Saturday, August 4, 2018

International BFFs of Mystery: THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME

At first glance, writer-director Susanna Fogel's new film, The Spy Who Dumped Me, couldn't be more different from her debut, 2014's comic relationship drama Life Partners. The latter is small-scale, quiet, intimate, with humor bubbling naturally. The former is, from minute one, flying headfirst into a bloody action comedy routine. And yet, when you get right down to it, the films are basically the same, both following a pair of best girl friends whose buddy dynamics are turned topsy-turvy by a man. They also both rest on the crackling, easy, lived-in chemistry between their leads. That's a neat trick, turning the same character rapport into two very different registers and wringing nice laughs out of each divergent premise. I quite like them. But where Partners' stakes were simply the fate of Leighton Meester and Gillian Jacobs' characters' friendship, Dumped has to do with something something the fate of millions. Less an action spoof, more a straight-ahead high-impact action film with lots of goof-around details in the margins, it draws upon familiar ideas -- a little Spies Like Us here, a little Pink Panther there, a lot of Paul Feig's Spy all over -- but sends its leads so energetically into set pieces done up with fast-paced staging and robust stunt work that you hardly care it's treading familiar ground. It's too fast and funny to stop and let any nagging doubts in. It's slick and enjoyable that way.

It stars Mila Kunis as a woman freshly dumped by her seemingly dopey boyfriend (Justin Theroux) who, as it turns out, is a spy. She's targeted for elimination by all sorts of nasty people simply because her ex left a MacGuffin in her apartment pre-breakup. Because her best friend (Kate McKinnon) is her roommate, she's caught up in this mess, too. So it's off to Europe where they hope to sort this whole misunderstanding out, but everywhere they go gunfire, car chases, martial arts, and competing spy factions follow. The fish-out-of-water elements are just fine, and the grisly action is hectic, clearly choreographed, and edited for maximum comprehensible impact. But what really puts the movie over is the bantering between Kunis and McKinnon, who have distinct yet compatible styles of comedy. Kunis maintains a tight control over her character, containing her fear and disbelief in discrete moments between her determination to live up to the challenges they face. McKinnon, on the other hand, is an inflatable tube man of manic energy, flailing and shouting and seeming eager to participate in whatever shenanigans will keep them alive. They're both coping with fear and confusion, tense and snappy, but still totally having each other's back no matter what. It's refreshing to see there are no false conflicts between them as they're desperate to stick together and survive. The movie finds its humor broadly in splashes of gore bordering on slapstick, silly characterizations (a skeletal gymnast turned fashion model moonlighting as an assassin is a fine goof on thriller tropes) and yelling. But it also goes subtle, mining the little details between the characters (McKinnon's has acting aspirations that slip out in funny ways) and their place in the geopolitical situation. At one stop the ladies pull guns on an innocent European tourist who sizes them up calmly before dryly asking, "Americans?" As the misadventure hurtles along, the two of them start to think they might like being spies. Why not? In the movie's use of international intrigue, danger and violence are mostly free of consequence, spiked with laughs, and all in service of getting closer to your best friend. 

Bear Necessities: CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

What happened to Christopher Robin after he grew too old for his imaginary friends in the Hundred Acre Wood? We've gotten along fine until now just keeping him in perpetual childhood, AA Milne's books and Disney's animated shorts, shows, and films (as recently as 2011's fine iteration) poking along with Winnie the Pooh and his menagerie of pals. Robin grew up, though, we're told in the opening scenes of Christopher Robin, which take him quickly and elegantly from boarding school to adulthood (Ewan McGregor) in a flash, then to an encounter with a lovely woman (Hayley Atwell) he weds and with whom he has a daughter, before enlisting in World War II. Then the story proper begins in post-war London, with Robin a harried business man sadly staring down a stack of paperwork while his family leaves on their vacation without him. Here is where Pooh comes in. Awoken with a breeze of reminiscence and imagination, the silly old bear stumbles out of a tree and into London where he quickly recognizes his old friend. Robin, of course, is frazzled as he tries to get Pooh back to the woods of childhood imagination where he belongs. If the basic shape of the film starts to sound familiar, it's because it travels the same route taken by every story of a workaholic dad reconnecting with the magic of youth and restoring a proper work-life balance. The benefits here are that it involves intellectual property for which its owners can exploit tremendous cross-generational nostalgic value. When the realistic CG stuffed animal speaks in the voice of Jim Cummings' instantly recognizable soft, sweet, gentle Pooh, the heart strings are set to tugging. Yes, one thinks, this stumbly, bumbly bear is just the cure dour Robin needs in his life.

