Cats

I got word Saturday night from the good people of Twitter that in a move seemingly without precedent in film history, Universal would be sending out an updated “patch” to all the theaters showing Cats, with corrections to the digital effects that had only been quote-unquote finished (not finished) just a day before the movie premiered. Hurry, Twitter urged. My little sister and I promptly bought tickets for a matinee of unpatched Cats at our hometown mall the next day.

There is a picture going around of a shot of Judi Dench with her very human hand, complete with wedding ring, upon her furry breast. We saw that. We saw…oh, the things we saw. But I need to impress upon you that ALL the hands are primarily human, deliberately, as just one of the endless, hallucinatory string of unworldly choices made by this movie. For the nearly two hours I was watching this, I felt like my brain had returned to an infant state, overcome with fear and confusion and, yes, a kind of delight, at beholding so many new and terrible things. Things that my eyes had no frame of reference for. Surreal, exuberant, unnerving things. Sensual things. Images that arrest you in a mix of horror and fascination, something approaching, perhaps, the true meaning of the sublime. I think I emerged with a new wrinkle on my forehead from a sustained frown of bewildered awe. I am grateful I didn’t get a crick in my neck from how often my sister and I swiveled to stare at each other, our hands weakly—forgive me—pawing at each other’s sleeve, looking for ballast in this sea of frolicking, singing human-cat hybrids in which we were adrift, after the little family at the front—our only fellow audience members—at last fled about two-thirds through, leaving us all alone together upon the shores of this brave new world.

Cats is a shockingly shoddily made $95 million fantasia of the most challenging images and concepts you will be presented with in a mainstream movie this year. The editing is appallingly paced, the acting amateur, the jokes leadenly unfunny, the sets a tacky play-land of mystifying proportions, the cinematography not optimized for choreography and the talented dancers so CGI’ed to pieces that it just looks fake anyway. Even the sound mix of this, a musical, is no good! A unifying philosophy for the project, any unifying philosophy, is disturbingly absent. It nags at you. There is no rhyme or reason to which behaviors will be conveyed as cat-like and which human-like, which body parts, which vocalizations. The scale of the cats in relation to the props swells between terrier and hamster. Some cats wear clothes, some do not, and the clothes are their size except for the buttons, which are for some reason massive. Several of the cats wear fur over their fur and if you cannot wrap your head around that, hang on for when I tell you that at one point Rebel Wilson unzips her furred skin to reveal a second, identical furred skin underneath, and that skin is wearing clothes. That same scene includes singing mice with the faces of children.

It is like a fever dream, like an absurdist joke set to Andrew Lloyd Webber. There is a scene where we come up on Sir Ian McKellen lapping milk out of a bowl and all my nerves tried to leave my body. Actually Ian McKellen is turning in far and away the best performance in this, as he is cat-like in a way no one else is even attempting, and would make my fur stand on end if I had it. Honestly, I think I wish they had more. Idris Elba’s sleek brown seal body is haunting. Actors with delicately furred faces and long whiskers over their pink human mouths nuzzle the tawny ruff below the largely unaltered face of Dame Judi Dench, uncanny as a sphinx. Jennifer Hudson’s soft pointed ears flatten back in meek worry as the other cats hiss at her, and actually you know what this effect was pretty good.

Cats is a crime. But it is a crime of passion. This marvelous, monstrous mess is utterly sincere from nose to tail. And listen, listen—I can understand why one could have felt enough Jellicle love in their weird theatre kid heart to make this. I can! Because it’s a day later, and I’m still singing half of these loopy songs. Not so much the first few, but when Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat appeared in his little suspenders and started tap dancing, my sister and I both sat up and brightly muttered “oh, hell yeah.” ‘Magical Mr. Mistoffelees’? A bop! And absolute vocal powerhouse Jennifer Hudson belts ‘Memories’ right into your face, out of her own weeping, bewhiskered cat-face.

Anyway, this is a misbegotten nightmare and the most incredible cinematic event of the year.

★½ / ★★★★★

Knives Out

Half the fun of a whodunnit is finding out who done it, so please god, if you have not seen this movie and want to (you do!!), do not read this!

The other half of the fun is watching the actors have fun. Is a rollicking murder mystery the most fun you can have as an actor? I look at Clue, I look at this, I think: maybe so. There are a number of movies I might describe as feeling like a play, and usually what I mean is not what I mean here: Knives Out feels like a movie performed by a company. An ensemble that all got together for a few weeks in a big house to make a feature. Which is essentially how this actually went, because Rian Johnson is by all accounts a delight that everyone wants to work with, and he saw he had a window and said, be there? And they said, WITH BELLS ON.

