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

2020 #153
David Dobkin | 123 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Icelandic | 12 / PG-13

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

The Eurovision Song Contest: if you’re from Europe or Australia, or one of the other countries that competes but isn’t really in Europe, it needs no introduction. If you’re from somewhere that hasn’t been enjoying/subjected to it every year for the past seven decades… well, it’s hard to explain. Actually, the basics are easy: it’s a continent-wide song competition, where each participating country submits one artist performing one song, and everyone votes for the winner. But, oh, the cultural connotations and ramifications are so, so much more! For some countries, it’s deadly serious — it’s a way to get noticed on the world stage; it may even make the artist famous. For others, like us Brits, it’s a big campy silly joke… except we’re also rather fond of it (some of us), and we’re terribly annoyed that we don’t win it every year (or at least on a regular basis. Like, once a decade or so would probably keep us happy). And that’s just scratching the surface — it would probably take a book (or, at least, a reasonably long article) to fully explain every nuance.

Will Ferrell’s latest comedy attempts to distill all that history into a globally-friendly movie-length spoof. It’s a big ask, not just because there’s so much background information to assimilate, but because us Brits have been ripping the piss out of Eurovision for decades. And not just sometimes, but constantly: each country provides a local commentary over the live broadcast, and each year ours is basically a roast. (Notoriously so: some countries are not impressed by the sarcastic, piss-taking attitude being our ‘official’ stance on the contest.) We’re not alone, either: a few years ago when Sweden hosted the contest, they did a pitch-perfect sketch about creating the perfect Eurovision song. If you want to get a feel for the entire Eurovision experience in just six minutes, watch Love Love Peace Peace.

And so with all that in mind, Ferrell and co are on a hiding to nothing; especially as the film has been made with the cooperation and endorsement of Eurovision’s producer, the EBU (they even get a credit right up front), so it was never going to be able to truly get stuck in for fear of offending its subject. So I guess that’s why they barely even bothered. Oh, there are certainly references to and riffs on Eurovision-y things, so viewers in the know can pick up on them and not feel like it’s about Generic Foreign Singing Contest; but this isn’t really a comedy about Eurovision, it’s about a small-town music duo wanting to make it big. Their chosen method is Eurovision, but it could just as well be The X Factor or The Voice or, well, anything, and it wouldn’t change the core narrative.

And a man in a hamster wheel

Said narrative goes through all the motions you’d expect. About the only thing that could be described as a twist is that the smarmy “bad buy” isn’t actually up to anything evil after all, he’s genuinely quite nice. As he’s another contestant, you do wonder if that was an EBU stipulation… The man in question is the Russian entry, Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens, who’s excellent as usual), renowned as a “sex player” and the subject of an overlong bit about how he probably has a massive penis. “Overlong” is the watchword for most of the comedic routines in the movie. It’s a form of self indulgence that plagues many a comedy nowadays, and here it helps contribute to a running time that’s simply too long. I always feel like the best comedies are within sight of 90 minutes, but this runs a full two hours. Of course, a comedy made for a famously hands-off studio like Netflix is hardly likely to be exempt from indulgence. Maybe a more interfering one would’ve questioned the wisdom of letting Ferrell include a bit where his character criticises American tourists for coming to Europe and ruining it. Um… It could work in a meta way, but it feels like it’s lacking any kind of knowing wink, beyond it’s very existence.

One thing that does often work are the songs. You may well have heard Volcano Man when Netflix released it as the first promo for the film, but Fire Saga themselves get two or three more numbers, all of which are varying degrees of “surprisingly catchy”. The one they sing as the climax even made me feel a little emotional. I expect it’s the manipulation of the key changes or whatever (I’m no musician), because I didn’t really feel invested in the characters’ relationship before that point, but hey, if it works it works. Then there are the other contestants… where, unfortunately, the film drops the ball again. Lemtov’s number, Lion of Love, clearly had the most effort put into it — it’s quite fun and very Eurovisiony. But a montage of other acts is weird because it feels like it’s been edited to emphasise the jokes, only there aren’t any. I’m not even being clever, saying “there aren’t any” because I didn’t find them funny — the lyrics aren’t humorous, the staging isn’t particularly laughable… they’re just mediocre songs. It’s a wasted opportunity to provide some quick-fire riffs on Eurovision staples. The best it can do is the first of the montage, a rock song by guys in monster costumes — a reference to Lordi, who won in 2006. As far as I remember, no one has tried the same trick in the intervening 14 years.

Lion of Love

The weirdest musical number comes halfway through: at a party Lemtov is hosting for all the contestants, a “song-along” breaks out. Not a singalong, a “song-along”. Suddenly, a bunch of previous real Eurovision contestants show up (much to the bafflement of viewers who’ve never seen the real thing, I suspect) to sing a medley of… songs. Not Eurovision songs, just… songs. Well, Waterloo is in there, but I think that was the only one. It sort of almost works as a kind of mid-film celebration of the real Eurovision, but it’s all so random. Why isn’t it a medley of previous Eurovision tracks? Who even are some of the singers? (I recognised most but not all.) Do people who aren’t fans even get what’s going on during that sequence? It’s a cheesy but potentially fun idea, which I’d embrace wholeheartedly if I felt they’d nailed it. Or even if they’d just had them all cover Love Love Peace Peace.

Yet for all the film’s faults, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. By sticking to tried and tested plot beats and gags, it has an unchallenging comfortableness. There are laughs along the way — some are just echoes of better versions, yeah (most notably, a bit that’s almost jumping through hoops to avoid Rachel McAdams repeating her iconic line from Game Night. It would’ve been better if they’d just leaned into it and let it be a meta-gag), but there were a couple that caught me with a genuine chuckle.

Sporadically funny; often dated; with tired and rehashed routines; longer than Alexander Lemtov’s penis; and surprisingly emotional at the end… Actually, maybe The Story of Fire Saga is like Eurovision after all.

3 out of 5

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is available on Netflix now.

Holmes & Watson (2018)

2019 #38
Etan Cohen | 90 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Holmes & Watson

From the moment it was announced, I knew two things about Holmes & Watson: that it would not be up my street, and that I’d definitely see it. Basically, Will Ferrell is not to my taste — I thought Anchorman was OK at best; I didn’t like The Other Guys despite it having a premise I loved; I remember enjoying Wedding Crashers specifically apart from his one scene; and, cementing my opinion shortly before Holmes & Watson’s release, I finally saw Step Brothers, Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s previous major co-starring turn, and didn’t care for it. (I also haven’t got round to reviewing it, but when I do it won’t be positive.) Despite my personal antipathy, most of those films are highly regarded, at least in certain circles; so when Holmes & Watson finally debuted trailers that no one liked, then garnered reviews that damned it as one of the worst movies released for years, I abandoned all hope of enjoyment. But it’s still a Sherlock Holmes movie, and so I’ve still felt compelled to watch it.

As you could no doubt infer from the title and aforementioned leads, the film sees Will Ferrell take up the mantle of the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes, with John C. Reilly as his trusty sidekick and biographer, Dr John Watson. The plot, such as it is, sees the pair investigating a threat to assassinate Queen Victoria by Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes). Really, it’s just an excuse for Ferrell and Reilly to lark about in a series of Holmesian sketches. Full of truly terrible accents, reheated gags, and comedy bits that go on far too long, it would be tedious if presented as individual skits in a sketch show, but strung together as a movie… ugh.

Incompetence on both sides of the camera

The incompetence isn’t just present in front of the camera either. It’s hard to believe this was a professionally-produced, studio-released movie given the lack of technical skills on display, including atrocious dubbing, sloppy editing, and even shots that are out of focus. It’s so poor that Netflix, who seem to purchase any scraps the major studios decide to throw their way, turned down the chance to buy it (so they do have some standards!)

Amazingly, it’s not completely terrible. In supporting roles, Fiennes, Rebecca Hall, and Kelly Macdonald improve it just by showing up. There’s one bit that riffs off the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies, which might’ve felt original-ish if those weren’t already nine years old. There’s a bit of dialogue where it’s suggested America is forward-thinking about female equality, which isn’t the intended joke but is a laugh nonetheless. And as it’s the only laugh in the whole sorry 90 minutes, I guess we should take what we can get.

If they’d deliberately set out to make a film that was ostensibly a comedy but contained no actual humour, I’m not sure they could’ve achieved it any more thoroughly than this. It’s so terrible that it’s almost a remarkable achievement of just how badly it’s possible to fail.

1 out of 5

Holmes & Watson is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK this week.

It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.

Zoolander (2001)

2016 #121
Ben Stiller | 85 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Germany / English | 12 / PG-13

Zoolander15 years before flop comedy Zoolander 2, there was Zoolander… which wasn’t a big hit either (it was 2001’s 68th highest-grossing film). Nonetheless, it developed some kind of mainstream-cult appeal, resulting in: a) that sequel, and b) me, on a night when I fancied something undemanding, deciding I should see what the fuss was about.

The story of an almost-past-it model who’s brainwashed into being an assassin, it’s essentially a one joke film (“aren’t models dumb?”), but gets surprisingly good mileage out of that. Not relentlessly amusing, nor the best thing on anyone’s CV, but some bits are very funny.

3 out of 5

The Lego Movie (2014)

aka The LEGO Movie

2014 #132
Phil Lord & Christopher Miller | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Australia & Denmark / English | U / PG

The LEGO MovieDespite looking like a 100-minute toy commercial with an irritating theme song, plus a moral message about nonconformity that seems like it’ll get bungled (but doesn’t), The Lego Movie is so much more — and better — than that.

Boundlessly creative, clever, and witty with the possibilities of its titular topic, featuring technically incredible animation (the close-up detail!), and boosted by a talented cast including leading man du jour Chris Pratt — plus a completely unpredictable final act twist — the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs co-directors have, against the odds, produced another charming and immensely enjoyable animation.

The song is awful, though.

4 out of 5

Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

2007 #81
Marc Forster | 108 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

Stranger Than FictionAnother of Empire’s best films of last year (this one was 21st).

Forster is developing an eclectic filmography, with Oscar-nominated dramas Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland alongside psychological thriller Stay and the 22nd Bond film. Stranger Than Fiction is different again, melding several styles into a cohesive whole — mystery, rom-com, existentialism, a bit of fantasy, and those IKEA graphics from Fight Club. Some plot beats may be clichéd, but that’s almost the point; besides, there’s plenty of originality to make up for it. A few plot turns in the final act also make sure you’re never certain how it will end.

4 out of 5

Stranger Than Fiction placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2007, which can be read in full here.