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"Catwoman": Not Purring but Snoring

by on January 13, 2005

It’s taken close to a decade, but the modern deluge of comic book movies has finally produced a superheroine vehicle in Catwoman. While Batman and Superman while away their time at bingo tournaments, DC Comics’ foremost femme fatale has leapt to the big screen to show the boys a trick or two. Namely, trying to break even with a tepid film about a B-list character, which (as Daredevil and Punisher will tell you) is no mean feat.

Not only is Catwoman a movie about a female superhero, it is, unlike the Tomb Raider films, a movie for a female audience. Don’t let the DVD’s trailers for The Batman cartoon and NASCAR (!) fool you. It is based around intrigues in the cosmetics industry, and deals directly with the societal pressures women face regarding aging and assertiveness in a “man’s world.” In terms that are in no way light-handed, the film pounds out the message that women should be happy with who they are and be unafraid to go for what they want. The film also wallows in long stretches of saccharine romance, with the accompanying giddy gossip. This is not to say the film has nothing to offer the male audience. It has three or four things, in the form of tiny scraps of black leather.

This Catwoman is the meek and unassuming Patience Phillips (Halle Berry), who designs cosmetics ads but aspires to be a painter. Her firm is about to launch Beau-line, a revolutionary new brand of cosmetics that is touted to reverse the effects of aging. Accompanying this change, CEO George Hedare’s wife Laurel (Sharon Stone), much to her chagrin, has been replaced as the company’s face and her husband’s lover by a new, younger model. One day Detective Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt) just happens to see Patience clinging to the side of her apartment building, trying to rescue a stray cat (named Midnight as we later discover) and he rescues her in the nick of time. Patience that is, not the cat. Tom at least has his priorities straight, and he sets up a date with the semi-suicidal but very hot cat nut. When Patience goes to the company factory to deliver artwork late at night, she stumbles on a plot to cover up Beau-line’s horribly scarring side affects. She is pursued and drowned by guards for her indiscretion. In one of celluloid’s most ludicrous moments, a mob of mourning cats surrounds her washed up and lifeless body, and Midnight (perhaps having taken a cab across town) apparently performs CPR on her, magically restoring her to life.

Patience soon discovers that she has acquired superhuman sight, reflexes, strength, and agility, along with a taste for catnip, a dislike for dogs, a bipolar disorder, and an overwhelming desire to lick herself. Oh sorry, just dreamed that last one. She goes to return Midnight to its owner, who turns out to be (surprise!) a crazy old cat lover (and probably Prozac abuser) named Ophelia (Frances Conroy). Ophelia explains that this is all some sort of gift of female empowerment bestowed by the gods. Meanwhile, things heat up with Tom in a bump and grind game of basketball that looks like an outtake from Lambada: The Forbidden Dance. Resolved to discover who did her in, Patience, remembering the empowerment sermon, sets half-nude out on the hunt as the lawless Catwoman. She returns to the factory to investigate and is mistakenly identified as the murderer of a scientist killed for his reservations about Beau-line. This results in a more violent game of one-on-one with lover boy, which again steadily raises the innuendo ante until Catwoman makes her escape.

Later, after a romantic night at Patience’s apartment, Tom discovers evidence linking her to Catwoman. Having promised cooperation in her investigation, the vengeful Laurel instead frames Catwoman for George’s murder. Tom subsequently has Patience locked up, but she is able to squeeze through the bars via a stunning Mr. Fantastic impression and escape. This leads to a final confrontation between Catwoman and Laurel, whose longtime use of Beau-line has caused her to become impervious to pain. Made me wish I’d used some before watching this film.

Acting is not exactly the film’s strong suit. (Let me know when you find out what its strong suit is.) Virtually every character is a shallow caricature. Bratt is perhaps best represented, although he doesn’t have much to do beyond playing charming and concerned. Stone hams it up during her brief screen time, and Berry, well, she does well enough with the raw deal she’s handed. The character is so patently ridiculous that it’s impressive she manages to maintain her dignity through even a handful of scenes. The dialogue does her no favors.

The CG used to depict Catwoman leaping across rooftops is well done, although it won’t impress those who’ve seen the Spider-Man films. The wire-fu fight sequences are reasonably exciting, but not overly memorable and a bit cartoony. For example, in one fight Catwoman rides a thug across the floor like a skateboard. Nothing wrong with a little fun, but it causes the film to veer towards Adam West when it seems to aspire to Michael Keaton.

Of course, the film is most enjoyable, if that word isn’t too out of place, when accepted as a 60s cheesefest. Catwoman’s costume is gloriously silly, but one cannot help but admire how it showcases Berry’s, ah, better side. At the very moment that Beau-line’s age reversing properties are declared the camera cuts to Stone’s first close-up, the maturing actress having vehemently denied recent allegations of cosmetic surgery. The film adheres to the age-old doctrine that the sexy heroine’s friends must be either frumpy or gay, and charmingly supplies us with both. Her chunky buddy Sally spouts grating bursts of Ebonics, despite her lily-whiteness, and assails us with this gem when introduced to Tom: “That is such a good name. Tom Lone. Rhymes with cone, phone, BONE. Not that rhyming’s all that important…” Wow. Somewhere David Mamet is kicking himself for missing that one. Other odious dialogue includes the inevitable appearance of “Cat got your tongue?” and George’s dastardly chauvinistic advice to his young date that she not think “ever.” Of course it’s entirely possible he is actually addressing the audience.

The first featurette on the DVD release is The Many Faces of Catwoman… Aigghh! Holy crap! I strongly suggest you not have anything in your mouth when you watch this, because it begins with a close-up of the rotting corpse of prehistoric Catwoman-performer Eartha Kitt. However, if you have a strong constitution, this is an interesting and fairly thorough look at the development of the character over the years, with input from various contributors to the comics, TV series, and movies. Julie Newmar still looks rather fetching today, but I don’t know how Eartha ever got the role. Even back then she looked about as sexy as Emmanuel Lewis. Er, I hope you know how I mean that.

Next is the Behind-the-Scenes Documentary, a by-the-numbers promotional piece. At least the costume designer has the candor to admit the costume was all about showing “as much skin as possible.” “And my unrated cut is where?” you want to ask.

The additional scenes include little of substance, except for an appallingly sappy alternate ending that suggests that the film’s first cut was (gasp!) even worse still.

Is Catwoman truly the colossal disaster that the rants of the fan community and critics alike have suggested? Actually, no, the film isn’t exceptionally awful. Although by no means good, it does deliver some decent action and, er, intriguing visuals. What it is, rather, is monumentally dull. There’s just precious little entertainment value that couldn’t be more profitably derived elsewhere. Perhaps it pleased some target demographic, but future superheroine projects would be well advised to reach more aggressively across the gender divide. Just like our feline friends, audiences only come when they really want to.

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