Thursday, June 30, 2011

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

Spoiler alert-o-meter: A few spoilers ahead.

After Conan O’Brien quit/was fired from the Tonight Show in 2010, he was one late-night talk show host with a chip on his shoulder. Due to the crappy way NBC and Jay Leno handled the debacle, O’Brien was left feeling burned and angry. Conan O'Brien Can’t Stop chronicles the preparation and tour O’Brien launched in reaction to being legally forbidden to appear on TV or the Internet for six months after leaving the Tonight Show.

During Conan’s last Tonight Show appearance he played his swan song on guitar backed by a full, celebrity band. Here, his tour, dubbed the The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour, includes a full band consisting of many members of his erstwhile Tonight Show band and two backup singers/dancers. He gathers around him some of the same writers, producers, and assistants he employed at his old show. He also brings along his longtime sidekick, Andy Richter, who throughout is familiar and welcome face.

Scratch the surface of most of the funniest comics and you’ll find a lethal mixture equal parts anger, shame, guilt, bitterness, bipolar disorder, and other dysfunctions. So it’s no surprise that Conan’s performance on tour is hilarious and scathing. He sings mostly real songs with mock lyrics. He customizes On the Road Again to suit his current situation.

In one faux blues song where he discusses his roots, he mentions how he grew up in Brookline Massachusetts. Where, in the wealthy upper class suburb of Boston, his family was a member of the less fortunate upper middle class. His mother was a lawyer and his father was a doctor. It’s a wonderful pastiche of music and honesty that fuels much of the performance.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is only playing in one theater in the Boston area, Coolidge Corner Theater, which happens to be in Brookline, Massachusetts. The crowd in the very small theater gave a hoot when he referenced Brookline and lyrics like, “My mother, she shopped at Whole Foods.” There were two ladies of a certain age sitting in front of us, and I imagined they could be his mother and aunt. Or maybe neighbors.

Much of the movie consists of backstage tour footage mixed with his live performance. The film does a surprisingly good job of building momentum and keeping you interested throughout. There is no inherent conflict in the story, no ugly secret that needs to be revealed, no end-of-journey plot twist. The drama comes from watching the nights on the tour tick away.

Opening night – everybody thought it went well, but thought it could have gone better. L.A. – a pre-show gathering turns into a full-blown Hollywood party after which O’Brien is wiped out as much as if he done his full performance. By the time Jim Carrey, Jon Hamm, Tina Fey, and other celebs swing by after the performance, you feel Conan’s exhaustion and frustration at being performing monkey. The most disturbing moments come at the expense of 30 Rock actor Jack McBrayer, who (whether staged or not) is forced to endure sarcastic barb after barb from Conan.

Early on O’Brien claims to be one of the least entitled celebrities, yet you can’t help not feeling too sorry for a rich celebrity whom millions of fans adore. Don’t get me wrong, touring is a hard business (I couldn’t do it). And he obviously got almost no downtime on the tour bus, before or after performances. Even his days off were full of obligations, such as performing in a talent show at his Harvard class reunion. Still, the tour was only a couple months long and it wasn’t just for him to let off steam, but to keep himself fresh and in the public eye so that when he did come back to TV, he would still have an adoring audience.

The movie becomes one of the best chronicles of life on the road I’ve ever seen. O’Brien could be a rock star the way his fans wait for him outside his tour bus and vie for an autograph before the show. Indeed, he jams with Jack White for a small but adoring crowd at White's recording studio in Nashville. At one point O’Brien plays the Bonnaroo Music Festival, where he not only performs his act he is also booked to introduce many of the major acts.

Near the end of the tour he is shown scrambling in a huff off the bus during an unscheduled pit stop at a New England service area. He then strikes up a casual conversation with a mini-van load of women heading to Martha’s Vineyard. Here he remains Conan O’Brien, the showman who can’t stop himself from being “Conan O’Brien.” But when they tell him he got a raw deal you realize that’s all he really wants from this tour, for his audience to understand and empathize with his anger. When they ask if they can pray for him, he is surprised but genuinely touched by the offer, and joins them as they bow their heads and wish him a good tour. This shows both Conan O’Briens, the showman and father, husband, and nice guy who just wants to do a good job. And one reason Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop.

Note: During the tour he signed with TBS to do a new talk show which debuted on November 8, 2010.


Theater location: Coolidge Corner Theater, Brookline, MA, Sunday, June 26th, 2:40 pm. Price: 9.75. Viewed with Liz! Snack: RJ's Raspberry Licorice Log, Diet Coke with Lime.
Coolidge Corner Theater
Coming Attraction:

The Arbor. It's a documentary. But there is no indication of the story. It looks kind of scary. But who knows?

Short Films:

Charlie Coal. Film by a Emerson film student Olivia Briley, about a guy named Charlie who has no trouble falling in love, but no sooner is he with a girl than he finds out she's not for him. Either she's too fast and runs away, too jealous, too depressed, or too sick. Will Charlie find color-coordinated true love?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Trip

Spoiler alert-o-meter: A few spoilers ahead, but nothing that will ruin your movie-going experience.

British comic Steve Coogan has played many characters including clueless talk show host Alan Partridge, an ego-maniacal movie director in Tropic Thunder, guileless and clueless high school theater teacher in Hamlet II, and a smarmy bad guy in last summer’s The Other Guys. He’s also played a character named Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom’s brilliant movie within a movie conceit Tristram Shandy. In that, Steve Coogan is a version of himself at once charming, ego-maniacal, clueless, and often unsympathetic, while he worries about his role in the adaptation of Tristram Shandy while trading competing barbs with his co-star, Rob Brydon.

In Winterbottom’s new film, The Trip, Steve Coogan again plays a version of actor Steve Coogan in the same vein, again trading barbs with his co-star, Rob Brydon. This time, instead of a movie within a movie, the conceit has Steve accepting an assignment from the British magazine The Observer to drive around the Northern England countryside, stay at various inns, eat at restaurants, and report the experience.

Steve had originally planned to take his young American girlfriend, but before the trip starts they decide to take a break and she flies back to Los Angeles. In her stead Steve is forced to take along TV actor/personality Rob Brydon. Rob plays basically the version of himself he played in Tristram Shandy. Steve and Rob’s relationship here is similar to the one on display in Shandy, although in that movie Steve was the bigger star. Or so it seemed. He was, after all, playing the lead character in the movie based on the classic novel. 

But you don’t have to know all this meta backstory to enjoy The Trip. After Steve and Rob set off from London in Steve’s Land Rover the movie clicks into a comfortable pastiche of road movie and buddy picture, splashed with the essence of mid-life/mid-career crisis.

Driving into the countryside, they again adopt the rhythm of competition, trying to outdo each other with everything from directions to vocal impressions. Rob is excellent at impressions and a surprising amount of time is spent on these two trying out impressions on each other. The impressions are of actors, including Sean Connery (as James Bond, of course), Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, and Roger Moore. They give Woody Allen a shot, and it’s not bad, but they can’t nail Allen’s nasally upper register.

They gently spar over meals and during visits to historic sites along the way. These scenes register as real moments between the actors, and you can see Rob trying to make Steve laugh. Steve Coogan the character comes across as a classic actor type: pampered, petulant, privileged. Rob Brydon the character has a solid career on TV, and he is happily married with baby (this is a fabrication for the movie—we are after all in a fictional landscape, an alternative world).

In Tristram Shandy the pair’s relationship seemed predicated more on their careers, of which Steve’s was more successful. This makes sense because Tristram Shandy was, among other things, a movie about work; the tasks involved in making a movie. Here, out in the country, Steve seems jealous of Rob’s comfortable if mid-level career. A telling moment has Steve unsuccessfully recreating in front of a motel room mirror Rob’s Small Man in a Box bit, which is apparently quite popular and which Rob is happy to perform for a museum curator in return for letting them enter after hours.

Steve Coogan is perfect at playing agitated. He never really seems relaxed. He is comfortable when buffeting his emotions by always being a little taken aback: by certain accommodations, by a photo shoot, by the spotty cell phone service, and by not remembering if he’s met the beautiful photographer they meet up with at one of the inns (they have met, they’ve already slept together—but that doesn’t stop them from sleeping together again).

Steve is at a crossroads in his acting career; he never really found that breakout role to catapult him to stardom. He’s getting older (“I’ve been 41 for three years,” he says at one point), his relationship with his American girlfriend is on shaky ground, and he’s got a teenage son whom he has a hard time communicating with. When Steve’s American agent calls to tell him he’s up for a co-lead in an American police procedural series, he’s interested only in terms of being closer to his girlfriend—he’d rather do movies than TV.

The insider movie stuff is all wonderful: I’m a sucker for it. I never tired of Steve’s schtick because he wants you to laugh at him, not feel sorry for him. It’s in those rare moments when Rob makes Steve genuinely laugh that you feel the fondness these two men have for each other. Driving through the chilly mountain mornings, bickering over the meaning of an Abba song (Rob makes fun of the lyrics, while Steve sincerely loves the song), you just want to give them a group hug.

The movie has been culled from episodes of a British TV show of the same name in which, one assumes, there was more driving, more eating, more countryside, more of Steve frolicking with the locals, and more comfortable bickering. But it doesn’t feel like scattered highlights, it plays like a complete, if sometimes slight, feature film with at its core, heart, midlife ennui, and a reminder that these two performers could make a performance of any situation worth watching.


Theater location: Landmark Theater, Kendall Square, Cambridge, Saturday, June 18th, 4:15 pm. Price: 10.00. Viewed with Liz! Snack: cashews, Diet Coke with Lime.

Landmark Theater, Kendall Square, Cambridge

Coming Attractions: 

The Topp Twins, Untouchable Girls. The trailers were full of documentaries. Talk about cheap, fast, and out of control. Let's start with this true tale of sisters who perform together as a singing comedy duo. And then, one of them gets cancer. Funny and sad at the same time.

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop. Cameras follow Conan O'Brien as he toured the country last summer, showcasing his experiences between getting kicked off The Tonight Show to starting his own show on TNT. This one looks good. So good in fact that we're seeing tomorrow. Review forthcoming.

Tabloid. Documentary by Errol Morris about a legendary scandal in Britain about the true-life story of Joyce McKinney. "She was a beauty queen, a hot little number, and she fell in love with a guy.  She made the mistake of falling for a Mormon, though, and his family and his community sent him overseas on a mission to get away from her.  She followed him.  Things got weird.  That's all you need to know."

Buck. A doc about the real Horse Whisperer as portrayed in that Robert Redford movie. It's a tear jerker, where the way a horse acts tells more about the owner than the horse. This movie looks pretty emotionally compelling.

Pianomania. About the crazy dudes who the tune pianos of the worlds greatest pianists. Seriously.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Hangover Part II

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Whatever.

The fun of the first Hangover (HO1) was the insanely simple yet clever device of having three disparate buddies wake the morning after a bachelor party in a sprawling Las Vegas hotel suite with everything gone wrong—the groom is missing while a tiger, strange baby, prostitute are present—and a finite amount of time to figure out what happened and make it right. It was exhilarating to watch this rag-tag triptych of guys conjure clues and follow leads, uncovering secrets about the night before. It was like Memento for Dummies, and it worked wonderfully.

In The Hangover Part II (HO2), the “wolfpack” is back, consisting again of mild-mannered dentist Stu (Ed Helms, from The Office and Cedar Rapids), alpha-jerk Phil (Bradley Cooper, from The A-Team and Limitless), and man-child Alan (Zach Galifianakis, from Due Date, Bored to Death, and Dinner for Schmucks) follows an almost identical trajectory. Scratch that: the very same trajectory. But now the stakes are little higher—the self proclaimed wolfpack go international. 

They, along with the wayward groom from HO1 Doug (Justin Bartha), fly to Thailand to a lovely island for Stu’s wedding to a beautiful young woman, Lauren (Jamie Chung). Stu, taking a lesson from two years ago when they lost Doug in Vegas, insists on no bachelor party. Phil talks him into allowing them to have a couple beers around a bonfire on a moonlit beach, bringing along Lauren’s younger brother Teddy (Mason Lee). What could go wrong?

Cut to the next morning. Phil, Alan, and Stu wake up in a seedy hotel room in Bangkok. With a monkey who smokes and wears a leather jacket. Meanwhile, Stu discovers he got a face tattoo to match Mike Tyson’s and Alan’s head has been shorn of his long curly locks (he looks much better without the hair). And so it goes. All the elements that made the first movie inspired, surprising, and yes, funny, turn against HO2. This is not a story anyone needed a part 2 to finish. It’s been finished. But now we get to live it all over again. Groundhog Day for Dummies.

This time though they haven’t lost the groom, but Teddy, the bride’s brother. Not only have they lost him, they find his finger in the room, so there’s the possibility that he's dead. Hilarious! It turns out Doug (missing groom from HO1) left the beach party early and is safely back at the wedding party hotel (why don’t they include Doug more in Part Deux? No reason, except that he wasn’t really a part of the first one). Although we do get Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong ) who was the sort-of bad guy from HO1. Turns out Alan has kept in touch with Mr. Chow for the past two years and invited him to the wedding! With lots of bad guys looking for Mr. Chow--Russian thugs, American thugs (who may have captured Teddy), and of course Thai thugs--what could go wrong?

