‘Cats’ is a Jellicle-Only Affair

1 Comment

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

‘Jojo Rabbit’ Never Met Any Tonal Disparity It Wouldn’t Embrace

1 Comment

CREDIT: Fox Searchlight

Starring: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Archie Yates, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant

Director: Taika Waititi

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Children Getting in the Line of Fire and Witnessing Victims of Public Hanging

Release Date: October 18, 2019 (Limited)

If a ten-year-old boy declared that his best friend is Adolf Hitler, would his story be embraced by the masses? Apparently so, apparently especially if he hangs out with an imaginary version of the Fuhrer played by Taika Waititi, seeing as Jojo Rabbit won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. When I first heard the premise of Jojo, I thought, “Wow, really? Okay.” Now, that initial bit of shock is by no means a dismissal. I encourage all filmmakers (and indeed, all people in any profession) to embrace a challenge, and this is certainly A CHALLENGE. The potential pitfalls go beyond the difficulty of trying to make a mockery out of the Nazis. That really isn’t a problem, as there have been numerous memorable spoofs of Hitler over the decades, from Charlie Chaplin to Mel Brooks, and comedy can be one of our most potent weapons against hate. Ultimately, the possibility for trouble comes in the form of the whimsical tone, which does not promise to mix so easily with the deadliness of the wartime setting.

My verdict is that Jojo Rabbit does not fully overcome its inherent tonal disparity, though I appreciate its audacity. There is something to be said for the value of presenting a violent world through a child’s perspective. However, it’s a little harder to justify constantly placing preteen characters in the path of gunfire and explosions (while insisting on drawing out consistent guffaws), which Jojo Rabbit does a distressing number of times. And on top of that, the adult actors are so uniformly goofy. Their performances indicate that this is a straight-up parody, while the effects work counter that no, this is actually supposed to be harrowing and realistic.

I’m almost willing to forgive, or at least overlook, that tonal whiplash, because the inner conflicts at the heart of this film are actually rather affecting despite the tightrope they must walk. Young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) fully embraces Nazism, though he does not really grasp what that means. He buys into the nastiest stereotypes of Jews, believing that they are horned, scaly creatures who hang upside-down like bats. But it turns out that while his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) has enthusiastically been sending him to a Hitler Youth camp, that’s all a ruse, as she’s secretly been working against the Nazis, even hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in her house. Jojo discovers her and naturally develops a crush, as he gradually realizes that his anti-Semitism is not sincere but rather based on some fanciful lies that were attractive to a kid with an active imagination. If Jojo Rabbit is trying to teach us that hate can be cured if the disease is detected early enough, and especially if the antidote is love, well, that’s true, but no great revelation. But if it’s trying to remind us that a childlike perspective of the world is chaotic, but also somehow fun, and weirdly revelatory, well, that’s a useful reminder. Although, maybe sometimes movies should be less messy than real life.

Jojo Rabbit is Recommended If You Like: Life is Beautiful, Monty Python crossed with Schindler’s List

Grade: 3 out of 5 Grenade Explosions

Mini-Movie Review: ‘The Hustle’ is Too Loud and Outrageous to Pull Off a Satisfying Con

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Christian Black/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rebel Wilson, Alex Sharp, Ingrid Oliver

Director: Chris Addison

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Crude Makeup Jobs and Exaggerated Appetites

Release Date: May 10, 2019

Successful movies about con artists pull cons on their audiences, and we thank them for it, because that is how they derive their entertainment value. So as someone on the hunt for entertainment value, it is my solemn duty to sadly report that The Hustle (a gender-flipped remake of 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) struggles mightily to keep its viewers guessing. There are very few surprises along the way until the very end, and you’ll probably be able to surmise the big reveal if you’ve seen the original, or if you’re just savvy enough with the genre. So that leaves Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson to do what they can by bouncing off against each other, which they do by leaning way too hard into their typical character types. Let’s put it this way: this is a movie in which someone eats a French fry that’s been dipped in toilet water, and there’s no good narrative reason for it. If that tickles your funny bone, then good on you, but it’s not especially relevant to any con job.

The Hustle is Recommended If You Like: Sticking raunchy humor into a genre where it might not fit

Grade: 2 out of 5 Sob Stories

Movie Review: Rom-Com Deconstruction Goes Down as Easy as a Cupcake in the Frothy and Insightful ‘Isn’t It Romantic’

1 Comment

CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Rebel Wilson, Liam Hemsworth, Adam DeVine, Priyanka Chopra, Betty Gilpin

Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson

Running Time: 88 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Stereotypically PG-13 Rom-Com Behavior

Release Date: February 13, 2019

Do romantic comedies offer any applicable lessons for our own lives? Or are they all just toxic fantasies and at best valuable only for the escapism they offer? Isn’t It Romantic would like us to believe that even the most unrealistic rom-coms can provide inspiration for how to navigate our love lives. It’s a lesson that its main character Natalie (Rebel Wilson) would be wise to take to heart (and ultimately of course, she will). An architect living in an accurately smelly and sweaty New York City, she has been raised to be cynical about the genre, and fairly enough, she calls out its most destructive tropes: from the female co-workers who are mandatory rivals to the gay best friend who has no personal life of his own. But her cynicism blinds her to the existence of potential true love around her, partly because she does not believe that most guys would be interested in a “normal” girl like her. She is someone who would clearly benefit from saying “yes” more often, even if what she says yes to is living out an over-the-top stereotypical rom-com. Somehow, that experience leads to self-acceptance and fully listening to the people who truly appreciate her.

Nat is transported to this fantasy world when she hits her head while getting mugged in a subway station. She finds herself in a suspiciously fragrant version of NYC in which just about everyone is a little too open to the possibility of random meet-cutes. For her, that means a whirlwind romance with Blake (a never-better Liam Hemsworth), a client of hers who speaks almost exclusively in Buddhist aphorisms. And for Nat’s best friend and co-worker Josh (Adam DeVine), that means falling into the embrace of Isabella (Priyanka Chopra), the improbably employed “yoga ambassador.” It turns out that the rom-com storyline at play here is actually “best friends realize they were supposed to be together all along, almost before it’s too late,” and chances are pretty high that the corresponding happy ending will come to fruition. But the real raison d’etre of this whole affair is for Natalie to separate the chaff from the wheat of what rom-coms have to offer. Yes, they might be unrealistic and sometimes even toxic, but that is no reason to be miserable and reject love in our own lives. Isn’t It Romantic deconstructs to remind us why these silly, frothy stories are still worth telling.

Isn’t It Romantic is Recommended If You Like: Enchanted, They Came Together, Rebel Wilson and Adam DeVine’s chemistry in Pitch Perfect

Grade: 4 out of 5 Mornings After