Tag Archives: 2020

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Even though Will Ferrell is a household name by this point, you’d have to go back to 2010’s The Other Guys to find a Ferrell-starring comedy that resonated with both audiences and critics. The 2010s have not been especially kind when it comes to lead roles for the oafish SNL alum, littered with dreck from Get Hard to Holmes & Watson with only minor gems like The House that got buried under terrible box office figures. His latest offering, Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, looks to replicate the joyous goofiness of Aughts underdog comedies like Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory and with the help of a strong supporting cast, it barely gets there.

Ferrell plays Lars Erickssong, a native to a small Icelandic town who has dreamed of winning the Eurovision contest ever since he was a boy, dancing frantically along to ABBA performing “Waterloo” in front of his TV. His comrade in musical stardom is Sigrit (Rachel McAdams), Lars’ childhood friend who makes up the other half of their fledgling pop duo Fire Saga. Their dreams seem to come into focus when their audition tape is randomly selected by Iceland’s Eurovision committee and they’re whisked away to Scotland to participate in the international music competition. Along the way, they run into challengers like the fiery Russia representative Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens) and the seductive Greek singer Mita Xenakis (Melissanthi Mahut).

Using even rudimentary criteria, I wouldn’t necessarily classify Eurovision Song Contest as a particularly “good movie”. It’s at least a half-an-hour too long, there are more than a few punchlines that don’t work at all and the overall story arc is about as predictable as can be. Having said that, I chuckled consistently at its go-for-broke spirit and naïve playfulness and in these increasingly dispiriting times, that certainly must count for something. Ferrell is reprising his man-child schtick to limited effect, albeit with a silly accent thrown in for good measure, but McAdams proves after her outstanding turn in Game Night that she’s able to find just the right notes in a broad comedy like this.

Another standout among the supporting players is Stevens, who has been quite bad in recent films like Beauty and the Beast and The Call of the Wild but rebounds here nicely with haughty role clearly modeled after George Michael. A snippy conversation about gender fluidity that he has with McAdams’ character deep into the 2 plus hour runtime scores the biggest laughs in the entire film. It’s a shame that director David Dobkin couldn’t find more for Pierce Brosnan to do as Lars’ father, other than looking handsome and mortified as he watches his son fail on live TV. Given Brosnan’s role in the Mamma Mia! films, I’m shocked that they couldn’t at least manage a more overt ABBA connection for laughs.

While the songs aren’t as memorable as those from other musical comedies like Walk Hard or Music And Lyrics, the Fire Saga tracks “Husavik” and “Double Trouble” are sufficiently catchy. The funniest music moment comes courtesy of Lemtov’s uproarious tune “Lion of Love”, which Stevens performs with appropriately garish aplomb. Elsewhere, the film surprisingly does a decent job at incorporating Icelandic culture. The country’s picturesque scenery is highlighted on numerous occasions and if you think this movie doesn’t offer several Sigur Rós music cues at climactic moments, you have another thing coming. As innocuous distractions go, you could certainly do worse than Eurovision Song Contest.

Score – 3/5

New to streaming this weekend:
Available on Disney+ is Hamilton, a live Broadway recording of the smash hit musical starring Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. about the life of founder father and first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton.
Available on demand is The Outpost, a war drama starring Scott Eastwood and Orlando Bloom about a small team of U.S. soldiers as they battle against hundreds of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
Available on Netflix is Desperados, a comedy starring Anna Camp and Nasim Pedrad about a young woman who rushes to Mexico with her friends to try and delete a scathing email she sent to her new boyfriend.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Irresistible

When Jon Stewart closed out his 16-year run as the host of The Daily Show in 2015, his departure sparked many questions about what he would do next in his career. Outside of his admirable advocacy and activism on behalf of 9/11 first responders, Stewart has largely spent the past 5 years staying out of the limelight entirely, opting for the quieter life on his secluded New Jersey farm. Alas, the satirist extraordinaire finally emerges as the director and sole credited writer of Irresistible, a toothless and tired political comedy which lacks the deft hand and finger-on-the-pulse urgency that Stewart displayed on each episode of his 22 Emmy award-winning show.

