Catwoman Review

From the moment Michael Keaton thought he caught a glimpse of her in the shadows at the end of Batman Returns the prospect of Catwoman returning to the silver screen in her own spin-off has been on the cards. That it’s taken twelve years and numerous different scripts to bring the idea to fruition says a lot about how difficult it has been for those involved to get ahold of the character and decide exactly what tack they should take with the film. Her popularity in the comics is due to the ambiguity of the character, the question of whose side she’s really on proving endearingly popular. As the one member of the rogue’s gallery who could wrap Batman around her little finger, the question is always asked: Does she have feelings for the Caped Crusader or is she just using her feline charms to escape the clutches of justice? Is she a calculating minx who knows exactly what she’s doing or a conflicted soul, not sure herself which side of the moral boundary she comes down on, in the end as schizophrenic as Batman himself? Undoubtedly, it’s this conflict, as much as it is physical attraction, that Batman finds so alluring, a mirror image of his own internal struggles. It’s in these issues that her fans revel, but the problem is that more general movie goers tend to be a conservative lot, and like their heroes and villains much more clear cut. As you can’t pin her down in such black and white terms, it’s no surprise that writers have struggled in finding a way to bring the character to screen which both remains true to the character’s essence while also pleasing those multiplex visitors who don’t want to engage themselves in a great deal of thought while chomping on their popcorn.

The other problem any potential Catwoman makers had was in equalling Michelle Pfeiffer’s superb (dare I say it, definitive?) interpretation of the role in the aforementioned Batman Returns. This was a film that didn’t hide away from the nuances of the character (it could afford to explore them as it had Batman as a fairly traditional good guy for people to latch onto, one of the reasons people say the villains in the films are much more interesting than the hero) which Pfeiffer played with gusto, bringing across both the seductive and vulnerable qualities of Selina Kyle and her alter-ego. As soon as the film was released people began discussing bringing the actress back to the role and placing her centre stage, only to be scuppered when she declined to return (among other things, she said she found the catsuit incredibly uncomfortable to wear). Over the next few years several names were mentioned in connection with the movie, some very credible (Ashley Judd was for a long time the leading runner, and would, I think, have done an excellent job), some not so. Of course, Warner Bros and their adaptations of DC’s properties fell into an extended hiatus following the disastrous Batman and Robin, and it was only following the massive success of movies such as X-Men and Spider-man that confidence grew again that comic books had an audience – an audience, furthermore, who were quite happy to accept their heroes as a little more complex than before (see Wolverine in particular). Catwoman marked the first DC character to enter production since Joel Schumacher’s calamity and, while it would overstating the case to say a lot was resting on the success of the film (there will be many more anxious executives watching the box office the weekend of Batman Begins opening) it was certainly a testbed to see if Warner and DC could still cut it in the new, critically acclaimed era of comic book adaptations.

Unfortunately, as everyone now knows, the answer to this was a resounding no, at least as far as Catwoman is concerned. From the beginning signs were mixed as to which way the film would go: the casting of Halle Berry was greeted with raised eyebrows, considering the muted reception her portrayal of Storm in the two X-Men pictures had had, while the choice of some guy who no one had ever heard of before calling himself Pitof as director could go either way. Vague concerns turned to concrete doubts when the first pictures of the all-important costume were released, a rightly-derided piece that made Catwoman look like some fetishistic hooker. Worse was to follow. The first trailer released onto the internet was given a collective raspberry and quickly withdrawn, replaced by a largely-silent one that concentrated on action as opposed to dialogue. Test screenings amassed still more vitriol, resulting in quick reshoots. By the time it opened at the end of July 2004 no one was expecting anything from it, and people stayed away in droves – its opening weekend tally of just under seventeen million dollars covering barely a quarter of the budget. Eventually it limped to around forty million domestic gross,

And yes, all the rumours were true, it really is a ghastly film. I gave it a miss during its theatrical run and came to the DVD with very low expectations, but even those were disappointed. It’s easily the worst comic book film to be released since the Marvel Renaissance started by X-Men (compared to this, Daredevil looks like a masterpiece while even the likes of The Punisher can afford to look down its nose at it) and a huge disappointment to anyone hoping to see a continuation of the character from Batman Returns

Halle Berry, while not the complete loss some had feared, isn’t in the same league as Pfeiffer. Her portrayal of Catwoman is all arch caricature, her attempts to move like a cat coming across as though she’s playing a game of charades and wants people to guess that the answer is "cat". It doesn’t come across as natural at all, which is a bit of a shame as she’s clearly making a big effort here, with a calculation about every slinky (and I use the word in the non-sexual way) movement and mannerism. Her delivery of her lines is no better, the long-drawn out “purrrrr-fect” coming across with too much sibilance while her attempts at seductive movement are incredibly unsexy considering the kind of outfit she has on. She’s much more at home as Catwoman’s alter-ego Patience Phillips (not Selina Kyle, just one of a number of elementary mistakes the film makes), although she isn’t required to do much with that side of the character other than simper and apologise for living while smiling at Benjamin Bratt in the first half and then look puzzled about her changing personality while smiling at Benjamin Bratt in the second.

That the character’s conflict is not explored in detail is hardly her fault, but the moments she is required to be concerned there’s never a great feeling of angst about her. This is a Catwoman who’s secretly glad of a chance to break free of her meek personality, not one who finds herself wanting to restrain her wild nature. In that sense you almost feel as though she (the character) is play-acting her role to a certain extent. Obviously she enjoys taking on the bad guys but there isn’t a sense of urgency about her mission, not even when the deadline to disaster is fast approaching. This almost relaxed way of taking on her foes almost completely eliminates one of the traditional character’s basic tenets, that she is a driven woman, possessed by this thing and unable to rein herself in from instinctively behaving in the way she does. The fact this is completely lacking here does make you wonder just what the makers thought Catwoman was all about.

Of course, the notion that the writers gave any thought to the script at all is patently absurd. The villains scheme is ill-thought through (a cosmetics company plans to release a defective anti-aging cream which causes excessive scarring if the customer stops using it) with the villainess (I don’t think it spoils it for anyone to reveal that Sharon Stone’s seemingly put-upon trophy wife is the baddy) having no clear agenda other than to release the cream. Analysing the massive plot holes at the heart of this piece is a waste of time and would give more credibility to the story than it deserves – suffice to say, there’s no reason for her actions other than to give Catwoman something to fight against. There’s also astonishing laziness on exhibition – there’s one sequence in which Catwoman is cornered in a mansion by the police… only for the next shot to be her in the middle of the city as Patience, with no explanation as to how she escaped. This is almost taking the mickey out of the audience, as is the moment when, to escape jail, she… just squeezes out of the bars. That’s it. Nothing dramatic, or clever, she just squeezes out. It took six people to come up with that. Meanwhile, the other elements in the script all come straight from My First Book of Film Cliches – there’s the “comedy” friend (Alex Borstein), the love interest who will come into conflict with the woman he loves (Benjamin Bratt, who is beginning to look his age), and, most ridiculously, the Mentor. This last, played by Six Feet Under’s Frances Conway, is another betrayal of the Catwoman mythos – the idea that there’s a cat going round bringing to life lots of Catwomen is awful, and is just a misguided attempt to explain the unexplainable.

The script’s flaws are only matched by those made by the director. As a general rule, I tend to be wary of films made by directors with only one name, and Pitof does nothing to belie that. Coming from a background in visual effects (his most high profile work being on Alien Resurrection) he blatantly has no idea how to put together a remotely watchable piece. His establishing shots over the city, which zoom out then zoom in over skyscrapers, are ugly at best, while he seems to believe that no shot should last more than about two seconds. This constant cutting, coupled with bizarre choices of angles for his camerawork, makes videos seen on MTV sedate by comparison, and renders some scenes virtually unwatchable. In a couple of the action scenes, it is literally impossible to see what is going on, the screen a colourful whirl of light that cannot be deciphered. During the rare moments he does allow a shot to last more than two seconds, he seems to think the camera must be kept moving at all costs, panning around the characters even when they’re having the most gentle of chats. The title character of the film might be a restless wanderer, but that’s no excuse for the director being the same.

