Thursday, September 4, 2008

Two Out Of Five Stars For Mamma Mia

Some Middle Aged Men Identify Strongly With This Movie

If you have been reading my blog from time to time you may have noted my enthusiastic endorsement of the movie MAMMA MIA. I was pretty enthusiastic about the film and really enjoyed it. I may go and see it again, just to see what my reactions will be a second time round and to try and consider some of the criticisms the movie has provoked from some quarters. It is apparent that this film is having a bit of a polarising effect.

Below is a review of the film that I cut and pasted off the Internet. This person gave the film a 2 out of 5 star rating - so this review (which I think is written in a level headed and fair handed way) stands in contrast to my enthusiastic 5 star endorsement. What do you think?

"Armed with irresistible hooks, soaring melodies and near-celestial vocal stylings, the Swedish pop group ABBA churned out a body of insanely catchy tunes - "Waterloo," "SOS," "Fernando," "Dancing Queen," "The Winner Takes it All," etc. - that made it the world's top-selling musical act of the 1970's and early 1980's. Several decades later, ABBA's music became the basis for a hit stage musical entitled "Mamma Mia!" in which a simple narrative was deftly woven around many of the quartet's songs.

Now, the much-ballyhooed movie version of "Mamma Mia!," written by Catherine Johnson and directed by Phyllida Lloyd, has arrived on the scene. The story takes place on a beautiful Greek island where the never-married Donna (Meryl Streep) single-handedly runs a modest hotel for an ever-thinning crowd of tourists. Her daughter, Sophie (the charming Amanda Seyfried), has never known who her real father is, mainly because Donna herself doesn't even know. With the help of her mother's diary from twenty years ago, Sophie narrows the candidates down to three (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard), then secretly invites them to her wedding in the hope that she will be able to figure out which of them is her real father in time to have him accompany her down the aisle.

On stage, "Mamma Mia!" succeeded primarily because it was able to keep its wafer-thin storyline modest in scale and life-sized in scope. But blown up to the magnified proportions of the big screen, the material becomes a compendium of overacting (Julie Walters being the most egregious culprit in that regard), ham-handed literalization, forced spontaneity, and production values that look both gaudy and chintzy at one and the same time. Moreover, the direction is clunky, the choreography abysmal (especially compared to what we were treated to in "Hairspray" just a year ago), the photography either over or underexposed (depending on whether the scene is set at night or during the day), and the singing not unlike what one might hear emanating from the local pub on an average karaoke-night. In fact, there has always been an inherent problem built into "Mamma Mia!," which is that much of ABBA's charm derives from the crystalline voices of its lead singers, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog. Take away those harmonies and at least a certain percentage of that charm is lost. Now the movie version of "Mamma Mia!" comes along and simply compounds the problem by hiring big-name actors rather than trained singers to somehow interpret the pieces for us. Indeed, this must be the only musical in movie history made up almost entirely of people who can`t sing (at least in the old days they used to dub the voices in if they had to).

One has to give Streep brownie points for at least trying to belt out the tunes, but her rendition of "The Winner Takes it All," which was the roof-rattling showstopper in the stage version, falls flat due not only to her own inadequacies as a vocalist but to the awkward staging and foolish hand gestures she uses to accompany her singing (almost as if she were trying to act out the lyrics as she`s singing them).
Actually, I've never understood why anyone would buy either the original cast recording or the soundtrack to "Mamma Mia!" anyway when the real thing is readily available and clearly far superior to any imitation.

All that being said, I am still inclined to at least half-heartedly recommend that people go to see this movie for a number of reasons. First, because the music itself (written by Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus) is fun, infectious and finally irresistible, no matter how much the singers may be unintentionally stomping all over it; second, because even though their singing leaves much to be desired, Streep, Bosnan and Seyfried somehow make us care about the characters and the silly little predicament they're caught up in; and third, because there are a number of scenes that actually work quite nicely, the best being when Donna sings the sweet mother's lament "Slipping Through My Fingers" (a song clearly within Streep's limited vocal range) to her soon-to-be-wed daughter. Streep and Seyfried are both very moving and poignant not only in that particular scene but in all of the scenes in which they appear together. For the half dozen or so audience members who aren't already familiar with the ABBA oeuvre, one can only hope that they will use "Mamma Mia!" as a springboard to sampling the real deal.


Katherine said...

Well, I've seen it twice, and found it loud but fun, and cried each time when she sang 'Slipping through my Fingers' ... I definitely am relating to that part! Last child leaves home next year, and although I have a zillion things I want to do, well, all the same....

Tillerman said...

I went and saw it again last Saturday and found the experience more intense the second time round. Its a sentimental experience and totally harmless, giving joy to many people.

VenDr said...

It's a very good review, for the most part. I can appreciate that many people enjoyed the movie, but I'm still blowed if I know why. But then, many people enjoy synchronised swimming, and poodle shows, and listening to Britney Spears, and singing the chicken song, and competitive shearing, and collecting novelty teaspoons and dancing in a sequined dress with a number pinned on their back and an inane smile pinned on their face and many other delightful activities which baffle and mystify me. Who am I to gainsay them? Go for it, I say! enjoy, enjoy!

Tillerman said...

The cosmos does not reveal the deep pleasures of inanity to just anyone you know - to say it takes a particular piquancy of mind and a certain breadth of view to imbibe and appreciate these simpleton pleasures is to make a statement about individual differences and long may those differences last.

Katherine said...

Laughter @ 'simpleton pleasures'

Elizabeth Morgan said...

Went to see and sing Mamma Mia at our local cinema where showing was the sing a long version. Armed with the free small bottle of bubbles that came with our tickets Tess, David and I sang our way through the movie (David knew all the words). My mascara ran as I cried thinking of my own Sophie during Meryl Streeps rendition of 'Slipping through my fingers'.

Tillerman said...

Liz, I have now seen it twice. The experience was more intense the second time round - If the sense of fun and joy could be bottled and sold I think I would buy a pallet load of the stuff.