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Posts Tagged ‘Oliver Parker’

It was Friday night, and the lights were low (as you would expect, in a cinema). There were people everywhere – a sense of expectation hanging in the air. My impatience was slowly creeping up my spine and growing strong. Sitting there no-one could harm me. They just stared at me and wondered why.

As regular readers will be able to confirm, I can keep this sort of thing up indefinitely, but I expect you are more interested in hearing about Ol Parker’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again than in clumsily repurposed pop song lyrics, so let’s crack on with that. As it seems like the UK is currently experiencing a shortage of everything except shortages, cinema tickets are not quite big enough to accommodate that title in full, and so the ones we ended up with were apparently for a film entitled Mamma Mia! HWGA. By a strange coincidence, when I asked Next Desk Colleague if he wanted to come and see the film, his response actually was ‘Hwga!’, or at least a very similar sound. The same was true of nearly all my male co-workers when I broached the possibility with them – although there was one guy whose response of ‘I have a serious issue with the intrinsically non-diegetic nature of the musical as a cinematic form’ rather impressed me. Nearly all the distaff members of the office hurled themselves at the chance, though.

So I eventually rocked up to the new film in the company of a bevy of women of various ages and nationalities, all rather excited and wont to emit vowel sounds at unexpected moments as proceedings got underway. Fortunately my Anglo-Iranian affairs consultant had also agreed to come, so I wasn’t the only possessor of a Y chromosome in the party and didn’t feel quite so much of a stranger in a strange land. (I was still a bit worried I might end up spending two hours doing the Peter Rabbit face, though.)

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, in case you have recently arrived from Neptune, is a sequel to 2008’s Mamma Mia!, an alarmingly successful contraption based around creatively-cast performers doing unorthodox cover versions of songs by Abba, one of the greatest pop groups in the history of the planet. This recipe ended up making $615 million, somehow, and so inevitably a sequel has arrived.

The first thing we should say is – now, does this constitute a spoiler? It’s a plot point that’s introduced virtually at the start, so I’d usually say no, but at the same time it’s deliberately obfuscated in the trailer, so… Oh, what the hell (spoiler alert). So – some time has passed since the first film, and central figure Donna (Meryl Streep) has carked it in the meantime, though whether this was a creative decision or just the result of Streep not really wanting to do the movie I’m not sure; suffice to say that despite her prominence in the publicity, her actual involvement is minimal.

This opens up the film to employ a structure which will probably be familiar to fans of The Godfather Part 2, although quite how big the crossover audience between The Godfather and Mamma Mia! is I’m not sure. Basically, we have one storyline which is a prequel to the original film, in which a young Donna (Lily James, whose publicity material will probably now contain the words ‘has been compared to Meryl Streep’ in perpetuity) leaves Oxford University, goes travelling in Europe, and embarks on the regimen of random promiscuity which will eventually leave her a single parent in charge of a rather cruddy Greek hotel.

The other plot strand concerns Donna’s daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who is struggling to reopen the same hotel thirty years later, with the help of her mother’s friends and widower (Pierce Brosnan). It soon becomes clear that Brosnan is basically being kept locked in a shed, well away from any sheet music, in case he attempts to sing again. (We will return to this.) Also helping out is a new character played by Andy Garcia, named Fernando (which if you ask me is tantamount to cheating). Will the reopening of the hotel be a big success? Will Sophie’s other two possible-fathers (Stellan Skarsgard and Colin Firth) make it to the island in time? Will anyone get the chance to sing ‘King Kong Song’?

I am tempted to say that if you’re the kind of person who found The Greatest Showman just a bit too gritty and hard-hitting, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again will probably be right up your alley, filled as it is with appealing young actors, some of the broadest comedy turns imaginable, and – of course – a selection of indestructibly great pop classics.

