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Published: Friday, 7/23/2004

Movie review: Catwoman *

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Meow. Cough.

Choke.

Ack.

ACK-ACK-ACK!

Pardon me. Hairball. (Ack.)

I've heard stories of mean people burdened by their cats who simply give up, throw their hands in the air, throw their cats in a sack, tramp down to the river, throw the sack in the water, and wash their hands of all of the felines in their lives.

Until I witnessed Catwoman, though, I'd never felt this urge myself. You know you're entering the dog (or, I should say, cat) house of the summer movie season when a studio has a major prospect lined up and sells it like cheap perfume. Warner has Catwoman, an action-adventure-superhero franchise adapted from a beloved comic-book character, one who comes complete with a teasing and kinky leather S&M suit worn by a memorable line of game actresses, from Julie Newmar to Eartha Kitt to Michelle Pfeiffer; a character remembered fondly by generations, now handed down to an inspired choice - Academy Award-winning Halle Berry.

Sounds great on paper - a promising excuse to throw the campiness back into our superheroes. Maybe even build on what Hollywood's learned about emotional resonance from Sam Raimi's Spider-Man pictures, only do it for a woman this time. And when you're not rolling your eyes at how garish and ugly this whole pedestrian movie-by-committee looks - imagine a nightclub full of metal railings and mirrored walls, badly lit - there is a glimmer of an idea about female empowerment and sexuality and even inner beauty.

But you know you're in the cat days of summer, though, when you have all of that - not to mention, a feline crime fighter known for provocatively playing both sides of the superhero-supervillain divide, and for flirting with Batman, her on-again, off-again dark knight (both of whom were created by DC Comic's Bob Kane) - and the movie's marketing reduces it all to a single desperate come-on:

An Oscar winner on all fours.

A sweaty air of sleaze has hung over this production since the first pictures of that shredded, trying-too-hard Catwoman suit began appearing in magazines. Berry was a smart choice anyway: She cocks her hips, swings her midriff forward, tips her head to one side, overplays her purr-fectly awful dialogue, glides across the backs of sofas with the uncanny gracefulness of a feline. She's so much fun here she deserves a real filmmaker. The director is a French TV director and special-effects guru of the single-named variety: He is Pitof. Just Pitof. And his Catwoman is not of the Selina Kyle variety, the character's real identity; there is no Batman, no

Robin. Not even a Gotham.

Hearts sank at such details.

The reality is far worse. You don't earn the pretension of being a one-name filmmaker when your films are this empty of personality and devoid of charm; when your cast mistakes a comic book with cartoon acting; when you're a special-effects man who makes a fetish out of unconvincing computer-animated trickery; when your city is a generic CGI fly-over metropolis that the camera pans across like an architect's Power Point presentation; when your Catwoman, for reasons known only to her mystical Egyptian kitten ancestors, can shoot like Kobe and slam like Shaquille.

Now that scene is worth a look: Only 24 hours before, Patience (Berry), one of those mousy, timid movie underlings who also happens to look like Halle Berry, stumbles on the awful truth about a cold cream her employer is developing. The owner's wife is Sharon Stone, so cosmetically altered her skin is literally marble hard. We learn this late in the picture: She has had so much work done, she cannot be hurt. Only that's not played for laughs. (And I'm serious.)

Patience is killed for knowing too much. She washes up in a marsh and kittens breathe fresh life into her, giving feline powers, which include dribbling and cutting her hair with two scissors at once. Her love interest is detective Tom Lone (Benjamin Bratt), possibly the only cop in town, certainly the dumbest: he has sex with her, yet can't recognize her behind her pointy-eared cat mask, then can't decide if her handwriting matches Catwoman's handwriting ("Bring in the supercomputers"), then doesn't connect the dots even when she wants to eat sushi every night.

Superhero movies, like superhero comics, at their best, capture the grand inner life of pulp fiction. Themes of alienation and duality. Doing right when your own self-interest is at stake. Catwoman doesn't have a world to save. Or even a city. She is trying to stop the release of a cosmetics line. Or something. When a mystical cat lady explains her new powers, Catwoman is stunned. "You are a cat woman," the cat lady says. "Accept it."

To which, Catwoman, like us, appears to ask herself:

"OK. Now what?"

Spider-Man would've asked.

Catwoman coughs a hairball.



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