Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Directed by: Ol Parker
Written by: Ol Parker, Richard Curtis, Catherine Johnson
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Lily James, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Andy Garcia, Dominic Cooper, Stellan Skarsgård, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth
Released: July 19, 2018
Grade: C+

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
It’s hard to believe that 10 years has passed since the original film was first released in cinemas.  The time has flown.  Expensive Hollywood musicals have been seen as risky ventures in recent decades but Mamma Mia! was a fairly safe bet.  It was based on the popular stage show that debuted on West End in 1999 and had been performed countless times across the globe.  It also featured iconic songs from ABBA which had been sung and celebrated since the 1970s.  The movie grossed over $600 million USD at the world wide box-office – a record for a live-action musical (until Beauty and the Beast came along last year).

A little more effort was required to bring this new film to life.  For starters, there was no source material.  Playwright Catherine Johnson, who created the original stage musical, teamed up with screenwriters Richard Curtis (Love Actually) and Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) to craft a fresh tale that could be interwoven with other well-known ABBA songs.

The end result is something that’s both a prequel and a sequel.  Part of the movie is set in the past.  We go back to the year 1979 and learn how a young Donna (James), fresh out of college, built an adventurous, carefree life for herself on an idyllic Greek island.  It was at this same time that she had flings with three very different suitors looking to win her heart – Sam, Harry and Bill.  Oh, and of course she gave birth to Sophie, the daughter who is central to the whole story.

The other part of the movie is set several years after the events of Mamma Mia!  We sadly discover that Donna has passed away and to honour her memory, Sophie has taken her mother’s rundown Greek home, given it a fresh lick of paint, and transformed it into a holiday resort.  It’s aptly named the Hotel Bella Donna and Sophie has brought in a polite, well-groomed gentleman (Garcia) to help run it.  As the film begins, preparations are underway for the grand opening.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again brings back all of the original cast members (a tricky feat given their busy schedules) with one major addition that has been much hyped in the trailer.  Cher plays Sophie’s grandmother and she arrives during the final act like a refreshing summer breeze.  She provides a much-needed spark (I’d grown tired of the other characters by this point) and her beautiful rendition of the song ‘Fernando’ is the film’s most memorable music number.  It’s a shame she didn’t arrive sooner.

The narrative can be best be described as “choppy”.  Unnecessary detours have been thrown in as an excuse to sing particular ABBA songs such as the use of ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’ during the opening scene.  It also struggles in balancing up the two timeframes.  We continually jump back and forth to highlight the similarities between Sophie and her mother but the technique is overused.  The biggest head-scratcher are two bizarre sequences that take place in Tokyo and Stockholm.

The film does have its highlights.  It’s a rare movie where the supporting characters are more interesting than the leads.  British stand-up comedian Omid Djalili steals several scenes with his cameo as a Greek customs officer who is quick to dish out beauty advice.  He even gets a chance to sing but you’ll have to wait until the end of the closing credits.  Maria Vacratsis (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) also wins big laughs as the opinionated barwoman at a run-down drinking establishment.

I love musicals and I was a big fan of Mamma Mia! but I’ve got to be honest – this is a letdown.  


Review: Skyscraper

Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Written by: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Roland Møller, Noah Taylor, Byron Mann
Released: July 12, 2018
Grade: B+

It’s a topic that’s up for debate but if you’re looking for my opinion, the most “bankable” actor in Hollywood right now is Dwayne Johnson.  In addition to the hugely successful Fast and the Furious franchise, he has starred in a number of action flicks over the past 6 years that have cracked the $300 million mark at the worldwide box-office – Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, San Andreas, Rampage and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.  Some of these films were garbage but it’s a testament to his popularity that fans still paid to see them.

His latest vehicle has a strong chance of joining that aforementioned list.  Inspired by the likes of Die Hard and The Towering Inferno, Skyscraper is an escape movie which takes place in a high-rise building.  As tends to be the case in Dwayne Johnson films, every detail is taken to the extreme.  The high-rise is known as the Pearl and is the tallest man-made structure ever created – a 220 storey colossus located in central Hong Kong.  It cost more than $6 billion and generates all its own electricity.

Our hero is Will Sawyer (Johnson) – a man who has been through some tough times but is now as happy as he’s ever been.  He was once a member of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team but that chapter in his life came to an abrupt end when he lost his left leg in a hostage negotiation gone wrong.  The silver lining is that he met the love of his life (Campbell) while recovering in hospital and they’re now married with two children.  Will has become a family guy – working as a private security contractor during the day and spending quality time with his kids at night.  Walking around isn’t a problem thanks to the help of a state-of-the-art prosthetic leg.

Okay, let’s get to the action.  Will has been visiting the Pearl at the request of its owner (Han) to review its security features but at the same time, a Scandinavian villain (Møller) and his team of incompetent henchmen are trying to destroy the building.  We end up with a situation where the middle of the tower is set alight, Will is stuck at the bottom, and his wife and kids are trapped on the upper floors.  The police have no idea what’s going on and so Will has to use a mix of brain and brawn to rescue his family and save the day.

Skyscraper is formulaic when it comes to story.  We’ve got stereotypical European bad guys and it’s as if the actors have been told to look as shifty and dodgy as possible.  It’s nice to see Australian Noah Taylor (Shine) with a role in a major Hollywood movie but even as one of the more prominent villains, he’s given nothing to work with in terms of character and dialogue.  Several plot points also feel contrived.  There’s a head-scratching scene where Will’s family is split into two groups of two and a silly finale which takes place in an odd room.

Those shortcomings can be overlooked though because Skyscraper features some outstanding action pieces.  Maybe it’s because I’m petrified of heights but my hands were sweating during some sequences.  Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Central Intelligence) has created some tense, exciting predicaments that the one-legged Will must extricate himself from.  The great visual and sound effects help add to the drama.  You can’t ask for much more when it comes to the action genre.

Moving at a cracking pace for its tight 102 minute running time, Skyscaper looks to be another winner for Dwayne Johnson.  

Review: Sicario: Day of the Soldado

Directed by: Stefano Sollima
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Catherine Keener
Released: June 28, 2018
Grade: B+

Sicario: Day of the Soldado
How much faith do you have in the government, the military, and the intelligence divisions that they oversee?  Do you think they should rely on firm, well established processes that protect human rights and require the law to be obeyed at all times?  Or should we rely on the judgement of the people and allow them to act outside of the law if they believe it can produce a better outcome?

If that question was asked of the fictional Secretary of Defence James Riley (Modine) in Sicario: Day of the Soldado, he would selection answer #2.  A terrorist attack has occurred in Kansas City with a group of suicide bombers targeting a grocery store and killing 15 people.  The public are desperate for more information.  They want to know the identity of the killers, their motives, and what the U.S. Government is doing to ensure justice is served.  With traditional forms of detective work coming up empty, Riley proclaims that “dirty is what we need”.

Suspecting that a Mexican cartel may have helped the terrorists enter the country, the U.S. Government decides to ruffle feathers with a secret, illegal operation.  They call upon the services of Matt Graver (Brolin) and ask him to kick start a war between cartels in Mexico to help flush out key targets and put a dent in their resources.  Assisted by old friend Alejandro Gillick (del Toro), Graver gets the job done by kidnapping the 16-year-old daughter of a cartel leader (Moner) and laying a trail that points to a rival cartel.  The drones, the helicopters and the weaponry are all funded “under the counter” by a mysterious government branch.

It’s not as strong as its 2015 predecessor but Sicario: Day of the Soldado still features some great pieces that will leave you on the edge of your seat.  These characters have an array of technology at their disposal and it’s both enthralling and scary to see their plans executed with such precision.  The best example is the kidnapping sequence where almost nothing is left to chance. 

Most action-thrillers are often a battle of good versus evil but this film bucks that trend and could be described as evil versus evil.  It’s hard to work out who to cheer for.  While these characters show fleeing glimpses of a softer side, their motives are largely selfish with wealth, power and revenge at the forefront of their minds.  The film also touches on two divisive subjects in the United States right now – drug control and immigration.

Benecio del Toro and Josh Brolin have reprised their roles from the original with both delivering gritty performances.  Oscar nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water) made the decision not to bring back Emily Blunt because “her arc was complete”.  It’s a shame as she was the most interesting character from the first movie – a woman forced to question her morals when realising those around her share different ideals.  Such an individual is lacking in Sicario: Day of the Soldado but it’s one of the few weaknesses of a strong production.

Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp

Directed by: Peyton Reed
Written by: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Laurence Fishburne, Hannah John-Kamen, Michael Peña, Walter Goggins, Michelle Pfeiffer
Released: July 5, 2018
Grade: B

Ant Man and the Wasp
There’s no denying the success of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the past decade.  There have been 19 films which have grossed just under $17 billion USD at the worldwide box-office.  That said, there’s one gap which has become more noticeable in recent years.  While there are plenty of supporting roles for female actors, the title character in every Marvel film has been a man – Iron Man, Spider-Man, Ant-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Doctor Strange and Black Panther.  Zoe Saldana was terrific in Guardians of the Galaxy but that was a “team” title and if we’re being picky, Chris Pratt still had top billing.

The streak finally comes to and end with Ant-Man and the Wasp.  Well, kind of.  The Wasp has to share the title with her male counterpart.  It’s a film where a viewing (or reviewing) of earlier movies is strongly recommended.  There are many references to events that took place in Ant-Man (released in 2015) and Captain America: Civil War (released in 2016).  For starters, the film opens with Ant-Man under house arrest by the authorities after some bad stuff which took place in Civil War.

This is a busy sequel with numerous sub-plots in play.  Renowned physicist Hank Pym (Douglas) lost his wife (Pfeiffer) 30 years ago in the “quantum realm”, some kind of alternate universe where people are really small and other organisms are really big.  Hank thought she was lost forever but evidence suggests she may still be alive and trying to find a way home.  He’s been secretly developing a machine that would allow him to enter the realm and rescue his wife.

Hank may be doing all the hard work but there are two people aware of his activities who are looking to get their hands on his technology.  The first is the aptly named Ghost (John-Kamen), a mysterious woman who has the ability to pass through solid matter.  She’s a tough adversary because she can walk through walls and evade any punch.  The second is a silly, stereotypical villain named Sonny (Goggins).  He comes complete with a team of dumb henchmen and is driven by nothing else but wealth and power.

So where do our two heroes fit into the puzzle?  They’re working alongside Hank Pym to subdue these adversaries and protect his machine.  The film has a similar tone to the earlier flick in that it’s light and comedic.  Paul Rudd gets the best of the one-liners as the likeable Ant-Man.  He humorously comes across as someone better suited to stand-up comedy than saving the world.  Evangeline Lilly reprises her role as the Wasp and is the more serious, level-headed member of the duo given she has so much at stake.

The storyline is too chaotic in places with some elements (such as Ant-Man’s relationship with his daughter) struggling to contribute to the broader narrative.  I also admit to being confused by the scientific and technological references.  Characters talk about their plans but much was going over my head.  There’s a funny gag where even Ant-Man shakes his head with the numerous references to the term “quantum”.

While the screenplay isn't as strong as it could be, the action scenes deliver in a big way.  We’ve got two heroes who can change their size, a villain who can walk through anything, and a remote control that can shrink cars.  It’s a recipe for some cool, fun, creative action pieces.  The visual effects are top-notch and you’ll need to be paying close attention to keep up.

Given the not-so-rosy events that took place at the end of The Avengers: Infinity War, the Marvel Cinematic Universe now takes a break for 8 months and forces us to wait for two very big films – Captain Marvel in March 2019 (with Brie Larson) and the still untitled Avengers follow-up in May 2019.  I’m as interested as anyone to see where this franchise goes next.

Review: Adrift

Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur
Written by: Aaron Kandell, Jordan Kandell, David Branson Smith
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin
Released: June 28, 2018
Grade: B-

Making a lost-at-sea movie is not an easy assignment.  You’ve got a single, limited location and a small number of characters.  Director J.C. Chandor took the genre to its most extreme in 2013 with All is Lost.  It featured just one person (Robert Redford) and almost no dialogue.  There’s more than one way to skin a cat as illustrated by other filmmakers who have successfully used plot devices to help keep audiences engaged.  Cast Away had Tom Hanks talking to a volleyball while Life of Pi brought in animals and a spiritual theme.

Based on a true story that took place in 1983, Adrift sets its scene very quickly.  Tami (Woodley) is a 23-year-old woman who wakes up in the cabin of a small yacht.  Her head is bleeding, there’s water in cabin, and there’s no sign of her boyfriend.  It’s clear she’s in the middle of the ocean and with the boat badly damaged and the radio beyond repair, her odds of survival don’t look great.

Guided by the screenplay, director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest) uses a familiar method to help tell this story – flashbacks.  We slip back 5 months and learn that Tami is an adventure-seeker who had travelled from her home in the United States to Tahiti in search of fun times.  She picked up a small job working in a harbour and it’s there she met Richard (Claflin) – a slightly older man with a love of the sea who had built his own boat from scratch.

The film is split fairly evenly between the two timeframes.  On the stricken yacht, we follow Tami as she battles the elements and tries to guide the boat to land.  Most viewers will be asking themselves the same questions.  Where will she find food and water?  How does she know what direction to head?  What happened to her boyfriend?  These questions are answered for the most part but it’s not offering us anything we haven’t seen in similar survival flicks.

The other half of the movie is structured as a love story while also filling in plot gaps.  There are a few cheesy rom-com lines such a moment where Richard opens up about his feelings and tells Tami that he’s never met anyone like her before.  She reciprocates with something similar.  Of more interest is the early part of their voyage and the huge storm that engulfs the yacht and causes all the damage.

It’s hard to be too critical given this is based on actual people and events but there’s a contrived nature to certain plot points which makes the story difficult to fully invest in.  An example is a sequence where a starving Tami has the chance to kill a fish but has hesitations because she’s a vegetarian.  Really?  We’re not talking about cannibalism here.  Would someone at death’s door turn down the chance of food because of their moral beliefs?  Tami ultimately makes the right decision but it’s still a strange part of the movie that’s trying to create unnecessary drama.

Kudos to Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) for a strong leading performance.  The best scenes are those on the boat and credit goes to the make-up artists who have done a stellar job demonstrating the effects of the sun, wind and rain on her tortured body.  The lovey-dovey scenes with Woodley and Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games) weren’t as convincing and felt targeted at overly romantic, idealistic teenagers.

Adrift has tempted me to do more reading about the real-life people involved (so that’s a good thing) but as a standalone movie, it’s not as gripping as you might expect.

Review: Mary Shelley

Directed by: Haifaa al-Mansour
Written by: Emma Jensen
Starring: Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Tom Sturridge, Bel Powley, Stephen Dillane, Ben Hardy
Released: July 5, 2018
Grade: B

Mary Shelley
When it comes to fictional monsters, Frankenstein will be known to almost everyone.  The story has endured and the character continues to be used in films and television shows.  A lesser known fact (at least based on people I’ve spoken to) is that Frankenstein was the creation of British author Mary Shelley.  It’s incredible to think she was just 20 years of age when her book was published for the first time in 1818.  That would be impressive in today’s age let alone the chauvinistic, male-dominated world in which she was raised.

Fascinated by Mary Shelley’s story and keen to see it brought into the spotlight, Brisbane-based writer Emma Jensen obtained government funding and spent several months formulating a screenplay.  The reins were then handed over to Saudi Arabian director Haifaa al-Mansour (Wadjda) who cast Elle Fanning (Maleficent) in the lead role and got the cameras rolling.  The production highlights the multi-cultural nature of today’s society – an Australian writer, a Middle Eastern director and an American actress working together to tell the tale of an acclaimed British author.

As we learn during the opening scenes, Mary’s love for literature didn’t arise by chance.  Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was a published writer and passionate women’s rights advocate.  Her father, William Godwin (Dillane), was a social philosopher and political journalist who pushed strongly for individual freedoms.  Borrowing from a recognised Godwin quote, there’s a nice moment where Mary is told by her dad that “to love reading is to have everything within your reach”.

She may have been shaped by her parents and her favourite authors but Mary was quick to find her own voice as sought independence.  At the age of 16, she fell in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley (Booth), a young poet she first met while studying in Scotland.  Their relationship caused much scandal given Percy was a married man but the strong-willed Mary trusted her heart and wouldn’t be swayed by naysayers.  It reached the point where she was kicked out of the family home by her father and forced to move in with Percy and her younger sister, Claire (Powley).

It was during her early years with Percy that the idea of Frankenstein took shape.  The world had seen nothing like it before and, as articulated in the book’s introduction, she was keen to create something that would “curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart.”  Aside from those already mentioned, two other individuals had a small part to play in Mary’s life before putting pen to paper – renowned poet Lord Byron (Sturridge) and budding writer John William Polidori (Hardy).

The pace is a little sluggish in places but the interaction between key characters is the film’s strongest element.  With Mary and Percy, we can see that they were both good for each other and bad for each other.  In the case of Mary and Claire, we see the bond between two sisters strained as they grow up and the world changes around them.  Elle Fanning embodies the role of Mary and deserves big wraps in helping illustrate these complex relationships.  Tom Sturridge also deserves a mention for his humorous, unexpected cameo as Lord Byron.

The creation of Frankenstein and the links between the book and Mary’s life aren’t explored in as much detail.  Perhaps this had to be sacrificed to keep the film to a two-hour running time.  Still, there is a worthy punchline with the film having something to say about the connection between misery and art.