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Photograph by Doane Gregory

On Top of the World: Catwoman (Halle Berry) surveys her non-Gotham domain.


Halle Berry as the feline avenger Catwoman—at least she doesn't sing 'Memory'

By Richard von Busack

PATIENCE PHILLIPS (Halle Berry) is a thwarted artist doing commercial illustration at a cosmetics company as Catwoman begins. She is abused by her boss (Lambert Wilson, the bad actor who played the Merovingian in The Matrix), whose scorned wife, Laurel (Sharon Stone), is about to be replaced by a younger and trophier model. Late one night, Patience stumbles on the news that the company's latest beauty cream, Beau-Line, is actually an addictive, corrosive substance that leaves scars.

Our heroine is flushed into the harbor by gun-wielding corporate thugs and washes up on a rock, where she's resurrected by a badly computer animated cat, in the manner last seen in Batman Returns.

Later, Patience encounters professor Ophelia Powers (Frances Conroy, the matriarch in Six Feet Under), an expert on the secret mog-cult that has existed through history. She explains that Patience has been infused with the divine power of Bast, the Egyptian cat goddess. Now Patience is a catwoman outside society's rules. She is also in no danger from Batman, since the immortal comic-book courtship has been shredded in the name of reinvention. Pity. Or rather, Pitof.

Name Lubitsch, Wagner, Prince or even Zamfir, and you're naming artists who earned their way into their respective Pantheons. The director of Catwoman is called Pitof, and the name doesn’t suggest a bold new talent impressing the world with two mighty syllables. What's implied instead is a guy who greets houseguests dressed in a cape and holding a candelabra.

Pitof was the second-unit director on Alien: Resurrection and is a visual-effects technician known in France for his commercials. Catwoman looks like a series of commercials for the movie we were going to see, especially in a section where Patience plays a game of one-on-one basketball with the cop who intrigues her, Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt). As directed by Pitof, you can't see the players, the tactics, the worshipful kids or even the ball. In an action scene where a carnival Ferris wheel breaks down, you can barely tell where the wheel is. The first revelation of Patience's catlike agility is brutally crosscut with the other half of a telephone conversation Patience is having with her best friend (Alex Borstein). The latter keeps sighing about what a hunk Detective Lone is, over and over again. This praise of the lead's hunkiness is an old sign in the movies. You're really hearing the voices of the filmmakers trying to reassure themselves.

The same tactics that make a TV commercial blast itself into your cortex make Catwoman easy to ignore. Surely, one thing that makes cats fascinating is the way they spring from deepest repose into frenzied action. Pitof, uncomfortable with the repose part, treats the romance dispassionately. Heavy computer toasting makes everything look as if it had been given thick coating of Saran wrap and then a digital filming under ecology-friendly light bulbs. The virtual city (it's not Gotham) looks like an ambitious HO-scale-model railroad set. The graphics are flat, and the cruel white highlights make the faces look chalky and pasty. The cast all appear to be survivors of a burn ward, even those who haven't tried Beau-Line. After the seamless use of color and computer animation in Spider-Man 2, Catwoman looks particularly visually shopworn; nothing looks as last year as last decade’s graphics.

Catwoman (PG-13; 90 min.), directed by Pitof, written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris and photographed by Thierry Arbogast and starring Halle Berry, Sharon Stone and Benjamin Bratt, plays valleywide.

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Web extra to the July 21-27, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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