Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Movie Review - Mamma Mia

My first encounter with ABBA was many years ago while my age was in the single digits. I only vaguely remember it in that we were at my Aunt and Uncle's house up in Logan (which seemed worlds away back then) and they had an ABBA music video compilation LASER DISC that the adults were watching. I remember watching for a few minutes before becoming bored and wandering back downstairs to play with my cousins. While this memory is very fleeting, it stuck with me because of the outrageous style of ABBA which i recognized even 'way back then.'

Over the past couple of years, Lynette and I have seen the musical play Mamma Mia twice at Capitol Theatre. If it's not evident from the fact that we saw it twice, we thoroughly enjoyed the show. The energy and excitement, not to mention good fun sing-a-long style music, make it a very fun play. I was a little wary when I heard it was being made into a movie, but as I watched the movie trailers for it over the past couple of months, my excitement level grew and I found myself smiling and singing along and wanting to go see it. So last Friday, Lynette and I hit the movie theater for a little ABBA wedding fun.

Even though I'd seen the play itself twice, I hadn't read or heard much about the movie. The only thing I'd heard was that "Pierce Brosnan looked terrified to be singing." However, that comment was made out of context by people watching a clip of him on Letterman rather than by people watching his performance in the movie, so I was able to discount it and go in largely without bias (though I was on the lookout for signs of fear).

First Impressions
The first things that called out to me were the obvious ones based on the fact that this was a movie and not a broadway play. Those observations being:
1 - The setting was much more fleshed out and "real"
2 - The "stage" was filled with many more extras to populate the scenes
3 - The actors, while good, didn't necessarily sing with the depth of a broadway actor's voice

It may sound like items 1 and 2 above are wholly good things while item 3 is the negative. Strangely, that's not entirely true and I'll elaborate.

The location chosen for the movie was amazing. A sound stage was used for portions of the film, but it was also shot on location in Greece. The island setting is absolutely gorgeous and provides a beautiful backdrop for the story. I'm not sure which (if any) "island scenes" are in the sound stage, but every island scene is amazing and makes me want to visit. :)

I'll speak more later about the downside of the environment, but I'll just mention that the downside to me is that in expanding the environment, the result was that the pacing of the show slowed down a bit because action had to trek across a literal island rather than along a hundred feet of stage.

It may seem strange, but I want to talk first about the extras rather than the primaries.

I could be wrong, but my naive perception suggests to me that for the "background characters", the director actually used native residents of the "on location" shoot in Greece. It may sound very stereotypical...but most of the individuals milling about the island seemed very greek to me...especially the older generation. I could be way off and it could just be that the casting manager did a great job of perpetuating the stereotype, but the extras in the show "felt" Greek and made the story feel very real in that sense.

As to the primary characters, I mentioned briefly that it was a slight letdown to hear them sing as I remembered back to the power and emotion in the voices I heard booming off the stage. Even though the voices weren't "penetrate the back row" kind of power, the singing was done well by all of the actors.

Probably the two most famous "names" (at least to me) for the show were Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan with Colin Firth and Amanda Seyfried probably coming next in the "fame" list.

Streep did a great job as the worn out & run down yet highly independent and fiery Donna. There were a few scenes that she seemed perhaps a little too old for the role, but her emotion was fabulous both during the passionate ballads and the fiesty confrontations. Her performance of Winner Takes it All let me down in that I wanted her to really belt that one out and feel the emotional power of the moment knock me back in my seat. Instead, it had the same sort of mediocre intensity as the other playful moments of the show. That was a lost moment that could have been done better,

Brosnan also did a good job of presenting his character on screen. Brosnan is very much a type-cast sort of character in whatever I've seen him play...always very full of on-screen presence in a sense that you can't help but notice him for just how smooth he can be. As to the "terror" noted above as related to me by a friend in regards to him looking frightened while singing...that terror didn't really feel present. He didn't have the "singing presence" to match his "screen presence", but his voice wasn't distracting from any of the songs and the "terror" I think they saw in the clip was actually related to him accurately portraying the nervous/anxious/wistful/sad emotion of his character during that particular song (SOS).

I want to say a little about Seyfried as Sophie. I think she did a fabulous job. I would've liked to have seen a little more power from her singing voice for her crucial role, but honestly if it was pushed further, it likely would've overshadowed the other singers. Her singing was on par with Streep's Donna as the other female lead.

Seyfried is a pretty girl...but for some reason, shots of her in the trailers made me a little nervous about staring at her for 2 hours. Something about her eyes felt a little freaky...alien-like or buggish. I was worried that it would be distracting. Fortunately, the worst shots were apparently in the trailers because I wasn't distracted by her bug-like mannerisms during the show. :) As Lynette commented, the bigger worry would have been if they had tried to cast Lindsay Lohan in the role. Yikes.

Seyfried did a great job with the role of Sophie. She truly got into the character and I could see and feel the emotional strain she was going through with this ordeal. There were a few times I would've liked to have seen perhaps a little more strain on her...when she revealed the problem to Skye, there was a glimpse of her about to break down and cry, but it teetered about and made me wonder if she was going to cry or laugh. She did neither, which was probably for the best, but it left me a little unsettled. At the same time, stress can make you teeter between laughter and tears, so it may also be a testament to her performance.

Pacing, etc
This to me was (apart from the loss of broadway singing voices) the biggest downfall in the transition from stage to screen. While it would have been somewhat disconcerting to have the close quarters of the stage play setup on a movie island that appeared to be a mile or more across, the pacing was choppy at times and made for a lack of the intensity and power felt with the stage show.

Some deliberate changes were made that actually changed up the sequence and even some of the layout and characters during various scenes. (For example, "Our Last Summer" ends up sung TO SOPHIE by her fathers rather than between Donna and Harry...this seems to be to replace "Thank You For The Music" as sung by Sophie and her dads. They also completely removed "One of Us" which didn't bother me too much and "Under Attack" which really bummed me out).

"Money Money Money" and "Mamma Mia" were both kind of annoying in terms of slowing the pacing, but the worst for me was during the "Voulez-Vous" sequence where Sam, Bill, Harry and Sophie all have their confrontations with reality. That scene as the end of the first act (and the missing scene of "Under Attack" at the beginning of Act 2) is one of the most intense moments of the play, largely due to pacing. While it was still exciting and fun in the movie, it lost a good chunk of intensity by being spread across such a large area and having the cameras pan across large scenes to show Sophie and her dads running around (though it was funny to watch the 'hens' dance with Bill and Harry while Sophie chatted with Sam).

In spite of "not being as good as the stage" version, I absolutely loved this show. The casting, while not stellar, was good bordering on great. The setting was amazing and far outdid anything that could be done on stage, naturally. The songs and humor were still just as entertaining as ever, albeit a little dulled by slight changes in the pacing and tempo.

The show will DEFINITELY not be for everyone. This is most definitely a musical taken to film. I haven't yet seen Hairspray yet, which I understand was wildly popular as a movie, so I don't know how it compares in terms of using music to drive the plot. But for Mamma Mia, the music is so tightly tied into the plot that you can't get away from it. I suspect that the film is nearly evenly split between spoken dialog and sung dialog....meaning if you're like my brother and can't stand it when characters burst spontaneously into song, then you'll absolutely hate this.

That said, ABBA tunes are in a large sense timeless and it's hard not to find yourself wanting to sing along. Some of the lyrics are changed slightly to fit the story, but many/most are unchanged and you could use this as your own pseudo ABBA concert. Speaking of which...be sure to stick around for the credits to watch Donna and the Dynamos do a couple of songs for you (which is something direct from the stage as well...after curtain calls, the cast puts on a small ABBA concert of sorts). It's also in the credits that you'll finally hear "Thank You For The Music", if you felt deprived when it was cut earlier.

As a musical fan and and ABBA fan myself, I can't help but want to rate this high. It was pushing its way to 5 stars and fell short only because I wanted Streep to do better in Winner Takes it All and because I was VERY angry at the director's choice to cut "Under Attack." (I sincerely hope it makes it in as a 'deleted scene' on the DVD).

4.5 stars


Kevin said...

Another testament to the variety of opinion and diversity of thought in this world.
I never saw the stage play. Thank God.
When I left this movie I was 100% certain that I had a new personal 'worst movie of all time'. Yeah, it was that bad for me. Painfully bad. It even ruined ABBA for me. I love ABBA.
Pierce Brosnan singing? Are you freaking kidding me? Sorry, I just cannot accept it. James Bond does not sing. No, it never happened.
I'm glad you enjoyed it.
One question for you though.
I have read in several places and heard from many people that in order to enjoy this film you had to be a girl or gay.
So, Okie, which is it? ;)

Okie said...

lol...I must just be more in touch with my feminine side because I definitely don't have homosexual tendencies and I have the male parts to prove I'm not a girl. ;)

Granted, you're not the first to have suggested such things...just the most recent. ;)

Anonymous said...

this is one of the only plays i've ever seen, it was great... i heard about ol' Pierce takes a stab at singing too, eeesh

Okie said...

Yeah...Pierce's singing left something to be desired, but it wasn't awful...just not Broadway caliber. It was actually decent as long as you could get over the baggage that comes in being Pierce Brosnan (aka James Bond, etc)