Oof, that’s a bulky title. Three shorter reviews today as I get a bit of a logjam out of the way.
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga
Lars (Will Ferrell) dreams of competing for his native Iceland in the Eurovision Song Contest with his best friend/musical partner Sigrit (Rachel McAdams), but is handicapped by the uninterested denizens of his home town, his dismissive father (Pierce Brosnan) and a certain lack of musical excellence. When a bizarre set of circumstances gives “Fire Saga” a path to their dreams, Lars and Sigrit enter the world of Eurovision, but find their musical talent, friendship, and nascent romance, challenged by the glitz, glamour and the attentions of a would be Russian Lothario (Dan Stevens).
When the first trailer for this came out, I was all-in: an absolutely ridiculous music video, featuring Will Ferrell as some kind of Icelandic superhero named “Volcano Man”, was all I needed to see. It seemed to me like Fire Saga had the potential to be a rip-roaring fulfillment of the Eurovision’s eminent mockability, and probably all the better for being a well-intentioned one. Alas, it was not to be.
I’d say that the biggest problem you have is the fact that this film is made with plenty of ESC backing, and not just financial: various presenters and past winners make appearances, and a huge mid-second act set-piece is essentially an advertisement for the contest and its participants, so there are plenty of indications that Fire Saga was facing an impossible task from the get-go. The Song Contest has so much potential for spoofery it’s actually somewhat galling that what we get from this is a very milquetoast approach to the contest itself, wrapped up in a fairly forgettable rom-com plot.
I bet that this was meant to be much more biting to begin with, maybe something in a proper mockumentary style, but so much has been reined in tone wise, while the film is all over the place in terms of pacing. An incredible 123 minute running time makes huge parts of Fire Saga a really unpalatable slog, and one must wonder just why it wasn’t pared down to the truly necessary, for a more enjoyable 90 or so minutes. Or, to put it another way, if your comedy film is two hours long, it better be amazingly funny. Fire Saga is not.
Which is not to say that the film is not occasionally funny, it’s just that the humour is almost entirely divorced from the contest. It’s mostly found in the Icelandic coastal town, where Lars ponders why his father waited until they were in front of his mother’s grave to tell him he is being kicked out of the house, or how Sigrit spends more time than is really OK visiting a nearby fairy village, or the locals’ insane need to hear the same rubbish love song at the local pub over and over again. When things are taken to an Anchorman-esque extreme – Fire Saga get into the contest when the party where all the better Icelandic contestants are celebrating explodes in a grisly manner, and later their semi-final performance is a hamster-wheel centric disaster – it’s actually all the better. But those are brief moments, that next to the played-far-too-serious self-doubt and romance sub-plots actually feel rather bizarre, like the left-overs from a very different first draft.
This kind of thing is Ferrell’s bread-and-butter, and he’s well-used to the man-child personal of Lars (that being said, when was Ferrell’s last flat-out hit, not counting the Lego Movie? The Other Guys maybe?) and McAdams is similarly fine, but neither is going to be able to say that this should go into the top tier of their filmography, laden as they are with having to act in an atrocious accent. Some of the supporting cast is quite good though, like Dan Steven’s Russian favourite who decides to seduce Sigrit for sport (and is most definitely not secretly gay, no sir) or Mikael Persbrandt as the Icelandic TV mogul who really doesn’t want Iceland to win the contest. Brosnan is a bit of a strange choice for the father I will admit, part of a sub-plot that, again, feels like it belongs in a different movie.
Fire Saga had high targets to hit, and largely fails to get close to any of them. It’s astonishing to think that the nearly 25-year-old “A Song For Europe” episode of Father Ted remains the best send-up of the Eurovision Song Contest ever made, and it did a much better job in only 20 or so minutes. Fire Saga has six times that, but lets itself down through mediocre scripting, a lack of punch in its approach to the titular competition, a bit too much of an odour of product placement and in the manner in which it seems to be several different kind of comedies at once, and excelling in none of them really. A few scenes here-and-there land quite well, but that does not a good movie make. Eurovision did not make it to 2020, and this film does not fill the void. Not recommended.
