Leigh Paatsch reviews these newly released films. Pictures: Supplied
Leigh Paatsch reviews these newly released films. Pictures: Supplied

‘Train wreck’ movie gets no-star review

CATS (G)

Director : Tom Hooper (Les Miserables)

Starring : Francesca Hayward, Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Rebel Wilson, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson.

Rating : no stars

Apocalypse meow

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Francesca Hayward, centre, in a scene from the movie Cats. Picture: Universal Pictures
Francesca Hayward, centre, in a scene from the movie Cats. Picture: Universal Pictures

All over the planet, the word of mouth on this flamboyantly bizarre flame-out of a movie is already radioactive.

There is no other way of putting it. Cats is a dog.

It is the cinematic equivalent of a train wreck immediately adjacent to a car crash while a zeppelin explodes above.

Cats' 100 minutes of misshapen musicality generates a vast spectrum of baffled reactions. It is a movie that never stops throwing 50 shades of WTF at you, but never once starts making sense.

Rebel Wilson in a scene from the movie Cats. Picture: Universal Pictures
Rebel Wilson in a scene from the movie Cats. Picture: Universal Pictures

So how did this ferocious furball of a flick somehow roll into existence as a $150 million blockbuster motion picture?

A study of the production's pedigree points towards the inexplicable, multi-zillion-dollar success of Cats as a stage musical over three decades ago.

It was a phenomenon that could only have happened in the 1980s. Back then, the world had a blind spot when it came to neon colours, spandex outfits and free-form dance moves, and a deaf spot when it came to the sonically sappy songs of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Taylor Swift in a scene from the movie Cats.Picture: Universal Pictures.
Taylor Swift in a scene from the movie Cats.Picture: Universal Pictures.

None of which serves to explain how Cats could have happened as a movie in 2019. Especially not in the abrasively surreal and relentlessly silly form designed by director Tom Hooper.

The choices made by Hooper (who did do a sterling job in 2012 transforming another major stage musical into a movie with Les Miserables) and his team are wrong, wrong and wrong from the get-go.

The problems begin the moment you lay eyes on the huge cast of (decorated) actors, and the less-than-fetching way in which they appear as felines.

Idris Elba and Francesca Hayward. Picture: Universal Pictures
Idris Elba and Francesca Hayward. Picture: Universal Pictures

Utilising a bonkers combo of thinly convincing CGI effects and thickly applied makeup, the film tosses each character into a visual void where they never quite look like a cat, nor a human being.

The harder you stare at these quirky eyesores - with their distractingly twitchy ears, whiskers and fur coats - the fainter the intended illusion becomes.

It is unfair to take any protracted potshots at the plotting of Cats, for there was never really one holding together the original stage version.

Cats was released on Boxing Day in 2019.
Cats was released on Boxing Day in 2019.

However, the movie makes no effort to engage the viewer between its many generically overblown (and occasionally grotesque) song-and-dance numbers.

In fact, the Cats screenplay lazily throws a jumble of indecipherable jibber-jabber - much of which repeats the word 'Jellicle' - at its audience, and leaves it to them to make of it what they will.

While ardent fans of Cats and Andrew Lloyd Webber will undoubtedly find a way to live through this experience, many of the cast's bigger names will have to live with the shame of participating in this drivel for a long time to come.

Sure, the likes of Rebel Wilson (eating cockroaches and rolling about on the floor with her legs akimbo in her signature scene) have tanked in movies before and will undoubtedly do so again.

However, it is quite chilling to see dependable high flyers such as Dame Judi Dench (croakily talk-singing as Old Deuteronomy) and Idris Elba (warning: you can't un-see his 'strip' scene) dragged down to all-time lows.

 

JOJO RABBIT (M)

Director : Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok)

Starring : Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell.

Rating : ***1/2

Learning the Reich way is the wrong way

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Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson and Roman Griffin Davis in a scene from the movie Jojo Rabbit.Picture: Twentieth Century Fox
Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson and Roman Griffin Davis in a scene from the movie Jojo Rabbit.Picture: Twentieth Century Fox

This one goes out to anyone who has been thinking cinema plays it too safe these days.

Make no mistake. Jojo Rabbit won't be taking any easy roads en route to winning you over, making you laugh, or getting you to think.

Described by its director as "an anti-hate satire," Jojo Rabbit is a hard movie to get your head around. While definitely not for everyone, it will appeal to more than many will assume on first impressions.

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And in the case of Jojo Rabbit, a first impression taken from its synopsis might be the last straw for some potential viewers.

So what is the sticking point here?

Jojo Rabbit is set in 1940s Germany. Though their fortunes in World War II are on the wane elsewhere across Europe, the Nazis still reign supreme at home.

An 11-year-old boy, like so many his age, has grown up believing in the Nazi way. He has known nothing else.

Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis. Picture: Twentieth Century Fox
Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis. Picture: Twentieth Century Fox

But now he knows that his mother is hiding a young Jewish girl inside their home. What should he do?

Tell someone, and put his family in mortal danger? Or look the other way, and hope that his unpatriotic parent (a touching, grounded display from Scarlett Johansson) comes to her senses?

And so, young Jojo (played wonderfully by youngster Roman Griffin Davis) turns to his friend for advice. Sure, he is an imaginary friend. But he does seem to have some perspective on the situation.

