MAMMA MIA * * * *
Cert PG 109 mins
Reuniting the original stage show’s creative team of producer Judy Craymer, director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Catherine Johnson, this is the much-awaited big screen adaptation of the long running musical phenomenon inspired by the songs of Abba.
It’s a simple enough set-up. Take a bunch of the Swedish quartet’s best-known tunes and weave a storyline around the lyrics involving a young girl who, about to get married and unbeknown to her mother, sends wedding invitations to the three most likely candidates to be the father she’s never known. She will, she reckons, know who he is the moment they meet, then he can give her away to make the day complete.
Naturally, despite not having had any contact with their former summer fling for 20 years and, through inclination, orientation or circumstance, fortuitously all single, they immediately drop what they’re doing and head for the remote Greek island where she now runs a modest guest house.
However, having smuggled them inside, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) finds no paternal flashbulbs going off and, unable to reveal exactly why they’re there has to try and keep their presence a secret from mom Donna (Meryl Streep) as long as possible while she figures things out.
Needless to say, hiding three hunky males in the goat house while everyone’s busying about the preparations quickly proves impossible, thereby throwing Donna into a bit of tizzy as to why they’ve suddenly turned up out of the blue.
Yes, of course, it’s lightweight romantic fluff (albeit with a message about not marrying young) designed for unreconstructed girlies and friends of Graham Norton but it’s also upbeat colourful fun with a spring in its step and, in the final stretch, a lot more emotional wallop up its sleeve than you might imagine.
As variously uptight Brit banker Henry, New York architect Sam, adventurer Bill and Sophie’s fiancé Sky, Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard and Dominic Cooper may not be about to initiate record label stampedes for their vocal talents, but they’re undeniably good sports and, as the central trio prove as they return for a camped up jump-suited credits encore, game for a laugh.
But, as with Sex And The City, the men are ultimately set dressing plot props to their female co-stars. A touch wide-eyed perhaps, but Seyfried is perkily enjoyable while, as the other two former members of Donna and the Dynamos, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters sink their teeth in with relish and are clearly having great fun; the former belting out Does Your Mother Know to a randy barboy, the latter strutting across the tables for Take A Chance On Me and the pair joining forces with Streep for a spangly Super Trouper.
The full ensemble song and dance numbers shine too, Dancing Queen especially good as it winds its way across the island to the jetty, gathering numbers as it goes.
But, make no mistake, from the moment she appears in dungarees, this is Streep’s movie, delivering the dialogue with crisp comic timing and a flick of the eye, tugging the maternal heartstrings in Slipping Through My Fingers’ song to her daughter, exploding with exuberance through the title track and wringing unexpected emotional drama as she confronts the pain of a lost love with The Winner Takes It All.
After last year’s Hairspray, this makes it two feelgood summer hits in a row for the musicals revival, but I think any ideas about eyeing up Tonight’s The Night for a third should probably be shown the door right now.
JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH * * *
Cert PG 92 mins
Unlikely though it may sound, there really are Vernians, people who take the writings of Jules Verne to be factual rather than fiction. For them A Journey To The Centre Of The Earth isn’t so much a story as a manual.
It’s a premise that provides the nuts and bolts behind this fun adventure romp which, in tandem with next month’s third Mummy outing, should restore Brendan Fraser’s fortunes after a couple of box office flops.
A geology professor with an ever shrinking class and a lab that’s being closed down, Trevor Anderson (Fraser) is landed with looking after Sean (Bridge To Terabithia’s Josh Hutcherson), the sullen 13 year old nephew he’s not seen since he was three.
Neither are happy about it, but while Trevor’s going through a box of things that belonged to his volcano expert brother Max who disappeared a decade earlier, he comes across an annotated copy of Verne’s book.
A combination of what’s written and sudden seismic activity in Iceland that seems to tie in with Max’s research into volcanic tubes, sees the pair impulsively head for Rekyavik where, hooking up Hannah (Anita Briem), the feisty Icelandic blonde mountain guide daughter of another Vernian scientist, they take off into the mountains.
One electrical storm later, they’re trapped in a cave, abseiling down a shaft, taking a hair-raising roller coaster ride on mining carts and plummeting down a water chute to, yes, the centre of the earth.
It’s a claustrophobic rock formation subterranea of glowing bluebirds, huge carnivorous fly traps, floating magnetic rocks, secret oceans, giant piranhas and deadly dinosaurs. Amazingly, you can even get a cell phone signal! Now all they have to do is get out before the temperature rises and roasts them a crisp.
