Combustible Celluloid
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With: Halle Berry, Benjamin Bratt, Sharon Stone, Alex Borstein, Lambert Wilson, Frances Conroy
Written by: John Brancato, Michael Ferris, John Rogers and Theresa Rebeck, based on characters created by Bob Kane
Directed by: Pitof
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for action violence and some sensuality
Running Time: 104
Date: 07/19/2004

Catwoman (2004)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Tall Tail

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Early production stills from the new Catwoman film revealed thatthe heroine (played by Halle Berry) wears spiky stiletto heels alongwith her skimpy, black leather costume. At first that might seem like abad idea, incredibly problematic for someone who prowls around townclimbing up and down the sides of buildings and jumping across rooftops.

But the master plan is revealed; the shoes make Catwoman walk in a much more sensually feline way, swinging hypnotically from side to side and stopping everyone -- male and female -- in their tracks. It's probably not quite what Women's Lib had in mind, but it'll do.

Directed by the French visual effects man Pitof (Alien: Resurrection), Catwoman lays its cards down early; this is going to be silly fun. Batman never even turns up to ruin Catwoman's playtime.

No longer Selina Kyle, our feline friend is now called Patience Philips, a shy, skittish graphic designer for a cosmetics company. While delivering her latest drawings to a spooky warehouse late at night, she stumbles across the company's evil plan: to distribute an anti-aging cream with horrifying side effects.

Discovered, she's chased away, shot at and left for dead. But a special Egyptian cat breathes in her face (shades of bad tuna breath!) and brings her back to life, albeit with new and astounding cat powers.

This leaves her free to wreak revenge on her former boss (Lambert Wilson) and his ex-spokesmodel wife Laurel (Sharon Stone). Unfortunately, the handsome cop she has just begun dating (Benjamin Bratt) thinks she's guilty of murder.

Berry and Pitof take a cue from Michelle Pfeiffer's delicious turn in 1992's Batman Returns, emphasizing our heroine's sheer joy of movement, but making her less psychotic and more confused. Berry looks like a million bucks throughout, either with or without her kinky cat ears and sex goddess makeup. She's alluringly unattainable.

Aided by Spider-Man-like CGI, Catwoman springs all around this ultra-modern, but darkly cartoonish city, and it's a thing of beauty. Cinematographer Thierry Arbogast (The Fifth Element) keeps the action spectacularly clear, even if the editing sometimes flip-flops faster than you can blink.

Stone has perhaps her best role since Casino, as the bitchy, sullen drama queen who stops at nothing in her fight against wrinkles. The movie even unleashes a very funny surprise having to do with her skin and her years of beauty product applications.

Most of the film's odd humor may be unintentional, but that only adds camp value. Indeed, the spirit of John Waters might have been hovering over the proceedings. In one scene, a wrongly accused Patience sits in a jail cell when a cat friend comes to visit. "If you were Lassie, you would have brought me a key," she deadpans. Could one of the four writers be a cat-hater? That might explain some of the film's tone.

A throbbing, techno-ish score only serves to throw Catwoman even further left of center; it feels at times like an icy Paris fashion show in which a smile or an ounce of cellulite could crack the foundations.

Completing the mood, Frances Conroy ("Six Feet Under") plays a crazy cat-lady who helps explain Patience's new powers, and Alex Borstein (The Lizzie McGuire Movie) portrays Patience's goofy best friend. Not to be suckered by such a role, the very funny Borstein injects bits of her own sardonic humor into the film, and by sheer force of will her character lands a hunky sex object of her own.

Advance buzz on Catwoman warned that we should get ready for a bomb. But this hilarious, sexy, exciting farce is instead so consistently surprising and dazzling that I'm still not sure if it's a good-bad movie or a good-good movie. But I can't wait to see it again.

DVD Details: Warner Home Video's DVD is of excellent quality, and contains at least one cool feature: a 30-minute history of the Catwoman, similar to the story I did for the Oakland Tribune. Eartha Kitt hosts, and other Catwomen such as Julie Newmar and Lee Meriwether appear. Michelle Pfeiffer's footage comes from the older, 1992 Batman Returns promotional material. Otherwise, we get a brief making-of featurette, deleted scenes including an alternate ending, and DVD-Rom features that I couldn't access on my Mac.

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