Friday, July 20, 2018

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again — Another treat for ABBA fans

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again (2018) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for playful sensuality

By Derrick Bang

Playful summer sensuality couldn’t possibly look more enticing than it does in this delightful musical.

When Donna (Lily James, right) asks if she can get a job singing at a Greek café/bar, she's
challenged to prove her vocal chops, much to the delight of best friends Rosie (Alexa
Davies, left) and Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn).
The entire gang returns for another romantic roundelay in this sparkling sequel, which adds a few casting surprises to an ensemble already rich with tuneful joie de vivre. The story is typical “musical lite” — just enough plot on which to hang a bunch of song and dance numbers — but writers Ol Parker, Richard Curtis and Catherine Johnson add enough flirty banter and droll double entendres to keep everybody amused.

And yet, since we’re dealing with a finite songbook, one can’t help feeling that all the “good stuff” was used up during the first film. Reprises of the title song and “Dancing Queen” are inevitable, but many of the other tunes here — no matter how cleverly placed — are less familiar, and therefore don’t resonate nearly as much.

This sequel definitely suffers the comparative lack of power ballads that gave its predecessor so much effervescent momentum. No doubt recognizing this, the writers have shaped a more emotional story better suited to the quieter, more poignant songs at work here.

Even so, the first act is rather slow, and we get a sense that Parker — who also directs — is having trouble warming up.

Fortunately, things improve as the film proceeds.

Many years have passed, during which Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and her maybe-father Sam (Pierce Brosnan), happily ensconced on the magical Greek island of Kalokairi, have worked hard to renovate the taverna that her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) always wished to transform into a luxury hotel. The grand opening is set for the following day: an occasion that has brought Donna’s lifelong friends Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) to the island.

Alas, Sophie’s other maybe-dads — Harry (Colin Firth) and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) — are tied up elsewhere in the world, and boyfriend Sky (Dominic Cooper) is in New York, learning the ins and outs of the hotel trade.

Worse yet — and there’s simply no getting around this, since the bomb drops almost immediately — Donna is absent, having died a year earlier. (What? I hear you scream. No kidding.) Not having her mother on hand to share this moment, is almost more than Sophie can bear.

This melancholia prompts Sophie to reflect on the circumstances that brought her mother to Kalokairi, so long ago: our entry to the extended flashback subsequently intercut with the present-day activities.

It’s 1979, and young Donna (Lily James), Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies) – even then, notoriously known as Donna and The Dynamos — are graduating from Oxford University. Donna’s valedictory speech is the perfect opportunity to slide into a lively rendition of “When I Kissed the Teacher,” but this production number never sheds a wincing sense of awkwardness: not even when Celia Imrie joins the fun, as an unexpectedly gregarious vice chancellor.

Back in the present day, Seyfried and Cooper and far more successful with “One of Us,” a melancholy lament regarding the eternal battle between heart and head, which makes excellent use of this film’s ingenious segues, dissolves, scene changes, and time and space shifts. Rarely have cinematography (Robert D. Yeoman), editing (Peter Lambert) and CGI (Chris Corbould) been collaboratively employed so cleverly.

Back in 1979, Donna courageously treats herself to an adventure in Europe, hoping to find “something magical,” and knowing that her more-or-less estranged mother won’t notice, let alone care. Her happy-go-lucky travels eventually lead to Kalokairi, and along the way she chances upon the younger versions of Harry (Hugh Skinner), Bill (Josh Dylan) and Sam (Jeremy Irvine).

It’s a testament to James’ infectious radiance, and free-spirited sensuality, that we forgive the rapidity with which she beds all three. (Goodness, given the circumstances, how could she do otherwise?) Each meet-cute moment is equally endearing; each mutual attraction takes place against an appropriate song. Clothing is minimal; the seductive banter is playfully naughty without becoming smarmy; the outcome feels inevitable each time.

James seems to be everywhere these days, having parlayed her co-starring role in television’s Downton Abbey into a busy film career that — just recently — has included wildly divergent roles in Baby Driver and Darkest Hour. She’s equally adept at the light comedy and singing demanded here, where she essentially inherits the “blithe ingénue” role played by Seyfried in the first film.

And yes, James also has impressive vocal chops, not to mention solid timing. She and Dylan have a lot of fun with the physical comedy choreographed by Anthony Van Laast in the vaudeville-style “Why Did It Have to Be Me,” as Donna succumbs to Bill’s charms while he sails her to Kalokairi on his yacht.

James also owns a high-octane rendition of “Waterloo,” set in a French restaurant where she and Harry begin their romantic interlude: the point at which this film finally kicks into gear.

Davies is a stitch as the youthful Rosie, forever pining for the hunky guys who never notice her, choosing instead to fall in love with Donna. She and Wynn are deftly cast; they don’t merely look like younger versions of Baranski and Walters, but they also move and behave like them.

Deep acting skills aren’t required here; it’s mostly a function of hitting marks, delivering well-timed zingers, and looking comfortable while entering into the spirit of things. Firth and Skarsgård don’t quite manage the latter; they’ve nowhere near Brosnan’s enthusiastic willingness to look foolish, if a scene demands it.

Baranski and Walters handle some droll rat-a-tat exchanges, particularly while lusting after hunky fellas; Skinner, Dylan and Irvine fulfill their requirements as adorable and/or hunky young studs who can’t help catching Donna’s eye.

Andy Garcia is suaveness personified as Sophie’s capable hotel manager — quietly nursing a long-ago heartbreak of his own — and Omid Djalili has a hilarious running bit as a Greek immigration official.

Costume designer Michele Clapton clearly enjoyed recreating the opulent late ’70s look that characterized ABBA performances, back in the day; James, Wynn and Davies couldn’t look cuter in their oversize boots and day-glo outfits.

The film enhances its momentum by the third act, which kicks off with a sparkling ensemble rendition of “Dancing Queen” — darn well about time, we think at that moment — and then surprises us with a most unexpected placement of “My Love, My Life.”

And, as was the case with the first film, this one concludes with a bubbly, full-ensemble production number, in the tradition of countless Bollywood musicals. By this point, you’ve almost certainly embraced the larkish atmosphere, and likely will haul out all your old ABBA albums — again! — as soon as you get home.

Too bad Parker couldn’t kick things into that gear a bit sooner.

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