Review – Just Mercy

FILM REVIEWJUST MERCYWith Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx , Brie Larson, Rafe Spall, Tim Blake Nelson. Written by Destin Daniel Cretton & Andrew Lanham. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Rated PG-13 for thematic content including some racial epithets. 136 minutes.

JUST MERCY has everything going for it. Based on a true story, it is about how lawyer Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) takes on the case of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan (Jamie Foxx) who sits on death row in Alabama, awaiting execution for a crime he did not commit. This cuts right to the heart of the debate over capital punishment: can we accept the state executing some people who may be innocent in order to protect the public? Why, then, is the film such a disappointment?

It’s not the cast. Jordan follows in the footsteps of Sidney Poitier (in “In the Heat of the Night”), as an African-American man from the North navigating a racist system in Alabama. He gathers evidence that shows that McMillan’s trial was flawed in not calling witnesses who would have testified he was nowhere near where the murder took place. He finds a a witness (Tim Blake Nelson) who did testify subsequently recants and admits he was coerced into lying under oath. However, neither the prosecutor nor the courts seem interested in doing justice. Jordan is tightly coiled as he suffers indignities and setbacks but remains committed to his cause.

Likewise, Foxx plays McMillan as a man caught up in a system where he knows the deck is stacked against him, and yet finds common ground with the young attorney wanting to fight on his behalf. He gets emotional moments – such as getting to see his family after a court appearance – without going over the top. When he does lose it at one point it’s not only justified but seems to a release of all the anger that he’s kept pent up. Brie Larson has less to do as Eva Ansley, McMillan’s partner in what became the Equal Justice Initiative. She’s there as a sounding board, helper, and moral support, but we don’t get to know her as we do with Stevenson and McMillan.

The problem is that director Destin Daniel Cretton – who adapted the script with Andrew Lanham from Stevenson’s book – has absolutely no sense of how to make this story interesting. The movie proceeds at a leaden pace draining the drama from much of narrative. It’s almost as if he’s internalized the attitude of many of the film’s characters to stoically endure the racism and injustice in hopes of a better outcome. When McMillan’s son explodes in anger against a judge who ignores the evidence in the case it’s a rare instance where we can see that it’s blood and not ice water flowing through the veins of these characters.

Although Cretton attracted some attention for his first feature, “Short Term 12” (2013) – which also starred Larson – his next film – “The Glass Castle” (2017) had the same problems “Just Mercy” has: too long, a meandering narrative, and a talented cast left to their own devices. The story of McMillan (who died in 2013) and Stevenson deserved much better than what they get here.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Sean’s 10 Worst Films Of 2019


by Sean Burns

Every year around this time the usual scolds chime in, tut-tutting and finger-wagging about the practice of making a Ten Worst List, claiming that film criticism should be about sharing enthusiasm and uplifting good work instead of dwelling on the bad. These days I’m lucky enough to be able to spend the majority of my time writing about stuff I enjoy and championing smaller films that don’t have the benefit of multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns. But I also have to watch a lot of crap. And since people were paid very handsomely to make this garbage, then turned around and asked you fork over the cost of a ticket, overpriced concessions, parking and a sitter to watch such dreck, I humbly submit that they should be able to handle a parting shot or two before we ring in the new year.

  1. JOKER

An empty simulacrum of feel-bad ‘70s-cinema signifiers, the year’s most bafflingly popular blockbuster mashes up and hollows out “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” among other classics, carefully side-stepping any of the issues explored in the films it’s stripping for parts. This is a cowardly, tedious corporate product posing as quote-unquote dangerous art. I guess every era gets the Joker it deserves, so this one wallows in victimhood and self-pity while the movie feints at blaming “society” for his actions but is really more interested in setting up sequels.


Almost every year the Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award goes to the movie I hated most. Picked up by Amazon Studios at the tail end of the fest for an obscene $14 million, this is one of those ghastly-looking lil’ indies thrown together with such indifference to aesthetic concerns they might as well have left the lens cap on. Jillian Bell stars as a flip, sardonic party girl who takes up jogging — losing weight along with any vestige of a personality. Self-help affirmations ensue. This is why people hate runners.


