MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (2018)

July 19, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been 10 years since director Phyllida Lloyd presented the crowd-pleasing MAMMA MIA! movie. It was a box office hit (over $600 million worldwide) and was, for a few years, the highest grossing musical of all-time. Most importantly, it was extremely entertaining and a joyous cinematic romp for viewers. This year’s sequel is directed by Ol Parker (THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL and husband to actress Thandie Newton), and though the melancholy is slathered on a bit too thick, it also fulfills its number one priority – entertaining the fans.

The story begins with Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) putting the final touches on the house-turned-hotel in preparation for the upcoming Grand Opening. It’s named Hotel Bella Donna in honor of Sophie’s mother (Meryl Streep). What looks to be a straight-forward story surprises us with a flashback to Donna’s 1979 graduation, which features not only the first song-and-dance number “When I Kissed the Teacher”, but also the first of two ABBA cameos … Bjorn Ulvaeus as a professor. The young Donna is played brilliantly by Lily James, and she effortlessly captures the free-spiritedness that led to the conundrum of the first movie – 3 possible dads for Sophie.

Those 3 dads return not only as Pierce Brosnan (Sam), Stellan Skarsgard (Bill), and Colin Firth (Harry), but also as Jeremy Irvine (young Sam), Josh Dylan (young Bill), and Hugh Skinner (young Harry). In fact, most of the run time is dedicated to the backstory of these characters and how they first met as youngsters. Each has a segment (and song) with young Harry featured in “Waterloo” accompanied by Benny Andersson (ABBA cameo #2) on piano. Young Bill is the charming sailor who saves the day for Donna, while young Sam assists her with saving a storm-shaken horse (kind of humorous since Mr. Irvine starred in WAR HORSE).

Also back are Dominic Cooper as Sky, Sophie’s true love, who can’t decide between romance and career, and Donna’s life-long friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), who are also part of the flashback as Jessica Keenan Wynn (excellent as young Tanya) and Alexa Davies (as young Rosie). New to the cast are Celia Imrie in the graduation number, Andy Garcia as the hotel manager, and drawing the biggest applause of all … Cher as Sophie’s grandmother (and as my viewing partner commented, an early peek at what Lady Gaga will look like as a grandma)! It’s best if you experience Cher for yourself, and it should be noted that this is her first big screen appearance since BURLESQUE in 2010.

Of course, the songs are key and many of the ABBA numbers from the first movie are featured again this time. In particular, “Dancing Queen” is a nautical standout, and “Fernando” is a show-stopper. While it may not be quite as raucous as the first, it’s a treat watching Lily James, and there is a wonderful blending of “old” and “new” in the finale. The only real question remaining is, did the casting director do the math before casting Cher (age 72) as Meryl Streep’s (age 69) mother?

*As a special treat, there is a “most interesting” cameo near the end of the film

watch the trailer:

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FIRST REFORMED (2018)

May 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “A crisis of faith” is merely the tip of the theological iceberg in this gripping, thought-provoking, debate-inspiring oddity from legendary filmmaker Paul Schrader. Mr. Schrader has long specialized in messed up/conflicted gents struggling in a world-gone-wrong in films like HARDCORE (1979), AMERICAN GIGOLO (1980), AFFLICTION (1997), and AUTO FOCUS (2002). Of course he is best known for his TAXI DRIVER (1976) and RAGING BULL (1980) screenplays. This latest is his best work in years, though few will likely describe it as entertaining.

Ethan Hawke digs deep in his performance as Toller, a former military Chaplain now relegated to caretaker for a small church whose historical marker informs us was organized in 1767 and built in 1802. Although Toller has a very small congregation, the church itself is now mostly a tourist stop and throwback to the days of rural community churches.

Thanks to Toller reading us his daily journal entries, we know that he is already dealing with doubt and grief even before Mary (whose name is no coincidence) approaches him about speaking with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Toller’s teetering emotional stability is further jolted by a mesmerizing talk with Michael, whose work as an environmental activist/extremist leaves him unable to reconcile bringing a child into this doomed world … despite his wife Mary (an excellent Amanda Seyfried) being pregnant. (Though no further proof is needed that I should never offer counseling to confused folks, I couldn’t help but wonder why Toller didn’t challenge Michael on why he risks having sex if he is so adamant against making a baby.)

With Michael’s global and societal warnings piling on Toller’s personal tragedy and disintegrated marriage, he sinks deeper into his funk and deeper into the bottle. There is also the pressure of the upcoming 250 year reconsecration ceremony and the expectations of Abundant Life’s Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer in perfect casting). Abundant Life stands in for all of the mega-churches that specialize in money grabbing these days (more business than religion). Here, big money is represented by billionaire industrialist Edward Balq (played by a less than patient Michael Gaston). He is truly the higher power in this relationship.

Toller explains to us that we hold both hope and despair in our thoughts, and that these are life itself. He has an intensity towards life and his role in the church that would make most uncomfortable, if not a bit frightened of and for him. And those concerns would be quite accurate. Some people are just never comfortable in their own skin, and these are often the most intriguing movie characters. Schrader and Hawke ensure that Toller is every bit of that and more. It’s a bleak story with some dark and twisted humor, and it’s shot in old style ratio which adds an element of harshness to every moment. Austere might be the best one word description of the look captured by Schrader, but the story is sure to generate some colorful and intense post-viewing debate … with an open for interpretation ending being the cherry on top. Welcome back Mr. Schrader and kudos to Mr. Hawke.

watch the trailer:


GRINGO (2018)

March 8, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. In a perfect cinematic world, great acting elevates a terrific script. However, the best case scenario for a weak script, or in this case a messy one, is that it can be offset by acting. Fortunately for director Nash Edgerton (it’s been 10 years since his underappreciated THE SQUARE), he has assembled such a quality cast that what amounts to little more than organized chaos is mostly watchable – even if it’s not consistently entertaining.

The cast is loaded with international talent from Australia, England, South Africa and Latin America. David Oyelowo, far removed from his Martin Luther King role in SELMA, stars as Harold/Harry, a Nigerian immigrant just trying to do his job and live his life according the morals and work ethic instilled by his father. Harold is the trusting type who believes that his free-spending wife is faithful and that his boss is his friend. That boss is Richard Rusk (we should call him Dick) played by Joel Edgerton (the director’s brother), and together with Charlize Theron as his Executive VP Elaine, combine to exemplify modern day douche-baggery.

The story revolves around the formula for a medicinal marijuana pill that their company is making, and the secretive proposed merger being ironed out. To clean up the books for the audit, Richard and Elaine travel to Mexico to convince their supplier to stop the illicit sales to a local drug lord. They bring the unaware Harold along for his contacts. The turmoil that follows includes a faked kidnapping and staged ransom phone call, two local hotelier brothers scheming for a big take, an American tourist couple with conflicting reasons for their trip, DEA involvement, a grown-up tantrum, an un-retired mercenary on a mission, and an ongoing argument over the best Beatles’ album. And you wonder why I described it as messy?

Of course, rarely if ever does staging one’s own kidnapping go well, so we know Oyelowo’s Harold is in for a rough and tumble ride. Multiple car chases turn into multiple car crashes, guns are fired, tequila is consumed, and backs are stabbed – in the proverbial sense. Oyelowo seems to be enjoying his trip outside of movie drama, and Edgerton and Theron do their best to create savage jerks. Sadly, Ms. Theron’s character sets the women’s movement back a few years with her sexual boardroom viper approach. On top of that are the stream of fat and ethnic jokes that would make Archie Bunker cringe.