His name? Adolf Hitler.

Roman Griffin Davis and Taika Waititi in a scene from the WWII satirical film Jojo Rabbit. Picture: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Roman Griffin Davis and Taika Waititi in a scene from the WWII satirical film Jojo Rabbit. Picture: Fox Searchlight Pictures

And that, right there, is your sticking point.

One of the most despicable figures in the history of mankind is standing front and centre in an incongruously genial coming-of-age movie. A movie that for a fair proportion of its running time is very much a comedy.

So this is where Jojo Rabbit's all-important X-factor kicks in to snatch feel-good triumph from the jaws of misguided folly.

Roman Griffin Davis, Taika Waititi and Scarlett Johansson. Picture: Twentieth Century Fox
Roman Griffin Davis, Taika Waititi and Scarlett Johansson. Picture: Twentieth Century Fox

The X-factor is the brilliant New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, who has spent much of the past decade building a hard-earned reputation as one of the finest directors of comedy around.

The magic lightness of touch at work in his movies - Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok being the best-known - assumes a slightly different form in Jojo Rabbit, but is there nonetheless.

And just to make sure this risky flight sticks a difficult landing, the role of Hitler is played with just the right notes of intimidating idiocy by Waititi himself.

 

JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL (PG)

Director : Jake Kasdan (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle)

Starring : Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Danny De Vito, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Danny Glover.

Rating : ***

Same game, better result

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Jack Black, and Karen Gillan in a scene from Jumanji: The Next Level. Picture: Sony
Jack Black, and Karen Gillan in a scene from Jumanji: The Next Level. Picture: Sony

Just in case you're late to the Jumanji party, a quick summation.

The classic 1995 original Jumanji starring Robin Williams centred on a cursed board game.

The 2017 reboot Welcome to the Jungle updated the concept to a cursed video game, inside which its teenage players assumed adult avatars completely at odds with their actual personalities and physiques.

Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan and Jack Black. Picture: Sony
Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan and Jack Black. Picture: Sony

All the featured players who got the job done well in Welcome to the Jungle - Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Jack Black and Kevin Hart - are back on active duty in The Next Level.

As for new recruits, it is two old stagers in Danny DeVito and Danny Glover that are to the fore.

The core plot of The Next Level has been refreshed just enough to keep franchise fans leaning forward and ready for anything. They will already be aware that the video game was broken at the end of the last movie to guarantee that history would not be repeating itself.

Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart. Picture: Sony
Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart. Picture: Sony

Therefore (without giving too much away) there are a new set of player-to-avatar switcheroos to be executed, the standouts of which are Dwayne Johnson subbing for Danny DeVito (very amusing work from The Rock) and Kevin Hart channelling his inner Danny Glover circa Lethal Weapon (uncannily on the money).

Black and Gillan do not have as much to do as they did before - and the same goes for the younger cast of regulars - but it doesn't really matter that much.

The action-adventure sequences are given more emphasis and the opportunity to build some consistent momentum this time around, and it gives The Next Level a slight edge over its well-regarded predecessor.

 

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (M)

Director : Céline Sciamma(Girlhood)

Starring : Noémie Merlant, Adèle Haenel, Luana Bajrami, Valeria Golino

Rating : ****

It is all in the flame of love

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Noémie Merlant, and Adèle Haenel in a scene from Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Picture: Neon
Noémie Merlant, and Adèle Haenel in a scene from Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Picture: Neon

In one of many breathtakingly flawless scenes in the fine new French period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a painter fields a query about her latest work-in-progress.

"How do we know it is finished?," she is asked.

"At one point, we just stop," is her reply.

This casual question and its definitive answer also encapsulate the romance that serves as the powerful beating heart of this seductive movie experience.

The setting is 18th century Brittany, where a young and evolving artist named Marianne (played by Noémie Merlant) has accepted a lucrative commission to paint the portrait of an Italian noblewoman's sheltered daughter.

Noemie Merlant in Portrait of A Lady On Fire. Picture: Neon
Noemie Merlant in Portrait of A Lady On Fire. Picture: Neon

Heloise (Adele Haenel) will not be an easy subject for Marianne to capture. A number of other painters have already been ejected from the job by Heloise without so much as a brushstroke to show for it.

Her reluctance is easy to understand. When completed, Heloise's portrait will be sent abroad to be pored over by potential male suitors. Think of it as a dating profile, sitting on an easel.

According to Heloise's controlling mother (Valeria Golino), Marianne's best chance at completing her assignment is to pose as her subject's hired companion.

Therefore Marianne must use stolen moments in which to dab away at her mission, painting while the memories of her intimate interactions with Heloise are still vivid in her mind.

A scene from Portrait of A Lady On Fire. Picture: Neon
A scene from Portrait of A Lady On Fire. Picture: Neon

Once a strong mutual attraction takes hold, the necessarily secretive nature of the two women's relationship changes in complex and fascinating ways.

Writer-director Céline Sciamma (one of the hottest talents in French cinema right now) captures these subtle, yet potent mood swings with an intensity of feeling that continues to deepen throughout.

The pay-off is one of the most unforgettably moving endings to a movie you will see this summer.


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