Monday, July 28, 2008

Movie Review - Mamma Mia!

Is anything as silly, cheesy or more fun than an ABBA song? Well, yes -- a whole movie full of ABBA songs! "Mamma Mia!" shows why you just can't get those stupid songs out of your head, and goes one better by demonstrating the pure joy of watching a stellar cast romp through "Dancing Queen", "Waterloo" and many more ABBA favorites on a lovely Greek isle while wearing outlandish costumes. It doesn't get any better. As a big fan of the exhilarating stage show, I couldn't wait to see "Mamma Mia!" on the big screen. While there's nothing like a live stage performance, the movie comes pretty close, giving us all the energy of the original show with a few delightfully campy production numbers thrown in for good measure. The divine Meryl Streep brings her incredible talent to a completely different kind of role as Donna, who operates a funky, run down little hotel on a Greek island where she's raised a daughter Sophie (wonderful new discovery Amanda Seyfried). As Sophie's wedding day approaches, the girl's fondest wish is to know the identity of her father, a secret her mother has never divulged. After discovering her mother's diary from 20 years ago, Sophie learns that 3 different men are all on the list as a potential father. Unbeknownst to her fiercely independent mother, she invites all 3 men to the wedding, setting up a comedy of errors and a rather bizarre, but entertaining, reunion between her mother and the former beaus. Adding to the merriment is the arrival of Donna's best friends and former singing group members Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) who can still shake it with the best. The 3 potential fathers (Pierce Brosnan as Sam, Colin Firth as Harry and Stellan Skarsgard as Bill) are clueless upon arrival in Greece but gradually begin to catch on to what's afoot.

The movie starts out a bit frenetically but soon settles into a breezy series of ABBA song numbers that fit effortlessly into the plot. Dominic Cooper (as Sophie's future husband Sky) acquits himself fairly well in the singing department (looking mighty good doing it too), and even though the other male voices in the movie are not quite up to snuff, it hardly matters when you're talking great chemistry (especially between Streep and Brosnan) or comical moments at which the guys all excel. Director Phyllida Lloyd's directing style is slightly rushed, but her outstanding cast goes with it. If the audience is left a bit breathless, all the better when you're in the thrall of such wildly entertaining fun.

Things to love about this movie: Meryl Streep's marvelous performance & singing voice; ditto for Amanda Seyfried; the always delightful Christine Baranksi and Julie Walter's equally terrific and funny turn; cutie pie Philip Michael (featured in a great version of "Does Your Mother Know"); middle aged women actually having fun and getting screen time; middle aged men still sexy without any young chickies in tow; plenty of no-holds-barred singing & dancing
Things to hate about this movie: Not a one
Pleasant surprises: Almost as much fun as the stage play
Unpleasant surprises: Could have used a little more of young hottie Dominic Cooper

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Movie Review - Tell No One

An eclectic mix of Harlan Coben hardboiled action and French sophistication, "Tell No One" proves once again that even American thrillers sound better in French. Francois Cluzet stars as pediatrician Alexandre Beck who's spent the last 8 years mourning the death of his beloved wife Margot (Marie-Josee Croze). The film opens with a disturbing flashback scene where Margot is kidnapped, Alexandre is beaten and the audience is perfectly set up for a long, convoluted but nevertheless riveting story which keeps us, along with Beck, trying to unravel the mysterious events. When Margot's body is later found in a wooded area, it's assumed her death is the work of a serial killer who's already claimed several victims in a similar fashion. The local police, however, have always suspected that Beck is the man responsible for his wife's death. Moving to present day, the bodies of two men who were possibly related to Margot's kidnapping/death are found, causing the police to reopen the case. Meanwhile, through a series of strange email messages, Beck slowly begins to believe that perhaps his wife isn't actually dead after all.

There's a colorful cast of characters, including Beck's friend Helene (a wonderful performance by Kristen Scott-Thomas whose French is impeccable), the thuggish Bruno (Gilles Lellouche) whose hemophiliac son was treated by Beck, and a scary team of kidnappers/killers. Added to the mix are plenty of innovative action sequences along with cool scenes of Paris not usually included on the tourist routes. Director Guillaume Canet keeps the story moving without sacrificing style or substance. We feel Beck's pain over the loss of his wife as well as the frustration of his friends that he's unable to move forward with his life. For some reason Cluzet annoyed me in the lead role, although his performance was fine. An interesting soundtrack managed to work wonders at times and become distracting at others with a U2 song ("With or Without You") featured to terrific effect in one crucial scene. I was left slightly confused by the wrap-up explanations of what really happened, but even though the film went on a bit too long there wasn't a dull moment.

