Catwoman (2004)

CapeTentHalf a tent

Okay, Halle Berry has a damn Best Actress oscar on her mantle, so why is almost every role she takes in something dumb and trashy? Here the Bat-villain who started out as a simple cat burglar (yup) becomes a vigilante anti-heroine. In a costume that shows off plenty more skin, which really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for someone who plans on getting into fights. My prediction before the release was: a major case of Madonna Syndrome, just as was the case when Michelle Pfeiffer played the role — I figured you were going to hear a lot of people saying “My girlfriend made me see it.”

As it turned out, nobody made anybody see it. Too many people heard advance rumors that it stank like cat shit.

Given how negative the word of mouth was, I was actually pleasantly surprised by how the movie, in several ways, didn’t suck all that bad. Halle Berry’s acting, for instance, is pretty good... a considerably better job than she did in the otherwise far superior X-Men movies. Since she’s now threatening to drop out of that series on the grounds that her character gets too little story, I guess the moral is: never offer Halle a mere supporting role.

Her performance is very physical, even in the early scenes where she isn’t superpowerized yet. And that section is actually the best part of the film. Once she’s transformed by a Freak Accident involving radioactive sludge... I mean, by industrial waste from a cosmetics factory... I mean, by ancient Egyptian cat-goddess magic... well, that’s when the movie buys an excursion ticket on the Stupid Express.

Speaking of physical acting, Berry’s athleticism on screen is indeed quite remarkable. A lot of fight moves that other actors would rely on either a stunt double or a wire harness to do, she is really doing herself. And then the chump-ass bozo director, “Pitof”, fucking ruins that authenticity by intercutting different viewpoints every two seconds, which makes every single move look as if it’s being cheaply faked. He’s one of those music-video losers who figures that just showing something happening is never exciting enough; you always have to pump it up with extra visual noise. (In this he’s completely the opposite of, say, M. Night Shyamalan, who is never afraid to use long takes with just one static camera, and place complete trust in the actors to keep the audience interested.) And he sucks at maintaining continuity between these little cuts — doesn’t care, or thinks it’s cool not to. The end result: Berry sometimes looks more badass and dangerous in the making-of footage than she does in the real movie! Pitof is a terrible director. He out-awfuls even Joel Schumacher by a wide margin. Berry is the movie’s best strength, and Pitof is its worst weakness. And that’s saying something, next to the weaknesses in the script.

I won’t go into the dumbth of the story in any detail... it’s entirely on a comic-book level, especially the bad guys, one of whom is Sharon Stone. She handles her part fairly well... I doubt the role has room in it for much better than she gave it.

Is the movie as cheesy and pinup-y and fetishy as it looks in the ads? Not overall, though some scenes are certainly as bad as you might guess. It makes up for this, however, by being even dumber and flashier and music-video-ier than it looks in the ads. There are plenty of model-strut costume showoff scenes, some involving gratuitous use of disco, and also plenty of razzly-dazzly colors, often photographed with lots of motion smear for that neo-sixties light show look.

All through the film, there’s this close intermix of the convincingly authentic and the laughably corny... like, at first Berry does a remarkable job of conveying her unexpected new instincts with very cat-like moves, and then later her caracterization degenerates into the most eye-rollingly dorky Eartha Kitt “g-r-r-r-r-a-a-o-w” cliché cat-fatale dialogue. As campy as Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance was, this one sometimes gets far worse. (The two movies have producer Denise DiNovi in common, by the way.) It’s like that throughout: every particular thing they do right in one scene, they manage to screw up in another. Another example: there’s a nice scene that shows her absently pacing around her apartment while talking on the phone, balancing along the backs and armrests of pieces of furniture as if it were as easy as a sidewalk... and later, dorky magical moves where there’s no explanation of how she vanished here and appeared there other than assuming that Scotty beamed her through a wall.

Something has to be said about the CGI in this movie. They use a lot of it, even for mundane cityscapes. And they use it to show Catwoman leaping up and down the walls like Spider-Man, which is cool in theory but has nothing to do with cat-hood, and is totally beyond what any actual feline could manage. Any one still from these scenes would look like the real Halle Berry, but the moving version is never convincing. The trouble with CGI is, it’s fairly easy to make something that’s almost good, but to get it over that last hump to the point where it’s truly good takes far more time and work that the almost-good version does. It gets to be a very slow, expensive, nit-picking process, demanding great skill and patience. An arguably minor decrease in quality creates major cost savings. But that “minor” decrease is what makes all the difference in whether it truly convinces the eye. Few are willing to budget that last painstaking stage.

That said, most large- or even medium-budged movies nowadays manage to do better with their CGI than this one did. When they bring a CGI cat on screen, it looks completely like its fur is made of nylon.

The worst misuse of CGI is when they actually use it for the closing model-strut. Which is why Halle’s hips seem to move rather inhumanly too far from side to side, I believe... that’s probably not her real ass.

Still, the movie was better than I was expecting.

UPDATE: Halle Berry won the Worst Actress Razzie for this role, and actually accepted the award personally, which no previous Worst Actor or Actress winner has done. In her acceptance speech, she said “I have so many people to thank, because you don’t win a Razzie without a lot of help from others.” She thanked everyone: “Warner Bros... for putting me in a piece of shit godawful movie” — the Razzie crowd cheered big at this point — and Pitof for giving directions on the set in a thick accent that she couldn’t understand, and her manager, to whom she said “Next time, read the script”, and her fellow cast members, of whom she said “In order to give a really bad performance like I did, you have to have a lot of bad actors around you.” To make this speech even better, she did the opening part crying her eyes out like she did when getting the Oscar. Just because she could. (And holding her Oscar in her other hand!)

Her description of this as a “piece of shit godawful movie” is certainly deserved, but as I’ve said, I don’t think her performance was what made it so, and I’d say the Razzie is not deserved. But it’s cool that they awarded it to someone who could truly join into the Razzie spirit.