Movie Review ~ Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again


The Facts
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Synopsis: Five years after the events of Mamma Mia!, Sophie will find out more about her mother’s past, including how she fronted The Dynamos, started her villa on the island from nothing, met each one of Sophie’s dads, and raised a daughter.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Julie Waters, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgård, Colin Firth, Lily James, Alexa Davies, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Jeremy Irvine, Josh Dylan, Hugh Skinner, Cher

Director: Ol Parker

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I happened to be in London in January of 2000 and was able to catch the original London cast of the smash hit, Mamma Mia! It was one of the most exciting nights I’ve had in the theater, not just because the show was enormously entertaining but because the audience just went absolutely nuts for it. I was in the highest point of a steep balcony and watching grown men and women shaking their groove thing to the finale megamix without fear of falling was a sight to behold. In touring productions over the past 18 years I’ve seen the same effect, audience members that came in looking glum but leaving with a crazed look in their eyes.

2008’s Mamma Mia! was a surprise hit, though anyone that didn’t expect a global phenomenon starring one of Hollywood’s most A-list stars to rake in some kind of cash likely isn’t still working in the industry today. Released in the summer months when people were tired of explosions and CGI, it was a perfect (if slightly underwhelming to me) summer antidote to the loud and noisy fare ticket buyers were bombarded with. If anything, it showed us how star Meryl Streep (Hope Springs) could turn even the silliest project on paper into a fully-formed performance with feeling.

When a sequel was announced, I was fairly surprised. After the box office success of the first one, it’s not that a sequel was unheard of, just unexpected. Hearing the gang was getting back together again with a few new additions was interesting and with new songs from the ABBA catalog being added the stage was set for a repeat of the fun frivolity the original almost outright encouraged.

Look, times are hard enough as it is so when movies like Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again are released there’s a certain amount of goodwill restraint I believe critics should utilize because while this is far from an equal, this prequel sequel has its heart and, often, voice in the right place.

So now we reach the point where we can’t go on without a few spoilers, but nothing that hasn’t already been hinted at by the trailers.

It’s been five years since about-to-be-wed Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, Love the Coopers) invited three men she thought might be her father to a taverna on a remote Greek island without telling her mother they are on their way. Comic and musical hijinks were the result and the film, like the stage musical it was based off of, ended with a spandex and platform heeled finale set to ABBA’s Waterloo. Now, Sophie is re-opening the hotel one year after her mother’s death while harboring a growing secret of her own. As the guests arrive, the film bounces back and forth between the present and 1979 to see how Donna (Lily James, Cinderella) came to the Greek fantasy island and made a life for herself.

It’s rough going for the first twenty minutes or so as the film dives headfirst into exposition and a few lesser known ABBA songs. A strange musical opening set at Oxford has valedictorian Donna doffing her cap and gown for a lycra bodysuit to bump and grind through the sunny but silly When I Kissed the Teacher along with her fellow Dynamos, Rosie (Alexa Davies) and Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn). It’s an off-kilter and gangly way to introduce us to Donna and the film stays safely in idle mode until she lands in Paris and meets young Harry (Hugh Skinner, Les Miserables) before heading off to Greece where she’ll sail away with young Bill (Josh Dylan), and fall in love with young Sam (Jeremy Irvine, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death).

While we’re getting this backstory, the events taking place in the present aren’t always as sunny. Sophie and Sky (Dominic Cooper, Dracula Untold) are halfway around the world from eachother and experience the stress of a long-distance romance (explained in a sketchily sung One of Us) and other dads Harry (Colin Firth, Magic in the Moonlight) and Stellan Skarsgård (Avengers: Age of Ultron) can’t make the re-opening due to business commitments. Tanya (Christine Baranski, Into the Woods) and Rosie (Julie Walters, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) do arrive and try to brighten Sophie’s spirits when a storm threatens to derail the proceedings.

It’s all set to a songlist from the ABBA canon, many repeated from the original film to lesser results. The old songs new to the sequel are clearly B-sides for a reason, though Baranski and Walters have fun with Angel Eyes. The biggest success is likely Dancing Queen, a highlight here just as it was in the first outing. It’s a huge production number set on land and sea, you’ll wish all boat rides had such excellent choreography.

The overall problem I had with the movie is that it feels like a project crafted around the availability of its returning cast. The movie was shot in London and plenty of it is done on green screen to recreate the Greek setting. Add to that a handful of cast members that feel like they filmed their scenes in several days (no surprise many did) and the film feels a bit clunky and unkempt. That being said, it takes about 90 minutes for the film to find any kind of rhythm or shape and that just happens to be the time that Cher (Mermaids) stops by.

It’s widely known Cher turned down the role of Tanya when produces approached her about it but we should all be glad she signed up to play Ruby, Sophie’s grandmother (try not to do the math when you consider Cher is only three years older than Meryl Streep), a Las Vegas entertainer not much for family gatherings. Not long after Cher shows up and sings a bang-up version of Fernando, none other than Streep herself appears in a scene/song you’ll need some tissues for. It shouldn’t have, but it honestly caught me off guard how moving her performance was and it serves as a wistful reminder of the below the surface heart the rest of the movie was missing.

Writer/director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) might not improve on the formula introduced in Mamma Mia! in terms of cleverly blending songs in with the action but his film marks a vast improvement visually. He lets the camera take in more of the large action and dancing scenes, instead of quick cuts around the dancing he makes good use of the widescreen vistas. Like the first film, expect Greek tourism to get a bump from the lovely displays here.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Synopsis: The film will go back and forth in time to show how relationships forged in the past resonate in the present.

Release Date:  July 20, 2018

Thoughts: It has been a decade since the boffo stage hit Mamma Mia! danced its way to the big screen and made millions but it was a bit of a puzzlement when this sequel was announced.  Where did the film have to go and how many more ABBA tunes could be culled from their catalog for the characters to sing?  This first look at Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (ugh, that title!) has arrived and, I warn you, it’s fairly alarming.  The sun drenched Greek setting is back as are most of the buoyant cast members…but someone is noticeably absent from most of the merriment.  Meryl Streep…or to be more specific, Streep’s character.  Sure, Streep (Hope Springs) is present in flashes but she’s not front and center like the original film and that’s inspired people to ask if the filmmakers killed her character off.  Not sure how I feel about that and even more unsure if it’s wise to make this a prequel when the back story was such a flimsy throwaway in the first place.  Director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) has brought on Lily James (Darkest Hour) to play Streep in her twenties and landed Cher (Mermaids) to play her mother (!!!).  No question I’ll be lining up to see this but if it’s going in the direction I think, I’m already blue since the day I first saw this trailer.

Movie Review ~ Darkest Hour

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The Facts:

Synopsis: During the early days of World War II, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who must decide whether to negotiate with Hitler, or fight on against incredible odds.

Stars: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn

Director: Joe Wright

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  2017 has sure been a kind year for Winston Churchill.  The late prime minister of the UK has popped up on the small screen courtesy of John Lithgow’s award-winning supporting turn in Netflix’s The Crown, he’s mentioned favorably in Dunkirk and Their Finest, and now comes Darkest Hour where the spotlight is firmly on him.  Though in death (as in life) he has as many critics as he does fans, this is a man that clearly deserves a place in the annals of history.  Thanks to an incredible leading performance, strong direction, and a solid script, Darkest Hour is an entertaining pop-up book that’s much more than just a lesson from the past.

As the shadow of another World War looms over Europe, the British parliament is in upheaval and calling for the resignation of it’s current prime minister Neville Chamberlain (a sneering Ronald Pickup, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel).  Hoping to suggest a replacement that will have enough of a rough go that his political party can sweep in to save the day, Chamberlain suggests to the King that Winston Churchill take his place.  Unliked since leading the failed Gallipoli Campaign during WWI, Churchill had been a strong voice against the Nazis back when no one was giving them or their leader much credence.

The King (Ben Mendelsohn, The Dark Knight Rises) is leery about appointing a man he doesn’t trust but acquiesces.  Over the next several weeks Churchill steps into the role during a firestorm of opposition from every angle, eventually steering the government to reject any notions of proposed surrender to German forces.  In doing so, he gained the trust of the people as they banded together and rallied behind their sovereign nation at her most vulnerable time.

