MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (2018) -Good-Natured Sequel Starts Slow, Finishes Strong



mama_mia_here we go again

Guilty pleasure alert!

I really liked MAMA MIA! (2008) when it came out ten years ago.

I mean, it had a fun cast, led by Meryl Streep, and it included hammy performances by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard— sure, Brosnan couldn’t sing, but I just looked the other way—and it was also the first film in which I saw Amanda Seyfried, and I became an instant fan. Plus, there were all the ABBA songs, which I have always enjoyed. The film was a pleasant surprise.

Now, ten years later, comes the sequel, MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (2018).

MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN takes place five years after the events of the first movie. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has refurbished her mom’s fabulous home on the Greek island of Skopelos and is planning an opulent open house shindig worthy of Jay Gatsby. However, she’s troubled because things aren’t quite right with her hubbie Sky (Dominic Cooper) as he’s been offered a job in New York City and would rather be there than in Greece with her. Plus, of her “three dads” only Sam (Pierce Brosnan) is present, as both Harry (Colin Firth) and Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) have obligations elsewhere.

And Sophie is feeling the pressure because this party is in honor of her mother Donna (Meryl Streep) who passed away a year earlier. Alas, Meryl Streep fans, you won’t see much of Streep here since her character is deceased, but since this is a happy musical, she does get to appear in one scene.

Interspersed with this present day story is a second story told via flashback, Donna’s background story. We follow a young Donna (Lily James) and witness how she first meets Sam, Harry, and Bill, as well as how she finds herself in Greece. The film jumps back and forth seamlessly between both stories.

And that’s pretty much the plot of this one.

As far as stories go, the two told in MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN are rather weak. I found both tales rather flat and nowhere near as engrossing as the fun plot told in the first film, where Sophie invited her three possible dads to her wedding in the hope of learning which one was her real dad. That story worked. The ones here put me to sleep.

Of course, you don’t see MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN for its story. You see it for its song and dance numbers, and for its light upbeat style and humor, and on these fronts, the film doesn’t disappoint. The musical numbers are decent, though not as good as the ones in the first film, and the script provides frequent chuckles.

The best part about MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN is that it gets better as it goes along and finishes strong, which goes a long way towards helping you forget about its slow opening. And the reason it gets better is during the film’s third act, the heavy hitters arrive, folks like Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard, and their presence adds quite a bit. Even Cher shows up as Sophie’s grandmother, looking tremendous for someone in her 70s. And Cher even gets two musical numbers in this one!

And the film saves the best for last. The final number during the movie’s end credits is one of the liveliest of the film.

Lily James has the daunting task of playing a young Donna, a role previously played by Meryl Streep. Plus, she’s asked to carry half the movie since she has a lot of screen time. James is actually quite good here, which comes as no surprise since she has also delivered strong performances in films like BABY DRIVER (2017) and DARKEST HOUR (2017). She also starred as Lady Rose MacClare on TVs DOWNTON ABBEY (2012-2015).

I also thought Alexa Davies as young Rosie and Jessica Keenan Wynn as young Tanya were both exceptionally good. Wynn is the granddaughter of the late Keenan Wynn.

The males didn’t fare as well.  While Hugh Skinner as young Harry, Josh Dylan as young Bill, and Jeremy Irvine as young Sam, were all okay, none of them were all that memorable.

And none of them make you forget the original actors in the roles.

Both Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard once again have field days in their roles as Harry and Bill, and once they enter the movie for its third act, the fun picks up. Pierce Brosnan gets more serious scenes this time around, as he shares some tender moments with his daughter Sophie, and I’m happy to say, he seems to have improved upon his singing!

Julie Walters and Christine Baranski also reprise their roles from the first movie as Rosie and Tanya respectively, and they’re hilarious once again. I wish they had been in the movie more.

Likewise, Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper reprise their roles as well, as Sophie and Sky, but they really don’t make much of an impact.  Cooper isn’t in this one much (probably busy with the TV show PREACHER), and Seyfried, as much as I like her, gets stuck with some of the worst lines in the movie.

Much of the dialogue in this one is pretty bad. Director Ol Parker also wrote the screenplay, and while the dialogue in the flashback sequences is okay, some of the stuff in the here and now is flat out dreadful. And most of these clinkers go to Amanda Seyfried, as well as to Andy Garcia.

Yup, veteran actor Andy Garcia is in this one as well. Sadly, his lines are so bad he doesn’t even sound like a real person. I like Garcia a lot, and I’m glad to see him in movies again. He enjoyed a bigger and better role in the recent comedy BOOK CLUB (2018), where he played Diane Keaton’s love interest. Here, he plays a character named Fernando, and if you’re familiar with ABBA songs, you know where that’s going.

Also, a quick shout out to Maria Vacratsis who steals every scene she’s in as an elderly Greek woman named Sofia.

And if you look fast you’ll see Jonathan Goldsmith show up quickly as Fernando’s brother. While Goldsmith’s acting career dates back to the 1960s, he’s most famous nowadays for his long running stint as “the most interesting man in the world” on Dos Equis beer commercials from 2006-2016.

I can’t say that I liked MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN all that much. I definitely enjoyed its third act and was glad it built towards a strong conclusion, but taken as a whole, its story just never really grabbed me.

Not that it matters in the long run. I saw it in a packed theater on a week night, a theater filled primarily with women of all ages. I think I saw one other man in the theater, and I’m not complaining, mind you. There’s nothing wrong with being surrounded by women of all ages. It was actually pretty nice.

MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN certainly played like a sequel, in that it’s not as fresh or as lively as the original. But as long as there’s not a MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO ONE MORE TIME! it’s all harmless good fun.


Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to Also available at

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.


 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to Also available at

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

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For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to Also available at  








GRINGO (2018)- Unfunny Comedy Can’t Generate Laughs


Gringo poster

GRINGO (2018) is one of the more unfunny comedies I’ve seen in a while.

Interesting, amiable, even amusing, but funny?  Nope.  And that’s just not a good sign for a comedy.

Harold (David Oyelowo) is an honest and rather naive businessman who finds himself in hot water in Mexico when his dishonest bosses Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) and Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron) put him in harm’s way when they double cross a Mexican drug lord known as The Black Panther (Carlos Corona).  On top of this, Harold learns that his wife is having an affair with Richard, and she’s planning to leave him. Talk about having a bad day!

Sick of playing by the rules, Harold stages his own kidnapping, hoping to extort ransom money from Richard and Elaine. But Richard sends in his militarily trained brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley) to extract Harold from Mexico so he doesn’t have to pay the ransom money. Of course, the The Black Panther’s henchmen really are trying to kidnap Harold. And when Harold crosses paths with an American couple, Sunny (Amanda Seyfried) and her boyfriend Miles (Harry Treadaway), who is involved with a drug deal of his own, things get even more complicated.

Complicated, but not funny.

I’m still in disbelief at how little laughter this movie generated.  I didn’t laugh once, and the audience I saw it with was as silent as if they were taking a nap. Perhaps they were.

First of all, this movie has a fantastic cast, and yet they are pretty much all wasted in a script that for a number of reasons can’t get a laugh to save its life.  GRINGO is marketed as a dark comedy, and that label is somewhat true.  The story is dark, but the tone is light. Screenwriters Anthony Tabakis and Matthew Stone tell a story that has the makings of a riotous comedy, but the jokes and situations fall short time and time again.

David Oyelowo’s Harold is a likable enough protagonist.  He’s definitely a sympathetic character who the audience will relate to and root for, but the situations he finds himself in never rise to the level of uproarious laughter.  His attempts at staging his own kidnapping, for instance, involve hiring a couple of locals to talk tough in the background while he’s on the phone with Richard. Not that comical. Sadly, nearly all of Oyelowo’s comedic scenes fall short. On the contrary, his best scenes are his serious ones, like when he laments to Sunny that the world is upside down as it rewards bad people and punishes the good, a conversation that actually rings true.

Oyelowo just starred in the less than stellar THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018), and he’s probably most known for his powerful performance as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in SELMA (2014). His role here as Harold is largely forgettable.

Both Joel Edgerton and Charlize Theron play two of the more unlikable characters I’ve seen in a movie in a while. They’re supposed to be funny, but they’re not.  They’re just callous and mean. Plus they’re excluded from the main action in the story. Rather than being part of the storyline in Mexico with Harold, they spend most of their screen time in their offices speaking on the phone and to other characters.

Likewise, Sharlto Copley’s Mitch is yet another unfunny character.  He’s a former military assassin who’s now found religion, but even this twist adds nothing to the humor.

The Black Panther loves The Beatles, and he often kills his enemies based on their opinions of the Fab Four, but this running gag falls short, mostly because it’s not that funny to begin with. And hearing the name Black Panther did nothing but distract me throughout, as every time I heard it I found myself wishing I were in the next theater watching Marvel’s THE BLACK PANTHER (2018) again instead of this movie.

Amanda Seyfried plays it straight as Sunny, and she’s likable enough in this role, but sadly it’s a small role and not terribly important.  She’s a very talented actress and deserves better roles than this.

And Harry Treadaway, who played Victor Frankenstein on the TV show PENNY DREADFUL (2014-2016) looks completely out-of-place here as Sunny’s drug dealing boyfriend Miles.

GRINGO was directed by Nash Edgerton, Joel’s older brother, and he does an okay job. The biggest problem with the film is the script, but still there are some odd choices from the director’s chair.  There are a couple of scenes that end in odd places, like one between Elaine and fellow businessman Jerry (Alan Ruck) in a bar, where Jerry is hitting on her but she turns the tables on him in what looks like a potential hilarious moment but before it reaches this climax it just ends without the expected payoff.  Likewise, there are several scenes between Harold and Sunny where you expect more to happen but it doesn’t.

I certainly didn’t hate GRINGO.  I liked the character of Harold, and his plight in Mexico was fairly amusing, but it’s a story that ultimately plays like a light drama rather than a dark comedy.  The laughs just aren’t there.

As such, GRINGO is probably my least favorite film of 2018 so far.








Here’s my Cinema Knife Fight review of TED 2, which appeared at this past weekend.


CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT:  TED 2 (2015)Ted 2 poster

Movie Review by Michael Arruda

(THE SCENE:  A Comic Con in some big city.  Amidst a crowd of enthusiastic fans dressed as their favorite superheroes, STAR TREK and STAR WARS characters, sits MICHAEL ARRUDA at a table next to the LOST IN SPACE Robot.)

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Welcome everyone to today’s Cinema Knife Fight column.  No, that’s not L.L. Soares dressed as the LOST IN SPACE Robot.  That’s the actual Robot!

ROBOT:  It is I.  The Robot!  Here as a guest on Cinema Knife Fight.

