Art Fights Commerce in 'Mammia Mia: Here We Go Again'
Listen, I'm not going to say the 2008 original Mamma Mia! is a perfect movie. I'm not even sure if it's a good movie, in a technical sense. It really loses steam in its final 45 minutes, a timeline that roughly matches up with when Pierce Brosnan and Meryl Streep are given the chance to sing (or attempt to sing) more frequently. But if you've seen it you've got to admit, it's a hell of a lot of fun. In terms of pure escapist entertainment and joy, Mamma Mia! is the the cream of the crop. And really, a sequel was always going to happen. Think about it. It was really only a matter of time before Universal Studios--whose only cash cow properties depend on audiences believing the dinosaurs really aren't going to escape next time, or understanding what Vin Diesel is muttering in between gulps of Corona--returned to this musical treasure trove, which grossed over $600 million worldwide at the box office 10 years ago and made millions more in musical sales since. What's more, there was obvious material for a sequel (or in this case a prequel) sitting there waiting to be made. If you've seen the first film, you know about the crazy summer Donna (Meryl Streep's character) had in her past that led to her pregnancy, and how ripe the story was for drama and exploration. Honestly, I would've loved to see that movie: the story of a promising young college graduate who rebels against the pressures of a successful college career and a strained relationship with her mother, acting out by moving halfway across the world and falling into the arms of the first (and second, and third) handsome man she meets? Then getting tangled up in a love triangle, errr quadrilateral, getting pregnant and not knowing which is the father, and never wanting to move home and face the music? That's compelling stuff! Throw in the fact that the role of Young Donna is played by Lily James, who is beautiful and talented and beautiful and captivating and beautiful and beautiful and...give me a moment to compose myself...the project is a surefire home run. But it's never that simple, is it? There's that pesky little issue of fan service, the problem that plagues all sequels. If you're going to make another Mamma Mia! movie, then it has to be a Mamma Mia! movie. Fans want to see the gang back together again. They want to see Streep and Amanda Seyfried as mother and daughter, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters as the horny sidekicks, eye candy boyfriend Dominic Cooper, and the three-headed hunk machine of Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård. Throw that cast in all the promos dancing and singing and laughing and kissing, play up the nostalgia, and you're destined to make a lot of money. Basically Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again attempts to have its cake and eat it too. Sometimes it's as simple as art versus commerce. These two very different movies are smashed together, hopping back and forth between the timelines scene-to-scene with very little connection. I found myself dreading each time the movie would cut back to Cast Reunion Movie, where I'm subjected to watching actors that were too old to sing and dance 10 years ago attempt to hide that they really don't have their fastball anymore. And Cast Reunion Movie has essentially zero plot. It's basically just a series of "Hey, remember this guy/girl! They're back!" In addition, there was very clearly some scheduling issues in booking all the huge stars. Streep appears in a grand total of one scene, Firth and Skarsgård are conveniently off the continent for the first half of the movie, and there are a few instances where I could swear that scene partners were shot individually and then edited together using movie magic. To complete your ticket sales-bingo card, this movie gives us not one but two songs from a 72-year-old Cher, a hilariously flat character played by Andy Garcia, and I'm not even kidding when I say a cameo by THE MOST INTERESTING MAN IN THE WORLD from the Dos Equis commercials. On the other hand, Prequel Movie captures all of the innocent charm of the original film. James is surrounded by a cast of unknowns, but those unknowns are attractive, talented, and up for the task of starring in a modern musical. It's all fun, light-hearted and whimsical, with a real story to tell. But because it is only afforded half of the real estate it truly deserved, the plot in Prequel Movie is rushed and unsatisfying. I never thought I'd say this about one of the most lovable ensemble casts ever assembled, but Streep and Co. should've just stepped aside. As my ol' pal Commissioner Gordon would say, I guess "you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." Make room for the girl who is number one on the screen and absolutely, definitely, unquestionably number one in my heart: Lily James, my Dancing Queen.
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Once again, I'm purposely going to forego a lesser known and perhaps more nuanced choice for this all-time classic. But it's only because I'm amazed by how many people I've talked to who haven't seen this movie! Of the films that make up the Holy Trinity of Film (Citizen Kane and Casablanca being the others), this one is the most accessible to modern audiences. Gene Kelly might be the most charismatic man to ever grace the silver screen, surrounded by a great cast, compelling story, and of course unparalleled musical numbers. If you haven't seen it, you're not a fan of movies.
La La Land (2016)
Based on the feedback from my readers, this will be the first and last time I get to talk about my beloved movie musicals. So even though it's a stretch choosing something from Cinemax, I'm not going to pass up the chance to mention my second favorite movie of all time. An ode to Old Hollywood, to the fantasy of modern romance, to the city of Los Angeles, and to dreamers everywhere, this movie is masterfully crafted in every way. It knows how to make your heart soar with big, surreal set pieces, and break your heart with small, grounded moments. I love it so much.