‘Mamma Mia!’ – Maybe You’ll Like It, Maybe You Won’t

Mamma Mia movie poster

I never got to see the musical of “Mamma Mia” when it was onstage, but I’m not really surprised it became a big hit. The musical tells the story of a young girl on the verge of getting married and of how she ends up secretly inviting three of her mom’s previous boyfriends to her wedding. The catch is one of these men may actually be her father, and she would like whoever it is to give her away at her wedding. But when her mother realizes these three men have arrived, it makes her weep for the past she thought she had forever lost, and all of this is done to the tune of ABBA’s greatest hits which include “Dancing Queen,” “Take A Chance on Me,” and “S.O.S.” among others.

I’m not sure I am the right person to be reviewing this movie because I don’t fit into its demographic, and I have never been a big fan of musicals. I don’t despise them, they just never really appealed to me as much as they do to my friends. There are a few musicals like “Evita” and “West Side Story” which appeal greatly to me, and the film adaptation of the “Hairspray” musical provided me with one of the most entertaining times I had at the movies in 2007. But “Mamma Mia” is not in the same league as “Hairspray” or even “Moulin Rouge.” Maybe it’s because those movies brought us into their musical world so deeply while we watched them and did things others in this genre dare not do.

“Mamma Mia” on the other hand, didn’t draw me in as much, and this is regardless of the boundless energy that all the actors had when onscreen. You come out of it thinking that they must have had the time of their lives while making it. I certainly don’t want to take away from the effort put into the movie by everyone involved, but instead of feeling excited by all that was going on, I instead felt alienated from the whole venture. There was this cloying feeling I kept feeling throughout which made me believe this movie was less than genuine in its emotions.

The other big issue I had with “Mamma Mia” is the fact it is basically a musical founded upon a gimmick: centering an old-fashioned love story around a number of ABBA songs which people all over the world have listened to over and over again. Plus, seeing other actors sing ABBA songs feels a bit off putting as it reminds me of how infectiously good the original versions are. The actors certainly do their best, and Meryl Streep belts out a tremendous version of “The Winner Takes It All” which reminds us again of the great singing voice she has. We should have never forgotten this fact, but it has been a long time since we saw Streep go country in “Postcards from The Edge.”

The one thing that I really did admire about “Mamma Mia” is it shows without a doubt how actresses over 40 do have a place in today’s Hollywood, and that their experience is invaluable to movies like these. Hollywood is ruthlessly notorious for going after the youngest of actresses to star in movies, but many of these actresses have no real-life experience to draw on as of yet. The actresses in “Mamma Mia,” however, end up stealing every single scene they are in. Whatever you think about the movie as a whole, the elder actresses (if you really want to call them that) are the best reason to check it out.

Streep continues to make us all aware of the fact she is one of the best actresses, period. She brings a strong life force to her role of a woman working alone on an island with her daughter, feeling she is past her prime in life while her two sisters convince her nothing could be further from the truth.

Two of my favorite performances in come from Christine Baranski and Julie Walters, and they are a gas to watch throughout. Baranski has basically been a professional scene stealer ever since she co-starred as Cybil Sheppard’s best friend on “Cybil.” Since then, she has stolen scene after scene in movies like “Bulworth” and “Bowfinger” among others. Her performance as Tanya, the often-divorced sister of Streep’s character is a hoot, and there is no doubt she had a blast playing this role.

Julie Walters is probably best known to today’s audiences as Ron Weasley’s mother in the “Harry Potter” movies, but never forget she can be a hell of an actress when you give her the right part. Watching her shamelessly trying to seduce Stellan Skarsgard’s character to the tune of “Take A Chance on Me” is a highlight, and she plays her role with no inhibitions whatsoever. I hope we see her in movies which use her for more than just a supporting role.

The role of the bride to be, Sophie Sheridan, is played by Amanda Seyfried. She is very fetching here and she has a wonderful voice to boot. She also has the wonderful privilege of working with Meryl Streep, and they play off of each other wonderfully.

The three potential fathers of Sophie are played by Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, and Pierce Brosnan. Colin’s effortless charm has never faded in the slightest ever since he played Mr. Darcy on the BBC miniseries “Pride & Prejudice.” As for Skarsgard, it is great to see him in a role where he is acting ever so serious like he did in “Insomnia” (the original) or “The Hunt for Red October.” This brings me to Pierce Brosnan, and while he is always a good actor, I need to be honest and say the man cannot sing. He just can’t! After watching him sing “S.O.S.,” I got that cringe inducing feeling as did the rest of my family while we were all watching this movie. As a result, we watched the rest of the movie in fear of him singing yet again. Did he sing again? Oh yes! Brosnan has had a long and celebrated career which included playing James Bond, but please, please, please don’t let him sing in the future! PLEASE!

In spite of all the strong elements “Mamma Mia” has, I still felt indifferent to it. In the end, I don’t think I fit its target audience. If you like musicals, then I would not stand in your way of watching it, but I can see why I didn’t bother with the film while it was in theaters. I certainly don’t hate “Mamma Mia” as there is a lot about it to admire, but it didn’t affect me in the same way as “Hairspray” or “Moulin Rouge” did. I enjoy the music of ABBA as much as the next person but listening to it here does not leave me with the same musical exhilaration. Perhaps you will feel differently.

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘Dead Man Down’ Reunites Niels Arden Oplev with his Lisbeth Salander

Dead Man Down movie poster

The tagline for “Dead Man Down” is “revenge is coming.” But while revenge is a big theme, it’s really about forgiveness. These characters have been forever wounded by a past which will not let them be, and they spend their time trying to avenge it in order to find some form of peace in their lives. What results is a movie which doesn’t break any new ground (few movies these days do anyway), but it is still a compelling one filled with complex characters and twists I didn’t see coming.

We meet Victor (Colin Farrell), the right-hand man to ruthless New York crime lord Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard), and he defends his boss in a nasty firefight at the movie’s start. Quickly, we assume Victor is as loyal to Alphonse as any gangland player could ever be and that he will soon get a meteoric rise to the top of the criminal food chain. However, it turns out Victor is actually seeking revenge against Alphonse for killing his wife and child, and he is getting closer and closer to exacting his revenge.

But then Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a woman who lives in an apartment across from Victor’s, enters the picture. Beatrice is still recovering emotionally from a nasty car accident which has left her face permanently scarred. While the scar hasn’t taken away all her beauty, it has destroyed her self-image and left her with a deep-seated rage she is desperate to be rid of.

After a dinner where the two of them make small talk and discover things they have in common, Beatrice makes her real intentions clear to Victor; she wants him to kill the drunk driver who plowed into her car and ruined her face. Moreover, she is willing to blackmail Victor into doing this as she has evidence of him killing another man. Knowing Victor is capable of taking a life, she gives him no choice but to take another. Both have strong motivations for vengeance, but can they tear themselves away from their rage long enough to see the damage they are doing to one another?

Right from the start, “Dead Man Down” is filled with twists and turns which makes this average revenge thriller all the more entertaining to sit through. Even if the twists aren’t entirely plausible, they keep us on the edge of our seats as we can only guess what will happen next. Just when you think you know where things are going, you don’t.

But what I really liked about this movie was how wonderfully complex the characters were. There is nothing black and white about them as everyone exists in a morally grey area. While Victor and Beatrice are clearly justified in having their revenge, we know the ways they are seeking it will do not make them good people. Even Alphonse comes across as much more than an average one-dimensional bad guy as he is someone who certainly wasn’t born evil. While certain characters may deserve some form of punishment over others, no one comes out of this story the least bit innocent.

“Dead Man Down” marks the first English language film from writer and director Niels Arden Oplev, the same man who gave us the original version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” as well as the recent remake of “Flatliners.” Now when filmmakers from a foreign country come over to America, their talents usually get compromised in the process. But Oplev doesn’t appear to have lost any of his skill here as he gives us a strong motion picture filled with fascinating characters. He also gets terrific performances from each of his actors as well as some strong visual moments such as a descent down the middle of a stairwell.

Colin Farrell has gone from doing needless remakes like “Fright Night” and “Total Recall” to terrific movies such as “In Bruges” and “Seven Psychopaths.” He has become an actor who can go from playing a good guy to a bad guy with relative ease, and this makes him perfect for a character like Victor who could be seen as either. Farrell does excellent work in conveying Victor’s conflicted emotions as he goes about exacting his revenge. As he gets closer to achieving his goal, Victor begins to see how he is becoming just like those who destroyed his life. Seeing the pain in Farrell’s eyes as he makes this clear to the audience without words shows us how great of an actor he can be when given the right material.

Noomi Rapace, the original Lisbeth Salander, is a powerhouse as Beatrice. Watching Rapace deal with her rage as well as the bad luck life has dealt her is enthralling to take in, and the scenes where she is attacked by a group of children who see her as a monster are devastating to witness. Like Salander, Beatrice is stuck in a moment which forever changed the course of her life, but Rapace gets to showcase more of a vulnerability here she wasn’t able to express as much in her star making performance. She remains a compelling actress to keep an eye on, and it’s great to see her reunited here with Oplev.

But I the performance which most impressed me was Terrence Howard’s as Alphonse Hoyt. Now when you see an actor take on the role of an evil crime lord, you expect them to chew the scenery and give an over the top performance. But Howard doesn’t do this here, and it is clear he has given this role a lot of thought. There is no doubt that Alphonse is an evil dude, but Howard is excellent in giving a method to this man’s madness. Howard left such a powerful impression on us with his Oscar nominated performance in “Hustle & Flow,” and his performance in “Dead Man Down” is a reminder of how he never lets us down as an actor.

In addition, there is a really good supporting performance by Dominic Cooper as Victor’s friend Darcy, and he has a wonderful scene at the start where he is holding his baby and talking about how he hopes being a father will lead him to a better future. The great Isabelle Huppert also shows up as Beatrice’s mom, Valentine, and she remains a remarkable actress even in the smallest of roles. There’s also strong cinematography from Paul Cameron and a wonderfully atmospheric film score from composer Jacob Groth to take in as well.

