Reel Dad: The new Mamma Mia – More fun than it deserves to be

My Saturday started with sadness and ended with song.

In the morning, I went to the funeral of a friend from college; in the afternoon, I said goodbye to the character played by Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the sequel to the popular musical featuring the music of Abba. The connection between real and reel life was a bit surreal.

On screen, the makers of the new Mamma Mia treat the death of Donna — the lady Streep portrayed — as seriously as they honor such movie norms as a plausible plot, developed characters and creative choreography. This prequel and sequel to the first film holds its flimsy storyline together with magic tape, testing our patience at many turns. But, on a day filled with sadness, the movie proved a marvelous escape because the new Mamma Mia is more fun than it deserves to be.

The film is, actually, somewhat of a musical mess. We learn, years after the first movie ended, that dear Meryl’s Donna has recently died, leaving a grieving Pierce Brosnan (who, sadly, does try again to sing) and a charming Amanda Seyfried (who, thank goodness, still can sing) in grief over their loss. At the same time, we’re transported back in time to when the young Donna first encountered the three men — within a short time frame, filled with forgettable Abba music — who may have fathered her daughter. Like The Godfather Part 2, the Oscar-winning story of the Corleone family that artfully transitioned from prequel to sequel, the new Mamma Mia tries to connect what did happen with what could happen with the help of pop tunes. But don’t expect Oscar to smile.

Within this dysfunctional narrative some bright spots emerge. Christine Baranski and Julie Walters — as Donna’s close friends — light up the screen every time they speak or sing. Baranski, especially, brings along a commanding sass, landing one punch line after another. Added to that is the delightful turn of Jessica Keenan Wynn as Baranski’s younger self. And Colin Firth again brings a marvelous sense of humanity and humor to his portrayal of one of Donna’s suitors in a portrayal that pokes fun at his serious screen persona.

And then there’s Cher. The legendary diva arrives on screen in the nick of time to deliver what show biz people call the “11 o’clock number”, that big song near the end of the show. Only problem here is Cher only shows up at 10:45. We get no opportunity to get to know her character — yes, she plays Meryl Streep’s mother — before she begins to belt in her best Vegas style. Sure, Cher can sell a song and, yes, she is totally commanding, but the character and the performance make no sense. It’s as if, near the end of the filming, when the movie makers couldn’t decide how to wrap the whole thing up, someone reached for her cell phone number.

Still, despite the weaknesses, and there are many, Mamma Mia, Here We Go Again, put a pep in my step after a tough Saturday. Which is just what a visit to the movies should do.

Nutritional Value: Mamma Mia, Here We Go Again

  • Content: Medium. There are as many holes in the plot as in a piece of Swiss cheese. But the movie is more fun than it deserves to be.
  • Entertainment: High. As outrageous as the story, and marginal as some of the Abba tunes, the cast makes it all work in a way a movie should not work.
  • Message: Medium. There may not necessarily be a moral to this story but it’s a lot of fun.
  • Relevance: Medium. Anyone who loves musicals will have a great time.
  • Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. For movie lovers, and Abba fans, there will be plenty to talk about. But if you didn’t like the first Mamma Mia, you may be watching your watch.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is rated PG-13 for “some suggestive material.” The film runs 1 hour, 54 minutes, and is showing in area theaters. 3-1/2 Popcorn Buckets.

La La Land makes us sing

We need musicals.

No matter what you may feel or fear, musicals can inspire you to embrace a brighter tomorrow. And, just as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers helped a nation survive the Great Depression in the 1930s, an evening with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in this Oscar winner may restore your belief in the joys to experience today. La La Land is more than a movie. It’s a reason to wake up in the morning.

Now, for people who love musicals, La La Land is not your standard order tuner. While most song and dance movies showcase big numbers in big adaptations of big Broadway hits, this is a small movie with big dreams. It’s softer, quieter, slower, with songs and dances that naturally emerge from the story and the characters. And this makes La La Land a delight for people who savor creativity at the movies. The movie doesn’t simply play. It floats.

Director Damien Chazelle, who dazzled with Whiplash, launches this musical journey with an opening sequence that captivates, excites and makes us want more. Who could imagine a crowded Los Angeles freeway as the backdrop for the most thrilling opening number since Julie Andrews discovered the hills were alive? From the moment the first honk initiates the fun, Chazelle’s opener reveals everything we need to know. We meet Emma Stone’s captivating actress, Ryan Gosling’s brooding musician, and the city of lights that frames their dreams. And we can’t wait for what happens next.

For the next two hours, Chazelle delights with every possible musical moment a movie could welcome. Gosling and Stone, reaching for their inner Fred and Ginger, express attraction, love and disappointment. Like Mickey and Judy, they search for professional success in a world that can be unkind, use song to articulate their hopes and values, and discover dancing to reveal their desires. As we find ourselves dazzled by how they handle those musical chores – and, yes, they can sing and dance – we are captivated by the emotional depth of their work, especially in a musical. Gosling makes his brooding musician into a captivating dreamer while Stone simply dazzles as she reveals what a star she will be.

As with the best musicals, La La Land creates its own world. Every moment is carefully planned without waste. As screenwriter, Chazelle lets the story fill enough space to explain the context and characters without permitting it to overwhelm the entertainment. As director, he uses every part of the movie language to create a film that honors its past by creating something new to add to the evolution of the movie musical. And he makes it all look effortless.

As special as La La Land may be for everyone, musical movie buffs will have a field day spotting the moments that celebrate such past musicals as Swing Time, Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face and The Bandwagon. By reminding us how much we love musicals, and showing us what a musical can be, Damien Chazelle honors legacy as he inaugurates a bright musical future.

And that even includes the new Mamma Mia.

La La Land is rated PG-13 for “some language.” The film runs 2 hours and 8 minutes.

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