Abominable review

For F*** Magazine

ABOMINABLE

Director: Jill Culton
Cast : Chloe Bennet, Albert Tsai, Tenzing Norgay Trainor, Eddie Izzard, Sarah Paulson, Tsai Chin, Michelle Wong
Genre : Animation, Comedy, Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 37 mins
Opens : 7 November 2019
Rating : PG

We’re not quite sure why, but lately there have been a slew of animated movies revolving around yetis and sasquatches, including Smallfoot, The Son of Bigfoot and Missing Link. DreamWorks animation presents the tale of an especially fluffy Yeti with Abominable, which has been in development at the studio since 2010.

Yi (Chloe Bennet) is an adventurous girl living with her mother (Michelle Wong) and grandmother (Tasi Chin) in Shanghai. Yi hasn’t quite processed the death of her father, who taught her how to play the violin. The violin he has left behind is a treasured possession of Yi’s. One night, she comes across a Yeti hiding on the roof of her apartment. The wealthy industrialist Burnish (Eddie Izzard) has sent a team led by zoologist Dr Zara (Sarah Paulson) to catch a Yeti, but the creature has escaped their clutches. Together with her basketball-loving friend Peng (Albert Tsai) and Peng’s vain cousin Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor), Yi embarks on an odyssey to help the Yeti, dubbed ‘Everest’, return to his home in the Himalayas.

Abominable is charming and sincere, with an especially loveable creature at its centre. Everest feels a bit like the beloved Studio Ghibli creation Totoro, with a heaping dose of puppy dog enthusiasm and a roly-poly form covered in soft shaggy fur. He’s made to sell stuffed toys, but we’re not complaining (and we do actively want a stuffed toy of Everest now). The film’s story is straightforward, but it often manages to be genuinely moving and quite delightful. Several action sequences, including an aerial chase set against the mountains of Huangshan, possess the thrilling momentum we’ve seen in earlier DreamWorks animated movies.

The voice cast, led by Chloe Bennet of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fame, is lively and engaging. It’s also worth noting that the lead characters are all voiced by actors of Asian descent, unlike in films like Kubo and the Two Strings. Interesting, Tenzing Norgay Trainor is the grandson of the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, one of the first two men to reach the summit of Mount Everest. The animation is often beautiful – more on the scenery later.

Writer-director Jill Culton includes almost every device from the “a kid and their X” playbook in this film, such that the movie seems overly familiar at times. The movie’s magic is diminished ever so slightly by the recognisable elements it borrows from other films. The Yeti’s power to manipulate nature, which helps Yi and company escape the mercenaries pursuing them, is reminiscent of E.T. lifting Elliott and his friends’ bikes off the ground in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The villains are generic and one-dimensional, even with a reveal thrown in around midway through the movie.

Some of the gags seem a bit more juvenile than others, but thankfully Abominable largely steers clear of grating, over-the-top cartoon antics. Abominable also suffers slightly for being released in the same year as How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. When it comes to ‘a kid and their x’ movies made by DreamWorks, the How to Train Your Dragon films are a tough act to follow. Abominable’s main poster art seems deliberately like that of the first How to Train Your Dragon movie. The animation is largely excellent, but the scenes set in Shanghai seem to lack the detail that would really make the city feel alive onscreen.

Music is an important and emotional element of the film. Yi’s violin is of sentimental significance to her, and playing the violin is her way of remembering her father. Everest’s powers over the natural environment are activated by music, specifically his melodious humming – Everest’s humming is provided by the film’s composer Rupert Gregson-Williams. The use of Coldplay’s “Fix You” is a bit cheesy, but for the most part, the movie’s use of music is lyrical and moving.

Abominable is set in China and like Kung Fu Panda 3 before it, is co-produced by Pearl Studios. Pearl Studios was formerly known as Oriental DreamWorks and is now wholly owned by China Media Capital. While we’ve seen some clumsy and unsuccessful attempts by Hollywood to pander to Chinese audiences, Abominable feels just authentic enough. Sure, the characters mostly behave like American kids (and everyone wears shoes in the house, a big no-no in most Asian households), but there’s enough of a cultural context to justify the movie’s setting in China. This is a road trip movie of sorts, and audiences get to take in some beautiful, breath-taking scenery inspired by real locations in China.

There has been considerable brouhaha about a map of China depicted in the film, which shows disputed territories as belonging to China. This has led Abominable to be banned in Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. It’s a shame that this agenda had to be forced into a movie which is otherwise uncontroversial.

Abominable might not reach the sublime heights that we’ve seen from other animated movies and from other ‘a kid and their x’ movies, but it compensates for its well-worn story beats with plenty of heart and several truly magical moments.

Summary: Older audiences might be able to recognise where Abominable borrows many of its plot points from, but between the sweet, goofy Yeti and the superb use of music, this movie’s charm is difficult to resist.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Victoria and Abdul movie review

For inSing

VICTORIA AND ABDUL 

Director : Stephen Frears
Cast : Judi Dench, Ali Faizal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Olivia Williams, Tim Pigott-Smith
Genre : Drama/Historical
Run Time : 102 mins
Opens : 9 November 2017
Rating : PG

Victoria-and-Abdul-poster20 years ago, Dame Judi Dench played Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown. That film was about the controversial relationship between Victoria and her servant John Brown, and now, Dench returns to the role in a film about another controversial relationship between Victoria and a servant, but one of a different stripe.

It is 1887, the year of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Abdul Karim (Ali Faizal) and Mohammed Buksh (Adeel Akhtar) are chosen to travel from India to England to present Victoria with a ceremonial coin known as a mohur. Abdul catches Victoria’s attention, and she hires him as an attendant. Abdul begins to teach Victoria Urdu, and becomes Victoria’s ‘munshi’, or teacher. Victoria’s affinity for Abdul, an Indian Muslim, earns the ire of the royal household and the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon). Victoria’s son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), the future King Edward VII, develops a hatred for and jealousy of Abdul. As the royal household plots to have Abdul removed, the relationship between Victoria and Abdul transcends that of a Queen and her servant. The former prison clerk finds himself becoming a confidant to Victoria, the Empress of India, in her waning years.

Victoria and Abdul is directed by Stephen Frears, who has helmed awards season prestige films including The QueenPhilomena and Florence Foster JenkinsBilly Elliot writer Lee Hall adapted the screenplay from Shrabani Basu’s book, also titled Victoria and Abdul. The film opens with a tongue-in-cheek declaration that it is “based on a true story…mostly”. The film endeavours to be funny and heart-warming, and it often is, but many have taken issue with its depiction of historical events, which have been termed revisionist.

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The film wants to be a character piece that is anchored by the unlikely bond shared between the Queen and a servant, but it is impossible to detach the story from the surrounding political and historical context. Victoria is made out to be progressive and tolerant, with the royal household and staff treating Abdul with utmost prejudice. The film seems to exaggerate and simplify events for the sake of coherence, as historical films often do, and it is unlikely that the real Victoria was an activist who denounced Islamophobia. The film also sanitizes the atrocities committed by the British Raj during the Empire’s rule of India, a painful period in history which has left scars that are still evident today.

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However, these flaws in the film’s approach are significantly papered over by Dench’s remarkable performance. She plays Victoria as a lonely, curmudgeonly elderly woman, who has never quite recovered from the loss of her husband Albert. There’s tender vulnerability in the portrayal, which is tempered with formidable power. Even if this particular portrayal of Victoria might not be the most historically accurate, Dench is consistently riveting. As if there were ever any doubt about it, she once again proves to be a national treasure of the highest order.

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The dashing Faizal is immensely likeable as Abdul, playing the part with a genuine warmth and having a certain glow about him. Unfortunately, Abdul feels under-written, and the film takes on undertones of Orientalism by depicting Abdul as overly servile, sagely, gentle and enlightened. It seems the real Abdul was more aggressively ambitious than the benign film version. That said, the chemistry between Dench and Faizal does work, and both actors play off each other well.

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The supporting characters are largely one-note caricatures, with the various members of the royal household tut-tutting about Osbourne House. Izzard’s Bertie is drawn as an especially despicable villain who’s easy to hate, and while Izzard bites into the role with relish, the character is difficult to buy as an actual person. Akhtar is funny as Buksh, who is constantly playing second fiddle to the taller, more handsome Abdul. He also gets an excellent dramatic scene.

Victoria and Abdul boasts pedigree behind the camera beyond the director and writer – costume designer Consolata Boyle’s re-creations of Victorian fashions are lavish and eye-catching, while Thomas Newman’s score incorporates Indian instruments like the sitar, tabla and santur hammered dulcimer into his usual new age orchestral style. Cinematographer Danny Cohen presents the English and Indian locations in all their grandeur, with Victoria’s Glassalt Shiel retreat in Scotland looking especially gorgeous.

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The film starts out as a comedy and is often amusing, but as it journeys into more dramatic territory, one might get distracted attempting to parse the implications of the film and the liberties it takes with historical events in service of emotional beats. It’s a good thing then that Victoria and Abdul has Dench’s peerless skill as an actress to count on.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

For F*** Magazine

THE BEATLES: EIGHT DAYS A WEEK – THE TOURING YEARS

Director : Ron Howard
Cast : John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Brian Epstein, George Martin, Richard Curtis, Larry Kane, Eddie Izzard, Whoopi Goldberg, Sigourney Weaver
Genre : Documentary
Run Time : 2h 18min
Opens : 3 November 2016

the-beatles-eight-days-a-week-posterIn 1964, after enjoying success in their home country, four Liverpudlian lads made their first appearance in the United States on The Ed Sullivan Show. The rest, as they say, is history, with said history chronicled here by filmmaker Ron Howard. This documentary splices together archival concert and interview footage, some of which is hitherto unseen, with present day interviews to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the band’s experiences on the road. We glimpse lots of fainting, screaming female fans; see John, Paul, George and Ringo at their goofiest and most candid, and hear from currently-active artists and musicians about the impact the Beatles had on them when they were growing up.

With a maelstrom of bleakness and negativity seemingly unavoidable these days, everyone needs an ameliorating balm, and this wistful, joyous nostalgia trip should do the trick. While longtime devotees of the Fab Four probably know all the factoids about the band’s history by heart, it’s still fun spending time in their presence. There is an almost mythic air about the Beatles: they were not pre-fabricated by committee in Simon Cowell’s office, they rose from modest obscurity and swiftly dominated the world, millions of hysterical teenagers in the pockets of their tailored suits. The sociopolitical climate in the U.S. then was even more fraught with tension than it is now, with the assassination of John F. Kennedy fresh in the public’s minds. People needed to feel happy, and the Beatles were as happy-making as they come.

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In addition to their musical talent, the Beatles’ affability won them plenty of fans. For those of us who weren’t following their endeavours at the time (i.e. those who weren’t born yet), it’s a bit of a surprise to see how funny the Beatles were in their interactions with the press. When a TV reporter asks John “which one are you,” Lennon replies without missing a beat “I’m Eric.” The reporter believes him. The original manuscript with the lyrics of I Want to Hold Your Hand scrawled on it has a postscript that reads “3/10 – see me!” Writer/director Richard Curtis identifies the Beatles as the platonic ideal of friends one would want to hang out with – he doesn’t use the phrase, but basically, the Beatles were his squad goals. Because of how much the boys seem to be enjoying their fame and popularity, it’s all the more emotional to see it take a harsh toll on them, the documentary covering their dizzying highs and also their hollowest lows.

Those who dismissed the band as lacking artistic merit have since eaten their words. We love the Beatles, but perhaps when composer Howard Goodall puts them on the same pedestal as Mozart, saying the Beatles have a similar ratio of memorable melodies in their prolific output, that might be overstating it a tad. Just as we’ve referred to them in this review, the film treats the Beatles as a singular entity, a four-headed, mop-topped Hydra. While there’s no doubt that they functioned as a unit and that their creative partnership and friendship was their lifeblood, it would’ve been nice to see more of John, Paul, George and Ringo as individuals.

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Howard wants to document both the Beatlemania phenomenon and the lads themselves, but the balance is slightly weighted in favour of the former. It would seem that more than half the interviewees, including actors Whoopi Goldberg and Sigourney Weaver, were observers from the outside. Aside from the two living Beatles McCartney and Starr, the most insight is gleaned from Larry Kane, the broadcast journalist who spent the most time on the road with the band. Kane recounts how Lennon and McCartney consoled him following the death of Kane’s mother, and fondly recalls how he initially baulked at the assignment, thinking it wasn’t “real news”.

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In addition to the general frivolity that follows teen idols about, the film has its heavier moments. The Civil Rights movement was unfolding just as the Beatles reached the height of their popularity in the States, and their refusal to perform at a segregated arena in Alabama is credited with eventually causing other stadiums in the south to abolish segregated seating. We also see the Beatles at their most burned out, with Harrison remarking that it must’ve been really difficult for Elvis Presley, since he was just one guy but the Beatles had each other to lean on when things got rough. There’s a clarity to the film’s recounting of the whole “more popular than Jesus” hullabaloo, when Lennon’s remark about the band’s fame was taken out of context and led to religious groups boycotting the Beatles.

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Because the film’s focus is on “the touring years”, the period of time when the Beatles were their most esoteric and consequently most fascinating is glossed over. Just as Henry Jones Sr. remarked in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “you left just as you were becoming interesting”. In any case, Eight Days a Week does its subjects justice and is a delightful slice of pop culture pie. Stay past the end credits to watch the 1965 Shea Stadium concert. Alas, even after a remastering at Abbey Road Studios, the sound quality’s still not great.

Summary: It’s not especially incisive and there aren’t any explosive revelations for long-time Fab Four fans to take in, but Eight Days a Week is a pleasantly entertaining baby boomer time capsule.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong