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by Bill Gibron

18 Dec 2008


It’s all Hollywood’s fault. As far back as the earliest days of the cinematic artform, gangsters and mobsters have been romanticized into outsized figures of operatic grandeur. They are depicted as above the law slicks that take life by the throat and wring out every last ounce of power and influence. The culmination of this concept came in the post-modern movement of the ‘70s. Between Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia as Greek tragedy, The Godfather, and Martin Scorsese’s high strung Manhattan goombah’s (Mean Streets, Goodfellas), La Cosa Nostra has become synonymous with flowered filmmaking.

Thankfully, actual Italians don’t see things in such a revisionist, rose-colored manner. Gomorrah, the great new film from Matteo Garrone, shows the notorious Neapolitan syndicate Camorra (the title is a take-off on their name) in all its toxic waste poisoning, apartment building territoriality, and ruthless gun battle ambivalence toward human life. Applying a City of God, neo-realistic style to his interlocking stories of youth caught up in the corruption of the area, the film mixes narratives to show us how deep the roots of evil actually go, and how futile it seems to try and eradicate this mob-rule menace from its firmly ensconced arenas.

We are first introduced to Toto, a young teen who delivers groceries to the people living in a standard, sprawling Naples apartment complex. On either side of the structure are various affiliated gangs, each controlling and patrolling their own terrain. The lure of fast money and fake machismo draws him into the grasp of one of the rackets. Elsewhere, cash mule Don Ciro makes his various deliveries among the units. Paying out hush money to people protected by the mob, he’s constantly harassed by those who want more, and those who want him out of the area for good. Within the more “legitimate” ends of the business, a mafia wheeler-dealer buys up property from farmers to use as landfills for illegal dumping, and a pair of hoodlum wannabes spends their days defying the local leadership and acting out their Scarface influenced fantasies.

For all its “you are there” authenticity and sense of raw edged realism, Gomorrah is really nothing more than a well made cautionary tale draped in the dreary everyday truths of life in a Naples ghetto. It’s a brilliantly told exploration of how the modern mafia works, from the standard street hustling of crack and cocaine to more aggressive approaches like international business and influence within the fashion industry. Along the way, director Garrone gives us the hauntingly familiar foundations for why so many so-called “good” people end up as part of an octopus-like criminal element. The most fascinating characters here are the wannabe Tony Montana and his ‘Hello Skinny’ sidekick. With their put-on cockiness, sense of illogical entitlement, and nonstop riffing about the glory of guns (“I gotta SHOOT!” our Pacino channeler yells during one memorable scene), they’d be the comic relief here - that is, if their shtick wasn’t so pitiful, and didn’t hit so close to home.

Elsewhere, we marvel at the salesman like somberness of Don Ciro, failed ‘family’ man who is relegated to handing out payoffs to keep the organization’s loose ends as tied up as possible. As he handles each situation, from hospitality to degrading abuse, he shuffles along, silently acknowledging his never-ending indebtedness to the mob. Other characters are less clearly defined. A friend of Toto’s “defects”, going over to the other side of the struggle. This makes his mother an instant target, though we really can’t figure out why she has to ‘pay’. There are also other random killings where the objective is literally unknown to us. Certainly, this underscores Gomorrah‘s planned randomness, but it makes for a draining, disconnected experience.

Still, Garrone deserves a lot of credit for not turning things into a Tarantino like look at organized crime and its often too cool cinematic components. No one here is worth emulating, either in word, thought, or deed. The citizenry is seen as simultaneously cowardly and confrontational, pushing as far as they can before turning back to the bad guys for protection and support. Interestingly enough, there is very little law enforcement present, clearly something Garrone uses to suggest a inferred lack of police effectiveness in stopping the crime sprees, and in the end, few of who we met are left standing, either literally or metaphysically. Indeed, Gommorah is a movie so unlike the typical Hollywood crime film that it shocks us with its antithetical approach.

