MAMA MIA!: HERE WE GO AGAIN*** Joyous


WHEN TANYA (CHRISTINE Baranski) first sees the new hotel manager (Andy Garcia), her immediate response is, “Be still my beating vagina”. This has got to be one of the better penned lines in a movie this year…that’s also one of the year’s most smile-inducing and spirit-uplifting (in a good way) ones.

It’s a clever enough story (OK, it’s gob-smackingly silly. But what-the-hell, it’s ABBA) that parallels the lives and hopes of the original dancing queen, Donna (Meryl Streep) and her pregnant daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). You no doubt remember that when we first met Donna (in Mama Mia 1), she was anxiously awaiting the arrival of her three ex-lovers, any of whom could be the father of Sophie. In Here We Go Again, we’re introduced to Donna as a young woman (Lily James) who has impulsively escaped the US for the sunnier shores of an idyllic Greek island that she falls in love with (along with that trio of lovers). The story cuts from this past to the present when we meet Donna’s daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) deep in the throes of a celebratory re-launch of her (now recently deceased) mom’s dream hotel.

Got that?

The idea that holds the enterprise together centres around the debate about free spiritedness and existential abandon v control, conformity and caution. Guess which side wins?

Baby Driver’s Lily James (the young Donna) and First Reform’s Amanda Seyfried (the daughter) are wonderful. They’re both golden haired, lively company with surprisingly good voices. And incredibly, they both manage to inject some verisimilitude and transcend the blonde ditziness of their roles, not to mention the befuddled hamminess of their more celebrated co-stars, the co-fathers (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard) with verve and zest.

The past/present back and forth is buoyed up by the presence of BFF’s Rosie (Alexa Davis) and Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn). The here and now version of these are English comedian Julie Waters and The Good Wife’s Christine Baranski (she of the “beating vagina” whose comic turn almost steals the movie as the unbridled spirit of middle aged horniness).

Meryl makes a cameo performance as the singing ghost of her former self (don’t ask) and Cher as Sophie’s grandmother, herself a face-lifted Botox-blighted ghost of a real person who comes face to face with her own former lover, Fernando Cienfuegos (Andy Garcia) who, of all gin joints of all the towns in the world, is the new hotel’s suave manager. It’s a 90 minute set up for Cher’s love song to him. Yep, he’s Abba’s famous Fernando (the words of which song make no sense at all. But who’s complaining)

The scenery is stunning, the acting is spirited, the dancing is (nicely) Bollywood-esque. But mainly the music’s the thing…that, like it or not, turns us all into dancing queens.

Sort of anyway

 

MAMA MIA!: HERE WE GO AGAIN. Dir: Ol Parker (Imagine Me and You). With: Lily James, Amanda Seyfried, Meryl Streep, Cher, Andy Garcia, Dominic Cooper, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard. Writers: Ol Parker with a story by the brilliant Richard Curtis (War Horse, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Love Actually). Cinematographer: Robert Yeoman (The Grand Budapest Hotel. Bridesmaids). Composers: Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus

 

APOSTASY****Dogma deconstructed


NEWCOMER DANIEL KOKATAJILO’s slow, deliberate and thoughtful examination of religious intolerance is both engaging and intellectually stimulating. It’s just not particularly emotionally compelling. Though his characters – mainly a mother (There is no reference to the husband) and her two daughters – are nicely sketched, the – deliberately – understated arc of the storyline never offers the kind of punch you’d expect.

The story focuses on a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Oldham, north-west England. The oldest daughter, Luisa is the apostate: pregnant and rebelling at what she sees as the meaningless ideology of the “Witnesses” (“There’s nothing in the Bible,” she notes “that makes these laws…just old men who change their minds from time to time”). She has been disfellowshipped. The youngest, Alex is physically dying as a result of this meaningless ideology. Her health is failing and in dire need of blood transfusions (which are against God’s law). The mother, Ivanna, has been forbidden by the Elders to visit her oldest disfellowshipped daughter and, (later on) to even hold and lover her granddaughter.

These three have all made conscious choices. For the oldest, Luisa, despite the hardships she faces, it’s a choice for liberation against dogma and the directives of a group of -to her- heartless elders. For the youngest, it’s a choice for death based on the belief that death is just a stage to a better life, where there’s almost the childish belief that marriage awaits. For the mother, seemingly lobotomized by her ideology, (and perhaps the stand-in for all the Witnesses) it’s a life without her children.

Dogma has kidnapped all human and maternal sentiment.

