Judge Brett Cullum (wait for it...wait for it...) bares his claws in this review of last summer's litterbox liner.
Laurel Hedare: For you, Patience, it's game over!
Academy Award winner Halle Berry puts on a little torn leather and a whole lot of lipstick and takes on a dried up old white woman with killer makeup (Sharon Stone) in one of 2004's biggest bombs. Yes, boys and girls—it's time to take a look at the latest casualty in the superhero(ine) movie craze: Catwoman. Sharpen your claws and get your tails twitching as we try to discern if there's any catnip in all this kitty litter.
Facts of the Case
Halle Berry (Monster's Ball, Die Another Day, X-Men) plays Patience Phillips (Huh?!?! What?!?!? Not Selina Kyle!?!?…Wait! Oh I get it now. Peter Parker and Patience Phillips. Is that what they hoped for?), a mousy, shy artist working as a graphic designer for a company called Hedare Cosmetics. She's helping to design advertising for a new beauty cream called "Beau-line" that promises to reverse the effects of aging (think Botox in a bottle). She goes to a factory to meet a midnight deadline, and accidentally stumbles into a clandestine meeting. She finds out that Beau-line has some nasty side effects—namely, it may cause migraines and bitchiness if you use it, and disfigurement along the lines of sticking your face into a deep fryer if you quit. Rather than just making Patience sign a non-disclosure agreement, Laurel Hedare (Sharon Stone, Basic Instinct) orders her goons to kill unlucky Patience. (All cosmetic companies naturally have hit men working for them…just ask Esté e Lauder.) They flush her down some drainage pipes, but our girl is rescued by Midnight. He's an Egyptian computer-generated Mau cat who is radioactive and bites her. No, wait—Midnight breathes life into poor dead Patience and revives her as The Crow…er, I mean, as Catwoman.
Now she's scarfing down tuna and hissing at dogs, and she has a peculiar sense of vengeance to go with her new set of cat-like superpowers. She has selective amnesia (to give us some plot), so she sets out to find out who killed her, and why. She jumps around from building to building searching for her killers. Oh yeah, and she also decides she likes leather and whips. Meow! Patience is now part of a long legacy of Catwomen who all seem to favor dominatrix get-ups and masks to empower scorned women. Camille Paglia and Helen Gurley Brown would be proud of her new "Pussy power to the maximum!" battle cry. Will Patience be able to stop Beau-line and save the women of the world? Will her new cop boyfriend (Benjamin Bratt, Miss Congeniality) ever figure out that the woman he is dating is also the vigilante jewel thief he's hunting (especially when she does everything but use a litter box in front of him)? Will there be a sequel? Will Spider-man and The Crow want their plots back?
Comics seem to be our pop culture myths, as if legends and folk tales have been replaced by pulpy, campy picture books of people running around in Spandex. They make great film fodder because we already know something about the characters coming into the cineplex, and therefore already care about them. They should be "no-brainers" for studios. Catwoman is an icon, and I'm a fan. No, not the Catwoman in this movie…the DC Comics character. I've collected quite an array of both Batman's and the feline fatale's own comics featuring Selina Kyle whipping her way through Gotham City for a number of years. So let's get this out of the way first. This movie has nothing to do with the character you've seen in comics, television, or the movies for the past sixty years. In the comics, Catwoman is changing constantly: her costumes, her origins, what side of the law she's on—all of it has been rewritten numerous times. Even Tim Burton played havoc with Selina Kyle's origin in his much-loved and accomplished Batman Returns. You can change Catwoman to fit your project, but this is the first time I've seen her assume a new identity, or seen any indication that there is actually a line of Catwomen. It's the start of the trouble. The filmmakers betrayed a rich legacy that was ripe with potential. How did this happen?
After Batman Returns became a summer blockbuster in 1992, much talk emerged concerning a sequel or Catwoman spin-off with Michelle Pfeiffer reprising her role. Tim Burton was passing the Batman baton off to Joel Schumacher, and said he was not interested in another Batman movie, but instead was developing a Catwoman project. A Burton script began making the rounds in Hollywood, but then the lead actress got pregnant and the project was stalled. Pfeiffer also complained that she would not want to don her restrictive costume again, and it seemed the movie would never get made. Burton's co-producer Denise Di Novi kept plugging away at getting a big screen adaptation with or without Burton or Pfeiffer. Rumors began flying that Ashley Judd (Kiss the Girls) would don the black latex and take over. Then there was a whisper campaign that Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge) would be the next Catwoman. Halle Berry (who had whined about her smallish part as Storm in X-Men) finally became attached to the project (without a finalized script), and soon talks began again. Two options were presented to the studio: one where Halle would headline her own movie, and the other where Halle would appear in Batman Begins as Catwoman. With Spider-man trouncing the summer box office, Warner Brothers decided to greenlight the solo project.
