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Conan O' Brien Can't Stop Blu-ray Review

Conan O' Brien Can't Stop movie poster Conan O' Brien Can't Stop

Theatrical Release: June 24, 2011 / Running Time: 89 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Rodman Flender

Notable Featured Subjects: Conan O'Brien, Sona Movsesian, Andy Richter, Mike Sweeney, Jeff Ross, Liza Powel O'Brien, Jimmy Vivino, Scott Healy, Mike Merritt, James Wormworth, Jerry Vivino, Mark Pender, Richie "LaBamba" Rosenberg, Rachael Hollingsworth, Fredericka Meek, Jim Carrey, Steve Kroft, Jack McBrayer, Jon Hamm, Eddie Vedder, Jack White, Bill Carter, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Kristen Schaal, Jack Black, Kyle Gass, Aaron Bleyaert, Margaret Cho, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally

Songs: "Polk Salad Annie", "On the Road Again", "Move On Up", "Can't Stop (Love Theme)", Eddie Vedder - "Baba O'Riley", "Army", "Happy Birthday", "Dueling Banjos" "Forty Days", "Blue Moon of Kentucky", "7 Nation Army", "Rock This Town", "Twenty Flight Rock", "The Weight", "Too Much Monkey Business", "Flying Kytes"

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Behind-the-scenes drama occurs all the time in the entertainment industry, but even in this age of tabloids, Internet gossip, and DVD bonus features, most of it remains unknown, covered up out of professional decorum and to avoid attracting negative publicity to a production.
That makes what occurred in January 2010 a unique chapter in television history.

Eager to avoid repeating the embittering succession of Johnny Carson, NBC planned the next host change of "The Tonight Show" years in advance. Jay Leno, the late night show's host since 1992, agreed to graciously hand over the show to Conan O'Brien, host of the follow-up "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" since 1993, in 2009. The change was announced all the way back in September 2004, giving the public and the two comedians plenty of time to prepare for it. All went according to plan, with Conan taping his final New York "Late Night" show in February 2009, then moving out to California, and making the national rounds to promote his new gig. Leno's final "Tonight Show" aired on May 29, 2009 and found him wishing Conan good luck. Conan's run as the fifth regular host of the 55-year-old NBC institution began the following Monday.

But workaholic Leno wasn't about to retire as originally announced. Near the end of 2008, NBC announced "The Jay Leno Show" would be given the 10 PM Eastern/Pacific slot, the final hour of primetime, every weeknight. So, Conan was moving an hour earlier, Leno was pushed up 95 minutes, and instead of one leading into the other, the 11:00 local news would run between them. "Leno Show" was a bold idea by a struggling network, attractive in that it would drastically reduce costs from the hour-long dramas that usually occupied the hour and risky in that it would give NBC four comedy talk shows in the same mold, with only 35 minutes of news separating the "primetime" from "late night", a divide inevitably blurred.

As many had forecast, "Leno Show" was not able to compete in primetime. Four of its five weekly airings ranked among the bottom quarter of all 2009-10 network broadcasts by Nielsen ratings. Aware of that problem but wanting to keep Leno happy and at NBC, the network sought change in January 2010. It planned to shorten Leno's show to a half-hour and run it after the 11:00 news and immediately before "The Tonight Show." Conan would be bumped back to just after midnight and Leno would have failed his way back into his old timeslot. Conan didn't like that idea and who could blame him? He had stayed at NBC for years, having been promised he would be given the "Tonight Show" gig he viewed as the pinnacle of his calling. And now, just seven months in, his promotion was to be undermined as the result of Leno's primetime flop.

Conan O'Brien catches his breath while auditioning backup singers/dancers in "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop."

Conan chose not to give in. Though his argument was a bit tenuous ("that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting"), the way he stood his ground made him a hero, regardless of comedy tastes. Leno's appointment as "Tonight Show" host over expected successor David Letterman already seemed dodgy to those who knew about it, which included anyone who had read Bill Carter's 1994 book The Late Shift or seen the 1996 HBO movie based on it. This time around, it was clear that Leno was not living up to his word, his desire to remain busy, visible, and relevant unmistakably at odds with the success of the series that had made him.

We didn't have to wait for a tell-all book or HBO movie to get the juicy dirt on this awkward situation. NBC had two accomplished, qualified hosts both wanting the same thing, the very thing that one had passed to the other just seven months earlier per an agreement that dated back to 2004. The most interesting aspect of this conflict was that it didn't just play out in offices and conference rooms behind closed doors. It played out on television, with Leno and Conan continuing to air new shows every weeknight as usual. Conan took shots at NBC, delivering them with enough anger to paint them as more than mere jokes. Leno largely avoided the issue and at one point claimed that he and Conan talked and they were fine (a conversation later revealed never to have occurred, with neither host actually reaching out to the other).

Lines were drawn. With the exception of '90s TV stars Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser, it seemed as though the entire comedy industry thought Conan was getting a raw deal. Fueled by their history, Letterman had fun ripping his longtime nemesis. Jimmy Kimmel got into the act as well, doing an unflattering Leno impression on his ABC show and then both humorously and painfully decimating Leno in a "10 @ 10" video chat on Leno's show.

