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Catwoman (2004)
Director: Pitov

review by Jeff Young

Can Halle Berry really act? Hey, don't laugh or shrug now; it's an extremely serious question when the success of a whole film depends on her central performance. Berry was feeble as weather-witch Storm in two X-Men films, and she nearly sunk the Bond franchise single-handedly with her (aptly named!) Jinx character in Die Another Day. She's a lightweight, unexceptional actress with a wholly uneven track record, who seems best suited to TV work, not Hollywood studio features. Monster's Ball (2001), for which Berry won a 'best actress' Oscar, looks increasingly like a fluke nowadays.

The plot is depressingly ordinary. Failed artist Patience Phillips struggles to meet the deadline for advertising designs at her employer's cosmetics' company, where corporate boss Hedare (Lambert Wilson, typecast from the Matrix sequels) is eager to launch a new 'face-cream', despite scientific evidence that it will leave women with horrific scars after prolonged use. Patience stumbles into a secret meeting's revelations about the anti-aging product's toxic effects and gets herself 'killed' by a couple of henchmen. Resurrected by an apparently magical Egyptian cat - actually the favoured pet of obsessive pseudo-historian Ophelia (Frances Conroy) - the perplexed Patience soon finds that she has mysteriously acquired cat-like agility and enhanced senses. After a brief dalliance with sympathetic cop Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt), Patience drops her dowdy act, turns rebelliously skittish and reluctantly embraces her wild side (gatecrashing a party, stealing a motorcycle), to become a vigilante heroine, embarking on a salutary mission to rage against her noisy neighbours, 'catty' office politics, the unscrupulous makers of vanity products, deplorable social discrimination, and whatever else seems appropriate for such an overtly post-feminist icon as 'Catwoman'. For a superhero flick that's only supposed to be a straightforward piece of kitsch-comedy fun, this is one costumed actioner that persistently takes itself far too seriously.

Despite absurdly lavish praise from the likes of James Cameron-Wilson, Catwoman is derivative nonsense. A basketball sequence borrows from a similar 'duel' in Daredevil, while CGI acrobatics over the unnamed city's rooftops mimic Spider-Man. Overall, the characterisation of Catwoman is quite inferior to the memorable star turn by Michelle Pfeiffer (as Selena Kyle, the much preferred identity, I think) in Batman Returns (1992). Stitched into her homemade dominatrix costume, the luscious Ms Pfeiffer's Catwoman exuded sexuality, of course, but despite her version's lack of real superpowers, she was also to be considered dangerous. At least, more so than the irritating Berry's simpering purr and exaggerated prancing about. Inadequate by comparison, Berry's Catwoman is less a figure of 'fun' than a figure to make fun of and, unfortunately, the actress makes criticism of her role-playing very easy. Ludicrously unconvincing dialogue is another of this film's unforgivable faults. Berry just can't get the hang of throwaway comicbook lines and here (as in the X-Men) she attempts to express each tawdry quip as if it were Shakespeare.

The saving grace of Catwoman is Sharon Stone, and my review's one-star rating is entirely for her. As Hedare's twice-scorned and vengefully scheming wife, Laurel, Stone is entertaining because she goes daringly over-the-top, chewing up the scenery, despite being lumbered with speeches that are already horrendously bad clich�s. She does all this with tremendous verve and style, and manages to steal every scene that she's in. Stone wallows in her larger-than-life role as the mature yet bitchy Laurel, an 'invulnerable' villainess, and - somewhat ironically - she brings more youthful energy to the confrontational set pieces than Berry's ostensibly sexualised (pouty and hip-wiggling in bra top and leather gear), upstart heroine, who is embarrassingly weak and superficial in contrast. Perhaps they should have re-titled this 'Cat-girly'. If you want to see a better, TV science fiction, version of a superheroine with feline abilities, I recommend the DVD boxsets of Dark Angel.

By itself, Catwoman is clearly an insignificant movie, but its failure to entertain the genre audience may result in dire consequences for future comicbook adaptations.
Catwoman

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