Movie Review ~ Cats

1


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!

The Silver Bullet ~ Black Widow (2020)

Synopsis: A prequel featuring Natasha Romanoff set between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War.

Release Date:  May 1, 2020

Thoughts: If you have yet to see Avengers: Endgame, I’m going to drop a spoiler so you may want to just watch the new trailer for Black Widow after reading my thoughts in a nutshell: this looks fun, it’s about time, what took so long?

If you’re still with me, you’re aware that Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit) sacrificed herself for the lives of her friends in Avengers: Endgame and could be wondering why she’s starring in her own movie.  Well, this long overdue movie focusing on her popular character is taken from an earlier adventure during less dire circumstances.  Fans have been wanting this movie for a while and it’s too bad we had to wait until Natasha was snuffed out to get a stand-alone film but perhaps the wait could be worth it.  Boasting fun names like Rachel Weisz (The Favourite), David Harbour (Hellboy), and rising star Florence Pugh (Midsommar), I’m hoping this is more than a tired superhero one-off.

Movie Review ~ Point Break (2015)

point_break_ver8

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young FBI agent infiltrates an extraordinary team of extreme sports athletes he suspects of masterminding a string of unprecedented, sophisticated corporate heists. “Point Break” is inspired by the classic 1991 hit.

Stars: Édgar Ramírez, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Delroy Lindo, Ray Winstone

Director: Ericson Core

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  When the first trailer for this remake surfaced back in May, I went against the popular opinon that decried its very existence and said “here’s hoping the boys of summer bring some heat to the holidays.”  Little did I know that the heat I was hoping for came in the form of pure fury.  In retrospect, calling that early preview ‘kinda fun’ makes me shiver in my snowboots that I ever truly had faith that the 2015 Point Break could ever hold a candle to the original from 1991.

Now, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that that Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze led action film was any kind of classic.  It’s very much a product of its time and capitalized on what both stars brought to the table, the laid-back (nigh sleepy) performance of Reeves and the dangerous-but-I’d-still-like-to-be-his-friend vibe Swayze was great at delivering.  That it was helmed by a female director (future Best Director Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow) with more macho bravado than any five films directed by her male peers only made it more of an attractive property over the years, strangely fascinating with each subsequent viewing.

So yeah, I kind of get why a remake of Point Break looked somewhat appealing.  The original wasn’t so much of a blockbuster that it felt untouchable and its slight cult status in the years following its release didn’t give off a feeling that a remake would be outright condemned.  And I can imagine that the studio heads over at Warner Brothers cooed when they hired director Ericson Core to not only direct the film but serve as the cinematographer as well.   Add in a script updated by Kurt Wimmer (who also delivered a new treatment for Total Recall in 2012), lock in some hunky but cheap talent, and decide to release it in 3D and call it a day.

If only they had quit while they were ahead.

Moved from an intended summer release date to Christmas Day, instead of riding the wave to holiday thrills this remake is hanging ten on my worst of the year list.  It’s an abysmally conceived action film with hardly any action that winds up taking itself so seriously that you can’t help but laugh every time a character waxes poetic about nature and our place in the ecosystem of life.

Opening with a stunt sequence that changes the career course for extreme action star Johnny “Utah” (we learn Utah is his nickname, related to his Native American heritage…oy), it features an accident handled so awkwardly it’s hard to fathom how it winds up playing such a big part of Utah’s later mission with the FBI.  Morphing from his extreme sports career to an FBI trainee in danger of being cut, Utah discovers a connection between a series of bank robberies and the test of the wills sort of vision quest he believes the burglars to be embarking upon.

Before you know it, Utah (remember, he’s not even a full FBI agent yet) is given carte blanche by his superior (Delroy Lindo, phoning it in like a pro) to cozy up to the men he believes are behind the daring swindles.  It brings him on a globe-trotting adventure where he forges a sort of kinship with the adrenaline junkies and their leader, Bodhi.  Lines between right and wrong get blurred for a period until it disintegrates into a stilted chase picture that wants to fly but never takes wing.

The film strays so far from its source material that I almost wished it had ditched the title and went on its own merry path, shrugging off obvious comparisons to certain touchstone elements of the original.  Making the film less about robberies and more about conservation of resources, it becomes a new age-y garbage dump of plot holes and extended action sequences that feel far too long.

There’s some praise to be had here, though, and that has to do with Core’s thrilling cinematography that takes audiences through mountains, waves, alpine slopes, and through the streets of its European locations.  Seen in 3D, there are some mighty impressive sights to behold, all filmed with elaborate flair from someone that obviously knows what he’s doing.

Where Core succeeds in cinematography, he outright fails as the overall director of the piece.  Aside from the aforementioned chuckle-headed script, the acting in Point Break is maybe the most offensive thing of all.  I can tell that Luke Bracey (The November Man) wants to make his character multi-dimensional but the way he plays it feels like an acting exercise gone horribly wrong.  Attaching the wrong emotion to nearly every one of his hysterically inane line readings, Bracey’s future looks bleak as an actor let alone a leading man.  He’s covered in some of the most atrocious tattoos ever put on film, making him look like a complete douchebag (the man-bun doesn’t help), offering him no chance to be someone the audience can root for.  Speaking of bad tattoos, nearly everyone in the movie sports some sort of heinous skin art…the kind of ink you wake up with after a drunken night in Cabo San Lucas.

Faring ever so slightly better is Édgar Ramírez (Joy) as the earthy Bodhi, a kind of spiritual father figure to Bracey’s lost boy.  Ramírez is a better actor than Bracey (actually Pauly Shore is a better actor) but is taxed with delivering the most grueling of the zen fortune cookie lines.  Ramírez and Bracey have several ab-offs as they flex, surf, and punch their way through a series of high stakes tests of their mettle.  At one point, I was wondering if they’d ever get back to robbing banks.

Thrown in for dictation is a lame love interest for Utah named Samsara (Teresa Palmer, Warm Bodies) and though I’m sure sparks are meant to fly here, Bracey and Palmer can’t rub their two sticks together to create anything more than a frustrated puff of smoke.  Palmer’s character waltzes in and out of the proceedings seemingly at will, only showing up when the testosterone level reaches its max peak.  At least the original film had Lori Petty as the love interest, Petty and Reeves had little chemistry too but she was such an interesting actress that you wanted to see more…here I couldn’t wait for Palmer to exit stage right.

I’m guessing by some poorly dubbed lines that the movie was filmed as an R-rated action flick but edited down to a more box-office friendly PG-13.  How else would you explain Bracey calling a group of thugs ‘funny a-holes’…a line that doesn’t match what his mouth is saying.

An endurance test to be sure, this remake of Point Break surfs shallow waters and sinks like a stone early on.  It never can overcome its shortcomings in the acting department, even if some parts are beautifully shot.  With so many better movies to see at your local theater, this is one to avoid at all costs…

The Silver Bullet ~ Point Break (2015)

point_break

Synopsis: A young FBI agent infiltrates an extraordinary team of extreme sports athletes he suspects of masterminding a string of unprecedented, sophisticated corporate heists.

Release Date: December 25, 2015

Thoughts: I realize that this is going to make me sound like a tremendous hypocrite after decrying the recent remake of Poltergeist but I kinda think this reboot of the 1991 Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze action hit looks kinda…fun.  Sure, it seems to have precious little to do with surfing and stars Luke Bracey (The November Man) and Edgar Ramirez (Zero Dark Thirty) will never replace the memorable stars but just as the original was a product of its early ‘90s time, so does this remake look like it’s squarely set in the high adrenaline, tech-savvy new millennium.  Moved from its planned summer 2015 release date to a competition heavy bow on Christmas, here’s hoping the boys of summer bring some heat to the holidays.

Movie Review ~ Noah

noah_ver2
The Facts
:

Synopsis: A man is chosen by God to undertake a momentous mission of rescue before an apocalyptic flood destroys the world.

Stars: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins, Logan Lerman, Nick Nolte

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 139 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: With the recent religious releases Son of God and God is Not Dead! doing surprisingly good box office business, I’m sure the studio heads at Paramount were breathing a tad easier as the release date for Noah crept ever closer. Buzz had been that the execs weren’t very confident in director Darren Aronofsky’s cut of the film so they screened several of their own versions to audiences to gauge their reaction. In the end the director’s cut won out, leaving me to wonder how bad the other edited versions were.

Honestly, I don’t think it matters much which version ended up being released because the whole film is such a meaty hunk of expired baloney that it may not have been salvageable in any form.

It’s hard to know exactly how to take Aronofsky’s Noah. Most people plunking down coin to see the epic will be expecting a re-telling of the Old Testament story about a man, an ark, and lots of animals trotting up two by two to avoid a massive flood that will wipe out civilization. What these people won’t be expecting, however, is a bloody and violent film featuring formerly A-list stars playing infuriatingly stubborn people that you wouldn’t want to spend 40 minutes on a boat with, let alone 40 days in torrential rain.

After a brief opening that covers the first few passages of the Bible, the film goes its own way by introducing mystical snake skins and stone creatures that one minute want to destroy man and the next are helping Noah and his brood build the ark. Looking like castoffs from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, these iff-ily rendered creatures supposedly are fallen angels encased in rock after they landed on earth in a fiery storm.

The threat of the destruction of civilization isn’t enough, though, so Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel throw in another villain of the human kind in the form of a descendent of Cain. More extraneously inconsequential than interesting and played by the gruff Ray Winstone (Snow White and the Huntsman) as if his life depended on it, the character falls into high camp early on when we see his flowing locks of blonde hair that would make Rapunzel drool.

