BLU-RAY REVIEW: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

When Conan O’Brien was unexpectedly removed as host of “The Tonight Show” after less than a year on the job, the comedian’s much-publicized departure led to a number of protests across the country organized by his army of supporters. Legally prohibited to appear on television, radio or the internet for six months following his final show on NBC, O’Brien hit the road on a 32-city music-and-comedy tour to keep himself busy in the interim. But after watching this revealing documentary by director Rodman Flender about O’Brien’s time on the road, any sympathy you might have had for him is quickly erased upon learning that he’s actually kind of a dick.

Though O’Brien deserves a lot of credit for allowing this version of himself to even be shown, the documentary is a pretty eye-opening experience that showcases the attention-hungry performer at his absolute worst. He may not have been in the right head space at the time, but that’s no excuse for mistreating your personal assistant, your writing staff, and perhaps most importantly, your fans. Throughout the film’s 89-minute runtime, O’Brien complains incessantly about having to schmooze at after parties and attend meet and greets with VIP fans that paid extra for the opportunity, and yet despite all the whining, he continues to do more than he’s asked because he’s so addicted to performing. In that respect, Flender’s doc is a success, but while most people will be expecting the funny man-child they see on TV, the Conan O’Brien represented here is little more than a broken man desperate to be the center of attention. And no matter how refreshing that honesty may be, it’s not very entertaining.

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SXSW 2011: A Bag of Hammers

Not every film that played at SXSW this year was fortunate enough to walk away with a distribution deal (in fact, very few did), but if there’s one movie that deserved to, it’s “A Bag of Hammers.” A relatively clichéd dramedy with all the markings of an indie film, Brian Crano’s directorial debut nonetheless manages to carve out an identity of its own thanks to a great script and an even better ensemble cast. Jason Ritter and Jake Sandvig make an excellent team as childhood best friends Ben and Alan, a pair of misfit conmen who run a bogus valet service at funerals in order to steal cars and sell them for cash. It’s not the most lucrative career, but in addition to the money they earn from renting out the house in front of their laidback bachelor pad, they get by. But when their new tenants – the recently divorced Lynette (Carrie Preston of “True Blood”) and her neglected son Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury) – begin to attract unwanted attention, Ben and Alan decide to step in and create the family they’ve always needed.

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Consider Crano incredibly lucky for getting the actors that he did, because it’s hard to imagine “A Bag of Hammers” working quite as well without them. Sandvig and Ritter are especially good in the film’s more comedic moments, while even Rebecca Hall manages to make the most of a role that requires she wear a silly waffle hat and perform an ever sillier dance. The real standout, however, is Preston, who delivers what is easily the most heartbreaking performance that I’ve seen this year as the hopelessly desperate single mother. Additionally, while the constantly shifting tone between quirky comedy and grim family drama may annoy some people, Crano actually handles it remarkably well, particularly when the movie enters some pretty dark territory midway through the story and never looks back. It’s a shame that he didn’t see that version of the film through to the end, because while there’s nothing wrong with the happy ending he opts for, “A Bag of Hammers” would have been so much more memorable with the disheartening, more realistic finale that he teases just before it.

  

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SXSW 2011: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

If there’s one thing you should know about Morgan Spurlock, it’s that he’s a remarkable showman. While his documentaries always contain some kind of academic value, his main intention seems to be entertaining the audience, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s what helped “Super Size Me” become such an immense success, and it played a big part in making “Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?” – Spurlock’s much weightier follow-up – a lot more interesting than it would have been in the hands of another filmmaker. His latest project, “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” doesn’t pretend to be about anything nearly as important as the issues he’s tackled in the past (obesity and the war on terror), but it’s without a doubt his funniest and most creative documentary to date.

It’s no secret that product placement has become an integral part of the entertainment industry, with billions of dollars spent every year by corporations looking to inundate our movies and television shows with subliminal advertisements. In an attempt to learn more about the process of this rapidly growing business (and hopefully make people more aware of what they’re being exposed to), Spurlock has set out to make a documentary about branding, advertising and product placement that’s funded entirely by product placement. It’s an ingenious idea, as the film operates both as an eye-opening lesson in brand integration and a satirical, first-hand account of how movie studios obtain financing from corporations.

The first half of the documentary focuses on Spurlock’s attempt to pitch his idea to various Fortune 500 companies, with many refusing to even take a meeting with the infamous director at the risk of looking like a fool. After Ban Deodorant comes on board as the first official sponsor, however, Spurlock has more luck persuading corporate executives to invest in the movie – including companies like Jet Blue, Mini Cooper and Old Navy – with POM Wonderful agreeing to pay $1 million to buy the above title rights.

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But what Spurlock soon discovers is that there are consequences that come with accepting that money, with some companies demanding creative control over the final cut of the movie or setting certain stipulations that he’s legally obligated to follow. Like, for instance, the idea that once POM Wonderful becomes the official drink of “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” he can no longer be filmed drinking anything made by their competitors. Obviously, Spurlock plays this for big laughs as he blurs out entire walls of Coca-Cola and Pepsi while shopping at the grocery store, and makes a point of zooming in on bottles of POM during interviews, but he also posits a good question about how much corporate interference is too much before you’re considered a sellout.

While guys like Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky offer their opinions on the matter, Spurlock also speaks with those who have a little more experience dealing with brand integration in movies, including Quentin Tarantino, J.J. Abrams, and Brett Ratner, who not only admits that product placement is necessary, but when asked how it affects his artistic integrity bluntly replies, “Artistic integrity? Whatever.” You have to give Ratner credit for being honest, but Spurlock knows a great moment when he sees one, and his film is littered with other nuggets of comedic gold just like it – even manufactured ones, like a running joke involving Mane ‘n Hair shampoo with an awesome payoff in the end.

That may disappoint some people who feel like Spurlock’s shenanigans only dampen the impact of his message, but many moviegoers wouldn’t even be willing to sit through a documentary about product placement if it wasn’t so entertaining. The film will still teach you a thing or two along the way, but if you’re going to learn, you might as well as enjoy yourself while you do, because although it may not have the same cultural effect as “Super Size Me,” “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” is Spurlock at the top of his game.

  

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SXSW 2011: Being Elmo

Most documentaries these days tend to be about one of three things – the economy, the environment, or the war – so it’s nice to see a movie come along that’s not only about something entirely different, but isn’t afraid to make you laugh or cry along the way. Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, “Being Elmo” is the light-hearted story of Kevin Clash, the man behind the overly affectionate Muppet known as Elmo, who eventually skyrocketed into pop culture stardom as the new face of “Sesame Street.” From his early years watching “Captain Kangaroo” and performing his own puppet shows for the neighborhood kids, to his inevitable rise to the top with the help of Jim Henson, Kermit Love, and even a little luck, “Being Elmo” is an inspiring story that only reaffirms why kids should follow their dreams.

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Using interviews with friends and family mixed with archival footage of Clash’s pre-“Sesame Street” career, director Constance Marks assembles a fairly straightforward narrative that unfortunately never amounts to more than just a bullet point presentation of all the Big Moments. That doesn’t make the material any less fascinating – like in a sequence where Clash trains the French cast of “Sesame Street” by showing them how to give the puppets different expressions and a lifelike rhythm to their movement – but it does feel flat at times. For instance, though Marks briefly touches upon how Clash’s dedication to his craft may have affected his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, she never digs any deeper, possibly to avoid portraying him in any sort of negative light. The film does lean suspiciously in his favor, but while “Being Elmo” isn’t without its flaws, Clash is so immensely likeable, talented and charitable, that it’s hard not to just sit back and enjoy this celebration of the human spirit. Elmo would approve.

  

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SXSW 2011: 13 Assassins

Even if you’ve never seen one of his films before, most cinephiles have at least heard about Japanese director Takashi Miike at some point in their lives, because he’s one of the most controversial directors working today. Those walking into “13 Assassins” expecting something sick and twisted, however, might be surprised to discover that it’s one of Miike’s most reserved films to date – a classic samurai tale that, while very similar to Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” in spirit, is actually a remake of the 1963 film by Eiichi Kudo. It’s a first for Miike, but he still puts his stamp on the material with some great visuals, buckets of blood, and one of the best (and without a doubt longest) fight sequences of the last 30 years.

The film takes place in Feudal Japan, where the era of the samurai is approaching its end and a sadistic young nobleman named Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki) lives above the law, raping and killing as he pleases because he’s the half-brother of the current Shogun, Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira). But even Sir Doi realizes the danger that Naritsugu presents should he succeed him as Japan’s leader, and so he secretly hires a trusted samurai named Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to assassinate him. Though there are few worthy samurai still living within the country, Shinzaemon sets out to recruit a small group of warriors to ambush Naritsugu before he can reach the safe haven of Akashi and be promoted to second-in-command. But that’s easier said than done, especially after Shinzaemon learns that his old sparring partner, Hanbei Kitou (Masachika Ichimura), is Naritsugu’s private bodyguard – a position he holds with honor despite his master’s cruel ways.

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And just what kind of perverse behavior is Naritsugu capable of? Fortunately, Miike doesn’t indulge in showing too much, although we do see the remnants of one of his “sex toys” – a limbless woman who’s had her tongue cut out that one of Sir Doi’s senior officials presents to Shinzaemon to convince him to join the cause. Apart from that one grotesque moment, however, the film is pretty tame when compared to Miike’s usual grab bag of depravity, which is a little surprising because Naritsugu makes for such an interesting monster, wonderfully played by Inagaki with a disturbing, child-like curiosity for violence. The rest of the actors aren’t nearly as memorable as him, although screen veterans Yakusho and Ichimura bring a quiet intensity to the long-running rivalry between their characters that makes the long wait for their inevitable face-off worth it.

“13 Assassins” will definitely test your patience, because the first hour crawls by at a snail’s pace, with Miike taking the time to give each samurai a proper introduction. In fact, it can even be downright confusing between the large cast of characters (most of whose names you’ll never remember) and a prologue that flies by so quickly, you sort of have to put the pieces together on your own along the way. Still, it doesn’t present as big of an issue as you initially might think, because the film is essentially just a men on a mission story with one helluva finale. Though there isn’t much in the way of action before the final showdown, the last hour is a wildly entertaining orgy of swords, blood, fire and mud that goes on longer than it probably should, and yet never gets tiresome.

The scope of the battle is simply incredible, and it’s the kind of set piece that would make even guys like Michael Bay walk away from the film speechless. Still, it’s not the only reason for its success. The visuals are gorgeous, with Miike utilizing a muted palette that gives the movie an almost monochromatic look, while the occasional comedic moments help to lighten the mood and prepare the audience for the rousing, stand-up-and-cheer climax that’s just around the corner. It may not carry the same emotional weight as Kurosawa’s samurai classic, but “13 Assassins” is way more fun.

  

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