Wednesday, September 17, 2014

More Michael Caine Impressions Over Dinner

Now playing at an indie art house near you...


(Dir. Michael Winterbottom, 2014)

This sequel to the 2010 art house comedy sleeper, THE TRIP, which re-unites Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as fictionalized versions of themselves is definitely a case of more of the same.

It’s more fine dining – this time in exquisite Italian restaurants with spectacular ocean-views. It’s more neurotic bickering about stardom, or lack of stardom.

It’s more driving down winding roads through the scenic countryside – this time to the accompaniment of an Alanis Morissette CD.

But most importantly it’s more Michael Caine impressions, with a healthy side of Al Pacino as Brydon affects the famous actor’s gruff persona for an audition for an American mafia movie.

Just like in the first one, Coogan and Brydon are on a restaurant tour which they will write about for The Observer. Also like its predecessor, the film is edited together from 6 episodes of a BBC program, which accounts for its overlong length.

Though we see a lot of food – there are many cuts to inside the kitchens of each of the six restaurants they visit from Tuscany and Rome to the Amalfi coast while the duo converse at their tables – the meals aren’t really discussed except to say how heavenly they taste. Again, the meat of the matter is who can do the better impersonation.

At one point, Coogan and Brydon even act out an entire sketch involving the stars of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES – Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, and Caine (of course) arguing on set. This bit is hilarious but the mimicry does get tiresome, especially when they trod on material they well covered the first time around – i.e. the same Sean Connery lines.

The bare bones of the plot involve Brydon getting a part in the aforementioned film, a fictitious Michael Mann, and having an affair with a British tour guide (Rosie Fellner). Coogan’s only dilemma appears to be that his most recent series, an American TV drama named Pathology (also fictitious) has been canceled.

Otherwise we just basically hang with these guys through their travels as they follow in the footsteps of the great Romantic poets Byron and Shelley, consume copious amounts of food and wine, and make references to many movies including ROMAN HOLIDAY, LA DOLCE VITA, NOTTING HILL (always an excuse for Brydon to do his spot on Hugh Grant impression), and CONTEMPT.

It’s an unruly formless experience that wears out its welcome halfway through. Only hardcore fans of the original or of these guys will find it funny or at least entertaining from start to finish. There's also the case that the more they do some of these impressions - particularly Brydon's Pacino - the less effective they are. 

It does help that it looks great. Cinematographer James Clarke, who shot the first one, captures immaculate imagery of Italy in scene after scene. So I'll file THE TRIP TO ITALY with MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT under Slight films of 2014 that have gorgeous scenery.

While in THE TRIP, Coogan remarked that “behind every little pithy vaguely amusing joke is a cry for help,” here the cries seem to be more for attention. With their aching through their posh lifestyles and showbiz entitlements, the only help these guys will really need will be at the box office if they try to pull off a third one of these.

More later...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

In Memorium: My Dearly Departed Cat Squiggy

Although this is a blog about movies I wanted to pay tribute to one of the most important figures in the background of Film Babble: my cat Squiggy who passed away on Friday, September 12th at age 16. The picture above of her as a kitten was taken by my mother at my apartment in Greensboro in 1998.

Squiggy would often sleep in my lap as I worked on the content of this blog, which is one of many, many things about her that I will dearly miss. I’d scratch her head and stroke her back while pondering my next sentence, and I hated when I had to get up to go to the bathroom or grab another Diet Coke because she would be dislocated, but it usually wasn’t long until she jumped back after I sat back down.

I adopted Squiggy from the Greensboro Cat Clinic in May of 1998. Thankfully, my friend Snoa Garrigan, who knew I wanted to get a cat, told me that they had just gotten a few kittens so I went to their location on Battleground Avenue and immediately took to this little spunky kitten with tabby markings and neatly arranged white patches.

I named her Squiggy after the character played by actor/comedian David L. Lander on the ‘70s-‘80s sitcom Laverne and Shirley, despite that people would tell me that it was a boy’s name. I liked saying it and thought it fit her. It did create some confusion when I’d take her to the vet – earlier this year when she had to stay for the weekend at Quail Animal Hospital here in Raleigh, I saw that somebody put a sign up on her cage that said “Squiggy is a girl.”

Squiggy lived with me in several different apartments through the years and at one point, still in Greensboro, she was briefly an outdoor cat. This ended when I saw her almost get hit by a car running across the street because I called her name – yes, she was a cat who knew her name and would sometimes respond when called. I say sometimes, because as it’s been said, “Dogs come when they’re called; cats take a message and get back to you later.”

When I moved from Greensboro to Durham in the summer of 2001, I lived with a friend, now a former friend, who I didn’t know had become a skuzzy heroin addict in the years I wasn’t in touch with him. It was less than 2 months that we lived there, but I am still sorry to Squiggy for her having to be around that mess of a human being. The guy was my best friend when I was a teenager, but it was clear to me after we left his Hellish orbit to live in Chapel Hill that Squiggy was a much better best friend, who had more genuinely helped me through hard times. And being that it was approaching September 2001, hard times would soon dominate everyone’s landscape.

In 2003, Squiggy and I moved into very interesting digs. I became the caretaker of the Horace Williams House in the historic district of Chapel Hill. 

Horace Williams was a UNC Philosophy professor who had lived in the house from 1897 to 1940 (the house was built in 1854 by another professor, Benjamin Hedrick). The house is a cool octagonal structure with a large yard that hosts many events including weddings and art exhibitions, and Squiggy and I lived in a basement apartment there for seven years.

Squiggy got out of the apartment a few times and explored the rest of the long rumored to be haunted house – the Octagon room, the dining room, kitchen, and parlor – and scarily got in the dank crawlspace under the house a couple of times. I think this is what Sally Holton, a former site manager for the Preservation Society, was talking about when she posted “I've always felt jealous of Squiggy for knowing the secrets of the Horace Williams House” on a farewell Facebook thread the other day.

I had a few girlfriends who weren’t cat people and didn’t kindly take to Squiggy so, of course, they didn’t last long. Then in 2008 I met the lovely Jill Walters, a wonderful cat person, who brought Squiggy gifts like cat toys, and a scratching post tree, but the problem was that Squiggy didn’t take kindly to Jill.

But Squiggy just had to deal as Jill and I were married the next year, and she had to go from being the #1 only cat in the household to joining a cast of five cats – a line-up that would increase greatly when we started fostering for the Raleigh cat rescue Alley Cats and Angels. Squiggy disliked the other cats and kept to herself, particularly disapproving of the antics of the series of playful wacky kittens that would come and go in what my wife Jill dubbed “The Johnson/Walters Home for Wayward Kitties.”

Last night, Jill said “at 10 years old she went from basically being an only cat most of her life to having kittens everywhere, and she didn’t poop or pee places she wasn’t supposed to, or start fights or any bad stuff; she just adjusted.”

She had a reputation for being grumpy – this was long before the internet sensation Grumpy Cat – and many would note, especially Jill, that she only liked me. To prove that she was sweet and actually purred I posted this YouTube video:

In 2010 she had a tumor, was diagnosed with cancer and underwent chemotherapy. While I was away for Christmas at Jill's parents' house in Florida she stopped eating and lost half her body weight. Nursing her back to health was stressful and difficult into the New Year – I had to get up in the middle of the night and feed her through a tube for a period – and one visit to the vet really had me thinking it was the end because the radio in reception was playing Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

But Squiggy rebounded and gained back weight and seemed like her old self – except as Jill often pointed out, she lost interest in grooming herself. She learned the word “food” during this time as I would say it while she was eating. Her ears would perk up and her eyes would get wide when she heard it said. Once, while she was resting in my lap, I sang along to an Arby’s commercial with its line “it’s good mood food” and she jerked her head towards me hoping I had some for her.

So Squiggy had beat cancer, but her kidneys were failing which meant she’d get sick every so often which was always a concern if we were going out of town - “that’s one co-dependent cat you got there” Jill would say – but for the last several years of her life she seemed to be happy. Despite all the cats that is. It helped that she had the exclusive area that is my office that she could eat her food in private and sleep away from bouncy kitten activity. She would scratch at the door to be let in, and she was good at communicating when she wanted out.

It’s very sad to not have her around anymore. There are other cats that I love and will love in the future, but I know I’ll never be as close to another cat like that again.

To the non-cat/non-pet people out there, thanks for indulging me in my memories of my dearly departed cat. I promise that I will be back babbling ‘bout film next time, but take note that without Squiggy all curled up in my lap while I write it just won’t be the same.

R.I.P. Squiggy Stardust Nova Scotia Hummingbird Johnson Walters (1998-2014)

More later…

Monday, September 08, 2014

Flashback: Film Babble Blog's Top 10 Films Of 1984

On a three episode series of the podcast, postmodcast,
Kevin Brewer (Twitter handle: @RealKevinBrewer) and I have been celebrating the pop culture of the year 1984. Our first installment, which dropped on August 19, 2014, dealt with the music of that era, including Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen, so the second in the series (Episode 5: Movies of 1984), which dropped last week on September 2nd, focuses on the films (the upcoming third entry will cover television).

Because of all this babbling about 1984, I decided to post my top 10 films of that year. A few of them I re-watched recently after not seeing them for three decades, some I've been watching over and over in that time.

So here are my 10 favorites from 30 years ago:

1. BLOOD SIMPLE (Dirs. Ethan & Joel Coen)

This one shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who follows this blog. The Coen brothers are among my all-time favorite film makers and this, their cold thriller debut, is one of their best. It's also the film debut of Frances McDormand (she and Joel Coen were married in April of '84 and are still together), who plays the cheating wife of crusty Texas bar owner Dan Hedaya. The always reliable M. Emmett Walsh portrays a somewhat sleazy private detective that Hedaya hires to kill his wife and her lover (John Getz). It's dark, twisted, and absolutely essential stuff.

2. THIS IS SPINAL TAP (Dir. Rob Reiner)

Rob Reiner's directorial debut is one of the funniest, most quotable, and sturdiest satires ever made. As if you don't know already, the film is a "mockumentary" concerning Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer as the core members of a fictional heavy metal band who are followed on an ill-fated tour by Reiner as a documentary film maker amusingly named Marty DiBergi. I've seen it many, many times over the years, and am looking to many more starting with catching one of its multiple screenings at this year's Escapism Festival at the Carolina Theatre in Durham the weekend of September 19th, and on the NC Museum of Art's giant outdoor screen in the theater park on October 4th. Oh, yeah - it will also be shown as part of the long-running Cinema Inc. series on January 11th, 2015. Definitely one that never gets old.

3. REPO MAN (Dir. Alex Cox)

Read what I wrote about this also very quotable '84 offering on its 25th anniversary after attending a screening at the Colony Theater here in Raleigh as part of their Cool Classic series. An extremely cool classic indeed.

4. GHOSTBUSTERS (Dir. Ivan Reitman)
There's been lots of hubbub celebrating the 30th anniversary of this big-time box office champ (it battled BEVERLY HILLS COP for the #1 spot of '84) lately. A theatrical re-release, a new Blu ray special edition, and even a "National Ghostbusters Day" (August 28th, though the film was originally released in June) all go to show that this film has still got it goin' on. That's largely thanks to Bill Murray as the sarcastically cocky pseudo scientist Peter Venkman, but Dan Aykroyd and the late, great Harold Ramis (who both co-wrote the movie) aren't too shabby either. Now please, Aykroyd would you please back off making another one? 

5. AMADEUS (Dir. Milos Forman)

Just re-watched this grandiose Oscar sweeper (it won 8) and loved how still powerful and funny it is. It may be a bit padded with too many scenes in which composer Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) looks on with both amazement and disgust from the wings as his unknowing rival Mozart (Tom Hulce) brilliantly conducts a lavish orchestra (we get it - you hate how great he is), but it has plenty of impact and it proves that lofty prestige pictures don't have to be devoid of fun.

6. ALL OF ME (Dir. Carl Reiner)

Another Reiner (Rob's father) makes the list. Steve Martin should've been Oscar nominated for his role in this fast paced farcical comedy also starring Lily Tomlin in one of her most invested performances. I mean, who else that year pulled off a convincing performance of a man who has a woman trapped in half of his body? Nobody, that's who.

7. STOP MAKING SENSE (Dir. Jonathan Demme)

This incredibly uplifting concert film, which captures The Talking Heads onstage at the Hollywood Pantages Theater in late '83, may be the most joyous rock and roll movie ever. The boundless energy of front man David Byrne, backed by his band mates (Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison, and Tina Weymouth) and a well chosen mix of back-up singers and guest musicians (including members of Parliament-Funkadelic and The Brothers Johnson) bouncing behind him through an amazing set of some of the strongest songs of the '80s makes an exhilarating experience from start to finish. This is being celebrated with a theatrical re-release in many markets, and, I'm happy to report, will also be shown at the NC Art Museum next month.


(Dir. Woody Allen)

It may be a throwaway Woody Allen to some, but I love how this is one of his works that's unconcerned with questioning meaning, or making any statement, it just wants to tell a silly story about a sleazy talent agent who gets caught up in a series of mishaps involving Mia Farrow (with a hilarious Brooklyn accent) as the mistress of his lounge singer client (a wonderful Nick Apollo Forte), that have him on the run from mobsters. The shenanigans are enhanced greatly by the sharp black and white cinematography of Gordon Willis, who recently passed.

9. PARIS, TEXAS (Dir. Wim Wenders)

This spare, visually stunning work is probably the closest to a Foreign film on this list despite being filmed in the scenic desert locations of middle-America. German film maker Wim Wenders, via the Robby Müller's exquisite cinematography, poetically presents Harry Dean Stanton in possibly his most affecting performance as a man on a journey through the Texas desert to reconcile with his wife (Nastassja Kinski).

10. STARMAN (Dir. John Carpenter)

I was a fan of Jeff Bridges long before he became re-branded as "The Dude" and this poignant sci-fi romantic drama (now there's a neglected genre!) is his best '80s film in my book (or on my blog). Bridges got an Oscar nomination for his acute portrayal of an alien that has inhabited the body of the dead husband of the grieving Karen Allen, who's pretty terrific in it too. It also serves as a fun road trip film, which I touched on a few years back in a series of posts covering "Obligatory Road-Trip Vegas Scenes."

Other notable movies of 1984: W.D. Richter's THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI, Paul Mazursky's MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON (Robin Williams' first bearded dramatic role!), Albert Magnoli's PURPLE RAIN (mainly for its concert scenes), John Byrum's THE RAZOR'S EDGE, and Jim Jarmusch's STRANGER THAN PARADISE.

More later...