With about 50 minutes of actual material to work with, the film is stretched to a punishing 139 minutes by including lots of grandiose speechifying from nearly every main character…almost as if they had it in their contracts to be given their moment to shine. So we get lots of introspective musings and preachy pontificating on man’s inhumanity to man. Not wholly or outwardly religious, the film tries to make the issue of a wicked society not so much a Biblical idea but a atheistic one.

I’ve been a fan of Aronofsky’s work for a while now, though the only film of his I can bring myself to revisit is Black Swan, his brilliant psychological drama from 2010 that won Natalie Portman an Oscar. That film was a hallucinatory and riveting journey into madness and though Aronofsky tries to get inside the head of Noah in a similar fashion, it doesn’t the same effect.

Though he may have made a good Noah on paper, Russell Crowe (Man of Steel) seems so out of touch with the kind of roles he should be playing that it’s becoming pretty fascinating to see the jobs he’s taking on. For my money, he should have played Winstone’s part and let someone like Michael Fassbender or Christian Bale (both were offered the role and declined) have the role. Aronofsky has imagined Noah as so devout to his Creator that he is willing to do horrible things…and something about Crowe’s wild-eyed approach comes across more zealot than pious.

Co-starring with Crowe for the second time in 2014 (the first being February’s lame-o Winter’s Tale), Jennifer Connelly makes some headway with her underwritten role, though it comes late in the game with an impassioned speech that leaves her face awash with tears and snot. With her hair never much out of place and her teeth gleaming white (Noah’s family clearly had a good dental plan), Connelly brings a kind of precision to the role that works in her favor.

Another pair of co-stars re-united, The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) and Logan Leerman are part of the Noah pack and while it’s appreciated that Watson continues to stretch her wings outside of the Harry Potter franchise, this role seems to get away from her. As the only other major female in the film, she delivers every important speech Connelly can’t be present to give herself.

Then there’s Anthony Hopkins (Hitchcock), getting an early start on his yearly cinematic appearance in the “grizzled old man” role…this time playing Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather. I’m not sure Hopkins even reads his scripts anymore before signing on to a film because the Oscar winning actor has little to do but pass along useful information when needed. The animal stars of the show are entirely CGI and factor in very little to the overall scheme of things.

Visually, the film looks great in typical Aronofsky fashion. Shot in Iceland, the cinematography from Matthew Libatique (Iron Man 2) is stunning and is aided by a strong sound design layered nicely in with Clint Mansell’s (Stoker) rich score. Of particular interest is a five minute sequence halfway through the film where Crowe narrates the Genesis story, brought to life in stunning fashion. I’d recommend seeing the film (eventually when you can fast-forward it) for that segment alone.

So what’s my problem with the film? I’m not a Bible thumper or Sunday School devotee that had to have everything in perfect order and sticking to just the facts, jack. No, I’d have been totally on board with the film Aronofsky was trying to make…if I could just grasp what film that was. Though the filmmakers can suggest all day long that their goal was to keep the film non time-specific, the costume design suggests post-apolopytic, not B.C. chic.

For as visually and aurally pleasing as the movie most certainly is, the perils depicted are incredibly unpleasant to sit through. The last 20 minutes are particularly rough going and even for this habitual watch checker, I started feeling like time was going backward rather than inching closer to the end credits.

Had this film been called, say, Bernard or Jethro I think I would have been able to take it with a finer grain of salt. Slapping Noah on the film and then turning the story into a Middle Earth meets Waterworld soggy epic robs the film of its voice and robs the audience of $10. I still like Aronofsky and applaud him for having the balls to do what he’s done here…but I feel like I want to throw the Good Book at him.

Got something you think I should see?
Tweet me, or like me and I shall do my best to oblige!

The Silver Bullet ~ Noah

noah

Synopsis: The Biblical Noah suffers visions of an apocalyptic deluge and takes measures to protect his family from the coming flood.

Release Date:  March 28. 2014

Thoughts: I’ve yet to meet a Darren Aronofsky flick that hasn’t divided audiences and his take on the epic tale of Noah and the Ark is sure to have its fair share of haters.  Quite long in development, the film reunites some former costars like Russell Crowe (Les Misérables) and Jennifer Connelly (Winter’s Tale) who appeared together in 2001’s A Beautiful Mind.  After playing opposite each other romantically in 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) and Logan Lerman are now cast as siblings. Cinematically, this looks mighty impressive with strong detailed special effects and early hints of the director’s trademark obsessive attention to everything on screen.  Who knows exactly what version of the Noah tale will be told (rumor has it that it probably takes place in the past but could very well take place in the future) but if I know Aronofsky it will be a bold and committed affair. 

Interesting to note that this is the first of two high profile Hollywood projects with a Biblical slant being released in 2014.  In Decemember 2014, director Ridley Scott (Prometheus) releases Exodus starring Christian Bale (The Dark Knight) as Moses with some supporting work from Sigourney Weaver (Abduction) and Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby).