FlixChatter Review: MR. JONES (2019)

I’ve always been a fan of journalism film and this film shed a light on a horrifying event that I wasn’t familiar about – the Holodomor, the man-made famine-genocide in Ukraine in early 1930s that killed many Ukranians. The story is told through the eyes of Gareth Jones (James Norton), hence the title, a Welsh journalist who uncovered this horrific, but at the time was unreported genocide perpetrated by the Soviet government under Stalin. Jones was renowned at the time for having interviewed Adolf Hitler, and thanks to his connection with a former British PM, he was able to travel to the Soviet Union to interview Stalin.

James Norton as Gareth Jones

I immediately find the film genuinely gripping as well as stylish, directed by Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland who’s no stranger to war-related dramas. Her historical drama In Darkness, set during Nazi occupation in Poland, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of 2011. The film plays out like an engrossing spy thriller under Holland’s superb direction that makes you invested in Jones’ journey right from the start.

Now, Jones’s original mission was to find out more about the Soviet’s economic expansion, but he ended up uncovering something truly sinister behind the success of the Communist Party’s economic plan. Ukraine was referred to as ‘Stalin’s gold’  and clearly Stalin’s government tried to silence anyone who tried to uncover what happened there. Two fellow journalists that Jones met along his journey have two different reactions. Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), a British journalist, confirms that the truth about the famine is being repressed but she feels it’s too dangerous to speak about it. It’s understandable given an American journalist Paul Klebnikov turned up dead in Moscow while doing an investigative reporting on that topic.

Vanessa Kirby as Ada Brooks

The scenes in Ukraine where Jones saw with his own eyes the stark contrast between the prosperous Moscow and the stark villages in Soviet Ukraine is quite heart-wrenching. Set in the frosty Winter time, Jones was shivering as he walked on foot to see empty houses and dead bodies who have died of starvation. One of the most indelible scene is when he encountered a few kids and they took him to their home and gave him food. I won’t spoil it for you but let’s just say I’d have thrown up immediately like he did once I realized what I had eaten.

The solid script by Andrea Chalupa feels personal somehow, and likely because she was not simply documenting a horrific event in history, but her own grandparents had suffered the Holodomor during Stalin’s regime. In fact, Chalupa had recognized parallels between what’s written in Animal Farm, a seminal allegorical novella by George Orwell (portrayed by Joseph Mawle in the film), which speaks against totalitarianism and socialism. The humanistic approach was palpable and emotional, one truly sees the horrors in Jones’ eyes and his dismay that his story didn’t find the traction he hoped for upon his return. In fact, Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), the rather flamboyant chief of The New York Times’s Moscow bureau whom Jones had met in Moscow, vehemently denied his claims. It’s as if people knew what was happening but because of political and economical reasons refuse to let the truth come out. Worse, some people simply don’t care what happen to people they barely know about and it’s simply easier to turn a blind eye.

Peter Sarsgaard as Walter Duranty

Norton is a perfectly-cast as the idealistic journalist who strived to uncover the truth, even risking his own life to do it. Glad to see him in lead role in a feature film, after seeing him in mostly tv work and small supporting roles in movies. He’s definitely got the charisma and talent, so I hope to see him in more films. Kirby isn’t in very many scenes but she was memorable in the scenes she was in; while Sarsgaard is a reliable actor and he plays an unsympathetic character believably.

Mr. Jones is an important story that’s told brilliantly. It’s suspenseful, thrilling as well as emotional, filled with dread when it needs to be, without making the entire film feels gloomy or dejected. In fact, it has a lively pacing and uplifting tone, and in the end it is an uplifting film (though truth comes with a price).  The cinematography with bold, dynamic camera work by Polish DP Tomasz Naumiuk is simply stunning and has that eerie, atmospheric feel that’s perfect for this story.

If you’re a history buff, or even interested in a captivating story about a topic most people don’t know about and rarely portrayed in cinema, I definitely recommend Mr. Jones. Upon further research about Gareth Jones, he was inevitably banned from Soviet Union and ended up killed in 1935 by the Soviet secret police. His story certainly deserves to be told and this film is one of the most chilling but effective political thriller that’ll stay with you long after its opening credits.


Have you seen MR. JONES? Well, what did you think?

FlixChatter Review: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

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I gotta admit, I’m not much of a Western fan. Though interestingly enough, I’ve liked three western remakes in the past decade: 3:10 To Yuma, True Grit and then this one. Confession: I have NOT seen any of the original films. Now, people who have seen the original films would likely have a different opinion about the remake. For me, I guess I get the benefit of seeing the story for the first time, with nothing to compare it with.