If the director and leading lady are too twitchy, the exact opposite can be said for Sharon Stone. Much was made in the industry of how this film could be her comeback following a rough couple of years in her personal life, but in the end she might as well have not bothered. It’s easy to see why she signed up – playing a villainess in a campy but high-profile film didn’t do Demi Moore any harm last year (although, on reflection, just where has she gone again?) but, while Moore got maximum publicity with diva-ish behaviour, a celebrity toyboy and showing off as much of her newly-toned body as a PG-13 rating would allow, Stone leaves no impression in this film at all. Again, part of this can be put down to the lack of material in the script for her to get her teeth into, but she seems almost bored by the whole thing, coasting through the piece instead of seizing her few opportunities and camping it up as much as possible. She could have made more of it, but instead gives a bland, completely characterless performance that is utterly unmemorable. Maybe she realised just what a load of rubbish she had gotten herself involved in, and wished to show her disdain for it as much as possible. Maybe she thought fighting the barely-dressed Halle Berry would be enough to arouse interest in certain sections of the population. Maybe she just couldn’t be bothered.

It’s very difficult to find anything positive to say about Catwoman, and I have been trying very hard indeed. The problems with it are so many – I haven’t even started on the poor CGI Catwoman who springs from pillar to post with the same “weightless” problems that marred a few scenes of the first Spider-man, or the fact the scene in which Phillips is brought back to life by the cats doesn’t come close to matching the brilliance of its equivalent in Batman Returns, or the fact that the climax is weak, or the fact that one of Catwoman’s monologues is ripped off from The Crow – that at times it’s hard to believe there is anything decent in it at all. I suppose if you tried very hard you could describe it as bland, but that would be inaccurate. This is poor, shoddy filmmaking by people with no apparent interest in their subject or appreciation of what makes her tick. In their hands, the notion of a Catwoman becomes laughable, a death knell for films such as this, and the lasting impression one gets is of a studio who, having had this title hanging over their heads for so long, finally just took the first opportunity that came along to get rid of it. Is it worse than Batman and Robin? At least that tried, this just doesn't bother. Let’s hope Batman Begins is as good as it’s looking, because with this film, Bob Kane’s franchise really has entered the Last Chance Saloon.

The Disk
The film is presented on one single-sided dual-layered disk with a 2.35:1 ratio print. The menu has a sensibly standard design, with Play Movie, Scene Selection, Special Features and Language Selection all available from the main menu, which is illustrated by a static picture of Catwoman perched on a rooftop with clouds drifting behind her in a moonlit sky. Both the main feature and extras are subtitled, although the extras miss out the Arabic and Hebrew tracks.

The Video is okay but there are signs of artefacting and a bit of grain. The disk handles the extensive night scenes well though, with hardly any detail lost. The Audio is similarly acceptable if unremarkable - it does its job but doesn't challenge your sound system in any way.


The Many Faces of Catwoman
Hosted by an enjoyably hammy Eartha Kitt, this is a decent half hour retrospective of Catwoman’s appearances in both the comic books and on screen. It features a ton of talking heads including all the actresses who have played the character through the years as well as those who have starred alongside them (including the great Adam West) or written about the character in some form, all of whom make decent contributions (although the pedant in me wishes to point out that Eartha Kitt joined Batman in its third season and not second as is stated here). There’s even an appearance from the guy who designed Halle Berry’s costume, brave man.

Behind the Scenes Documentary
Half of this twelve-minute featurette is taken up telling the viewer virtually the entire plot of the film. The other half scoots through looks at the costume ("Catwoman has a whip," the designer explains, "and sometimes she uses it"), stunts and so on. Bog-standard, with Halle Berry in particular taking it all far more seriously than needs be, although it's mercifully free of the "Oh he/she/it was so wonderful to work with" guff so many of these things have.

Additional Scenes
A handful of deleted scenes, including an alternative ending that goes in the opposite direction to that chosen by the final cut. One of these scenes, a sequence set immediately after Patience is revived in which she is hunted through a junkyard by a pack of ravenous dogs that, is rather better than some of the moments that got into the finished film.

Theatrical Trailers
A bit of a dull trailer featuring little other than Catwoman jumping around. I’d complain it doesn’t reveal anything of the story, but with this film that’s a blessing rather than a problem. It would have been nice, though, to have included the original version of the trailer.

Female superheros haven't had it easy in the movies - Wonder Woman can't get off the ground and Elektra has disappointed - and this film does nothing to readdress that balance. Believe the bad press. This is dreadful and should be avoided at all costs. Shame, as the Many Faces of Catwoman documentary is quite good.

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out of 10

Last updated: 19/04/2018 10:27:24

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