Dan Stevens

Eurovision Song Contest : The Story of Fire Saga

26/06/20

Netflix

There’s a wonderful idea at the heart of Will Ferrell’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga – even if it does boast one of the most unwieldy titles in recent cinematic history. Ferrell plays Icelander Lars Erickssong, a petulant man-child with a determination to win the world’s biggest song contest, an ambition nurtured since childhood when he saw first Abba performing Waterloo. He and his best friend, Sigrit Ericksdottir (Rachel McAdams), perform as pop duo Fire Saga, who play regularly in their local bar to the complete indifference of their neighbours. Even Lars’ father, Erick Erikssong (Pierce Brosnan) – a no-nonsense fisherman – makes it clear that it’s time his son stopped fooling around with music and got a proper job.

But when a series of complex misadventures results in Fire Saga being picked to appear in the regional heats for Eurovision, Lars has his eyes so firmly on the big prize, he is blithely unaware of Sigrit’s long held desire to make their relationship more than just a musical one.

Perhaps the film’s strongest suit is the songs, composed by Atli Övarsson and Savan Kotecha, which, with their “accidentally” suggestive lyrics and bombastic singalong choruses are convincing enough to pass muster as genuine Eurovision entries, whilst still consistently hitting the funny button. But not everything is quite as satisfying here. Having Icelandic characters played by American and English actors might invite accusations of cultural appropriation, especially when those characters are depicted as simplistic, superstitious oafs who believe in the existence of elves. Having genuine Icelanders in supporting roles, including the wonderful Ólafur Darri Ólaffsson, isn’t really enough to stave off those accusations.

On a similar note, Dan Stevens appears as Russian mega-star Alexander Lemtov, who soon begins to pursue Sigrit with singular determination. Again, he’s entertaining, but his motives are never really clear. Perhaps Ferrell, who co-wrote the script, was thinking of some real-life gay musical icons who went through the pretence of heterosexuality in order to placate their fans? Whatever the reasoning, this doesn’t quite come off.

But those reservations aside, I have to admit I am mightily entertained by ESCTSOFS and even feel somewhat moved by its final act. I am also delighted to note that much of the action is set in my home city of Edinburgh (it’s the host for the Eurovision final). Furthermore it’s good to see Ferrell back on some kind of form. If I’m honest, it’s a long time since any of his efforts have made me laugh. A shout out here should go to Molly Sanden who provides the vocals for Sigrit’s performances – and there’s me thinking, ‘Wow, McAdams really can sing!’

If you’re looking for an undemanding, good-time film to while away a couple of hours, you could do a lot worse than this.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

The Call of the Wild

23/02/20

Jack London’s 1903 novel, The Call of the Wild is a classic adventure story – though I suspect it’s much better known in America than it is here in the UK. It’s been filmed several times over the years, but what makes Chris Sanders’ 2020 version different from its predecessors is that all the canines featured here are CGI creations. (At least there’s no need for a ‘no animals were harmed in the making of this film’ caption.) For the most part, you wouldn’t know it if you hadn’t been told, but there are ocasional moments when something doesn’t look quite right, usually when the filmmaker’s desire to anthropomorphise his doggy cast slightly oversteps the mark.

It’s 1897 and Buck, a St Bernard/Collie cross, is the beloved pet of a California-based judge. Buck is adorable but extremely clumsy, always managing to leave a trail of devastation in his wake. It’s therefore hard to believe that his owner sheds too many tears when Buck is dog-napped and sent to Alaska, where the gold rush has created a lively market for his sort.

Initially Buck becomes a member of a sled team, taking the mail to far flung parts of the Yukon, under the command of the kindly Perrault (Omar Sy) and Françoise (Cara Gee). But a dog’s fortunes can change and he soon finds himself owned by the cruel, dastardly, gold-obsessed Hal (Dan Stevens), and  – later on – by the (much nicer) John Thornton (Harrison Ford), who has come out to the wilderness after a family tragedy.

It’s all handsomely mounted with sweeping landscapes and big skies and you’ll probably  find yourself pining for the wide open spaces and the Northern Lights. The story however, is somewhat fitful, most exciting in its earlier stretches (a sequence where the mail sled has to outrun an avalanche is so thrilling that it unbalances the movie somewhat). Later on, the tale becomes decidedly more somnolent as Thornton seeks solace in drink and Buck acts as his canine conscience. Those familiar with the novel will know that, through the last act, Buck is increasingly impelled to interract with the local timber wolves. This final stretch has, for understandable reasons, been changed somewhat from the original tale, but – as a result – feels a little too foreshadowed for comfort.

Niggles aside, this is a thoroughly decent adaptation, particularly suitable for younger viewers, though I can’t see it dragging too many of them away from the comic book franchises which still hold sway over their affections. Lovers of the orginal novel will, I’m sure, feel that Jack London’s brainchild has been treated with the respect it deserves.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Colossal

22/05/17

To say that Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal is unusual would be something of an understatement; as an indie slacker-flick about a kooky American woman and, um, a rampaging monster in South Korea, it is a genre-defying delight, and certainly the most original film I’ve seen in a long while.

Anne Hathaway stars as kooky woman, Gloria, whose life is spiralling out of control. She’s lost her job and she’s drinking too much, and her boyfriend, Tim (Dan Stevens), is getting sick of her. Hathaway aces the role; she’s convincingly shambolic without being a complete wastrel. It’s easy to relate to Gloria.

When self-righteous Tim decides – self-righteously – that enough is enough, he kicks Gloria out of their New York apartment, and she returns to her childhood home. The house is empty, pending rental: her parents have moved away. And so she is alone, taking stock, and revisiting her past.

When she bumps into her old friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), things start to look up. He offers her a job in his bar, and they hang out together after hours, drinking and catching up. Okay, so it’s a drifting, going-nowhere lifestyle choice, but it’s not so bad. They like each other. They’re having fun.

But Gloria’s chilled-out demeanour masks a growing anger deep inside. Old memories are resurfacing, and the booze can only blot them out for so long. When she sees news footage of a strange monster attacking Seoul, she’s appalled. And even more so when she realises that the monster is a part of her, unleashed upon the unwitting citizens of a city far away. She has to learn to control – rather than suppress – her rage, if she wants to stop its destructive manifestation.

I know, it sounds bonkers. And it is. It’s also bleakly funny and startlingly profound. Sudeikis’s performance as Oscar is beautifully nuanced, his sly abusive disposition gradually revealed. He’s the real monster: an angry, bitter robot of a man, used to controlling those around him. Gloria can only beat him by cutting him down to size – and there’s only one way she can do that. The monster is her twin, her Hyde, her Frankenstein. She has to own it, subvert it to her will.

Oh, look, I could go on for ages here. I found this whole film fascinating. A real gem. Go on, watch it.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Beauty and the Beast

13/04/17

We’re a little late to the party on this one, finally sitting down to watch Disney’s live action remake of Beauty and the Beast almost a full month after its UK release. Still, even without our patronage, it’s been a rip-roaring success, and so we’re able to pick from a plethora of performance times at our local Cineworld, despite the passage of time.

And it’s easy to see why this film has been so well-received. It’s lovely. Emma Watson is a perfect Belle for the modern age, conferring a sense of agency and autonomy without undermining the source material. And the CGI animations are just so very Disney – cheeky and cute and oozing personality. Sure, there’s an enchanted castle full of emotional manipulation here, but would we have it any other way?

I can’t compare this new version to the much-loved cartoon, because – gasp! – I’ve never seen the earlier incarnation of the tale. Philip tells me that it’s pretty much a frame-by-frame copy, with only subtle changes applied to reflect twenty-first century ideologies. For example, the much-vaunted ‘openly gay character’ turns out to be Le Fou, whose homosexuality is a lot less ‘open’ than I’d imagined from the on-line fervour it elicited (admiration for Gaston, and a flirtatious glance during the finale dance). I guess it’s a step in the right direction, but it seems unnecessarily restrained. This is 2017. LGBTQ characters don’t need to be so hidden and covert, do they? Still, even baby steps move us forward – and this is a film with a good heart.

Dan Stevens imbues the Beast with a deep humanity; Luke Evans relishes in denying Gaston has a heart at all. Both male leads are played with real aplomb, nimbly treading the fine line between stock-character and depth. I’m particularly fond of Kevin Kline’s bumbling Maurice; he’s just so incredibly appealing despite his neediness – no wonder Belle feels so responsible for him.

The music is great – memorable and catchy and beautifully performed (is there anything Watson can’t do?). And the choreography of the crowd scenes is truly breathtaking. This is Disney doing what Disney does, with such confidence and assurance that success was always inevitable.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

A Walk Among The Tombstones

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21/09/15

Annoyingly, I missed this one at the cinema and it’s taken me far too long to catch up with it on the small screen. Based on a novel by Lawrence Block, it’s a dour slice of American grunge, featuring Liam Neeson as former detective and alcoholic, Matt Scudder, now plying a precarious trade as a private detective. Given Neeson’s relatively recent incarnation as everyone’s avenging Daddy of choice, it’s good to see him in a role where he actually carries a badge in order to justify his brutality, even if the badge in question is no longer valid. A pre credit sequence which shows him in his former incarnation, involved in a shootout with three bad guys, carries an entirely different accusation – that of crimes against fashion.

Now clean shaven and sans loon pants, Scudder receives a frantic phone call from drug trafficker, Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens, demonstrating just how far he is able to depart from his Downton image when necessity calls.) Kristo’s wife has been kidnapped and despite him paying a hefty ransom, she’s been murdered anyway. Now he wants revenge and feels that Scudder is just the man for the job. Despite his reservations, Scudder undertakes the job and soon finds himself pitted against a ruthless duo of sociopaths who have enacted the same routine over and over. It’s quickly demonstrated that the bad guys are such scumbags that any retribution rained upon them will be richly deserved. A scene where Ray (David Harbour) espies his latest victim, a young girl dressed in a Little Red Riding Hood style, is the film’s most powerfully repellent set piece. Other scenes depicting the torture of the murderer’s female victims, stray very close to the line between powerful and gratuitous, so this certainly won’t be for everyone.

Written and directed by Scott Frank, AWATT is a powerful crime drama, though its stygian look can be a little dispiriting and its demonstration of the depths to which the human psyche can descend makes for grim viewing.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Guest

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11/09/14

After watching The Guest, I’m convinced of one thing. Dan Stevens is destined to be a big movie star – and this is his ‘breakout’ film. About as far from Downtown Abbey as he could reasonably go, it showcases his handsome, charismatic charms to the max and he has a lot of fun with the role. The fact that it isn’t really that good a film barely seems to matter.

Stevens plays ‘David,’ who turns up at the home of the Petersons, a family who are still in mourning for their son, Caleb, a marine who has (apparently) been killed in action. David claims to be Caleb’s best buddy who was with him when he died. After working his considerable charms on Caleb’s mother, Laura (Sheila Anderson) David is invited to become a house guest  and is soon involved in ‘looking after’ the family members, with particular attention to twenty year old Anna (Maika Monroe) and her teenage brother, Luke (Brendan Meyer). To the latter, he cheerfully suggests that he deals with the school bullies by breaking their noses and carrying a knife. It quickly becomes apparent to Anna (if not her parents) that David may not be the clean cut hero he’s pretending to be…

It’s in these early stretches where the film is at its most convincing, though director Adam Wingard (who gave us the queasily watchable You’re Next) needs to learn about pace – he often resorts to disguising the story’s slower-moving sections by dolloping swathes of electronic music over the top of the action. As the film galumphs shamelessly into its final third, it deteriorates into a risible bloodbath and as the body count rises, so all its hard-earned credibility goes straight out of the nearest window. Lance Reddick as ‘Major Carver,’ has the thankless task of steaming in like Basil Exposition, to explain exactly who ‘David’ is, before heading up a climactic face-off at a Halloween-themed party that looks like it’s stepped out of a Tobe Hooper movie.

OK, this isn’t going to win any prizes for originality… in fact, it’s not going to win any prizes, full stop. If it’s anything, it’s Stevens’ calling card to Hollywood, which suggests in no uncertain terms, that given bigger and better vehicles than this, he’s likely to shine. Watch this space.

3.1 stars

Philip Caveney