Movie Review ~ Cats

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The Facts
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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!

The Silver Bullet ~ CATS (Trailer #2)

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.

Release Date: December 20, 2019

Thoughts:  Ever since the first trailer for CATS dropped in July, it’s been the talk of the town and not in the way Universal Studios had hoped it would be.  The initial reaction to the starry cast including Jennifer Hudson (The Three Stooges), Judi Dench (All is True), James Corden (Into the Woods), Taylor Swift (The Lorax), Idris Elba (Molly’s Game), Rebel Wilson (The Hustle), and Ian McKellen (Beauty & the Beast) being turned into digital felines was a mixture of hilarity and horror but once that first round of shock wore off I think there was a general curiosity to how exactly the movie would turn out.  Insiders had underestimated the power of a family-friendly feel-good holiday musical before and The Greatest Showman is a perfect example of that.  Still, CATS is a different beast and even though it continues to have it’s strong supporters (I’m a ride or die Rumpleteazer fan and will not apologize) plenty will line up to tear it down.  I was hoping this second trailer would smooth things out a bit and put some of those naysayers in their place but this is another weird looking swirl of kitty kat mayhem.  I mean, I’m fascinated more than ever to see it but it didn’t exactly calm my nerves.  The proportions are strange and the bodies seem weirdly matched to the heads…it’s all just so bizarre.  My mind is just…amazed.

With a little over a month left before the film opens, we’ll be getting more and more teases of CATS and that started last week with the release of a new song written for the movie by Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Weber.  With the movie rumored not to be ready in time for early awards consideration (think Golden Globes), the song may be the best bet the picture has at getting an Oscar nomination.  Listen to it below.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ CATS

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.

Release Date: December 20, 2019

Thoughts: I mean, I literally was speechless after I got done watching this first trailer for the long-awaited (by some) film adaptation of the international hit musical CATS.  Since it premiered in 1982 on Broadway there has been buzz of a film and though a purrrfectly decent direct to video movie was made featuring Broadway and London stars there was always a Hollywood version slinking around.  Boasting a star-studded cast with the likes of Jennifer Hudson (The Three Stooges), Judi Dench (All is True), James Corden (Into the Woods), Taylor Swift (The Lorax), Idris Elba (Molly’s Game), Rebel Wilson (The Hustle), and Ian McKellen (Beauty & the Beast) among others, I was holding out some hope this might quell some persnickety naysayers that have always turned their noses up at the show.

Yeowch!

I’m sufficiently creeped out by this preview, though, and even more amazed they let Hudson sing ‘Memory’ in its near entirety!  It’s the big 11 o’clock number…why give it all away?  Still…I’m more curious than ever to see how big of a dumpster fire this one will be.  I’m gonna get dressed up in my finest finery for the Jellicle Ball come December.

Movie Review ~ Peter Rabbit


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Feature adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s classic tale of a rebellious rabbit trying to sneak into a farmer’s vegetable garden.

Stars: James Corden, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill, Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki, Margot Robbie

Director: Will Gluck

Rated: PG

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: As I hunkered down on a chilly Saturday for an early morning screening of Peter Rabbit there were a few thoughts going through my head. The first was a silent prayer that Hollywood didn’t take Beatrix Potter’s beloved characters and turn them into grating kooky animations. The second musing I found myself pondering was what took so long for Potter’s creations to make their way to the screen in the first place? Plenty of small screen animation adaptions featuring Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Squirrel Nutkin, and more have popped up throughout the decades and a fond memory of my youth was going to see Beatrix Potter’s Christmas (think The Avengers, just with Potter’s most famous critters) over several years at MN’s Children’s Theater Company. Yet aside from a Potter biopic (the largely forgotten Mrs. Potter), there’s been little love for the woodland creatures themselves.

What a pleasure it was, then, to find that Peter Rabbit is a real delight, a rare family film that’s truly something the whole family can get something out of. For kids there’s plenty of slapstick comedy that doesn’t involve farts or other rude nonsense and for adults there are a bevy of laughs that will easily sail over the heads of tykes too young to get the humor.

In the English countryside, Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden, Into the Woods) is fond of making his way into the garden of Old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park) and filling up on his plump vegetables. Pulling his cousin Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody) in on his schemes and being cheered on by rabbit triplets Flopsy (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express), days are just a series of adventures that usually end with Peter being chased by the annoyed farmer into the loving arms of his caretaker Bea (Rose Byrne, Insidious). One day, the antics go too far and Old Mr. McGregor has himself a heart attack leaving his garden and home to be overrun by animals.

In London, tightly-wound Thomas McGregor’s (Domhnall Gleeson, Goodbye Christopher Robin) OCD ways have gotten him the heave-ho from his job at Harrod’s department store. Informed of his inheritance of a house from an uncle he’s never met and without much to keep him in the city, he treks out to see his new property in the country. Once he arrives and cleans up the place, he sets his sights on ridding himself of the vermin problem…but also starts to fall in love with Bea. The latter half of the film focuses on Thomas and Peter’s escalating war, fighting for their territory and over the lovely woman that cares for both of them.

