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.

Scoundrels, Nazis and Pimps — the world’s worst lovers. Movies reviewed: Tangerine, Madame Bovary, Suite Française

Posted in 1940s, African-Americans, Cultural Mining, Drama, France, L.A., Romance, Sex Trade, Trans, WWII by CulturalMining.com on July 3, 2015

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

Some relationships just don’t work – you look back and wonder what possessed you. But then there are the ones that everyone knows should never have happened. This week I’m looking at new movies about women who make terrible choices in lovers. There’s a middle-class woman in 19th century France who falls for rich scoundrels; a woman in 1940s France who falls for a Nazi, and a woman in contemporary LA who falls for a pimp.

Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in TANGERINE, a Video Services Corp release. Photo courtesy of Video Services Corp.Tangerine
Dir: Sean Baker

It’s Christmas Eve in LA. Sin-Dee and Alexandra (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor)
are best friends who work in the sex trade on the streets of Hollywood. Alexandra wants to be a professional singer, while Sin-Dee (short for Cinderella) just wants her Prince Charming. But Chester (James Ransone) is hardly a prince. He’s a white pimp/ drug dealer in an electric blue hoody, as skeezy as theyMickey O’Hagan and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in TANGERINE, a Video Services Corp release. Photo courtesy of Video Services Corp. come. But he says he’ll marry her. So she is not a happy camper when she hears he’s been sleeping with another woman. And not just any woman –one who’s white and cis-female (both Sin-Dee and Alexandra are black and transgender). So she heads out to find Dinah, the strung-out blonde (Mickey O’Hagen) and set her straight.

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in TANGERINE, a Video Services Corp release. Photo courtesy of Video Services Corp.Meanwhile, Razmik (Karren Karagulian) is an Armenian cab driver who frequents the same hood. He’s married with a kid, but would rather spend Christmas with people like Sin-Dee and Alexandra. His wife doesn’t care, but his mother-in-law suspects something is up. So she heads out to catch Razmik  in the act. Things come to a head when all the characters converge on a Hollywood donut shop.Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, James Ransone and Mya Taylor in TANGERINE, a Video Services Corp. release. Photo courtesy of Video Services Corp. Will the cheaters come clean and the liars tell the truth?

Tangerine is a low-key, low-budget indie look at the streets of LA. It concentrates on the funnier aspects but doesn’t shirk on the grittiness and precariousness of people’s lives. The cast is uniformly good, especially stately, elegant Mya Taylor and wild-child Kitana Kiki Roidriguez. Does Tangerine perpetuate negative stereotypes of transwomen? Perhaps, but since the performances are so sympathetic and well-rounded it feels real, not exploitative. This is a good one.

X6qlRg_madamebovary_03_o3_8649075_1434144833Madame Bovary
Dir: Sophie Barthes

19th century Normandy, near Rouen. Beautiful but naïve Emma (Mia Wasikowska) is a woman raised in a convent who is married to a simple country doctor. He’s boring, unambitious and a bit of a prig. He says beds are for patients, not doctors. And Emma soon discovers that means beds are for sleeping, not for good sex. So she’s left alone all day with nothing to do.

Soon enough there is a parade of men at her door promising a better life. vgRvz5_madamebovary_02_o3_8649010_1434144830Monsieur Lhereux (Rhys Ifans) is an oleaginous salesman who tempts her with Parisian fashions and golden candlesticks. She has to look good if she wants her life to improve. And never mind the cost – she can buy whatever she wants on credit! Uh oh…Leon (Ezra Miller) is the last romantic, an aesthete with delicate features. Won’t she go for a walk with him? Cynical Homais (Paul Giamatti) says he will help them climb the ladder to success, if they just take some risks. Then there’s the Marquis 58V4EY_madamebovary_01_o3_8648982_1434144827(Logan Marshall Green), a local rake who takes her for hunting, with horn and hound. He sends her love letters and says she can run off and live in his castle. Will Madame Bovary find her true love? Or will she succumb to trickery… and inescapable debt?

Madame Bovary – based on the famous novel by Flaubert — is a cautionary tale about the dangers of upward mobility. This film is a straightforward retelling of the story. But it reveals the tragic ending in the very first scene. I guess the director assumes everyone knows the story already so it can’t be a spoiler… but at least she should pretend to be interested. As it is, this movie is devoid of suspense, humour and passion. I couldn’t connect with any of the characters – they aren’t even particularly likeable. Though visually stunning and rich in detail (it’s like a work of art to watch), this movie doesn’t have much else going for it.

(L-R) MATTHIAS SCHOENAERTS and MICHELLE WILLIAMS star in SUITE FRANÇAISE

(L-R) MATTHIAS SCHOENAERTS and MICHELLE WILLIAMS star in SUITE FRANÇAISE

Suite Française
Dir: Saul Dibb

It’s France in the 1940s, right after the German invasion. Pretty, young Lucille (Michelle Williams) lives in Bussy, a suburban town just east of Paris. She barely knew her husband Gaston before he was sent off to fight in the war. Now she lives with her unfriendly mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas), a prosperous landholder, on her country estate. And – despite the refugees pouring out of Paris, scared for their lives – Lucille’s mother-in-law is doing quite nicely, thank you. She has even raised the rent of her long-time tenant farmers, even pushing them out of their homes to make room for desperate refugees with more money. But when the Germans arrive, everything changes. They are forced to share their home with Lieutenant Bruno, a handsome aristocrat (Matthias Schoenarts). He seems like a nice man, fond of classical piano music. He plays one song – the Suite Française of the title – that she’s never heard before. (Lucille studied music before the war.) She is forbidden to speak with him… but sharing intimate quarters leads to an increasing familiarity between the two.

MICHELLE WILLIAMS stars in SUITE FRANÇAIS

MICHELLE WILLIAMS stars in SUITE FRANÇAISE

Meanwhile, farmers Madeleine and Benoit (Ruth Wilson, Sam Riley) are forced to accommodate their own lieutenant, the cruel and vindictive Kurt (Tom Schilling). Benoit wasn’t drafted because he walks with a limp, but he hates the Germans with a passion. And when he sees the officer making passes at his own wife, he’s furious. He locates a hidden rifle, and sets out to defend both his honour and his country.

And as the story develops, the true nature of the characters reveal themselves, and we begin to question our first impressions of who is good and who is bad.

The film is an adaptation of the novel by Irene Nemirovsky written while the war was still going on. She was killed in a Nazi concentration camp but the manuscript was hidden for 60 years. It was rediscovered and published as a bestseller just ten years ago. It makes an engrossing romantic historical drama. The acting is terrific, especially Kristin Scott Thomas as the mother-in-law, as well as the farm family.  It’s a rare look at the war seen while it was taking place. I liked this film a lot.

Madame Bovary and Suite Française starts today in Toronto, check your local listings; Tangerine opens next Friday. Also now playing is the documentary Deep Web, about the dark side, online. I interviewed director Alex Winter during Hot Docs.

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

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