A review of Cats reviews — the dodgiest film of 2019

Some instances where the pen was certainly not mightier than the sword

A review of Cats reviews — the dodgiest film of 2019

I went to see Cats with every intention of writing a review. The film — based on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 stage musical about the gaudy tales of a group of anthropomorphic cats — thoroughly disturbed and entertained me. However, since it seems like every major film critic took Cats as an opportunity to flex their creative muscles, I don’t believe I have much more to add to this critical anthology, so here’s a review of some Cats reviews:

“‘Cats’ is a dog — a big, dumb, loud one”

Peter Howell for the Toronto Star

I feel as if Howell has been collecting feline-related puns like stamps over the years, and jumped at the opportunity to throw them all into one disparaging review. Some highlights include “not a complete cat-astrophe,” “non-rouser of a meow-ser,” and “empty as a goldfish bowl in a roomful of hungry tabbies.”

If you’re looking for an analysis of Cats that claws the film apart with more dad jokes than depth, this is the review for you.

“Stop mewling! Cats is no turkey, say our dance and theatre critics”

Arifa Akbar and Lyndsey Winship for The Guardian

Amidst a tornado of creative put-downs, this review stands out as largely positive. Both critics agree that Cats is no masterpiece. However, they don’t label it a total flop.

Winship highlights widespread discourse over the lack of visible genitals and asked, “It would be a lot weirder if they did [have them], no?”

As to why Cats was so poorly received, Winship suspects that reviewers are lacking in a critical skill needed for viewing theatre: “Suspension of disbelief.”

Akbar goes further to suggest that the film would greatly appeal to children, for whom T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the basis for Webber’s musical, was intended.

If you, like me, derived an intense, bizarre enjoyment from Cats, this review offers validation.

“‘Cats’: Spay It”

Scott Tobias for NPR

The curt title gives away this review’s conclusion right away. Despite Tobias’ praise for the work of ballerina Francesca Hayward, whose wide-eyed perspective the camera follows, he purports that the story itself is greatly lacking in narrative.

The “fundamental wrongness” of the film undercuts any instance of dignity or grace, according to Tobias. The reviewer clearly had a strong distaste for Cats before stepping into the movie theatre.

Perhaps Tobias’ critical perspective might benefit from injecting some of Hayward’s wide-eyed curiosity into his critical lens.

“‘Cats’ could have been a contender”

Richard Brody for The New Yorker

Brody expresses praise for almost all the elements of Cats, including the actors’ performances, the choreography, and even the computer-generated imagery! The downfall of the film, according to Brody, is the directing, with Tom Hooper delivering “what’s expected of him” rather than “his own sense of desires and curiosities.”

Going deeper into directorial failing, Brody dissects the casting choices in Cats — specifically criticizing the decision to use what he calls “whiteface” makeup for the lead Francesca Hayward, “who is a light-skinned Black woman.”

It is worth noting that Hayward defended her makeup in an interview with The Sunday Times. She said that she would not take on a human role that required a change in skin tone, but felt it acceptable considering she was playing a cat.

Nevertheless, Brody’s review provides a deep analysis of the film’s directorial blunders from the perspective of a lover of the musical who wholeheartedly believes in the success that Cats could have had. 

All in all, each reviewer seems to find their own unique failings and redeeming qualities in Cats. After taking in these reviews I personally would like to watch the film again and spot each unique failing or redemption that I may have missed the first time — from the “cat-astrophic” nature of the visual effects to the good fortune that the editors opted for non-visible genitals.

If you decide to see Cats, I guarantee that you will be disturbed, delighted, or probably both — but definitely not bored.

Film Review: 1917

Film review: An incredible technical achievement coming to your screens this holiday season!

Film Review: 1917

Director Sam Mendes’ 1917, out this holiday season, is one of the final major awards season releases before the new decade begins.

A World War I thriller, it centres on two young British soldiers, Blake and Schofield, who are tasked with delivering an urgent message to a distant battalion of soldiers. The lives of these men hinge on their dangerous trek through contested territory that’s filled with dark tunnels, lethal traps, and the constant threat of attack.

The underrepresented wartime period setting and the attachment of Mendes — a critically acclaimed director who has a proven understanding of balancing tense action and emotional intrigue, notably with 2012’s Skyfall — might be enough to court interest. However, the real draw of 1917 is its technical flare.

The film is framed as a single, continuous shot. There are no overt cuts, and the soldiers’ harrowing mission plays out in real time for the majority of the film. The film’s cinematography comes from the masterful Roger Deakins — following a long-overdue first Academy Award win for 2017’s Blade Runner 2049 — and might be his crowning achievement to date.

Watching the mission unfold in real time is a powerful, emotional, and extremely immersive experience. There is no disconnect between the time passing for the viewer and the characters on screen, so we are painfully aware of every lost second and know their progress the whole time. By the end, the impact of the distance the characters have travelled is tangible and extremely impressive.

The single-take effect is a spectacular achievement, but what’s really special about 1917’s camerawork is how the rest of the film works so well around it — something that, in lesser hands, could have been a major impediment. Instead, the camera is an intuitive guide to the eye, pushing you to look in certain places and planting setups and payoffs with great subtlety.

1917 relies heavily on staging of the camera, actors, and elements of the set because it does not have the luxury of cutting angles to manipulate the viewer’s attention. Rather, scenes are built in brilliant ways that allow the camera to change angle, target, location, and composition, simply by the way people move and how the sets are constructed.

I cannot emphasize enough the excellence of the camerawork; every movement feels deliberate and flawless, and becomes more and more impressive as the film progresses. Deakins is fantastic at creating beautifully composed shots, and the fact that he was able to so smoothly maintain this over ridiculously long takes genuinely floored me.

Another area of particular note is the production design. The film is a non-stop journey: traversing trenches, battlegrounds laden with corpses and muddy craters, ravaged homes, and wide fields. All are recreated with a rich attention to detail, especially the sequence in no man’s land, which captures the horror and futility of trench warfare.

The only times that 1917 does come up for air are in scenes with cameos from some well-established British actors — Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, and more — as various military characters they meet along the journey. This A-list cast provides moments of welcome reprieve from the otherwise constant high-pressure action.

Alternatively, it also turns every time they leave our leads alone into a drop back into the deep end. However, I only took issue with one of these guest-star sequences: during a strange pause from otherwise ratcheting tension near the end.

The film is quite surface-level, and times where it seemingly does have something to say — largely comments on the meaninglessness of medals in war — disappear past the halfway mark as the plot can no longer fit them in.

While tight and streamlined, this costs the film much of its resonance outside of its outstanding technical elements. Without these moments, which are admittedly intertwined with the plot, 1917 would not be nearly as good as it is. These areas are what define and elevate it.

1917 is a movie to marvel at for the way that almost every element is so finely tuned and well executed. This is entirely due to Sam Mendes, Roger Deakins, and everyone else involved behind the scenes, who turn wartime drama and horror into a gripping triumph that demands to be seen on the largest screen possible.

1917 will release in select theatres December 25, and nationwide January 10.

Film Review: Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman

An epic master class in film-making

Film Review: Martin Scorsese’s <em>The Irishman</em>

The Irishman is not a typical Martin Scorsese gangster movie. It is also named I Heard You Paint Houses, a reference to the coded question which potential employers ask for-hire assassins — a tantalizing glimpse into its plot.

Many of Scorsese’s most famous films, like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, are tales of when crime does pay, and ultimately condemn the systems and actors that perpetuate criminal activity. The Irishman offers a different, and perhaps more mature, perspective. By stripping away the mystique and glamour of criminal involvement, the film gives a melancholic look at a life of crime through the lens of aging and regret.

The Irishman follows Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran, the Irishman himself, from his thirties working as a truck driver, to his fifties, as both a hitman for the Bufalino crime family and confidant to famous union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Sheeran’s dealing with the frequent and messy intersection between his two worlds is one of the central tensions of the film. Frank is not an outwardly emotional character, but De Niro excellently captures his inner struggles. We’re witness to his life all the way to his eighties, where, at the end, he sits in a hospice, waiting to die, narrating the story of his life.

The most striking feature of the movie is likely its enormous runtime of 209 minutes, clocking in just below three-and-a-half hours. It definitely could have been shorter, but the length feels justified on the whole. The extended runtime allows the film to create a huge level of depth. We really get to know Sheeran, the many colourful characters that he orbits, and their complex relationships to each other. In this regard, the film has an impressively fast pace and is greatly entertaining.

The Irishman also gives some of the best film performances of the year. Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino, Sheeran’s best friend within the mob, is intense and terrifying through his calm secretiveness. Pacino gives a great comedic performance as Hoffa, whose emotional outbursts provide a refreshing contrast with the other, more closed-off leads.

Steve Zaillian’s script is a significant part of what makes The Irishman so great. It’s a complete, excellently crafted package, and a structural wonder. The classic Scorsese back-and-forth framing device, this time delivered to us by Sheeran’s self-reflecting narration during the end of his life, is one of the greatest factors in making this epic feel brisk and constantly engaging.

The script gradually recontextualizes itself in interesting and rewarding ways. There are so many plot threads and minor characters that the level of complexity could be overwhelming as a viewer, but Zaillian and Scorsese weave these parts together seamlessly. Over the story of Sheeran’s life there is a wealth of great single-scene characters, and an impressive number of them receive pay-offs, sometimes hours after their last appearance.

It’s extremely satisfying to see the plot resolved in such a complicated story.

The dialogue is also fantastic. Each of the major characters are so fully realized and wonderfully written that their arguments always feel like genuine clashes. It’s clear how each character’s personality directly leads into everything they do.

Another aspect of the film sure to draw attention is the use of digital de-aging effects, which skyrocketed the budget to rank among action blockbusters. De Niro is 76 years old, so no amount of makeup and suspension of disbelief could convincingly turn back the clock as far as the film needed. Yet, the digital effects are also not perfect. Especially in the beginning of the film, when De Niro was younger, they were particularly egregious, but overall much more believable than traditional methods.

Pesci and Pacino receive the same digital makeover, and it was almost seamless. However, this relative success might be attributed to the fact that their transformation needed to be less drastic than De Niro’s. Overall, the effects were well done, and didn’t distract me once I had settled into them.

Having these effects lets Scorsese guide us freely through Sheeran’s life, and gives the film a greater sense of gradual progression. Literally seeing the characters grow old in front of our eyes is incredible.

The film deals heavily with the men aging — what it does to people physically and emotionally, and what really matters at the end of one’s life. The final chapter of both the film and Sheeran’s life ties the whole story together in a beautiful way, harnessing everything that came before to create catharsis.

While the lead-up is excellent on its own, this finale is what really elevates the movie to another level. Simply put, Scorsese’s The Irishman is one of the best films of the year. Watching it might seem daunting, but fully committing to it is an extremely rewarding experience, and certainly not one you should miss.

The monstrous runtime will certainly be a deterrent for many to see it in theatre. It does seem well suited for a multi-part home viewing. However, an epic like this doesn’t come around all that often, and deserves to be seen in the immersive, shared space of a theatre. So until then, head to the cinema while you still have the chance!

The Irishman is in theatres now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The film will premiere on Netflix on November 27.

Overlooked: Children of Men

This dystopian tale is still relevant 13 years on

Overlooked: <I>Children of Men</I>

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men was released almost 13 years ago, just before the financial crisis of 2007–2008. Its dystopian world without children and hope is filled with stark imagery, grey skies, and a society that has descended into chaos. 

It is a film that was overlooked by the Academy the year of its release. Cuarón paints a picture of our world after society has continued on its course of far-right populism, authoritarianism, and an inward-looking humanity, afraid of one another and new ideas. The rhetoric espoused by modern-day populists in Europe and the US are on full display in this film. Despite being released a full decade before the 2016 US presidential election,  the film is more relevant now than ever before. 

The events in the film occur in the year 2027, at which point no children have been born for nearly two decades. Governments around the world, including in the UK, where the film takes place, have taken on anti-immigration policies to counteract their extreme conditions. Immigrants are forced into cages and sent to ghettos controlled by the army, or are otherwise executed on the spot. The treatment of immigrants in the film reminds me of the current US government’s increased detention of immigrants at its southern border.

In the real world, liberal democracies still haven’t recovered from the global financial crisis. From swaths of voters flocking to far-right political parties in Europe, to the Brexit movement in Britain, to the rise of Donald Trump, these are all reactions to feelings of being ‘left behind’ in the age of globalization and neoliberalism. 

If there exists a flashpoint for the current political strife poisoning liberal democracies around the world, it would be the financial crisis. Indeed, the film hints at an event that triggered the political strife, which resulted in the Western world falling into chaos. Yet Cuarón never tells viewers what the event was and allows them to fill in the blanks for themselves. The reason for humanity’s infertility is also left as a question mark.

The great science fiction classics of literature and film depict fantastic and seemingly impossible worlds, which in turn allow us to gain a better understanding of our current political and social climate. Children of Men is one such classic because the world in it doesn’t seem so impossible now. The events and ideology in the film feel starkly real. And the ending is as bleak as the rest, as Theo (Clive Owen), Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), and humanity’s fate are all left unanswered. 

The final shot of the film is of a ship sailing in from the fog to presumably provide Theo and Kee with their salvation. 

Will their world recover from its strife? Will our world be able to avoid going down the same path? We are only left to wonder as the credits roll.

Film Review: Monrovia, Indiana

The perfect film to watch this gloomy January

Film Review: <i>Monrovia, Indiana</i>

Monrovia is a town in Morgan County, Indiana, with a population of less than 2,000 people. Morgan County is 97.4 per cent white and has voted Republican every year since 2004. In 2016, 75.3 per cent voted for Donald Trump. This town of Monrovia is the subject of the latest documentary directed by Frederick Wiseman.

Having directed films for the past half century, 89-year-old Wiseman continues formally in his usual style. As with last year’s Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, there are no instances of narration, no interviews, and no title cards to guide the viewer. Only footage. This narrative sparseness disdains the air of educational or instructive material that many documentaries assume and encourages viewers to pass their own judgments. More significantly, it masks any element of design. 

Scenes flow into one another like eddies of thought, and one can easily forget that Wiseman and his crew are present on the scene at all; the action appears so unselfconscious and unmediated. Yet they are present, not only in Monrovia but in the editing room, taking care about what the audience sees and when. What they choose to present us with is crucial to the documentary as a political work.

Early on, we peek into a board room where someone is making a speech to the city council — no one’s name or job title is given. The man stresses the town’s need to develop, and recalls that the last community where he worked saw its population rise from fewer than 10,000 to over 40,000 people. He promises that this won’t happen to Monrovia. “Let’s hope not,” a woman at the table interrupts, gravely. Later, at a separate meeting, a new resident pleads that the fire hydrant outside his house doesn’t work, and thus he has no fire protection. 

The same woman returns, with barely withheld condescension, saying that many people moving in from “the city” might be surprised to find that they don’t enjoy the same level of infrastructure in “the country” as they did back home. Whether or not burning to death is the sort of everyday woodland hardship that city folks are too spoiled to appreciate is only part of the issue. The complainant, who sports a baseball cap emblazoned with a bald eagle under stars and stripes, seems indistinguishable from the locals, but, as he himself confesses, he is not a native Monrovian. He grew up in Indianapolis. And he has purchased a house in a neighbourhood recently added to the town, which many of the locals openly resent. For some, a population of 1,000 is already too much.

Near the end of the film, we see the same councillor at Monrovia’s yearly street festival, manning the booth of the Morgan County Republican Party. Her being there comes as no shock. But this is the first and only explicit reference to a political party in the film, reminding us of how precisely these details are arranged. Had she been introduced by her party alignment, or given a cutaway scene to discuss politics, we would have regarded her differently and listened with different ears to what she said. She would have been a Republican — someone about whom each of us already has an opinion — rather than a Monrovian — someone few of us even knew existed.

Of course, the film pays a visit to the local firearms vendor, on whose walls hang slogans unsurprising to anyone who has driven through rural North America: “I’m all for gun control… I always use both hands!” or “Today, millions of gun owners killed no one.”  “Work hard! Fifty people on welfare are counting on you!” is a cheery one that pops up on a t-shirt. Enthusiasts browse quietly; one customer chats with the proprietor about military-grade weaponry. Soon, their conversation turns to a mutual friend, who’s in hospital having his gallbladder removed. One reassures the other that the procedure will be beneficial and safe, as his wife has recently undergone it; nonetheless, both men quiet. 

Behind them are the sounds of another customer, hoisting up various assault rifles one by one, and raising them to eye level to test their weight in her hands. For me, the scene is  a moment of universality. I was raised in an Ontario village half the size of Monrovia, and this scene, like many others, could have taken place there exactly as it does here. The guns back home looked rather more like tools for hunting deer, and less like something that could be wielded to take down Optimus Prime, but that’s really the only difference.

When all this is recognizable to a Canadian, there’s an argument to be made that, in fact, it is context only that makes this a political film. The film itself says nothing of its reasoning or aim. That’s left to the promotional material. According to the website of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Monrovia, Indiana is a “study of small-town Midwesterners who tilted the 2016 US election,” after which “coastal journalists had to reckon with being out of touch with red-state America.” Though TIFF acknowledges that Wiseman “isn’t tackling politics overtly,” the marketing implies for the film an entirely political purpose. 

Why else would it be made in 2018, and why else would we be watching it? ‘We’ being most likely the left-leaning, the urban, and the middle-class. Not a single “Make America Great Again” hat is shown. Instead, we see a young couple’s wedding vows, a pig farmer showing livestock to his daughter, a country band playing to almost no one, and a veterinarian painstakingly amputating the tail of a dog. Yet it remains unavoidable that these are people who we are interested in precisely for their Republicanism. Context prevents this film from being about Monrovia at all, and renders its people metonymic for the countless small communities that wield enormous power over American politics, and who may want, above all else, to be left alone.

Over the past years, much has been made of journalistic efforts to correct that lapse in cultural awareness — to be no longer “out of touch” — and the merits of such a pursuit are seen from interviews with average Trump supporters to a New York Times profile of the day-to-day life of a neo-Nazi. This is the context in which Monrovia, Indiana arrives, after many have criticized the amount of coverage given to the voices of political enemies. 

Some fear the results of “normalizing” and “humanizing” people who hold, or tolerate, evil ideas, as though they weren’t normal and human before liberal journalists discovered them. What happens if one begins not with the ideas and allegiances, but with that unevenly bestowed humanity? What if one presents a view of people both like and unlike ourselves, and refuses to tell us how they vote? Or only tells us after we’ve been forced to confront them as political unknowns?

A film like Wiseman’s offers an invaluable counter to one of the most troublingly persistent delusions in popular discourse, which is that one’s ideology is inevitable. Many of us on the left take comfort in telling ourselves that our politics are the correct ones because they naturally arise from marginalized people — that only our opponents can be privileged enough to choose their ideas and choose not to care about others because politics don’t affect them. And those marginalized people, being the handy monolith that they are, could never possibly disagree, or be split on an issue themselves — how rude of them that would be, when we’re trying to help.

This idea becomes less simple as soon as one takes a step into society’s actual margins, among the working class, those without a university education, and those who live at the borders of the map. In America, a lower percentage of rural high-school graduates attend university than among urban and suburban graduates of all ethnicities, at every income level. 

For most people watching Monrovia, Indiana at TIFF, towns like Monrovia are marginal. Why else call it a “study” of rural conservatives, as though they were the subjects of an anthropological expedition? If they didn’t constitute a political ‘other,’ and weren’t partially responsible for the United States’ current regime, they would not have been deemed worthy of a documentary.

Leaving the theatre, one has no idea just how much footage Wiseman shot or what he excluded from the final cut, but his film’s singular contribution is in how the selection of details refuses to approach these subjects as the ‘other.’ It offers them neither defence nor judgment nor admiration nor pity, though each audience member may experience any of these reactions.

Monrovia, Indiana is not a film that makes its intentions clear. It is an exploratory work by an already learned man taking curious steps, not into the uncharted, but into the oft-forgotten reaches of his own country. For that alone, it is worth seeing, if you’d rather not make the trip there yourself.