Daily Show alum Steve Carell stars as Gary Zimmer, a political strategist for the DNC who is shell-shocked by the results of the 2016 presidential election. Desperately looking for a rebound for the Democratic party, he finds a town hall video of retired Marine colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper) making an impassioned plea for the undocumented workers of his small town of Deerlaken, WI. Zimmer sees in Hastings an opportunity to restore the recently-decimated Blue Wall and upon meeting him, he convinces Hastings to run for mayor in a historically Republican-run city. Zimmer’s efforts to prop up a burgeoning Democrat in the Heartland catches the attention of RNC consultant Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne) and with the power of Super PACs and wealthy donors behind both candidates, the mayoral race soon becomes headline news.

The overall form of Irresistible is nothing we haven’t seen before: a fish out of water story about a city slicker (a DC insider, in this case) who is forced to mingle with “normal folk” and in doing so, finds out he’s more out of touch than he realized. Where Stewart looks to distinguish his tale is in its lambasting of our broken political system and while he does land a few zingers that cut to the core of the dysfunction, so much of the humor is either too dated or too broad to resonate. Stewart made a name for himself sharply deriding the news media for their bias towards conflict and sensationalism, so it’s a bit of a letdown when his most cutting criticism on the subject this time around involves 12 talking heads bickering at each other simultaneously.

When he does take aim at the folly of the modern electoral process from the tedium of focus groups to the influence of big data, Stewart simply doesn’t offer as much fresh insight as he thinks he does. But the biggest issues with Irresistible don’t reveal themselves until the miserably contrived third act, where the lynchpin argument for campaign finance reform is clumsily unpacked upon the already ridiculously far-fetched plot. Even more insulting are the unfunny tacked-on fake-out credits in the vein of 2018’s Vice and then a mid-credit interview in which Stewart literally grills former FEC chairman Trevor Potter about the plausibility of the events that he just laid out before his audience.

Despite the self-aggrandizement and sermonizing, it would be a lie to say that the film doesn’t score some laughs despite itself. In the arena of more broad humor, Carell and Byrne fare much better with their playfully profane banter as they gleefully cross party lines. Perhaps the funniest lines come at the end of the fake campaign ads, which are paid for by faux special interest groups like Powerful Progressives For Strength and Wisconsinites For Religiously Based Compassionate Empathy. Stewart is a fine satirist, an underrated interviewer and an effective activist but based on Irresistible, he has a way to go as a filmmaker.

Score – 2/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Available on Netflix is Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, a comedy starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams about a pair of Icelandic singers who compete on behalf of their country in the titular music competition.
Available on Amazon Prime is My Spy, an action comedy starring Dave Bautista and Chloe Coleman about a CIA agent who finds himself at the mercy of a precocious 9-year-old girl of a family that he and his tech support is surveilling undercover.
Available on demand is Run with the Hunted, a crime drama starring Sam Quartin and Ron Perlman about a woman who becomes determined to track down the boy who saved her life as a child and then disappeared.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Da 5 Bloods

More than a visionary director or bold storyteller, I think of Spike Lee as a teacher. Not the boring high school instructor who drones on with the same prepared lectures year after year but the passionate educator who puts a fresh perspective on commonly accepted material. Each film of Lee’s is a re-education in American history and his new Netflix Joint Da 5 Bloods is no exception. This time, Lee takes aim at the Vietnam War and the inequalities leveled against the black community at a time when the civil rights movement suffered a huge setback in the loss of its defining leader, Martin Luther King Jr. But this isn’t just Lee’s commentary on the War; it’s a full-on war movie with thrilling action sequences and high entertainment value all around.

At the outset, in present day, we meet a group of Vietnam veterans who reunite in the country that made them brothers in arms. Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) have returned, at least seemingly, to find the grave of their fallen captain Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). However, we learn through flashback that the squad recovered a case of gold bars in the cabin of a downed plane and buried the treasure throughout the hillside with the intention of digging it up someday. Aiding them in their decades-long pact are French exporters Hedy (Mélanie Thierry) and Desroche (Jean Reno), who offer to transport their vast fortune out of the country for a cut of the sum.

As a film historian, Lee can’t help but visually reference other well-known Vietnam War pictures from Apocalypse Now to Platoon, although his most clear influence is John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, whose most famous quote is cleverly reappropriated. Like that 1948 classic, the story is less about the titular prize and more about the collection of troubled personalities that pursue it. Each of the Bloods certainly have their issues but “troubled” doesn’t quite begin to cover Paul, a cantankerous and paranoid force of nature whose emotional wartime trauma has manifested into PTSD and an estrangement from his son David (Jonathan Majors).

Lindo has played smaller on-screen roles in the past (I’m embarrassed to say his work in Gone In 60 Seconds was previously my main point of reference for him) but he’s never been better than he is here. As the de-facto “leader” of the Bloods, he has a haunted acrimony to his demeanor that is at once repellent yet transfixing. His third-act monologues, delivered direct to camera with the fervor and ferocity of Colonel Kurtz, recall the “mirror” speech given by Edward Norton in Spike Lee’s post-9/11 opus 25th Hour. He delivers a searing and multi-faceted performance that is undoubtedly one of the year’s best.

Lee throws plenty at his audience during the staunch 155 minute runtime and while not every single concept or idea works entirely, there are more than enough successes to score a winning ratio. Among his better stylistic impulses is the inclusion of numerous Marvin Gaye tracks from dance hit “Got To Give It Up” to a stunning acapella rendition of “What’s Going On” that simply gave me goosebumps in its implementation. On a more surface level, the flashback firefights and present-day conflicts are both shot and edited with just the right amount of visual flourish for maximum impact. Urgent and unapologetic, Da 5 Bloods is another impressive statement from one of our most vital filmmakers.

Score – 4/5

New to streaming this weekend:
Debuting on demand is You Should Have Left, a psychological horror film starring Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried about a screenwriter who travels with his family to a remote cabin to pen his next script, only to suffer a severe case of writer’s block.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is 7500, an action thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt about a beleaguered airline pilot whose flight from Berlin to Paris is hijacked by a group of terrorists.
Available on Netflix is Wasp Network, a true story starring Penélope Cruz and Ana de Armas about five Cuban political prisoners who had been imprisoned by the United States since the late 1990s on charges of espionage and murder.

Rewritten by permission of Whatzup

The King of Staten Island

If anyone knows arrested development, it’s Judd Apatow. As seen in comedy hits like Knocked Up and Trainwreck, he seems to have a soft spot for protagonists whose immaturity prohibits them from making that pesky transition into adulthood. In fact, it wouldn’t completely surprise me if his next project was actually called Adulting. Apatow also has a knack for taking an up-and-coming comedian’s persona and crafting a star-making vehicle around it, as he did with Seth Rogen in Knocked Up and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck. Pair these predilections and you have The King of Staten Island, Apatow’s latest heartfelt dramedy which is centered around the life of SNL bad boy Pete Davidson.

Davidson plays Scott, a disaffected twentysomething who spends his days in a drugged-out haze playing video games with his equally aimless friends in his mom Margie’s (Marisa Tomei) basement. Even though his world is moving in slow motion, things are changing around him quicker than he’d like. His sister Claire (Maude Apatow) is moving out to go to college, his secret girlfriend Kelsey (Bel Powley) wants to go public with their relationship and Margie has found a new suitor in Ray (Bill Burr), a firefighter with two kids of his own. All of these forces conspire to compel Scott to address the issues that have kept him stuck for so long and to move into a more productive phase of his life.

Given their vast similarities, it’s difficult to tell exactly where Pete ends and Scott begins. They’re both New Yorkers with a dark sense of humor and a fondness for detailed tattoos. Davidson’s father (whose name, fittingly, was Scott) was a first-responder who passed away as a result of the 9/11 attacks, while Staten Island‘s Scott also lost his father in a firefighting accident. Both Pete and Scott also suffer from various physical and mental maladies from Crohn’s disease to borderline personality disorder, the latter of which led Pete to post several disturbing Instagram posts that led high-profile figures like his ex-fiancé Ariana Grande to express concern for his well-being.

