Cats

Posted on December 19, 2019 at 5:09 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Threats, dusting-style disappearances, portrayal of afterlife/reincarnation
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 20, 2019
Date Released to DVD: April 6, 2020
Copyright 2019 Universal

I was not hoping for much from “Cats.” I knew that the record-breaking, popular-for-decades Broadway musical did not have much of a plot, just songs with lyrics from the poetry of T.S. Eliot and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and spectacular dancing. So that’s all I hoped for — an all-star cast singing and dancing. Some of the singing is fine, and the dancing is great, when you can see it, but the whole thing is so badly misbegotten that it does its best to keep its most entertaining elements out of sight.

I mean that literally. There’s one simple rule, going back to the days of Fred Astaire, for dance in movies: get the camera out of the way and let the audience see the dance as fully as possible. We want to see the shapes the bodies make, we want to feel the way they interact with the rhythm and with each other, and we want to see their feet. There are dance numbers in “Cats” where the camera moves away from the feet or out of beat with the rhythm. Why? They also give “Memory,” one of the most iconic songs of the last 30 years to Jennifer Hudson, one of the greatest singers of the last 30 years and have her put most of her energy into emotion instead of singing.

The movie’s credits highlight ballerina Francesca Hayward in her first film appearance, playing the young ingenue cat, Victoria. She is thrown into the garbage inside a sack at the beginning of the film, and we learn about the world of the cats as it is explained to her. The various felines introduce themselves, including Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) the house cat, who teaches mice and even cockroaches to sing and dance, the magician Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), the down-at-the-paws Grizabella (Jennifer Hudson), filled with regret and self-doubt, “the tap-dancing railroad yard cat Skimbleshanks (Steven McRae), and the wicked Macavity (Idris Elba) “the Napoleon of crime.”

Presiding over everyone is the magisterial Old Deuteronomy (Dame Judi Dench), who has the power to select one “jellicle” cat (a term Eliot made up) for a second chance at life. As cats comes forward to introduce themselves, it’s like a feline “Chorus Line,” everyone auditioning for that one big chance.

All of that would be fine if there was some joyful energy behind it, but it is mostly just dreary. Some of the musical numbers, especially McRae’s tap dance, could could have provided that lift if the camera would have stopped long enough to let us see what he was doing. Taylor Swift brings all of her considerable Swiftian panache (though an uncertain hold on an English accent) as Bombalurina, but the movie then sinks back into its trudgey tempo, leaving us to wonder at the furry costumes with ears and tails constantly twitching, so skin-tight it only emphasizes the human and decidedly un-feline forms and movements. It’s a close call what we get more of, silly “cat got your tongue”-style references, the word “jellicle” or Hayward’s lovely face, even in fur and whiskers, which director Tom Hooper keeps cutting back to. Not to sound catty, but it just reminds us how much less enthralled we are than she is.

Here’s a tip. “Cats” is a purely theatrical experience. You want to make a movie about it? Try making it about a theater troop putting it on, and try not have it turn unto “Noises Off.” Even if it did, it would be more entertaining than this version.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild sexual references, nuzzling, some disturbing dusting-style disappearances and death references, and sad songs.

Family discussion: What do you think “jellicle” means? Do you agree with Deuteronomy’s choice? Which was your favorite cat and why?

If you like this, try: “The Fantastcks” and “Nine”

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Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera

Posted on December 10, 2004 at 6:44 pm

Despite lavish settings and sweeping camera movement, this sumptuously produced Andrew Lloyd Weber musical feels static, stuffy, and stagey. This is in part because so much of it takes place on a stage but more because it is mostly just people standing still and singing rather than moving or, well, acting. It’s the Branson, Missouri dinner theater edition, as decorated as a wedding cake and as tightly laced as Christine’s corset.

This is the zillionth version of the Gaston Leroux Beauty and the Beast-like story about a brilliant masked madman who lives under the opera house. He falls in love with the exquisite young soprano Christine, (played by the exquisite young soprano Emmy Rossum from Mystic River). She believes he is the angel of music, sent to teach her by her dead father.

But the Phantom is no angel. He will do anything to make Christine a star and he will do everything to possess her.

At first, Christine is mesmerized by the Phantom. He brings her to his home in the caverns far below the stages and dressing rooms and sings to her about the music of the night, charging her singing with passion. And just as the theater owner sells the place to two scrap metal dealers who know nothing about show business, the phantom arranges to have Christine get the starring role in the opera’s newest production.

The new team has a new patron — a handsome young nobleman named Raoul (Patrick Wilson) who was once Christine’s childhood sweetheart. He and Christine fall in love but the Phantom will not allow Christine to be with anyone else, even if it means destroying everything he cares about.

Sumptuous sets and costumes give this film the grandest of aspirations, but its overheated emotions set to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s purplish music are so inherently “theatrical” that the film cannnot be as effective as the stage play, and the performances are more about the music than the story. Christine, Raoul, and the Phantom sing in the theater, they sing in the caverns, they sing in a graveyard, and they sing at a masked ball. But the bland Gerard Butler as the Phantom never conveys the menace or the allure of the brilliant madman who hears the music of the night.

Parents should know that the movie includes peril and violence, with some graphic images. There are mild and non-explicit sexual situations with predatory implications.

Families who see this movie should talk about some of the fairy tales than inspired it. What is the significance of the masked ball? What did the Phantom love about Christine? Can you love people without really seeing who they are? Why was the Phantom’s face so terrifying to himself and others? How do we treat disabled people today? Families should also talk about the way the two key songs in the movie are used to illuminate different relationships and different emotions.

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy Chicago and some of the earlier, non-musical version of this story, from the silent version starring Lon Chaney to the 1989 version starring Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Robert Englund. They can read the original book and find out more about the story here. Rossum is always worth watching, especially as an Appalachian girl in Songcatcher, and Butler is much more at home in the appealing Dear Frankie.

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