A reactionary crock even by Stallone standards, Sly’s boringly sadistic, molasses-paced finale to his ultra-violent adventures in ideological incoherence gets a MAGA makeover. With his long hair, headband and hunting bow, our disaffected Vietnam Vet was always visually coded as a Native American warrior, a man apart fighting alone. Now he’s all cleaned up with a cowboy hat and Winchester rifle, a rancher defending hearth and home from bad hombres and foreign hordes. It doesn’t even feel like a “Rambo” movie so much as an even more racist remake of “Taken.”


This year’s terrible John Travolta movie finds the wayward superstar giving an awfully committed (and committedly awful) performance as an imbalanced superfan obsessed with a horror movie has-been, charmlessly played by real-life horror movie has-been Devon Sawa. Ineptly directed by Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, it’s a grindingly unpleasant little picture, wallowing in misery and running down the clock until the inevitable, ugly bloodshed. The only respite comes when two characters kick back and listen to some sweet Bizkit tunes on the car radio. (This is seriously something that happens.)


There were probably worse blockbusters this year but none so baseline incompetent at visual storytelling. This is a movie that kills off a major character but you can’t see it happen so they put a picture of her up on a computer screen with the word “DECEASED” over her face. I learned days later that Ziyi Zhang is actually supposed to be playing two separate roles here but the movie is edited so incoherently it’s impossible to tell. And what kind of director gets a bad performance out of Kyle Chandler?

  1. GLASS

In the curious case of M. Night Shyamalan, I find myself torn. On one hand you’ve gotta salute his heroic commitment to wrestling this singular, specific and often very strange creative vision through a studio system increasingly hostile to anything a shade off from homogenous anonymity. But on the other hand I think his movies are stupid and boring, with this ret-conned trilogy-capper prompting a particularly egregious round of logy eye-rolling. When I told my friends what happens to Bruce Willis at the end of this picture none of them believed me.


You could throw this summer’s “Aladdin” in here as well, in so far as Disney’s joyless, weaponized nostalgia re-enactments don’t work as movies in their own right, but rather exist as a depressing form of corporate brand extension, sucking all the life, wonder and color out of beloved cartoon classics. The whole concept of this one confuses me. No expense has been spared to painstakingly mimic the fur patterns and limited movements of actual jungle cats, who I guess are supposed to look like real animals while they’re singing Elton John songs.

  1. CATS

Tom Hooper’s gaudy, guileless big-screen blow-up of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s gibberish Broadway perennial is already being hailed as a disaster of legendary proportions. The un-kitty valley CGI turning these mugging performers into “Island of Dr. Moreau” half-feline hybrids is deeply disturbing, with their monkey tails and the not-to-scale, super-sized sets making you wonder if anyone involved has even seen a cat before. This may sound like a kitsch classic, except remember the show is just the same scene over and over again and feels like it’s never going to fucking end.


The most mystifying of this year’s massive flops starred Natalie Portman in a puzzling adaptation of that tawdry 2007 tabloid tale about a NASA Space Shuttle Commander who wore adult diapers while trying to kidnap a co-worker. Prestige TV auteur Noah Hawley leaves out all the interesting, pulpy parts in favor of doom-laden, metaphysical free-associations and annoyingly ever-changing aspect ratios. Leering, sexist and over-directed within an inch of its life, the film wastes an unhinged Portman going full “Hee-Haw” on a movie where the meaning seems to escape its maker.


No movie in years has made me angrier than this cutesy-wutsey take on the Holocaust from writer-director Taika Waititi, who had the unmitigated gall to make an Anne Frank story with a happy ending. It turns out fascism is just a phase you’ll grow out of if you’re lucky enough to find a cool Jewish girlfriend in the cupboard. Gross in so many ways, it’s a movie made by and for those of an insulated and intensely arrested sensibility, processing atrocity via anachronistic in-jokes and audience-flattering asides. Watch it win the Oscar for Best Picture.

Over the past 20 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Dan’s 10 Best Films of 2019


by Daniel M. Kimmel

If you look at the ratings at Rotten Tomatoes, which includes the reviews here, it is near impossible for even the most popular film to score 100% and even the worst reviewed to get 0%. There are almost always minority views that are just as valid because these are opinions, not pronouncements. 2019 was a middling year at the movies and so my 10 Best are the ones that stayed in the memory at year’s end.

YESTERDAY – Richard Curtis, who wrote “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Love Actually,” came up with this endlessly inventive comedy of an aspiring musician who emerges from a coma to discover he’s in a world that has never known the Beatles. Instead of taking the easy way out (“It’s all a dream!”), the movie follows that premise in surprising ways.

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN – Edward Norton, wrote and directed, took film noir into 1950s New York as a detective with Tourette’s Syndrome trying to solve the murder of his boss. Harking back to movies like “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential,” it delves into the sins that created the modern city all the while evoking the era with stunning visuals and an evocative score by Daniel Pemberton.

THE IRISHMAN – Martin Scorsese presided over this gangster film reunion with Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino, with the actors doing some of their best work in years. This is a genre piece by people who helped define that genre over the past few decades and is as impressive in its way as what Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” did for the western.

LITTLE WOMEN – Did we really need yet another version of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel? Writer/director Greta Gerwig showed that we did in this beautifully mounted and acted adaptation. Amidst the bombast of other holiday season offerings, this film quietly showed itself to be the class of the field.

JOJO RABBIT – Filmmaker Taika Waititi brings a unique comic sensibility to this story of a young German boy trying to make sense of Nazi Germany while his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish woman. It’s a delicate balancing act that won’t work for everyone but manages to evoke both laughter and horror in the right places, with the director playing the boy’s imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler.

KNIVES OUT – The late film critic John Simon acerbically noted that movies ought to be art or else great entertainment. This comedy/mystery is very much in the latter category with a great ensemble cast involved in solving the murder of a wealthy writer (Christopher Plummer) tired of supporting his adult children. Oh, and Daniel Craig sings.

THE ART OF SELF DEFENSE – One of the year’s quirkiest films came and went quickly and isripe for discovery. Jesse Eisenberg plays a meek man who is viciously mugged and resolves to learn how to defend himself, falling under the sway of a charismatic martial arts teacher. As he progresses, he learns that not everything is as it seems. Like “JoJo Rabbit,” it’s not for every taste.

TOY STORY 4 – Pixar Animation has had some misfires, but they’re still in the forefront of American animation. After the perfection of the third film in the series, there was no reason to return to these characters, and yet they cleverly pulled it off with wit and the occasional tear along with Forky, easily the most unexpected animated hero of the year.

MIDSOMMAR – I was not taken by writer/director Ari Aster’s 2018 “Hereditary,” but his latest offering – while overlong and owing much to “The Wicker Man” – slowly draws the viewer into a world that is increasingly nightmarish, demonstrating that horror can take place in broad daylight. The cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski is dreamlike, beautiful to look at even while things spin out of control.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME – All right, there are too many superhero movies. There’s no gainsaying the achievement of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, however, in building its storyline over 16 years and multiple films, before finally bringing everything and everyone together in an exciting and satisfying conclusion. Not every entry was a success, but this one – featuring a final cameo by the late comic book legend Stan Lee – was a fitting capstone.

Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.






Review – Little Women

FILM REVIEWLITTLE WOMENWith Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Timothée Chalamet, Chris Cooper, Meryl Streep. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig. Rated PG for thematic elements and brief smoking. 134 minutes.

little_women_ver10LITTLE WOMEN, Louisa May Alcott’s novel about the four March sisters coming of age in mid-19th century New England, is a classic of popular literature and one that has inspired numerous adaptations for film and TV. Greta Gerwig’s new version is an impressive response to the question whether we really needed another one.

For those coming in fresh, the story centers on Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and their mother Marmee (Laura Dern), who are trying to keep the home fires buring while their father (Bob Odenkirk) is off at war. Each has their own story, with Jo wanting to be a writer, Meg falling in love, Amy wanting to paint, and Meg wanting to play the piano. Gerwig gives us insight into the characters by not presenting the narrative in a linear fashion but letting us see how the women they are becoming were formed in their childhood.

Money is tight in the March household, but Marmee teaches the girls that there are people far worse off than they and ought to help those less fortunate. In turn we see some of the wealthier people in their lives helping them, from the benevolent neighbor Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) to the sharp-tongued Aunt March (Meryl Streep), a wealthy widow who seems to determined to help one of the sisters… after a fashion.

While the film is gorgeous to look at, from the simple March household to some of the grander homes and locations, it is the finely-etched characters brought to life by a strong ensemble cast that ensures the film’s success. The four young actresses bring to life the four sisters in ways where each stands out in her own way and yet also provides able support for the others. Two of them (Ronan and Pugh) may find themselves on Oscar ballots, as will several of the veteran cast members. Streep, of course, is nearly always a delight to watch, but Dern and Cooper deliver performances that, coincidentally, are stark contrasts to their turns in other current films. Dern, playing the moral anchor to the March family, is also the ruthless divorce lawyer in “Marriage Story” while Cooper’s genial presence here is the mirror image of his father who abandoned his family in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”

Perhaps the reason “Little Women” has remained popular as a book and on screen, is that it presents a variety of role models of women making their way in the world in both traditional and non-traditional roles who do so without compromising their own values. Whether it’s the best version or not can be debated by others. What’s certain, though, is that this is simply the latest one and, most assuredly, not the last.

The Boston Society of Film Critics has named this the best film of 2019.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books including Jar Jar Binks Must Die. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker (Sean’s Take)

FILM REVIEWSTAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. With Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Ian McDiarmid. Written by Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action. 141 minutes.

There’s a story my mother loves to tell about when I was eight years old, coming home from a breathlessly anticipated outing with the neighborhood kids to see “Return of the Jedi.” Everyone else burst out of the station wagon, running around mimicking lightsaber fights and making pew-pew blaster noises while according to legend I glumly shrugged and said, “It was pretty good, I guess.” Looking back I think the then-final chapter of George Lucas’ beloved space opera was probably the first time I’d ever been disappointed in a movie, a feeling that as a “Star Wars” fan would grow to become something of a constant over the years.

J.J. Abrams’ STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER is yet another final installment of the Skywalker saga, by my count the third “last Star Wars movie” I’ve gone to see and this one’s not so much disappointing as it is actively, outright terrible. Nothing in this picture makes any sense. It’s got one of those insanely over-convoluted plots where everybody’s running to get a thing they need that tells them where to go to get some other thing they need (in this case, one of those glowing doohickeys apparently on loan from Disney’s Marvel division) and then when they get there somebody explains why what they were doing isn’t working so they have to go get something else– and it just all makes you long for clean lines, cause and effect, characters going from A to B. Like maybe, go rescue the princess from the space fortress and blow it up? Or perhaps, go to a planet full of teddy bears and turn off the deflector shield so you can blow up the replacement space fortress?

I really can’t explain what anybody was doing most of the time during “The Rise of Skywalker,” but we learn in the opening crawl that the ugly Emperor who Darth Vader threw down a hole in the Death Star right before it exploded 36 years and seven “Star Wars” movies ago is somehow still alive and well and also secretly responsible for the events of the previous two sequels. He instructs Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren to go kill Daisy Ridley’s fetching Jedi-in-training Rey, but the Emperor doesn’t really want him to kill her and anyway Kylo’s had kind of a crush on Rey ever since she slashed his face with a lightsaber a couple movies ago so this all gets pretty complicated, if not particularly edifying.

Meanwhile, what’s left of the Rebel Alliance (or the Resistance, as they’re now called) learns of an even bigger, crazier threat to the fate of the universe than anything they faced in the last two movies, so there’s a lot of running around and forced conviviality between Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn and Oscar Isaac’s Poe. The screenplay constantly makes a huge deal about what close friends these three have become over the course of all their exciting adventures together even though two of them didn’t meet until the final scene of the previous picture.