Conan cuts up on a post-Bonnarroo plane ride to his assistant Sona Movsesian's amusement. Conan O'Brien uses his ID badge to scoop icing off the cake at a fake birthday party staged for "60 Minutes."

Though only thirteen years separate them, the battle was very much a generational one between Leno, the white-haired Baby Boomer whose bits were aimed at all and clearly appealed to older viewers, and Conan, the lanky, baby-faced Ivy League smartass whose comedy was edgier as his later timeslot allowed. There was no question whose side the youth was on, as millions joined the Facebook groups "Team Conan" and "I'm with Coco." What a mess NBC had on its hands. And in deciding to back Leno and pay Conan and his staff a $45 million settlement, the network proved shockingly apathetic to the voices of the traditionally most desirable demographic.

Twenty months after this all went down, Leno remains NBC's man, though his pull is often at best even with Conan's "Tonight Show" ratings in the all-important 18-49 age bracket. Conan is highly-paid and highly-promoted on TBS, the basic cable station who put together a late night talk show block in line with its comedy mentality.
Missed in all this conflict, which gave the Internet no end of engaging news and opinion pieces, is the fact that the talk show appears to be a dying format. All around, network television ratings are in steady decline and with all the media options available, fewer and fewer people make late shows a part of their nightly routine.

The terms of Conan's settlement prevented him from appearing on television until May 2010 and from hosting his own series until September 2010. So, Conan took to Twitter near the end of February, attracting millions of followers with a daily dose of succinct wit. In March, he announced The Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour, a 33-city, 43-show nationwide tour that would occupy him, his band, and certain crew members, and keep the public from forgetting them while off the air. A documentary crew followed him around on the tour and thus we get Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, a feature film that comes to DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow after a limited summer theatrical run.

Computer animation from Taiwanese news makes the 2010 Tonight Show conflict abundantly clear with this depiction of NBC executive Jeff Zucker, Jay Leno, and Conan O'Brien. Legally prohibited from being funny on television, Conan O'Brien chooses to be musical on stage with Jimmy Vivino and what would become the Basic Cable Band.

The "Tonight Show" drama is covered in the first few minutes, with some reliably entertaining computer animation from Taiwanese news and footage of three cities' fan rallies. It is the most entertaining stretch of the movie and the context that makes everything else that follows remotely remarkable. Conan has made his living making people laugh and that is a big part of the tour. But we don't get too much comedy from the performances or even backstage. The show is more about Conan being Conan and doing whatever strikes his fancy. His fancy is largely struck by the same thing with which he chose to end his much too brief "Tonight Show" run: playing guitar with a band. Conan has a couple of back-up singers, The Coquettes, and a short supply of songs given legal clearance, among them "Polk Salad Annie" and "On the Road Again", both of which he makes his own.

The looks at the stage material are among the least entertaining parts of Can't Stop. It's more appealing to see the real Conan, having been treated to so many hours of the network and basic cable versions. The candid Conan swears, his hair gets flattened by sweat, and he likes to throw sort of playful punches at the creative males in his midst. The focal relationship of the documentary is not with longtime sidekick Andy Richter or Conan's wife Liza (both of whom appear repeatedly), but with young personal assistant Sona Movsesian, who is rarely out of sight. Banter marks the employment and we can tell it's not just for the camera crew and not entirely without some awkwardness (Conan's firing of her is a joke, but his disappointment at getting butter sauce on his fish is not).

The movie does hold our interest as a portrait of pain, with Conan retaining plenty of resentment for his swift send-off and for being required to take a break from the dream job that he threw himself at for just over sixteen years. To that end, the tour seems kind of like a distraction and one designed more to satisfy Conan than fans. Still, the tall redhead is an immensely likable guy, his strong work ethic, self-deprecating style, and loyalty endearing him as much as anyone earning his kind of money.

Conan O'Brien finds Eugene, Oregon, the first stop on his tour, strangely quiet on the day of his show. Jim Carrey shows up and volunteers his services at Conan's two Universal City shows.

Being familiar with those qualities helps, because the unacquainted do not get the most sympathetic view of him here. Though he endures VIP ticketholder meet and greets and signs anything pushed towards him with smiles and wisecracks, you can tell the fan interaction is tiring and repetitive. Likewise, Conan gets downright testy when he realizes just what he has signed up for at the Bonnarroo Music Festival, having to introduce artists like Nas and Damian Marley and kill three hours in between each act.
Even his 25-year Harvard University reunion finds Conan restlessly passing the time until he and his band can take the stage.

I'm glad that director Rodman Flender, a TV veteran picking up only his second theatrical credit since helming Leprechaun 2, shows us the real Conan instead of a martyr and a saint, as an early scene of him playing with his kids suggests we'll get. The candor and unfettered access on display are the two things keeping the film from being a real bore. That's unexpected because Conan fans know just how hilarious his remote segments on "Late Night" and "The Tonight Show" were, the funnyman able to mine huge laughs out of everything from awkward historical reenactors to a subpar Fonzie wax statue. This movie had the opportunity to play like a feature-length remote sketch, but without setups, a script, or much to play off of, we instead just float from one exchange to the next, most of them mildly amusing at best.

