CATS (2019)

December 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Tom Hooper must really enjoy this process. In 2012 he brought mega-hit stage musical LES MISERABLES to the screen. It was nominated for 8 Oscars and won 3, including one for Anne Hathaway. This time, Mr. Hooper again turns his talents towards a colossally successful stage musical, and costumes, make-up, and visual effects are even more crucial. Whereas Les Mis was adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel, CATS was adapted by songwriter Andrew Lloyd Webber from a 1939 poetry collection of T.S. Elilot. Of course, Mr. Webber is also the genius behind other brilliant musicals, including THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (from the novel by Gaston Leroux).

Tom Hooper and Lee Hall have adapted the screenplay from the stage presentation, and the sung-through musical approach means there is minimal dialogue. Songs are used to tell the story and introduce the key characters. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (a 3-time Tony winner, “Hamilton”) is the real star. Multiple dance styles are featured, including: classical ballet, contemporary, hip-hop, and traditional tap. The dancing is tremendous, and of course, a big part of that is Francesca Hayward, who plays new kitten on the block, Victoria. Ms. Hayward is a Principal Ballerina at The Royal Ballet. Numerous other skilled dancers are in the cast as well.

The story (such that it is) revolves around a tribe of Jellicle cats who have an annual ritual of selecting one to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back with a new Jellicle life. Sweet Victoria is unceremoniously dumped in the alley by her owner, and is quickly surrounded by this tribe of cats that basically aren’t very nice. It’s in this opening sequence where we realize these humans as cats actually look a bit creepy and take a while to get accustomed to. Given the structure, the story plods along through each successive song, with certain characters getting their moment to shine. These include Rebel Wilson as humorous and chunky Gumbie cat Jennyanydots, Rum Tum Tiger cat played by talented musician/singer/dancer Jason Derulo, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson as outcast Grizabella, James Corden as the usually-hungry Bustopher Jones, and Oscar winner Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy.  Always hovering, is the mystical Macavity played by glowing-green-eyed Idris Elba, and making a later appearance is Taylor Swift as Bombalurina, singing the Macavity tribute song.

The two most memorable numbers come courtesy of Ian McKellan as Gus the Theatre Cat, and Ms. Hudson who belts out the most famous song of the production, “Memory”, in a vocal and emotional highlight of the film. Visually, it’s Mr. Mistofelees (Laurie Davidson) magic number that breaks us out of the muted palette. The other musical numbers mostly just fall flat and aren’t very entertaining or enjoyable.

It’s pure coincidence that the screening for this film was the same day as the new Star Wars movie. The franchise for the latter began in 1977, while “Cats” first hit the stage in 1981. That’s quite a legacy for both. As for this film version from director Hooper, I do wonder if enough viewers will respond to a musical where the story and songs are overshadowed by the dancing, and the sets and costumes offer no ‘wow’ factor. Many will find these characters hard to connect with … at least outside of that incredible Jennifer Hudson vocal. It seems these kitties should have remained on stage.

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JOJO RABBIT (2019)

October 31, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome to the most divisive movie of the year. Some will scoff at the idea and deride the filmmaker without ever even seeing the movie. Some will relay disgust after seeing the movie. A few won’t appreciate the style or structure, and will fail to find the humor. Ah yes, but some of us will embrace Taika Waititi’s wacky adaptation of Christine Leunens’ 2018 novel “Caging Skies” as one of the funniest and most heart-warming films of the year … fully acknowledging that many won’t see it our way.

One wouldn’t be off base in asking why a successful filmmaker would tackle such a risky project: a coming-of-age comedy-drama-fantasy about a 10 year old Nazi fanatic who has as his imaginary friend, not a 6 foot rabbit, but the Fuhrer himself, Adolph Hitler. After all, writer-director Waititi is coming off a couple of brilliant indies (2014’s WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and 2016’s HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE) and a major score with Marvel money on THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), arguably the most entertaining superhero movie of the past few years. He certainly could have continued to cash in with ‘safer’ choices; however, Mr. Waititi sees the world differently than most of us. He finds humor in the drudgery, and humanity in malevolence. He’s also a bit goofy.

Playing over the opening credits is the German version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, as we see old clips of German citizens cheering for Adolph Hitler in a similar manner to how fans used to scream for The Beatles. World War II is nearing the end as we meet 10 year old Jojo Betzler (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis). Jojo is fervent in his fanaticism towards the Nazi way, and buys into the belief that Jews are monsters with horns on their head. He’s such a believer that his imaginary friend is actually Hitler, well at least a bumbling boisterous version played by the filmmaker himself – enacted to extreme comedy effect (recalling a bit of Chaplin in THE GREAT DICTATOR). Mel Brooks managed to play Hitler to a laughable extreme in “Springtime for Hitler” in THE PRODUCERS, but the only thing missing her from Waititi’s costume is an old timey dunce cap.

Jojo lives at home with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), while dad is off fighting on the front line. Ms. Johansson’s performance is terrific (despite limited screen time) as she creates a believably warm bond with her son during horrific times. Soon, Jojo is off to a Nazi camp designed to teach the boys how to fight (and burn books), as the girls learn the virtues of having babies. The camp leaders are Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who is a bit of a joke on the surface, but more interesting the deeper we dig; Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) who boasts of having 18 Aryan babies; and Finkel (Alfie Allen) a violent psychopath. At camp with Jojo is his best friend Yorki (newcomer and scene-stealer Archie Yates), and the two show what a genuine friendship can be as the movie progresses.

Things change quickly for Jojo when, by happenstance, he discovers a Jewish girl living in the walls of his home. Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, LEAVE NO TRACE) shows none of the characteristics that Jojo has been brainwashed into believing all Jews possess. She has no horns, flashes a good sense of humor, and is actually very nice and knowledgeable. In other words, she’s no monster. As they get to know each other, Jojo realizes this “nice” Jewish girl contrasts starkly with his lunatic hero Adolph.

Waititi’s film is ingenious satire, and it likely won’t sit well with those who think not enough time has passed to justify making fun of Nazi atrocities. It’s funny and heavy, and deals with some thought-provoking matter in an unusual way. The “Heil Hitler” count approaches the ‘F-word’ frequency of most Tarantino movies, and there is a German Shepherd gag that caught the audience off-guard. Stephen Merchant’s Gestapo search of Jojo’s house is comedy at its weirdest. The movie messes with your head as it’s some odd blend of SCHINDLER’S LIST, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, and an extended Monty Python skit.

It’s rare for a film that borders on slapstick at times to have so many touching and emotional moments. The actors are really strong here, especially Ms. Johansson and Ms. McKenzie, who as gutsy Elsa, proves again she is quickly becoming a powerhouse young actor. Roman Griffin Davis carries a significant weight in the story despite being a first time actor, and I can’t emphasize enough how young Archie Yates will steal your heart while he’s stealing his scenes. Michael Giacchino’s score and Mihai Malaimaire Jr’s terrific cinematography work well with Waititi’s vision … a satirical vision that would never work outside of his unique filmmaking talent. The story is basically proof of the adage, ‘Kill ‘em with kindness’, when what we are really killing is hatred. At its core, this is a story of humanity and human nature, and how we grab hold of the wrong thing until the truth becomes evident. Now, please pass the unicorn.

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ISN’T IT ROMANTIC (2019)

February 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. I’m not usually the guy anyone turns to for recommendations on Romantic Comedies. Rather than dreamy and fantasy-like, I find most of them imbecilic and disrespectful to those of us living in the real world. It’s because of this predisposition that I was cautiously optimistic when I heard that Rebel Wilson’s new movie offered a satirical look at the genre. Well, it turns out the movie is more spoof than satire, yet I was pleasantly surprised to find it darn funny and quite clever.

The story begins with a young girl mesmerized while watching Julia Roberts in PRETTY WOMAN. A minute later, the girl’s fantasy is shattered when her mother (Jennifer Saunders) explains ‘there are no happy endings for girls like us.’ We then flash forward 25 years to find that little girl has grown up to become Natalie (Rebel Wilson, PITCH PERFECT), an architect whose lack of confidence and self-esteem has caused her career to stall and her daily life to be a grind (even her dog ghosts her). Additionally, Natalie is a skeptic when it comes to love, and offers up a brilliant rant on the misgivings and pain caused by Romantic Comedies. The rant is directed towards her loyal assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin, “GLOW”), who spends a significant portion of each workday streaming rom-coms at her desk.

Of course, Natalie’s rant foreshadows everything we are about to see, and it all occurs after a freak subway accident leaves her concussed. It’s at this point where Natalie finds herself trapped within her own Romantic Comedy … the kind of world she so disdains. All of the familiar rom-com tropes and clichés are mixed in, and Natalie is kind enough to literally point out most of them. The obvious comparison here is to Amy Schumer’s I FEEL PRETTY, but this film benefits not just from the very talented Ms. Wilson (a master of dry snark), but also a cast that is fully on board.

Liam Hemsworth (aka Mr. Miley Cyrus) appears as Blake, the picturesque, charming and of course, very rich romantic lead. Priyanka Chopra (BAYWATCH) stars as the stunning competition-in-love for Natalie, and Adam Devine (PITCH PERFECT) is Josh, Natalie’s nice guy co-worker and not-so-secret admirer who can’t seem to escape the friend zone. Given the times, it is a bit surprising to see Brandon Scott Jones take his stereotypical gay friend Donny so over the top. The love quadrangle plays out as expected, yet thanks to the site gags and Rebel’s zingers, it’s quite entertaining.

Director Todd Strauss-Schulson and writers Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, and Katie Silberman clearly have a solid grasp on the repeatable offenses that occur during most romantic comedies, and I would have preferred they cut a bit deeper in their commentary, but understand the decision not to. They offer us a rare Prozac joke, the new phrase “extra invisible”, and the best use in years of Percy Faith’s “Theme from A Summer Place”. Toying with the PG-13 rating is also part of the gag, and the musical interludes are funny enough, especially the finale presented in Bollywood style. Expect this one to be a favorite on ladies night out, and don’t be shocked if some men on dates catch themselves laughing a few times.

watch the trailer: