Archive for July, 2018

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Ol Parker.  Starring Amanda Seyfried, Lily James, Dominic Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Andy Garcia, Meryl Streep, and Cher.

 

I admit, I groaned when I first saw the trailers for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, positive that this was a colossally terrible idea. I didn’t think it would be worse than 2008’s Mamma Mia!, mostly because that would almost be a physical impossibility (unless a movie is Elephant or Forrest Gump). However, a sequel to one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen hardly seemed like a good idea, and that was before I finished watching the equally terrible trailer.

Somehow, against all odds, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again avoids most of the mistakes of the original and is a delightful, if silly and contrived, grandiose production.

The fatal flaws of the original film were too numerous to mention, but the three glaring ones were: the sloppy direction, camera use, and blocking; the bad mismatch of plot to song lyrics; and the repetitive monotony of song arrangements. Those are all fixed here.

Director Ol Parker has a much better sense of cinematic pacing than Phyllida Lloyd did in the 2008 film, and he edits each number to showcase the performers at their best. Robert Yeoman’s cinematography makes the Greek island resort look beautiful and naturally follows the performers through their song and dance routines.

Catherine Johnson, who wrote the original musical and the screenplay for the first film shares writing credit here with Parker and Richard Curtis. Perhaps the input from multiple sources helped with overlaying ABBA songs onto a paper-thin plot, or maybe having two timelines necessitated even simpler plots for which it was easier to find songs that sensibly fit. Whatever the reason, I was never wondering what the song lyrics had to do with the narrative, as I was for much of the first Mamma Mia!

I wrote an unpublished review of the first film. Rereading it now, I see one of my biggest complaints was that every song had the same predictable vocal arrangements, even if those made no sense based on where or when it was being sung. That happens here a tiny bit with “One of Us” as Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and her boyfriend Sky (Dominic Cooper) reflect on a phone argument they just had as an invisible chorus joins their expressions of grief. However, with minimal suspension of disbelief, it is not hard to view those additional voices as imagined by the couple to amplify their emotions.

As to the other songs, every scenario seems like a logical place to burst into song, all the characters who are singing make sense, and the performances are all top notch. The rendition of the title song here is one of the best uses of a title song in any movie musical. A cameo from Cher culminates in a fantastic rendition of “Fernando” in which she dances with Andy Garcia resolving a plot twist that’s obvious from a mile away, but the scene is so perfectly executed it doesn’t matter. “Dancing Queen” and “Super Trouper” return as the two big chorus numbers, roughly taking place where an act I and act II finale would occur in a stage musical.

The plot is as goofy and simplistic as would be expected, but the entire cast is having so much fun, and the film’s energy is purely focused on the rousing production numbers that it hardly matters. One shocking announcement that comes within the first fifteen minutes is Sophie’s mother Donna (Meryl Streep) died in the last year, and while it would have been nice to see Streep in more of the movie, she still has a great cameo appearance.

The film cuts smoothly between 1979 and presumably present day (although that timeline doesn’t add up, but who cares) as Sophie plans the grand opening of the Hotel Bella Donna in honor of her mother, and as the young Donna (Lily James) makes a life for herself on the remote island. Donna of course meets and sleeps with Sophie’s three potential fathers, the identity of whom was the subject for the first film. The subsequent heartbreak of her three affairs merges with the present-day narrative in a surprisingly touching way along with the best crosscut Baptism sequence since The Godfather.

Lily James is sympathetic and endearing as the resilient and carefree college-grad Donna, and Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies provide great support and comic relief as her best friends Tanya and Rosie. Christine Baranski and Julie Walters reprise their roles from the first film, playing off Amanda Seyfried in a similar manner to their younger counterparts playing off Lily James.

Jukebox musicals are extremely difficult to pull of successfully, and the only truly great ones are Singin’ in the Rain and All That Jazz. While Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is not quite on that tier, I never thought I would write it’s probably the best one since those two, and if not that, it’s unquestionably the best one since Moulin Rouge.

 

Personal recommendation: A-

Content Advisory: Off-screen promiscuity and discussion thereof.                              MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment

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Heathers

Year of Release: 1989      Directed by Michael Lehmann.  Starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk, Shannon Doherty, and Penelope Milford.

A friend once quipped, “There are two rules of humor: 1) nothing is funny; 2) anything can be funny. Both nothing and anything must be taken absolutely literally.” That is not to say that any and all jokes are funny and sensitive subjects are a free for all when it comes to humor. Rather, it is to say that with proper care and diligence, laughter in response to sensitive subjects can be an appropriate means of attacking the powerful and defending the weak.