And yet, the film still holds some appeal as a record of Conan's longest hiatus since becoming an on-camera personality and as a document of this therapeutic, bearded chapter in Conan's life. The most fun moments are the least rehearsed and least describable, those that offer a peek at celebrity existence, status that inspires random appearances from other celebrities, among them Jack McBrayer, Jon Hamm, Eddie Vedder, Jack White, Jim Carrey, Stephen Colbert, and Kristen Schaal.

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.78:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: September 13, 2011
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $16.98 (Reduced from $29.98)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Also available on DVD ($26.98 SRP $14.98 SRP) and Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

1.78:1 has become the standard documentary aspect ratio and Conan O'Brien Can't Stop is presented in it. The Blu-ray's picture quality is just okay, the result of having lesser cameras and lighting than narrative features. Flender is not a cinematographer by trade and the film's grainy, unremarkable compositions don't add much to it. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack also doesn't merit much comment. Dialogue is captured with enough clarity to keep it intelligible, while the song performances have a little more life to them, as well as some barely noticeable lip-syncing issues.

The sight of Conan's silhouette across from a young Haley Joel Osment can only mean he's figured out a legal loophole for using the Walker, Texas Ranger lever on stage. Conan O'Brien and Andy Richter pose for what they hope is a frozen shot for the end credits in this deleted scene.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Extras begin with a fun audio commentary by director/editor Rodman Flender, Conan O'Brien, Andy Richter, Conan's head writer Mike Sweeney, and personal assistant Sona Movsesian. Shedding some light on everything in the movie, the stories (and laughs) flow with no lulls and with Conan leading the way.

Unsurprisingly considering the amount of footage likely shot, we get a wealth of material classified as additional scenes (42:00) and divided into ten groups. A lot of this is casual stuff more suitable for a home movie than for a movie. We see more of Conan looking over his material, collaborating with writers, and making use of "bananaphone." There are also a couple of extended stand-up sequences, writer Deon Cole (familiar from Conan's shows) does some racially minded stand-up, and the TBS show is announced on Twitter and celebrated. Best of all, Conan finds a legal workaround for bringing back the beloved "Walker, Texas Ranger" lever as the "Chuck Norris Rural Policeman Handle."

Conan is both serious and seriously funny in his AT&T U-verse interview with Kristin Adams. Clips from the road play on the brick wall behind Conan on the Blu-ray's menu screen.

An interview with Conan O'Brien (14:25) emanates from AT&T U-verse (which, for some reason, sponsors a number of the deleted scenes). Clean-shaven and conducting himself as he does on television (but sometimes more seriously), O'Brien promotes the movie by talking sagely about the documented experience, with clips complementing his replies. "Interview Outtakes" (3:30) show us moments of random, sarcastic O'Brien silliness that didn't make the U-verse piece, including more of him flirting with interviewer Kristin Adams.

"Also from Magnolia Home Entertainment Blu-ray" repeats the same reel of trailers with which the disc opens, promoting Page One: Inside the New York Times, Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place, Good Neighbors, "Zane Lamprey's Drinking Made Easy", and HDNet.

A BD-Live section offers nothing at this time.

The menu plays clips in an empty stretch of brick wall behind Conan in a reformatting of the cover art. The disc both resumes feature playback and supports bookmarks. There is neither insert in nor slipcover around the standard Blu-ray case.

Conan O'Brien's inability to stop catches up with him at the Bonnarroo Music Festival where he has to introduce musicians.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

As much as I love Conan and, without hesitation, would rank him above every one of his contemporaries, I come away from Conan O'Brien Can't Stop feeling okay that I missed out on his tour. This documentary shows how meaningful it was for him to get out in front of audiences when TV was not an option. But in terms of entertainment value, any given episode of any of his three talk shows will probably do more for you than this.
Maybe in its entirety, the stage show was a good time, but the glimpses offered here don't seem like they would compete with the four free "Late Night" tapings I attended.

Among those, the 10th Anniversary Special was released to DVD and though out of print, it sells for next to nothing in the secondhand market and includes many great highlights from Conan's first decade as host. If you're looking to add a touch of Conan to your home video collection, I recommend that disc for containing Conan at his very best.

As for Can't Stop, I'd recommend it strictly as a one-time viewing for Coco fans. In a different setting, Conan just being himself would really entertain. And a documentary on the 2010 late night conflict would also be very interesting. (For now, Bill Carter's sequel book will have to do.) But the combination of the two here, without NBC clips and with the latter more felt than seen, does register as somewhat disappointing. While the feature presentation isn't spectacular, the Blu-ray's extras are good company for the film. All that's missing is the theatrical trailer and maybe a licensed bit from TBS. Most will be satisfied by the commentary, long reel of deleted scenes, and Conan interview/outtakes.

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Reviewed September 12, 2011.



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