MA:  Happy to have you, and we’re here today because one of the scenes in today’s movie— TED 2— takes place at a Comic Con like this one, and my friend here, the LOST IN SPACE Robot, happens to be in that scene.  It might be my favorite part of this movie.

ROBOT:  Affirmative!  I am the life of this movie.

MA:  Well, I wish you were.  You don’t have any lines or anything, but I was still happy to see you.

ROBOT:  That’s right.  I didn’t have any lines.  What was my agent thinking?  There just aren’t any good roles for an aging robot, these days!

MA:  Well, even you couldn’t have saved this movie.

Yep, today on Cinema Knife Fight, I’m reviewing TED 2, and I’m flying solo this week because L.L. Soares had sense enough to skip this one.

I’m going to get right to the point: I hated TED 2.

ROBOT:  Hate?  Hate is a strong word.  I advise you to avoid using it, Will Robinson.

MA:  It’s okay.  This isn’t a LOST IN SPACE episode.  We can say hate here.  And I’m not Will Robinson.

ROBOT:  Of course you are not!  Did I say that you were?  Eh hem.

MA (to audience):  I think he’s having a senior robot moment.

ROBOT:  I heard that!

MA:  As I was saying, I did not like TED 2 at all.  It’s one of my least favorite movies of the year.  Why, you ask?  Well, read on!

TED 2 is the sequel to the hit movie TED (2012), the Seth MacFarlane comedy about a toy stuffed bear come to life.  I was not crazy about TED, but I enjoyed the foul-mouthed talking bear, as I found him quite funny, and I enjoyed the way he interacted with his best buddy John (Mark Wahlberg).  They were a hoot together.  What I didn’t like about it was its story which I found to be a bore, a tale of John trying to choose between Ted and his girlfriend.  Seriously?  But the bear was funny.

Now comes the sequel, TED 2.  Ted is now married, while John is divorced.  Ted’s marriage is not going that well, so he takes a co-worker’s advice and decides he and his wife should have a baby because having children will bring a troubled couple closer together.  Really?  Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.

Ted, of course, since he’s a toy bear, can’t have children, and so he and John concoct a plan to steal sperm from New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, in a scene that is flat out weird and way too creepy to be funny.  When their attempt fails, John agrees to donate his own sperm, but then Ted learns that his wife Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) cannot have children, so they decide to adopt.  They are turned down because in the eyes of the law, Ted is not a person and so he can’t adopt a child.

They decide to take Ted’s case to court, to have the legal system declare him a person, and so they hire a young attorney Samantha (Amanda Seyfried) to take on the case.  The rest of the movie follows their efforts to have Ted declared a person, and they have to overcome one obstacle after another, including the return of Donny (Giovanni Ribisi), the psycho from the first movie who was obsessed with Ted, and he’s back again, still trying to tear Ted away from John.

So, why isn’t TED 2 funny?

I don’t think I have time in one review to list all the reasons.

Let’s start with the humor.  It’s pretty much the lowest common denominator of humor.  Drug jokes, bathroom jokes, and sex jokes, and as for the rest, it is simply not creative enough to get laughs.  It’s almost as if Seth MacFarlane thinks his reputation at being a “bad boy in comedy” is enough.  If he’s vulgar and shocking enough, everything else will fall into place. Well, it’s not enough.  The jokes have to be funny, and in this movie, they are not.  And that’s the number one problem with TED 2.  It’s simply not funny.

There are jokes galore.  They’re nonstop, which makes the fact that the film didn’t make me laugh all the more amazing.

The film tries to be creative with its humor, and there’s plenty of star power here, but oddly none of it works.  There’s a cameo with Liam Neeson shopping at the supermarket discussing with Ted if it’s okay for him to eat Trix breakfast cereal since he’s not a kid.  Trix are for kids, get it?  Ha Ha.  Not.  I think I laughed when I first saw Neeson because of the potential this scene had, but then it went nowhere.

(LIAM NEESON walks by the table.)

NEESON:  I understand you didn’t like my cameo.

ROBOT (Points to MA):  He didn’t.  I liked it just fine.

MA:  No.  I didn’t like it.  I’m surprised you even did it.

NEESON:  I have bills to pay.

MA:  Don’t we all.

NEESON:  Maybe you would have liked it better if we used a different cereal.  Fruit Loops, maybe.

MA:  Follow your nose.

NEESON: Are you making fun of my nose?

MA:  No.  It’s the line from the Fruit Loops commercials with Toucan Sam.

NEESON: You might want to be careful with what you say.  I put the last guy who criticized me in the hospital.

ROBOT:  Danger!  Danger, Will Robinson!

NEESON:  Just sayin.  (Exits.)

MA:  Don’t sweat it, Robot.  He’ll get over it.

Anyway, then there’s the conclusion at Comic Con.  This sequence should have been hilarious.  It includes a slapstick fight in which fans dressed as comic book and science fiction characters duke it out, and so we see the Lost in Space Robot tangle with a Dalek from Dr. Who, superheroes and Star Trek characters going at it, and even Godzilla gets in on the act.  It’s a geek’s dream!  But it’s not funny.

Patrick Warburton returns from the first movie, once again playing Guy, and in this film Michael Dorn (Worf from STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION) plays his gay lover.  There’s a gag in the Comic Con sequence where Warburton dresses as The Tick (the title character he played in the short-lived TV series in the early 2000s) and Dorn dresses as Worf, and they go around the convention tripping people and pouring drinks on them all the while insulting them.  This is supposed to be humorous.  It’s not.  It’s painfully unfunny!

(WORF approaches.) WORF:  It is not honorable for a Klingon to poke fun at himself!

MA:  So, you saw TED 2?

WORF:  TED 2?  What is that?

ROBOT:  TED 2 is an American comedy written and directed by Seth MacFarlane.  It stars Mark Wahlberg and—.

WORF:  Enough!  I do not care about such trivial matters as motion pictures!

MA:  So, what were you talking about when you said Klingon’s shouldn’t poke fun at themselves?

WORF:  I was talking about him!  (Points to a Klingon performing Karaoke in front of an audience).  He is a disgrace!

MA:  Yup.  He can’t hold a tune to save his life, but he’s not really a Klingon.  He’s a fan dressed as a Klingon.

WORF:  Klingons do not have fans!  We have adversaries and enemies!  (Exits.)

ROBOT:  He suffers from a maladjusted disposition.  In short, he’s a grump!

MA:  I’m going to continue now with the review.

In the first film, Mark Wahlberg and Ted were funny together.  They’re not here.  All the jokes seem rehashed.  I like Mark Wahlberg a lot.  It was painful to watch him play this role.

Likewise, I’m a big Amanda Seyfried fan, and again, it was excruciating to see her play this awful role.  In one scene for example she’s reduced to smoking pot from a bong shaped like a penis.  Speaking of penises, there’s a running gag about them in this film which has to do with internet searches and what pops up whenever you do a search on the internet.  All I kept thinking is this is the best a guy like Seth MacFarlane could come up with?

It gets worse.

We have to see lots of scenes where Ted argues with his wife Tami-Lynn, and she throws things at him and swears at him nonstop with her South Boston accent.  She’s reduced to a bad stereotype, and these scenes are also painful to watch.

Sam Jones, Flash Gordon himself is back from the first movie, only this time his scenes are as funny as Ming the Merciless.  Also back from the first movie is Bill Smitrovich as Ted’s boss Frank.  In the first film, Smitrovich’s scenes were a highlight and were laugh-out loud funny.  He’s reduced to one scene in the sequel, and it’s a straight scene, no comedy or jokes involved.  Really?

Giovanni Ribisi is back again as psycho Donny.  A lot of people liked Donny in the first film.  I thought his subplot was the worst part of the first movie.  In TED 2 Donny is still out to get Ted, and I still don’t care.

Even Morgan Freeman shows up.  What are all these people doing in this movie?  Does Seth MacFarlane have compromising photographs of these folks?

Freeman delivers a dramatic courtroom monologue about why Ted should be considered a person.  Now we get to one of the most insulting parts of TED 2, the parallels that this movie makes between Ted’s plight and the civil rights movement.

Are we supposed to take this story about Ted seriously?  Absolutely not, which to me, makes the references in this movie to the plight of those fighting for equal rights throughout history, offensive.  Well, maybe offensive is too strong a word, but it just rubbed me the wrong way. TED 2 as a vehicle for social commentary is like having Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels as the poster boys for special education.  No.

Only John Slattery from TV’s MAD MEN comes out okay.  Slattery plays a smooth talking winner-take-all district attorney, and he plays the role straight.  He has his one scene and pretty much makes sense as he makes his case convincingly as to why Ted is not a person.  Slattery might be the only person in this movie who doesn’t embarrass himself.

And regarding the “star” of this one, Ted the Bear, the CGI creation performed by Seth MacFarlane, he was my favorite part of the first movie, but sadly, he’s nowhere near as funny the second time around.  In fact, I found him flat out annoying in this sequel.

I did something during TED 2 I hardly ever do in a movie.  I found myself looking at my watch, and I was shocked to see that only one hour had gone by.  It felt like two.  Worse, TED 2 is a two hour movie, and so there was still yet another agonizing hour to go.

TED 2 was written and directed by Seth MacFarlane, and Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild also contributed to the screenplay.  It gives me no pleasure to write negatively about other people’s work, but there’s not much positive I can say about this one.   It all comes down to laughter.  And I simply didn’t laugh during this movie.

One thing I did like about this movie is a large chunk of it takes place in Boston, and the shots of Boston look good.  But I can drive to Boston on my own and don’t need a movie to show me how good it looks.

Want to watch a funny movie that mixes humor with vulgarity and off color jokes?  Watch an old Mel Brooks movie instead.

I give it half a knife.

And it gets half a knife because I like both Mark Wahlberg and Amanda Seyfried, and also because I can’t give a movie which features an appearance by the LOST IN SPACE Robot 0 knives, no matter how bad it is.

And at half a knife, that makes TED 2 the worst movie I’ve seen this year.

Okay, Robot, we’re done here.  I think I’ll take a stroll and browse around.

ROBOT: A good idea.  May I browse around with you?

MA:  Sure.  Come along.  It’ll be fun.

ROBOT:  We are going to browse around.

MA:  Come on, Robot.  I see some cool LOST IN SPACE merchandise over there.  Let’s check it out.

ROBOT:  This is going to be surreal.




million_ways_to_die_in_the_west_ posterHere’s my CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT review of A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST (2014) which went up this weekend at, your place to read about movies, where you’ll find new movie content posted every day by L.L. Soares, myself, and a very talented staff of writers.

Thanks for reading!