Does this mean it’s the best film of its kind, ever? Actually, no. Dramatic license allows for aspects of character and conceit to be explored in a way that actually further contextualizes the underlying themes and ideas. Instead of getting a straightforward set of good guys and worse guys, we get complex considerations of life, reputation, dignity, revenge, family, friendship, and the ever clichéd honor among the crooked. Gommorah doesn’t go in for all that nonsense. Instead, it peels back the continental façade of its Naples backdrop and lets the hideous horrors inside show through - warts, wasted lives, and all. Tinsel Town can indeed be blamed for making such ‘made’ man movies compelling. Director Matteo Garrone shows us how truly disturbing and unrelenting such a story can be.

by Bill Gibron

18 Dec 2008


The importance of people can never be underplayed in any form of social upheaval. Good or bad, well-intentioned or anarchic in purpose, the inherent power in the citizenry is what makes change possible - be it organized or organic. America was founded on revolution. Russia rejected the Czar and eventually became a Soviet superpower thanks to armed uprising. China grew to distinction under its “cultural” uprising, while all over Africa and South America, factions and sects are today taking the concept of self-determination into their own often bloody hands.  Violence is indeed a byproduct of most upheaval, the struggle to gain/sustain power taking on ugly, unapologetic means. Perhaps that’s why the thought of revolution, while tempting, is tempered by the potential harms to all side.

Yet this didn’t stop the all important individual from trying. Just look at the fall of the Berlin Wall. The break up of the Soviet Union. The independence of the many former Communist satellites. To Western eyes, these were events that were never going to happen in their lifetime…or even their children’s lifetime. Yet with the introduction of glasnost and perestroika by then Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the openness and tolerance presented as part of the new policy led many dissidents to test the limits of their ruling regimes. What makes the case of Estonia’s fight for independence so unusual is that it wasn’t based in acts of overt defiance. Instead, they relied on history, tradition, and a rich musical heritage to start their own Singing Revolution - and once it began, there was nothing any army could do to stop it.

As portrayed in James Tusty’s memorable documentary of the same name (currently available in a deluxe, three disc DVD and accompanying coffee table book by Priit Veslilind), Estonia suffered greatly throughout the course of its harried history. Directly in the middle of the fray between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s armies during World War II, they were occupied by both factions before finally succumbing to Communist control in the ‘50s. From that point on, a nation previously devoted to peace and personal freedom found itself under the heavy dogmatic thumb of Moscow’s ruling junta, and the lack of sovereignty sparked a sense of national pride that lingered, underground, until the 100th anniversary of the annual Singing Festival became the focal point for a call to change. From there, all that was required to unseat Soviet rule was a commitment from brave members of the citizenry, and the use of nonviolent protest in light of a mighty military crackdown.

Though it proposes to discuss how music made all the difference in Estonia’s fight for independence, The Singing Revolution is actually more focused on the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that helped determine the end of Russian influence in the Baltic region. While the annual celebration and its symbolic performance grounds did become an aggregate space for spontaneous protests and planned rallies, the backdoor machinations that resulted in secret deals, unusual alliances, and dangerous stands were far more responsible for the eventual change than the actual reliance on traditional folksongs. What the singing did symbolize, however, was the previously unknown national consciousness. People who wouldn’t normally think of themselves as activists could use the cover of communal participation as a means of protest.

Tusty goes into great detail here, speaking with individuals who were actually there on the front lines. As much as story about Russia’s fall as Estonia’s rise, he is careful to include contextual information, how Gorbachev’s calculated move to make the Soviet Union more modern opened a can of free speech worms he couldn’t contain. Indeed, while there are several other factors that helped form Estonia’s break, the ability to freely and openly address the nation’s rich cultural past was the catalyst that many newly formed factions used to advance their call to arms. Even more astounding, Tusty gets everyday Estonians to describe the terror they lived under, the undeniable knowledge that the KGB sat at every corner, recording their every move and word.

Indeed, what a film like The Singing Revolution reminds us is that, unlike life in America, the threat of overthrow by an imperialistic or theocratic system is typically a political campaign away for these minor nations. Even when Gorbachev’s reforms seemed to suggest a lack of reasonable response from Russia, Estonia knew there was still a chance that tanks and troops would sweep across the border and take back control forcibly - and that’s just what happened…almost. One of the most compelling parts of the narrative is the last ditch effort by Communist hardliners to take back the Union. A coup led to Gorbachev being placed under house arrest, and with the Central Committee in the hands of those who’d return power no matter the consequences, things looked grim. It was thanks to two industrious police officers, given the task of protecting Estonia’s radio and television tower, and Boris Yeltsin back in Moscow, that truly saved the day.

As with any political thriller, this is incredible compelling stuff, and Tusty doesn’t amplify or marginalize the material. Instead, he lets narrator Linda Hunt provide the plainspoken facts. Then he will accentuate the ‘you are there’ moments and newsreel/television footage with the voices of those who were actually involved. The humble cop who secured the nation’s sole source of information is relatively down to earth regarding his part in history. Similarly, those who staged the concerts and the rallies are on hand to describe the feeling of seeing hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women coming together for the noblest of citizenry causes.

In fact, if there is one minor flaw in Tusty’s approach, it’s that we don’t get enough of the title element. Songs are indeed sung, but they are only offered in snippets. It would be wonderful to see just one of these important melodies completed all the way through. In addition, there is very little input from the Russian side of things. Though their handling of the matter is not what’s important here, a little more scope would seal the documentary’s importance. Still, it’s hard to deny the human drama that plays out over the course of these mesmerizing 90 minutes. Just listening to the participants casually run off their stints in Siberian labor camps and as political prisoners (some for many years) is inspiring enough.

Such a sentiment is supported when viewed in this deluxe DVD presentation. We are treated to over four hours of additional material, interviews and historical documents detailing the history of the region, the ever-changing maps, and the newsreels that highlighted the major political events from the ‘30s to the ‘50s.  If the devil is in the details, a digital package like this clearly provides the minutia meant to establish the USSR’s ruthlessness since they exerted their force in the Balkans decades before. Vesilind’s book is even more in-depth. There are chapters focusing on the “Birth of a Modern Nation”, the “Push to Independence”, and the all important “Summer of Song”. While it follows the film quite closely, the prose style used captures a kind of urgency and intrigue that the documentary fails to capture. Here, Vesilind can set the tone and atmosphere in our mind’s eye. It makes the entire Singing Revolution experience far more personal, and powerful.

It’s the kind of confrontation that makes one question their own commitment to country. The United States has been incredibly lucky in that no foreign nation has ever literally tried to invade and take over. We’ve stood by across decades as other countries claim rights to and overthrow empowered governments for completely incomprehensible or selfish reasons. It’s clear that there’s authority in the voice of dissent, and when matched to a tune that proclaims native roots and right to self-determination, the force is strengthened further. Without its annual proclamation of music, Estonia might still be a Russian stronghold today. But thanks to The Singing Revolution, it’s a proud, prosperous democracy. It proves that power always remains where it begins - in the people. 

by Bill Gibron

16 Dec 2008


Who, exactly, is the audience for a World War II film in which a certain group of Nazis are portrayed as the good guys? Do children really want family films that tackle tough speculative themes and/or adult-level sexual innuendo and violence? Does quirk and idiosyncrasy taken to outrageous, Herculean limits have a viewership, and does a comic who once did exaggerated mugging to massive box office notoriety fit into today’s Apatow oriented bromance slacker laughfest world. These are the questions critics contemplate while sitting in a screening, bored out of their mind and/or wondering if what they are watching will ever see the light of a legitimate commercial day. It happens more times than we’d care to admit, actually.

This past week, Delgo, an incredibly mediocre CG cartoon, earned the distinction of being the lowest earning film in wide release EVER! According to Yahoo Movies, the fantasy’s “two people per theater per showing” extrapolation marks it as the biggest bomb ever. Yes aside from the movie’s obvious creative and entertainment limitations, was there ever going to be an major audience for shell-less turtles taking on pissed off dragonflies, their race-baiting battles resulting in near genocide levels of death? Sure, it was a labor of love for the filmmakers (close to a decade in the contemplating and making) and an attempt to wrestle the animation mantle from the likes of Disney, Pixar, Fox and Dreamworks, but did the six screenwriters - SIX - ever think that the material they were marketing had limited to almost no appeal?