I love that this is nearly a movie without a lead character, but that there actually is and it’s Marta. Ana de Armas is essentially playing the straight-man role and that can be pretty thankless sometimes, but not in her hands! She is so cute, she is so funny, she is so nauseous. The girl spends a whole sequence bopping around the grounds of the Thrombey mansion wearing this long color-block knit scarf and her weird winter capris over socks & sneakers looking for all the world like a mash-up of several different Doctors Who. I love her. I love Marta so much that my two (2) quibbles with this movie are things I think were a disservice to her: 1) I did not need her to soothe Meg and tell her it was okay that she sold her out, and 2) I really wish we’d learned what country her family had actually immigrated from. You can keep the ongoing joke at the Thrombeys’ expense that they keep naming different places, and just give Marta a little hero moment in the latter part where she sets the record straight. But that said, that final shot of her with a blanket around her shoulders like a cozy cloak, standing on the balcony above them and almost understatedly raising the ‘My House My Rules’ mug to her lips, was Perfect Beautiful Triumphant. As warming as whatever was in that mug!! I laughed and my laugh was a CHEER.

Meanwhile: Everyone else. God they are having such a good time. Daniel Craig’s performance, as Glenn Weldon put it, is the honey-baked ham at the center of this movie, and it is delicious. Benoit Blanc. Benoit Blanc. But you know what? I didn’t think he was the funniest one. Because this movie contains Toni Collette, nailing every. fucking. line reading. I think our theater laughed at the end of 90% of her deliveries. A masterpiece. Lakeith Stanfield wearing a very nice coat and deploying his giant eyes in background reaction comedy was another highlight.

As was, good god, Christopher Evans, who was practically sparkling with glee in every one of his scenes. I mean he got arguably the most fun part:
– swan in halfway through, as obnoxious as an actual swan
– not give a fuck
– get to play that EXHILARATING thing where suddenly the unrepentant asshole is, oh of course, the only one renegade enough that you would consider aligning with him when he shows up in a pinch and offers you a ride
– aaannnd double-cross our heroine and prove to be the villain the whole dang time

Well except for the fact that Marta did in fact kill Harlan (a lovely turn from Christopher Plummer, like he knows another way to be), albeit only in the most inadvertent and be-tricked way possible, and holy–[kicks a chair over]–FUCK did I love that they showed us what happened so early! Turning the whole Christie mystery structure on its head! THIS SCRIPT IS KILLER.

Because really, Knives Out so fun, it’s so fun, but it’s also functional. I don’t know if that’s the word I mean. It is a classic genre piece but it is very fresh, it comes from right now. It’s a party pastiche with points to make. The whodunnit gone timely, where the knives may be false but the social commentary is plenty sharp enough to make up for it. The jokes, oh the jokes…top tier and aimed straight for those there. Twisty and romping yet with a gimlet eye, this is one of the cinematic gifts of the year.

★★★★½

A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood

Everyone’s gonna tell you this is a sweet movie but I’m not, I’m here to tell you that A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is kind of outrageous, actually. It opens with Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers, walking into a perfect recreation of his program’s set, quality fuzzy like an old TV picture, and after he does the bit with the cardigan and the sneakers, he starts showing you this “picture board” with photos hidden behind doors, and then he opens one of them and it’s this insane close-cropped image of Matthew Rhys with a cut on the bridge of his nose and a black eye, looking dead into the camera with a face of bitter misery, and Tom Rogers goes “This is my friend Lloyd.” And at that moment my soul briefly transcended my body to turn around and look at me and ask, “Is this movie gonna be…weird?” It is, and in retrospect I don’t know why I expected otherwise!

But yes, let’s talk about Mr. Rogers’ friend Lloyd first, because he is the main character and he is, yes, outrageous. Lloyd is an impossibility: the only person in the world who has no good will toward Fred Rogers, living in the only alley in New York City, with the only journalism job that would pay for him to travel from NYC to Pittsburgh I think three separate times to write a 400-word piece of copy. In real life, the Esquire profile that inspired this movie was written by a man named Tom, but as they needed to make him outrageous, all the names have been changed, and, appropriately, they picked one for him that sounds like a mournful trumpet slide. Lloyd has (outrageously) a 10/10 compassionate beautiful public interest attorney wife named Andrea, and an adorable brand new baby, and this movie is basically an hour forty-five of Mr. Rogers trying to make Lloyd worth their time. Mr. Rogers took one look at this cynical sadsack and went, ‘I have to rehabilitate this man’. Lloyd is so mad and so sad and just, god, Lloyd, nobody’s got time for this—except Mr. Rogers. Mr. Rogers moves at a different pace from the entire world. Mr. Rogers has got all the time he needs. Mr. Rogers will care about Lloyd when I do not.

Because it’s important to remember that Mr. Rogers was also kind of outrageous! He was a strange person! He was an endless fount of empathy and grace, and a total weirdo. Marielle Heller has figured that out, and essentially made the kind of movie Fred Rogers was. She has deliberately framed the film as if it’s an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, full of kindness and miniatures and slowly delivered dialogue and nearly too much sweetness, but with this certain oddball angle you never get too far away from before suddenly Fred is talking to you in a falsetto through his tiger puppet, or Lloyd has been shrunk down small enough to fit on the battlements of King Friday’s castle and given giant floppy bunny ears, in my personal high-water mark of this movie. The whole of which I spent, like I would watching the show, wishing it were just….a bit more outrageous.

★★