Talking Movies

April 27, 2016

Demolition

Director Jean-Marc Vallee returns with a considerably less ‘prestige’ tale of mental disintegration and rejuvenation than his previous film Wild.

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Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a jaded investment banker so inattentive he hasn’t noticed his refrigerator leaking for 2 weeks. His wife Julia (Heather Lind) is reminding him anew just before a fatal car-crash. Work is no escape from his grief because he works for his disapproving father-in-law Phil (Chris Cooper), and also he doesn’t really have any grief. A confession Davis makes in a series of over-sharing letters tangentially seeking a refund from a hospital vending machine. The letters touch stoner customer services rep Karen (Naomi Watts), and soon Davis is hanging out with her and mentoring her troubled teenage son Chris (Judah Lewis). This does not impress Karen’s boyfriend Carl (CJ Wilson). Phil and Margot (Polly Draper) are even less impressed, especially as Davis disdains their plan for a scholarship in Julia’s name; being busy demolishing Julia’s open-plan house.

Bryan Sipe’s script appeared on the 2007 Blacklist of unproduced gems, but it feels like a script that should have doing the rounds in the late 1990s. There are similarities with Fight Club, American Beauty, and, as Joe Griffin pointed out to me, Falling Down. Jay M Glen, editing his first movie, offers some terrific disjunctive cuts but this does not have Fight Club’s bravura nihilism despite Davis’ enthusiastic destruction of all the consumer comforts of his oh-so-modern abode. Instead, with Yves Belanger lighting his third straight film for Vallee and casting a warm sheen over everything, it’s more akin to American Beauty’s concern with the beauty of the quotidian. The slight note of Camus’ L’Etranger in Davis pointedly not crying at his wife’s funeral deceives; this is as philosophically facile as American Beauty’s plastic bag flapping in the wind.

So thank heavens there is another film in Demolition’s DNA: Vallee’s own towering C.R.A.Z.Y. Davis, in preferring to pay contractor Jimmy (Wass Stevens) to allow him destroy condemned properties than engage with Julia’s scholarship recipient Todd (Brendan Dooling), is quite obviously dynamiting his career and life, but Vallee’s skilful use of music magicks this nervous breakdown into a spiritual awakening. And even more importantly the ‘rejuvenation’ of a bored career man by a disaffected teenager would be a tired retread (not just American Beauty but Meet Bill) were it not for Judah Lewis. Lewis, in some shots reminiscent of the young Tina Majorino, gives a star-making performance as the Bowie-adoring androgynous teenager who bonds with Davis. There are notes of Edward Furlong’s John Connor in his bravado, but the notes of vulnerability sing, and Gyllenhaal matches them with nuanced despair.

Demolition is a good, engaging film that you keep hoping will find a higher gear but when it never does its obvious good nature predisposes you to liking it more than it arguably deserves.

3.5/5

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February 25, 2016

Austerity and the Arts

The Journal has compiled a handy guide to various political pledges on arts funding. But take all with the caveat of Pat Rabbitte’s infamous slip on farcically utopian bait-and-switches, “Sure isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?”

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Brian Eno’s John Peel lecture at the British Library last year excoriated politicians, especially the Tories, for wanting to bask in the reflected glamour of cultural icons, and boast about the money such activity makes for Britain, both in its own right and in attracting tourists via a sheen of national creativity, without ever wanting to invest in it. According to him these people believed artists magically appear, and start providing a return without requiring any initial capital outlay; an impressive economic conjuring trick to be sure. Whereas, he pointed out, Roxy Music would not have come about without a previous generation establishing a whole gamut of public investment in the future: the NHS, Arts Schools, libraries, galleries, museums, and the dole. According to the Social Democrats there has been a 55% cut in arts funding since 2008 in Ireland. Such cuts dramatically change the cultural current. Take Annabelle Comyn.

Annabelle Comyn was the founding artistic director of Hatch Theatre Company in 2004. She directed a number of contemporary British plays (by Martin Crimp, Dennis Kelly, David Greig, and Zinnie Harris) with regular collaborators including set designer Paul O’Mahony, sound designer Philip Stewart, and actor Peter Gaynor. Then in 2009 Hatch Theatre Company saw its grant slashed from €90,000 to €20,000. After that there was no funding for any projects submitted, and Comyn, who had also directed Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange and Caryl Churchill’s A Number for the Peacock in 2006 and 2007, took the hint. As she told the Irish Times in a 2014 interview “I remember thinking that the work I had done with Hatch – predominantly contemporary British plays – wouldn’t get funding.” So began two years in which one of Ireland’s best theatre directors didn’t work as a director.

And then Abbey artistic director Fiach Mac Conghail offered her the chance to direct Pygmalion at the Abbey’s main stage in 2011. So began a new phase of Comyn’s career. Her version of Shaw’s comedy emphasised that Henry Higgins really is stripping Eliza Doolittle not just of her accent, but her station in life; and even personality; and irresponsibly remaking her to his own whims. The coldness of Charlie Murphy’s Eliza to Higgins in their final scenes captured the accompanying intellectual transformation he had not counted on, and was an unexpected touch. 2012 saw her back on the Abbey main stage reviving Tom Murphy’s 2000 Abbey commission The House. This Chekhovian tale of social climbing and the frustrations of returned emigrants in the 1950s saw Comyn add new strings to her bow as she blocked 13 people for a chaotic drunken speech and fight. Comyn’s interpretation of Murphy’s melancholic character study with barbed commentary on societal failure saw her win Best Director at the Irish Times Theatre Awards. And yet…

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A director who specialised in premiering contemporary British plays is now (with the exception of 2012’s The Talk of the Town) exclusively reviving classic texts. A cultural current in Irish theatre has been diverted, and you can be sure that nobody returned to Dail Eireann after tomorrow will have as a priority allowing it to resume its original course. Does it matter? Well, John McGahern, the Irish novelist par excellence, would not have become the writer he was had he not been exposed to the works of Flaubert, Camus, and Hemingway. It matters if our theatrical landscape suddenly has a Berlin wall of austerity erected cutting off consistent interaction with new British writing. In the grand scheme of things cutting a €90,000 grant has had a larger effect than the latter-day Gladstone who made that retrenchment could ever have imagined.

To quote the two voices at the end of GK Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

“What could have happened to the world if Notting Hill had never been?”

The other voice replied—

“The same that would have happened to the world and all the starry systems if an apple-tree grew six apples instead of seven; something would have been eternally lost.”

December 31, 2015

‘Camus’s Philosophy of Revolt in The Leavetaking and The Pornographer’ published in John McGahern: Critical Essays

I’m pleased to belatedly report that my essay ‘Camus’s Philosophy of Revolt in The Leavetaking and The Pornographer’ has been published as a chapter in the Peter Lang Re-imagining Ireland series book John McGahern: Critical Essays edited by Raymond Mullen, Adam Bargroff and Jennifer Mullen. My essay is based on the paper I read at the 2013 Queen’s University Belfast conference ‘John McGahern: A Way of Seeing’ which celebrated 50 years since the publication of McGahern’s debut The Barracks.photo (1)

A collaborative reassessment of John McGahern, this volume provides provocative readings of his major works and also examines his lesser-known short stories, essays, and unpublished archival materials which have not yet received due critical attention. The book also has a focus on topics and issues in McGahern’s writing that have been hitherto overlooked, thus extending the critical discourse on this important Irish author. The contributors to the volume range from emerging voices in Irish literary criticism to established scholars in comparative and postcolonial literature.

February 25, 2015

JDIFF 2015: 15 Films

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Booking opened for the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival at 7.30pm tonight, so here are 15 films to keep an eye on at the festival.

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THE PRICE OF DESIRE (8.15pm Thu 19th Mar, Savoy)

Writer/director Mary McGuckian’s first film since The Man on the Train in 2011 opens the festival. Orla Brady stars as Irish modernist designer Eileen Gray, with Vincent Perez as legendary architect Le Corbussier. The film examines how Le Corbussier arrogantly attempted to minimise the contribution of Gray to a landmark piece of modernist architecture, the E-1027 house. Co-stars include Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe and Alanis Morrisette (!).

THE WATER DIVINER (7.30pm Fri 20th Mar, Savoy)

Russell Crowe makes his directorial debut with a WWI tale about the slaughter of the ANZAC in Turkey. Crowe’s farmer Joshua Connor travels to Gallipoli in 1919 in search of his three sons, missing in action since 1915. He is aided in this likely fool’s errand by Istanbul hotel manager Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) and heroic Turkish major Yilmaz Erdogan (Once Upon A Time in Anatolia).

99 HOMES (8.30pm Fri 20th, Cineworld)

Writer/director Ramin Bahrani tackles the collapse of the sub-prime bubble in this tale of Florida real estate. Michael Shannon is a heartless real estate agent who is the Mephistopholes to the Faust of Andrew Garfield’s unemployed contractor. First he evicts Garfield, then he offers him a job, and Garfield, though conflicted accepts… Yes, Shannon gets to let rip; according to him Bahrani kept polishing his set-piece rant throughout shooting.

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BARRY LYNDON (1.30pm Sat 21st Mar, Savoy)

Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Thackeray’s picaresque romp Barry Lyndon is now 40 years old. Kubrick’s obsession with using only natural light was enabled by John Alcott, Ken Adam’s production design recreated the splendour of the 18th century, and a mischievous sense of humour belied the 3 hour running time and symmetrical compositions. Star Ryan O’Neal and producer Jan Harlan will be interviewed afterwards by Frank director Lenny Abrahamson.

LISTEN UP PHILIP (6.30pm Sun 22nd Mar, Cineworld)

Writer/director Alex Ross Perry breaks through with his third film. Jason Schwartzman is an obnoxious writer splitting up with Elisabeth Moss as he simmers over the reception of his second novel. His retreat in his mentor’s country home is interrupted by the arrival of Krysten Ritter. But can he get past his ego to notice her? Bret Easton Ellis vouches for this, but remember Greenberg, exercise caution.

THE CROWD (8.15pm Sun 22nd Mar, Lighthouse)

King Vidor’s 1928 silent movie The Crowd might be one of the earliest examples of a studio deliberately losing money in order to gain prestige. A portrait of urban alienation and ennui, whose influence can be seen in Orson Welles’ disorienting presentation of a vast office space in his 1963 film The Trial, this will have live accompaniment from Stephen Horne. A rare screening not to be missed.

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THE TRIBE (6.00pm Tues 24th, Lighthouse)

Festival director Grainne Humphreys noted that Ukranian film-maker Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s The Tribe is being screened because it reinvents the way you think about cinema. There are no subtitles, just sign language, as a young boy is initiated into the brutal gang culture of a boarding school for the deaf thru intense, complex long takes. Grigoriy Fesenko is the innocent who falls for Yana Novikova and upsets the vicious hierarchy.

FORCE MAJEURE (8.15pm Thu 26th Mar, Cineworld)

Force Majeure is a pitch-black Swedish comedy-drama from writer/director Ruben Ostlund (Play) that has been hailed by Bret Easton Ellis as one of 2014’s finest films. If you want to see a man, specifically Johannes Kuhnke, running away from a threatened avalanche when he should be saving the day (so  his wife Lisa Loven Kongsli expects), then check out this droll study of total cowardice and family bickering.

GLASSLAND (6.30pm Fri 27th Mar, Lighthouse)

Director Gerard Barrett and star Jack Reynor, fresh from Sundance plaudits, will present Glassland. Barrett was the writer/director of Pilgrim Hill and he stays firmly within his comfort zone for another dark drama. Toni Collette’s alcoholism pushes her towards death, and her taxi-driver son Reynor into a dangerous clash with the Dublin criminal underworld of human trafficking. Barrett’s film-making has broadened in scope, but his vision remains grindingly bleak.

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PRESSURE (9.00pm Fri 27th Mar, Cineworld)

Cineworld plays host to director Ron Scalpello, writers James Warren and Alan McKenna, and, most importantly, Talking Movies favourite Danny Huston, for a screening of their suspense thriller Pressure. Huston and Matthew Goode lead a small cast in a claustrophobic thriller as oil-rig repair workers trapped in a deep-sea pod after an accident who turn on each other. Huston is always effortlessly charismatic, and this is an acting showcase.