Competing for screen time are our old pals C-3P0, R2-D2, BB-8 and even Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian is back for this round. There are also several deeply unsettling scenes featuring the late Carrie Fisher, creepily cobbled together with digital trickery and unused footage from the earlier films. (Remember in “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” when Carl Reiner edited Steve Martin into scenes from old Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney movies? It’s something like that, only less convincing.) It grossed me out, to be honest, cutting and pasting lines Fisher delivered out of context and slapping them into scenes written years after her death. It feels to me like a violation of her integrity as an actress, inventing in the editing room a performance she never would have delivered in such a flat, disjointed fashion. (The eyelines don’t even match.)

As we’re watching a J.J. Abrams movie, all of this happens in an incredible hurry. The first hour of “The Rise of Skywalker” feels like it’s being played on fast-forward, our characters racing from planet to planet so quickly while randomly running into old friends so often that this galaxy far, far away feels smaller than the suburb I grew up in. Abrams can’t even be bothered with establishing shots, slamming you from one scene to the next in medium close-up medias res. The film boasts some fine production design and never once slows down for long enough to let you look at it. A lightsaber battle on a sea of roaring waves is the lone moment of visual grandeur, and even that’s cut far too quickly to appreciate the choreography.

The elephant in the room here is that they accidentally made a real movie last time. Say what you will about Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” – and if you spend any time online you know people haven’t shut up about it for the past two years – the movie took some big swings at challenging a viewer’s preconceptions and the subtext carried with it a sharp level of autocritique with regard to “the sacred Jedi texts,” et al. I think it’s a great work of popular art and one of the few franchise blockbusters worth taking seriously. So of course J.J. Abrams was brought back on board to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.

Just as Abrams’ “The Force Awakens” was a beat-for-beat remake of the 1977 “Star Wars” (we refuse to call it “A New Hope” in this household), “The Rise of Skywalker” eventually settles into such a “Return of the Jedi” redux it might as well end with cheap firecrackers and “Yub Nub,” plus the the added insult of walking back or outright erasing pretty much everything fanboys found threatening about Johnson’s film.

There’s a palpable petulance with which Abrams brings back that stupid “Spaceballs” helmet Kylo Ren smashed in his first scene of “The Last Jedi,” and the film’s dismissive sidelining of Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico feels particularly egregious given the way racist hordes of young male “fans” chased her off social media. Worst is that Abrams fatally undoes Johnson’s most promising revelation regarding Rey’s parentage, negating his idea that the Force belongs to everyone and not just semi-incestuous members of dynastic bloodlines. Alas we’re back to the monomyth again and old, tiresome prophecies about chosen ones who will bring balance and everyone in this entire universe is fucking related.

“The Last Jedi” tried to open up the world a little bit. However you may feel about the casino sequence – and I go back and forth on it—Johnson was at least trying to show us something new instead of just slavishly reenacting your favorite scenes from a movie you loved when you were a little kid. Following “The Last Jedi” by bringing back the Emperor is like when Sylvester Stallone looked at the miracle Ryan Coogler made with “Creed” and said, “Yo, let’s do it again with Dolph Lundgren!”

“The Rise of Skywalker” is a work of creative stasis and profoundly limited imagination. Eight-year-old future critics will probably spend the holidays smiling weakly and telling their moms “it was pretty good, I guess,” while the rest of us consider that it might finally be time to put away these childish things.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Dan’s Take)

FILM REVIEWSTAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKERWith Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, Ian McDiarmid, Oscar Isaac, Billy Dee Williams. Written by Chris Terrio & J.J. Abrams. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action. 141 minutes.

star_wars_the_rise_of_skywalker_ver2The release of the original “Star Wars” in May 1977 was a game-changer for moviegoers and for Hollywood. The release of STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, the final chapter of the nine-film “Skywalker Saga” entertains and will satisfy many fans, but will not linger in the memory. After the climax of Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame,” the stakes here seem a bit of a letdown. It’s unlikely that this is what was intended when George Lucas launched the enterprise more than 42 years ago.

During the opening crawl, we’re told that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) appears to be alive and is pulling the strings to crush the rebel Resistance. General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher in repurposed outtakes from the two previous films) has been training Rey (Daisy Ridley), who is soon out on a crucial mission with Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) along with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). It’s a bit of a shaggy dog story as they move from planet to planet, with only two plot points that matter.

First, Rey has to confront and resolve the psychic bond she has with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is in charge of the First Order, the successor to Darth Vader and the evil Empire in the earlier films. It takes up a lot of the film’s running time and makes little sense, even in terms of the fantasy world of the series. Second, we have to get to the final end of the war that has driven the series featuring both an epic space battle and a showdown with Palpatine.

None of the newer cast members have the panache of Fisher, Mark Hamill, or Harrison Ford from the original Trilogy, although Billy Dee Williams – reprising his role as Lando Calrissian from “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) – gives it a go. Ridley and Driver get to pout and brood and strike poses, but never fully engage us. A number of veterans of the series make appearances on screen or, in one scene, on the soundtrack. However, it is the use of Carrie Fisher here that proves to be a major flaw. Leia is a key figure in the series and Fisher was, arguably, irreplaceable, but the use of archival footage, CGI, and body doubles is awkward and obvious. In scenes where Leia is supposed to be speaking with other characters, we are reminded of her absence more than her presence.

Of course fans will want to see it, whether to embrace it or criticize it, but it’s not likely to lead to demands to continue the story of the surviving characters. More likely if “Star Wars” continues, it will be in one-off spinoffs like “Rogue One” (2016) or the current streaming series “The Mandalorian.” “The Rise of Skywalker” may not be the worst of the series, but there is this: with all the shout-outs to the previous films, at least there’s no sign of Jar Jar Binks.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books including Jar Jar Binks Must Die. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Cats

FILM REVIEWCATSWith Francesca Hayward, Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, Judi Dench, Robbie Fairchild. Written by Lee Hall, Tom Hooper. Directed by Tom Hooper. Rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor. 110 minutes.

cats_ver2If you turned off the soundtrack and only had to watch for a few minutes, then CATS might be hailed as a surreal, visually stunning movie. However, that’s not how things work. Based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (itself based on a series of poems by T. S. Eliot), “Cats” is a film that frequently makes you wonder “How did they do that?” – especially when you see the long list of special effects people credited at the end – and yet will only work for those willing to buy in to its rather odd premise.

The story, if it can be called that, involves Victoria (Francesca Hayward) – a cat abandoned by a seemingly cruel human – finding herself among a group of strays who call themselves the Jellicle cats. She meets a number of the other felines, including Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson), Mr. Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson), and Munkustrap (Robbie Fairchild). She learns that Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) is to make the annual pick of who will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and be reborn. The evil and magical Macavity (Idris Elba) wants it to be him and does what he can to take out the opposition.

While the makeup, costuming, sets, and special effects are quite imaginative, the “cats” are a peculiar mix of human and effects, with fur, and feline ears and tails, and yet human faces and hands. This leads to moments where you either suspend your disbelief or you laugh at the absurdity of the proceedings. When Ian McKellan shows up as Gus “the theater cat,” one is left wondering why the actor was convinced this was a role he wanted to tackle.

The casting is ambitious and impressive. Among those already mentioned, James Corden pops up as a fat cat named Bustopher Jones, providing an amusing vignette, while Jennifer Hudson – as a bedraggled alley cat named Grizabella – offers a heartfelt rendition of the show’s one notable song, “Memory,” while forced to play it with a runny nose. For Taylor Swift fans, there’s also her appearance as Bombalurina, which includes her singing a song written for the movie (“Beautiful Ghosts”) by her and Webber.

Director Tom Hooper has some interesting films in his credits, including “The King’s Speech,” but he is also responsible for one of the worst movie musical adaptations of recent years, 2012’s “Les Misérables.” It’s hard to say if the blame for this movie falls on him or on the stage musical, which ran for 18 years on Broadway. Fans of the show may well be willing to embrace this cinematic expansion. However, it’s unlikely to expand the potential audience for it, and this critic is both a lover of musicals and our feline friends.

“Cats” may not be the worst film of 2019, but it’s going to earn a spot on many 10 worst lists, and deservedly so.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.