Movie Review ~ Cats

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.

Stars: Francesca Hayward, Robbie Fairchild, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson, James Corden, Ian McKellen, Idris Elba, Laurie Davidson, Mette Towley, Judi Dench, Rebel Wilson, Jason Derulo, Ray Winstone

Director: Tom Hooper

Rated: PG

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: The much anticipated arrival of the long in the works big screen adaptation of the stage musical CATS is forcing many of its closeted fans out of their cozy hiding nooks.  Before, we were able to slink away with our vinyl record of the London cast (or, if you’re an extra special fan like me, a coveted CD copy of the French cast with its shattering version of the hit anthem Memory) but now…now we’d have to stand up and be counted.  I’ve always been and out and proud supporter of CATS the musical (and the animal), having been taken to countless tours of it growing up and even seeing it solo in its original London home, revolving seatbank and all (look it up…you don’t know what you were missing).  It was glorious having those actors in wild make-up, punk wigs, leotards, and legwarmers writhing around the stage and the aisles in an athletic song and dance spectacle.

Rumors about the musical making the transition from stage to screen had been going on for so long it even became a joke in the play Six Degrees of Separation, with a charming young man conning a gaggle of socialites with promises of cameos in the upcoming film version his father was working on.  Yet no one was quite able to figure out how to translate what was happening on the stage into cinematic form.  Should it be entirely animated?  Do you use the original costumes?  Do you use real cats and just animate their mouths?  A gussied up version of the stage show was filmed but, while professionally made and performed, it lacked that immediacy that gave the live experience it’s spark.

Along comes director Tom Hooper, an Oscar winner for The King’s Speech and riding high off bringing another blockbuster musical to the screen, Les Miserables.  Supposedly, Hooper had a special affinity for CATS and had long wanted to bring the show to theaters and, seizing on the opportunity along with screenwriter Lee Hall (Rocketman), partnered with Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment to finally make it happen.  A star-studded cast of obvious and not-so-obvious names were gathered and using new motion capture technology were turned into dancing felines, trilling out the ear worm-y songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber based on the poems of T.S. Eliot.

It’s hard to know where to begin when talking about Hooper’s film version of CATS.  A surreally bizarre journey through the backalleys of London that follows a group of cats on one special night, I guess the emotion that best describes the experience for me is uncomfortable. There’s something off-putting from the start as the overture plays introducing us to this miniature world of alley cats (known as Jellicles) that come to see new arrival Victoria (Francesca Hayward) who has been tossed aside by her owner.  Guided by Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild), Victoria is introduced to the various cats of the group, some who are competing that very evening to be chosen by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench, All is True) to go to the Heaviside Layer, a mystical place where Jellice cats are reborn once a year.

There’s Jennanydots (Rebel Wilson, The Hustle), a pudgy housecat and orchestrator of a Busby Berkely dance routine with mice and cockroaches, the plump and pompous Bustopher Jones (James Corden, Into the Woods) who prides himself on being the ‘stoutest of cats’, and the fast-tapping Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae) a cat toiling the days on the railway.  During the night, Victoria meets the suave Rum Tum Tugger (Jason Derulo), the aging Gus (Ian McKellen, Beauty and the Beast), and the sometime magician Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson, The Good Liar) before running afoul of the troublemaking Macvity (Idris Elba, Miss Sloane) and Bombalurina (Taylor Swift, The Lorax, turning up over an hour into the movie and not worth the wait), his henchwoman.  Watching on the sidelines is Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson, Chi-Raq) a former glamour cat on a downward spiral who has been ostracized from the group.

Like the stage show, the movie is pretty much sung-through, with 23 songs to cover over 110 minutes, including a new tune written by Swift and Lloyd Webber that didn’t even make the Oscar shortlist.  Most are handled with serviceable panache from the cast, though Corden manages to overplay an already exaggerated character and Wilson positively butchers her comic number with a reedy, unpleasant squeak of a voice.  Derulo has fun with his song but it’s so broken up by the frantic camera work and choreography that it doesn’t show off his full range.   Dench, originally cast as Grizabella in the first London production before snapping her Achilles Tendon during rehearsals, has a full circle moment here appearing as the wise, revered matriarch of the herd.  The voice is shaky and breathy but manages to make sense thanks to her performance of the songs themselves.  I’ve been a bit put off by the Grizabella’s getting younger and younger over the years and questioned Hudson’s casting at first but she winds up turning in the most emotionally grounded and guileless rendition of Memory I’ve heard in a long time.  Perhaps the intensity is turned a little high too early, but it worked for me – transcending the strange CGI cat they’ve turned her into.