#AnneFrank: Parallel Stories
Anne Frank spent the last few years of her life hiding in a secret annex of an Amsterdam home from Nazi oppressors, before being found and sent to her death in a concentration camp. During that time, she kept a diary that has become one of the most profound insights into life underground, that resonates as strongly today as it did when it was first published. In this documentary, we explore Frank’s life through the narration of her diary by Helen Mirren, and look at several, parallel, experiences of the same horrors from throughout Europe.
Recent years have shown that the life and death of Anne Frank remain disturbingly relevant, with modern political discourse in Europe and the rest of the world increasingly dominated by the return and legitmisation of far-right elements. Such elements are the reason that Anne Frank and so many others perished during the Second World War, and why so many left those years with deep-seeded mental and physical trauma. Parallel Stories does a good job of both bringing Frank’s words recorded during those dark, underground years to life, and of providing some of the survivors of Nazi atrocity the chance to speak about their experiences. They are five women of roughly similar age to Frank when they were arrested, and the stories of what they experienced in the camps, from the inhumanity of their captors to the homo homini lupus nature of survival, will never fail to move something inside of you.
Helen Mirren might seem like an odd choice to narrate some of Frank’s diary entries, seeing as how she is an 75-year-old woman reading the words of young teenage girl, but the contents of that diary always lent themselves to dramatic reading. For that, there are few better suited than Mirren, who brings a life and emotion to Frank’s thoughts on her family, the self-consciousness of teenage experience, her first kiss (this part especially is a major part of the film’s replication) and that heart-breaking final entry, where she waxes lyrical on the duality of her being. You could stand to hear a bit more in terms of Mirren’s recitation, which takes place in the re-created remains of where Frank wrote those words, suitably shot in a duality of light and shadow.
Beyond that, the documentary poses the absolutely fascinating question regards the inheritability of such trauma, through the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those same survivors. Aside from the difficult upbringing some of them may have had in dealing with parents whose attitudes and mental health were shaped by concentration camps, there is also the enormity of having to square away your own existence with one of the greatest tragedies in human history. How did my ancestors survive? Does this survival and my subsequent existence make me special in some way? Do I have an imperative to act and to feel in a certain way because of this? In this, Parallel Stories documents a kind of psychological pressure that descendants of camp survivors must sometimes feel. One great-grandson tattoos his great-grandmothers camp ID number onto his arm out of an inability to do anything else.
If that is one of the main reasons to recommend Parallel Stories, then there are other things that lean the other way. At times the project can feel a tad scattershot, jumping pellmell around the key events and thoughts of Anne Frank, between the survivors, between their children and grandchildren and consistently back to one particular grandchild who re-traces the journey of some of the Nazi’s victims as a sort of framing device. That framing device does the film little in the way of favours in my estimation. I think I prefer seeing such people talk through their feelings and emotions in terms of the very weighty subject matter, as opposed to silently hashtagging pictures they take at the remains of camps. If I may be allowed to sound like an old fogey for a moment, it seems like a cynical way to attract younger viewers to the film, without the substance that such subject matter demands.
Those looking for an introduction to the life and times of Anne Frank, to the horrors of the Holocaust and to the reasons why the memory of such an event needs to be kept today, could do a lot worse than check out Parallel Stories. But I do feel that is as much as Parallel Stories can claim to be. The examination of inherited survivors guilt is undoubtedly interesting, but the film has so much of a wide focus that this discussion is not given enough time really, and its approach to everything else is, as necessitated by the limited running time, a bit shallow. It’s a well-intentioned piece that tries a few fresh ideas, but it’s ability to land with an audience is a bit compromised by its varies approach. Partly recommended.
Black Is King
Based loosely on the plot of The Lion King, this visual album from Beyonce Knowles-Carter explores the story of a young king cast out of his Kingdom, who is forced to survive, then thrive, in a harsh and unforgiving world, before returning to reclaim his throne. With the support of a plethora of POC artists, Beyonce showcases a story based around pride in racial identity and an adoration of African culture.
