Wild world peo­pled by singing stars

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

It feels like it’s dif­fi­cult to watch a Hol­ly­wood movie or Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion se­ries at the mo­ment with­out an Aus­tralian pop­ping up in front of the cam­era, or work­ing be­hind it. It’s a credit to our tal­ented ac­tors and film­mak­ers. As it hap­pens, I don’t think there is an Aus­tralian in the su­perb an­i­mated mu­si­cal com­edy Sing, ex­cept for the lead­ing char­ac­ter, a the­atre-own­ing koala named Buster Moon.

The dap­per Buster is voiced by Amer­i­can ac­tor Matthew McConaughey, so there’s not a “mate” within hear­ing or a eu­ca­lyp­tus leaf in sight. He’s an en­tre­pre­neur with an artis­tic soul and his once great the­atre is in dire straits.

It’s one of the beau­ties of this film that the koala doesn’t have to act like a koala. He isn’t re­quired, for ex­am­ple, to uri­nate on a tourism min­is­ter. The nu­mer­ous an­i­mals that make up the cast, all voiced by fine ac­tors, are there as peo­ple. This is not a story in which an­i­mals are part of our world. It’s their world, and there’s not a hu­man in sight.

Some of the an­i­mal in­stincts are clev­erly used, but in a way that re­in­forces the char­ac­ter’s per­son­hood. So when we see that a pig named Rosita (Reese Wither­spoon) has 25 chil­dren, we think of her as not as a sow but as a fraz­zled but lov­ing stay-at-home mum. The life and job as­sign­ments are funny, too. I like see­ing rhi­nos as po­lice of­fi­cers, a stern, be­spec­ta­cled fe­male llama as the bank man­ager and huge bears as east­ern Euro­pean-ac­cented mob­sters.

But best of all is the ar­ro­gant, tal­ented white mouse named Mike. A se­duc­tive singer, card sharp and ladies’ man, he’s clearly a ro­dent­sized Frank Si­na­tra. Watch­ing him sing I thought Si­na­tra tracks were be­ing used, but no, it’s the voice of the ac­tor, TV an­i­ma­tor Seth MacFar­lane, who I learned only later has recorded an al­bum of Si­na­tra songs. MacFar­lane does bring a Rat Pack swing to this mouse, and it’s ter­rific to see and hear.

That’s some­thing else this film re­minds us of: how ac­tors can sing. As well as MacFar­lane and Wither­spoon (who sang her way to an Os­car as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line), there’s Scar­lett Jo­hans­son as Ash, a pre-punk teenage por­cu­pine who can still a room with her rock ’n’ roll (and her quills), Welsh ac­tor Taron Eger­ton as Johnny, a moun­tain go­rilla with a golden voice, and Amer­i­can singer-ac­tress Tori Kelly as Meena, a shy In­dian ele­phant who should be top of the charts. Her pri­vate ren­di­tion of Leonard Co­hen’s Hal­lelu­jah is stun­ning.

The choice of songs — which have been re­leased as a sound­track al­bum — is just right, Sing; As­sas­sin’s Creed both for their con­nec­tion to the story and their abil­ity to make adult view­ers jump a bit in their seats. Some are per­formed in full, such as Cock­ney-ac­cented Johnny’s out­stand­ing ver­sion of I’m Still Stand­ing, while oth­ers pop up briefly and at ex­actly the right time, such as The Girl from Im­panema or Pen­nies from Heaven. I’m not go­ing to re­veal the song Mike belts out at the end, but it is worth wait­ing for.

The are some sad song mo­ments, too. David Bowie is heard in Un­der Pres­sure. And the film was re­leased just be­fore Ge­orge Michael died, adding some­thing un­ex­pect­edly melan­cholic to a char­ac­ter hav­ing Wake Me Up Be­fore You Go-Go as his mo­bile phone ring­tone.

The story is sim­ple but sen­si­tive. In an at­tempt to stave off bank­ruptcy, Buster de­cides to hold a singing com­pe­ti­tion. First prize will be $1000 … un­til a typ­ing mis­take by his 200-yearold, one-eyed iguana sec­re­tary turns it into a prom­ise of $100,000. Nat­u­rally ev­ery­one turns up to au­di­tion, from prawns to gi­raffes. The try­out scenes are hi­lar­i­ous, the an­i­ma­tion so seam­less that you could be watch­ing Amer­i­can Idol. Buster chooses a hand­ful for the show, in­clud­ing Johnny, who is un­der the thumb of his crim­i­nal fa­ther, Rosita, Mike and Ash. Meena will be­come in­volved too, don’t fret.

One per­son Buster wants to im­press is the wealthy grande dame of mu­si­cal the­atre, Nan Noodle­man (Jen­nifer Saun­ders), who is “one mean sheep”, in the words of her layabout grand­son Ed­die (John C. Reilly). Buster is an in­no­va­tor. He pulls out all stops to make this show unique, which leads to a drama as great as any I’ve seen in a dis­as­ter film. When the chips are down, we feel for Buster as a show­man with a dream, not a chew­ing koala. But where there is voice, there is hope.

Sing is writ­ten and di­rected with hu­mor­ous elan by Bri­tish film­maker Garth Jen­nings. It’s the lat­est pro­duc­tion from Amer­i­can an­i­ma­tion group Illumination, which has had great suc­cess with the De­spi­ca­ble Me movies and the Min­ions fran­chise. Sing is up there with their best. It’s rare in this game to see a film al­most blind. And be­fore any­one makes a boozy joke, I mean a film about which you know al­most noth­ing. So it was with the ac­tion-ad­ven­ture As­sas­sin’s Creed, and it was a rev­e­la­tory ex­pe­ri­ence. All I knew was the movie was based on a video game, which didn’t whet my ap­petite.

As it started, I was sur­prised by the cast. Two Os­car win­ners, Jeremy Irons and Mar­ion Cotil- lard, the ab­sorb­ing Michael Fass­ben­der, and even the great Char­lotte Ram­pling. What on earth were they do­ing in this?

Well, first of all they were mak­ing an in­tel­li­gent and at times thrilling movie, one I later learned has orig­i­nal sto­ry­lines and orig­i­nal char­ac­ters in­tro­duced, be­yond the video game. But the de­fin­i­tive an­swer came with the end cred­its, and it was Aus­tralian.

The film is di­rected by Justin Kurzel, who made his name with the darkly un­set­tling Snow­town (2011). Now I knew why the film was so well-made. Last year Kurzel made an adap­ta­tion of Mac­beth, and his Thane and Lady, Fass­ben­der and Cotil­lard, stick with him for this film, which is closer to Shake­speare’s tragedy than its ori­gin might sug­gest.

The story un­folds in two con­nected parts, one in con­tem­po­rary Amer­ica, one in In­qui­si­tion Spain. In the first, Cal­lum Lynch (Fass­ben­der) is a death-row in­mate saved from ex­e­cu­tion by Ab­stergo In­dus­tries, an out­fit on a quest to per­fect hu­mankind. It is run by Alan Rikkin (a suit­ably aloof Irons). His daugh­ter Sophia (Cotil­lard) is the chief sci­en­tist.

They have dis­cov­ered that Lynch is a di­rect de­scen­dant of Aguilar de Nehra, who was part of a band of as­sas­sins ded­i­cated to stop­ping the Catholic Tem­plar Or­der, the knights of the Cru­sades, from tak­ing over the world.

The holy grail be­ing sought, with blood and tears, is the orig­i­nal ap­ple of Eden, the cause of orig­i­nal sin. The mod­ern sci­en­tists be­lieve it holds the key to re­mov­ing the “dis­ease” of vi­o­lence from hu­man­ity. Though of course they may have other mo­tives too. The 15th-cen­tury Catholics want to re­trieve the ap­ple, which they be­lieve is in the hands of a heretic, and will slash and burn any­one who stands in their way.

Lynch is put into a de­vice that al­lows him to go back, men­tally, to be­ing the se­cret as­sas­sin of his lin­eage. Fass­ben­der plays both roles. Like all new tech­nol­ogy, though, there are some hitches. Lynch is in a room in the US, fight­ing like a de­mon. We see this play out there, and in Spain 500-plus years ago. The sci­en­tists think they can con­trol him. Maybe, maybe not.

Fass­ben­der is mes­meris­ing, es­pe­cially in the bizarrely funny early scenes where he wakes up, think­ing he’d been ex­e­cuted, and is shown around the lab where he is housed with other not-killed killers. “What the f..k is go­ing on?’’ he asks, not un­rea­son­ably. He is a grip­ping ac­tor and I hope he signs up for the film Kurzel is said to be work­ing on, an adap­ta­tion of Peter Carey’s novel True History of the Kelly Gang.

As­sas­sin’s Creed is first of all an ac­tion movie with lots of blades swirling in the name of good, or God, or bad. You can de­cide. But its ex­plo­ration of themes such as hu­man vi­o­lence and its tap­ping into the con­flict be­tween sci­ence and re­li­gion, and be­tween peo­ple of dif­fer­ent be­liefs and racial ori­gins, is thought­ful and as rel­e­vant to­day as it was in 1492.

Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) and Ash (Scar­lett Jo­hans­son) in be­low, Michael Fass­ben­der in

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