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Schultz reviews: ‘Cats’ and ‘Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker’

Schultz reviews: ‘Cats’ and ‘Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker’

Carl Schultz

 

“Cats” Distributed by Universal Pictures, 110 Minutes, Rated PG, Released Dec. 20:

 

The best way to experience Universal’s new motion picture version of the legendary Broadway musical “Cats” — if there is one — is probably to go out and buy the movie’s soundtrack album, listen to it once, and then put it away and forget about it. The music is pretty, and it’s performed by an eclectic group of entertainers. The movie itself is just ... well, weird. And not in a good way.

 

Based on Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, which opened in New York in 1982 and is currently the fourth-longest running show in Broadway history (the London version opened a year earlier), “Cats” is an adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” a 1939 collection of whimsical poems about our feline companions and their imagined traits and societies.

 

Directed by Tom Hooper, the Academy Award-winning British-Australian filmmaker best known for “The King’s Speech” in 2010 and the uninspired 2012 movie adaptation of the musical stage hit “Les Miserables,” “Cats” — both the stage show and the movie — depicts the adventures of a tribe of alley cats known collectively as Jellicles. The tribe meets every year at the annual Jellicle Ball, where their leader, Old Deuteronomy, selects one of the members to be transported to a sort of Nirvana known as the Heaviside Layer for reincarnation. The show is essentially about the Jellicles competing for the distinction.

 

The motion picture version of “Cats” was originally intended to be an animated feature from Amblimation, the division of filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment production company that produced cartoons. Those plans were abandoned when the studio was shut down in 1997, and its assets acquired by Universal Pictures. Universal eventually decided to proceed with a live-action version of the musical, with Hooper at the helm, an all-star cast, and vaguely impressionistic CGI-enhanced effects augmenting the actors’ appearances ... sort of a reversed version of the artistic style presented in the stage adaptation of the animated Disney feature “The Lion King.”

 

The problem is ... well, practically everything. The actors’ appearances are creepy, the sets are nightmarish, and few of the cast members have discernible musical skills. Additionally, the cats’ dimensions change from scene to scene, and sometimes from shot to shot — their sizes fluctuate between tiny and enormous, like an endlessly surreal and dizzying scene from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass.” Only some of Lloyd Webber’s music survives relatively intact, with Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of the heartbreaking ballad “Memory” a special highlight. Lloyd Webber and Taylor Swift also collaborated on a charming new composition entitled “Beautiful Ghosts.”

 

“Cats” is garnering overwhelmingly negative reviews from critics, including an approval rating of just 19% from Rotten Tomatoes against a weighted average of 32% from Metacritic. Variety, the entertainment newspaper, reports the film is “one of those once-in-a-blue-moon embarrassments that mars the resumes of great actors and trips up the careers of promising newcomers.” The Hollywood Reporter is instantly naming “Cats” to its Ten Worst Films of 2019 list, reports the picture is “the biggest disaster of the decade, and possibly thus far in the millennium,” suggesting the film should’ve been released as “a legit horror movie instead of an accidental one.”

 

Taken in its entirety, “Cats” is a real dog — hey, somebody had to say it — a $90 million white elephant that gives even 2018’s “Replicas” a run for its money as the most godawful movie of a generation. The picture is likely to either delight very small children or frighten them badly. Poor Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber just can’t seem to catch a break with movie adaptations of his shows.

 

Featuring performances from Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, James Corden, Rebel Wilson, newcomer Francesca Hayward, Jason Derulo, and a particularly scary Idris Elba, “Cats” is rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor.

 

“Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker” Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 142 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Dec. 20:

 

In the very first shot of the very first scene in the very first Star Wars picture in 1977, a small space freighter traveling through the cosmos is seen trying to elude an enormous Star Destroyer. The Star Destroyer enters the shot nose-first, its size gradually revealed as it passes before the camera’s lens in pursuit of the smaller craft.

 

While that shot is usually overlooked today, eclipsed and outdone over the decades by the bigger and better computer generated imagery and special effects created for the movies that followed in the gigantic footsteps of the original “Star Wars,” the impact of that image in 1977 was immediate, immense ... and almost completely unexpected. Viewers of the film literally gaped in astonishment.  

 

Audience members who’d seen the picture were heard to marvel to those people who hadn’t yet heard of “Star Wars” — Imagine that! — about the sheer dimensions of the larger ship in the shot, usually in terms like, “You gotta see this thing — the spaceship just keeps coming and coming and coming until the damn thing fills up the whole movie screen!”

 

There’s a scene in the new “The Rise of Skywalker” that references that opening shot from the very first picture. And not to give anything away or reveal any spoilers — the Movie Viewer’s Code of Honor prohibits such an abomination — but if you thought that first spaceship was enormous, the sight of a thousand of them flying across the sky in tight formation is gonna really grab your attention. Especially in 3D.

 

Well, this is it:  The ninth and reportedly final Star Wars picture has finally arrived.  

 

We can deny the gravity of the event all we want ... and plenty of people want to do just that. But the plain fact is that all motion pictures produced in the past 42 years, and maybe in all of movie history, have pointed to this moment in time.  

 

Released in May of 1977, “Star Wars” seemingly came out of nowhere, and suddenly was everywhere. Filmmaker George Lucas’ science fiction epic about a naive orphaned farm boy who grows up to topple a tyrannical interstellar empire changed the way we see movies. We now enjoy motion pictures courtesy of technology created because of the success of “Star Wars” and its sequels. And even the weakest of the Star Wars pictures has enjoyed the benefits of being the scion of a movie series which in the decades since the release of the original film has accumulated over $9 billion in cumulative box office revenues.  

 

Yes, that’s billion, with a B ... and that’s just the movies. The entire Star Wars franchise — which embraces toys, video games, novels, comic books, pajamas, television shows, bedsheets, wallpaper, diapers, footwear, and just about anything else you can think of — currently has an estimated value of some $65 billion. “Star Wars” auteur George Lucas had the foresight and shrewdness in 1977 to retain the rights to sequels and peripheral “Star Wars” products. The original film earned a ton of money for distributor 20th Century-Fox ... but the sequels and toys turned George Lucas into one of the wealthiest men in the world.

 

By the time the Star Wars “prequel trilogy” rolled around  — the three films directed by Lucas himself and released in 1999, 2002 and 2005, long after the hysteria surrounding the first three films had died down — the Star Wars pictures were mostly being critically panned, widely excoriated for appearing trite, pandering, and inconsistent in tone. The movies still earned enormous amounts of money at the box office, despite being possibly the most polarizing originator-created films in history since author L. Frank Baum’s own full-length “Oz” pictures during the 1910s.

 

But since the unprecedented success of the original trilogy of films (and its toys and tie-in products), Lucas’ Star Wars pictures were by then mostly self-financed affairs, released by other companies because Lucas’ empire lacked distribution abilities. In essence, George Lucas was the most successful independent filmmaker in history. And by the time of the prequels, Lucas had become an enormously successful toymaker who occasionally dabbled in filmmaking. The second trilogy of Star Wars pictures were the result of a rich man indulging his penchant for experimental filmmaking, a passion since his undergraduate days at USC. 

 

The most recent episode in the Star Wars saga, 2017’s “The Last Jedi,” seemed to have been made by filmmakers unfamiliar with the saga. With its mordant humor, sight gags, and non-sequiturs, the picture didn’t make a whole lot of sense in the context of the Star Wars mythology, and seemed to fall apart entirely during the final 10 minutes. The picture hit all the notes, so to speak, but couldn’t seem to figure out the melody, sacrificing the series’ heart and soul for cuddly critters and nifty new gadgets.  till, the picture set a high mark for its visual composition and action sequences — the picture moved like lightning, and was gorgeous to look at.  

 

“The Rise of Skywalker,” the new Star Wars picture released Dec. 20, seeks to correct some of the deficiencies of 2017’s “The Last Jedi” while retaining its strengths ... and its box office prowess. To that end, the Walt Disney Studios (the owners of the Star Wars franchise since the company’s 2012 acquisition of Lucasfilm restored filmmaker J.J. Abrams to the creative helm as both the film’s director and, with Chris Terrio, its co-writer. Chris Terrio is the Academy Award-winning writer of 2012’s “Argo,” as well as 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Justice League” in 2017. 

 

An old hand at reviving dormant film series after having performed similar duties on the “Star Trek” and “Mission; Impossible” movie franchises, J.J. Abrams was the filmmaker behind the 2015 Star Wars chapter “The Force Awakens, which resumed the primary Luke Skywalker plotline of the Star Wars series for the first time since 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.” Abrams’ “The Force Awakens,” like his 2009 reboot of “Star Trek,” violated some of the traditional conventions of the series on which it was based, but was slavishly faithful to the mythology.

 

In the new picture — the full, official title is “Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker” — the villainous but deeply conflicted Kylo Ren begins his reign of terror as the Supreme Leader of the First Order, while his estranged mother General Leia Organa continues to plot its destruction, and the desert scavenger Rey continues her cosmic education in the ways of The Force. But just when dissent among upper management in the oppressive First Order inspires a new hope among Resistance leaders for a return of the Jedi, the Empire strikes back in the form of an old adversary.

 

The first 90 minutes or so of the 142-minute “The Rise of Skywalker” are not so much a conclusion of the nine-part Star Wars saga as a microcosm of the previous eight installments. As such, it’s a necessarily mixed bag ... and a decidedly bumpy ride. There are awkward moments and slow spells, and some segments and subplots are more engaging than others, which is likely typical for such an episodic picture.  

 

Only during the final hour does the picture genuinely come into its own and begin to really hum, building to a richly satisfying and genuinely moving conclusion. A charming coda brings it all home — literally — and the final line of dialogue might very well reduce the Star Wars faithful to tears. All in all, “The Rise of Skywalker” is a fitting conclusion to a film series which over the years has become not so much a franchise as a genre of its own, and almost a way of life.

 

Among the picture’s performances, you might have noticed that since his splashy debut in 2015’s “The Force Awakens” with the most stunning act of patricide since “Hamlet,” actor Adam Driver has quietly matured into one of the premier character actors of his generation. The actor’s standout — and outstanding — performances include appearances in such prominent films as Steven Soderbergh’s “Logan Lucky” in 2017, Spike Lee’s Academy Award-winning “BlacKkKlansman” in 2018, Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die” earlier this year, and Noah Baumbach’s excellent “Marriage Story,” currently streaming on Netflix.

 

As the Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren in “The Rise of Skywalker,” the talented Driver seems to alternate between two speeds only — blind rage and dewy remorse. His mood swings seem to be somehow connected with the character’s occasional mask, which over the course of the trilogy’s story arc more and more resembles a Maori face painting. If there’s a breakout star from this trilogy of Star Wars pictures, it’s probably Driver. Oscar Isaac as the Han Solo-like whiz-bang flyboy Poe Dameron was a popular actor even before joining the Star Wars fold, and his appearance in the blockbuster trilogy seems like a late-stage bid to also become a matinee idol.

 

Like Driver, Daisy Ridley as Rey, the Jakku scavenger with something extra, seemingly has only two facial expressions — a scowl of deep concentration while she’s engaged in training or combat and a countenance of beatific peace when she’s caught up in the rapture of The Force. But since Rey and Kylo Ren are described in the picture as “a diad” — the Yin and Yang of The Force — we might consider the real possibility that Ridley and Driver are in effect inhabiting different facets of the same personality.  

 

It’s an intriguing notion. But at the same time we need to acknowledge that we’ll have to wait for the two actors to contribute their best and most emotionally satisfying performances in other pictures — their roles here are by the film’s very definition necessarily limited. John Boyega too, another talented artisan outside the Star Wars universe, is similarly limited by the demands of his character as the converted stormtrooper Finn, but for the first time seems to be relaxing and having some fun with his contribution to the saga.

 

The surprisingly full performance of the late Carrie Fisher — appropriately top-billed for the first time in the saga’s history as the matronly General/Princess Leia — is reportedly cobbled together from cutting room footage excluded from 2015’s “The Force Awakens” and 2017’s “The Last Jedi,” a real triumph of film editing and sound recording. Save for one brief shot in a flashback sequence, the late actress’ performance has not been augmented by CGI, as in the peripheral 2016 Star Wars feature “Rogue One.“ And Fisher’s physical appearance in “The Rise of Skywalker” is as radiantly lovely as in any picture in the series’ 42-year history. 

 

John Williams’ music score, possibly the most evocative of his long, long career, becomes something of a retrospective. You might be surprised by how many distinctly different and familiar themes and musical cues the 87-year-old Williams has composed for the Star Wars series over the decades, and they’re all reprised throughout the course of the picture’s running time ... although the Wagnerian strains of “The Imperial March” — the Empire’s theme music — are not heard until the closing credits. True fans of the series might actually be able to follow the picture’s action blindfolded, just by listening to the music.  

 

During the movie’s final battle sequence, for the very first time in the saga’s history Williams rousingly incorporates his iconic “Star Wars Main Title Theme” onto the soundtrack to underscore the action. The result is breathtakingly effective. You just don’t realize until that moment how deeply integrated the melody has become to our collective heritage — like a second National Anthem or Souza’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” you feel almost compelled to rise to your feet and salute in the context of the scene, and that music.  Bravo, maestro.

 

As expected, “Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker” is breaking box office records, earning over $175 million in US ticket sales and $198 million overseas during its first two days of release. The picture rocketed to the top of the Box Office Mojo Top Ten, bringing in nearly seven times the amount earned by its closest competitor, the second-place “Jumanji: The Next Level” (and 27 times the amount earned by the fourth-place “Cats”).  Pre-release tickets for the Star Wars picture, on sale since Oct. 21, handily outsold the previous record-holder, the April blockbuster “Avengers: Endgame.”

 

Sharp-eyed viewers will notice actor Denis Lawson during the final battle sequence in a one-line cameo appearance as Wedge Antilles, Luke Skywalker’s buddy in the first three pictures. Screenings of “The Rise of Skywalker” are preceded with an onscreen disclaimer cautioning viewers with medical conditions aggravated by the use of flashing lights.

 

“Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker” is rated PG-13 for episodes of science fiction violence and action, and for some intense sequences.

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