Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On


A couple of showbiz broads remembering when.

(2019) Documentary (Abramorama) Kaye Ballard, Michael Feinstein, Rex Reed, Carol Burnett, Woody Allen, Carol Channing, Joy Behar, Bernie Kopell, Peter Marshall, Elaine Paige, Liz Smith, Jerry Stiller, Harold Prince, Sandy Stewart, Ann-Margaret, Mimi Hines, Mark Sendroff, Carole Cook, Donna McKechnie. Directed by Dan Wingate

Unless you’re a Broadway-phile or of a certain age group that gets special dining privileges at Golden Corral, the name of Kaye Ballard may not necessarily be familiar to you. Those who know her likely remember her from her two-year stint on the sitcom The Mothers-in-Law with Eve Arden, or as a supporting player on The Doris Day Show – in both TV shows, playing a high-strung Italian mom, a role for which she would be typecast later in her career.

She was born Catherine Balotta in Cleveland to Italian immigrants and she knew from an early age that she wanted to be in show business, going to see symphonies at Severance Hall. She started out as a teen singing in Vaudeville shows. One of her performances was caught by Spike Jones, a legendary orchestra leader who Dr. Demento fans remember fondly. As gifted a comedienne as she was, it was her singing voice that was captivating and it was that which took her to Broadway during the Golden Age of the Great White Way.

Throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s she wasn’t exactly the Queen of Broadway but she was one of its most popular singers, leading to appearances on all sorts of talk shows and variety shows on television (including a memorable appearance playing the flute with Henry Mancini on his own show, an appearance she lampooned on a later visit to The Muppet Show).

This documentary features her career from her early film appearances to recordings of her Broadway hits to her television appearances to her late-in-life supper club and nightclub performances (she was still performing in her nineties). It concentrates on her professional life, rarely intruding on her personal life. Ballard is gregarious and a joyful storyteller and Wingate intersperses the archival footage and the lengthy interview with Ballard with testimonials from friends and colleagues, including such luminaries as Woody Allen, Carol Burnett, Ann-Margaret (whom she opened for in Vegas), legendary Broadway diva Carol Channing, Harold Prince (one of the most revered directors in the history of stage musicals), comedian Jerry Stiller, Joy Behar of The View and her friend, longtime gossip columnist Liz Smith.

The footage shows an extraordinary talent – she could belt out a showstopping number with all the vocal power of an Ethel Merman or sing tenderly from the heart a la Judy Garland (of whom she did a dead-on impression). The film packs a lot of info into its hour and a half running time and at times seems to be moving at a dizzying speed – Wingate could have easily stretched this out into a two to three-hour extravaganza and not have lacked for material to fill out the time.

Ballard passed shortly after the film was completed at age 93. She never got the acclaim and success she deserved, but she didn’t seem to mind that so much – she loved the life she led and when asked if she would do it all over again if she had the opportunity, she quipped “You bet your ass I would.” While her recordings are a little bit hard to find and some of her musical appearances sadly out of print, she is worth seeking out and this film not only presents a marvelous introduction to her talent but also takes us back to an era in entertainment that is essentially gone forever and of which we will never see the like of again. Kaye Ballard may have taken her final curtain call, but with this documentary the show will indeed go on so long as there are those who love the music and the performances of a much more innocent era. Quite a legacy for an immigrant’s daughter from Cleveland.

REASONS TO SEE: Shows the talent that Ballard possessed. Reminds of a golden era that we ill never see the like of again.
REASONS TO AVOID: The background music is intrusive and unwelcome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ballard, Channing, Prince, Smith and Stiller have all passed away since this was shot.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carol Channing: Larger Than Life
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Isn’t It Romantic?

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The Trip to Greece


A couple of badass comedians walking the mean streets of Greece.

(2020) Comedy (IFC)  Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Timothy Leach, Claire Keenan, Rebecca Johnson, Tessa Walker, Michael Towns, Kareen Alkabbani, Marta Barrio, Richard Clews, Cordelia Budeja, Harry Tayler, Justin Edwards, Soraya Mahalia Hatner. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

While they’re no Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Trip pictures have always been welcome additions to the schedule at our beloved Enzian Theater; in fact, the film was scheduled to play the now-postponed Florida Film Festival this past April.

Like the previous trips to the North of England, Italy and Spain, Coogan and Brydon are traveling through some beautiful countryside, eating amazing meals with incredible vistas. As always, Coogan and Brydon are playing “exaggerated” versions of themselves, and the conceit here is that Coogan is writing a restaurant review piece for a newspaper loosely following the route that Odysseus took from Troy to Ithaca in The Odyssey. Along the way, they trade barbs, try to one-up each other with celebrity impressions and deal with situations going on back home; in Coogan’s case, an ill father and in Brydon’s, a suspicion that his extended absences might be getting to his wife (Johnson).

This version is a little bit darker than the first three; some of the banter between the two men reveal some frustrations between them and the situation with Coogan’s dad – which he keeps from Brydon – clearly wears on him as we see nightmares that clearly have to do with him being away from his father at a critical juncture.

Both men are well into their 50s now (as am I) and mortality is beginning to creep into their consciousness. For the first time, Brydon brings his wife along for a portion of the tour, and Coogan’s feelings about his father’s mortality are clearly not something he wants to face. In the meantime, he boasts whenever he has the opportunity about his awards that he’s won. “What are you most proudest of?” queries Rob. Steve responds, not-so-modestly, “My seven BAFTAs” (a combination of Oscars and Emmys in the UK). Rob says that he’s proudest of his children, to which Steve says “That’s because you don’t have any BAFTAs” to which Rob replies “No, but you have children, eh? Interesting…”

And, yes, there are some great comedy bits with references to Coogan’s BAFTA-nominated role as Stan Laurel in Stan & Ollie, to which the two do a bit as Stan Laurel and Tom Hardy, which isn’t quite as funny as it sounds on paper. However, better is the bit with Mich Jagger and Keith Richards which ends with Coogan (who was Jagger) opining that “When Keith Richards laughs, it’s like the last death throes of Muttley” referencing the children’s cartoon.

Basically, this is fairly formulaic but it’s a good formula, although it’s wearing thin. I suspect that if they do stick to their guns and make this the last Trip movie, it would be a good thing as I can see little reason to keep flogging a dead gourmet. However, a part of me can’t help wishing that they find reasons to do more.

REASONS TO SEE: As always, the movie is at its best when Coogan and Brydon are riffing and doing dueling impressions.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really too different from the other Trip films.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth and apparently final entry in the Trip series, which are all distillations of longer TV shows.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Green Book

The Trip to Spain


Tilting at windmills is hard work.

(2017) Comedy (IFC) Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Marta Barrio, Claire Keelan, Justin Edwards, Rebecca Johnson, Timothy Leach, Kerry Shale, Kyle Soller, Margo Stilley. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

 

The Trip movies – first to the North of England, then to Italy – have relied on a formula in which real life actors Coogan and Brydon, bringing only slightly fictionalized versions of themselves to bear, travel for a week in a beautiful, scenic location to tour some of the best restaurants and inns locally after which one of them (Brydon in the first two, Coogan here) write an article about it.

Things have changed somewhat since the first movie. Coogan is now Oscar-nominated actor (and writer) Steve Coogan and the success has most definitely gone to his head as he slips references to Philomena into the conversation whenever humanly possible – and occasionally when it isn’t. Rob has a new child in the family and the squalling baby is enough to get him hastily out of the house and back on the road with Steve.

Other than that, it’s basically business as usual; car drives through lovely countryside, stops at lesser known points of interest (to us Americans anyway) stopping at amazing restaurants where a multi-course meal awaits The two men banter at table, breaking into dueling celebrity impressions with Winterbottom denoting the end of the conversation by breaking away to chefs hard at work in the kitchen followed by a waiter bringing out a magnificent looking gourmet dish at which point the two begin a new conversation

Hey, the formula has worked for the first two movies and I’m generally an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” kind of guy, but a little more variation might have been nice. While it’s true there is a more melancholy, autumnal air in that both men are into their 50s and have begun to suspect that their career aspirations may be passing by the reality of their accomplishments, the basic layout of the film is the same as the other two. It’s like listening to an album with exactly the same cover and layout as two other albums, only the songs are slightly sadder than the first two albums but strikingly similar in melody and lyrics.

The draw for these movies continues to be the byplay between Coogan and Brydon, much of which (I suspect) is improvised. The two snipe at each other in a passive-aggressive manner, but hurl bon mots at one another like grenades. The two have an easy, companionable camaraderie that makes it feel like you’ve dropped by to hang out with a couple of old friends, only they’re eating way better than you are. Suddenly that movie popcorn doesn’t feel quite so gourmet, even with the Parmesan-Garlic powder that has been sprinkled on it.

This is distinctly British and like the other two films is actually a condensed version of a miniseries that was broadcast on British television. Sadly, the complete versions of the shows are not yet available so far as I know in the States; I suspect there are a ton of references ignorant Americans like me will not get. Still, It’s always a good thing when you want more of something rather than less.

The movie leaves open-ended (despite one of the more surprising endings of the series) the possibility that another chapter will be headed our way. The filmmakers are certainly missing The Trip to France and The Trip to Greece, among other places although I wouldn’t mind seeing them in The Trip to America somewhere down the road. Even so these movies, one part comedy, one part travelogue and lots of parts food porn, continue to not overstay their welcome. This is the weakest of the three but it’s still strong enough to make me see where the road takes these two comics next.

REASONS TO GO: The easy camaraderie between Brydon and Coogan continues to be a highlight for the films. The Bowie and Roger Moore sequences are hysterical.
REASONS TO STAY: This is the weakest of the three so far as it feels somewhat formulaic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, a hint of sexuality, some adult themes and plenty of food porn.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The song “The Windmills of Your Mind” by Noel Harrison figures in the movie and is played over the end credits; a different version of the song by The King’s Singers was played at the end of the final episode of Coogan’s popular TV series I’m Alan Partridge.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paris Can Wait
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Only Living Boy in New York

The Trip to Italy


Behind Brydon and Coogan, things get a little less clear.

Behind Brydon and Coogan, things get a little less clear.

(2014) Comedy (IFC) Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Claire Keelan, Marta Barrio, Rosie Fellner, Timothy Leach, Ronni Ancona, Rebecca Johnson, Alba Foncuberta, Flora Villani. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Florida Film Festival 2014

Some may remember the 2010 British road trip comedy The Trip with British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing fictionalized versions of themselves going to the North of England to review fine dining restaurants for a newspaper. The two comedians got to riff with one another and trade impressions, check out locations made famous by poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and take stock of their careers and lives. The movie did surprisingly well in the States, amassing a cult following and becoming a popular rental on Netflix.

Now it’s time for the sequel and as we all know the sequel is supposed to be bigger, better and more of the same things that made the first film successful. This particular sequel adheres to that formula and does it well enough to make that rarest of the rare – a sequel that surpasses its original.

This time, it is Brydon – the happily married man – who is given the assignment to write restaurant reviews but this time it’s not the North of England but the Amalfi coast of Italy that is the destination and it is Coogan, whose American television show that he had accepted at the conclusion of the first movie has just been canceled, as the plus one.

The roles are somewhat reversed as Brydon, whose marriage seems to have lost its spark, flirts and at last has an affair with a pretty boat captain (Fellner) while Coogan goes all-out to reconnect with his son (Leach) whom he has rescued from a “boring Ibiza trip.” Yeah, we all know those endless discos and beach days can be a drag.

Like the first movie, the two comedians display dueling celebrity impressions, trade zingers and follow English romantic poets (in this case Shelley and Keats) while sampling gourmet food (with plenty of food porn shots) and seemingly ignoring the grand vistas of the Amalfi coast. Winterbottom makes sure that there are plenty of homages to Hollywood classics from the Mini-Cooper that the two men rent (from the original The Italian Job) to the spectacular cliffside Casa Malaparte that Godard used to such great effect in Contempt to the Camparian villa where John Huston and Humphrey Bogart shot parts of Beat the Devil.

And of course those impressions I mentioned. Expanding on the Michael Caine-a-rama that they utilized in the first movie, they expand it into a Batman-centric affair which morphs into a harried assistant director trying to get Tom Hardy to enunciate more clearly as Bane. It is one of the more hysterical moments you’ll see all year.

There’s also Brydon’s signature Small Man in a Box which he uses in Pompeii to our great amusement and Coogan’s disgust. I have to admit that it was a bit irreverent but I think we can safely say it’s not too soon.

I hope the two men continue to make movies together in this fashion (this is actually their third venture with Winterbottom playing versions of themselves). Hopefully this will achieve the kind of success the first film did, pulling in north of two million dollars which for an indie which got virtually no promotion is outstanding. This is actually opening in July (and is slated to come to the Enzian the following month) but as this is the last of my Florida Film Festival reviews for awhile, hopefully this will whet your appetite (figuratively and literally) for the movie when it does make its way to a theater (hopefully) near you.

REASONS TO GO: Coogan and Brydon are just as funny together. Wonderful cinematography.

REASONS TO STAY: Pretty much the same film as the first only more of it.

FAMILY VALUES:  A bit of salty language here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As with the first movie, first saw the light of day as a miniseries on the BBC which was later condensed down to feature film form for theatrical release.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Life in Ruins

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Fault in Our Stars

The Trip


The Trip

British comedians Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan share a few laughs over dinner.

(2010) Comedy (IFC) Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Margo Stilley, Claire Keelan, Rebecca Johnson, Dolya Gavanski, Kerry Shale, Paul Popplewell. Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Road trips can be wonderful things. The people who go with us can start off as family or friends or even strangers but by the end of the trip, the shared experiences inevitably change the relationship. The more we get to know each other, the more our relationship changes.

Steve Coogan (Coogan), a well-known English comic actor accepts a gig writing an article for an English newspaper that will involve a tour of restaurants in the North of England. He does this to impress his American girlfriend Mischa (Stilley) who decides on the eve of the tour to spend some time apart from him and returns to America. Coogan doesn’t want to do this tour alone and after some finagling, manages to get Rob Brydon (Brydon), with whom he previously worked in the movie Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.

Steve picks up Rob, a happy family man loathe to leave his wife and infant child, at his home and away they head to the North. There, in Yorkshire and Cumbria they’ll dine in Michelin-star rated restaurants, stay in 5-star hotels, banter at each other in the uncomfortable way of work colleagues thrust into a situation where they are together so much they are running out of things to say, and trade celebrity impressions at one another.

This originally began life as a six-hour miniseries on British television. It has been condensed down to a nearly two hour movie, edited for American sensibilities. Director Winterbottom is one of Britain’s most dependable directors, A Mighty Heart, Welcome to Sarajevo, Tristram Shandy and Code 46 among his filmography. Here, he doesn’t really have a lot to do – just point his camera at the two comedians (and occasionally at the lovely vistas of the English north and Lake district) and let them and the scenery do the rest. Sounds easy, but there are plenty of directors who have messed that simple formula up.

Coogan and Brydon have the easy familiarity of men who respect and like each other, and have worked well together in the past. Here the best moments are when they riff off of each other, trading impressions and needling each other about their British television personas. The farther we go into the picture, the more intimate the conversations get – not so much in a sexual sense but in a personal sense as they delve into each others fears, their lives and their hopes.  

You have to keep in mind that this isn’t a documentary – these are men playing characters based on themselves, although how loosely is a matter for debate. Coogan, for example, is divorced and has a daughter – not a son, as depicted in the movie. The movie ends somewhat enigmatically but at least it doesn’t disappoint.

Along the way there are visits to Steve’s parents and some brilliant riffing in the car, including the two men singing Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” near where the Bronte sisters wrote the book that inspired it. They are almost like a married couple, sniping at one another.

Maybe that’s why Rob gets a bit testy about Steve’s regular sexual encounters with women he meets along the way, from a Polish hotel clerk to a photographer he’d shagged before and hadn’t remembered doing it. In the meantime Rob has phone sex with his wife (or attempts to) but can’t resist breaking into impressions of Hugh Grant. In fact his constant willingness to break into different voices that grates on Steve’s nerves.

The humor is a bit on the dry side so for those who don’t appreciate the British sense of humor you might find this off-putting. For the rest of us, this is a six hour television show reduced to less than two so there is certainly a feeling that you are missing some connections here. Still in all, it looks like it would have been a fun trip to have been along for the ride on – and by that standard, you have to say this movie is a successful one.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous chemistry between the two. Improvisational pieces are the best moments in the film.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the references are too British at times. The humor can be a bit dry. The ending is a bit odd.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality, some violence, a few disturbing images and some depictions of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There’s some swearing and a little bit of sexuality.

HOME OR THEATER: This character study can easily be studied in the comforts of your home.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Bicentennial Man