‘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 * * * *

‘Filmworker’ Serves as a Love Letter to Stanley Kubrick’s Right-Hand Man

Filmworker poster

It has been almost 20 years since Stanley Kubrick passed away, but his presence is still deeply felt among cinephiles. Some may say this is because “2001: A Space Odyssey” is being re-released in honor of its 50th anniversary, but it goes much further than that. Kubrick had a singular vision, and stories of his directorial methods, such as getting an actor to do dozens upon dozens of takes of a single scene, remain legendary as only a handful of filmmakers could have gotten away with this. And as the documentary “Room 237” showed, people continue to share their interpretations of “The Shining” and of the meanings they believe certain images in it have. Indeed, Kubrick’s films had a large degree of ambiguity in them, and watching them just once is never enough.

But just when you thought you had heard every story about Kubrick, along comes Tony Zierra’s documentary “Filmworker” which looks at the life and times of Kubrick’s right-hand man, Leon Vitali. As an actor, he worked a lot in British television, but after appearing in Kubrick’s film “Barry Lyndon,” he dedicated his life to helping the famed director any which way he could. What results is a movie about working with such a meticulous human being, and of the overall effects it had on Vitali to where it is shocking to see he is still above ground.

“Filmworker” starts with a look at Vitali’s early life as an actor, and it shows how o often he worked in British television and movies to where he was never ever lacking for a job, a position I and my actor friends get to enjoy at some point in this lifetime. Then he got the role of Lord Bullingdon in “Barry Lyndon,” and this introduced the actor to the Kubrick life he was quick to embrace. In a scene where Ryan O’Neal ends up punching Vitali in the back, O’Neal says Kubrick told him, “You’re not hitting him hard enough.” From there, they did the scene 30 more times, and it served as Vitali’s introduction to Kubrick’s obsessive nature in getting things just right down to the smallest of details.

It is very easy to see why Vitali became such a die-hard Kubrick fan after he watched “2001” and “A Clockwork Orange.” Both films reflected a singular vision no other director could have conjured, and Vitali remarked how “2001” dared to have no dialogue in its first 20 minutes, something which seems unthinkable in this day and age. Following their collaboration on “Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick sent him a copy of Stephen King’s “The Shining” to see if it would be worth turning into a movie. Once Vitali told Kubrick it was, the director brought him on so he could search for the perfect child actor to play Danny Torrance. From there, he abandoned his acting career and dedicated his life to Kubrick all the way through his last movie, “Eyes Wide Shut.”

Vitali ended up doing just about every kind of job for Kubrick including casting director, acting coach, location scout, sound engineer and color corrector to name a few. Upon Kubrick’s passing, he became the only person to restore his films. To say he dedicated his life to Kubrick’s work would be the understatement of the millennium. We watch as he works tirelessly to get all the details right, and we see the toll it takes on him and his body. He speaks of how he worked two 36-hour shifts on one project and of how he slept on the floor to catch a two-hour nap while fully dressed so that, when he woke up, he could get right back to work.

Watching “Filmworker,” I wasn’t always sure if I should thank Vitali for all the work he has done or pity him. Some describe him as Igor to Kubrick’s Dr. Frankenstein. I prefer to see him as Waylon Smithers to Kubrick’s Mr. Burns. This man gave up a thriving acting career to work for the director of “Dr. Strangeglove,” and their relationship certainly had a bit of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to it. Vitali shows us the note Kubrick wrote to him in thanks for his work on “Barry Lyndon,” and he remarks at how his first handshake with the filmmaker proved to be “very warm.” But once they began working on “Full Metal Jacket,” Vitali admitted he came to see another side of Kubrick, one which few others got to see up close.

Many like to talk about the Stanley Kubrick they met and of how he was so different compared to all the rumors which were circulating throughout Hollywood about him, but Vitali makes it abundantly clear how he knew Kubrick in a way no one else could. At one point, he even describes Kubrick as the film industry’s equivalent to Gordon Ramsey, the chef from “Hell’s Kitchen” and a man who is always in serious need of anger management classes. People keep asking Vitali how he handled Kubrick, but he responds to this by saying he never handled him but instead handled himself so that he could exist in Kubrick’s world.

Actors like Matthew Modine, Danny Lloyd and the late R. Lee Ermey are interviewed at length here, and they have great stories to share about both Kubrick and Vitali. Lloyd and Ermey credit Vitali for helping them with their performances in a way no one else could, and Modine remarks at how selfless Vitali is when it comes to his work for Kubrick. Modine is just one of several individuals who freely admit they are too selfish to dedicate their lives to Kubrick the way Vitali did. O’Neal goes out of his way to say he “fled” the set of “Barry Lyndon” once his work there was done as he was terrified of being subjected to reshoots.

Indeed, the level of dedication Vitali gives Kubrick is both commendable and scary. You also have to feel for him as he suffers under the heavy hand of Warner Brothers while working to give Kubrick’s films the attention they deserved. I remember when the first DVD’s of his work came out and how bad they were, and Vitali spent his precious time getting the color just right. Hearing how Kubrick got incensed if the green was off reminded me of Robin Williams in “One Hour Photo” when his character of Sy went off at a repairman for not taking a difference of three points in color all that seriously. If you are passionate enough about something, you will see it through to the very last detail.

As you can imagine, there is a good deal of trivia about Kubrick on display here. Among the most interesting bits come from Ermey who played Gunnery Sargent Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket” as he discusses how he went about getting actors for the movie, and it is eerie to see him describe what the movie did for his career and of how he has led a great life as it was only a few weeks ago he died due to complications from pneumonia. We also get to hear from Tim Colceri who was originally cast as Hartman before being replaced by Ermey. He ended up playing the doorgunner who shoots away at any and every Vietnamese individual regardless of whether or not they are the “enemy.” Watching Colceri’s face as he reflects on the role he could have had is heartbreaking as his disappointment looks to last a lifetime.

In a lot of ways, “Filmworker” serves as a love letter to Vitali as his work on Kubrick’s films is extraordinary, and we should be thankful for what he has done as this documentary shows how no one else could have preserved the iconic director’s work the way he has. But beyond that, it also acts as a love letter to those who work tirelessly behind the scenes on film sets as they often do not get the respect they deserve. To many, they simply appear as names on a movie’s end credits, and some of those credits move at lightning speed when those movies are shown on the Sundance Channel. But after watching this documentary, we have every reason to thank Vitali for his devotion to Kubrick as, without him, no one could have been able to give “Eyes Wide Shut” the release it deserved. But more importantly, it provides Vitali with the happy ending he has long since earned.

While watching “Filmworker,” I was reminded of what Homer Simpson told his family while they watched the end credits for “The Simpsons Movie:”

“A lot of people worked hard on this film, and all they ask is for you to memorize their names!”

This is, of course, completely unrealistic, but when it comes to “Filmworker,” I want to believe such a thing could be possible.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Thor’ Arrives with Thunderous Abandon

Thor movie poster

Thor” makes its presence known with thunderous abandon. Now like many comic books, this one is yet another I haven’t read, so I can’t say how true it stays to its origins. However, judging from the great Kenneth Branagh’s handling of the material, I imagine it’s very respectful to the character.

Heeding closely to classic Norse mythology, Thor is the god of thunder and heir to the throne of Asgard. But on the day of his ascension, the Frost Giants invade the planet’s deeper regions to retrieve the Casket of Ancient Winters, the source of their power. They are easily defeated, but their violation of the truce put together between them and Asgard seriously pisses Thor off. Against his father’s wishes, he and his fellow warriors journey to the Frost Giants home planet of Jotunheim to keep some frosty ass. Odin, however, intervenes and, infuriated with his son’s arrogance, strips him of his powers and banishes him to Earth. For a warrior like Thor, being banished to Earth does feel like a nasty insult.

First off, I really liked the way Branagh handled this material. In the wrong hands, this could have easily become high camp which would have been enjoyable for all the wrong reasons. But Branagh takes the characters and places they inhabit seriously, and he infuses them all with a strong humanity which comes to define them more than does their place in the universe. Even the villains are remarkably complex as their corruption results not so much from a need for power, but instead for a father’s love and approval. Of course, with Branagh directing, you can count on many Shakespearean references throughout, be it Iago from “Othello” or “King Lear,” and they prove to be a perfect fit for this movie.