The Canadian-based production was a nightmare, and problems abounded. Berry had problems cracking the signature whip (early takes before it was abandoned took up to ninety minutes to get it to simply crack). She also ended up in the hospital after a motorcycle mishap, though she was not seriously injured. (Who let her drive to begin with! Hello!???! "Hit-And-Run Halle," remember?!?) She also had problems with the fighting style chosen for the film—a martial arts style that incorporated animal moves. A male stuntperson had to put on her costume and do some of the fight scenes when it wasn't done via CGI. Production test photos of her costume were leaked out on to the Internet, and promptly got a lashing from comic fans. There was a race to finalize the feminist-toned script, and they ended up with three men working on it. A first time untested director was at the helm. The singularly titled Pitof had a long career of creating special effects for Jeneut and Caro on projects like Alien: Resurrection and Amélie, but little in the way of directing feature films. William Orbit and Graeme Revell both dropped out of scoring duties, and had to be replaced with Klaus Badelt. A climatic catfight between Berry and Stone took seven days to shoot, because Stone kept answering her cell phone during takes (imagine it: "Hello?…I'm making Crapwoman and fighting Halle Berry right now, but I can talk!"). The film tested poorly, and reshoots and re-edits were ordered by the studio with only a month to go before release. Visual effects were not completed on the new shots in time to translate the film into IMAX, and Hollywood began to buzz that the movie was in dire trouble.
It was a mess, and the proof is up there on the screen. Note the changing motorcycle helmets in that sequence from the separate shoots before and after Halle's trip to the hospital. Notice throughout the movie how Halle's whip is almost completely CGI. Freeze frame at the right spot in a fight, and scream with your friends "Catwoman is a DUDE!" And when she's not a dude, Catwoman is a poorly-rendered CGI figure hopping from building to building in an annoying Nintendo GameCube kind of way. The plot holes are monstrous. Why would Catwoman have to even bother stopping a product that would have trial lawyers filing class action lawsuits within days of the product hitting the market? Is her cop boyfriend really dense? Doesn't he notice the changes in Patience, and how much Catwoman looks like her? I could go on, but you get the point. It seems the movie is a misfire in almost every department. It lacks in story, direction, visual effects, and acting. The feminist angle is shot within minutes. Catwoman fights against an evil cosmetics company in a push-up bra with tons of lipstick on. And killer cold cream? Come on! How about explosive tampons while we're at it? Why is it that Hollywood relegates female superheros to fighting only women super villains when they headline? They need to get out of the 1950s and get with the program if they want us to take the feminism they tout seriously. Halle Berry looks ready for a photo shoot even after she's flushed out of a drainage pipe, and she's fighting Sharon Stone over bad botox?
The supporting cast tries hard to buoy the film against badness. Benjamin Bratt is super sexy and just as likable as Halle. He's trying to be "Bratt"-man playing Detective Tom Lone (A loner…get it?), but his character never gets to do much more than play "substitute for damsel in distress" and "confused love interest." Sharon Stone is an inspired choice for Laurel Hedare, a supermodel who is on the verge of being forgotten as she ages. Stone is in the same boat with respect to her movie career (get the irony?), and she certainly seems game to come out of her corner fighting. Somebody please give this woman a break! You feel her struggle and strain to put some classic Stone moments on celluloid, but in the final reel she seems to give up and phone it in (rather literally, given the story of her cell phone). Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) comes in to the picture as Ophelia Power (oh…I get it! Ms. Feel Your Power). She's a cat lady who explains to Patience and the audience that she is merely the most recent in a long line of vixens with feline powers who like to play dress up. She gets one note, and that's all there is to play. Then there is the bubbly overweight best friend, Sally, played by Alex Borstein (Family Guy, Mad TV), who mugs her ass off as if a sitcom deal hangs in the balance. No dice, honey. Lambert Wilson also appears as the forgettable cad CEO George Hedare (evil man who is president of the woman destroying HE…DARE, get it?).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The good news? Warner Brothers treats the release as if it were pure gold. We get a very solid transfer with almost no problems. Black levels are pitch perfect, and artifacts are nowhere to be found. Colors seem off, but that stems from a directorial choice rather than any DVD mishaps. And the sound is a fully realized rich 5.1 surround mix that only occasionally gets a little too bass heavy (again more a problem with the source). It's beautiful, and all delivered at an impressively high bit-rate that borders on Superbit level. Blue levels look great even for a color that often gives the format fits. Extras are not plentiful, but there is some meat in the form of a thirty-minute documentary "The Many Faces of Catwoman," concerning the history of the character. We see her comic origins, and then get treated to interviews with every actress who has ever played her. Halle Berry, Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, Adrienne Barbeau, and Lee Merriweather all chime in with recent interviews. We also get Michelle Pfeiffer in the form of stock interviews from 1992. Also included are various producers, historians, Adam West, and Tim Burton. Less impressive is a behind-the-scenes peek at the production, which seems a little too self-congratulatory and brief to offer any insight. Five deleted scenes don't add up to much, even with an alternate ending. They are grace notes that wouldn't have helped the movie.
I saw this film twice when it was in theatres. I went once at a matinee because I had some friends who promised they would go with me and I didn't believe them. Then they invited me to a screening and I couldn't admit I had seen it. So the second time I watched the audience instead of the movie. There was a row of school-age black girls in the audience, and I watched them the most. They loved every minute of Catwoman and clapped with glee when it was over. They had no idea of the history of Catwoman as a comic character, or any sense that there were plot holes large enough to rip the screen apart. I realized that for them the thrill was seeing Halle Berry play a strong superhero, and that was all they needed. They could have gone to see Spider-man 2 playing next door, but Halle was their hero. This was the stuff of their movie dreams, and who am I to pick it apart when the movie was obviously made for them? A movie can't be all bad if it made a group of little girls that happy.
Halle Berry looks mighty fine in her get-up even if the comic geeks picked it apart. She's a beautiful lady, and the movie's best "special effect." Forget the whip and the fighting; she's quite likable and looks purrrrfect. It's a long way from her Oscar, but she's certainly capable of pulling this off. Too bad the script failed her with little character and howlingly bad one-liners, because had this been handled better she could have starred in a franchise. She creates a wonderfully mousy Patience, and is physically imposing when she transforms into full-blown Catwoman. It's nowhere near the level of Michelle Pfeiffer's turn as Selina Kyle in Batman Returns, but the script and director aren't helping out any here. The journey from mouse to cat just isn't done well enough to make any of this believable. Still, Halle turns in a fine performance and looks great doing it. Where is Tim Burton when you need him? His sense of outsider gravity could have really helped Halle Berry, rather than just style and a good photographer.
Pitof is not an accomplished director, but he does have an unusual and intriguing visual sense. Some of the scenes are downright gorgeous, including Catwoman's transformation at the breath of Midnight. It's a CGI cat, but it looks great and made me realize that there is an artistry at work here—the computers can create painterly visions that dance as well as live action (sometimes better). All the visual elements are there, and the production looks better than it should have. He was saddled with a huge project, and was working with an unfinished script while shooting. His overcompensation with style seems like it was his only way out. And the cinematography is gorgeous, even if the breakneck editing is working against it. Thierry Arbogast has lensed many Luc Besson epics, and he's brilliant no matter what he's shooting.
It's the Showgirls of superhero movies. Empty, vapid, ill-conceived, and yet still totally watchable with some beautiful production values. I can think of many movies from 2004 that let CGI derail any interest I had in the film itself, such as Van Helsing. And yet you will find people defending that movie with gusto, while hardly anyone will ever admit they liked Catwoman. But I definitely had more fun with this one. There's something very entertaining about the movie in a "check your brain at the door and enjoy the eye candy" way.
It's not the movie it should have been. Catwoman, Halle Berry, and the audience deserve better. Nobody has made a great heroine movie out of any of the rich characters available in comics, and that's a sad state of affairs. Tim Burton and Michelle Pfeiffer came the closest to getting the character right, but she was still just a supporting role. Maybe one day someone will get it right. Until then we have a pretty and flawed vision of what could be. The movie certainly is not the monstrosity critics made it out to be, and there are parts of it that are downright masterful (which makes you yearn for what could have been). It's a perfect rental for a rainy day when you've got some friends, beer, and pizza. It'll do fine on 2AM cable showings.
In the end, they miss the essence of Catwoman. The reason we've loved her all these years is because she's sexy, independent, mysterious and unattainable. She walks a grey line in a black-and-white world, neither wholly evil nor wholly good, and she never really cares about what men think. Halle Berry wants you to like her Catwoman a little too much. She's never allowed to be evil, or even really bad in any sense of the word. She's given little girls a superhero, and men a good visual, but she hasn't caught what truly makes Catwoman tick. There is no danger here, and without that danger we have no need for this story. But the nice thing about projects like Catwoman is that it doesn't alter the real Catwoman in the slightest. Selina Kyle has nine lives, and we'll see her again someday real soon. And if we're lucky she'll kick our ass!
Catwoman is guilty of being "bad as she wants to be"—and she must want to be pretty bad judging from this movie. Halle Berry is ordered to demand a script before she signs on for any other comic outings, and should be grateful for her Storm role. Warner Brothers deserves a lashing with the cat-o-nine-tails for this one. We love our superheros, and demand more. Pitof needs to go back to what he does best, visual effects. He's on parole. And Selina Kyle is free to come back when Michelle Pfeiffer or another actress of her caliber is willing to play her the right way: mysterious and dangerously sexy, not just sexy.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Alternate Ending
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