At The Movies: “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop”

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop
Directed by Rodman Flender

Review by Tony Sheppard

Last summer, Sacramento’s Memorial Auditorium was one of the venues for Conan O’Brien’s “The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour.” That tour is now the focus of the behind the scenes documentary “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” – a somewhat unflinching look at an attempt to make show business lemonade from a deluge of unwanted lemons (or perhaps, in some opinions, a single unwanted Leno).

For those who live in caves, go to bed at 9 p.m., or go to bed at 9 p.m. in caves, last year saw messy contract negotiations over late night programming at NBC. Years earlier, O’Brien had been promised the holy grail of talk shows, “The Tonight Show” at 11:35pm. However, when the moment arrived, incumbent host Jay Leno made it clear that he wasn’t ready or willing to retire. Rather than risk the possibility of having Leno end up with a competitive show on another network, NBC created an earlier 10 p.m. talk show for Leno, and simultaneously attempted to cash in on the fact that shows of this nature also happen to be cheaper to produce than hour-long dramas, traditional favorites in that time period.

But the experiment failed. Leno fans, and other fans of “The Tonight Show” who preferred to get to bed sooner, now had a favorable option 95 minutes earlier in the evening. Meanwhile, later night audiences and O’Brien fans watched the traditional timeslot, with both shows generating what were considered by the network to be disappointing ratings. Leno was still reluctant to walk away, and NBC pitched a desperate attempt to solve the problem by suggesting that Leno return to 11:35pm, but in a truncated 30 minute format. O’Brien would then follow at 12:05am, with Jimmy Fallon’s later show being pushed back from a 12:35am start to 1:05am, and Carson Daly going even later.

O’Brien rejected this plan, saying at the time that he didn’t want to be the host who took “The Tonight Show” into a timeslot that meant it was no longer “tonight.” He also clearly felt that his contract was being breached and that there was a lack of good faith in both the way that he was being treated as well as the ripple effects that would impact the hosts of the later shows. So he walked away from the prize franchise, leaving him out of work, contractually prohibited from appearing on television, heavily compensated, but also overwhelmingly angry. The short term result of channeling that anger was the tour. 

The film goes behind the scenes as the tour is planned and executed, and examines the dynamics of life on the road – in this case for someone unused to that schedule. Fans of O’Brien get to see a side normally hidden from view, as he works with his creative team, not always entirely positively. Non-fans will likely find it a fascinating examination of celebrity, including the difficulty of remaining upbeat in front of adoring fans. It’s not unusual to hear fans of certain artists complaining about abrupt or inhospitable encounters with their idols. What this film illustrates is how remarkable it can be that any celebrities ever manage to avoid that kind of behavior. At times, O’Brien seems like he won’t make it, not because of the grueling schedule of shows, but because of the endless extra commitments: Meet-and-greets, private parties, extra shows, hordes of adoring fans, and even his own college reunion at Harvard.  

The title is taken from an exchange in which it becomes apparent that O’Brien can’t imagine not working and, as was reported at the time, some of his motivation also came from trying to keep at least some of his production team employed. This is a neat film about a funny guy dealing with a difficult period in his career in what appears to be the only way he knows how – by laughing about it, and hoping others will too. It’s insightful, personal, and well worth checking out.

The Green Lantern

Directed byMartin Campbell

Review by Tony Sheppard & Malcolm Maclachlan

Tony: This one seemed like the painting-by-numbers version of super-heroism – there were aspects that were fun, but it was supremely predictable and never seemed to stray beyond the well-defined edges. Ryan Reynolds’ Hal Jordan character was amusing to spend time with, but the major villain’s origin was easily determined, and even the next villain (unveiled during the closing credits) was obvious, despite having no knowledge of the source material.

Malcolm: I didn’t really find him that amusing. The devil-may-care hero can be great, but Reynolds is no Harrison Ford. It works better when that hero is a bit of a quirky individualist, with just enough insecurity and scars to make them sympathetic. Reynolds is just bland, even when he’s “intense” and “troubled.” At times he actually seemed less real than the cartoon characters he’s talking to. He’s more the idea of a hero than the actual thing.

Tony:  The basic story involves a galactic force of 3,600 neighborhood patrol officers who’ve been given use of the super green lantern light by the Guardians, a group of immortal background actors from “Mars Attacks.” The Guardians have also built them their own home base planet, apparently carving it from a solid block of faux-granite kitchen countertop. After a run-in with the super villain of the moment, an amorphous blob of fear energy made angry by his own badly-rendered face, one of the Green Lantern force (played by Jango Fett) crash lands on Earth and his class ring selects Hal Jordan to be his successor.

Like all super-hero films (or about wizards or TV shows about witches, etc.), the dream is to overcome the limits of physics. The film contains tiny snippets of semi-accurate science – mainly, the greater pull of gravity on larger objects. But the driving, clunky metaphor is the competing human/sentient emotions of will and fear, harnessed (not sure how) into massively powerful forces that can be used for good or evil. And speaking of paint-by-numbers, I guess green vs. yellow is original when compared to the more usual red vs. blue. Go Packers. And the hero class does verbally define a universe that is unimaginably vast – then allows the characters to move around it like they were going down to the corner store for milk, with Earth, the asteroid belt and the sun all appearing to be within a few miles of each other.

It was somewhat amusing seeing that Lanterns fight by creating things with their minds – and the winner of a battle is the one who is more imaginative rather than the one with the biggest muscles. But we end up with that same trope of the hero winning with will rather than skill. He joins the ranks of the universe’s greatest warriors and defeats the greatest evil it has ever known, all in a about a two-week span? I guess it’s bad to ask for realism, but I prefer the X-Men model, where characters have specific, limited powers and the outcome of battles is defined by strategy. Typical superhero contradictions, but especially glaring this time.

Tony: One thing that the movie demonstrates is that good makeup work is still better than mediocre computer generated effects. While the villainous blob and the Guardians are distractingly bad in their appearance and dubbing, and you almost expect to see Jar Jar Binks in a green jumpsuit amongst the green lanternettes glee squad, another junior villain is far more effectively transformed through traditional makeup techniques into what might best be described as a Sith Elephant Man.

I agree. It also stole – really shamelessly to anyon
e who has seen both – from “9,” a 2009 animated feature that wasn’t much better, but should have been. Really, there wasn’t anything that memorable here. The action sequences are mediocre and cartoonish – with the exception of a cool jet fighter fight early on, which happens before anyone on Earth gains their powers. A movie doesn’t have to be original to work, but if it is completely unoriginal, it had at least better have likeable characters – likely the main reason I actually enjoyed the utterly derivative “I Am Number Four.” The eye-candy here is really nice, but that’s one of only two reasons to see this.

The secondary characters are well-cast, including solid performances by Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, and Tim Robbins. But the acting can’t elevate average material and only adequate special effects – a clear problem in an effects-heavy movie.

Malcolm: That’s the other. It was kind of strange that a movie that was barely mediocre overall had one performance that really stood out. Peter Sarsgaard plays Dr. Hector Hammond, a schlumpy, put-upon scientist who has serious daddy issues, in the form of his a-hole Senator father played by Robbins. Long before anything really happens to his character, he delivers a whole level of creepiness that almost makes him seem like he wandered in from another movie. He’s balding, with an asymmetrical, slump-shouldered look, and so effectively conveys resignation and despair, without even opening his mouth. The sadness he brings out almost spoils the light-hearted silliness that should carry the movie. This physical and emotional setup makes his later transformations all the more effective. It’s both a better and less pleasant movie when he’s around.

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