Sunday, June 26, 2011

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop

To continuously get up in front of a large number of people and try over and over again to make them laugh must take a tremendous amount of self confidence and a healthy ego.  In Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, Conan’s ego is displayed warts and all.  After not accepting a move back to his old midnight time slot when his Tonight Show ratings and Jay Leno’s Primetime Show ratings were not producing good numbers, Conan O’Brien abruptly left TV after being a staple on it for years.  Contractually, he could not go on TV for another six months; therefore, he created a live variety show and traveled around the country to perform for live audiences.
Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is the documentary footage of the show’s early ideas, its logistics, and finally its execution and reception.  There are musical numbers referencing how he wants to get back on TV, comedic gags about how he left it, and rare direct digs at NBC executives and personally at Jay Leno.  Whenever Conan is in the room, the conversation stops and focuses directly on the star.  Conan is allowed to punch you and mock you, but you (the staff) are not allowed to project any of that in return, unless your name is Andy Richter.  Conan’s personal assistant, Sona, endures many of his sour moods and poor Jack McBrayer gets verbally annihilated during a very uncomfortable scene at his expense. 
The documentary produces some effective one-on-one interview situations with Conan about how angry he was at NBC and concerning his psychological need to be on a television screen.  The footage of the variety shows are compelling and the backstage rants about after parties and uninvited guests are open and direct.  However, Conan appears contradictory when he complains about the endless interviews, photos, autographs, and hangers-on, but if there aren’t any around, he wonders where they are and why aren’t they pushing to see him. 
This documentary is first and foremost about Conan O’Brien’s ego and insatiable need to be in front of an audience making them laugh.  It works for most of the time but Conan’s relentless snark aimed at his staff and others can wear thin after an hour and a half.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bad Teacher

Bad Teacher is Bad Santa in a middle school instead of a mall.  This is Cameron Diaz’s movie as she is in almost every scene and limits Justin Timberlake and Jason Segel to mostly throw away screen time.  Diaz plays 7th grade teacher Elizabeth Halsey whose only goal is to marry rich.  She almost succeeds as the movie opens, but a protective mother-in-law thwarts her plans.  This forces Elizabeth to return for another school year while she schemes ways to steal money from the school for a boob job.  In Elizabeth’s mind, it is not her bad attitude or lack of personality which keeps her from landing a sugar daddy, it is her flat chest. 
The other teachers are played quite well by an effective supporting cast including her main rival across the hall, Lucy Punch, and an always amusing Phyllis Smith from The Office.  Justin Timberlake arrives at school as a new teacher, quite possibly with family money to spare, which inevitable creates the feud between Diaz and Punch as they attempt to woo the newbie.  Jason Segel is the gym teacher who has taken a shine to Elizabeth even though he knows exactly what kind of teacher she really is.  Elizabeth shows a movie every day in class while she sneaks mini-bottle liquor behind her desk and smokes weed in the parking lot.  She also eats an abnormally high amount of junk food to maintain the flawless body which she flaunts around in skimpy clothes. 
The dirty jokes are actually pretty good across the board and Diaz’s obscene foul mouth produces plenty of shocking moments.  Unfortunately, Bad Teacher doesn’t work.  The character of Elizabeth is not believable for one second, Timberlake’s character is just ridiculous, and Jason Segel might be on screen for a whole four minutes.  There are plot holes involving a state test Elizabeth must have known about from the year prior which she is surprisingly unfamiliar with this year and a principal’s dolphin obsession which goes nowhere.  Granted, there should be a little leeway on believable characters in a comedy, but this bad teacher is so left field that her antics display a level of parody and mocking rather than true comedy. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Trip