The main draw for me to see this is the cast. Reportedly director Antoine Fuqua pitched the film to financiers with ‘Denzel Washington in all black riding a horse.’ Well if I were one of those financiers I’d definitely say ‘hell yeah’ to that, and that is quite a sight to behold. As with a lot of Westerns, well those I’ve seen anyway, we see the lone hero riding into town on his horse before we finally see his face. It’s interesting that Denzel being Black in that era naturally drives extra attention from townsfolk, even more so as he goes into a saloon. He’s definitely got the natural charisma, and here he’s got that cowboy swagger to boot!

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In the opening scene, we see a merciless and cruel industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (a slimy Peter Sarsgaard) terrorizing and murdering people in the tiny town for their land and mines. Poor Matt Bomer barely lasted past the opening credits! The first half pretty much is a recruiting process as Denzel’s Sam Chisolm gathered enough men to fight against Bogue and his men. First one he recruited is Josh Faraday (a great name that fits Chris Pratt nicely), a strapping cowboy w/ a devil-may-care attitude. Next  are Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his partner in crime Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), tall-dark-and-handsome Mexican outlaw Vazquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), skilled tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio) and lastly, Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). Each member of the awesomely-monikered gang has their own special skills, and given that Fuqua employed actors of various races, the skill is tailored to their heritage. Billy Rocks is a knife-wielding expert and Red Harvest is a master in archery, etc. but of course all of them are adept with guns as well. Out of the seven riders, naturally Denzel is my fave. Pratt looks like he’s having a blast here and I really like the dynamic between Hawke and Lee as the unlikely BFFs. I also couldn’t help swooning over Garcia-Rulfo, I sure hope to see more of Mexican actor in the future.


I have a great time watching this thanks to the eclectic cast. Apart from the calm and wise Chisolm, they look like they could be killing each other too and the banters are pretty fun throughout. Naturally this is not a character-driven piece, so details such as what exactly happened to Robicheaux is unclear. The only one with somewhat of a backstory is Chisolm, which isn’t revealed until the very end. Given that it’s 2016, writers Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto updated the story with a strong woman in the core of the conflict. Emma Cullen (newcomer Haley Bennett) isn’t so much a damsel in distress, as she actively seeks out Chisolm to help avenge her town and she refuses to just sit and watch the battle unfolds. I think the weakest link here is Sarsgaard who is more annoying than menacing. Even the last mano-a-mano is rather lackluster as he barely hold a candle to Denzel in terms of charisma and screen presence.

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The action and shootouts are what one would expect, peppered with humor and one liners, mostly from Pratt. Some of the action is preposterous, as some of the heroes manage to stay alive despite being shot several times but they can take down their enemies with a single bullet. But hey, I was expecting a fun action comedy instead of a deep, story-driven piece, so I’m not exactly disappointed. What it lacks in genuine suspense it’s more than made up by the well-staged action and stunning cinematography. I sure hope Mauro Fiore‘s name will come up during award season as he’s done amazing work here that made me wish I had seen this movie on IMAX! He’s a longtime Fuqua collaborator who’s also the DP for Avatar.

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I have to mention the fantastic music as well. The late James Horner wrote seven pieces of the score before he died, so this was his last project. His wonderful score still has a bit of the iconic theme by Elmer Bernstein, and I love that they used the rousing original score (which I called the Marlboro score as it’s used in its commercial) at the end of the movie. I’m definitely going to do a Music Break on it as my hubby and I’ve been listening to the soundtrack all weekend!

I’m glad I saw this movie and it’s one I don’t even mind seeing again. I can’t tell you if it’s as magnificent as the original, but if you’re looking for a fun ride full of entertaining characters, you could do far worse than this remake. In fact, my hubby and I are contemplating about seeing this again on an IMAX screen, it just might be the first Western I’m willing to see twice on the big screen!

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Have you seen this movie? Well, did you like it more or less than I did?

Labor Day Weekend Viewing Roundup

Well, it’s been a nice, mellow Labor Day weekend for us. No barbeque or picnic this time, we didn’t even go to the state fair, we’re just not too fond of those, so once every five years is plenty 🙂 I did spent some time shopping for some Hunger Games stuff for my three nieces, apparently they’re kinda obsessed with the book/movie right now. Better than Twilight I guess, ahah.

We did watch quite a bit of movies though, four movies in 3 days is pretty good for us, usually we saw that many in a week. We skipped the mainstream releases this time and went to see the documentary 2016 Obama’s America and Robot and Frank.

My hubby and I got to talking about The Crow over dinner and so we ended up renting Brandon Lee’s last film, as well as the biopic drama on his father, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. I will do a review of those two together later this month, but let’s just say we’re both were quite taken by the tragic story that happened to both father and son. Cursed or not, the mystery surrounding their deaths is very eerie.

2016: Obama’s America

Politics just isn’t my cup of tea, so I had never even heard of this film until a friend at work mentioned it to me and sent me the trailer. Not being a US citizen, I’m not able to vote, but once in a while I’d read about political stuff just so I know what the issues are being talked about. I always think that there are always pros and cons for every party, even if my social views are more conservative leaning. With Obama, I’m naturally more curious about him because of the Indonesia connection. He even went to the same umbrella school, St. Francis of Assisi where my hubby and I went, when he lived in Jakarta for a couple of years. Yet, aside from that, I hardly know anything about him and so this documentary tagline: ‘LOVE HIM. HATE HIM. YOU DON’T KNOW HIM.’ intrigues me.

It’s hard to review a film like this, but contrary to what you might’ve read, this documentary by conservative scholar and author Dinesh D’Souza is NOT Obama bashing, nor is it endorsed by a political party. It examines the question, “If Barack Obama wins a second term, where will we be in 2016?” and it actually starts with a biopic of sort, of D’Souza himself, an immigrant from India who studied at Dartmouth College. The film even noted that there’s a lot of similarities between D’Souza and Obama, as they’re exactly the same age and both went to an Ivy League university around the same time.

D’Souza and George Obama

Directed by John Sullivan, the film is co-produced by Gerald Molen who won an Oscar for Schindler’s List. The film is largely based on D’Souza’s book The Roots of Obama’s Rage and also includes a substantial amount of quotes from Obama’s audio book Dreams From My Father. D’Souza traveled to Hawaii, Indonesia and Kenya to try to understand what influences might have shaped our President. In Kenya he interviewed people who knew the late Obama Sr. well, most notably Barack’s half brother George, a soft-spoken man who lived in practically a hut barely enough to fit even one person. When asked about Obama not delivering on his promise of being ‘a brother’s keeper,’ George replied diplomatically, “He’s got other issues to deal with… He’s taking care of me. I’m part of the world.”

D’Souza’s research leads him to conclude that Obama holds an anti-colonial worldview from his father as well as anti-western, socialist-leaning mentors, and that the US president actually “wants to reduce America’s footprint on the world.” Now, whether or not you agree with the film’s argument, I think the filmmakers made a compelling case for it. The production values is pretty good considering the tiny budget ($2.5 mil), though some of the re-enactment by actors feels rather clunky at times. Naturally a documentary like this is likely to be one-sided, just like Michael Moore’s anti-Bush doc and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, but at the same time I don’t feel that this film was an outright attack against Obama. One thing for sure, this film is thought-provoking and justifiable asks people to do their research with an open mind before they cast their vote.

Robot and Frank

The minute I saw the trailer for this, I was quite charmed by it. It’s an unlikely heist movie and a sci-fi-themed drama that’s as far away from being science-fiction-y. Instead, it’s a character-driven comedy-drama that centers on Frank, an aging former cat burglar who’s given a robot caretaker by his son Hunter, as he refused to be put in a mental institute. Frank is suffering from an early stages of dementia and has become disillusioned with his sedate life. To everyone’s surprise, his life perks up as soon as Robot comes into his life, and despite his initial hostility towards his health-nut machine, soon Frank and Robot becomes unlikely friends and um, partner in crime.

The movie is set in a vague ‘near future’ where a library of physical books are going to be replaced with a ‘virtual experience’ as it were. The movie starts out quite slow, but grounded by Frank Langella‘s effective performance, but with the arrival of Robot, the pace picks up quite a bit. It’s a touching film that subtly delves with themes of aging and how human connection might be affected when robots exist amongst us in our daily lives. The film doesn’t go into too much depth into this matter however, such as when Frank actually prefers the robot’s company over his own daughter, which should be more disturbing than the film lets on.

Though Frank does a lot of illegal stuff and not exactly a good father figure for his kids, one can’t help but sympathize with him. Langella’s perhaps not the most charismatic actor, but I think his more deadpan style suits his character very well here. I do like the fact that a senior actor gets a leading role and the age-defying beauty Susan Sarandon also has a pretty substantial role as the librarian that Frank constantly flirts with. This is James Marsden‘s third film with Langella, so they have a natural rapport with each other, but he and Liv Tyler aren’t given much to do here than act frustrated by Frank’s shenanigans.

In that sense, the movie lives up to the title as the stars truly are Frank and his robot butler, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard. It’s quite amusing to see the palpable um, chemistry between these two. They argue constantly like old married couple, and there are also some poignant moments that actually makes you feel for the robot.

Robot & Frank is quite an enjoyable little movie on account of the talents involved, there’s also a bit of a twist at the end that’s quite poignant. However, I feel that it could’ve been a far more memorable film had it dealt with the robot vs. human connection theme with a little more conviction.

