Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (Some Kind Of Memory Erasing Drug)

As I said in this enormous apologia, we watched Mamma Mia! a couple of days ago and though we both sat in astonished horror as the cinematic disaster unfolded, it felt like unwarranted cruelty to think ill of it. What kind of curmudgeonly bastard could hate such a fun movie? Look! Pierce Brosnan trying to sing! Isn't that the sweetest thing ever? And Meryl! She really believes in this project, and can touch her toes in mid-air! OMG it's Stellan Skarsgård's butt! He's showing off his butt! They’re all irrepressible!

And who doesn't love Abba? Everyone loves Abba. Yes, even I, who has been deemed a music snob by many, many people (including my lovely wife), cannot say a bad word about Abba. Except that Winner Takes It All depresses the shit out of me. It's a great song, arguably Abba's best, but since I was a kid it has bummed me out, in much the same way as Seasons in the Sun by Terry Jacks, and Captain Sensible’s version of Happy Talk (I don’t get that one either).

Since seeing it, however, I've come to realise how big a lemon we were sold. From what I can gather the general consensus is that the flaws of the movie are ignored by fans, who feel that its air of amateurish enthusiasm is the centre of its appeal. It's not some slick, cynical enterprise, say the fans as they dance in the aisles to yet another poorly-integrated and ineptly arranged bastardisation of a once great song. It's a rarity; a movie aimed at middle-aged women and made by middle-aged women. It’s an antidote to all of the usual macho horseshit pumped out by Hollywood, and celebrates middle-aged femininity in a way that just never happens. I can go along with that appraisal. It's obvious that a large demographic is being stupidly ignored by studios, and the occasional romance starring Keanu Reeves or Diane Lane is not enough.

That said, the simplistic criticism, that men just don't get it because it's made specifically for women, is verifiably false. Melanie Reid, who I linked to before (yes, this piece really pissed me off), says:

The result is an uninhibited, fun, cheesy, hugely tongue-in-cheek women's film that has, as few others have done, parted the critics like the Red Sea. The highest-browed men, poor things, entirely missing the irony, have struggled to cope with Streep in a popular role, or to find words hate-filled enough to describe the result: “absolute cack”; “silliness unredeemed by wit or polish”; “super pooper... soulless panto”; “hideous... a crock of hooey”; “Streep meets her Waterloo”. My colleague James Christopher, the Times film critic referred to “Hollywood blancmange” and said that the “sight of a Greek conga of local scrubbers vamping to Dancing Queen on a wobbly wooden pier is a truly terrifying spectacle”.

And there was me thinking what fun it would be if I was part of it.

Never have the posh male critics been marooned higher or drier. They have missed the joke, you see. Almost everyone else in the world, it seems - especially women - got it. People love this movie despite its flaws. They love that it celebrates middle-aged women; that it laughs at itself continuously; that it is shamelessly silly and heart-warming.

I'll grant that the UK critics were, on a whole, much harsher with the film than the US critics, with the male critics making up the majority of the negative opinion, but then that's more than likely as the number of female film critics in the UK is depressingly small. The Sunday Telegraph has Jenny McCartney, Catherine Shoard and Anne Billson, and a long Google search doesn't find any Mamma Mia! reviews by them. The Times has Wendy Ide, and she didn't review it either. There are others scattered around (not Xan Brooks from The Guardian, who, I just found to my surprise, is a man, baby), but they are very rarely the lead critic for the paper, which means, as it was the biggest release of the week, only men reviewed it. And they hated it.

Does that mean male critics are pre-disposed to hate it? Perhaps if, with a larger and more diverse sample of critics, there is a distinct gender split, but a look through all nine pages of capsule reviews on Rotten Tomatoes shows there are plenty of male critics who loved it and many female critics who hated it, which suggests there was really little more than just personal opinion at play here. Even a tiny sample, i.e. me and Canyon, shows a 100% "rotten" score, as we both hated it (and hey, Canyon is all woman, Melanie Reid). Still, this is nitpicking with one argument. If people are made happy by this film, and the consensus seems to be that it’s better at generating euphoria in its fans than pure heroin, why carp about it?

Partially because the standard of filmmaking on display is so heinously bad. The baffling chaos was apparently directed by Phyllida Lloyd, who has been responsible for many highly regarded opera productions, as well as directing a version of Mamet’s Boston Marriage at the Donmar Warehouse, the excellence of which I can happily attest to. She’s obviously no dummy, and having overseen the original stage production of Mamma Mia! she should know her way around the story, such as it is. However, her obvious expertise is not on show in this film, which is badly lit, poorly blocked, indifferently choreographed, and plotted with startling indifference. While watching it we both commented on the school play feel of it, which is a bad sign.

