Category Archives: Half-assed

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.

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.

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.

TIFF20: Ammonite

In 1840s England, acclaimed but overlooked (translation: female) fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) reluctantly agrees to act as a caregiver to Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), the sickly wife of a wealthy man, prescribed a convalescence by the sea.

Every morning, Mary prowls the beach by her home in Lyme Regis, a town in West Dorset, searching for and carefully unearthing fossils. She dons rough clothes and men’s boots and has permanently roughened knuckles and a rime of clay under her torn fingernails. It is unusual work for a woman; Mary is an unusual woman. She is not exactly pleased when Charlotte joins her on the beach. Charlotte’s health is as dainty as the heels on her boots, her frills and lace a liability, her bonnet as prim as the purse of her lips. No one is more aware of the difference between their class and social status as Mary is, but Charlotte’s ill health and Mary’s careful caregiving put them on more equal footing. At one moment they’re peeling vegetables side by side, the next they’re having frantic sex.

It sounds as abrupt as it felt. Touted as a period lesbian romance, there isn’t actually a whole lot of romance to the affair. The two women are chronically lonely. Charlotte’s primary ailment is probably grief, and unhappiness, while Mary is burdened by a simmering anger. There isn’t a lot of chemistry between the two, nor any passion outside quick (and quiet -mom’s down the hall) trysts in the bedroom. There isn’t a flirtation or a sweeping exchange of intimate secrets. There is toil, there is the unyielding sound of crashing waves, there is a muddy crust at the hems of their skirts.

Of course, in the 1840s, there is no happily ever after for a couple of “opposites attract” lesbians. Charlotte has her grief to get back to, not to mention a husband. Mary has her work, her resentment, her private anguish. Their brief love affair will have certainly changed them, but at what cost?

Writer-director Francis Lee sets his movie against a backdrop as bleak and as muted as the fine performances by Winslet and Ronan, both at the very top of their game. Their brief connection has no bearing on the unrelenting sea, and no comparison to the 195 million year old bones buried in the cliffs. Theirs is the briefest of blips, inconsequential in the face of the endless ocean. Lee tends to introduce the landscape as the third character in his love stories. His style is sparse but tactile, the environment more alive than even the love between Mary and Charlotte.

And of course the ubiquitous ammonite, a particular fossil of extinct cephalopods found in marine rocks. They are so abundant Mary polishes them and sells them to tourists; the shelves of her modest curio shop overflow with them, Lee finding the metaphor quite irresistible. What is a fossil but an organism that has become petrified over time? Mary was perhaps once a vibrant and content organism but life has hardened her, leaving behind only the impression of someone who once lived – really lived. She is briefly reanimated with Charlotte, but a fossil is also something resistant to change, and Mary is nothing if not set in her ways.

Ammonite has much to admire but far less to actually like. With so little to hold on to, it was hard to be invested in such a thin relationship. With no burning passion to sweep us away, I felt oppressed by the heavy skirts, the lack of privacy, the ceaseless work and the grime. It is a long, slow slog with so little reward that even Winslet’s ferocious work doesn’t seem worth it.

True History of the Kelly Gang

The ‘true’ in the title is false of course, or debatable anyway, which I suppose means the ‘history’ part is too, although our story does take place in the past. Peter Carey’s vital and vigorous novel is a work of fiction, using many true aspects of the Kelly Gang story but inventing others as well. The film poses as Ned Kelly’s autobiography, mostly written and narrated by himself to an unborn child that Carey made up. But if Ned Kelly had had a pregnant wife, if she had half a brain she would have wondered if Ned would live to meet his daughter, and might have encouraged him to leave behind a written legacy, just in case.

The film is a departure not only in story but in tone and in telling, the violence crazed and stylized but the main concern more character than plot. You may already be familiar with the banks that were robbed and the cattle stolen, but this “true history” is more interested not in what they did but why they did it. The class struggle is palpable enough, the sense that there is no place for these young men, no future. There is real rage here, and a dangerous accumulation of testosterone with no constructive outlet.

Ned’s (George McKay) legacy has of course had a lasting impact on Australian culture; this film gives him a punk rock makeover for the 21st century and adds to the myth if not the man. With stunning cinematography, a gritty feel, and anarchic energy, there is much to be admired in Justin Kurzel’s film. Too bad I just didn’t like it. There was a lot of muck, a lot of exaggerated portrayals of machismo, and for me it was just too much crazy and not enough cohesiveness. But, if you’re looking for a western with a distinctly Aussie flavour, this one’s got that, plus lads in dresses, Russel Crowe, Charlie Hunnam, Thomasin McKenzie, and Nicholas Hoult, if you needed more convincing.

A New York Christmas Wedding

Jennifer loves David but her overbearing almost-mother-in-law is pushing them into a high-society Christmas Eve wedding in just a few months that Jennifer doesn’t really want. Having lost both her parents and her childhood best friend Gabby, the holidays have always been hard for Jennifer, and she’s worried her loneliness will be more pronounced. But never mind that: Jennifer (Nia Fairweather) is about to meet her fairy godfather (Cooper Koch) who sends her to an alternate universe to, you know, learn a lesson or whatever.

Alternate Jennifer is in a committed relationship with her dead childhood best friend Gabby (Adriana DeMeo), who is not dead in this version of reality, obviously. Neither is her father, which is nice. But instead of an overbearing mother-in-law ruining her impending wedding, they’re now dealing with a heartbreaking rejection from their catholic church. Father Kelly (Chris Noth) has been instrumental in their lives but his hands are tied – the church does not permit or approve of same sex marriage.

Full disclosure: there are no Christmas weddings in this movie. There is no Christmas, period. Writer-director Otoja Abit (he also plays David) seems to be trading on the romantic holiday theme to bring attention to his gay rights in the church movie. Which is a little dishonest, but I guess you gotta do what you gotta do.

It’s a timely film considering a documentary by Evgeny Afineevsky called Francesco that premiered at the Rome Film Festival a couple of weeks ago featured comments by Pope Francis that seemed to indicate his acceptance of same sex civil unions. Not of marriage in the church of course, and certainly not of “homosexual acts” which are of course still very very wrong and very sinful. But hey, if two dudes want to spend a committed life together, raise a family and share a marriage, that’s cool, they can put a ring on it and get the tax breaks as long as they promise to never have sex.

That Father Kelly even considers their request is a work of more fantasy and fiction than the godfather’s alternate universe in which it exists. I guess it’s nice to dream.

If it sounds interesting to you, A New York Christmas Wedding is a tolerable watch. It has that much in common with the romantic holiday movie it pretends to be: it’s low budget and medium quality but don’t mind the genre, then you won’t mind it’s production values. It’ll do.

Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight

Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight is a Polish horror film with a modern setting. Teens addicted to the screen are sent by their parents to detox in the woods in a kind of rehab camp. Julek (Michal Lupa) is a gamer whose parents don’t seem to appreciate the competition or the money making potential, Aniela (Wiktoria Gasiewska) is selfie-obsessed, and the others are also there so presumably over-consuming some kind of tech, including jock Daniel (Sebastian Dela), homophobic homosexual Bartek (Stanislaw Cywka), and our main protagonist, loner Zosia (Julia Wieniawa-Narkiewicz), though their particulars are apparently unimportant. Suffice to say: they’re addicted, and they’re being marched more or less against their will into the woods by Iza (Gabriela Muskala), a woman who probably wears camo in her off-time too. And this is precisely where the modern stops and this horror becomes a throwback to creature features of yore.

Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight isn’t content with your standard slasher bad guy; they’ve got something truly grotesque tromping through their forest and director Bartosz M. Kowalski capitalizes on the gruesome mystique.

Though Zosia is haunted by her past almost as much as by the monster, it’s Julek who is our true hero, even if he cuts an unlikely figure. He, at least, is bright enough to play by the horror rules, even stating them for everyone’s benefit, especially ours, we the audience who are yelling at least as loud as he is about not splitting up. Not under any circumstances.

This is by no means a classic among the genre, it’s not even a particular stand-out. But if you’re a fan of vintage slasher flicks, you’ll find this full of gore and guts, with an entertaining sprinkling of meta in-jokes. It’s a little familiar in places, a little surprising in others, and altogether not a terrible scary movie. It’s not rich in backstory or concerned with an overarching message, it’s just brutal and bloody and unforgiving.