The Trip is one of the odder on the road, buddy movies.  Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing themselves, take off on a road trip to northern England’s finer restaurants.  Coogan is assigned to sample their dishes and author a review on them for the Observer.  He invites Brydon along for the ride after his girlfriend and several other friends decline the invitation first.
90% of the film is just back and forth banter between the two British comedians, mostly impressions.  They compare their Michael Caine impressions and they are amazingly spot on.  They also try out Anthony Hopkins, Ian McKellan, Roger Moore, and a host of others.  Intercut between these impressions and other comedic diatribes is a deeper and more personal story.  Brydon has a wife and newborn waiting for him back in London but Coogan is in a rough patch with his younger American girlfriend and proceeds through a few one night stands during the trip.  There are scenes showing his insecurity with her and a few which show the two friends comparing careers and who is more successful.  Coogan is more internationally known but Brydon gets recognized more on the street in northern England. 
The last film starring these two was Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story which was about how utterly hard it would be to film the novel Tristram Shandy.  That film was comedic genius and still makes me laugh to think about it.  The Trip does not rise to that Tristram Shandy’s level, but there are plenty of moments to enjoy here, especially if you are at all familiar with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.  If you have never heard of these guys before, you will not get too much out of The Trip except for some laughs at their impressions and a spectacular scene in their Range Rover about improving the line “We rise at dawn.”      

The Double Hour

The Double Hour feels hollow.  There are elements involved which if properly connected, could lead to a well constructed film, but they aren’t.  I do not want to give too much of the plot away because a certain level of secrecy is necessary to enjoy it instead of waiting for pre-planned twists.  After seeing this film, I read the reviews of particular critics and most of them kept the secrets, that is, except for Stephen Holden of the New York Times.  If you read his review before seeing The Double Hour, there would be absolutely no need to sit through it because he gives the entire thing away; the jig is up. 
Sonia, Kseniya Rappoport, is a hotel chambermaid in Turin, Italy.  She is routinely morose, most likely from something in her past and the fact that she is strikingly lonely.  To help her find a friend or more, she tries speed dating and is strikes up a friendship with Guido, Filippo Timi, an ex-cop who is still trying to define his widower status three years after the fact.  Sonia and Guido take baby steps towards the semblance of a relationship until their lives are drastically altered during a robbery.  This is where my plot description stops.  Revealing too much of a film noir thriller does nothing for the eventual audience except take away their guessing games during the film. 
The couple’s relationship and their back and forth interactions are surprisingly effective.  Both actors playing Sonia and Guido received best acting honors at the Venice Film Festival, but the somewhat non-congruous film and choppy supernatural elements do not match their acting standard.  The director and screenwriters show a lot of future promise, but the Double Hour just misses the mark.  To explain the title, a double hour is particular time of day when the clock matches, such as 12:12.  It is said that wishes sometime come true at a double hour. 

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris is the best movie of the year so far and one of Woody Allen’s greatest films ever.  It is in league with Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters.  The original screenplay should be a lock for an Oscar nomination and I cannot recommend this film any more highly.

Early on, an annoying character makes the observation that a glaring Romantic flaw is Golden Age syndrome.  They always look to the past, usually to a specific decade, and define it as the greatest and most interesting time to be alive.  It is never the present.  For Owen Wilson, Midnight in Paris’s nostalgic Woody Allen character, the Golden Age was 1920’s Paris.  F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, et al., sat around drinking, smoking, and debating literature, art, and music.  Wilson’s 2010 present involves hack Hollywood screenwriting, suspicious prospective in-laws, and mundane hassle.  Salvador Dali, T.S. Eliot, and Pablo Picasso must never have had to wash the dishes or take out the trash.  However, Golden Age syndrome is in the eye of the beholder.  What if 1920’s Paris was your present?  You would not define it as your Golden Age, but most likely look back to the 1890s and the Belle Époque.  That era must have had greater thinkers such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, and Degas.  Those gentlemen were probably yearning for the Renaissance.      
This manner of thinking strikes me as immensely intriguing.  Granted, this film requires a certain amount of knowledge beforehand to enjoy it.  The Ernest Hemingway scenes are easy to digest, but if you are not familiar with Luis Bunuel, you will most likely miss out on the scene which made me laugh the loudest.  At the end, I wanted to pack up, travel to Paris, find a corner café, and order a bottle of red wine to ready myself for an upcoming conversational challenge.  I am happy Woody Allen chose to return to a European setting.  His two most recent entries in that category, Vicki Christina Barcelona and Match Point are superior to his familiar New York sets.  Even You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is better than Whatever Works and Scoop. 
Take the time to find this film and enjoy it.  Afterwards, you will probably run into like-minded folk in used book stores ferreting out A Moveable Feast and the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. 

The Tree of Life

I put off seeing The Tree of Life for a few days because I was intimidated by it.  Would I be one of the people to ‘get’ it?  Could I see through the metaphors and metaphysical dialogue and truly experience the film?  Now after seeing it, I feel a sense of incongruity.  The first half hour of the film is a joy and a challenge.  Through time shifts and very selective shots, the audience witnesses the birth of the universe, the formation of the Earth, dinosaurs, all the way to the 1950s and the family of Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and their three sons.  Here is where the film loses its sense of wonder.  The domestic household scenes are mostly unpleasant to watch because Brad Pitt’s paternal role is overbearing and employs a harsh discipline system compared to his more amiable and understanding wife. 

One of the sons grows up to be Sean Penn who spends the vast majority of his scenes in deep thought about the past, specifically back to this pre-teen childhood.  If these moments from the ‘50s are his particular memories, then perhaps that is why most of the home scenes are distasteful, because we remember the bad times more clearly than the good times.  I don’t know if there is anything in the film which more perceptive movie goers will ‘get’ more than others, but the glaring separation between the childhood sequences and every other shot in the film doesn’t work. 
Roger Ebert wrote that The Tree of Life is a prayer for life and a hymn to the universe.  Parts of it are and do so very powerfully during its evolutionary sequences and at various times during the ‘50s scenes with beautiful classical music playing over sights of rare domestic tranquility.  However, the tension between the father and his sons and their childhood games and pranks disrupt the harmony of the Tree of Life and makes it more of a nuisance than a challenge trying to connect Terrence Malick’s dots. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Rabbit Hole