Three and a half stars out of Five
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I welcome your thoughts on these films. So what movie(s) did you see this weekend?

Musings on An Education

Jenny, a sixteen-year-old straight-A student has her world turned upside down when she meet a worldly suitor, David, who seduces her with her glamorous lifestyle and charming existence. Set in early 60s London, both Jenny and her parents are in for ‘an education’ when David’s true nature is finally revealed.

  • Though dealing with a disturbing subject matter,  this movie is as charming as the main character, wooing the audience with gorgeous cinematography of London and Paris, stylish clothes, beautiful music and even more splendid performances. It’s a good looking movie that captures the 60s era nicely and presents a stark contrast between the rather stodgy UK and the lively, joie de vivre French sensibilities.
  • It’s an unlikely ‘feel-good’ drama that still feels romantic even though you know there’s something unsettling brimming under the surface. Something that’s too good to be true usually is, and our naive protagonist ends up learning the hard way.
  • Carey Mulligan is sublime. She is in almost every scene and truly carries the movie in her delicate shoulders with her mesmerizing performance as both an innocent and serious schoolgirl and that of an elegant socialite.
  • I have seen Peter Sarsgaard in various things before, but I’ve always remembered him as John Malkovich’s virtuous son in The Man in the Iron Mask. But his performance here is noteworthy not only because he pulls off a believable British accent (he’s from Illinois).
  • The devil comes in attractive packages indeed, disguised as a cultured, charismatic, soft-spoken gentleman by the name of David Goldman. Sarsgaard plays the scoundrel in such a way he comes across like a monster that he is… not because the character is trying so desperately to hide it, more so because he doesn’t think he is a monster. But the fact is, guys who prey on girls half their age are creepy, and the more sophisticated they are, the more reason to beware. Especially one who has the power not to only seduce a teenage girl but her supposedly wise middle-aged parents in the process!
  • An Education is filled with fine performance all around. I just LOVE Alfred Molina! Even playing an infuriatingly strict father of Jenny, he refuses to simply give a one-note portrayal. Dominic Cooper & Rosamund Pike are both effective as David’s friends and partner in crime in his shady business practices. And the always watchable Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams were excellent in their brief appearances, though I feel they’re somewhat underused here.
  • We all know book education is VERY different from life education and there is no shortcuts for either in order to get it right. This isn’t just a moral lesson for the young though, even those who think we’re older and wiser may still may fall prey to deception when they’re not careful.
  • Author/screenwriter Nick Hornby is no stranger to a coming-of-age story, he dealt with that in About A Boy. Though the boy in the title actually helps a 38-year-old man who needs some growing up to do. Just as he did in there, Hornby peppered this movie with witty dialogue and
  • Wonderful story that seems to end too soon, it felt rushed towards the end when the flow had been right up until she found out who David really is. At 1 hour 35 minutes, I wish they spend a bit more time towards the end as Jenny deals with the ramification of her decision. Instead, there are far too many in the Deleted Scenes list that could’ve been incorporated into the movie.

Glad I finally saw this movie, it’s definitely worth watching though hardly a perfect film. As Peter from Magic Lantern Film said in the comments last Monday, it’s a strong film but perhaps not worthy of a Best Picture nominations. I share that sentiment, though after seeing Mulligan’s performance here, I do think she was totally robbed of an Oscar!

Have you seen this movie? Well, what did you think?

Weekend Roundup: What I wish I had time to see (no, it’s not Jackass 3d)

Hello all, happy Monday. I took a full day of blogging-free on Saturday, didn’t even sit in front of my computer even to answer comments. It was quite refreshing and fun volunteering all morning at my church and ended the day with a nice dinner with friends.

So did you see Jackass 3D over the weekend? Apparently a bunch of people have, making it the number 1 box office winner with a whopping $50 million!! You won’t see me amongst the audience even if someone paid me to do it… and CinemaBlend sums up my sentiment of this movie perfectly: If there’s one thing almost as certain as death and taxes, it’s this: if a movie is based on a ridiculous premise, involving people doing completely stupid things, and including absurd comedy that only a thirteen year old should appreciate, Americans will turn up and make it one of the most profitable movies of the year.

Well, I didn’t make it to the theater this weekend. We did plan on seeing The Social Network Saturday afternoon, but looks like we have to wait another week for that 😦 I also have An Education waiting for me from Netflix from last Thursday, but didn’t get to that one either. Most of you have seen this already, but in case there are a handful of you who haven’t, here’s the gorgeous trailer that gets me even more excited to finally see it [hopefully] this Wednesday!


Well, what movie(s) did you get to see this past weekend?