If I may be cynical for a moment, it's interesting to note Disney's project of making live-action entertainments out of their animated classics has reached a film that, at least in part, serves as self-justification. Reconnect with the Disney characters of your past in a new context and it'll save your relationship, your job, your kids, and your happiness, just like it does Christopher Robin, who goes from slumping with a briefcase and sad eyes to trotting through the forest with a spring in his step and a sparkle in his expression. This is the easy read of the film's derivative plot mechanics, but the film itself is entirely too pleasant and lovely to bear out such grim mercenary takes too thoroughly.  No, instead the screenwriters -- the unlikely trio of Alex Ross Perry (of prickly indies like The Color Wheel), Tom McCarthy (of smooth, talky dramas like Spotlight), and Allison Schroeder (her major credit a glossy crowd-pleaser, Hidden Figures) -- are clearly invested in the pure childlike whimsy and literate mid-century pleasures of Winnie the Pooh, updating the world around Robin without sacrificing an ounce of the original characters' innocent naïveté, their simpleness that backs up into plain-spoken wisdom. By the time the ensemble includes Eeyore, Tigger, Piglet, and the rest, it has all the gentle warmth of a satisfying afternoon reunion, stretched out, poky, taking its time, slow but in a charming and loving way. The story -- a journey there and back again, when you get right down to it -- hardly gets in the way of spending time with old friends. Director Marc Forster calls upon some of his Finding Neverland matter-of-fact metaphorical interplay with fantasy and reality, shooting the wholly convincing CG toys -- shaggy and faded from years of outdoor play -- and their forest world with the same casualness that he treats the period settings and hustle-bustle in London. It works. It may be small, simple, and sentimental, but then again, so is Pooh. That's enough to warm the heart in all the right places. 

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Suped-Up: DEADPOOL 2 and TEEN TITANS GO! TO THE MOVIES

We've officially reached the eating-its-own-tail portion of superhero cinema. Now they can stretch whole features out of the idea. Weirdly, this also happened before the subgenre devoured a vast swath of pop culture -- 1999's Mystery Men, for instance -- but those tended to be oddball, one-off originals. Now the self-deprecating meta digs come from the name brand comics outlets themselves, the film departments feeding the consumption of ever more product. Why joke about superhero movies in general -- like 2008's dire off-brand parody Superhero Movie -- when you can specifically bring in the real X-Men (a couple supporting players in 2016's Deadpool) or Batman (in last year's The LEGO Batman Movie, a two-for-one product-placement comedy) or whomever to join the jabs and japes themselves, a whole back catalog of issues and franchises from which to draw their corporate synergy gags. Just this summer alone, Marvel and DC have slipped slight self-aware jokester features into theaters between the less intentionally silly bombast to which they'll return shortly. They're downtime jokes between CG slugfests, meant to puncture and puff up their inspirations in the same wink. 

First was May's Deadpool 2, which had the unenviable task of following up a truly noxious movie. The inexplicably popular original, an off-shoot of the X-Men Cinematic Universe, brought the fourth-wall-breaking, seemingly-indestructible anti-hero to ugly life in a clompingly ordinary origin story poor in invention and rich in vulgarity. It thought it excused its faults by pointing them out, tying them to a preening, self-satisfied crudeness. First-time director Tim Miller dutifully rendered visually a screenplay of bludgeoning gore, filthy gags, and potty humor micturated out with an irked Urkel smirk, star Ryan Reynolds' voice leering out of the red-and-black bodysuit in a permanent state of "Did I do that?" The surprise, then, is that the sequel is much improved. The screenplay -- once again by Zombieland's Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, with an assist from Reynolds himself -- still has its fair share of eye-rolling pop references and faux-cheery vulgarity, but the bones of the plot are sturdier, and the action is handled without the smeary clods and undisguised cheapness that plagued the first. What a difference a director makes. This time around, the film is helmed by David Leitch, whose work on John Wick is a recent gold standard of the action genre. Deadpool 2 not only involves better action -- a highlight being an inventive mid-film truck chase that involves surprising use of a new ensemble of B-level heroes, like the super-lucky Domino (Zazie Beetz) and the most surprising electric-jolt lighting-fast cameo of the year -- but it also makes its lead more of a character, with more than a standard origin arc to travel. It's still stock, but, hey, they're trying. Here he's driven to protect a misfit mutant teen (Julian Dennison) from a time traveling brute (Josh Brolin), part of a slow realization he should be less selfish about his invincibility. Darkly, he starts to view his power as a curse -- attempting several gruesome ways of ending it all before giving in and being a hero after all, even if Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) and Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) won't let him join the official X-team. The movie is still uneven, and relies too heavily on cheap shock humor (CG disembowlements aren't funny to me, but, hey, your mileage may vary) after it has already worked up a good compelling head of steam on its surprisingly involving rote plot. But, crucially, it's also less self-satisfied, mainly by realizing it's smug when Deadpool is the only jokester in a cast of scowling straight-arrows, but instead feels a wee bit generous and inviting when the rest of the ensemble get good laughs, too. It may overvalue its cracks about comics and their related media, and its giddy R-rating, but at least it is often more fun around them, even if it might peak with a Celine Dion (!) ballad over the opening credits. 

Even better is this weekend's animated Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, a smarter, denser, and funnier deconstruction of its subgenre, proving Deadpool's filthiness is meant, in part, to distract from how little it has to say with its cracks. A big screen expansion of a Cartoon Network show, this 2D hand-drawn aesthetic carries real Saturday morning cartoon freedom into its referential hall of mirrors. Stuffed to the gills with quick echoes of famous panels and scenes from comic books and their related movies past, the story finds the plucky Teen Titans (Robin (Scott Menville), Starfire (Hynden Walch), Cyborg (Khartoum Payton), Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), and Raven (Tara Strong)) totally overshadowed by literally every other DC superhero. Sure, it's one thing for Superman (Nicolas Cage), Wonder Woman (Halsey), and Green Lantern (Lil Yachty), to scoff at these superpowered kids who don't actually solve the big problems or get to star in their own major motion pictures. But even the relatively obscure DC characters point and laugh -- you can spot Jonah Hex and Swamp Thing basking in glory while the Titans slink away ignored and marginalized despite their neat abilities, like shape-shifting and laser beams and portals, and solid teamwork. The plot, then, follows the Teens as they attempt to prove themselves worthy of a movie by doing things like fighting a potential nemesis (Will Arnett), traveling through time on rad bikes, or breaking into Warner Brothers (upon spying the water tower, one squeals, "That's where the Animaniacs live!") to meet with a director (Kristen Bell) currently hard at work on Batman v Superman 2 ("Okay," Bats growls to Supes, "but what's your father's name!"). Jokes like that are spat out at an occasionally alarming rate, not all winners, some kid-friendly potty humor to go with the deep cut references, but all splattering in big, colorful, spare, blocky cartoon style. Wham! Pow! Nothing is safe from their silliness, and even though the kids are endearing, it's easy to see why Superman would shake his head and sigh, calling them no more than "goofsters." Written by series' developers Michael Jelenic and Aaron Horvath, the latter directing with series' supervising director Peter Rida Michail, the movie is a brisk 90 minutes which takes absolutely nothing seriously expect the fact that its main characters' friendships are as pure as they are lovable. It wears its encyclopedic memory for superhero pop culture lightly, and isn't afraid to dip into kid-safe Adult Swim-style weirdness -- as it has trickled down into Cartoon Network proper over the years -- like in an extended synthy 80's encouragement tune sung by a cheery big cat who has the voice of Michael Bolton and appears to be related to Tony the Tiger. (I dare not share his fate, which is as abrupt as it is shocking.) The whole endeavor is an overstimulated breeze, and a blast at being exactly what it wants to be, poking affectionate fun at all sorts of ephemera, even, who would have guessed?, working in jabs at Deadpool. (The sharp critique comes when Cyborg mistakes an obscure DC villain for the Marvel character in question and chirps, "Ooh! Look at the camera and say something inappropriate!") Manic, but not entirely mindless, it is a goof on the superhero genre as frivolous and endearing as the least essential elements with which it's playing. Still, I found myself wondering how many young children will be enjoying the blitz of references to, among wildly varied gags, Gene Hackman, Shia LaBeouf, Back to the Future, the 2010 Green Lantern flop, EDM, and Marlon Brando? Maybe it's built as baby's first meta movie, something for nerd parents to annotate on the car ride home. The seizure-inducing sound and light show is as likably quick-witted as it is dense with empty calories. It's not for nothing, I suppose, that the movie's villain intends to destroy the world by overloading it with superhero movies. Even when they're dizzingly self-aware and don't outstay their welcome, they still add to the sheer tonnage of super-content.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Cruise Control: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -- FALLOUT