It’s the same with Charlie Kaufman’s sad, funny, bodily fluid and illness obsessed solo writing/directing debut, Synecdoche, New York. Beginning with the linguistical twist in the title, and moving through the life of a self-absorbed, unlucky in anything remotely related to interpersonal affection, theatrical director, we get industry in-jokes, spiraling self-referentialism, allusions to death and the meaninglessnes of life, and some random shots of stool samples - all colors. Expanding on the absurdist surreality of his previous work with Spike Jonze - Being John Malkovich, Adaptation. - and Michel Gondry - Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - it’s the rare mad genius that makes such strangeness appear to create some manner of sense. But beyond the college age noncomformist who believes that all cinema exists either to serve the Establishment or speak to the medium as meaningful art, who exactly is going to line up to see this?

Clearly, some studios recognize the value in demographically specific targeting. Twilight is considered a major hit, tapping into the already flush Mamma Mia! pool of unfulfilled spinsters, merry widows, bored housewives, and hormonally overcharged tween to teen girls. Disney could put its name on a pseudo-snuff film with anthropomorphic household items acting out revenge fantasies and a horde of blinkered boomers would drag their aging offspring to see it. Tyler Perry, in true Gospel roadshow circuiting, continues to give the underserved urban crowd his various takes on “black is bankable” morality plays, while subgenre horror still rakes in the adolescent allowances. But there are those who take the concept too far.

With Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Dreamworks decided that the best way to handle the return of its quartet of clueless globetrotting zoo animals was to take them back to the land of their ancestral birth, and then toss the entire book of bad movie clichés at the camera. The amount of forced laughter coming from the preprogrammed throngs is matched only by the rampant use of fear and danger as a plot device, occasional lapses into racially inappropriate stereotyping, and a weird, almost pornographic reliance on passion to sell any kind of sentiment. Let’s face it, this is a movie where a 3D giraffe wants to nuzzle up to a plus-size Hippo who herself has the hots for a deep voiced, awkwardly muscled member of her own species. Ew.

In other instances, star power (or the presumed last bastions of same), is the implied reason. While he stands somewhere between his former superstar glories and a bumbling buffoon leaping on alarmed talk show hosts’ couches, Tom Cruise is still considered something of an international icon. Yet after the one-two thud of Mission: Impossible III and the horrific Lions for Lambs, the former Top gunner was clearly looking to re-elevate his floundering fame. While the cameo in Tropic Thunder was a brilliant sideways shift, the hero laden loopiness of his turn as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg in Bryan Singer’s Third Reich thriller Valkyrie seems like a stretch. First, those in the audience familiar with history will experience little or no suspense, and while the first half of the film plays like a crackerjack espionage actioner, the last 45 minutes are Fail Safe shuttled over into an “is he or isn’t he” deathwatch for a supposedly assassinated Fuhrer.

Jim Carrey has also been riding the white horse toward commercial obscurity in the last few years. Outside of the Lemony Snicket film from 2004, and his turn as the title elephant in the animated Horton Hears a Who, the rubberfaced funnyman has starred in a comedic dud (Fun with Dick and Jane) and a hackneyed horror film (The Number 23). Yes Man will be hailed by some as a return to form, but the interesting premise - Carrey is a man who must always say “Yes” to any opportunity, no matter how outrageous, as part of a self-help seminar promise - wants to be Liar, Liar without the magic realism. Instead, the idea of self-discovery and the potential in PMA is constantly countermanded by moments of certified Carrey craziness and action scenes which seem oddly pointless.

In both cases, Hollywood clearly hopes that, like muscle memory or the maxim regarding riding a bike, audiences won’t forget what made Cruise and Carrey ‘80s/‘90s moneymaking behemoths and flock back to the Cineplex in cash flush droves. Yet neither movie really offers the predisposed their Benjamins worth. Yes Man will be a hit since it tricks the viewer into thinking its more of an Ace Ventura styled romp than it really is, while Valkyrie will get some initial interest, before word of mouth undermines its spoiler-stoked backlash. And again, the question becomes - who thought these films would find their audience. Something like Che, or the Brad Pitt epic The Curious Case of Benjamin Button stand as clear cinematic triumphs, but do mainstream moviegoers really want to see three to four hour films as dense, directorial showcases?

From little kids dying in concentration camps to horndog teens having sex with former war criminals, from 100 minutes of people getting shot in the face to laborious love scenes between actors with no chemistry whatsoever, Tinsel Town seems stunted in how to make meaningful films that also support a sense of entertainment and enjoyment. One should never watch a movie wondering who is the aimed for audience, and will said spectators respond. In a business that is already a big fat gamble, it seems like Hollywood is recklessly rolling the dice over and over again. Oddly enough, ‘craps’ appears to be an appropriate sentiment/metaphor when all is said and done.

by Bill Gibron

15 Dec 2008


Bettie Page had a face that was meant to be photographed. Forget the body - not that you could, actually - and the various racy poses and sexual situations she found herself in during her career as the ultimate post-war pin-up. Beyond the carnality and peek-a-boo allure, the jet black bangs and seductive, devilish smile, Bettie was the new frontier, the soon to be swinging suburban roulette of ‘anything goes’ interpersonal exploration. From 1950 to 1959, she was the queen of the camera club, the face of fetishism, the initial introduction to the realm beyond many a young man’s fancy, and one of the founding centerfolds for a fledgling little “lifestyle” publication known as Playboy. By the ‘60s, she was a sexual revolution afterthought - mostly by her own hand, mind you.

Like the era’s brassiness, brunette polar opposite, Bettie didn’t hint at anything. Men didn’t have to imagine what she would look like undressed and available in any of their deep, dark secret fantasy frescos. Her career as a model saw her cover the entire randy range, from dominatrix to submissive victim, proto-lesbian partner to outright come hither aggression. It was mail order pornographer Irving Klaw that made Bettie a superstar, turning the temporary NY secretary into the Eisenhower era’s answer to availability. Over the course of five years, she was featured in hundreds of his pictures, stag reels, and special order customer request films. While never explicit, she illustrated a world beyond the macho and the missionary.

By the middle ‘50s, Bettie was indeed an underground luminary, the grindhouse taking notice of her celebrity and featuring her in several striptease spectaculars, including Striporama (1953), Teaserama (1954), Varietease (1955). Mostly reserved for hostess duties, and the occasional supplemental starlet spot to main stage names like Lili St. Cry and Tempest Storm, these filmed burlesque shows illustrated Bettie’s natural stage presence and slight Southern accent (she was born Betty Mae Page in Nashville, Tennessee). While she took acting classes, and even appeared on a few television shows of the day, her career in other mediums was limited. Bettie was just more effective standing still.

During a trip to Florida in 1954, Bettie met Bunny Yeager. The former New York model had branched out to form her own Miami studio, and she was desperate to get one of the more iconic figures in the business before her lens. Setting up a shoot at a local animal park, the now infamous “Jungle Bettie” images gained the attention of a mild mannered Midwesterner named Hugh Hefner. His fledgling men’s magazine was frantic for an infusion of new, noted blood, and Bettie was immediately selected to be 1955’s Playmate of the Year. It would end up being the closest she’d come to mainstream acceptance for at least three decades.

As the ‘60s approached, social unrest and juvenile delinquency became the buzzwords for a generation unable to deal with their unsettled boomer offspring. Everything from music to comic books was blamed for the rise in youth violence and discontent, with Congress eventually getting involved to try and regulate underage morality. The Kefauver Hearings before the US Senate ended Klaw’s postal pulchritude exchange, Bettie being asked (and then excused) from testifying to explain her work in his catalog. In combination with her recent conversion to Born Again Christianity, it was the end of her career as the carrier of America’s anti-bombshell beauty marks.