Ah, the CGI.  I’ll say this.  Some of the designs work better than others.  Dench for instance, looks fairly convincing and it’s mostly because she’s not required to move much.  Anytime there’s motion involved the effect becomes quite startling and while Hooper filmed the actors on an actual set they’ve done something in the conversion to kitty that makes it look like they’ve been Photoshopped on a background…and not convincingly so.  The look of the cats are a bit strange too, some are wearing clothes while others are, I’m guessing, naked.  Wilson has one scene where she’s flat on her back, legs open, scratching her inner thighs and I audibly gasped.  What is this all about?  What made the dancing work well on stage was the impressive choreography executed with style – in Hooper’s computer generated world the cats perform Andy Blankenbuehler’s sinewy moves with some digital assistance.  That doesn’t evoke much awe.

I wonder if CATS was ever destined to be made into a good movie or if this is the best Hollywood had to offer.  I definitely think the effects could have been kicked up a notch; we should be further along than what’s on display here and the best scenes in a movie with actors turned into singing CGI cats shouldn’t be when they’re standing still.  Yet it’s these very moments that have stuck in my, uh, memory more than the sequences that I felt were ghastly at first watch.  I wouldn’t discourage anyone from seeing this, it’s absolutely something you should see just to say you saw it…but don’t judge the show by the movie.  And get that French CD if you don’t believe me!

Movie Review ~ Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The surviving Resistance faces the First Order once more as Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron’s journey continues. With the power and knowledge of generations behind them, the final battle commences

Stars: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Billy Dee Williams, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Marie Tran, Joonas Suotamo, Keri Russell, Billie Lourd, Naomi Ackie, Richard E. Grant, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Carrie Fisher, Dominic Monaghan, Greg Grunberg

Director: J.J. Abrams

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 141 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Here’s the thing.  I grew up with the Star Wars movies in my orbit but they were never exactly part of my universe.  Does that make sense?  Every time I went over to visit my cousins I vividly remember the posters of the movies on their wall and playing with their Millennium Falcon…or, rather, playing around the famed ship because I wasn’t quite cool enough to actually hold the majestic piece of plastic in my hand yet.  I was relegated to a storm trooper whenever we were reenacting scenes and I was too young to have seen any of the original trilogy in their first release.  I was probably twelve or thirteen years old before I ever saw the movies and even then I didn’t quite get the appeal.

Now, all these years later I was preparing to see the final (for now) installment of the current Star Wars saga and went back and watched all of the films in chronological order.  That meant starting with the much-reviled prequels, which haven’t aged well, followed by the recently released Solo and Rogue One which already feel even more extraneous than on their first watch.  If anything, getting through those five films makes arriving at the three landmark entries that started it all that much sweeter because you appreciate the level of storytelling and creative filmmaking that was used.  These were crafted when people were pushing limits higher, not just seeing how crazy the limits could be.

In 2015 when director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek Into Darkness) brought viewers back to a galaxy far, far away with The Force Awakens, he tapped into what made those earlier blockbusters so lasting – a sense of discovery blended with heart and humor.  Introducing new characters that interacted with fan favorites, it may have felt slightly like a redo of A New Hope but ultimately it acquitted itself nicely for even the harshest of naysayers.  The same can’t be said for 2017’s The Last Jedi which, though popular with critics (and this one right here) was somehow, bafflingly so, seen as a horror show for longtime fans.  Raging against new writer/director Rian Johnson (Knives Out) and going above and beyond in some nasty spikes toward cast members, the fandom showed its ugly side for a movie that didn’t deserve the vitriol.

Back to bring this new trilogy to a close (replacing Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow who was let go before filming began), Abrams evidently was tasked with addressing some of the chief fan complaints from The Last Jedi while still steering important events toward their conclusion.  Watching the movie you get the feeling Abrams wasn’t entirely happy with the path Johnson had taken and was painted into a corner trying to undo a knot that was tightly bound.  Some of the ideas Johnson hinted at had to be considered or simply thrown out.  In doing so, there is sometimes an overcorrection, resulting in a bit of an unwieldy but ultimately supremely satisfying final chapter in what is surely seen as the event picture of 2020…sorry Avengers: Endgame.