I was rooting for HO2 for a while. I wanted to laugh, I wanted things to work out. Though I wasn’t laughing very often (neither were my theater mates). And I really didn’t care if it worked out, although deep down I knew it would. Because if they all died or something how could the producers and stars and directors milk this cow for more cash with part III?

The movie’s set up takes a while. Around the forty minute mark I did start to groove on the sleazy, skeevy, sweaty desperation of the characters. While Alan supplies plenty of one liners that make many scenes bearable (“I'm a stay at home son.”, “I’m a nurse, I’m just not registered.”, “I wish monkeys could skype. Maybe someday.”) the movie doesn’t contain jokes but situations that you either find funny or you don’t. And many of these situations just come across as forced in a way that asks of the audience, "You think we can get away with this? How about this?"

Here’s the supposed funny stuff: a drug mule monkey (not funny), Stu (the groom!) remembering a night of sex with a she-male prostitute (not funny), the wolfpack getting clubbed by silence-vowed monks for talking (kinda funny), the monkey and Alan checking out what turns out to be a penis nubbin protruding from a pile of blankets (so not funny), a wheelchair-bound monk snorting drugs (no comment), and Alan suddenly remembering the night before as a flashback enacted by ten-year-old versions of the wolfpack (admittedly the most inspired bit of the movie).

HO2 spends much of the last 45 minutes scrambling to tie up all the ends, loose, tight and otherwise, so that by the end we are basically back to where we would have been had the wolfpack not eaten that tainted bag of roasting marshmallows (don’t ask). Then, just before the credits, the entire lost night is shown in a series of digital snapshots supposedly taken over the evening by the various characters. This conceit was one of the funniest, surprising parts of HO1. In HO2 it is just the final ingredient in a predicable slurry.

And so maybe in a couple more years for HO3 we’ll follow the wolfpack to mars or to Atlantis or the center of the Earth. Until then, rent HO1 to find out what started all the fuss.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Tuesday night bargain show, June 7th, 6:50 pm. Price: 6.00. Viewed solo. Snack: apple: chopped, bagged.

Coming Attractions: 

Horrible Bosses. The summer of Jason Bateman continues. He, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis play guys who have bad bosses. So, what do you do when you have a bad boss? Quit? Complain to their bosses? Not in this movie: They set out to kill their bosses. It's a comedy. Really. Although, with bad bosses played by Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell, and Kevin Spacey, it has potential.

Stupid Crazy Love. Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Kevin Bacon, Julianne Moore. A young couple and an older couple going through dramedy romantic escapades, while Ryan, a player, shows Steve, a shy, awkward dude, the ropes to picking up women. At least that's what I think happens. Along with some other stuff.

Super 8. The kind of movie Spielberg (who produced) would have made when he was ten. It's about a bunch of kids making a little home movie, on Super 8 film, about an alien invasion. And then, guess what happens? Do I really have to spell it out for you? Let's just say, they inadvertently capture some cool stuff on film.

I Don't  Know How She Does It. Sarah Jessica Parker overcomes Sex And the City 2 to make another movie. This one, about a woman trying to balance career, kids, loving husband, could have starred Diane Keaton in another decade. With Greg Kinnear, Pierce Brosnan, Christina Hendricks, Seth Meyers, Olivia Munn, and Kelsey Grammer, as another horrible boss.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Spoiler alert-o-meter: A few mild spoilers ahead.

Light as a soufflé, as insignificant as a chocolate truffle. Yet with a tasty cream in the middle. Woody Allen’s new Midnight in Paris goes down easy and leaves no residue. It’s low-carb movie making but without the guilt of explosions, full frontal nudity, and fart jokes.

Owen Wilson plays Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter who is on a trip to Paris with his self-absorbed fiancé, Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her self-absorbed parents. All Gil wants is to walk around Paris and take in the sights and sounds, and he doesn’t care if it’s raining. He has a romantic view of Paris, one based on the bygone cultural era of the 1920s. If he could he would give up Los Angeles for Paris and finish his novel. Inez for her part appears smitten by a cultural blowhard (played with pitch perfect condescension by Michael Sheen) as she follows him around the museums soaking in his views on art.