Light the fuse. Cue the Lalo Schifrin. Mission: Impossible is back to show everyone how the Hollywood action movie is done. Sure, you might've gotten some competent entertainment out of the Marvel machine or found all kinds of minor pleasures in the digital frippery that beams out to multiplexes every other week. But only Tom Cruise's flagship franchise is still reliably delivering old-school thrills, pushing new technology, the height of what modern filmmaking can allow, into a tactile, analog energy played out on the biggest scale. Sure, it has special effects assists, but that so much of it plays so real, even the CG enhanced feats feel just a hair from plausible in the hurtling hurly-burly of the films' forward motion. Only the frenzied finale feels totally preposterous, but by then it's suspense whipped up so expertly into a three-layer cross-cut calamity of crises and last-second escapes that the sustained crescendo of it all carries it across. I was gripping my armrests even as I grinned at the countdown clock's elastic minutes counting down. Opening at full speed and rarely taking its foot off the gas is the sixth, and latest, in the series, Mission: Impossible - Fallout, which returning writer-director Christopher McQuarrie generously treats as all climax, a victory lap of a culmination drawing in elements (skills, gadgets, gambits, and supporting characters) of every entry that's gone before. The series has earned it -- delivering a consistently high-flying excellence in spy action over 22 years now -- and so has McQuarrie, whose Rogue Nation remains the best of them all. This one's very good, too, as satisfying as you'd expect from all involved. It's so breathlessly exhilarating, broad suspense leavened with a good-natured sense of real human stakes in the slick and shaggy sequences, I was ready to cheer as early as the opening notes of the theme song topping off a clever cold open.

Fallout finds Cruise's Ethan Hunt -- "the living manifestation of destiny" -- working harder than ever after a botched mission leaves an international terrorist organization in possession of plutonium. This leads to catastrophe that sends him running around the globe looking to stop further destruction. By now he, and we, should know what to expect. When globally bad things happen, he's our last first line of defense: the equal and opposite reaction. Because Hunt's single-mindedness in pursuit of his mission so perfectly matches Cruise's star persona, there's the deep satisfaction of seeing this exquisitely tailored match on screen again. By now we know the series lives and thrills on the back of its lead's willingness to top himself stunt after stunt. But it's not enjoyable simply because Cruise does his own stunts, taking a punch, jumping out of a window or a plane, hanging from a net thousands of feet in the air. It's the not-again expression and flash of fear in his eyes before, and the doubled-over-catching-his-breath exhales of relief when it's over. Hunt isn't invincible. He winces and scoffs and rolls his eyes and bruises his ribs. But he knows he and his team are all that stand between the world and its worst dangers. Here he and a few familiar faces (Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames) are in the field at the behest of their Impossible Missions Force boss (Alec Baldwin) and a skeptical CIA (personified by Angela Bassett) which sends along a prickly muscle-bound assistant (Henry Cavill, a perfect foil). To track down the missing plutonium they get involved in fast, pummeling, and gripping shootouts, double-crosses, sky-dives, fist-fights, and chases by car, boat, motorcycle, and helicopter. The sequences are gorgeously lensed, and crisply cut with pounding sound effects and a clanging score. If they're not always as witty as the even-better rubber-mask surprises , at least they're visceral, and shot with a go-go-go spirit that zooms excitingly by. The spectacular action is married to McQuarrie's typically crackling plotting -- at once incredibly complicated and totally simple -- of spycraft loop-de-loops (welcome back, Rebecca Ferguson) and a cascading escalation of dilemmas piling one on top of the other. But it all comes back to the pure thrill of Cruise taking off, desperately struggling to outrun the doubt that he'll not stop the latest calamity. Mark down another reliable thrill ride for what's become our most reliable franchise. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Grade Expectations: EIGHTH GRADE