The core issue with The King of Staten Island is that Apatow doesn’t expound on Pete’s troubled persona in a particularly meaningful or original manner. Throughout its bloated 135-minute runtime, the film insists that there’s more to Scott and his story than meets the eye but doesn’t stray far from the feel-good movie formula in doing so. The best stretches of the film recall 2009’s Funny People and how Apatow was able to recontextualize the career of veteran comedian Adam Sandler, who Davidson has actually impersonated multiple times on SNL. The trouble is that Davidson isn’t nearly as well known now as Sandler was then and unless you’re already acclimated to Davidson’s brand of slacker humor, it’s more likely that you’ll be put off by his antics as opposed to being drawn in by them.

Still, there is something potentially compelling about Davidson from a dramatic standpoint and he does have moments of raw vulnerability that could led to a more straight-laced acting career. In Sandler’s film debut Billy Madison, Roger Ebert said of Sandler that he’s “not an attractive screen presence” before revising his opinion when he went on to more successful serious roles down the road. Perhaps Davidson will eventually find his own Punch Drunk Love or Uncut Gems but in the meantime, indulgent pap like The King of Staten Island won’t do him many favors.

Score – 2.5/5

Also streaming this weekend:
Available on Netflix is Da 5 Bloods, the new Spike Lee joint starring Delroy Lindo and Jonathan Majors about four African-American veterans who return to Vietnam to search for buried treasure and the remains of their fallen squad leader.
Available on Disney+ is Artemis Fowl, an adaptation of the popular young adult novel starring Ferdia Shaw and Josh Gad about a pre-teen genius who uses magical forces to search for his missing father.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Shirley

Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, the piercing new biopic Shirley stars Elisabeth Moss in the titular role as iconoclast 1950s author Shirley Jackson. Holed up with her viciously judgmental and ostensibly supportive professor husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), Jackson is plagued with anxiety and agoraphobia while attempting to complete her next piece of visionary horror fiction. Her tenuous creative process is interrupted when Stanley’s student Fred (Logan Lerman) and his new wife Rose (Odessa Young) enter their lives and their home to stay for the summer. Cohabitation tensions emerge between the middle-aged intellectuals and the young newlyweds as the couples verbally spar amid the backdrop of an oppressively sweltering summer heat.

Following up her audacious coming-of-age drama Madeline’s Madeline, director Josephine Decker tightens up her experimental approach a bit to fit this comparatively more straight-forward narrative. But just because she’s working within a well-worn genre doesn’t mean she isn’t able to find plenty of spots to intersperse her expressive style and unique vision. Along with cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, Decker creates a claustrophobic and clammy atmosphere where the walls and ceilings audibly hiss with decay both day and night. At times, Grøvlen’s woozy camera seems to amble from one room to the next in order to capture interactions ranging from terse conversations to drunken attempts at flirtation.

Given its focus on two intergenerational couples intermingling while under one roof, the bones of this prickly psychodrama closely resemble those of the classic play/film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Adapting the fictional novel Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell, screenwriter Sarah Gubbins peppers her script with dyspeptic dialogue that may turn audiences off but nevertheless feels true to Jackson’s essence. While attending a drab party, Jackson sarcastically quips “what a lovely insouciant tone you have!” to a woman she suspects is having an affair with her husband. Recalling her work on the Alex Ross Perry collaborations Queen of Earth and last year’s Her Smell, Moss proves that no actress can inject verbal barbs with quite as much venom as she can.

