Tag Archives: Dan Stevens

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

I will give it this: it is the funniest comedy of 2020. Is it (so far) the only comedy of 2020? Basically yes. But as this movie teaches us: sometimes you win just by showing up.

Lars (Will Farrell) has been obsessed with Eurovision since he was a little boy.

[For us non-Europeans, a crash course in Eurovision Song Contest, which is a real thing: it’s an annual international song competition, held every year since 1956, with participants from many of the 50 eligible countries (confusingly, some eligible countries are not European, and one, Scotland, is not even a country). Like the Olympics, each country holds internal trials and sends their best delegation to the competition, where an original song is to be performed on live TV and radio. Then people vote on their favourite. Countries cannot vote for themselves; each country awards two sets of points, one set decided by a panel of music industry experts, and the second decided by viewers voting by phone and text. Occasionally the winner achieves success outside of the broadcast area; Abba won for Sweden and Celine Dion won for Switzerland *record scratch* wait, what? That’s right: for some reason you don’t have to be from the country you’re representing. Some people compete multiple times by singing for different countries. Dion, who is ours (Canadian), was a good horse to bet on, but it does smack of cheating. Although, to be fair, so does every other thing about the contest. Russia won’t vote for queer performers and China won’t even show them. Jordan won’t show Israeli entries because they don’t recognize it as a country, and neither does Lebanon. And it seems that neighbouring countries tend to vote for each other; geographical and even political alliances pop up, and reciprocal votes are exchanged. You could even allocate points to an unpopular performance in order to boost your own relative success. 2020 was to be the show’s 65th anniversary, with this film’s release set to coincide with it. Alas, COVID has other plans, and for the first time, the contest was cancelled)]

Back to Lars (Will Ferrell), a little Icelandic boy who fell in love with Eurovision the day he first heard Abba sing Waterloo, much to his father’s disapproval. Many, many years later, Lars is now a middle-aged man but his dream is the same. His father’s (Pierce Brosnan) stance hasn’t changed, if anything, he’s more critical of his son’s “wasted life.” But his Fire Saga bandmate Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) has more than enough enthusiasm and encouragement to go around, and in their own heads, they’re already stars (the local pub tells an entirely different story, interrupting their original music to request Ja Ja Ding Dong, a silly but exceedingly catchy piece of shit – think of it as Iceland’s Chicken Dance). They’ll never get sent to compete on Eurovision on their own merits, but luckily the elves are on their side and something happens to tie up literally every other singer-songwriter in the country.

Off to Scotland they go: cue some fish out of water humour, some anti-American jabs, an oversexed Russian (Dan Stevens), and some pretty bizarre on-stage theatrics (which apparently are also a real thing – it’s a visual medium, and performers do their utmost to stand out). Iceland is basically the laughing stock of Eurovision.

This is the movie Will Ferrell was born to write. Scratch that: it’s the movie his wife was born for him to write (She’s Swedish – her family introduced him to the contest and he’s followed it rather ardently since 1999). That’s a pretty serious investment. He planted those comedy crops last century – does he harvest the rewards in this movie? Well, not exactly. His family won’t starve to death, but it’s a meager little crop, and a little mealy to boot. Sean thought it was pretty fun, and I won’t deny the film does have its merits. Will Ferrell is a larger than life comedian. His bits are always big so they either fail big or they win big, and with a 2 hour run time, the premise doesn’t quite have enough steam to keep paying out. Still, considering it’s on Netflix, your risk is small. If you’d paid to see this in a theatre, you’d probably leave feeling disappointed, but it’s just good enough for a Netflix view.

This is the second collaboration between director David Dobkin and stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams. They had no scenes together in Wedding Crashers, in fact Ferrell had a pretty small part, but it was a wildly and unexpectedly successful movie. Perhaps Will Ferrell in small doses is the key here, and it’s one that’s definitely lacking in this prohibitively-long-titled movie. As troubling is his character is, we’re doomed to follow him around through all his lows and lowers. Rachel McAdams is basically inoffensive. She’s not exactly known for her comedic chops, so she provides an earnest counterpoint to Ferrell’s hammy, over-the-top antics. It’s not a match made in heaven. It’s not even a great match for Iceland, whose couplings tend to be a touch inbred. But like the proud and wonderful Icelandic people, this movie is unabashedly, embracingly weird. And like Iceland’s relationship with Europe, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is not the best that Netflix has to offer, but occasionally it surprises you.

