Mamma Mia! The Movie (2008)
Adaptation of the hugely successful stage musical constructed around songs by Swedish 1970ies pop sensation ABBA.
I’m old enough to remember ABBA songs playing on mainstream radio all the time. Thanks to cover versions (Erasure, Madonna) or, indeed, the musical and this film, they have never gone away and there seems to be an ABBA revival once a decade. While I’m not a fan of theirs and have heard enough ABBA songs to last me a lifetime, I concede that their songs are very well-written, catchy, timeless and pretty much indestructible – unless you send in a special agent with the license to kill.
Enter Pierce Brosnan, bellowing his way through ‘Mamma Mia!’ like a stag in rut. I mean, I like Brosnan as an actor, but it beggars belief that a casting director should have let him anywhere near a musical. I can imagine him telling his agent: “Me in an ABBA musical? But I can’t sing!” and his agent responding: “Listen, Pierce, you need to branch out after Bond. The movie has Stellan Skarsgaard, Colin Firth and Amanda Seyfried in it and they can’t dance or sing for shit either, so go and have a couple of weeks of fun on a sunny Greek island.” Actors are sometimes called “brave” when they take their clothes off and perform in the nude, presumably because they aren’t afraid to be embarrassed. If that’s the scale on which to measure a performance, none is more courageous than Brosnan bleating “SOS”. It’s so bad it’s almost endearing.
I shouldn’t be so hard on good old Pierce Brosnan anyway. As stated above, there isn’t a single good singer or dancer in this musical movie - with the notable exception of Meryl Streep, who does all right musically, but embarrasses herself by hopping around on a bed in dungarees. These dungarees, by the way, are supposed to signal that this movie would be super-zany super-fun, just like the cast exuberantly striking awkward poses on the poster or Amanda Seyfried’s perky rictus grin on other promotional materials.
As for the story – and it’s hard to write this down without breaking down and sobbing uncontrollably – Amanda Seyfried’s character is about to get married and secretly invites the three men, who, according to her mother Donna’s diary, might have impregnated Donna at the time of conception (Meryl Streep in an attempt to avoid an Oscar nomination). This isn’t in any way creepy in this movie, and while Seyfried’s character admonishes Donna a lot about never having told her about her father, she isn’t in any way bothered about her mother having slept with three different guys in about as many days. That’s all excused by insisting that Donna was a free-spirited hippie at the time – and weren’t we all in, by my calculation, 1988?
Well, what kind of plot can you reasonably expect from a jukebox musical, which is constructed around ABBA songs. I must confess that I didn’t watch ‘Mamma Mia!’ right until the end, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it also featured a boy named Fernando, who can’t hear the drums.
This isn’t about plot anyway, it’s about songs, which makes it all the more confusing that the filmmakers have chosen a cast of, at best, mildly talented amateurs. Perhaps less surprising is director Phyllida Lloyd’s poor direction. She was the director of the stage musical, but stage and screen are different animals and she fails to make any of the musical numbers interesting. Occasionally, her direction obstructs what looks like very basic choreography. The non-musical scenes are worse.
The more I think about the movie, the angrier I get with it. It is relentlessly cheerful, force-feeding its mirth to the audience who are meant to go with the laborious frolicking and poor renditions of pop songs, just on the basis of the strength of the songs. It’s an exercise in disrespecting the audience: To hell with story and the quality of singing and dancing – we’ve got the songs, we’ve got the stars, the audience will come. And it did. That makes me even more cross. If you like ABBA, watch ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ instead. 2/10
Train to Busan (2016)
Back in the day when they were considered disreputable productions, I liked to think of myself as a fan of Zombie movies on the strength of the late George A. Romero’s masterpieces ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Dawn of the Dead’ alone. I love their mix of gory horror, apocalyptic dread, dark humour and social satire, which shows that even the most nihilistic exploitation films can be smart and have thematic depth.
Of course, the vast majority of zombie films aren’t very clever or any good, but I still appreciated it when Danny Boyle’s ’28 Days Later’ (2002) brought the zombie movie back from the dead (sorry) and into the mainstream. Since then, zombie movies have proliferated like a pandemic of the Undead – and I have thoroughly lost interest in the genre. Perhaps, this is just a symptom of snobbery or hipsterism – now that everyone is fond of ‘The Walking Dead’ TV series, liking zombie films isn’t a particularly sophisticated point of view. Yet, in my opinion, the genre has been thematically exhausted and the best you can do is put a slightly different spin on a tired concept. After all, what new story with zombies could you possibly tell?
The South Korean movie ‘Train to Busan’ doesn’t find a new or original way to tell a zombie story either and just rolls with the concept “Zombies on a Train” (a Korean KTX bullet train, to be precise). To my surprise and delight, that’s good enough. The film centers around a neglectful, self-obsessed father, who takes his young daughter on a train ride to her mother when a zombie epidemic breaks out.
The set-up is simple, yet elegant and allows for suspenseful set-pieces. There are a number of striking images, particularly of bloodthirsty undead piling over each other in order to get to their prey. The father-daughter relationship is handled very well and you could be excused for getting a bit teary-eyed at times. The characters of most other passengers are sketched very broadly, but they are mostly zombie fodder anyway, so I didn’t mind that at all. ‘Train to Busan’ doesn’t reinvent the genre, but it’s a good, fun zombie film and these are rare enough. 7/10
Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Dishearteningly, the title suggests that this movie is part of a franchise – and, indeed, there are plans for a brawl between our oversized simian friend and Godzilla from the mediocre 2014 movie already.
‘Kong: Skull Island’ is also a wholly accurate title, because the film is basically a remake of the first two thirds of previous ‘King Kong’ movies, which are traditionally set on a hitherto undiscovered South Sea island. That means it’s missing the giant ape’s rampage through New York, which constitutes the last act of the 1933, 1976 and 2005 versions. I should really appreciate this omission, because I’ve always liked the island-set parts of the story more than Kong in the big city. I generally have a fondness for adventure movies, which feature an expedition exploring unchartered jungle territory.
And yet, ‘Kong: Skull Island’ left me unsatisfied. The problems start with the prologue, which begins with a World War II dogfight and the crash landing of an American and a Japanese fighter pilot on Skull Island. Immediately, they shoot at each other, chase each other up the beach and through the jungle and end up in close combat until, suddenly, Kong shows up.
On the one hand, you might argue that it’s good value for money to get two plane crashes, a glimpse of spectacular scenery, a chase and a fight scene with a Samurai sword plus a first look at the giant monster even before the title sequence. On the other hand, by not withholding the first sighting of King Kong, the movie shows its hand too early. The audience doesn’t have any time at all to acquaint itself with the island. There are no mysteriously large footprints or ominous sounds of falling trees announcing the arrival of Kong. From the get-go, it’s action without a pause. And this is exemplary of the whole movie, which fails to create any sense of wonder. You just cannot marvel at the enormous ape when he makes his first proper appearance, because he’s already swatting helicopters out of the sky and the camera places the viewer right in a Huey in a tailspin.
Speaking of Hueys, like Dino de Laurentiis’s monkey suit version of King Kong, ‘Kong: Skull Island’ doesn’t take place in the 1930ies, but the 1970ies, immediately after the end of the Vietnam War. While that made sense in the 1976 movie, because it transposed the original story to the (then) present, there is no good reason for ‘Kong: Skull Island’ to be set in the 1970ies. The filmmakers reference ‘Apocalypse Now’ (or its source text ‘Heart of Darkness’) a lot, but that seems to be an end in itself. Thematically, it’s a dead end other than providing motivation for Samuel L. Jackson’s character. It also raises the “Jefferson Airplane problem”, i.e. it employs contemporary pop culture references to establish the mood, but they are distracting instead of adding to the atmosphere and sense of time and place, because they have been overused in the movies. (In this case, ‘White Rabbit’ plays in the background in a Saigon bordello.)
Technically, the movie is very accomplished, but in 2017, a movie doesn’t deserve applause for its convincing CGI. It’s a minimum requirement. ‘Kong: Skull Island’ features a lot of well-known actors like Samuel l. Jackson, John Goodmann, Tom Hiddlestone, Brie Larson, Corey Hawkins and John C. Reilly and gives them very little to do. Particularly Brie Larson’s character is short changed by the screenplay and seems to be in the movie just to fulfill a female quota. Tom Hiddlestone is woefully miscast in a “Great White Hunter” role, which doesn’t make any sense and just seems to have been included to have a heroic character.
The criticism regarding characters and acting isn’t a big deal, though. The human characters don’t matter much in this film anyway and it’s all about Kong fighting other monsters. Personally, I didn’t like the giant spider-things, giant squid-things and giant lizard-things very much and much preferred the simpler dinosaurs of the 1933 and 2005 movie (the one animatronic rubber snake in 1977’s ‘King Kong’ not so much). That’s a matter of taste, though. If all you want fisticuffs between giant monsters, ‘Kong: Skull Island’ delivers on its promise. As a result, it’s an average film. 5/10