CVIndependent

Tue07142020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Bob Grimm

Will Ferrell used to be a sure-fire comedy guarantee: There was a stretch when it seemed he could do no wrong.

Alas, that stretch is long behind him now, and Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga continues his recent streak of lousy-to-mediocre films. This one falls somewhere in the realm of mediocre.

On the eve of the infamous Eurovision contest—the song competition that birthed the career of ABBA in real life—Lars (Ferrell) and Sigrit (Rachel McAdams), lifelong friends and members of the rock-duo Fire Saga, are taking one last bid at fame. However, they are terrible, and are hated by most of the people in their Icelandic hometown, including Lars’ father (Pierce Brosnan). A tragic boating accident thrusts them into the competition in which they represent their country—and many unfunny musical sequences ensue.

Ferrell’s wigged schtick grows tired early on—and since the film is two-plus hours long, we are talking a lot of unwanted shtick. McAdams, who can lip-sync with the best of them, is actually quite good here, and nearly saves the film with a warm, funny, earnest performance. Her character’s obsession with magical elves is a potential funny subplot that isn’t adequately explored. Directed by David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers), this movie would’ve benefited from a shorter running time.

It’s hard watching Ferrell founder in stuff like this; his career is in need of some major adjustments. He’s too funny to be goofing around with subpar material.

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

A confession: I didn’t like Hamilton the first time I watched it on Disney+. The music felt unoriginal; Lin-Manuel Miranda’s face and voice were annoying me; and I had problems following the plot.

But … I loved the ending, and really liked the women in the show, especially Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton. I liked those so much that it made me ponder whether I had made some sort of mistake. So, I waited a couple of days and watched it again.

During that second viewing, I loved Hamilton from start to finish—and Miranda grew on me to the point that I found him adorable. I am not sure what happened the first time; perhaps I was distracted, or perhaps I was just grouchy. (These are tough times, after all.) This sort of thing has happened to me only a couple of times over 25 years of film reviewing. (I made a similar about-face on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.)

That second time, my brain clicked into the Hamilton frequency. I heard all of the lyrics; the melodies jumped out at me; and the choreography was stunning. It’s deserving of all the hype, and boasts a boldly original concept. The cast is superb, including Miranda as the title character, Leslie Odom Jr. as friend-turned-enemy Aaron Burr, and a host of talented performers, often playing two parts.

The Best Comedic Turn Award goes to Jonathan Groff as the sassy King George—so confident the American colonies will be back under his reign, and gloriously spitting while singing in vivid HD.

As good as everybody is, Soo steals every one of her scenes and gives the musical major heart. She’s the reason I took a breath and watched the show again—allowing me to realize my near mistake. The filmed version of the Hamilton musical is the gem it was rumored to be.

Hamilton is now streaming on Disney+.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, after taking several years off from starring roles to become a new daddy, returns with the standard but sometimes tense airplane thriller 7500.

Levitt does competent work as Tobias, a nebbish co-pilot on a night flight that includes his girlfriend (Aylin Tezel) on the crew. After a short time in the air, a band of hijackers take hostages and demand entry into the cockpit, banging relentlessly on the cockpit door.

Director and co-writer Patrick Vollrath does very well with the film’s first half. Actually, the film is quite good while the plane is in the air. Tobias communicates with the hijackers by banging on his door and via black-and-white video—and it’s scary to watch. The film recalls the tense final moments of Paul Greengrass’ United 93, about a similar, real-life situation on Sept. 11.

Once the plane lands, Tobias ends up in the cockpit with one of the hijackers (Omid Memar)—and this is when the movie sputters. The two actors give it their all, but the script calls for paint-by-numbers conversations, and the moments simply don’t deliver on the promise of the film’s first half.

Still, it’s good to see Gordon-Levitt. It’s a demanding role, and he shakes off the rust fairly well. Too bad the movie as a whole doesn’t match the quality of his performance.

The film 7500 is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Spike Lee follows up BlacKkKlansman, one of his best movies, with another great one, Da 5 Bloods, now out on Netflix. Delroy Lindo and Chadwick Boseman lead a strong cast as Lee examines the lives of five Black veterans before and after Vietnam.

Lee and his co-writers send the five characters back to Vietnam to search for the remains of their former platoon leader (Boseman) and a bunch of gold bars they stashed during battle. Boseman appears via flashback; the older actors appear as the same age (with no de-aging makeup or technology) in both time periods—and it’s a style choice that works amazingly well. There’s something deep and moving about seeing these characters at their present age in the war they fought a half-century ago.