Call of the Wild

This is the story of Buck, a behemoth St. Bernard and Scotch shepherd mix, a sweet pup enjoying a life of dog luxury in California when he’s dognapped all the way up to the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush. First he’s conscripted into a dogsled team for a mail delivery service, running across Canada’s northern frozen tundras until the telegraph makes his work obsolete. Next he becomes companion to John Thornton (Harrison Ford) who takes him out to the Arctic Circle where Buck can rediscover his primal roots.

Devoted fans of the 1903 Jack London novel will notice that neither Buck nor his dog colleagues closely resemble their characters in the book. In fact, the other sled dogs are also largely mutts, not the traditional Husky, and their personalities seem based upon the seven dwarfs. I’m not sentimental about the book so I don’t really mind the liberties taken with the literature so much as I mind the liberties taken with dogs. Because for a movie about a dog, and several of his doggie friends, there are no actual dogs in the movie. They’re all CG. And not only are they computer-generated, their expressions, especially Buck’s, are hyper real. Cartoonish. So they look out of place and they make it harder for me to relate to their characters. Buck and his pals get into some real danger. And of course, even out in the wilds, man is always any animal’s greatest threat. It’s likely too scary for very young kids, and yet it didn’t move me half as much as you’d expect from a bleeding heart with a recently deceased, dearly beloved dog. Because Buck’s movements and responses never feel real.

I have a slightly smaller pack now, but even with three dogs I’m very familiar with their methods of communication. If you live with a dog or a cat, and many times even a smaller pet, a bunny or a bird, then you’re likely pretty good at reading their expressions. You know what a tentative paw means, or a head tilt, or a lowered tail. You don’t need some ridiculous CGI eyebrows giving you Scooby Doo vibes. The constant reminder that these dogs aren’t real dilutes the story’s warmth and reduces our interest and empathy.

Ford is pretty solid, especially since he was almost always completely alone, perhaps acting only opposite a tennis ball on a stick that he had to imagine was man’s best friend. There’s a good story under all the effects, I think, but much like Tammy Faye Bakker, the message is lost, and the only story reported is the bad makeup.

Marshall

Thurgood Marshall was the first lawyer working for the NAACP to defend people falsely accused of a crime because of their race. You may know him as the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, and this is one of the career-defining cases that set him upon that path.

The (true) story: Connecticut socialite Eleanor Strubing appeared on a highway in Westchester County, New York, soaked, beaten, and scared one night in December 1940. She claimed her chauffeur had raped her four times, kidnapped her, forced MV5BMmE5MTMwNTUtYTlhMS00YzlhLTk3MTgtMmI3YTA5ODc2NjM0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDg2MjUxNjM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1500,1000_AL_her to write a ransom note for $5,000 and then threw her off a bridge. Papers called her accused assailant the “Negro chauffeur” or “colored servant” but his name was Joseph Spell, and he claimed he was innocent. Lucky for him, his case caught the attention of the NAACP and Marshall was dispatched to try his case. Only he couldn’t; the racist judge wouldn’t let him on the grounds that he was “from out of town” so Marshall had to team with another lawyer and somehow stay silent through the infuriating trial.

Thurgood Marshall probably deserves a legitimate biopic, but this isn’t it. Its narrative is tight, keeping its eye on this single court case. The rest of his accomplishments are relegated to title cards at the end. That’s not really a complaint, but it does somewhat reduce a great man to a courtroom drama. But his greatness is communicated well by a self-possessed and commanding Chadwick Boseman in the lead role. He’s starred in a number of impressive biopics – what does this guy have to do to break through? Josh Gad plays the lawyer assisting him, Dan Stevens opposing counsel, James Cromwell the judge, and Kate Hudson as the woman pressing charges. And most interestingly, it’s Sterling K. Brown as the man who stands accused. Audiences will know him from This is Us, or else The People Vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. Even if Spell is innocent, Brown’s still playing against type, and it’s a great move.