Partly written by the Nim’s Island/Little Manhattan husband and wife team of Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, it’s a thin but effectively economical plot, one which special effects maestro turned director Eric Brevig drives along at a video game pace from one hair raising level to the next, delivering precisely the sort of adrenaline pumping thrills, wit and emotional investment the revived Indiana Jones lacked. And while there’s not much by way of character depth, you never feel remotely short-changed by the performances.
Where it really scores though is in the fact that it was shot in digital 3D using the Fusion System camera rig developed by James Cameron for his Titanic documentary.
You can, of course, enjoy it perfectly well enough in 2D, but I’d really encourage seeking out a 3D screen to have the full experience of recoiling from having water spat over you, ducking to avoid a flying yo-yo and jolting back in the seat as those snapping teeth come right at your face. If only Harrison Ford could have projected as well.
THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM * * *
Cert 12A 104 mins
Already to be heard voicing Monkey in Kung Fu Panda, this week Jackie Chan’s on screen in the flesh for a remarkably similar action comedy tale of a misfit teen martial arts fan with self-esteem issues who’s trained to become a kung fu warrior and fulfil an ancient prophecy and save the land from a wicked tyrant.
Which, to cut to the chase, involves bullied Boston high schooler Jason (Michael Angarano) being transported to a mythical ancient China where he discovers the ancient staff that took him there belongs to the Monkey King (Jet Li), turned to stone by the evil immortal Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) 500 years earlier, and that he has to break the spell.
To help his mission and teach him the necessary moves, he’s taken under the mentoring wing of permanently tipsy philosopher warrior Lu Yan (Chan) and a taciturn monk (Li again), both of whom have their own secrets, the team’s augmented by the addition of Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei), a bow firing spitfire with her own revenge quest. And in the baddie corner alongside the warlord, there’s his whip wielding white-tressed demoness ally Ni Chang (a scene-stealing Li Bing Bing). Plus any number of disposable underlings.
Jumbling together elements of Karate Kid, Wizard of Oz and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon along with nods to several old genre classics, the film’s being sold on the fact it’s the first time kung fu movie icons Chan and Li have appeared together on screen.
However, while they do have an extended rumble (amusingly using Jason as a weapon) before realising they’re on the same side, not only is it a bit late in life to come anywhere near them living up to fan expectations but they’re also largely supporting players to the charisma-free Angarano.
Tending to more cancel each other out than spark off their respective strengths as a sort of kung fu Hope and Crosby, they do have some smart moments but for the most it looks like they’re doing a job of work rather than having fun.
And while Chan can carry off the silliness with that knowing smile, Li’s comedic flair is about as well developed as his facility for speaking English.
Finally stumbling to a rousing climax after a slog between repetitive action sequences and dull talkie padding, it’s undemandingly entertaining enough well-choreographed martial arts mayhem with a token find your inner hero message and predictably bully’s comeuppance, but it can’t hold a bamboo stick to the pudgy Panda
COUSCOUS * *
Cert 15 154 mins Subtitled
Laid off from his job at a French Mediterranean port’s ailing shipyard, Slimane (Boufares), an unsmilingly dour 60-something Tunisian immigrant divorcee, decides to put his pay-off towards buying a derelict boat and turning it into a floating restaurant, with the house speciality a fish couscous, prepared to the recipe of his feisty former wife (Bouraouia Marzouk).
There are though a few problems. For starters, his hotel-owner girlfriend isn’t overly happy about his continued involvement with his ex, his extended self-absorbed family can’t stop arguing with one another and his eldest son’s cheating on his wife with the tacit approval of his mother.
Then, down to a cocktail of racism, self-interest and smug arrogance he’s given the runaround by the local officials when it comes to getting funding and permits.
The only one willing to put in the selfless effort to help secure his dream is his lover’s daughter, Rym (luminous newcomer Hafsia Herzi), who regards him as far more a father than do his own children.
Eventually setting up an opening night to which he’s invited the local movers and shakers, things start off badly and get worse.
Directed by Abedellatif Kechiche, it has a lot to say about dysfunctional family relationships, generation gaps, social structures, displacement and immigrant communities. Unfortunately, it takes a slow eternity in saying it.
It’s well acted but it’s also a good hour too long and yet still underdeveloped with wide gaps in a decidedly patchy narrative.
In attempting to give everyone a storyline, it also stretches itself too thin and, while there are individually potent scenes, it never comes together as a cohesive whole.
As a consequence, Kechiche fumbles the tragic final act which, intercutting between Slimane rising frustrated panic and Rym’s attempt to distracted the restless diners with an extended belly dance, unfortunately winds up feeling like a melodramatic pastiche of the Fawlty Towers Gourmet Night episode.