We’re going to keep this thing spoiler-free as much as possible – but I know fans consider even the slightest detail a spoiler so it’s up to you if you want to continue on.  Know that I’m keeping your best movie-going experience at the forefront of my review!

The familiar opening text crawl has never quite caught my attention as much as it has in The Rise of Skywalker.  The very first line after the title sent a little shiver up my spine and set the tone for the opening sequence following Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, Marriage Story) traveling to a planet spoken of as a legend to find an old foe.  The isolated location is a fairly scary opening, testing the limits for young children right out of the gate, but it was great fun for the big kid in me that enjoyed a little bit of the old monster movie feel to the set-up.  Hoping to join forces with the driven but haunted son of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher, This is My Life) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford, Blade Runner 2049) this powerful enemy proves to be a worthy villain for this last movie – even if their somewhat miraculous return after quite a long time isn’t ever fully explained.

Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express) has been completing her training under Leia’s watchful eye but is distracted by her continued psychic bond with Kylo.  Taunting her by dangling the truth about her lineage just out of her reach, Kylo now seeks her out, having learned a new truth about her from his dangerous ally…a truth that, once learned, will change the direction of the First Order and the Resistance forever.  Traveling with Finn (John Boyega, Detroit), Poe (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year), and Chewbacca to a distant planet in hopes of finding a rare artifact, Rey embarks on a galaxy spanning adventure that will lead her to confront her past and embrace her future.

There’s a little bit of the video game leveling up aura to The Rise of Skywalker, with our characters coming head to head with various bad guys, curious creatures, and strange new worlds all in the hunt for pieces to an overall puzzle.  I didn’t mind this episodic feel and found the two and a half hours to fly by at near light speed.  A great deal of attention has been paid to fans wanting one last look at favorite characters or desiring to see a storyline tied off with a nice bow.  True, it may be too tidy for some but at least there is some finality in place by the time the credits roll.  I’m not one to delve deep into the psyche of a character and decry actions as “not something their character would do” or anything like that, though it’s evident Abrams and gatekeeper producer Kathleen Kennedy wanted to be clear about particular story arcs and less ambiguous on others.

Receiving top billing, Carrie Fisher may be the first person to get that honor without being alive when the movie started filming.  Fisher’s performance was reportedly put together from unused footage from The Force Awakens and it’s blended seamlessly in; there’s no creepy faces put on other actors or janky editing going on.  With limited footage, Leia is a bit more on the reserved side and has less to say…but Abrams doesn’t wallow in sentimentality, just as Fisher wouldn’t have wanted him to.  There are plenty of other surprises for fans both hardcore and casual along the way, just keep your eyes (and ears) open because you never know what might pop up.

The performances in this entry might be the strongest so far, with Ridley nailing Rey’s increasing resolve to always face her fears head on.  What started as a nice discovery of a new talent back in 2015 has evolved into a respected performer that rises above the material and brings a different gravitas to her scenes.  She matches well with Driver’s brooding would-be leader who can’t forget Rey even though he knows she stands in his way of running the show.  I’d like to know how much of the scenes where Kylo is in his revised helmet is actually Driver, just like I want to know if Keri Russell (Austenland) was in fact on set as a former flame of Poe dressed in a galactically skintight suit and aerodynamic helmet.

There’s going to be many opinions about the 9th episode of Star Wars and my advice is to go in and see for yourself.  Just because I liked it doesn’t mean you will and even if you read a terrible review that shouldn’t automatically sway you to see Jumanji: The Next Level instead (seriously, don’t).  We so rarely get true event movies like this and around the holidays when you can go with family and friends makes it that much more special.  Celebrate the season, catch a movie, and make it The Rise of Skywalker.

The Silver Bullet ~ Tenet

Synopsis: An action epic revolving around international espionage, time travel, and evolution.

Release Date:  July 17, 2020

Thoughts: Shrouded in mystery, if you’ve been to the movies the last few months you may have caught a super exclusive theatrical-only preview for Tenet, the new thriller from Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk, Interstellar) but the time has finally come for a full trailer to be released.  Starring John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) and Robert Pattinson (The Rover), little is known what exactly is up Nolan’s tricky tricky sleeves and this first look appears to leave viewers with even more questions.  In other words, it’s a pretty fantastic way to get people excited for the July release – here’s hoping Nolan can maintain that secrecy until it opens.