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Dark Sky Films // Unrated // April 25, 2017
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted May 6, 2017 | E-mail the Author
There are two potentially great movies in the premise of Catfight. One is a pitch-black and brutal slapstick comedy about two women who just hate each other's guts. The other is a satire in which the two women's ongoing battle represents some sort deeper metaphor about conflict. While Catfight is frequently very funny, even featuring fleeting glimpses of deranged brilliance, the film never quite finds a clear path within the two possibilities.

The two women in question are Ashley (Anne Heche) and Veronica (Sandra Oh). Briefly friends before a vaguely-defined falling out in college (which may have been caused by Veronica's discovery that Ashley is a lesbian), they reconnect years later in wildly different circumstances: Veronica's husband, Stanley (Damian Young) is celebrating the closure of a contract which will make his company billions off an impending war in the Middle East, and Ashley and her girlfriend Lisa (Alicia Silverstone) are the catering staff. Veronica's getting drunk and rebuked by her husband, and Ashley, a struggling artist whose work is explicitly left-leaning, can hardly stand to listen to a room full of old white men gloating about their war profiteering. Then they notice each other, and things go downhill in a hurry, resulting in a brutal fight in a stairwell that is as bloody and unrelenting as it is outrageously funny.

Without giving away too much of what happens next, writer/director Onur Tukel then sets up a structure that clearly splits the film into three segments. The second segment, which plays off the first, is unpredictable cartoon brilliance. To ruin its surprises would be a crime, so all I'll say is that it kicks off with what is arguably the best scene in the movie, a scene in a hospital room which orchestrates a perfect comedic symphony between the absurdity of the situation and the cast firing on all cylinders. This includes not just Oh's best work in the film (watch her shift from laughing to crying on a dime while maintaining a tone of catharsis), but also Dylan Baker in a small but knockout supporting role as a doctor (he practically steals the movie away by being in maybe five to ten minutes while still scoring some of its biggest laughs) and Myra Lucretia Taylor as Veronica's housekeeper Donna. There's also a great follow-up scene featuring "Kimmy Schmidt" star Tituss Burgess as a nurse. The sequence then builds from the ground up to the movie's second fight, a scene set in a gallery show of Ashley's protest artwork. The moment they spot each other in the gallery is such a perfect culmination of everything that's come before it, the viewer prepares for another leap in wit and invention as it segues into the third and final chapter.

Unfortunately, it's during this transition that the movie starts to drift, dragging the second fight out just a bit too long without much in the way of stylistic or comedic innovation compared to the original or even within the itself. Instead of a second wild departure, the scene kicking off the third chapter is an echo of the second, which takes some of the luster off (even if Baker, making a second appearance, is still incredible, and Heche is no slouch with the reactions herself). Throughout the first two segments, there are signs that Tukel's satirical targets tend toward the obvious (although a second-chapter sequence where Silverstone willingly takes shots at her own obsessive parenting advice is daring on his part for suggesting it and admirable on hers for committing to it), especially the ongoing presence of a late-night show where the host's (Craig Bierko) comments on the movie's Middle East conflict inevitably give way to "the fart machine", which every character except the protagonists thinks is hilarious. To be fair, subtlety doesn't seem to be Tukel's aim, but it does feel like he's only scratching the surface in terms of what Catfight could really explore. However, what really hurts the final chunk of the film is simply a lack of energy. Aside from a payoff to a running thread about Ashley's put-upon, pixie-voiced assistant Sally (Ariel Kavoussi), the second sequence has a propulsive energy driving it to an inevitable payoff, while the third chapter is more perfunctory.

On his commentary, Tukel talks about some of the ideas and themes discovered during shooting, and even openly admits that he doesn't necessarily understand what his scripts are about until he's in the middle of making them. There's nothing wrong with that as an artistic process (everybody's is different, and editing works all kinds of magic if the ingredients are there), but Catfight calls out for the support of something more structured and insightful than Tukel delivers. Heche and Oh are brilliant, together and apart, and in fact the entire cast seems to be on board with Tukel's tricky tone, which manages to convey subtlety even within a distinctly broad universe. However, if character carries the movie through the first third, and creativity and dramatic conflict carry the viewer through the second, the third needs to be driven by some sort of thematic or comedic purpose for the film to stick the landing, and it feels like Tukel has little more to say than "conflict can be irrational." See the film for its audacious opening, when it comes out swinging, but don't be surprised when it whiffs its final punch.

The Blu-ray
Right up until the moment I reviewed it -- through to the disc's static menu -- the single promotional image I had seen for Catfight was the one on the Blu-ray's front cover, which also served as a poster, featuring Heche and Oh locked in physical combat -- although, the version on the packaging has had a bit of blood digitally erased. The one-disc release comes in a standard Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
Dark Sky presents Catfight on Blu-ray with a 1.78:1 1080p AVC transfer, and although the packaging claims the disc offers lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 (likely a mix-up in designing DVD and Blu-ray artwork), the only film audio is a full DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included. On both fronts, the disc delivers. In particular, this is one of the most nicely balanced digital productions I've seen on Blu-ray, finding a balance between the crisp detail of modern film cameras and the desire for a slight softness to take away from the "too real" / "soap opera" feel of absolute sharpness. This is a bright, colorful movie with exceptional sharpness and clarity that still retains a certain naturalism. The same cannot be said -- intentionally so -- for the heightened, comic mix which gives Catfight's title brawls a certain slapstick verve (even if they can be extremely brutal). Each punch and kick is loaded onto the track with an exceptional oomph, while dialogue and music sound comparatively natural. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.

The Extras
Catfight is blessed with two audio commentary tracks, one by writer/director Onur Tukel and the other by stars Anne Heche and Sandra Oh. Tukel is a very "train of thought" speaker, keeping his solo track lively and energetic from beginning to end with all sorts of anecdotes about his female-friendly crew, the editing process, and his thoughts on how the film's subtext developed from the writing through production and into the finished film. On the actor commentary, the conversation is reflective of the differences in approach between Heche and Oh, with Heche's comments tending to be more evocative and impressionistic, whereas Oh's thoughts are more technical and rooted in detail. Both commentaries were recorded in December after the election, and both commentaries briefly touch on how the impression of the film and its themes were affected by the result.

A couple of video features are also included. "Violent Femmes: The Fight Choreography of Catfight" (17:23) sits down with Tukel and the stunt crew to discuss the making of the fight scenes. This is an interesting little featurette that really takes the focus off the actors, who do not appear in the interviews, and gets down into the development and performance of the stunt doubles. There is also a reel of deleted scenes (17:44). Some of these edits are quite surprising, with a number of scenes included that would seem to have been effective support for the film's overall satirical points. There is also a slightly altered ending, and lots of Craig Bierko's talk show, including a seemingly endless fart machine scene. The disc rounds out with a slideshow of the artwork from the movie, which Tukel apparently created all but one piece of himself, per the commentary.

Trailers for Uncle Nick, If There's a Hell Below, and Applesauce play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for Catfight is also included.

Catfight is a decent movie that spends the majority of its running time hinting at greatness. It'll give the viewer a sense of whiplash, but it's hard to argue viewers with the right stomach for it should miss out on Tukel's highs just because the film stumbles through a poorly-timed low. Lightly recommended.

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