MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN
Any movie that casts 72-year-old Cher as the mother of 69-year-old Meryl Streep clearly has almost zero interest in realism and an almost immeasurable passion for kitsch. And so it is with Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the sequel to 2008's screen explosion of ABBA tunes that proves slightly less obnoxious than its predecessor, which turns out to be both a major plus and a significant minus.
I was certainly relieved that, unlike in the first movie, almost nothing about director Ol Parker's follow-up made me want to crawl under my theater seat in shame for being there – if, that is, you don't count the few yet simultaneously endless seconds of Pierce Brosnan singing solo. (At least we all now know what the former James Bond was up to in the decade since Mamma Mia! debuted: not taking vocal lessons.) But considering all the good songs were already used in the original, what we're left with this time around is the same kind of silly, meaningless plotting frequently interrupted either by badly staged retreads of previously employed pop tunes or blandly forgettable numbers that even lifelong ABBA admirers may have a tough time caring about.
To be sure, no one could care about the storyline, which awkwardly splits its focus between present-day scenes of Amanda Seyfried's Sophie opening a Greek seaside inn named after her mother and flashback scenes of Sophie's mom Donna (Lily James) rotating her romantic allegiances among the young men – Harry, Bill, and Sam – who could potentially be Sophie's birth father. (The movie tries awfully hard to gloss over the notion that Donna fell in love with, and had apparently unprotected sex with, three guys in the span of a couple weeks, but even the flashbacks' time frame – Hey! It was the '70s! – can't disguise the fact that Mamma Mia!'s central conceit is a little icky.) What we're here for, at least in theory, is the ABBA, and I guess the cast, too – though with Cher around for only 10 minutes and Streep around for about five, the star power on display is negligible, to say the least. Still: Don't fans deserve more of an opener than the wretched, and terribly choreographed, “When I Kissed the Teacher”? Don't they deserve more from an introductory love ballad between presumed romantic ideals Seyfried and Dominic Cooper than the dreary “One of Us”? Don't they, and doesn't Cher, deserve better than “Fernando”?! (Cher actually performs her big number as a duet with Andy Garcia, whose vocals are almost completely drowned out by Cher's crooning and the accompanying orchestration, for which I'm sure both audiences and Garcia himself are grateful.)
Despite being stuck with a bummer tune that doesn't do anything for her voice or style, it was still a kick hearing Cher sing on-screen again, and also hearing her gorgeously throaty readings – concerned though I was that everything from the star's limited choreography to her slow-motion movements suggested a Very Special Guest Appearance by a Fabergé egg. Yet there are a few additional perks. Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, and Josh Dylan are amusingly cast as decades-ago versions of Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård, with the latter three looking considerably less embarrassed than they did in Mamma Mia!; if their original expressions read as “What have we gotten ourselves into?!”, now it's more like “Eh, people bought it the first time … and we did get a raise.” Julie Walters is again lovably ebullient and Christine Baranski is as dry as the Sahara, with Jessica Keenan Wynn doing an absolutely outstanding Baranski impersonation in the flashback sequences. (While Wynn and Alexa Davies approximate younger versions of Baranski and Walters, James doesn't at all try to do Young Meryl, most likely because doing so would be utter folly, and would diminish James' considerable natural appeal.) As for the musical numbers, with the exception of Streep's legitimately emotional “The Day Before You Came,” they all barely rise to the level of Grease 2 compositions and presentation. Yet I still kind of enjoyed the dueling-breadsticks nuttiness of “Waterloo,” the mini-Silkwood reunion in the end-credits' “Super Trouper,” and the gaudy ferry-boat party that constitutes “Dancing Queen,” complete with Firth and Skarsgård imitating Jack and Rose aboard the Titanic. Sue me. I like Grease 2.
However, I still couldn't get wholly on-board with Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, a movie whose very title suggests something crafted by people sick to death of ABBA. My biggest beef with the original film was that everyone involved spent so much time selling the wild, carefree, fabulous fun they were having that I didn't, for a moment, believe in the fun. Parker's sequel, even given its brash costuming and occasionally grating ridiculousness, is an overall more relaxed outing. But in terms of narrative energy, song selection, and even, for the most part, performance, that relaxation here more often feels like torpor. Truth be told, the film's midsection was so dull, and for such a long time, that at one point I must have fallen asleep with my eyes open, only regaining consciousness when Seyfriend started pulling fruit from the world's most impossibly fertile orange tree. Damn, those things looked delicious! Far more so, I'm sorry to say, than the amuse-bouche musical Parker is feeding us.
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
Written and directed by rap artist/activist Boots Riley in his feature-film debut, Sorry to Bother You is one of those unclassifiable comedies that, when trying to describe it to friends afterward, forces you into the realm of “it's like”s, à la “It's like Being John Malkovich meets Do the Right Thing,” or “It's like what you'd get if Salvador Dalí and James Baldwin had a baby.” You can't quite describe the movie – at least not without giving away everything that makes it special – in terms of what Riley's serious-minded satire actually is, partly because you might not be entirely sure what it is. But you still want, somewhat desperately, to describe it, if only to relay, out loud, the experience of the weird, hilarious, ultimately confounding thing you just saw.
