Monday, 23 July 2018

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018) - Movie Review




The plot: Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), now in-charge of her mother (Meryl Streep)’s hotel on the Greek island of Kalokairi, is under a lot of stress for the hotel’s grand re-opening. As she seeks advice from her mother’s friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters), as well as her dads Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Harry (Colin Firth) and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), she also learns about her mother’s trials when she was younger (Lily James). Between all of them, Sophie might just find the resolve she needs to pull through.

If there’s one key thing that wound up ruining a lot of the first film, it was the singing. Not just that the individual performances left something to be desired, although they absolutely did from Meryl Streep’s wonky vocals to Pierce Brosnan’s ear-scraping monotone, but also the seeming reason why they didn’t work. Put simply, it felt like the singing was amateurish on purpose so that the audience singing along wouldn’t feel as self-conscious about their possible musical shortcomings. Honestly, having seen the weirdly out-of-step moments for myself, that’s the only rational explanation I can think of for the film being that intentionally tone-deaf.

I bring this up because Here We Go Again is already off to a good start with the cast here: Not only can they actually sing, the production around them doesn’t have to compensate for their missteps so it feels legitimately good. Sure, we have pretty much everyone from the first film coming back, but steps have been taken to keep certain actors out of the spotlight for too long a time. Seyfried handles the bulk of the songs in the present-day scenes, doing quite well on that front, while the decided non-singers like Brosnan and Firth (the latter of whom looks really uncomfortable during the musical numbers) are kept either low in the mix or out of the mix entirely.

As for the new faces, it’s pretty solid throughout. Lily James may lack that awkward Southern twang that Streep brought to the role… but I can only see that as a good thing, since it’s far less distracting and shows off how good James’ American accent turns out. Jessica Kennan Wynn and Alexa Davies are spot-on as the younger Tanya and Rosie respectively, while Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner and Josh Dylan all bring a lot of charm to the screen as the younger Sam, Harry and Bill, particularly Skinner with his incredibly cute awkwardness. Andy García as the hotel manager gets a surprising big moment near the end, one he handles better than I would have expected, and Cher… well, it ain’t like the 80’s when she was one of the few singer/actors holding down the fort successfully, but she does okay here.

Much like the cast here, the story seems to have gotten a major upgrade this time around… in that we actually have one this time. The first film felt like a very malnourished and rather desperate attempt to just string ABBA songs together without any actual meat on the narrative’s bones. To this end, the main impetus of the first film (who Sophie’s dad actually is) not only started on a bad foot with Sophie’s actions, it also went nowhere and the Shakespearean-level of misunderstandings required to keep things going felt that much more strained as a result. While this film also ends up completely avoiding the paternal details, it at least feels like what we’re seeing is more than just an excuse to dust off those old Swedish pop records. It’s rather standard rom-com fare in its inner workings, but thankfully, the chemistry between Lily James and her suitors makes the romance fun to watch, while their seemingly natural sense of comedic timing gets a few chuckles as well. It is seriously weird knowing that Ol Parker, the guy behind two of the drabbest “comedies” I’ve ever covered on this blog with the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films, managed to put together a likeable script as a follow-up to one of the more infamous chick flicks out there.

Then again, maybe that’s because he also kept that flick’s biggest selling point: The musical numbers. Not only that, he kept the admittedly-decent use of the ABBA discography that allowed their music to speak for the characters. Even though I’m a bit iffy on ABBA’s music personally (not really my cup of tea), my weakness for good use of licensed music on film still makes me recognise how well it’s used here. And what’s more, because the singing chops are actually consistent across the board, I can actually enjoy it this time around, both the music and the visuals. The choreography shows a lot of work was put in, resulting in some very snappy blocking, some of the set design choices are pretty fun, like with Waterloo set in a French restaurant full of Napoleon memorabilia, and even the more cinematic elements can get interesting, like with One Of Us featuring Sophie and Sky singing halfway across the world from each other but still giving a certain intimacy to the end result. For those who just want to hear ABBA on cinema-grade speakers, this is a pretty solid option.

Of course, those who want genuine story and themes and stuff to read into (y’know, colossal film geeks like me) won’t be too disappointed either. Sure, it follows rom-com standards as far as the meet-cutes and the relative non-stakes of the narrative, but as far as the reason why we’re getting this particular follow-up, it holds up to a certain amount of scrutiny. I mean, let’s look at another example of a film within this demographic that got a sequel fairly recently: My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. Like Greek Wedding 2, this film and its original were produced by Tom Hanks through his Playtone production company. Like Greek Wedding 2, this is meant to bank on a form of short-term nostalgia for what is ostensibly a first film that holds some influence in what would come after it. Unlike Greek Wedding 2, this doesn’t feel like a step backwards from what is already a precarious situation. In fact, with how the film directly puts Sophie and the younger Donna’s stories together, it comes across as a means to further connect the two characters. The first film didn’t do that well on those grounds, so seeing it happen here feels like the actual emotional payoff audiences were supposed to get the first time around. Not only that, this has a decidedly less… condescending tone to its bigger moments of pathos, meaning that it didn’t induce any chick flick-related illness in me during the running time. With how often I’ve railed against that very trope in this brand of cinema, that is a very good thing.

All in all, despite how much I was dreading having to see this thing, this isn’t that bad. The cast list all do nicely with their roles, both the new and returning faces, the writing is uncharacteristically engaging given writer/director Ol Parker’s oeuvre of late, the visuals show a certain playfulness in bringing the lyrics of ABBA to the screen, and it’s not so much that the singing is markedly better as much as the film’s entire musical aesthetic is markedly better. The people who are asked to sing can actually do it, pretty much across the board, and it doesn’t need to self-consciously compensate for weak singing; it actively corrects the biggest issue with the first film. I won’t say that this completely blew me away or anything, but it’s still better than it has any expected reason to be.

It ranks higher than All The Money In The World, as the good points here are both more frequent and the relative drop between them and the weaker moments isn’t nearly as steep. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is such a vast improvement over the first film, it might as well replace both that and the original stage musical as well. However, with that said, this is still a film not only outside of my cinematic stomping grounds (for personal enjoyment, at least) but also based on something I’m not that fixated on (the works of ABBA that don’t involve a night in Bangkok). As such, it ranks just below Red Sparrow, which not only gave me far more to chew on thematically but, in light of recent news, has only grown in relevance since I reviewed it.

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