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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PADDINGTON 2 (2018)

January 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The sequel to the hit 2014 PADDINGTON movie reunites most of the cast, as well as the director Paul King and his co-writer Simon Farnaby. Unfortunately, Michael Bond, Paddington Bear’s creator and author of more than 150 affiliated books passed away in 2017, and was not able to see this most charming follow-up. The beloved little bear first hit UK bookstores in 1958 and has been part of the childhood of every generation of kids since. Now the movies have given life to the little bear with the red hat, blue coat and tiny suitcase.

The entirety of the Brown family returns: Sally Hawkins as Mary, Hugh Bonneville as Henry, Madeleine Harris as Judy, Samuel Joslin as Jonathan, Julie Walters as Mrs. Bird, and Jim Broadbent as Mr. Gruber. Also back are Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon as the voices of Paddington’s “aunt” and “uncle”, and of course, Ben Whishaw returns as the familiar voice of the adored and oh-so-polite bear.

Most notable among the new faces are Brendan Gleeson as Nuckles (that’s with a capital N), and Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan, this story’s two-faced (and maybe more) villain. You’ve likely never seen the usually reserved and proper Mr. Grant in a role quite so colorful and flamboyant. He seems to be having a devilishly good time.

As the movie begins, we are quickly assimilated into the community where Paddington has made such a difference. The core element to this bear is that he treats all with kindness and finds the best in each person. The results of this approach are clear in how his neighbors enthusiastically greet him each morning … it’s a reminder of the power of kindness. Only when Phoenix Buchanan’s dastardly deed and actions catch Paddington in the crossfire does the film take an abrupt left turn from his blissful life.

If the film has a flaw, it’s in a story that is likely too complex and intricate for the youngest viewers to follow. However, it’s that story that older kids (and grown-ups) will most appreciate and relate to. Younger kids may be lost at times, but there are enough visual pratfalls and bear hijinks to keep them oohing and aahing and laughing – I witnessed these reactions in a theatre that was about half-filled with kids.

This sequel will probably be viewed as an improvement to what was a pretty entertaining original. There is enjoyment for all ages, and it’s a rare combination of cuteness and charm with a strong message of kindness. If that’s not enough for you, stay for the credits and take in the Bollywood-style musical number that will erase any doubts you might have had about Hugh Grant’s commitment to the mission.

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BROOKLYN (2015)

November 19, 2015

brooklyn Greetings again from the darkness. A popular proverb “Home is where the heart is” is filled with truth … unless the heart belongs in two places. Such is the case with Ellis, an Irish girl who leaves behind her family and homeland to discover the new world opportunities afforded by 1950’s America. The film is based on the popular and critically-acclaimed novel from Colm Toibin, and is directed by John Crowley (Is Anybody There? 2008) with a screenplay from Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education). It’s a blend of romance, drama, and self-discovery, while also examining a couple of diverse cultures from lands separated by more than 3000 miles (and a big ocean).

Saoirse Ronan plays Ellis in a performance that is sure to garner much Oscar talk. It’s only been 8 years since Ms. Ronan exploded onto the screen as 13 year old Briony in Atonement. In this current role we watch her blossom like a flower as she grows from a timid and reserved shop girl with a bleak future in Ireland, to a fully-realized woman with much spirit and hope. On that journey, she experiences many life obstacles including seasickness, homesickness, catty and envious housemates, heartbreak and romantic awkwardness … all while dealing with the overwhelming nature of her new world.

Director Cowley makes some interesting visual choices. We begin with a muted color palette and mostly close camera shots of Ellis’ life in Ireland. This “closed in” feeling continues through her crossing of the Atlantic. However, once she steps through the blue doors of Ellis Island, the world opens up with wide shots and shocks of bright colors. These contrasts blend together in the third segment where Ellis returns to Ireland after a family tragedy. The look of the film at any given time mirrors the mood and circumstance of our lead character.

Ellis struggles to adjust to the United States, both in the bordering house run by the colorful Ms. Kehoe (a terrific Julie Walters), and in the ritzy Bartocci store where she clerks for a demanding supervisor (Jessica Pare’, “Mad Men”). Ms. Kehoe provides her girls with such life guidance as “Giddiness is the 8th Deadly Sin”. It doesn’t take long for Ellis to meet Tony (a breakout performance by Emory Cohen, The Place Beyond the Pines), a pleasant and polite local Italian plumber who is enchanted by her. Their time together provides a wonderful comparison piece for today’s courtship vs. that of the 1950’s.

The movie is beautifully paced, filmed and acted; however, there are some issues to fight through with the story and details of the main character. Her return to Ireland introduces Jim Ferrell (solid work from the ever-evolving Domhnall Gleeson), and just like that, Ellis is confused about Tony’s line: “This is where your life is”. This time of confusion for her, creates similar type confusion for viewers as we either understand her uncertainty, or question it. This distracts a bit from some of the impactful elements like her transition from clueless fish-out-of-water on her first cruise, to strong mentor for an Irish girl much like her younger self on a later trip. The script has more than a few of these moments of gold, and Saoirse brilliantly nails each.

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