12/30/2019     CATS                                      Area Movie Theatres



This, my penultimate column of 2019, is herewith dedicated to Stiles, Evil Kitty, who, disgruntled at his change of address, chose simply to disappear, like Mr. Mistoffelees.  Stiles is too much of a force of nature to simply float off to the “heavy-side layer,” but is, no doubt, roaming the forests near Acworth GA, striking terror into the hearts of squirrels and chipmunks and hatchlings.  Long may he reign!


I have been told by various sources that there are very few truly impossible tasks.  Steve Martin assures us that “sticking a piano up your nose” is one of those.  Anatomists tell us that “kissing your own elbow” is another, but I would take bets that there is a circus contortionist somewhere who can do just that (and any twelve-year who reads these words will invariably make the attempt).  Pundits of logic assure us that changing someone’s mind about politics using Facebook is equally Sisyphean.  I would add to this list the proven fact that it is impossible to explain cats to a dog person.


As is explaining Cats: The Musical to a  movie critic. Or really any musical to a movie critic – I have aggravating memories of one columnist who spent their entire (lengthy) column explaining to us unenlightened yahoos that Les Misérables was a bad movie because “everything is sung.”  You know how many ways this writer found to express that idea?  ONE!  Over and over and over. 

Even die-hard musical geeks have been heard to say, “Well, musicals work better on stage than on screen.”  To which I refuse to “respectfully disagree” --  I prefer the more direct {Insert lengthy Bronx Cheer here}.  And that selfsame Musical-Theatre-Geek community has plenty of members who believe Cats: The Musical scrapes the bottom of the litter box.


And, exactly on cue, the movie version of Cats opened to the most brutal, nay the most GLEEFULLY brutal reviews of any stage-to-screen adaptation ever.  The CGI sucks!  The actors look ridiculous!  There’s no plot!  They’re singing cats!  I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many writers get this much joy from peeing on someone else’s years of hard work.


So, before I get into my own response (generally muted praise as a whole, disdain for a few parts, exuberant joy for many more), let me plagiarize a few template paragraphs from reviews of Cats past.


I've always had a bit of a problem with Cats, the "Now and Forever" musical of Andrew Lloyd Webber that has become the focus of amused scorn from more than a few theatre aficionados.   As a fan of T.S. Eliot (and cats), I am very familiar with Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats -- I find the individual portraits vivid, amusing, real-to-feline-life, and even politically intriguing.  (They are, after all, thinly-veiled portraits of "types" occupying British society). The idea of setting these poems to music in a musical is even a good idea. The idea of putting them in a dance-heavy extravaganza? Not so much. In fact, I cannot think of a more "uncatlike" behavior than a tightly synchronized group dance number. You've heard the expression "As hard as trying to herd cats?"  Getting them to dance in time should be exponentially harder. It should be contradictory, like trying to impose an agenda at an anarchist's convention.

That being said, when Cats first came out, I did like it. The Eliot characters were front and center and fully alive, the choreography was phenomenally good, and even some of the music was, um, memorable. If the “through-line” plot was a tad silly, if the chorus numbers were a tad repetitive, well, it was a dance extravaganza, and the experience could be as thrilling (or as trying) as the energy level and talent of the cast. My biggest complaint about the show itself is that the unique T.S. Eliot cats were, for the most part, kept off stage for all except their "moment in the spotlight." The chorus of oddly-named felines who were their back-up (and who were onstage almost from beginning to end) were too interchangeable and too much alike. Old Possum is, after all, a celebration of the uniqueness and individuality of a group of cats. Having them backed up by a synchronized chorus of interchangeable tabbies should be, well, counter-productive.


And this leads to the first thing the movie (directed by Tom Hooper and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler**) gets right – this ensemble of cats are highly individualized both in look and in movement – synchronized group numbers are conspicuously absent.  I also liked (some of) the plot elements enhanced by Mr. Hooper and fellow screenwriter Lee Hall.  At the start we are introduced to Victoria (perfect name BTW), an angelically beautiful young cat unceremoniously shoved into a sack and dumped on a seemingly deserted London alley. Too young to fend for herself, she is “adopted” by the Jellicle Cats and becomes our surrogate into this particular feline world;  she is also the primary impetus of bringing Grizabella into the fold.  That she is played by  Royal Ballet principal ballerina Francesca Hayward only makes her more memorable, her every pose a study in poise and balance and elegance.


In fact, as in the stage show, the primary pleasure in watching this movie is seeing young dancers at their peak, every movement an athletic grace note, every attitude a payoff of what must have been months of practice and spying-on-moggies.


I liked all the physical aspects of the movie – the oversized props, the abandoned ballroom/theatre of most of the story, the hot-air balloon and chandelier that soars heavy-side-layer-ward at the climax, the melding of human and feline features, even the suggestion of British archetypes in the make-up (Skimbleshanks’ walrus mustache was an especial joy to behold) made it seem more London-centric that the traditional on-stage junk yard could ever hope to be.


Admittedly, the subplot of Macavity’s kidnapping of each principal in turn to give himself a better “shot” at the “heavy-side” layer was a bit heavy-handed, and inserted too much “real” magic into a movie that would have been better with “implied” magic;  of course cats aren’t REALLY magical.  Are they?


