There are many movies to choose from during the Christmas holidays, some for adults, some for families. Film critic Andrew L. Urban is here to help you choose: one for the grown-ups – “Allied”, a dramatic wartime love story starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard; and one for the family – “Sing”, starring a koala and a joyous 3D animation in which pigs and other animals sing – gloriously.
Allied – Directed by Robert Zemeckis
In 1942, Max (Brad Pitt), a French-Canadian spy based in London but working in North Africa, falls in love with French Resistance agent Marianne (Marion Cotillard) after a mission together in Casablanca. He marries her and takes her to London, continuing his secret work while she takes care of Anna, their new baby girl. But when Max is alerted by his superiors that Marianne is possibly a Nazi spy, he is ordered to test her loyalties.
You would be forgiven for thinking that “Allied” is a war movie, and you would be pleasantly surprised that it is much more than that. Yes, it is set in the middle of WWII and starts in Casablanca (the title role of another cool romance for grown-ups set in the war), but Englishman Steven Knight’s excellent screenplay is more concerned with the battle of hearts and loyalties than the one on the ground.
There is wartime gunfire too, though, and it plays a crucial role, but not as in a movie about the war. This is about people, characters who have to make choices that are forced upon them – in this case by war.
The film is beautifully nursed along its trajectory by director Robert Zemeckis (he won the Oscar for “Forrest Gump”, 1994), careful to build the tension and hold back the secrets that provide the emotional payoff in the resolution.
The characters are established as soon as they meet for the first time, when they are spies role-playing as husband and wife in expat-filled Casablanca, a swirling cous cous of spies, enemies and the military.
We follow them as their romance ignites quietly under the Moroccan night skies on the roof of their home and later as they start their new life together. The story sets up the all-important context before the shock revelation that Max’s superiors believe his wife to be a spy for the Germans. This is one of the most powerful scenes in the film.
There is just one false note; a shot of baby Anna’s things with a sign that reads “Anna’s safe space”. There was no such phrase used by parents in 1942 Europe.
Zemeckis works with a terrific cast, not only the outstanding leads – both making us care deeply about them – but also the supports, such as Jared Harris as Frank, one of Max’s senior officers, and Simon McBurney as another, in a powerful cameo.
Others also play crucial roles, from Matthew Goode (another strong cameo) as a badly wounded pilot, to Sally Mesham as one of Max’s good friends.
Superbly designed and filmed, “Allied” is a film for grown-ups who appreciate drama that reflects life which is not seen through a fake cinematic filter.
(In cinemas now, in both original English language and dubbed versions. Check cinema guides.)
Sing 2D & 3D – Directed by Garth Jennings, Christoph Laurdelet
Energetic entrepreneur koala Buster Moon (voice of Matthew McConaughay) hasn’t had a hit show in his theatre for too long, and the bank is threatening to foreclose – so he stages the world’s greatest singing competition.
Multi-talented English writer/director Garth Jennings has made Buster Moon, his central character, a koala, an Australian icon, and this is fitting because Buster Moon has to display the kind of “can do” attitude for which Australians are famous.
His challenge is to save his beloved theatre – and what better way than with the world’s greatest singing competition. All creatures are welcome to audition … and they do. “Let’s put on a show” is a time-honoured device in movies, but that doesn’t mean the film is a predictable and tired rehash of its predecessors. Far from it.
Entertainingly weird characters, not least the wondrous creation of ancient Miss Crawly (voiced in the original by Jennings himself) who is the odd-ball-eyed assistant to Buster Moon, and Johnny the young gorilla (Taron Egerton) who sings and plays mean piano, crowd the stage for a non-stop cavalcade of laughs, thrills, heart and music.
And wow, what music: from Stevie Wonder and Leonard Cohen (yes, Hallelujah) to Paul Anka and Paul McCartney, the music is all pedigree stuff.
The singing housewife pig Rosita (sung by Reese Witherspoon) and her stage partner the oversized but nimble pig Gunter (Nick Kroll) are hardly done knocking us sideways when along comes the rest of the troupe.
The multi-layered screenplay deals with everything from family and friendship to self belief and determination in the face of disaster. Buster Moon, motivated by his father’s memory; Johnny escaping his father’s gang of crims for music; Meena (sung by Tori Kelly) the ultra shy and ultra talented teenage elephant urged on by her family … and spiky haired rock guitarist hedgehog Ash (Scarlett Johansson) who breaks up with her musician boyfriend but goes ahead solo. Just to mention a few …but let’s not forget retired diva Miss Nana Noodleman, who plays a key cameo.
It’s hard to pick out highlights – the whole film is a highlight. The animal characters are recognisably authentic avatars for humans we all recognise, and are rendered with sublime artistry; we catch ourselves forgetting they are animations. It’s just wonderful.
(In cinemas from December 22 in both original English language and dubbed versions with songs in the original language. Check cinema guides.)