That said, of course, I suspected this film might face what I call the More Abba Gold problem. Permit me to explain – Abba Gold is pretty much an essential album for anyone interested in pop music, being literally all killer, no filler: perfect hooks and choruses, emotional resonance, immaculate production, and so on. Every song on it is deservedly famous. More Abba Gold? Not so much. I mean, it’s still got songs like ‘Honey Honey’ and ‘Summer Night City’ on it, which are quite well known, but also things like ‘Cassandra’ and ‘So Long’ which I doubt I’ve ever heard. The question is this: are there enough first-rank Abba songs left to fill up another two hour movie?

Well… they kind of try to dodge this issue, mainly by reprising some of the songs from the first time round. There’s another go at ‘Mamma Mia’ itself, a reprise of ‘Dancing Queen’, and a moment when one of the characters, in a French restaurant with a bust of Napoleon, finds himself reaching for a metaphor for defeat, leading to the inevitable production number (this was probably the first moment at which I found myself with my head between my knees in the cinema). But some of the songs are more obscure this time around – the first big tune, bizarrely, is ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’, which at least occasions a truly mind-boggling solo from Celia Imrie, while also popping up are things like ‘Andante Andante’, ‘Kisses of Fire’, and ‘Why Did It Have to Be Me?’ The film’s big climax comes when Cher swoops in, basically playing herself, and sings ‘Fernando’ to Garcia (though I have to wonder what Garcia’s character was doing carrying a rifle across the Rio Grande in 1959, when he would have been about twelve). (The soundtrack album features Meryl Streep’s version of ‘The Day Before You Came’, which I must warn you does not appear at any point in the film. Not that you shouldn’t stay till the end of the credits, though.)

Still, even an obscure Abba song is most likely a masterpiece of composition and production, and overall the music passes muster. But I have to say that much of the charm, if that’s the right word, of the original film is that it’s basically about a bunch of randy middle-aged people on an island together launching unprovoked assaults on the highlights of the Abba back catalogue. The focus here is much more on randy young people, and despite winning performances from many of the cast (and I have to say that if Josh Dylan, who plays the young Skarsgard, ever visits my workplace he will be beating women off with a stick, based on the reactions of my colleagues), it is somehow less mesmerically weird and exciting and funny than the original film.

We’re practically into the home straight by the time all the original characters reconvene on the island, and I have to say I can’t help feeling some of them are a little underserved. I didn’t go to Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to listen to Lily James singing; I went there to listen to Pierce Brosnan not singing (and to watch Colin Firth not dancing, for that matter). Brosnan is permitted a brief reprise of his legendary version of ‘S.O.S’ but is otherwise restricted to doing choruses alongside other people, which if you ask me is just not fair.

Still, everyone was singing along with the choruses during the film, and we all emerged with big smiles upon our faces, so I suppose Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again really does the job as a piece of entertainment. It isn’t as riotously silly as the first film, but it’s still a case of a deeply spurious non-plot being deployed to facilitate as many wonderful tunes as they can possibly get away with, topped off with a lot of knockabout humour and even a few quite touching emotional moments. I expect it will end up doing very well for itself. It’s simple and it’s plain – why should I complain?

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In the closest thing to miscegenation you’re likely to find in a mainstream multiplex, Universal Pictures (producers of the Fast and Furious series, amongst other high-powered blockbusters) have come together with Screen Yorkshire (producers of a wide range of generally quite miserable low-budget films) to make Oliver Parker’s Dad’s Army, a new version of the legendary British sitcom. Does that sound weird? It should. But in a good way or not? Well, if I tell you that in the new Dad’s Army an innocent young woman is clubbed into unconsciousness and lovable old Corporal Jones shoots someone in the head, you may get some inkling of how horribly astray the new proceedings go.

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In rather the same way that the historical existence of the British police box is now only widely known thanks to Doctor Who’s TARDIS, so I suspect the British Home Guard – a military organisation in existence between 1940 and 1944, made up of men too young and old for the army, intended to assist in the nation’s defence in the event of a Nazi invasion – would long since have become a footnote of history were it not for Dad’s Army. Even having to explain what Dad’s Army is feels very odd, but anyway – the sitcom ran between 1968 and 1977, clocking up 80 episodes, repeats of which have been a staple of the schedules pretty much ever since. In the UK it is genuinely beloved and instantly familiar in a way that is matched by only a tiny handful of other programmes.

