Tag Archives: C

CATS

Producers: Debra Hayward, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Tom Hooper   Director: Tom Hooper   Screenplay: Lee Hall and Tom Hooper   Cast: James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Francesca Hayward, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Steven McRae, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson and Ray Winstone   Distributor: Universal Pictures

Grade:  C

At the start it feels as though Tom Hooper’s decision to bring Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hugely successful 1981 musical based on T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” to the screen is simply a colossal miscalculation.  The original was a highly theatrical piece, a spectacular but oddball enterprise that inexplicably caught on with the public and became one of the longest-running musicals on both the West End and Broadway.  But was it really movie material?

Initially it doesn’t seem so: the opening number is a dark affair, and the first big sequence featuring Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots, the old Grumbie Cat and a bunch of CGI mice and cockroaches, is more bizarre than entertaining.  “Cats” quickly threatens to become a star-studded cinematic hairball, an overstuffed turkey the equal of “The Cat in the Hat,” that notoriously horrid holiday release from 2003.

As the picture goes on, however, and one becomes accustomed to the weird effects-enhanced costuming—which put off a good many viewers when a first-look trailer was released, prompting extensive reworking—things improve somewhat—or perhaps one just gets accustomed to the peculiarity.  True, the dance sequences are undermined by excessive editing, a bane in so many modern film musicals; and the mostly hectic pacing seems to indicate the makers’ desperation rather than exhilaration. 

And is it uncharitable to remark that Lloyd Webber’s score, even by his own standards, is hardly classic?  It spawned one megahit, of course—Glamor Cat Grizabella’s “Memory”—but most of the numbers have a rhythmic sameness that’s only partially redeemed by the wit in the lyrics drawn from Eliot’s verse.  (There’s an attempt to add to the cachet of memorable moments with a new song,   

But amid all the hubbub there are quieter moments that, apart from Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “Memory,” work pretty well.  A couple come, none too surprisingly, from the veterans in the cast.  Ian McKellen delivers old Gus’s soliloquy with impish delight, and as old Deuteronomy Judi Dench brings puckish spirit to the final peroration on the ad-dressing of cats.  There’s also a good deal of fun to be had in James Corden’s big production number as the well-fed Bustopher Jones.  (The difference between his slapstick aplomb and Wilson’s slapdash whatever is staggering.)

There’s also some excellent dancing from Robbie Fairchild as the narrator Munkustrap and Francesca Hayward as newcomer Victoria (though her line delivery is not at the same level), and a nice sense of sorrowful inadequacy brought to Mr. Mistoffelees by Laurie Davidson.  Idris Elba, however, plays to the rafters as the evil Macavity—he might well have brought it down a notch—and as for the contributions by Taylor Swift and Jason Derulo, those will be a matter of taste.

A great deal of attention has been given to the look of the movie, much more in fact than has been applied to the slender plot that was attacked to Webber’s songbook to make a musical back in 1981.  Simply put, the story, such as it is, has to do with an annual ritual on the part of a tribe of cats known as the Jellicles to chose one of their number to ascend into the heavens and assume a new life.  The choice is made by Deuteronomy on the basis of a sort of talent contest. 

Various felines compete, but Macavity schemes to win by abducting the other wannabes and threatening to drawn them in the Thames if Deuteronomy doesn’t award him the laurel.  The other cats intervene to foil the plot, and the feline obviously most in need of rebirth is eventually selected.

This setup allows for a series of musical numbers in the vein of an old-fashioned vaudeville, some exhilarating and others, despite their frantic tone, not.  In terms of substance it amounts to very little.

But Hooper and his teams of craftsmen—production designer Eve Stewart, costumer Paco Delgado, and the visual effects artists—have fashioned a stunning if often bewildering series of visuals, and whether or not you find it off-putting or sensually arresting, the choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler and Sarah Dowling is striking (even if all those moving tails are distracting and Melanie Ann Oliver’s editing too frequently goes berserk).        

Despite its legion of fans, one might still question the wisdom of bringing Lloyd Webber’s musical to the screen in any form, let alone this dazzlingly weird, but occasionally creepy one. But at least, to paraphrase the point Deuteronomy makes in her final disquisition, this “Cats” is not a conventional dog—it’s a phantasmagorical mongrel that fascinates even when it appalls.        

BLACK CHRISTMAS

Producers: Jason Blum, Ben Cosgrove and Adam Hendricks   Director: Sophia Takal   Screenplay: Sophia Takal and April Wolfe   Cast: Imogen Poots, Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady, Caleb Eberhardt. Cary Elwes, Simon Mead, Ryan McIntyre, Lucy Currey and Madeleine Adams  Distributor: Universal Pictures

Grade:  C-

The second remake of Bob Clark’s 1974 proto-slasher movie (Glen Morgan’s 2006 version is generally dismissed as a complete bomb) resuscitates the plot about a bunch of sorority sisters imperiled by a mad killer at holiday time.  But Sophia Takal and April Wolfe aren’t content to offer up just another exercise in dumb splatter.  They’ve added a spin intended to resonate with today’s Me Too attitudes about female empowerment and toxic masculinity.  The idea of a “Black Christmas” as sharp and socially conscious as “Get Out” is a great one.  Too bad they’ve flubbed it. 

The heroine, though not at all your conventional last girl standing, is Riley Stone (Imogen Poots), who’s among the “orphans” at the Mu Kappa Epsilon sorority at Hawthorne College—the sisters who will be remaining during winter break, others being her pals Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Marty (Lily Donoghue) and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady), along with Riley’s “little sister” Helena (Madeleine Adams).  Riley is still traumatized after being sexually assaulted by Brian (Ryan McIntyre), the former president of the Delta Kappa Omicron fraternity (pronounce it Dick-O—Delta Kappa Sigma would have been even more appropriate), who was forced to leave campus after the accusation though few other than her friends believed Riley’s account. 

Kris, meanwhile, is the activist of the bunch.  She’s already succeeded in getting a statue of the college’s founder Caleb Hawthorne—a slave-owning misogynist—removed from campus, and has now embarked on a campaign to get smarmy Lit Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes) fired, partly because his syllabus proudly includes works by only dead white males.  One senses, of course, that his bigotry includes lots of ethnic groups too.

Things are not well at Hawthorne.  One girl (Lucy Currey) has already been murdered by a robed and hooded figure while walking home—and after receiving threatening text messages from Caleb Hawthorne.  Now, after performing a song-and-dance routine at a Delta Kappa Omicron talent show explicitly accusing the frat of embodying a rape culture, Riley, Kris, Marty and Jesse are threatened at the sorority house by not one but three robed and hooded figures, and after deaths and scuffles the survivors identify the attackers as fraternity pledges.

From this point the plot devolves into nonsense about black magic and brainwashing as Takal and Wolfe try to tie everything up in a screed against men going to any lengths to restore women to a properly subservient role and punish those who refuse to comply with this “natural” order.  The targeted women don’t take it lying down, of course; despite some waffling, they not only stand their ground but take the fight to their oppressors, willing to literally burn down the house of patriarchal oppression. 

While one might admire the ambition of this new “Black Christmas,” the premise is unfortunately let down by the execution.  What’s needed is a darkly comic tone, but except for a few moments, the script lacks the satirical edge that’s needed.  That’s obvious in the depiction of most of the male characters.  With a couple of exceptions—Marty’s boyfriend Nate (Simon Mead) and sweet DJ Landon (Caleb Eberhardt), who are at least half-woke—the guys are just stereotypes of sneering uber-masculinity.  As for women who decide to submit to them, they find out the hard way that they’ve made the wrong choice.

But even worse is the depiction of the non-submissive women.  Simply put, they’re pretty dense, from Riley on down, and spend a good deal of their time simply running helplessly away from their tormentors and, when finally roused to fight back, don’t do very well.  Consider Riley—she’s repeatedly throttled and saved from being strangled to death by the intervention of a third party, and by the time of the big final confrontation she’s so slow to destroy the magical item that’s causing all the trouble that she’s betrayed, conked out and trussed up like a typical damsel-in-distress.  Takal and Wolfe want to depict the sisters as strong, self-confident and powerful, but at the same time defer to the conventions of the older “Black Christmas” movies (and the multitude of others with simpering female victims).  The result feels conflicted, coming across as only half-heartedly revisionist.

And as director Takal doesn’t stage the suspense sequences particularly well.  The best is certainly the opening prologue with Currey, with its incongruous closing image of a snow angel; later scenes of the girls being stalked are mostly limp and confused, despite some atmospheric work from production designer Mark Robins, cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard and editor Jeff Betancourt.  And the final confrontation back at the fraternity house is close to being a complete mess.  The young cast do their best with the material, Poots going beyond the pale in an effort to give Riley some depth.  But Elwes chews the scenery for all it’s worth as the creepy professor. 

One can appreciates what Takal, Wolfe and company were attempting in their new version of “Black Christmas.”  But the result doesn’t follow through on the promise; it’s neither scary nor clever enough to work as either horror movie or social satire.  That makes it doubly disappointing.

By the way, this might not be the greatest date movie.