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:


THE LADY IN THE VAN (2016)

February 5, 2016

lady in the van Greetings again from the darkness. “There’s air freshener behind the Virgin”. That line should provide the necessary caution for you to be braced for just about anything to be said by any character in this latest from director Nicholas Hytner.  Billed as “A mostly true story”, it’s actually more commentary on how we treat those less fortunate and how we use others for our own gain. That bleak message is cloaked here in humor and a wonderful performance from Dame Maggie Smith.

Alan Bennett is an author, playwright and screenwriter known for The History Boys and The Madness of King George (Oscar nominated for his script). He is also at the core of this story – every bit as much as Ms. Shepherd, the lady in the van. While living in upper crust Camden Town, Mr. Bennett offered to let Ms. Shepherd park her van in his driveway for a few weeks until she could make other arrangements. This van was also her home, and the years (as they are apt to do) came and went until this arrangement had lasted 15 years (1974-1989).

You might assume that Ms. Shepherd was an extremely appreciative “squatter”, but in fact, she was quite a cantankerous and difficult woman, possibly/probably suffering from mental instability. Maggie Smith brings a humanity to the role that she had previously owned onstage and radio. She goes far deeper than the wise-cracking old lady role we have grown accustomed to seeing her play … though her vicious dialogue delivery remains in prime form. Throughout the film, we assemble bits and pieces of Ms. Shepherd’s background: an educated-French speaking musician-turned nun-former ambulance driver-who “possibly” won awards for her talents. She is also carrying a burden of guilt from a past tragic accident that keeps her in the confessional on a consistent basis.

Mr. Bennett is played by Alex Jennings (The Queen, 2006), and the film actually presents dual Bennetts – the one doing the writing, and the one doing the living. These two Bennetts are a virtual married couple – arguing over Ms. Shepherd, and jabbing each other with barbs aimed directly at known emotional weaknesses. The living Bennett claims to be so full of British timidity that he couldn’t possibly confront the woman junking up his driveway. The writer Bennett takes the high road and claims he would rather write spy stories than focus his pen on the odorous, obnoxious transient living in his front yard. Of course, now that we have a play and movie, it’s difficult to avoid viewing Mr. Bennett’s actions as anything less than inspiration for his writing … though the extended charitable actions cannot be minimized.

With director Hytner and writer Bennett reuniting, it’s also interesting to note that more than a dozen actors from The History Boys make appearances here. The list includes James Corden, Frances de la Tour, and Dominic Cooper. Also in supporting roles are Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay (playing constantly irritated neighbors), Gwen Taylor as Bennett’s dementia-stricken mother, Jim Broadbent as a blackmailing former cop, and Marion Bailey as a staffer at the abbey.

Filmed at the same house where the van was parked for so many years, the film is a reminder to us to exercise tolerance and charity in dealing with the poor. Even Bennett’s grudgingly-offered assistance is a step above what would typically be expected. While we could feel a wide spectrum of emotions for the two main parties here, it’s Ms. Shepherd’s character who says “I didn’t choose. I was chosen”. We are left to interpret her words in a way that is either quite sad or accepting.

The film mostly avoids dime store sentimentality, and that’s in large part due to Maggie Smith’s performance. Few are as effective at frightening young kids or putting the elite in their place. The ending scene shows the real Alan Bennett cruising into the driveway on his bicycle just as the blue plaque honoring the lady in the van is displayed. We can be certain this gesture would not generate a “thank you” from her.

watch the trailer:

 

 


MISS YOU ALREADY (2015)

November 5, 2015

miss you already Greetings again from the darkness. The theatre was filled with the sounds of sobbing. And by sobbing, I mean bawling … not the typical post-movie sniffles. While I was a little confused on just where my fellow movie watchers thought this story was headed, it’s understandable that sometimes a dark theatre is simply the best place to have a good cry. Director Catherine Hardwicke and screenwriter Morwenna Banks deliver an unfettered look at friendship, sickness and loss … and a reason to bring tissues.

Tearjerker movies have quite the history of success. Some of the more popular sob fests include: Love Story, Brian’s Song, Terms of Endearment, Beaches, Steel Magnolias, and The Notebook. This latest is probably most similar to Beaches in that the focus is on two lifelong female friends (polar opposites in personality) who ride the rollercoaster of life together – through good times and bad.

Milly (Toni Collette) and Jess (Drew Barrymore) meet in elementary school and experience many of life’s “firsts” together. We know this because the film begins with a bit of a clumsy flashback sequence that shoots us through their high school years, heavy partying, and finally picks up after they are married.

There are many mysteries of the female gender that those of us with Y chromosomes will never comprehend. One of those is the close friendship between the vain, center-of-attention type, and the always supportive enabler. Milly is the classic taker, while Jess is a giver. Milly is the high-flying socialite who dresses flashy and draws a crowd, while Jess is the dependable sidekick, always there to make sure Milly is never alone. It’s confounding and a bit sad to those of us who view friendship as something much different.

Both Ms. Collette and Ms. Barrymore are strong in their performances, though Collette has the much meatier role. What’s impressive about the movie is how it takes head on the horrific travails of those with breast cancer. The emotional and physical and medical aspects are all dealt with no compromise. Some of it is tough to watch, but admirable in its directness. Milly’s breast cancer takes center stage, while Jess’ struggle to get pregnant is low-keyed. Fitting for their personalities, but each based in real life sagas. Milly’s husband Kit (Dominic Cooper), and Jess’ husband Jago (Paddy Considine) both provide understandable reactions to the obstacles faced by their spouses. Add in a bleached blonde Jacqueline Bisset as Milly’s eccentric mom, and the five lead actors each contribute a relatable element to the story.

Two other actors make an impression: Frances de la Tour as a wise and direct wig-maker, and Tyson Ritter (front man for The All-American Rejects) as a free-spirited bartender who may or may not be a good influence on Milly. Even though Jess is the heart of the story, it’s Milly who dominates … just like their friendship. Green vs glamour.

Director Hardwicke will always hold a special place in my movie memories thanks to her sparkling 2003 debut Thirteen. She and writer Banks clearly understand women, and believe it crucial to show the courage required in the fight against breast cancer. Fortunately, their main character is funny and spirited, and pals around with someone we would all be proud to call a friend. And that’s nothing to cry about.

watch the trailer:

 

 


DEAD MAN DOWN (2013)

March 10, 2013

dead ma Greetings again from the darkness. On the surface, this looks like just another early season crime thriller. From that perspective, it works well enough. However, there are some elements that add complexity and interest, and set this one above the usual. It’s directed by Niels Arden Oplev who was responsible for the original (and very cool) Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). This looks to be his first English language feature and he re-teams with the exciting and talented Noomi Rapace.

The film begins with a body in the freezer, and crime boss Alphonse (Terrence Howard) and his crew attempting to solve the mystery of who killed his friend and associate. Someone has been tormenting Alphonse with little clues and he falls right into the trap of jumping to conclusions. One member of his crew is Victor (Colin Farrell). We slowly learn more about Victor thanks to an awkward and slow connection between he and his neighbor Beatrice (Ms. Rapace). Their initial acknowledgment of each other is an exchange of waves between balconies. It’s an effective visual.

dead man2 The movie bounces between crime thriller and romantic/love story, and offers a couple of big ol’ shoot-em-ups. The added fun of secret missions from both Victor and Beatrice provide the twist this one needs. Actually there are 4-5 exceptional scenes in the movie which make up for the often plodding pace … not typically a good thing for a thriller. The pieces are greater than the whole, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an interesting watch.  Noomi Rapace has quickly made the transition to English language films and she has the ability to play gritty or glamourous – something not all actresses can pull off. Colin Farrell is one of those actors who seems to consistently choose scripts that don’t showcase his skills. He was excellent in In Bruges, but often takes roles that require little more than flexing his world class eyebrows. The quiet scenes with Rapace and Farrell give this movie a higher quality feel than it otherwise would have had.

dead man3 In addition to Farrell, Rapace and Howard, we get some really enjoyable support work from Dominic Cooper, Isabelle Huppert and F Murray Abraham. Ms. Huppert in particular adds a touch of class and humor, and her character could have easily been expanded … same for Mr. Abraham. Cooper plays an idealistic, but not so observant buddy to Victor and loyal crew member of Howard.

This one reminds at times of a couple of Mel Gibson revenge flicks: Payback and Edge of Darkness, though what really helps here is the strength of the cast and unusual scars of Victor and Beatrice. A slightly tighter script and improved pacing would have jumped this one a level or two, but it’s entertaining in spite of the flaws.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: seeing Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace flash their acting talent intrigues you

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a taut thriller with many surprises and twists

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yq3rls47cNE


MY WEEK WITH MARILYN

December 2, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I was initially ambivalent on seeing a movie about Marilyn Monroe making a movie. My twisted thinking was that I have already seen the actual film The Prince and the Showgirl, and this particular story is based on a book by Colin Clark who claims to have had a connection/fling with Marilyn during the production phase of the film. Since I had always doubted Clark’s claim, it wasn’t until early reviews of Michelle Williams‘ performance hit Twitter that I started to get interested.

 For an actor, playing Marilyn Monroe must be similar to playing Elvis. Everyone on earth knows what the real deal looks and sounds like. What is interesting about this film is that it is chock-full of actors playing well known people. In addition to Williams/Monroe, we get Eddie Redmayne as Colin, Kenneth Branagh as Sir Lawrence Olivier, Julia Ormond as Vivia Leigh (Olivier’s wife), Toby Jones as Arthur Jacobs, Dominic Cooper as Milton Greene, Karl Moffat as DP Jack Cardiff, Dame Judi Dench playing Dame Sybil Thorndyke, Zoe Wannamaker playing Paula Strasberg (Monroe’s acting coach), and Dougray Scott as Arthur Miller (the famous writer and Monroe’s husband at the time).

 Michelle Williams dominates the film just as Monroe would have. She mimics the iconic movements, but best succeeds in capturing the essence of Marilyn. History states that Olivier was very impatient with Marilyn and struggled with her irregular schedule and “method” approach to acting (which he abhorred). It is little wonder that Marilyn struggled so with her first and only film outside of the U.S. Many have an image of Ms. Monroe as a ditsy blonde, but there are a couple of well-documented autobiographies that show a pretty shrewd business person and one very aware of her marketable and valuable public image.

 As for the film, it rates a couple of ticks higher thanks to the outstanding performances of both Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh. If not for them, it would be little more than a TV movie. Speaking of, this is the first feature film for director Simon Curtis, whose previous work has been seen on television. Personally, I would have preferred a movie that focused on either the making of The Prince and the Showgirl or a view of the human side of Marilyn. Here, we get a shortage of each.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see Michelle Williams’ beautiful performance as Marilyn (she is likely to get an Oscar nom)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for any real insight into what Marilyn was like as a real person (this one just skims the surface)

watch the trailer:


THE DEVIL’S DOUBLE

August 16, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The psychotic, sadistic son of Saddam Hussein is the subject of this film from director Lee Tamahori. Tamahori has a history of colorful films with terrific visuals that are somewhat lacking in substance. This latest film falls right in line, though it had much potential.

The key reason to see this one is the explosive performance(s) of Dominic Cooper. He plays two characters who happen to look identical, but are polar opposites in thought and morals. As Latif Yahia, Cooper plays a genuinely nice citizen of Iraq who gets forced into the role of “fiday” or body double for Saddam’s evil son Uday. For lack of a better description, Uday is psychotic and thrills only at abuse of power. This is not political corruption per se, because Uday has very little role in the Saddam government. But it is the most frightening example of absolute power corrupted.

The script is based on the real Latif’s story, and the closing credits catch us up on the key players.  Mr. Tamahori interjects actual footage of the war in Iraq, but it really adds no substance.  At its core, this is a story of a good guy fighting a bad guy … albeit in a most unusual manner.

