Monday, March 2, 2015

Murder on the Oneida Yacht

THE CAT'S MEOW (2001)
Reviewed by Jerry Saravia
Watching Peter Bogdanovich's take on that day in November in 1924 when certain movie stars and moguls were involved in a scandalous murder, I was reminded of the lurid details films often confront nowadays. A murder is not just detailed, it is shown in extreme close-ups with the kind of frantic cutting you might see on TV's "C.S.I." So it is an unmistakable privilege to see a film whose focus is not so much murder as much the people behind the murder. "The Cat's Meow" is like taking a chill pill - it is quiet, toned-down, restrained cinema that is unlikely to cause much of a ruckus but it will please folks who feel words speak louder than actions. Think of it as an Agatha Christie mystery, only this is a true story.

Set almost entirely aboard a yacht, "The Cat's Meow" sets its eye on Hollywood in the Prohibition Era. William Randolph Hearst (played with real vigor by Edward Herrmann) has a private yacht, a 280-footer named the "Oneida," where he invites all kinds of luminaries and movie stars. They include the renown Charles Chaplin (Eddie Izzard) whose latest film, "A Woman in Paris," flopped due to his non-appearance; a Hollywood producer named Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), known as the "Father of the Western"; an interminably whiny gossip columnist, Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly), and others. Hearst is of course having a highly publicized affair with Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), another movie star who is also having an affair with Chaplin. When Hearst discovers this indiscreet affair, murder enters his mind. Unfortunately, he kills Ince, the studio head, whom he mistakes for Chaplin. "Murder of a Hollywood Producer" is the screaming headline we can imagine aboard this yacht - a tale of scandalous proportions that seems to have sprung from Kenneth Anger's "Hollywood Babylon" book (it is covered in-depth in the first volume).

Ultimately, "The Cat's Meow" is not a lurid melodrama but rather a sophisticated, dryly witty comedy-drama. The comedy may fly over most people's heads since it consists of asides thrown by the major characters without the exclamation points to make the sure everyone gets the joke. Like Altman's recent "Gosford Park," "The Cat's Meow" is more concerned with the characters and their own flaws and faults than an actual murder mystery. Hearst, as is well known, was already married despite having an affair with Marion Davies, so it is hypocritical of him to despise her fling with Chaplin. Chaplin was already known for dalliances with many women, and had decided to leave his pregnant teenage fiancee behind just to party and continue his love affair with Marion.

The film merely doesn't cover the conflict between Hearst, Marion and Chaplin but also sneaks a peek at other secondary characters. The wittiest is Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), the British romance novelist and screenwriter who delivers quips and putdowns with tremendous ease. Particularly enjoyable is her retort towards the omnipresent Parsons, who keeps talking past beyond the point of anybody listening. Cary Elwes is appropriately arrogant as Tom Ince, who is aching for a box-office hit and hopes Hearst can help him. Unfortunately, other characters such as Ince's business manager and his mistress merely exist as decoration - their limited screen time reduces them to cardboard cutouts. They lack the juice and vitality of the principal characters and, thus, slow down the action.

"The Cat's Meow" is fitfully entertaining and pleasant, and doesn't aspire to be anything more. For director Peter Bogdanovich, it is certainly a return to form after doing TV sequels like "To Sir, With Love Part 2." And for those of us interested in Hollywood scandals galore, this sparkling film should fit the bill.

New York Date Doctor gives romantic advice

HITCH (2005)
Reviewed by Jerry Saravia
"Hitch" is a simple pleasure at the movies, undemanding and unforced. It is a pleasant time-
filler for couples who line up to see movies like this on Valentine's Day. In other words, no
sex, no violence, no jokes of the scatological variety. Just simple fun from start to finish.
Nowadays, that is something to treasure for most couples, young and old.

Will Smith is Alex "Hitch" Hitchens, a popular, anonymous New York Date Doctor. He gives advice to men on how to woo women, how to approach them, how to charm them, and what to do on the first date. Hitch has it down to a specific science - posture, eye contact are all important ingredients. His advice is for romantic longing leading to a healthy relationship, all for a small fee of course. If you want to just get laid, don't go to Hitch.

Kevin James is Albert, one of Hitch's clients, who is something of a slob and further proof that white men can't dance. He is one of the accountants for the beautiful, seemingly unattainable and wealthy Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta). Hitch's advice is for Albert to make himself known to her in some way, though not by breaking up a business meeting and insisting that her own financial interests be honored, thereby almost getting fired in the process! Albert has to learn to relax, to approach her with ease, even if it means getting mustard on his pants. You know this is only a movie when Allegra wouldn't approach an insecure guy like Albert with a ten foot pole.

Hitch has other clients, but he also practices what he preaches. He approaches a gossip columnist named Sara (Eva Mendes) at some ritzy bar, and actually scores. Their first date is at Ellis Island by way of motor boat. Everything clicks but Sara is unaware he is the Date Doctor (as does most of New York, excepting his clients). Will she find out? And will Albert get to score with Allegra or will he accidentally throw mustard on her face?

"Hitch" is a pleasing comedy, designed to please and nothing more. Like most romantic comedies in the last twenty years, it has nothing new to say about romance. Unlike the surreal, mind-bending "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" or the adult-oriented "Sideways," this movie has no degree of surprise to it either. But do consider for a moment what might have been. The previews show Hitch doing his date doctor thing, accumulating several lonely hearts clients who don't know the first thing about dating. This is a great idea for a romantic comedy - Will Smith's Hitch could've been on the sidelines as opposed to front and center. It is no accident that Kevin James's Albert steals scenes from Smith's nose without so much as breaking a sweat - of course, James has already proved to be a comic powerhouse with TV's "The King of Queens."

I am afraid to say that as much as I enjoy the banter between Smith and Mendes, who have
considerable chemistry, the movie refuses to look at them intimately. There is more intimacy
between Kevin James and Amber Valetta than in all the scenes involving Hitch's private life. I
also take issue with the inevitable scene (you knew it was coming) where Mendes's Sara discovers that Hitch is the Date Doctor and loses her cool. Why on earth is she losing her cool? Because he never told her who he really was? All he does is give dating advice for a living.

There are pluses to "Hitch." The movie is rife with laughs and double entendres, mostly supplied by the poor, clumsy schmo Kevin James. Will Smith shows coolness in being laid-back - it is the most restrained performance of his career. I still wish Smith pursued the promise he showed in "Six Degrees of Separation" but I am not about to give career advice. Eva Mendes is fully alive as Sara, sparkling and spiking every scene she's in with wit and authority. And Amber Valletta is simply a phosphorous presence, not just a simple glamour girl. And for fans of TV's "Chicago Hope," Adam Arkin pops up as Sara's boss.

I certainly liked "Hitch" but I wish more chances were taken. The film is overlong and
undercooked, and there are too many pratfalls of the slapstick variety. I also could've lived
without the "food allergy" gag. In an era of safe, homogenized movies, "Hitch" is about as
outrageous as any Hollywood movie starring Will Smith will allow (which is not much). More
pungent wit and less safe betting would have made this a sleeper instead of just a safe bet.

Christopher Guests' Folk Tales

A MIGHTY WIND (2003)
Reviewed by Jerry Saravia
(Originally reviewed in May 12th, 2003)
Christopher Guest's "A Mighty Wind" is unlike any other movie I have seen, or at least since the last Christopher Guest film. It is his latest mockumentary, and his subject this time is of 60's folk singers trying to recapture their magic to an audience. The film's terse realism and subdued comedy make this a strange if uneven delight.

The movie begins with the death of a renowned folk promoter, Irving Steinbloom, who led the careers of many aspiring folk singers. Since this is a pseudo-documentary, the folk singers are all fictitious yet I am sure there are some parallels to real-life singers. There is the New Main Street Singers, a commercial folk group that meditates by concentrating on a particular member of the male genitalia before performing cheerfully on stage. There is also the Folksmen (Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean), a trio who are known for their sole hit that climaxes with the lyrics "Eat at O'." The best-loved and most inspiring group are Mitch (Eugene Levy) and Mickey (Catherine O'Hara), two singers who are reuniting after more than twenty years. Their songs are comprised of love and harmony (such as "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow"), and the most famously televised moment in their careers was when they kissed on stage.