All the pieces fall into place and it’s a perfectly solid movie. But for bearing the simple title ‘Marshall’ I expected it to be a little wider in scope – and having been baited with this little bit, I’m disappointed it wasn’t.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

My bosom is glowing. That’s what we used to call boobies when I was little: bosoms. Pronounced bazooms, of course. My grandmother told us that eating our sandwich crusts would result in big bazooms and I gobbled mine up greedily, and those of my sisters, if they left them.

Is it a digression if I lead with it? Back to my glowing bosom, which is a line I lifted from the movie itself. It’s the story of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol. He’d gotten a taste of success with Oliver Twist and was determined to live 58dd47c10c48e-e2i2h1u1qk5henceforth like a gentleman, but his next three attempts were flops – poorly reviewed, scarcely read. He was really under the gun to write his next best-seller and you know what pressure does to a writer: it blocks him. He pitched a vague idea for a Christmas ghost story to publisher and was laughed right out of the office, Christmas being a “minor” holiday and all. He determined to self-publish and gave himself the daunting deadline of just 6 weeks hence – a release just barely in time for Christmas. The only problem aside from funding was that not a word had been written.

The film follows Dickens (Dan Stevens) on his frantic quest to write a wildly popular novel without the merest hint of a concrete idea. He agonizes over the creation of characters and then is haunted by them, literally. Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) mocks his attempts and grumbles when he isn’t given enough lines, or enough good lines. Dicken’s father (Jonathan Pryce) is visiting and provides constant distraction. If you have even a passing knowledge of A Christmas Carol, it’s kind of fascinating to watch its author draw inspiration from his own life and everything around him, turning ordinary things into ideas that have permeated our culture and helped to define how we celebrate our holidays. While director Bharat Nalluri of course takes some dramatic license, the spirit of the thing is largely accurate. 

Dan Stevens is well-cast as Dickens, and it gives me great pains to send any praise his way because I’ve always held a grudge for how he treated Lady Mary when he left Downton Abbey the way he did. But in The Man Who Invented Christmas, he brings Dickens alive, a man for whom his characters were more alive to him than his own loved ones, and though Scrooge et al literally do speak to him (and offer criticism), his genius and vivid imagination are not to be discounted. But if the film merely existed to give us Christopher Plummer as Scrooge, that alone would be enough. About to celebrate his 88th birthday, the man still has performance in his bones. He won his first Oscar at the age of 82 for Beginners, and it is possibly not his last – he’s got 4 movies in various phases of production, including his hasty replacement of Kevin Spacey in Ridley Scott’s All The Money in the World. This movie is a perfect example of why Plummer is still in demand. He turns an invented character into a real, flesh and blood man.

Beauty & The Beast

One word: underwhelming.

This movie is production-designed within an inch of its life. Like, literally it’s clogged with lustre and decadence. I find no fault with how it looks; a good faith effort was made to pay tribute to the original, to remind us of the classic animated movie from 1991, while still forging its own little identity, diverging enough from the already-trodden path to inject it with a life of its own.

Unfortunately, none of the new material really lands. Is this just me, loyal to the film of my childhood? Sadly not. But it does pale in comparison. No matter what Bill Condon does, this film inevitably fails to capture the magic of the first.  This is hardly surprising since it beautyandthebeast-beast-windoweschews the magic of animation. Well, traditional animation. The truth is, “live action” or not, Belle is the only human being in that castle. Yes, Ewan McGregor danced around in a motion capture suit to play Lumiere, and Dan Stevens waltzed in steel-toed 10-inch stilts for the ballroom scene, but they’re both playing CGI characters. Why hire greats like Emma Thompson, Ian McKellan, and Audra McDonald, only to hide them behind computer graphics, appearing “live” only in the last 20 seconds of the film? It seems a waste. I rather liked the live action remake of Cinderella, but then, that was always a story about humans, wasn’t it? Jungle Book  (which already has been) and Lion King (which is about to be) turned into “live action” films have little to no humans in them, so what’s the point? They were MADE for animation. Let’s leave them be.