All three actors are superb. Molly Wright (a few episodes of the TV series, Our Girl) is Alex, the youngest. She’s believably earnest, innocent and as far away from the rebellious spirit of her sister as its possible to be. We really hope for the best for her, but know all that is to come. Siobhan Finneran (the stern figure of the law in Happy Valley) exudes a curious mix of desperation and longing along with slack jawed almost imbecile docility. And as the rebel with a cause, Sacha Parkinson (Mr. Selfridge) also allows us to feel for a character that is both steely strong (It’s no easy task walking away from the Community you’ve been born into) and on the verge of emotional collapse.

Daniel (who also wrote the movie) who was a part of the faith and is himself now an apostate, lets the story and his characters lead the way without ever overtly tipping the scale in the direction of outrage. The Witnesses he shows us are ‘just’ like everyone else: they enjoy partying, they’re part of a strong community; there’s no hypocrisy to their beliefs. And there’s no doubt as to the insider veracity of the world he’s portraying.

The Witnesses are happy. So long as they do exactly as they’re told and so long as they keep the outside world of non-Witnesses at arm’s length.

But Daniel’s efforts to minimize over dramatizing what is inherently a deeply sad, deeply ‘dramatic’ story results in movie that, like the mother, often feels bloodless. He allows us to see the absurdities of a life lived through ideology… which of course opens the theme of the story way beyond an examination of religion to an insight into the way our secular ideologies are equally lobotomizing its faithful.

But perhaps, old loyalties persuaded him to pull his punches.
And this fine movie is all the poorer for it.

 

APOSTASY. Dir/Writer: Daniel Kokotajilo. With: Siobhan Finneran, Sacha Parkinson, Robert Evans, Molly Wright. Cinematographer: Adam Scarth

 

 

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE:FALLOUT*** Non Stop


IN WHAT IS, essentially, a single long chase sequence, Mission Impossible: Fallout is, hands down, the most adrenaline pumping action movie for the last few years. From a no-holds barred fight in a Men’s Room to a wild motorcycle chase against the flow in busy downtown traffic to a demented helicopter shootout, Director/writer and ex-detective Chris McQuarrie (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation; Jack Reacher and the writer of Edge of Tomorrow) has dramatically upped the ante on great action set pieces.

As he always does in these – very varied – M.I stories, Tom Cruise, looking none of his 55+ years (There must be a Dorian Grey picture of him in some Scientology vault) throws himself into the maelstrom with gung-ho abandon. He runs, leaps tall buildings, scales un-scalable cliffs and whizzes through some of Europe’s most scenic locations, all seen in a heart-pounding blur.

The relentless pulse of kinetic drive is made all the more thrilling by Lorne Balfe’s (The Crown, Pacific Rim) outstanding sound track and his gorgeous reinterpretation of Lalo Schifrin’s well-known melody.

The convoluted story of multiple deceptions and untrustworthy allies doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But then, if you came to a M.I movie expecting “sense”, you’re in the wrong place. The basic plot follows Ethan and his trusty crew (Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg) as they track down some stolen nuclear devices and a mysterious arch criminal, John Lane. Along the way, they run into a “fixer” – the White Widow – underplayed by an underused Vanessa Kerby (Princess Margaret from The Crown), a CIA hit man (Henry Cavill. far more convincing than he ever was as Superman), multiple anonymous thugs and his fellow M.I BFF, Rebecca Ferguson.

(Of that lot, only Ving is American. Even the villain –Sean Harris- in a Brit. Than you Tom. We’ll need to like of you even more after Brexit)

There are no damsels in distress here. These women all kick-ass in ways that would make most macho men shrivel.
It is reported that Cruise does all (most?) of his stunts. And in the filming of this movie, he broke his ankle (and shut down production for three months). This craziness/mania on his part certainly pays off: nothing looks fake. You really feel that Cruise/Ethan Hunt is genuinely fighting against the wind and clambering aboard a flying helicopter. Because (no doubt with “strings” attached) he probably was.
Can’t wait for M.I. 7. Or is it 17?

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT. Dir: Christopher McQuarrie. With: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kerby. Cinematographer: Rob Hardy (Annihilation). Composer: Lorne Balfe (Churchill. Ghost in the Shell) Production designer: Peter Wenham (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

 

INCREDIBLES 2**** Simply…incredible


JOYOUS. HYSTERICAL. BRILLIANTLY well written. Gloriously well directed. The real world sharply observed. All that from a cartoon. It’s the incredible Incredibles 2, a movie about superheroes with more real world insights that most other movies and definitely more than any other superhero movie. Ever.

The action starts pretty much where the last one (waaay back in 2004) ended. Like the X Men, the superheroes have been outlawed. And even though they’re just thwarted the nasty Underminer, it’s not because they’re a danger to society or even because they’re different. The problem, as pointed out by the sharp suited, sweet talking Winston Deavour (Bob Odenkirk), is that they don’t offer a compelling enough narrative to woo and win the hearts of people (and lawmakers). It’s not a failure of substance, it’s simply a failure of PR.

Which pretty much sums up our world.

So, for a user-friendly, appealing icon of superhero repositioning, PR guru Winston focuses on the sympathetic, sexy mom, Mrs. Incredible aka Elastigirl, aka Helen Parr (Holly Hunter).

This is much to the chagrin of Mr. Incredible, Bob (Craig T Nelson), her newly downgraded – to babysitter in chief – husband. After a few PR friendly battles, in full throttle with her version of the Batmobile, Helen must take on a far more malevolent foe, Screenslaver. This villain has hacked into the screens and brains of others to create a fake, if believably false narrative…all intending to subvert the truth and doom the heroes.

And in other news of Brexit…

The real battle though is at home where dad must deal with his bruised ego, his daughter’s puppy love agonies, his son’s maths test and the gob-smacking explosion of baby Jack Jack’s emerging and unchecked superpowers. JJ can not only teleport through dimensions, but has machine gun laser beam eyes, can multiply herself and turns into a ferocious flaming demon when angered (mainly thru lack of cookies).

Mom doesn’t think dad can do it without her (typical!). But he does (typical dad superheroism!)

This wild, exuberant romp, amped up by Michael Giacchino’s Bond-esque score, is peopled with the people we all recognize: the gawky, gushing teenage fan, Voyd (who can also bounce people through portals in space), the haughty designer diva, Edna (turned babysitter), the emasculated superman, the petulant daughter etc. And it whooshes by a smorgasbord of hot off the news themes: female empowerment, the power of branding, unemployment, political lobbying, opinion manipulation the rule and misrule of the law. For starters.

This is a kids’ movie?

Holly Hunter (such a distinctive voice) heads up a strong cast of characters (including Catherine Keener, Isabella Rossellini and Samuel. L. Jackson). And is only outshone by Sophia Bush (Mainly Chicago Fire and Chicago PD) as the blushing, self-conscious, shy, gawky teenager, Voyd. In her, Pixar’s fabulous cartoonists’ skills, spearheaded by Art Director Josh Holtsclaw (Cars 3) and Production Designer Ralph Eggleston (Inside Out, Wall-E) simply take your breath away…all under the superb conductor’s baton of director/writer Brad Bird. Mr. Bird (who is also the voice of the fashion diva Edna) helmed the last decent MI outing (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) as well as the original Incredibles.

I say Oscars all round

 

INCREDIBLES 2. Dir. and writer: Brad Bird. With: Craig T Nelson (Gold, Book Club), Holly Hunter (Top of the Lake, Saving Grace), Catherine Keener (Sicarion2: Soldado), Bob Odenkirk (The Post), Samuel L Jackson, Sophia Bush. Cinematographer: Mahyar Abousaeedi (The Good Dinosaur). Composer: Michael Giacchino (Jurassic Word; Fallen Kingdom). Production Designer: Ralph Eggleston (Finding Nemo). Art Director: Josh Holtsclaw (Cars 3)

 

LEAVE NO TRACE**** Leaves a huge footprint


This is the world of people who live off the grid…those who leave no trace. The story follows a few months in the lives of a father, Will (a stoic Ben Foster) and daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) who have set up permanent camp deep in the heart of a dense, verdant forest in Oregon. They forage for food, topped up by occasional visits to the city; the traffic and noise and crowds there stand in stark contrast to the peace and calm of their almost Edenic forest home. Their relationship is affectionate and loving. He is obviously a caring and responsible father. She’s a bright, happy daughter; one well tutored by him. This is what home is all about.

When they’re discovered by the State – which goes out of its way to respect and take care of them – their pastoral ‘freedom’ from social convention is shattered and they’re forced, if only briefly, to conform. To the State, they’re homeless, and a home (and job) must be found; to them, their Hobbit-like retreat was home. This house where they’re relocated feels like a cage (“We can still think our own thoughts” are Will’s comforting words). And not unexpectedly, they soon steal away once again into the obscuring woods in the hope of recapturing their lost tracelessness, to rebuild their own idea of home.

Director Debra Granik (in her first feature-length movie since the fabulous Winter’s Bone) presents us with her two protagonists and their mission to drop out, with a quiet intensity but almost without editorial comment or censure…as if father and daughter were no more than two innocents, heroically freeing themselves from the compromises and constraints of civilization. But as the story slowly unfolds and we get glimpses of Will’s PTSD (He sells his drugs on the black market to earn what little cash they need) we realise that his is an escape not from civilisation per se, but from some private trauma. His daughter, thirteen-year old Tom, who evolves from child to carer, is simply an innocent victim of what is no more than an act of supreme paternal selfishness. For despite his genuine care and protectiveness, this escapism is really an act of deep irresponsibility. It isn’t intentional. He is probably not for a moment aware that what he thinks is best for them, is probably (marginally) only good for him. Thus do parents, even unintentionally, blight the lives of their kids. She isn’t even old enough to be aware that the idyll of her life is headed for the disaster of abandonment.

As she did so magnificently in Winter’s Bone, director Granik’s calm observing eye conjures up a very real, very strange world. Will and Tom aren’t the only ones living off the grid. We’re introduced to others – those who can no longer live within the confines and dictates of social convention. They’re mostly warm and caring, looking after each other, building their idea of community (In other words not freaks or weirdoes).

But they’re all adults, living a life they chose, perhaps willing a retreat to innocence, not a child innocently trapped in a life chosen for her.

New Zealander Thomasin McKenzie is a terrific ‘newcomer’ (She’s appeared in small parts in a number of minor movies as well as Astrid in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies). The chemistry between her and Ben Foster carry the movie…give it a spirit that’s spellbinding. I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more of her intelligent expressive face in the near future (as we did after Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout performance in Winter’s Bone). Let’s hope we also see more from Debra and not have to wait another ten years.

 

LEAVE NO TRACE. Dir. (and screenplay): Debra Granik. With: Thomasin McKenzie, Ben Foster (Hostiles, Hell or High Water). Screenplay: Anne Rosselini (Winter’s Bone) based on the novel from Peter Rock, ‘My Abandonment’. Cinematographer: Michael McDonough. Production Designer: Chad Keith

 

 

 

 

OCEANS EIGHT** Less and ocean, more a puddle


OTHER THAN (IN my case) a problem with a Virgin Media and a stiflingly hot house, there really is no good reason to make the effort to see this trifling, if intermittently entertaining, bauble. The good news is that (for Hollywood at least) it’s a radical departure from the norm: a non ‘chick flick’ movie with an entirely female cast of leads. (Sadly this great initiative didn’t extend to the production crew: the director, DP, writer, composer, production designer etc. were all male. You don’t want to rush things in Hollywood)

The story follows the path laid down by the original Steve Soderberg Oceans Eleven. There are a duo of leaders (in this case, wise cracking, super cool George Clooney as Danny Ocean and a junk food munching Brad Pitt have been replaced by the Botox mask of who might be Sandra Bullock as Danny’s sister and her subservient second in command, Cate Blanchett). They plot the heist (an impossibly expensive Cartier necklace to be worn on the exquisite throat of Anne Hathaway during the annual Met ball), gather the rag-tag crew and pull off the heist with aplomb and well-courtiered sangre froid.

It’s a pale imitation of the original. Gone is the very smart script from George Clayton Johnson that helped to flesh out a bunch of delightful characters with whom it was such a pleasure to spend a few hours. Gone too is the foil. Andy Garcia was such a nasty piece of work that we rooted for Danny and gang to deliver his comeuppance. And gone is the tension…those multiple occasions when things seemed to be heading south.

Oceans Eight has a few early cons (Sandra Bullock pulling off a clever, massive store-aided shop lift) that are great fun. But the details of the heist are so silly and the characters so underwritten that, apart from a tremendous performance from Anne Hathaway, the entire enterprise just drags along to its unsurprising conclusion. Director Gary Ross (of Hunger Games) plods through the action, drearily lit by Eigil Byld (In Bruges).

The big disappointment though was Sandra. Her usual buoyancy and comic timing seemed off…perhaps hiding under the face-filling need to stay forever thirty.

Let’s please not have an Ocean’s Nine. This franchise wore out its shelf life after the lacklustre self-referential Oceans Eleven. More Oceans would probably violate some clause in the Geneva Convention

 

OCEANS EIGHT. Dir: Gary Ross. With: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham-Carter, Rihanna. Writer: Gary Ross. Cinematographer: Eigil Blyd. Production design: Alex DiGerlando