Writer-director Guest frames these characters as if they were in a documentary, and his special talent is for making it seem so truthful. The satire is there, mostly mocking the terrific documentary "The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time," but only perceptive audiences will catch the implicit humor since it is so matter-of-fact and so honest. Guest never aims for a cheap joke or a desperate gag, he takes folk-singing seriously enough and plays it with a straight face to make us believe everything that transpires on screen. Even the repetitious New Main Street singers promoter (played by Fred Willard), a one-time TV star known for the phrase "Wha' Happened," never becomes too colorful or animated. A great example is Catherine O'Hara's Mickey - her special trait is speaking with a soothing, calm tone that becomes intoxicating, particularly when interviewed. She is the best thing in the movie.

Levy does seem to overact at times as Mitch but his mechanically droning voice brings a level of anticipation and dread at the same time - he keeps us on alert and makes us nervous since we are never sure what he may say next. Mitch is shell-shocked ever since his separation from Mickey, and his dark spells helped to produce solo records of pain and regret. Even his concert at the end with Mickey made me tense, thinking he might screw it all up when their famous song climaxes with their famous kiss. The suspense is predicting Mitch's next move.

Most of the cast performs up to par with credibility. The Folksmen's bantering during rehearsal sessions feels real enough, and Guest is often left with the best one-liners at the end of each scene. The New Main Street Singers are a complete riot, though Parker Posey seems out of her element as the former junkie and runaway teen reformed by Bob Balaban, a master of the deadpan act, who is absolutely hilarious as Jonathan Steinbloom, Irving's son. His attention to the most rudimentary details of the concert (like a floral arrangement) will keep you in stitches.

"A Mighty Wind" is quite an entertaining blend of music and pathos - the latter being the most predominant factor in folk music . It is affectionate enough towards folk music to make most folk fans happy and happily amused.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

BOY! What is going on here?

PHANTASM III (1994)
Reviewed by Jerry Saravia
After two creepy, elegiac and dreamlike films about the Tall Man, a ghost town and a mausoleum cast in white marble and holding some sort of netherworld, I am still unsure of what the heck this "Phantasm" series is all about but I do find it intriguing with various ideas about death, rebirth and some timeline between dreams and reality. "Phantasm III" doesn't make it easier to understand its own dream logic - where is this barrier between reality and dreams? David Lynch often touches on such mind-altering themes but, let's be honest, writer-director Don Coscarelli got their first or at least we might see the seeds of his fruition from a Luis-Bunuel-crossed-with Dario-Argento-flavored mix. What is sheerly amazing is that I was still hooked by this third-go-round - it is herky-jerky surrealism crossed with comedic banter and that makes it as entertaining as the first two films.

Ponytailed Reggie armed with a nifty shotgun (Reggie Bannister, still intact with his sense of humor) is still pursuing the dreaded supernatural being known as the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) after seemingly destroying the gatekeeper of Hell On Earth mausoleums in part II. Of course you can never keep a fearsome Tall Man down for long, what with the several deadly flying spheres at this being's disposal. The psychic kid Mike (A. Michael Baldwin, who played Mike in the original film) has been in a coma for a while but all it takes to revive him is Mike's dead brother, Jody (Bill Thornbury), who sometimes assumes the form of one of those spheres! The Tall Man eventually snatches Mike back, leaving Reggie and Jody to travel to another mausoleum (though apparently Mike is trapped in an interdimensional portal) and then some newbies to the series arrive. Most entertaining and providing a major shot of adrenaline is nunchaku expert with military experience, Rocky (Gloria-Lynne-Henry), whom horny Reggie wants to roll in the hay with. There is also the "Home Alone"-kid Tim (Kevin Connors) who has amateur Rube Goldberg contraptions in his house and carries a loaded gun (his parents were killed by the Tall Man).