Emma Watson, as Belle, is brilliant casting. She was originally cast in La La Land but left the project to do this instead. I think it was the right choice for her. Her voice is lovely and pure, and she reminds us that Belle isn’t just beautiful, but also smart and brave. Ryan Gosling was originally cast as the Beast and left this movie to do La La Land, and I think that was the right choice for him. Dan Stevens took over the role of the beast, and he’s okay. Director Bill Condon had hoped to create a beast look out of prosthetics, and he did film it that way, but in the end he was overruled and a CGI beast face was superimposed. Kevin Kline as Belle’s father, Maurice, is a wise choice. He’s older and less of a buffoon than in the animated film, but they don’t quite make sense of the character despite adding some back story. Luke Evans has the pleasure of playing everyone’s favourite cartoon narcissist, Gaston. No longer roughly the size of a barn, he’s still the cocky, selfsure Gaston we remember. It’s his sidekick who’s less recognizable.

The animated Le Fou is nothing more than a clown. In the 2017 version, Disney is proud to proclaim him their first openly-gay character, to which I say: hmm? This was maybe the movie’s biggest let down. Le Fou does not strike me as gay. He’s the kind of closeted gay that you only know about because it was issued in a Disney press release. What little humanity he shows already makes him too good for Gaston, but no real motivation is ever ascribed to him. It’s a Disney movie, so of course there is no real sexual tension, but nor is there even the slightest hint of romance or passion. There are more lingering glances between a young girl and a horned beast than there are between these two men. Nice try, Disney, but I’m not buying it. And it’s probably not the greatest idea to tout your first and only “gay character” as this bumbling idiot who languishes with an unrequited crush on a real prick, whom he helps to hook up with women. That’s pretty condescending.

But I take it back: Le Fou is not the most disappointing thing about the movie. In my little batb-02422r-2-a7172c76-a61b-423e-a41b-5965b3fef116girl heart, the biggest disappointment was The Dress. To me it looked cheap. And I’m sure it wasn’t: I’m sure that a dozen people toiled over its construction. I’ve heard it used 3,000 feet of thread, 2160 Swarovski crystals, and took over 12,000 designer hours to complete. Not worth it. The dress is disenchanting. In the original version, the dress is luminous, we believe it is not merely yellow, but spun gold. The one Emma Watson wears seems like a poor knock-off. It feels flat. And what’s with her shitty jewelry? In the cartoon, Belle’s ht_belle_beauty_beast_kb_150126_4x3_992neck is unadorned; why ruin a perfect neckline with even the most impressive of baubles? But Emma Watson’s Belle accessorizes her ballgown with a shitty pendant on a string. I can only assume this is blatant product placement and this cheap trinket will be sold en masse in a shopping mall near you, but it’s so incongruous it’s a distraction. For shame.

And for all the little changes this movie makes, tweaks to the back stories and the plausibility, one glaring detail remains pretty much the same. In the 1991 movie, the wicked witch condemns the prince to live as a beast until he can love and be loved in return; if he fails to do so before the last petal falls from the enchanted rose, he will remain a beast forever, and his household staff will remain household objects. In the animated classic, we know that the beast has until his 21st birthday to make this happen, and that this has been a period of 10 years. Therefore, the curse bestowed upon him befalls him at age 11, and for what? Because he didn’t let a stranger inside the house while his parents were away? He’s ELEVEN! And his servants are blameless. It always struck me as an extremely cruel not to mention unfair punishment. In this recent film, the role of the witch is expanded, but this only makes her motivations murkier. We see how harshly she has condemned a young prince, but she seems to overlook much worse transgressions. If this is hard for me to swallow, I imagine it must be even more unsettling for children who need to know that rules and punishments are meted out fairly, at least.

I could not have skipped this movie, the pull was too great. But there was no childhood here to be relived, just a fraudulent imitation that had lost its sparkle.