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Mamma Mia!

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***

Typical isn’t it? You wait 20 years for a dad and then three come along at once.

For those like me who were unfamiliar with the play on which this movie is based, it is about a wedding where the bride invites her three potential fathers without telling her mother. Also, they sing songs by the 1970s Swedish pop group Abba. I will admit that this is a deeply flawed movie, which if one wanted to tear apart, one certainly could. It is silly and the acting is a mixture between melodrama and light slapstick.

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Dominic Cooper and Amanda Seyfried, as Sky and Sophie, singing Abba’s “Lay All Your Love on Me”, which was the surprising high point of the movie, Mamma Mia © 2008 Universal Pics.

Yet for all of the movie’s flaws I cared about the characters. Amanda Seyfried—Cosette, Les Misérables—strikes just the right balance of ingenuity and naivete to lead the story, while in the hands of a lesser actress her plan would have driven me mad. Fortunately, she is the one who interacts with all the other characters. Through her I became invested in the story and wanted to find out the payoff of the premise. Who is her father? Will the potential dads talk to her mom–Meryl Streep? Will one of them wind up with the mom in the end?

But by far the biggest question that this movie left me with was, does Abba exist in this universe? I mean, let’s examine the facts. All the main characters break into songs from Abba’s catalog. It is not just one, or one group, it is all of them. These songs are sung in the first person and they apply to the circumstances these characters face. At no point in the movie are the voices of the band Abba heard. I see this as leaving two possible circumstances. The first is that Abba exists, as a band from the 1970s, and people know their music to a greater or lesser extent. These people, by their own volition, use the most appropriate Abba song for their situation every so often. The second is that there never was an Abba in this universe, but their music and lyrics are so potent that they manifest themselves through this certain collection of people at this point in time. Perhaps it goes farther than that and this phenomenon occurs around the world, much like how the alien ships in Independence Day communicated synchronously. Let’s take my favorite song in the movie, “Lay All Your Love on Me1, that song begins with Sky looking for his missing fiancée, Sophie, and as she runs to him he starts to sing that song. They sing to each other, which can be explained in either Abbaverse. Then a squad of men swim ashore and carry Sky off, so that they can synchronized dance to the song before hopping into the water, which abruptly leads to Sky departing on a mystery jetski. This is absurd in a world with Abba songs, and a little less odd in that second world where Abba songs erupt from people. But the song continues on with Sophie finishing the song that night. The song never stops, so, did time pass? Does she know that time has passed? Is she supposedly singing this same song for a second time? If so, did someone else sing the male vocals? For every conclusion I make I have three more questions! Movies are supposed to make us think, and that is especially true in excellent art and unintentional comedies.

1 I hope this YouTube link works forever. I do not even know how to download videos from YouTube, plus, what is the payoff for me to do? It would generally be illegal anyways.

PU-239

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****

I studied Russian for six years. So when a bunch of non-Russians affect Russian accents, I tend to find that distracting. This only was an issue for the trio of Shiv, Vlad, and Yegor. Oscar Isaac’s accent as Shiv was quite good. Jason Flemyng’s accent as Vlad was okay and Jordan Long’s accent as Yegor was pretty laughable, but so was his character, so that actually fit nicely. This was 1995 and the three of them are what was known as Novy Russkis or New Russians. The most common occupation of a Novy Russki was a biznesm’en (бизнесмен), which is not the same as what we call a businessman.1 I already knew this, but watching this movie helped really paint an accurate picture of the wild west nature of late 1990s Moscow. When I arrived in the Winter of 2003 that culture was dying, but it had certainly left a mark on the people who had just lived through it.

Vlad, Yegor & Shiv (Flemyng, Long & Isaac), © 2006 HBO.

Vlad, Shiv & Yegor (Flemyng, Isaac & Long), © 2006 HBO.

The other locale for this film is Skotoprigonyevsk-16, a fictitious closed city in Russia.2  There an accident happens in the nuclear reactor, and technician Timofey—Paddy Considine, Hot Fuzz—saves the day. Timofey has a caring, former technician Marina—Radha Mitchell, Phonebooth—for his wife and the mother of his son. Both Considine and Mitchell were excellent in their roles. The original name for this HBO film was “The Half Life of Timofey Berezin”. Because, yes, despite the lies the administration tells Timofey, he received a lethal dose of radiation. They suspend him, say it may have been his fault, and offer him essentially nothing, despite the obvious nature of the accident and their culpability. This is necessary because it forces Timofey’s hand into doing something desperate.

In the opening scene of the film Timofey stands in a market with a sign that says Pu-239, which references an isotope of plutonium. This particular isotope is especially sought after as it has two uses: firstly it can be combined with uranium to power a nuclear reactor, and secondly it is the most common isotope for nuclear weapons. So Shiv approaches him and then it cuts to two days earlier. If this all sounds like a horribly depressing premise, well it certainly is. Even scenes that take place in a sunny field have little joy about them. But I cared for Timofey and his family, just as I began to care for the idiot Shiv, who, together with his friends, needs to find $6,000 so their boss will not kill them in two days. The film gets so dark that the Moscow ending might actually be meant as a joke, but I could not tell as my body had gone from aching to laugh to being physically unable to do so.

The hands on the clock are waving goodbye. It was my grandfather’s watch. The dial was painted by hand in America during Word War I. The brides of soldiers seated at long tables dutifully making luminous little sixes and eights to help keep the world free. The eights were particularly hard to make; so the women sucked on the tips of the paintbrushes to bring them to a fine point. One by one, their mouths began to fill with cancer. The radium-based paint they had swallowed bombarded their brains and bones with alpha and beta particles. The women who painted the watch faces sued the US Radium Corporation of West Orange, New Jersey. Had the trial been at night, the breath they used to say goodbye to the world would have glowed like moonlit fog. They were given ten thousand dollars for their lives.

1 Biznesm’en engaged in biznes (бизнес), which is like a whiter version of hustling or being in the game in urban America.
2 A “closed city” was a place in the Soviet Union where permission was required to enter. Unlike Americans with driver’s licenses and state ID card, Soviet citizens had internal passports. So if you did not have a reason to be in a closed city, you would be in hot water. I have been to a former closed city, Nizhny Novgorod, which was known as Gorky in the USSR. In 1989 it had a population of over 1.4 million. Imagine a city that size, with its own football/soccer team that you could not visit. Approximately one in four residents lived there by order of the state and under surveillance. Skotoprigonyevsk-16 is not like Nizhny Novgorod, it is meant to be like Chelyabinsk-70, a closed city for a nuclear reactor.

Miracle

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Freezing Questions About the Movie:

  1. Based on how the team is presented, am I supposed to be rooting for the US? Follow-up, did Disney anticipate that no-one outside of the US would bother watching this homage to the US of A and the 1980 Winter Olympic Games up in Lake Placid?
  2. Should Kurt Russell, and director Gavin O’Connor, deserve credit for making Coach Herb Brooks such a barely mitigated A-hole? This is a serious question. Had they sugar coated his awful personality and archaic dictator coach schtick and schmucky husband/father side then the pill would have gone down smoother, but perhaps been far less historically accurate. My problem is when awful personality gets treated as quirkiness; when archaic dictator coaching gets misrepresented as having a causal relationship with success; when sacrificing your personal life is shown as noble and not harmful to your loved ones.
  3. Were the Bad News Bears not available to play for the US Olympic team? I bet this joke would have killed in 1980.
  4. How large was Boris Mikhailov in real life? When he faces off against Mark Johnson he looks gigantic! The photo below does not do it justice. Answer, 5′ 10″ to Johnson’s 5′ 9″. Johnson actually weighed 1lb more than Mikhailov, so what the hell? If you cannot convince me with montages, speeches, facts and footage that the Captain of the greatest hockey team of all-time is super good without resorting to visual shenanigans, then hang it up. Also, kudos to Eric Peter-Kaiser (Johnson) for looking scrawny and scared, below, since he is actually 6′ 1″. MikhailovJohnson
  5. Why are the actors portraying the hockey players so much more handsome than the actual players were?
  6. This is a Disney movie, right? So where was the quacking? Everyone wanted them to quack, so why didn’t they quack? Put it into a dream sequence, I don’t care. And why not cast Emilio Estevez instead of Kurt Russell? Estevez is a good actor and probably would have saved Disney some money. Or maybe not, since Russell hadn’t acted for two years and his prior movie grossed $10 million worldwide.1
  7. Where were the players for most of the 9 months leading up to the games? I know they started very early, with tryouts in Colorado and then trained in Indiana, but they seem to be playing games and practicing a lot.
  8. Which sport is the most cinematic? And boxing doesn’t count. I have, over the years, provided various definitions for sports and competitions. You can throw darts in a bar. Not a sport. You can have a fist fight in a bar. You cannot play hockey in a bar. By this complicated criterion, boxing is not a sport.
  9. Did I know that this was the highest grossing hockey movie of all-time? If I had to guess 2-5, I would say, Mighty Ducks, D-2: Cruise Control, Slap Shot…and does The Cutting Edge count? I consider that a figure skating movie, not a hockey movie. Apparently the actual order is MiracleThe Tooth FairyMighty Ducks, D-2: Their First Assignment, and The Love Guru. They do count Cutting Edge, it is #7.
  10. How is the final hockey game shot so much better than the entire rest of the film?
  11. How did the film make me start to root for the US? Full disclosure, I had to wait two weeks to watch the last 45 minutes of the movie, so that might play a part in it. And I am watching this during the Rio Olympics. More importantly, though, is that this is the first part of the film that does not feel like a montage.
  12. What do I rate this movie?

*** For having two majors positives: Herb Brooks is portrayed as a human being and how well shot the hockey is, particularly in the semi-final game against the Soviet Union.

1 There is so much gold to be mined from this discovery. Please bear with me. The movie was called Dark Blue. This was directed by Ron Shelton, who also directed Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, Cobb, Tin Cup, and then killed his career with Hollywood Homicide—a movie I saw in theaters. What, you don’t remember this Harrison Ford/Josh Hartnett classic? One year later and I would have recorded my rating for the movie (according to Netflix I rated it ***). Unfortunately before that bombed he fired off one final nuclear bomb of poop known as the script for Bad Boys II (according to Netflix I rated it *). Had he not destroyed his career he would have directed this movie. I assume. Since he directed mostly sports movies, some of which were good. Back to Dark Blue and Kurt Russell, but first the writers! Dark Blue is adapted from a James Ellroy story, like, the five star classic L.A. Confidential. The adapter is none other than David Ayer! The same David Ayer who wrote/directed Training Day. In that review I addressed *every movie* Ayer did except for one…Dark Blue because I had never heard of it. Ready for biggest nugget? Kurt Russell was nominated for the Best Breakaway Performance in an Unexpected Role in the AARP’s Best Movies for Grownups! He lost to Richard Gere for Chicago. Now we all have learned that AARP issued their own movie awards with hilarious named categories. 

Training Day

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Every review of this movie focuses on Denzel Washington’s heel turn into an Academy Award for best actor. Well this review will not comment on that.

****½

It is a good sign when the movie begins with Ethan Hawke’s Jake Hoyt saying, “Uh, yes sir. And that’s exactly why I signed up, and I just wanted to thank you for the op…” Then Detective Alonzo Harris–Denzel Washington–hangs up on him. What Hawke does not say, what director Antoine Fuqua does not have him say is, “portunity”. In a cheesy movie when someone gets hung up, he or she will finish the word/sentence for laughs. Then there is the requisite pause for the anticipated laughter. That sets the tone for a movie whose characters and issues do not take the easy way out.

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Officer Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) looking ill at ease in a bad house in a bad neighborhood in bad L.A., in the not bad movie Training Day (1999).

The locations in this movie were excellent. Fuqua makes Los Angeles a character in and of itself. While Hoyt tries to survive this day of training, it seems like LA would rather have him dead. Maybe it is because Hoyt is white, suburban, and naîve that I found him easy to identify with. Or maybe Fuqua just did a great job, or the screenwriter, David Ayer–The Fast and The Furious–wrote a universally relatable character¹. I will say this for Ayer, his writing credits suggest he had a fully formed world of cops and robbers set in late 1990s LA in his head for years and years. Ignoring that his first film credit is U-571, he starts Fast; then gets to Training Day, which went darker and more realistic; he makes S.W.A.T. and it must have chafed at him to take 1970s schlock and having to put it into his LA; then come(s) Harsh Times, probably the darkest of the lot. Finally Ayer is seemingly done. Seven years pass and he returns with End of the Watch which again has cops and drug dealers, morality and survival and you know where it takes place; he follows this up by finally leaving LA to do a Schwarzenegger version of End of Watch called Sabotage. He is like the J.R.R. Tolkien, but instead of Middle Earth he has South Central L.A. Perhaps Woody Allen’s New York word be more appropriate, but the LA death count probably falls in the middle.

Moving into the realm of secondary characters, Scott Glenn—Capt. Bart Mancuso of the U.S.S. Dallas in The Hunt for Red October—plays Roger, the guy who has been there and done that. I am a mark² for Glenn, although I did not sing his praises in the 250 best underrated actors article I occasionally link to. Tom Berenger though? His best work can be found either as the star of Major League or in the epic Gettysburg. Giving bit parts to Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dré was kind of jarring, especially since I had forgotten about their presence in the movie. Young Eva Mendes—The Other Guys—was really good too. Young Terry Crews had no lines but he looks so similar 14 years later.

Cle Sloan (as Bone) and Terry Crews, plus Hawkes, in Training Day. I wanted to use a photo of Eva Mendes, but I do not think that I have posted particularly revealing photos before on here.

Cle Sloan (as Bone) and Terry Crews, plus Hawkes, in Training Day. I wanted to use a photo of Eva Mendes, but every one online looked too hot for this post.