Eighth Grade is perfectly positioned in the awkward space between Big Star's "Thirteen" and Taylor Swift's "Fifteen" as an agonizingly unformed cringe. It is, in other words, a fluttering and uncomfortable portrait of a fourteen-year-old's insecurities. Every scene is a negotiation between her past self and her potential futures, with stumbling mumbling, exuberant yet hesitant speech, and a slouched defensive posture. The film is therefore often excruciating, but usually sweet -- a bit much, with a pounding cutesy score cuing too obviously the character's mindset (loud blasts when she catches the eye of a cute boy, sudden silence when in an uncomfortable spot). But then again, isn't that just the way that age goes? Big emotional cues accompany every small moment of potential drama. Writer-director Bo Burnham (a former YouTuber improbably making a fine feature debut) sensitively observes this slice of gangly, fumbling life, poised teetering in the fuzzy, ill-defined space between middle school and high school. Taking place over the last week of her school year, the film follows Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she simply gets by. She is, like so many of us were, caught between her need for approval and her desire for independence, her shy hope to avoid being noticed and her stubborn hope to be accepted. She approaches every social interaction in survival mode, seeking to be cool and approachable while guarding against looking as awkward as she feels. Each scene, then, is a sense of both preservation and a wish to answer an unspoken question -- how to make the popular kids like her; how to get the cute boy to see her as someone to know; how to not look foolish in front of her peers; how to be comfortable in her own skin. The movie is loaded with symbols -- a time capsule, a cracked phone, a sliding door -- but manages to wear them lightly as natural extensions of her ordinary, relatable existence. She's moving ahead, breaking and burning some of the old, trying to move out into the next phase of life while not sure if she has what it takes.

There's little ill-considered here, though its rarity of subject and sincerity had me practically holding my breath waiting for it. Burnham's flat, empathetic, low-key style rarely insists on amping up the drama or the stakes. Here's a movie that looks at a thoroughly normal girl living a life full of quotidian ups and downs. He sticks closely to her perspective. There's no big lesson, no huge change, no sudden crisis, and not even a big dance or calamitous coming-of-age dilemma toward which to build. It simply says she's an average, ordinary eighth grader, worried about her body, lonely without close friends, consumed in social media feeds that feed her insecurities, and lost in confusion and anxiety about growing older. And that's enough reason to care. Fundamentally a kind movie, it treats its characters with respect and interest, worrying about their well-being while unable to look away as they dive head first into awkward situations. It helps that its lead is giving a performance of remarkably unselfconscious specificity. Fisher (heretofore best known as the voice of the youngest daughter in Despicable Mes) embodies the ordinariness of her character's life -- she makes little YouTube advice videos that get somewhere between zero and three views each; she alternately loves and is annoyed by her dad (Josh Hamilton, radiating kindness); she shyly puts herself in social situations that lead to a minefield of potential embarrassments (or, as in one harrowing scene with a high schooler, worse) and fumbles her away out the other side a little wiser. Maybe. She presents these complications with a realistic tone, flitting across the light script with a quick eye and well-tuned ear, jumbling and mumbling when excited and glowering when unsure. Burnham gives her the space to make the part feel genuine, and the patience to allow her character the ability to simply be. 

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Net Negative: UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB

If Unfriended: Dark Web isn't as entertaining as its predecessor, it's only because this is a horror movie with nihilism running deeper, and sadism more real. The horror this time sinks in not from cute teens murdered by an unseen paranormal force, but only from the recognition of the trade off we've made for our modern life: easier modes of connections and communication on the surface, with a deep river of darkness flowing and burbling beneath. The original managed both as one of the cleverest, most compelling, and allegorically forceful scary movies of the last several years. Told entirely from the perspective of a girl's laptop screen, with layers of windows for exposition and a chorus of Skype windows filling out the ensemble, it was a movie about a vengeful cyber-ghost haunting a group chat. Through its form and function, it was cleanly and nerve-janglingly about the vulnerability of our social media lives, about the ability to behave in increasingly dehumanizing ways toward one another. Technology, as we have seen, empowers mobs and bullies to goad each other on, and the internet never forgets. This sequel, written and directed by longtime horror screenwriter Stephen Susco, keeps the central visual conceit -- right down to using fuzzy pixelation and frozen video connections as suspense, although it's used sparingly here -- but strips away the supernatural. Here tension is maintained entirely from our throughly hackable lives. Very little, practically speaking, is impossible here. Sure, by the end it is preposterous amped up horror hyperbole, but the fact an undetectable hacker can be in your webcam as you read these words is plenty scary on its own. The most chilling sequence is a swatting that plays out exactly as it could, and has. It's not as enjoyable -- the film is thinner and more obvious in its mechanizations -- but it has the jumps you'd expect.

This sequel finds a group of international twenty-somethings on their regular game night Skype session. Cards Against Humanity is the thematically apropos choice for the evening. Unfortunately, our viewpoint computer has recently been lifted from a cyber cafe's lost and found box by Matias (Colin Woodell). This means that while he's chatting with his pals, and desperately trying to Facebook message his girlfriend in order to make up after their opening scene argument (fine use is made of the appearing and disappearing ellipses that are effectively her only response for some time), they're being watched. He doesn't know that at first, but as he pokes around his newly acquired used laptop, he discovers a treasure trove of snuff films and a portal to the Dark Web. Soon enough, the criminals whose lost computer he found start insinuating themselves into the chat. Stay connected. Don't call the cops. Return the computer and no one gets hurt. Of course, the cast tries desperately to wriggle their way out of the predicament, but the cold, unblinking logic of technologically abetted evil and the unwavering perspective of a desktop slowly crowded with windows of various nefarious intent does not bode well. It's gripping and scary, if not as cleverly crescendoed, visually dense, or fully engaged in character building and allegorical expression as the great original. But what it lacks in fun and novelty, it gains in similar bone-deep recognition. Here's a movie about the inherent instability, exposure, and danger from which we're all one wrong click away. Are we likely to be targeted by a powerful hacker collective willing to blackmail and kill to protect their contraband videos? Probably not, but the image of stumbling into the Dark Web is as plausible as the dark forests and dim alleyways that have long been the slasher genre's stock in trade. It's no fun to be reminded how dangerous the internet can be, but as an exercise in modern resonance and horror style it's certainly effective right up until it grows too obvious and peters out. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

ABBA Gold: MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a good argument for taking the time to get it right. The original jukebox musical Mamma Mia! hung ABBA's greatest hits on a threadbare clothesline plot about a daughter (Amanda Seyfried) getting married while trying to figure out which former lover (Pierce Brosnan? Stellan Skarsgard? Colin Firth?) of her mother (Meryl Streep) is her father. To the extent that movie worked at all, which was little, it gathered up from the catchy pop sounds of the Swedish group to which it was a tribute, and the eager giddiness with which its decidedly amateur chorus attacked their routines. The shame, then, was how consistently they were undone by slapdash editing that fumbled the timing of jokes and dances alike. Now, ten years later, they're back, and it's better than ever. It has less plot, but more story, if you catch my drift, with stakes so very low, but a timeline that whipsaws back and forth in time, catching the early days of Streep's whirlwind romances with three young guys she meets while galavanting across Europe in a post-collegiate haze, and the modern travails of the daughter trying to start a hotel on her mother's beloved Greek isle. It's still just a pretense to sing and dance, but writer-director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) leads the troupe with a surer hand. He holds the spectacle of the clever choreography with a better bounce and clearer cuts, while allowing the cornball storytelling to work up to a glitter fever of big, belting emotions sung through the slightly lesser hits of ABBA (and encores of all the best they used last time). In sum, this movie is a blast of frivolity - dancing, jiving, having the time of its life. You try to hold back a smile when a gigantic group number to "Dancing Queen" inaugurates a party in style.

The new cast members are charismatic, with supremely charming Lily James (Cinderella) stepping capably into the role of the youthful free spirit Streep meeting handsome young men (Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, and Josh Dylan) wooing her at every stop. She breaks a heart. Hers gets broken. It's all filling in backstory we didn't much need literalized in the first film, but this one's better anyway. It's bouncy, ebullient, playful. Her story plays out a casually heightened and sweetly permissive sense of easily falling in and out of love. The participants are uniformly as pretty as the picturesque sun-dappled Europe around them. Of course they sing "Waterloo" in a Parisian cafe. Of course she glumly sings the title song when she's been betrayed -- "I was cheated by you and I think you know when," after all. It's all a fizzy blur, attractively photographed and energetically performed. It rushes on like a summer storm and retreats as quickly. The flashbacks nestle in the story of the daughter, who feels closer than ever to her mother because of her location and company. She's surrounded by some of the returning characters (Christine Baranski, regal as always, and Julie Walters, always charmingly, purposely, a step behind the dance) and helped by a welcome addition in a dashing Andy Garcia. She's missing a departed loved one. There's a sadness there, but nothing a song can't lift for a moment. There are teases of heavier emotions around the margins -- and a bittersweet ghostly duet in the end -- but the movie's too much of a dance party to get weighed down. This lets it draw sweet, sentimental contrast between mother and daughter, to watch youthful folks passionately living lives, and older folks stubbornly trying to keep their spontaneity afloat. All that and Cher turns up in the end to literally upstage fireworks in the most predictable and satisfying payoff in recent dangled plot hint history. What a fun, featherweight, goofy groove of a hangout movie.