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Jonathan Prime/Universal Studios Movie


Jonathan Prime/Universal Studios Movie

Movies

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

The new Mamma Mia! is as terrible, and as catchy, as the old one

From a purely objective standpoint, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a terrible movie. The plot is nonsensical, the characters are one-note clichés, and the song lyrics barely connect to the action. Yet, whenever the story stops taking itself seriously and gives in to the sheer silliness of being a jukebox musical based on some of the airiest pop songs ever written, it becomes infectious in spite of itself.

Providing the backstory to the earlier Mamma Mia! (2008), this prequel explains how Donna (Meryl Streep) managed to get into the situation of being unable to tell her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) which of three men is her father. In flashback, we see a young Donna (Cinderella’s lovely, likable Lily James) conduct whirlwind romances with three handsome lads who will eventually grow into Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), Harry (Colin Firth), and Sam (Pierce Brosnan). The part of those romances that might result in the creation of Sophie thankfully happens off-screen, so the PG-13 rating is due to what’s implied.

It would be giving the screenwriters too much credit to suggest there’s a sexual revolutionary agenda here. Really, Donna’s flings are just an expedient way of shoehorning a series of lovelorn ballads into dreamy montages of white sand and blue Aegean Sea. When characters who’ve known each other for only a week sing, “We just have to face it, this time we’re through,” it’s hard to feel invested in their pain.

But in between the hokey moments, this Mamma Mia! boasts the same campy appeal as its predecessor. Perhaps no other rock group in history was as adept as ABBA at crafting those earworms that can either plague or delight, depending on the mood of the listener. The same is true with the latest movie based on their music. If the first one had you singing along, this one will as well. Just don’t blame me if you can’t get “Fernando” out of your head.

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Marvel Studios

Paul Rudd as Ant-Man and Evangeline Lilly as The Wasp
Marvel Studios

Movies

An everyday Marvel

Ant-Man and the Wasp shows us a superhero who is more like a regular guy

Part of what makes Marvel movies so dominant in today’s film culture is that despite their many superheroes co-mingling in the same universe, they mostly offer individual tones and character traits. If earnest Captain America and Black Panther explore serious political debates, and bad-boys Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy rock out with loopy, roguish humor, then Ant-Man—the only headlining hero who is also a parent—stands out for his small-scale, every-dad values. Think of him as the George Bailey of the Avengers.

His first movie buzzed with a light, low-stakes wittiness bolstered by a worthwhile, if not especially deep, theme. The second follows the same pattern, and if it weren’t for a smattering of infrequent but noticeable PG-13-level language, Ant-Man and the Wasp would be the perfect superheroes to save the whole family from the summer heat for a couple of hours.

Scott Lang, played by the supremely likable Paul Rudd, was always a good guy at heart. But in the first film, whenever difficulty arose, he tried to take the easy path out of financial and fatherly troubles. Having conquered his criminal impulses by becoming the Ant-Man, we find now in his second outing that Scott still possesses a certain resistance to big government.

We catch up with him two years after Captain America: Civil War, where his decision to side with Cap against international regulation of the Avengers has cost him. He’s now determined to finish the sentence of house arrest he received for violating the Sokovia accords no matter what it costs him. It’s when he finds out how much it’s costing others that his resolve waivers.

It seems Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope are also on the run as a result of Scott’s actions and now have to buy their research tech from shady arms dealers rather than legit sources. As rogue agents, they can turn only to Scott for help in rescuing Pym’s wife and Hope’s mother (Michelle Pfieffer) from the quantum zone where she disappeared after shrinking to a molecular level.

Further complicating matters is a mysterious figure known as “the ghost” who is after Pym’s quantum invention for her own unexplained reasons.

If all this seems a little convoluted, don’t worry. The plot is just a rack on which director Peyton Reed spins all his colorful, crazy plates. As Ant-Man himself quips, “Are you guys just putting the word quantum in front of everything?”

The real fun is watching the amazing shrinking set pieces and the romance building between Rudd and Evangeline Lilly as Hope, aka The Wasp, in a way that’s the more delightful because it’s limited to a couple kisses. In between, Scott’s crew of barely reformed buddies, led by the hilarious Michael Pena, keep the laughs rolling.

Perhaps it’s because Rudd himself co-wrote both films that the stories capitalize so well on the uniquely shlubby appeal of Ant-Man. He’s a guy who longs to drop an arrogant one-liner like Tony Stark but knows he won’t be able to pull it off. And we love him all the more for it.

What else we love—while there may be a lot of action, it’s all virtually bloodless and almost none of it is marred by dark imagery. Even the lone “torture” scene is hilarious.

Without revealing any spoilers, Ant-Man and the Wasp takes a refreshing tack with its villain as well. No one’s trying to rule or destroy the world here. And in the end, our heroes find that it is kindness that will lead to repentance, an uplifting message for viewers of all ages.

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Universal Pictures/AP

'Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom'
Universal Pictures/AP

Movies

Colossal misfire

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom wastes Chris Pratt’s charisma and star power

In Sunset Boulevard, Norah Desmond famously quipped, “I’m big, it’s the pictures that got small.” These days, you’d have to argue the opposite. As movies have grown into mammoth, multifaceted universes of blockbusters, actors have seemed to dwindle in importance. We have more celebrities than ever, but not many with the bankability to draw crowds when they aren’t wearing a superhero (or a wizard or a Star Wars) costume.

One exception is Chris Pratt. Like Tom Cruise and Clark Gable before him, Pratt is one of those rare performers who possess a charismatic appeal that’s only partly related to good looks. He is one of the very few actors under 40 today who could credibly claim the title “movie star.”

Since his breakthrough in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, not one of Pratt’s films has failed to earn big bucks. Even the critically maligned (but Basham-approved) Passengers earned a healthy profit. And I’d argue that it was Pratt’s name above the title as much as Denzel Washington’s that made 2016’s Magnificent Seven remake a success. So given all this, the big question about Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is why director J.A. Bayona apparently forgot what an asset he had in Pratt.

Jurassic World, the 2015 reboot of the 1990s franchise, blew audiences out of the water not just with the natural popcorn-munching lure of man-eating dinosaurs, but also with a classic movie storyline. This included the old-school chemistry between Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard. There was a feeling of “they don’t make 'em like that anymore.” Except in that case, they had, complete with a Golden Age Hollywood-style hero.

Here, though, almost all the fun that isn’t dependent on CGI technology is brushed aside to make room for toothy displays from creatures more like horror movie monsters than wild animals.

The story starts out well enough, with Jeff Goldblum’s beloved professor Ian Malcolm catching Congress up on the state of things. It seems God has offered humanity a solution to the Jurassic problem scientists cooked up in a DNA lab. An active volcano is about to erupt on the Isle Nublar that will put an end to all the prehistoric organisms. These scenes are effectively tragic, and we shed some tears for the herbivores at least, but the politicians, for once, respond sensibly and decide to let nature take its course. Until a team led by Howard's character, Clare, undertakes a black ops mission to rescue some of the creatures and move them to a specialized sanctuary.

From there, the movie hits beats far too similar to its predecessor. There are double crosses and realizations that someone is trying to weaponize the dinos. Why this should come as a surprise to characters that just went through this a few years ago is anyone’s guess. Even more confusing is why someone decided it was a good idea to cram the dinosaurs into what essentially amounts to a haunted house and thus rob them of their grand, earth-shaking charisma.

But the plot repetition wouldn’t be the worst crime if it were executed well. Sadly, it isn’t. Elements that should provide interesting thematic weight, like the ethics of bioengineering life, rush by too quickly to have any impact. The pacing is dismal, squashing all interest in the human storylines and robbing Pratt of the witty one-liners that made the last film such good summer fun.

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