I was also impressed with how well Branagh handled the visual elements of “Thor.” The last time he made a movie heavy with special effects was “Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein,” and he seemed a bit out of his league with that one. Perhaps we should not be impressed as this movie has a budget of at least $100 million, not counting advertisement costs, but the key thing here is the effects succeed in being an extension of the characters instead of just dwarfing them completely. Then again, that giant creature the Frost Giants unleash on Thor immediately had Liam Neeson screaming in my head, “RELEASE THE KRAKEN!!!”

As Thor, Chris Hemsworth, who played Captain Kirk’s father in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek,” owns the role right from the first moment he walks onscreen. Hemsworth clearly revels in portraying the great power Thor possesses, and he is a gentleman when the situation calls for it. Seeing him as a fish out of water on Earth also makes for some splendid moments which are slyly comic. I’m also glad to see Thor is not just another character who doesn’t want to be “the one,” conflicted about the things he is destined to do. With Hemsworth, you know from the get go he is fully aware he’s “the one” and owns this knowledge to where you feel his impatience in wanting to prove it to the universe. Instead of a whiny Anakin Skywalker, Hemsworth gives us a powerful warrior worth cheering for, and one who eventually learns from his mistakes.

As scientist Jane Foster, Natalie Portman’s casting in the role seems like a no brainer. We know from her off screen life that she is a remarkably intelligent human being, so she doesn’t have to prove to us how believable she can be as a scientist. She sparks instant chemistry with Hemsworth (damn those six pack abs!!!), and that shy smile of hers kills me every single time.

Then there’s the great Sir Anthony Hopkins whose portrayal of Asgard’s king and father to Thor, Odin, is nothing short of gallant. This is especially the case with the opening narration which he recites with such depth to where he makes all other actors who’ve done it before him sound like they were sleepwalking their way through it. While many may think this is one of those roles Hopkins did for an easy paycheck, it’s really one of the best performances he’s given in a while.

Tom Hiddleston plays Loki, Thor’s brother and the movie’s main villain. What I liked about Hiddleston is how he does so much more than give us the usual one-dimensional bad guy. Just like Joaquin Phoenix’s character from “Gladiator,” Loki feels slighted by his father as he prefers another man over him, and he becomes desperately eager to prove himself in any way he can. But of course, he ends up doing it in the worst way possible. Hiddleston makes Loki into a character who is more spiteful than hateful, and this makes his eventual fate seem all the more tragic in retrospect.

There are other strong performances throughout this blockbuster affair to enjoy as well. Rene Russo, where have you been? Idris Elba makes a memorable Heimdall, and it never seems like a small part with him playing it. Kat Dennings steals a few scenes as Darcy Lewis, Jane’s co-worker whose science is more political than astronomical. And Stellan Skarsgård remains a dependable actor as always playing scientist Erik Selvig, a character who ends up playing an important role in “The Avengers.”

Having said all this, “Thor” did feel like it could have been a little more exciting. It doesn’t quite have the same invigorating sweep as some of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations like “Hamlet” or “Henry V,” and it takes longer to get to the action than it should. It’s not quite as entertaining as “Iron Man,” but I would definitely rank it above “The Incredible Hulk.”

Regardless, there is still much to like about “Thor,” and Branagh has done the best job anyone could have in bringing this particular comic book hero to the big screen in such a respectful fashion. It also benefits from excellent casting, especially Hemsworth who looks like he came out of the womb looking like a warrior with a mighty hammer in his hand. This is one of the few times where “getting hammered” will sound more like a threat than an embarrassing state of drunkenness.

* * * out of * * * *

The Hunt For Red October

the-hunt-for-red-october-movie-poster

My dad just watched John McTiernan’s “The Hunt for Red October” for what seems like the 600th time. After all these years since it remains one of the few movies he never gets sick of watching. While I was at first annoyed with him wanting to watch it instead of something he hadn’t seen before, it didn’t take long for me to be reminded why this movie is so compulsively watchable. The cast is excellent, the direction is taut, and it is far more thrilling than the average PG-rated movie. I remember my friends not taking this movie very seriously when it came out as they were more interested in sneaking into the latest R-rated movie, but they didn’t know what they were missing.

This was the first cinematic adaptation of a Tom Clancy novel and, as a result, the first instance of him getting pissed at Hollywood for not faithfully adapting his work. I still have not read the book, so I have no idea how it differs from the movie. At this point, I’m not really sure if I care because book to film adaptations are not going to work if you’re going to be 100% faithful to the source material. Not everything transfers over to the big screen for a number of reasons, and if Clancy were still alive I’d tell him he should be happy this movie helped sell more copies of his books.

I’m not going to bore you with all the plot details. All you need to know is that it involves a new Russian submarine called the Red October which contains a propulsion system which allows it to run silently to where it cannot be detected by sonar. It is commanded by Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) who lives a lonely life now that his wife has passed away, and many soon become convinced he is out to attack the United States before the country can even realize it’s under attack. CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin), however, becomes convinced Ramius is actually trying to defect and becomes obsessed with proving his theory to where he’s willing to put himself in harm’s way.

On top of this being the first Clancy novel brought to the silver screen, it also served as an introduction to the hero of many of his books, Jack Ryan. Of all the actors who have played this CIA analyst to date, Baldwin remains my favorite as he makes Ryan into an accidental action hero, not a man out to save the day. But Ryan’s brilliantly analytic mind allows himself to see and understand things others cannot due to their mistrust and their Cold War obsessions, and this makes him a necessary part of the action whether he likes it or not. Unlike all the other military generals, Ryan has met Ramius and knows how his mind works.

Sean Connery is as legendary as his character of Marko Ramius is to the Russian military in this movie, and it should go without saying he is perfectly cast here. Seeing those eyes of his on the big screen at the start gives us an idea of how human Ramius is, and Connery renders him a fascinating individual whose life cannot be boiled down to one sentence. The former James Bond actor could have given a ridiculously over the top performance, but he instead underplays his role to where we truly accept him as a submarine commander and that there is more to him than we can see at first.

Seriously, McTiernan got the perfect cast for “The Hunt for Red October.” Back in the 1990’s when this movie came out, it was hard to think of another actor other than James Earl Jones who could play Ryan’s superior Vice Admiral James Greer. Jones gives each scene he’s in an immense gravity, and he makes it look like he doesn’t even have to try. Scott Glenn is coolness personified as Captain of the U.S.S. Dallas, Bart Mancuso, and watching him keep his emotions in check throughout the is fascinating. When Mancuso does lose his cool, you want to make sure you’re not the reason why he is.

Next, you have Sam Neil who plays Vasily Borodin, Ramius’ second in command. Neil has the captain’s back when others begin to doubt him, and I love the scene where he talks to Connery about the possibility of living in Montana. Neil is sublime in this role, and his last scene is a real heartbreaker.

Then you have actors like Tim Curry, Fred Dalton Thompson, Richard Jordan, Joss Ackland, Stellan Skarsgård and Jeffrey Jones inhabiting their roles to where you feel like you’re watching actual Washington officials and military personnel instead of just a bunch of performers. It’s impossible to imagine “The Hunt for Red October” without any of these actors in it. Furthermore, they are each blessed with a number of classic one-liners provided to them by screenwriters Larry Ferguson and Donald B. Stewart.

One actor I want to point out in particular is Courtney Vance who plays Sonar Technician Ronald “Jonesy” Jones. His performance ended up being this movie’s most underrated as we watch him listen to the noises he heard to where you cannot doubt the conclusion he comes to. While the computer tells Jonesy he’s listening to a “magma displacement,” he knows he really heard something which has got to be man-made. Watching Vance as Jonesy is a joy because he makes this character much more than the average petty officer aboard a ship.

McTiernan’s genius in directing “The Hunt for Red October” is in keeping things down to earth and not bombastic like you would expect to see in a Michael Bay movie. Right from the start, he’s intent on bringing us into these characters’ lives to where we don’t feel like we’re watching some ordinary film. Unlike “Die Hard” which he made before this, it is not an action-packed movie until the very end, and he has us getting far more invested in what the characters are up to. As a result, it seems unlikely this movie could be made in the same way today as studio heads would most likely expect something far more formulaic.

If there are any flaws to be found in “The Hunt for Red October,” it is with some of the special effects as the torpedoes look kind of fake. While McTiernan and his crew appear to have all the other details down perfectly, this one doesn’t work the way it should. Still, that’s just a minor thing that doesn’t do much to take away from one’s pleasure in watching this submarine classic. It really is one of those movies which is impossible to get sick of watching, and it holds up more than twenty years after its release. Outside of “Das Boot,” this remains one of the greatest submarine movies ever made.

* * * * out of * * * *