Saturday, February 12, 2005

THE LEGACY OF JULIE NEWMAR REMAINS SAFE TONIGHT


I hemmed and hawed for a few minutes, and then decided to go ahead and rent the thing, despite its universally negative reviews. Perhaps to delay what was surely maybe almost the inevitable crush of disappointment (or crush of confirmed preconceptions), I pulled the box off the shelf and began perusing the credits before heading to the cashier. A woman sidled up beside me, mulling through the F's and G's, and she hesitated and did a double take with her eyes when she saw my choice. "That's just what they want you to do, you know," she said, somewhat mysteriously, as if renting Gigli was my mindless contribution to some global conspiracy. "They figure we were smart enough to avoid it in theaters, but we'll just lap it up on video," she continued, fully confident that she was giving me some straight-from-the-heart advice that, if I knew what was good for me, I would heed without further ado. My response—“Hmm”—was, I think, not very satisfying to her, and she walked away with her choices, Phat Beach and Gymkhata, tucked safely under her arms, knowing she’d done all she could.

That was last summer.

Last night, I found myself back in my neighborhood video store, a homegrown establishment that somehow is able to hook up with the latest releases a week earlier than their advertised street date. I don’t know how they do this, and I would never reveal the name of the store, just in case they’re doing something that the Hollywood studio gods wouldn’t exactly approve of. Suffice it to say it’s a neat little perk that I take advantage of quite often. It’s also one of the establishments around town where my wife, my daughters and I are known by name, and we enjoy the small-town feeling of going in, renting two or three titles, and knowing we’re contributing not to the coffers of a corporate behemoth like Blockbuster, but to the well-being of a local family business whose employees always have a kind word, often a recommendation, and always let my oldest use the pottie when the need hits her as she shuffles through the kids section.

So when I came up to the counter from the back of the room with my choice for Thursday’s night’s edition of Dirty Dishes Cinema, it was with not just a little trepidation. I’d spent some time with the clerk talking about worthy new titles—I recommended Cellular, Shaun of the Dead, Bus 174 and the Poltergeist-meets-U-571 thriller entitled Below, while he pointed out The Story of the Weeping Camel, The Yes Men and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow as worthy of his praise, taking a few extra seconds to wag his finger in the direction of The Village, an apparent disappointment. But I’d made my decision, and it was off the tracks of anything we’d discussed, so I really wasn’t surprised that I got some kind of comment from him.

“Are you sure about this?” He looked at me askance, as if wondering if my good sense and good taste had suddenly gone out the door with the guy who just left holding the last copy of I, Robot. I said, “Yeah, I think so,” I replied. “I’m just looking for some time to kill-- I’ve got dishes to do—and I do remember reading one good review of this somewhere.”

“Okay,” he conceded, shaking his head. “But just don’t come back in here mad at me tomorrow.”

“What, I’m gonna take it out on you if I don’t like it?” I said, laughing.


“Don’t laugh,” he shot back. “I recommended Signs to a guy not too long ago, and he brought it back the next day and literally threw it at me—not underhand, either—and started yelling, ‘What a piece of shit! How dare you?’ Believe it or not, he was disappointed with my suggestion. But this guy is the neighborhood critic, the kind of guy who comes in and ranting about Dodgeball, not because he didn’t think it was funny, but because he can’t get over the fact that a guy who gets hit square in the face with a wrench would somehow not get permanent brain damage and have to exit the movie altogether.”

“Well, his critical criteria seems a little fishy, all right, and he’s obviously not a well renter,” I said. “But don’t worry. You didn’t suggest this one.”

“You’re damn right I didn’t. I can’t believe you wanna see that. It’s supposed to be awful.”

I couldn’t disagree. I don’t know why I wanted to see it either. Maybe because it got such bad reviews. Not because “I just had to see what was so bad about it.” I hear that a lot from people justifying their rentals of everything from Showgirls to Battlefield: Earth, and that implies to me a joy in seeing bad film that I just don’t key into very much anymore (something about time being precious and all that). And seeing those movies was anything but a joyful experience—well, maybe Elizabeth Berkeley gyrating like an unattached outboard motor on top of Kyle MacLachlan in that hot tub was a little bit joyful, but I’m getting off my subject here. No, a lot of times when I rent a movie widely reported to be everything from stunningly bad to the death of cinema, my interest is piqued because those kinds of extreme comments are usually hyperbole spat out in the spirit of enjoying the death twitches of a picture that everyone has somehow decided is the Noxious Movie of the Moment. And it often seems to me, rightly or wrongly, that a film which generates that much smart-ass one-upsmanship stands a fairly good chance of not being nearly as bad as all the conventional wisdom suggests. Not a good movie, necessarily, but perhaps better than its reputation, perhaps worthy of some levelheaded consideration apart from the howls of the mob.

This was certainly true of Gigli—that movie was a box-office bomb starring two tabloid magnets and was reported in most circles as being perhaps one of the worst movies ever made (the kind of comment usually circulated by reviewers looking to generate copy who haven’t seen too many movies made before 1970). True, Ben Affleck drifts through the entire enterprise looking smugger and more detached than any actor I’ve ever seen in a movie before or since, and he can rightfully take the blame for much of what is inescapably bad about the movie. But Jennifer Lopez, though somewhat miscast, sports an erotic glow and a seriousness of intent, and the movie itself is an earnest shot at something interesting that gets caught up in director Martin Brest’s stillborn mise-en-scene, simply and slowly spinning and spinning until torpor and inertia finally have their way with the narrative and the whole thing just dies. But all this talk about Gigli being profoundly, heart-stoppingly bad is just nonsense. I saw at least 20 other movies released in 2003 that were far worse, more offensive, more fatally misconceived than this softheaded but essentially harmless dud.

In fact, studio back catalogues are littered with titles that everyone knew were just the worst things ever foisted on an unsuspecting public at the time of their release, but whose reputations have been rescued by the onward march of time. Movies like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and George Miller’s Babe: Pig in the City, to cite two disparate examples among many choices, were slammed by critics and ignored by audiences, but those who chose to see them anyway saw a couple of real gems that have, in the intervening years, widely been recognized as such. There are others, of course, ignored by moviegoers due largely to the sackcloth-and-ashes approach of the entertainment press—movies like Steven Spielberg’s 1941, Billy Wilder’s Buddy Buddy, Ron Shelton’s duality of the L.A.P.D. double feature Dark Blue and Hollywood Homicide, and the recent Out of Time and Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Those who chose to listen to the nearly universal negative appraisal of these films and ignore them missed out on some pretty vital and energetic mainstream Hollywood cinema.

And as I left my video store last night I was hoping for the same sort of revelation vis-à-vis my Dirty Dishes Cinema choice for the evening, Catwoman.

Alas, sometimes the conventional wisdom is right.

Catwoman is directed by the mono-monikered Pitof (he of origins unknown to me), and he’s got the whole slick cosmetics ad look down all spiffy. And the movie, which starts out with a main title sequence that promises some sort of indulgence in ancient Egyptian cat lore, has a strong basic hook in the Catwoman story—not how Halle Berry’s milquetoast Patience Philips becomes Catwoman (that’s pretty random and silly), but instead the story of how she is, in fact, the latest in a long line of catwomen, carrying on a chronology of women imbued with feline qualities by the enduring god-like beasts of ancient Egypt itself. But Pitof is too impatient for all that, really. He just wants to get Berry into that leather suit and have her wolfing down sushi and leaping in herky-jerky CGI splendor all over the face of the metropolis, camera swooping around likewise, ensuring that we never get a foothold geographically or emotionally that will allow us to give two cat shits about anything that happens in his movie’s quite lengthy 102 minutes.

The plot has something to do with Sharon Stone’s cosmetics queen unleashing a deadly product, of which she is the original beta tester, which creates lovely alabaster skin like living marble (she’s perfectly named to play such a monstrous character) that, unfortunately, renders that skin essentially lifeless, dead to any feeling (a rather deft metaphor for plastic surgery, actually). The downside is that discontinuing the use of the cosmetics causes the skin to erupt in boils and other horrendously scarring phenomena which lead, eventually, to death. Catwoman, adapting to her new agility and sensitivity to sound, touch and smell, darts about the city attempting to avenge herself against those, headed by Stone, who “killed” her and left her lifeless body to be swarmed and revived by the aforementioned ancient, CGI-rendered kitties, all the while carrying on a romance with the police detective (Benjamin Bratt) investigating a series of robberies and attacks in which Catwoman seems to be involved.

Bratt plays the dumbest detective alive—he can’t seem to deduce that Catwoman and his girlfriend Patience are the same person, even after he’s slept with Patience and ended up with bobcat-sized scratches down his back. And that’s the most circumstantial of the mountain of evidence with which he’s confronted. And Berry, who was clearly out of her league in the emotional hurricane of Monster’s Ball (imagine how much better that movie would have been had Berry's role been played by Regina King), is closer to her league here and still seems like a rank amateur. The woman has no weight on-screen, no power as an actress—her affect on an audience depends almost entirely on whether she’s acceptably beautiful or alluring enough, and she has to do some pretty silly things here, including rubbing catnip all over her face with erotic abandon and pounding tuna from a can with earnest focus and concentration, that serve mightily to undermine any effect upon which she might build. The great screen beauties, from Garbo, Monroe and Loren up through Sigourney Weaver and up-and-comers like Eva Mendes, Ziyi Zhang and Monica Bellucci, all had or have much more than their obvious loveliness and sexuality on which to rely, but Berry brings none of their game to the table, and some of the failing of Catwoman to build up much of any momentum as story or action cinema, unfortunately, has to be laid at her paws, er, feet.

But the movie also fails because its director hasn’t a clue how to stage action coherently, or to integrate it into the story so that it has any meaning— a scene where Berry steals a motorcycle and roars through the city for no appreciable reason seems to go on forever, and you get the sense that it does so largely because Pitof just thinks it looks cool. A courtship scene staged to some one-one-one street hoops between Berry and Bratt (hunh?) is shot so badly, with so little regard to coherence and film grammar, it begins to feel like an affront to the audience, and then finally a simple embarrassment of the actors. And in an effort to play both sides of the coin, Pitof bites down hard on the postmodern feminist homilies of the script, but he can’t wait to get to her nocturnal sashaying in that leather getup while another lousy, inappropriate trip-hip-hop tune blows up on the soundtrack. As Walter Chaw observed in his review on the website Film Freak Central, “Catwoman is interested in being both ghetto hip (witness the soundtrack) and entirely unthreatening to the ruling majority.” The requisite showdown between Stone and Berry is occasion for more lip service to the double standards of beauty that the plot traffics in, and exploits, as well as for various bad cat puns and other saucy one-liners that delay the inevitable death of the baddie and the prescribed-by-committee semi-happy ending. The whole thing leaves a very sour taste, like lapped-up milk left out in a dish a couple of days too long.

That one good review I mentioned came from Mick La Salle in the San Francisco Chronicle, and I accessed it online today in an attempt to refresh myself about what it was he liked about the movie. I think he’s essentially right about some of the points that he makes about the underlying seriousness of the film's attempts to deal with modern feminist concerns, and my earlier observation about the deadly cosmetics and their effect being a deft metaphor for plastic surgery must have been a holdover in my brain from reading his review, because the observation is right there in his piece.

But I don’t think La Salle does a very good job of recognizing the myriad ways the movie undermines those attempts, and I don’t think his suggestion of putting this movie in a time capsule as a representative example of feminism and its schisms in our society circa 2004 is a very good idea either. The movie’s have-it-all-ways, freedom-with-sharp-claws-and-hot leather empowerment fantasy just doesn’t hold water. Even so, the very presence of those attempts to deal, however ineptly, with the experience of women in a media-saturated society, along with a single really cool CGI shot of Berry being blasted out of a storm drain by a suddenly slo-mo torrent of water that sparkles like liquid diamonds under the fake moon, make it pass the “it can’t be that bad” test. Catwoman is pretty bad, but it offers nowhere near the fecal wallow to be had by 2004’s leading contender for Worst Movie of the Year, Van Helsing. Faint praise, perhaps, but praise strong enough for me.

So when I returned the movie tonight, I returned it with my head held high, and I did not launch it at the clerk, although I felt like reprimanding him for giving me the full-screen version when I specifically requested the wide-screen disc, dammit! (He offered me a free rental of the wide-screen disc as compensation, but I demurred.) I am not ashamed that I rented Catwoman, nor am I disappointed that it didn’t fully live down to its reputation. It got me through my stack of dishes just fine and I got to see it for myself, apart from all the teeth gnashing and flailing about when it was originally released. I’ll be honest if you ask me what I thought, but I promise never to sneer at you or lecture you about it if I see you renting it at the video store. Because more likely than not I’ll have a copy of The Village or some other alleged monstrosity in my hands, ready to give another movie orphaned by the tastemakers a fair shot. After all, who am I to point fingers, or claws?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

A nifty piece of writing, and a lively demonstration of the importance of seeing for oneself! I'm a fan of Mick LaSalle, but I know better than to take his opinion for granted--so often my own opinion is the opposite.

A friend in his early twenties was telling me last week how he'd enthusiastically recommended "Punch Drunk Love" to his friends, and when they finally rented and watched it, they blamed him bitterly (and repeatedly) for fobbing off such a lousy movie on them. As another friend put it when this story was told, "So what? You watched a movie you didn't like. I guess you would rather have watched another movie that was exactly what you expected it to be." --Bruce

Sharon said...

Dare I admit that I paid money to see CATWOMAN in a theater? Yes, I'd heard that the reviews were bad (I don't read reviews before seeing a movie) but wanted to see for myself. How bad could it be, I wondered? Well, as Dennis so clearly explained, very bad indeed. It almost, but not quite migrated to that land of movies that are so bad they're funny. But I don't really have any regrets, because I can now discuss it in all its awful glory from my first-hand experience. I really hate it when people speak disparagingly of a movie they haven't even seen. Like voting, you don't get to complain if you don't participate.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Bruce: I love that guy's line. "So what? You watched a movie you didn't like. I guess you would rather have watched another movie that was exactly what you expected it to be." The prefect sentiment, perfectly stated. I think I'll pass this one on to my video store guy so he can use it the next time some customer decides to get all righteously indignant on his ass.

Sharon: Dare, dare! You are, whether this is a point of pride for you or not, the only person I know who saw "Catwoman" on the big screen, yet you survived and are hardly diminished for it. And you're right, it's pretty arrogant to talk disparagingly about a movie you haven't seen, using wisdom and (God help me) buzz pulled out of the air as your sources. That's why I felt I finally HAD to see "The Passion of the Christ," even though everything I'd read and heard about it made it sound singularly unpleasant-- it was, regardless of my ultimate perception about the movie's quality, important enough to want to take part in the discussion. Obviously "Catwoman" was not occupying the same space on the sociopolitical-cultural plane, but hey, I'm a sucker for a good-looking woman in a leather suit just like anybody else. I just don't think Halle Berry filled it out like Julie Newmar or Diana Rigg did-- literally or figuratively.