Rachel McAdams

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

Spotlight

Unknown

30/01/16

Spotlight arrives in the UK amidst much speculation that it could win an Oscar this year. It’s easy to see why. This true-life tale of the Boston Globe’s attempts to lift the lid on a despicable case of corruption, perpetrated by the Catholic church, would be riveting stuff even if it wasn’t based on a true story.

The title refers to a four-person team of reporters charged with seeking out stories of special interest to the residents of Boston. When they hear about an adult victim who claims to have been molested by a Catholic priest back in his childhood, and moreover, complaining that his appeals for help went unheeded, they begin to ask questions. But right from the start there are potential problems. Boston is a staunchly Catholic community, so there will be many who would prefer things to be kept under the carpet. Furthermore, it’s 2001 and the newspaper industry is struggling with the depredations of the internet. A new boss, Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) has just been appointed and many people in the industry are worried for their jobs. But Baron recognises a potential scoop when he sees one and assigns  Walter ‘Robbie’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his team to do some digging. When they do they are increasingly amazed and horrified by the scale of the subterfuge. Could there really be as many as 90 paedophile priests in Boston alone?

The film expertly avoids sensationalism and drives home the message that such investigations are the result of months and months of donkeywork, reading through endless files, knocking on doors, pursuing every possible lead. There are excellent performances from Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Stanley Tucchi, but this is an ensemble piece, with not a weak performance to be seen. The film’s conclusion, when the full scale of the problem is finally uncovered, is frankly staggering and will surely make the most committed Catholics question their faith in an institution that will go to such lengths to harbour the guilty. It’s important too, to mention, that the Spotlight team are not presented as four saints in shining armour, but as committed reporters who will go to any lengths to get their scoop.

Shocking, but compelling, Spotlight has earned its place as one of the films of the year.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Southpaw

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06/08/15

Jake Gyllenhaal is always an interesting actor and, in Southpaw, he’s pulled off yet another transformation, piling on the muscle and jettisoning his good looks to play light heavyweight boxer Billy Hope; indeed, it’s hard to believe this is the same actor who gave us the creepy, emaciated ambulance-chaser he portrayed so brilliantly in Nightcrawler. We first meet Billy as he grimly holds on to his title belt in a bruising, bloody confrontation with a much younger fighter. The boxing sequences don’t really compare with the mesmerising, almost dreamlike sequences in Scorcese’s Raging Bull, but they’re nonetheless realistic enough to make the more sensitive viewers wince. But fate is waiting in the wings for Billy. When his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is accidentally shot dead in a fracas at a charity event, Billy finds himself on a slippery slope downhill as, in quick succession, he loses his licence to fight, his home is repossessed and his daughter, Leila (a winning performance from Oona Lawrence) is taken by child protective services. This is all harrowing stuff and director Antoine Fuqua mines it expertly for maximum distress; at several points I find myself tearing up. Can Billy ever find redemption and rebuild his career? Hey, is the Pope a Catholic?

It has to be said that from this bleak first third, the film enters a very familiar trajectory as Billy teams up with washed-up-boxer- turned-trainer, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), who quietly guides his protégée back to the top of his game. (Anyone who’s seen Rocky, will know the form. In that film, Burgess Meredith did pretty much the same with Rocky Balboa.) Whitaker manages the role with his customary skill and there’s a surprisingly decent turn from 50 Cents as a mercenary boxing promoter (who ironically declared his own ‘strategic’ bankruptcy recently – is this where he got the idea?).

Maybe Billy’s fall from grace is a little over the top – could anybody as successful as Hope fall quite so fast and quite so hard? And maybe his path back to championship fitness in just six weeks is a little too easy, encapsulated as it is in a perfunctory training montage. But nevertheless, the final confrontation is compelling enough to keep you on the edge of your seat till the final count.

All in all, this is decent entertainment with a distinctly gloomy edge.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney