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Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2004

Comic book spinoffs straight from hell


Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Pitof
Running time: 104 minutes
Language: English
Opens Nov. 5
[See Japan Times movie listings]


Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Running time: 132 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Catwoman may be a good choice for a Halloween costume, but it's a poor choice for actress Halle Berry, hot off an Oscar win for her role in "Monster's Ball." You can almost hear her agent telling her how she's got to "leverage" her Oscar to attain that even more concrete measure of Hollywood success: her very own franchise.

News photo
Halle Berry in "Catwoman"; Ron Perlman in "Hellboy" (C)2004 WARNER BROS. ENT. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED (C)2004 VILLAGE ROADSHOW FILMS (BVI) LIMITED
News photo

It might have sounded great on paper, but the onscreen results will rank among cinema's great career swan dives -- think Kevin Costner's "Waterworld" or Ben Affleck's and Jennifer Lopez's "Gigli" (yet to open in Japan, mercifully.) "Catwoman," a spin-off from the on-again/off-again "Batman" franchise, is about as likely to reach a sequel as an Austrian bodybuilder is to become President of the United States. (Then again . . . )

Catwoman has always been a sexual creature, the neither-good-nor-evil adversary of Batman who both tempts and taunts him. Surely for many TV-watching males of a certain age, the original Cat- woman of the Adam West series -- with her mask and slinky jumpsuit -- remains one of their earliest erotic fantasies. "Catwoman" plays to this angle even more, with Halle Berry wearing a costume of shredded leather and straps -- a fetishist's wet dream. And then there's her new weapon of choice: a long, cracking bullwhip.

"Catwoman" aims at its other demographic by employing that favored device of teen-girl movies: the makeover. This time around, mousey office drone Patience Philips (Berry) goes from long-flowing curls, hippie skirts and an eager-to-please submissiveness to short-cropped hair, bared midriff and catwalk swagger after she, um, dies and is brought back to life by a magic cat.

This certainly isn't "My Fair Lady." The new Patience finds fulfillment in her feline-fueled persona, which means not taking any crap from men, whether it's her obnoxious cosmetics company boss (Lambert Wilson), or her macho cop boyfriend (the remarkably bland Benjamin Bratt.)

"Catwoman" is crammed full of pseudo-psychobabble about "embracing your inner feline," but "embracing your inner dominatrix" is more like it. Patience finally finds happiness when she's able to put men in head scissors, handcuff them, whip them, leave bloody scratches on their faces and kick them in the balls while cooing "meow." That, by the way, is the film's idea of "a joke."

The film's plot involves an evil cosmetics company that's hooking women on products that will leave them disfigured if they stop using them. This hints at a critique of the beauty industry (Sharon Stone appears as the company's embittered top model, snarling how "I turned 40 and they threw me away"), but it only goes so far when your heroine is Halle Berry, whose career started looking up when she began showing off her curves in skimpy outfits.

But self-reflective this film is not. "I was supposed to be an artist now, but here I was, still designing ads," moans Patience as she toils in her office cubicle. For director Pitof, a longtime French director of commercials making his Hollywood debut, the irony was obviously lost.

There are essentially only two types of comic-book movies, and I don't mean D.C. and Marvel. There are the ones helmed by former indie directors -- Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man," Bryan Singer's "X-Men" -- and then there are the ones directed by unabashedly mainstream directors, which the critics regard like something scraped off the bottom of their shoe.

"Catwoman" fell into that latter category. Yet many who savaged that film found much to like in "Hellboy," another comic-book adaptation, but one that was directed by Guillermo del Toro, who -- surprise, surprise -- had an indie hit with "Chronos" back in 1992. "2004's smartest comic-book adaptation," crowed one film periodical, but try though I may, I could find nothing "smart" about a film in which the hero's jokey, oft-repeated tagline is "Oh, crap."

More damning is that there's nothing unique about this tale of a demon living among humanity and working for the U.S. government to battle the "evil ones": Nazis, Rasputin, biblical demons and John Kerry.

The entire movie seems like a lame mish-mash of bits from other, better flicks. You've got a fishman, who looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon and talks like C3PO; a "Men in Black"-ish Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense; Nazis trying to invoke demons as in "Indiana Jones"; a crumbling stone bridge straight out of the Mines of Moria in "Lord of the Rings"; and, yet again, the old "Alien" trick of having a horrible little reptilian creature emerge from a character's belly.

The scene where Hellboy (Ron Perlman, cinema's most lovable ogre) battles a tentacled demon through the city subway line brought on a strong sensation of deja vu. (Perhaps my memory was wiped by the Men in Black.) As I write this, I'm trying to recall the flick's final apocalyptic battle, but I'm not sure if what I'm remembering is actually from "Hellboy" or from "Tomb Raider," watched in a stupor on TV a few weeks back, or from "Sky Captain," which I saw all of two days ago.

If you've seen one gazillion-dollar, CG-rendered orgy of explosions, monsters and oversized weaponry, I guess you've seen them all.

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