Thursday, October 21, 2010

Mamma Mia by way of Across the Universe

Today, a review (sort of ) of Mamma Mia, but in a little different style than the last ones. I'll probably keep experimenting with these from time to time.

When you think about it, the concept behind Mamma Mia is a little strange. It's a fictitious story that is told through ABBA music, after all. But it isn't the only member of its weird little sub-genre of musical, which I'll call a One Band Musical, or OBM for short (not to be confused with the OMB, although I hear Jacob Lew has a lovely singing voice). The first OBM was probably Yellow Submarine, which featured the music of The Beatles. Which leads to the other movie I want to talk about, the prominent and somewhat polarizing 2007 film that also features The Beatles music, Across the Universe.

It isn't hard to the thinking behind OBMs. Take a popular band, write a story that can reasonably incorporate a dozen or so of their hits, and before you know it the show is printing money. Your enjoyment of such a film, therefore, should be very closely related to your enjoyment of the band's music. Mamma Mia of course started out as a Broadway show, but the movie version added a surprisingly all-star cast who clearly had a lot of fun with it.

And that, I think, is the essence of why I think Mamma Mia is a pretty good movie whereas I came close to outright hating Across the Universe. I don't particularly care for ABBA and the light fluffy romance is not my favorite film genre, so there's a pretty low ceiling for how much I was ever going to like the movie. But I was pleasantly surprised by it; the story was okay, the musical numbers were well done for the most part, and the cast sensational. Everyone did their own singing, which varied from excellent (Seyfried), to charmingly bad (Brosnan). But most importantly, the movie has a sense of fun and never takes itself very seriously. The end credits, where the cast sings 'Waterloo' and 'Dancing Queen' while dressed in ludicrous costumes, are probably the best part of the entire movie.

Across the Universe, by contrast, takes itself very, very seriously. It's an ambitious movie, to be sure, but the pompous earnestness of the plot spoils the whole experience. Some of the musical numbers are well done and quite enjoyable out of context, but their place in the story makes them seem silly (the rendition of 'Let it Be' in particular comes to mind). I love the Beatles, and so I really wanted to like the movie, but it lost me when I realized I was supposed to be genuinely interested in the Vietnam protest story. I won't totally rule out the possibility that an OBM could be done seriously, but if so it can't also try and be fun, which Across the Universe attempted with it's surreal artsy numbers. It just didn't work. The fact that the cast is mediocre didn't help (in particular I'm not a fan of Jim Sturgess, who was also in the disappointing 21), and a few of the covers were horrendous. The bizarrely out-of-place lesbian-inverted take on 'I want to hold your hand' was excruciating.

A few other thoughts on Mamma Mia:

*Of course Meryl Streep could effortlessly pull off a musical. The woman is just too talented.

*Speaking of multi-talented, watch out for Amanda Seyfried. She's funny (Mean Girls), can play a variety of dramatic roles (Chloe, 'Big Love'), and now we learn she has a fantastic voice. And it doesn't hurt that she's gorgeous.

*That last point was clearly obvious to the director of the movie as well, Phyllida Lloyd. Not knowing anything about the director, I predicted halfway through that it was a lesbian woman. Why? Because they'd never have a guy direct this movie, and let's just say the shooting of Seyfried was done suspiciously. She does an awful lot of running in the movie, shot from in front of her, and she doesn't wear particularly conservative attire. The effect is...distracting. And, after looking it up, I was right. Lloyd was named one of top 101 most influential gay or lesbian Brits a few years back.

*My one real complaint about the movie was that Streep's character's friends (played by Christine Baranski and Julie Walters) are annoying on about eight different levels. Also, Dominic Cooper was pretty bland, although that may have had more to do with his character than him.

*6.5 Acceptable/Good (Across the Universe is a 5 Bad)

1 comment:

Elliott said...

I don't think you can fully appreciate Across the Universe without wanting to get inside Jim Sturgess' pants.