“Dead Man Down” is not the equal of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and its climax is a bit over the top for a movie like this, but I liked how character driven it was and you don’t see many movies like that these days. It is also a compelling story about how the power of forgiveness is more important than the need for revenge. In this day and age, it is important to remember that.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ Introduces Us to a Real American Hero

Captain America The First Avenger poster

Captain America: The First Avenger” succeeds where “The Green Lantern” utterly failed. It gives us a superhero, one from the Marvel Comics universe, who is distinct from those of his ilk, and he is one we quickly come to care about and root for. Steve Rogers isn’t just some cocky kid from Brooklyn with an overinflated ego. He’s a sickly young man who desperately wants to fight for his country, but who has been rejected by the military countless times. But what he lacks in health and strength he makes up for in spirit. Steve wants to fight for his country not because Uncle Sam wants him to, but because, and he said it himself, he never backs down from a fight.

I liked how this movie didn’t shy from its American roots the way “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” did. While that movie tried to make you forget the slogan “a real American hero,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” doesn’t do the same. At the same time, it doesn’t beat you over the head with blind American patriotism. It has its share of American pride, but it’s really about the spirit of this unlikely soldier which keeps him sane after he is transformed into a super soldier. The outside may be different, but the inside of this man remains the same to where he sounds like a relation to Robocop.

Playing Steve Rogers/Captain America is Chris Evans who you may remember him from those dopey “Fantastic Four” movies. As for myself, I remember him best for doing a skateboard grind down an icy railing which led to his ultimate demise in “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.” Evans is perfectly cast and does great work in keeping his character from becoming just another clichéd war hero. His heart shines throughout the entire movie, and he never allows Rogers to become laughable or indulge in behavior which would seem cringe inducing.

Once Steve is turned into Captain America, you root for him to go into battle and defeat the Nazis. But seeing him become a pawn for the United States Government in hawking War Bonds is depressing even when his irrepressible spirit and love for country shines through. We understand his desire to prove himself, and our spirits rise along with his.

Of course, with every superhero movie we get a vicious villain. In this case, this would be Johann Schmidt, Adolf Hitler’s right hand man who is later revealed to be Red Skull. This particular Skull has his own plans for world domination through his organization of HYDRA, and he gets his followers to raise both hands instead of just the one for Hitler. With a stolen tesseract, HYDRA can eliminate their foes faster than those phasers that vaporized all the red shirts on “Star Trek.”

Hugo Weaving portrays Johann Schmidt/Red Skull, and he gives “Captain America” the formidable villain it needs. Still, after being in all “The Matrix” and the “Lord of the Rings” movies, I kept waiting for him to say, “Welcome to Rivendell Mr. Anderson!”

“Captain America: The First Avenger” also has the other requisite characters like the Army drill sergeant and the beautiful woman who dares the most macho men to treat her as just a woman instead of the tough as nails soldier she is. It’s not hard to guess who gets their ass kicked here when other men foolishly hit on her. Still, director Joe Johnston succeeds in getting the best actors available to inhabit these roles and give them life beyond the mere superhero movie stereotypes they could have been.

Tommy Lee Jones is highly entertaining as Col. Chester Phillips, a gruff, no nonsense military leader who expects nothing but the best from his soldiers. Jones, however, gives Phillips a wry sense of humor much like the one Sam Gerard had in “The Fugitive.” Watching him being subtly dismissive of others and later coming around to see Steve Rogers is the man is a hoot, and he never ends up screaming all over the place like R. Lee Emery did in “Full Metal Jacket.”

Then there’s Hayley Atwell who plays Peggy Carter, the female officer who eventually becomes Steve Rogers’ love interest. I really liked how Peggy was drawn out to where she doesn’t just exist for the sake of the movie’s superhero. Atwell sells us completely on her tough demeanor to where it cannot and should not be mistaken as an act, and she travels across the screen with an assured confidence which no one should ever doubt. If they do doubt her, it will say much more about her.

Johnston got the job of directing “Captain America: The First Avenger” based on the period movies he made such as “The Rocketeer” and “October Sky.” There’s a lot of attention paid to detail here (the story takes place 1942 to be exact), but it isn’t held prisoner by it. Heck, many of the tools HYDRA ends up using seem far removed from the 40’s, and they look like they came out of a sci-fi movie made in the 1970’s or 80’s. While Johnston hasn’t made a great movie here, he still has given us an undeniably entertaining one, and it didn’t even need another terrific film score by Alan Silvestri to prove this.

When it comes to the 2011 summer movie season, “Captain America: The First Avenger” isn’t better than “Thor” which for me had far more interesting characters, but it easily outdoes “The Green Lantern” which is one of that year’s biggest disappointments. Thanks to Evans’ performance, Captain America finally gets the cinematic respect this character has long since been denied.

* * * out of * * * *