Review by Michael Arruda

(THE SCENE: A dusty frontier town in the old west. Tumbleweed blows across the path. Cool Ennio Morricone music begins to play, as a solitary figure on horseback rides into town. The townsfolk appear at their doors and windows. Two old timers appear at the door to the saloon.

OLD TIMER #1 (looking at man on horseback): Who is that?

OLD TIMER #2: Jumpin jackrabbits! That’s the Man With No Name!

(Camera closes in to reveal it is MICHAEL ARRUDA on horseback, looking grizzled and rough. ARRUDA looks into the camera and spits onto the ground.

OLD TIMER #1 (to his fellow Old Timer): You dumb nugget! That’s not the Man With No Name! That’s a Cinema Knife Fighter! (Cue dramatic beat)

(MA enters bar and approaches bartender.)

MA: Whiskey. (Bartender nods and pours MA a drink. The two old timers amble up to MA.)

OLD TIMER #1: Hey, Mr. Cinema Knife Fighter. Are you here to review a movie?

MA (glares at the man): What’s it to you?

OLD TIMER #1: Just askin. I meant no disrespect.

MA: None taken.

OLD TIMER #2: Don’t you usually ride with a partner?

MA (spits again): I’m ridin solo today.

OLD TIMER #2: Is he— (gulps)— pushin up daisies?

MA: He’s— preoccupied.

(Cut to L.L. SOARES in a gunfight with a bunch of bandits, while he has his arm around a beautiful buxom woman. They kiss, with LS never missing a beat as he continues to shoot the bandits, even pausing to guzzle some whiskey and smoke a cigar.

L.L. SOARES (looks at camera): I just love the Old West!)

(Back at the bar, an attractive young woman approaches MA.)

SALLY: Well, well, well, look who’s in town? (Looks at MA and leans in close to him) What movie are you reviewing today?


GUNSLINGER (jumps up from his seat): Is that a threat?

MA: It’s the name of the movie.

GUNSLINGER (pauses): I knew that. (Sits back down.)

SALLY: You gonna tell us about it?

MA (downs his whiskey): I didn’t come here for the view. (Looks at Sally) Not that I’m complainin. It’s a mighty fine view.

OLD TIMER #1: How about the movie? How was it?

MA: Well, let me tell you about it. A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is the latest comedy by writer/director/actor Seth MacFarlane, the man behind the hit animated TV show FAMILY GUY, and the man who brought us the hit movie TED (2012), which I thought was just okay. I loved Ted the Bear, but the rest of the movie was uneven. I like FAMILY GUY, though.

Now comes A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, a comedy western spoof that before seeing it immediately made me think of Mel Brooks’ classic BLAZING SADDLES (1974), and I’m not going to sit here and compare the two, because Brooks is one of my favorite filmmakers, and MacFarlane in terms of movies anyway is just getting started. That being said, he has a ways to go yet.

In a goofy movie like A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, the plot hardly matters, but for the record: it’s the story of a young sheep farmer Albert (Seth MacFarlane) living in the Old West whose girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) breaks up with him because he’s a loser and instead dates the far more successful mustache shop owner Foy (Neil Patrick Harris).

Albert is crushed, but soon his fortunes change as a beautiful woman named Anna (Charlize Theron) rides into town, and she becomes attracted to Albert, and she helps him get over his former love. Albert is one happy man, until he discovers that Anna is married to the deadliest gunslinger in the west, Clinch (Liam Neeson).

When Clinch arrives in town with his gang, he makes it known to everyone that he’s going to kill the man who had been spending time with his wife. Albert must then decide either to run away or to stay and fight the deadly gunslinger.

The running gag in A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is that the old west is a dangerous place to live and there’s no shortage of ways to die there.

(Chandelier falls from ceiling and lands on GUNSLINGER, instantly killing him.)

MA (points to fallen Gunslinger): Like that.

OLD TIMER #1: You mean things like this don’t happen in other places?

MA: Accidents happen everywhere. But modern medicine is more effective where I come from.

OLD TIMER #1: Jeesh. I never thought of it that way. I may have to move.

MA: Anyway, when the film stays focused on this theme, it’s really funny, but when it strays over to bathroom humor and sex jokes, it drops down several notches. So, for my money, A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is a mixed bag.

I loved the jokes about death in the old west. There’s one sequence in particular where MacFarlane’s Albert delivers a diatribe to his two friends Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and Ruth (Sarah Silverman) on just how deadly it is to live there that is absolutely hilarious. The jokes about life expectancy are also spot-on, like in one scene where Anna says she got married at 9 because she didn’t want to wait until she was 15 and old, as are the jokes about the medical practices of the day, like the treatment of the blue jay pecking at the facial wound.

OLD TIMER #1: I hate that! I always ask for the gnawing rat instead.

MA: Unfortunately, most of the sight gags featuring people dying in awful ways were given away in the film’s trailers. This isn’t the movie’s fault, I know, but it’s a fact that I can’t ignore, which is, that many of the funniest parts of this movie I had already seen in the film’s trailers.

For example, there’s a very funny sequence where Albert meets up with an Indian tribe that would have been even funnier had I not seen its best moments already.

Some of the running gags work, while others don’t. The scenes with Albert’s parents I thought were comical throughout and actually got funnier as the movie went on. On the other hand, the running gag of Albert’s friends Edward and Ruth waiting to have sex until they’re married, while Ruth has sex with other men every day because she’s a prostitute, was humorous at first, but after a while grew repetitive and tired.

When the film ventures into the lowest common denominator of comedy, bathroom humor, it, pardon the pun, bottoms out. We’re treated to sheep penises, sheep peeing on Albert, a hat full of excrement, fart jokes, and on I could go. If you like this sort of humor, then no doubt you’ll find A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST funnier than I did.

When MacFarlane steers clear of this stuff and actually gets creative with the material, the movie is very funny, but when he dips into the toilet water for humor, he produces what you’d expect to find in a toilet: a turd.

SALLY: That’s nasty.

MA: My point exactly.

The best comedians are the ones who have something to say, and when MacFarlane has something to say, the movie is better for it. When he jokes about farts and diarrhea, it begs the question, just how much can one say about going to the bathroom? Not much.

Even so, I enjoy MacFarlane the writer better than MacFarlane the actor. Here in A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST, there’s something very shallow about his performance as Albert. He’s supposed to be a likeable loser, but the problem is he’s not that likeable. He comes off more as a wise ass, and frankly, I didn’t understand why Anna was attracted to him. Albert doesn’t seem like a sincere person, as there’s something phony in MacFarlane’s performance, as if he’s about to wink at the camera and say “I’m screwing with you.”

It’s the opposite of TED. In TED, the best part was the stuffed bear, Ted, voiced by MacFarlane. Here, I’d have to say one of the worst parts was Albert, played by MacFarlane. I just didn’t buy the character.

Charlize Theron, on the other hand, gives the best performance in the movie. Anna is naturally funny, and her humor comes from her self-confidence, as she goes out of her way to teach Albert how to shoot a gun, and she helps him overcome his misguided attraction to the selfish Louise. The scenes where she trash talks Louise are some of the best in the movie, mostly because she does it with class and intelligence.

Liam Neeson plays it straight as the villain, Clinch, which is fine, but what’s not fine is that there’s no one funny around him to play off his seriousness. Clinch was in desperate need of some goofy henchman or something.

The rest of the cast is so-so. I like Amanda Seyfried a lot, and she’s fine here as Louise, but it’s a minor role, and she has little else to do but be cold and rude to Albert at first and jealous later. Neil Patrick Harris as Foy, the man who steals Albert’s girl, is just your standard pompous jerk.

Giovanni Ribisi, who was also in TED as the weirdo father who steals Ted to give to his even weirder son, is rather subdued here as Edward, the meek man who doesn’t mind that his wife is a prostitute who performs every possible sex act with other men but wants to wait until they’re married to have sex with him.

Sarah Silverman is actually pretty funny as Edward’s fiancée, Ruth, and she gets to enjoy some of the more vulgar parts of the movie when she talks about the things she does with her clients. It’s very funny at first but gets old fast.

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST isn’t really a spoof of westerns. It’s just a comedy about a loser and his new girlfriend who helps him feel good about himself, which just happens to take place in the old west, a place in time where you were lucky if you lived to be thirty.

And while it’s funny at times, it never becomes as creative, silly, inane, or as sharp as it could have been. There are certainly glimpses of talent from the mind of Seth MacFarlane here, but unfortunately he likes to dip from the cesspool of bathroom humor, something he obviously is comfortable doing, because he does it often. It’s a habit that doesn’t serve him well.

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST is an okay comedy that made me laugh here and there, but not as much as I would have liked. Fans of penises and feces no doubt will disagree and like it more than I did.

I give it two knives.

SALLY: It doesn’t sound like too bad a movie.

MA: It’s not. But it’s not great either.

SALLY: So, what does a nice Cinema Knife Fighter like yourself do after a hard day’s work?

MA: I can think of one or two things.

(Sally whispers into his ear)

MA: Those are two things that I was thinking of, yes. (To Old Timers) See you, gents.

(MA & Sally climb the stairs to the upper level of the bar and exit.)

OLD TIMER #2: Why are they going up to Sally’s room?

OLD TIMER #1 (striking his friend with his hat): You stupid old coyote! Why do you think they’re going up there?

OLD TIMER #2: To review another movie? Is that it? Does Sally have one of those newfangled Blu-ray players up there? They gonna review a Blu-ray movie?

OLD TIMER #1: You is stupid.




Russell Crowe as Maximus in GLADIATOR (2000)

Russell Crowe as Maximus in GLADIATOR (2000)


By Michael Arruda

Last week I unleashed THE HORROR JAR, lists of odds and ends about horror movies. Today I present YOUR MOVIE LISTS, lists of odds and ends about non-horror movies.

Kicking things off is a list of notable Russell Crowe movies. With the release of Crowe’s latest movie NOAH (2014) in theaters this weekend, here is a partial list of some prior Russell Crowe films:

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997) – Kevin Spacey and Kim Basinger were the big names in this one when it came out in 1997, but it was Russell Crowe who generated all the buzz. The first time I saw Russell Crowe in a movie.

GLADIATOR (2000) – The biggie. The film that pretty much made Crowe a household name. His performance as Maximus is one of his best. Great supporting work by Oliver Reed, in what would be his final role.

A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001) – Crowe delivers a top-notch performance as John Nash in Ron Howard’s Oscar Winner for Best Picture. Crowe was nominated for Best Actor but lost out to Denzel Washington in TRAINING DAY.

MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD (2003) – Crowe plays Captain Jack Aubrey in this rousing high seas adventure based upon the novels by Patrick O’Brian.

CINDERELLA MAN (2005) – Crowe again teams with director Ron Howard, once more with outstanding results, in this bio pic of boxer Jim Braddock.

