In extraordinary times, extraordinary measures must be taken. Such as watching a bunch of films at random and talking about them earlier in the month that we normally do. Hot takes incoming on Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Greyhound, The Vast of Night, Palm Springs, Radioactive, The Old Guard, and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Taste it with your ears at your earliest convenience!
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Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Lars Erickssong (Will Ferrell) has dreamt of representing Iceland in the Eurovision Song Contest since seeing ABBA win with Waterloo in 1974 when he was just a young boy. To the eternal shame of his father Erick (Pierce Brosnsn), Lars has never relinquished that dream, even into middle age, though he is aided in perpetuity by childhood friend and musical collaborator Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) with whom he performs as Fire Saga. Following a freak explosion at a Eurovision yacht party in which all seemingly viable national representatives are killed, Fire Saga emerge as the only candidates able to take on the mantle.
If that sounds somewhat contrived then it is, as a somewhat convoluted plot by the scheming Victor Karlosson (Mikael Persbrandt), whose machinations and motivations I genuinely cannot remember just a scant fortnight after watching this. Perhaps it’s fitting that such an embarrassing spectacle of international shame as the Eurovision Song Contest has been treated to such an embarrassing spectacle of international shame as is perpetrated here by Netflix and Will Ferrell, though I doubt I’d be alone in suggesting that the competition’s rich history of unfettered camp and unintentional cringe really ought to provide rich pickings for a multitude of comedic insights. Instead what we get is self-confessed Eurovision fan Ferrell’s self-indulgent shenanigans for two hours and three minutes, which boils down to reacting with shock and/or confusion to a multitude of “zany” events, none of which do much to endear us to our central characters or their dream taken flight.
Frustratingly there are parts around the edges that occasionally threaten to perhaps hint at the subtle notion that they know a guy who knows a guy who once said something funny; Dan Stevens once or twice borders on amusing as Alexander Lemtov, the Rusian contestant whose entire scripted reason for being seems to be to shame the homophobia of the Moscow establishment, and Pierce Brosnan, whose involvement clearly came about as an opportunity to make bank for taking a two week vacation in Iceland, provides the only genuine laugh I encountered purely through his deployment of what he perceives to be a suitable regional accent. I think he maybe got the hemisphere right, but I still couldn’t guess lattitude or longitude.
Anyhoo, there’s not a lot to enjoy here, and I don’t intend on wasting much more of either your time or mine talking about it. It says something that Ferrell, who co-writes and is apparently such a huge fan of the contest, can’t even get the hosting or the scoring mechanics right, and that the script lacks anything approaching the level of affection for its subject matter that you might expect. For a topic affording such a rich vein of inspiration, Eurovision turns out to be an incredibly uninspired and anodyne experience, an accusation which, despite my loathing of the actual event itself, one could never level in its direction.
Did I mention Fire Saga win after all is apparently lost? Ha! Well now you definitely don’t need to watch it. You owe me one.
The global pandemic has messed up cinema (and I really do miss cinemas), but it’s certainly been a boon for the streaming services, and we now have our first Apple TV+ title on Fuds on Film, with the Cupertino-giant having paid a hefty $70 million for distribution rights to Sony’s Greyhound.
Based on a novel by C. S. Forester, writer of the popular Horatio Hornblower novels, Greyhound is a fiction, but based on enough facts to have a ring of veracity to proceedings. Said proceedings involve the transit of a convoy of mostly US supply ships across the North Atlantic to a needy United Kingdom in the winter of 1942. For a five day period the convoy must cross an area known as “The Black Pit”, a gap beyond the reach of US air cover in the west or RAF air cover in the east, while being hunted by German U-Boats.
The convoy’s protection comes in the form of a British destroyer, a Polish destroyer, a Canadian corvette and the USS Keeling (the “Greyhound” of the title), commanded by Tom Hanks’ Commander Ernest Krause, which between them must detect, seek and destroy any German submarines that threaten the other 30-odd ships.
And that’s it, in a nutshell. Despite involving surface vessels on one side, Greyhound very much has the feel of a submarine film, with the tension, fear and uncertainty typical of that genre, though understandably and necessarily without the usual claustrophobia. Its ninety-minute running time is compact, economical and reasonably exciting, with some, to repeat a word, tense and well-staged action sequences. If you’ve played any military video games you are likely familiar with that little hit of satisfaction-derived dopamine that accompanies sinking a ship or scoring a hit on a target from a gunship: a few scenes in Greyhound, notably one of the night time U-Boat assaults, manages to achieve precisely the opposite effect as German submarines, despite Krause’s best efforts, blow up some members of the convoy, leaving a sinking feeling in the stomach.
Where the film is less successful is in its characterisation, because it has none. Tom Hanks is reasonably anonymous in the lead role, his strongest contribution being a sort of calm assuredness, but neither he nor anyone else is given anything more to work with. There’s some pleasure to be had in seeing the crew perform competently and intelligently, something that contributes to the satisfaction of watching the Keeling and its sister ships fend off the U-Boat threat, but the sailors here are very much subservient to the action, meaning it’s largely impossible to feel invested in the fate of any given character.
One questions remains to me, though, and it’s why the screenplay (written by Hanks) uses the conceit of the U-Boat commanders breaking in on the Allied radio frequencies to, in the parlance of our times, “shit ‘em right up”, something that lacks historical veracity, and reads that way in the film. The extras on Apple TV+ show some of the efforts the production went to to ensure a ring of truthiness, including restoring the WWII-era guns aboard the USS Kidd so that the firing rate and movement would be accurate, with only-muzzle flashes and smoke added in post-production. Strange, then, to undermine that work with something that is, in fact, treated as no biggie anyway in the film.
It’s not a classic of its genre, but Greyhound is a pretty solid Sunday afternoon movie that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and if you have access to Apple TV+ you could do worse than check it out.
The Vast of Night
We find ourselves back in smalltown 1950s New Mexico where a young disk jockey, Everett (Jake Horowitz) is keeping a few listeners happy while the rest of the town’s denizens are occupied watching the high school basketball derby, when his friend, the even younger Fay (Sierra McCormick), a switchboard operator, notices a weird garbled transmission hijacking the airwaves. She records it, plays it back to Everett who re-transmits it asking for submissions on what it could be. The chase for answers, mainly through two more or less monologues, will attempt to fill the eight-five minutes until the credits roll.
That’s a little more disparaging than I mean it to be, but this is in a lot of ways a slow burn of a golden age sci-fi homage that’s a bit too heavy on the slow and not enough on the burn. It does, however, do such a great job of disguising itself that it might not be too much of an issue.
For starters there’s some great character work from McCormick and Horowitz, backed up with writer/director Andrew Patterson’s naturalistic and believable dialogue and relationship setups. The period details of 50s Americana are endlessly distracting, alongside the reel-to-reel tape recorders and clunky switchboards. There some impressive technical chops on board too, with the long swooping tracking shots establishing the small town really well. In fact the eighty odd minutes of narrative went by smoothly enough that it’s maybe only writing about it that spoils it.
I should mention that it’s ultimately framed as a Twilight Zone style TV show, broadly contemporaneous to the 50s setting, which is either the reason or excuse for a lot of things that you could criticise it for. So when the answers to the questions raised turn out to be the umpteenth retelling of a hoary old sci-fi trope, that is, of course, the point of the exercise, but does not stop it being a hoary old sci-fi trope.
There’s elements of this that ultimately felt like padding, albeit consummately produced padding, but by the time the I think third long-take swoopy following shot showed up in lieu of a cut, I was kind of getting the feeling there was a bit of a struggle to reach feature length going on.
In truth, this might be better served by an fifty minute TV format, but what’s on the table before us is a very well crafted piece of niche appeal science fiction that will almost certainly light up the pleasure centres of some in a way that something like Midnight Special did. There’s a lot in here that I’m quite positive on but even as someone who’s more likely than not to like this sort of thing I’d still say it’s something I appreciated rather than out and out liked. And as such, it’s tough to give it an enthusiastic thumbs up, particularly for a broader audience.
For all the remakes and re-imaginings we seem to be disproportionately subjected to these days it’s perhaps surprising that relatively few high profile movies have revisited the “time loop” concept of Groundhog Day. I would suggest that’s because everyone seems to think Groundhog can’t be improved on, but that didn’t seem to matter for RoboCop, so let’s not pretend.
I have been fond of Andy Samberg’s brand of buffoonery for some time now, certainly since at least Hot Rod which I still find to be one of the most alarmingly underrated comedies of modern times, and so the emergence of Palm Springs on Hulu recently following a record Sundance bidding war seemed something to look forward to. The movie centres on Nyles, a thirty-something guy whose carefree attitude at the wedding of a friend turns out to be founded in his existential incarceration in a time loop that sees him living the same day over and over in perpetuity. Carrying his experience through to each new predictable awakening, Nyles has had time to reflect on a lot of things, and though it is never explicitly stated for how long he has been trapped the inference is that it may well be decades.
Initially, Nyles’ only looping companion is the shadowy, psychopathic figure of Roy (JK Simmons), who we are introduced to in full camo gear as he shoots hunting arrows at Nyles from a compound bow, an act that precipitates the introduction of wedding guest Sarah (Cristin Milioti) to the loop. Initially reluctant to accept her new fate, Sarah grudgingly beds down into the idea that this state of affairs may actually afford some opportunities, and together she and Nyles engage in various tomfooleries, occasionally interrupted by the murderous Roy.
There is, perhaps inevitably, some romantic growth between the leads, though at a certain point after falling out they appear to part ways, with Sarah dedicating herself to finding a way out of their shared predicament. I’ve read various interpretations of Palm Springs as an allegory for the commitment necessary to maintain a marriage, though on the verge of my own ten year anniversary I would like to suggest that another valid means toward achieving this is to pair onesself with a partner who is infinitely more patient, understanding and emotionally complete. In any event I’m not sure I feel the need to burden Palm Springs with that degree of intellectual insight, as I found it to be the antithesis of Eurovision in that it’s a comedy which made me laugh frequently, has heart, and also the good grace to get its business over and done with inside of ninety minutes.
Maria Skłodowska, better-known to most of the world as Marie Curie, was one of the greatest scientists that has ever lived. A pity, then, that she should be so ill-served by such an uninspired, generic, paint-by-numbers biopic as Marjane Satrapi’s Radioactive.
Curie, played by Rosamund Pike (though it’s perhaps a blessing that we’re spared some atrocious French accents, it strikes me as odd that the cast is almost entirely British, and the accents almost entirely English: I’m not sure there’s actually a single French person in this), is an ambitious and prickly young scientist, struggling to find support for her (as it would transpire) ground-breaking, world-changing, experiments.
Turfed out of the laboratory she was working in, she’s offered space by Sam Riley’s Pierre Curie, a fellow research scientist similarly not politically-favoured by the university bigwigs. Together they embark on the study of radioactivity, and the discovery of two new elements, radium and polonium. They also embark on a romance, giving Skłodowska the surname by which we know her best today.
The film follows Curie’s struggles to be recognised in her own right, while dealing with anti-Polish sentiment, chauvinism, lack of funding, illness and the struggles of motherhood. Like most of her challenges, though, this last in particular is simply not sold convincingly by Satrapi, or Jack Thorne’s screenplay: “do you require feeding?” she asks her daughters at one point. How cold! But also how alone, it being one of the few points that address Curie’s motherhood at all, and how typically unsubtle of the film.
A few times throughout Radioactive we are “treated” to flash forwards to see various things that were, to a greater or lesser degree, based on Curie’s pioneering work, letting us know that radiation is both BAD and GOOD, though mostly BAD. While I have no problem with Satrapi adding something a little less conventional to the narrative structure, these attempts are curiously artless and heavy-handed while, in keeping with much of the rest of the film, treating the audience like they’re a child with concussion. Radioactivity is BAD children. See the Japanese man watching the big bang in the sky. Boo, radioactivity!
Quick flashes of a piece of archive footage, à la Spike Lee, might well have worked, or perhaps, as Pierre Curie warns of the dangers of his work as he accepts the Nobel Prize, cut to an American scientist sitting next to a Japanese scientist, and trust that the audience will get it (which really isn’t much of an ask).
Like Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, Radioactive rather misses the point of its subject, telling us that they’re special or important without ever really showing us why, or how. The struggles and prejudices Curie had to overcome due, in particular, to her gender are portrayed as minor inconveniences, and that would be fine if the film focused instead on her science, but it doesn’t. A few trite phrases from Curie, and her holding the odd steaming flask, are about all we get, though we get a good hour of how one of the world’s greatest minds couldn’t cope without her husband. Oh, and she’s afraid of hospitals. This is important, seemingly, so it’s spelt out to us multiple times. It also seems to be bullshit, so that’s useful.
Rosamund Pike is watchable enough, but very far below her best, and Radioactive’s not a bad film, but given the importance and impact of its subject it’s quite an unsatisfying one, and that’s without the dream sequences. Grrrr, etc. etc.
The Old Guard
Comic book adaptation The Old Guard sees a group of four mysteriously immortal eternal warriors thrown into disarray when an ex-CIA goon and a Big Pharma conglomerate team up to hunt them down and extract their secrets, all while they’re trying to bring a new member of the self-resurrection society up to speed.
That’s pretty much as disparaging as I mean it to be. For the purposes of science, I hooked this film up to the Morris Industries Schlock-o-meter, and it returned a value of 200% Schlock, previously thought theoretically impossible or at least medically inadvisable. Thankfully, I kind of love schlock, so it’s more bearable than other Netflix action misfires like 6 Underground or Extraction. However, I’m not going to argue that it’s anything other than nonsense on toast.
Our bunch of extant immortals, played by Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, and Luca Marinelli are all underutilised but do what’s asked of them well enough – I quite like the relationship between Kenzari and Marinelli, which is refreshingly non-Marvel-ly – and KiKi Layne as the newcomer does what’s asked well enough in the sort of thankless, exposition question asker role that’s hobbling her. Likewise this material’s generic enough that it’s not going on Chiwetel Ejiofor’s show-reel, but again he’s rather overqualified for the role.
The only fish out of water here is Harry Melling as the snivelling CEO type, with a performance that would probably be bettered by an actual fish out of water.
The action sequences are, I’ll go as far to say acceptable, maybe? At least the ridiculous stuff here is supposed to be ridiculous, unlike the aforementioned Netflix clunkers, and the central concept is interesting enough that I can imagine these characters doing something a bit more engaging in a sequel that’s not lumbered with this amount of backstory and lore to clunkily exposition their way through.
Any such sequel could do with having a bit more cash thrown at the production budget, though. I was surprised to see this pegged at $70 million dollars, and can only assume six sevenths of that has gone into the actor’s pay-cheques as it resolutely does not appear to have that reflected on screen, unless those CG limbs unbreaking themselves have gone up in cost since Blade did it years ago.
This is very much a thing that you can watch, if you want to. It’s an undemanding distraction in a time when we very much need it, but in normal circumstances ignoring it would be a much better option. Still, this might well be the only release this year that feels vaguely similar to the tentpoles that would be cluttering up our multiplexes at this time of the year, so there’s perhaps some small psychological comfort to take from this otherwise mediocre, yet somehow still Netflix’s best, action film attention candidate.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
There are many cultural differences between the UK and USA, though in the interests of keeping politics out of your ears for an hour or so I will distill it thus: if you live in the UK you are statistically unlikely to know who Mr Rogers was. True, I knew who he was, and I suspect my cohorts here would say the same, but I couldn’t have picked him out in a lineup and I certainly never saw a frame of his beloved TV show Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood, which I understand is pretty much as hallowed a cultural institution as you can get in US TV.
Anyhoo, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood concerns itself with a well-documented friendship betwixt Rogers and Esquire Magazine journalist Tom Junod, though here Junod becomes Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) for reasons I can’t be bothered researching. When Vogel is assigned Rogers as a subject for a collaborative piece around the theme of “Heroes” he initially takes it as an insult, butting heads with his editor and reluctantly flying out to meet Rogers on the set of his show. Initial impressions seem suitably vague for a piece only required to fill 300 words, though something remarkable begins to happen when Rogers turns his insight upon Vogel and begins to help him process his relationship with absent father Jerry (the ever-excellent Chris Cooper). Vogel is reluctant at first, but as the two become friends he finds Rogers’ unique observations on emotional development and often bizarre zen-like asides to the importance of appreciating others increasingly empowering in repairing his broken paternal relationship.
Structured in a way that primarily focuses on Vogel, Neighborhood somehow manages to capture a portrait of Rogers using only the periphery afforded his character, capturing him as somewhere between the mythical presence of the Dalai Lama and a kindly uncle who lives just down the street which, to tens of millions of now adult Americans, is exactly what he was. It is a remarkable effort from director Marielle Heller, who we last spoke about in the context of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, another low key film which I also liked a lot, and who I am now committed to following with interest.
Of course Hanks is predictably excellent in his role, and if I were to pick either of his two movies which we will discuss here on this episode I would certainly rather recommend this one as the more valuable performance by a number of metrics. Matthew Rhys, who I don’t recognise from anything else, is perfectly acceptable as Lloyd, though it must be frustrating to find yourself as the central character in a movie that gathered award chatter and be sidelined by pretty much everyone else involved. It is however Heller’s show, and a very good show at that. Do recommend.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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