Thursday, June 23, 2011

Talking Funny [television review]

* Premiered in April on HBO and HBO Canada
In Talking Funny, comedians Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Louis C.K., and Ricky Gervais discuss the art of stand-up comedy and what it takes to perform it. If that description sounds like a recipe for boredom for those of you not aspiring to take the stage at the local Yuk Yuk's, then you'd be mistaken. Talking Funny is a fascinating insight into the craft of an occupation of which Seinfeld says, "No one is more judged in civilized society than a stand-up comedian. Every 12 seconds you're rated". There may be a just a tad of hyperbole in that statement, but no doubt, it requires a unique skill set level, something that three of the four of these top tier stand-ups possess (Gervais is still relatively new to it and, as funny as he is, just isn't in their class yet).
In the field of stand-up comedy, Seinfeld and Rock need no introduction. C.K. is lesser known, but has over 20 years of stand-up experience, along with a couple of starring roles (as well as writing and producing credits) in sitcoms you likely missed: Lucky Louie, one of my favourite sitcoms ever, ran on HBO for one and a half seasons, and Louie is returning for its second season starting tonight on the FX network. What the shows lack in creative titling they make up for in edgy, clever humour. Gervais, of course, is best known for his television shows The Office and Extras, as well as an oddly forgettable (in comparison to his superlative TV work) burgeoning film career. He's at his funniest, however, while hosting his extensive series of podcasts and audiobooks with partners Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington.
Gervais, who executive produces, acts as an informal moderator, loosely steering the conversation to certain subjects that reveal the inner workings of the art form from the comedians' perspectives. Each comedian has their own distinct style, and while there's an obvious mutual respect for each other's talent, there's an engrossing level of civilized disagreement between the foursome on stand-up philosophies and methods. Seinfeld only adds about 10% of new material to his latest act and C.K. and Rock like to come up with a whole new show every year, which prompts Seinfeld, with mock disdain, to respond to with, "Alright, fine...can we get some real comedians in here?". Everyone but Seinfeld works "filthy", as C.K. describes it (Seinfeld is notorious for his clean act). C.K. discusses challenging himself by taking his strongest bit, which he used to close his shows with, and then deciding to open some of his subsequent shows with the same bit, a philosophy that Seinfeld marvels at. Seinfeld has never performed a sound check, while Rock always does one, just to get the feel and scope of the venue he's playing. Another area of disagreement focuses on whether a stand-up with lesser talent, who still manages to achieve a high level of success, can sustain that over the course of a lengthy career (the name "Dane Cook" seems to be implied during the discussion, but his name is never used).
Although these are comedians discussing the best way to tell jokes, there's a consistently high level of thoughtful and intellectual discourse occurring during the show. Seinfeld reveals that Rock's old bit on the differences between "white porn" and "black porn" were an enlightening insight into the differences between the two races. There's also some clever metaphors and analogies delivered: Rock likens a stand-up's ongoing relationship with their audience to that of a romantic relationship ("Your woman is with you because you assumes she loves you because she's there every day, but you still have to work on her liking you for this to work."), Seinfeld compares C.K. being able to get away with a rape joke to "tap dancing over six laser beams", and C.K. describes why he likes to refresh his act regularly ("There's a weird, almost fruit-like cycle to it, because it gets ripe and then starts rotting a little bit for me.").
With Talking Funny, HBO takes a simple concept that certainly isn't wholly original (The Green Room With Paul Provenza has a similar format and let's not forget Jon Favreau's sorely missed Dinner For Five series), but succeeds in being the most entertaining 50 minutes I've watched on the flat screen this year. In fact, that's my only gripe, that this one-off special wasn't longer. More, please.
Rating: ★★★★

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Clarence Clemons: 1942-2011

Just before going to sleep earlier this morning, I went online for a final catch up on the news and read the headline I'd been dreading I'd see for the last week: E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons had died. Since his stroke last week, it seemed that a man who had been in extremely poor health over the last decade or so was slipping even further downhill. At the very least, it seemed highly unlikely most of us would ever see him play onstage again. That's a selfish thought, I know, but a natural one for any hardcore Bruce Springsteen fan, such as myself. From the Springsteen fan perspective, a Bruce show with the E Street Band minus Clemons would simply not have been the same experience. Sadly, the "would" has now become a "will".
I've been a Springsteen fan for some 30 years now, although I never got around to seeing him live until 2003. Since then, I've seen him six times, including a couple of five hour drives to Ottawa for shows. Part of the reason for seeing him so much the last few years was to make up for lost time, plus the fact I wanted to see the original E Street Band while the members were still with us. Keyboardist Danny Federici was the first of the group to pass on, in 2008. With all due respect, Federici was possibly the least visible member of the group, tucked behind his keyboards at the side of the stage and always exhibiting a fairly low-key personality. Still, his presence was conspicuously missed on Springsteen shows following his death. Don't get me wrong, Springsteen and his band still put on a phenomenal show, but it just wasn't quite the same any more. Clemons' absence on Springsteen's right side of the stage now leaves a huge hole, not just from his imposing physical presence, but his centrepiece sax solos and comical interplay with The Boss.
One of my lingering memories of Clemons occurred at one of those Ottawa shows a few years back. I was standing in the front row and a couple of times when he made his way closer to my side of the stage I had a couple of those "eye contact moments" with him that one gets when they've got a stellar vantage point at a concert. He had that great smile on his face and I know that he was just doing what performers do, that it's just part of the show for them and as soon as his eyes left me he was just on to someone else whose face he likely wouldn't have recognized if you showed him a picture of them ten minutes later. For me, however, it meant something more - it added to the great experience I had at the show, just knowing that the dude who blew the solo on friggin' "Born To Run" had locked eyes with me, if only for a brief moment. Yes, I know that sounds like I'm completely geeking out - guilty as charged (and proud of it). Another memory from that show involves seeing him and Bruce take an unplanned spill a mere few feet in front of me while the pair were goofing around mid-song. If you've seen Clemons play onstage the past few years, you'll know that it was downright painful watching him move around, as he was hobbled by multiple hip replacements, knee replacements, and other assorted maladies. More so than watching the star attraction take a header, you could almost feel the entire audience gasp as the fragile Clemons, who was quite a few years older than anyone else in the E Street Band, went down. Both were okay, probably more embarrassed than anything.
The last work Clemons released before his death was the sax solo he contributed to Lady Gaga's newest single, "The Edge Of Glory". Most Springsteen fans would likely deem that an unfitting, undistinguished capper to the man's legendary body of work (and who knows what unreleased material featuring Clemons that Springsteen has lying around), but I'm okay with it. Nobody in music is as high profile as her right now, so hopefully their collaboration inspires one of Gaga's "little monsters" (as she calls her fans) to go and check out some music with a lot more substance from Springsteen's catalog, featuring Clemons' beautiful playing on tracks such as "Jungleland", "Night", or "Secret Garden", just to name a few.
R.I.P., Big Man.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides [film review]

* Released theatrically in May
Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides came out a month ago, but it already feels like it's been much longer, what with the weekly onslaught of expensive and high profile movies that have followed. Our last visit with the Disney franchise was 2007's bloated and confusing POTC: At World's End, which creatively suggested the series had run its course and had a ridiculous running time of just under three hours. Financial success, however, trumps a mere artistic misstep, as that film made just south of a billion dollars worldwide during its theatrical release. Another go round was a no-brainer, as long as star Johnny Depp was up for it (and Disney probably would have found a way to do another one even if Depp had declined to participate). The booty haul for On Stranger Tides after just four weeks? A mere $900,000 worldwide so far, including the biggest international opening for a movie ever.
A dramatic reworking of the cast finds previous stars Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly out, with their camera time being replaced by Ian McShane (as Blackbeard) and Penélope Cruz (who plays Angelica, his daughter). McShane is perfectly cast and does a serviceable job with the thin material he has to work with that allows him to pull from his "chew the scenery" playbook. Cruz is fairly forgettable, and there's a surprising lack of chemistry between her and Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow character (the characters have a rocky romantic history and demonstrate a half-hearted flirtation over the course of the film). Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa character makes a return as well, although with Blackbeard now playing the story's heavy it reduces Barbossa to being an ally of former enemy Sparrow, which significantly dulls the edges of the character.
The plot is less muddled than those from the second and third movies in the series, which Depp admitted were overly complicated in an interview from the May 23rd issue of Entertainment Weekly magazine. In it, he relates a conversation he had with Gore Verbinski, the films' director, about one of the fuzzy storylines, where he tells Verbinski that he doesn't understand what part of the script means. This provokes the response, "Neither do I, but let's just shoot it". On Stranger Tides may be a little more concise in the story department, but it still feels half-baked. The adventure this time around involves a search for the fabled Fountain Of Youth, with all parties taking whatever means necessary (including double crossing and backstabbing each other) to reach their destination first. The plot's central focus sets up the best line of the movie from Keith Richards (making another cameo as Sparrow's father), who rhetorically asks his son, "Does this face look like it's found the Fountain Of Youth?".
The technical aspects of the movie are, expectedly, top notch. Hell, for an estimated production budget of $250 million the filmmakers better at least get that part of the movie right. Director Rob Marshall, taking over for Verbinski, is no stranger to helming big, flashy movies - he directed Chicago and Nine. One of the new wrinkles here is that the film was shot in 3-D, which produces some occasional moments where the effect works decently enough, although usually it's of the "sword coming towards the lens" variety. Really though, it isn't worthwhile enough to feel like anything other than just another movie studio cash grab, which the public seems to be getting a little hipper to: despite On Stranger Tides' massive box office success, 3-D ticket sales for the film have underperformed.
Depp's character, the series' one consistent strength, gets far too much screen time, and much of Sparrow's roguish charm has now lost its lustre. Clocking in at a still overlong two hours and seventeen minutes, On Stranger Tides is a lightweight, fun enough romp, but this film is the textbook definition of a movie franchise going through the motions and placing commerce ahead of anything else.
Rating: ★★★★