REVIEW: “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (2020)

SAGAposter

Will Ferrell works in absurdity the way Leonardo da Vinci worked in oils or Michelangelo in marble. It’s his chosen means of artistic expression, and like paint across a canvas, nuttiness on the screen is his creative language. Unfortunately for Ferrell there haven’t been many Mona Lisas or Davids. And “masterpiece” isn’t a word I would normally associate with his movies. Yet still his special brand of “art” finds an audience and occasionally hits its mark.

His latest is the Netflix Original “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”, a surprisingly tolerable comedy that sees Ferrell working his routine while his co-stars steal the show. As with many Ferrell films the concept is ludicrous which is a part of its charm. It also has him playing a character we’ve seen him do before – a lumbering lummox with good intentions but seriously low brain wattage.

Ferrell plays Lars Erickssong, a middle-aged man still living with his father in Húsavík, Iceland. Since he was a child all he has wanted to do was represent his country in the Eurovision Song Contest. For us uniformed westerners, it’s an international song competition that has been held annually since 1956 (due to the COVID-19 outbreak this year’s event was cancelled for the first time since its creation). Whether this film aims to be a parody or a celebration, I’m still trying to figure it out.

SAGA1

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Much to the chagrin of his grumpy, disapproving father (Pierce Brosnan), Lars’ only goal in life is to win Eurovision with his music partner and childhood friend Sigrit (Rachel McAdams). Of course it comes at the expense of the normal things that come with growing up – getting a job, making a living, getting married, starting a family. His tunnel-vision also keeps him from seeing that his infinitely more talented co-singer loves him. Then again she’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. After all, she does believe in wish-granting mountain elves.

But I digress, Lars and Sigrit enter their band Fire Saga into a national competition to determine Iceland’s submission to the Eurovision Song Contest. If they (by some unthinkable miracle or cataclysmic tragedy) win, then it’s off to Edinburgh to compete against Europe’s best. As you probably guessed Fire Saga is pretty terrible thanks to Lars and his ludicrous costume designs and stage gimmicks. So wacky mishaps and a crazy turn-of-events or two are all but guaranteed.

The film is directed by David Dobkin who previously worked with McAdams and Ferrell on “Wedding Crashers”. Dobkin made his name directing music videos and can see it in the film’s numerous musical numbers. Most notably is a “song-along” at a party stacked with cameos from past Eurovision participants. It’s a goofy mix of silliness and song that weirdly fits the overall tone.

SAGA2

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

While Ferrell may be tromping familiar ground, he manages to make some of these roles work because of the indubitable earnestness of his characters. You never doubt their sincerity regardless of how stupid they may seem. But it’s McAdams who ultimately steals the show. People tend to forget that she possesses impeccable comic timing. Just look at her work in “Midnight in Paris” and more recently “Game Night”. She never overdoes a reaction or underplays a gag. She’s terrific. And I have to mention Dan Stevens playing a hedonistic, over-charged Russian playboy who is hysterically over-the-top in every scene. I challenge you not to laugh at his antics.

Unfortunately, like so many modern comedies “Eurovision” doesn’t know when to stop. It gets bogged down in the second half and its two-hour plus runtime could have used a 20-minute trim. Also Ferrell (who co-wrote the script with Andrew Steele) just can’t resist tired and lazy jokes about male privates and patently dumb lines like “Let’s go sex nuts.” These are the moments when you can see the movie working. The film also suffers from an underwritten love story (I’m still trying to figure out what Sigrit sees in Lars) and a throwaway villain who makes no sense whatsoever.