And, admittedly, some of the CGI was distracting, especially the bugs and mice in Rebel Wilson’s Gumby Cat number.  But, when it was turned on the cats themselves, it was why a movie was needed – tails moved as tightly as arms and legs, and I’ve yet to see that done on stage.


The performances were a mixed lot – Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, of course, were exceptional as Old Deuteronomy and Gus the Theatre Cat, the aforementioned Ms. Hayward was all innocence and delight as she experienced the first joys of BELONGING, Jennifer Hudson was a sucker-punch to the gut as Grizabella, Laurie Davidson was delightful as Mr. Mistoffelees.  OTOH, I did think Rebel Wilson and James Corden were more Rebel Wilson and James Corden than Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones, and I don’t mean that in a good way.  I thought Jason Derula was the least Rum-Tum-Tuggerish Rum-Tum-Tugger I’ve seen, lacking the sort of energy I always associate with that character.  And Taylor Swift is a very good singer – she does the “Macavity” number -- but creates no character to speak of; she also penned the lyrics for a new song – “Beautiful Ghosts” – which is pleasantly wistful in and of itself and gives Victoria a nice solo moment, but would have been improved by being more, well, T.S.-Eliot-ish.


Speaking of Ms. Hudson, one reviewer commented on her frayed costume and “snot-filled face,” meaning it as a negative.  For once, I found a reason for Grizabella’s outcast state – she was simply too disgusting for all the preeningly peerless younger cats, and their disdain (finally) made sense to me.  So, yeah, in her first scene, Ms. Hudson looks a bit disgusting.  Purr-fectly so, I would say. She more than compensates when it’s time for “Memory.”


So, recommending this movie to anyone who hates the show would be pointless.  Recommending it to anyone who hates cats themselves would be equally pointless. 


To be perfectly honest with my biases, I went into the movie with a predisposition to loving cats (even the evil demon ones) and liking Cats.  Maybe that’s all it takes to enter the feline world of Mr. Eliot’s practical cats.  Justifying my own liking of the movie makes about as much sense as trying to explain cats to a dog-lover and will no doubt fail to persuade anyone who despises cats (or Cats).  It’s as silly as trying to sway anyone’s politics using Facebook.  Or trying to choreograph a herd of feral moggies.

   -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy   #IPurrWhenScritched!)



** Just as another indication that movie people will never “get” musicals, on Cats’ IDMB site, Mr. Blankenbuehler isn’t listed with the other “creative crew” (writers, director, producers, etc).  His credit is listed under “Other Crew” BELOW the hundreds and hundreds of special effects artists.  I guess choreography in a dance-heavy musical is just not that important.  At least the filmmakers gave him his own credit.


If you didn’t know, the term “Jellicle Cat” is from an unpublished Eliot poem, "Pollicle Dogs and Jellicle Cats", where "Pollicle dogs" is a corruption of "poor little dogs" and "Jellicle cats" of "dear little cats."  #TheMoreYouKnow


And, just to share:


The Ad-Dressing Of Cats by T. S. Eliot


You've read of several kinds of Cat,
And my opinion now is that
You should need no interpreter
to understand their character.
You now have learned enough to see
That Cats are much like you and me
And other people whome we find
Possessed of various types of mind.
For some are sane and some are mad
And some are good and some are bad
And some are better, some are worse -
But all may be described in verse.
You've seen them both at work and games,
And learnt about their proper names,
Their habits and their habitat:
How would you ad-dress a Cat?


So first, your memory I'll jog,
And say: A CAT IS NOT A DOG.


Now Dogs pretend they like to fight;
They often bark, more seldom bite;
But yet a Dog is, on the whole,
What you would call a simple soul.
Of course I'm not including Pekes,
And such fantastic canine freaks.
The usual Dog about the Town
Is much inclined to play the clown,
And far from showing too much pride
Is frequently undignified.
He's very easily taken in -
Just chuck him underneath the chin
Or slap his back or shake his paw,
And he will gambol and guffaw.
He's such an easy-going lout,
He'll answer any hail or shout.


Again I must remind you that
A Dog's a Dog - A CAT'S A CAT.


With Cats, some say, one rule is true:
Don't speak till you are spoken to.
Myself, I do not hold with that -
I say, you should ad-dress a Cat.
But always keep in mind that he
Resents familiarity.
I bow, and taking off my hat,
Ad-dress him in this form: O CAT!
But if he is the Cat next door,
Whom I have often met before
(He comes to see me in my flat)
I greet him with an OOPSA CAT!
I've heard them call him James Buz-James -
But we've not got so far as names.
Before a Cat will condescend
To treat you as a trusted friend,
Some little token of esteem
Is needed, like a dish of cream;
And you might now and then supply
Some caviare, or Strassburg Pie,
Some potted grouse, or salmon paste -
He's sure to have his personal taste.
(I know a Cat, who makes a habit
Of eating nothing else but rabbit,
And when he's finished, licks his paws
So's not to waste the onion sauce.)
A Cat's entitled to expect
These evidences of respect.
And so in time you reach your aim,
And finally call him by his NAME.


So this is this, and that is that:
And there's how you AD-DRESS A CAT.

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