But who cares when there’s this much fun to be had, right? You can be certain the cast and crew were having a blast on set. Anyone would. Can you imagine what it would be like hanging out in Greece (or, at worst, the studios at Pinewood), with no real work to be done in learning how to dance or sing properly, meaning the frivolity continues all day long with only the odd shot to break up the holiday. There's no effort made to choreograph the movie beyond some jumping up and down or going around in circles, and a lot of the blocking is messy, which suggests the stage version was transplanted straight over instead of coming up with new moves (though I've not seen the stage version so I could well be wrong).

Even more startling, the production design is so shoddy that one scene, featuring cross-cutting between two bedrooms in an effort to suggest a connection between mother and daughter’s plights, is transparently set in the same room, with different beds and a cupboard to make it look different.

Kudos for cutting production costs down, but did anyone on set understand that suspension of disbelief isn't granted automatically by the audience? That there has to be some effort made by the filmmakers as well? The juxtaposition of the two characters is clearly expressed, but it’s distracting too.

The shakiness of the hotel sets are not best served by the bizarre decision by Lloyd to make no effort to disguise them as unreal facsimiles of a Greek mountaintop. This wouldn't be so jarring if the whole movie was filmed in the same way, a la One From The Heart, where Coppola constructed an entire world on a soundstage, or if it was all done naturalistically, but instead we get terrible transitions from the bright and expansive Greek locations to gaudy, unconvincing sets, with shots either over-lit...


...or just lit with no understanding of how a frame should be composed...

...with actors sometimes obscured by shadows or, at worst, filmed in normal light and then altered in post-production to look like the scene was shot after dark, which is another cost-saving measure gone horribly wrong thanks to inept usage.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. Amanda Seyfried ends up getting most of the emotional work, and she does a good job of selling the film's central dramatic arc. Upon first seeing this it was an hour in before I realised that the only thing it seemed to be about was the identity of her father, a minimalist plot that had been obscured by much faffing about. That said, late attention to the lightly sketched thread about Seyfried's worries about her impending marriage fleshes the film out a little. Nevertheless, this thread barely registers except as pretence for having her and Dominic Cooper sing Lay All Your Love on Me, much as Meryl's financial strain is a weak excuse for shoehorning Money, Money, Money into the soundtrack.

Seyfried's insecurity also drives the final act twist where she decides against marrying so that she can see the world, though she does this with her fella, which garbles the free young woman message. I get why they did it; can't have a break-up at the end of the film to bring everyone down, after all. It's a shame to dilute her aspirations, though, as the film (and musical) commendably focuses on Meryl's free love past with only minor "comical" reproach, instead celebrating her free spirit and life choices, which is a rarity in these prudish and censorious times. As a peon to women’s rights, it might not be The Female Eunuch, but it’s a huge and gratifying success in this respect, even if it fails elsewhere, partially with the despicable objectification of poor Pierce Brosnan, his clothes torn from his back and his chest hair displayed for all the world to see. What kind of depraved Amazon nation are we preparing ourselves for here??!?!?

Best of all, through it all there's Meryl, who does a good job dragging some of the emotional weight from Seyfried's shoulders (their duet during Slipping Through My Fingers is one of the few moments in the film that really works), and an even better one selling the ridiculousness of the whole enterprise. While Julie Walters and Christine Baranski are panto dames squawking about men in a lamentably unfunny stylee, Meryl tries her damnedest to make the movie work with total commitment to her character's woes, which makes it all the more annoying that her efforts are rendered pointless by the lackadaisical production.

Especially galling is that her committed performance of Winner Takes It All means nothing, bearing only a tangential relationship to some emotional plot thread jammed in at the last second to justify the inclusion of the song, not to mention the uncomfortable sight of Fierce Pierce standing around trying to emote some vague and undefined emotion that might be sadness but looks more like uncomfortable boredom, in a bit of blocking that resembles the vexed shrugging from the undercover cops in this momentous scene from Cop Rock.

The production smacks of "Let's do the show right here" impulsiveness, with a weird visual mixture of glossiness and incompetence. The shockingly poor photography, when not getting the lighting horribly wrong, features some of the nastiest zooms I've seen in years. One aimed at a shell-shocked Stellan Skarsgård wouldn't look out of place in a low-budget 70s blaxploitation movie. The slapdash visuals, shaky choreography (if it can be called that), and hectic air suggest this rough-and-ready photography is part of a consciously made stylistic choice, but that decision scuppers the film, as it's hellishly ugly to look at, made worse by some appalling post-production work and editing flubs that make the movie impossible to follow at times (the three potential fathers entering the goat house confused us both).

I can live with all that. Lackadaisical filmmaking is not that big a deal as long as the package is likable enough, but the piss-poor filmmaking is compounded by the desperation pouring off the screen like a brown-green cloud, with no line unbellowed, no emotion half-expressed, no subtlety left uncrushed by the pounding of dancers jumping up and down on the spot to denote artificial joy. I can just about tolerate the shrieking in America's Next Top Model because it's expected of the models to act like everything that happens to them is OMG amazing, but watching the same level of hysteria maintained throughout the seemingly endless Mamma Mia! was unbearable. Enthusiasm is one thing, but relentless howling and jumping around palls very quickly. Just ask anyone who has ever watched Spielberg’s 1941.

