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

Men in Black: International review

MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL

Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Emma Thompson, Rafe Spall, Les Twins
Genre : Sci-fi/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 55 mins
Opens : 13 June 2019
Rating : PG13

          They’ve been absent from the big screen for seven years, but the shadowy organisation that polices and conceals alien activity on earth has resurfaced in Men in Black: International, the spin-off of the Men in Black series.

Agent M (Tessa Thompson) is a newly instated member of the agency, still on probation. After witnessing Men in Black operatives in action as a child, she has long harboured a fascination with the agency and finally gets her dream job. Agent O (Emma Thompson), head of the New York branch, dispatches Agent M to MIB’s London headquarters, overseen by High T (Liam Neeson). There, she meets Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), a hotshot hailed for defeating an alien species called the Hive in Paris alongside High T.

When a shape-shifting alien duo (Les Twins) corners Agent M and Agent H, they learn that the Hive may have been resurfaced, with the predatory invaders after a powerful alien artefact. Their battle against the Twins sends Agent M and Agent H to Morocco, where they befriend Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), a diminutive alien. Agent H must confront Riza (Rebecca Ferguson), a powerful, dangerous figure from his past, as he and Agent M discover there just might be a mole within the organisation. The MIB can always be counted on to save the world, but what happens when a threat arises from within?

The Men in Black films are loosely based on the Malibu comics series by Lowell Cunningham. The urban legend of shadowy government agents has existed among UFO-enthusiast circles for decades, but it was the Men in Black movies that cemented the idea in the public consciousness. Being released the year after Independence Day, the first Men in Black movie also further launched Will Smith up the A-list. He and co-star Tommy Lee Jones have become closely linked with the franchise, with the third movie featuring Josh Brolin as a younger version of Jones’ character.

After the third Men in Black movie in 2012, the first we heard of a new Men in Black movie was that it would be a crossover with the 21 Jump Street films called MIB 23, which sounds like such a crazy idea that it just might have worked. Instead, we got Men in Black: International, which is pleasant and harmless if often formulaic and bland, because it takes the format of the first movie and slots new stars into it. Director F. Gary Gray of Straight Outta Compton and The Fate of the Furious fame knows how to handle a big Hollywood production, but it feels like he is directing to the brief, with no personal touches discernible. The film trundles along efficiently enough, but nothing in the movie will stick in viewers’ minds afterwards. It’s almost as if the movie was constructed to be watched on an airplane.

          Men in Black: International does what the James Bond movies often do, throwing in a bunch of exotic locales to up the production value. There’s a chase through the streets of Marrakech on a hover bike and one character is based out of Aragonese Castle on the Italian island of Ischia. The movie might have the scale expected of a summer blockbuster, but it doesn’t quite have the quirky soul of the first movie, especially because a lot more of the aliens are created with computer-generated effects. Special effects makeup legend Rick Baker, who oversaw the aliens in the first three films, was not involved with this one.

The logic behind the casting of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in the lead roles seems to have been to look at whatever actors from the most successful ongoing movie franchise were available. Hemsworth has a knack for comedy and shifts effortlessly between dashing and goofy, playing a sometimes-bumbling, always-charming action hero with ease.

Thompson’s Agent M is capable, headstrong and determined and is in some ways the audience surrogate character, with this movie acting as her origin story. However, some of the beats in her arc echo those of Agent J’s in the first movie a little too strongly. Thompson brings some personality to the part, but Agent M feels like a textbook “strong female character” with not much that is inherently compelling about her on paper.

Liam Neeson is there to lend gravitas to the proceedings and pace purposefully around High T’s office and not do too much else. Emma Thompson is dryly amusing as Agent O, reprising her role from the third film. Respectable British actors appearing in Hollywood blockbusters for a paycheck is a time-honoured tradition and one that Neeson and Thompson continue here.

Kumail Nanjiani voices Pawny, who as the funny alien sidekick, is designed as the successor to Frank the Pug (who makes a cameo). This reviewer was afraid that the character would come off as annoying, but Nanjiani’s delivery keeps Pawny generally more amusing than grating. The computer animation used to create Pawny and integrate him with the live-action footage is excellent.

French dancers Les Twins, who will next be seen in the Cats movie, enliven the proceedings with their new-style hip-hop moves. However, their characters’ schtick seems to be lifted wholesale from the Twins in The Matrix Reloaded.

The previous films have playfully ‘outed’ celebrities like Sylvester Stallone, Bill Gates, George Lucas and Lady Gaga as being aliens. In this film, a social media influencer (presumably a different one for the different markets the film will be released in) gets a cameo. This is one of the most worrying elements about Men in Black: International, indicating that future blockbusters will pander to audiences by shoehorning in people who are famous from YouTube or Instagram.

Men in Black: International is not a poorly made film, but in extending the MIB franchise, it fails to add anything substantial to the world-building or the mythos. Big franchise movies can often feel like products and none this year feels more like a product than Men in Black: International, but its dependable cast and high production value keep things from feeling like too much of a drag.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong