Cats 2019 ***

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Can we retire, or look for alternative phrases to describe, the phrase computer generated effects? Because it’s not computers that generate the uncanny look that ruins movies, it’s the people who operate the computers. Tom Hooper’s film of Cats has attracted a circle-jerk of critics keen to put the boot into one of his film version of one of musical theatre’s most venerable properties; aside from some regrettable uses of CGI, it’s pretty much exactly what any film of Cats would be expected to be like.

Without making any great claims for Hooper’s film, the people who hate this film wouldn’t have liked it if Christopher Nolan and Greta Gerwig had co-directed it; Cats is what it is, a twee slice of 1970’s musical theatre. One of the obvious reasons that Cats has not been filmed before is the lack of narrative; taking a cue from TS Eliot, the action of cats is really just a slew of famous people dressed as cats of different characters, introducing themselves and then vanishing.

Old-stagers like Judi Dench and Ian McKellern just about make their sections work, young bucks like James Corden and Rebel Wilson make fools of themselves; without a story to preoccupy us, there’s a train-wreck fascination about watching confident performers like Jason Derulo so far from their comfort zone. In terms of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score, Jennifer Hudson does well with the show-stopper Memory, but there’s three or four decent tunes here, with Magical Mister Mistoffelees landing well. And while celebrity casualties include Idris Elba and Ray Winstone, who deservedly crash and burn squarely with their genuinely awful work here, Taylor Swift really dominates the screen in her bit, and suggests that she could be a real musical-theatre star if the pop-star gig doesn’t work out for her.

Cats is something of a freak-show, but it probably doesn’t deserve to the butt of every joke. It’s a straight, reverential adaptation of a well-loved property that will appeal to and satisfy fans of the music. Rather than polish off their strained cat-based puns, critics might be better to let this kind of thing live-and-let-live; it’s a random collection of stars performing a random collection of songs in weird make-up. There’s a place for such a film, and it’s likely to be gifted and re-gifted between elderly relatives for many Christmases to come. But watching Jennifer Hudson perform Memory, it’s hard not to be distracted by her having a massive hairy torso like Geoff Capes. Perhaps the real problem for any film of Cats is that it puts the audience too close to the stage, as some things look better from the back of the dress circle.

Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties 2004 ****

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‘I’m not doing the ugly American thing,’ says Garfield (Bill Murray) in this souped-up sequel to 2004’s pretty awful Garfield, which takes the feline sour-puss off in a much more plot-driven direction and generates a good few laughs in the process. As the title suggests, Tim Hill’s film used Charles Dickens as a jumping off point, although The Prince and the Pauper’s dual protagonist is also a clear inspiration. Garfield stows away with his doggy-pal Odie when his own heads to London on holiday, but unknown to them, lookalike Prince (voiced by Tim Curry) has been exiled from his castle after inheriting it; the nefarious Lord Manfred Dargis (Billy Connolly) is responsible. When Garfield meets Prince, predictable music-hall mirror gags abide, but there’s also plenty of life in the minor characters, with Ian Abercrombie, Roger Rees and Lucy Davis all having a laugh. A Tale of Two Kitties was less than enthusiastically received in 2004, but it looks much brighter in the light of cheap imitations like The Queen’s Corgi; predicable gags like Garfield getting chased by palace guards while shouting ‘The British are coming!’ or Garfield’s doppelganger saying ‘I used to be formerly known as Prince’ hit exactly the right spot. And the perennially underused Connolly shines in a role presumably intended for, and rejected by John Cleese; the Glasgow comic throws himself into the role of thwarted wannabe aristocrat with genuine glee.

Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have The Key 1972 ****

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Also known as Gently Before She Dies, or Eye of the Black Cat aka Excite Me!, Sergio Martino’s giallo is an original and untypical affair that lifts elements from Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Black Cat, but also has a unique angle of its own. A Cat Called Satan would be an accurate title, since a moggy with that name as a pivotal role here; genre favourites Edwige Fenech and Luigi Pistilli star here; he’s Oliviero, an author who hasn’t written a word for years and makes money by selling off the antique furniture in his country pile with his wife Irina (Anita Strinberg) who he likes to humiliate at their regular orgies. After one of his students his murdered, and then his maid, Oliviero becomes an obvious suspect, but is he gas-lighting his wife or vice versa? His niece Floriana (Fenech) picks an odd time for a social visit, and it proves the catalyst for all manner of sexual and violent behaviour, with Satan included in the domino effect of killings, mutilations and seductions. Cream seems to be a theme, and choice cream-related dialogue includes ‘Hey, hot potato, got any cream in your tricycle? ‘ and ‘Satan’s favourite meal is snake-eyes and cream!’; this is a wonderfully lurid, pervy and overheated melodrama that’s constantly surprising. The magic of streaming is that films like this used to be incredibly hard to find and see, often in poor condition. That a potentially huge audience can see this, at the cost of a couple of free subscriptions, promises that such outré fare might just make a mainstream impact again, for the first time since it was made. Viewed on the Arrow Video Channel.

Emma Peeters 2018 ****

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Difficulty level 10 would be a fair assessment of the suicide comedy; most film-makers struggle to raise laughs, never mind find humour in the most mordant of subjects. Even Billy Wilder’s Buddy Buddy was a misfire. To pull this particular sword from the stone, step forward Nicole Palo, a writer/director who hasn’t made a film in ten years and yet conjures up something of a miracle with Emma Peeters, a Belgian/Canadian co-production filmed in Belleville with French dialogue. That’s not something that should put casual viewers off; Palo’s film has a unique and accessible storyline and engaging characters; as it makes its way onto the festival circuit, it would be a great pick up for distributors or streaming services alike. Emma Peeters (Monia Chokri) is an actress, fed up and a few days short of her 35th birthday. Fearing her career is over, and embarrassed by being constantly recognised for a detergent commercial, Emma decides to kill herself, but strikes up an unusual relationship with Alex (Fabrice Adde) the local funeral-director. He’s happy to help her, as he sees ending your life to be an act of free will, but as their friendship blossoms, it’s clear that Emma’s goal is increasingly in doubt. Despite the dark subject, Emma Peeters is a bright, clever and sharply-observed comedy; a scene in which Emma’s parents misunderstand that Alex is helping her plan a holiday is perfectly handled. And the intervention of a cat named Jim also proves crucial to the feel-good ending; Palo’s film has some of the button-cuteness that audiences loved in Amilie, but it’s harnessed to a very different subject. Chokri and Abbe are great together, he’s got a hangdog Jermaine Clement style that matches her off-kilter energy, and the film has a genuinely romantic streak. Emma Peeters not only deals with suicide, but getting old and feeling lonely; to turn such subjects into an assured comedy is alchemy of the highest order.

The Uncanny 1977 ***

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The name of director Dennis Heroux may not be well-known in horror circles; the presence of producer Milton Subotsky (Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror) indicates the real driving force behind this off-beat portmanteau thriller. Peter Cushing is writer Wilbur Gray, who dons his spectacles and carries his manuscript round to publisher (Ray Milland). Gray unfolds three tales involving feline horror to prove this thesis that household moggies are the devil in disguise. Another entry in the rare cat-spolitation genre (Eye of the Cat, Persecution), The Uncanny has some neat work from Donald Pleasance as moustachioed Hollywood actor Valentine De’ath, and genre favourites such as Susan Penhaligon as a maid who battles cats to get at her employer’s will. Best of all is the wrap-around, with Cushing amusingly pussy-whipped as the mild-mannered exposer of the cat conspiracy. Surprisingly graphic in places, The Uncanny is an enjoyably silly entry in the horror canon.