One of the best responses to parallel universe theory comes from the film Rabbit Hole where Nicole Kidman sighs on a park bench and says, “Somewhere out there I’m having a good time.”  Becca and Howie (Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) are an affluent Connecticut couple whose four year old son ran out into the street chasing a dog and was hit and killed by a car.  Eight months later, Becca and Howie are both responding to their grief, but in separate ways.
Howie has taken to group therapy, remembers his son through videos, and displays a lot of visible emotion about his loss.  Becca, on the other hand, begins to take the refrigerator art down, packs up the clothes, and rolls her eyes when the therapy drifts into religious territory.  When one distraught couple says God took their daughter because He needed another angel, Becca quite pointedly says, “Why didn’t he just make another angel?” 
Becca and Howie are also having ‘intimacy problems’.  Howie thinks they’re ready to try again, but Becca is certainly not ready for that step.  The screenplay is smart enough for the parents to not blame each other or even the car’s driver for what happened.  It’s nobody’s fault, but they cannot agree on how to move forward together.  Becca is trying too hard to forget, but Howie is trying too hard to keep the kid in the picture.
This really is a mature screenplay with effective scenes and dialogue throughout and a sharp ending which makes a good film even better.  Unfortunately, I kept waiting for the inevitable explosion (or implosion) of Becca.  I suppose it is unavoidable in a story like this.  At some point, the yelling is going to happen.  My only criticism about that is the entire audience knows it’s preordained and may play the guess the scene when it finally occurs and who will be the character who takes the brunt of it. 
Nicole Kidman received the only Oscar nomination for this film and I believe it’s because she gets more emotional scenes than Eckhart does.  They both cry, but she cries more.  Kidman also produced Rabbit Hole and personally picked Eckhart to play Howie.  I have no idea what previous work she saw of his to convince her that he had the chops to take on such a heavy role, but he pulls it off.  The director, John Cameron Mitchell, is a much stranger choice.  He is known for Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, two films which have absolutely nothing in common with Rabbit Hole.  In fact, the film’s writer also has no other specific drama credits on his resume; his other most recognizable work is Inkheart. 
A film about emotional devastation from the guys who brought you Shortbus and Inkheart does not look good on paper, but on screen, it works.  Rabbit Hole is a very good movie.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Lebanon is claustrophobic; it is the Army’s Das Boot.  The entire film is shot from within a single tank.  About 75% of the time, the audience sees the four men inside of the tank and the other quarter is the view from the gunner’s camera.  The driver, weapon’s loader, and tank commander may sometimes feel envious that the gunner gets such a good view, but the film lets the audience know the gunner is the unlucky one.  He witnesses the effects of the 1982 Lebanese war on both militants and innocent civilians who get caught in the crossfire of the Israeli and Lebanese bullets. 
The crew of this single Israeli tank has a very myopic view of the war; they have no bigger picture of their place in maneuvers of their small platoon respective to the rest of the Israeli advance into southern Lebanon.  They also may be the worst trained armor soldiers in the Israeli Defense Force.  The concepts of chain of command, military bearing, and following orders appear to be words on paper to them rather than engrained truths.  It is never clearly stated if they are regulars or hastily called up reserves, but perhaps the situations they are forced to endure and their complete lack of vision and understanding would call into question any tank crew’s abilities. 
The tank’s gunner has never fired his weapons in a violent setting prior to the war’s outset on June 6, 1982.  His first chance to fire upon the enemy and protect the lives of the dismounted patrol next to his tank does not go well.  Sweat pours down his forehead and his shaking hands are reluctant to follow through even though it becomes clear the oncoming vehicle means harm to his fellow soldiers.  To make up for his mistake, the next truck to come down the road bears the brunt of the gunner’s attempt for repentance, be it an enemy or an innocent farmer.
Not helping the gunner’s attempts to do his job is the incessant squabbling between the tank commander and the weapon’s loader.  These two men obviously know one another from their day jobs and the command structure does not seem to apply to their interactions because the loader constantly questions the commander’s orders thereby undermining his authority.  The commander does no favors for himself or his crew by looking unsure of himself and his situation.
The most effective and memorable scenes are those from the gunner’s camera of the war’s destruction.  There are mutilated bodies in buildings and along the road side.  There is a screaming mother asking the soldiers about her daughter even though everyone knows the daughter is dead upstairs in a building.  The single view from the gunner’s camera of the outside world creates a fog of war so thick for the crew a breakdown is almost inevitable.  The tank becomes absolutely filthy, oil leaks from every porous rivet, and the floor is covered in a junk yard of refuse and filth making the viewers relieved they do not have to smell the inside of that tank. 
I highly recommend this film.  To fans of war movies, their pre-conceived ideas of what a war movie is will be shaken by the events happening through the gunner’s camera.  Overall, I hope audiences take away ideas that war does not produce the objectives their politicians claim it will and even though a particular culture or ethnicity has been deemed evil by your society, they will look particularly vulnerable and more like yourself than you can imagine when seen getting annihilated through a camera.

Super 8

Super 8 appears to be J.J. Abrams’ way of paying his respects to Steven Spielberg.  I was steadily reminded of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind throughout this film.  The community kids are the first to discover the strange things happening around town, are almost always the only witnesses to important events, and repeatedly run into the adults who just don’t understand. 
An article in this week’s New York Times magazine describes how a young J.J. Abrams got a job repairing and editing Steven Spielberg’s old Super 8 films.  That is a great memory to start your new screenplay with.  Five pre-teen kids in an out of the way, small Ohio town are making a zombie movie on a Super 8.  The boss kid is the director and persistently updating screenwriter.  There is also the nervous lead actor, the kid obsessed with explosives who plays the zombie, and our film’s main character, the make-up artist who is also adept at model trains and airplanes.  While sneaking out at night to work on their movie with a newly recruited girl in their mix, the kids witness a train derailment and so begins the mystery.
I will reveal nothing about the train, what was on it, and what happens after that.  Would you have wanted the answer to everything about E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind before seeing them?  No way.  Just know that this is not a movie just for the kids.  There are genuinely suspenseful moments, a lot of pre-teen cursing, drug use, some quality horror gore, and an overall tight story.  It is very refreshing to see a summer movie which is not a franchise continuing sequel or about a new superhero.  These kids are real and there small town adventure mystery is well worth it.