Co-writers Matthew Stone (muck like BIG TROUBLE, MAN OF THE HOUSE) and Anthony Tambakis (the compelling WARRIOR) are responsible for delivering a script that tries so hard to be too many things: action, comedy, satire, white collar crime, and an expose of greed and lack of integrity. The deep cast also includes Thandie Newton (as Harold’s wife), Melonie Diaz (as Rusk’s receptionist), Amanda Seyfried as the aptly named Sunny and Harry Treadaway as her misguided boyfriend, Diego Catano and Rodrigo Corea as the brothers running the motel, Yul Vasquez as Angel, Alan Ruck as the schmuck who falls for Elaine’s wiles, Carlos Corona as the drug lord Black Panther (talk about bad timing!), Michael’s daughter Paris Jackson in her film debut, and a standout as always, Sharlto Copley as the brother-mercenary-humanitarian. As is often said, it’s better to be good at one thing, and though this one brings a few laughs and some creative moments, it’s mostly an overblown mess that aims to high – or at too many targets.


PAN (2015)

October 8, 2015

pan Greetings again from the darkness. Writer J.M. Barre first introduced the world to Peter Pan just after the turn of the twentieth century. Children and adults alike were enamored with “the boy who wouldn’t grow up”. The stories were filled with the mischief created by Peter and his Lost Boys buddies from their Neverland home, and although there existed elements of danger (Captain Hook), Barre’s story was mostly about holding on to the joy and carefree world of childhood.

Sadly, these days we don’t encourage kids to be kids. Instead, we push them to take on responsibility and act ‘grown up’ … heck, most kids today never really experience free play time with their friends. Everything is organized and scheduled (just check the calendar on the fridge). Writer Jason Fuchs and director Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna) have created a Peter Pan “origin” story that lacks any touch of whimsy or enchantment from the original books or the numerous film adaptations: the 1953 Disney animated classic, the 1991 Steven Spielberg/Robin Williams/Dustin Hoffman vehicle, the underrated 2003 live action version from director P.J. Hogan, or even last year’s Live TV broadcast featuring Allison Williams as Peter.

This one begins with a talented Parkour-enabled Mother (Amanda Seyfried) dropping off her infant son on the steps of an orphanage. She leaves only a note and a pan flute medallion. Flash forward twelve years and Peter (Levi Miller) is questioning the mysterious disappearance of kids from an environment straight out of a Dickens novel, as well as the hoarding talents of the evil Mother Superior (Kathy Burke). Soon enough Peter finds himself, along with scores of other youngsters, slaving in the fairy dust mines belonging to Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman).  Are you depressed yet?

Things only get bleaker as Peter escapes with his new friend James Hook (the name is no coincidence). They soon encounter the tribe that protects the Fairy Kingdom and the fairy dust that Blackbeard so values. Part of the tribe is Tiger Lilly (Rooney Mara) who believes that Peter is “the chosen one” who has come to lead and protect them. Lots of fighting ensues, plus some soaring giant crocodiles, flying pirate ships, and a trio of mermaids (all played by supermodel Cara Delevingne).

Re-imagining the classics is about the closest thing we get to creativity in Hollywood these days, so it’s not the idea of the project that so bothers, but rather the approach. Where is the fun?  Where is the sense of wonderment?  In fact, young Peter’s destiny seems to be an urgency to assume more responsibility as a leader … not live the carefree days of fun and games that Mr. Barre had set out.

Newcomer Levi, who plays Peter, ranks right there with director Joe Wright’s previous discovery of Saoirse Ronan, as child actors with big time screen presence. Young Mr. Miller has a grasp of the script and character and is the best part of the film. Hugh Jackman plays Blackbeard, but can never really reach the necessary level of intimidation or theatricality. For some reason Garrett Hedlund plays Hook as if he is imitating Christian Slater who is imitating Jack Nicholson playing Indiana Jones. It’s so over-the-top that we must assume Hedlund was directed to bring some comic relief to the bleak environment. Much has already been written about the casting of ultra-Caucasian Rooney Mara in the role of Tiger Lilly, though she performs the role quite well (avoiding the screeching of her lines in the manner of Jackman and Hedlund).  Rounding out the cast is Adeel Axhtar as Smiegel/Smee.