Lindo does career-best work as Paul, a man who is fraying a bit at the edges and is looking for redemption in the jungle. His son, David (Jonathan Majors), provides a twist when he unexpectedly tags along, forcing David to deal with a lot of demons. Lindo has delivered one of the year’s best performances so far.

The movie is shot beautifully—and is perhaps the most violent film Lee has ever made. It’s also one of the more adventurous, and best-timed, films in his repertoire.

Lee has made two stellar films in a row—indicating he is back in full creative force.

Da 5 Bloods is now streaming on Netflix.

It seemed as if we were getting a little gift when Disney announced it was sending Artemis Fowl directly to its streaming service: A big-budget, Kenneth Branagh-directed adventure was coming directly into living rooms, because most theaters are closed. What a treat, right?

No. As it turns out, the film is awful.

You’ll realize within five minutes of viewing that this thing stood zero chance of captivating folks in movie theaters. It would’ve just pissed them off and sent them home grouchy. So this was actually a blessing for Disney: It’s better to just let people be grouchy in the comfort of their own homes, saving them gas and concessions money.

The movie, about the titular child protégé (Ferdia Shaw) trying to solve a mystery surrounding his dad (Colin Farrell), makes zero sense from beginning to end. You know Branagh has a mess on his hands when he employs the narrator angle—having a character (a raspy-voiced Josh Gad, with his part filmed in black and white) staring into the camera and explaining everything as the movie plays out. It comes off as a lame attempt to fix a crap movie with re-shoots.

Not only is the storytelling poorly handled; the movie doesn’t even look good. The special effects are bad, and the costuming is strange—there are fairies in this movie that look sort of like Willem DaFoe’s Green Goblin from Spider-Man. The editing is haphazard, too.

Judi Dench plays some sort of boss of the fairies, and she also employs a raspy delivery. Dench seems to be a harbinger of bad things now: This is her cinematic follow up to Cats, meaning she has the distinction of being in one of the year’s worst movies for two years in a row.

Branagh usually puts together a good film, and his chance to do big-budget fantasy seemed like it would lead to great things. Instead, this fiasco leaves a big, nasty mark on Disney+ and Branagh. It’s easily the worst thing he’s ever done behind the camera, and there’s no chance for a franchise here—this is a one-and-done affair.

Artemis Fowl is now streaming on Disney+.

Pete Davidson—who barely registered on Saturday Night Live during the recently concluded season due to prior commitments and a resulting lack of screen time—comes roaring back with The King of Staten Island, another quality comedy from director and co-writer Judd Apatow.

Davidson plays Scott Carlin, a thinly veiled version of himself. The film depicts a scenario of Davidson’s life in which he doesn’t get his big break on SNL and is, instead, an aspiring (and not very good) tattoo artist. As happened with Davidson, Scott’s firefighter father died on duty, and he lives with his mom, Margie (Marisa Tomei), and little sister, Claire (Maude Apatow).

Davidson doesn’t have to stretch too much to deliver a convincing performance as a wisecracking, self-esteem-challenged, neurotic guy with a severe case of Crohn’s disease (from which he suffers in real life). He, in fact, nails the part, thanks to deft comic timing and solid dramatic chops. He holds his own against veterans like Tomei and Steve Buscemi, who plays a boss at the local firehouse. Davidson might not match them in every scene, but, hey, he’s a rookie, and he’s pretty damn good.

The plot involves Scott hanging out with a motley crew of friends and contending with his mother’s new boyfriend, Ray Bishop, played by Bill Burr in a hilarious performance that takes Burr’s acting career to the next level. Ray has a Monopoly Man mustache and a suspiciously sunny personality, and Scott develops trust issues with him—leading to turmoil in the household and comedically rich strife.

With this 136-minute long film, Apatow uses a grittier, messier visual approach, and it pays off, suiting the unpredictability of its central character and his scrappy Staten Island locale. The movie feels different from past Apatow ventures—so different that I didn’t even realize I was watching his daughter Maude (who is excellent, by the way) until the movie was over.

Davidson’s performance is also bolstered by a supreme supporting cast that includes Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) as the love interest in a very unconventional love story. While the movie is good, it wouldn’t be nearly as good if it weren’t for the presence of Burr, Buscemi and Tomei, who provide the movie with a solid dramatic and comedic base.

Will Davidson one day become a legitimate movie star? Maybe. He has The Suicide Squad, slated for release next year, on his slate, and he’s going to voice Marmaduke in an animated film.

The King of Staten Island will be available via streaming services on Friday, June 12.

Steve Carell and Greg Daniels, both major parts of the U.S. version of The Office, take a satirical stab at Donald Trump’s hankering for a space army in Space Force, a pretty good comedy that I suspect will get better if it gets a second season.

The series starts slow, with an uninspired first episode. However, the end of that episode has a funny moment that launches into what counts as the best show of the season—one in which Steve Carell’s newly installed Space Force general must solve a satellite problem using a chimp. The episode is funny—and I found myself fully engaged with the series.

The premise provides Carell with a good, goofy base for his comedic strengths, but also provides some realistic family drama involving his Gen. Naird and his justifiably despondent daughter, Erin (Diana Silvers). Lisa Kudrow has a good if small role as his convict wife. Fred Willard, in his final role before his passing, is a total crack-up as Naird’s sickly father, who tries to conduct phone conversations while his wife is experiencing all kinds of difficulties next to him in bed.

John Malkovich provides levity as the nerdy scientist guy, and Ben Schwartz gets some of the show’s bigger laughs as Naird’s marketing man.

The cast finds its groove more and more with each episode, leading up to a cliffhanger finale that will leave a lot of folks hanging if the show’s second season doesn’t get green-lit.

Space Force is now streaming on Netflix.

The Lovebirds—the latest Michael Showalter effort—caught my eye before it was originally scheduled to be released in theaters in April. The Wet Hot American Summer co-architect had made his best film as a director a couple years back, The Big Sick, and The Lovebirds has him re-teaming with that film’s star, Kumail Nanjiani.

The film wound up being sold to Netflix, and Showalter has taken the romantic-comedy to new, deranged levels here, pairing Nanjiani with Issa Rae—and the two have crazy chemistry. The plot has them as a married couple hitting the skids before being thrust into a nightmarish night after they hit a dude on his bicycle and subsequently witness that dude’s murder.

The plot mechanisms are fairly standard; what isn’t standard are the hilarious observations and dialogue that keep this consistently and undeniably funny. The two stars exude an anything-can-happen vibe, even when the script is following a typical rom-com road map. It’s actually fun to watch a talented team like this take a standard formula and own it.

Showalter’s deft touch is all over the place; the man is one of the planet’s funniest people, and that always shines through in his directorial efforts. (The Baxter, his 2005 film, is an egregiously underrated film.) The Lovebirds represents his ability to take a typical plot line, turn it inside out—and weave magic.

The Lovebirds is now streaming on Netflix.

If you are looking for some good, empty-headed, Adam Sandler-branded fun while coping with the nuttiness in the world right now, please don’t watch The Wrong Missy: It will just depress you.

Sandler produced this one on his Netflix deal for buddies David Spade, Nick Swardson and Rob Schneider. Alas, Spade has never looked so bored, and the talented Lauren Lapkus is wasted.

Spade plays a business exec who meets a crazy girl (Lapkus) named Missy on a terrible blind date. He also meets Melissa (Molly Sims), his dream girl. When a big business trip comes up, and he’s allowed to take somebody along, he texts the wrong Missy—who shows up on his plane and starts raising hell. Of course, more hijinks ensue.

The movie starts off well enough, but quickly devolves into desperate humor with few successful jokes. Instead, there’s lots of barfing, falling down and predictable plot turns. The result: a Sandler product closer to Grown Ups 2 than Happy Gilmore.

The Wrong Missy is now streaming on Netflix.

Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney are terrific in Bad Education, a dark comedy based on the true story of Frank Tassone and the Long Island school-district embezzlement scheme that brought him down.

Jackman plays Tassone, a vain superintendent who gnashes his teeth when Pam Gluckin (Janney), one of his co-workers, is accused of embezzlement; he throws her under the bus, so to speak. As the drama plays out, it is slowly revealed that Tassone not only participated in some wrongdoing—but might, in fact, be the ringleader of an even bigger theft.

Jackman gives one of his very best performances as Tassone, a consummate sociopath who seriously has no idea what a boldfaced criminal he is. Janney is his equal as Gluckin, who possesses about half of his sociopathic tendencies, but is equally clueless. Supporting-performance greatness abounds from Ray Romano, Stephanie Kurtzuba and Alex Wolff.

Director Cory Finley strikes a nice balance of dark humor and bleak sadness. (It really is quite awful to see these dummies screwing up.) Some lazily written back-story involving Tassone’s sexuality is not enough to kill the effectiveness of the film.

Bad Education is currently airing on HBO and is available on HBO’s streaming services.

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