However, Moss’ work here is much more than an assemblage of nasty exchanges. As Jackson, Moss gives a fierce and full-bodied performance that recalls Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning turn in the literary biopic Capote. She’s introduced to us at the center of a semi-circle of eager fans, with a cigarette in one hand and scotch in the other, and it’s made clear that Jackson’s work has a way of casting a dark spell on all who take it in — Rose even says Jackson’s The Lottery made her feel “thrillingly horrible.” Moss sells the writer’s insecurities and idiosyncrasies perfectly, right up to the transcendent final scene that beautifully summarizes the creative process.

Moss will likely get most of the accolades from an acting perspective but I was just as taken with Odessa Young’s work as a stifled wild spirit waiting to be unleashed. As the film progresses, Rose starts to take on Shirley’s cadence and persona and the performances of Moss and Young begin to mirror each other in fascinating ways. Young’s measured transition from straight-laced housewife to liberated freethinker is truly mesmerizing to watch and one of the film’s biggest delights. A biopic about a shut-in during a humid summer may not be ideal escapist entertainment given the current world circumstances but nevertheless, Shirley is a delightfully off-kilter portrait of a similarly anomalous author.

Score – 3.5/5

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #44 – Quaranstream II: Electric Streamaloo

I’m joined again by my wife Aubree as we continue to brave the COVID madness and talk through more shows that we’ve been streaming during our extended time at home. Points of discussion include The Last Dance (streaming in full on ESPN), the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt interactive special (streaming on Netflix), The Great (streaming in full on Hulu), Run (streaming in full on HBO) and Defending Jacob (7 episodes currently streaming on Apple TV+; finale to air on 5/29). Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

Ep. #43 – Quaranstream

I’m joined by my wife Aubree as we hunker down and talk through the shows that we’ve been streaming during the coronavirus stay-at-home order. We talk Tiger King, 100 Humans and the third season of Ozark, which are all available on Netflix. We also discuss the third season of The Sinner, which is streaming on USA and the fifth season of Better Call Saul, which is still running on AMC. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

The Way Back

“Little things add up; let’s do all the little things right.” So advises Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck), a former high school basketball star who’s been tasked with coaching his alma mater’s failing basketball squad. It’s sound advice for a sports team and incidentally, valid advice for anyone battling through the depths of depression and grief. It just so happens that Jack, who is more deeply depressed than he even knows, isn’t doing either the little or big things right. Separated from his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar) for a year, Jack has isolated almost everyone from his life and drowns his loneliness with a constant supply of alcohol. When the opportunity to lead the aforementioned team presents itself, he rehearses his rejection speech intended for the head of the school while downing a 12-pack of his go-to lager before ultimately accepting the job.

As a redemption drama that could ostensibly be described as a “sports movie”, The Way Back is uncommonly insightful when it comes not only to addiction but how much strength it takes to overcome it, even temporarily. Jack thinks he’s hiding his alcoholism better than he really is, though he doesn’t have many people in his life to hide it from anyway. His sister Beth (Michaela Watkins) chides him for being late for Thanksgiving dinner and even confronts him more directly later on, relaying gossip about him visiting the local watering hole Harold’s Place every night. “I’m fine. I appreciate it but it’s– I’m fine,” Jack grunts. As it’s said, the first step to solving a problem is admitting that there is one, even if Jack is still in denial when he accepts the coaching position that could set him on the right path.

I thought I knew what to expect going into The Way Back and you probably will too. As the director of other rousing sports films like Miracle and Warrior, Gavin O’Connor knows this and uses our knowledge of the genre to throw us off of the expected trajectory but not in a way that feels manipulative. Right up to the last frame, this film resonates with the stark authenticity that can only come from firsthand experience with the subject matter. Yes, there are training montages and yes, the team learns to overcome their interpersonal struggles in order to achieve success together as a team. The entire basketball angle, however, is always filtered through Jack’s perspective and O’Connor never loses sight of how much further he has to go to overcome his demons. Yes, coaching has given a reason for Jack to get out of bed in the morning but will that be enough for lasting change?

It feels strange to talk for this long about The Way Back and not discuss Affleck’s gut-wrenching and staggering lead performance, the finest of his 20+ year career. Rewatching 2000’s Boiler Room recently, I had in mind the cool and confident speeches he gave in that film and compared them to the impassioned words he shares with his team during timeouts here. This time, his voice cracks and he desperately shouts every word like it could be his last. Like his younger brother Casey’s Oscar-winning turn in Manchester by the Sea, Ben Affleck’s role is one marked by tremendous levels of personal pain which he both internalizes and externalizes brilliantly. It’s hard not to recall Nicolas Cage’s work in Leaving Las Vegas, where his character is either inebriated or hung over in every single scene. Affleck is even more nuanced in his portrayal of an aimless man searching for a way forward, despite the film’s slightly contradictory title.

Even if one goes into The Way Back simply looking for an inspiring sports movie, O’Connor and crew swish on the fundamentals that make for exciting basketball footage. The clear and concise editing from David Rosenbloom paired with the grounded cinematography by Eduard Grau will even have sports novices on the edges of their seats. Rob Simonsen’s music score begins with doleful stabs from dampened piano strings, gradually crescendoing to rousing heights with exultant percussion. Steeped in the messy realities of hard living, The Way Back is the kind of intimate and personal filmmaking that is sorely lacking from the major studio system.

Score – 4/5

The Invisible Man

In the wreckage of Universal’s failed Dark Universe franchise comes The Invisible Man, a smart and sensitive reimagining of the H.G. Wells novel that flips the script on the classic monster tale. Instead of focusing on Adrian Griffin, the troubled scientist who finds a way to permanently disappear, this remake shifts the perspective to the Griffin’s wife, who desperately seeks to get out from his overwhelmingly controlling presence. Writer/director Leigh Whannell has crafted a memorable psychological thriller that resonates with insightful truths about abusive relationships but doesn’t skimp on the unsettling moments of horror as well.

In the film’s masterful opening sequence, we’re introduced to Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) as she wakes in the middle of the night and gently pries herself from the grasp of her sleeping husband Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). After narrowly fleeing from their home, Cecilia takes refuge from her menacing husband with her police officer friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). She’s with them two weeks before she gets the news that Adrian has died of apparent suicide, of which she becomes immediately skeptical and even more so when she feels stalked by his unseen presence. Misplaced items and misunderstandings soon escalate to dead bodies as Cecilia becomes desperate to prove that she is being hunted by a man that no one can see.

Whannell graduates from dreck like Insidious: Chapter 3 to this mature and sophisticated chiller that mostly trusts the audience to keep up with the story’s many twists and turns. Though the narrative goes in many different directions, we’re taking the journey with Cecila every step of the way and even though other characters begin to question her sanity, we know we can trust her perspective. Even in a young year, we’re seeing films from The Assistant and Birds of Prey that directly call out predatory men and the systems that allow them to retain their power. The Invisible Man furthers this trend of reflecting on the Me Too movement, making the emotional violence perpetrated against the protagonist even more palpable.

As the fraught but fierce Cecilia, Moss disappears into a challenging role that demands both conviction and vulnerability and she finds the perfect balance in every scene. She can convey layers of trauma and suffering with a single glance, bringing the audience ever closer to her world of isolation and paranoia. As with most of the characters that Moss portrays, Cecilia is smart, cunning and resourceful; we know that we can trust her to make the right decisions even when she seems unhinged. There’s always been a steely magnetism to Moss’ work, a unique blend of unpredictability and understanding that makes her one of the most fascinating actresses working today.

Behind the camera, Whannell and his cinematographer Stefan Duscio brilliantly ratchet up the tension by filling the frame with negative space to suggest where the hidden antagonist could be at any moment. Along with Andy Canny’s editing, this creates a more studied pace to most of the film that distinguishes it from other horror movies that usually only care about cutting to a cheap scare. Topping things off, Benjamin Wallfisch’s dynamic and icy music score picks just the right moments to pop out and avoid the typical “gotcha!” stabs when underlying moments of genuine terror. Though it does commit a number of tiny gaffes in terms of logic and plotting, The Invisible Man remains a great example of how to shed light on an old monster and realize it never really left us in the first place.

Score – 3.5/5