Cats movie review

For F*** Magazine

CATS

Director: Tom Hooper
Cast : James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Francesca Hayward, Les Twins, Laurie Davidson, Robbie Fairchild, Steven McRae, Danny Collins, Naoimh Morgan
Genre : Musical/Horror
Run Time : 1 h 50 mins
Opens : 26 December 2019
Rating : PG

The following review might be unsuitable for children.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical adaptation of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a compilation of children’s poems by T.S. Eliot, became an unlikely sensation. The show had long runs on both the West End and Broadway, and now comes to the screen in a way that can be most succinctly described as a mistake. Almost all of it is a mistake.

Calling it a “story” is being generous, because Cats is not really meant to have a coherent narrative. The premise is that the Jellicle Cats (say “dear little cats” in a low voice, with a thick posh accent) gather for the Jellicle Ball, a ceremony wherein they sing a song about themselves and one of their number is chosen by the leader Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, after which they will be reborn.

The plot is cat reincarnation X Factor, okay? That’s the plot.

The movie adds on a subplot about Macavity (Idris Elba), who kidnaps some of the other cats to increase his chances of being the Jellicle Choice.

Believe it or not, there are good things about Cats. Most of the changes it makes to the stage musical are baffling and highly counterproductive. However, making Mr Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) the magic cat a soft boy with anxiety works for the story, even if the kinda-romantic subplot between him and Victoria (Francesca Hayward) feels forced.

Robbie Fairchild is good as Munkustrap, the de facto narrator – he was a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet who then became a Broadway star. Fairchild is one of the few performers in the show who sounds like they’ve undergone any actual musical theatre training.

Steven McRae, a principal dancer with London’s Royal Ballet who also dances tap, is a standout as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat.

Dame Judi Dench can do no wrong and is weirdly dignified even when reclining somewhat seductively in a cat bed. Old Deuteronomy has always been played by a man, but the gender-flip works well. The few moments in the film that come close to being emotional are courtesy of Dench.

The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler of Hamilton fame, building off the original choreography by Gillian Lynne, would have looked great if it were danced by actual humans and not the hybrid beasts we do get. Similarly, Hayward, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, would have been mesmerising if it were her and not a strange fur-covered CGI approximation of her that were dancing the role.

Everything that makes Cats work as a theatrical production is rendered utterly null here. Even as theatre, Cats is divisive and widely mocked. However, it is a showcase of incredible physicality and athleticism and is, in many ways, purely experiential. You must be there to get it or even remotely think it works.

Some musicals are easier to translate to the screen than others – the ones best-suited to this transition are typically plot-heavy, because things are easier to follow in movie form. Cats never had any plot to begin with, so making a film adaptation is about as futile as herding, well, you know.

There was a 1998 filmed version of the stage show, which featured what pretty much are the standard John Napier costumes and scenic design one might see in a production of Cats. This movie has decided not to go with costumes at all.

It has decided to go with truly horrifying cat-human hybrid monsters.

It should go without saying, but human and cat physiology differ in many ways. However, human physiology is required to dance. As such, some aspects of the characters are very human-like, while others are cat-like. To quote another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, “those who have seen your face draw back in fear”. It’s a face covered in digital fur, with cat ears sat atop it and whiskers above the mouth, yet the noses, lips and teeth are very human. One never quite gets over it.

You can see a performer in makeup and a leotard and accept that they’re playing a cat in the context of theatre, but this “realistic” approach almost twists the visual cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, the parts of the brain that recognise something as human. The scale is also wildly inconsistent, changing not just between scenes, but between shots. In some moments, the cats are the height of trash cans, and in others, three of them fit in a dumbwaiter.

The instrumentation is baffling, and a lot of it seems to be midi, when a movie has access to an orchestra full of real instruments since there aren’t the space limitations of an orchestra pit (or in the case of most productions of Cats, a little alcove hidden behind the set). A flailing effort is made to give some of the songs more of a pop sound, with snyth drums.

There is a new song written by Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Swift, called “Beautiful Ghosts”. “If you can’t get T.S. Eliot, get T.S.,” Swift (jokingly?) declared in a behind-the-scenes promo spot with all the hubris of a White Star Line official saying the Titanic doesn’t need that many lifeboats. “Beautiful Ghosts” has some awful lyrics (including rhyming “wanted” with “wanted”) and is the movie’s featured ballad, but is performed by Hayward, who is not primarily a singer and struggles vocally.

There are so many ways this movie doesn’t work; it’s a veritable fancy feast. It doesn’t work on a design level, it doesn’t work as a musical, it doesn’t work as family-friendly entertainment and it doesn’t work as an adaptation of the stage show. It. Doesn’t. Work.

The cast is mostly awful. James Corden and Rebel Wilson are annoying, but you knew this already. Both Bustopher Jones and Jennyanydots are silly characters who should be endearing but are rendered irritating by performers that many audiences are already predisposed to disliking.

Jason Derulo is an embarrassingly bad Rum Tum Tugger, unable to enunciate any of the lyrics and never exuding the irrepressible rock star charisma demanded of the character. He makes the sexiest character in the show decidedly unsexy. Derulo complained about his penis being digitally removed, which a) were they all filming this naked? And b) that’s the least of his concerns, really.

It pains us to say that Jennifer Hudson completely butchers “Memory”, the one song from this most people know. She goes for the Anne-Hathaway-in- LesMisérables-style crying delivery, complete with mucus. It results in a screechy, sometimes-unintelligible delivery that wants to be emotional, but cannot because it is sung by an unholy human-cat monster.

Taylor Swift is awful – she doesn’t have the voice to sing musical theatre, and she adds a “sexy” affectation on top so it sounds even shallower than usual. She also puts on a bad posh English accent. Of everyone in this, she seems the most pleased with herself, the most convinced she is doing great.

Idris Elba’s villainous Macavity is never intimidating because, again, this is all ridiculous.

Sir Ian McKellen laps milk out of a bowl and says “meow meow meow” and comes away with his dignity way less intact than Dench’s.

The characters apparently have no assholes, so critics have been quick to tear Cats a new one. To quote yet another Lloyd Webber musical, they’re “Falling over themselves to get all of the misery right”. The thing is, yes, bad movies exist, but bad movies made by major studios that are bad in this many ways are a rarity. Many, many people had to approve the bad decisions that comprise Cats. Hundreds of people worked on this – visual effects artists were working on the movie even after it had been released, with a version with “improved visual effects” made available to theatres a week into its US release – polishing the kitty litter, if you will.

In a world of franchises, of focus groups and test audiences, of movies needing to play to four quadrants and in every market around the world, a fiasco on this scale is a precious, beautiful, horrendous thing to behold. It is viscerally distressing – you feel it in your very bones. Something this bad is typically made by bumbling would-be auteurs with delusions of grandeur: your Tommy Wiseaus, your James Nguyens, your Neil Breens. Not Oscar-winning directors.

Cats has brought forth the most entertaining reviews in a long time because it is awful in ways that movies just usually aren’t.

Summary: H.P. Lovecraft wrote stories about Eldritch abominations: stare at them for too long, or try to describe them, and one goes mad. Cats is the perfect Lovecraftian horror movie. The horror, the horror.

RATING: 1 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Danny Collins

For F*** Magazine

DANNY COLLINS

Director : Dan Fogelman
Cast : Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner, Christopher Plummer, Katarina Čas
Genre : Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 107 mins
Opens : 23 April 2015
Rating : NC16 (Some Drug Use and Nudity)

“Rock and roll dreams come through” – so sang Meat Loaf all those years ago. What comes after that? Danny Collins (Pacino) is an aging rock star, a fading shadow of his former self. With a trophy fiancé (Čas) on his arm, a touring show mostly attended by senior citizens and a third Greatest Hits album on the way, Danny is feeling unfulfilled. Danny’s manager Frank Grubman (Plummer) gives him a life-changing birthday present – a handwritten letter from John Lennon that Danny was meant to receive 40 years ago. This gives Danny a second wind as he cancels his tour, checks into a hotel near a New Jersey suburb and tries writing music again. Danny tries to mend bridges with his adult son Tom (Cannavale), attempting to win over Tom’s wife (Samantha) and young daughter Hope (Giselle Eisenberg) and do right by the family he’s only now getting to know. In the meantime, he strikes up a possible romance with Mary Sinclair (Bening), the manager at the hotel.
            The film beings with the text “the following is kind of based on a true story a little bit”, a winking, honest admission. The true story in question is that of Steve Tilston, a folk singer from Bristol who discovered that after reading an interview Tilston did with a music magazine, John Lennon had written him a letter that Tilston only received 34 years after the fact. Writer-director Dan Fogelman takes that starting point and spins into a rock star redemption story, its protagonist part-Rod Stewart, part-Tom Jones, with a dash of Barry Manilow for good measure. With its message of “staying true to yourself”, Danny Collins is mostly predictable and it’s clear that Fogelman is valiantly straining to temper the sentimentality with some edginess in the form of swearing, drugs and nudity. The material is still mawkish, most noticeably when Danny bonds with his granddaughter, a stock hyperactive, precocious moppet. At times, the film reminded this reviewer of the Hannah Montana movie, of all things. Annette Bening’s Mary keeps encouraging Danny to write that one song that means something to him, just as Travis did with Miley, the result in that film being “The Climb”.  

            Al Pacino isn’t an actor one would expect to deliver a nuanced performance – this is Mr. “HOO-AH!” we’re talking about, after all. As a rock star desperately trying to recapture his glory days, Pacino does get to be a little flamboyant but thankfully reins it in for the most part. Danny’s pre-show ritual consists of snorting cocaine, downing whiskey and dabbing his face with self-tanner. The casting seems apt, since Pacino himself is past his prime, and it’s actually okay that his singing voice is terrible, since it adds to the washed-up quotient. He probably is miscast, but Pacino makes the most of it. It’s not quite a glorious comeback for the actor, but it’s definitely better than slumming it in something like Jack and Jill.

            Pacino is backed up by an accomplished supporting cast. Annette Bening channels Diane Keaton adequately, it’s the stock type of the no-nonsense boss lady set on resisting the charms of our protagonist but Bening is nonetheless endearing and strikes up good chemistry with Pacino. Bobby Cannavale and Jennifer Garner make for a convincing upper-middle class couple at the end of their rope and trying not to let it show for the sake of their kids. The conflict between father and son, however fierce, still lacks bite because we know how it’ll all end up. It is Christopher Plummer who steals the show as Danny’s blunt, level-headed and reliable manager/best friend. Plummer has gone on record saying that though it’s the thing everyone remembers him from, The Sound of Music was too saccharine for his tastes. If you’ve ever wanted to hear Captain Von Trapp drop more than a few F-bombs and utter the words “sore-tittied African ladies”, this is the movie for you.  
  
          The biggest coup here is that Fogelman was able to secure Yoko Ono’s permission to insert nine John Lennon songs into the film’s soundtrack, a rarity in the music licensing world. Unfortunately, the use of some of these tracks is heavy handed – “Beautiful Boy” plays just after Danny first meets his son, because of course. The theme of artistic integrity vs. commercial appeal was addressed with more panache in Birdman – come to think of it, the handwritten letter from John Lennon here could be compared to the handwritten note from Raymond Carver in that movie. Still, it counts for something that Fogelman demonstrates an awareness that jaded audience members are not that easy to win over, instead of diving head-first into the schmaltz.


Summary: Acknowledging his status as a washed-up star, Al Pacino is on fine form here and is backed up by a great supporting cast, but the rock star redemption story is still too formulaic to soar.
RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong