Shells. Films reviewed: Journey’s End, Ready Player One, The China Hustle

Posted in 1910s, China, Class, Corruption, Darkness, documentary, Drama, Games, Movies, Poverty, Science Fiction, Wall Street, War, WWI by CulturalMining.com on March 30, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s a holiday weekend filled with eggs, whether hard boiled or made of chocolate with a prize inside. So this week I’m looking at three new movies about… shells. There are VR gamers looking for a hidden easter egg, Wall Streeters investing in shell corporations, and WWI soldiers dodging mortar shells.

Journey’s End

Dir: Saul Dibb

It’s March, 1918, in the WWI trenches of northern France. Underground, where the officers stay, it’s dark, dank and smelly. Up on the surface its deadly dangerous, with snipers aiming at your head. Four British divisions rotate their stays at the front at one week per month. It’s like a lottery – with a one in four chance of dying. And the soldiers in Company C are just trying to stay sane and alive. There’s the fatherly Osborne (Paul Bettany) who everyone calls “Uncle”, the indefatigable cook Mason (Toby Jones), and the shell-shocked Hibbert.

So no one can understand why the green, idealistic Lt Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) pulls strings to join this benighted group. Why? His upper classman Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) is stationed there and he wants to see him again. But he doesn’t realize the level of death and despair that has taken hold there. And that his hero, Stanhope,

is now a mean and bitter alcoholic. The soldiers there are forced to make pointless raids in daylight so as not to interrupt the dinner schedule of far-off Generals. And things reach a boiling point when word gets out the Germans are about to attack on Thursday, right there. They’re essentially sentenced to die at the front. How do they all handle this?

Journey’s End – based on the classic play – is a tense retelling of an old war story, exactly 100 years later. It deals with the futility of war, the rigid British class system, and the male comeradery of life in the trenches. The acting is very good, and the camera wonderfully captures a world lit only by flickering lanterns. Even so, it was hard to sympathize with the stuff-upper-lip, tally-ho language of the script. The long theatrical conversations might might work on stage but not on the screen. The main emotions I got from this movie were depression, disgust claustrophobia and fatalism. It all felt too long, too slow, and too distant, especially once you know their fate… Just die already!

Ready Player One

Dir: Steven Spielberg

It’s 2045 in Columbus, Ohio and the world is a mess. People live marginal existences in ramshackle towers beside huge corporations. Wade (Tye Sheridan) is an 18-year-old orphan who spends most of his time online in a wildly- popular VR fantasy world called Oasis. Its creator left a trillion-dollar prize to whoever can solve the puzzles hidden within this digital world. First they must complete three levels of games and collect three keys  and claim the hidden easter egg. Wade he surprises the world by appearing on the boards as Player One, the top ranked player in the world. But he’s not the only gunter (egg hunter) trying to win. His closest virtual rivals are Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) a fiery red-head, Aech, a muscular giant and genius mechanic; plus Daito and Sho whose avatars look like a samurai and a ninja, respectively. Wade calls himself Parzival. Like the Wagner opera character, he’s searching for a holy grail. And he’s in love with the lovely Artemis. But as best-bud Aech keeps telling him: you only know her avatar – that’s not what she’s like in real life. And lurking in the shadows is the rich and evil Sorrento, (Ben Mendelssohn) the head of IOI, the corporate rival to Oasis’s company. He pretends to be a champion gamer, but he’s actually a fake who hires employees to play for him. But he’s out to win — and take over the world — at any cost. Which of the hunters will figure out the puzzle and find the easter egg? And can they defeat the villainous Sorrento?

Ready Player One is an incredibly fast-moving sci-if action movie. Oasis’s inventor, whose puzzles they’re all trying to solve, was obsessed with the 80s, so the movie feeds you a random hodgepodge of Back to the Future and Iron Giant, Gandam and Street Fighter, New Order and Van Halen, a non-stop shower of pop culture, to the point where you can’t tell self-referential jokes from cheap product placement. (Maybe they’re both?) But why would kids in the 2040s care about the 1980s? I can’t call this a good movie; it’s incredibly commercial, felt more like a theme park ride than a film, and parts were like watching a video game with someone else holding the controls. But you know what? I still enjoyed it. And it does have that classic Spielbergian look and sound.

China Hustle

Wri/Dir: Jed Rothstein

After the Subprime Mortgage crisis, American investors, pension funds, and ordinary moms and pops were looking to make some money. But where? Chinese people were making millions investing in their red-hot companies, but those stocks weren’t traded on Wall Street. Until, suddenly, they were. Hundreds of Chinese startups were being bought and sold and making big bucks. And companies like Roth Capital were holding lavish parties known as “investment conferences” to reel in buyers. They were backed by reputable auditors like Deloitte. It’s a win-win proposition – everyone makes money. Until, that is, some suspicious investors fly to Shanghai and looked around.

