‘Cats’ is a Jellicle-Only Affair

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures

Starring: Francesca Hayward, James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Ray Winstone

Director: Tom Hooper

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG for CGI’d Cat-People Lifting Their Legs Up Suggestively

Release Date: December 20, 2019

I admire the people who have made Cats, including all versions of the musical and this here film adaptation. The whole premise is thoroughly ridiculous, and all the little details only make it more so. So anyone who has given it their all at the Jellicle Ball has no time for the shame that such an enterprise might convey. That sort of pluck and resilience will get you far in life. It doesn’t necessarily make for good filmmaking, though. In this case, at least, it just transfers something truly baffling in one iteration into something just as baffling, in the same ways and more, in another medium.

The plot, such as it is, is immensely inconsequential, but it has something to do with new cat in town Victoria (Francesca Hayward) trying to find her place in cat society while devious cat Macavity (Idris Elba) plucks away his competition for the Jellicle Ball, which I’m pretty sure is some sort of talent show. Meanwhile, all the other cats prance about and sing their signature songs to let us know who they are. So far, so phantasmagorical. This could be appreciated as a bizarre theatrical extravaganza if the staging and choreography were decent. But director Tom Hooper has a way of shooting every scene that makes it feel like everything is so far away, even the close-ups. It confers an elusive nature that is the opposite of the extreme intimacy of high-frame rate, and thus it is difficult to connect with whatever emotional resonance the actors are able to summon. If something is going to be as unbelievable as this, it ought to also be unforgettable. Alas, Cats is just a piffle that my subconscious doesn’t even want to bother with.

Cats is Recommended If You Like: Thorough nonsense

Grade: 2 out of 5 Jellicles

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Smallfoot’ is a Bighearted, Non-Abominable Delight

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CREDIT: Warner Bros. Animation

This review was originally publshed on News Cult in September 2018.

Starring: Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya, Common, LeBron James, Gina Rodriguez, Danny DeVito, Yara Shahidi

Director: Karey Kirkpatrick

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: PG for Falling Thousands of Feet with Few Lasting Consequences

Release Date: September 28, 2018

A surefire formula in storytelling is the whole ol’ switcheroo. Taking a timeworn trope and turning its perspective inside out has proven to be valuable on many occasions. Smallfoot runs with that idea, getting a lot of mileage out of reversing its approach to a common myth. It does not just presuppose a world in which Yeti do exist, but one in which there is an entire race of them with their own advanced society. Furthermore, to the Yeti, the existence of humans is the stuff of legends, thus the moniker of the mythical “Smallfoot.” It’s not the most profound premise, but it’s delightful enough to tickle those in the mood for wonder.

It all comes down to, as so many of these animated jaunts do, an interspecies friendship. Migo (Channing Tatum) is a Yeti on the verge of taking on some adult Yeti responsibility when his world rocked by the appearance of a creature with a less-than-gigantic footprint. He proceeds to venture down below the clouds to find the truth behind this encounter, which is when his path crosses with Percy Patterson (James Corden), a nature TV host desperate to restore his popularity. Both man and beast can speak intelligently, but Migo’s words sound like growls to Percy, and Percy’s sound like squeaks to Migo. Yet somehow a connection is forged, and the repartee is quite charming from Tatum and Corden, as well as Zendaya as a fellow Yeti who is especially enthusiastic about the existence of Smallfoots. Providing the ominous (but also unnervingly wise) counterpoint is Common as the Stonekeeper, a Yeti elder who knows the reality of Yeti-human history but propagates an elaborate mythology designed to prevent the truth from being exposed.

As you might guess based on its genre and some of its cast members, Smallfoot is a musical, which I found to be a tad exhausting. To be fair, that is my typical reaction to musicals, what with their inherently overly dramatic manipulation of emotions, and Smallfoot‘s songs do not do much to change my mind. But there is one number rapped by Common that wonderfully reveals the foundation of Yeti society and serves as the crux of the film. The tension driving the best moments of Smallfoot are all about being lost (or not quite lost) in translation. The fear and anticipation mixed up by this inherent confusion leads to a bunch of hijinks and a lot of intrigue and ultimately an attempt at peace and integration that offers hope that this motley world can make it with all of its mixed-up parts working together.

Smallfoot is Recommended If You Like: The search for Bigfoot and the Abominable Snowman, Happy Feet, Storks

Grade: 3 out of 5 Footprints

This Is a Movie Review: Meet the ‘Ocean’s 8’ Heist, Same as the Old Heist

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CREDIT: Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in June 2018.

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Richard Armitage, James Corden

Director: Gary Ross

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Indulgent Behavior That Might Be Incriminating

Release Date: June 8, 2018

I am always wary of crime flicks in which the criminals are the protagonists and get away with it. Sure, cinema can be escapist fantasy, and I trust that most audiences understand that the glorification of illegal behavior does not make it okay in real life. But there is a moral component to movies, so this genre needs to be careful about the messages it sends out. That is what most concerns me about Ocean’s 8, much more so than whether or not it is a good idea to have all-female spinoffs or if these ladies would be better off assembling for some original concept (it is at least theoretically possible to have both, after all). We can rest assured that Debbie Ocean’s (Sandra Bullock) heist is mostly a victimless crime, although maybe a few millionaires take a hit. There is no sense, though, that this is a matter of acting on behalf of the little guy to stick it to the 1%. The underlying message is basically that you do what you do because you’re good at it, and that cavalier attitude is not exactly ruinous, but it can be mighty discomforting if you think about it.

But if we can allow ourselves to revel in the fantasy for two hours, does Ocean’s 8 deliver the entertainment that it is designed to? It takes a while to get going, with a rather sluggish pace as Debbie assembles her crew. And it does not help that we have seen these character types before: the tech expert, the street scam artist, the suburbanite trying to hide her criminal past. But once the plan gets going, the pace clicks along nicely. The heist itself – get celebrity Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) to wear a famous necklace worth millions at the Met Gala, swipe it off her and replace it with a convincing facsimile – is adequately innovative. As everyone carries out their jobs, the cast comes alive, with Hathaway in particular having a blast. And it pulls off the third act moments that make you go, “They did it. Those magnificent bastards pulled it off!” There are the moments when we learn what really went down that we didn’t see at the time, and then here comes a new major character who helps the ladies wrap it all up in a bow. Nothing is getting reinvented, but the gears are still turning smoothly.

Less interesting, and much more perfunctory, are the connections to the Ocean’s franchise at large. A few vets of Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen pop in for cameos, which might spark thrills of recognition. Much is made of Debbie’s connection to her brother, the supposedly deceased Danny, that is meant to go beyond, “Hey, remember this character you already love?” There are some ideas about genetic destiny that are worth exploring more in depth, but Ocean’s 8 mostly plays these moments as just a toast to its forebears. Acknowledgement of one’s predecessors is generally a good idea, but you need to take it a step further if you want to truly slay.

Ocean’s 8 is Recommended If You Like: All the typical heist film beats, Suspending your moral compass for two hours

Grade: 3 out of 5 Blind Spots

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Peter Rabbit’ is Fun Enough for the Kiddos, But It’s Also Kind of Insane

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: James Corden, Domhnall Gleeson, Rose Byrne, Daisy Ridley, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, Matt Lucas, Sia, Sam Neill

Director: Will Gluck

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: PG for Cartoonish, But Quite Dangerous, Violence

Release Date: February 9, 2018

For the most part, Peter Rabbit is just another trifling kids movie with CG-animated animals. It is not the worst of the menagerie, though it is far from the best. But like many movies of this ilk, it also raises some weird metaphysical conundrums that I do not think it ever planned on grappling with but that it cannot avoid entirely. When you have anthropomorphic animals interacting with humans, especially when those humans are played by live-action actors, you have to decide how much the humans can recognize the critters’ extraordinary abilities. When the beasts talk to each other, does it just sound like animal noises to people? Or can they hear it perfectly, thus forcing the animals to be discreet? Or maybe there is only Dr. Dolittle-type, going mad over the loneliness of his interspecies communication powers.

In this case, Peter (James Corden), his triplet sisters Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), Flopsy (Margot Robbie), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley), and their cousin Benjamin Bunny (Matt Lucas) are quite sneaky, and as their schemes become more and more elaborate, there is no reason to pretend that they are not fully intelligent creatures. The confirmation that they can in fact talk to humans is a rather sloppy reveal, as it begs the question: how have they hidden this secret for so long? Regardless of what mysterious machinations they have pulled off, the narrative requires that they spill the truth, considering that Peter is responsible for extensive property damage, and furthermore, he wants to apologize to Bea (Rose Byrne), the human that he loves, and make peace with Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson), the human that he has been torturing. This all makes for a resolution that is sweet but with disturbing subtext.

But beyond that, this is a fairly typical entry for this genre, as typified by its soundtrack of the pop hits of the past twenty years. Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” Basement Jaxx’s “Do Your Thing,” and Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” will keep the kids bouncing in their chairs without challenging their soundscapes. Lady Bird can take note that Peter’s use of Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me” is not similarly profound. Elsewhere, the film’s raison d’être is excessively painful physical gags, including a truly worrying number of electrocutions (this is nowhere near as gentle as Beatrix Potter’s source material). There is a rake gag that I must admit I chuckled at, though I am concerned that the target audience will not realize how heavily indebted it is to The Simpsons. And that is indicative of the whole: a satisfying diversion, but with some worrisome implications.

Peter Rabbit is Recommended If You Like: MouseHunt, Dr. Dolittle, the Pop Dance Hits of Today!

Grade: 3 out of 5 Winking Rabbits