There are some revelations regarding the contents of those flying spheres that actually gave me the chills, and Mike's last scene indicates a new development in the series that even leaves Reggie mystified. "Phantasm III" has got what you expect - spheres crushing heads (though not as gory as previous entries), Reggie driving his kick-ass GTO, the Tall Man's occasional appearance (this time, we discover that excessive cold temperatures are his Kryptonite), some sexual innuendos and imagined sexscapades with the rockin' Rocky, and a trio of zombiefied hoods that would have been at home in a Tarantino flick (or maybe Romero). Not much of it makes a whole lot of sense (especially Reggie's stashed 100 dollar bills in his pockets - wasn't he just an ice cream vendor at one time?) The film also seems hastily-patched together with an even hastier resolution. Still, "Phantasm III" gives us what we expect and more (love the backstory about Tim) and it still gives me goosebumps (Scrimm is as haunting a presence as ever - imagine him in the days of the Universal Monsters). Shiver me crazy.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Ricky Jay is coming up aces

DECEPTIVE PRACTICE: THE MYSTERIES AND MENTORS OF RICKY JAY (2012)
Magicians can perform all sorts of tricks with cards and sleight-of-hand techniques. Then there are the street magicians, David Blaine being the most remarkable I've seen. But then there is someone like Ricky Jay who can bring two single dollars together and create a two-dollar bill! He can also manipulate cards in such a way that a club can become a spade or a heart or whatever just by simply turning the card over in one single swoop.

"Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay" takes a close, finite look at Ricky Jay's sleight-of-hand and his favorite magicians who have informed his amazing abilities, although his own early life remains a bit of a mystery. He was Ricky Potash from Brooklyn, NY and was something of an amateur magician at age 7 under the tutelage of his grandfather, Max Katz (also an amateur). When his grandfather passed, Ricky abandoned the family (who did not think much of his passion) and went on to dazzle the world with his own brand of magic. It led to appearances on the Dinah Shore Show, books, movies roles such as "House of Games" and "Boogie Nights," and a spectacular one-man show called "Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants" (directed by David Mamet) where he astonished the crowd with his card manipulations. The film also provides amazing footage of Ricky Jay's mentors and influences including magicians such as Dai Vernon, Slydini, Cardini (a monocle-wearing magician who coughed up a deck of cards repetitiously), Charlie Miller and Al Flosso (hilarious clip from "The Ed Sullivan Show" features Flosso releasing coins from Ed's nose).
A lot of "Deceptive Practice" is indelibly fascinating and riveting to the core - you literally get an insider's view on insights into magic without the reveal of how the tricks are performed. Watching Ricky Jay shuffling his cards is an absorbing experience, especially when he lays out four aces with ease. Hearing from a British journalist on Ricky's ability to conjure a block of ice at a restaurant table is awe-inspiring - how does someone just conjure a block of ice? Watching Ricky, from age 7 to more recently, perform his acts invite incredulity - just watch how he crumbles a piece of paper to form a...oh, check it out for yourself. "Deceptive Practice" amazes and astonishes us, providing just enough insight into the world of magic to make you wonder "How is he doing this?" His family background and the insights into the man himself are closed-off to us (perhaps his intention) but his sleight-of-hand and his knowledge of foremost magicians of the past is tantalizing enough for ten documentaries. You can see why this man would probably not be allowed in any casino.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Do not boogie with this Doc

INHERENT VICE (2014)
Reviewed by Jerry Saravia
Paul Thomas Anderson has metamorphosed into an eccentric director of late. His last film, "The Master," was a puzzling and perplexing work that aimed to be far more ambitious than anything he had created in the past. Nothing wrong with that but it was not a complete dramatic success for me, though certainly watchable and fascinating. "Inherent Vice" is puzzling, perplexing and downright obnoxious in its attempt to be a Southern California noir comedy but the noirish ambitions are muted and the comedy is not fittingly humorous.

Joaquin Phoenix (in yet another role that redefines idiosyncratic) is Doc, a low-rent private detective who spends more time smoking pot than solving cases. His ex-girlfriend, Shasta (a truly bewitching Katharine Waterston), inexplicably tells Doc to help prevent the kidnapping of her newest boyfriend, a wealthy real-estate developer named Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts) - he will apparently be kidnapped by his wife who plans to have him committed to an insane asylum. I say inexplicably with regards to Shasta because Doc is an incompetent detective who is ready for nap time. Situations spiral from bizarre to the terminally weird, but not in the David Lynch manner or even the Robert Altman vein of "The Long Goodbye" (one of a few direct inspirations for this film). There is the Joe Friday-type, Detective Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who expects Doc to act as informant. To make matters worse, the whole LAPD hates Doc and pushes him around on occasion. There are many more characters floating in and around this mess, including a coked-up dentist (Martin Short), several Nazi bodyguards, massage parlors where the girls have sex at inopportune times, a schooner called the Golden Fang, and Brolin's ice-cream-sucking popsicle detective literally eating marijuana while busting down entrance doors to Doc's hippie-loving existence. Shasta also pulls a disappearing act, or maybe not, but it will barely register to anyone trying to follow this nutzoid screenplay. Not even the most unreliable of narrators, a girl named Sortil├Ęge (Joanna Newsom), can help us. The humor is also strangely absent.