So you can kind of understand why people might think tapping into the vast well of affection the public still have for the series was a sound commercial idea, despite the fact that virtually the entire original cast has been dead for decades (two members are hanging on and are duly wheeled out for cameos here). Certainly this film assumes familiarity with the Dad’s Army set-up – unlike the 1971 film version, which depicted the formation of the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard platoon, this one starts with them as a going concern.

In command is the fussy, pompous Captain Mainwaring (Toby Jones), assisted by the terribly smooth Sergeant Wilson (Bill Nighy). In the ranks are panic-prone old soldier Jones (Tom Courtenay), young and callow Pike (Blake Harrison), wide boy Walker (Daniel Mays), grumpy Scot Frazer (Bill Paterson), and terribly nice old gent Godfrey (Michael Gambon). As a military unit their effectiveness is close to absolute zero, but they do try hard.

Walmington-on-Sea is sent into a very mild state of shock with the arrival of glamorous reporter Rose Winters (Catherine Zeta Jones, who probably qualifies as an imported Hollywood star even though she comes from Swansea), intent on doing a story on the unit. It turns out she and Wilson have history of a sort, which only increases Mainwaring’s normal inferiority complex. Even more important, however, is the revelation that there is a Nazi spy operating somewhere in the town, just as the Home Guard have been charged with protecting a vital supply depot…

Hmmm. You may be expecting a clever twist when it comes to the identity of the spy. You will not get one. You may in fact be expecting all sorts of things from the new Dad’s Army, for this is a film based on an undeniable classic, filled with brilliant actors from many different film, TV, and theatre traditions. But if your expectations are at all positive, a mighty disappointment is coming your way.

We seem to be having a mini-boom in the production of movies based on British sitcoms, possibly fuelled by the unreasonable success of the two Inbetweeners films (two of the Inbetweeners regulars have snagged roles here), with not just this but a movie of Absolutely Fabulous on the way. However, anyone making even the most cursory survey of Brit sitcoms on film will instantly see that these films are almost always utterly awful, and it is this tradition which Dad’s Army proudly, grimly, upholds.

Honestly, in 96 long minutes I felt the urge to laugh twice, mildly both times. There are a lot of talented people on this film which inevitably leads one to wonder just what the hell has gone so badly wrong. The obvious answer is to say that it’s simply because the original series had such unique, perfect chemistry between the cast, and such strong writing. Well, that’s true (though I have to say I often find the series to be rather too broad and sentimental for my tastes), but it’s not just the case that this movie is trying to copy the TV show and failing. This movie is a rather different beast.

The TV show, and indeed the 1971 movie, were both ultimately quite cosy and soft affairs, ultimately driven by a deep affection for the characters: a sort of ongoing cartoon or music hall sketch, delivered by wobbly videotape into people’s front rooms. In the new movie, someone gets shot dead in the first few minutes, which tonally feels terribly wrong for Dad’s Army. But it’s more than this: writer Hamish McColl doesn’t even seem to like the characters that much, and has felt the need to give most of them psychological issues and back-stories that are new to this version. There’s a undercurrent of harsh emotional realism and angst that somehow makes them all pitiable at least as much as lovable.

And this new-found realism does not sit well with the broad slapstick and sight-gags which are traditional Dad’s Army fare and which the film also works hard to include. To be honest, it kills most of the humour and the film often feels slightly childish as a result. You can’t be traditional Dad’s Army and something darker and grittier at the same time; one would have thought that was obvious. But apparently not.

I suppose some people might also take exception to the inclusion of Mrs Mainwaring as an on-screen presence (played by Felicity Montagu), arguing that the whole point of the character was that she was left to the viewer’s imagination – perhaps even to the fact that the womenfolk of the town play a rather more significant role than they ever did on TV, to the point where in parts it’s almost more like Last of the Summer Wine. The Diversity Police have paid a visit, I suppose, but given this is by far less incongruous than the badly misjudged tone of the film I find it hard to get very exercised by it.

