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 ~ Chi-Raq

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, set against the backdrop of gang violence in Chicago.

Stars: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, D.B. Sweeney, Harry Lennix, Steve Harris, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Spike Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I can’t remember the last Spike Lee movie I saw…I’m ashamed to admit that I kind of gave up on the director about a decade ago after a series of heavy-handed offerings that got bogged down in their own messages.  And I hadn’t even heard about Chi-Raq until a screening popped up on my list so I stayed away from any previews, put away my pre-conceived notions of the director’s past work, and knowing only that it was Lee’s update to Lysistrata by Aristophanes, I let the film speak for itself.

And speak it does…with a strong, loud, clear voice.  It’s Lee’s voice and it’s familiar in its tone and delivery, but wrapped in a timely package about guns, violence, diversity, and peace.  Lee has brought forth his most focused film in quite some time and while it has its interminable sections, there are moments of sheer brilliance that’s as good as anything else I saw in 2015.

In Chicago, violence is at an all-time high. People are gunned down on the streets, in their homes…the innocent and the guilty are indistinguishable. Into this mix we meet Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, giving a star-making performance), the girlfriend of rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) who has had it with the violence always right outside of her doorstep.  Moving in with a neighbor hardened by violence in her past (Angela Bassett), her eyes are opened to the power she holds to help effect change in her neighborhood.

After a child is gunned down in broad daylight, Lysistrata and her girlfriends band together to attempt to force their males to put down the weapons and make peace.  How do they do it?  Well, those familiar with Lysistrata will know but for newcomers, I’ll let that be something you discover on your own.  It proves to be a method that brings international attention to the war on street violence, a happening that moves Lysistrata to the front lines of the battlefield.

Lee expertly brings Lysistrata forward to the new millennium and has created a movie arriving when gun violence is at an all-time high and questions about police action and neighborhood activism is front page news.  Using Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) as a hilarious Greek chorus, Lee gets his message across in a more commercial way but its nonetheless powerful in how it’s received.

There are some parts of Chi-Raq that bristle with firepower and moments that seem to stretch on forever, thankfully in the end there’s more that crackles than strains and the end result is a movie that’s important to see with a message imperative to heed.