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by Bill Gibron

5 Aug 2009

There was little doubt about the premise. Even though insider stories rarely connect beyond a niche movie audience, the man behind this particular tale had a clear commercial track record going in. His 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up were hits, and his work as a producer (Talladega Nights, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express) provided numerous examples of box office branding. So letting Judd Apatow center his third directorial effort around stand-up comedy, death, and a kind of cynical, stunted redemption seemed like a decent enough idea. He even had Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, and his regular company of comic foils on hand to walk viewers through this “difficult, dark” experience.

So what happened? How did a sure shot like Funny People end up underperforming over the 31 July weekend? Granted, $23 million is nothing to sneeze at. There’s a few Summer of 2009 titles that would have loved to do that number. But when you are dealing with expectations, hype, previous ticket returns, star power, and perceived competition, Sandler’s serio-comedic evisceration of life in the limelight should have been bigger. Some blame the rating (hard “R” comedies rarely do well). Others looked to the running time (at nearly 150 minutes, theaters lost a valuable additional showing each day). But the truth is that Funny People “failed” - for lack of a better term - because it did the one thing the fanbase didn’t expect: it mixed the sappy with the scatological.

As previously mentioned, Pineapple Express was an Apatow-guided experiment, its story of two stoners suddenly pursued by hitmen and corrupt cops a weirdo combination of pot smoke farce and full blown action film. Critics complained that, by the time characters Dale Denton and Saul Silver were banging on all bong cylinders, the screenplay strayed insanely over into fire fights and fisticuffs. Not only was the change in tone tenuous, but so was the notion that two baked buffoons could actually wield a little bad ass bravado (especially in the guise of Seth Rogen and James Franco) and end up saving the day. Yet thanks to some nimble direction from indie icon David Gordon Green and remarkable performances from the leads, the public bought it.

Funny People suffers from the same third act schizophrenia. For about an hour and forty-five minutes of its overlong running time, Sandler’s George Simmons plays an entertainment Ebenezer Scrooge to Rogen’s genial, if equally jaded Bob Cratchit. When he discovers he is dying from a rare form of leukemia, the fictional mega-movie star, responsible for the kind of cheap commercial drivel that drove the big screen comedy for nearly two decades, decides to take unpolished novice Ira Wright under his wing. Through pain and performances, insights and aggravation, Sandler and Rogen form an uneasy bond, the kind of friendship built more on shared experience and perception rather than deep interpersonal connections.

During this expositional overview of non-erotic Jewish male bonding, Apatow delivers one of the most devastating, and hilarious looks at fame ever. In the supporting characters of Ira’s roommates, we have a superficial sitcom star (Jason Schwartzman) buying into his own myth and a roly-poly comic (Jonah Hill) who is earning all the accolades that our hero desperately wants. Along the fringes are other examples of character disparity. Aziz Ansari plays a goofball performer named Randy who’s like a combination of Andy Kaufman and a service tech at Best Buy, while Aubrey Plaza is a comedian/love interest for Ira so off-kilter and unusual that she barely seems to be standing upright. With Sandler “slumming” in this world, and some amazingly clever cameos (Ray Romano, Eminem), Funny People more than lives up to its title…

…that is, until Laura comes along. Played by Apatow’s real life wife Leslie Mann, she’s Simmons’ dream girl, the one that mattered, the one that got away. Of course, how we learn of her importance is as crucial to Funny People‘s flailing effectiveness overall as any other aspect of the film. You see, Apatow wants to have it both ways. He wants to make Simmons the nastiest of nonplused celebs, the kind of guy who would bail on a charity to bang a couple of chicks. He wants to make this slipping superstar into something more dimensional, more vulnerable, more human - like Jerry Lewis as Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. While we have a couple of great scenes where Simmons confronts his distant family, Apatow believes romantic love is the kind of creative cure-all that audiences will buy. So he takes his sly show business satire, loads up into an SUV, and drives the movie straight to shit.

Now, before we tear down the last third of the film, let’s deal with a side issue. For the last few months, Apatow and his new permanent home Universal (even with this weekend’s numbers, the filmmaker just inked a new three-picture deal) have been putting out one of those formerly fresh, currently cliché “viral” ad campaigns. There are websites devoted to George Simmons and his work, Internet homes for Randy and Yo Teach (Schwartzman’s hilarious hack TV show). A couple of weeks ago, both Comedy Central and HBO began running specials showing the various stand-up performances essayed by the cast for inclusion in the movie. While meant to raise awareness, these unlikely publicity vehicles argued for something Funny People didn’t expect - that is, that some incredibly witty and undeniably humorous material never made it onto the big screen.

When taken in conjunction with what happens once Simmons and his sidekick hit Laura’s San Francisco home, this proves to be Funny People‘s artistic undoing. Any creative type will tell you - you NEVER leave your best material for an afterthought, or in this case, a DVD bonus feature. Especially not when you have an incredibly weak, intermittently effective conclusion causing concern. Indeed, Funny People should have milked the concert and club appearances attended by Sandler, Hill, Rogen, Ansari and Plaza instead of letting our lead play house with a character that’s part starf*cker, part shrew. Laura is not an appealing presence. She comes across as flighty and incomplete. During her initial scenes with Simmons, there is a wistfulness to her affection, a nostalgic need to reconnect and then put to bed (figuratively) their troubled, tenuous past together.

Instead of leaving it there, however, Apatow literally revisits the relationship and throws them in the sack together. Thus begins a sporadic exercise in over the top humor histrionics (Eric Bana, as Mann’s husband, is perhaps the loudest Aussie on the entire planet) and remakes of material that worked 100% better in Knocked Up. Since we never really know what Simmons thinks - he turns incredibly cold and callous once he’s “had” his former flame - and find Ira’s reactions both understandable and irritating, we grow confused. And the last thing you need in a comedy is a sense of unease. It doesn’t offer many laughs, and if continued to excess (which Funny People definitely does), it threatens all that comes before.

Indeed, that’s probably the biggest reason for this film’s less than electrifying returns. One imagines if you stopped any screening at say 105 minutes and asked what the audience thought, you’d get nothing but praise. Maybe a complaint about the plethora of dick jokes on display, but some rather consistent kudos overall. Add the extra 40 minutes, however, and the response is guaranteed to be a little more “diverse”. Some critics have cited this material as some of the movie’s best. Others have seen Laura and her lame, last act schmaltz as the reason that some comic filmmakers require a firmer editorial hand from the studios. When you consider what the movie could have been (Laura out - more stand-up and side material in) and you recognize that Simmons’ arc didn’t need the failed love story finale, you see where Funny People could have landed - and perhaps why it underperformed.

Of course, it’s easy to play backseat driver to someone who actually sits behind the camera and makes his or her own artistic statements, and Apatow clearly believes that the Laura material humanizes and undercuts Simmons unhealthy bluster. But where does this narrative diversion actually lead us, in the end? Does our hero have a personal epiphany, or does he simply remember that he prefers being single and excessively wealthy. Had Laura really mattered, the movie would have ended on said subplot. Instead, Funny People realizes where it should have gone all along - back to George and Ira. Stay with their story, the former’s failing health, the other stand-up struggles, and you’ve got an excellent backstage burlesque. And everything about said section works wonderfully. But by moving over into the maudlin, Funny People lost its way. While hilarious, it ends up feeling half-baked.

by PopMatters Staff

5 Aug 2009

The Resistance
(Warner Bros.)
Releasing: 15 September

01 Uprising   
02 Resistance  
03 Undisclosed Desires  
04 United States of Eurasia (+ Collateral Damage)   
05 Guiding Light  
06 Unnatural Selection  
07 MK Ultra  
08 I Belong to You (+ Mon Coeur S’Ouvre A Ta Voix)   
09 Exogenesis: Symphony Part I (Overture)   
10 Exogenesis: Symphony Part II (Cross Pollination)   
11 Exogenesis Part III (Redemption)

“Uprising” [Stream]

by Rachel Balik

5 Aug 2009

Tom Silverman, founder of Tommy Boy Entertainment and the director of the original New Music Seminar, arranged a redux of the legendary event on July 21st, 2009 to usher in, acknowledge, and anticipate the new forms that the music industry is taking. Silverman’s opening remarks set an implicit tone for the day: The drastic changes that the New Music Seminar would address didn’t just apply to the music business. He did offer many startling statistics about record sales, but he focused not just on comparing 2009 to the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s and ‘90s, but also on the year 2012. Why 2012? Partially, because according to a Mayan prophecy, that’s when the world is ending. Throughout the talk, Silvermen called upon legends, wisdom, and philosophies that seemed to be of much greater global significance than just record sales. Perhaps the heaviness comes from the fact that although things have gotten bad, Silverman’s charts suggested that there’s still room for the business to get worse. That being said, there’s plenty of room for the individual artist to make things better.

Silverman’s goal seemed to be both to instruct and inspire. Just as it wasn’t entirely clear whether citing the Mayan prophecy was mostly in jest, he also added a layer of seriousness by constantly intermittently quoting President Barack Obama. He repeated, “we are the ones we have been waiting for” a few times, with the intent of empowering the artist and encouraging musicians to stop looking to labels for help. Additionally, it was made clear throughout the day that the way the artist gets empowered is by listening to the fans. Of course, that concept is the staple of social media, and it’s a trend that is pervading society as a whole. In fact, it’s the reason why Barack Obama was so successful: He made every person in the country feel like they mattered, and as a result, they rallied behind him in unprecedented numbers.

Musicians need to follow this same trend, because it is the fans who make or break them, and it is the job of music professionals to interpret the data correctly, explained keynote speaker Courtney Holt, president of MySpace. For example, counting the number of times a song gets put on a playlist that a user shares with friends is far more important. The exhibits in the foyer served to affirm this attitude. It’s sharing that matters. It is networks that matters. Fans ultimately decide what other potential fans should hear.

Exhibits at the booths outside the auditorium exemplified this angle. One table was manned by Owngig.com, a site where fans can actually submit requests for artists to do shows. If enough interest generates, the site works with the artist to plan a show. Naturally, it is not a one-sided endeavor: Artists are expected and encouraged to promote themselves through owngig.com as well, and rally the support they need from fans.

One of the sponsors of the event was ourstage.com, a seemingly more involved version of MySpace, where artists upload music and videos and fans get to rank them. Channels are created based on popularity and when artists get popular, they enter the finals, aiming to win prizes that include money, slots at concerts, and even good publicity from hot media outlets. It is created to be an entirely egalitarian, almost socialist, method of helping bands and artists gain exposure and possibly even fame. In the cases of both sites, fans are competing for popularity and success as much as the artists are. The playing field has truly been leveled in an unprecedented way: Both fans and artists are mutually using each other for different types of credibility and recognition.

And of course, that leads us back to the truth which is that no matter how the industry works, talent gets recognized, and there are more people who wish they had talent than people who actually have it. The audience at this event was largely dominated by hopeful musicians and producers looking to network, or just be recognized. Question and answer sessions after each panel were dominated by those determined to shout their own name, plug their next show, or grasp for exposure of their company. Unfortunately, these questions seemed to deviate from the integrity of the panel, and gently remind everyone, as one speaker pointed out, that you can’t “make” something go viral and there are more musicians trying to make it than ever will. The difference now is that all the music is available and everyone can produce an album. That means that in an already suffering industry, there are more alarming statistics than one can shake a drum stick at. Namely, 80 percent of artists are selling less than 100 albums, but that seems to be because over 400,000 records are being made each year.

There is a silver lining to this dark cloud, and it is that artists who sell less than 10,000 albums have seen much less of a plummet in sales than bigger artists. That means that if the small scale independent artists truly makes use of Web 3.0 tools, there is a still a chance of success. As explained in the “Fourth Movement,” your live show and tour, “you’re not descending from the clouds, you’re on Twitter.” Twitter won’t make you good, but if you’re good and you don’t need to be the next Justin Timberlake, it will give you a chance of growing. Hard work and humility dominate. Or as panelist Martin Atkins explained, “If you know that you’re fucked, you’re not. And if you think that you’re not fucked, you are.” Not only wise, but probably Tweet-worthy as well.

by PopMatters Staff

5 Aug 2009

John Vanderslice hooked up with the Magik Magik Orchestra at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to record a live take of “Promising Actress” from 2004’s Cellar Door. (via yourstru.ly)

by Steve Horowitz

4 Aug 2009

The Wanderlust music festival began right on time as the musical/performance-art circus troupe The Muytator hit the stage promptly at 9:00 pm. The Muytator include three drummers with full drum kits, a three horn rhythm section, keyboards, guitar, ex-Oingo Boingo bass player John Avila on bass, and assortment of dancers. The act’s loud funk/ska music and showy acrobatics energized the crowd, many of whom had attended the concurrent peaceful yoga festival at the site earlier in the day.

The two most notable aspects of The Muytator’s show were the use of fire and the sexiness of the dancers. These elements frequently combined in exotic and erotic combinations as the performers would twirl lit swords and balls of fire on chains while enacting ritualized love scenes that included plenty of bumps and grinds. Despite the volume of the music, the attention was almost always focused on the sultry, if a bit purposely sleazy, performers.

While the physical use of incendiary objects got things hot, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings showed how the power of soul can get things even hotter. The Dap-Kings began the performance with some tight instrumental numbers while teasing the audience about what was coming up ahead, before finally introducing Jones and turning the flames up a notch.

Jones went through her repertoire of songs from her first two albums, with crowd pleasers like “I’m Not Gonna Cry”, “How Do I Let a Good Man Down”, “My Man is a Mean Man“, and more, all the time strutting and dancing. She and the Dap-Kings were in perfect sync, starting and stopping on a dime, as Jones would go into a tirade about the kind of respect she expected after coming home from work or the behavior she expected from someone to whom she gave her love.

Jones encouraged crowd participation and at times the audience was so loud they drowned out the amplified Jones and her band. She also called up various members of the crowd onstage, as well as the dancers from The Muytator, and had them sing and dance along with her on the steamy love songs. Even with the improvisational nature of performing with others she had not practiced with, Jones never missed a beat or a note. The 53-year-old Brooklyn by way of Georgia singer said she was worried about not being able to keep up because the show was held in the mountains, but Jones’ energy never flagged. Jones and company played until after midnight to a satisfied audience.


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