Beyonce sure does know how to come up with something different. The last time we were talking about her from a film perspective it was for Homecoming, the quasi documentary/concert film distributed by Netflix, that pushed the boundaries of what you would expect from such a genre. Now we have something entirely different, yet carrying much of the same flair, the same intensity, and the same inventiveness, yet all while being largely derivative of a pre-existing story.
Essentially a long-form music video for Beyonce’s album The Gift, released around the time of the live-action Lion King that Beyonce was part of the cast for, Black Is King is a love-letter to Africa, African culture, and black men and women everywhere. Yes, there is a “plot” and yes it is essentially that of The Lion King, albeit you kind of need this pointed out to you by the occasional insert of dialogue from Jon Favreau’s film (Beyonce lines fit, Seth Rogen’s not so much). So we have a young prince born to inherit a great kingdom (“Bigger”). He grows up in a family of power (“Find Your Way Back”). He has his family and his birthright stolen from him by an evil figure, after which he is cast out into the wilderness (“Don’t Jealous Me”). He loses himself in hedonistic pleasure for a time, but is eventually reminded of his responsibilities (“Nile/Mood 4 Eva”). He finds love himself (“Brown Skin Girl”), and then the inspiration to return to his stolen home (“Keys To The Kingdom”). With the help of allies, he defeats the usurper (“My Power”), and reclaims his rightful place in the Circle of Life (“Spirit”). I hope I have gotten all of those song placements right, and I did leave out a few.
That story is only a skeletal structure though, a very base narrative to give things a bit more of a flow. The real point of Black Is King is right there in the title, an exhortation for black people to remember their past and their culture, and to take up the mantle of a sort of quasi-royalty, expressed here as a sort of ingrained self-confidence, acceptance of responsibility and rejection of dilution of power by outside forces. It’s every bit a positive message based on building the self up through your own will and the support of others, without tearing other people down.
It’s easy to forget it when you are so focused on the pageantry displayed for every individual song. I won’t belabour the point because I couldn’t do it justice, so I will only say that Black Is King is a vivid spectacle of colour, a sumptuous banquet of African locations, African dress and African dancing, that a lesser star could have turned into a confusing and off-putting mess of rapid cuts and needless costume changes, but which Beyond turns into gold from frame one to credits. One must admire the dedication employed here, in cutaways that last mere seconds but, in the clothing and in the surrounds, might have taken days to set-up and film. And probably did.
You can tell in all of that the serious amount of care that went into this film, a under-appreciated aspect of artistry that is obvious both when present and very obvious when not. Inspired by her work on The Lion King, and angered by the plight of Solomon Linda, whose tune was used, without credit, in The Lion King, she set out to make this, and clearly spent a great deal of time on every facet. Aside from her voice and her presence, Knowles-Carter also co-directed sections, so her stamp is all over Black Is King.
And of course the music is rather good too. While this blend of RNB, hip-hop, rap and and afrobeats is not typically to my taste, I can still appreciate good lyrics, good melodies and good refrains. Of course, Beyonce has a wealth of talent to work with: Jay Z, Kelly Rowland and Pharrell Williams are among many contributors both in terms of on-screen appearance and in-track performance, while black artists as diverse as Naomi Campbell and Lupita N’yongo also show up here and there, big names that often constitute little more than an extended cameo, but who add a gravitas to the proceedings. “Mood 4 Eva”, featuring the entire Knowles-Carter family in a set-piece that is like a satirical spin on capitalist excess with an African flavour, is probably the stand-out, both for its music (featuring Lion King alum Childish Gambino) and the visual presentation.
It’s a fairly extraordinary movie then, one that I found myself enjoying a lot more than I expected to. But of course, you will generally enjoy something from outside of your wheelhouse if it is made with precision, respect and obvious affection towards the subject matter. Black Is King is all of those things and more, an intoxicating deep dive into a world people with my background and upbringing could never really know. In what we might call a new wave of POC-cinema that has found a foothold in the Hollywood scene, this one rates pretty highly. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix and Disney +).