Thursday, October 03, 2019

Challenging Everest from China: Abominable & The Climbers

I wonder, a little, if Abominable is getting a simultaneous release and/or doing well in China. I don't know the exact is and outs of how distribution works there - and it's been an especially chaotic year - but it seems like DreamWorks's latest is the sort of co-production that can maybe skirt the rules about foreign films not being released in certain seasons, like the one around National Day/Golden Week, when China would really like audiences to be seeing locally-produced movies. Especially ones like The Climbers.

That one is maybe not the sort of extreme rah-rah patriotic feature you might expect when thinking of the things the Chinese government might want moviegoers seeing as the People's Republic celebrates its 70th birthday, but it's not far off, enough that you might notice a certain lack of nuance even if you're not alert to that context. It's not often an actively bad movie - it's got Wu Jing doing more Wu Jing stuff than The Wandering Earth did and is pretty good about giving the audience what it wants without actively pandering much of the time - but it's also not really the thing that bowls you over and justifies a trip to the Imax theater even though you're in a terrible city for public transportation during its four-day window.

They make for an interesting pair of things to wind up seeing consecutively, if only for the coincidence of them both winding up on the road to the Himalayas.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 September 2019 in AMC Assembly Row #4 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

You never really know whether an animated DreamWorks movie is going to be trying too hard to be cool or genuinely charming from the trailer, but it falls solidly in the better category. It's got an extremely likable set of young heroes, a creature just goofy enough that you want to take care of it even when it's big and powerful, and enough sense to groan at any terrible pop-culture references it takes great pains to set up.

The creature is a big ball of fur that is being held in a guarded facility but escapes as the movie begins, drawn to the city not so much by the bright lights but a billboard promoting tourism in the Himalayas that he doesn't realize is just a picture until he has to hide from black helicopters on a rooftop. Living in that building is Yi (voice of Chloe Bennett), a teenager spending her summer break working hard to earn money for the trip across China that her late father had planned; Jin (voice of Tenzing Norgay Trainor), an upperclassmen popular with the ladies and on social media; and Peng (voice of Albert Tsai), his nine-year-old basketball-living cousin. As the industrialist planning to reveal yeti to the world (voice of Eddie Izzard) and a zoologist employee (voice of Sarah Paulson) pursue, it becomes clear to Yi that her new friend is basically a kid who can't understand their language well enough to get home without help, so she helps him get on a cargo barge heading in the right direction, the boys trading along with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

With Abominable being at least the third animated bigfoot/yeti movie to come out in the past year (with less-noteworthy efforts likely also following in the wake of Missing Link and Smallfoot), it would be understandable if audiences feel a bit fatigued or like they've seen it before, and the filmmakers do tend of fall into comfortable patterns: "Everest", as the kids wind up making the yeti, has a special connection with nature but comes to trust Yi in part because she plays music for him. Yi herself is an ambitious heroine who doesn't mind getting dirty but is not quite tomboyish enough that she won't roll her eyes at boys being gross, with both the boys and Yi's mother and grandmother being kind of stock types too.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Pan deng zhe (The Climbers)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 October 2019 in AMC Stonebriar #17 (first-run, Imax-branded digital)

As much as I watch movies about mountain-climbing adventure because I love seeing amazing landscapes and terrifying chasms on the big screen, buy this point I must admit that some part of me must also enjoy the urge to yell "you arrogant idiot!" at the people involved. The Climbers offers a lot of chances to do that, probably more than it offers eye-popping visuals or even shoehorned-in attempts to play to action-movie star Wu Jing's strengths. It is far too sincere and patriotic to be much fun.

It opens in 1960, when at the height of the Great Chinese Famine, the National Mountaineering Team set out to be the first to climb Everest - "Mt. Qomolangma", to use the Chinese/Tibetan name - from the north side. Though the team captain perished, Fang Wuzhou (Wu Jing), Qu Songlin (Zhang Yi), and Jiebu (Lavant Rob) make it to the summit - but without evidence caught on film, many in the international climbing community are skeptical. The team disbands and goes their separate ways, with Fang occasionally giving lectures on between shifts in a boiler room and meeting meteorology student Xu Ying (Zhang Ziyi), though she soon goes to study in Moscow. In 1973, the country reforms the team, with the veterans joined by newcomer Yang Guang (Hu Ge), photojournalist Li Guoliang (Jing Boran), and Tibetan native Hei Mudan (Quniciren) with the goal of accurately measuring Qomolangma's height and putting Chinese feet on the top of their own mountain.

You are not going to find any payback against the idea that Tibet and Everest are and should be part of China in this movie; its release is tied to National Day and the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, and it plays very much like a film that had to be approved by the country's propaganda department. It's far less aggressively about trying to build China up by pushing other cultures down than many such films - that mostly appears in how Wuzhou comes to question himself after students cite foreign doubts about his 1960 expedition - but the screenplay often has a very hard time untangling the national from the personal where pride and motivation is concerned, especially when trying to stay within the rough bounds of a true story. It's a movie about people who must have a powerful ego that pushes them to achieve the near-impossible, made by a culture that officially has a low opinion of such things, and as such never seems to have a strong point of view on why these people make any decision or to examine their thinking that much.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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