Turns out, many of these companies operate as “Reverse Mergers”. Existing Chinese corporations buy shell companies already registered in the US, take them over, change their name, and they’re open to make money.

But their books here don’t look like their books there. Idle factories in China are said to be making ten times what they’re actually earning. And no one’s checking up on them.

So a few maverick investors decide to short sell their stock (like in that movie The Big Short) counting on its value crashing soon. And they speed this along by publicising the corruption and questionable accounting of the parent companies back in China. The result, riches for a few, terrible losses for many.

The China Hustle is a fascinating documentary looking at the shady practices behind deregulation, auditing and investments, as told by three American short-sellers. I thought its view of China as a monolithic villain was superficial and rather one-sided; for example, it shows how these fraudulent investments affect ordinary Americans’ lives, but not how they affect ordinary Chinese.

But it does expose in detail a huge scandal I knew nothing about.

Ready Player One opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Journey’s End and The China Hustle are in theatres and Video On Demand. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Daniel Garber talks with Ana Serrano, Lisa Ellis and Priam Givord about the Pulse of VR

Posted in 3-D, Art, Cultural Mining, Games, Movies, VR by CulturalMining.com on June 30, 2017

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Have you heard of VR but never experienced it? VR, or Virtual Reality, is a system that creates an artificial, interactive environment that makes you feel like you’re somewhere else. It gives you a startlingly realistic experience of sight and sound happening all around you. It’s already used by filmmakers, scientists, artists and gamers.  But is VR a flash in the pan or a quantam leap in technological change? How will it affect Canadian cinema? And how can you experience it yourself?

Pulse on VR is a new exhibit of Canadian VR works, sponsored by the CFC media lab. It’s running now through Sunday at the House of VR on 639 Queen St West.

Ana Serrano is the award- winning Founder of CFC Media Lab that specializes in interactive storytelling.

Lisa Ellis, the Conservator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, AGO, created Small Wonders, a VR rendering of CT scan images of miniature, gothic wooden carvings.

Priam Givord is a freelance artist and designer who specializes in interactive media; he co-created  Small Wonders, the VR Experience.

I spoke with Ana, Lisa and Priam at CIUT about Pulse of VR and how VR may affect the future of Canadian cinema.

Back to School. The Girl with all the Gifts, Queen of Katwe, My Entire Highschool Sinking into the Sea #TIFF16

Posted in Animation, Coming of Age, Games, High School, Horror, School, Science Fiction, Uganda, UK, US, Women, Zombie by CulturalMining.com on September 16, 2016

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s mid-September as TIFF enters its final weekend with lots left to see. It’s also the start of an academic year. So this week I’m looking TIFF movies about going back to school. We’ve got an American school sinking into the sea, smart African kids who can’t afford the school fee, and British kids kept under lock and key.

thegirlwithallthegifts_02The Girl with all the Gifts

Dir: Colm McCarthy

It’s a military camp in a dystopian, future UK. Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is a bright and friendly girl who gets along well with others. She goes to school each morning and is the best kid in the class. But she – like the rest of the kids – is kept locked up in a dingy prison cell, fed raw worms, and derided thegirlwithallthegifts_04by heavily armed soldiers as a monster abortion. Only her teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Atherton), sticks up for Melanie. But Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) a sinister scientist, also has her eye on Melanie.

You see, all of England has been infected by a fungal virus that turns you into a flesh-eating zombie who never dies. But these kids are second generation — infected in utero — who think and act like humans but carry a craving for raw flesh. thegirlwithallthegifts_01Caldwell wants to carve up Melanie’s brain to find a cure. But when the camp is overrun by zombies, the three of them (along with a troupe of soldiers) are forced to escape in a military vehicle to find another base. Can Melanie – the girl with all the gifts – be trusted to stay moral and not eat the humans? Can trigger-happy soldiers and heartless scientists be trusted not to kill her? This is a great science fiction drama in the form of a zombie flic. Glenn Close goes a bit overboard in her evil rants, but Atherton and Manua are amazing as the good guys.

queen-of-katweQueen of Katwe

Dir: Mira Nair

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) is a young girl who lives in Katwe, a desperately poor slum in Uganda. By day she sells corn to passing motorists. By night she sleeps in an unlit shack with her brother, her sister and her stern mother (Lupita Nyong’o) who always sticks up for her kids. Is there no way out of this desperate life.

Enter Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). He has an engineering degree but works at a community centre for underprivileged kids, teaching them chess. Phiona and her brother take to the game almost immediately, despite kids deriding their unwashed clothes. She’s illiterate but learns to play strategically, plotting out future moves in her head. Robert sees a chess prodigy and his wife helps her learn to read. But Phiona is still penniless, playing chess with bottle caps on a piece of cardboard. Her mother tries to Queen of Katwepull her away from that gambling den. But Coach Robert convinces her that only by becoming a chess master can Phiona make it out of Katwe. Mom finally understands, selling her only possessions to pay for paraffin candles so Phiona can study at night. But can a girl from the ghetto become a Chess Master?

Queen of Katwe is a wonderful traditional family story, about hard work and tenacity. It says never give up, believe in yourself. At the same it shows a realistic portrait of desperate lives, their constant search for money, and the terrible prejudice they face. The story is told in a simple way but it’s very moving. It’s shot in Africa by the great Indian director Mira Nair, an expert at showing class differences. The actors portray their roles well, from grumpy Nyong’o, to optimistic Oyelowo and especially the wonderful Nalwanga as Phiona.

myentirehighschoolsinkingintothesea_02My Entire Highschool Sinking into the Sea

Wri/Dir Dash Shaw

Dash is starting a new year with high hopes. A junior at Tides High, he’s a cynical news geek who writes for the school paper, the Tides Gazette, with best friend Assaf and Verti the editor. He wants to find the big story. He’s sure his school is about to collapse due to bad maintenance. But no one reads the paper’s turgid prose and his warnings are ignored. Assaf and Verti are dating now so he’s left all alone. When he is caught looking through school files for hard evidence, he ends up in detention. But that’s when disaster strikes — an earthquake starts fires and sends the shoddily built school sinking into the sea. It’s also on fire, with sharks in the water and rats on land. It’s up to Dash and his friends — along with a courageous lunch lady — to lead his schoolmates to safety. But they must face the school myentirehighschoolsinkingintothesea_01snitch, drug dealers, the devious principal, popular kids and the school quarterback who reigns from a golden throne in only his jockstrap. But who will survive and who will be torn to bloody pieces before their very eyes?

This is a fantastic animated feature, one of the best movies at TIFF. It’s the Poseidon Adventure set in a high school. The art and animation takes unexpected forms. No pixar 3-D or complex cell animation here. Instead it’s broad splashes of tempera paint behind the thick black lines that make up character faces. There are cutouts and fingerpaint, boy scout illustrations, pop art and trippy half-tone dots from newspaper sunday comics.

Great voices are provided by Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph and Susan Sarandon as Lunch Lady Lorraine. But the art of Dash Shaw — and his fellow cartoonists and artists — is what makes this so great.

The Girl with all the Gifts, Queen of Katwe, and My Entire Highschool Sinking into the Sea, are all playing now at TIFF. And you can line up at Roy Thompson Hall around 4 pm on Sunday to get a free ticket to the people’s choice award movie. Always worth watching, always free. Details are posted at tiff.net.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Daniel Garber talks with Tickled director David Farrier at #HotDocs

David Farrier Tickled Photo © 2016 for cultural miningHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

David Farrier is a New Zealand TV journalist who specializes in odd and off-beat stories. So when he sees an ad online looking for athletic young men, aged 18-23, for Competitive Endurance Tickling, he sees a potential story. But when he contacts the company, run by a secretive woman named Jane O’Brien, he gets a surprising reaction: a series of abusive and David Farrier Tickled Photo © 2016 for cultural mining 2threatening email.

Followed by three men flown all the way to New Zealand from LA, threatening a lawsuit if he doesn’t drop the story. Just for investigating some guys being tickled.

Tickled is also the name of a fascinating and disturbing new documentary about hidden identities, vast conspiracies, and cyber bullying. All surrounding a phenomenon – professional tickling — largely unknown to the general public. It’s co-directed by actor, journalist and crypto-zoologist David Farrier who’s also the film’s narrator and subject.

I spoke to David at Dublin Calling in Toronto at Hot Docs earlier this spring. Tickled opens today in Toronto.

Photos by Jeff Harris

Daniel Garber talks with director JUSTIN McCONNELL and the Skullman GREG SOMMERS about the new film Skullworld

Posted in Australia, Canada, Cultural Mining, documentary, Games, LARPing, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on May 9, 2013

skullworldHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Have you ever turned down a dark alley only to run into a strange man with a skull for a head, a booming voice, decked out in elaborate body armour, and maybe holding a chain or an axe? Did you scream and run away? Or did you just say “how’s it goin bro” and buy him a beer?

Well that was probably Skullman, the subject of a new documentary opening Skull World 2today called SKULLWORLD. He’s part of a growing international gaming phenomenon known as Box Wars.

To explain all this, I speak with the Skullman himself, aka Greg Sommers, and the film’s director Justin McConnell.

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