Look What the Cat Dragged In

Cats

by Christie Robb

People say that you’re either a cat person or a dog person. I’m a cat person, but definitely not a Cats person. But if you are, there’s a lot to enjoy in the new film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 musical based on poems by T.S. Eliot.

How else could you possibly get tickets to see a show with this cast? Taylor Swift. Idris Elba. Rebel Wilson. James Corden. Jennifer Hudson. How else can you watch a feline Dame Judi Dench curl up convincingly in a basket? Or glimpse Sir Ian McKellen lap from a bowl of milk?

A movie is a very egalitarian way to enjoy a Broadway musical. This one is about an assemblage of cats who have gathered together under the full moon to decide which one of them will be chosen to be reborn into a new life. Their best life. They pitch their case by singing the song of themselves. There’s very little in the way of traditional narrative structure although director Tom Hooper (Les Misérables) does tinker around with the play a bit to try to tease one out. It’s more like a musical revue designed around a central theme.

Initially concerned about falling into the uncanny valley of CG feline effects on the actors’ familiar faces, after some early creepy moments I got used to it. The realistic tail twitches and subtle changes in the angle of an ear serve to give additional cues as to the interior life of a cat that mere facial expressions alone can’t provide. (The opportunity to see emotional reactions through closeups is another advantage of a screen version.)

Occasionally the feline illusion is broken (most often by Swift and Elba) and instead of seeing a cat you are confronted with a dancing furry naked person with Barbie-doll genitalia. But most of the time, it works.

Wilson and Corden are amusing. Watching Francesca Hayward (principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet) dance the role of Victoria is a delight. But the true star of this show is Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella, a former “glamour cat” now old and suffering through hard times.

As in Les Mis, Hooper has his cast sing live, and it is Hudson’s performance of the signature song “Memory” that far outshines every other musical number here. It’s likely what you’ll be humming as you walk out of the theatre, and the one thing you’ll most remember about these Cats.

Third Time Charmless

The Hustle

by George Wolf

1964’s Bedtime Story begat 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and now, after begettin’ a gender switch, the con is on again as The Hustle.

This third time is not lucky, or charming, or funny. Mostly, it’s just painful.

Anne Hathaway is high-class grifter Josephine, who’s wary of newcomer Penny (Rebel Wilson) trying to work the same bit of French Riviera turf. Josephine’s attempts to drive Penny away go nowhere, so the two hatch a wager to decide just who will have to find new hunting grounds.

Hathaway is a worthy Oscar winner, and though Wilson’s pony could really use more tricks, she can be funny. What either one of them saw in this inane script is beyond me and beneath both of them.

The film seems overly proud of itself for the girl power wokeness, while director Chris Addison bases the updated gags on such contorted silliness that when Penny exclaims “That makes zero sense!” it feels like we just learned the identity of Keyser Soze.

If you’ve seen either of the first two go ’rounds, you already know how the con winds up, and it’s never been less fun getting there.

But if the heart of The Hustle is new to you, see steps one or two.

We Can’t Quit You, Rom-Com!

Isn’t It Romantic

by George Wolf

Every time someone on your social media thread pokes fun at the latest Hallmark Christmas special, you can get some pretty good odds they set the DVR to record it.

Isn’t It Romantic is all about indulging those guilty pleasures, laughing with friends as we all point out the reasons we shouldn’t love something that we’re going to keep on loving anyway.

Romantic comedies, why can’t we quit you?

Natalie (Rebel Wilson) is a low-level architect at a NYC firm who chastises her co-worker Whitney (Betty Gilpin) about her love for predictable rom-coms like Notting Hill and 50 First Dates. As Whitney watches yet another one on company time, Natalie wags a finger and reminds us all of the romantic comedy playbook she’s soon to act out.

Fighting with a would-be purse snatcher, Natalie is knocked unconscious, only to awaken in a strange new world.

She’s glowing with full makeup in a lavish E.R., where sexy doctors are available at a moment’s notice and there’s voiceover narration for Natalie’s inner conflicts.

This can only mean one thing: Natalie’s living in a rom-com!

The screenwriting team has plenty of experience in the genre (How to Be Single, The Wedding Date, What Happens in Vegas), and rolls out the tropes with fun, familiar ease. Natalie is instantly pursued by the rich, handsome Blake (Liam Hemsworth) while her friend-zoned buddy Josh (Adam DeVine) hooks up with supermodel/”yoga ambassador” Isabella (Priyanka Chopra) and best pal Whitney suddenly becomes an office nemesis.

Gay sidekick? Of course, honey! It’s neighbor Donny, who shows up at inexplicable moments and is brought to scene-stealing life by Brandon Scott Jones.

“How did you get here??”

“I just said ‘Gay Beetlejuice’ three times and here I am, Booch!”

Wilson, usually adept at scene-stealing herself, seems a bit uneasy in the lead, as her supporting actors all manage to make solid impressions while she struggles to find a confident tone.

Credit director Todd Strauss-Schulson for a finely whimsical pace, pop-up music montages that pop, and plenty of subtle backgrounds that reinforce the wink-winks (there’s a cute little cupcake store on every corner!)

While never hilarious, Isn’t It Romantic manages consistent charm and an effective running gag about keeping it all PG-13. Everybody knows you know how it ends and that’s the point, right? Here comes another musical number!

Hey, if you want rom-com critique with bite, revisit Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon. If you’re fine pleading guilty to the pleasure, Isn’t It Romantic will be plenty enjoyable.

 

 





The Screening Room: A Stocking Full of New Movies

Helping you separate naughty from nice with this weekend’s movie options, The Screening Room looks at Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Pitch Perfect 3, Downsizing, Darkest Hour, The Greatest Showman as well as your new options in home entertainment. Join us!

Listen to the full podcast HERE.





The Pitch is Back

Pitch Perfect 3

by Hope Madden

Did anyone think to themselves this Christmas season, I wonder what those acapella singers from Pitch Perfect are doing now?

Me, either. And yet, Pitch Perfect 3 hits theaters this weekend.

The Bellas have mostly graduated from college by now, dealing with careers, the daily grind and wishing they were still singing in an all-girl, no-instrument band. So they take their talents to the USO to compete with a country group, a rock band and a hip hop duo to land the opening slot for DJ Khaled.

I know that almost sounds like a plot, and there is this side bit about an international criminal and a kidnapping, but honest to God, this is the most disposable, pointless movie of the season. (Full disclosure—I haven’t seen Father Figures yet.)

Director Trish Sie can’t find a pace or visual style to suit the project, which only emphasizes the weakness in any shadow of a storyline.

Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson, along with most of the Bellas, return to vocal action. There’s nothing fresh or appealing about the music, but if that’s your bag, there you go.

Wilson’s Fat Amy still says amusingly inappropriate things, as do the always welcome John Michael Higgins (“We’ll stick to you like mom jeans to a camel toe,”) and Elizabeth Banks. Why are the announcers of the college acapella championships involved in a USO gig?

Writers Key Cannon and Mike White realize this makes little sense, so they devise a knowingly ludicrous excuse for it. In fact, it’s this self-referential tendency that provides the film’s only clever laughs.

Well, “laugh” is a strong word, but there are passably enjoyable moments. The rest of it is mainly insufferable: catty, meandering and needless.





How to Borrow Liberally

How to be Single

by Hope Madden

Upending rom-com clichés has become its own cliché, and yet, with the right minds and talent, it can still be a fresh and funny experience. Please see Trainwreck.

Seriously. Please see it.

How to Be Single makes a valiant attempt to send up genre clichés as it follows four ladies and a handful of gentlemen, each failing to make that love connection with the Manhattan backdrop. It tries too hard, honestly, but it does get off a few good lines along the way.

Dakota Johnson anchors the ensemble as Alice, our everygirl, a new college grad ready to take a break from her longtime beau, head to the Big Apple, and find herself.

Alice’s circle includes her workaholic sister (Leslie Mann) and a wild new BFF (Rebel Wilson). Both comic veterans deliver some genuine laughs – thanks to an occasionally insightful script by Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein, and Dana Fox – but Wilson, in particular, needs to find a new gimmick.

A revolving door of male characters includes one kooky performance by Jason Mantzoukas (a bright spot in this film, as he was in Dirty Grandpa). Ken Lacy also makes an appearance as basically the exact same character he played in the far superior film Obvious Child.

Which is one of the weirdest things about How to Be Single – it brazenly borrows from other, better films. Leslie Mann has a conversation that is almost identical to one from This Is 40, while her storyline steals an awful lot – including the boyfriend – from Obvious Child. Add to that the fact that Wilson’s boozy party girl schtick was lifted wholesale from Trainwreck, and you start to wonder if the film’s title should be How to Commit Larceny.

This is not to say the movie is bereft of humor. It does offer a handful of laughs, and it often lulls you into believing that characters are about to follow a formula, only to have that tiresome trope cleverly undermined.

It’s not that the film is bad, it’s just that it’s not as good as many other films and it knows it.

Verdict-2-5-Stars





The Pitch is Back

Pitch Perfect 2

by Hope Madden

In 2012, Elizabeth Banks produced a film that was “an inspiration to girls all over the country too ugly to be cheerleaders.” And now it’s time to return to Barton University to get our accompaniment-free groove on in Pitch Perfect 2.

That’s right, pitches.

The Barton Bellas, having survived power struggles, forbidden romance and intimacy issues, have been the reigning collegiate a cappella champs for 3 years. However, an a cappella-tastrophe during a command performance at the Lincoln Center stripped the group of their title, and their only way to get it back is to become the first Americans to win the World Competition.

To do it, they’ll have to beat the Germans. Just like Rocky, but with singing … and comedy that’s intentional.

Banks returns in her role as one half of a bedecked competition commentator duo, opposite the endlessly hilarious John Michael Higgins. While their hysterical banter punctuates the proceedings, Banks also directs this time around. She shows as strong a sense of comic timing behind the camera as she has always shown in front of it, but really impresses when staging the musical numbers.

The game cast returns for seconds, with a dry, self-deprecating Anna Kendrick leading up the singing sisterhood. Rebel Wilson and Adam DeVine are back, ensuring plenty of uncomfortable lunacy, while a stable of fun cameos including David Cross, Jason Jones and Keegan-Michael Key keeps scenes fresh and funny.

I’m no Green Bay Packers fan, but it’s a lot of fun watching Clay Matthews and most of their offensive line sing Bootilicious.

Plenty of bits feel stale, too. As with any sequel, the novelty is gone and certain jokes have more than run their course by now. The storyline is a bit too predictable and tidy, the new characters are not compelling, and now and again Banks returns to a gag once too often.

Still, Kendrick is a solid foundation. She’s a talented comic performer who sings remarkably well, so a good place to build your movie. Kay Cannon’s script balances silliness, raunch and heart quite well, and those folks looking for lots of exceptionally choreographed numbers won’t be disappointed.

 

Verdict-3-0-Stars