I'll happily admit that watching Pierce struggle to honk out his songs did make me smile, but I refuse to give the film a free pass just because it's openly saying, "We just want to show you what a good time we're having and you should join in too!" That was the guiding ethos behind Ocean's Twelve, an empty abomination that attempted to coast on audience good-will towards its cast and failed. If some people are fine with that, good on them. This viewer was appalled by the laziness of the whole affair.

Most importantly at all, even if the fans’ argument - that the poor filmmaking and slipshod plotting don’t matter because of all the larks onscreen – holds true, it falls apart for anyone outside that forgiving subset of humanity that adored it without question. I’m sure Canyon and I are not the only people who watched the film with one hand over their eyes for fear of cringing themselves to death. It’s one thing to see the high-larious shot of Fierce Pierce dressed like a hippy...

...or Meryl headbanging and doing air guitar during Dancing Queen (which contains zero opportunity for shredding), but the risible dream-sequence to Money, Money, Money (included in the film because Meryl is momentarily, and conveniently, worried about money), was the last straw, and it comes early in the film.

Many scenes were almost unwatchably embarrassing, and any immersion in the film was repeatedly thwarted by us being unable to deal with what we were seeing. That Money, Money, Money scene was possibly the most ham-fisted and calamitous scene I’ve endured all year, looking like a YouTube replication of a French and Saunders sketch, except cheaper, but there were several moments that rivalled it later on.

Case in point: Julie Walters chases Stellan Skarsgård around the hotel in the final scenes, a turn of events that comes after the big emotional reworking of When All Is Said and Done, partially to pep the film back into life before the final dance scene, and also to shoe-horn Take A Chance On Me into the film. That they have wrecked another of my favourite tracks is only part of the crime, but having Skarsgård crawling around while Walters chases him is depressing as well as illogical, as he seems to vacillate between terror and lust depending on which line is being sung at that time.

It’s a mystifying hodge-podge of confusing emotional beats, betraying the true philosophy of the filmmakers; batter the audience with unearned uplift and nostalgia and they’ll have no choice but to respond/surrender. It’s like a Michael Bay action scene, but nearly two hours long and without the gleaming photography and split-second editing (or giant robots. Or explosions. Or rippling American flags). "LOVE US!" it screams, pointing at Colin Firth as he ineptly dances. "We're totally letting our hair down and we can't help but go crazy!" And, despite our better judgement, we find it hard to keep our brains switched on in an attempt to resist the onslaught. Pavlov would have found it fascinating, I’m sure.

Just to make things even more dispiriting, I failed to fanwank away the involvement of the two creative architects of the Abba leviathan. Upon seeing Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson listed as executive producers I had hoped that they were included merely as a contractual obligation, and that they hadn't had anything to do with the production, but right at the end of the film, as Dancing Queen gets a second runthrough prior to the egregious and unnecessary destruction of Waterloo, we see what I assume are Greek gods, and right in the middle...

...is Björn, which strikes me as a direct endorsement, in much the same way as John Waters' cameo in the Hairspray musical is a tip of the hat. It destroyed my will to live.

Does that mean I think people are fools for loving it? Of course not. As I said earlier, there are millions of people out there who were in desperate need of a movie that appealed directly to them, and if this film makes producers realise the potential of this untapped market, all of its filmmaking sins will be absolved. However, I’m depressed by the fact that the demographic that this film appeals to is so starved of filmic attention that this poorly-made, patronising mess is considered an event. If we’re going to get more films of this nature, I hope they will be made with more care and intelligence and respect for the audience, even though that audience would think I was being patronising for suggesting this film is unworthy of their affection. That I think they’re probably right even though I was rendered insensible by the monumental dreadfulness of it all says something for the pull of the film. Even now that I’ve voiced my displeasure with it I can still understand the appeal of it, and predict I will end up seeing it many more times, first against my will and later with full acknowledgement that I’m compelled to revisit it.

That doesn’t make it a good film, though, and I'm miserable knowing that it has achieved notoriety and popular acceptance by default. I'm even more annoyed by it as I was desperately in need of cheering up the day we watched it, after finally seeing American Movie and being plunged into a pit of depression by it. I had hoped that watching Mamma Mia! with my critical faculties switched off would cure my blues, but in a way it made it worse, by being so thoroughly bad it broke through my initial good will and kicked my calmer senses into a bin. And yet, even though I was unmoved by the exhortation to just enjoy myself dammit, I could never be mad at Meryl. Because Meryl is a Goddess, and we’re lucky to be seeing her in anything at all.


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