Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

Posted on June 25, 2020 at 5:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for crude sexual material including full nude sculptures, some comic violent images, and language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Comic mayhem and violence, characters killed, murders, explosions, some grisly images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: June 26, 2020
Copyright Netflix 2020

Will Ferrell, who co-wrote and stars in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” knows that it is impossible to exaggerate the sheer nuttiness of the annual song competition, so he does not even try. He just puts us in the middle of it, almost reassuringly bittersweet in the year of the pandemic, which has canceled the real-life Eurovision for the first time since it began in 1956.

Ferrell plays Lars, an Icelander who has been obsessed with winning the song of the year competition since 1974, when he watched the not-yet-world-conquering ABBA win with “Waterloo.” (Do not think too hard about the math. Or the plot. Or anything else.)

ABBA’s stunning appearance had an even more profound impact on another child in the room, Sigrit (Rachel McAdams), who was mute until “Waterloo” inspired her to speak and sing. Now Lars and Sigrit have formed a duo called Fire Saga, and through a combination of events, including having all of the other Icelandic competitors get blown up, they are Iceland’s representatives in the competition, located this year in Edinburgh.

“Wedding Crashers” director David Dobkin keeps things moving briskly, with the highlight of the film a delightfully staged riff-off at a party for the top competitors featuring real Eurovision stars. Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) has a blast playing the contest’s flamboyant front-runner, the Russian Alexander Lemtov. Just like the real Eurovision, the musical numbers are wildly over-the-top, with klieg lights, gyrating dancers, and outrageous costumes. I mean, Eurovision makes Las Vegas look like a third grade piano recital.

McAdams does not get to show her comedy skills as she did in “Game Night,” but she is always an enormously appealing performer and provides some balance to the goofiness of the Lars character. If Sigrit believes in him, we do, too. Will there be betrayals? Romantic conflicts? Live performance mishaps? A race to the airport? Is Ferrell getting too old for these boy-man roles? And for playing a romantic interest for Rachel McAdams? Are the songs goofy fun? And what about bringing biscuits to the elves? (Ah, surprised you with that one.) All of that, plus the fun of the only Eurovision songs we’ll get this year make this a treat for the pandemic summer.

Parents should know that this film has strong language, sexual references and sexually explicit statues, comic mayhem including murders with some graphic and disturbing images including a severely injured ghost.

Family discussion: Why was Erik so hard on Lars? Why was it hard for Lars to show his feelings for Sigrid? Which song would you vote for?

If you like this, try: “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” and watch some of the real-life Eurovision songs on YouTube

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Irresistible

Posted on June 25, 2020 at 5:21 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language including sexual references
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: Cultural diversity a theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 26, 2020

Copyright Focus 2020
Jon Stewart swings for the fences with “Irresistible,” and you’ve got to respect that, even if he only hits a double. He has taken a whole bunch of what bothers him the most about our political system, not the fumbles, pettiness, missteps, and corruption of the individuals but the more systemic problems of money and messaging and he has tried to create a Preston Sturges/Armando Iannucci-style movie that uses humor to illuminate. Sharp one-liners and a top-notch cast come close to making the characters human enough to be interesting but they are still two-dimensional. And some uncertainty of tone throws the movie off-kilter when it shifts from slightly heightened to over the top. When it leaps so far outside the bounds of the real, it undermines its best scrutiny of what is actually happening. I live inside the Washington DC beltway and exposes of political abuse are my jam, so I enjoyed it, but even I thought it made some unfortunate blunders.

The opening is promising, with Steve Carell as Gary, a Democratic political strategist and Rose Byrne as Faith, a Republican political strategist, in the post Clinton/Trump “spin rooms,” where each team tries to explain to reporters why their candidate was brilliant and definitively trounced the other side. But what we get to hear is what’s inside their heads. Gary says he will persuade them “as long as I say it repeatedly and with confidence,” and Faith concludes, “I look forward to lying to you in the future.” We get it. They’re there to win, not to be honest. But Gary was probably being honest when he predicted that Clinton would win. He was just wrong. And so for his professional future and possibly for the good of the country, he has to get his credibility back and he has to figure out how to communicate with the “rust belt blue wall” he thought was “impenetrable” until Trump got a lot of those votes and won the electoral college.

He sees a chance to prove himself when a video of a Deerlaken, Wisconsin city council meeting goes viral due to an impassioned speech by a local farmer, a retired Marine named Jack (Chris Cooper), speaking out plainly but eloquently on behalf of immigrants in his community. Gary tells the Democratic party leaders that “this square-jawed paragon of Americana is our key back to the Forbidden City. He’s a Democrat, but just doesn’t know it yet.” He thinks if he brings his national-level political expertise to a small town in Wisconsin, he can persuade Jack to run for mayor, get him elected, and “road-test a more rural-friendly message” in a place he refers to as “the middle of nowhere” he can re-invigorate progressive messaging and, by the way, his own career. So, he fires up the private jet and checks out what Wikipedia has to say about Wisconsin. In real life, he would have a ton of data in a briefing package, but it’s more fun to make him look like a big city doofus.

Jack agrees to run, the race gets some national media attention, and so Faith arrives, to make sure that they do not break the city’s record of not electing a Democrat since Robert LaFollette (Governor 1901-1906). In Stewart’s view, the only issue anyone cares about is the power of the parties; any specifics are about leverage, with no more focus on reproductive health or even the immigration issue that Jack spoke about in the viral video than on gaffes and embarrassing secrets about opposing candidates. It’s just about votes. The weakest part of the film is the blaming of the consultants who are the symptom (okay, a truly unpleasant one), not the disease. The movie very briefly touches on the funding issue, with stand-ins for the Kochs and a generic, literally high-tech billionaire with just one issue literally half a world away from Wisconsin and a scene at a Manhattan fund-raiser but barely addresses the real and most democracy-destabilizing problem of dark money and Citizens United. The small reference to super PACS, with a winking nod to “non-coordination” deserved more attention.

It’s fun to watch because it has a great cast and clever dialogue and more substance than most feature films. But it is a disappointment that someone who has such a deep understanding of American politics goes for cheap laughs about clueless big city folks not understanding the folks in the heartland instead of looking at the less-examined obstacles at least equally rich in potential for satire. The movie has at least four different endings, and at least three of them seem to undercut the point the film is trying to make. Stewart makes the same mistake Faith and Gary do; he condescends to his audience.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language and very crude sexual references.

Family discussion: Which candidate would you vote for and why? Would you ever run for office? What changes in the system is this movie promoting and what changes would you suggest?

If you like this, try: the documentaries “Slay the Dragon” (about the fight against gerrymandering in Wisconsin and other states) and “Primary” (about John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey campaigning against each other in Wisconsin for the Democratic nomination for President) and “Welcome to Mooseport,” with Gene Hackman as a former President who runs for mayor in a small town in Maine.

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The High Note

Posted on May 25, 2020 at 12:01 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language, and suggestive references
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 25, 2020

Copyright 2020 Focus
If you find yourself, in what all the commercials are calling “these challenging times” looking for cinematic comfort food, “The High Note” is here, and when I say “here,” I mean coming to you in your home. One of the films switched to streaming as the question of when, how, and whether movie theaters will open remains unsettled, “The High Note” is entertaining without being challenging. If its twist is among the least surprising ever scripted, that itself has its own satisfactions when everything else is so uncertain. It’s a Cinderella tale with (not much of a spoiler alert) a happy ending, in a glamorous setting with beautiful people and some good songs.

Maggie (Dakota Johnson) is personal assistant to a world-famous, if slightly fading singer named Grace Davis, played by Tracee Ellis Ross, the daughter of a world-famous and never-fading superstar Diana Ross. Grace has not released any new music in many years, but still fills arenas with adoring fans. Her manager (Ice Cube) is urging her to accept a very lucrative residency in Las Vegas. She can stop touring and sing her hits every night for as long as she wants.

No one pays much attention to Maggie, unless Grace needs some green juice or some highly inconvenient errand run. But Maggie loves music and, though Grace does not realize it, Maggie is Grace’s truest fan, the only one around her who sees her as a songwriter and performer and not just as a nostalgia cash cow. Seeing the world of music, even from the edges, inspires Maggie to want to be a producer. She hesitantly disagrees when a successful producer wants to remix one of Grace’s hits by adding synth, with digitally created voices for back-up singers. And when she meets a young singer/songwriter who busks outside of a grocery store (fast-rising star Kelvin Harrison, Jr. of “Luce” and “Waves”), she tells him she is a producer and persuades him to let her bring him into a recording studio.

So far, so good. But then it veers off the rails. Cinderella without a godmother makeover — fine. “All About Eve” without the ferocious, greedy ambition — also fine. But then we get a wholly unnecessary scheme so preposterous that even Lucy and Ethel would consider idiotic. And Maggie is supposed to be savvy about the music business and supremely competent. The only benefit of this ridiculousness is a lovely scene with Eddie Izzard, who brings such an air of lived-in wisdom that for a moment it almost makes sense. Almost. And the non-surprising surprise is on top of that.

Ross is fun to watch as the diva, especially when she is on stage, the many opportunities she has had to watch from the wings paying off as she brings authentic star quality to her interactions with the audience (for better) and the crew (for not so much better). She’s especially good in a scene where Grace gets real about the prospects for an over-40 woman of color in the music business. Johnson is sadly underused. She has such a rare gift for comedy, glimpsed in “22 Jump Street” and “The Five-Year Engagement” and yet Hollywood keeps casting her as a wide-eyed little mouse. She would have been better cast as the high-spirited roommate (Harrison is the one to watch her, with very bit of the star quality the part or the goofy housekeeper (though Zoë Chao and June Diane Raphael are reliably delightful in those roles). Harrison has all of the star quality his character requires and more, especially impressive given the wide range of his recent appearances.

There are moments when a movie’s predictability is an advantage rather than otherwise. It benefits this film that it is released I such a time, into our homes, where we most appreciate its comforts.

Parents should know that this film includes brief strong language, some sexual references and a non-explicit situation, and questions of parentage.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Maggie tell David the truth about herself? Which song was your favorite? If you were producing a song, how would you begin?

If you like this, try: “Music and Lyrics” with Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant and “Black-is” with Tracee Ellis Ross

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Dolittle

Posted on January 16, 2020 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action, rude humor and brief language
Profanity: Some schoolyard langage
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Attempted murder by poison, action/animal related peril, sad offscreen death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 18, 2020
Copyright Universal 2019

Dolittle” is mildly entertaining, silly and more than a little strange. It is loosely based on the original books, which also inspired the musical with Rex Harrison, featuring a two-headed llama-like creature called a pushmi-pullyu and an Oscar-winning song, and the modern-day-set remakes with Eddie Murphy. But mostly it’s a “we can do anything with CGI now, so let’s make a movie about a man who can understand animal language.” And that’s where the entertaining part comes in. It’s also where the odd and silly parts come in. For example, Robert Downey, Jr., who produced and plays the title character, speaks in a husky, oddly accented (Welsh?) voice for no particular reason. A significant extended scene involves giving an enema to a gigantic animal.

This version, set once again in the Victorian era, begins with Dolittle a recluse in the animal sanctuary given to him by the young queen in appreciation for his special gifts. Devastated by the death of his wife, a fearless explorer lost at sea, Dolittle is a mess, almost more of an animal than the creatures living with him, until the arrival of two young people. A boy named Tommy (Harry Collett) who refuses to hunt with his father accidentally wounds a squirrel and brings it to Dr. Dolittle for treatment. And Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) arrives with an urgent request. The queen is critically ill and wants to see him.

Dolittle operates on the squirrel but refuses Lady Rose’s request until he learns that if the queen dies he will lose his home, an unnecessarily sour and distracting detail. And so the animals shave his beard, trim his hair, make him bathe, and accompany him to the palace. There, after consulting a small squid in the queen’s aquarium, he learns that she has been poisoned by one of her courtiers (Jim Broadbent), with the help of the court physician, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen). The only antidote is on a legendary — and uncharted — island, the very same one Lily Dolittle was seeking.

Dolittle, Tommy, and the animals take off to find it. So does Müdfly, who is determined to stop them and to get the antidote for himself. They have various adventures along the way, including a stop at an island ruled by the semi-barbaric King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), who immediately throws Dolittle in prison because they have a history.

The movie never finds the right balance between comedy, adventure, and heart, probably reflecting the reported extensive reshoots following disappointing early screenings. But it is still watchable due to the sumptuous and imaginative production design by Dominic Watkins and the stellar voice talent for the CGI animal characters, especially Emma Thompson as Poly the wise and sympathetic parrot. Also fine are the bickering polar bear (John Cena) and ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), who find a way to become friends. Frances de la Tour provides the suitably imperious voice for a dragon and Ralph Feinnes is a surprisingly vulnerable lion. But my favorite was Jason Mantzoukas as the dragonfly.

Too much of the animals’ dialog is just silly (“You answer the door because you’re the only one with arms.” “That’s coming from the guy (dog) who loves the smell of butts”). Hugh Lofting, who created the character knew that it would always be fun to have a story about a person who could talk to the animals. But the various versions of the story sometimes forget that it is important to give them something worth saying.

Parents should know that this film includes action/animal-related peril, attempted murder by poison, chases, crotch hits, a sad offscreen death, schoolyard language, and potty humor.

Family discussion: What did we learn about the characters when they talked about their parents? How did listening to the dragon make a difference? What should people do when they cannot stop feeling sad or being afraid of being hurt?

If you like this, try; “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and the musical “Doctor Dolittle”

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Like a Boss

Posted on January 9, 2020 at 5:38 pm

C-
Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, crude sexual material, and drug use
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Comic mayhem
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 10, 2020
Date Released to DVD: April 20, 2020
Copyright Paramount 2019

Sigh. And here we go. There will be lots of great and memorable and inspiring and funny movies coming in 2020, but first, as always, we have to slog through the misery of disappointing January releases, and “Like a Boss” is in that category. Three brilliant, funny women and a promising premise sink under the weight of frantic antics and an exhausting stream of raunchy references instead of jokes. A great Lizzo song plays over the opening credits and it’s all downhill from there.

Tiffany Haddish (who also produced) plays Mia, who lives and works with her lifetime BFF Mel (Rose Byrne) in blissful partnership. Their M&M make-up company is all about making women feel wonderful about themselves. Instead of the usual only-we-can-fix-you make-up sales pitch about covering up flaws, their you-go-girl vibe is about putting on make-up for fun, for exploring your persona, and for sharing good times with your own BFFs. The outspoken, more volatile Mia is the creative force behind the business, and the quieter, more practical Mel is responsible for the business side, though she has not been able to tell Mia that they are in far rockier financial shape than she thinks.

The M&M employees are Bennett (Billy Porter) and Sydney (Jennifer Coolidge). So far, so good. This is a powerhouse cast of brilliant comic actors who could probably read a recipe for grilled cheese sandwiches and make it funny. But a recipe for grilled cheese sandwiches would be funnier than this mess of s script, which relies much too heavily on insults and sexual references to disguise its absence of actual comedy.

Mia and Mel have a group of besties who sometimes teeter into frenemy territory when our heroines compare themselves to the friends who have graduated into an adulthood, with stable jobs and babies (presumably there are some life partners there, too) that Mia and Mel are not ready to measure themselves against. A baby shower with an extremely graphic cake depicting childbirth is so overwhelming that they have to go upstairs and smoke weed (dropping a joint next to a sleeping infant who may be sleeping due to a contact high, hilarious, amirite?).

M&M is nearly half a million dollars in debt. So when make-up mogul Claire Luna (Salma Hayek) offers to invest, it is an offer they cannot refuse. Mia insists, though, that they maintain 51 percent ownership and thus control. Claire knows, however, that she can get effective control by dividing and conquering, and begins to manipulate Mia and Mel by making them compete for her approval, with each other and with another BFF-led team (Ryan Hanson and Jimmy O. Yang, wasted, and not in the pot-smoking way). “No one stays besties once money comes in,” she says.

There are a few clever quips and bright moments, mostly when Billy Porter is on screen. “Witness. My. Tragic. Moment,” he says with delicious dramatic flourish after Claire forces M&M to fire him. But it is disappointing to see the duo from the ambitious “Beatriz at Dinner,” Hayek and director Miguel Arteta (who also directed the charming “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”) try to get by with this silly mess.

Parents should know that this film features pervasive extremely crude and raunchy humor with many explicit references to sex, body parts, and body functions and some very graphic images, extremely strong and crude language, drugs and drug humor.

Family discussion: What did Mel and Mia learn about themselves and each other from their involvement with Claire? Which of your friends would you like to be in business with?

If you like this, try: the “Horrible Bosses” movies and “Girls Trip”

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