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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 20, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 29
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Enjoyably pleasant Mamma Mia! sequel a musical surprise
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

MAMMA MIA!
HERE WE GO AGAIN
Now playing


I like to say I go into every press screening with an open mind. No matter what the film is, no matter who is in it, no matter how horrible the trailers might be or the general synopsis might make things sound, once the room darkens and the screen lights up all preconceptions hopefully vanish into the ether. The excitement of every motion picture's potential is manna to my soul, and so I sit there in my seat eager to find out if this glorious anticipation is warranted or is instead sadly nothing more than a frustrating waste of good emotive speculation.

Considering just how much I abhor 2008's surprise smash Mamma Mia!, I honestly can't say I walked into its long-gestating sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again with as clear a head as I like to proclaim I always do. Watching the first film wasn't just a painful experience; I actually felt like that cinematic adaptation of the Broadway smash was actively trying to assault me. Every second I sat in the theatre was an eternity, and by the time it was over I was stunned I had survived the ordeal and not keeled over dead someplace between performances of ABBA standbys 'Our Last Summer' and 'SOS.' I don't like the word 'hate' very much, but it fits my feelings in regards to Mamma Mia! quite nicely, and as such sitting through a follow-up wasn't exactly high on my personal to-do list.

I'm not going to say Here We Go Again is any sort of musical classic. I can't proclaim that it's so far heads and tails over its predecessor it makes me look at that 2008 original in a whole new light. I can't say that it isn't as silly, that it's not cartoonish and that its placement on the plausibility meter is anything other than low. But I don't know if it is the involvement of Imagine Me & You and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel director Ol Parker, or if it is the addition of Parker and Richard Curtis (Love Actually, About Time) to the screenwriting team alongside returning scribe Catherine Johnson, but gosh darn it if I didn't have a rather wonderful time watching this story play itself out. There is an emotional warmth and a narrative subtlety to this sequel that caught me by complete surprise, and even if I'm not the biggest ABBA fan in the world (that would be my mother, thank you very much) there were still moments even I almost wanted to rise to my feet and sing right along to the film's infectious soundtrack.

On the Greek island of Kalokairi, Sophie Sheridan (Amanda Seyfried) is just days away from fulfilling her mother Donna's (Meryl Streep) lifelong dream of transforming her mountaintop home into a thriving hotel. While one of her potential three dads Sam (Pierce Brosnan) is there to offer emotional and moral support, unfortunately Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) and Harry (Colin Firth) are not able to attend the grand opening. Even her husband Sky (Dominic Cooper) is stranded in New York learning the tricks of the hotelier trade working for a major international company, this time apart putting an unforeseen strain on the couple's marriage.

Thankfully, Donna's lifelong friends and songstress soul mates Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) have just arrived on Kalokairi to lend a helping hand. Also being particularly useful is her resourceful and wise hotel manager Señor Cienfuegos (Andy Garcia), a newcomer to the island who's especially eager to see this project meet with success. Through it all Sophie begins to wonder what it must have been like for Donna when she first came to the island that would become her home and what the circumstances were that led her to become involved with Sam, Bill and Harry in relatively quick succession, believing this knowledge will help her and Sky through the difficult portions of their still young marriage.

In many ways all of this is just a convenient excuse for Johnson, Curtis and Parker to spend half of their movie going back in time and following Donna around as a wide-eyed adventurous young woman excited to see what the world has to offer her. As portrayed by Lily James, this Oxford graduate is a fearless risk-taker who embraces who she is body and soul. More importantly, she refuses to compromise anything about herself because she is a woman. Instead, Donna celebrates that fact, and whether that be her views on sex, romance, friendship or anything else, she is committed to achieving a level playing field that won't allow anyone, especially men, the opportunity to plant her in a corner where she'd likely wither and die.

This section of the story is easily the film's strongest. James, who after Mirror, Mirror, Cinderella and Baby Driver should have been thought of as a major star, is sensational, her emotionally astute performance a shocking thing of beauty I was entranced by. Not only does she sing the ABBA songs with a sweetly haunting tenderness that's deeply affecting, her dramatic moments sparkle with an intuitive and feisty authenticity that's darn near perfect. As silly and as sitcom-like as events might become, James makes them intimately resonate almost as if by the sheer force of her will, and as such the musical obtains a melodious eloquence that's oftentimes sublime.

The story itself is still a giant sophomoric fairy tale crossed with a melodramatic soap opera, and taking almost any of this seriously is impossible. But where the previous film spent its entire running time with the volume turned all the way up to 11, this time there's some actual tonal variances to the storytelling that helps give the narrative an emotional ebb and flow that's far easier to become swept up within. While the big moments are all still monstrously larger than life, the little ones quiet down just enough to become impactful. I cared about young Donna and I was hopeful Sophie's struggles to bring her mother's hotel to life would meet with success. I liked these two characters, their parallel stories working just in tandem enough to make me contentedly smile.

ABBA's music is orchestrated into events seamlessly for the most part save for a couple of exceptions, most notably a stunning version of 'Andante, Andante' performed by James. There's also a sublime duet of 'Fernando' sung by Cher (portraying Sophie's Las Vegas megastar grandmother Ruby Sheridan) and Garcia that, as cheekily staged as it might be, is so heartfelt and nakedly raw the fact the moment itself was a great big pile of over-the-top hooey didn't really matter one single solitary bit. It's also interesting that the three actors they've cast to play Sam (Jeremy Irvine), Bill (Josh Dylan) and Harry (Hugh Skinner) as youngsters can actually sing pretty well while Brosnan, Skarsgård and Firth noticeably still cannot, and as such I can only assume all three became tone deaf the moment Donna exiled them all from her life to remain on Kalokairi on her own. I still can't stand Mamma Mia! That movie drove me so up the wall I'm sitting here cringing in aural pain as I think about it again right now writing this sentence. That means I'm as flabbergasted as anyone that I enjoyed Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again as much as I did. But this sequel got to me and did so within in the first few minutes, an opening rendition of 'When I Kissed the Teacher' having a sundrenched Technicolor exuberance that's wondrous. This is why it's important to give each film the benefit of the doubt instead of throwing in the towel before the curtain even opens, because you never know when the song the filmmakers are about to sing is going to be one you're going to merrily want to hum right along with.


Explosively absurd Skyscraper a tower of farcical nonsense
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

SKYSCRAPER
Now playing


After a horrific tragedy takes a part of one of his legs below the knee, former FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) is now a freelance security specialist who does risk and safety assessments for skyscrapers. As great as he is at his job, Will is still surprised when his former FBI teammate Ben (Pablo Schreiber) gets him a job to analyze the Pearl, a 225-story technological marvel of futuristic engineering overlooking Hong Kong, dreamt up by visionary industrialist Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han). After months of work, Will's now come to China to deliver his final report, his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) - a brilliant naval surgeon who saved his life ten years prior - and twin children Georgia (McKenna Roberts) and Henry (Noah Cottrell) joining him on the trip.

What Will doesn't know is that it's all a trick. International thug Kores Botha (Roland Møller), an enforcer for a number of secretive criminal syndicates, wants something that Zhao has hidden inside the Pearl, and he'll do anything to get it. This includes setting the building ablaze while Sarah, Georgia, and Henry are all still inside and Will is offsite checking security protocols. With all of the fire prevention features inexplicably turned off it's only a matter of time before the building reaches the point of no return. But with his family caught in the middle of this maelstrom, Will is suitably determined to do whatever it takes to get them all out alive, and if that means tapping into the lethal skills that made him one of the FBI's best - skills he was hoping to never utilize again - in order to take down Botha, then that is exactly what it is he's going to do.

If nothing else, this new Towering Inferno meets Die Hard meets Taken meets The Fugitive bit of big-budget loopy Hollywood craziness Skyscraper is a terrific commercial for duct tape. Goodness gracious but does Will go through tons of the stuff, using it for everything from bandaging wounds to helping his bionic leg stay secure. Heck, at one point he even fashions a low-rent version of the high-tech climbing gloves Tom Cruise had to climb the Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. There's so much duct tape in this movie it wouldn't surprise me at all to find out the manufacturer was one of the primary financiers for the project, and I'm almost shocked the company didn't get some sort of on-screen presenting credit like Hasbro does for the Transformers and G.I. Joe adventures.

As for the rest of the thriller, it's as absolutely absurd as that synopsis likely made things sound. Writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber's (We're the Millers, Central Intelligence) latest is a big piece of slickly produced high-concept hooey that gets more ludicrous and less coherent as it moves along. The film is a giant epic overflowing in melodramatic action pyrotechnics that's even stupider and far more silly than I ever could have imagined it was going to be, a large part of me kind of thinking this was the whole idea right from the start.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Heck, for the first half or so I was totally onboard with just how ridiculous all of the shenanigans involving Will's quest to save his family trapped inside the Pearl was turning out to be. Even though I knew immediately who the secret bad guys were, there's something kind of magical in watching Johnson scale a massive construction crane so he can make a physics-defying leap 100 stories above the ground to get back into the burning skyscraper. It's the kind of vertigo-inducing theatrics gigantic screen multiplexes were built for, and Thurber stages many of the film's massive fiery set pieces with suitably thrilling aplomb.

But at a certain point the escalating absurdity just weighs things down to the point where the fun begins to wane. Unlike even pale Die Hard rip-offs like Sudden Death with Powers Boothe or Under Siege with Tommy Lee Jones, let alone superior ones like Speed with Dennis Hopper, the villains populating this story are either shockingly underutilized or frustratingly subpar. Møller, so terrific in A Hijacking and Land of Mine, is spectacularly unmemorable as Botha, and for large swaths of the story I almost forgot he was even a part of the action. As for the various other members of his team, they're just cannon fodder standing around to be taken out by Will in a variety of creative ways, none of them having a singular signature moment worth talking about. Only young Taiwanese star Hannah Quinlivan makes an impression portraying Botha's deadliest assassin Xia, but as she's purposefully kept on the sidelines for most of the narrative even her badass killer fails to make a lasting impact.

Look, Johnson could do the type of things asked of him here in his sleep, and the fact he throws himself into it all with such determined conviction - even if the character of Will Sawyer isn't all that far removed from the likes of Luke Hobbs (the Fast and the Furious franchise), Davis Okoye (Rampage), Beck (The Rundown), or so many other action heroes the actor has portrayed over the years - is honestly kind of commendable. More importantly, he has lovely chemistry with Campbell, the two sharing a number of authentically intimate emotional beats that couldn't help but make me smile. As for the one-time Scream superstar, other than resurrecting Sidney Prescott in 2011's excellent Scream 4 she's purposefully been pretty picky as far as big screen appearances have been concerned, choosing instead to tackle meaty roles on television in programs like 'House of Cards' and 'Welcome to Sweden.' As such it's nice to see Campbell back at it in a movie like this, and I appreciate that Thurber's script gives her far more to do than just be a stereotypical damsel in distress.

None of which matters because by the time things reached their conclusion I just didn't care about anything that was going on anymore. Thurber either needed to go for broke and create the most insane, over-the-top spectacle he could dream up or instead play things with far more intelligence and not treat the audience as if they only had half a brain and the attention span of a newt. At a certain point the increasing inanity of the situations Will and his family face become too incredulous to do anything but unintentionally laugh at, all of which makes Skyscraper a towering farcical misfire built upon a foundation of misbegotten nonsense.








San Francisco Opera's sensational Ring
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West Seattle Summer Fest brought top-notch free musical programming, including The Blacktones, Mirrorgloss and Shannon and the Clams - PLUS a Q&A with Mirrorgloss
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Taproot Theatre's summer musical Sweet Land a compelling and warm-hearted immigrant story
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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEWS: Alki Beach Pride to feature 'American Idol' alum DeAndre Brackensick and singer/songwriter Lakin on July 21
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Lea DeLaria with special guest Kim Archer rocks Tacoma with song and laughter
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KEXP & Seattle Center present Concerts at the Mural
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'Wandering & Wondering' offers free site-specific events at Kubota Garden and Seattle Japanese Garden
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ReAct Theatre's Family Matters offers much food for thought
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Seattle Humane - Pets of the Week
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Enjoyably pleasant Mamma Mia! sequel a musical surprise
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Explosively absurd Skyscraper a tower of farcical nonsense
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