Abba, with elemental force

Image of Nigel Andrews

When in doubt, take charge of a Greek island. It worked for King Minos. It worked for Louis de Bernières (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin). It has worked for the show-makers determined to build a musical around Abba’s greatest hits. Mamma Mia!, the international stage success featuring every song you know from the former Swedish chart-toppers (except “Fernando”, possibly not Greek enough, and “Knowing Me, Knowing You”, possibly too Alan Partridge), is now a movie and an exercise in terrifying, overpowering, sun-drenched glee.

meryl streep

Its enthusiasm is awesome. Its noise level is prodigious. Its singing is variable, with Meryl Streep bang in tune at one end and Pierce Brosnan clutching at notes at the other like a man trying to catch flies on a windy day. As the ageing pin-up among three potential biological fathers invited to “Kalokairi” by hotelkeeper Streep’s daughter Amanda Seyfried for the girl’s wedding – she has grown up without knowing a dad – Brosnan strums a brave but beleaguered larynx. Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard, as the rival pops, dance around in competing states of shirtlessness and tunelessness. Surging up against them like an Amazonian tsunami are Streep and her ex-pals from the “Dynamos” song troupe, played by Julie Walters and Christine Baranski. There are also singing cooks, shepherds, urchins, dogs, villagers...

Imagine 50 banshees in a jar, various of talent but uniform of volume, stirred by a searing sun and shaken by vivacious camerawork. As the cast advanced upon the audience in the last few show-stopping numbers, I tried to hide behind my press notes. But there is no resisting the elemental. I once thought the day would come when “SOS”, “Dancing Queen”, “Money, Money, Money” and “Waterloo” would slip quietly from my consciousness, like a suicide over the side of a boat. But no. There is sonic baggage you can never lose, to mix metaphors, not even in some Terminal Five of cosmic eternity.

We must hand it to Streep. After years of serious acting in smorgasbord accents, the time has come for the letting down of hair. Wearing dungarees, she whops up her energy level and dances like a mad thing. That she can sing we know from Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion. That her showmanship can take control of an entire song-and-dance spectacle – even distracting us from director Phyllida Lloyd’s hiccupy alternation of location shots and soundstage “exteriors” (where the artificial bougainvillea, flowering lipstick-red, crawls around like something out of Quatermass) – is a little frightening. Expect an Oscar nomination. Expect Streep to be indignant if she doesn’t win it.

Origin: Spirits of the Past proves there is almost no such thing as a bad Japanese anime. That country’s paint-and-brush feature films are a collective work of wonder. Not every movie is a Miyazaki – Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke are the peaks – but this post-apocalyptic fable from director Keiichi Sugiyama (Neon Genesis Evangelion) soars and dazzles even so.

We are in a future-world where the primeval Forest, inhabited by sinister druids, eyeballs the Neutral City. The NC is a sky-scraping chaos of semi-abandoned high-rises, some buildings tilted drunkenly against their neighbours, all mouldering in a fantastic mosaic of tones and textures. Beneath the architectural pandemonium lie the vast wells, underground tunnels and mineshafts measureless to man. Some characters fight to bring back the past, some to empower a future. Most are upstaged and outwitted by nature and the landscape, just as the film’s two- dimensional cartoon heroes and heroines are outshone by the depth-of- field deliriums around and behind them. These backdrops might have been painted by J.M.W. Turner with help from Doré and Piranesi. You gaze at them for 90 minutes open- mouthed. Remember to collect your lower jaw as you leave the cinema.

America does this stuff by pushing buttons. The Forbidden Kingdom is to Origin what Starbucks is to coffee: samey and anodyne even when piping hot. The digitised eastern fantasylands to which a Boston lad (Michael Angarano) is transported after finding a magic staff in a Gremlins-style antique shop are places of plasticky whimsy, picture-postcard evocations of ancient China. They are peopled by Jackie Chan and Jet Li, playing half a dozen roles between them. While the two veteran action stars, teamed for the first time, spurn all footholds to leap, fly, whirl and aerially zonk each other, the audience cries out for footnotes to follow the time-shuttling plot. Children may love it anyway. Director Ron Minkoff (The Haunted Mansion) ensures there is a fight every five minutes and a scenic transformation almost every 10 seconds.

Children were present in droves at the press show for Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D. Earth hath not anything to show more weird than 50 small kids wearing thick-rimmed plastic specs as they bare their senses to the avalanches, the flying lava, the tossed flares, the gunpowder sticks, the giant gobs of dinosaur spit and anything else that Brendan Fraser, the vulcanologist hero, and his two deep-spelunking colleagues, a nephew (Josh Hutcherson) and an Icelandic bimbo mountain guide (Anita Briem), can think to throw at the camera. Early on there is even a moment of projectile mouthwash-spitting (straight into the lens). Similarities between this story and that by a Monsieur Jules Verne are largely coincidental. But since the film is full of hair’s-breadth ’scapes, high-speed scrapes and life-endangering japes, it will do for white-knuckle entertainment if your family visit to the fun fair is rained off.

Savage Grace will not do at all, for anyone or anything. There must once have been a point to Tom Kalin’s arch and etiolated film, based on the true story, packed with promising incest and murder, of Brooks and Barbara Baekeland (Stephen Dillane, Julianne Moore) and their son and Bakelite heir Tony (Eddie Redmayne). Brooks was an enervated playboy; Barbara was a narcissistic socialite; Tony was gay, Oedipally corrupted and effective – it transpired one day – with a kitchen knife.

It all goes for nothing as melodrama, psychodrama or any drama. In this photo-album movie every new tableau is as posed and lifeless as the last. The characters virtually wear labels: “We are nasty, vapid, epigrammatic idlers.” The settings (New York, London, Paris, Cadaquès) are as undifferentiated as airport departure lounges. The reason why anyone does anything, from taking a bath to taking a life, is unclear. Or perhaps it was deemed unimportant to a film where “mood” is all and motive, emotion and anything palpably human have been told to take the day off.

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