Amanda Seyfried

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

23/07/18

The reviews have been astonishing: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is, we’re told, a glorious piece of feelgood fun; moreover, it has the emotional heft to make us cry. We’re surprised: we’re ABBA fans (because the music is undeniably good, right?) but we both found the first film a sort of okay-watchable-quite-good-nothing-special kind of thing. So what makes it so much better this time?

Sadly, the answer is… nothing. Nothing makes it better, because it isn’t better: it’s worse. It’s weirdly patchy: some genuinely awful sequences interspersed with lovely moments. All together, it’s a mess. Most of it (the prequel section) tells a back story we already know, fleshed out without revealing anything. There are no surprises here. The sequel section fares better, with the multi-talented Amanda Seyfried (Sophie) bringing a much-needed sincerity to proceedings, and wringing every ounce of emotion from the songs (One of Us, which she sings with her estranged husband, Sky (Dominic Cooper), is the highlight of the film for me).

The prequel takes us back to 1979, when Donna (Lily James), freshly graduated from Oxford, unsure of what she wants from life, decides to seek adventure and takes herself off travelling. In Paris, she meets Harry (Hugh Skinner); charmed by his geeky naïvety, she spends the night with him before heading off alone to Greece. En route to the unnamed island idyll that claims her, she meets Stellan Skarsgård’s younger incarnation (Josh Dylan), but he’s off to take part in a boat race, and – while he’s gone – she falls for Sam (Jeremy Irvine), the Pierce Brosnan-a-like, who is absolutely perfect – except for the fiancée he forgets to tell her about. James is a charismatic performer, and her vocal skills are more than up to the challenge (which is more than can be said for poor Hugh Skinner, who has definitely been cast because he resembles Colin Firth, and not because he has any discernible musical ability). Her character is flighty and foolish, making literally no use of that Oxford degree, but she’s engaging and entertaining, and she makes us care about her.

Not much happens in the sequel, which is a shame, because it has all the best songs and all the best actors. I mean, Sophie gets pregnant and feels close to her dead mother, and there’s a party that’s threatened by a storm, but that’s about it. True, Cher is a camp delight, appearing as Sophie’s errant grandmother and stealing the show, and Dancing Queen proves the perfect accompaniment to a lively, animated crowd scene. But honestly, that’s all there is.

There are huge missteps too. I hate the graduation scene where Donna and her friends (Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies) sing I Kissed the Teacher to a badly accented Celia Imrie (I think she’s supposed to be Scottish, but I can’t be sure). They’ve changed ‘he’ to ‘she’ in a bid to make the lyrics somehow more palatable, but I can’t see what difference it makes – it’s a good song, but the sentiment is undeniably creepy when filtered through a 2018 lens. It makes me most uncomfortable.

Ach, I don’t know. It’s just a load of mawkish nonsense, unpalatably sentimental and as silly as can be. Thank you for the music, ABBA – but can we stop filming this fluff?

2.8 stars

Susan Singfield

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First Reformed

13/07/18

Paul Schrader is most famous for writing Taxi Driver, Martin Scorscese’s devastating study of a lonely outsider driven to an act of extreme violence – but as a director, he has never really quite hit the mark. There was his fitful remake of Cat People in 1982; his study of the Japanese poet Mishima in 1985; and, more recently, his self-produced film, The Canyons, which attempted (unsuccessfully) to revive the flagging career of Lindsay Lohan. First Reformed arrives in the UK garlanded with praise by the American critics and it certainly represents Schrader’s most assured work as a director, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the story it most resembles is Taxi Driver. It’s as though he can’t quite shrug off the influence of his finest achievement, even after all these years.

Ethan Hawke plays the Reverend Toller, resident priest of the titular church, an ancient clapboard affair that these days is more a haunt for tourists and souvenir-collectors than an actual congregation. Toller has experienced some misery in his recent past – his son, a soldier, died on active service in Iraq, and Toller’s marriage has subsequently failed because of that loss. It’s clear he’s been given this post mostly out of sympathy and he’s doing his level best to handle the role, but he’s increasingly troubled by the fact that his church is just a small part of a much bigger concern called Abundant Life, whose major benefactor is one Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a local businessman who has his fingers in some very dodgy – and environmentally damaging – enterprises. To add to his problems, Reverend Toller is suffering from some kind of intestinal cancer and is existing mostly on a diet of whisky and Pepto Bismol.

Then he’s approached by young parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried, taking a break from her usual more lightweight roles). She is pregnant but deeply concerned about her partner, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist, who is clearly having doubts about bringing a child into such a troubled world. Toller agrees to talk to the young man and finds himself increasingly agreeing with Michael’s point of view. As events develop, he is also irresistibly drawn to Mary herself. And, as he struggles to deal with that realisation, he begins to contemplate an act of unspeakable violence…

This is an extremely dour and sombre film, shot in desaturated colour and projected in an almost square 1:37:1 ratio. The interiors of Toller’s house are distressingly bare and there’s a strange, almost subliminal score, courtesy of Brian Williams, that seems to amp up the sense of alienation we share with him. Hawke is excellent in the title role and the central premise of the aspirations of the church having to bow down in the face of big business are deftly explored. It’s by no means a perfect film – and I can’t help feeling that some of the praise that’s been lavished upon it may have been somewhat exaggerated – but it’s compelling enough to see you through to its odd and profoundly unsettling conclusion. Is it possible for a priest to maintain his faith in such a corrupt and devastated world? Does religion even have a place in it? Schrader’s film is brave enough to ask the questions, even if it can’t quite supply the answers.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

While We’re Young

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13/04/15

Reviewing Noah Baumbach’s previous film, Frances Ha, I remarked that it was the best Woody Allen movie in ages and I think that still holds true for While We’re Young. The spirit of Woody in his prime haunts this sprightly comedy, though perhaps this is mid-period Woody, around the time of say, Hannah and Her Sisters. This isn’t intended as a criticism, by the way, but as a compliment of the highest order. Even Woody Allen can’t make movies like this any more.

Josh (Ben Stiller) is a once-promising documentary maker who has stalled on his second project, still incomplete after ten years of tinkering with it. His wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts) is a film producer who works alongside her father, Leslie (Charles Grodin) a documentary maker of near legendary fame, a cross which Josh has had to bear for most of his life. When Josh and Leslie encounter cool young film-maker Jamie (Adam Driver) and his free-spirited girlfriend Darby (Amanda Siefried), they soon find themselves being inexorably drawn into their quirky universe, complete with a change of wardrobe and a visit to a spiritual vomiting course. Jamie professes to be Josh’s greatest fan… and he soon has him working as his collaborator on a new film project – but is Jamie everything he claims to be? Or does he have more mercenary objectives in mind?

The film is funniest when examining the ‘chalk and cheese’ aspects of the two male leads. While Josh plays CD’s, Jamie prefers vinyl. Where Josh frequents Facebook, Jamie prefers scribbling down obscure messages on bits of paper. It soon becomes clear that Jamie is actually a total jerk. Despite that, it’s also obvious that he’s likely to make a big success at his chosen vocation. There are plenty of laughs along the way, but the story falls down somewhat with a conclusion which suggests that people cannot really be complete until they become parents. Since Josh and Cornelia have spent most of the movie professing how lucky they are to have escaped that particular ‘trap,’ it seems a little facile to have them both willingly falling headlong into it.

Still, for all that, this is that rarest of things, an intelligent comedy that hits most of its intended targets with ease. It may not quite be in the same league as Frances Ha, but it’s not so bad either.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

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