Film Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)

Dir: Ol Parker
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Lily James, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Dominic Cooper, Stellan Skarsgård, Colin Firth, Andy Garcia, Cher, Meryl Streep, etc.
Runtime: 1hr54min
Rating: PG-13
Spoiler level: Some small tidbits, but nothing major.

Ten years ago, Mamma Mia! hit theaters. I went to see it with a high school friend and my mom, and was blown away by how fun it was. Now, the theater we saw it in has been remodeled, and our lives have changed significantly over the last decade – but on Sunday, that same friend, my mother, and I all met up for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. And, yet again, I emerged from the theater humming an ABBA tune and quelling the urge to dance all the way to my car.

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Acting as both a sequel and a prequel to 2008’s Mamma Mia!, Here We Go Again is a rom/com musical that follows Sophie (Seyfried) as she attempts to embark on a new chapter in her life, which somewhat mirrors her mother Donna’s (James) journey to Greece back in 1979.

Following in the first film’s joyful, if occasionally silly footsteps, Mamma Mia! Here We Go again is a charming summer romp with plenty of heart and laughter. Amidst the jaunty song and dance numbers, it also offers a surprisingly meaningful message about love and family. Sure, it’s a sequel no one asked for – but let’s be real, here. This film has Cher, and ABBA music. What more could you want?

First, you can’t talk about this film without mentioning the music. Particular highlights for me include “Waterloo,” “Andante, Andante,” “Angeleyes,” “Fernando,” “My Love, My Life,” and, of course, the staples from the original film, “Mamma Mia!” “Dancing Queen,” and “Super Trouper.” I shall forever maintain that there are two types of people in this world – those who love ABBA, and liars. Each number in this film is performed with tangible enthusiasm, and the actors/singers/dancers seem like they’re having a blast and putting their all into it. “Dancing Queen” is a notable mention just for Firth, Brosnan, and Skarsgård. And for those of you wondering… no, Brosnan doesn’t get a solo number this time around, per se. But he does sing a small, acapella reprise of “S.O.S,” and I’m pleased to say it is genuinely touching.

It’s impressive how well ABBA’s music naturally weaves into the situations of the characters… with the minor infraction of Cher and Garcia singing “Fernando” near the end. It’s a wee bit shoehorned in, though there are some clues leading up to it, so it isn’t entirely unexpected. But it’s forgivable because Cher. It’s also worth noting that a lot of the instrumental motifs in the film are throwbacks and tributes to the original film/musical and other ABBA songs, like “Slipping Through My Fingers.”

Told through both the lens of present day and flashbacks to ’79, each part of the film receives the appropriate amount of attention, and focus shifts seamlessly between the timelines. The transitions in this film are immaculate, which aids the film’s intention to “mirror” Sophie’s experiences and feelings with those of her mother, and keeps the plot at a respectable pace. Viewers get to see Donna’s initial meetings with Bill, Harry, and Sam, and how she ended up staying in Greece, giving a visual history to the premise of the first film, and also how Sophie is trying to honor her mother by making the grand opening of the Hotel Bella Donna a success while also juggling her relationship with Sky. The scenery is gorgeous, the costumes are perfect, and there’s a satisfying amount of laughs to complement what turns out to be an earnest and heartfelt message about the relationship between mother and daughter, and finding one’s way in the world when a storm threatens your path.

And, brief spoiler alert, Meryl has very little screen time in this. I was initially disappointed with the fate of her character – but when she does appear onscreen, it’s worth it. As in, I teared up. I’m listening to the soundtrack as I write this and getting emotional again!

The cast must have had a ton of fun filming this – especially the returning faces. Everyone seems to be having a great time, no one phones it in, and the onscreen chemistry is like actual friends reuniting after a long time apart. The finale performance of “Super Trouper,” is the perfect example of this, and I couldn’t stop smiling through the whole thing. The new faces also do an excellent job of channeling their older counterparts – especially Hugh Skinner as young Harry, Jessica Keenan Wynn as young Tanya, and, of course, Lily James as young Donna. James is both sweet and sassy as Young Donna, and her stellar performance carries the ’79 timeline. Basically, everyone in this film is a delight, plain and simple – and fun pretty much oozes off the screen.

The plot may get a little silly at times, and the film timeline is seriously wack, but this isn’t a movie aiming to garner a shelf full of top-tier awards. For what it is, and what it’s trying to do, it’s a total and absolute jam, and well worth the price of admission. Here We Go Again might not have been a necessary sequel, but it’s also not a shameless cash grab – it’s a great time, with a great cast, and great music, the perfect recipe for an entertaining summer flick.

Overall rating: 8/10

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Film Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Dir: Ron Howard
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Thandie Newton, Donald Glover, Joonas Suotamo, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Paul Bettany.
Runtime: 2hr 15min
Rating: PG-13
Spoiler level: Light, some hints here and there.

After facing a (rumored) fraught production, during which the original directors were fired due to “creative differences” and replaced with Ron Howard in the eleventh hour, which led to significant portions of the film being re-shot, expectations for Solo seemed to be teetering between “bad” and “disastrous.” My own hopes for the film were decidedly low as negative rumors swirled in the lead up to release, but after seeing it, I can safely say that I should not have had such a bad feeling about it.

Solo_A_Star_Wars_Story_posterSolo follows the young titular character (Ehrenreich) as he breaks free from his life on the streets and pursues his ambitions to become the best pilot in the galaxy – though, along the way, he gets sidetracked by a heist or two and learns a few important lessons about who to trust, the price of loyalty, and the weight of betrayal.

This romp of a film capably blends nuances from various genres – space opera, noir, western, thriller – and the result is a well-crafted, if somewhat overlong jaunt through space that chronicles young Han Solo’s life and achievements prior to Episode IV: A New Hope. Though Solo features such iconic moments and fanboy fodder as Han’s first encounter and blossoming partnership with Chewie, his infamous Kessel Run (in under 12 parsecs) and and his acquisition of the Millennium Falcon, it (surprisingly) does not over-rely on nostalgia and fan service to tell its story and weave an original, if occasionally predictable narrative. Overall, Solo is a worthy addition to the Star Wars Anthology series and an enjoyable space adventure that offers thrills and a compelling look into the backstory of the galaxy’s favorite stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder.

Asking Alden Ehrenreich to live up to the legacy of Harrison Ford in the role of Han is like asking a guppy to fill the fins of Jaws, or a tennis ball to pack the same emotional wallop as Wilson the volleyball – it’s an impossible task. BUT, that is hardly Ehrenriech’s fault, and he delivers enough charm and charisma to convince the audience to root for him and have faith in his burgeoning career and confidence as an outlaw, and his developing camaraderie with Chewbacca (Suotamo) is an emotional high point of the film. Ehrenreich certainly has the infamous smirk and the stance down pat, and seeing Han and Chewie sit in the Falcon together for the first time with the iconic theme playing is almost worth the price of admission alone.

As far as the rest of the supporting cast goes, Woody Harrelson as the outlaw Beckett is… well, Woody Harrelson. In the best way, of course. Thandie Newton is great as Val, despite limited screen time. Our new Chewbacca, Joonas Suotamo, warbles and fights and interacts with Han in a way that would make Peter Mayhew proud. Glover – predictably – offers a convincing impression as the debonair Lando Calrission and plays off Ehrenreich exceptionally well. Bettany is somewhat underused as the villainous Dryden, though what we do get from him is enough to prove how sinister and vicious his reputation as the Crimson Dawn ringleader implies. Clarke is lovely as the enigmatic Qi’ra, Han’s old friend from his time on the streets in Corellia, and it will be a shame if we don’t see more of her in future installments. Plus, that “little” cameo at the end – which made my jaw drop – has made me excited to see what the next anthology installment has in store. But perhaps the most compelling new addition to the growing Star Wars cast list is the mysterious Enfys Nest – I sincerely hope we see that character again, because Enfys has the potential to become f*cking AWESOME.

However enjoyable this film is, and how it may well have crawled back from the jaws of potential ruin after the crisis of losing two directors, it is far from perfect. One major drawback is the lack of humor – there are jokes scattered here and there, and a few of them might earn some genuine chuckles, but a significant portion of them fail to land as intended. It didn’t need to be a comedy film, but Han’s one-liners could have been stronger and the humor we did get was lackluster. The character of L3, for me, was also a massive miss and I disliked most of her scenes. The whole “equal rights for droids” schtick is a worthwhile thread to follow, but in this film, it comes off as a silly parody instead of a sincere focus on what could translate to a relatable and genuine issue. Much of the cinematography is dark and muddled, which, during some action scenes, makes it difficult to peg who is who, though – in true Star Wars fashion – the creature effects are stellar.

It is unfortunate that Solo comes on the tail of The Last Jedi, which is perhaps the most polarizing Star Wars film of them all. Fans who disliked Episode VIII might feel less inclined to indulge in the latest space adventure from Disney’s rejuvenated Star Wars franchise, and I was stunned that the theater I went to had only about six other folks in it on the second Saturday of release. Even if you dislike the new main trilogy, I’d say it’s worth taking a chance on Solo, if only to go off on a new adventure without the burdensome weight of the often frustrating mythos to bog it down. Perhaps, if it can fill more seats in the coming weeks, Solo can give some jaded fans new hope in the franchise.

Overall Rating: 8/10

Film Review: Chappaquiddick (2018)

Dir: John Curran
Starring: Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms, Bruce Dern, Jim Gaffigan, etc.
Runtime: 1hr 41min
Rating: PG-13
Spoiler level: Light

Chappaquiddick is based on the true story of the 1969 Chappaquiddick incident, in which a car accident involving senator Ted Kennedy (Clark) resulted in the death of political campaign secretary Mary Jo Kopechne (Mara). As controversy erupts regarding his level of involvement in Kopechne’s death, the senator must decide which is more important – the legacy and reputation of his family, or the truth.

Chappaquiddick_(film)Chappaquiddick presents a compelling and relevant commentary on the perceived moral infallibility of politicians and public figures versus the truth of their glaring flaws and inherent humanity. The film lingers on the word “integrity” more than once, and it seems that is the idea that haunts Kennedy as the events of that night on Chappaquiddick consume his life and threaten his career. As the senator smooths his hair and adjusts his appearance in mirrors and ensures that he looks good for the cameras, he is the picture of integrity, the image of an upstanding man of high moral character – and yet, so often, his words and actions behind closed doors contradict that. The outside fails to reflect the inside, though the outside is all that the public sees.

Clarke’s portrayal is gripping and nuanced as the last Kennedy son, living in the engulfing shadow of Robert and Jack, a man slowly breaking beneath the burdensome reputation of his celebrated family, struggling to appease the rigid demands of his wheelchair-bound, yet intimidating father (Dern), and the truth surrounding a young woman who met her death, cold and alone, in the depths of a lake. Early in the film, a wet, defeated Ted Kennedy tells his cousin Joe Gargan (Helms) “I’m not going to be president,” and that statement encompasses the truth of who Kennedy is, in this film. A man who will never escape the shadows that eclipse him.

Though Clarke’s performance easily dominates the screen, the supporting roles in this film are superb, especially Mara as Mary Jo, as she is, essentially, the ghost that trails Kennedy throughout this film, resonating long after that car plummets into the water, a presence that cannot merely be relegated to a footnote in someone else’s history. Helms also delivers a solid performance as Gargan, torn between his loyalty and familial ties to the Kennedy family, and the struggle to do what is right. Andria Blackman as Ted’s wife Joan Kennedy gets the film’s lone F-bomb, and it’s my personal favorite line in the entire film. Dern is powerful as Kennedy family patriarch, and, though the senior Kennedy was confined to a wheelchair and suffering from the effects of a stroke that left his movement and speech impaired, Dern’s portrayal makes him a dominant force to be reckoned with, with a glare that could freeze anyone in place.

One major strength of the film is how it subtly presents different “sides,” or compares viewpoints and situations. In the film, the problems swarming Kennedy are juxtaposed against the efforts of the Space Race – a fitting contrast, as Ted Kennedy’s political career and social life plunge into purgatory while Neil Armstrong takes his first victorious steps on the surface of the moon. One giant leap for mankind, and one massive misstep for Ted Kennedy. It’s a nice touch, aiding the tone of the film, and makes Ted’s mistakes all the more apparent. Another contrast is the way Mary Jo is treated, often referred to as “the girl,” by the Kennedy’s collection of black suits, but referred to by name by Gargan and those close to her, even by Kennedy himself. The core of this film is the way it shows ideas butting heads with each other – most prominently, the weight of a family’s reputation against the importance of truth and honesty, and politics versus morality and how they often fail to intersect.

What truly happened on the night of July 18th, 1969 at a bridge on Chappaquiddick island, might never be fully explained or revealed, and many of the details have remained unclear. The film does a fair job of keeping this relatively ambiguous tone, as the true nature of the relationship between Ted and Mary Jo is left to interpretation, and Ted appears conflicted enough about his choices that the film avoids entering character assassination territory. Viewers can form their own opinion of him – I’ve never held the Kennedy family on a golden, untouchable pedestal, so I found the portrayal to be well-balanced. Sharp editing and writing assist in making Chappaquiddick a partially completed puzzle that offers enough of a clear picture to satisfy audiences and answer pesky questions, while leaving enough blurred ideas and “what ifs?” and “might haves” to avoid straying too far into slanderous artistic liberty pitfalls that plague so many films based on “true” events. However, those with a rosy perception of the Kennedy dynasty might think otherwise.

Overall rating: 8/10

Film Review: A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

Dir: Ava DuVernay
Starring: Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Zack Galifanakis, Storm Reid, Deric McCabe, Levi Miller, etc.
Runtime: 1hr49min
Rating: PG
Spoiler level: Light

A Wrinkle in Time, one of the most-hyped releases of 2018, and based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Madeleine L’Engle, follows uncertain teenager Meg (Reid), who, along with her younger brother, friend Calvin, and three mysterious beings known as the Mrs., must embark on a journey across the universe to rescue her scientist father from a darkness known only as “IT.”

TAWrinkleInTimeTeaser.jpghough some folks adhere to the idea that films should be judged apart from their source material, I think it is more appropriate to judge a film both as an adaptation and then as a film. Therefore, as a fan of the original novel/series, I feel it is important to say that this film is not a good adaptation of L’Engle’s work.

Though it features characters with the same names, similar worlds, and strives to teach at least part of the same lessons, the film and the book are not on the same frequency, and for die-hard fans of the classic book, this adaptation will likely be disappointing. Much of the core message of the original book is lost to a sheen of glossy special effects, nonsensical (if beautiful) costumes, and a convoluted plot that allows some of the most beautiful sentiments from the book to slip through the cracks, lost to the universe.

A Wrinkle in Time (1962) is notable for it’s seamless blending and consideration of both science and religion, and how it handled sensitive social issues and other problems plaguing children like Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin, and continue to plague children and young adults in today’s society. The film touches on this particular aspect exceptionally well – exploring Meg’s insecurities and doubts about herself, especially – but because the focus is all over the place, the impact of that message is dampened. Religion is removed entirely from the film, as is a portion of the science, to the detriment of the narrative. So much is cut from L’Engle’s original story that the movie feels disjointed, the pacing suffers, and much of the plot comes across as confusing and the explanations insufficient for those not familiar with the source material.

It seems like those behind the film were trying to bend the book’s story to fit the message they wanted to tell, instead of adapting and doing justice to L’Engle’s work. I’m generally accepting of artistic liberties when it comes to adaptations, but when Aunt Beast gets trimmed down to a 2 second cameo so the kids can go on a CGI-laden sky ride above on a plant creature, and something that was so important to the author and a vital component of the story (religion) gets removed entirely, then I get a little steamed. And I’m an atheist, so that’s not any sort of bias speaking. There’s a difference between trimming superfluous scenes from the source material in order to accommodate run-time, and straight-up butchering the intended themes and vital components of the story itself.

I will say, however, that the “IT” stuff with Charles Wallace near the end (no spoilers) was impressive, and made me recall just how much I feared “IT” as a kid when I first experienced the book. However, though it is briefly touched upon, the whole “conformity” idea as it pertains to “IT” and Camazotz does not get explored in the film with as much depth as it does in the novel.

But… that’s just my views of A Wrinkle in Time as an adaptation.

As a film, the movie is a passable adventure aimed at children and young audiences that will charm and enchant them, and hopefully inspire them to believe in their own inner-strength and be “warriors” themselves. The message this film strives to impart upon its viewers – which, though it differs in the way L’Engle’s story is told, is no less important or powerful – about embracing your perceived “flaws” and using them as your strength will hopefully resonate with kids, and maybe even older viewers as well. Some threads of the plot – such as Meg’s insecurities about her appearance and intelligence and the father/daughter bond between Meg and Alex – are a success, but because there is so much going on in other aspects of the film, the focus is fractured, and those few shining moments often get drowned by the admittedly beautiful special effects, such as the sweeping, floral-kissed landscapes and storm-tossed forests.

The acting, for the most part, is commendable – the Mrs. (Kaling, Winfrey, and Witherspoon) do what they can, though, as a die-hard fan of the book, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the way they were depicted. The children, especially Reid as Meg and Deric McCabe as Charles Wallace, give believable and occasionally heart-wrenching performances, especially at the climax of the film, and though Levi Miller’s Calvin is underdeveloped, his acting isn’t at fault for that. Pine and Mbatha-Raw also turn in excellent performances, though the spotlight shines mainly on the younger cast members.

For a film that is meant to explore the vastness and wonder of both the light and dark of the universe, the end result feels disproportionately small. An ambitious effort on the part of the visionary director and talented cast, A Wrinkle in Time falls short of greatness and might not please fans of L’Engle’s work, but even though it’s a bit of a mess, it is a beautiful mess. For an afternoon out with the kids for some popcorn and stunning visuals, this film might be worth a watch to pass a couple of hours.

But for older viewers like myself, capable of getting into R-rated movies… if you’re looking for a female-empowering/led, diverse (which A Wrinkle in Time is, don’t get me wrong) sci-fi film with excellent visuals and an exploratory, unconventional, and compelling plot, please, please, please check out Annihilation (2018) if it is playing in your area. Fair warning, it’s got some gore and horror elements, but it completely blew me away – it’s not getting nearly enough praise, and deserves much more.

Overall rating: 6/10

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