Category Archives: Jay

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.

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.

I Am Woman

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back and pretend
Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again

Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman

I grew up just knowing the lyrics to Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman, the way I just knew my own name. I grew up in a house of 4 sisters and 1 mother and there was nothing we liked better than putting on some Whitney Houston and singing/dancing along. But there were only two songs my mother ever sang unprompted, unconsciously, without a backing track: Amazing Grace, and I Am Woman (one of the many things she has in common with Barack Obama). At the time I didn’t think much of it. I knew the lyrics but it sure as heck wasn’t playing on MTV. And anyway, weren’t we already a female-led household of strong sisters doing it for ourselves? I didn’t think about why both my mother’s brothers went to university while she, even more intelligent and competent, was a high school drop out who got engaged to a trucker at 16, married at 18, and had me at 20, by which time she’d given up her “career” (hairdressing) to raise children at home – she had 4 of us by 26 and did it all alone, even when she was diagnosed with cancer. During divorce proceedings she gave up spousal support to keep our childhood home; as a single mother with no work experience or credit history of her own, she would have struggled to keep the 5 of us in a 2 bedroom apartment, and she failed to qualify for a loan to replace our rusted out van. Now I have to wonder: was my mother, a stay at home mother and perpetual caregiver, a secret feminist? All evidence points to yes, and not so secretly either. She taught us to “carry our own canoe” (that sounds like a particularly Canadian brand of feminism), to work hard enough to be able to support ourselves, to live with someone before committing to marriage. MY MOM WAS A FEMINIST? I grew up in the 90s, when feminist was a dirty word, but that didn’t mean the struggle for equality was dead, and clearly Helen Reddy’s 1971 song was still an anthem to women raising their own daughters now.

Helen Reddy wrote a feminist anthem in response to the sexism she encountered repeatedly in her life and career. It will not surprise you to know that the (male) record executives didn’t get the song and didn’t want to include it on her album. Or that her (male) husband stole all her money and put it up his nose.

Tilda Cobham-Hervey is absolute perfection as Helen Reddy; she’s the reason to watch. Director Unjoo Moon sticks pretty close to the usual biopic formula, but a magical spark from Cobham-Hervey is all this film needs to ignite not only a strong performance but a stunning musical performance as well.

Helen Reddy was the Katy Perry of her time. She was the first to make us roar. But while Perry’s pregnancy was announced to fanfare and unveiled rather dramatically in a music video, Reddy’s motherhood was considered a liability and proof she could never truly commit to her career. Fighting sexism has turned out to be a very long struggle and sometimes we need to look back in order to appreciate just how far we’ve come.

A Rose For Christmas

After a series of heart flutters, Big Al is sidelined at his business, so daughter Andy (Rachel Boston) takes over the duties of building a float for this year’s Rose Parade, which jubilantly kicks of the Rose Bowl Game on New Year’s Day. The floats are made entirely of organic material and thousands of roses, so as you can imagine, it mostly comes together in just a few weeks. This year Andy’s building a float for a Chicago law firm trying to grow their global presence, and the big boss sends Cliff (Marc Bendavid) to supervise the build.

Cliff would rather be in the new Asian office, or anywhere else really, but in Andy’s float barn, where he’s attempting a hosile takeover, he’s really just in the way. The two despise each other immediately as they engage in a useless power struggle for supremacy over a team of…oh wait, it’s just the two of them. And that’s a problem. Apparently the solution is to find volunteers, although it’s rather late in the season for that, and Cliff is of course extremely and vocally critical of Andy’s flyer technique, but his corporate recruitment techniques fail miserably, and they’re lucky if a dozen people show up to do the work of…well, apparently many more. And Cliff, still very very firmly holding down the role of Business Prick, insists that only the top 10% are worth keeping. I, meanwhile, am still scratching my head over Andy and Big Al’s business model…they are charging Cliff’s law firm to build this float, yet they have no employees and rely entirely on volunteers who are lucky to be paid in coffee and pizza for literal round the clock work…AT CHRISTMAS. The few volunteers they do manage to snag come with their own set of problems – colour blindness and allergies, to name the most pressing – so there will be lots of opportunity for Andy and Cliff’s managerial styles to clash. And yet somehow also they fall in love.

A Rose For Christmas is a standard Hallmark Christmas movie, but I enjoyed this one nearly 10% more than others of its ilk merely because of its unique setting, allowing me to learn a little about the Tournament of Roses Parade and how it comes together, even if the story isn’t exactly to my liking. When I visited New Orleans I was thrilled to visit the warehouse where Mardi Gras parade floats are made year round (by paid employees), and in Las Vegas I’ve often had the chance to see elaborate floral designs, but the Rose Parade has the distinction of blending the two in a beautiful if provisional display. Everything on the float has to be organic, so in addition to the 20 000 roses (on a single float!), other natural decoration like walnut shells, lima beans, and coconut husks are used as well. Like many things over the past several months, the 2021 Rose Parade is cancelled due to COVID-19 (amazingly, this parade has been marching since 1890 and was only cancelled a few times before, in 1942, 1943 and 1945 for WW2), but you can recapture a bit of the magic with A Rose For Christmas, which uses real parade footage and recreates a float that actually travelled down Colorado Boulevard┬ájust a few years ago.