In terms of plot, with plot truly the least of the film's interests, Riley's achievement concerns low-level telemarketer Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) – a broke stoner who rises to the top of his company's food chain by adopting a “white voice” handily provided by David Cross. (Certain other black figures speak in the voices of Patton Oswalt, Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again's Lily James, and, I'm nearly positive, an uncredited Steve Buscemi.) But Green's promotion lands amidst considerable unrest within his union-seeking organization and minor unrest with his girlfriend (a spectacular Tessa Thompson), and eventually leads to picketing, riots, police retaliation, a coke-snorting Armie Hammer, and … . Nope. Nope. Can't say any more. Partly because I don't want to spoil the be-all/end-all of his company's master plans, and partly because, days after seeing Riley's film, I still can't believe it myself.
I referenced Being John Malkovich early on to suggest the way the movie's fascinatingly unsettling dystopian universe creeps up on you. Nothing about the film initially suggests the future, or even some Bizarro World version of the present. But bit by bit, the proof sneaks up on you: the heavily marketed volunteer-slave community of Worry Free, where you're guaranteed work for life, but with every reason for living conveniently stripped away; the beverage of choice being “Soda Cola”; the information that the highest-rated show on TV – a physical-abuse spectacle titled I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me – has a nightly viewership of 150 million. But I also mention that Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman classic because Sorry to Bother You pulls you into the same kind of hypnotic spell in which the fantastical comes to seem mundane and vice versa; Riley's authorship, as both writer and director, is so profound and assured that you simply roll with the movie's intellectual and visual gut punches.
I personally think that the movie crawls up its own ass a bit too flagrantly in the last half hour, and got a bit tired of the star-studded white voices long before I was probably meant to. But Riley, even at this early state in his movie career, is most definitely a filmmaker of grand vision and ideas, with his cinematic analogies for economic and race-related oppression startling for both their candor and their fierce invention. And in Stanfield, so marvelous in Get Out and the TV series Atlanta, Riley has found a magnificent (and magnificently funny) surrogate to examine modern life through a warped yet astoundingly clear-eyed vision of a world that seems unrecognizable and yet, sadly, is constantly in view. Confident, oftentimes riotous, and deeply imaginative though it is, Sorry to Bother You is a bit of a mess. Given our present-day world, that might make it the perfect movie for this particular moment.
UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB
Facing a busier-than-usual weekend, I was forced to choose between seeing The Equalizer 2, a sequel to a film I couldn't stand, and Unfriended: Dark Web, a sequel to a film I couldn't remember. With apologies to Denzel and his latest box-office hit, I chose the latter, but only after revisiting my Unfriended review and being reminded that I actually quite liked Blumhouse's 2015 social-media horror flick. I liked this one, too, even though imagining a more nihilistic fright film – or a less believable one – is next to impossible.
Presented, as was the original, through a series of group-chat closeups seen in segmented portions of the screen, and with much attention paid to the details of toggling between Facebook and Spotify and Instagram accounts (and with all the inherent product placement therein), Dark Web finds Colin Woodell's Matias dealing with the ramifications of taking a stranger's laptop from a lost-and-found and finding real-life torture-porn videos among its files. The laptop's true owner, naturally, wants it back, and is willing to murder Mathias' friends and deaf girlfriend to get it – and you'll have to make enormous leaps in logic to accept that this guy's vengeance is at all possible. You'll have to accept, for instance, that the title's “dark Web” of torture-porn lovers has constituents located on practically every block of both U.S. and U.K. neighborhoods. You'll also have to accept that the mysterious killer shown on said videos has the power to alter the electronic pH balance of a room, appearing only as a series of pixelated blocks even though everything and everyone around him appears perfectly normal. (You'll also have to accept that this is yet another real-time, “found footage” horror movie in which the striving-for-naturalistic effects on-screen are routinely accentuated, and undermined, by ambient rumbles and loud “Gotcha!” booms on the soundtrack.)
But despite its wild implausibilities and its leading character who appears hell-bent on making one ludicrously bone-headed decision after another, the movie still mostly works. Writer/director Stephen Susco elicits significant tension from images of Mathias' laptop crashing mid-conversation and that pulse of ellipses while you wait for someone to reply to your e-chat message, which, in this context, is less frustrating than terrifying. There's extreme cleverness in the film's incorporation of pop-culture signifiers – Cards Against Humanity, “covfefe” – and also in a few of its killing methods, with the death of Connor Del Rio's podcaster an almost perfectly set-up and executed grim joke. And with the performers allowed generously long takes in which they can build their hysteria, the acting is pretty sensational throughout, which is something that certainly can't be said of most 21st Century horror trifles. Fast-paced, gratifyingly nasty, and, at 85 minutes, the perfect length for its (and our) needs, Unfriended: Dark Web is a vicious little kick, and provides another Blumhouse credit for the great Betty Gabriel, who's as believable here as a 20-something as she was as the matronly housekeeper of Get Out. Considering, though, the performance cred she bring the studio – she was also excellent in the recent Upgrade – I really hope one of her future Blumhouse undertakings allows her to survive to the end credits. Betty Gabriel is too fiery a resource to be forever reduced to kindling.