by Marty Demarest

During the Discovery Channel-looking beginning of Halle Berry's new movie Catwoman, we learn that catwomen - women who dress like cats and have feline powers - have been with us throughout history. So when Berry's mousy character Patience Phillips is murdered to protect beauty-cream secrets, and then is granted superpowers from a CGI cat, we shouldn't be surprised.

What does come as a shock is how Berry and Sharon Stone (as the beauty-cream queen) are so willing to worship at the altar of trashy, flashy movies like Showgirls and Naked Killer. Forget plot and character -- there's no room for those in Catwoman. This is a movie about girls fighting.

Catwoman fearlessly adds to the tradition of shrieking, scratching female rivalries in film, and should give drag queens and dominatrixes work for a few more years. Berry amps up the diva-power as the bipolar Catwoman, but instead of relying on manly volume and thrust, she's ambiguous and wily with her hips and shoulders. Halle-Cat is a confident physical performance, and Berry should be proud.

Just as good is Stone, who proves she has what it takes to stretch a career out between Allan Quatermain and this. Assured in her poise and unafraid to milk it, Stone speaks so slowly and breathlessly that she ends up increasing her screen time just by saying things like "I'm a woman -- I'm used to doing all kinds of things I don't want to do."

As these two actresses begin orbiting each other, it becomes clear that Catwoman is designed primarily to bring Berry's cat mask and unstoppable ass into confrontation with Stone's Botox-frozen ice queen. The resultant catfight is not only a full-blown bitch fest with a throbbing bass-line, but it also manages to transcend the comic book's simplistic formula of black vs. white. Here, it's dusky-chocolate vs. ivory-cream, and Stone and Berry know enough to have as much fun with it as possible.

Getting in the way of all this is the man, Benjamin Bratt, as the cop who falls for Berry. (He likes Catwoman too, and doesn't initially know they're the same woman. Yawn.) Unfortunately, there is genuine chemistry between the two, and the movie is almost fatally sincere when it stops to develop their romance. At times, director Pitof undercuts this by cutting it out -- a sexy game of one-on-one basketball is chopped together to look like a perky breath-mints commercial. But the couples' conversations are unendurable -- nobody cares if he suspects she's Catwoman, so cut the subtlety. The main reason to see movies like this is to watch the ninjistics on display.

Perhaps what Catwoman does best is have fun. If we're going to have to watch a gorgeous, potent superhero walk into the horizon (and Hollywood seems to think we will), then I'd rather it was Berry. We don't need another comic book movie. We need something like this -- a chick ninja flick that cuts past the kicking and jumping and gets right to the posing.

Publication date: 07/29/04

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