All this plot is easily accessible in your tattered history book from sixth grade but while the details haven’t changed, it’s in the telling that creates powerful filmmaking.  Director Joe Wright (Anna Karenina) has, as usual, crafted an intricate period film that’s striking in its detail and rousing in all the right places.  Working with Anthony McCarten’s (The Theory of Everything) sharp script, Wright keeps the film refreshingly nimble, making even stuffy parliament scenes crackle with energy.  Keeping his camera moving (with assistance from Inside Llewyn Davis cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel), he stages wonderful scenes of overlapping dialogue that are not only informative but interesting to watch.

While most men in Churchill’s life gave him trouble (including a scheming Viscount Halifax played by Stephen Dillane, Zero Dark Thirty), according to Darkest Hour it’s two women that kept him in line during this difficult period.  His personal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James, Cinderella) starts off on the wrong foot with her demanding, persnickety boss but eventually develops into a confidant/cheerleader that he counted on.  Same goes for his steadfast wife, Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) who isn’t afraid to point out to her husband when he’s out of line.  Scott Thomas and James are both excellent in their roles and have ample time to shine, though I often longed for more scenes with Churchill and his wife and less with Layton as the marital relationship felt that it had more of an edge.

All Wright has assembled would make for a strong film about Churchill but if he didn’t have someone to play the man himself it would have all been for naught.  Lucky for him (and us) that he hired Gary Oldman because that’s what sends Darkest Hour skyrocketing.  Oldman (RoboCop) gives the performance of his career (and what a career to begin with!) as Churchill, managing to work under superb prosthetics that transformed him into the historical figure but not letting the make-up do all the heavy lifting.  His acting radiates from within, never coming off as showboating or faux but as a real-life rendering of a man challenged to lead in a time of imminent darkness.  It’s just spectacular work and if he doesn’t win an Oscar for his efforts, well then, I just don’t know what to make of this crazy world anymore.

Special mention must be made to Kazuhiro Tsuji (Looper, The Place Beyond the Pines) for his stunning make-up work for Oldman.  It’s mighty difficult to age and fatten up the actor as he did but the seamless work should net Tsuji his first Oscar after two previous nominations.  Same goes for Jacqueline Durran’s (Beauty and the Beast) luxe costumes that manages to make even Churchill’s suits look chic.

I went into Darkest Hour not being totally in the mood for a history lesson and was surprised at how captivated I was for two hours.  Even for a story where we already know how things turn out, I was often on the edge of my seat and truly entranced by Wright’s vision and Oldman’s performance.  It’s not just a film made up of speechifying and hot air, it’s a thrilling examination of the forward momentum of a country that was cheered onward by a determined man.

Movie Review ~ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Jane Austen’s classic tale of the tangled relationships between lovers from different social classes in 19th century England is faced with a new challenge — an army of undead zombies.

Stars: Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance, Lena Headey

Director: Burr Steers

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Let’s just get something out of the way right from the start, shall we?  If you’re willing to pony up the cash to see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies you simply must be prepared to check your brain at the door.  Not just because the walking dead that populate the film would love to snack on it, but because the premise is so absurd that to take any of it at all seriously would be your fault, not the movies.

Based on Seth Graeme-Smith’s wildly bold in concept (but stilted by its one joke premise in execution) 2009 book, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies marries Jane Austen’s much loved 1813 novel with Walking Dead-style zombies preying upon the upper crust ladies that just want to find a husband and the men that fight off the advances of both.  Adapted and directed by Burr Steers after being bandied about Hollywood for half a decade, the long-awaited (I just said that but I don’t really believe it) page to screen journey of the zombie fighting Bennet sisters is complete and sad to say it’s a maudlin, bloodless romp that’s neither comedy nor horror.  Like the living dead, it’s trapped in a sort of genre purgatory of which it can’t ever escape.

After a brief prologue of zombie hunting and a credit sequence of the history of their rise from the grave that’s beautiful if overstimulating, Austen’s story kicks in with Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James, Cinderella), Jane Bennet (Bella Heathcote, Dark Shadows) and their sisters being pushed by their meddling mother (X) to get married off right quick.  While Jane falls for the handsome Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth, Noah), Elizabeth is pursued by the goofy Parson Collins (Matt Smith, Terminator Genisys) while fighting with the brooding Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley, Maleficent) and a parade of zombies that infest the countryside.

Fans of Austen will either get a kick out of the memorable text being interlaced with references to decapitations and brain gnoshing or be horrified that their favorite heroines now train in their basement to eviscerate the undead and store daggers in their garters.  Like I said before, you just have to prepare yourself to go along with it or find another movie to see that won’t be nearly as frustrating.

Still, even if you do see it you’re bound to be frustrated by the fact that the film never really goes all the way with its concept.  Bound by a financially friendly PG-13 rating, the bloody business is rendered with little red stuff to be seen.  Though heads roll and slashings slay, nary a drop of viscera sully the perfectly coiffed hair and period costumes of our players.  Had the filmmakers been ballsy enough to go for the R, I think there would have been more opportunities to have fun with the blood and guts that are sorely missed here.

Performance wise, you’re not going to find anyone here that will place higher than previous adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.  James fares the best as the headstrong Elizabeth, the only one that feels like she could ably handle the role as Austen intended or carry a picture where she’s a badass zombie slayer.  Smith is next in line, with his Parson Collins also being note-perfect in his delivery and timing of the comedic elements that don’t feel like they are stretching for laughs.  Riley is just not Mr. Darcy. At. All.  With his gravelly voice and brutish emo looks, he just isn’t even in the ballpark…and forget about any chemistry with Elizabeth.  Recasting Lady Catherine de Bourgh as a young eye-patch wearing gladiator zombie slayer may have seemed like a good idea, but Lena Headey (The Purge) and her campy performance leave much to be desired.

Though it fares better than Seth Graeme-Smith’s last novel adapted for the screen, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies suffers from being too coquettish with it audiences that desire more blood and romance.  Possibly worth a rent down the line, but easily skippable in theaters.

The Silver Bullet ~ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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Synopsis: Jane Austen’s classic tale of the tangled relationships between lovers from different social classes in 19th century England is faced with a new challenge — an army of undead zombies.

Release Date: February 5, 2016

Thoughts: Inspired by Jane Austen’s literary classic and Seth Grahame-Smith’s cheeky genre-bending spoof, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies aims to take full advantage of audiences love of period drama and the flesh hungry undead. This nifty first teaser opens like any number of Austen adaptations before seguing into more bodice/throat ripping action. I can’t tell how well the drama/comedy/horror will balance out but it’s sure to be funnier than 2013’s dismally dreary Austenland and scarier than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (also, by happenstance, adapted from Grahame-Smith’s novel). With a pleasant stable of young stars onboard like Lily James (Cindrella), Bella Heathcote (Dark Shadows), Jack Huston (The Longest Ride), Matt Smith (Terminator Genisys), and Sam Riley (Maleficent) this one could be great fun…or a one-joke bit of tedium. I’m hoping for fun.

Movie Review ~ Cinderella (2015)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When her father unexpectedly passes away, young Ella finds herself at the mercy of her cruel stepmother and her daughters. Never one to give up hope, Ella’s fortunes begin to change after meeting a dashing stranger in the woods.

Stars: Lily James, Helena Bonham Carter, Cate Blanchett, Stellan Skarsgård, Derek Jacobi, Nonso Anozie, Holliday Grainger, Richard Madden, Sophie McShera

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I remember being none too plussed when it was announced that Walt Disney Pictures would be giving their timeless classic Cinderella the live-action treatment. Could you really blame a fella for worrying that the studio that turned their lovely Alice in Wonderland into a madcap mind meld that wasn’t even interesting to look at (it’s one of the few films in recent memory that lulled me to sleep behind my 3D glasses) would muck it all up again by sending another valued animated classic into the live-action void just in time for its 65th anniversary?

Turns out that the studio saw the error of their ways (even though an Alice sequel is in the works…shudder shudder) and took a very traditional approach to bringing the tale of the orphaned girl that slept in the cinders who gets to go to a ball courtesy of a fairy godmother to the screen. Well, traditional isn’t really the right word because that suggests something perhaps more serviceable than memorable…and this Cinderella might just be a classic all its own.

With a script from Chris Weitz (A Better Life) that hits all the proper beats of Charles Perrault’s pristine fairy tale, this Cinderella is a gossamer gown of a film that beats with a heart that’s true. It’s so rare these days to be able to describe a film as celebrating goodness without passing out an airsick bag to anyone that’s listening but even at its most saccharine (and it does get ever so close to diabetic-shock inducing sweetness) there’s something so totally winning and, yes, enchanting to be found in every frame.

The look and feel that director Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) brings to the screen can be attributed to Branagh’s classy Shakespearean roots, as well as Haris Zambarloukos’s (Thor) unobtrusive cinematography, Dante Ferretti’s (Hugo) striking production design, and Sandy Powell’s (The Wolf of Wall Street) gorgeous costumes. All of these production elements work in harmony to create a world of fantasy that doesn’t seem so hard to believe in.

Branagh has assembled a cast that are across the board perfect for their roles. Though she’s playing a damsel in need of a Prince’s salvation (which could be enough to make any grrrl power supporter raise an eyebrow or two), Lily James never lets her Cinderella be pitied. Though suffering through the tragic loss of her beloved parents and forced into servitude to a wicked trio of women, she never loses the goodness inside her or the search for the goodness she believes is in everyone else. She’s matched well by Richard Madden’s restless Prince, handsome and quite dashing is the name of Madden’s game. James and Madden create some palpably chaste chemistry, so by the time the two meet when James makes the kind of entrance usually reserved for a Broadway stage, we long to see them kiss more than anything else.

Oscar winner Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) has a devil of a fun time as the wicked stepmother and is wise enough to understand that she’s in a sophisticated re-thinking of Cinderella, resisting the urge to camp it up. Hers is a porcelain doll of a performance, never showing the cracks underneath until very near the end when some believable rationale for her treatment of her stepdaughter is revealed. Blanchett gets to wear Powell’s most gorgeous frocks and the actress revels in every moment onscreen.

Wicked stepsisters Holliday Grainger (Anna Karenina) and Sophie McShera may not be as comical as their animated counterparts, but they balance it nicely by being such refreshingly clueless dingbats. Derek Jacobi has several wise scenes as the King and Nonso Anozie (The Grey) is particularly impressive as the Prince’s trusted right-hand man. I could have done without a largely unnecessary political subplot involving Stellan Skarsgård, it’s the one weak spot in an otherwise rock-solid film.

Oh yes…let’s talk about Helena Bonham-Carter’s (The Lone Ranger) daffy Fairy Godmother. Sporting some interesting veneers, the actress is a looney treat as she bibbity bobbity boo’s her way through her short appearance onscreen. Her transformation of Cinderella, several four-legged friends, and one pumpkin into a troupe fit for a palace ball is, of course, a highlight.

This is one of those movie-going experiences I call a 1-101. It’s perfect for any age and moves briskly enough to hold your attention…not that you’d be bored with the sumptuous costumes and shimmering magic on display. I rarely see movies twice in the theater but this is one I’m looking forward to experiencing on the big screen again. Don’t forget to stay until the end for some familiar tunes!

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Cinderella is great entertainment on its own…but the good feelings start even before the credits roll because Disney is also releasing a new Frozen short before the film and it’s nearly worth the price of admission itself.

Picking up shortly after the events of Frozen, Frozen Fever finds ice princess Elsa planning the perfect birthday party for her sister Anna. Things don’t go quite as planned as Elsa comes down with a…wait for it…cold. With sneezes that produce mini snowmen (Disney’s attempt to Minion-ize their cash cow of a franchise), Elsa sings her way through her party plans while Olaf and Kristoff help out in their own way. The song featured here is no Let It Go (parents, you’ll be glad!) but it displays the same playful fun that won the same songwriters an Oscar a year ago.

It’s a truly delightful 7 minutes, so don’t be late!