Movie Review ~ Let Them All Talk

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A famous author goes on a cruise trip with her friends and nephew in an effort to find fun and happiness while she comes to terms with her troubled past.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Gemma Chan, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, Lucas Hedges, Daniel Algrant, John Douglas Thompson

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: If there’s one thing to be said about veteran filmmakers, it’s that they can get a movie put together quickly.  I kind of marvel at the endless gestation periods franchise pictures need to make their way to their release date (it’s not all about how long the special effects takes, trust me) or how particular directors struggle with the fine-tuning part of their oversight that keeps a project from getting in front of the viewer.  Then you have your Spielbergs, Eastwoods, and Soderberghs who can churn out movies, and often good ones, with such ease it feels like they just woke up and decided to make a movie that day.  There’s more to the planning of it of course but when you have as much experience as they do this process starts to come naturally.  At the tail end of 2020, a number of people were taken a bit off guard when Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk was announced as complete and ready for release…how did this Meryl Streep led serio-comic film on the high seas get this close to us with no one taking notice?

Many a film fan got weepy when Oscar-winning director Soderbergh put out a very public statement that he was retiring.  The vanguard director that led the ‘80s independent film wave in Hollywood had accumulated an impressive list of box office successes and critical hits during his time in the business, earning respect from colleagues and admiration from celebrities who knew him to be an actors director.  Showing a knack for casting down to even the most minor role, for a while Soderbergh couldn’t lose…until he began to take a “one for them, one for me” approach and his ratio of winners to losers started to shrink.  Too many bombs and experimental failures followed before a last gasp strange run of oddball efforts between 2008 and 2013 (including Magic Mike and Side Effects) that led to his retreat into television and his supposed retirement.

He didn’t stay put for long.  Making a somewhat stealth return with 2017’s pleasing Logan Lucky (written by his wife, who felt the strange need to use a pseudonym), Soderbergh has been trying something a bit new with each project.  His high concept TV effort Mosaic for HBO started as an interactive app that aided audiences in solving a murder mystery, 2018’s Unsane was filmed completely with an iPhone, and 2019’s The Laundromat did the unthinkable – it found an accent and make-up that Meryl Streep couldn’t convincingly pull off.  For a man several years into retirement, he’s certainly keeping busy with his previous job.

Streep and Soderbergh are teaming up again with Let Them All Talk for HBO Max and it brings a screenplay by humorist and noted short story author Deborah Eisenberg to life and for better or worse, it’s a big improvement over the last time the star and director worked together.  For one, it’s not based on real life events, something that tended to stymie The Laundromat and bound the filmmakers to certain limitations.  It also spreads the wealth nicely among co-stars, with Streep often graciously exiting stage left in favor of her other highly respected co-stars to have their moment in the spotlight.  Soderbergh is no dummy, though, and he trots his star out for the less strong members of the cast or when the mostly improvised dialogue starts to stall out.

Everyone is waiting for the next novel from Pulitzer-winner Alice Hughes (Streep, Hope Springs) who has been struggling with completing her latest manuscript, rumored to be a sequel to her most famous book.  Recently moved to new agent Karen (Gemma Chan, Crazy Rich Asians) that she’s not totally comfortable with, Alice prefers to work at her own pace and doesn’t like to be rushed in her process.  Karen’s under pressure from their publisher, though, and isn’t as much of a friendly shoulder pushover like her predecessor.  With Alice set to receive an esteemed award in London that’s rarely given out, Karen seizes the opportunity to get Alice focused on the work and raise her profile a bit in the process.  There’s one problem, though, NY based Alice doesn’t like to fly.  But this is New York, darling…so through Karen’s connections it’s off to London on the Queen Mary II with Alice and her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges, Boy Erased) acting as her assistant of sorts.

Also invited along are two of Alice’s oldest friends she hasn’t seen in quite some time.  Though Alice doesn’t know it, Roberta (Candice Bergen, Book Club) is more frenemy than anything, holding a long grudge against her friend through an unproven theory that she took secret information told in confidence and used it as the basis for her bestselling novel.  She’s spent the ensuing decades blaming her for the shambles her life has become as a result. The peace-keeper of the bunch is free-spirited Susan (Dianne Wiest, The Odd Life of Timothy Green) who has come on the trip for all the right reasons in wanting to reconnect with her old friends and help the other two mend a fence long broken.  When Karen hops on board and starts to work in secret with Tyler to get more information on his aunt, it creates another side relationship the movie has to juggle throughout it’s two hour run time.

Acting once again as his cinematographer (credited as Peter Andrews) and editor (under the name Mary Ann Bernard), there’s not a lot Soderbergh isn’t involved with here and you can feel it.  Much of the movie was improvised and that’s why for every dymanic scene there are two are three insignificant ones of mundane goings on that Soderbergh feels drawn to.  From the obvious improvisation in many scenes (most evident with Chan and Hedges who tend to commit the kiss of boring death in making their improvised dialogue far too specific, serious, and detailed) to the hand-held filming, it has all the calling cards the director is known for.  What it also has is a sort of deep sadness to it as well and while that provides good space for seasoned actors like the three leads to play in, it winds up making you feel bad for everyone.  Sad that friends can’t be honest, sad that family can’t be more vulnerable, sad that too much goes unsaid until too late.

As is often the case with Soderbergh, he runs the film on its rims several miles longer than necessary.  It was pretty disappointing to come out of the movie dovetailing from a quite touching ending to a pointlessly overlong coda that was of no benefit.  By that point, we’d already filled our cup with the impressive showings of Bergen, Wiest, and Streep.  Anytime Streep is onscreen you can’t help but be drawn to her magnetic aura but Soderbergh has found a way to harness that by sandwiching her between two other actresses of her generation that also possess the same sort of power to command a screen.  They have presence and in different ways.  Bergen is playing right into the type we want her to be and that’s good, though I wish the script had provided her one more establishing scene with Streep earlier in the film, it would make a later bedroom scene work that much better.  How wonderful to see Wiest knock it out of the park here playing a kind of extension of her worldly but not perfect character from Parenthood.  Her wry revelations to Bergen over their daily parlor games by the ocean are a riot and a lovely speech summing up the journey up is the film’s true high point.

If Soderbergh is going to continue to skate that line of retirement, I hope he stays with this kind of dour material because he seems to have found a nice, if imperfect fit with his own interests.  This is bound to draw comparisons to the films of Woody Allen and I can’t imagine this didn’t cross the minds of everyone involved at one time or another.  It’s got the same arch rhythm, conversations about nothing that are about everything, and that wistful longing for the joy of travel but not the pain of separation. Let Them All Talk is not going to rank high on the Best-Of list for any of the cast or crew when all is said and done but it’s one of the more interesting experiments mad scientist Soderbergh has concocted.  And who wouldn’t want to sail across the Ocean with at least one of these three stellar stars?

Movie Review ~ Little Women (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Following the lives of four sisters, Amy, Jo, Beth and Meg, as they come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War. Though all very different from each other, the March sisters stand by each other through difficult and changing times

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton

Director: Greta Gerwig

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It’s been 151 years since Louisa May Alcott wrote her classic novel Little Women and it seems over that time there have been as many adaptations of it on stage and screens big and small.  There’s just something timeless about Alcott’s tale of sisters moving through stages of their lives that has spoken to countless generations.  Whether you come from a big household or were an only child (like me), there’s something relatable and warmly familiar about the March family, allowing readers to latch on to a particular character and know them well enough to say “I’m a Jo” or “She’s more of a Meg”.  No matter how many times we’re exposed to the material, we still laugh at their comedic moments and cry when the reality of life steps in.

Having read the book on more than one occasion and keeping a certain fondness for anything it inspired (stage play, musical, miniseries, film), I could easily call myself a fan and am always willing to give any new interpretation the benefit of the doubt.  Heck, over the holiday break I even watched the made-for-television movie The March Sisters at Christmas, a modernized version of the story that took some giant liberties with the source material.  (For the record, it wasn’t half bad.)  What makes it difficult for me is that I think the much-loved 1994 version is the epitome of success in translation to the screen.  Though it had been seen in theaters before in 1933 and again in 1949, something about the ‘90s version just hit all the right notes for me, making it indelible and hard to measure up to.  Even so, when I heard Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) was taking on the duties of writer/director for a 2019 take on Little Women, I was interested to see what she would do with it and where it would land on the scale of successful retellings.

For those not familiar with the source material, the bones of Alcott’s story remain the same.  The Civil War is going strong and Father (Bob Odenkirk, Long Shot) is on the front lines, leaving his wife Marmee (Laura Dern, Marriage Story) and their four daughters to keep the household going for the duration.  Eldest daughter Meg (Emma Watson, The Bling Ring) strives to lead by example, eagerly anticipating a domestic life with a husband and children.  That’s quite the opposite of headstrong Jo (Saoirse Ronan, The Host) the de facto leader of the siblings who makes great plans to roam beyond the confines of their Concord, Mass homestead.  Shy Beth (Eliza Scanlen, Sharp Objects) is the calming presence, taking solace in her piano playing while the youngest Amy (Florence Pugh, Midsommar) longs for a romanticized life rubbing shoulders with the elite.

Drifting into the March orbit at various times are a sour Aunt (Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins) anxious to see her family lineage continue on well-funded and neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet, Beautiful Boy) whose curiosity and friendship with the sisters quickly turns into something deeper and more heartbreaking.  Also playing a part in the episodic developments as the years go by are Laurie’s grandfather (Chris Cooper, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), tutor John Brooke (James Norton, Mr. Turner), and Mr. Bhaer (Louis Garrel, The Dreamers), a professor staying in the same boarding house as Jo when she moves to New York City.  As the girls turn to women, they experience love and loss while striving to find their place not just in the outside world but in the small haven they’ve created within the walls of their childhood home.

Thankfully, there are a lot of things to recommend in this adaptation and I largely enjoyed it, even if there are some interesting choices made that don’t always feel effective.  It should please fans of the novel, although I’m not sure how easy it would be for newcomers to the story to get into the hearts and minds of our favorite characters. Though set in the appropriate period, Gerwig’s modern voice is front and center and while it doesn’t change the overall impact of Alcott’s novel the emotional beats are delivered in a different way than ever before.

Following up her semi-autobiographical breakout hit Lady Bird, Gerwig has made the intriguing choice to take a non-linear approach to Little Women.  Instead of a straight narrative that follows along the years with the family, events are chopped up and rearranged to function as memories or recollections.  What this accomplishes is giving the characters the opportunity to look back from the other side of conflict which eventually starts to wreak havoc on the way audiences are involved and invited into the story.  I found the first hour a bit of a struggle to stick with and, though well performed by Gerwig’s cast, difficult to keep up with because it bounces around so much.  The second hour is more of a challenge to talk about without giving away a crucial bit of plot but suffice it to say turns that in the past had me reaching for the Kleenex barely registered a sniffle in this telling.  That’s unfortunate because there’s such rich opportunity to explore the complexities of the heart but how can you take any time for emotion when the next scene may take place years prior, undoing whatever loss we’ve just seen?

The casting announcements for this were exciting at the time because Gerwig has assembled a dynamite team of actors that aren’t necessarily known for being overly earnest with their material.  What’s needed is honesty, not an overselling of what is essentially a near perfect piece of American literature.  In that respect, the cast is successful; however there are a few elements that I just couldn’t quite get over.  For one thing, it’s never clear the ages of the sisters.  Pugh looks the oldest of all and she’s playing the youngest while Watson feels like she’d be a more adept Beth than a Meg.  Ronan is a wonderful Jo, skillfully presenting her stubbornness without being obnoxious, eventually exposing the raw vulnerability beneath a lifetime of building up a hard-ish surface.  Amy is often seen as the flightiest of the March sisters but Gerwig and Pugh have confidently grounded her, showing the character is more worldly-wise than she’s ever been previously given credit for.  I quite like Scanlen’s take on Beth, even though she (like her character) gets overshadowed by the other women she shares the screen with.

Not surprisingly, Streep is a wry gas as a fussy relative who is “not always right.  But never wrong” and Cooper’s sensitive take on the kindly neighbor is fairly lovely.  The two main suitors Gerwig has cast are likely the most problematic for me.  As Jo’s elder boarding house friend, Garrel doesn’t create much in the way of sparks with Ronan.  It’s a distinctly flat performance and you wonder why Jo would ever have her head turned even a fraction the way Garrel handles the material.  I know Gerwig thinks Chalamet can do no wrong but he’s not well-suited for the role of the pining boy next door.  Certain finalities of his character don’t ring true, which is perhaps what Gerwig was going for, but it weakens Laurie’s relationship with two key March sisters.  Chalamet has the acting chops to give it a go but isn’t the right choice for the role.

In the car on the ride home, I became one of those purist people that wanted this new Little Women to be the way I imagined it to be.  I rattled off a list of things that didn’t sit right to my partner, citing the 1994 version as my ideal way to tell the story.  That’s not fair to Gerwig or her team, nor is it doing right to the movie as a whole.  Just as each generation has discovered Alcott’s everlasting story, so too should a new audience be exposed to the Little Women through their own version on screen.  I hold the 1994 effort in high regard and, clearly, this one trails that in my book, yet it shouldn’t ultimately define how it stacks up historically.  The tagline for the movie is “Own your own story.” and it can serve as a reminder that the version we have in our head will always supersede anything we can see from another perspective.

The Silver Bullet ~ Little Women (2019)



Synopsis
: Four sisters come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Release Date: December 25, 2019

Thoughts: It’s a curious thing, watching this first trailer for the much-anticipated holiday release of Little Women.  I mean, it’s not exactly like we’ve been starved for adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel.  There was a modern remake last year, a well-regarded BBC mini-series in 2017, and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder still ranks high on my list.  Let’s not forget the Katherine Hepburn entry from 1933 or the one in 1949 with Elizabeth Taylor among the dozens of other takes on the source novel.  All this to say I was surprised director Greta Gerwig chose this project as her follow-up to her breakout hit Lady Bird.  To me, the way the preview is cut feels too indie twee for me, but Gerwig has assembled a heck of a wonderful cast with Saoirse Ronan (How I Live Now), Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), Florence Pugh (Midsommar), Laura Dern (Smooth Talk), and Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) getting into the period costumes to once again bring Alcott’s characters to the screen.

Movie Review ~ Mary Poppins Returns


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Decades after her original visit, the magical nanny returns to help the Banks siblings and Michael’s children through a difficult time in their lives.

Stars: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, Joel Dawson

Director: Rob Marshall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: The journey to make Mary Poppins in 1964 was so fraught with tension and hard feelings that it’s no wonder it took 54 years for a sequel to make its way into theaters. If you don’t believe me, check out the entertaining Saving Mr. Banks for a little history lesson…however revisionist it may seem to be.  What child didn’t grow up seeing the titular magical nanny educate the Banks children and bring order to their family while teaching the biggest lesson of all to their workaholic father? I vividly remember seeing it not only in my house but at school on special occasions when they’d get out an old reel-to-reel projector and gigantic screen.

Over the years the popularity of P.L. Travers creation never really went away, even inspiring a long-running West End and Broadway musical that’s now making the rounds in a community theater near you. You can’t keep the old girl down and in 2018 she’s returned in an all new sequel that’s a surprisingly spry near-equal to its half-century old predecessor. The Walt Disney Company took a huge gamble in dusting off this treasured property and turning it over to director Rob Marshall and it has paid off handsomely; Mary Poppins Returns is a true movie event, a hard-working winning combination of fantasy, music, and heart-tugging emotion.

It’s been thirty years since Jane and Michael Banks spent a wondrous few weeks with Mary Poppins but life at #17 Cherry Tree Lane has moved on. Having recently lost his wife, Michael (Ben Whishaw, Skyfall) now lives in his family home with his three children and gets the occasional visit from Jane (Emily Mortimer, Hugo) who has followed in her mother’s footsteps and continued the fight for equality for all. When the bank threatens to foreclose on his house and gives them less than a week to come up with the money all hopes seems lost…until a familiar figure appears from the sky.

Making her grand entrance clutching a kite, Mary Poppins (the divine Emily Blunt, A Quiet Place) has lost none of her dry wit and charming aloofness. She soon sets up shop with the new generation of Banks children while keeping her eye on Jane and Michael as they scramble to find a lost set of bank bonds that could get them out of debt. While their father worries about their future, Mary Poppins helps his children adjust to the present through adventures in undersea realms, at the upside-down dwelling of Mary’s cousin Topsy (a wack-a-doodle Meryl Streep, Hope Springs), and in the painting on a porcelain pot.

Having directed the film versions of Chicago, Nine, and Into the Woods, Marshall knows his way around a movie musical but this is far and away his most accomplished and polished work to date. With the old-school appeal of a Hollywood song and dance spectacular, Mary Poppins Returns is the kind of throwback everything-including-the-kitchen-sink experience they just don’t bother to make anymore. Disney and Marshall had the good sense to give audiences exactly what they want in a sequel to a cherished classic…and then some. While not a remake of Mary Poppins per se, it does seem to hit the same beats as that earlier film even down to a splendid animated sequence and a visit to one of her zany relatives.

Even if Marc Shaiman’s songs don’t stay in the brain quite as well as the tunes created by the Sherman Brothers, they feel like they exist within the same universe and are performed with exuberance by Blunt and company. There’s no ‘Feed the Birds’ level accomplishment here but ‘The Place Where Lost Things Go’ stirs the right amount of feelings and ‘A Cover Is Not The Book’ is a clever bit of wordplay that the Sherman Brothers would get a kick out of. Streep’s oddball ‘Turning Turtle’ is something only she could pull off and Whishaw’s plaintive ‘A Conversation’ gives the actor a nice jumping off point early on in the film. Marshall and his co-choreographer John DeLuca also nicely avoid the trappings of filming huge musical numbers for the screen by letting the audience see the entire company dancing rather than always cutting into close-ups. ‘Trip a Little Light Fantastic’ arrives late in the game but is a true show-stopper.

If the film makes one miscalculation, it’s in the misappropriation of time given to Lin-Manuel Miranda (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) as Jack, a lamplighter friend of Mary’s that’s a stand-in for Bert the chimney sweep from the first film. Whereas Dick Van Dyke’s Bert was someone that occasionally popped up in the action, it feels like Jack is shoehorned into the plot at every turn and it begins to take away from the time we want to spend with Mary and the Banks family. At times, Jack becomes the driving force of play and that made the movie feel like it was veering too far in the wrong direction.

Still, it’s hard to argue that Blunt commands the movie in no uncertain terms whenever she’s even close to the screen. I personally think Blunt is the perfect choice for any part she turns up in but here there’s a real chemistry between actress and role that is rarely seen. No one is going to erase the performance of Julie Andrews from our memory and Blunt doesn’t even try to recreate that particular take on the role. Smartly choosing to give Mary an updated look that sets her apart from her 1964 appearance, Blunt’s Mary is just as staunch as Andrews but doesn’t soften quite as easily. She’s also riotously funny with her droll line readings and incredulity at the state of affairs she encounters upon her return. Andrews won an Oscar for her work and I expect Blunt will get a nomination as well.

Filling out the cast is Colin Firth (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) playing a rare villain role as a bank manager eager to claim the Banks house, Julie Walters (Paddington) as put-upon maid Ellen, David Warner (Waxwork) as Admiral Boom, and Angela Lansbury (Beauty and the Beast) as a wise Balloon Lady with a magical touch of her own. Then there’s Van Dyke (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day) dancing up a storm and keep your eyes out for the original Jane Banks, Karen Dotrice, making a cameo outside of Cherry Tree Lane.

Bound to rake in some serious money this holiday season, Mary Poppins Returns is that rare sequel that feels like it wasn’t done for the money but for the greater good. I know it’s all about the bottom line but this is one film that feels like it could heal what ails you…even if just for two and a half hours.

Movie Review ~ Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

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The Facts
:

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.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Post

 

Synopsis: A cover-up that spanned four U.S. Presidents pushed the country’s first female newspaper publisher and a hard-driving editor to join an unprecedented battle between journalist and government. Inspired by true events.

Release Date: December 22, 2017 (limited) January 12, 2018 (wide)

Thoughts: At the Oscars last year, buzz began to build around a rumored collaboration between Hollywood’s most favorite people. Director Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), & Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks) would team up to tell the story of the Pentagon Papers.  Over the next weeks and months, we would get a tidbit here and there but The Post has flown quietly under the radar.  Until now.  I’m sure a number of Oscar hopefuls woke up this morning to see the new trailer for The Post and felt their hearts sink a little bit because it looks like this obvious Oscar bait is going to snag quite a lot of attention.  With an honest-to-goodness all-star cast of A-Listers and well-respected character actors in supporting roles, this looks like a slam-dunk.  If Spielberg can keep this one trucking along (please let it come in under 2.25 hours!) there’s a chance The Post will be headline news during Award Season.

Movie Review ~ Florence Foster Jenkins

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda

Director: Stephen Frears

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: There’s a play based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins I saw several years back called Souvenir.  A two-person drama set in a supper club where Jenkins performed with her pianist Cosmé McMoon, you knew in advance that she was regarded as a terrible singer and that’s what attracted me to it.  The lights go down and I spent the next twenty minutes waiting for the actress playing Jenkins to open her mouth and warble out an opera aria.  She did. I laughed.  Then I spent the next two hours waiting for it to be over, the frivolity having running its course by the time the third song began.

That’s what seeing the new film Florence Foster Jenkins feels like…waiting for the joke and then checking your watch to see when it will end.  Buoyed by strong performances but misguided by some plot distractions that laboriously pad the running length instead of graciously filling it, it’s not a bad film in the slightest, just a one-joke movie that has its moment in the sun before entering some rainy weather territory which seriously drags down the latter half of the picture.

Jenkins (Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady) was a spirited eccentric that actually believed she could sing and was surrounded by friends (some say hangers-on) that wouldn’t be honest with her.  Her common-law husband (nicely played by Hugh Grant, Cloud Atlas) pays reporters for good write-ups and has a girlfriend on the side (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) while her new pianist (Simon Helberg) is aghast that someone so bad could be lauded so much.

Focused on the last year or so that Jenkins was alive, director Stephen Frears (Philomena) and writer Nicholas Martin have crafted a splendid looking period piece set in New York (but filmed in London) that hits most of the right notes even as their leading character runs afoul of her own musical keys.  Still, there’s a paint-by-the-numbers feeling to it which keeps it awkwardly grounded and merely content with going through the emotional moments.

Yet from the rapturous reception the film received at my screening, it’s clear this is an audience-pleasing picture.  I almost feel like I need to see it again since so many lines were lost to audiences roaring over a previous phrase (which I feel is actually a problem with overall editing…didn’t anyone involved screen this with a crowd first?).  Released at the tail end of summer when more discerning crowds have come in from the summer sun, it’s likely to be a well-timed alternative to the CGI heavy box office fodder that’s hogged many screens at your multiplex.

Streep is, as always, beyond reproach and you can pretty much count on her making another trip to the Kodak theater with another Oscar (and SAG and Golden Globe) nomination under belt.  There’s already a ton of press showing Streep singing well (like in Into the Woods) and praising her bravura bad singing here and it’s nice to find out she did the majority of the singing live.  It can’t have been easy for a trained singer to learn to sing so poorly…but Streep doesn’t merely sing off-key, she’s studied Jenkins and found out WHY she doesn’t sing well and used that to get the sound right.  Her Queen of the Night aria is alone worth the price of admission.

Supporting Streep is a dandy Grant who I hope will also get some Oscar recognition for his work.  A difficult role seeing that he’s a bit of a cad, Grant digs deep and shows that above all else the man he’s portraying truly loved Jenkins even though they couldn’t have the kind of life together that either planned.  Under some old age make-up, Grant remains charming in that aloof sort of way but over the years he’s grown as an actor to temper that aloofness with authenticity.

Aside from Streep and Grant, the other supporting players are a mixed bag.  Helberg’s performance is all overbite…literally.  Though Martin takes some time to flesh out Jenkins long-time pianist, Helberg plays him so slight and twee that I half expected him to fly away at any given moment.  He’s got good chemistry with Streep, though, and that’s all that really matters.  I’ve liked Ferguson and Nina Arianda in other movies but not much here…both play grating women in roles that easily could have been excised, especially Ferguson as Grant’s long-time mistress.

What makes Florence Foster Jenkins something I’d cautiously recommend is the stately way Frears, Martin, and Streep have presented this delusional socialite who performed her final concert to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall.  Knowing the difference between a characterization that’s eccentric instead of goofy, Streep gives her the requisite dignity without letting her totally off the hook.  Like the overall film and the peculiar woman at its center, it’s an admirable close but no cigar.

The Silver Bullet ~ Florence Foster Jenkins (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: The story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice.

Release Date:  May 6, 2016

Thoughts: I’m not prone to posting more than one column dedicated to my thoughts on a preview for a film but I’m making an exception in the case of Florence Foster Jenkins.  This full trailer arrives on the heels of a nice little teaser and gives audiences more to anticipate in this true-life story of a socialite singer who drew thunderous crowds…even though she couldn’t carry a tune with both hands.  I already know that I’m going to like Meryl Streep (Into the Woods) as the deluded dame but I think the real interest here will be around Hugh Grant (Cloud Atlas) who seems to be coming into his second act as an older leading man.  Gone is the foppy haired charming stutterer and in its place is an actor that’s been taking on note-perfect roles as of late.  Directed by Stephen Frears (Philomena), this looks like a pleasant treat.

The Silver Bullet ~ Florence Foster Jenkins

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Synopsis: The story of New York heiress Florence Foster Jenkins who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice.

Release Date:  May 6, 2016

Thoughts: We all know Meryl Streep can sing after turns in Mamma Mia, Into the Woods, and even Death Becomes Her…but how good can she sing badly?  This looks like a swell comedic turn for the Oscar winner, ditching her more serious fare for the kind of fun diversion she likes to take up between period dramas and new accents.  I know a little about the lady she’s portraying and if the film is half as clever as the Florence Foster Jenkins stage play Souvenir (this film is not based on that) we’ll be in for a good show that’s not as off-key as its subject.  Always nice to see Hugh Grant (Cloud Atlas) part of the mix, too.