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

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STONEWALL (2015)

September 24, 2015

stonewall Greetings again from the darkness. Dramatized versions of real life events are always a bit tricky, and hindsight often proves it’s best left to the documentary format. However, sometimes, a dramatized version helps us more easily relate to, and empathize with, those who were involved. That seems to be the approach taken by director Roland Emmerich in his re-telling of events so important to him and the LGBT movement … the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

The Stonewall Riots of June 1969 are often cited as the beginning of the Gay Liberation movement. Of course, there had been many previous clashes between gays and police, as discrimination was so extreme that these folks were labeled as mentally ill, and it was actually unlawful for gays to be hired for many jobs. On the streets of many big cities there existed a melting pot of minorities and the LGBT community. Many were young and homeless, and did whatever necessary to survive. So how best to tell this story?  Director Emmerich and writer Jon Robin Baitz put blonde, white, Midwestern, pretty boy Danny (Jeremy Irvine, War Horse) front and center.  How insulting to those involved.

To his credit, Emmerich does cast actors of various races in many roles, and he does seem to treat this as a sincere tribute or homage to those street kids who finally pushed back. Unfortunately, it’s these characters that seem to be the drag on the story. Despite such names as Queen Cong, Little Orphan Annie, Quiet Paul, and the inclusion of real life activists as Marsha P Johnson (Otoja Abit), Bob Kohler (Patrick Garrow) … and other key players like Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman) and Deputy Seymour Pine (Matt Craven) … the film comes off more like a staged musical sans music. Street life here is more gloss than grit, and the closest thing to a developed character is Ray, played with aplomb by Jonny Beauchamp (“Penny Dreadful”).

Having the Columbia University-bound pretty white boy as the focus might make it easier for mainstream audiences to connect, but it skims over the real struggles going on at the time. We see Danny at home with his worried mother, observant little sister (Joey King), and macho football coach/father (David Gubitt). Everyone is uncomfortable over what is not being said, and the breaking point occurs when a tryst with the star quarterback becomes public knowledge. Just like that, Danny is booted from home (Indiana, not Kansas) and lands on the streets of New York. The comparisons to Dorothy (gay icon Judy Garland) and the Land of Oz are obvious, and repeated numerous times for those a bit slow on the take.

Christopher Street and the Stonewall Inn are the main settings. The mob involvement is noted, as is the desperation of the community, the use of flop houses, and the long-standing “quiet” demonstrations. Even the practice of gays trying to “fit in” to society – to prove they belong – by wearing suits and acting “normal” is addressed. The riots are reduced to a single evening in the movie, and of course, the pretty white boy gets to heave the first brick. As a ‘roots of the movement’ film, it’s hard to believe this film won’t create more anger and frustration than thanks and awareness. Fortunately, there are many exceptional books and yes, documentaries that provide a better perspective on the events that occurred more than 45 years ago. We do see the first Gay Liberation Parade held the following year in honor of the riots – a tradition that continues today. The closing credit sequence catches us up on the key activists, and even provides a startling statistic: 40% of today’s homeless youth are LGBT.

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THE WORLD MADE STRAIGHT (2015)

January 21, 2015

the world made straight Greetings again from the darkness. The Hatfields and McCoys family feud has long been a favorite topic and inspiration for literary and film projects. Lesser known, but ultimately more tragic and historically vital, is the 1863 Shelton Laurel Massacre during the Civil War. The novel from Ron Rash is the foundation of director David Burris’ film that explores the fallout of that incident more than 100 years later in the very rural Appalachian hills of Madison County, North Carolina.

It doesn’t take us long to get a line on Travis (Jeremy Irvine, War Horse), a high school dropout with authority issues who hangs out with his equally aimless friends, including Shane (Haley Joel Osment, The Sixth Sense). We have seen many film depictions of hillbillies over the years, so the grim atmosphere of unemployment, isolation, lack of education, drugs and lack-of-hope aren’t surprising, and the undercurrent of the 1863 event is what should have set this one apart.

Interest picks up when teacher-turned-drug dealer Leonard (Noah Wyle) takes Travis under his wing after Travis has an unfortunate run-in with Carlton (Steve Earle), another local drug dealer. Travis moves in with Leonard and his drug-addicted girlfriend (Minka Kelly), and takes a real interest in the journals of Civil War soldiers that Leonard has collected. These stories spark a curiosity within Travis, in particular the saga of 13 year old David Shelton – one of the victims of the massacre.

It’s the fact that Travis is oblivious to the history of his family, and how this event has so affected life in his hometown, that makes this story difficult to buy into. In spite of the communication void between Travis and his father, it’s just not possible that the massacre would not have been a frequent topic of discussion throughout the years. Beyond that, this is little more than a typical small town battle between drug dealers … albeit two very articulate drug dealers.  And yes, guns and turf do play a role here.

Jeremy Irvine, Noah Wyle and Steve Earle each make their characters someone interesting to watch. On the other hand, the female characters are mostly after-thoughts or plot devices. Travis’ mother maintains a forlorn look that registers her resignation to fate, while Minka Kelly mostly gets knocked around (save for one excellent scene while alone with Travis), and Adelaide Clemens provides the rare sparks of light and optimism as Travis’ love interest – and then just as quickly becomes a non-entity.

The fine acting and excellent camera work deserved a better story, especially given the framework of history. There is a recurring hillbilly philosophy in the movie that states “Time don’t pass. It’s just layers. It’s all still happening.” That philosophy could have better tied the current story into the past, which would have elevated this film to a new level.

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WAR HORSE

December 28, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. In the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, director Steven Spielberg provided us with one of the most horrific and terrifyingly realistic and violent examples of war ever shown on screen. Here, he takes a much different approach. Though the bulk of the movie takes place during World War I, Spielberg manages to withhold the brutal atrocities, while never once losing the impact and fear experienced by the soldiers. And while it’s uncertain whether this approach makes for a better film, it is obviously a more accessible and uplifting story because of it.

 Based on the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, and of course on the hugely successful stage runs in both London and New York, this movie is really the story of an unbreakable bond between a sincere farm boy named Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) and a majestic horse named Joey. We witness the early bonding and training sessions between the two, which allows us to swallow some of the more improbable coincidences that occur later in the story. When the war breaks out, Albert’s dad (Peter Mullan) sells the horse to the cavalry so that he can save the farm by paying the landlord (David Thewlis). Fortunately, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) agrees to keep Joey as his personal horse and return him to Albert after the war.

 War is unpredictable, and Joey gets passed from the British to the Germans to a French farmer’s daughter, back to the Germans and back to the British. Along the way, we witness what a remarkable creature the horse is. Were he a man, he would be a most decorated officer. Instead, we witness how little value the military places on animals … even the beautiful ones. There are numerous scenes that make will make you uncomfortable with the cruelty shown, but just as many that will make you smile with joy. The already famous scene that features Joey’s unfortunate conflict with barbed wire and fence posts will have you squirming in your seat, while also scratching your head in wonderment.

 Though many of the events and sequences are a bit of a stretch to believe (the time-out in No Man’s Land), the one thing you will never doubt is the beauty of the film. It’s epic nature recalls Doctor Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia (though not at the overall level of either of those films), and the photography reminds me of John Ford‘s best work. Off the top of my head, I would say it is the most beautifully photographed movie since Terrence Malick‘s Days of Heaven in 1978. Spielberg’s long time DP Janusz Kaminski is at his best here and will surely be recognized by the Academy for his cinematography.

 Many of the British actors are recognizable (Emily Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Kebbell, Eddie Marsan, David Kross), but it’s key that Spielberg cast no “movie stars”, only quality actors. The stars of the film and the story are the horse and the visuals. It should also be noted that the great John Williams delivers another perfect score … one that would run away with the Oscar in many years.

No need to be frightened off because the story is based during World War I. It’s not for the youngest of kids, but this is an uplifting, sentimental and emotional movie for most everyone. It is peak Spielberg working with sentiments and subject matter with which he so excels.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy being swept away by the emotions and grand scale of an epic film OR you would like a primer to war films that goes a bit easy on the gore.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting similar war reality to Saving Private Ryan OR you have a hard time suspending disbelief for some rather remarkable coincidences

watch the trailer: