Mamma Mia!


Mamma Mia!

Blondes do have more fun, especially in the Greek isles.

(2008) Musical (Universal) Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, Julia Walters, Dominic Cooper, Christine Baranski, Rachel McDowall, Ashley Lilley, Ricardo Montez, George Georgiou.  Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

I will admit it. I was a big ABBA fan in the 70s. Their influence can be felt in music today, from the alternative Swedish pop movement to the pop music of Rihanna and Lady Gaga. They were a phenomenon in their time, and despite the critical scorn heaped upon them, they actually wrote some pretty good music that stands the test of time.

That music also spawned a stage musical that has sold tens of millions of tickets all over the world. This is what is called a “jukebox musical,” one which is written around already established songs rather than having original songs. More on that in a moment.

Sophie (Seyfried) is getting married which is reason enough to rejoice. She is obviously deeply in love with Sky (Cooper), her fella but the one fly in the ointment is that she doesn’t know who her dad is. Her mom Donna (Streep), an ex-pop singer who has retired to the Greek Islands to run a taverna and raise a daughter on her own isn’t talking so Sophie resorts to reading her mom’s diary to find a clue and comes up with three possibilities; Bill (Skarsgard), an adventurer; Harry (Firth) a financier and Sam (Brosnan), a handsome guy.

Sophie invites all three to the wedding. It takes a little time for the boys to figure it out but eventually they realize that they could be daddy. In the meantime, Sophie tries to hide the three of them from her mom, who eventually discovers them. Not a happy surprise, let me tell you.

Mom has invited her best friends and bandmates Rosie (Walters) and Tanya (Baranski) more as moral support than anything else, but also so the three can perform at the bachelorette party for Sophie. However, the appearance of these three men has thrown Donna into turmoil, and Sophie is beginning to have doubts about her wedding too. Can love save the day?

If it can’t, ABBA certainly can. The music of the Swedish supergroup is infectious and uplifting; it’s hard not to crack a smile to songs like “Dancing Queen” and “Take a Chance on Me.” Director Phyllida Lloyd (who also directed the stage version) utilizes the beautiful Greek island landscape to further up the sunshine quotient.

Streep, who has sung onscreen previously in such films as The Prairie Home Companion and Silkwood, is the champ here. She belts out her tunes with confidence and aplomb and her rendition of “The Winner Takes it All” is a showstopper, one in which even the jaded movie theater audience applauded and cheered to. Certainly at home, you’ll feel goosebumps at the very least.

Unfortunately, not all of the cast fares quite as well. Firth has a pleasant enough voice and Seyfried is strong if not as gifted as Streep but Skarsgard is a much better actor than a singer and Brosnan…well, I like the man but his duet with Streep had me literally wincing. He can’t sing period.

Still, the singing and dancing is mostly okay, and is at least energetic if not always competent. While the acting performances are solid enough, if you’re going to cast a musical I think it’s wise to put people who can sing and dance in it; that is, after all, why we’re seeing the movie no?

Now about jukebox musicals in general; while they don’t disturb me in principle, they have an inherent flaw. Because the songs are already written, the plot must be written around the songs. In regular musicals, the songs are written to enhance and advance the plot; here the plot is set decoration to the songs. The story, which bears a remarkable resemblance to the 1968 Gina Lollabrigida movie Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (a fact that the makers of the musical have written of as coincidental) often takes twists and turns and careens right into the ludicrous.

Still, there is the kind of energy that makes you feel good just radiating from the film. Kudos have to be given to the producers and Lloyd for making the movie feel like a movie. Often stage plays that are converted to the big screen have a stagey feel to them, but the beautiful Greek backdrop lessens that to a large extent. You don’t ever feel like you’re viewing this over a proscenium.

However be warned; Lloyd’s decision to let all the actors do their own dancing and singing was a questionable one at best and if she was going to pursue that route, she should have damn well made sure that her cast could handle it. It’s not like there aren’t leading men out there who could have handled the singing and dancing (Hugh Jackman and Neil Patrick Harris anybody?) at least adequately. Still, you know what you’re going to get going in and if you’re an ABBA fan, this is heaven on earth. If you’re a movie fan…not so much.

WHY RENT THIS: Joyous and energetic; it’s hard not to be uplifted. Streep is a surprisingly strong singer and Seyfried became a star. Not as stagey as you might expect.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the singing and dancing is really, really bad. The plot is shoehorned in to fit the songs, rather than songs written to enhance the plot.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few comments that are sexually-oriented but otherwise pretty harmless.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was the first to film on the new Pinewood 007 stage after the original had been destroyed in a fire.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interesting featurette on training the actors to sing, as well as a complete musical number that was cut from the final print (“The Name of the Game”). The Blu-Ray edition also includes the “sing-along” version (with lyrics subtitled during the songs) and Universal’s signature “U-Control” feature with picture-in-picture interviews and trivia. There is also a Gift Box edition that includes the soundtrack on CD as well as a nicely done booklet about the genesis of the film from on stage to on screen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $609.8M on a $52M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Seraphim Falls

Driving Lessons


Driving Lessons

The Weasleys do some muggle slumming.

(Sony Classics) Rupert Grint, Laura Linney, Julia Walters, Nicholas Farrell, Oliver Milburn, Michelle Duncan, Tamsin Eggerton. Directed by Jeremy Brock

Growing up is a painful, nasty business that is best left to professionals. Unfortunately, even amateurs like the rest of us have to figure it out eventually.

Ben Marshall (Grint) is a shy, bookish 17-year-old who is subject to the dictatorial whims of his evangelical Christian mother (Linney) who has her boy bring food to the elderly, participate in the church play and accept whatever charity case his mother brings to live with them, most recently a wild-eyed cross-dressing old man (Norton). She also has her eyes set on a handsome new pastor. His father, the henpecked reverend (Farrell) puts up with all of this with the patience of Job, but Ben’s veneer of British schoolboy civility is beginning to crack.

He is moved to write a poem for the object of his affections (Eggerton) but is met with only a scornful “you’re just too weird.” He also has begun to suspect that his driving lessons with his mother are a front for her to canoodle with the handsome New Age reverend she respects far more than her husband.

Ben responds to all of this by getting rather grumpy, but he winds up getting a job as a…well, I’m not really sure what. I guess a general assistant sort for a loopy actress named Evie Walton (Walters) who has bestowed upon herself the title of “Dame” and refers to her many Shakespearean roles. As Ben eventually discovers, her main claim to fame was as an actress on the equivalent of an evening soap and Dame Evie is perilously close to being dismissed as irrelevant or worse still, forgotten altogether.

Evie and Ben’s mother Laura are polar opposites; Evie high-spirited and anti-authoritarian, Laura rigid and positive that her parental authority stems directly from God. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there will be a clash between the two cultures extolled by these two very strong women and Ben’s heart – his very future – depends on which way he leans now.

Jeremy Brock, who has written some mighty fine screenplays in his day (including Mrs. Brown and The Last King of Scotland) makes his feature directing debut here and it is a solid one. There were some interesting casting decisions made; some worked wonderfully, others are a little questionable. Linney is a fine actress, but her accent is not one of her finest hours. Perhaps Brock might have been better served to allow her to keep her American accent and merely make her the Reverend Marshall’s American wife.

Putting Grint and Walters together on the other hand was inspired. Walters plays Grint’s mother in the Harry Potter series and it comes as no surprise that Grint’s best scenes are the ones he shares with her. Grint essentially plays Ron Weasley without the wand, so he does all right here but he lacks the energy I know he possesses (some of his Potter scenes bear this out). He needed a sure hand from his director I think, or at least a different direction.

Walters, on the other hand needed no such thing. This is the kind of role she excels in, the dotty English eccentric and she plays it to the hilt. It isn’t so much over-acting – which in a way is the hallmark of her character – as simply inhabiting a larger-than-life role. She’s what you’ll remember most about this movie.

Brock based this movie on his own experiences as the son of a vicar spending one summer working for Dame Peggy Ashcroft, and the movie does have an anecdotal feeling to it. The summer in which a young person grows from a child into an adult is a bittersweet season, and Brock captures that aspect of it here. While there are some missteps and things I know I would have done differently, that doesn’t take away from what is a solid, entertaining coming-of-age movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Walters is a much underrated actress who shines when she gets the opportunity to as she does here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is somewhat bland and could have used a little more color from Grint.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language and some sexual situations, probably all right for mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Grint was 16 when this was filmed and under the legal age to drive in England, so all the scenes involving Grint at the wheel were filmed on private roads.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Tyson