Things to love about this movie: Nail biter scene of Beck trying to cross a crowded beltway on foot; Beck's wonderful Briard dog Nina; romantic opening with Beck and Margot swiftly followed by her horrifying abduction and murder
Things to hate about this movie: A little too long; plot developments became too convoluted and slightly confusing towards the end
Pleasant surprises: Scenes of Beck at work -- it's rare to see movie characters actually doing their job and revealed some interesting aspects of this man; photographs of a bruised, battered Margot turn up and twist the plot in a fascinating way
Unpleasant surprises: One member of the kidnapping team seems to specialize in painfully manipulating internal organs by hand to obtain information from her victims (yikes)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Movie Review - The Dark Knight

It's all about Heath Ledger. And yes, all the hype surrounding his "final" performance is true. (This probably isn't really his last, since footage already shot for the Terry Gilliam movie "Doctor Parnassus" will supposedly include Heath's scenes.) He's absolutely mesmerizing and mind blowing as the most maniacal, amusing Joker yet with his own lethal chaos theory. In fact, for me, when Heath wasn't on screen I kept wishing he'd come back into frame. He's that good. Maybe it's because I got myself too built up about "The Dark Knight", what with all the critical acclaim and anticipation, but I was actually slightly disappointed in the movie as a whole. Let it be said that I'm sick to death of super heroes -- enough already! I know it's summer, but if I see one more comic book movie I may give up on Hollywood until the fall. Batman is my favorite comic book leading man, and Christian Bale is my favorite Batman, but 2-1/2 hours of explosions and car chases is still a little bit too much for me. Batman seems to be saving the day in an increasingly brutal fashion which is beginning to disturb me. Perhaps that's the point.

We return to Gotham City with its citizens at the mercy of rampant crime, mob activity and, of course, the diabolical stunts of The Joker. Despite his wish to hang up the bat suit forever, rich playboy Bruce Wayne gets pulled back into action as Batman, facing his most daunting enemy in a cat and mouse game of monumental proportions. It seems the very soul of Gotham City is at stake. Returning from "Batman Begins" are the wonderful Gary Oldman as Lt. Jim Gordon, Michael Caine as Bruce's trusty man servant Alfred and Morgan Freeman as sophisticated weapons expert Lucius Fox. There are two newcomers to the cast: Aaron Eckhart as crusading District Attorney Harvey Dent and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes (a character previously played by Katie Holmes). And then there's Heath, who simply burns up the screen. For me, everyone else in the movie just pales by comparison, although I really enjoyed Gary Oldman's subtle portrayal as the besieged Gordon.

There are some thrilling action sequences and chilling scenes in the movie. One particularly effective stunt is a standoff orchestrated by The Joker in which two ferry boats are both loaded with explosives and filled with terrified people (one with convicts, the other with "regular" citizens). The passengers of both ferries are given the option of activating the detonator to blow up the other boat before their own vessel can be destroyed. Good stuff. I only wish writer/director Christopher Nolan had used more of those situations and fewer pyrotechnics. I know I'm sure to be in the minority opinion here, but I wanted to fall in love with "The Dark Knight" and ended up merely liking it.

Things to love about this movie: Heath Ledger as The Joker; some excellent twists and turns that were truly surprising; dazzling special f/x
Things to hate about this movie: It makes me long for a sequel, with Heath as The Joker, that can never be; a little too long
Pleasant surprises: Gary Oldman is given more screen time as Lt. Gordon
Unpleasant surprises: Although I'm a big fan of Aaron Eckhart, he seemed slightly miscast and not as effective as he should have been as Harvey "Two Face" Dent; the always terrific Maggie Gyllenhaal is given little to do; Dent's disfigured face make-up looked really fake

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Movie Review - Brick Lane

Cultural identity, family dynamics and the power of memory all play a part in this movie adaptation of the wonderful book by Monica Ali. Beautiful Tannishtha Chatterjee stars as Nazneen, a Bangladeshi woman who is married off at a young age to an older husband (Satish Kaushik) in East London. She leaves her beloved sister behind to begin life in a depressing flat where her routine consists of grocery shopping, removing her husband's coat as he returns from work and raising two daughters. Life picks up considerably when Nazneen meets Karim (Christopher Simpson), the handsome boy who picks up the sewing work she does on the side. There's an instant attraction between the almost housebound, traditional Nazneen and the westernized, politically active Karim. Their scenes together are thrilling and sensual as we see Nazneen's dazzling smile for the first time. Letters from her sister, who's living a more carefree life back in Bangladesh, also cheer her up and bring back the allure of her homeland. After the attacks on 9/11 a frightening racial and religious backlash against Muslims disturbs Nazneen's East London neighborhood, with Karim organizing a local resistance group.

Director Sarah Gavron does an excellent job of creating subtle, complicated portrayals and relationships. All of the delightful characters I remember from the book are here: Nazneen's rebellious, sarcastic older daughter Shahana (an excellent performance by Naeema Begum), the various neighbors who share the tenement-like building where Nazneen's family lives, even the East London neighborhood itself which is well captured right down to the family's stifling little apartment space. We're left uncertain of exactly where life will lead Nazneen, yet exhilarated by her brave, somewhat surprising choices.

Things to love about this movie: Remains very faithful to the book on which it's based; exquisite scenes of nature in India during Nazneem's childhood; satisfying ending; a touching, bittersweet segment where the family takes a day trip to London proper for viewing the changing of the guard and having a picnic in the park
Things to hate about this movie: I had a bit of trouble understanding some of the dialogue due to a combination of British and Indian accents
Pleasant surprises: The perfect casting of Satish Kaushik as Chanu, Nazneem's husband (exactly as I'd pictured him in the book and a wonderful performance)
Unpleasant surprises: Nazneen's younger daughter Bibi is little more than a cipher in the movie