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Indie Focus: Sing along with “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

Filmmaker Joel Schumacher died this week at age 80. Schumacher was a difficult talent to get a grasp on, and though his films often divided critics on release, in retrospect his is an energizing body of work, full of style and panache, that has only grown in esteem. Josh Rottenberg wrote his obit for The Times.

Schumacher began by decorating department store windows and as a friend of the celebrated fashion designer Halston, then moved on to design the costumes in such 1970s artifacts as “Play It as It Lays” and “The Last of Sheila.” He went on to write screenplays for “The Wiz” and “Car Wash” before directing films in a wide range of styles, including “D.C. Cab,” “The Lost Boys,” “The Client” and “Batman Forever.” He had an astonishing eye for fresh talent, casting Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland, Demi Moore and Colin Farrell in key early roles.

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Mary McNamara wrote about Schumacher’s 1985 film “St. Elmo’s Fire,” which starred Moore, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Mare Winningham, Andrew McCarthy and Ally Sheedy as a group of recent college grads. She explored the film as a pre-“Friends” archetype of the friend-group story. As she put it, “The film accepted, as its premise, the often inexplicable importance, resilience and high drama of friendship.”

Just last year, Schumacher gave Andrew Goldman a delightfully candid interview for New York magazine, in which he had this to say about particularly savage comments from critic David Denby about “Batman Forever”: “Was he expecting ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Gotham City?’ … Can you imagine if I’d made a ‘Batman’ for David Denby? Listen, years ago, when I was filming in England, there was a show at the National Gallery of [James McNeill] Whistler and [John Singer] Sargent. Both Whistler and Sargent were despised by the art critics, and they did a brilliant thing. Right next to them on the wall, framed right next to the paintings, were all their horrible reviews. Who remembers these reviews?”

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‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga’

The real-life Eurovision Song Contest is known for its over-the-top combination of spectacle, ridiculousness, earnestness, corniness and Euro-vibed horniness, and the new comedy “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” directed by David Dobkin, attempts to capture all of that. Starring Will Ferrell (who also cowrote the movie) and Rachel McAdams, the story is about Lars and Sigrit, a musical duo from a tiny fishing village in Iceland trying to compete while dealing with their own interpersonal conflicts and confusions. The film is streaming on Netflix.

Reviewing for The Times, Jen Yamato wrote, “One of the film’s most irritating choices is also its central premise: In the year 2020, is there really any charm to be mined from the exploits of the bumbling, buffoonish man-child? ... It’s an insult to female artists everywhere, not to mention thankless work on McAdams’ part, that ‘Eurovision’ clings to such outdated gender dynamics and tired formula. As its thin premise stretches out over a bloated 123-minute runtime, the question festers. Why must Sigrit’s dreams, her ambitions, her wants and desires be tied to the ambitions of an egocentric fool? It’s the kind of story conceit, masked under the guise of a dual-focus musical romance, that serves only one protagonist: the stubbornly idiotic man.”

For Vulture, Bilge Ebiri wrote, “If there is one great elemental truth to be found in le cinéma du Will Ferrell, it is this: That the most delusional and imperiously confident among us are also the ones who fall the lowest, and the hardest. And the actor is an ideal vessel to convey this idea, because he commits so hard in either direction. He can be as inconsolable as he can be overbearing.”

For the AP, Lindsey Bahr wrote, “McAdams and Ferrell are, unsurprisingly, a joy to watch. Together they affect an innocent exuberance, enlivened by their chirpy, pseudo-Icelandic accents and colorful costumes. Their song is even pretty catchy. And perhaps most surprisingly there is some actual emotion to their relationship.”

For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote, “The joke, of course, is that Lars is kind of bad. ... It’s a little frustrating that McAdams’ character is so pleasant and straitlaced — why not let McAdams bumble around like a dope, just as Ferrell does? — but McAdams admirably finds some comic shading in what could otherwise be a dull character, crafted by men who can’t imagine any role for women beyond an innocent or a vixen.”

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Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in "Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga."
(John Wilson / Netflix)

‘Irresistible’

The second film written and directed by Jon Stewart, “Irresistible” is a satire of our current political system. Steve Carell stars as a Democratic political consultant who goes up against his Republican nemesis, played by Rose Byrne, in a strategic battle for a small-town mayoral race. Chris Cooper costars as a hopeful candidate, and Mackenzie Davis plays Cooper’s daughter. Released by Focus Features, the movie is available on VOD.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “I found myself arguing a lot with ‘Irresistible,’ whose attempts to soothe our national tensions strike me as dodgy and disingenuous, and whose narrative priorities feel bizarrely misjudged. Some of this is surely due to unfortunate timing; it’s not easy to sell a high-minded comedy at a moment that cries out for a seething polemic. But timing alone doesn’t account for it. If this misleadingly titled movie is meant to be a whimsical Capra-esque fantasy, as the production notes suggest, then why does it make such a show of its topical relevance? If it’s meant to lay bare the realities of the system, as the production notes also suggest, then why does it feel so toothless and inconsequential?”

For Vulture, Alison Willmore wrote, “It’s hard to imagine how a supposedly timely film about electioneering could feel more out of touch with even the past few years. ‘Irresistible’ isn’t just shockingly ineffectual in its insights into national schisms — it is, in an added betrayal, unfunny, requiring its audience to slog their way through so much laborious farce without a laugh in sight.”

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For rogerebert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote that the film “plays as if it might have been made by a young person who just became politically aware a few months ago, rather than, say, Jon Stewart, the man who used to be in charge of the most influential politically driven TV program of the last two decades.”

Steve Carell and Rose Byrne in "Irresistible."
(Focus Features)

‘The Audition’

Directed by Ina Weisse, “The Audition” features another stirring performance by Nina Hoss, considered by many to be among the finest screen actresses working in the world today. Hoss plays a violin teacher at a prestigious music academy in Berlin who becomes increasingly obsessed with making one of her students into a success. Released by Strand Releasing, the movie is available in virtual cinemas.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “There’s a special thrill in seeing an actor known for her own eerie perfectionism playing a woman who can’t abide imperfection in herself or others. Hoss rose to international prominence through her longtime collaboration with the writer-director Christian Petzold, among them superb dramas like ‘Barbara’ (2012) and ‘Phoenix’ (2015), in which Hoss’ searching, suffering gaze opens a window onto the darkest chapters of Germany’s post-World War II history. ‘The Audition’ may not have the same lingering resonance, but like those earlier pictures, it’s a showcase for a performer who erases the distinction between impeccable technique and raw feeling.”

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For the New York Times, Glenn Kenny wrote, “Hoss’ work is impeccable and illuminating, and the movie’s foursquare, frank, brisk approach is salutary. But its final scenes lean into triteness and frustrating evasiveness, which makes the picture a less than entirely satisfying experience.”

Nina Hoss in the movie "The Audition."
(Strand Releasing)


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