 This has to be an actor’s dream come true … playing two such different characters, one of which allows, even requires, your actions to go over the top. Cooper is best known for his much different roles in Mamma Mia and An Education. While there have been many actors who have played dual roles in movies, very few are as spellbinding as Cooper in this one.  His performance ranks with Al Pacino in Scarface and Vincent Cassel in Mesrine. The movie is very difficult to watch because of the actions of Uday, but Cooper’s performance makes it worthwhile.

 The support work is provided by Ludivine Sagnier (Swimming Pool) as Uday’s lover, who also risks her life by getting cozy with Latif. I am really not sure about this character and although I am a fan of Sagnier, this story line seemed to take away from the battle of wits between Uday and Latif. Combine that with the movie being about 10-15 minutes too long, and I believe the script could have been tightened up resulting in an improved movie.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want a look at a possible Oscar contender for Best Actor – Dominic Cooper is amazing

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a documentary on Saddam or Uday Hussein as this is a dramatized version

watch the trailer:


CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER

July 24, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. If it seems to you as if the past three years have provided an overload of superhero and comic-based movies, you are absolutely correct. There have been too many. There are a few I would be willing to toss out, but Captain America is not one of them. This ranks right with the first Iron Man as the closest to a real movie … one with a story to go with the action and CGI.

It begins with the present day discovery of an exposed plane wing jutting from the frozen Arctic tundra. The search team quickly finds the Captain America shield visible beneath the ice. Flash back to WWII and we are introduced to a scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans with Benjamin Button FX) who wants nothing more than to fight for his country. Unfortunately, this 90-pound weakling might as well have 4-F stamped on his forehead, as the size of his heart far exceeds the size of his biceps.

His tenacity at trying to enlist is noticed by a powerful scientist named Erskine (played with sheer smirking joy by Stanley Tucci). Erskine happens to be working with Col. Phillips (a perfectly grumpy Tommy Lee Jones) on a secret plan to develop super-soldiers with the injectable cocktail Erskine has invented. As you might guess, the plan is thwarted immediately after scrawny Steve Rogers is transformed into a super soldier yanked from the cover of “Men’s Fitness”.

 Working with Col Phillips and Erskine is Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Her main purpose seems to be adorning the brightest red lipstick and flashing her legs in front of the soldiers. She falls for Rogers and spends most of her scenes staring somewhat scarily into his eyes. Actually, their scenes together are pretty good and her character helps us remember that Captain America is still just a regular good guy … not a Norse God.  It was humorous to watch the early song and dance routines to sell war bonds.  Seeing the super soldier cast as a traveling side show could be seen as a commentary on the military.

 Personally, I thought the movie lagged just a bit in the fight scenes between good and evil. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) to be a terrific bad guy. Nazi’s still make for the perfect adversary. Although, I found myself laughing on occasion as Weaving’s German accent reminded me of Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. I was quite impressed with the infamous Captain America shield, though I never quite figured out how he trained it to “return” to him … I am sure this is better explained in the comics.

 What makes this movie work is the fact that Captain America remains Steve Rogers. He is always a good guy wanting to do the right things. He is deeply affected when he thinks his actions may have caused the death of his best friend Bucky. But he also manages to keep his ego in check and his patriotic duty in the forefront. Also, the film is directed by Joe Johnston. If you are unfamiliar with his work, let me recommend two of his earlier films: The Rocketeer and Hidalgo. You are probably familiar with his Jumanji and October Sky. He is a director that creates a specific look and feel to his films, and the texture helps make this one work.

Since this is entitled Captain America: The First Avenger, it is obviously another step towards The Avengers movie slated for 2012. So don’t miss Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark (father of Tony Stark/Iron Man). And don’t miss Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in the odd ending to this film … and the obligatory “bonus” after closing credits.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you always viewed yourself as the 90 lb weakling in those old Charles Atlas comic book ads OR you just never miss a chance to see nazi’s get thier asses kicked … especially by a guy in tights.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a comic book flashback to WWII seems about as appealing as having your air conditioner go out during this crazy heat wave

watch the trailer: