Sunday, December 26, 2021

Sing 2 & one more

Last Thursday evening, I went to see Sing 2, an animated sequel from Illumination, home of the Minions. It seemed like a good idea, since I liked the original movie and it was my last night all to myself before a marathon of church services and a visit to my folks over this past three-day Christmas weekend. And without adding anything essentially new, except a few more anthropomorphic animal characters, it was pretty much the same kind of feel-good story, with song and dance numbers, as the first flick, with some jokes that landed (hey, I heard myself laugh out loud a couple times), impressive musical production numbers, a big bad wolf, a cowardly lion (well, more paralyzed by grief, really), a mean choreographer and a sci-fi rock opera written by a literal pig. What's not to like?

There's not much plot to synopsize. I mean, think about it; how could there be, and still have time for the musical bits? Bono – yes, he of U2 – plays the composer of "I still haven't found what I'm looking for," which doesn't sound like a big stretch until you realize that he's doing it as a middle-aged lion who hasn't sung in the 15 years since his wife died. Now Buster Moon, the koala producer who wants his small-town theater troupe to make it in the big time, has sort-of accidentally told a soulless media magnate named Crystal (the wolf) that he can bring Clay Calloway (the lion) out of retirement to headline his show. But as the date of the show gets closer, and the wolf's spoiled daughter pouts her way into the production, Crystal's threat to kill Moon if he messes up becomes an imminent guarantee. Somehow, the troupe has to pull off the show while fighting-slash-eluding Crystal and his goons and overcoming Clay's down-to-the-wire cold feet. Onstage spectacle and backstage adventure collide in a brilliant climax, and a whole constellation of stars are born.

Though there isn't much originality in the storyline, there's lots of voice talent in the cast. Beside the aforementioned Bono, lead cast members include Matthew McConaughey as Buster, Bobby Cannavale (whom I last saw as the villain in a latter-day Jumanji movie) as Crystal, Reese Witherspoon as the "momma pig" whose two dozen piglets create a needed diversion at a crucial point, Scarlett Johansson as a punk rock porcupine, sometime American Idol contestant Tori Kelly as a socially awkward elephant who is terrified of having to play her first love scene, Pharrell Williams (the singer of "Happy") as the elephant ice cream vendor who becomes her inspiration, Taron Egerton (late of the Kingsman movies) as the young gorilla singer struggling to learn his dance moves, Chelsea Peretti of Brooklyn Nine-Nine as a dog talent scout who tells Buster Moon that he isn't good enough, Peter Serafinowicz (The Tick) as the young gorilla's semi-reformed gangster father, and an uncredited Spike Jonze (the director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) as a cat who sucks up to Crystal. There are more names I could list but these are the ones that rang a bell with me; I mean no disparagement of the comedic, acting and musical talents of the remaining cast. But after all, what you see on screen is animated animals, and a good deal of the acting is, like, a work of art.

So, without drawing it out any further, here are the Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Pretty much the whole sequence in which the good guys are giving a performance of their musical while the bad guys try to stop it. (2) The auditions to be the next big act in Redshore City, which featured some pretty far-out acts. (3) Gunther the pig's creative input on the script for the cast's stage show, each idea of which is more impractical than the one before it.

Last night, I followed the recommendation of a Facebook friend I've known since way back when and took a look at the online trailer for The Ultimate Gift, a 2006 movie of which I'd never heard before. I ended up watching the entire movie on YouTube, and may I begin by commenting that YouTube is absolutely the worst platform for movie viewing that I've ever experienced. Two commercials, every 10 minutes on the dot, and only about one in five let you "skip ad(s)" after the first five seconds, and it was usually the second of the two, all the way through the movie. Although it was weird how often that exactly-10-minute mark coincided with a change of scene.

The main character, played by a good-looking guy best known (after this movie) for roles in TV shows I never watched (Army Wives, Charmed, etc.), is a spoiled brat member of an entire family of spoiled brats weaned on oil money. They all, except Jason (our brat), have expectations from the will of the family patriarch (played by James Garner), who dies offscreen at the very start of the movie. For some reason, old Red Stevens has seen more potential, or fire, or something in Jason than in any of his other kids or grandkids, who are (to be honest) a pretty disgusting bunch of human beings. But there's been a rift between Red and Jason ever since Jason's dad died and, for reasons understood only later, the kid blamed Red for it. Since then he hasn't done anything but enjoy himself on all the money in the world. But after Red leaves each of his surviving kids a piece of his fortune (for which they are extremely ungrateful), his lawyer surprises Jason by telling him he's been singled out to receive a series of gifts, which are more like tests of character, and if he succeeds in all of them, the "ultimate gift" will be his.

Reluctantly, the snot-nosed brat agrees to play this game-from-beyond-the-grave with his grandfather, and the gifts-slash-challenges cut him down to size pretty quickly. They include slaving for a month on a Texas cattle ranch, losing everything he has and having to start over with nothing, finding out who his true friends are (hint: he has to make new friends to pass this test), giving away what little he has, enduring a Thanksgiving dinner with his "they eat their own" family, etc., etc. I won't list all the "gifts" Red has in store for him, but along the way he forms a heartbreaking bond with a dying little girl, falls in love with her mom, and rises to the challenge of (in the lawyer's words) becoming the man she deserves.

I didn't know who most of these actors were, particularly the leading romantic couple, so it clearly wasn't typecasting or name recognition that did the magic. It was how the movie was written, acted and filmed that made Jason's journey from an obnoxious waste of displaced air to a good and potentially great man moving to behold. I'm a soft touch, as you'd know by now if you've been following me for any length of time, so take this for what it's worth, but I got a lump in my throat at several points in this movie and I had dampness on my cheeks more than once. I was willing to forgive the preposterousness of what James Garner's character was putting what's-his-face's character through, and I'll admit that a couple scenes toward the end went a little beyond the level of weirdness I'd been prepared to accept (e.g. the final conversation between Jason and Red, which took place in I know not what reality), and I'm a little pissed about how the film dealt with the little girl's medical outcome (see how hard I try to avoid spoilers), and I'm ambivalent about the end credits' replay of scenes from the movie with titles to explain what each of Red's intended gifts were (although some of them were news to me).

However, I shouldn't downplay the power of an effective cast. The star, really, was Abigail Breslin as young Emily, a very sick little girl with a big attitude who gets some of the best lines, of both the "laugh out loud" and the "rip the heart out of your chest" persuasion. Playing the lawyer is Bill Cobbs, a you'd-know-his-face character actor whose roles included the inventor of the transporter on Star Trek, the villainous security guard in Night at the Museum and the coach in Air Bud. His assistant is played by Lee Meriwether, a former Miss America who played Catwoman in the 1970s TV version of Batman; amazingly, IMDB lists this movie as the role she's third-best-known-for. One of Jason's uncles is played by Brett Rice, whom I remember as a coach who antagonized Denzel Washington in Remember the Titans. Brian Dennehy plays the rancher, Gus, who puts Jason through his first hellish month (giving him the gift of hard work) and later returns as a friend. Pretty much everyone else in the cast, including Drew Fuller (who plays Jason), is more or less best known for this movie, but that may not be a bad thing. It's the kind of movie that you'd enjoy if you also liked Healer (about whose lead actor I mostly remember that he had a Daniel Radcliffe smile), except without that movie's touch of the supernatural (unless you count Jason and Red's bizarre farewell scene).

So, before I drag this out any longer, let's have the Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Jason asks Emily what her dream is, and she says, "It's to have the perfect day, and I'm just coming to the end of it now." *chokes up all over again* (2) After he and his guide are captured by an Ecuadorian drug cartel – did I forget to mention that part? – Jason, realizing that the bad guys are going to kill him in the morning, sees an opportunity to escape and takes it. For the next 30 seconds I was yelling at the screen, "Stop! Go back! Save your amigo!" Not to spoil for you whether he does or not, I'd like to remind you what this is a list of. (3) The kiss. Yeah, I know, I've seen too many Hallmark Channel movies. But there it is. Kisses, actually. And the dialogue, scenery, acting and preparation that went into it, all the way back to when the little girl revealed that she wanted to set Jason up with her mom. It worked, on the level of "worked" where I could imagine theater audiences whooping and applauding. EDIT: I got dinged by Blogger for a copyright violation for one of the movie poster images originally included in this movie review. Good Lord. I guess you can't write movie reviews now.

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