Director and co-screenwriter Will Gluck (Annie) has crafted a film that’s quite charming from the get-go. There’s sentiment for the origin of the stories (Bea is a painter that creates bizarre modern art but sketches her forest friends in intricate details, ala Beatrix Potter) but keeps enough pep in its step to not feel like a staid transfer of the books to the screen. The humor is broad and fast-paced but with a sly wink to always let the audience in on the joke. Sure, there’s a few questionable bits of mayhem (such as one moment where Peter briefly considers sticking a carrot into Old Mr. McGregor’s plumber butt crack) but the overall joy the film brings outweighs a few of these catering to the masses missteps.

Sprinkled with a soundtrack of familiar songs reimagined not to mention a few tunes Gluck penned himself and using Australia’s picturesque countryside as a stand-in for the English village of Windermere, this is a valuable film for parents to keep in their back pocket.  I found the 90 minute run time flew by and there are some nice touches from Gluck and company, such as having the live-action leads also provide voices for a few of the animals.  Along with Paddington 2, it represents a step above the usual family fare that blends live-action with animation (the result is dazzlingly seamless) and offers sure-fire matinee potential for the whole gang.

The Silver Bullet ~ Trolls

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Synopsis: This holiday season, enter a colorful, wondrous world populated by hilariously unforgettable characters and discover the story of the overly optimistic Trolls, with a constant song on their lips, and the comically pessimistic Bergens, who are only happy when they have trolls in their stomach.

Release Date: November 4, 2016

Thoughts: If you’ve yet to watch the trailer for Trolls,  the new animated film from Dreamworks, you should probably put on a pair of sunglasses. Not only is the color palette so vibrant it practically vibrates but the overall cheer of the piece is as sunny as a day in May.  Already making a splash with a catchy music video from Justin Timberlake, Trolls takes those whispy haired wonders from being mere lucky Bingo idols to the big screen in an original musical adventure.  It looks like quite the trip and with voices from Timberlake (Inside Llewyn Davis), Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect 2), James Corden (Into the Woods), Gwen Stefani, and more all signs point to a zany treat come November.

The Silver Bullet ~ Lady in the Van

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Synopsis: A man forms an unexpected bond with a transient woman living in her car that’s parked in his driveway.

Release Date: TBD 2015

Thoughts: It’s always tricky to adapt a play for the cinema. The confines of the stage can lead to a very intimate experience but these moments can be lost when the world is expanded to include other characters and settings. I’m not familiar with Alan Bennet’s true story of an elderly woman who lived in a van parked in his driveway for over a decade but I’m sure familiar with the people involved with bringing his 1999 play to life. Dame Maggie Smith (Quartet) created the role onstage and, spry as ever, looks to be an irascible delight in the titular role. She’s joined by the likes of Jim Broadbent (Paddington), Frances de la Tour (Mr. Holmes), Dominic Cooper (Dracula Untold), and James Corden (Into the Woods) under the direction of veteran theater director Nicholas Hytner. Smith can probably play this role in her sleep but I’m not one to begrudge a little resting on laurels when the talent is this good.

 

Movie Review ~ Into the Woods

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A modern twist on the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tales, intertwining the plots of a few choice stories and exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Tracey Ullman, Frances de la Tour, Johnny Depp, Lucy Punch, Simon Russell Beale, Tammy Blanchard, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Christine Baranski, Billy Magnussen, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, MacKenzie Mauzy, Richard Glover, Joanna Riding, Annette Crosbie

Director: Rob Marshall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: If there’s one take-away from the big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine’s Into the Woods it would be that director Rob Marshall proves once again that it’s possible to transition a stage-bound work quite nicely to the silver screen.  As he did with his Oscar-winning Chicago (which, to be fair, was a far trickier beast to wrangle), Marshall brings a sense of wonderful theatricality to the proceedings that helps keep a saggy second act afloat.

Arriving on the heels of the disappointing remake/reboot of Annie, the first 75 minutes or so of Into the Woods is a gleefully wry take on the fairy tales we all grew up with.  There’s Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) spunky as all get-out, even when faced with a zoot-suited Wolf (Johnny Depp, The Lone Ranger) intent on making her his next meal.  Depp is, pardon the pun, howlingly bad in his brief cameo and you’ll be glad to know that his total screen time amounts to about 5 minutes…which still feels too long.

We also get Cinderella (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect) fresh-faced and clarion voiced even under a pile of soot.  Kendrick has true musical theater chops and Marshall gives her a wonderful moment to shine in a delightfully reimagined “On the Steps of the Palace” which takes place in a bit of suspended time as Cinderella ponders her next move.

Then there’s the Baker (James Corden, One Chance) and his wife (Emily Blunt, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) so desperate for a child they agree to fetch items for a next-door Witch (Meryl Streep, Hope Springs) who promises in return to have the ‘curse reversed’.  Venturing into the woods (a-ha!) to find the items they run into Little Red, Cinderella, as well as a pre-Beanstalk Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), and a variety of other storybook figures.

It’s within the first half of the film that the best scene arrives featuring two puff-chested Princes (Star Trek’s Chris Pine and Broadway newcomer Billy Magnussen) hysterically belaboring their romantic entanglements (one with Cinderella, one with Rapunzel) while traipsing around a waterfall.  It’s the crown jewel of a film sparkles quite a lot.

Then something happens…and if we were in a theater I would say it was Intermission.

You see, it’s in the second half of the film that I found the same sort of problems I have with the stage show.  I know that the whole point of the second act of Into the Woods is to show what happens “after happily ever after” and that’s all well and good but where the stage show becomes somewhat intriguingly heavy handed the screen musical loses its spark and never fully recovers.

That’s due in some small part to the ‘Disney-fication’ of the film.  With the House of Mouse forking over the dough for funding certain adjustments were necessitated and that includes softening of more than a few rough edges that helped define the stage musical.  Now, certain tragedies that helped drive the musical to a conclusion onstage are rather toothless here…with some changes downright confusing from a narrative point of view.  Even die-hard fans of the show may be left scratching their heads wondering what just happened.

Were the performances not so strong, this type of late in the game mishap may have spelled certain doom for Marshall and company but he’s assembled a frothy cast with several unexpected delights.  Streep is, of course, right on the money with her hag witch popping up (and in and out) at just the right moments.  She eschews the delivery of any previous Witch and makes the part wholly her own.  I question the decision in the second half to give her a peculiar set of buck-tooth veneers that have a worrisome impact on her speech but otherwise she looks and sounds exactly how you’d imagine.

The roly-poly Corden and ethereal Blunt make a nice pair and the two play off of each other quite nicely.  Both have pleasant voices with Blunt the real surprise as she tackles the difficult passages Sondheim created.  Crawford, Mauzy, and Magnussen acquit themselves nicely but as the film progressed I found that Pine’s bo-hunk royal, with his affected upper-crust accent, didn’t work for me.  Pine takes the cartoon-y nature of his character a bit too far and Marshall should have reined him in a bit.

With a gorgeous production design (the majority of the film was shot in a man-made forest) and Colleen Atwood’s trusty duds the film looks like a fairy tale come to life.  Even with a slower second half the film doesn’t feel long and breezes by as fast as Sondheim’s score.  Worth a trip into the theater.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Into the Woods (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: A witch conspires to teach important lessons to various characters of popular children’s stories including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.

Release Date:  December 25, 2014

Thoughts: Though some have turned their noses up at Stephen Sondheim’s musical being given the big screen treatment by Walt Disney Studios, this final trailer for Into the Woods looks positively charming. Considering the budget was “only” 40 million dollars, I’m happy to see that a lot of that money was seemingly spent on actual sets and not some CGI created world for the impressive roster of actors to play out Sondheim and James Lapine’s sly take on the fairy tales we all grew up with. Meryl Streep (Hope Springs) sounds like a perfect Witch and while I’m not too keen on the notion of Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect) as Cinderella or Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger) as a zoot-suit wearing Wolf, I’ve got a feeling director Rob Marshall will wrangle this into one enchanting evening.

The Silver Bullet ~ Into the Woods

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Synopsis: A witch conspires to teach important lessons to various characters of popular children’s stories including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.

Release Date:  December 25, 2014

Thoughts: The anticipation is certainly building for the big screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine’s 1987 Broadway musical Into the Woods, with Disney carefully releasing nice bits and pieces in recent days.  After dropping some dreamy looking pictures earlier this week of the star heavy ensemble all fairy-tale-d up, the first preview is finally at hand and it’s a nifty little teaser that pleasantly keeps some of the bigger names in shadows while  predictably avoiding any musical cues hinting that the film is largely sung.  No matter, with Meryl Streep (August: Osage County), Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger), Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow), and Chris Pine (People Like Us) leading the cast the stage is set for a lovely transition from stage to screen.

The Silver Bullet ~ One Chance

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Synopsis: A comedy centered on an aspiring singer who becomes a reality-show sensation.

Release Date:  TBA 2013

Thoughts: Though it smacks of one of those feel-good movies from the 80’s that we wind up revisiting with abject horror twenty years later; it’s hard to deny that this true life story about a UK man that wowed audiences on Britain’s Got Talent doesn’t look enormously appealing.  That’s partly due to its lead actor, Tony winner James Corden (who will be traveling Into the Woods in 2014) who clearly has the stuff to make audiences stand up and cheer.  Director David Frankel (Marley & Me) knows a thing or two about sleeper hits after directing The Devil Wears Prada and the film has a certain pedigree behind it that could bode well for good word of mouth.  I’m leaning toward putting this into the category of Must See this holiday season only because I think my Grinch-y heart would be more the better for it.