No other Catwoman has looked so good in a cat suit. Beyond that, the whole affair is pretty dumb, even by the goofy standards of superhero flicks.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Move over Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and especially you, Daredevil! There's a new superhero in town, and her name is Woman. Catwoman.

Actually, Catwoman has been around for quite a while, first essayed on screen by Maura Monti, Julie Newmar, Katherine Victor, Lee Meriwether, Eartha Kitt, Michelle Pfeiffer, Adrienne Barbeau (voice), and Kyra Sedgwick (voice), among others I've probably overlooked. Now, in 2004's "Catwoman," it's Halle Berry. Since winning an Academy Award, Ms. Berry has starred as a spunky Bond girl, a human Storm, and a crime-fighting feline. That's what an Oscar will do for you.

In fairness to Ms. Berry, she is the best thing in the movie. No other Catwoman has looked so good in a cat suit. Beyond that, the whole affair is pretty dumb, even by the goofy standards of superhero flicks.

Of course, you don't want to confuse this film with producer Val Lewton's classic 1942 "Cat People"; or Robert Wise's 1944 "Curse of the Cat People"; or Alfred Shaughnessy's 1957 "Cat Girl"; or Paul Schrader's 1982 "Cat People," where Nastassja Kinski literally turned into a big cat. Nor should you confuse Ms. Berry with Angelina Jolie, whose nickname is Catwoman, or with porn actress Laura Catwoman, whose name I stumbled across on IMDb while looking up the production dates for the titles mentioned above. Honest.

"Catwoman" is largely flash with little substance. This might have been expected, considering that its director, Pitof (a childhood moniker; birth name Christophe Comar), worked primarily in visual effects before coming to this movie. Every scene is in motion, with Pitof's camera hovering around, swooping down, and encircling its subjects like the cat of the movie's title stalking its prey. It gets dizzying after a while, and along with the omnipresent beat of a pounding, nondescript electronic drum and synthesizer accompaniment, it can become downright irritating. The movie reminded me of an extended MTV commercial. Yet for all its flash, dance, and big-budget effects, "Catwoman" features some of the least convincing visuals I've seen in quite some time. Berry's leaps and bounds look artificial, too speeded up, too hyperactive to be even fantasy real. In other words, the high-wire stunts and the CGI work look like just what they are--high wires and computer graphics.

It also may not have helped that the movie had, as far as I could count them, eight different producers of various kinds and six different writers working on it, not counting the late Bob Kane who invented the Catwoman comic-book character decades ago. When so many people have a hand in a project's creation, the project is in jeopardy of losing its focus, its vision, and getting watered down by compromise. That seems to be the case with "Catwoman." It tries to be all things to all people--a little of the character from the comic book, a little of the old TV show, a little of "Batman Returns"--but it never amounts to much of anything.

As I remember Catwoman from the comic books of my youth and later from the campy "Batman" television series, she was just another of Batman's nemesises. But she wasn't really all bad. She was maybe an antiheroine, an antagonist in this case who wasn't quite all that evil yet wasn't an outright do-gooder, either. She was always something of a contradiction, an enigma to the viewer as well as to Batman. But in this new movie, Catwoman is all good. She goes from being a timid, mousy little woman working in the art department of a cosmetics firm to a fearless, ceaseless, self-assured warrior against wrong. Several times she purrs that she's bad, but there are no other indications of such. It's as if the movie's massive committee of writers and producers who developed her couldn't leave well enough alone and finally decided Catwoman had to be a traditional superhero working for truth, justice, and the American way. They even gave her a new name, Patience Phillips (as opposed to Selina Kyle in Tim Burton's movie and plain old Catwoman in previous adventures).

Anyway, in time-honored superhero tradition, the movie begins with a back story. With a vengeance. For almost the whole first half of the film, we get to find out how and why Catwoman became Catwoman, a passage I found endlessly tedious, time consuming, and near pointless. "The day that I died was also the day I started to live," Ms. Berry tells us in a prologue, and about forty-five minutes later we finally see what she meant. But if the movie was going to convey so much history and so little plot, maybe the filmmakers should have considered doing what M. Night Shyamalan did in "Unbreakable" and made the whole movie a back story on the creation of a superhero.

I said the back story was near pointless because when we finally do find out how Patience becomes Catwoman, it makes no sense whatsoever, not even in terms of fancy. Poor little Patience wanders into her cosmetics company office one evening and inadvertently stumbles upon a deadly secret; she overhears that the Beau-Line face cream the company is about to introduce is addictive and toxic. She is discovered snooping about and flees for her life, evil cosmetics company henchmen in hot pursuit, finally washed out of a drain pipe (what are the chances?) into a river, and left for dead. But, naturally, she isn't dead; she drifts ashore unconscious, where her seemingly lifeless body is suddenly resurrected by cats who endow her with superhuman powers of strength and agility. This is because one of the cats is really an ancient god or goddess or magical spirit or something. And that's it. She wakes up Catwoman.

Apparently, giving her superhuman abilities is not the only thing the cats do for Patience. They cause her to have a partial memory loss as well, conveniently the loss of why she was flushed down the drain and what her cosmetics firm is up to. Everything else about herself she seems to remember. Go figure. As a plot device this allows her to investigate what went on, or we wouldn't have a second half to the movie; but logically it leaves a lot to be desired. What's more, she not only acquires strength and agility from the cats but gains an instant and expert ability to perform Olympian feats of karate and gymnastics. Well, at least it gets her out of her frumpy old clothes and into a skimpy leather cat suit. Thank heaven for small favors.

Berry is gorgeous, but we all know that, and it's not enough. Surprisingly, she does best as the dowdy Patience, maybe because she's a good enough actress to portray somebody genuine and alive. It's as Catwoman that Berry gets into trouble because the character as written is so monumentally absurd. The poor lady has to don a ridiculous black jump suit and slink around like an old-time movie vamp, pretending to look and sound like a sexy feline. It comes off as laughable as it sounds.

And, yes, there's a supporting cast, but you'd hardly know it. Benjamin Bratt plays a police detective, Tom Lone, who becomes Patience's romantic interest in the story. The romance is a fizzle, though; when Berry and Bratt look at each other, there is no romance in their eyes that I could detect, only a mutual attraction between two attractive people. The only good scene in the movie involves Catwoman playfully toying with the detective, but it's too little, too late.

Sharon Stone and Lambert Wilson play the villains of the piece, Laurel and George Hedare, the husband-and-wife heads of Hedare Cosmetics. Laurel has just turned forty and is being replaced by a younger woman as the company's advertising face; she resents it. George is a mean-spirited, egotistical, womanizing megalomanic, a nasty piece of business all the way around. They are fun to watch for about two minutes. Alex Borstein plays Patience's best friend and coworker at the cosmetics company. And Francis Conroy plays Ophelia, a witch or a priestess or somebody who lives in a big Victorian house amidst the city skyscrapers and who is the only person alive who understands what has happened in the transformation of Patience into Catwoman. I wish I had more patience with all of this.

Like "Daredevil," "Hellboy," and Tim Burton's "Batman" before them, "Catwoman" attempts to create a dark, film-noirish look, at least in some of its scenes. After all, following her miraculous transformation, the heroine does cat around mainly at night. But the sometimes dark tone is undermined by the ludicrous nature of the main character herself, so none of it is atmospheric or moody at all, just foolish.

The intentional humor in "Catwoman" is nil, but the unintentional stuff might provoke a chuckle; the romantic angle is a misfire; the music is annoying; the action is uninspired; and what little plot one finds is tired. It's not like any lab in the world wouldn't quickly discover that Hedare's new cosmetic is a deadly product; and it's not like any viewer in the world wouldn't quickly discover that "Catwoman" is a deadly bore. They're both equally lethal.

Warner Bros. continue their efforts to produce the best possible image quality, this time with slightly mixed results. The screen size is an ample anamorphic widescreen measuring a ratio approximately 2.17:1 across my standard-screen HD Sony television. The transfer utilizes a high bit rate for deep, rich, bright colors, but in most scenes the colors are so deep, so rich, and so bright, they look unnatural. Facial tones suffer the most, but at least it's not severe. Depending on the color setting of a person's TV, some viewers might find the video compensates for an otherwise soft, faded picture. As for digital transfer artifacts--grain, halos, moiré effects, pixilation--they are thankfully absent for all intents and purposes.

If the audio had more to do than assault the listener with loud noises and routine rap/rock, it would be deserving of a 10/10. As it is, the Dolby Digital 5.1 reproduction does what it can with what it's provided. The bass is wonderfully deep, as evidenced throughout the opening credits, along with some crystal-clear mids and highs. However, the bass is so good, it may be too much of a good thing, because the filmmakers often insist on a thundering low end to create an excitement that isn't in the script. In any case, turned up to the threshold of pain, it's sure to exasperate any pesky neighbors you've got it in for. As to the rear channels, they also do their fair share of mischief, creating a good sense of surround ambience for crowd scenes, rain drops, screeching motorcycles, gun blasts, and the like. In fact, you might want to turn off the TV and just listen to the sound for 104 minutes; it beats having to watch the movie. Well, maybe not; there's still the music to consider.

Understandably, when a small film does well, it gets decked out with all kinds of fancy extras. But when a film loses $45,000,000 at the box office, the studio isn't so keen on pouring good money after bad by promoting the DVD too heavily. So it goes with "Catwoman."

The most important thing among the bonuses is a documentary, "The Many Faces of Catwoman," hosted by Eartha Kitt, that traces the history of Catwoman in the comics, television, and movies. It includes interviews with Adam West, Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether, Tim Burton, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Adreinne Barbeau, plus various comic-book artists, writers, and editors. Unfortunately, while it's better than the feature film itself, it's only twenty-nine minutes long, and it winds up in its final third as a typical promo hyping the movie. Next, there is a truly typical promo, a twelve-minute featurette called "The Making of Catwoman," that tells us nothing about the movie or the movie's making we didn't already know. Six minutes of additional scenes, five of them total including an alternate ending, may be of some interest to die-hard fans, but except for the deleted finish they would have added nothing to the film if they'd been left in. The ending, though, had possibilities. It was the only time I saw any spark of romance between Berry and Bratt, yet it was dropped. Oh, well.... The disc concludes with a DVD-ROM Weblink to "Catwoman's World," thirty scene selections, and a widescreen theatrical trailer. English and French are the spoken languages available, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

The keep case is enclosed in an attractively embossed slipcover. I'm not sure what the purpose is for a slipcover, but it was probably cheaper than having to produce a longer documentary or an audio commentary. No chapter insert came with the disc.

Parting Shots:
It's interesting (to me, at least) to note that while "Catwoman" and "Spider-Man 2" both featured charismatic stars, big budgets, and release dates within a few weeks of each other, "Spider-Man 2" quickly became a lot of people's favorite film of the year, and "Catwoman"'t. Given the sheer mass of silliness it contains, it's a wonder "Catwoman" got a green light at all. I mean, don't studios think a movie should begin with a script anymore?


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