The structure of the film is, I suppose, solid, and it does provide a showcase for the various performers to a give a virtuoso display of how one uses brilliant acting technique to avoid being embarrassed by substandard material. But the fact remains that it’s nowhere near funny or warm enough to be worthy of the Dad’s Army title – and, as a result, it’s actively depressing more than anything else.

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Every now and then, for no reason I can really discern, we tend to get a bunch of films with roughly the same subject matter coming out at around the same time. Nearly twenty years ago, for instance, there were a handful of Christopher Columbus biopics (though in that case it was sort of understandable, given the date), while Hollywood has also doubled up when it comes to releasing films about Robin Hood, volcanoes, and giant asteroid impacts threatening the earth. At the moment we’re coming to the end of a bit of a spy cluster: with Tomas Alfredson’s le Carre adaptation occupying the critical high ground, and The Debt offering perhaps the most accessible and involving story. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for a spy movie you can watch with the kids and not have to worry about paying the slightest bit of attention to, there’s always Johnny English Reborn, directed by Oliver Parker (whom I had pegged as a bonnet opera/Oscar Wilde adaptation specialist, but there you go).

This is, of course, a star vehicle for Rowan Atkinson, allowing him to reprise his role as the hapless secret agent from a load of credit card commercials and 2003’s original Johnny English. As the film opens our hero is in exile following a disastrous assignment some years previously, but circumstances demand his recall. Intelligence has been received that an attempt will be made on the life of the Chinese Premier during a meeting with the British Prime Minister, and so the head of MI7 (Gillian Anderson) packs English off to Hong Kong to investigate. There he encounters CIA agent Titus Fisher (Richard Schiff, really briefly), and…

…you know, I don’t think there’s much point going into the plot in too much detail. You’re probably not that interested, and, anyway, it manages at the same time to be predictable, convoluted, and completely superfluous. Every time some serious exposition has to be laid in (always by one of the other performers), Atkinson will start falling over or gurning or messing about, almost as if the movie is afraid that people will forget it’s supposed to be a comedy. This seems to me to be wholly misconceived – it’s perfectly possible to make a brilliant comedy with a strong plot and some touches of darkness (for instance, Some Like It Hot or the original Ladykillers).

But instead we get an awful lot of Atkinson being pompous, pulling faces, and falling over, with the rest of a rather good cast (Anderson, Schiff, Dominic West, Rosamund Pike, Pik-Sen Lim) required to play it as straight as they can manage in the background. The only other person who gets a chance to be properly funny is Daniel Kaluuya as Atkinson’s sidekick.

As you can probably tell, the word Reborn in the title is pushing it a bit – Johnny English Rehashed would have been more honest. This is more broad, farcical, knockabout fun, marginally darker in tone than the first movie. It’s still pitching to the huge international audience Atkinson established playing the clownish Mr Bean, rather than the UK following he built up playing the much more acerbic and interesting Blackadder character. There is a section near the beginning of this film where he is (briefly) allowed to be sardonic and capable, and outwit his opponents, and it’s refreshingly different and no less amusing than the rest of the film: but it’s not sustained. The film goes for the easy option and the rewards are less as a result.

And along the way it makes the common mistake of believing that Bond Movies Are Easy To Parody. They’re really, really not – parody is all about making the serious look ridiculous, and the Bond films are always so close to seeming ridiculous that it’s hard to go beyond them without simply becoming silly. This movie crosses the line into silliness more often than it should.

One of the strengths of the first film is that it didn’t try too hard on this score, and just concentrated on being a comedy. Here, the desire to spoof Bond seems much stronger – ex-Bond girl Pike is prominent, Anderson’s character hits the same notes as Judi Dench’s M, and there’s a sequence attempting to parody the Bond-visits-the-gadget-department staple – how can you parody something which was almost always played for laughs anyway? Answers on a postcard please. It’s all a bit baffling as even the Bond movies themselves, in their current joy-averse incarnation, don’t look like this any more.

I have been almost wholly negative so far but I feel I ought to say that this film is not a complete waste of time and money. Atkinson is simply incapable of not being funny for too long, and there are some great pieces of physical comedy and other sight gags. I thought it was generally quite amusing: too silly and lightweight to be really satisfying as a film, but not awful by any means (and other people at the viewing I attended were laughing much, much more than I was). But considering the time, money, and talent involved, the returns – as far as entertainment is concerned – are not that impressive. New character next time, please, Rowan.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 17th 2009:

…moving on, we come to Dorian Gray, the latest Oscar Wilde adaptation from Oliver Parker, who appears to be specialising in this rather niche area. This famous tale of a corrupted immortal has of course been brought to the screen many times before, and Parker’s version is more faithful to the novel than many (although given that the last two I saw featured Gray as an indestructible supervillain in league with Professor Moriarty, and a deranged polymath space-hermit with nefarious plans for Blake’s Seven, that isn’t saying much). Come to think of it, Parker’s film features one character getting hand relief and someone else being hit by a tube train, neither of which happened in the version of the book that I read, so maybe I’m talking out of the back of my neck on this one (as usual).

Well anyway. This is the story of wealthy young Victorian gentleman Dorian Gray (Ben Barnes), an angel-faced young innocent who falls into the orbit of up-and-coming painter Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin, looking rather like Antonio Banderas here) and studiedly amoral hedonist Henry Wotton (Colin Firth cast against type). Dorian’s youth and beauty sway everyone he comes across, but for reasons the film never quite makes fully clear he becomes strangely linked to a portrait of him painted by Basil. In a reversal of what normally happens, as time passes Dorian remains untouched by the passage of time and the external ravages of his excessive lifestyle, while his image in the picture withers and decays…

This isn’t actually an out-and-out bad film, but I can see it really struggling to find an audience. The period settings (the 1890s and 1910s) are well-mounted, but the tone and subject-matter aren’t really your standard costume drama fare. On the other hand, the horror and evil and sin will seem very tame indeed to anyone raised on a diet of modern movies. Dorian’s lifestyle just doesn’t seem very transgressive by modern standards, there’s virtually no blood or gore, and the orgy scenes are just a bit too genteel given things like Donkey Punch have been doing the rounds for years. Parker’s direction is occasionally imaginative but in many ways this film could have been made by Hammer 40 years ago with hardly any changes required. (Well… as may in fact be obligatory in any movie from a Wilde story these days, it doesn’t shy away from the subtext of a story of older, experienced men wanting to win over and corrupt a beautiful young boy. But it does seem a bit of an afterthought and most of the rumpo is thoroughly heterosexual in nature, and in that uniquely kinky late Victorian vein, to boot.)

Having said that, the movie intelligently projects the second half of the story into a future Wilde himself never lived to see (shame they couldn’t have thought up a way to do the first half as period and the second as present day without rewriting the story even more than they do here, as it would’ve given the film a distinct identity of its own) and the make-up and visual effects are very good. There are plenty of well-known faces in the cast, many of them in surprisingly small parts (I get the impression most of Douglas Henshall’s scenes wound up on the cutting room floor, or more likely these days in the recycle bin of the editing PC’s desktop; might as well have stayed on Primeval till the end, Douggie [Written before they revived the show, obviously – A]), as well as a few promising newcomers like Rebecca Hall and Rachel Hurd-Wood. Colin Firth is okay when rattling out epigrams like a witty Gatling gun but on the whole he seems ill-at-ease in a part rather at odds with his normal persona.

The real problem in the acting department is that Ben Barnes doesn’t really have the chops to depict Dorian’s gradual slide into corruption and degeneracy. At the start of the story he’s very Fotherington-Thomas-ish and comes across not so much as naive as just a bit dim-witted. Admittedly he improves as the film goes on but I would venture to suggest that no-one, except possibly extremely hormonal teenage girls with a thing about bad boys with good hair, will care overly much about what happens to him or his picture. Rather ironically for a film about a character who decides to seize life and live it to the utmost with terrible results, Dorian Gray is much too timid in nearly every part of its storytelling. And while the results aren’t exactly terrible, they’re not particularly memorable or praiseworthy either.

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