Saturday, January 21, 2017

Sing & Patriots Day

A couple weeks ago, I treated myself to a movie night with the animated musical comedy Sing. It was directed by Garth Jennings, who also did 2005's star-studded (ha!) sci-fi yukfest The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the 2007 low-budget film Son of Rambow, both of which I have actually seen. (The latter is about a youth whose religion forbids him to watch movies, who partners with another boy at his school to enter a film-making contest. It's sort of like Super 8, only without aliens, military guys, or high production values.) I can't remember what other movies were on offer at the five-screen cinema I visited that night, but I don't recall the decision to go with Sing was a difficult one. These days, I'm lucky if there's even one movie playing in nearby theaters that I would care to see. So I jumped at the chance.

Sing is an uplifting, funny, toe-tapping movie combining the latest animation technology with the oldest type of musical revue: a story about a struggling impresario and his gang of misfit talents, pulling together a big show in one last, desperate attempt to save their beloved theater. Its musical numbers are mostly covers - good ones - of well-known songs, like Leonard Cohen's "Alleluia" and Elton John's "I'm Still Standing." The characters are various species of anthropomorphic animals who live in a city full of the same. The voice cast includes Matthew McConaughey as the koala theater owner, John C. Reilly (who also voiced the lead character in Wreck-It Ralph) as his sheep buddy, Jennifer Saunders of Absolutely Fabulous as Reilly's character's scary-diva grandma ("the meanest sheep in the world"), Reese Witherspoon as a housewife pig with big dreams, Scarlett Johansson as a punk-rocking porcupine who channels her relationship troubles into creative power, sometime American Idol contestant Tori Kelly as a teenage elephant whose shyness almost sinks her chance to show her talent, and Rhea Perlman of Matilda and TV's Cheers as a llama who works for the bank.

The voice talent doesn't stop there. Playing such characters as a young cockney gorilla trying to escape his family's tradition of bank robbery, a flamboyant German-accented pig, a caddish lounge-singer mouse, and an elderly iguana with a glass eye are Taron Egerton of Kingsman: The Secret Service, Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy, Nick Offerman of Parks and Recreation, Jennifer Hudson of Dreamgirls, Leslie Jones of the recent Ghostbusters reboot, and her fellow Saturday Night Live cast members Beck Bennett, Laraine Newman, and Jay Pharaoh. The cast also includes Peter Serafinowicz, who voiced Darth Maul in Star Wars: Episode I; Bill Farmer, who has been the voice of Disney's Goofy since the 1980s; and members of director Jennings' family, including Garth himself. (His self-casting as the crazy-eyed Ms. Crawly is the funniest director's voice cameo in an animated film since Brad Bird played Edna Mode in The Incredibles.)

There's nothing much to say about the storyline that you can't guess from what I've already hinted. But it's a really fun movie, with lots of humor, some poignant moments, and great music. I'm afraid it might become a victim of Hollywood's mania for sequels. So for now, let me continue my recent practice of just recalling three scenes that really made the movie for me: (1) Buster Moon, the koala, has to resort to washing cars for a living. How does he do it? By having Ms. Crawly splash a bucket of water on him. Then, clad in a speedo, he jumps on the hood of the customer's car and rubs his sudsy, furry body against it, while his sheep pal provides drying services. (2) The porcupine girl's ex-boyfriend is dumbstruck when he sees her singing on TV. His new girlfriend goes, "She's nothing special," clicks the TV off, and leaves the room. Boyfriend grabs the controller and turns the TV back on. (3) The pig housewife invents a Rube Goldberg machine that hoodwinks her husband and 36 piglets(?!) into not noticing she is out of the house, at rehearsals. Later, it malfunctions horribly, but hilariously.

Last night, I traveled halfway around the Lake of the Ozarks to visit a cinema large enough to offer more choices than the five-plex where I saw Sing, which wasn't showing anything that interested me. Way over in Lake Ozark, however, they were screening Patriots Day, a Peter Berg-directed dramatization of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath. The cast is headlined by Mark Wahlberg, playing (I assume) a fictionalized Boston police character, most likely a combination of several real people and a screenwriter's device for putting words he wants the audience to hear into somebody's mouth. Whoever Wahlberg is supposed to represent, I reckon no single cop could have been in all the places his character was, from half a block away from the first bomb blast, to the FBI command center, to right on the scene of every development in the manhunt for the two terrorist brothers whose actions resulted in four deaths, numerous injuries, and a lot of localized property destruction. Plus, he gets to deliver a too-good-to-be-true speech, toward the end of the movie, that can only be an artifact of the writers' being unable to resist getting preachy.

Joining Wahlberg are John Goodman (The Big Lebowski, etc.) as the Boston police commish; J.K. Simmons (Oscared for Whiplash) as a Watertown, Mass. police sergeant; Kevin Bacon as the FBI special agent in charge of the manhunt; Michael Beach (TV's Third Watch) as then-Mass. governor Deval Patrick; Michelle Monaghan (the Mission Impossible films) as Wahlberg's wife; Melissa Benoist (TV's Supergirl) as the American-born, stand-by-her-man wife of one of the terrorists; Rachel Brosnahan (TV's House of Cards) as a woman who, together with her husband, loses three legs in the bombing; and Alex Wolff, one of two real-life brothers featured on Nickelodeon's The Naked Brothers Band, as the younger and more assimilated of the two Chechen-American brothers, the one who was captured alive and is now on death row for his crimes. The young MIT campus cop the brothers shot to death is played by Jake Picking, who also played a musclehead in Dirty Grandpa. Another Wahlberg brother, Brandon, also plays a cop. Khandi Alexander (TV's CSI: Miami and Scandal) has a brief role as an interrogator from an unnamed agency who tries to break Benoist's character. Jimmy O. Yang of TV's Silicon Valley plays a young Chinese man who is carjacked by the terrorists. And once again, the director (who also has a lengthy list of acting credits) shows up in a hard-to-recognize cameo, as some random dude whose appearance on the scene scares the bad guys off before they can retrieve the slain cop's gun.

As the film follows the movements of several characters before, during, and after the bombing - including victims, investigators, and the villains - it comes close to portraying the terrorists in a sympathetic light, during scenes following their point of view; but once the carnage starts, the possibility of sympathizing with them rapidly slides to zero. For a moment, I thought Wahlberg's little "only love can beat terrorism" sermon sounded like a pretty weak response to the war that the enemies of free civilization have brought to us; but an epilogue, in which the real-life people portrayed in the movie deliver their own testimonials, makes it clear the movie is preaching more of the gospel of "Boston Strong" - that when a community pulls together to fight a threat from outside, it can beat the bad guys faster and leave the place, blood-spattered rubble and all, stronger for it. It's a good message, and at several points in the film I was overwhelmed by its emotional impact.

It's hard to choose my top three "scenes that made it for me," but here goes: (1) Alexander, interrogating Benoist in the person of a Muslim woman who understands her worldview all too well, keeps chipping away at the younger woman's defenses with different approaches to the question, "Are there more bombs?" When Benoist demands to see a lawyer or to be let go, and the interrogators say no to both, she tries to invoke the social order she has, until now, been only too happy to undermine. "I have rights!" she cries. At that, Alexander drops out of character and deadpans, "Honey, you ain't got shit." The audience loudly approved. (2) The young Chinese guy sits in the front passenger seat of his own car while the older Tsarnaev brother pokes at the screen of his smart phone, and the younger brother is inside a convenience store buying food for their planned trip to take Manhattan. Berg crafts a scene of unbearable suspense as the terrified carjacking victim, without a single line of dialogue, visibly thinks about jumping out of the car and running for it. In a follow-up scene, Wahlberg shakes hands with the victim-who-got-away, who suddenly drops the soft-and-blubbery act and says with a steely look, "Go get those motherf***ers." More audience cheers and laughter. (3) Kevin Bacon's FBI guy doesn't want to release pictures of the Tsarnaev pictures to the press until he has more evidence they're the bombers; he's afraid the city will go medieval on them, and anyone else of a Muslim persuasion, and it won't be take-backable if they turn out to be innocent. Then somebody holds up a cellphone and says Fox News is on the line; they already have the suspects' photos and are threatening to release them to the public with or without a statement from the FBI. Bacon, recognizing he's cornered, orders a press conference and then, for the duration of one line, his face and voice become terrifying as he says, "When this is over, I'm going to hunt down whoever leaked those pictures and f***ing RUIN THEM." I had chills.

Actually, I need to throw in a bonus fourth scene-that-made-it-for-me. It was early in the movie, before the bombings happened. It introduces the couple who both lost limbs in the bombing; but at that point, there was no telling (unless you already know the story cold) whether they're going to live, die, come to other people's aid after the bombings, or what. But I got choked up anyway as the wife, a nurse, explained to her husband how the husband of a patient who had recently died came to her ward and gave her a beautiful necklace that his wife had asked him to give her, and she held him while he cried. She wondered aloud why the wife had singled her out, since they had only known each other for a short time at the end of the lady's life. But the nurse's husband said (loosely quoting now), "I think I know why she chose you. She knew you would hold him." A day later, I can't replay that scene in my head without crying.

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