Yet the movie still gets its hooks in you. For every scattered eye-roll moment there are two scenes that will bring a smile or a laugh. And any opportunity to see McAdams once again doing straight comedy is a major plus. Its warm and optimistic ending makes for a good payoff and I would give it one full star just for Molly Sandén’s gorgeous song “Husavik (My Home Town)”. While it’s far from great, “Eurovision” is a light and surprisingly entertaining counter for much of what passes for comedies these days.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3-stars

RETRO REVIEW: “Escape from Alcatraz” (1979)

ALCATRAZposter

For the past few months I’ve dedicated Wednesdays to doing Retro Reviews. The way it works is I put up three options on my Twitter feed (you can follow me @KeithandMovies). Followers vote, I rewatch the movie, and then post the review the following Wednesday. Whatever film finishes second comes back the next week against two new choices. So basically you pick what I watch and review.

There is something so simple about “Escape from Alcatraz” yet so foreign to much of modern day cinema. It’s the art of quiet visual storytelling. It’s when a filmmaker is so deftly in sync with his camera and the composition of every scene is so keenly utilized that he or she is able to speak volumes with hardly any dialogue.

Take the film’s fantastic opening. A man we come to know as Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) is escorted by two trench-coated men to a docked boat waiting in the San Francisco bay. He’s handed off to officers who take him below deck and chain him down as the boat heads toward Alcatraz. It’s a pitch-black night and rain pounds the island prison as the boat slowly approaches. The wily camera, ominous score and distinct use of sound brilliantly places us withing the setting. And not a word of dialogue is spoken until Frank is inside the prison being processed.

ALCATRAZ2

Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

“Escape from Alcatraz” was directed by Don Siegel and it was the last of five films he would make with Eastwood. The film was adapted from a 1963 non-fiction book by J. Campbell Bruce. The story begins on January 18, 1960 with Morris arriving at Alcatraz after previously escaping from the Louisiana State Penitentiary. We’re aren’t told much about Frank or his past crimes. Only that he has escaped from other prisons which prompts the stern and confident warden (Patrick McGoohan) to inform him that no one has ever escaped Alcatraz.

Siegel gives great attention to the daily regimen within the maximum security prison. Through these routines Frank befriends several inmates including the embittered and wrongfully incarcerated English (Paul Benjamin), an elderly painter named Doc (Roberts Blossom), and the chatty Litmus (Frank Ronzio). And as you would expect he makes an enemy or two as well.

ALCATRAZ1

Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Clint Eastwood is a great fit. Tall, athletic, and with plenty of grit, he has the quiet strength that is perfect for Siegel’s approach to this story. But that’s no surprise. Siegel tapped into those same strengths with movies like “Dirty Harry” and “Two Mules for Sister Sara”. But Eastwood brings more to his character than toughness and brawn. Frank is actually a genius and the only thing higher than Alcatraz’s security level is his IQ. And as the movie’s title makes obvious, he instantly begins planning his escape.

Siegel’s storytelling is as precise and methodical as Frank’s escape plan. Even when it appears he’s shooting nothing more than the minutiae of everyday prison life, there are still plenty of details that build the atmosphere and push the narrative forward. After rewatching it I still struggle with one nagging issue – the ending is surprisingly anticlimactic. But even at 40 years old, “Escape from Alcatraz” still holds up as a solid prison thriller sporting a really strong Clint Eastwood performance.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Earth and Blood” (2020)

earthposter

A man in tactical gear sits in his van, a loaded pistol resting on his nervously bouncing knee. Three other men are with him, all armed and staking out a police station. Inside are eight kilos of cocaine confiscated from a drug lord named Adama (Eriq Ebouaney) and he has sent his men to take it back. This tense and well-shot opening is the best scene in the new French action thriller “Earth and Blood”. The scene teases a tough and gritty crime story. Instead we get a surprisingly thin action flick that runs out of ideas despite barely clocking in at 80 minutes.

The film’s biggest asset is Sami Bouajila’s rock solid lead performance. He plays Saïd, a strong silent type who runs a struggling sawmill left to him by his father-in-law. He lives onsite with his hearing-impaired daughter Sarah (Sofia Lesaffre). One of his employees is Yanis (Samy Seghir), a troubled teen out on parole and trying to get his life together. Yanis’ half-brother is Medhi (Redouanne Harjane), one of the gang members from the opening police station scene. Do you follow me so far?

Earth1

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

It turns out Medhi isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. He manages to retrieve the drugs but instead of returning them to the drug lord he decides to keep the eight kilos and sell it himself. Brilliant. I mean if the Adama was willing to knock off a police station to get his cocaine back surely he would after one of his goons who double-crossed him. Nonetheless Medhi coerces Yanis to take the getaway car (with the coke in the trunk) and hide it at the sawmill.

Obviously the plan doesn’t pan out. Saïd finds the stashed dope and knows Adama will be coming for it. The film’s second half is basically one long scene – Adama and his henchmen armed with AK-47s hunting Saïd around the sawmill which he knows like the back of his hand. At the same time he entrusts Yanis with getting his daughter to safety. Easier said than done.

Earth2

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

All of that sounds great and you can see the ingredients for a good action movie stew. But director and co-writer Julien Leclercq never gets things above room temperature. There’s no sizzle, no tension, no excitement past that opening sequence. The entire film is shot well and it makes great use of location. But everything is so by-the-book and the action (which is the film’s bread and butter) lacks spark. It doesn’t help that the characters are sketched so thin. We get a couple of early scenes attempting to add depth to Saïd but nothing is really done past that. And outside of one lone instance, any potentially compelling use of Sarah’s deafness never comes into play.

I love that Netflix is reaching out and bringing in films from all over the globe. The international diversity in their portfolio is great to see. “Earth and Blood” had all the markings of a cool French cinema addition and to be honest, there are worse ways to spend 80 minutes. Leclercq knows his way around with the camera and Bouajila’s sturdy lead performance provides us with somewhat of a rooting interest. But so much of its story seems to be missing and its characters never get the depth they desperately need.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “End of Sentence” (2020)

EndPOSTER

The Icelandic drama “End of Sentence” is another movie entry which sets out to show that a good road trip can cure all woes, heal all wounds, mend all fences, and so on. Pretty scenery is a balm and the journey’s inevitable speed bumps are sure-fire ways to remedy almost any personal ailment. We’ve seen this before. Yet despite the air of familiarity, “End of Sentence” works because of smart filmmaking choices and two stand-out lead performances.

The movie comes from first-time director Elfar Adalsteins. It works from a screenplay by Michael Armbruster that centers around a father and son at a critical stage in their relationship. The film opens with Frank Fogle (John Hawkes) carrying his wife Anne (Andrea Irvine) to visit their son Sean (Logan Lerman) who’s in an Alabama state prison serving out his sentence for auto theft. Anne, suffering from late-stage cancer, uses the visit to tell her son a final goodbye while Frank, left off the visitors list, waits outside. The father/son tension is obvious from the start.

End1

Photo Courtesy of Berserk Films

A short time later Anne passes away and her dying wish is for Frank and Sean to scatter her ashes near a lake in Northwestern Ireland. But she wants them to do it together. The problem is Sean detests his father (for reasons that come into focus a little later) and he’s quick to turn Frank down once he gets out of prison. Sean has a job waiting for him in California if he can get there in time, but getting there proves tough with no money and no ride. Frank offers to pay for his flight to the west coast if he will help carry out his mother’s last wish. Sean begrudgingly agrees and the two head overseas.

Adalsteins takes the two from Dublin to Belfast and even further north along winding country roads and through small towns. As they travel both characters open up more leading to the inevitable boiling point where secrets are revealed and true feelings are finally laid bare. While the outcome remains predictable, the characters make it worthwhile. Frank is meek, timid, and tightly-wound. He’s cut from the old-fashioned gentleman mold and tends to let people walk all over him. Sean is embittered and full of pent-up anger, harboring deep-seated resentment towards his father.

It makes for a combustible pairing but Adalsteins doesn’t let his story get away from him. “End of Sentence” could have easily spiraled into conventional family drama territory. But it’s kept grounded by good direction that seems keenly aware of the genre trappings and works hard not to fall into them. Even when Sarah Bolger’s Jewel pops up (a character ripe for the third-wheel treatment) the story maintains its humanity and uses her in a smart way. Bolger’s really good and she brings an energy to the movie it really needs.

eos_day25_0122.dng

Photo Courtesy of Berserk Films

It’s Hawkes who is the real standout, delivering yet another performance you can’t look away from. The 60-year-old screen veteran has a career filled with a wide variety of great roles. He’s been a terrifying Ozark mountain meth addict, a frustrated quadriplegic, even a charismatic cult leader. Here he brings a graceful tenderness to a character weighted down by insecurity and grief. Lerman is a solid foil, simmering with acrimony and rage that he often conveys without a word of dialogue. It’s an impressive eye-catching turn.

“End of Sentence” doesn’t veer too far off the formulaic ‘road trip to reconciliation’ path. There’s also a semi-action scene on a ferry boat that feels weirdly out of place. Otherwise there is a lot to like about Elfar Adalsteins’ debut effort, a movie about two hurting souls, past family trauma, and the importance of communication. Along with Armbruster’s intelligent script and a well-tuned cast, Adalsteins never loses sight of the human element either in his characters or his storytelling. It’s a key ingredient the movie embraces to great effect.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Extraction” (2020)

EXTRACTposterI was only a few minutes into Netflix’s new action flick “Extraction” and I could already see the markings from several movies that came before it. The main character, the story’s central conceit, even the ending to a degree are elements we’ve seen before. But not every movie needs to shatter the mold especially when making a genre film. Sometimes it’s enough to do what you’re doing well. “Extraction” does what it does well.

The film reunites Chris Hemsworth with Anthony and Joe Russo, the sibling duo known for directing some of the best films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (“Infinity War”, “Endgame”, and the last two Captain America pictures). Here the brothers serve as producers with the younger brother Joe writing the screenplay. In the director’s chair sits Sam Hargrave who was the stunt coordinator on “Endgame” and “Captain America: Civil War”. So as you as you can see, there are several big budget connections at work on “Extraction”.

EXTRACT1

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Hemsworth plays Tyler Rake (yep, that’s his name), a hard-drinking mercenary who is hired to retrieve and extract the teenaged son of a drug lord. The boy, named Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal), was kidnapped in Mumbai and taken to Dhaka, Bangladesh by a rival gangster named Amir Asaf (Priyanshu Painyuli). From prison Ovi’s father threatens his top henchman Saju (Randeep Hooda) – “You want your son to see his next birthday? Then get mine back.”

Tyler gets the contract from his colleague, Nik Khan (the always enjoyable Golshifteh Farahani). It’s a high-stakes job but nothing a cash-strapped loner with a death wish would pass up on. So Tyler heads to Dhaka and grabs the kid in a thrilling hyper-violent exchange that sets the table for the R-rated carnage to come. Things ratchet up when it becomes clear Ovi’s father doesn’t intend to pay the contract. Instead Saju is in Dhaka to kill Tyler and take the boy. Meanwhile Asaf gets wind that Tyler has Ovi and orders the corrupt local police to lock down the city and hunt them down.

Despite the boy now being expendable Tyler refuses to leave him, promising Ovi he’ll get him out of Dkaka. It’s partly paternal instinct, but mostly a quest for redemption. So with two enemies closing in, Tyler takes Ovi into the heart of the crowded city. It culminates in one of the best action scenes I’ve seen in years – an electrifying 10-minute sequence shot as one continuous take. It starts with a car chase, moves to a shootout, throws in a knife fight before finishing with another car chase. It’s a work of brilliance from Hargrave and his DP Newton Thomas Sigel.

Aside from being exceptionally well-choreographed, the action works because Hargrave shoots it clearly and distinctly. No frantic quick-cuts or headache-inducing shaky cams. It’s allowed to play out in front of the camera instead of being chopped up in the editing room. It’s an applause-worthy choice and a welcomed change from what we often get. The action is also helped by the physicality Hemsworth brings. Neatly shorn and Mjölnir-free, the Aussie fights with a ferocity and grit unlike anything he’s done before.

EXTRACT2

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Performance-wise Hemsworth is limited by a role that mainly asks him to show intensity and brood. It makes sense within the story. He’s a broken and tortured man with bullets whizzing by in nearly ever frame. Thankfully there a couple of scenes where he gets to soften a bit and the script gives us a glimpse inside of his character. Hemsworth sells them well. Outside of the nameless, faceless contributors to the body count (and there are a ton of them), the main antagonist does fare as well. He’s more of a thinly sketched caricature – evil and abhorrent but without an ounce of depth.

But in the movie’s defense, it is very self-aware. It doesn’t want to be character study or a think piece. It’s not interested in commentary or metaphors. Instead “Extraction” is a throwback to the better action movies of the late 80’s to mid-90’s. It’s straightforward, unapologetic and an absolute blast. At the same time, debut director Sam Hargrave pushes his film to be more than just another genre entry. He brings an expertise and enthusiasm that shows itself in every fight, every shootout, and every chase.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Eli” (2019)

Eli poster

Finding a horror movie that does something purely original is an extremely rare achievement. So rare in fact that it’s often satisfying just to find a movie that simply does the familiar things really well. And that’s the case with the new Netflix horror flick “Eli”. You won’t find much you haven’t seen before, but it uses its many horror conventions in a surprisingly fun and entertaining way.

The funny thing is “Eli” often uses our knowledge of horror genre norms against us. It starts us down one road, sells us on an idea, then pulls the rug completely out from under us. It all culminates in a batty final 15 minutes that does what a lot of good thrillers do – leaves you thinking about and second guessing everything you’ve seen before it.

Eli1

The story follows a close-knit family of three. Eli (Charlie Shotwell) is a young boy suffering from an unnamed disease that causes intense burning reactions when exposed to ‘unclean’ air. This forces him to live within a protective bubble in his room and wear a hazmat suit whenever going outside.

His loving but stressed parents Rose (Kelly Reilly) and Paul (Max Martini) have looked far and wide for someone who could cure their son. They spend their last bit of savings taking Eli to Dr. Isabella Horn (Lili Taylor) who runs a remote treatment center and brags of a 100% cure rate among her patients. She operates out of a highly modernized plantation house that is hermetically sealed from any outside contaminates.

At first Eli is scared and hesitant but soon ecstatic to be able to leave his suit and have a semblance of normal living with his parents (while inside the facility of course). But once the treatments begin Eli starts having terrifying hallucinations. Dr. Horn calls it normal and attributes it to the side effects of her procedures. But c’mon, this is a horror movie. Of course there’s more to it than that.

ELI2

This is where director Ciarán Foy starts to play around with our expectations. And unlike his last film, the painful “Sinister 2”, this one does a good job building suspense and keeping you guessing. Even those with good horror movie instincts will find it a challange pinning “Eli” down into any one horror sub-genre. Better yet, there isn’t an over-reliance on cheap jump scares. Sure we get a couple here and there, but Foy puts much more effort into developing a creepy atmosphere while leading us down some unexpected trails.

So what is Eli’s punishing disease? What is causing his nightmarish visions? Who is this mysterious girl (played by Sadie Sink from “Stranger Things”) who keeps showing up outside Eli’s window? How the heck does Foy pull off the film’s crazy yet satisfying final 15 minutes? Finding those answers proved to be more fun than I expected. And while “Eli” may trip over itself from time to time, it still does plenty of interesting things that make it a welcomed and worthwhile horror movie romp.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars