, therapists, and eventually lawyers. Their stories are rooted in their perspectives of what went wrong with their marriage and with what drove them to such a contentious split. And in one of the sadder turns, they eventually lose control of their stories to the lawyers who ensure things only get uglier and more painful.

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© Netflix All Rights Reserved

While not all of Baumbach’s movies emotionally register with me, they’re never boring and they display an unabashed humanity that never comes across as disingenuous. His “Marriage Story” script is one of the most real and brutally honest works of his career. He puts aside the acid-tongued wit for more verisimilitude and veracity. But that doesn’t mean the humor isn’t there. The moments of levity Baumbach injects are welcomed and also quite funny.

I love the way the film opens. A New York couple (which becomes a significant point of debate later on) take turns telling us what they love about each other. It’s sweet, heartfelt, and organic. But it’s also Baumbach throwing us a curveball. It turns out that the words are part of an exercise they’re doing for a separation therapist. The session doesn’t go well and we quickly sense the couple’s relationship has reached the point of no return.

While Baumbach’s script is among the year’s best, his character-driven story hinges on its two Oscar-caliber lead performances. Adam Driver plays Charlie, an avant-garde stage prodigy whose small theater company is on the verge of hitting it big. His lead actress is his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), a former teen movie up-and-comer who left her film career behind to help Charlie produce plays in New York. The two get married and have a son Henry (Azhy Robertson).

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© Netflix All Rights Reserved

But we learn that over a fairly short period of time their marriage has crumbled. They agree to handle their separation amicably and without involving lawyers. Nicole is offered the lead role in a new television pilot so she leaves the theater and flies to Los Angeles with Henry. Charlie, naively thinking Nicole’s move is temporary, stays in New York preparing his play for its big Broadway debut.

In LA Nicole breaks the news to her mother (the delightfully spacey Julie Hagerty) and her high-strung big sister (Merritt Wever), both of who are divorced themselves. While on the set of her new show Nicole is convinced by one of her producers (who also happens to be divorced) to hire high-profile celebrity attorney Nora Fanshaw (yep, divorced). She’s shrewd, cut-throat and played with unbridled confidence by a fantastic Laura Dern.

When Charlie flies to LA to see Henry he’s blindsided with divorce papers from Nicole and told to lawyer-up tossing their previous agreement out the window. The first attorney Charlie meets (Ray Liotta) plays dirty like Nora but is too expense (and looks to be divorced). So he settles for a semi-retired family lawyer named Bert Spitz (Alan Alda in another great bit of casting). He’s far more easy-going and appeasing. Oh, and he has been divorced three times! Do you sense a trend?

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© Netflix All Rights Reserved

As the lawyers become more involved things get nastier and Baumbach wisely lets it play out at a very natural pace. We are fed bits of information through conversations and confessions that give us a clearer vision of both Charlie and Nicole. They’re both flawed and with the exception of one sin Charlie commits (which I could have done without) its easy for us to be empathetic. The movie maintains a delicate balance, making no judgments and keeping our sympathies shifting back-and-forth. But overall we can’t help but root for both.

So we end up with a heart-wrenching account of a crumbled relationship, the ugliness of the divorce process, and its sad, complex aftermath. Baumbach drives his story with rich narrative detail, often building to scenes of painful, visceral release. Take what may be the film’s signature sequence where an argument between Nicole and Charlie savagely escalates to a devastating crescendo. The script’s candor along with the ferocity of both Driver and Johansson makes for a bruising exchange. It’s tough to watch but it is mesmerizing cinema.

“Marriage Story” has a lot to say about modern marriage and with such painfully high divorce numbers it’s sure to resonate with a great many people. And as we sit back and observe this cross-country separation Baumbach gives us lots to consider: relationships are tough, splitting up is tougher, and for some lawyers divorce is a lucrative business. More importantly he reminds us that those effected are real people and no one is left unscathed.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Midway” (2019)

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I hate to say this but one thing that always keeps my expectations in check is seeing Roland Emmerich’s name attached to a project. For me he is the epitome of a hit-or-miss filmmaker. When he misses the results can be pretty dreadful (see 1998’s “Godzilla”, “White House Down”, and “Independence Day: Resurgence”). But he’s also the guy who gave us the rip-roaring original “Independence Day” and I still have plenty of love for “The Patriot”.

But what of his latest, the historical war picture “Midway”? Within minutes of watching I couldn’t help but pick up on the old-school movie vibes that informs us on the kind of film Emmerich is going for. It’s a movie that celebrates the valor, grit and patriotism of those who fought and sacrificed for their country. It may be a by-the-books tribute, but I still have room for entertaining old-fashioned war pictures even if others (unfortunately) dismiss them as out-of-date.

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The film attempts to cover a lot of ground starting with the attack on Pearl Harbor then onto the eventual Battle of Midway. Along the way we meet fighter pilots, admirals, specialists, and codebreakers who with others planned and carried out what is still considered one of the most pivotal naval battles in United States military history. There are plenty of action sequences, almost all of it being air and sea combat. But there are just as many (if not more) scenes of tense military strategizing.

“Midway” follows numerous characters but the main is a hotshot pilot and squadron commander Dick Best (Ed Skrein). He loses a close friend at Pearl Harbor which makes him eager to take the fight to Japan despite having a concerned wife (Mandy Moore) and toddler daughter at home. Woody Harrelson plays Admiral Chester Nimitz, the unlucky soul put in charge of the Pacific fleet and tasked with putting together the US response. And the always reliable Patrick Wilson plays Edwin Layton, the chief intelligence officer who tried to warn Washington about the Pearl Harbor attack.

Several other familiar faces pop in and out of the story including Luke Evans, Dennis Quaid, Aaron Eckhart and Nick Jonas. With such a list of reliable talent naturally the performances are solid throughout. Yet there is so much bouncing back-and-forth between war rooms and aerial engagements we rarely get the character depth that would have made this film really stand out. As a strict military procedural it works well, but it’s the human element that sometimes falls through the cracks.

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Again, Emmerich gives as much attention to the buildup as he does the warfare. It makes sense considering the actual Battle of Midway was just as much about the tactics and maneuvering as the fighting. “Midway” strikes a good balance and keeps a steady pacing right through to the inevitable combat-heavy finale. Speaking of the combat, the action scenes are surprisingly thrilling despite a heavy dependence on CGI. A little repetitive but still exciting.

Yes, “Midway” gives us the occasional line of dialogue that seems pulled from the John Wayne era, but it’s still a fitting and fun way to remember those who fought and sacrificed in a signature battle in American military history. And sure, the film’s unabashed patriotism is out of fashion today and certain to face cries of jingoism. But I’m glad movies like this occasionally come down the pipeline and “Midway” is a nice surprise from “Emmerich”.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

Denzel Day #11 : “Man on Fire”

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Director Tony Scott’s 2004 revenge-soaked thriller “Man on Fire” has a weird allure despite being jarringly formulaic and drowning its audience in a deluge of visual excesses. There is hardly anything about it that feels original and the story evolves into something utterly implausible. Yet there is something about it that has always kept me steadily entertained.

Denzel Washington plays John Creasy , an ex-Marine Special Forces officer turned boozing assassin-for-hire. He has bounced around Central America doing shady contracts and wrestling with sins from his past. An old friend who runs a Mexican security outfit (Christopher Walken) encourages Creasy to take a bodyguard job in the wake of a series of politically-motivated kidnappings. It should be easy work and easy money. Yeah right.

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Creasy is hired by Samuel Ramos (Mark Anthony), a well-to-do entrepreneur who lives lavishly in Mexico City with his beautiful American wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell) and their precocious young daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning). Creasy is strictly business: keep an eye on Pita, drive her to school, bring her back home. At night he tries to drown his demons with more alcohol while even contemplating suicide.

But he didn’t expect for the tender and persistent Pita to soften him up. The two form a sweet bond. You know, a ‘child and her bodyguard’ kind of bond. Pita gets a more present father figure. Creasy begins to remember what it’s like to enjoy living. But sadly this isn’t that kind of movie which means that bad things have to happen. Pita is kidnapped and Creasy is severely wounded trying to save her. As he recovers, her abductors make their ransom demands – $10 million.

Ramos agrees to pay but things go terribly wrong during the drop off. Creasy recoups and sets out to enact his own brand of vengeance and justice. With the help of Pita the old Creasy had been suppressed. With her gone he resurfaces with guns, rocket launchers, and a simmering bloodlust towards anyone who participated in or benefited from Pita’s kidnapping. And you quickly understand why he would be battling with demons.

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I like the idea of a man struggling with a torturous past that resurfaces, forcing him to confront it. The conflict between ‘old self’ and ‘new self’ amid such a strong thirst for revenge is intriguing stuff. Unfortunately the movie wants to have to have its cake and eat it too. Early on the movie gives several scenes to Creasy’s boiling inner tumult. But once the stylish big screen killing begins any sense of personal struggle goes out the window. I would have loved to have seen a more psychological dig into his troubled psyche.

As it is “Man on Fire” stays on a pretty conventional path. It features a ton of Denzel and a sweet child/bodyguard dynamic (both strengths). The action (often shot like a fever dream) lands somewhere in the middle. At times it’s thrilling, other times it’s overbearing. Worst of all it ends up smothering out the interesting character work we’re teased with early on. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but at almost two-and-a-half hours the film really needs more meat on its bones.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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