Heathers is a film that makes jokes about taboo subjects including, but not limited to: teen suicide, date rape, homophobia, body shaming, bullying, eating disorders, narcissistic exploitative teachers, neglectful parents, and school shootings. And in every single one of its jokes, the target is the victimizer/abuser and the way our culture’s unhealthy obsessions with popularity and trying to make sure our team is the winning team perpetuate the oppression and exploitation of the most vulnerable.

Exclusive tribalism is mocked from the first scene when the titular clique of high school mean girls, all named Heather except for their lackey Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder), exert their self-claimed superiority over the rest of their high school first through humiliating an overweight girl named Martha and then by forcing the entire school to participate in a lunchtime poll, thought up by the ringleader Heather Chandler (Kim Walker).

The cruelty of humiliating Martha is contrasted with the sadistic glee of the Heathers, which sets up an unremarkable mockery of high school cliques for being exclusive and mean. However, the lunchtime poll is carried out with unapologetic aplomb by the Heathers despite its inherent stupidity, for which any other student would be mocked. This contrast makes it clear that things such as fashionable and the “in crowd” are determined by the whims of whomever can be the bossiest and most snobbish while getting others to envy them.

The first push back Veronica experiences against that poll, “If you received five million dollars, and on the same day aliens said they were going to blow up the planet in three days, what would you do with the money?” comes from obvious cool kid and scoundrel JD (Christian Slater, blatantly channeling Cuckoo’s Nest Jack Nicholson). We know JD is cool because he wears all black, openly tells Veronica how stupid Heather Chandler’s poll question is, and says “Greetings and salutations!” instead of hello. When threatened by the two school bullies, he also pulls a gun and shoots two blanks at them after calling them assholes to their face.

At this point every future plot point has been foreshadowed, and the stage is set for one of the darkest and funniest high school comedies, surpassing the similar high school satires of subsequent decades: Clueless and Mean Girls. One substantial reason that Heathers resonates so much more strongly for me than those other high school comedies is that is not afraid to follow its premise to the morbid conclusion necessitated by the tribalism and obsessive desire for coolness. Indeed, with its blend of horror and comedy, Heathers serves as a sort of link between Brian De Palma’s Carrie and the high school comedies of the ‘90’s and later decades.

Veronica’s trajectory in Heathers follows that of a horror film, albeit one punctuated with many moments of humor. Witnessing JD intimidate the two bullies whom she despises sparks an instant attraction, which leads to an inevitable partnership as Veronica transitions from a Heathers wannabe to a vigilante agent for justice within her high school. The problem is she abandoned her snobbish clique for an even more exclusive and dehumanizing one.

This blend of comedy and horror is perfectly captured in Daniel Waters’ brilliant dialogue, which is mannered enough to be obviously artificial compared to actual teenage talk, and yet is simultaneously pointed and stinging. Lines such as: “Dear diary, my teen angst bullshit has a body count,” and “I use my grand IQ to decide what color lip gloss to wear in the morning and how to hit three keggers before curfew,” expose a broken world while belittling the mentalities that lead to such distortions.

The obsession with coolness and being a member of the right team or club is the primary target of Heathers’ satire. What is most remarkable, however, is not the film’s ruthless critique of that attitude among high schoolers nor how it shows the horrific yet logical conclusions of such selfish worldviews, but that it shows such shallowness also extends to adults as the teachers, parents, and principal respond to the increasing number of tragedies by selfishly using the supposed teen suicides as a platform to push their preconceived notions.

The destructive phoniness on display throughout the entire film is succinctly summarized by the highly stylized opening montage of the three Heathers playing croquet in outfits matching their balls, walking straight through flower beds, and hitting the balls into Veronica’s head instead of croquet hoops. This entire sequence is underscored by “Que será, será,” both a reminder of the childhood innocence which has been lost by the high school preoccupation with cliques and a commentary on the tragic inevitably such mentalities lead to when taken to extremes.

As Veronica, Winona Ryder gives one of her best performances, torn between the desire to be a member of the cool club and wanting to make the world a kinder place for everyone. As that tension leads her down an increasingly horrific road, the film capitalizes on several moments for her to experience actual humanity and compassion, serving as a sharp prick to her guilty conscience. Her delivery of her final line to JD is pitch perfect in its condemnation of their bad choices and as a triumphant rejection of the mentality that caused so many of the film’s tragedies in the first place. “You know what I want? Cool guys like you out of my life.”

 

Personal Recommendation: A+

Content Advisory: Long distance shot of date rape, multiple non-graphic murders, underage promiscuity, drinking, and smoking, recurring foul language. MPAA rating: R

Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

 

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