It's often said that if you have enough money you can buy just about anything, or anyone. The Cat's Meow is based on just such a premise concerning one of the richest men of the 20th century, William Randolph Hearst. The film revolves around incidents and supposed goings on aboard his luxury yacht in 1924, when what began as a weekend away birthday celebration for Hollywood producer, Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), with some illustrious and influential Hollywood makers and shakers (Gilligan's Island anyone?) turned into a major cover up of a most dastardly act.
The movie is supposedly based on a real event as told to director Peter Bogdanovich by legendary Hollywood figure, Orson Welles. Welles' cinema classic Citizen Kane is based on the life of the media magnate, Hearst, so Welles is probably no stranger to some of the more hush-hush chapters of the magnate's life.
From the start it is apparent that this group of Hollywood showponies and their associated partners, lovers, wheelers and dealers, are in for an interesting time on board. Among the other invited guests are Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), Hollywood starlet Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst), writer Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), and Hearst-employed gossip columnist, Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly). The secret liaisons, underlying tension, and general disdain between most of the guests are a recipe for disaster from the beginning.
As the real or imagined passion between Chaplin and Marion Davies increases, the jealous side of Hearst comes to the fore, and as one particular guest tries to turn this series of events around to suit his own plans, he becomes caught up in the affair in a manner that he undoubtedly never intended.
When a murder is committed on board, key players move quickly to ensure the gruesome crime is covered up. Of course, this doesn't come cheaply, and while some of the guests attempt to piece together what is going on, those in the know are busily manipulating what they've seen and are like gamblers placing their chips on the table. Who will gain? Who will lose? Who will die?
|"Welcome to Hollywood. A land just off the coast of the planet Earth."|
The Cat's Meow has been likened to Gosford Park, but other than both being period pieces, and both boasting an ensemble cast, they are really not all that alike. The Cat's Meow features a great cast, all of whom are very good. Joanna Lumley is wonderfully sublime and catty, and has undoubtedly most of the best lines. Dunst has proven her ability and merely confirms it here. Elwes is great as the birthday boy, Thomas Ince, Eddie Izzard does a great Chaplin, and Edward Herrmann is quite imposing as Hearst.
Special mention must be made of the sets and costuming which are wonderfully accurate and detailed. The music is from the period, though not in the form of a soundtrack, being provided by 'live' musicians on board the yacht. The varying relationships that exist between the various characters are very real and most believable. The cinematography is also very good, though most of the film takes place on board, and there are numerous lengthy 'one-shots' where the action takes place with no break in the filming. There is clever use made of a black and white opening and closing, and the films moves along at a steady pace, rarely setting hearts racing, but with enough interplay to keep the viewer's attention.
As we have come to expect of recent productions, the video quality is really quite good especially for a low-budget production such as this. Presented in the near-cinema aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and 16x9 enhanced, colours are not overly bold, and there is a fair amount of black and white as was the fashion of the time. Other colours are solid with no evidence of bleeding or noise. There is some evidence of low-level noise in the black levels that are generally good, but at times it appears almost as grain. This is only minor and not distracting. Grain is generally at a minimum level except in some of the darker scenes.
The image is well defined and detail is sharp. Colour contrast is good, and there are just a few white sparkles to blot an otherwise clean and mark-free transfer.
The layer change is slightly jarring at 77:56 and instead of being exactly between scenes, is slightly delayed and therefore a little obvious.
The most obvious thing about the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that most viewers will choose, is the very low level at which it has been mastered. You will need to give your amplifier/receiver/processor a real volume boost as some of the dialogue is very intimate and lines are hushed. Most other vocals are generally audible, and audio synch is not a problem.
The rear speakers are used sparingly for the band's music but not for much else. Dialogue is mostly centred, though there is some overuse of the left and right front speakers as the camera pans and jumps from character to character. At times, this doesn't sound natural. The subwoofer is rarely used, if at all, and as there are no loud low-level sounds in the film anyway, little is missed.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is much louder, and given the infrequent use of surround speakers, some viewers may prefer this soundtrack. There are clear subtitles provided for those that still have trouble hearing the dialogue.