Holidate

I’m not a Scrooge, but I generally like to keep my Christmas season to about 2-3 weeks total. Both Sean and my young niece share an early December birthday, so I don’t really open the Christmas floodgates until after that, when I can give it my full attention. Many others, including my mother, and my sister (the mother of said niece), are very early celebrants, decking their halls promptly on November 12th (we observe Remembrance Day on the 11th), and would love to do it earlier if decency allowed. Stores unveil their Christmas fare earlier and earlier; they used to wait for Halloween to pass but it is now not uncommon to see wares for both holidays as early as August. Which is when some people start watching holiday movies, according to Netflix. For a longtime the Hallmark channel had a stranglehold on the kind of Christmas movie I’m talking about: the cheesy romance holiday film, low-budget and incredibly formulaic, and yet as much a tradition in some people’s holidays as trees and stockings. Lifetime has gotten in on the action, and now Netflix has too, running last season’s Hallmark movies, and pushing their own Christmas franchises, like the Royal Christmas and Christmas Switch. Holidate, which started streaming on the service on October 28th, seemed early enough to be declaring war on the other sources: “we’re Here, We’re full of good tidings & cheer, Get used to it.” Alas, no. Holidate is only about 10% Christmas, a very tolerable amount even outside of the season, so you can quench your eggnog-equivalent movie thirst with Holidate and not even feel ashamed. Rejoice!

Sloane (Emma Roberts) is fed up by her family’s constant, invasive questions about her marital status – specifically, her lack thereof. Her mother Elaine (Frances Fisher) can’t imagine a fate worse than singledom for her daughter, so you can imagine her ongoing disappointment when Sloane remains in this dreadful state year after year. Christmas is just one among many holidays that prove intolerable to the spinster at the table. So when Sloane meets Jackson (Luke Bracey), a single guy who’s spent too many uncomfortable holidays in the presence of regrettable dates, they seem like a perfect match. They resolve on being each other’s ‘holidate,’ their reliable plus one to holiday-related events but no more, no friends, no benefits. Nothing outside the holidays.

It works pretty great, for a while. They have fun together, even though I still maintain that St Patrick’s day and mother’s day aren’t exactly romantic holidays that require dates, and that Labour Day is hardly a holiday, period. And yet.

And yet the dubious plot is hardly the film’s greatest challenge. Emma Roberts and Luke Bracey have no chemistry. In Roberts’ defense, it’s hard to have chemistry with a cardboard-humanoid Chris Hemsworth replacement product.

Holidate pretends to be self-aware, Sloane rolling her eyes at corny rom-coms that always predictably end in love, which the poster never bothers to hide, and yet the film then unabashedly follows the same formula in all the expected cheesy ways. It would be better to say nothing at all than to call attention to the rules you aren’t about to break.

That said, Holidate isn’t an awful movie. As far as holiday romances go, it’s perfectly middle of the road, exactly the kind of movie that is easily half-watched as you prepare a meal or fold some laundry or wrap some gifts. It probably goes down easier with some wine (like most things, but never more true than with Hallmark-esque movies of a holiday nature). And you can dip into it, guilt-free, in November, or anytime you please.

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

This “moviefilm” could have been simply called Borat 2 but clearly Sacha Baron Cohen figured, why not have an 18 word title instead? Considering that Borat 1 had a 12 word title, a troublesome pattern is emerging, and that’s far from the least troubling pattern in the Borat franchise.

Borat is a terrible character and you can rest assured that Cohen has not toned things down in any way for the sequel, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Borat is just as offensive as ever, a racist, misogynistic reporter travelling through the U.S. and A., on a mission to gift a monkey to Vice President Pence as a tribute to Trump’s great success in undoing a hundred years’ worth of human rights. The difference this time is that everyone in America has seen his first movie so it’s much harder for him to sneak up on anyone. Fortunately for him, his non-male son Tutar (Maria Bakalova) stowed away in the money cage, and she has always wanted to follow in her journalist father’s footsteps. Unfortunately for Borat, he does not believe women can be journalists (or really anything other than residents of cages). Unfortunately for both, Tutar had to eat the monkey to survive the trip to America. So naturally, Borat decides to gift his daughter to Pence instead. And off we go on an adventure that includes Borat embarrassing a number of people who should know better, most notably Rudy Giuliani, who I expected to have been better coached by his friends in the KGB in the art of kompromat.

In 2006, I have to admit that I enjoyed Borat’s first moviefilm. Who could believe that people would say such outrageous things on camera after being offered a little bait by Cohen? It seemed unbelievable at the time. Fast forward to 2020, where no matter what Borat “tricks” people into saying, it pales in comparison to what happens every day on President Trump’s Twitter feed, or any given afternoon at Giuliani’s hotel suite. Cohen’s brand of shock humour seems almost quaint in comparison, which is terrifying.

For all its improvised scenes, Borat 2 has a remarkably focused and cohesive narrative, and contains quite a few funny character moments. But by nature, it also serves as a near-constant reminder of the ongoing nightmare that is American politics, which for me sucked all the fun out of the movie. No matter how hard Cohen and Bakalova tried (and they tried hard), I just can’t laugh at this stuff right now.