Chita: Rivera Takes Tiny Stage

Chita!

Like Madonna, Marlene or Liza, one name says it all. And there is room for only one. She shines. She sparkles. She glows. She lights up a room. Singer, dancer, actress, chorus girl and star, all rolled into one star-spangled center spot with a diamond-studded gel. I don’t think there is anything she can’t do. And now, in her splendid new cabaret act at Feinstein’s at the Regency, where she gets a standing ovation before she even opens her mouth, she is doing it all on a stage the size of one of Paris Hilton’s earrings.

Chita Rivera usually needs space. The little platform at the Regency is no bigger than a parking space. No wonder she sails into Jerome Kern’s “I Won’t Dance” (“I won’t dance … why should I?”) and brings the house down with the next line, “I won’t dance … how could I?” The show is off and running and she rarely stops to inhale. She’s not Renée Fleming and she’s not Peggy Lee. But she’s definitively, deliciously, devastatingly Chita! Boy, to paraphrase a Sondheim song, can this girl fox-trot! And she can act, too. On Jacques Brel’s breathless “Carousel,” she grows from a wide-eyed child to a woman with a mature vision of life as a carnival of ups and downs. On “Love and Love Alone,” a brilliant Kander and Ebb song from the score of The Visit, she takes the seasons of that life and breaks them into pieces with one continuing theme: make everything count because everything that lies will someday die, especially the illusion of love. Then in a humorous twist on the boy-girl medleys that are a staple of every cabaret act, she tackles the songs the guys have knocked us out with for years (“Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” etc.) while Mark Hummel, her versatile and swinging pianist, takes the distaff view (“My Man’s Gone Now,” “I Feel Pretty,” et al.).

Since Broadway is her beat, Chita concentrates on the big numbers by Jerry Herman, Cy Coleman and Jule Styne, but on “Circle of Friends,” a simple Carol Hall ballad performed as a tribute to the people who have helped and supported and remained loyal to her in her life and career, she brings tears to the driest eyes. And yes, at the end of the show she recreates Roxie Hart’s pal Velma Kelly, the murderous moll she made famous in Chicago, and finally gets around to the bumps and grinds her fans clamor for in “All That Jazz.” Whatever she does, she’s pure magic. She breathes, drinks, sweats and brushes her teeth with show business. Nobody takes a bite out of the Big Apple like Chita, and giving us the old razzle-dazzle at the Regency through March 12, she is eating the whole pie.

Delusional

Like most of the weekly junk passed off as “contemporary cinema,” a ludicrous new combination of horror flick and time-travel fantasy called The Jacket is a gruesome, pretentious and incompetent mess. But at least it doesn’t waste any time building up your hopes. It plunges you into despair instantly. In the violent, warmongering American fiasco known as Desert Storm, a sweet-looking child aims a gun at a 27-year old soldier and almost blows his head off. The soldier is Adrien Brody, the bizarre-looking, druggy-eyed Oscar winner whose 15 minutes of fame expired as soon as the end credits rolled on The Pianist.

Left with amnesia and psychological devastation, the Gulf War veteran is discovered, nine months later, hitchhiking aimlessly along a snowy Vermont road near the Canadian border, where he stops to fix a broken pickup truck that has stranded a hysterical, drunken mother and her 8-year-old daughter. Before he gets screamed off the road by the crazy woman, he gives the child his dog tags. Uh-oh. Big mistake. Last chance to prove his identity. Before you can say “Huh?”, he’s on trial for murdering a cop, convicted and then committed to an asylum for the criminally insane, where he is strapped and shackled in a straitjacket by a sadistic doctor (Kris Kristofferson). Moving right along, the nuthouse doctor subjects the understandably bewildered patient to a cruel and inhuman medical experiment that includes administering mind-altering drugs injected with foot-long hypodermics and locking him in a corpse drawer in the bowels of the asylum morgue. No wonder the poor slob has nightmares. So will you. But wait. This torture is just beginning.

Imprisoned inside the box, past and future images blend in a surrealistic farrago of camera tricks and computerized special effects. He is suddenly transported to a Vermont diner, where a sympathetic waitress (Keira Knightley) takes him home for a hot bath on Christmas Eve. In her sordid digs, he finds his lost dog tags and learns that he died in 1993! Yes, she’s the little girl on the road the day the cop was killed. Now she has to help him. Between slow-motion sex scenes with the waitress and an irrelevant subplot involving another staff doctor (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who’s obsessed with performing electroshock treatments on an epileptic child, Mr. Brody realizes he has to save the girl from turning into the same burned-out drunk as her dead mother, cure the epileptic boy and change the future fast because-he only has four days to live! Just as I was asking myself “How could anyone make a movie this unsalvageably awful?”, the words “Produced by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh” flashed across the screen. Voilà! Dedicated to making films that are totally incomprehensible, this is the diabolical team responsible for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Insomnia, and Ocean’s Eleven and Twelve. In all fairness, they also financed Todd Haynes’ masterpiece Far From Heaven, but still ….

Paralyzed by John Maybury’s lame direction and a loopy script by Massy Tadjedin, none of these events and revelations are entirely coherent, and the way the film’s feeble attempts at narrative leapfrog back and forth in time, you never know when anything is happening-or why. One minute Mr. Brody is standing in the cemetery staring at his own tombstone. The next minute he’s being treated for delusions and slammed back inside the morgue drawer where all of his visions of the future take place, with close-ups of those wombat eyes filled with fake tears that have the odd consistency of maple syrup. It’s a real mess, all right, replete with bad acting of the sobbing, eye-rolling, screaming and vomiting kind, and entirely too many shots of Adrien Brody with his clothes off, looking like an emaciated scarecrow. Hey, fella, eat a little something. And stay away from dreck like The Jacket.

Cool Hoods

Be Cool, a sequel to the 1995 hit Get Shorty, brings back John Travolta as Chili Palmer, the Miami loan shark from Elmore Leonard’s cult novel, who was dispatched to Hollywood to collect on a gambling debt from a sleazy film producer named Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman) and got bitten by the movie bug. Instead of breaking Harry’s legs, Chili pitched him on an idea for a new movie based on his own life. Result: two hours of comic chaos, and the hood learned there’s not much difference between the gangster business and the movie business-in both games, crime comes in handy. If only some criminal element had held a gun to the head of hack director F. Gary Gray. There’s an excess of corn, confusion and chaos in Be Cool, but not much of anything you could call comedy.

Trashy and witless, Be Cool loses its way in the first scene and never regains its footing, limping from one contrived character to the next, all of them played by hammy actors desperate for guidance, mugging their way to the moon and dressed like a wardrobe-department Halloween parade. Mr. Travolta is still the perfect actor to play a hood with finesse. Talking his way in and out of hairy situations is the perfect training ground for the kind of Hollywood spin that has kept his career above water. But he needs a good director. Get Shorty’s Barry Sonnenfeld was not much of a director, but that movie had enough plot twists, red herrings and underworld snafus, interspersed with film clips of everything from Rio Bravo to Touch of Evil, to keep you scratching your head and laughing at the same time. With Be Cool, you just scratch.

This time, Chili has abandoned the movie industry because he hated the sequel to his life story. (Since Be Cool is a sequel to Get Shorty, if this doesn’t give you a reason to head for the exit, don’t say I didn’t warn you.) Disillusioned by Hollywood, he’s moved into the music scene, where he is approached by flashy deal hustler Tommy Athens (James Woods) with a script idea for a new movie about his own experiences in the record business running a bankrupt indie label called NTL (“Nothing To Lose”). “Gangsta rappers, payola scandals …, ” pitches Tommy. But Tommy is gunned down by Russian mobsters before Chili can get out of the men’s room (sorry to lose James Woods so early, but one hopes he had a better commitment elsewhere), and now he’s on his own, getting it on with Tommy’s vodka-swigging widow Edie (a peroxided Uma Thurman) and hell-bent on making a rock star out of a nubile newcomer named Linda Moon (played by Cuban-American pop star Christina Milian). But first he has to get Linda’s contract back from a white goon named Raji (Vince Vaughn), who walks, talks and eats fried chicken and waffles like a black rapper, and his big, black gay bodyguard Elliot (The Rock, playing it for laughs against type), a wannabe actor who wears shiny boots, leather-boys drag, designer wigs for head shots and carries a pink baseball bat. (The movie is rarely funny, but watching The Rock with a limp wrist, shaking his booty, is worth the price of admission.)

Like Get Shorty, the movie is composed almost entirely of the contrived methods by which Chili tries to finance his project and juggle the struggles between the black hoods, the Russian hoods and the killers who work for the string of perverted agents, managers, producers and Shylocks who run Hollywood today. “Who are all these people tryin’ to kill you?” somebody asks Travolta. “I dunno,” he says, “but I’m in the music business now-could be anybody!” The scene moves from such famous haunts as the notorious Viper Room (where River Phoenix died of an overdose) to the Boot Barn on Sunset, to the MTV Awards at the Staples Center, where Chili and Edie convince Steven Tyler to let Linda Moon sing with Aerosmith to promote her new CD. “Cool” in the title means pimping girls, homophobia, racism, drinking yourself unconscious, chain smoking, gay-bashing, setting people on fire, and a lot of blood, violence and killing. No nudity, though. Family values, you know. The film also includes an endless collage of freaky cameos by Anna Nicole Smith, Danny DeVito, Wyclef Jean, Sergio Mendes, Gene Simmons, The RZA and Steven Tyler himself, who looks like a burn victim disguised as an Aztec drag queen.

As the kind of smart-ass, street-talking, take-charge hood Hollywood understands and respects, John Travolta is charming proof that the fever still lasts beyond Saturday night. But director F. Gary Gray leaves him trampled by a stampede of noise and tackiness. I mean, what kind of idiot director would fumble the chance, after all these years, to capture Mr. Travolta in full throttle on the disco floor, enhanced by show-stopping choreography, and film his big dance number so badly that the camera only shows about 10 seconds of his feet? You have to study somewhere to learn that kind of supreme ineptitude. Worse, the “cool” in Get Shorty worked because the Hollywood movie business is a ship of fools that changes its passenger list daily. The Hollywood music business is not amusing because it’s a satire of itself already. In Be Cool, they seem to be making it up as they go along. To call it one more movie about the pop-music business that fails to nail its target with a sharp punch is like inviting a man with food poisoning to dinner in a clam house.