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Cats (2019)

Cats, beyond all reason, is a musical sensation. Andrew Lloyd Webber based the show on the poems of T.S. Eliot. The original production played on Broadway for eighteen years from 1982 to 2000 and I don’t know a single person that likes it. It was only a matter of time before these jellicle cats were headed for the big screen in a big-budget folly. The first look the public got of a Cats movie musical trailer was met with revulsion and horror. I was anticipating the worst and yet I still wasn’t fully prepared for the jellicle disaster strutting around with undue confidence.

Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables, The Danish Girl) made the colossal misfire to film his action in motion capture bodysuits and provide CGI hair and cat features to them later. This choice dooms whatever meager chance a big screen Cats might have had. There’s a reason the Internet erupted in collective horror when the first trailer was released, and Hooper and his producers tried assuring the public that those were early renditions of the technology and it would be improved upon its holiday release. Dear reader, I am here to tell you that the horror of that first trailer is alive and well in every unnatural moment of this nightmare. The uncanny valley has been a busy transit stop this year with the unsettling live-action (?) Lion King and now Cats serves as a dire warning about the perils of modern technology. Just because you can try and give human beings CGI fur and ears and tails doesn’t mean you should. The look is never fully transporting and often it appears like human features have been slapped onto a furry background composite, like a snowman’s facial features while it might be melting. Then there’s the additional levels of scary anthropomorphism, with mice and marching cockroaches. Why not just use prosthetics and makeup like every stage production? I think the Cats producers wanted to do something to distinguish it and in doing so they unleashed one of apocalyptic seals.

Whatever film version of Cats was destined to be disappointing because the source material is so lackluster. The Broadway musical was so popular for so long, I assume, primarily from its creative use of costumes, makeup, and staging to bring to life a fanciful world of felines. The CGI decision takes away whatever admirable craftsmanship and charm the stage show might have conveyed and replaced with nightmare fuel for the eyes. Absent the initial appeal, we’re left with a truly underwhelming story populated with underwritten characters that only really exist when they’re singing and otherwise just operate in background space. It’s a show that feels powerfully redundant with a plot structure that amounts to cats being tapped to deliver an explanatory song about themselves and then to move onto the next. It’s very much, “I’m a cat. Here’s my cat song,” followed by, “I’m a different cat. Here’s my different cat song.” Without further plot advancement, it feels like the silliest job interview with the worst candidates seeking the position of Cat Who Gets the Honor of Being Reborn in the Sky. By the end of the movie, I was convinced that I was watching an even scarier version of Midsommar and that this cat gang was really a religious cult that was selecting a ritual sacrifice to their blood-thirsty Egyptian Gods.

It’s a storytelling experience that never connects because this is designed entirely for children. Much of the show feels like a children’s television series that was hijacked by a sexual deviant. The film is replete with simplistic moral messages that you would find in children’s television, things like “Believe in yourself,” and, “Invite others into your play,” and, “Wait your turn,” and, “Treat others with respect,” and other easily digestible platitudes. This isn’t a complicated show and children would not be tasked with remembering the many characters and their stupid names because most of them are meaningless to the larger story. There is nothing complex about this story, which was compensated by the production values of the original stage show. The large stages the actors frolic around are fun to watch because they’re built to scale, meaning the tables are gigantic to present the world from a cat’s perspective. However, the proportions vary wildly and at whim. The cats will seem much larger than their world and much smaller; dining cutlery will appear far larger than a cat’s whole body, or they’ll strut on a railway and look like they’re three inches tall. Couple that with inconsistent world building and ill-defined magic powers (teleportation works except when it doesn’t) and it becomes very hard to hold onto anything as a baseline. The attempts at whimsy through the exaggerated scale become another point of confusion and unease as this world continually feels like a simulation that doesn’t quite add up.

I really want to examine just how ridiculous so many of these character names are. Apparently, a cat chooses their name (sorry, pet owners, but you’ve been giving them slave names?) and they’re selecting some pretty insane identities. Without further ado, we have Bombalurina, Bustopher Jones, Grizabela, Macavity, Jennyanydots, Rum Tum Tugger, Rumpleteazer, Mungojerrie, Mr. Mistoffelees, Munustrap, Griddlebone, Tantomile, Jellylorum, Growltiger, and without a doubt, my favorite, Skimbleshanks. You could play a game guessing whether the names were cat names, pirate names, or something an elderly human said during a stroke.

The songs are also another source of disappointment. There’s the lone exception of “Memory” and Jennifer Hudson kills it with the kind of emotion the rest of the movie was missing, but everything else feels like it’s droning on and absent a strong sense of melody. The synth score also feels very dated and hard on the ears. The only saving grace for a movie that puts this concerted emphasis on the performances would be the song and dance numbers, and the dance choreography is bland and undercut by the editing, and the songs are forgettable. The Skimbleshanks number is a slight variation because of the force of personality from the character, being introduced like a fancy feline member of the Village People, suspenders and literal handlebar mustache and all. He also has an impressive tap number that leads into the exciting world of… sleeping cars on a train. It’s hard for me to impart any emotional impact from the songs because they’re so plainly expository, explaining a different cat’s life from being mischievous to being fat and lazy. These are not interesting characters in the slightest (sorry, Skimbleshanks) and their songs are like boring third grade essays about their home lives.

Nobody walks away completely clean from this movie but the actors with singing experience come closest. James Corden (Into the Woods) is a real highlight from his comic asides that feel like he’s puncturing the bizarre self-serious nature of this silly movie. Jason Derulo has a slick amount of charm to be a commitment-challenged alley cat. Hudson (All Rise) is a strong singer and made me think of her character from Dreamgirls being a cat and singing her big number. The lead heroine, Francesca Hayward, has a genuine grace to her presence and a nice face to stand out amid a world of scary human-looking cat deformities. I wish she had more moments to showcase her balletic talents. The older actors fare the worst, unfortunately. Judi Dench (Murder on the Orient Express) looks pained and sounds it too. Her fourth-wall breaking song that concludes the film, instructing the audience on how to address and treat their kitties, is inherently awkward. Elba (Hobbes & Shaw) provides a palpable sense of menace to his devil figure, until he appears without clothes and I audible gasped and groaned. In one instant, any sense of menace vanished as I watched a naked black cat version of Idris Elba dance a jolly jig. I know these actors signed up for this but that didn’t stop me from feeling a resigned sense of embarrassment for them.

And now is the time to talk about the unspoken audience for a live-action Cats, and that’s the contingent of furries or soon-to-be discovered furries. I was wondering before if the filmmakers would be cognizant of the unorthodox appeal of their film production to a certain select group of audience members, and I am here to say they are completely aware and play into this. There’s a musical number where Taylor Swift sprays catnip (a.k.a. magic horny dust) that drives the cats crazy and they writhe and purr with wild abandon, striking evocative poses with legs raised. There may not be any visible genitals but that doesn’t stop Rebel Wilson’s character from a joke about neutering. In news reports, Derula has been upset by his phantom phallus in the movie, which is slightly hilarious considering he signed up for this, but it’s also indicative of the weirdly sexual vibes the movie is playing around with but at an infantile level of wonder. There is going to be a generation of moviegoers who watch Cats and discover that they are turned on by sexy human versions of animals slinking around, lifting their legs, and rubbing their fuzzy little butts.

I was waiting for Cats to end long before it did because so much felt so pointless. The false whimsy was covering ineffective and repetitive storytelling, malnourished and unimportant characters, confusing world building and powers, middling songs (with one sterling exception), and direction that seems to make the whole enterprise feel like a children’s cartoon. It’s too simple to be intellectually stimulating, too weird and confounding to be whimsical, too sporadic and repetitive to be emotionally involving, and vacillating between complete seriousness and wanton silliness. I’m not even a hater of Hooper when it comes to his idiosyncratic direction of big Broadway musicals. I enjoyed his rendition of Les Miserables and thought several of the artistic choices made the movie better, especially the live singing. With Cats, I don’t think there was a possibility of this ever being a good movie as long as it was a faithful adaptation of a not great stage show. However, there were decisions that made this movie much much worse, namely the scary marriage of technology and flesh. If somehow you were a fan of Cats, or somehow consider yourself one as an adult, or a furry, you might find some degree of enchantment. For everyone else, Cats is a cat-astrophe. Sorry.

Nate’s Grade: D

Here are some pun-laden blurbs offered by a colleague, Steven Gammeter, in preparation for writing this review:

1) “You’ll need to change the litter box after this movie.”

2) “Follow Bob Barker’s lead and spay and neuter these Cats.”

3) “It feels like you’re living all nine of your lives while sitting through this movie.”

4) “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Writer/director Taika Waititi has played a vampire, an intergalactic rock monster, and now perhaps the most challenging role of his career, Adolf Hitler. Coming off his meteoric success with the MCU, Waititi is using the time in between mega-budget Thor sequels to write/direct/produce/co-star in a smaller daring indie comedy. Jojo Rabbit follows a young German boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Dais), during the last year of World War Two. He fantasizes about having an imaginary Hitler (Waititi) as the voice over his shoulder, reinforcing the teachings of adults and authority figures. His worldview is challenged when he discovers a teenager hiding in the family’s walls who just happens to be Jewish. Jojo doesn’t know what to make of Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), nor does she know what to make of him, and Jojo decides to keep her presence a secret to spare his doting and put-upon mother (Scarlet Johansson). Jojo tries interrogating this wily girl but ends up learning more than he ever imagined.

Given the subject matter, setting, and overall tone, it’s a wonder how well Jojo Rabbit works. I was worried about what kind of tone the movie would be striving for given the delicacy of its subject matter, not that other filmmakers have shied away from incorporating comedy into Holocaust settings. I don’t mean this to be overly flippant but for portions of the movie I felt like I was watching “Wes Anderson’s Nazi Germany.” The entire Act One camp sequence feels like a warped deleted scene from Moonrise Kingdom. I was genuinely surprised how often I was laughing with Jojo Rabbit. Waititi can be hysterical as a bratty, temperamental version of the Fuhrer, but there are moments where he gets caught up in the oratory of his hateful rhetoric that serve as a reminder that even for Jojo, he realizes this man isn’t exactly best friend material. The Hitler imaginary friend goes away for long stretches in the second half as the film emphasizes more drama, which is the right choice as Jojo is coming to doubt what he has been taught from that imaginary friend. The portrayal of Hitler might be offensive to some viewers but I feel like Waititi walks a fine line to root it from the perspective of childhood fantasy. It’s taking the figure on TV and adapting it to suit the needs of a lonely kid wanting to belong. Of course he’d want Hitler to select him as the best little young Aryan that Germany has going. It’s not dismissing the evil of the man but instead serving him up through a specific prism that allows laughter not necessarily even at Hitler himself but at a youthful and immature understanding of something far more complex.

I was also worried that the comedy might dampen some of the more dramatic turns coming, and this was so not the case. There are dramatic moments hiding under the surface thanks to seeing them from Jojo’s naïve perspective, but then there also big obvious dramatic moments of suffering that hit. As much as the whimsy prevails early, the dramatic moments are delivered in tasteful ways that do not detract from the feelings being felt by the characters as well as the willing viewers. There are a few gut punches that remind you that even with the whimsy of childhood naivete, real people are dying in awful ways because of those complicit in racist genocidal policies. The relationship between Jojo and his mother is the second most significant one, after he and Elsa, but it’s this central focus where we see the starting point of his character arc. His mother tries to shield her child from the larger terrors of their society but that’s increasingly difficult when people are being hanged in the street for helping Jews. She’s hoping to simply play her part in public, get through this terrible time, and finally have the son back that she knows, hoping he will eventually shake free from the propaganda. It’s a role that requires Johansson to play like another cartoonish adult, all bubbling energy and quirky nonchalance, while burying her increasing concern. Part of me almost wishes that she was a co-equal protagonist so we could get an even richer perspective to contrast more fully.

There’s a sprightly whimsy to the proceedings that comes from being locked into the perspective of an imaginative child. It’s not that the world is 100 percent his vision, it’s more that we know that the representation of what we’re seeing might not be a completely objective reflection of the reality Jojo is encountering. This especially includes the portrayal of many adults involved in various levels of the Nazi party. They play out like cartoons and buffoons but are still dangerous cartoons and buffoons. When Jojo’s childhood friend Yorki is talking about fighting on the front and we see him handling a rocket launcher, this is clearly an exaggeration of the desperation of the moment and a young boy’s eagerness to be involved. This creative approach allows Waititi to dabble in the fantastic and keep his audience alert, allowing them to second-guess what we’re seeing on screen and look for the reality in hiding. I laughed pretty consistently at the intended humor and incredulous nature of the adults trying to pass off wrongheaded insights and suggestions as scientific fact or common sense. It’s a movie where you laugh at the ridiculous idiots while hoping that the idiots won’t get the people we care about killed.

The acting is very strong overall. Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis is exuberant and relatable without coming across as overly cloying or mannered, which can be a rarity for child actors. He has a very difficult role to play from a tone and perspective standpoint, and he succeeds. Another great child actor is Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) as Elsa, a young girl in an extremely vulnerable position who looks upon this new boy with equal amounts fear, disdain, and pity. She cannot be herself and must choose her words and responses carefully, so it’s a guarded performance of restraint but McKenzie is fabulous in quieter, subtler shifts. The adults are all enjoyable as broadly comical cartoons, with Stephen Merchant (Logan) earning considerable unease as an S.S. officer leading a team sweeping for Jews in hiding. Johansson (Avengers: Endgame) seems a little too eager, a little too antic, but this may pertain to her character’s nerves and desperation, trying to overcompensate her anxiety. Rockwell (Vice) gets the biggest adult role as a disenchanted military vet who sees the writing on the wall. At first his detached nihilism is a source of dark comedy and later he becomes an unexpected father figure for Jojo. I don’t quite know if his hero moments have the desired impact but he’s still an amusing presence.

