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Schultz reviews: ‘Abominable,’ ‘Judy’ and ‘Official Secrets’

Schultz reviews: ‘Abominable,’ ‘Judy’ and ‘Official Secrets’

Carl Schultz

“Abominable” Distributed by Universal Pictures, 97 Minutes, Rated PG, Released Sept. 27:

In the computer-animated “Abominable,” when a teenage girl discovers a lost and confused young Yeti on the rooftop of her Shanghai apartment building, she and her two close friends embark on an epic quest to return the mythical creature with his family in the Himalayas. Naming the creature Everest, the trio of friends try to remain one step ahead of a big game hunter seeking to capture the fabled Abominable Snowman and a well-meaning zoologist who wants to find the creature a home.

Produced by DreamWorks Animation in association with the Chinese Pearl Studios and featuring the voices of Chloe Bennett, Eddie Izzard and Sarah Paulson, “Abominable” becomes a fairly entertaining if unchallenging picture aimed primarily at very small children. There’s nothing wrong or offensive about the movie — it just sacrifices originality for the sake of familiar cartoon convention and an overabundance of cheap laughs. Children might love the picture, but their parents will likely find their minds wandering, early and often.

Written and directed by Jill Culton, an animator who made her debut as a director with 2006’s “Open Season,” “Abominable” has been in development at DreamWorks Animation since 2010, and is the studio’s second collaboration with the Chinese Pearl Studios, after the 2016’s “Kung Fu Panda 3” . . . which incidentally became the lowest-grossing picture in the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise.

Projected by distributor Universal Pictures to gross up to $20 million from 4,242 theaters across the United States during its opening weekend, “Abominable” exceeded estimates to earn nearly $21 million in its first two days in release, taking the first-place spot in the Box Office Mojo Top Ten over the returning “Downton Abbey” in second and “Hustlers” in third.

With a mammoth budget of some $75 million, “Abominable” is receiving mostly favorable reviews, including an approval rating of 80% from Rotten Tomatoes and 62% from Metacritic. Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore assigned the picture an average grade of A.

“Abominable” is rated PG for some action and mildly rude humor.

“Judy” Distributed by LD Entertainment, 118 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Sept. 27:

Directed by Rupert Goold, a filmmaker with extensive experience as a director on the British stage but only a small handful of film credits, the new “Judy” is a biographical drama depicting the later life and career of Hollywood icon Judy Garland.

Beloved the world over for her performance as Dorothy in the perennial 1939 MGM motion picture classic “The Wizard of Oz,” Garland’s life offscreen was a genuine show business tragedy, filled with an overabundance of misery and unhappiness: Born Frances Gumm, Garland was the product of a troubled marriage, pushed with her sisters into a show business career by an especially dominating stage mother.

By the time the Gumm family arrived in Hollywood, the daughters had become the Garland Sisters, and the name Frances had been traded for the zingy-er Judy. Signed to an exclusive contract at MGM Studios by the legendary Louis B. Mayer himself, the plain, shy, stocky Judy was assigned the role as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” when 20th Century-Fox refused to loan the popular child star Shirley Temple to the larger MGM for the film’s production. The movie became young Judy’s career breakthrough.

After Judy became a worldwide sensation at age 17 as a result of both the success of“The Wizard of Oz” and her full and unusually expressive singing voice, MGM studio president Mayer kept the young actress working relentlessly, sometimes 18 hours per day, in an unending series of motion picture musicals which emphasized her vocal skills and girl-next-door persona.

In later years, Garland revealed that during her career with MGM she was routinely supplied by the studio with a regimen of prescription medications to keep her working — amphetamines to boost her energy and suppress her appetite during rehearsals and filming, and barbiturates to put her to sleep during her non-working hours. The abuse of prescription medications resulted in an addiction to controlled substances, a problem which plagued Garland for the rest of her life and eventually resulted in her death in 1969 at age 47.

Diminutive in stature even into adulthood and constantly criticized by Mayer and other film executives for what was perceived in glamorous Hollywood as a physically unattractive appearance, Garland was also troubled by insecurity and self-doubt, which fueled her alcohol dependence and constant financial instability. Married five times and the mother of three children, the entertainer was confident and in complete command of her natural gifts and facilities only when she opened her mouth to sing. And when she did, the world was transformed into a place of magic and miracles.

Adapted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s acclaimed stage play “End of the Rainbow,” “Judy” depicts Garland in 1969, between her fourth and fifth marriages. Reduced to performing in third-rate nightclubs for living expenses, dragging her two youngest children with her during performance engagements and raising them in a succession of cheap hotels and dressing rooms, the former star is persuaded by her manager to accept an offer from a British theater impresario to perform a series of shows at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub.

Belying its stage origins and obviously produced on a minimal budget, “Judy” is an average and pedestrian biographical vehicle, mundane and maudlin, juggling its 1969 storyline with frequent flashbacks to the star’s troubled beginnings at MGM during the 1930s and 40s. If not for its inclusion of sexual references and an accurate blending of period street language, “Judy” is reminiscent of any number of classic film biographies, from “Night and Day” to “Rhapsody in Blue,” “The Glenn Miller Story” or “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

But “Judy” ends up soaring because of the dazzling, mesmerizing performance of actress Renee Zellweger in the title role. Viewers who recall Zellweger’s appearance in the 2002 film adaptation of the Broadway musical “Chicago” are already aware that despite being an Academy Award-winning performer primarily noted for her dramatic skills, Zellweger can open her mouth and produce musical notes which seem to access another dimension entirely.

In “Judy,” the actress achieves something like symbiosis — Zellweger as an actress climbs inside Judy Garland’s skin to an extent that the actress effectively disappears to become the Hollywood legend for the duration of the picture’s two-hour running time. When the audience catches the occasional glimpse of Zellweger’s signature crinkly-eyed, puckered-lip smile, it might well begin to mistakenly recall the same characteristics in the Garland persona. And when she steps forward to sing — the versatile Zellweger performed her own songs in the picture — her performance becomes uncanny, and even ethereal.

Fragile, frowsy, frail, delicate, insecure, stripped of all the defenses and protections of a Hollywood studio, her mannerisms and appearance a series of twitches and tics, Zellweger’s Garland seems ready to collapse into herself and implode. But when about 40 minutes into the picture Judy steps forward to take stage of the London nightclub, her insecurity vanishes and the Hollywood legend takes over: Zellweger’s Garland walks onstage, opens her mouth, and belts out a rendition of “From Now On” that leaves her audience speechless.

Later, in her dressing room backstage following the performance, the real Judy returns. Slumped forward in a chair, exhausted, a cigarette dangling from her fingers, Garland shows no sign of hearing her assistant’s compliment on her performance. Then she looks up and gazes at the girl with bleary, frightened eyes and quietly whispers, “What if I can’t do it again.”

“Judy” is receiving encouraging reviews from critics, including an approval rating of 84% from Rotten Tomatoes and 65% from Metacritic. The entertainment film industry website Indiewire notes, “It’s a familiar story that ‘Judy’ struggles to freshen up, at least until Zellweger takes the microphone.” Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore award the picture an average grade of A-minus.

Near the end of the picture, Zellweger’s Garland takes the stage one last time and seems to give up her very soul itself for her audience. When the music ends and the applause subsides, the drained and deflated legend and the scared, insecure girl for a moment become one as she introduces one final song, which she refers to as “a song about hope.” And as she becomes too overcome with emotion to complete “Over the Rainbow,” and the audience rises one-by-one to finish the song for her, even the most jaundiced viewer will find it difficult to suppress a tear.

“Judy” is rated PG-13 for thematic content, some strong language, and scenes depicting substance abuse and smoking.

“Official Secrets” Distributed by Entertainment One Pictures, 112 Minutes, Rated R, Released Aug. 30:

Directed by filmmaker Gavin Hood, “Official Secrets” is a docudrama based on the life and career of Katherine Gun, a translator for the British intelligence-gathering Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). In 2003, Gun turned whistleblower when she leaked to the press a top-secret document relating to illegal activities by officials of the United States government during the nation’s push for an allied invasion of Iraq in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Gun’s regular job at the GCHQ was to translate official documents from Mandarin Chinese into English. And in January 2003, she read an internal memorandum from the chief of staff at the American National Security Agency requesting the United Kingdom’s aid in an illegal attempt to secretly eavesdrop on the U.N. offices of six Security Council nations which held swing votes on passing the U.S. resolution to declare war on Iraq. Through a friend, Gun passed a copy of the internal memorandum to a journalist at the London Observer.

Shortly after the memorandum was published on the front page of the Observer and had led to an intensive internal governmental manhunt for its source, Gun confessed to her manager at the GCHQ that she was the culprit. The young interpreter was arrested, and eight months later was charged with violating the Official Secrets Act of 1989, the British legislation which provides for the protection of state secrets and official information related to national security.

“Official Secrets” effectively becomes two movies in one: The first half of the film is an espionage thriller detailing Gun’s discovery of the internal memorandum and her anguished decision to leak the memo to the press in an attempt to stop an illegal and unjust war, potentially saving thousands of lives. The part of the film depicts the mechanics of the information’s transfer from Gun’s computer to the journalist, the impact of the memo’s publication, and the search for the source of the leak, concluding with Gun’s words to her supervisor, “I did it — it was me.”

At that point, “Official Secrets” becomes a legal drama illustrating Gun’s defense by the prominent British barrister Ben Emmerson, a noted legal scholar specializing in human rights and humanitarian law. On the advice of Emmerson, Gun’s intention is to plead not guilty, telling the court in her defense that she had acted to prevent imminent loss of life among her countrymen in a war she considered both illegal and immoral.

Among the picture’s assets,“Official Secrets” contains an outstanding performance by actress Keira Knightley as Katherine Gun. Since being catapulted to international stardom in the enormously successful “Pirates of the Caribbean” pictures from the Walt Disney Studios, Knightley seems to have been conducting her film career with considerable poise and grace by mostly disappearing into character roles in small, independent pictures. “Official Secrets” is no exception.

Reminiscent of her similar role as World War II-era cryptanalyst and codebreaker Joan Clarke in the acclaimed 2014 picture “The Imitation Game,” Knightley as Katherine Gun makes heartbreakingly clear the emotional dilemma of a woman who’s morally correct but condemned as a traitor. Invested with courage and righteous indignation despite her personal terror of recrimination and punishment, Knightley in “Official Secrets” shows the viewer the emotional anguish of a reluctant patriot.

As barrister Ben Emmerson, the noted Shakepearean actor Ralph Fiennes contributes a customarily mannered and disciplined performance to a difficult and complex role. With a sort of deliberate resourcefulness and self-possessed outrage somewhat reminiscent of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing in Hammer’s old Dracula pictures, Fiennes as Emmerson finds himself in “Official Secrets” facing a peculiar contemporary strain of evil. If Knightley is the moral heart of “Official Secrets,” Fiennes is its austere and incorruptible conscience.

Adapted by Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein and director Gavin Hood from Marcia and Thomas Mitchell’s 2008 book “The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War” and directed by Gavin Hood “Official Secrets” was placed by distributor Entertainment One into a limited release pattern in only four U.S. theaters on Aug. 30, and expanded on Sept. 13 into wider release into 485 venues.

With obvious parallels to recent developments in the news regarding governments, leaders, deception, and whistleblowers, “Official Secrets” has received encouraging reviews from the critics, including an approval score of 82% from Rotten Tomatoes, against a rating of 64% from Metacritic.

“Official Secrets” is rated R for language concerns.

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