3:10 TO YUMA (2007)- Crowe’s outlaw squares off against Christian Bale’s rancher in this exciting western which might be my favorite Russell Crowe movie. It’s certainly my favorite Russell Crowe performance. Ben Foster also delivers an exceptional supporting performance as Crowe’s psychotic right hand man Charlie Prince.

BODY OF LIES (2008) – Crowe plays a CIA agent who gives his operative on the ground (Leonardo Di Caprio) in the Middle East the runaround in this Ridley Scott directed thriller. The first time I was less than impressed with a Russell Crowe performance.

THE NEXT THREE DAYS (2010) – Crowe plays John Brennan who takes the law into his own hands to prove that his wife Lara (Elizabeth Banks) is innocent of a murder charge— but is she? A convoluted plot knocks this one down a few notches.

THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS (2012) – RZA’s stylish actioner lacks substance making this one a misfire. Crowe plays an assassin named Jack Knife. Crowe appears overweight and out of shape here.

LES MISERABLES (2012) – Crowe plays Javert opposite Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean in this film adaptation of the stage musical, which is based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Crowe’s singing grates throughout, but when he’s not singing he’s very good as the policeman who won’t quit.

BROKEN CITY (2013) – Crowe is a crooked mayor who tangles with an ex-cop played by Mark Wahlberg in this mediocre thriller. For me, the fifth straight underwhelming Russell Crowe film.

MAN OF STEEL (2013) – Crowe breaks out of his slump by playing Superman’s father Jor-El. His performance is one of the best parts of this mixed bag of a superhero movie.

NOAH (2014) – Crowe plays Noah in this retelling of the famous Bible story, which emphasizes action and melodrama. Crowe really shines here as the man who builds an ark and against all odds saves humankind from God’s wrath.

And that brings us up to date.

Thanks for reading!




les-mis-posterSECOND LOOK:  LES MISERABLES (2012)

By Michael Arruda



I was pretty tough on LES MISERABLES (2013) when I reviewed it last year for this blog.  I think my title was, LES MISFIRE?


To be fair, I didn’t dislike LES MISERABLES when I saw it in the theater.  I simply was disappointed it wasn’t better, and I think it came across in my review that I wasn’t all that crazy about it. 


Anyway, I saw it again recently on DVD, and I have to say, I did enjoy it better the second time around.


While my biggest criticisms remain the same- that the film seemed to lack a soul, that it came off as completely gloomy and dark with the theme of redemption noticeably absent, and that the pacing seemed off, in that things moved too quickly without natural breaks in between scenes and songs, I did appreciate more about the film the second time around.  I even found Russell Crowe’s singing somewhat more tolerable.


I love the stage musical LES MISERABLES, and I suppose any film version wouldn’t be able to match the spectacle of how it plays on the stage.  This film version by director Tom Hooper didn’t even seem to try.  It dove right into a brutal realism that somehow didn’t work as well as it should have.  I mean, both Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway looked phenomenal in their misery, but this gritty heavy realism came off as too dark for the bulk of the movie and detracted from the musical numbers.  It’s a case where Jean Valjean and Fantine looked so beaten and emaciated that it was difficult at times to suspend disbelief and accept them breaking into song.  The realism also made for some harsh musical numbers. 


I still thoroughly enjoyed Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Jean Valjean, and Anne Hathaway as Fantine.  Both their acting performances and singing voices were amazing.  Russell Crowe, on the other hand, was a different story.  I found his voice grating when I saw the movie the first time.  I found it slightly less harsh this time around.  I also enjoyed Crowe’s performance as Javert better the second time around and found him to be a much more dominant character than when I saw it the first time. 


I still was not wowed by Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, which still surprises me, since usually I enjoy her a lot.  And although his singing voice was among the best in the movie, Eddie Redmayne didn’t blow me out of the water as Marius either.


And the pacing of the film definitely slows down during the third act.


Yet, the film looked just as amazing on DVD as it did on the big screen.  Not much was lost in terms of picture quality.


Parts of the story also worked better for me the second time.  The blockade sequence near the end I thought fell flat on the big screen.  I found it more compelling this time around.  I remember growing restless in the theater at this point in the movie, and this wasn’t a problem in the comfort of my living room.  The chase storyline between Jean Valjean and Javert also played better at home, perhaps because of the intimacy of the smaller screen.


So, is LES MISERABLES worth your time on DVD? 


Well, it certainly provides grand entertainment, and it does a pretty nice job bringing the musical to life.  It remains to be seen whether or not making it darker, grittier, and more depressing than the stage musical was a good idea.  I wasn’t nuts about this interpretation, mostly because the sense of hope found throughout the musical seems to be lost here.  But this wasn’t enough to ruin the movie for me.


And with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway leading the way, and Russell Crowe doing the same, especially when he’s not singing, the cast also excels. While I do have a problem with the dark take this movie has on the story, I have to admit that I appreciated its dramatic elements better the second time around.


LES MISERABLES, the 2012 movie version, in spite of its flaws, is still an engaging musical and certainly worth a look.





LOVELACE (2013) Paints Sympathetic Portrait of Famous Porn Star


Lovelace-2013-Movie-Poster1Streaming Video Review:  LOVELACE (2013)


Michael Arruda


LOVELACE (2013), starring Amanda Seyfried as porn star Linda Lovelace, received a limited theatrical release when it opened earlier this year, and word of mouth wasn’t all that enthusiastic.  Some cited faults with the script claiming it danced around the sordid details of Lovelace’s rough life.


