Wild world peopled by singing stars
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