Watching the scenes of McAdams’ Inez, preening around as a bottle blond in designer jeans and heels complaining about everything and Wilson’s Gil feeling out of place, it’s impossible to understand what these two are doing together. We never see them have any fun, so unsuited do they seem as a couple. And the parents don’t try to hide their contempt for him.

Gil, more partial to walks around the wet streets of Paris at night than going dancing, is beckoned into a magic taxi whose passengers are none other than F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, along with other 1920s denizens.  They take him to a nightclub where they drink and schmooze. Gil, an obvious anachronism in his chinos and Oxford, mingles with the crowd with a bemused, accepting smile as he enjoys the music and the talk from his favorite time in history.

The movie continues along this tract: following Gil both as he travels to Paris of the 1920s and as he navigates contemporary Paris with his wife and in-laws. Luckily Allen realizes the real story here is not Gil and Inez but Gil’s feelings of being a misunderstood man out of time, and turns Midnight in Paris into a gentle time travel pastiche. Each night at midnight, Gil climbs into his time travel taxi coach and is whisked back in time, falling inexorably under the spell of the 1920s Paris he’s always longed for.

He meets Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stroll, spouting dialogue that sounds like Hemingway’s prose) and immediately implores him to read his novel in progress (wouldn’t you?). Hem declines but directs Gil to Gertrude Stein (a well-cast Kathy Bates), who agrees to help him out, right after she critiques Picasso’s latest piece.

Like a fairy tale character, Gil has to return to his hotel room and his shrill wife before dawn. Rachel McAdam’s has never looked sexier, so we are left to assume Gil’s attraction to her is mostly on a physical level. But McAdams is only given one note to play and any scenes with her become tedious. Owen Wilson brings a fine laid back, but wide-eyed openness to Gil. I’d almost call him an innocent, but whenever Allen lingers his close ups on Wilson’s face we see he’s no longer youthful, rubbery Dignan from Bottle Rocket. He’s aged and he’s lived (and attempted suicide), and this world weary experience works well for the movie.

Gil accepts all of this time travel as if it were his destiny. He mixes naturally with whomever he meets. Artists (Picasso, Man Ray, Salvador Dalí), filmmakers (Luis Buñuel), musicians (Noel Coward, Joséphine Baker), and of course the writers (along with Hem and F Scott we run into T.S. Eliot and Djuna Barnes). Gil meets Picasso’s mistress and muse, Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard. This lovely woman of the 1920s is perfect for him. Much of the fun and heart of Midnight in Paris stems from how Gil comes to realize that pining for some ultimately unattainable time and woman can never work out.

The movie is derailed briefly in the contemporary scenes due to a sit-com plot point device that was stale back on Three’s Company when Jack Tripper pretended to be gay to trick his landlord into letting him live with Chrissy. But that distraction doesn’t last long, and is more than redeemed by scenes such as when Gil meets the surrealists Luis Buñuel and Dalí (a playful Adrien Brody) Gil gives Buñuel one of his themes that will eventually be the basis of his classic The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Midnight in Paris is the first Woody Allen movie I’ve seen in the theater since Manhattan Murder Mystery. While Paris doesn’t always work, it is refreshing to still walk into a Woody Allen movie, see those familiar white titles against the black background, hear some jazz on the soundtrack, and watch a new set of actors play out Allen’s fantasies.

Actors always talk about how, when he contacts them to be in his movies, they jump at the chance. Even though Allen hasn’t made a great movie since the mid-eighties. And some would argue earlier. He’ll never make Annie Hall Again or Manhattan II. He has no interest in it, and it wouldn’t be very good if he tried. What we do have is an iconoclast filmmaker who doesn’t know about trends, makes the exact movie he wants to make (at this point, only in Europe, with European financing), with whomever he wants.

Midnight in Paris is a hoot, a gentle bon bon of a movie that asks that you don’t take it too seriously and to enjoy its simple story. If you see one movie this year that makes a Djuna Barnes cultural reference, it should be Midnight  in Paris.


Theater location: Coolidge Corner Theater, Brookline, Monday, May 30th, 12:00 pm. Price: 8.00. Viewed with Liz. Snack: Mixed nuts, Diet Coke.

Coming Attractions:

Page One: Inside the New York Times. Documentary about the New York Times. Highlighting the changes over the past few years, to newspapers and to journalism in general.

Tree of Life. Whatever this movie ends up being about, it will look gorgeous. Brad Pitt plays a father in some scenes, and later, after, Sean Penn plays one of his grown up sons. There's shots of oceans and sun and rain and other elements.