Still, I was eager to see this one, mostly because I enjoy the work of Amanda Seyfried, having been impressed with her performances in such movies as CHLOE (2009), RED RIDING HOOD (2011), and GONE (2012) to name a few.  And so I sat down to watch LOVELACE the other night on streaming video, and I’m happy to say I didn’t find it disappointing at all.  In fact, it’s a pretty darn good movie.


It’s 1970 when LOVELACE opens, and twenty one year-old Linda Boreman (Amanda Seyfried) is still living with her parents, Dorothy (an unrecognizable Sharon Stone) and John (Robert Patrick).  When Linda and her best friend Patsy (Juno Temple) decide to go-go dance at a club for fun, they are spotted by a young man named Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard) who encourages them to dance professionally.  They decline, but Linda and Chuck become involved in a relationship, one that will ultimately change Linda’s life forever.


Linda and Chuck get married, and soon afterwards, with his night club shut down due to prostitution charges, Chuck finds himself desperate for money.  He has ties to the porn industry, and so he attempts to get Linda hired to star in a porn movie, but the producers of the film aren’t interested, claiming she looks too much like the “girl next door,” and that she doesn’t fit the porn prototype, but when Chuck shows them a home movie he shot, which shows off Linda’s “talent,” the producers are impressed and change their minds about hiring her for their next film.


Their next film is DEEP THROAT, and it becomes a national phenomenon, propelling Linda to stardom.  Now going by the name of Linda Lovelace, a name given to her by the film’s producers, she amazingly becomes a household name across America, as she’s mentioned on the news by Walter Cronkite and by Johnny Carson on THE TONIGHT SHOW, much to the chagrin of her parents.  She even becomes the guest of Hugh Hefner (James Franco) who arranges a private screening of DEEP THROAT at his Playboy mansion.


But stardom comes at a price.  Chuck becomes more and more abusive towards Linda, as he continually tries to exploit her in an ongoing effort to make as much money as possible.  At one point he even collects money so she can be gang-raped.   He’s not a pleasant fellow.


In one of the movie’s more powerful scenes, Linda tries to return home to her parents, but her mother Dorothy won’t allow it.  She tells Linda that she must honor her wedding vow to obey her husband.  When Linda tells her that Chuck beats her, Dorothy asks her daughter what she has done to make her husband beat her.  She sends Linda back home.  Gee, thanks mom!


Eventually, Linda breaks away from Chuck and the porn industry.  She remarries and starts a family, and she spends the rest of her life speaking out against pornography and violence against women.


I had heard that LOVELACE suffered from a weak script, but I thought Andy Bellin’s screenplay worked just fine.  Two thirds into the film it does jump back in time and uses flashbacks to fill in some of the blanks from earlier in the story, most of these showing Chuck’s dark side and the cruel ways he treated Linda.   I didn’t have a problem with this, as the bulk of today’s television shows use the same style, so it’s nothing I wasn’t used to. 


And there are those who felt the film wasn’t dark enough, that it didn’t show us the real horrors of what Linda Lovelace went through, and that the film was somehow “soft” by going with an “R” rating as opposed to an NC-17 rating, but I didn’t feel this way at all.  To me, the film made its point:  Linda Lovelace was abused by her husband and most likely manipulated into the porn industry.  It’s not a pretty story.  I got this without being shown every sordid little detail. 


The biggest strength of LOVELACE however is its very strong cast.  I’ve been a fan of Amanda Seyfried for quite a while now, and I really enjoyed her performance here as Linda.  It was a bit of a change of pace for Seyfried and it really showed her range as an actor. 


But the strongest performance in LOVELACE belongs to Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck.  Sarsgaard really nailed the role and showed considerable range here as Linda’s sneaky cruel husband.  I’ve seen Sarsgaard in a lot of movies, and his performance as Chuck just might be my favorite.


Sharon Stone is just as good as Linda’s mother Dorothy, and with her 1970s hairstyle and clothes she’s barely recognizable. 


The fine supporting cast includes Robert Patrick as Linda’s father John, and Chris Noth as Anthony Romano, the man supplying the big bucks to finance DEEP THROAT.  Bobby Cannavale is memorable as Butchie Peraino, the producer of DEEP THROAT, as is Hank Azaria as Gerry Damiano, the guy who wrote the movie.


Even James Franco shows up in a throwaway role as Hugh Hefner.


Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have made a film that does a nice job capturing the look and feel of 1970s culture, and it also has something to say about the dark side of pornography and its treatment of women.


It’s interesting to compare LOVELACE with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s DON JON (2013) which also came out earlier this year and also featured a plot about porn.  DON JON took place in 2013, and its view of porn reflects the present day view which, right or wrong, is more accepting of the industry.  There’s much less of a stigma attached to the industry today than there was in the 1970s.  In Gordon-Levitt’s film, porn is portrayed as a near perfect vehicle for sexual gratification. There’s no mention of behind-the-scenes lowlifes like Chuck who abuse women.  


LOVELACE is a blunt reminder that underneath the glamour and glitz of the sex film industry, all is not as it seems, and there are dark forces at work that are not at all like the images so boldly displayed on the screen.


While not for everyone, LOVELACE is a relevant film that effectively takes us back to a rather ugly time in our history- Vietnam, Nixon, and Watergate- and paints a sympathetic portrait of a woman who incredibly became a household name for her appearance in the most successful porn film of all time.