However, there are also some drawbacks to being a fable, namely a lack of larger specific substance beyond general lessons and general characterization. Jojo Rabbit is being billed as an “anti-hate satire” and I definitely think that summary fits the intent, but “anti-hate” sounds like such a nebulous buzzword that seems more meaningful at first glance and less upon reflection. I would assume every responsible story set during the era of the Holocaust would adopt an “anti-hate” sensibility, because the alternative would be championing the foundations of Nazism. It’s hard for me to imagine any movie desiring a public release being anything other than “anti-hate.” Essentially, we have a character coming to see through the propaganda of the era, judging people as people rather than scary caricatures, and start to reject the teachings of manipulative authority figures. This isn’t a new formula for coming-of-age stories or tales set during times of great strife. It’s a lesson in empathy and rejecting dogma on its face. When it comes to Nazism, that should be the easy part, facilitated by any prolonged exposure to anyone previously deemed an undesirable.

My nagging issue with Jojo Rabbit is that for all its impish whimsy with such a serious historical subject, it ultimately plays things pretty safe. That’s fine, it doesn’t have to a revolutionary film, but it does dull the message a bit when the ultimate lasting takeaway is “hate is bad, Jews are people too.” It’s a bit pat, a bit simple, and a bit too easy. The characterization can also be hampered by this same ethos. The characters are pretty much exactly what you see at first blush. The only character who changes or has room to explore is Jojo. Even Elsie feels more like a stagnant person despite her unique circumstances. This may be because she’s more change agent than character, a figure for Jojo to be horrified by, then entranced with, and finally see as a friend. I still felt moments of genuine emotion for characters onscreen and for Jojo’s journey of self. The movie still works well with its stated goals and direction, it’s just a bit limited because of the simplicity of its message and the lack of greater substance for its many characters.

The Jojo Rabbit novel was written before the rise of Donald Trump but Waititi has said that when they were filming that America’s current political climate was on his mind, and it’s not hard to make a few adaptations to apply this for the modern era. Perhaps a young boy sees Donald Trump as his imaginary friend and together they’re both all-in on trying to “make America great again” by first and foremost reporting any immigrant they see as illegal. Then later in the story he discovers his family is willfully hiding an undocumented child from being deported after they were stripped from their parents who were then deported. Now our naïve protagonist must reconcile the harsh rhetoric he has been taught with the growing empathy of connecting with another human being who doesn’t seem as dangerous or as sub-human as others claim. If you wanted to even make this parallel, it’s there, though I think that diminishes the setting. We shouldn’t need to tell movies during the Holocaust as metaphors for our modern struggles. I suppose this is another scenario where if you want to Inuit more of a relevant modern message, you can.

Jojo Rabbit (a nickname that seems forgotten after its christening) is a coming-of-age fable with equal parts charm and horror. Waititi takes a serious subject and doesn’t mitigate the evils of Nazism with his portrayal of a daffy imaginary Hitler. The production has an admirable swagger to it as it charts its own course, tackling serious subjects and young whimsy to portray a poignant story about childhood, loss, and growing up. It’s an amusing and heartfelt enterprise that I can’t help but feel could have done more than settling for some pretty safe messages and limited characterization. There wasn’t a moment with Jojo Rabbit where I wasn’t entertained, but I do wish the movie had more on its mind that reminding everyone that hate is bad.

Nate’s Grade: B

Pitch Perfect (2012)

11167512_detTake the plot of Bring it On, add remixes and mash-ups of popular music thrown through the Glee grinder, Rebel Wilson’s adlibbed one-liners, and shake, and you have Pitch Perfect, an a cappella singing comedy that was a sleeper hit last fall. My female friends raved about it. It’s from a 30 Rock writer. It’s from the director of the irreverent musical Avenue Q. I like Wilson and the movie’s star, Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air). I wanted to like it, and while I found most of it passably cute, I could not get too attached and the chief reason was Kendrick’s character. She’s so surly and standoffish and just plain bratty, and for no good reason. It gets really annoying. Her rote romance with a bland hunky guy is made even more incredulous because Kendrick, get this, hates movies. Not certain kinds of movies or movies with certain actors, just the entire medium. Who is like this? That’s like disliking all of music entirely. The overall comedic spirit of the movie is amiable with a few oddball touches that keep things interesting, notably one girl who talks very quietly and says outrageous confessions. Listen well. The performance segments are impressive in their own right enough so that I wish there were more of them. There’s also a level of reality to projectile vomit that I was not prepared for. Overall, Pitch Perfect is a fitfully amusing comedy that never really settles down a functional tone, and Kendrick’s bratty character drags the movie down. It’s far from perfect but depending upon your love of a cappella, it could be good enough.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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