Nerve at SXSW Film 2011: The Innkeepers & Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

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The Innkeepers:
I arrived at SXSW on Saturday after a harrowing flight reminiscent of Oceanic 815, complete with a bloody medical emergency and a strangely underreported system crash that grounded JetBlue jets across the nation. A little Shiner Bock and smoked pork loin at the Iron Works BBQ in downtown Austin quickly restored me to festival strength, however, thus allowing me to dive straight into my first screening: The Innkeepers, a lo-fi ghost story from Ti West (best known for 2009's well-reviewed retro-horror The House of the Devil).
West's latest follows the Devil template of a small cast in a creepy location (an old New England hotel with a tragic history) and a pace that builds from meandering to jump-outta-your-seat. Sara Paxton — a rising young star with the perky charisma of a sexy blonde Muppet — centers the action as the latest in a long line of horror-movie heroines lacking the common sense to listen when a spooky lady (Kelly McGillis) warns her to stay out of the damn basement.
Since I'm a big fan of James Gunn's deadpan superhero spoof The Specials, I was eager to see his latest, Super, until I learned that it features Rainn Wilson as a guy who goes around bludgeoning people with a wrench. A little Wilson goes a long way in my book (even when paired with Nerd America's Sweetheart, Ellen Page), and so I opted instead to hold off for Sunday's big event.

Conan O'Brien Can't Stop:
Said big event was the world-premiere screening of Conan O'Brien Can't Stop, a revealing and frequently hilarious chronicle of Team Coco's 2010 "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour" (the live, multi-city comedy/music juggernaut which spanned the downtime between O'Brien's ouster from The Tonight Show and his re-emergence as the face of TBS late night). In the fast, funny Q&A that followed the screening, O'Brien literally ran circles around film director Rodman Flender to demonstrate the boundless energy (and need for attention) powering his career, the tour, and the documentary.

As for the film, to the comedian's credit, it doesn't shy away from his occasional celebrity-asshole moments (including a funny, vicious backstage roast of 30 Rock's Jack McBrayer and a much less funny harangue about a meet-and-greet with his back-up singer's family after a show). In the grand scheme of things, it's hard to feel an awful lot of sympathy for a beloved celebrity who had to move his TV show from network to cable (and received tens of millions of dollars for his trouble), but Conan O'Brien Can't Stop is a jazzy backstage look at the man behind the persona, with Andy Richter's rimshot one-liners alone justifying the price of admission.

Stay tuned for more of Nerve's ongoing SXSW Film coverage, coming soon!