Like a visage frozen in time, Bettie literally disappeared from the public forum. The next few years saw her marry a second and third time (she divorced her first husband before her rise to pin-up stardom began), work for many religious organizations - including the Rev. Billy Graham - and help spread the Word as a missionary. The ‘70s saw a sensationalized nervous breakdown and a few hospitalizations, and diagnosis for paranoid schizophrenia (later contested by the idol and her champions). At one point during the ‘90s, she would spend eight years under State Supervision. All the while, a cult was building around her previous work. Magazines rediscovered her incessant hotness. Rock-n-Roll revivalists made her their human sexual response. Bettie, in typical fashion, was completely unaware of the renaissance.

Without the paparazzi privacy invasion of the post-modern journalistic TMZ front, Bettie was allowed to remain forever young. There were no late in life letdowns, no “where are they now” nods to public interest and individual frailty. When curiosity was renewed in her pictures and prints, she was typically uninterested in interviews or other media requests. On the rare occasions where she’d grant an audience, the express restriction was simple - no photographs. The face and figure that once cried out to be captured by Eastman Kodak was now strictly prohibited from public view. It was an incredibly smart approach, planned or not. Without a current façade to match, Bettie could remain the entity for erotica past.

With the rise in the Internet, the continued reclassification of cinema via scholarship, fandom, and home video, Bettie also became the representation of early exploitation. Companies like Something Weird Video celebrated her importance, while books and biopics tried to explain how a simple Southern girl could become the Queen of Simulated Sexuality. As she aged, she became more reclusive, keeping a close circle of friends and fans. Yet even as awareness increased, she still kept a close watch on her only remaining asset - her likeness. Bettie even made an attempt to secure the rights to her own image (ala the estates of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, etc.), hiring lawyers to help her pursue those ends.

After suffering a heart attack earlier this month (December), she was rushed to a hospital where she fell into a coma. Bettie later died, locked eternally in the mind of those who loved her as the catty, coquettish tease with a look that demanded satisfaction without suggesting anything remotely unwholesome. Call it “naughty naiveté” or “innocent wantonness”, but Bettie Page definitely helped ease an unsettled conservative America into a more open and honest discussion of desire.

While her photos and films may have stayed the private shame of many a man (and woman), they’ve since become a symbol of what was brewing beneath the surface of prim and proper society. Without demand, there would have been no legend. Yet when you look at her inherent beauty and connection with the camera, it’s clear: Bettie Page was meant to be photographed. Thankfully, someone recognized that fact and made it a reality. While she’s gone now, we will have those provocation pictures for all eternity - exactly where someone like Bettie belongs. 

by Bill Gibron

14 Dec 2008


Sometimes, the cinema can be a lot like oil and water. Certain facets of a film can struggle to stay together, eventually separating like the fabled proverbial liquids. While it’s possible to try and force them to gel, hoping they coagulate long enough to fool the audience (and the occasional know-nothing critic), the telltale signs of disconnect soon become self-evident. Take the massive international phenomenon known as Mamma Mia! Based on the boffo jukebox musical featuring the fabulous ear candy of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, otherwise known as the songwriting duo behind ‘70s supergroup ABBA, this surefire smash has been taking worldwide theaters - and now Cineplexes - by storm. But if you look deeper, as the new DVD from Universal points out, the element that makes this movie watchable is in constant conflict with aspects that threaten to fracture it into a billion baffling pieces.

For those unfamiliar with the clothesline plot, it goes a little something like this: Sophie, the daughter of former rock star and current resort owner Donna Sheridan, is getting married to her studly UK boy toy Sky. Hoping to meet the father she never knew, our heroine sends out three letters to three men she reads about in her mother’s diary - American businessman Sam Carmichael, Swedish adventurer Bill Anderson, and British banker Harry Bright. All feel compelled to attend the nuptials, if only to find out if they are the father of Donna’s child. All still have a mad crush on the middle aged maverick. With the Greek Isle locals along for the ride, and Rosie and Tanya, a pair of former backup singers/Donna’s best friends in attendance, it promises to be a wild weekend filled with revelations, revelry, and resplendent sing-along songs.