Some of Wright’s action sequences and CGI are quite impressive, though it’s difficult to overlook the obvious influences of Terry Gilliam, Baz Luhrman, and even George Lucas and James Cameron. Particularly painful and out of place are the Luhrman-influenced musical interludes of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and The Ramone’s “Blitkrieg Bop”.  Even the pixie dust effect reminds of Dorian Gray, though Jackman only gets one brief scene in which to capitalize.

Devotees of the J.M. Barre source material will be no doubt disappointed and confused, but the theatre was filled with youngsters who couldn’t seem to care less that Joe Wright had taken a classic story in the opposite direction. They enjoyed the visual effects as evidenced by the numerous “oohs” and “ahhs”. So let’s allow that reaction to speak for itself, rather than saying this version just didn’t pan out.

watch the trailer:

 


LES MISERABLES (2012)

December 30, 2012

les mis Greetings again from the darkness. One of the most anticipated films of the year is the first from director Tom Hooper since his Oscar -winning The King’s Speech. It also happens to be based on one of the true literary classics by Victor Hugo (first published 1862). And yes, it is presented as a true musical … the dialogue is sung and story advanced through forty-something songs. The latter feature gives it more of an opera feel than the stage version I saw more than 20 years ago.

The biggest question and curiosity going in was whether the cast of top notch movie stars could hold their own vocally. Sure, Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) is a Tony winner, Anne Hathaway (Fatine) has some Broadway chops of her own, Amanda Seyfried (Cosette) sang in Mamma Mia, and Russell Crowe (Javert) has toured with his own band. But this is a whole new challenge, as director Hooper decided to have the actors sing “live” during les mis4filming, providing a more intimate feel to the film. Throw in two exceptionally strong vocal performances from Eddie Redmayne (Marius) and Samantha Barks (Eponine) and only the harshest critics will claim the singing disappoints.

Seinfeld” fans will enjoy the comic relief from thieving innkeepers Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as they take advantage of their customers while belting out “Master of the House“. And it’s pure joy to hear Colin Wilkinson‘s wonderful voice as The Bishop who offers Valjean his chance for redemption. Mr. Wilkinson is legendary as the original Valjean in the London and New York stage versions from the mid-80’s.  The historical les mis3relevance of the material includes the 1832 student-led June Rebellion and it’s adequately staged here.

There were a few things that distracted me at times. The most annoying being the incessant facial close-up on every song. This is typically a device to cover-up weak set design, but here the sets are spectacular and really capture the nastiness of 19th century France. And while I certainly enjoyed Ms. Hathaways’ show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream“, I found her overall acting to be quite distracting during her few scenes. Russell Crowe’s physical presence perfectly captures the omnipresent Javert, though the lack of punch in his vocals les mis2prevented the boom needed in a couple of songs. Lastly, Mr. Jackman seemed to strain on the high notes in my favorite “Bring him Home“, though again, none of these things ruined the experience for me.

As with most film musicals, the best approach is just to allow the story and songs to wash over you … don’t dwell on the minor issues. Keep in mind that this is a powerful and interesting production thanks to Victor Hugo’s source material. It’s a privilege to enjoy a first rate presentation seen through new eyes and heard through new vocalists.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the stage version OR you enjoy well made movie musicals

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the movie stars to have operatic voices OR nearly three hours of close-ups is more than you can take

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkHHHUk8RCw

 


IN TIME

October 31, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Now this is a terrific premise for a sci-fi story. You have surely heard the phrase: “Time is Money”. Well in this world, Time is not just money, it is Life itself. Time is everything … and it’s displayed for all to see via a glowing neon green counter on each person’s forearm.

The film has an odd look for a futuristic sci-fi film. Vehicles look like modernized versions of 1970’s classics, but fashion and other technology seem basically unchanged. Society is divided more severely than today, but the commentary is clear … there are haves and have-nots, whether the currency is money or time.

 All people live until age 25 at which time they stop aging and the clock starts. They are given ONE year and are free to earn, gamble or spend their time … heck, some even gamble. When your clock hits thirteen Zeroes, you drop dead immediately. So, the working class is isolated in time zones, running from place to place and taking extra shifts at the plant just to pay the rent. The rich live in Connecticut (some things never change) and try to find ways to leisurely spend their days that will never end.

 Justin Timberlake plays Will Salas, one of the poor ones. In a scene that will have you scratching your head, Olivia Wilde plays his mom (remember, you stop aging at 25). Will has a chance meeting with Henry Hamilton (Matt Bomer) who has lived more than 100 years and still has more than a century left. After a deep, philosophical conversation, Will ends up with Henry’s time and becomes a murder suspect.

Will runs off to Connecticut and is pursued by the Timekeeper Police led by a creepy Cillian Murphy. Will ends up in the lavish home of Philippe Weiss (Vincent Katheiser from Mad Men) and falls for his daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried). Will and Sylvia end up on the lam and turn into the ultimate Time Bandits … Robin Hood who steals time from the rich and distributes to the poor.

 While the premise is promising, some of the best stuff is left untouched. Henry Hamilton would have been a fascinating character to get a little more backstory on. Cillian Murphy’s character is obviously talented and a bit burned out. It’s a bit disconcerting to see most of the people in a movie look all about the same age, but that’s a very cool product of this society. As is the “big board” of time that looks eerily similar to the Stock Market boards we see that track movement every moment of the day. Time is precious and is of course watched over.  Also, I never figured out how the whole arm-based time counter began, so more history would have been welcome.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol also brought us Gattaca and Lord of War. I would have liked this one to go a bit deeper, but it’s fun to watch Timberlake and Seyfried playing Bonnie and Clyde. Thinking about this from a monetary standpoint is pretty interesting, but it also reminds us that there’s never enough time!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are always up for a sci-fi film that doubles as an editorial on the class system OR you want further proof that Justin Timberlake is on his way to being a legit movie star.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are a real sci-fi lover and plot holes send you into a days-long funk OR you are apt to sprain an ankle just watching Olivia Wilde and Amanda Seyfried sprint in high heels throughout the film

watch the trailer:

 


LETTERS TO JULIET (2010)

May 22, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Admittedly, for me there is a fine line between an acceptable chick flick and one that is pure fluff. Oddly enough, this one brings a few fine moments to the screen despite its simplistic predictability and overall lack of creativity.  It easily could have been titled “Where for art thou, Lorenzo?”.

Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia) stars as Sophie, a wannabe writer who stumbles on a 50 year old letter at the wall of Juliet in Verona. She then tracks down the Secretaries of Juliet who let her answer the letter. Poof! Just like that, the author of the original letter (a radiant Vanessa Redgrave as Claire) shows up in Verona to meet Sophie and track down Lorenzo, the lost love of her life (the reason for the letter).

There are absolutely no twists or surprises in the movie. We recognize immediately that Sophie and her fiancé (a miscast Gael Garcia Bernal) are all wrong for each other. How this will end is very clear when Claire’s grandson (Heath Ledger clone Christopher Egan as Charlie) first confronts Sophie in cliched rude Brit manner.

The road trip to find lost love Lorenzo is of course a road of discovery for not just Claire, but also Sophie and Charlie. I am struggling to avoid typing yada, yada, yada. The coolest part of the film is when Claire finds her Lorenzo … a dashing Franco Nero on a galloping steed, who also happens to own the vineyard for Claire’s favorite wine (insert eye roll here).

Anyway, the Tuscan scenery is staggeringly beautiful. And watching real-life couple Redgrave and Nero walk hand in hand is very heart-warming. These two first fell in love during the mid-60’s while filming Camelot. This cost Ms. Redgrave her first marriage (famed director Tony Richardson), but the lovers did not marry until 2006. It’s never a good sign when real life is more interesting than the movie.

If you are cool with an obvious and uncomplicated story line (similar to Amy Adams’ Leap Year) set in the gorgeous Tuscan wine country, then the film will be fine for you. On the other hand, director Gary Winick was also responsible for Bride Wars, so the least he can do is turn in his director’s card and move into a second career dealing with pure maple syrup.