Robert Downey, Jr. was originally cast as Doc and he would've made this film far more fun. Joaquin Phoenix has been misdirected by Anderson twice now, but this time the actor gives a performance that is the equivalent of an endurance test, like pins slowly scratching a blackboard. Phoenix is also miscast, seeming far too intellectual with those penetrating eyes and severely mountain-sized mutton chops to play such a nitwit like Doc. Except for one moment where Phoenix fakes a scream, he is either too stoned or too unintelligible or both. Same with the rest of the cast - I like eccentric characters as long as they contain a form of humanity. These characters, based on Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel, are cartoonishly ghastly creations who whisper secrets that only they can comprehend - we are left in a muddle of a puddle.

In terms of creating a sustained mood and a very specific time and place, Paul Thomas Anderson has managed that as well as anybody could. The atmosphere of Southern California exists in a haze and maybe that is his point - marijuana haze is all there is in this early 70's tale and Doc breathes it in aimlessly. But there are slivers of something more emotionally grounded, particularly Shasta who has one erotic romp with Doc that will remind many of Anderson's "Boogie Nights." Even in Anderson's beautifully sustained long takes, nothing clicks and we sense something's amiss. Some may find this absurdly hazy movie intoxicating - I found it stultifyingly suffocating. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Inherently patriotic and troubled soldier

AMERICAN SNIPER (2014)
Reviewed by Jerry Saravia
The sniper sets his sights on an Iraqi woman and a young boy, perhaps her son. She hands him a grenade. The sniper shoots her dead first. The boy runs towards the American soldiers. He is killed. But before such a startlingly intense and sweat-inducing scene is completed (and your hands will turn clammy), we see the sniper as a young boy trained to hunt deer seguing to his later years as a rodeo cowboy. His girlfriend cheats on him. He signs up to be a Marine, becomes a trained SEAL and marries a woman who swore she would never marry a SEAL. 9/11 occurs and Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper, simply magnificent without being showy) goes to fight and we come back to the grisly scene that starts the picture.

"American Sniper" unfolds with uncommon clarity and narrow, sharp focus, much like the main character's titular job. Based on a 2012 memoir "American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History" by Chris Kyle (who was killed by a veteran he tried to help), the movie unfolds at a brisk pace yet it is also unhurried, snapping with precise, artfully rendered scenes of war in four different tours of duty and the homefront where PTSD clearly settles in, almost like an emotional unraveling of suppressed emotions. Kyle's wife, Taya (Sienna Miller) has two children and is pretty much on her own to raise them while he feels he has to "protect his country" and continue to become a "legend." His purpose is patriotic, at the expense of his own family. Only Kyle sees that war is not just hell, it is downright nasty and dirty and unbecoming. He feels he has to complete his duty and kill the savages that have taken the lives of his fellow soldiers. It dawns on him that this war may not cost him an amputation or death, but it is amputating his spirit.
Clint Eastwood is a legend in his own right as well, crafting one of the finest films of his career. I would not call "American Sniper" the "Unforgiven" of war movies but it is hardly a propagandistic war movie (as some critics have alleged and, yes, I am talking to you Matt Taibbi) where we raise our American flags and salute the one-dimensional hero and cheer for the murdered enemies. Bradley Cooper, an actor I am slowly discovering to be a solid gifted actor, and director Eastwood are interested in three dimensions - war is not presented as just and fair in this movie, it is presented as cruel and sadistic. I would not call "American Sniper" one of the great war films but it is one of the great character studies of war itself, that is the strategy, the plan of attack, the kills, all in unifying formation. Only Chris saw the inherent flaws in that this particular war is unpredictable, and it affects him far more deeply than he may have thought. The other battlefront, unfortunately for him, is home.