At first, it’s easy to forgive Mamma Mia!‘s many flaws. Director Phyllida Lloyd is a newbie when it comes to making movies, having gained her name and fame as a worker of theatrical wonders. By all accounts, her staging of this very show is not to be believed. However, working in the 3D space of an auditorium and transferring that to a 2D piece of celluloid clearly perplexed the novice auteur. Even though she sounds relatively confident about the movie she made, there are giveaway comments (found on the Special Edition DVD) which indicate that she’s poorly versed in the realm of motion picture musicals. During “Super Trooper”, Lloyd states that her “gut” told her that the camera should always be moving during the songs. Even though decades of standard cinematic style argues that a series of static shots and forward flowing edits make for more successful showpieces, she decides to track, dolly, and circle the actors like they’re quarry for a particularly famished predator.

Proof of what this film could have been had Lloyd ignored her off-base instincts arrives in the form of a DVD extra - a deleted scene for the song “The Name of the Game”. Here, our heroine Sophie confronts potential father Bill beneath a windswept ocean side moon. As the song’s lyrics look for answers and acceptance, Lloyd basically shoots reactions. That’s it. No random pans. No sweeping photographic gestures. Just two talented individuals, acting and reacting. That’s what makes the music important - letting it, not the camera trickery around it - speak to the story. This is ably illustrated toward the end, when Lloyd’s lunatic tummy makes its most aggravating appearance during the powerhouse ballad between Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, “The Winner Takes It All.” Here, decades of pent up love and frustration pour forth in a performance truly stunning in its power. But then Lloyd starts looping the set-up, our duo becoming enveloped in an unnecessary moviemaking maelstrom. Where once we could sense the connection between the couple, now we’re just nauseous from all the motion sickness picture making.

Lloyd is also in love with everyone who made her Mediterranean locations and surreal studio mock-ups “work” so “seamlessly”. Clearly, she is looking at a different version of the film than the audience is. During the commentary track, she speaks of how “flawless” the transition is between Greece and some interior backdrop. All we see is glowing, greenscreen digitalis. During the title number, Streep scrambles around the top of her hotel, and the editorial whiplash we get between real life splendor and obviously faked scenic simulations is painful. Sure, Robert Altman suffered mightily when he outfitted the Isle of Malta into a working soundstage for his production of Popeye. But in that woefully underrated film, we never once doubted Sweethaven. Here, Skopelos looks like something straight out of a computer’s conception of a travelogue (extensive CG imaging was used).

No matter the wealth of added content extras or Electronic Press Kit praise heaped on the filmmaker and her cast and crew faithful, no matter the joyful noise made by untrained actors giving the words and music of ABBA their very, very best, nothing can eradicate the fact that Mamma Mia! is a very badly directed film. Little can take away from how finger-snappingly fun it is either. Obviously, viewers have been more affected by the way in which the songs celebrate life and love than care about issues like mise-en-scene or narrative logistics. The mega-millions aren’t bothered by the cardboard cutout characterization or “moon/June/spoon” sentimentality. These songs, so formative for many (even though few would be willing to express such adolescent appreciations), work like an enjoyment elixir, providing the subtext and strength the movie’s makers fail to find. For something to look so unprofessional to feel so polished is pictographic prestidigitation indeed.

Besides, an underserved demographic doesn’t like to be told that its prepackaged and programmed product is anything less than stellar. Call it the ‘Bridges of Twilight County’ Syndrome, or anything satisfies a borderline old maid, but Mamma Mia! has so many amazing things going for it (all the actors, no matter the vocal limits of some, are wonderful) that it shouldn’t have to suffer because of some first timer’s filmmaking naiveté. The ability to crossover from one medium to another is never easy - ask the bevy of wannabe thespians who got their start as musicians, and visa versa - but one should also recognize the inherent differences between the two before jumping in. Phyllida Lloyd will always be a wondrous West End Girl. She should simply give her regards to Broadway, and leave the moviemaking to those who have a cinematic clue.

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