Ghosts of War

In 1944, a team of five allied soldiers are assigned to protect a French mansion that the Nazis recently vacated. They are late arriving to relieve the current watch, who are suspiciously eager to leave. Almost immediately after they do, weird things begin happening to each of the five as they split up and check out the mansion. Clearly, this house is haunted, and it’s no surprise since the Nazis seem to have ritual-killed the family who once lived there (the pentagram in the attic is not just decorative, it’s fully operational).

From the moment Billy Zane appears on screen, it is clear that Ghosts of War is not going to be a good movie, and is not even trying to be one. Its goal appears to be to make you jump in terror, with it settling for mild twitches of surprise. Which kind of works, in its way. The house is mysterious enough to keep your attention, and the weird things happening within are clearly not random. These patterns hint that there is a solution to be found somewhere in the house, and our five soldiers are focused on figuring it out.

But then, things go sideways in a hurry, and that is because Ghosts of War has one other secret goal, ripped directly from M. Night Shyamalan’s playbook. Namely, to blow your mind when the truth behind these strange events is revealed. And as in most Shyamalan films, Ghosts of War’s twist feels like a cheap gimmick. Not only does his particular twist make no sense, the movie would have been better if it had just been left out.

That ill-conceived twist turns this uniquely-set haunted house movie into something we have seen done many times before, and seen done better just as many times. Especially because Ghosts of War’s ending seems to have been misplaced, or else it disappeared into thin air. Where did it go? Perhaps Billy Zane can track it down, but until he does, what’s left is a movie that is both a half hour too long and 20 minutes too short.

Stardust

Ziggy Stardust is David Bowie’s alter ego for his 1972 album of the same name and subsequent tour, a fictional androgynous bisexual rock star alien sent to Earth as a saviour of sorts before an impending apocalyptic disaster. Singing about politics, sex, drugs, and the superficiality of rock and roll, Ziggy easily seduced everyone he met, and by the end of the album, had died a victim of his own fame. The Ziggy Stardust album, classified as glam rock and proto-punk, a loose concept album I suppose, maybe even teetering on rock opera, though not easily classified period, is now considered to be one of the greatest albums of all time, important and influential to the glam rock genre. But where on Earth did a character like Ziggy Stardust come from?

Stardust provides both the long and the short answer. Succinctly: America. More generally, Stardust tags along on David Bowie’s first trip to the U.S. in 1971, a promotional tour that failed pretty spectacularly (can you even imagine anyone not recognizing Bowie’s star power?) but did hook him up with Ron Oberman (Marc Maron) who would prove to be instrumental in introducing him to some key American influences. In 1971, Oberman was seemingly the only American with any confidence in Bowie, but without a budget, and the biggest date on their tour being a vacuum sales conferences, it wasn’t a lot to work with. Bowie didn’t make it big on that trip, but he did see the people and the places that would inspire him to create Ziggy Stardust, and to treat music as merely the mask while he himself was the message. Bowie wasn’t just ahead of his time but beyond time itself.

It would obviously be very difficult to capture the lightning but that was David Bowie and expect him to shine as bright while confined to a bottle. However, the extent to which director Gabriel Range and company have failed here is pretty extravagant. Johnny Flynn is a fine actor and perhaps not the worst of casting options, but he’s no Bowie, and I could never see him as such, not for even one fleeting moment. Reduced to a few eccentric and deeply affected mannerisms, they’ve turned David Bowie from visionary into mimic. It’s disastrous. Of course, it was never going to work, not without a single Bowie song, having pissed off the family and been refused to license his actual work. Range thinks he can get around it by setting the film on a tour during which Bowie wasn’t allowed to play music after failing to obtain a proper work visa. But as I stated above, that tour was a total failure, and so too is this movie. I wouldn’t even wish it on a conference room full of vacuum salespeople rowdy on a modest open bar.

Stardust, if you’re a diehard Bowie completist, is in theaters and digital and on-demand platforms on November 27.

The Christmas Chronicles 2

In the first The Christmas Chronicles, Kate and brother Teddy had recently lost their father. With their mom covering an overnight shift at the hospital, the kids are alone on Christmas Eve, and devise a trap to catch Santa on tape once and for all. But their trap works a little too well and they soon find themselves on his sleigh and on a pretty epic adventure.

Two years later, Kate (Darby Camp) and Teddy (Judah Lewis) find themselves on the beaches of Mexico for Christmas, courtesy of mom’s (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) new boyfriend Bob. Kate isn’t thrilled to about a tropical Christmas but she’s even less enthused about her mom tarnishing dead dad’s memory with a new guy. That’s why she resolves to run away, which unfortunately plays right into the plans of disgraced elf Belsnickel (Julian Dennison), who uses Kate (and Bob’s son Jack) as bait to distract Santa while he makes off with the star that powers all of Santa’s Christmas magic. Big disaster. Huge. Now Santa (Kurt Russell) and Kate will be off on a sleigh-riding, time-traveling adventure while Jack (Jahzir Bruno) and Mrs. Claus (Goldie Hawn) defend Santa’s village from an onslaught of evil elves.

This movie is basically a nerf gun aimed right into the hearts of children and when it hits, it delivers a dose of holiday cheer and joy that’s undeniable. In sequel mode, this one has a little more razzle dazzle and a little less natural charm and sparkle than the first, but it’s still a good, clean, fun time for the whole family. Kurt Russell is a hot Santa who injects more than a little Elvis into the jolly old guy, donning sunglasses and swiveling his hips to belt out another show-stopping tune once again. And rather happily we see much more of Goldie Hawn, who brings her own twinkle to the mix, sweet but pro-active, not exactly the passive knitter in a rocking chair Mrs. Claus is often made out to be.

The Christmas Chronicles 2 is wonderfully, effortlessly cheerful. It has great acting and its attention to detail surpasses even the first, for a glossy look that feels, well, merry and bright. And if it is perhaps pandering and slightly disjointed, well, at least it knows its audience. The exploding gingerbread cookies, gravity gloves, dance breaks, flying jackotes ( jackal-coyote hybrids that look more like giant, extra-inbred pugs), and crossbow battles will all be very well-received by young audiences tuning in to get a second look at this Santa guy who’s so much cooler than the one at the mall. And who can blame them? He is pretty great and I count myself rather unashamedly among his fans.

Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance has a story to tell – his own. Many would call it a rags to riches story, or perhaps a successful escape from an impoverished childhood; director Ron Howard and the movie studio went with “inspiring true story” but all of these seem slightly condescending. Vance himself went with “elegy,” a tribute to the place he came from and perhaps a lament to its end.

Older J.D. (Gabriel Basso) has overcome some rather humble beginnings to attend law school at Yale. It’s interview week, especially crucial to him because even with financial aid and 3 jobs he can’t afford next semester’s tuition without a summer internship. Meeting prospective employers over dinner, he’s overwhelmed by the trappings of etiquette and fine dining that seem to come so easily to others. It’s clear he doesn’t feel he belongs, and a phone call from back home only cements it. It’s his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett), calling to say that mom Bev (Amy Adams) is in the hospital. Again. A heroin overdose. His help is needed, urgently.

Over the next 24 hours of trying to install Bev in yet another rehab manage a facility despite Bev having let her insurance lapse, J.D. is flooded with difficult memories from his challenging childhood.

Critics have been plenty harsh about Hillbilly Elegy, and I can appreciate their concerns. It delivers heavily on the Oscar bait melodrama, and instead of inspiring important conversations about cultural and economic gaps, it’s got some pretty soft platitudes instead of real insight. Not that a Netflix movie was going to solve the wage gap or cure the generational impacts of trauma.

No one can deny that Glenn Close and Amy Adams give everything to their roles. Close manages a bark that bites, with just a nibble of vulnerability, a terrific performance that just doesn’t have anywhere to go, there’s no arc, it’s mostly just an act of observation. Amy Adams’ character, on the other hand, is more like a series of attacks. She gnarls and gnashes her teeth and we get small glimpses or what triggers her explosions, but it’s not enough to piece together something truly satisfying. The characters lack insight and we can only guess that this cycle will be very hard to break.

Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square

A holiday musical you say? I’m still riding high on Jingle Jangle, so sign me right up. Dolly Parton is my spirit animal, she’s magical unicorns shaking her pretty mane and making the world a brighter place.

Christmas on the Square is about a bitter woman named Regina (Christine Baranski) determined to sell an entire town that she’s apparently inherited from her estranged father. She serves eviction notices to every single person who lives and works there, including her former beau, and when they dare to protest, she moves up the date to Christmas Eve. What a Grinch! No, wait, Baranski was in that, wasn’t she? What a Scrooge! Is that safe? Man this woman is prolific.

As you might guess, Dolly Parton is herself hidden amongst the townspeople, masquerading as the town’s only homeless person but actually an angel in disguise. An angel come to stage an intervention!

Now, on paper this musical has everything I need in order to activate my merriment and good cheer, but on Netflix, it just wasn’t working for me. It’s a very traditional kind of musical, old-fashioned and janky, with campy over-acting and random singing, and set pieces that don’t trouble themselves to feel like anything other than the studio backlot affair they are. I understand it’s been adapted from an actual stage play, but I do expect at least a half-hearted attempt to make it feel more cinematic, and less claustrophobic. But everything feels corny, like a Hallmark movie crossed with your kid’s school Christmas pageant, and deeply phony. I couldn’t get into it, and that’s despite the very welcome invitation from Parton’s glowing songs, and even some pretty nifty choreography.

It wasn’t bad enough to turn it off – or perhaps I just didn’t want the trouble of finding something else – but I sort of wish I’d never turned it on. There’s LOTS of Dolly on Netflix these days, and literally anything else is a heck of a lot better.

Greyhound

When the Americans were finally self-interested enough to join WW2, they needed a lot of boots on the ground, and some in the air, and a few if by sea.

Captain Krause (Tom Hanks) is in command of an escort force protecting an Atlantic convoy consisting of 37 Allied ships on their way to Liverpool. They’re passing through the Mid-Atlantic gap, so called because no antisubmarine aircraft are able to reach them. They’re on their own. Still three days out of range from protective air cover, they intercept German transmissions. It is likely U-boats are near. This is merely the start of 13 back to back covers (or 52 hours) on the Greyhound’s bridge as Krause fights to save his ship, protect those in his convoy, and rescue those who succumb.

As a war movie, director Aaron Schneider makes very effective use of his 90 minute runtime, keeping the focus on a very intense combat. It’s basically a race against time, a fight for survival until they reach precious, essential air cover once again.

But the reason Greyhound really shines, as did its source material, The Good Shepherd by C. S. Forester, is in its fascinating and intricate character study of the man behind the wheel. Captain Krause has been a career Navy officer for many years. His seniority is unquestionable, but in truth, this is his first wartime mission. The other captains are younger and junior to him in rank, but they’ve been at war for two years already. Although we see him act in competent and level-headed ways, we are also privy to his self-doubt. The combat is relentless as the minutes and hours tick by, Krause unwilling to leave his post, and only the kindness of a mess attendant (Rob Morgan) ensures he doesn’t go hungry.

Hanks adapted the material himself, and though we never see the guy make an acting misstep, he is clearly suited to this character, slipping on the captain’s skin as if it were a comfortable, monogrammed slipper. You feel his fatigue, and inklings of inferiority, but with the weight and fate of an entire fleet on his shoulders, he never gives less than his best. The constant danger is exhausting, the many snap judgments that must be made while in command are overwhelming, and above all, we see Krause struggle with his conscience – muttered prayers for the souls on board, but also a refusal to celebrate enemy kills, a necessary part of war perhaps, but one with which Krause is not entirely comfortable. It’s a facet rarely explored in war movies and Hanks is up for its portrayal, but cleverly, the points are merely plotted, the lines themselves drawn by the audience.

I expect nothing less that complete satisfaction from the material Hanks is choosing, and he’s so unvaryingly good it’d be almost tedious if it wasn’t so wonderful. And this, too, is wonderful, and not even annoyingly so. Hanks truly is a master and Forester’s carefully observed novel cannot be over-rated.

Dreamland

Last month I dove into the depths of horror in honour of Halloween, and among the gems, I came across Crawl, which literally had me asking: has anything good ever happened in the crawlspace beneath a house? Aggressive alligators with a taste for human flesh had me thinking no, but in Dreamland, a teenage boy named Eugene finds just about the best thing ever: Margot Robbie. I would crawl over quite a few alligators for Margot Robbie. So, it seems, would Eugene.

Like all of the people in his small Texas town, Eugene’s (Finn Cole) family is struggling to get by at the unfortunate intersection where the Great Depression met the Dust Bowl. As luck would have it, Allison (Robbie) is a wanted criminal, a sexy bank robber with a bullet hole in her leg who needs to hide out and rest up for a few days. Can Eugene help? He can. But Allison’s got a ten thousand dollar bounty on her head, and that will go a long way to help his family survive the famine. But she is a very sexy bank robber and he is a very teenage boy. So he hides her in the barn.

For a gangster movie, Dreamland is extremely slow. Extremely. And if it wasn’t for Robbie’s performance, I would probably say don’t watch it because it’s a little boring. But that Margot Robbie, she’s something else. And she’s something besides sexy, too. She’s talented. She strings us along, weaving her tales to paint herself as the helpless victim, and Eugene as her potential saviour. Allison uses her powers of seduction to get what she wants. I dare you to take your eyes off her.

Director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte signals his unreliable character with a heavy filter on his flashbacks. I can’t can Robbie the unreliable narrator because the movie has one of those too, which is a few too many cooks in the kitchen, but just enough boobs in the shower, and you know what they say: boobs always win.

Alien Xmas

Holly (voiced by Kaliayh Rhambo) and her parents are elves in the North Pole. In fact, Holly and her mom are – brace yourselves for this – puppy elves! As far as I knew, elves just hammered wood into bulky toys on an assembly line. Manual labour? No thanks. But puppy elves! It makes sense: plenty of people get new pups for Christmas, and Holly and her mom make sure their fur is all fluffy and cute, and they’ve got bows around their necks, doggie essentials for the holidays. I’m making way too big a deal out of this considering it’s a throwaway detail in the movie, but I can’t believe I’d never thought of it, and that I’ve been wasting my life this whole time.

Anyway, Holly’s dad is an inventor elf and he’s been working overtime on a new sleigh that would cut Christmas Eve delivery time by 90%. Except it is Christmas Eve, or pretty near, and his prototype’s still not working. He can’t be with his family, so to appease his daughter he hands her what he thinks is a doll.

In fact, the doll is actually an alien named X. X comes from a race of dull, kleptomaniac aliens who steal everything – and he’s the first wave in attempt to steal earth’s gravity.

It’s a stop-motion sci-fi holiday offering from the Chiodo brothers and executive producer Jon Favreau. Many of us grew up watching iconic TV movies like Rudolph and Frosty, and this is Netflix’s attempt to bring that kind of nostalgic Christmas viewing into our living rooms once again, with a 21st century twist.

The Klepts are aliens who have no longer have any concept of joy, but they take inspiration from humans – humans on Black Friday, specifically, who rush into stores frantically at 4am to buy cheap TVs they don’t need.

The Chiodos worked on the stop-motion portion of Favreau’s Elf back in 2003 (in fact, you might recognize a couple of “cameos”) and they were eager to collaborate on this tribute to beloved family holiday viewing. Like those golden age episodes, Alien Xmas is a tight 40 minutes, but a fun watch that’ll put you in the giving spirit.

Sound of Metal

Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is a heavy metal drummer. He and girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) are in a two-person band and they just love to bang on shit and make noise. They travel the country in their Airstream; it’s not a glamorous life or a well-remunerated one (yet, there are talks of an album), but they’re happy. Which means the universe is hiding around the corner waiting to deliver a great big wallop.

One day, Ruben wakes up deaf. It has likely been a bit more progressive than this, but this movie doesn’t document it, it just dumps us into his sudden new reality, which clearly takes him by surprise. The verdict: his hearing’s not coming back. A cochlear implant may give him some approximation of hearing (and a bill for $80 grand regardless), but Ruben is deaf, and it’s permanent. As you might imagine, being a transient drummer in a largely unsuccessful band does not come with insurance. Desperate in his new deafness, Ruben is of course fixated on the miraculous-sounding implant, but the reality is that for now, he just has to learn to live with his new situation. He’s still in denial, and he’s depressed, and Lou worries that his sobriety is about to be compromised, but traditional meetings, and even his sponsor, won’t be much help if he can’t hear them. Which is how they wind up reaching out to Joe (Paul Raci), who runs a deaf community and is an addict himself. The community has everything Ruben needs right now: a safe space to learn to be deaf. The only problem is, it needs to be a fully immersive experience, cutting him off from the rest of the world, including Lou. Ruben hasn’t just lost his hearing. He’s lost his love, his home, his music. He is a wayward soul who doesn’t know how to begin to grieve, let alone cope.

Though Ruben isn’t exactly a demonstrative person, we sense how profoundly changed his life is; his reactions feel authentic if unhelpful, and we can’t honestly say we wouldn’t do the same ourselves. Ahmed’s commitment to the role is evident in every frame; he spent 6 months learning to drum, which his character can only do for about 6 minutes of film time. He also learned American Sign Language, a vital skill not only for his character, but for communicating with his deaf colleagues on set. In his directorial debut, Darius Marder, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother, Abraham, knew the value of seeking out deaf actors for deaf parts.

Ruben is reimagining his entire identity, which can obviously be a scary process. Ahmed allows himself to be vulnerable on screen as he tries to absorb his new realities. Acceptance is key, but its path has such rough terrain. Told from a hearing perspective, or at least a former one, Sound of Metal is an interesting bridge into the deaf community. But it’s also at its just one man’s struggle with self-acceptance. He needs to let go of his past to reimagine his future, but as we all know, that’s easier said than done.

Sound of Metal is in select theatres now and will be available digitally and on demand December 4th.

The Princess Switch: Switched Again

In the first movie, Chicago baker Stacy (Vanessa Hudgens) traveled to the kingdom of Belgravia to participate in a royal baking contest with her friend and sous-chef Kevin (Nick Sagar). While there she runs into Lady Margaret of Montenaro (also Hudgens), fiancee to Belgravia’s prince Edward (Sam Palladio), and they are thunderstruck by how much they resemble each other. Why not take advantage? Lady Margaret has been desperate to experience like as a “normal person” and Stacy is apparently weirdly obliging, so they switch places, Stacy wasting her short European vacation sitting in a castle while Margaret gets to experience the world outside its walls. Of course we all know what happens next: Stacy falls for Edward, who was never right for Margaret, and Margaret falls for Kevin. By the end of the movie Edward and Stacy are married, and Kevin and Margaret seem to be headed that way as well.

In its sequel, Switched Again, prince Edward and princess Stacy are visiting their friend Margaret in Montenaro where she’s going to be crowned queen on Christmas. Sadly, she and Kevin have broken up, their lives just too different and their goals not aligning, but feelings are still there even if Margaret’s chief of staff Tony is sniffing around. Kevin agrees to attend her coronation “as a friend” but with sparks reignited, Stacy and Margaret agree once again to switch, leaving Stacy to do the boring prep work while Margaret is free to spend some quality alone time with Kevin. But there’s a catch! A third lookalike, cousin Fiona (Hudgens again!) shows up in Montenaro, but she’s not exactly there to lend support. Fiona’s burned through her fortune and looking for more. If she can pose as the new queen long enough to transfer some royal funds, she’ll be set for life.

Can Kevin and Margaret’s love endure her royal duties? Will prince Edward ever get laid? (Did I mention that Edward’s sole purpose this entire movie is to roam around the castle horny? He’s SO horny, which is a dangerous condition to be in when there are 3 ladies who all look like your wife.)

This movie knows better than to take itself seriously. It’s the most outlandish soap opera you’ve ever seen, and it’s set at Christmas! The costumes are gorgeous, the set dressing is over the top, and it feels like almost anyone can marry royalty if you mill around on a cobble stone street long enough. It’s exactly the kind of escapism needed in 2020, and if it’s not a good movie (and it’s not a good movie), it knows what it is and it delivers. You’ll want to check it out on Netflix ASAP.