For a review of “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,”
Welcome back to the magi- cal island of Kalokairi, a sun- strewn rocky outcropping in the azure Aegean Sea, a land where white people can only express themselves with the music of Sweden’s most enduring musical group, ABBA.
The sequel/prequel hybrid “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” arrives a decade after the bonkers filmed adaptation of the stage musical “Mamma Mia!” Vehicles for ABBA’s songs, the films perfectly reflect the music: guileless, emotionally raw and unabashedly cheesy, wrapped in miles and miles of colorful synthetic fabric.
This many lovelorn ABBA songs requires quite a story into which to shoehorn the tunes, and “Mamma Mia!” tripled down on love lost and found with three spurned lovers, Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), Sam (Pierce Brosnan) and Harry (Colin Firth), returning to Kalokairi for the wedding of Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who hoped to find her father.
Now, she’s accepted all three men as adopted dads, and she’s reopening the hotel after her mother’s death (yep, there’s almost no Meryl Streep here). While she gives tours to visitors around the property, she reminisces about her mother’s journey to the island, right out of Oxford. We get the part of the story previously only detailed in a journal, of young hippie Donna (Lily James) and her three wayward lovers.
James has proven a winsome presence in “Cinderella,” “Baby Driver” and “Darkest Hour,” but “Here We Go Again” is a breakout superstar moment for her as the free-spirited, earthy and open-hearted Donna. She’s an inspired singer and dancer, and every time the film cuts away from her story is a bit of a disappointment — even though it’s always entertaining to see what new ways the filmmakers have dreamed up to humiliate Skarsgård and Firth. But young Donna’s story is so much more emotionally engrossing, and the casting of Donna’s friends, the Dynamos (Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies) is spot on, as well as her lovers Harry, Bill and Sam (Hugh Skinner, Josh Dylan and Jeremy Irvine).
Director Ol Parker takes over writing and directing duties from Phyllida Lloyd and Catherine Johnson (who wrote the book of the stage musical). In Parker’s hands, the sequel is far more grounded and melodramatic, lacking some of the rambunctious pop and fizz Lloyd brought to “Mamma Mia,” the cinematic equivalent of trucker speed. There’s a lot less running and singing, and singing while running, but there is, of course, a flotilla of boats filled with people enthusiastically performing choreography to “Dancing Queen.”
There’s also still enough crackpot insanity to go around: a particularly surreal version of “Waterloo” is set in a French restaurant, and Christine Baranski gets several crackerjack lines.
“Have him washed and brought to my tent,” she opines after assessing Andy Garcia’s seductive Señor Cienfuegos. We haven’t even gotten to Cher yet, who arrives like a benevolent rock deity and turns the last 20 minutes of the film into a personal concert. She’s playing Sophie’s “grandmother,” but truly she’s just playing herself, and her sheer presence is applause-worthy.
Much like its predecessor, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” is escapist fluff of the highest order — joyful, filled with beloved pop songs and incredibly bizarre. Go ahead and treat yourself to this raucous seaside summer confection, you deserve it.
“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for some suggestive material. Running time: 114 minutes. ★★★
“The Equalizer 2”
It seems every venerable actor of a certain age has got to have a trusty action franchise to fall back on these days. And for Denzel Washington, that’s “The Equalizer” films, based on the ’80s TV show about a former intelligence agent using his skills to help the less fortunate. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, the 2014 film featured Washington demonstrating a facility with a hammer that made it so we’ll never look at a Home Depot the same way. In “The Equalizer 2,” the team of director Fuqua, writer Richard Wenk and Washington return for a sequel that coasts on its star’s charisma.
“The Equalizer” films ask us to behold Washington’s Robert McCall with a double consciousness. He’s incredibly lethal, coldly and efficiently violent, as demonstrated in an prologue where he takes out an entire bar car of Turkish gangsters on a train. But he’s fundamentally a do-gooder — all that Turkish murder? The gangsters were kidnappers, and McCall just wants to return the little girl home, no reward or plaudits necessary.
He reads Ta-Nehisi Coates and mentors local youths, helps Holocaust survivors discover their long-lost family connections and satisfyingly, beats up a suite full of entitled bankers after they sexually assault a woman. There’s no newspaper ad this time; instead, McCall finds his clients while driving Lyft, whether they want his help or not.
In “The Equalizer 2,” the community action storyline — a more touchy-feely version of “Death Wish,” if you will — is privileged, and it’s far more compelling than the flimsy, requisite international assassination conspiracy plot. This part of the story is tissue thin, and the plotting around it is frankly plodding. It’s both slow and underwritten, making you think you’re missing something. You’re not.
But this time, it hits home for McCall, as his old friend Susan (Melissa Leo) runs into some trouble investigating a murder-suicide of a deep cover agent in Brussels, which kicks up a whole treasonous mess that McCall uncovers. Although he’s long been thought dead, he reveals himself to his old partner, Dave (Pedro Pascal), and his re-emergence proves complicated. While McCall seeks those who went after Susan, he’s pursued by a team of murderous mercs.
Washington is the best thing about “The Equalizer 2.” Which is slightly unfair, because he’s usually the best thing in any movie he’s in, but he really keeps this one on the rails with his sheer magnetism, his unique ability to be charming and psychotic at the same time. But unlike a film like “Training Day,” we know he’s the good guy, even when he’s calmly dispatching villains. Because he’s Denzel, and also because the film bends over backwards to remind us of his goodness.
The local teen he decides to save from a life of crime and violence this time around is Miles (Ashton Sanders), and the gang storyline is incredibly cheesy, a facsimile of every representation we’ve seen from “Boyz in the Hood” to “The Wire.” Sanders, a promising talent who was stunning in “Moonlight,” does the best he can with what he’s given, which isn’t much.
It’s also ironic, considering McCall pulled the boy off the streets, only to get him mixed up in an international assassination ring, and then somehow, in the trunk of a car at a hurricane-swept seaside Massachusetts town. Truthfully, we’re all wondering how we ended up in the midst of “The Hurricane Heist” in this completely inane climax. Even with Washington at the top of his game, “The Equalizer 2” just doesn’t deliver the thrills.
“The Equalizer 2,” a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R for brutal violence throughout, language, and some drug content. Running time: 121 minutes.
Denzel Washington, left, and Pedro Pascal star in the new Columbia Pictures release “Equalizer 2.”