Film Threat Review: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

2011
Unrated
89 minutes

****

There is a hell of a lot going on in “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop.” It is essentially a complete portrait of a man. We’ve seen profile films before, but they usually just focus on the performance side of the subject. Rodman Flender’s film goes so much deeper, giving us an all-access pass into Conan’s brain. It’s a fascinating, scary and, of course, hilarious place. This is a man who wears his heart on his sleeve but protects it with a thin candy shell of biting humor. By the end, we really know him. Trouble is, once you really get to know people, you might not like them as much.

“Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” has a lot in common with “Don’t Look Back” (1967), the documentary that revealed Bob Dylan as a brilliant prick. Though Flender has a long history with Conan, he didn’t impose any discernible bias in editing. He just turned the camera on and let the man reveal himself. This approach wouldn’t work for everyone. But when the subject is a firecracker like Conan, it’s practically the only way.

The film catches up with Conan soon after he receives his pink slip from NBC. As part of a tidy severance package, he is forbidden to appear on television for six months following his termination. Conan agrees to the terms but breaks out into a cold sweat at the thought of sitting on his ass for that long. So he immediately hatches a plan to launch a tour. He’ll bring a live show across the continent to repay all the loyal fans of Team Coco. At least, that’s the motivation he cites. But soon, it becomes clear that there is a secondary reason for going on the road. Simply put, Conan is addicted to performing. He absolutely needs his nightly dose of audience validation. It’s not clear what would happen if he went too long without it but something tells me we don’t want to find out. If he’s not playing to a studio or theatre audience, he’s going for laughs in the office, writer’s room, hotel suite, airport runway or street corner. One of the numbers in his stage show is a cover of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” with the altered lyrics, “I can’t wait to get my own show again.” He’s anticipating the next fix when the proverbial needle is still in his arm. It’s a sickness (That’s his word, by the way). Conan O’Brien literally can’t stop going for the laugh.

Comedy is a simple word with a complex definition. For the Dane Cooks and Carlos Mencias of the world, it is just entertainment. For others, including Conan, it’s a lot closer to art. Though I’ve never been a fan of the talk show format, I’ve always respected what Conan does with it. He’s infiltrating a very mainstream form of entertainment, injecting the classic dick-and-fart-joke style with a cocktail of cerebral subversion. I’m not sure that everyone who watches his show gets that. I don’t mean to sound pretentious. A lot of his fans are very intelligent, perceptive people. But some of them are folks who don’t want to think too much about the things that make them laugh. It’s because of his ability to straddle highbrow and lowbrow comedy that he’s earned so many rabidly loyal fans from all walks of life.

He assures the camera that it’s not that he’s unappreciative. It’s not that he feels entitled. But there are times when he seems unappreciative and there are times when he acts entitled. He has several diva moments throughout the film. In one, he threatens to fire his long-suffering assistant when his take-out order is messed up. Even though she wasn’t even the one who made the mistake, he uses it as cautionary tale for not following instructions. “If you were an airline pilot, people would be dead right now,” he tells her. At one point, he compares himself to Anne Frank. He’s barely joking. Later, he admits that he’s “hard on [himself] and it bleeds onto other people.” So at least he’s not without perspective. He knows when he’s being an asshole, but he just can’t help himself.

The title doesn’t just allude to the tour, but to Conan’s general inability to turn himself off. He complains of being exhausted but schedules extra performances on his days off. He whines that everyone wants a piece of him, but he never says no to the fans on the street or the endless parade of celebrities and VIPs who invade his suite after every show. He worries that he will lose his voice, but he never stops babbling and joking. Sometimes the jokes get a little mean. During a meeting, he decrees that his staff must speak to him using a banana as a phone. All they want to do is finish the meeting, but, eventfully, they comply. You probably didn’t realize that “30 Rock’s” Jack McBrayer was even capable of frowning but it’s all he does when Conan mercilessly mocks him in a redneck voice and improvises a tune called “You Stupid Hick” for a room full of people.

Conan isn’t just a brilliant dick, though. He’s also a really nice guy who is very angry about getting screwed over by a network to whom he gave 22 years of his life. The tour is his much-needed rebound. He exorcises a hell of a lot of demons on that stage. Despite being run ragged from the show and the schmoozing, he still goes balls to the wall every night for his audience. He never brings any of his bitterness, weariness or baggage to the stage. He never lets his fans see how exhausted he is by their demands for autographs and ten different photo combinations. Sometimes, he even says nice things to his assistant. It’s possible that since his return to television, he’s found a balance that’s more Dr. Jekyll than Mr. Hyde. However, he frequently hints that making mean jokes is how he deals (or doesn’t deal) with stress. Though not as demanding as a tour, having your own show probably isn’t a walk in the park.

Rest assured, within all this therapy fodder is a very funny movie. Like I said, Conan is a brilliant comedian. Furthermore, his talent is completely innate. He delivers some of his best jokes off stage. It doesn’t hurt that Andy is often in tow. I’m fairly certain Andy Richter hasn’t met an awkward situation he couldn’t defuse with a perfectly timed one-liner. Andy is Conan’s Jiminy Cricket, keeping him from falling all the way down the Ass Hole. Whenever Andy is missing, the tone of the room is much heavier.

As is often the case with genuine people, Conan’s anger comes from a well-meaning place. He just wants to do his best at all times. He is his own worst critic. Conan O’Brien has definitely taken James Brown’s place as the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. He deserves all the praise he receives. Besides, if he were only the happy-go-lucky leprechaun from TV, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting a film. “I might be a fucking genius or I may be the biggest dick ever,” he surmises. “Or maybe both.” I’m pretty sure it’s both.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

SIFF Review: Being Elmo – A Puppeteer’s Journey

2011
Unrated
76 minutes

****

Not many people have the drive and conviction to see their childhood dreams realized. If it were commonplace, you wouldn’t be reading this review because I would be too busy being an astronaut/actress/veterinarian to write it. Kevin Clash is one man who was able to turn his childhood dream of being a puppeteer on Sesame Street into a reality. Constance Marks’ documentary, “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey,” is as fun and charming as the iconic red monster himself.

Since he was a little boy growing up in Baltimore, Kevin Clash knew he wanted to be a puppeteer. Like many children who faithfully watched “Captain Kangaroo,” “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show,” Clash longed to dive into the magical world he saw on TV. Only Clash didn’t just want to hang out with Muppets. He wanted to create and operate them. He scrutinized the images on the screen, trying to figure out how the puppets were made and brought to life. When he was 10 years old, he made his first puppet out of the lining of his father’s coat. The Clash family was not well to do, but the puppet was so good that Clash’s dad wasn’t mad. He just said, “Next time, ask.”

Clash started putting on shows around the neighborhood and soon landed a job on a local children’s show. It wasn’t until his mother cold-called head Muppet designer Kermit Love that Clash set out on the path to becoming the man behind one of the most beloved characters in the history of children’s television.

At this point, I may have lost some of you. But I promise that this feel-good movie really will make you feel good. For one thing, who doesn’t love the Muppets? Anyone born after 1970 will surely have connected with at least one of Jim Henson’s creations. There were so many characters and personalities, represented in the Muppet world and even the grouchiest among them were still lovable. One of the coolest things about Marks’ film is that it’s not just the story of Clash and Elmo. It’s also a first-hand account of what it was like to be part of the Jim Henson Company from its infancy. It’s remarkable how much of Clash’s journey took place on camera from his audition for Captain Kangaroo to behind-the-scenes work on his first Henson film (“Labyrinth”) and his eventual rise to lead puppeteer on “Sesame Street.” At his first visit to Kermit’s workshop when he was a teenager, Clash finally learns the Jim Henson stitch that had eluded him for so long. You can actually see him light up on camera as his years-long curiosity is sated. “Being Elmo” is a rare opportunity to watch what is essentially an entire career in fast motion.

The staggering talent on screen may also entertain you. Sure, he’s been practicing puppeteering since he was a child, but the fluidity with which Clash brings Elmo and other puppets alive is completely mind-blowing. We see a little bit of how he works when he teaches puppeteering to the cast of the French “Sesame Street.” He can turn any flapping-mouthed Muppet into a nuanced character with the slightest hand motion. He explains that you must always keep the puppet alive even when they aren’t speaking. It sounds so simple, but when you watch him work, you can see that it takes tremendous skill to pull it off.

If Muppet love or puppet mastery doesn’t hook you, then maybe Elmo himself will do it. When Clash first got a hold of the puppet, Elmo was a gravelly-voiced simpleton. Most people could take him or leave him, including the original puppeteer. Clash gave Elmo a complete overhaul by creating the hook behind the character. In his own words, “Elmo is love.” He modeled the character after his own sweet, loving, unconditionally supportive parents and made him enthusiastic, fun loving and all about the hugs. In one indicative scene, a terminally ill child has chosen to spend one of her last days with Elmo. If that doesn’t make your eyes well up then you need to take a nap inside a Tauntaun because you are ice cold.

It’s unusual for an artist with that amount of innate talent to lead a drama-free life. But apart from one divorce and some difficulty finding time for his own daughter, Clash is a totally normal guy. Better than normal since he spends the majority of his time on the road bringing Elmo to the people who love and need him. Near the end of the film, Clash speaks to a young aspiring puppeteer on the phone and decides to repay the universe by offering him a tour. The precocious little boy on the other end of the line is Clash’s career doppelganger. He absorbs every tidbit that Clash gives him and shows off his own homemade puppets. Unless something goes horribly wrong, this kid will be the next Kevin Clash. You couldn’t have scripted it any better.

It took six years for Constance Marks to assemble “Being Elmo” and her diligence shows on screen. But in many ways, the story sells itself. Clash’s tale proves that you don’t have to overcome extreme adversity to have all your dreams come true. Though, as Clash notes, Elmo is so much bigger than him. “Kids need Elmo” he says, “ and Elmo needs kids.” Elmo is practically a modern-day Jesus (without all that messy crucifixion stuff). He makes people happy because he offers them unconditional love. Who can argue with a sentiment like that? Assholes. That’s who. But even if you are an asshole, Elmo loves you anyway.

Originally posted on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

SIFF Review: Detention

2011 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated 
88 minutes

1/2 star

At my SIFF screening of “Detention” the director (Joseph Kahn, “Torque”) introduced the film by arrogantly addressing the critics in the audience. “Don’t try to take notes,” he cautioned, “because you’re going to hurt yourself.” Insulting the intelligence of the people who will spread the word about your film before they’ve even seen it is not a wise move. Especially when the warning is completely unwarranted.

“Detention” is also not so much a film as it is a list of things. Most of these things aren’t even that awesome. Patrick Swayze, I’ll give them. But good riddance to the Backstreet Boys, Marcy Playground and 90s catch phrases like, “all that and a bag of chips.” These things do not deserve a renaissance. When the “plot” does advance, it doesn’t go anywhere even remotely original. There’s teenage suicide (don’t do it), body-swapping, mean girls, Saturday detention monitored by a bitter principal (Dane Cook), and a jock with the DNA of a fly to name a few. I guess if we’re not remaking individual movies, we’re assembling a hideous patchwork quilt of multiple ones.

The so-called characters also feel mighty familiar. Our main protagonist is Riley (Shanley Caswell), an awkward, intellectual loser girl who is really only unattractive because of her dark hair, frumpy clothes and perpetual frown. Her best friend is Clapton (Josh Hutcherson), a music-obsessed hipster who is oblivious to Riley’s affections. Clapton is dating Ione (Spencer Locke), an attractive, popular blonde who thinks that 1992 was the coolest year in history. The peripheral characters are equally familiar archetypes. I realize that they’re supposed to be but that doesn’t make it any less trite. It speaks volumes that Dane Cook isn’t the most irritating thing about this movie.

Much like the mouthy teens in the film, “Detention” thinks it’s a lot cleverer than it actually is. It’s just exhausting to watch a movie that winks at the audience with every frame. We get it, dude. Your movie is a parody of everything including itself. Actually, Kahn doesn’t even let us figure that out. At one point, a teen snarks that another is just “a loser making mid-90s pop references.” Wiiiink.

“Detention” is not complicated. Convoluted, yes. But anyone with a GED and a rudimentary knowledge of pop culture could follow the so-called twists. Especially since “Detention” breaks the all-time record for exposition. It’s not enough to have every character projectile vomit their back-story with the relentless velocity of a Gilmore Girl. Visual footnotes in the form of lists, charts, and labels regularly fly in and out of frame, over-explaining the things the characters don’t have time to say. Apparently, Kahn and co-writer, Mark Palermo, didn’t think their audience could figure out who the characters are for themselves. (At this pace, you might miss a title or two. But you wouldn’t be missing them.) Why he thought this film would be too clever for journalists is a mystery. I think it’s more likely that he wanted to preemptively respond to the inevitable scathing reviews.

Perhaps this film is an accurate depiction of today’s over-saturated teens, but that still doesn’t mean I have to like it. And before you accuse me of being an out-of-touch oldster who hates everything new, let me tell you that I loved “Kaboom!” and “Bellflower.” So I know what a great movie about pop-culture obsessed young people looks like. It doesn’t look a thing like “Detention.” It’s not that I can’t keep up, Joseph Kahn. It’s that I don’t WANT to.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).

SIFF Review: The Off Hours

2011 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
93 minutes

****

 

Working the night shift in a truck stop diner is a lot like working on a space station. No one plans to do it forever, but as the years fly by escape seems more and more impossible. There’s nothing outside your door but darkness and desolation. Also, you’re pretty unlikely to meet anyone new. If you do, it’s a life-altering event. In “The Off Hours,” writer/director Megan Griffiths paints a powerfully vivid picture of day-to-day life in a small industrial town that is disrupted by the arrival of a handsome stranger.

Francine (Amy Seimetz) is a young-old waitress who carries out her nocturnal coffee-slinging mission, completely disconnected from the rest of the world. Her co-workers are equally detached, having resigned themselves to an unremarkable existence. In fact, everyone in Francine’s life seems in no hurry to improve his or her situation. That is, until Oliver (Ross Partridge) walks through the door. He’s a banker-turned-trucker on a new route that frequently brings him through town during Francine’s shift. He’s kind and soulful and seems to be just what Francine needs to reignite her snuffed life. Through he’s receptive to her flirting, he makes no secret of his status as a family man. She is appropriately discouraged by this revelation, but is nonetheless unable to stop herself from falling for him. He’s the opposite of everyone else in her life and he could sweep her off her feet if he weren’t already off the market.

Minor plots concern Francine’s colleagues. The other waitress, Jelena, is less-than-thrilled about her side job as a call girl. Stu, the diner’s owner, is a divorced, alcoholic father to a teenage girl who fails to deal with personal issues as impending tragedy looms. Francine also has a complicated relationship with Corey (Scoot McNairy), her roommate and foster brother who harbors more than fraternal feelings for her. Director Lynn Shelton gives a commanding performance in a small role as Stu’s long-suffering ex.

The performances are uniformly excellent, but Amy Seimetz pops in the lead role. She imbues Francine with a great deal of depth, quickly shattering the first impression of a simple small-town beauty. Her expressions speak volumes without going into detail about her past. She can’t stop herself from flirting with Oliver but she clearly knows that acting on her feelings is ill advised. He invigorates her and it’s not just because he’s a new boning prospect. She’s not incomplete without a man. It’s just that sometimes it takes someone new to remind you of your potential. Francine is rare bird in cinema: a complete female character with complex desires.

“The Off Hours” is a great film, but be warned. It’s is a character-driven piece, meaning it’s pretty light on the action. There are numerous shots of people staring meaningfully off into the middle distance. It’s got (literally) gritty realism. Everybody is really sad and nobody gets what he or she wants. In other words, you really have to be in the mood for it.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct). 

NFT Radar: Nook

All For The Nookie!

Seattle was once known as a granola hippie town. Now, it’s all about flour and butter. Following the heels of the pie renaissance, an apprentice of Top Chef’s Richard Blais and former Mad Woman/self-taught baker opened up a cafe that specializes in biscuits; REALLY AWESOME biscuits. They’re buttery as hell without leaving you feeling like you’ve just taken a dip in a deep fryer. You can eat them plain, with a variety of gourmet toppings, or in breakfast sandwich form. For lunch, they offer creative warm sandwiches on Grand Central Bakery bread, rotating soup, and customizable grilled cheese with twelve options. Weekends, they do a biscuit brunch. The selection includes poutine biscuits and strawberry shortcake. I’ll let that sink in… Nook is as cozy and adorable as the name suggests. Owls and Mason jars abound. Small booths line the left wall and there are smaller booths by the window. It’s like eating in your hipster grandma’s kitchen. The downside is the limited hours (Tue-Fri 8 am-5 pm; Sat 8 am-2 pm, Sun 10 am-3 pm). Fortunately, they have plans to extend them through dinner. They’ve also applied for a liquor license. Good thinking. Maybe all this extra fat will help us get through the endless winter.


4525 University Way NE
206-268-0154
www.nook206.com

Cross-posted from Not For Tourists.

SIFF Review: Burke & Hare

2011 SEATTLE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL SELECTION!
Unrated
91 minutes

*

“Burke and Hare” has all the ingredients for a delicious film: Legendary director John Landis (“American Werewolf in London”, “Animal House”), Simon Pegg (“Spaced”, “Shaun of the Dead”), Gollum, other notable “Spaced” alums, murder most foul and Tim motherfucking Curry. Perhaps everyone involved is past their sell-by date because the resulting film is completely unpalatable.

The so-called black comedy tells the semi-factual tale of two dimwitted Irish con men who take a job fetching cadavers for an anatomy professor (Tom Wilkinson) in 19th century Edinburgh. Their employer is racing against another doctor in an attempt to create a complete, anatomically correct map of the human body for His Majesty the King. Because of the profitability and immediacy of the work, Burke (Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis) quickly decide to stop messing about in graveyards and start making their own fresh cadavers…with wacky results!

I’m concerned about Simon Pegg. There was a time when he was considered the Tyler Durden of pop culture nerds. He quoted like we wanted to quote. He fought zombies like we wanted to fight zombies. But while Edgar Wright, his Project Nerdom partner in crime, kept his integrity intact, Pegg became the British Kevin James. His transformation began somewhere around “Run, Fatboy, Run”, metastasized with “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” and has been fully realized with “Burke and Hare.” If Dickensian ghosts were to have visited Simon Pegg on the set of “Hot Fuzz,” the Future Ghost would have shown him this movie. Though, to be fair, Pegg is not the only one to blame.

“Burke and Hare” is a ridiculous mess. The “jokes” are juvenile. Prat falls abound. People empty chamber pots onto the heads of other people. There is a metric ton of humping, a spit take and slapstick galore. It insults in the intelligence of its audience with erroneous allusions to MacBeth. It dips into genre parody territory with modern gags like a discerning doorman at the pub and a crime boss in a pimp vest. Characters take credit for prematurely inventing modern-timey things. It’s “British Movie” minus a Wayans brother.

The actors also seem to have checked their souls at the door. Every performance is as fish-limbed and dead-eyed as the next. The women in the film (Isla Fisher as Burke’s theatrical love-interest and Jessica Hynes as Hare’s shrewish wife) are only there for eye candy and scapegoating respectively. I thought that all British people were born with the ability to switch effortlessly from accent to accent but Pegg’s Scottishy-Irish brogue is almost as confusing as whatever it is Isla Fisher is doing (and Home Girl is from Scotland).

If you’re going to make a movie in which your protagonists are actually killing innocent people, you better make them as lovable as a bag of kittens. Barring that, some over-the-top viscera could make up the difference. But “Burke and Hare” fails at every turn. It’s a romantic comedy without jokes or romance. It’s a horror film without the horror. In short, it’s stupid as hell and frankly, I’m embarrassed for everyone involved.

Originally published on FilmThreat.com (now defunct).