LET US PREY (10.40pm Fri 27th Mar, Lighthouse)

Liam Cunningham gets to be even more unhinged than his drug dealer in The Guard in Brian O’Malley’s tense horror. He lets rip with gusto as a mysterious stranger known only as Six, pitted against the forces of law and order in an isolated rural police station, led by rookie cop Pollyanna McIntosh. This has been described as a supernatural Assault on Precinct 13. Bring it on!

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (1.00pm Sat 28th Mar, Cineworld)

Olivier Assayas’ autobiographical Apres Mai also screened at JDIFF, and his follow-up psychodrama Clouds of Sils Maria was recently in the news for Kristen Stewart’s supporting actress Cesar win. Juliette Binoche’s famous actress is locked in conflict with Chloe Grace Moretz. Binoche is returning to the play that made her name, but her part is now taken by Moretz. Did you say Gallic All About Eve?

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A LITTLE CHAOS (6.15pm Sat 28th Mar, Cineworld)

Alan Rickman unexpectedly returns to directing after a 17 year absence for his second feature. His sumptuously appointed period drama sees Kate Winslet’s landscape designer employed by Matthias Schoenaerts to work on the gardens of Versailles for Rickman’s exacting Louis XIV. But jealousies, both sexual and professional, dog her steps as she attempts to introduce a little anarchy into this ordered world revolving around the Sun King.

FAR FROM MEN (11.00am Sun 29th Mar, Savoy)

The difference between what Viggo Mortensen and Peter Jackson did after LOTR is enough to make you weep. Here the polyglot Viggo speaks French as a schoolteacher in colonial Algeria who develops an unusual bond with a dissident he must transport. Writer/director David Oelhoffen brilliantly transplants many Western tropes to Algeria’s war with France, but surely there are also echoes of Albert Camus’ Exile and the Kingdom?

THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON (2.00pm Sun 29th Mar, Savoy)

The Last Man On The Moon is the story of Eugene Cernan, an actual cowboy who became not just any old astronaut, but the only man to walk on the moon twice, and also the last moonwalker. Its spectacular footage, which regrettably includes CGI recreations of his spacewalks, will be on the Savoy’s biggest screen, with directors Gareth Dodds and Mark Craig interviewed afterwards.

November 27, 2012

An Arrow of a different colour

I root for shows to stay on the air, not least because so many shows I’ve loved (Cupid, Studio 60, Vengeance Unlimited) have been prematurely cancelled, but … I really hope Arrow gets scrapped soon.

There’s been a Smallville-sized gap in my world for a year now, and so Arrow you’d imagine would be right up my street. But it’s not, it’s really not; for many reasons, mostly to do with other programmes. Arrow is a show that seems to have been created by putting other hits in a blender, and then just running with whatever derivative gloop emerged. It would appear that the producers noticed that Revenge was popular last season and so figured they also could surf the zeitgeist and take down 99%ers every week, complete with Green Arrow drawing a line thru the name of the fat cat he’d successfully ruined; just like Emily’s crossing an X thru the face of the person in the group photo she’d destroyed at the end of early episodes of Revenge. Every time I see the Queen mansion in Arrow all I can think of is Lex Luthor’s mansion in Smallville. If it’s not actually the same exterior then it sure looks like it, and it’s just a bit distracting. Furthermore while Arrow fails to match the charm of early Smallville, it’s overdosing on the angst that soon blighted that show. 5 episodes in and Laurel Dinah Lance has already stated, for not particularly clear reasons, that she and Oliver Queen can never be together. Even though their character names make it blindingly obvious they will be, eventually. And so Clark and Lana nonsense begins anew…

But these aren’t even the most aggravating or troubling derivative elements of Arrow. The constant flashbacks, to Oliver Queen’s 5 years on a remote island where he became Green Arrow, complete with meaningful life lessons from a cryptically wise Chinese Arrow screamed LOST and that was before The Others showed up… It was bad enough having to endure a flashback vignette every week that related to the main story, but now there are well-organised and well-resourced military personnel on an island where shipwrecked survivors are hunting animals for food. These Others are led by a man with staring eyes, just like Ben Linus, who is the Big Bad of the show, not least because he has sadistic torturer Deathstroke at his disposal. And then for the final kicker it’s revealed that the Mandarin name for the island means … Purgatory. Just, no… we don’t need more LOST meanderings, six years of pointless nonsense was enough. And then there’s the Nolan riffing. In the first episode Oliver was seen at a grinder getting his weapons sharp, in a scene shot farcically like its model in Batman Begins where Bruce makes his first throwing Bats. But then a shadowed Oliver goes on to growl to Laurel about he can give her leverage for a case, just like Batman growled as he gave his lawyer love interest Rachel leverage on Judge Faden. That’d be okay if perhaps Arrow appreciated why Nolan’s Batman worked…

But Arrow doesn’t seem to have a clue as to how comic-book superheroes operate. When in the pilot Oliver Queen, out of costume, caught a criminal who’d kidnapped him and then broke his neck shouting “No one can know my secret!” it was an enormous shock, because it was such a stunning mis-step, and anti-Nolan to the nth degree despite all the borrowings from Nolan elsewhere. It was a return to the ethics or lack thereof of Tim Burton’s Batman who very deliberately murdered the Joker as well as carelessly offing God knows how many goons along the way. Green Arrow’s subsequent shooting of a corrupt tycoon with an arrow thru the hand was far nastier than Batman dropping Sal Maroni to break his ankles, because Nolan’s Batman was being forced to extremes by the Joker’s madness whereas that’s just how this Green Arrow rolls… And for all Green Arrow’s homicidal antics by the end of episode 4 he’s been arrested by the police for being Green Arrow. So his first murder was in vain… Only things get even better. You see, like The Joker, Loki and Silva – he planned on getting caught! He wanted them to lock him up in the MCU Skybase Churchill Bunker Queen mansion. Because, like The Dark Knight Rises, the important thing is not that Oliver Queen is Green Arrow but that there will always be a Green Arrow, no matter who’s under the hood…

Except, why should we care who is under the hood if he’s just a cold-blooded killer? Nolan’s Batman famously only has one rule – don’t kill people. Maim the hell out of them, by all means, but don’t kill them. Arrow seems to think it can lift huge chunks from Nolan’s Bat-verse and then also appropriate the industrial slaughter of Maggie Q’s Nikita, but Nikita comes from a dark place – that’s the character. She’s a drug addict who killed people before she got forced by the government to join a secret government agency and kill people before she went rogue and embarked on a new mission to kill bad people. Killing is an essential part of Nikita as a character, but not killing has always been an equally essential part of DC Comics’ superheroes as characters. David S Goyer noted that they very deliberately had Batman throw Joker off a building and then save him in The Dark Knight as a riposte to the end of Burton’s Batman because both he and Christopher Nolan felt that Batman killing Joker had been a terrible tonal mistake. And it was a mistake, just witness the brilliance of the scene that Batman then shares with the Joker dangling from a rope. There’s a mystical connection between those two characters that doesn’t allow for simple killing. Superman can’t simply knock off Lex Luthor, and it goes beyond the morality of the characters to a sense of epic grandeur. This isn’t just comic-book bilge incidentally, look at Albert Camus’ description in The Rebel of Spartacus seeking out his opposing number Crassus to die in single combat against him and him alone.

The amorality of the lead character who should be a straight arrow, as it were, is only one part of the problem though. Oliver Queen in Smallville was transparently a Batman substitute, but Justin Hartley’s performance as Oliver Queen/Green Arrow had a nonchalance entirely absent from Stephen Amell’s wooden earnestness in Arrow. Some of this may be due to the different functions of the character, Hartley was there for sparring with earnest Clark Kent whereas Amell as lead character to some degree is earnest Clark Kent. But Hartley’s Green Arrow had the same formative traumas in his past, and it didn’t swamp the character’s traditional sardonic nature, while Amell’s inert demeanour never allows him to convince as the party animal that makes Oliver Queen such close kin to Bruce Wayne. Nolan allowed us to see that public Bruce Wayne, private Bruce Wayne and Batman were three distinct personalities; and that private Bruce Wayne was a good man. But Arrow has failed to make private Oliver Queen much more likeable than public Oliver Queen. And this points to a bigger problem.

Thor and John Carter placed alongside Arrow seem to indicate that we are in the middle of a bona fide scriptwriting crisis. There’s a distinction between a rogue and a dick that appears to have been lost. Taylor Kitsch’s John Carter was deeply unlikeable as a hero, and the film was reduced to not only bafflingly introducing Bryan Cranston as a metaphorical cat to be saved, but then introducing an actual dog to be saved as well later, in a vain effort to get us to like Carter.  Thor meanwhile was entirely upended by the fact that Thor was a thoroughly unlikeable jerk who only became bearable in the last act of the film, which enabled the suave Tom Hiddleston as Loki to steal the entire movie as the cleverer brother forever cleaning up the messes of his petulant blowhard sibling. A classic rogue, like Han Solo, or even Ian Somerhalder’s Damon Salvatore in The Vampire Diaries, is cocky, likeable, and from the perspective of the other characters entirely unreliable, even though the audience always has a sneaking suspicion that the bad boy will come through in the end no matter how many times he weasels out on doing the right thing along the way to serve his own agenda. But Thor, John Carter, and Arrow are sunk by heroes who aren’t remotely likeable. Arrow has dropped the Green to emphasise its edginess but it’s dropped its character’s resonance too…

I’m sticking with Arrow for now to see Seth Gabel aka Jeremy Darling from Dirty Sexy Money as Vertigo, but once Gabel leaves the show I won’t be far behind.

March 29, 2011

Team CoCo

Writing about comedy is guaranteed to be unfunny, so there’s a good reason for this post not appearing on April Fool’s Day.

I’ve been watching Conan O’Brien’s new talk-show on 3e since before Christmas when Channel 4 were conducting late-night reruns of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60. Since 2007 I’ve taken a show from auditions to performance in just over a week in UCD’s Dramsoc, which led to the shock realisation on revisiting Studio 60 that the not-SNL sketch-show Sorkin depicted was essentially a theatrical production. People tear thru various props and costumes and try to remember their lines after minimal scripting and rehearsing, while behind the scenes sets are desperately wheeled around, struck, and positioned for cameras. If a sketch works it plays brilliantly and if it doesn’t the performers and writers get to hear what 300 people not laughing sounds like… Why would a comedian like Conan O’Brien, who wrote the only episodes of The Simpsons I haven’t found unbearably smug, give that up by trading being a writer on Saturday Night Live for hosting a talk-show?

It took an embarrassingly long time for me to realise the answer. Conan stretches his opening monologue to as much as 15 minutes some nights with sketches. This means he can perform as much as 75 minutes of stand-up a week; effectively a new stand-up show’s worth of material every week rather than every year; and have it laughed at by a good audience in-house, but also be seen by millions across America – even if the TBS channel on basic cable reaches fewer people than NBC’s The Tonight Show. It also allows him to indulge his spectacular physicality. Conan can use his flailing body and dances to deflect from gags falling flat, and frequently does by acting out what he’s just said, to garner a laugh from bad material; but his elastic body and mobile face also sets him apart from every other talk-show host. You can’t see Jay Leno letting himself get rocketed across the stage, or be attacked with a real and very sharp samurai sword by a blindfolded stuntman going far too fast thru a barely rehearsed fight choreography. Conan is the only talk-show host in America who could sit next to an owl and make the same expressions, to the point where the staring spectacled owl whirled round to check, rightly suspecting that it was being mocked.

Conan is not to everyone’s taste. Last summer, alongside an unforgettable drawing (possibly nodding to Snoopy) of Conan standing to salute while crashing in a flaming Sopwith Camel, Wired memorably described Conan’s comedy as Cubist Absurdism which was being replaced by what they termed the sure-thing comediocrity of Jay Leno. And if cubist absurdism is the right term for Andy Richter and Conan playing a real-life Angry Birds with cut-outs of the cast of Jersey Shore, before Conan kills off a Snookie balloon with a blow-dart, then I guess I like cubist absurdism. Here’s why. Jay Leno may hit the laugh-mark more often but it’s most always a moderate laugh. Conan has a lot more dud jokes than Leno, but when he hits the mark, you will laugh more than you will at the best Leno jokes because Conan’s are so….you guessed….absurd.

(I would at this point attempt a serious comparison between Conan and the philosophy of Albert Camus but that would be an April 1st type piece.)

Conan airs weekdays at midnight on 3e.

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