Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Lily James, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominic Cooper, Andy Garcia, Cher, Meryl Streep

Director: Ol Parker

Writer: Ol Parker


I really don’t want to be that guy. I know that this movie wasn’t made for me. I know that the people it was made for love it to bits. I know that I’m the boring spoilsport at the karaoke party who’s sulking in the corner while everybody else is singing, dancing and having tremendous fun. I know that the movie is fully aware of how silly, cheesy and imperfect it is and embraces it all with total zeal and complete shamelessness. This is a movie without pretension or delusions of grandeur; there is no artistry to be dissected and scrutinised, no hidden truths or deeper meanings to be unearthed, and no profound or introspective thoughts or feelings to be taken away so that people like me can flex their movie critic muscles. All this movie wants is for you to lay back, let your hair down, open your mind and just laugh, sing along and embrace the joy, the glam and the ABBA of it all. Believe me, I get it. And I hated it all the same.

I really don’t want to be the guy who hates Mamma Mia. I like ABBA. And I like musicals. And I like many of the actors involved, both new and returning. But watching these movies is like being a teetotal introvert alone at a boozy music festival, even the most honest attempt to embrace the discomforting noise and clutter and humour the chaotic revelry is going to leave you drained from the monotony and effort. ‘Then why would you even bother going?’ you might ask. Well, I came for the music but, instead of ABBA, I got the amateur cover band made up of X-Factor rejects. What followed was a song-and-dance cataclysm that got more unbearable with every flat note, every clumsy dance routine and every obnoxiously garish sound and visual. I know that the goofiness and crudeness is kind of the point and for many it is part of the film’s charm, but all I can think about was how swept away I was by The Greatest Showman. Like Mamma Mia, that movie was stupid, clichéd and corny as hell but it was all done with such passion, creativity and honest-to-god effort by such a talented team (including actors who can actually sing and dance) that I couldn’t help but be charmed. What I find most grating about the Mamma Mia movies above all else is how feckless and insincere the whole thing feels.

Here We Go Again is pretty much everything I loathed about the first film sans Meryl Streep (who wasn’t all that great in the first place; she barely hit a note in ‘The Winner Takes It All’ and deserves far more attention for her heartfelt rendition of ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’). Donna has died and her loss has left a gaping hole in the lives of those who lived on that idyllic Greek island with her. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is working to re-open the inn in her mother’s honour (having renamed it the Hotel Bella Donna) and is frantic as the opening night approaches and she’s trying to put the finishing touches on the big party she’s planning. Her mother’s friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) arrive to show their support and share with her stories of the Donna they knew as a young woman back when she looked like Lily James (James, with her sunny presence and decent singing voice, is one of the film’s better qualities). In these flashbacks we are treated to the tale of how the free-spirited Donna first came to the island back in the groovy 70s, made it her home, and on the way met and slept with the three men who may or may not be Sophie’s father: the bashful Harry (Hugh Skinner), the adventurous Bill (Josh Dylan) and the dashing Sam (Jeremy Irvine), standing in for Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård and Pierce Brosnan respectively.

Having used up most of ABBA’s most recognisable hits in the first film, Here We Go Again scrapes the barrel for whatever overlooked tracks and B-songs it can find to shoehorn into the story. We’re first introduced to young Donna as she sings ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’, a song that’s sure to get a staff member at her university sacked, we get young Harry singing about how sleeping with Donna would be his ‘Waterloo’ (whatever that means), and we’re treated to a version of ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ that isn’t nearly as dramatic as it should be in that moment due to Irvine’s atonal voice (which, if nothing else, is at least consistent with Brosnan’s performance). Most of these musical numbers are forgettable; the more memorable performances tend to be those that replay hits from the first film including ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Super Trouper’. And still, even at their most elaborate, the staging and choreography in these scenes is so conventional and uninspired they fall far short of the extravaganza that an ABBA musical ought to be. And then there’s Cher who enters the scene dressed all in white, radiating like a beacon of light just when you thought all hope was lost, to sing ‘Fernando’ with Andy Garcia. She barely adds anything to the story and the choreography is still too lacklustre and restrained for a star with her presence and energy, but damn did it feel good to listen to someone who could sing for a change.

Given how fantastically difficult it is for any film of any kind to be made, I don’t like accusing filmmakers of being lazy. Very few, if any, go into this industry because they want to make an easy buck. However if the effort that went into a film is not self-evident, it’s difficult for me to feel like any care or passion went into its making. This is what I was getting at when I said the film felt feckless and insincere. It feels like nobody, either in front or behind the camera, saw this movie as anything more than an excuse to spend a few weeks in sunny Greece and get a paycheque out of it. It feels like the filmmakers knew the movie would make money no matter what so they just didn’t care enough to try and turn it into something special; to cast actors who can sing and dance, to push the limits of what’s possible in the spectacles they can produce, to write a story that has something meaningful to say about love and heartbreak, youth and growth, joy and sadness, and the many other things ABBA used to sing about. That they had fun together is clear, but the fun isn’t infectious because there’s no personal or emotional investment in anything that’s happening on screen.

Based on the reception these films have received, it’s clear that my opinion is in the minority. It looks like many, many people are perfectly happy to watch A-List stars who can barely hold a tune belt out catchy pop songs in bell bottoms and jumpsuits and there’s not much I can really say to that. There’s for sure something to be said for joyful escapism, which isn’t something I would begrudge anybody in this day and age. What’s more, it seems that some of the things I vehemently dislike about Mamma Mia are amongst the very reasons why people find it so charming and lovable and there is no criticism I can make that will change how they see the film. These movies clearly do something that works for a large and diverse audience and if I don’t know what it is by this point I doubt I ever will. As someone who didn’t have any patience for the tangential subplots and musical scenes that detracted from the story, the blandly delivered songs and tediously repetitive format, and the derivative and empty plot that manages to go absolutely nowhere, this movie was exhausting. The only thing I took away from Mamma Mia was a headache.

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Passengers

Cast: Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia

Director: Morten Tyldum

Writer: Jon Spaihts


Space is a great setting for making movies about isolation. It is a vast, empty void where, as Alien observed, no one can hear you scream. Small wonder then that there is a great range of superb sci-fi films depicting this very idea from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Gravity. Passengers seeks to take the idea even further with its story of a forlorn man who is driven by his inconsolable loneliness and obsessive desperation to commit a terrible act. There is a compelling premise here that could have made for a fascinating film, sort of like a cross between The Shining and Vertigo set in space. The problem is that this film is more interested in portraying a fashionable Hollywood romance between its two attractive, likeable leads than it is in properly confronting the themes that have been set up. Thus we are instead treated to manipulated emotions, contrived storytelling and weak characterisations, all of which serve to enable Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to enjoy their dark, insane, unhealthy relationship.

The starship Avalon is undergoing a 120-year journey with its 5,000 passengers to inhabit a new planet when it suffers damage passing through an asteroid field. As a result of this accident Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) wakes up 90 years too early on a ship with no other conscious people and no way of going back to sleep. In the year that he spends alone on the ship his only companion is the android bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen). In a moment of despair Jim happens upon a pod belonging to Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and is enamoured with her. After learning everything he can about her and (somewhat) struggling with his own conscience, Jim decides to wake her up so that he finally won’t be alone any more. He and Aurora (who is unaware of his action) meet and fall in love, but their love is threatened by the truth of their meeting, which will inevitably be revealed to her, as well as by the sustained damage suffered by the ship.

This is a dark, some might even say sadistic, premise for a film. The film however decides that Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence must be allowed to fall in love and end up together because… well, because they’re Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. Even if there was a believable way to spin their relationship into a positive one, the chemistry they share isn’t potent or alluring enough to justify it despite both of them being charming and attractive actors. There is a sense here that we are supposed to buy into their union based on the strength of their individual personas (because, for heaven’s sake, they’re Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence!) but the characters and dialogue they are given are just too bland and conventional for them to have any real kind of a spark. It gets worse when the inevitable revelation is made and Aurora correctly denounces Jim as a murderer because then the movie has to somehow make them get back together. The way they accomplish this is all at once cheap, forced, predictable, misguided and sexist.

I suppose there are some technically good aspects in this film that ought to be praised. Michael Sheen for instance gives a terrific performance in a role that he clearly had a great time playing. The film looks good in terms of its visual effects and production design, especially in the scene where Aurora’s swimming routine is interrupted by a malfunction in the ship’s gravity, but it isn’t exactly something to behold. The designs, such as that of the double-helix-shaped ship, are serviceable in giving the film the sci-fi look it wants but they never startle or astonish. I can also say that Tyldum’s direction is quite competent, but isn’t nearly as inspired or inventive as the films he clearly drew inspiration from (the most obvious of which were both made by Kubrick). At times the flow and composition of the film looks and feels so plain and unsurprising that I suspect the spaceship’s autopilot could probably have directed it.

D.H. Lawrence once called Jane Eyre a pornographic novel, criticising the way he felt Brontë had to manipulate her characters’ emotions and circumstances in order for them to end up together. That is basically how I feel about Passengers. There is no thought, no depth and no feeling to this film. The movie cares only about one thing and that is getting Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence to lock lips and look good doing it. The grim desolation that drove Jim to commit his crime, the heavy toll that the guilt takes on his soul, the rage, devastation and probably even violation that Aurora feels upon learning the truth; all of that is secondary. So great is the crime of trying to pass off such a disturbing concept as a positive love story that it outshines the crime of bringing together these two likeable, talented stars and not using them to their full potential. This movie is not a romance, it is wish-fulfilment; plain, stupid, unintentionally disturbing wish-fulfilment.

★★