This cautionary tale is actually a cautionary tale disguised as a cautionary tale. If that sounds confusing, think of it as a movie that says karma is a bitch, but also an elephant, since elephants seemingly never forget. To paraphrase Yoda, to learn, sometimes, you have to forget what you already know. Simultaneously, you have to hold onto the truth inside yourself, even as you are told that your truth is a fiction, or that it will become fiction soon enough. Because if you do not choose wisely, you will wind up beaten or dead…at least in David Ayers’s LA.

 

¹ I cannot remove my bias. Even when I strive for objectivity my concept of objectivity is impacted by my personal bias.

² A mark is a term for a fan, particularly in pro wrestling. It also can mean a sucker, in both wrestling, confidence schemes and gambling. Used in a sentence, “Or thought I was a mark [be]cause I used to hang with Eazy [E].” – Dr. Dré, Fuck Wit Dré Day from the album “The Chronic”.

 

Yeah, but…Attack of the Clones

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Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. I remember my trepidation upon hearing that name. I saw it three times in theaters, I believe. Still, I gave it ***. It earned this for being an okay movie. It is pretty good. There are lots of problems and lots of positives. The narrative for this film is a primarily negative one now, so instead of piling on, I will highlight the positives I noticed.

  • The way the J-Type Diplomatic Barge exploding looked awesome.

    Amidalas_ship_explodes

    On Coruscant.

  • Natalie Portman is beautiful. When she wears that white outfit—she puts it on for the trip to Geonosis with Anakin to rescue Obi-Wan—she is just stunning.
  • The entire last 30 minutes of action. Jedi battles. Awesome large scale vehicles fighting. Great armies clashing. Shooting down core ships as they tried to take off. Jango Fett’s decapitation in front of Boba Fett.
    SPHAT-concentratedfire
  • The Geonosian holographic war room.
  • In the commentary track George Lucas addresses the Kevin Smith dialogue regarding the death of the contractors on the Death Star. Lucas imagines the Geonosian termite types doing the work.
  • Ian McDiarmid using his Emperor Palpatine voice as Darth Sidious.

Howl’s Moving Castle

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****
I give up. I see no point in living if I can’t be beautiful.

The less impressive than it sounds Howl's Moving Castle, © 2004 Buena Vista Home Entertainment.

The less impressive than it sounds Howl’s Moving Castle, © 2004 Buena Vista Home Entertainment.

Everyone loves Hayao Miyazaki. Correction, everyone who recognizes the name Hayao Miyazaki loves his work. Why it took me ten years to watch a film that I knew I would enjoy is beyond me. However, my focus on anime—aka japanimation—ended at around the time of this film’s release, 2004. Who knows how much quality cinema I have missed as a result of this choice. I know people might think that I have watched so many great movies in that time, but I still found time to watch Constantine and The Expendables.

This is the story of a plain, young woman who lives in a namesless European country during a steam punk era around World War I. She goes for a walk to visit a friend and is accosted by two sexually threatening soldiers, a young wizard named Howl protects her, but in doing so puts her in far greater danger. The Witch of the Waste is an elderly, powerful witch, who fell for Howl, but Howl rejected her upon seeing her true, unappealing self. The Witch of the Waste casts a spell upon this woman, Sophie, so she appears, and feels, very elderly. Sophie flees the city and with the help of a cursed scarecrow, boy wizard and captured fire demon, joins Howl as his cleaning lady. At this point I thought I knew where the film would predictably go. But I was pleasantly surprised by the actual plot. It deals with issues of war and beauty. On the whole this is one of the least sexist animes I have ever seen. I imagine this movie will be very re-watchable.

As a parting thought, do the legs remind anyone else of the house of Baba Yaga? You know, the chicken legged house of a great Ukrainian/Slavic witch. It seems fitting if it truly is a reference to her.

Slither

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**

Praise Jesus? That’s fucking pushing it! This shit’s about as far from God as shit can get! Either of you ever seen anything like that? You even heard of anything like that? Huh? Me neither… and I watch Animal Planet all the fucking time!

Jenna Fischer as the receptionist for the police station in Slither, © 2006 Gold Circle Films

Jenna Fischer as the receptionist for the police station in Slither, © 2006 Gold Circle Films

Bah, this movie stunk. I love Nathan Fillion and really like Elizabeth Banks, but even their charms could not wipe the slime off this. James Gunn wrote and directed this gross alien invasion of small town flic and it is very far from the quality he achieved in Guardians of the Galaxy. I can see hints, here and there, like the aww-shucks charm of Fillion’s sheriff, but what a boring movie. The only thing exceptional was how disgusting everything looked. That truly is an achievement, even if it probably detracted from my enjoyment of the movie. Full disclosure, I am not a horror movie fan, so maybe this would resonate for horror fans more than it did for me. As this was a horror comedy, and as I enjoyed Shaun of the Dead, I thought this might work for me. I guess James Gunn is no Edgar Wright, but maybe no-one else is. Still my one word review of this movie—Yuck.

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